1/20/13: This novel is exactly what I expected, which is both reassuring (easy, familiar, fun) and frustrating. Korelitz is an able writer, and this s1/20/13: This novel is exactly what I expected, which is both reassuring (easy, familiar, fun) and frustrating. Korelitz is an able writer, and this story of the life crisis of Portia Nathan, Admissions officer at Princeton, moves surely and solidly to its appointed denouement. I looked forward to finding out what would happen next, and wished only that I'd had the luxury of a long plane ride to make my time spent with this 450-page novel slightly more excusable.
Because the book is great in some ways: it nails the absolute hell of the college admissions process for all concerned. It captures life in a college town well, and spins a great caricature of the New England WASP. The story, the structure, the timing, are all mostly believable, and the characters are sympathetic. It kept me reading!
But frustratingly, it falls short. First: it is way too long for what it is--where was Korelitz' editor? Well...clearly the author had one, but my guess is that the editor, and all her readers, were luxuriating in the abundance and cleverness of the spot-on details. But even s/he got tired near the end, where stupid errors began to appear, like the name of a Princeton applicant changing suddenly from Sean to Sam, and adjectives like "luminous" and "genial" showing up 3 or 4 times in the space of 5 pages. Just lazy. Also, the novel never fully brings its central characters to life; they are elusive--almost real, but never quite so. So while the scene in the car outside the Hartford train station is fully imaginable, the characters in the scene are still fuzzy. Mark? Who IS he? It's odd to read a book in which this happens, almost as though the characters' faces have been pixillated but the scene itself is shown clearly. And last but not least: I was disappointed by the ending. With the resolution to Portia's crisis, many questions are left, but Korelitz chooses to leave almost all of them, except the most obvious, sappy ones, unanswered. I think she was going for a sense of freedom and new beginnings? But for me she seemed to want to tie up the practical aspects of the plot, but completely ignore the far more interesting and complicated emotional, moral and psychological aspects.
Maybe I was asking too much of it. That, really, is why it's frustrating. I wanted it to measure up, but it couldn't quite make it. Double 800s, lots of extra-curriculars, good essay--but "Only if Room". ...more
1/22/2013: Quirky, charming, and clever, this novel is part traditional quest, part science fiction, part mystery. I loved listening to it; how often1/22/2013: Quirky, charming, and clever, this novel is part traditional quest, part science fiction, part mystery. I loved listening to it; how often does the narrative voice make you smile while you are sitting on the subway? I doubt I'll remember the plot for long, but I won't forget the adorable Mr. Penumbra with his long fingers and blue eyes, or the intrepid young narrator Clay Jannon, for a long time.
MP24B seems in many ways unsophisticated, almost YA in its simplistic and often unrealistic plot details, and in its tidy happy ending. But there's plenty of interesting stuff to ponder in the novel as well. In its depiction of the clash of generations--between Old Knowledge (i.e. books) and the burgeoning power of Google (and technology in general)--Sloan made me think about books, technology, and the way the human mind works, in ways I hadn't before. Every aspect of these characters' lives is affected by their use and understanding of technology, and they accept and accommodate technology without a second thought. Which I think I knew and understood--it's happening to us all, before our eyes--,if only at some subconscious level. But to have this idea as the point of a novel put the incremental, creeping power of technology right in my face, and made me think twice about a lot of things I hadn't considered. For example: the power and importance of fonts; the incredible reach and versatility of the global internet community; and the ways that the acknowledged power of technology might change the way we think about ourselves and our future. Sloan integrates all of these ideas and more into a light, fresh story line; he is positive and excited, his characters enthusiastic and ingenious. Lopsided, unrealistic, even silly? Yes, but also creative, thoughtful, and a lot of fun. ...more
1/4/2013: This is an energetic first novel, full of freshness and confidence, sympathetic characters, graceful metaphors and turns of phrase, nice sen1/4/2013: This is an energetic first novel, full of freshness and confidence, sympathetic characters, graceful metaphors and turns of phrase, nice sense of place. But it is still definitely a first novel: earnest, sometimes obvious, focused on a simplistic and melodramatic treatment of characters faced with a moral dilemma, and on the consequences of their choices. Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, newly married, live alone on a small island off Western Australia called Janus Rock (get it?) where Tom is the lighthouse keeper. One day, a dinghy washes up on shore with a dead man and an (alive) infant inside. Isabel, who has just suffered her third miscarriage, is bereft. Tom knows he should report it, but seeing how the baby may save Isabel, does not. What would you do? Well…read on!
