Some things I liked about Bruce Bartlett's book about tax reform are as follows:
1. The writing is clipped, precise and unadorned. For a book about, of...moreSome things I liked about Bruce Bartlett's book about tax reform are as follows:
1. The writing is clipped, precise and unadorned. For a book about, of all things, taxes, this is a welcome decision and it works to have the book broken down into concise chapters that stick to a topic, cover the material and then move on. Bartlett doesn't waste time trying to over-explain everything, relying on the reading comprehension of the reader to draw the necessary conclusions.
2. Bartlett takes a refreshingly moderate stance on the political aspects inherent in conversations about taxation. Bartlett worked for the Regan and Bush I administrations, but his views aren't Glen Beck riot conservatism, he just happens to be somewhat Republican-leaning. The faults he finds with the resistance to tax reform are widely spread and he's not afraid to lay the blame wherever it is found. One gets the sense that if all contentious topics in politics could be discussed in this manner, there might be a chance for legitimate, effective, reasoned change in this country.
3. The book is extensively researched, exhaustively referenced, and full of supporting evidence for the opinions and presented facts.
Now, some things I didn't care for about The Benefit And The Burden:
1. The no-nonsense prose on display here is almost so bare as to be challenging to muddle through. The salvation is the brevity of each point, but my own ignorance of economics and tax principles really made this a trying book at times. This isn't really a fault with Bartlett in and of itself, but for anyone hoping to have a gentle introduction into modern tax theory and economic principles, start somewhere else because Bartlett doesn't have time to carry you along.
The way that this manifests as a negative in the book is that it's sometimes hard to decipher who the target audience for the book is. I presume economists are perfectly aware of all this information and a piece directed at them could have been shorthanded all the way into an essay. Know-nothing laypeople like myself may find the book to be a bit insider-y, presuming basic familiarity with a lot of the core concepts which can make a lot of the book seem foreign and unfathomable. The best I can figure is that this book is for highly educated people with a decent background in economics, to whom this may be simply an extended persuasive op-ed, but considering the inflammatory state of national politics at the moment, it's hard to think that the narrow band of moderate academics make up a sufficient demographic for a viable book sales projection.
2. The brief chapters and extensive "Additional Reading" sections make the book feel a bit like an annotated bibliography rather than a complete work in itself. It's sort of cheap to praise a book for being well-referenced and also to complain that the book relies on these references for support, I know, but I did feel that there was the potential for a middle ground where some additional detail was included (perhaps more quoted source material?) to make the book feel more stand-alone without artificially inflating the presentation.
Overall, I felt that Bartlett was very persuasive. The Benefit And The Burden is essentially an argument for Value Added Taxes (VATs) which are essentially labor taxes that are paid and credited through the production chain until the burden falls on the consumer (like a layered sales tax at the federal level). Bartlett lays out how current taxes work, explains why tax increases are going to be necessary in the near future and then describes why VATs are the best option for managing the necessary tax hikes to avoid deficit fallouts like inflation and weakened US economies. Bartlett is also pretty fair to detractors of VATs as he devotes plenty of time to defining alternate methods and highlighting some of the serious (or not so serious) arguments against VATs.
I wouldn't say I necessarily recommend the book to just anyone, but for people who want a decent overview of the current economic state and the potential issues that could result from it, and then want a well-thought-out proposed solution to those problems, this is a good place to start.(less)
Jenny Lawson is a recent discovery for me. I came to be aware of her website, The Bloggess, following the Beyoncé (the giant metal chicken) post. As a...moreJenny Lawson is a recent discovery for me. I came to be aware of her website, The Bloggess, following the Beyoncé (the giant metal chicken) post. As a result, I don't know for sure how much of what appears in Let's Pretend This Never Happened is lifted directly from her blog, how much is expanded or condensed from other blog posts and how much is new material. I say this because the Beyoncé entry appears late in the book, verbatim from the blog as near as I can tell. That's not really a complaint because the original post was awesome and deserves to be included. What I mean, really, is that it's possible that if you're a longtime reader of her blog, some or most of this won't be fresh material.
For me, that doesn't really matter because like I said, there was only one brief chapter (worth re-reading anyway) that was familiar. And, I suppose, if you were a longtime fan of Lawson's blog, you might be the kind of person to pick up this book just to have it, or just to support her career. So I'll assume for the sake of the argument that you're like me and un- or passingly-familiar with The Bloggess.
The main thing to be said up front is that Lawson is hilarious. I mean, really, really, hilarious. It's hard to remember the last time I laughed out loud at a book as frequently or as uncontrollably as I did reading Let's Pretend. It got downright embarrassing at points to be reading this book on the train/shuttle combo I take to work, because I'd be sitting there, shoulders shaking with laughter, tears and snot running down my face, side aching and trying desperately to convince my fellow commuters that I wasn't having some sort of attack. Which of course I couldn't, because I was laughing too hard to breathe or speak. I'm really surprised no one called an ambulance.
What surprised me a little is how touching the book can be as well. It's not really a see-saw kind of thing that plays with your emotions, but there are nuggets of sweet truths peppered throughout, just enough to make you understand that this isn't simply a stand-up routine in prose. Lawson is brutally (I actually want to use the word "ruthlessly" here) honest, over-sharing almost on every page, but to perfection. I really can't think of anyone else who can make a chapter about three miscarriages and the resulting mental breakdown that understandably accompanied them snort-beverage-through-your-nose funny, but Lawson manages it.
