Alright, so if you read my review of The Casual Vacancy, you know I thought it was a hot mess. I felt as if Rowling had examined all her strengths as a writer (pacing, absorbing plots, realistic yet flawed characters), and then played to none of them. Maybe she put too much pressure on herself to do something brilliant, I don't know. It just didn't work for me, and, given the conversation about it at my book club, most people felt the same way.
The Cuckoo's Calling, on the other hand, completely works. It would be disingenuous to say that this is not your typical mystery novel, because in many ways it exemplifies the mystery novel. It would be better to say that this is your typical mystery novel done very, very well. There are twists and turns, but it's not full of ridiculously unbelievable cliffhangers a la Dan Brown. The characters are multi-faceted, even the ones who only play bit parts. And the set-up is pretty cool: a model falls to her death, and though the police determine that she committed suicide, her brother isn't convinced. I won't say more, because the less you know, the better.
If you were worried about reading Rowling's adult fiction after being disappointed by The Casual Vacancy, I urge you to give this one a shot. Meanwhile, I'll be sitting here anxiously awaiting the next Cormoran Strike book. (less)
If I'm going to rate this book by quality of writing, I'd have to give it 2 stars. This book is full of the kind of pedestrian writing that you see in...moreIf I'm going to rate this book by quality of writing, I'd have to give it 2 stars. This book is full of the kind of pedestrian writing that you see in books like Trading Up, which I read for about 100 pages in high school before I get fed up with the writing and passed it on to someone with more plebeian tastes. Seriously guys, it's real bad.
However, the trashiness of the plot made this book so fun to read despite the bad writing and campiness, which means I'd rate it 4 stars based on pure enjoyment. This was a perfect vacation read. I'm splitting the difference and giving it 3 stars.
How shall I describe Valley of the Dolls? Imagine Mad Men, which is retro and well acted and generally excellent. Now imagine that Bravo did a contrived reality show to capitalize on the success of Mad Men, about the "Real" Housewives/Kept Women of 1950's Manhattan/Los Angeles, and you'll pretty much get Valley of the Dolls. (less)
Sometimes, I think John Williams is in my head (no, not the composer conducting a tiny symphony playing the Star Wars Main Theme, although sometimes I...moreSometimes, I think John Williams is in my head (no, not the composer conducting a tiny symphony playing the Star Wars Main Theme, although sometimes I have that in my head too. But I'm talking about the writer John Williams, the one you've probably never heard of). It takes an academic to know the soul-crushing, mind-numbing depression involved in living a life of the mind, or whatever you want to call it. See, those lucky people outside of academia think that we live in this lovely world that is just like college, where we have no responsibilities and can just think about interesting stuff all the time (probably while wearing silly hats). In reality, our days are filled with petty annoyances, disillusionment, and despair.
(Can you tell I'm at the tail-end of my PhD and feeling like I'll never get out of this hellhole?)
Anyway, one of the disconcertingly awesome things about Stoner is having someone who has been there echo back the small triumphs and the crippling insecurities. Exhibit A:
"Through it all he continued to teach and study, though he sometimes felt that he hunched his back futilely against the driving storm and cupped his hands uselessly around the dim flicker of his last poor match." (p. 246).
THAT IS MY LIFE. But why am I here?
"It's for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that's just protective coloration." (p. 75)
I really can't say anything intelligent about the book at this point: it just affected me so deeply. I don't think I've ever read anything so quietly devastating, so evocative of an experience that I wish I couldn't relate to. Every academic should read this book.
I'll leave you with a quote from the end of the book. I'm spoiler tagging it, but there's no information here that you wouldn't also get from the first page: (view spoiler)["It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there." (p. 277) (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This little slip of a book was a surprise: it was not a novel about race, like I was expecting, but a bildungsroman about a young girl from South Caro...moreThis little slip of a book was a surprise: it was not a novel about race, like I was expecting, but a bildungsroman about a young girl from South Carolina who has a lot of issues to work though. The voice of the young narrator, Lily Owens, was both poetic and realistic, which I liked. Also, the book really is about bees, which I loved.
Somehow, I don't have much to say about this, perhaps because it's quite an internal story, or possibly because it's fairly simplistic. In a good way. It felt like a young adult novel more than anything else, which might be why I keep thinking "I liked this!" without really being able to say what I liked. I wish I had read it in high school, but it turned out to be a quick little read over a few lazy days. Now that I'm thinking a bit more, I do like that it dealt with some potential "very special episode" material in a personal way that didn't feel like pandering. It also evoked a sense of place: I felt like I could feel the heat and smell the Carolina jasmine, even though I mostly read this cooped up in my apartment during the tail-end of a Chicago winter.
The one thing I disliked about the book was the May character, who felt overly contrived. I always feel a bit manipulated when a writer (view spoiler)[kills off a character for no other reason than to give the illusion of emotional depth. Plus, I dislike mawkish sentimentality. It would have been better without her. (hide spoiler)].
Anyway, I still liked this book overall. Yeah, it felt like an Oprah book (you know, because it was), but then again, sometimes that's what you're in the mood for.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Get ready to suspend your disbelief, because the plot of The Secret History is outlandish, to say the least. A group of Classics students gets into so...moreGet ready to suspend your disbelief, because the plot of The Secret History is outlandish, to say the least. A group of Classics students gets into some trouble following an incident during some Bacchanalian activities. And I mean Bacchanalian in the most literal sense of the world, à la Sebastiano Ricci:
(See, I can make cultural references too. Being set at a college, and being written by a 28 year old, The Secret History sometimes goes eye-rollingly over the top with references that are supposed to be impressive, but mostly make one feel as if one is taking part in a pseudo-intellectual circle jerk. I think this kind of stuff is only effective when Joyce does it, but à chacun son goût.)
Anyway, combine a bacchanal, intensely dislikable characters, bad decisions, classical references, and lots of blow, and you've got The Secret History. It's more or less Crime and Punishment with sophomoric upper-class hipsters. The major problem is that Tartt seems to write them as if they really were the cognoscenti, which prevents her from adding in any humor about how ridiculous they are.
The Secret History came out in 1992, when this year's college graduates were still gestating and Bret Easton Ellis was still relevant; as you can imagine, it doesn't display the maturity of The Goldfinch. However, it's a pretty fun ride, if you're into this sort of thing.(less)