Although I was frustrated by the overwhelming drama of the plot--what will happen next? Who will win? (And what about Naomi?!)--I also enjoyed the read. And maybe that was because the best parts of the novel were those that strayed from the drive of the story line, when Stedman would muse about the sea, or explain the workings of a lighthouse, or tell from a child's point of view the difference between a shark and a dolphin as it swims. Lovely little details that arrested my attention even more than "who is Lucy's real mother?" Every once in a while, there was awkwardness--the scaffolding would show, or some sections needed smoothing or editing. And the obvious hints of the names of people and places was a bit much. But none of these minor problems was enough to distract me. I look forward to reading more of Stedman's work as she continues to write. I hope and predict that with more practice and more work published, she may break out of the chick lit genre that TLBO gets close to sliding into.
P.S. I'd give this book 3 1/2 stars if Goodreads would let me. ...more
12/30/2012: How does one write a biography of such an important historical figure in 175 pages? Very carefully! Johnson is a brilliant writer, almost12/30/2012: How does one write a biography of such an important historical figure in 175 pages? Very carefully! Johnson is a brilliant writer, almost a poet in his ability to compress so much information into so few words. His prose is clear, concise, easy to follow, yet packed with names, dates, opinions. Not having read the next longest biography of Churchill (I think many of them run to almost a thousand pages), I can only imagine how hard Johnson must have worked to sort through what to include and what to leave out. But even imagining it gives me an idea of what an incredible accomplishment this little tome is.
For all Johnson's amazing ability to synthesize and distill this massive life into such a small space, however, he can't overcome the fact that much is lost. The task, to compress a person and a time into such a small space, is accomplished. But what does this accomplishment really get you? Reading Churchill is a bit like reading a REALLY well written Cliffs Notes of Churchill's life.
And one more problem, for me: such a polished gem allows for few questions left to ask, few angles for my curiosity to explore. I was hoping that when I was finished with Churchill, I'd want to continue learning about the man and his accomplishments. But this book is curiously impenetrable, airtight. The only question I could think of that he didn't answer was: what happened to his beloved Clemmie? Other than that, I felt like I was done with the topic. Which is not at all what such a book should be, I think--it should excite readers to go find out more! So Johnson's book, sadly, backfired for me. Alas....more
12/29/2012: Another pilgrimage, another story of a long solitary walk taken in order to find one's way. (See The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry for12/29/2012: Another pilgrimage, another story of a long solitary walk taken in order to find one's way. (See The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry for a different example of this genre!) In this case, Strayed puts the whole story in the subtitle of her memoir: "From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail". She prefaces the tale of her three month journey with the reasons that she had to do something to change her broken life. Since her mother had died, three years earlier, her life had fallen apart: her college education, marriage, health, and ability to stay clean. And somehow she sensed, through all this, that a singular lonely challenge could fix her life.
Then she gets to the actual trek, in all its step by step particulars. On the one hand, her story did make me want to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (the wilder, longer, lonelier cousin to the Appalachian Trail, going from the Mexican border to Canada, through California, Oregon and Washington). She describes the physical journey and its rewards well, capturing the beauty of the views, terrain, sunrises and sunsets, and the strength she took from life on the trail. And she balances that with the privations, dangers, and doubts she felt every step of the way. She admits many times that her vision of what she would accomplish, how she would work through her mother's death thoughtfully while communing with the grandeur of nature, bears no relation to what she actually did, which was fantasize about cheeseburgers while singing her favorite old songs over and over again. She tries hard to document truthfully what she came to understand as she hiked.
But on the other hand, I was disappointed by Strayed's inability to articulate how the trek changed her, allowed her to move on and into a new life, new marriage, new happiness. At the end of the story, she reaches the end of the trail (no spoiler alert, it's a memoir, we know what happens before we begin!); then, in three pages, she sums up what has happened to her since. No real reflection or post-trek processing, no connections between what she learned and how she came to apply those lessons to her own life. I realize that this processing is outside the scope of the book--the tidy construct of the actual trek as lesson--but I wish then she'd been able to put more post-trek wisdom within that construct. I felt cheated, somehow. I got the "Lost" part--but the "Found" part remained elusive, unconstructed--wild? Strayed found happiness, somehow, after she succeeded at this personal challenge. But how, why, what really changed? I wish there'd been more of that. Or that she hadn't promised more of it in her title! ...more
1/28/2013: As a rule I avoid going straight from finishing a book to googling it and reading reviews--it seems like cheating, somehow, thwarting my pr1/28/2013: As a rule I avoid going straight from finishing a book to googling it and reading reviews--it seems like cheating, somehow, thwarting my processing of the book and the development of my own opinion. Yet with Ancient Light I was so frustrated, thinking that I must be missing something, that I did just that. And I'm glad I did! (By the way, this reminds me that sometimes it's good to know something about a novel before beginning it!). AL is the third novel in a trilogy--OH, no WONDER I didn't get it! AND, the parts I didn't understand, they were the parts that had been covered in the first two novels of the trilogy! Whew.
