Wolff gives us a stock story of how an artist comes to be an artist, of the experiences a young man has that bring him to being a writer--and he does...moreWolff gives us a stock story of how an artist comes to be an artist, of the experiences a young man has that bring him to being a writer--and he does this well, and entertainingly, and often movingly. Yet this is nothing truly wonderful or profound itself, and what Wolff provides us here can very little be considered literature; but instead of giving us literature, he gives us something more, performs a service that is all too-little performed or considered. Instead of giving us some great work of literature, Tobias Wolff gives us a very simple story, a nice, entertaining, moving novel that doesn't aim at literary achievement in the service of asking after that profound question: what is the good of literature itself?
The narrative here is nothing less than the rehearsal of several possibilities and counter-possibilities of literature's good. And at the end, to give us an answer, to synthesize and choose between those various possibilities and counter-possibilities, Wolff ends by stepping outside of the overall narrative and provides us with what amounts to a brief, simple short story, that gives us an answer to the question of what is the good of literature. Literature exists to put us into contact with ourselves, and the need to know, to master, to have control over ourselves, and the deep and painful difficulty of this process, which likely never ends. Broadly conceived, literature, as we see in the last moment of this beautiful novel, is where and why and how we belong to ourselves and to others.
The rest of the novel is, again, merely a simple story of a man learning to be a writer, so he can tell that story. And so we, as readers, can tell such stories of our own.
The second time I've read this novel. The first time was in a sitting, this second time in two. It will not be the last time I will read it in such short time frames.(less)
Heart-warming, cheesy, inspirational Americana at its best. A book for everyone who likes baseball, a book for everyone who likes an underdog story, a...moreHeart-warming, cheesy, inspirational Americana at its best. A book for everyone who likes baseball, a book for everyone who likes an underdog story, a book for everyone interested in debunking (or at least complicating) the notion of the "backwardness" of small towns, a book for dreamers, a book for fathers and sons, a book for those who keep trying despite their failings, a book for those in need of everyday heroes.
In other words, like I said: heart-warming, cheesy, inspirational Americana at its best. And I say that with no irony: Ballard's book is absolutely, positively wonderful. I want to buy four copies and give them out to people. It's that kind of book.(less)
I'm not overly familiar with mystery novels, so I can't compare this to other examples of the genre. I do know, however, that this is a very good book...moreI'm not overly familiar with mystery novels, so I can't compare this to other examples of the genre. I do know, however, that this is a very good book.
Johnson's prose often stumbles, and there are ways in which the novel fails. It's often difficult to follow some of the faster-paced scenes, and the boys who are the victims/suspects seem, along with their families, interchangeable, hollow, and forgettable. Similarly, the character of Omar seems like some kind of bizarre, half-realized combination of history professor, oil tycoon, and mean-spirited good ol' boy. Johnson's tendency to end chapters with "cliff-hanger" sentences that really aren't all that cliff-hanging feels forced, and his recurring allusions to classic literature seem like strangely out-of-placed posturing. A chase that occupies the last third of the novel doesn't really make sense--why is the individual running away? what's the impetus--and is never really explained in any actually satisfying way. In other words, this is not great literature-as should come as no surprise to anyone. But that's ultimately irrelevant, as this is still a damn good book.
Johnson's pacing is perfect, and he brilliantly ties together some moments of real slapstick hilarity, taught drama, and heart-breaking emotion in just a few pages. It's a great adventure, and the evocations of the place are perfect--you really do feel like you're riding along with Sheriff Longmire through the high plains of Wyoming, that the snow is falling around you. The main characters are very well done, memorable, and manage to feel familiar while resisting the stock character stereotypes. The plot twist at the end is painfully emotional, gut-wrenching, and superbly done. And beyond this, Johnson is able to do some real good with the book. He's not just writing a mystery-adventure, he's writing a very smart and nuanced portrait of the Vietnam generation struggling to deal with the open wounds that still fester on their souls, of how violence done in the past--whether the personal past of a character, or the social past of the Cheyenne people--lives with us, haunts, us, and does things to us we can't always control because we can't recognize these ghosts for what they are. It's a book about friendship and family and honor, and how those three things affect one another.
Yes, Johnson's prose is bad sometimes. Yes, there are cheesy and silly moments that make little sense or just induce eye-rolling. But if you give yourself up to the world of Absaroka County, Wyoming, you'll be entranced by a vital and fascinating set of characters, an incredibly moving and beautiful natural setting, and most importantly by a morality tale that is effortlessly executed, unpretentious, and incredibly profound. In that, Johnson might not be writing great literature--but he's doing what great literature should always ask us to consider--who am I, in this place, and what is my duty to it and the others who also live in it?