I will say that, in case you didn't catch the implication from the above, Lawson's humor is raw, no-holds-barred and totally inappropriate. Which is the same as saying it's not for everyone. I assume, anyway; maybe there aren't any people out there who dislike jokes about taxidermy and OD'ing on laxatives. What do I know? I do know that there are people I can think of to whom I wouldn't necessarily give this book as a gift, so maybe that's all I'm really saying. But for me, this was just a funny, funny book from cover to cover.
I must be really weird about comedy, though. Because my inclination is to give this book four stars, even though I loved it. Somehow something that makes me laugh feels like... I'm not sure. Easy, maybe? But then I just got through saying that I couldn't think of a book that had made me laugh as much as this. I guess something makes me think of humor as sort of disposable, as if it could only ever reach a certain plateau if it also contained a riveting plot or something. But then I have to remember that this is a memoir, and plot isn't really the point. Then I start to think, "Yeah, but does this book really belong up there with my all-time favorites?" Perhaps not. But then again, I can't think of a single reason for anyone not to read this book unless you're the kind of person who doesn't find Lawson's brand of warped, irreverent, neurotic writing funny. At which point I decide to stop being stingy with my ratings just to be a grump and give it my highest praise.
Whew. This was a tough one for me to get through. About a year ago when I started making a concerted effort to finish more books, I made a little deal...moreWhew. This was a tough one for me to get through. About a year ago when I started making a concerted effort to finish more books, I made a little deal with myself that if I ever had a bit of downtime and I found myself specifically not wanting to pick up the book I was reading, that meant I wasn't into it and I needed to set it aside and read something else. It was an effort to prevent the logjam that sometimes happens when I'm reading a difficult or dry book that I want to finish (either because someone recommended it or because the subject, if not the presentation, is something I'm interested in) but struggle with. I came close to putting Trita Parsi's book about the Obama administration's early efforts at diplomacy with Iran aside in this way because there were some times when I had a chance to read and found myself looking at the book thinking, "Meh."
In the end I powered through because while I wasn't thrilled about reading it all the time, I did continue to stick with it. I think, ultimately, the main complaint I have with A Single Roll Of The Dice is that it doesn't feel to me like it needed to be a book. This is an exhaustive examination of a period of only about three years, and a lot of the detail here frankly feels like TMI. For example, Parsi goes into an insane level of detail on the backstory of Brazil's diplomatic history and their desire to win a seat on the UN Security Council, which he presents to contextualize why Brazil partnered with Turkey in order to get Iran to agree to a diplomatic deal that had originally been floated by the US to ship low enriched uranium out of Iran in exchange for fuel rods (enriched elsewhere) to power a research reactor that would provide medical isotopes. In other words, the US wanted to stall Iran from enriching their uranium toward weapons grade but didn't necessarily feel they shouldn't be allowed to use non-arms applications of nuclear technology.
While it's sort of interesting that Brazil wanted to get involved, the whole explanation of why Brazilian President Lula felt his country could assist here is tangental to the point that Turkey and Brazil had reasons for getting involved and ultimately got Iran to agree to the deal that US and European negotiators some months before had been unable to sell to Iranian officials. This is but one example of where Parsi over-explains, possibly just to show off how much he knows about all of the details of the complicated matter of diplomacy with Iran, but loses the forest for the trees.
I think in the end the core story here is fascinating but this should have been an in-depth article, something like 30-40 pages worth, condensed to its most pertinent essence, and not a 200+ page book of wearying tales of which ambassador was present in which meeting and what sources say was discussed and how they relayed the information to the press, ad nauseum. Most tellingly, the drama conveyed by the snappy title does not carry through to the sea of minutiae within.
I certainly didn't hate this book, and the subject that compelled me to check it out from the library pulled me through to the end, as a pleasant side effect of the belabored point is a pretty decent education on the history and current state of international relations as pertains to Iran. There's also a very good overview of the Iranian elections which caused so much news cycle coverage a few years ago, told from both the internal perspective of Iran as well as from the external point of view as seen by the rest of the world, and by those inside the Obama administration. For that reason alone I might be tempted to suggest that someone with some general questions about the state of affairs in Iran check out this book. But then again, it's possible I'd recommend it only because, for now, it's the most timely portrait of that and even then, it's probably been supplanted by newer works covering the latter half of 2011 and the first part of 2012. And those would probably be shorter, more journalistic articles. By the end of this year, I suspect the reasons to read this book would have almost disappeared entirely unless someone really wanted to know exactly what US-Iran relations were like as of late 2011. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.(less)
I'm not a fan or follower of Rachel Maddow, as I tend to shy away from talking-head pundits of any political stripe, finding them all insufferably ext...moreI'm not a fan or follower of Rachel Maddow, as I tend to shy away from talking-head pundits of any political stripe, finding them all insufferably extremist, adding little to the national discourse. However, I decided to check out Drift as it is not (on the surface) a catch-all "Here's My Worldview" type of book, but rather a focused examination of the United States' military as it exists today, with an eye cast to the historical series of events that resulted in the current state.
I will say that Ms. Maddow's politics are hardly hidden here, but she admirably refrains from digressing from the topic at hand and stays focused on the expansion of military spending, the changing face of how war is waged since Vietnam and the increased reliance on long-term, low-impact conflicts aided not by sacrifice from the populace at large but by private para-military contractors. She is very thorough in her dissection of the way this all came about, though you can kind of feel the pull of her personal opinion in the way she chooses to levy the responsibility (or is that blame? it's not spelled out, but it's heavily implied) of the shift from citizen-soldier run combat and national burden to deficit-funded and unilaterally mandated on Reagan. I can't say I fully buy that the title's drift began the moment Reagan took office (if nothing else, Eisenhower's speech in 1961 warning of the dangers of the military industrial complex indicates that some of this framework was in place twenty years prior to Reagan), but Maddow makes a pretty convincing case that no matter where it started, war today is almost entirely unlike what it was less than a century ago.
