Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is an elegiac novella set in the American west. The novella takes place between the late 1800's and into the 1960's. It...moreTrain Dreams by Denis Johnson is an elegiac novella set in the American west. The novella takes place between the late 1800's and into the 1960's. It chronicles the life of Robert Grainier and his struggles to carve out a living through logging, building railroads, and working odd jobs. At a deeper level, Train Dreams meditates on the losses Grainier experiences and how he adapts. The writing is thoughtful and gorgeous., showing Johnson's skill as a writer and Grainier's fresh perspective. Furthermore, the narrative flows well and lends the novella a dream-like quality as time jumps around through Grainier's memories.
In Fatherland by Robert Harris, Germany won WWII and is now locked in a cold war with the United States. The novel follows a police detective, Xavier...moreIn Fatherland by Robert Harris, Germany won WWII and is now locked in a cold war with the United States. The novel follows a police detective, Xavier March, as he investigates a man's death in this alternate reality.
The novel is extremely fast-paced and reads like a thrilling movie. By discovering the man's identity, March uncovers hints of a deeper secret and conspiracy. German history, as written by the victors, makes no mention of what happened to the Jews. Officially, they were shipped east to work camps in Russia. In this alternate Germany during the 1960's officially does not always match up with reality. Germany is in a never-ending war with Russian partisans, the German settlers wish to come back, and rebellion bubbles beneath the surface.
What will the government do in order to keep the Holocaust covered up? As March is about to find out, they'll do whatever it takes.
The Women by T.C. Boyle is novel about Frank Lloyd Wright in the context of the women he loved. If you're unfamiliar with Wright, he was married three times, had a mistress in between wives one and two, and seemed to have a strong attachment to his mother. While the story is interesting, the structure of the novel is much more compelling.
The novel is told from the fantastical perspective of a Japanese architect, Tadashi Sato, who arrives at Taliesin in 1932 as an apprentice. The novel is then translated by Sato's granddaughter's husband, Seamus O'Flaherty, an American writer. Boyle has created a perspective from a low-ranking outsider's point-of-view and is able to work in research and style through O'Flaherty's background as a writer. It allows a lot of distance from a figure so well-known and polarizing. Also, it gives Boyle flexibility, mainly through footnotes, to write asides based on Sato's or O'Flaherty's perspective.
Going back to structure though, how would you tell the life story of a man? For most people, I imagine it to be rather linear. Either start at the beginning or a certain point in time and move forward. Instead, Boyle begins at the end with Frank Lloyd Wright's third marriage. We see from Sato's perspective, the third Mrs. Wright after years of marriage. In the first section though, the novel focuses on Wright falling in love with Olgivanna and starting the divorce process with his second wife, Miriam. I don't want to give anything away, but it's hard to like Miriam and equally hard to see what Wright liked about her.
As the first section closes though, the second section is about Miriam and how her relationship with Wright began. This section dragged mainly because I was so worn out by Miriam in the previous section. While she's not as terrible in this part, she's still not very likable.
Finally, the novel concludes with Mamah, Wright's mistress and the dissolution of his first marriage to Kitty. This section is tragic. The novel closes with Miriam reading about the tragedy in a newspaper and thinking, "that poor man. That poor, poor man," having not yet met him.
As I've thought about the novel, I've also thought about Wright's architecture. He's said to have always modifying things, making slight changes to plans or buildings as they work is going on. His design is described as organic and I wonder about the cyclical form of nature and how it applies to storytelling. Boyle takes us back to the beginning. It's almost like watching the universe rewind to the big bang. Here. Here is the moment that will mark Frank Lloyd Wright for the rest of his life.
Moving past the structure, I enjoyed the novel for the window into Wright's life. The scandals and media attention which engulfed him though was claustrophobic. Wright was a complicated man, made more complicated by the media frenzy which followed him. Imagine a flamboyant Steve Jobs with multiple public affairs.
How do ideas stick in our minds? What is it about those ideas that makes them so hard to shake? In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Di...moreHow do ideas stick in our minds? What is it about those ideas that makes them so hard to shake? In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath answer these questions and more in a way that's entertaining and easy to understand.
In the introduction the Heath brothers lay out the keys to making ideas stick. Ideas need to be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and contain a story. Each chapter that follows focuses on one of those topics.
One central idea to the book is the curse of knowledge. How do experts communicate with non-experts? In other words, how does our knowledge blind us to the perspective of a novice? The more familiar a person is with a topic or an area of study, the easier it is for them to talk abstractly and assume their message comes across. Meeting your audience in the middle ground is not the same as dumbing down your message.
Made to Stick is full of bite-sized chunks of research and anecdotes from classes and workshops the two authors have taught. This is a must read for anyone in a leadership or managerial role and especially those who depend on communicating a message.
Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy by John le Carré is an inaction-packed suspense novel about a high-level mole in British intelligence and one man's missi...moreTinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy by John le Carré is an inaction-packed suspense novel about a high-level mole in British intelligence and one man's mission to uncover the traitor and take him down.