Which brings up lots of issues about trilogies and novels and whether they should be able to stand alone or whether they then are too repetitive OR not actually connected enough; whether the third book should be labeled clearly as such (I just went back and studied AL's book jacket--nowhere does it mention this!); what the author's and/publishers intentions might or should be. In general I love trilogies, but maybe it's me, maybe I'm too compulsive and I find this experience irritating because I feel tricked. Or maybe I should have done some research. Hm.
Enough of that. Banville might be the most extraordinary writer I've ever encountered. Reading his prose is like eating ice cream: it's incredibly rich but oh so delicious. His words, sentences, metaphors, all are exquisitely chosen and balanced, breathtaking images that in any other book would be over the top, but in Banville are just part of the overall wonder. Writers often say that they read every book with a pencil, parsing how a sentence works or doesn't work; I rarely do that, but with AL I did. Yet all this richness can become either (or both) a surfeit and a distraction; while I loved reading each sentence, I also found myself getting bogged down in it, almost stuck in its very essence. It's hard to read this book quickly--which is good because of its deliciousness, but also bad because of the distressing subject matter.
The narrator spends much of the novel recounting his memories of his love affair with his best friend's mother, when he was 15 and she was 35. The way he describes it, it sounds veritably icky; too much graphic detail, too much talk about the narrator's childishness and his lover's maternal affect. Creepy. Meanwhile, though, the story is also about the elusive and unreliable nature of memory (which seems to be a popular theme among aging British writers we've read recently--Sebastian Barry, Julian Barnes). And Banville does it brilliantly.
Had the novel been only about this memory and memory in general, the novel would have stood on its own. It's the goings-on in the present-day of the narrator that is confusing, as that part of the plot seems to me to depend on the reader having read the first two novels in the trilogy. Maybe in a few years, when I've forgotten this novel enough, I'll go back and read all three in order. Then I'll get to write a different review altogether. ...more
12/19/12: This is the kind of book I read and then I can't decide whom--of all my friends--I want to give it to first. I want everyone to read it! Not12/19/12: This is the kind of book I read and then I can't decide whom--of all my friends--I want to give it to first. I want everyone to read it! Not because it's brilliantly written (Gawande is a wonderful writer, but the writing is not the point) nor because of its brilliant ideas. The Checklist Manifesto tells a simple and obvious story about human nature--about our shortcomings and our blindness to them--then it provides a way to recognize those shortcomings and to improve on them. How uplifting, to read a book with answers--even if we might not have been asking the questions!
Gawande, a surgeon, was asked by the World Health Organization to help figure out a way to improve outcomes in surgery, around the world. He and his team did a lot of research, pondered the problem, and, borrowing from the airline industry and a few pioneering hospitals, came up with the idea of a checklist. This checklist does not explain how to do surgery, nor does it cover every possible thing that could go wrong. It does very simple things that--inexplicably to many, including Gawande--make a huge difference. For example: it requires that all members of a surgical team introduce themselves to one another before the operation begins. Seems obvious, right? But it often doesn't happen, and it's been shown that if people know one another's names, they are better able to work as a team. Which translates into better outcomes for the patient.
I could go on--did I mention that I think everyone should read this book?!--but I'd rather you read it yourself. Human nature and behavior are baffling and often self-defeating. Gawande is willing to tackle these complexities of human behavior with humility, thoughtfulness, and optimism. Made me want to cheer. And make a checklist. ...more
11/24/2012: This one's a winner (well, only a finalist for this year's National Book Award, but it wins for me!). I already want to read it again, mor11/24/2012: This one's a winner (well, only a finalist for this year's National Book Award, but it wins for me!). I already want to read it again, more slowly. A perfect book for Thanksgiving weekend, both because it takes place on Thanksgiving Day and because you just want to keep reading (and you may have time, if you haven't headed to the movies!). Which is not to say that it's a superficial, airplane read. But Fountain handles his subject matter so beautifully, treading so carefully on delicate and difficult subjects, juxtaposing realities as Billy Lynn tries to process his experiences, exposing the terrible ignorance and selfishness of all of us sheltered Americans in our understanding and acknowledgement of the war in Iraq--well, let me give a quick sketch so you get what I'm talking about.