It's particularly telling that Maddow devotes dozens and dozens of pages to both Reagan and George W. Bush's role in the slide from war as a difficult, national decision to one made by the guy at the top but she skims the surface of the roles Clinton and even Obama have played in this transition. Not that she lets them off the hook, far from it. But considering the depth of her dive into the Grenada invasion, Iran-Contra, Desert Shield/Storm and then the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq (again) and Afghanistan, it does induce some eye-rolls to note how little (other than the Balkans) time she devotes to military action during Clinton's eight year term.
The most compelling pat of the book is Maddow's description of the state of our nuclear arsenal, now aging and no longer necessary from the perspective of what it was assembled to accomplish (arranging the mutually assured destruction deterrent against the Soviet Union), including the number of mishaps and mishandling mini-calamaties that are, perhaps, inherent in trying to maintain 5,000 true WMD, some of which date back sixty years. This is a chilling account of past mistakes, current dangers and policy nightmares that make this an ongoing concern—where "concern" is the lightest possible term for something that ought to be a sort of systemic panic but is really more of a casually shrugged-off low-priority issue. Perhaps books like this one will shine some much-needed light on the pressing need for disarmament, a point in which I find myself in full agreement with Ms. Maddow.
Drift is a book that I'm not sure I can use the word "enjoy" to describe my experience with; it is certainly interesting and well-written with Maddow's casual-but-earnest style that makes it easy reading. More so than anything, I find this to be a book I'd recommend because it invites (perhaps demands is the better word) thought and discourse, which is something that I think both Maddow and I would love to see more of in our politics, especially when it comes to questions of how we exert our military might, how we make those decisions and what we do going forward.(less)
Talk about unusual: I just finished Kevin Smith's sort of memoir-meets-motivational-self-help-vanity-project in one sitting. This is unusual primarily...moreTalk about unusual: I just finished Kevin Smith's sort of memoir-meets-motivational-self-help-vanity-project in one sitting. This is unusual primarily because having the time to read nearly 250 pages in an evening almost never happens, but it's also unusual because you might expect that I'd only devour a book this way if it was amazing.
Well, Tough Sh*t isn't amazing. It's kind of repetitive, honestly: Smith has an analogy about Wayne Gretzky that he references a half dozen times; he talks a lot about how amazing his wife is; he frequently describes his up-and-down relationship with Harvey Weinstein. Sometimes it feels like the individual chapters were written separately and he's refreshing readers who are perhaps not privy to earlier discussions about his pet concepts or jokes, but then he'll do it within pages of each other as well so maybe he just doesn't have a great editor?
The book is funny, but not in the way that generates actual real-world laughter. It's sort of effective as a motivational tome, except that he branches off into über-digression an awful lot so the point gets muddled and spread around. There's some interesting anecdotes, but it's not riveting.
What Tough Sh*t does do well is capture a tone that set me at ease, coming across like listening to a friend sit in your living room and tell stories. Smith is sort of a strange person to write something akin to self-help because his success seems a bit accidental and he spends so much of the book kind of justifying his work that one gets the impression that even he isn't quite sure how it all works out for him. He's smart but he seems to suffer from the same affliction as a lot of people who had just the right mix of serendipity and skill: He assumes that the same lighting can strike for everyone.
Granted, Smith is bright enough to know that's not the case so he tempers the message a lot and comes up with the core concept that action is king. It's a bit Nike in its core motivational strategy: Just do it. Of course, it's easy to say that when the one time he Just Did It without any kind of fallback or failsafe he ended up with the indie hit Clerks. Not everyone is going to do that, so he mumbles something about how success doesn't matter and skims over the fact that he writes about spending money with the casual nonchalance only someone with plenty of it can afford. I'm not saying it's disingenuous, but the book wears enough of its author's bais and "if I can do it, obviously anyone can" over-simplicity on its sleeve to not ever be in contention for a legitimate life manual.
Which is not to say there isn't some valuable insight here. The opening chapter, a crassly told case study in how, from a biological perspective, every living human is the result of astronomic odds, is strangely effective in giving perspective on the moral imperative Smith seems to ascribe dream-chasing. He also makes a semi-convincing case for art as a legitimate pursuit and offers some reasonable-sounding practical advice for tempering expectations when pursuing lofty ambition. The biggest thing the book made me reconsider was criticism, which is a bit of a funny thing to say in a critique of his book.
Smith decries criticism, then blasts critics for getting understandably haughty when he stabs at their means of expression, but there's circular logic going on somewhere (I suspect both sides have valid points). Obviously Smith himself isn't exempt from criticism: He spends a lengthy chapter describing his run-in on Southwest airlines over his weight and seat accommodations which amounts to a very pointed criticism of that company. He is also unshy about criticizing actors, other movies and business execs in Hollywood, so the sword kind of cuts both ways. But he did make me think about what I do when I review books and movies online. Granted, I don't get paid to do it and I'm no authority nor do I even have much of a voice, but it does pay to be reminded sometimes that I am publishing my thoughts and opinions online where anyone, including the creative forces behind those works, can see them. Potentially, me saying negative things could be hurtful and it's worth remembering that while I have every right and justified intention to describe what I personally thought of something or what it made me think about, it's not really worthwhile or even accurate for me to judge the artistic value of someone else's work.