I say inaction-packed, because most of the novel involves George Smiley, the former second in command of the service, sorting through old files, interviewing former colleagues and contacts, and piecing together the puzzle.
The novel creates a sense of paranoia. Characters don't trust one another and everyone is playing a side angle. What's the truth though? That's exactly what Smiley is asking. He's after facts, and for his own sanity, does not make judgments on people. How could he? Smiley also sold people out and torched networks as part of a bigger game. Smiley knows he can't look to morality or ask why. Instead, he focuses on the other questions of how, who, when, and where.
There is a page-turning aspect to the novel, but it's because the reader also wants answers and not because action is taking place. Are those answers as dissatisfying to the reader as they are to Smiley? Did we know all along who the mole was, just like Smiley did? I'm not sure. It's not surprising at the end, but it's also not entirely satisfying.
The heart of the novel is more about the men in control of British intelligence during this period. The men who were "trained to empire, trained to rule the waves," but found it "all gone. All taken away." That's the interesting part of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. How did England adapt to its new place in the world? What was the realization like for the English as they saw their power diminish?
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a slow moving novel that draws the reader in. Compared to the high-tech spy world of today, the novel is a window into a different time. The novel was originally published in 1974 and is available through Amazon.(less)
Temperance by Cathy Malkasian is a quirky graphic novel that explores the relationship between the concepts of war and security, and freedom and trus...moreTemperance by Cathy Malkasian is a quirky graphic novel that explores the relationship between the concepts of war and security, and freedom and trust. The narrator is a tree, which has been fashioned into a wooden leg, and then later into a doll/child. The narrator tells the story of Pa, who is this mythical concept that infects people's minds. The people, spurred by the lies of his foster daughter, live enclosed into a fortress they call BlessedBowl. It's a ship on a sea of fire, but really it's a compound.
Pa is no longer there, but the people follow the words and stories of his daughter, Peggy. The story is surreal, and at times, heavy handed. The metaphor comes through fine, but it definitely seems like this is targeted toward a young audience. Maybe a reader between 8-12 would get more out of this work.
With a lighter hand, the artwork is simply wrought and beautiful. A dreamy quality instills the drawings and the lines are sharp and crisp.
Temperance is a graphic novel that tries something different, and for the most part, it succeeds.(less)
If you listen to NPR, then interviews with Jonathan Franzen may have wormed their way into your consciousness as he hit every talkshow, selling his book, Freedom. If you don't listen to NPR, Freedom was a book written by Jonathan Franzen, published in August 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux under the Picador imprint. The novel revolves around a Midwestern family, the Berglund's, and chronicles the ways in which they break apart and come together. Imagine the ways lakes thaw and refreeze in the north, that's a good metaphor for the Berglund's. In subject manner, the American Midwestern family under pressure, it's similar to The Corrections.
Obviously, due to the title, it's clear that freedom is explored in the novel. Also, competitiveness is another concept developed in the pages. What does freedom mean? How is freedom given? How does freedom develop? We are a nation that holds freedom as sacred even though we look the other way as freedom is restricted. Freedom taken to the extreme is lawlessness or anarchy. When children are given the freedom to be who they want to be, that doesn't mean they will be the people their parents wish them to be. That is the case for Walter and Patty's son Joey.
Joey grabs for his freedom and challenges his parent's authority from the outset in Freedom. His parents try to stop it, but aren't supportive of one another. On the one hand, they love seeing their child so independent and grown up. On the other hand, they hate being challenged and not needed. To make things worse is the competition, which develops between Patty and Walter.
How do you win in a marriage? Or for that matter, how do you win as a parent? When someone is ultra-competitive and then moves out of that environment, how do they cope? Patty was a star basketball player who sustains a career-ending injury. In order to compete with her sisters and parents back east, she decides to settle into the role of homemaker and mother. It goes against the feminist, high-achieving ideals of her family and one way to win is to compete for a different prize. While Patty is not engaged in the arts, like her sisters, she has a husband, a beautiful home, and two children: things which signify success in many parts of the country. Still, this need for competition evolves as Patty wants to be the parent who is most loved by her children. She doesn't back up Walter. She indulges Joey's misbehavior. Patty gets the kids to laugh at Walter. In that way, she seems similar to Gary's wife in The Corrections.
This competition is what drives the family apart. Joey, realizing his relationship with his mother is not normal, moves out and on with his life. Facing that defeat, the family soon moves to D.C. The signs of Patty's success have all been torn down. Throw in a love triangle with a rockstar friend and things become even more complicated.