I will be reading the rest of these books then, and relishing every moment--even if I skip a page or two or skim over a needless literary allusion or three. (less)
Gately writes an engaging and intriguing history of one of the very few cultural (near-)universals: drink. While the book is perhaps over-long, it nev...moreGately writes an engaging and intriguing history of one of the very few cultural (near-)universals: drink. While the book is perhaps over-long, it never feels plodding, yet its narrative is also not something that compels the reader to keep reading--one can taste and sample at will. Too much can be overwhelming, as Gately packs the information in this book tightly, and it feels like a glass overflowing at times. Perhaps subconsciously, his work began to take on the character of his subject matter, then, and we as readers need to take it in this way: a work to be savored and enjoyed, and not something we can just run through without our heads spinning.
If there are any complaints about Drink, they are related to the book's deep focusing on the effect of alcohol on the development of the Anglo-American world over the last 300 years; but, this is not surprising considering Gately's own heritage, and one has to choose something to focus on. Continental Europe and the Far East get a fair shake, all things considered, and they figure as interesting counterpoints to the story of the English-speaking peoples' relationships to Bacchus.
The book excels in several places, though, and the book deserves reading by both those interested in alcohol as a cultural phenomenon, and those interested in several other things, too: 1--Gately is able to use alcohol to provide one of the clearest, most succinct, and fascinating histories of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages I've yet encountered, and in so doing he reminds us of how interconnected Western and Eastern cultures once were--something we should consider more seriously in our own day. 2--As he presents it, alcohol had just as profound an effect on the establishment of modernity as the horse or gunpowder, with the emergence of the European colonial powers in the 15th and 16th centuries being deeply tied to drink, its usefulness, its enjoyments, and its potential for profits (slavery, for instance, is shown to be at least as much a consequence of the rum trade as anything else). 3--Drink's antimicrobial qualities form a subnarrative throughout the work, and Gately insinuates that much of the development of modern science owes much to these qualities, and the attempts to replicate and understand them--and how the conflicting information we receive about alcohol even in the 21st century shows science to not be the perfect, stable thing we often erroneously credit as being. 4--Finally, and most interestingly to me, Gately examines the many different attitudes towards alcohol that have existed throughout civilization. While he gives a fair shake to the attitudes, ideas, and feelings of 'drys,' Gately ultimately comes down in favor of the moderate, enjoyment-focused, and life-affirming use of alcohol, and he shows that when government or cultures try to deny individuals the pleasures of Bacchus, it only removes the Dionysian pleasures, and exacerbates the madness and danger of the god and his followers.
A lovely, enjoyable, though somewhat narrowly focused and at times overwhelming book, that is about economy, capitalism, colonialism, faith, philosophy, government, science, and art as much as it is about a product. When you finish reading this work, you feel that a simple chemical compound might be the most important thing on the face of the earth. And you feel incredibly thirsty, as well. (less)
While all three novellas--especially the last one--show clear signs of their age, their time and place, each one is a lovely, charming, well-written p...moreWhile all three novellas--especially the last one--show clear signs of their age, their time and place, each one is a lovely, charming, well-written picture. A romantic ghost story of Old New Orleans, a plantation Christmas that pushes back against the reductiveness of middle-class, bottom-line thinking, and a Caribbean fairy tale about the necessities of duty. Woven throughout them all are unpretentious, subtle questions about community, about self-presentation, about how the self relates to the greater whole. While the buying-and-selling of happy slaves and kindly masters in "Maize in Milk" will turn off some readers (something understandable, though somewhat of a shame, as it's a damn charming story), "Marie de Berniere" and "The Maroon" are excellent examples of just how good Simms could be, and very strong, memorable long stories, of the best sort produced in the mid-19th century.(less)
It's tough for me to rate this book, for three related reasons: 1--I find most current affairs/politics/"lifestyle" nonfiction books to be very much pr...moreIt's tough for me to rate this book, for three related reasons: 1--I find most current affairs/politics/"lifestyle" nonfiction books to be very much products of their time, and to feel confusingly dated soon after they've been published. My feelings about this book, then, are tempered by my reading it in 2013, not 2006/07. 2--As a result of (1), certain things in Dreher's book seem very much predicated on the "conservatism has won" narrative of the early days of GW Bush's second term, a phenomenon that is likely to make a person new to these ideas during the "liberalism has won" age of Obama question the whole premise of what Dreher is doing, generally. 3--I already knew many of the ideas and arguments put forth in this book before I had read it, a result of (1), and me spending lots of time in the corners of the internet populated by Dreher and his fellow travelers in the years since this book's publication.