That doesn't mean I should just avoid writing with an empirical tone, only that it's worth it to remind myself as I discuss what other people are doing by way of self-expression, perhaps some day I may be the target of people like myself who are dissecting what I'm expressing. I would expect those people to be honest about what they think or felt about something creative I did, but much as I wouldn't want them declaring whether my work is worthy or not, it's not my place to do so either.
In that spirit, my opinion of Tough Sh*t is that it was half-successful at doing what I suspect it was trying to do. It did make me think some, it was easy to read but ultimately it was probably more for people who are much bigger fans of Mr. Smith than I am. I'm certainly not sorry I read it, but I probably won't go searching for more.(less)
William Landay's searing, crafted novel, Defending Jacob, is by far the most unexpected book I've read in a while. It struck me as particularly intere...moreWilliam Landay's searing, crafted novel, Defending Jacob, is by far the most unexpected book I've read in a while. It struck me as particularly interesting that while I don't read a ton of legal thrillers (and I'm not sure this counts as one), those that I have read don't really seem to cross with mysteries very often. In Defending Jacob, there is a distinct mystery at the core of the book, though it is framed in the context of the trial proceedings and not principally within the initial investigation.
The book follows Andy Barber, Massachusetts ADA, who is called when the body of a young boy is found murdered in a woodsy park in his own Boston suburb of Newton. Initially there are no suspects, but as the investigation proceeds, two possible perpetrators emerge. One is a convicted sex offender and the other is Andy's own son, Jacob. The District Attorney's office makes the decision to pursue Jacob as their suspect, pulling Andy off the case and setting off a sequence in which the largely circumstantial but nevertheless compelling evidence mounts against Jacob.
The central thrust of the plot is the twin spires of the case. One is the draining effect it has on the Barber family, with the secrets it unearths, the questions it raises and the way it re-casts the entire family in the eyes of the community. The other is the mystery of the case itself, the particulars and the "what if" elements: what if the jury convicts? What if the actions of the parents are called into question? And mostly, what if Jacob actually committed the crime, regardless of what the jury decides?
Landay uses a narrative structure that has the majority of the case being recalled by Andy some time after the initial trial and investigation as part of a grand jury hearing in which the weight of suggestion is heavy that there are events that take place outside or after the initial trial that are as, if not more, significant than the trial and its outcome. In these sequences, mostly told via court transcripts of contentious examination by Andy's understudy at the DA's office, the cloud of these events are palpable but believably obscured (for the most part).
What unfolds then is a series of examinations between crucial trial moments where the nature of family, fatherhood, belief in the inherent goodness not just of children but of your own actions are dissected, drawn out, examined, and re-defined. A central theme is the concept of nature versus nurture, of psychology and the revelations of genetics, as well as the definitions of self. There is a secret about Andy that affects (or perhaps does not affect) Jacob which casts a particular glow across the whole proceeding, paving the way for Landay (through Andy) to muse on the topic of which comes first: the murder or the murderer.
As the book artfully sets the stage with a languid sense of the reader not having the whole story but the tale being told compellingly, eventually the trial begins and the tension begins to mount. Landay paces himself so that what seems at first to be a meandering, thoughtful study of a family in crisis begins to ratchet up, the crescendo suddenly maximizing until the final 100 pages or so become so engrossing that a book I felt confident in my ability to take my time with out of nowhere became a page-turner so engrossing I had to stay up ridiculously late just to finish.
And oh, the finish.
But I'll come back to the finale in a moment. First let me pause to discuss the few flaws the book has. Primarily, I found it frustrating that the question of genetic predisposition toward violence is never satisfactorily pursued. Particularly, Andy, as the narrator, seems to occasionally hint toward a confession about his own, personal, sense of morality or his possible predilection to violence. A few times he seems to act as if he believes that he does have a draw to anger and/or unthinking action, which could easily include violence. But the exploration of this topic feels incomplete, even in a novel that is unafraid—admirably so—to leave questions unresolved. The other small but nagging annoyance is that Landay (or Andy, though I don't think you can write this off as a character element) repeats and rehashes certain topics to drive home their significance rather than expanding the discussions. This is particularly noteworthy when the topic of those genetic or nature-based propensities to do harm to other comes up, but also he revisits the concept of the "unknowable other" several times without really diving into what that means or what that says about the characters and events that take place. It's a missed opportunity because it could really enhance the narrative, but Landay leaves it on the mantle, unfired. There are a few other minor examples as well.
A large concern is that the central framework is a fabrication. Obviously the narrator and the ADA cross-examining him in the transcript interludes know more than the audience is privy to up until the closing chapters. In almost any other hands I'd probably cry foul and declare it a cheat, but I think Landay does as good a job as I've seen in making this work, in not having it feel terribly artificial, at least during the initial read. I admit that after the fact it was so glaring that it buffs some of the luster off the polish of the book, but I can't say that I protested during the subterfuge. It's a weird pseudo-flaw then: a contrivance that works until you become part of the informed, at which point it reveals itself as a cheat, though one that is forgivable if you can admit how exhilarating it was to be blissfully unaware.