Richard Katz, the rockstar, is the other main component in the book. While the novel is about Walter, Patty, and to an extent their children (Jessica is more like an afterthought compared to Joey), it's also about Walter and Patty's relationship with Richard. Walter and Richard love each other and compete with one another. For Richard, women and music come easy. He's handsome, a jerk, and seems to have no problem talking women into bed and then leaving. It drives Walter crazy, but he loves his friend. He also wants to do better than his friend and sees a chance by becoming involved with a billionaire who wants to establish a non-profit, under Walter's leadership, to provide habitat in West Virginia for the Cerulean Warbler. The only catch is that before the nature preserve is established, the coal will be mined. In addition to the close friendship between the two men, Patty also loves Richard and is lusted after by Richard. As things disintegrate, it's unclear if anyone will make it out of the relationship unscathed. This is especially true as Walter becomes obsessed with removing "feral cats" from the environment around his cabin.
Freedom is a wonderfully rich novel. The characters are complex, interesting, and the writing is superb. This book is definitely one to read.(less)
A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin is the fifth book in the Game of Thrones series. I won't go into a detailed review, because the book is 90...moreA Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin is the fifth book in the Game of Thrones series. I won't go into a detailed review, because the book is 900+ pages and builds off a large, large cast of characters and has a complicated continuity. What Martin does well is in juggling so many characters and story lines. The price though is that not much happens in 900 pages. There is so much build up with very little pay off. Action almost happens, then the point of view switches, and we discover the action has taken place off stage. It's frustrating and detracts at times.
When the next book comes out, I may just read about it on Wikipedia just to see what five things happened. Martin's epic has become so bloated that it's weighed down and moves with a stumbling pace.(less)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami warps time. Words fill the pages and the reader's mind as characters wait for things to happen. To fill in this void, the characters cut vegetables, use the bathroom, sentimentalize about rubber plants, consider breasts, and eat various meals. Otherwise, nothing moves the plot forward for hundreds of pages.
In the first book, we are introduced to Tengo Kawana, a former child prodigy and aspiring novelist. His editor friend, Komatsu, convinces him to ghostwrite a novel by a seventeen year old girl, Fuki-Eri, and submit it for a literary prize. This section is the strongest. Murakami pokes fun at the literary establishment and lowers the fourth wall. In alternating chapters we are introduced to the other main character, Aomame, who is an unassuming female assassin specializing in stabbing a sharp needle in men's necks with no trace. Tengo and Aomame shared one special moment when they were ten years old (they held hands) and it created a loving bond that lasted across twenty years and multiple worlds. The novel is a play toward getting the two together and in the course of 952 pages it finally happens.
Both Tengo and Aomame are caught up in the drama of a cult called Sakigake. The cult started out as radicalized students and faculty members on a commune. When Fuki-Eri was ten the commune's special goat, which Fuki-Eri was tasked with caring for, died. As a punishment Fuki-Eri was locked in a shed with the dead goat. Out of the dead goat's mouth sprang the Little People. They sit with Fuki-Eri and teach her how to weave an air chrysalis. The most we are told about the Little People is that they're powerful and something like gods, but not quite. After this happens is when the commune transforms into the cult, and Fuki-Eri's father becomes Leader and is imbued with powers.
Tengo is caught up in the drama by ghostwriting Fuki-Eri's novel, which is about the goat and the Little People. It receives great reviews and is a bestseller, but seen as a strange little fantasy. Aomame's role is that she must kill Leader because he has been raping young girls. There's more to the novel, or at least, a wider cast of characters, but it's not worth going exploring at this point.
1Q84 is full of opaqueness. What's worse is that it is mistaken as a sign that there is something hidden or wonderful in the books, which only smart people can discern. Instead, it's sloppy writing with no clear end in sight. After the end of the second book, Murakami steps back in the third book as if he can undo the final actions. This may not seem huge, but when one of the main characters commits suicide and is suddenly alive in the next book, it's completely jarring. Did Murakami change his mind? Was he interested in more sales or exploring how things would have turned out if the character stayed alive? The reasons are not clear and ultimately do not matter. 1Q84 is a bloated tome that is best avoided.
In The Warsaw Anagrams, byRichard Zimler,the narrator, Erik Cohen, searches for the people who killed his nephew and two other children. He's a psychi...moreIn The Warsaw Anagrams, by Richard Zimler, the narrator, Erik Cohen, searches for the people who killed his nephew and two other children. He's a psychiatrist, who was once respected, but now must deal with the hardships of the ghetto and the change in his station. While still respected, he's no longer one of the elite as the ghetto has destroyed the social order from the "Before Times." The voice of Cohen is rich and unique. Zimler stays with him throughout the novel and creates a solid character. Cohen fluctuates between compassion and anger, humor and grave melancholy. It's refreshing to read a character who is complex and whose actions cause him remorse.
While, technically a mystery, the novel is more about life in the ghetto than a compelling puzzle to solve. Part of the confusion stems from the title. It seems as though there will be coded puzzles throughout the novel and the anagrams do refer to the garbled names of people in order to hide their true identities; however, the anagrams fade below the surface as the novel progresses. The final anagram/puzzle is so hidden that "only a Jew would know both Polish and German well enough to understand that linka was string and Flor was gauze." For the reader it is next to impossible and the narrator doesn't care to share this information until he's been told by an accomplice to the crime.