Billy Lynn is a 19-year old small-town Texan, ends up in the Army to escape going to prison (for a stupid mistake), and has been brought back from Iraq with the remainder of Bravo Company for a "Victory Tour" of the US after Bravo's heroism in a firefight was videotaped and went viral online. For two weeks, the company has been showcased as heroes, and on the last day of the tour, they are taken to a Dallas Cowboys game at Texas Stadium. (Thus now the title makes more sense?)
The novel takes place over the course of this day--although there are many flashbacks and fill-ins--and the major juxtaposition of the hype/power/money/violence/inevitability of the war with the same aspects applied to the football game is perhaps the novel's central theme. But it encompasses so much more too: Billy's efforts to comprehend what he's been through (his PTSD, really); his intensely close relationships with his fellow soldiers; his own observations of this absurd event they're being paraded through; and his (incredibly poignant) hopes and fears for the future; Fountain manages all of this with exceptional grace and gentleness. Every once in a while he hits us over the head with his point a touch too hard, but for me, that only makes the rest of the novel, which is so gently nuanced, more of an accomplishment. ...more
11/20/2012: The Mezzanine is a great example of Baker's best writing: his dazzling facility with words, his hilarious extension of a mildly humorous p11/20/2012: The Mezzanine is a great example of Baker's best writing: his dazzling facility with words, his hilarious extension of a mildly humorous passing thought into a full-blown dissertation, his amazing ability to chronicle the structure of thought, as convoluted and mysterious as it is. I love following his sentences as he burrows into the depths of detail, describing so fluidly the minutiae of human behavior and life in the modern world. The whole novel (short as it is) takes place over the course of one escalator ride from the ground floor of the narrator's office building to the mezzanine--but think a minute on how long it would take to describe all the ideas, questions, thoughts that someone might have over the course of that trip, and you will realize that Baker is having mercy on the reader--the novel could go on forever, really.
Despite my love for his writing, though, at times I felt the story just went on too long. When I have to go three pages forward to finish one extra long footnote, then go back those three pages to pick up the actual text again; when I have to remind myself that plot is really not the point; and when I have to rely solely on Baker's sense of humor to power me along--well, it's not always enough. Still, the novel, as I noted, is short. And hilarious. And worth a read.
11/5/2012: What a wonderful, refreshing romp this is! I read almost the entire book in one sitting--on an airplane--and I loved every minute of it. At11/5/2012: What a wonderful, refreshing romp this is! I read almost the entire book in one sitting--on an airplane--and I loved every minute of it. At once a hilarious send-up of the culture that is Seattle, a poignant story of a loving but very dysfunctional family, a great mystery with lots of twists and turns, and a novel with all kinds of nuggets of wonder and wisdom, WYGB never lets up, just makes you want to keep on turning the pages. The story is written in prose, but it jumps from straight prose narrated by Bee, the 15-year old daughter of Elgie Branch and Bernadette Fox, to emails, to letters, to police logs (!), and back to prose again. Semple writes wonderful, simple comedy, which is very difficult to get right--so often it's either over the top, or too edgy or mean, or too slapstick, or too ironic. But she manages to make her characters sympathetic, dorky, frustrating, crazy, limited and charming all at once. Yup, human. Worth the read!...more
11/4/2012: This novel was our Book Club choice--probably because the question "Why read Joyce's Ulysses?" seems to run through many of our group discu11/4/2012: This novel was our Book Club choice--probably because the question "Why read Joyce's Ulysses?" seems to run through many of our group discussions about literature. And this book, while it doesn't answer the question, does address many of Ulysses' thematic, rhetorical, and existential issues. Which leads me to ask: where are the Cliff Notes to THIS book?
Samuel Riba is a 60-ish, recently retired literary book publisher who lives in Barcelona. He had to stop drinking two years before the story opens, for medical reasons. These changes seem to have brought on a depression, so that he spends most of his time in his own head (never a good idea) and on the computer. He understands that he needs to reverse his downward spiral, and hits upon the idea that going to Dublin, to enact a funeral for the written word, will save him. He gathers three friends, they go, and perhaps you can guess what happens. (Oh yes, and by the way, it rains every single day of the novel.) But…it doesn't really matter if you don't try to guess. No spoiler to say, not much happens. Because--did you miss this, above?--the story is almost all in his head. What story there is. Talk about an unreliable narrator!
There are flashes of humor in this story, many when the narrator seems to be trying his hardest to be super serious. And although I don't remember much of Ulysses (it's been 30 years), it seems to be an interesting tribute to the great work and master. But Dublinesque is otherwise a slog, alternately boring and frustrating. Maybe I should go read Ulysses again…. ...more