My veiled hints refer to the book's final pages—literally the last twenty—which flip the central tenets of the story to that point once and then just as you are in the midst of the mindwarp provided there, the whole novel is re-cast as the brutal, unflinching and pointedly unresolved final sequence unfolds. I can see how some people are going to read this and want to fling the book across the room. I checked mine out from the library so that wouldn't have been an option for me. But it was never a danger anyway because I was among those who wanted to immediately find Mr. Landay and shake his hands for having the stones to drop such a pitch-perfect ending onto an already gripping book. It's messed up, yes. It's hard to deal with, sure. But it's so effective, I just can't imagine it ending any other way.
In the end, I highly recommend Defending Jacob to people who like thoughtful family dramas, people who like thoughtful crime or legal dramas and people who can say they don't mind being duped as long as it's for a worthy cause. I liked the book very much and I can't wait to find some other people who've read it so I can discuss it with them, because the real power of the novel, I suspect, will be in the ensuing conversation.(less)
Reading Susan Cain's book about introversion left me feeling very polarized. In a lot of ways, the breadth of research involved is impressive, and the...moreReading Susan Cain's book about introversion left me feeling very polarized. In a lot of ways, the breadth of research involved is impressive, and the sincerity with which she chronicles the research into what introversion is and what makes introverts that way illuminates her passion for the topic. Then again, the book suffers a bit under the weight of its presentation.
Cain makes regular effort to highlight that, despite her own admitted introversion, being an extrovert isn't bad, per se. The problem I found with this is that despite her lip service to one characteristic not being preferable to the other, the book comes across as kind of a manifesto in favor of toning it down or, at the very least, elevating those who aren't as comfortable being the squeaky wheel. I don't know that it was possible for this to not be a factor since part of the thesis of the book is that culture (at least American culture), in Cain's view, values extroversion more than reserved sensitivity. But, despite being pretty introverted myself, I found myself disengaged by the "us vs. them" subtext.
Which is not to say Ms. Cain's findings and arguments are not enlightening and persuasive. Her descriptions of research surrounding the science of introversion, the correlation between introversion, shyness, sensitivity and empathy are engaging, perhaps not revelatory but certainly worth noting. Though at times the book seems to be aimed at introverts as a kind of legitimizing, empowering tome, I think the best audience for the book are people, especially extroverts, who have introverted people in their homes or workplaces who could use some eye-opening as to what makes the more reserved in their midst tick and how to best accommodate them and draw out their strengths.
What frustrated me the most about Quiet though is that Ms. Cain peppers her findings with specific examples of people, using them to illustrate her points. Illustration is fine, and I don't even mind the regular use of case studies, but Cain dwells on these anecdotes as if they were supposed to be universally applicable, all while reminding readers regularly that no generalization is really accurate. This where the book feels padded, similarly to a book I read earlier in the year, A Single Roll of the Dice by Trita Parsi, in which a lot of the details (or, here, personal examples) feel contrived to increase word count to flesh out what might otherwise be a solid 100-page scholarly discussion, leaving something like 170 pages that feel burdened by personal asides and digressions.
To make matters worse, there is a weird structural flaw in the way the information and research is presented such that in the first half of the book Cain persistently references future chapters, saying "...which I will discuss more, later, in chapter X." Then in the latter half of the book, she regularly cites previous topics, like, "...as you recall from chapter Y." It occurred to me that a better overall arrangement of the material would have avoided the cross-referencing, allowing concepts to flow into each other more seamlessly. As it is, it feels disjointed and spread around, often losing the point and making something that should be clarified feel muddy.
Quiet is an interesting read and a decent book, helped along by some somewhat hidden but very useful/insightful pieces of practical advice. It isn't without its flaws, unfortunately, making it somewhat less of a tour de force than it may have had the potential to be, but for those interested in the subject matter in particular, it's worth checking out. (less)
A note: this review presumes a familiarity with the events in the first book of the series. If you don't want that (excellent) book spoiled for you, d...moreA note: this review presumes a familiarity with the events in the first book of the series. If you don't want that (excellent) book spoiled for you, don't read further.
At the very beginning of this year I wrote about Glen Duncan's fantastic, literary take on the oft-visited vampire/werewolf genre. That book, The Last Werewolf was so engrossing, so unexpected and so unbridled in its use of language and unflinching look at humanity through the lens of hyphenated human (sub- or super- or non-, for example) it kind of altered what I thought was possible in a genre novel.
A part of the reason why The Last Werewolf was so amazing was the conjurer's skill Mr. Duncan displayed in bringing his protagonist, Jacob Marlowe, to vivid life. Not to mention his murderous sadism at bumping off his first person narrator at the end of TLW and switching voices to the charming Talulla Demetriou. It was a one-time trick, a masterful bit of subversion, and it worked expertly in TLW.
However, TLW also concluded with a lot of loose ends, which at the time I said, "I suppose I could find a tiny bit of fault with what is either an open-ended series of questions making the ending a touch incomplete or else wide open for a sequel..." So I was eager to tear into Talulla Rising.
Initially, I was disappointed. It became clear early on in TR that the strength of The Last Werewolf was Jake Marlowe, and Talulla comes across in parts of TR like a poor man's Jake. She regurgitates several of his patterns of speech and was clearly affected strongly in her short time with Jake in terms of outlook and worldview, but her backstory is already (mostly) told in TLW and that which isn't already familiar must be revealed by events as they unfold. Which means this is less of a character study of a seen-it-all nihilist who just happens to be a werewolf as it is a continuation of the plot and story elements left over from the previous novel. The Last Werewolf then was a novel about a character, lively and literary, that just so happened to weave itself around a weary literary genre. Talulla Rising is simply a genre novel, albeit a very good one.