Zimler's description of the early days of the Warsaw ghetto show a place full of heartache and desperation. The black market thrives as Jews cross over to the Christian side through hidden tunnels. People try to sustain the normalcy of life through music and cafes. But how soon before that goes away? The novel concludes before things become more terrible in the ghetto. We know what will happen eventually, but the novel sticks to the time frame of Cohen's perspective.
One issue with the narrator is that as he tells the story to a man, his current state is that of an ibbur, kind of like a ghost. This didn't trouble me; I assumed it was part of Jewish culture, but it is kind of cheesy. It does add another layer to the story, but for readers who do not enjoy the fantastic, it may be a problem.
The Warsaw Anagrams provides a glimpse of life in the ghetto and the suffering involved. Full of interesting characters who must make decisions, in which they question their morals, the novel leads the reader through the twisting streets, cramped apartments, and secret lives constrained by the ghetto walls. The novel is published by Overlook Press and available on Amazon.(less)
With Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam, created a novel full of small wonders and quiet terror in the American West. There is a mythic tone that calls to the reader and I found myself falling for David Lamb's charm much like Tommie does as she conspires to drive west with him.
Who is Lamb? He's in his fifties, wealthy, divorced, full of himself, isolated, and has no children. The novel begins with the death of Lamb's father, which seems to precipitate his string of bad decisions. There's a terrible edge to Lamb when he meets Tommie and "fake" kidnaps her, in order to teach her friends a lesson. At first, Lamb comes across as a father figure, telling Tommie how to act and seemingly concerned about her home life. This role morphs though as Lamb dotes on Tommie, and he begins to tell her how beautiful she is and buys her expensive gifts. Throughout the novel it's obvious something bad is going to happen. What's not clear is what that event will be.
What sets this novel apart from others is the clarity and beauty with which Nadzam writes. It's a pleasure to read sentences like:
He drove into the night, along a cursive pass etched in granite, above the stands of green-fingered oaks and red-beaded hawthorns and all the aspen, above the trees that listed to the southeast, needled black along one side, twisted and deformed by forbidding glacial wind, and between great planed walls of rock dressed in little aprons of snow and shattered stone sliding down onto the road.
Another wonderful passage follows:
Let's say there were none of those truss towers of galvanized steel lining the highway this next day. No telephone poles. No wires. Say that Lamb's truck and the highway were the only relics of the actual world. The road was overcome with native grasses and aromatic flowers, with wild onion and pussytoes. Soft gaping mouths of beardtongue, and mountain lover, and buckbush and drowsy purple heads of virgin's bower. Say it was like this that they crossed the Midwestern line beyond which the sky spreads itself open—suddenly boundless, suddenly an awful blue.
Nadzam further draws the reader in by making us complicit. She picks moments to speak to the reader, saying, "Our guy picked up her hand. 'We're just going to sit here a minute.' He waited until she stopped crying, then pulled away from the gas pump and parked beside a derelict pay phone." What makes Lamb "our guy"? Nadzam doesn't give us a choice, she says Lamb is our guy and so he becomes, bellying in next to us, leaning against the counter. It's an effective technique to bring the reader along and fill them with uneasiness toward the end.
So much of the novel is driven by Lamb's voice. His running narrative to Tommie comes straight through to the reader. Is he full of wisdom or just trying to impress? Again, it goes back to that question, who is David Lamb? It's a question that will probably haunt Tommie for the rest of her life.
Set amidst the desolation of the Midwest and West, the novel amplifies the landscape. Through it we are shown the beauty of the natural world as it closes in on the edges of failed strip malls and gas stations where tallboys go for a buck. Where are the people in this landscape? They're somewhere in between, patiently following the arcs of their lives. They either can't move on or will not. Except for Lamb, who seems bent on creating a story all his own.(less)
Some books are read for pleasure. Other books are read to gain knowledge, to learn something factual or expand one's mind. Still, there are books that...moreSome books are read for pleasure. Other books are read to gain knowledge, to learn something factual or expand one's mind. Still, there are books that fit into neither categories. They are read, because a person is bored and it's the only free book available in a hostel. They are read, because it's a beautiful day outside and there are few books which look appealing on the new book display. Blackout by Connie Willis is one of those books.
I grabbed the book off the shelf, sat outside with my lunch, and hoped to enjoy a hour's respite from work. The premise of Willis's novel is time travel. Historians based in Oxford travel back in time to study events. Willis's intent seems to be the creation of a sweeping saga. She introduces a plethora of characters with little context. These characters will each have sections based on their third-person limited perspective, but it takes 50-100 pages to keep the straight or care about them.
The novel starts out knee deep in action, but it feels like something was missed. I asked myself if this were the second book in a series? Nope. The reader must play catch up and look for dialogue clearly written to pass information back to the reader. Remember when you wanted to go to the Crusades? Aw, that was ages ago, I've changed. Who is that dialogue for? The characters or the reader?