In other words, this is a book that shows its age, glaringly in places, that makes the reading a bit tedious for anyone living in 2013, and the arguments a bit redundant for a person like me, who has long since been won over by the arguments in favor of traditionalist/counter-cultural conservatism. Because of this, my personal ranking is lower than my esteem for the book itself, and especially for its ideas.
Contrary to the readings of some, what Dreher does here is not presenting liberalism plus God and calling it conservatism. Nor is this book vilifying or trying to destroy the free market, and thus trying to make a free-market-less conservatism. Rather, what Dreher does here is twofold: he admits the goodness, usefulness, and efficiency of the free market, but then reminds us that the market should serve us, not we it (while Dreher doesn't say this, if we think about it some we'll realize that when we serve the market, we're simply performing a right-wing version of the Marxist project--and thus not being conservative at all). As a result of this conservative belief--and laced throughout the book is a subtle history of Anglo-American conservative thought, a history that both produces Reagan and presents a robust critique of the form of conservatism we have inherited from him--Dreher, and the myriad individuals he profiles in this book, look for ways to resist being servants to the market and the self-worshiping, solipsistic culture that results when free-marketism is left to play out its logical conclusions. The market, after all, works towards maximal efficiency; and while that is its great strength, when left unquestioned or un-critiqued, efficiency can result in social and cultural changes and ends that can be destructive. The "crunchy con" project is to think through what these changes are, and to ask if they're worth it.
But even more central to this project is the recognition of the excesses and problems of the dominant culture, and a desire to say NO MORE. And I think a lot of right-wing folks get upset with this book, because Dreher, and the project he lays out here, is saying NO MORE to some of their sacred cows. While for them, it may be all fine and good for him to say NO MORE to the left-wingers and their ostensible desire to be cut off from tradition, morality, and limitations upon personal lusts, when he comes after big business and industrialism, he's either being a naive utopian or a commie in Republican's clothing. What the crunchy con project lays out--and what gets a lot of folks, especially on the right, fired up--is that "greed" and "lust," words Dreher uses late in the book as synecdoches for the sacred cows of the American Right and Left, respectively, are merely two sides of the same coin, the thing that is really the only form of American political currency: bourgeois progressive individualism. What this book is, then, is a argument for and a list of possible ways to begin changing that currency, at least for those of us on the Right. As such, it is also a book for left-wingers to see different and more nuanced ways of understanding the Right--and it still does these last two things just as well now as it did seven years ago.
At the end, though, Dreher is aware that such a political program is ultimately futile, as his jeremiad of a final chapter makes clear. But in this pessimism, this recognition that bourgeois progressive individualism, whether Left- or Right-Wing, has won the day, is something beautiful, refreshing, and hopeful: there is still something we can do. We can be our own St. Benedicts, we can create "domestic monasteries," counter-cultural oases, where we do the work of keeping alive the flame of the True, the Beautiful, and the Transcendent, waiting for the end of the new Dark Ages. And for those of us who find the dominant culture distasteful and dehumanizing, whether we be Left or Right, this idea gives us our battle cry, and our way to fight, and our way to still feel human where it matters most: amongst our families, our loved ones, and in the sight of our God, however we understand Him. (less)
An absolutely superb book. Weaver spells out in great detail the contours and complexities of the intellectual life of the South from Reconstruction t...moreAn absolutely superb book. Weaver spells out in great detail the contours and complexities of the intellectual life of the South from Reconstruction to the early 20th century, a period that saw southerners trying to make sense of why they had just fought one of the most destructive wars in history, and what their defeat in that war meant for their place in the once-again United States of America, as well as the modern world, generally. Weaver's exploration of these attempts does the classic job of spelling out the logic and ends of that genus of conservatism native to the American South, in ways that are still very useful today, in 2013, as we still struggle to understand the significant sectional differences in our country. In many ways, then, this continues to be essential and necessary reading for those interested in how and why American politics continues to hit roadblocks, and continues to be based in the side-by-side articulation of two largely incompatible ways of political, social, economic, and moral thinking.