It seems important to stress that I like vampire/werewolf stories, so I liked Talulla Rising. But I want to be clear that I would recommend The Last Werewolf to anyone, because it's an amazing piece of fiction first and a great genre book second. With the sequel, I have to say if you don't like Underworld or Twilight or Buffy because the fantastical elements just aren't your bag, I can't in good conscience say this book will hold your interest. And in a way, that's a shame. Duncan perhaps could have done a bit better to give Talulla her own, unique voice, something of a new perspective. He does fairly well at making her not sound like an extension of Jake, losing the world-weariness that Jake wore like a familiar shirt and bringing the feminine perspective to Jake's crushing wit. But still, it's hard not to get the sense that the appeal of Jake was really an appeal for Duncan himself, such that he wanted to indulge the writer's prerogative to stun readers with an unexpected death but also wanted to keep him alive through his quasi-mouthpiece(s).
But again, what needed to be said by and about Jake Marlowe was covered by the first book so, lacking a distinctive new voice and without his character to draw on, Duncan is left with no choice but to turn to the plot and the strength of TR is that it reveals how well-crafted the story was in The Last Werewolf, even if it played second fiddle to the development of the character. There are some noticeable similarities to a few other vampire/werewolf crossover stories (and even non-crossovers; this is not a subtle homage to the genre, it wades right into the established conventions and gives them just enough of a tweak to keep them interesting). But I found none of this off-putting. A few characters that are significant here in TR were part of the scenery in TLW so even though I read the first book less than a year ago I still had a bit of trouble placing each one, but TR is self-contained enough to fill in the blanks where they appear so it never got confusing.
I will say that a mild critique I have is that occasionally Duncan's gleeful trysts with language, while exciting, obfuscate the meaning when he applies them to, say, action scenes. There is a point near the climax of TR where a sudden rescue is written in a very clever way but it took me three or four read-overs of the same page to understand what was really happening. In dialogue, internal monologue and exposition this can be a very effective way to present difficult or mysterious elements with appropriate tone but in action I prefer to have a clear sense of what is happening.
Still, I enjoyed TR quite a lot, even if it isn't quite as amazing as its predecessor. One other minor note is that I was surprised to find since there is a third novel planned that makes TR a second-in-a-trilogy and for a middle entry it has a pretty upbeat ending. It's interesting that the tragic conclusion occurred in the first novel and not the second. I don't mind: I think TR's finale is satisfying and appropriate in tone, but it did pleasantly usurp my expectation.
My final takeaway is that if you like stories with fascinating characters, no matter what you should read The Last Werewolf. If you don't like the horror elements, leave it at that. If you don't mind or enjoy the genre bits, go ahead and pick up Talulla Rising, bearing in mind that there is a noticeable shift from book one to book two. As for me, there's no way I can't read the third book now. I have to know what happens next.(less)
An unreliable man squares off against skeptical police officers. In question, an imperiled wife. The framework is set from which a series of indictmen...moreAn unreliable man squares off against skeptical police officers. In question, an imperiled wife. The framework is set from which a series of indictments on love and, particularly, marriage are cast. Yet these observations and astute, hot-knife blows on the impenetrable institution are so coiled and twisted on themselves that they wrap back around to something like a terrifying celebration of the act of union. This set up could easily be applied to Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut, but here Gillian Flynn takes a different track, speeding off in a forking direction that is thrills and genuine mystery where Ross's approach is convoluted and laden with digression.
I much prefer Flynn's book.
Gone Girl follows the twin narrators of Amy and Nick Dunne, their spiraling and often contradictory tales leaping off from the day of their five-year anniversary in which Amy is found to be missing from their troubled home in Missouri under what appear to be suspicious circumstances. Signs of a struggle, an afternoon interrupted. Nick is concerned, worried, uncertain and fearful. He is also lying to the police. He is the most unreliable of narrators, skimming important details both to the authorities and to the audience. At almost precisely the halfway point, Flynn rips the mask away from the narrative and sucker-punches her readers in the most delicious, sado-masochistic way.
This is a blistering read, let's not dance around it. A not-slight volume that my laborious reading annihilated in a couple of days, I found it impossible to get away from. I read whenever I could and when I could not, the book sat on my mind like an oversized centerpiece on a tiny, wobbly card table. For 95% of the voyage through these pages, I was in love with Ms. Flynn's cruelly compelling creation.
And then. Oh, and then. I blasted Mr. Peanut for Ross's indecisive, indulgent conclusion. Gillian Flynn again swerves the opposite direction, building, building, hauling the reader along by the lapels until suddenly and vindictively dropping the reins and cutting to black. It is the short story ending to the consuming epic, written either out of a lack of true resolution or to send book clubs into riotous disagreement, a puppeteer's finale of defiance and verve: I dare you to fill in the blanks! You write the epilogue, sucker!
It isn't a broken ending; it's not a cheat or a failure. It's just unsatisfactory to the point that I groaned, "Nooo!" This isn't a fling-it-across-the-room conclusion. It's a, "why oh why couldn't it be what I wanted? It was so good up until then!" I wanted something brutal, one final gotcha, even a cheat would be better. I wanted Defending Jacob's shattering end. I got Raymond Carver's premature exit. At least Carver usually had the courtesy to keep the beginnings short so as to avoid allowing over-investment by his readers.
I'm sitting here, a few minutes from finishing, feeling somewhat betrayed by Gone Girl but finding it impossible not to still sing it's praises. This is a razor blade of a book, beautiful and deadly to pre-conceptions, caveat emptor. The writing is so sharp, so delicious and full of pointed insights, delightfully flawed characters, twin protagonists you both love and loathe, a wonderfully portrayed setting and so many thrilling moments. Here you have a textbook thriller: It thrills, it chills, it delights in it's malevolent way. I was positive this was a top-shelf book, a five-star with a bullet nail-biter. And then the end.