One major flaw with this novel is that it's entirely overwritten. Two-thirds of the book could be cut out and it wouldn't really matter. Going back to the premise of the novel, historians travel back in time to study events. The group we follow are all headed for different points during World War II. There are some rules regarding time travel (of course, there are always rules), but Willis doesn't go into these too much and definitely offers no basis for how time travel works. The historians use a machine called the Net and it's so smart it won't allow them to be placed in places where they may affect events. These points are called divergences. So, the historians go back in time, and lose contact with Oxford. What follows is their incredibly boring activities as the war rages on and they fret about returning home.
Eventually, the three find each other as their time has overlapped. That seems like the point of the novel. They'll come together and be rescued. After 450 pages they are all in London and it seems like escape or rescue is imminent. Then, the books ends and there's a message: "For the riveting conclusion of Blackout, be sure not to miss Connie Willis's All Clear. Coming from Spectra in Fall 2010."
I read this book, because it was there and I had nothing else to read. I skimmed along just to see what happened. Not only does nothing really happen in this novel, but the premise is ridiculous, and the characters are bland. Blackout is an inflated novel with little to say and even less to offer.(less)
Anarchists, secessionists, and floundering academics! Oh my!
Keith Scribner's novel, The Oregon Experiment, follows Scanlon Pratt and his wife, Naomi G...moreAnarchists, secessionists, and floundering academics! Oh my!
Keith Scribner's novel, The Oregon Experiment, follows Scanlon Pratt and his wife, Naomi Greenburg, as they move from New York City to Douglas, Oregon, where Pratt is ready to begin his first tenure-track position in the Political Science Department.
Immediately, tension fills the pages as Naomi tries to cope with the move. She's eight months pregnant, misses New York, and suffers from anosmia. For Naomi, anosmia is crippling, because she used to design scents and perfumes for her career. She has no explanation for losing her sense of smell and it's been gone since before she met Pratt. The loss becomes something the two explore in their relationship. Naomi teaches Pratt how to more fully experience scents and in return he describes the world to her. It smells like lavender pressed into the collar of a well-loved wool coat, he might say.
Due to this aspect of the characters, Scribner delights in describing the world through various scents and smells. It makes for an interesting perspective and adds rich details throughout the narrative.
Instead of soothing Naomi's anxieties, Pratt continually adds to them. Off to a rocky start in his department, he glosses over his career prospects, and seeks out the local secessionist group to study. But can he stay objective? Lured into the ranks by a seductive, earthy, young woman, Pratt soon finds trouble. Add young, naive anarchists into the mix and more than a marriage is likely to explode.
To be unfair to Keith Scribner, I kept thinking, what would this novel be like if T.C. Boyle wrote it? It has the trappings of a T.C. Boyle novel, but lacks the crisp writing and sharp characters. It's completely unfair and shouldn't shadow Scribner's work. Perhaps, part of the appeal is that it does remind me of a T.C. Boyle novel.
While the pacing dips toward the middle, the last 100 pages read quickly as events pick up. Relationships splinter, the FBI investigates, and a local anarchist, Clay, turns to domestic terrorism. It's in Clay that Scribner's compassion for his characters is fully expressed. At the end of the novel there are two versions of events. Events how they really occurred and events how Clay perceived them. Scribner didn't have to do this, but his decision captures Clay in a moment of glory and fulfillment. Scribner takes a character who may alienate some readers and finds a sweet spot in resolving the plot.
The Oregon Experiment examines love, passion, alienation, and community. Scribner creates a satisfying work that sheds light on an area of society, which is usually stereotyped in the media. Overall, the novel is engaging and extremely relevant as Occupy Wall Street protests swarm into business districts across the country.(less)
The Sleepwalker at Sea is a wonderful collection of poems by Kelly Grovier. The poems meditate on aging, loss, love, and memory. These concepts spill into the dark passageways of childhood, the echoes from halls long empty. Not only does Grovier tie in a love for language and books, but his deft observations of nature position the poems as part of life.
It's part of the human condition to experience loss. There are natural cycles involved with aging, forgetting, and dying, as well as in the movements of a "murmuration" as:
It rises in a bright shatter of wings and lifts like a great mind over the water's still uncreasing canvas, each feathered filing an end
of thought, a pause – each dip and wheel a mute inflection in its organic grammar: a poem of pure
punctuation, a ballet of full- stops, lunulae and ellipses flailing, falling, flicked
by a pointillist's wrist against the deep unweaving loom
of sea and sun and sun and sky.
Full of beauty and sadness, The Sleepwalker at Sea is a must read collection, which readers may find themselves returning to again and again.(less)
The focus of the novel is a character named, Singer, who is deaf and mute. Singer has a deep friendship with another man who is also deaf and mute, Spiros Antonapoulos. During the years of their friendship, the two passed largely unnoticed in the town. It's when Antonapoulos is sent to an asylum that Singer begins to change. He paces the town at all hours. He takes all of his meals at the New York Cafe. Through a change in behavior he is now accessible to the townspeople, even though he cannot speak nor hear.
The perspective of the novel widens to include four characters, all of whom project themselves onto Singer. Each of the four characters meet with Singer on a weekly basis and empty themselves of thoughts and emotions. They talk and talk, but never engage with Singer. Singer becomes a receptacle for them and while they believe their friendship is deep, Singer finds it puzzling, because he does not understand them as intimately as they think.
Another layer to this theme is that Singer has a similar relationship with Antonapoulos, who clearly suffers from some cognitive impairment. Is Singer's relationship with Antonapoulos any different from the other four character's relationship with Singer? How can Singer be blind to this possibility? Ultimately, how well does the reader know Singer? Even though the novel is about him, it's rarely from his perspective. Just like the other characters, the reader projects onto Singer and establishes a relationship that is largely one-sided.
Carson McCullers explores what it means to be isolated through physical impairment, race, family, poverty, and political beliefs. It's an interesting technique and one that largely works. Among the four characters who are friends with Singer, none of them are able to identify with the other. They are all outcast or isolated in someway, yet are unable to find solace in one another.(less)
Last week, on vacation in Michigan, I heard an interview on Points North about the reprinting of Robert Traver's (John D. Voelker's) novel Laughing Whitefish. It sounded interesting on two levels. First, I love the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Second, the story of how a Native American woman sued a mining company over her father's unpaid claim sounded fascinating. Having read the novel, I can tell you it is fascinating.
Laughing Whitefish works in two ways. First, Robert Traver does an excellent job describing the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, what drew people there, and what still draws them. He also describes the relationship the state had with mining and forestry. For a state known for its natural beauty, Michigan's history is steeped in environmental destruction in pursuit of natural resources. Traver remarks on this tension. Characters have moments of regret, of asking whether their ancestors understood how the creation of the Sault locks would unlock the region and risk the beauty and wonder of the area.
The other important facet of Laughing Whitefish is how Traver describes the treatment of Native Americans, how this landmark court case was won, and the impact it had on relations between the state of Michigan and Native American tribes. It reminded me of the dismal nature with which lands were usurped and reinforced the ugliness of American expansion. It's easy to ignore this past. It's easy to look at places names and not think of their origin. It's easy for other, more recent American tragedies to take precedence. However, we must not ignore the past. We need to remember.
What detracts from this novel is the side story and use of language. The love interest between the young lawyer, William Poe, and his client, Laughing Whitefish, is obvious and poorly constructed. Also, there are times when the language feels clunky. Is this because Traver was trying to capture the language of the time or was it a lack of mechanics? It's difficult to tell. Maybe, it just seems clunky compared to how we currently speak. The other small point which detracts from the novel is how the court cases become stale. Traver makes an issue of the slowness and tediousness of the law, but from a perspective of narrative flow he could have still captured this idea without sacrificing the pace of the novel.
Overall, Laughing Whitefish is an interesting novel and a reminder of our past. It frames the rights of an individual against the interests of a corporation. In a presaged paragraph the character Cassius Wendell speaks of corporate power. Cash tells William Poe that he is
"forgetting that corporations are organized primarily for profit. The special genius of the corporation is that while it possesses a kind of immortality and can never die, it is never bothered by a heart or soul or any qualms of consience. Corporations can do—and omit to do—things that their stockholders would be horrified to do by themselves. They can do so because the responsibility is finally dispersed among so many that no one is to blame because all are. That is the great fearful power of the modern corporation."
At this point, I'm not going to say much about Blinkby Malcolm Gladwell, because much has been said all ready. Blink is about adaptive unconscious, ra...moreAt this point, I'm not going to say much about Blinkby Malcolm Gladwell, because much has been said all ready. Blink is about adaptive unconscious, rapid cognition, and thin-slicing. It is about those quick decisions, which are correct, but hard to explain. Gladwell also illustrates how thin-slicing works for people, and when it leads them astray by exploring stereotypes and prejudices. The writing is clear, engaging, and frank. If you're interested in cognitive psychology, or wish to learn more about thin-slicing in a way that is not only accessible, but enjoyable, I recommend reading Blink.(less)
The novel opens with Alice as a child, her dislike of skiing, and her father's oppressive persistence that she ski. Alice crashes and is forever disabled with a leg that drags. Also, as Alice ages, she is crippled through anorexia. The eating disorder does not cripple her physically for years to come, but it does cripple her emotionally as she hides the secret from those who love her.
Mattia is a twin, a gifted math prodigy, and a caretaker for his sister, Michela, who has a cognitive impairment, which is never explicitly named. Mattia resents Michela and feels burdened by her. When they are both invited to a birthday party (their first invitation ever), Mattia abandons Michela at a nearby park and tells her to wait. She is gone when he returns and never found. Did she drown? Was she kidnapped? Mattia and his family never know. Mattia grows up with his guilt, which his mother adds to through blame, and begins to self-harm himself through cutting.