Not everyone will loathe the conclusion, I'm certain of that. This is a book worth reading even if you suspect you may share my dismay at the closing chapter (which I reached and then eagerly turned to the next page looking for what I assumed was the coming zinger, only to find it just... over). You have to know, you have to get there so you can find someone to talk it over with. Let's start some conversations with "Can you believe...!?" Let's just sit for a minute afterward and shake our heads lightly, "Oh my god. Wow. Just wow." Whether those are the exclamations of disbelief and disappointment (me) or admiration and giddy awe (you?), it deserves to be experienced. Bravo—I hate you, Gone Girl, but—bravo. (less)
What a strange, gripping, melancholy little book. Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel comes with a fresh premise that unfolds in an unexpectedly intim...moreWhat a strange, gripping, melancholy little book. Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel comes with a fresh premise that unfolds in an unexpectedly intimate way: the Earth's rotation is decelerating, an effect that comes to be known as the slowing. At first, the only observable change is in the number of hours of daylight and night. Eventually the slowing has other effects as well, causing changes to the atmosphere, to the tides, to the ability to grow crops or support animal life. And yet, despite the dystopian science fiction set up, this is not a book that fits so neatly into a genre.
The Age Of Miracles is detailed from the perspective of Julia, an eleven year-old girl who is old enough when the slowing begins to recognize the significance of the changes but is also busy dealing with normal—and sometimes more important—middle school issues: bullying classmates, fragile friendships, changing bodies, the early hints at romantic connections. Julia frames the facts of the slowing with the day-to-day struggles of her parents, who don't always get along very well and of her isolation among her peers and the accompanying loneliness. She struggles with a change in attitude from her best friend, Hannah; she battles to work up the nerve to talk to the boy she has a crush on; she worries about her weary grandfather.
Ms. Walker does a remarkable job in weaving the fantastic elements of the slowing in with a sort of routine coming-of-age story that results in something that is primarily the latter but given enough freshness by the former to never feel overly familiar. The sense of the unknown that lies behind the root cause of the slowing adds an ominous atmosphere to a time that already feels ominous for most kids on the cusp of, if not mental, physical adulthood. The twin facets of Walker's prose work in tandem to create an almost deliriously gloomy atmosphere.
In a way, I loved this book, but at the same time I found it very oppressive. It's relentlessly somber, as is Julia herself, and the few moments of hope and happiness don't serve to buff the edges off the grim tone but rather to highlight how sad and depressing it is as a whole. It's hard to really fault the book for this, I think it is a very intentional choice on the part of the author and it's done so well that even though there are no overtly tragic moments within, I found myself emotional and exhausted by the end of the short tome. Sometimes it's good to just listen to a sad song and let it sweep you away. The thing is, I don't think that for the most part people choose sad songs as their favorite songs.
Which is why I feel rooted in the middle ground in regards to The Age Of Miracles. It's sweet and sadly beautiful, certainly admirable and something I don't regret reading at all. But I cannot identify the way I feel about it with anything resembling gladness or enthusiasm. It is, undoubtedly, a very good book. However, to recommend it to people I feel would be disingenuous, like something I would do out of spite. Perhaps for those who find themselves in the mood for a sad read, this is the perfect book. For those looking for some escapism or fun, well, there is little to be found here. (less)
Cassandra Parkin's lampoon of the megaselling 50 Shades of Grey was something that I picked up after hearing dozens of people singing its praises, cit...moreCassandra Parkin's lampoon of the megaselling 50 Shades of Grey was something that I picked up after hearing dozens of people singing its praises, citing it as illuminating for both those who had and had not read E.L. James's book. My wife read all three of the 50 Shades books and though her feet shuffle somewhat when she admits it, she became a fan. Initially I bought the send-up for her, thinking she might enjoy it and hoping to read it after her so we could discuss the differences in reading Lighter Shades having read and not read the source material. But then she got halfway through Lighter Shades and set it aside, declaring that she couldn't stomach any more nit-picking.
In my wife's credit, Lighter Shades is incredibly pedantic, to the point at times of being glib. I had read the blog post Parkin wrote, titled "50 Things That Annoy Me About 50 Shades of Grey," which goes up to about chapter three, and found it amusing. Having read the book now, I think I can say that it was better off as a blog post.
The principal complaint I have with Lighter Shades is that it isn't all that funny. It's droll, occasionally dipping into mild smirk territory, and there was one laugh-out-loud joke in there, but for the most part I traversed the 176 pages entertaining myself by trying to pick the key plot elements in 50 Shades from the excerpts and snarky commentary provided. As a non-50 Shades reader, I can say that the book doesn't really inspire me to pick up E.L. James's original, but it doesn't necessarily scare me off of it either. Because fundamentally, Lighter Shades is about poking gentle holes in the writing and character actions of the source. But due to the fact that it is an attempt at sarcastic humor and not a full-blown satire nor a scholarly discussion, it lacks real punch and real intrigue. In other words, it reads like a blog post that overstays its welcome and wears out its (oft-recurring) punchlines.
The best of the book, aside from the first few chapters which mirror the original blog post in large part, is the appendices in the back discussing the possibility of diagnosable psychopathy of central (and titular) character, Christian Grey. It's a fun exercise, but not really all that illuminating; I suspect if you applied psychiatric testing standards to a lot of protagonists, you'd come up with similar results. Well-adjusted people don't typically make for compelling stories, y'know?