In high school, Alice and Mattia meet. They don't fall in love. Or, perhaps, they don't fall in love at once or together. Also, it is never stated, but it seems that Mattia might suffer from a mild form of Asberger's syndrome. Due to Mattia's social awkwardness, he is often confounded by Alice, or doesn't know how to respond to her actions.
Instead of falling in love, it might be better to say they fall into understanding. Both have scars plain to see on the outside of their bodies, but the deeper scars, the anorexia and guilt, are visible mainly to Alice and Mattia. They know one another and accept the other person. There are no demands or questions. Instead, their relationship builds on acceptance and respect. Will that acceptance and respect be beneficial or will that lead to their continued isolation? The question is left to the reader and depends on the reader's interpretation.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a portrait of two young people finding their place in the world. It's poignant, beautiful, and shares an interesting perspective of two people, twin primes, forever near one another, but divisible only by I.(less)
Middlesexby Jeffrey Eugenidesreminds me of a gilded mirror with intricate details swirled along the frame. The novel is a mixture of family history, c...moreMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides reminds me of a gilded mirror with intricate details swirled along the frame. The novel is a mixture of family history, coming of age, and gender identity. The mirror metaphor works, because the narrator, Callie/Cal Stephanides, spends so much time exploring who s/he is. That's a difficult enough question for most teenagers and adults, but how does that question change when a person's body seems to mislead them? While the narrator is focused on their identity, the novel suffers at times by diverging into the past and getting lost in details. It's obvious Eugenides loves language, but it comes at a cost in terms of rhythm and pace.
Some details I loved about the novel were the descriptions and metamorphosis of Detroit. I'm from Michigan and Detroit is a place that inspires both pride and sadness. Pride because of its greatness, because of the auto industry, because of all that Detroit used to mean. Sadness, because of the past tense, because words like used to linger on. To see Detroit described in its height is wonderful. To see how the city languished in the last 40 years is important.
Middlesex spans three generations and is full of rich characters. It navigates around sadness, but perhaps that is part of the immigrant experience. Lefty and Desdemona upon arriving to the United States are completely out of place. They can't speak the language, their clothes stand out, and they're unsure how to earn money. What must they give up to assimilate? More importantly, what must Cal/Callie give up later on?
Black and white is easy. A light is either on or it's off. A thought either occurs or it doesn't. Black and white seems easy, because it's so limiting. A child is either a boy or a girl. Except when they are not. Same goes with the light, it's not always just on or off. It could have no power, it could be broken, it could be anything less or more than on and off. Immigration takes this idea a step further. Is a person Greek, Greek-American, or American? Why is a choice even necessary? Depending on the context any label may fit.
So what is Middlesex? It it a novel about gender identity? Is it a mix of fiction and memoir? Is the novel about what it means to be American or an immigrant? Middlesex broadens the lens through which life is viewed. Depending on the reader, the novel may illustrate how life is more nuanced than they previously thought.
When a baseball player steps up to the plate and wags his bat at the wall past outfield, it's a sign. Next pitch is a homerun. When someone, in this c...moreWhen a baseball player steps up to the plate and wags his bat at the wall past outfield, it's a sign. Next pitch is a homerun. When someone, in this case, Douglas Kenrick, entitles a book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life it's the literary equivalent of holding a bat straight out to the centerfield wall.
The introduction begins, "You and I have probably never met, but you might be shocked to learn how well we know one another and how intimately our lives are connected." Kenrick goes on to say, "this is a book about the biggest question we can ask: What is the meaning of life?" However, he explores questions regarding the choices people make and how evolution may play into those decisions, without really addressing the meaning of life, or the other question he brings up, "How can I live a more meaningful life?" Instead, as if he were ready for critic's comments, Kenrick states, "Despite what you might have read in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, first impressions can be misleading. If you do a blink-style speed-read of this book, you might think it is mostly about me...But if you keep reading, I am pretty sure you'll discover that this book is really about you, your family, and your friends and about the important decisions you confront every day."
It feels like Kenrick is putting the onus on the reader. If you think the book is about me, obviously you are not a close reader, obviously you skimmed my book. Balance those sentences with the powerful title and warning signs may begin to flare. In my experience, books are skimmed because they are not engaging. Let's look at the sentences with some modifications. "If you do a blink-style speed-read of this book, you may think I am not an engaging writer. But if you keep reading, I'm pretty sure you'll discover that this book is worth it." It's hard to get past "but if you keep reading." As I thought about it, my main impulse was to say, "But if you keep reading, I'm pretty sure you'll discover that this book is not really engaging."
Stripped away, Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life is a book centered around the author and his interests. The writing trends toward creating a persona of a New York City kid turned intellectual but still with his folksy, blue-collar charm. It comes across feeling as fabricated as Hillary Clinton having a shot of whiskey with rural constituents. Someone may say a scientist researches their interests, and thus Kenrick's interests are really the foundation of his research. That may be the case, but I didn't find Kenrick's interests and research too interesting. Instead, the tone of the book is soapbox. He's not looking to help people have a more meaningful life, but is defending evolutionary psychology against critics. Moreover, he is supplanting structure with stories from his life.
Overall, I came away having learned some concepts of evolutionary and cognitive psychology, but it was at a cost. The cost was wading through a tiresome narrative from a writer who loves spinning yarns, but is not a good storyteller nor an engaging writer. The cost was being placed in the middle of a brawl between a defensive scientist and the status quo without a background in experimental design. The cost was a writer who was ready to turn on his reader in the first few pages of the introduction. With a title like Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life, the reader expects a homerun and deserves at least a double play. Kenrick displayed his personality with a catchy title, then left the crowd disappointed with a grounder skittering along the infield dirt.(less)
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this book, because like a snack, it doesn't require too much description besides it was tasty, left me underno...moreI'm not going to spend a lot of time on this book, because like a snack, it doesn't require too much description besides it was tasty, left me undernourished, and probably has some high fructose corn syrup packed in. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde is fun, not entirely well-written, and left me thinking my time could have been better spent. That's not to say the novel isn't enjoyable. However, it is too long and sloppy. Plot not working well? Don't worry, time travel will solve everything.
Besides being funny, Fforde does remind readers, who may have forgotten, what classics like those written by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austen mean to a number of people. Having read Jane Eyre five years ago, I'd since moved on and left patient Jane with her disfigured Rochester somewhere in a mouldering country estate. Due to the inventiveness of Fforde, I was able to reunite with Jane and Rochester, and follow their relationship in a new way.
I'm always being told to take snacks in moderation; however, it won't take much effort in this case to stop at one. Jasper Fforde has many more novels set in this world, but I'll leave them for another reader.(less)
Like all satirical reference books, I keep this one near at hand and offer it only to serious-minded university students as a source for their mandato...moreLike all satirical reference books, I keep this one near at hand and offer it only to serious-minded university students as a source for their mandatory English composition courses.(less)
I always feel a lack when I read translations. The words, so lovingly put in place, feel out of place. Sentences strung across the page, at times, fal...moreI always feel a lack when I read translations. The words, so lovingly put in place, feel out of place. Sentences strung across the page, at times, fall short. They have communicated a message, transferred their intent, but lost some beauty along the way. It is as if once the writing is outside it's natural language, it is all business, focused on the task. Hardboiled and Hard Luck, two novellas by Japanese writer, Banana Yoshimoto, are two works of fiction that slide into the group of translations which may not do the writer justice.
Both of the novellas revolve around loss and death. Each one has a young woman as the narrator who is reminiscing and saying goodbye to a loved one who has died. In "Hardboiled," the narrator remembers a former love, Chizuru, with whom she had a falling out, and whom later died. It takes place in the span of one night, in which the narrator is visited by a forlorn ghost in an old, countryside hotel. Through this encounter, the narrator learns of the ghost's story from the hotel manager. It's a sad tale of love and suicide. The ghost of Chizuru also visits the narrator and protects her.
In "Hard Luck," a family is grieving the passing of their daughter, Kuni. Kuni has minimum brain function and is being kept alive through machines. Eventually, her brain shuts down and the family makes the decision to disconnect the machines. The family, and more specifically the narrator, fears their own connection with Kuni will be severed when she goes off life support. They spend hours visiting her in the hospital, because it feels as if part of her is still there. Kuni is a young woman who had everything before her, she was cheerful, in love, and to be married soon. Unable to work through the grief in a public manner, her fiancée retreats to his parent's home while she's dying. This action brings the narrator into contact with the fiancée's brother, Sakai, who visits the hospital in his brother's absence. A love, of sorts, begins. Sakai is an outsider; he teaches Tai-Chi, has a long hair, and is quiet in an inward way. The combination of death and love is too much though, and the characters resolve to explore the feelings in the future, after the pain of Kuni's death has diminished. The narrator will move to Italy for her studies, and Sakai vows to stay true to this feeling.
In exploring loss, the novellas also play with time. How do we remember people? What makes us forget moments? Time bends and intertwines with memories as the narrators slip in and out of the present. The novellas go well together, because they act as before and after images of grief. In "Hardboiled," the narrator has moved on and forgotten about Chizuru, even though Chizuru was so important to her. "Hard Luck" though occurs while the pain is at its sharpest. The narrator is locked in her grief. Toward the end of the novella, after Kuni has died, the narrator is able to glimpse into the future. She can see that grief will not always dominate her life. There will be a point when her family can share in laughter again. There will be a time when she can fall into love. She will never be as tough as the narrator in "Hardboiled," but she will move on. We all will.(less)