My take away from finishing Lighter Shades was that this was perhaps the kind of hard-hearted, detail-oriented critique that James's editor should have been, meaning that for people already convinced that 50 Shades is trash, this is confirmation bias incarnate. For people who loved 50 Shades, it will seem unnecessarily picky and standing to the side of the point. For people who wrote 50 Shades, it is an editorial treasure trove, arriving about twelve months too late.(less)
When I re-read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time a couple of years ago I decided that the story at the heart of the novel was compelling and very...moreWhen I re-read Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time a couple of years ago I decided that the story at the heart of the novel was compelling and very well-realized but lacked a little something due to its abstract nature and the limitations of L'Engle's descriptive prose.
When I heard that Hope Larson was creating a graphic novel adaptation of the book, then, I was very excited. Done right, this could be a remarkably accessible interpretation of the classic children's story.
I'm here to tell you that Larson has done it right.
The illustration work on display here is pitch-perfect: Larson's whimsical style roots the whole thing in a youthful mindset, even when the story turns dark and edgy. Her depictions of difficult-to-reconcile elements from L'Engle's original (Mrs. Whatsit's centaur/pegasus form, Aunt Beast, IT, etc) are superb and even her characterizations of the principles is pretty great (the lone exception being Calvin, whom I pictured as being more athletic and handsome than gangly, but it's a very minor critique).
Even Larson's adaptation is precisely executed, never deviating from the source material but manipulating it subtly to take full advantage of the graphic novel format. It's impressive, honest and shows a true connection between Larson and the material. Perhaps the most significant aspect on display in this version is how much Larson feels this story and these characters. It comes through in nearly every panel.
I liked the original novel, but I loved this version of it. It's so good in fact that I think this may end up being the first edition I give to my daughter to read when she gets old enough. Not just a faultless execution on converting a beloved story to a new medium, this project manages the remarkable feat of actually improving upon the original.(less)
Jessie just graduated from high school, and she's on a road trip to Las Vegas to celebrate before she has to head back and figure out how to transfer...moreJessie just graduated from high school, and she's on a road trip to Las Vegas to celebrate before she has to head back and figure out how to transfer her admirable grades but poor status into a college education. She's still reeling from the recent loss of her boyfriend, Jimmy, but when she ends up at a blackjack table next to a mysterious stranger, Russ, who helps her win big, she begins to question if it's time to move on from Jimmy at last.
But something about her new suitor isn't quite normal. And more importantly, there seems to be a sinister element present in Vegas, one that is focused on her. Before Jessie can begin to suspect Russ she's dragged suddenly and violently into a reality she had no idea ever existed. A parallel world where the rules are different, one where Jessie's counterpart, Jessica, has just upset the balance of things in a big way.
Witch World is the first volume in a new YA series by Christopher Pike, an author I've read a bit of due to my wife's affection for his work. Occasionally Pike has produced stories I quite enjoyed but I'm sad to say that Witch World wasn't one of the better examples.
The central issue I have with the book is that it feels too much like an early draft, something that needs a heavy editor's hand to crystalize some of the muddier aspects of the world building. There are simply too many points where the book isn't internally consistent or misleading information about Witch World is given to the reader just to set up a "shocking" revelation later. And while the premise is interesting, there just isn't enough to distinguish it from obvious reference material like The X-Men and any number of parallel worlds fiction (Narnia, The Matrix, Alice In Wonderland, Phaze, etc).
The worst part of this is the way in which the world-building information is presented is almost exclusively in long, expository dialogue sequences where one character basically story-tells to another while they sit and do nothing else. These parts do some interesting stuff with alternate histories, and in fact it is the tenets in here that earn the book its extra star, but the presentation is so clumsy and lifeless that it takes the inherent intrigue of re-casting historic events in a new context and makes it tedious.
Another thing I didn't care for in Witch World was how often I just didn't buy in to Pike's narrative. Jessie/Jessica is sort of a bland protagonist/narrator, but near the end she has a drastic, sudden shift of personality that isn't earned and rings incredibly false. Several characters are 100% superfluous (a couple even completely disappear from the book about a third of the way in, to no discernible effect on the rest of the book) and a lot of the detail about both Witch World and the nature of witches is scientifically ridiculous or poorly realized such that things end up happening just "because WITCH WORLD, y'all."
To be clear, the central story is interesting enough and I kind of wanted to enjoy what was going on, but there was too much about the way the whole thing was put together that I didn't care for. And on a very serious note, there is one part in particular that drove me up the wall: Jessie, drunk and sexually charged, begins to get amorous with a man and at one point makes a remark about eschewing a condom because she's too lost in the passion of the moment to bother. This is in a young adult book? Really? Look, I get that the whole "condoms will ruin the moment" concept is a real concern, especially among the sexually inexperienced. But I think Pike owes his target audience better than legitimizing the (false) notion that safe sex trumps emotional connection or fulfilling fervor.
And while I'm at it, I should note that the language in Witch World is annoyingly crass. I get that plenty of teenagers and young adults use crude language and I don't have a problem with books that depict dialogue with an air of authenticity. But Pike here seems to hide behind f-bombs to convey emotion rather than make it feel real of its own accord.
I don't recommend Witch World. It has a kernel of interesting ideas buried inside it, but it gets too caught up in unnecessary details, is too lazy in presenting the world the characters inhabit, and lacks enough emotional hook to get a reader really invested in the story.(less)