To be clear, Weaver's book is based on synthesis and analysis, and not critique, and this can be jarring to the modern reader accustomed to political writings that try to present a particular viewpoint as the viewpoint, while destroying all others as problematic, at best. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Weaver's neutral presentation of Southern racial thinking--a symptom of both Weaver's approach, and the time in which he was writing this, the early 1940s. But despite such frustrations and trepidations a reader in 2013 might feel, Weaver's central argument is still sound and compelling: the Old South was a place of real complexity, nuance, and intellectual vitality that provides us with a different version of what America could be. When placed into juxtaposition with modernity, we begin to see flaws in both modernity and the Old South. The fifty or so years after the Civil War showed us a people thinking through the ramifications of this juxtaposition, and we, all these many years later, can still find things of value and challenge in visiting their thinking. Weaver avoids all romantic presentation of the South, Old or New, and that is to his credit. To paraphrase his closing lines: only a fool would want to go back and live in this world, but that world can perhaps tell us challenging things about how to live in our world--something that only a fool would reject, whole-cloth.(less)
A very good fantasy novel that is limited by the author's desire to see this be War and Peace. Martin is a very good writer, but he's not creating hig...moreA very good fantasy novel that is limited by the author's desire to see this be War and Peace. Martin is a very good writer, but he's not creating high literature here, and he seems to fail to realize that's he's not doing that. He's writing fantasy--and even there, there are limitations; he's not writing fantasy of the Tolkien sort, where the stories become mythology. Nor is Martin writing fantasy of the Brust or Moorcock sort, where all the genre conventions get turned on their head, providing us with very new, and very interesting, sorts of fantasy.
What Martin does is write historical fiction for a history that never happened, drawing heavily on European history as if to say "look how terrible and power hungry people can be, and how being honorable doesn't mean you come out on top." That's a fine children's tale of morality, warning, and the harshness of being human, but it seems pretty banal for a book intended, as this one is, for more mature audiences. Martin wants to do something beyond his powers as a writer here, and he's just not good enough to pull it off--and, as such, the book feels too big, and too uneven.
But this is not to say it's a bad book--it's just not a great one. It is, indeed, a very good book. It's refreshing to see a fantasy book that doesn't need magic or an elaborate, ancient mystical order bound with the protection of magic and magic users, etc. It's refreshing to read a fantasy book where the monstrous creatures are so human--the wights and ghosts were once human, and now corrupt, and this makes their existence much more compelling and, well, frightening than some eight-foot tall half-lizard, half-bear, mindless monstrosity. It's very intriguing to find a fantasy novel that's so committed to exploring, in detail, so many different kinds of people, and not having any of them simply be the boogeyman. It's also almost completely unique to see a fantasy novel that doesn't give us the clear good guys and bad guys. For this, Martin should be commended.
But the book is also uneven in places, plodding along, too big, too unwieldy, too undisciplined. Yes, all the pieces fit together in the end, but 500 piece puzzle is often more satisfying than a 1000 piece puzzle, something Martin doesn't realize. The sex is perhaps the worst part of the book, as it comes off as teenage-girl fanfic, with cheesy phrases like the oft-repeated "kissed her lower lips." It's over the top and unnecessary, even pornographic and perverse, especially as it concerns Dany. Again, it's no so much the presence of sex in the book as it is the often ridiculous and perverse presentation of sex in the book, coupled with some really clunky and wooden prose to describe it.
But yet, there are some truly wonderful characters, and these really make the book shine, and are what Martin does better than most anything else in the novel. These are the folks that will have me coming back to the series, despite the fact I know Martin kills them off without hesitation. But the greatness of all of these characters also reveals the book's biggest flaw--it's just too damn big. While Martin does, as I said, tie everything together properly and neatly, I often found myself wishing this was just about the Starks, or the Night's Watch, or the Lannisters, or Dany and Dothraki. Of course, what Martin is trying to do is exactly the opposite of what I want him to do--he's trying to show their interconnection and make this into something realistic, some sort of political allegory more than a fantasy novel. And while I get that, it's still somewhat unsatisfying for me. And tying all of these people together means battles, and war--and Martin writes violence so mildly you almost can skip over things and still know what has happened. There's nothing that makes the battles imminently compelling reading, where your heart races, you can't stop reading, and you feel for these characters in all their complex humanity.
So, then: Martin writes a huge novel about sex and war, when he's not good at writing about battle, and is positively awful when writing about sex. He wants to write a novel that moves beyond genre fiction, and just isn't able to do so. If Martin would have set out just to write a great fantasy novel, and not tried to be the late-20th century Tolkien, he could have done something really magical. But, well, he wants to be more than he's able to be as a writer. Some real problems, then. But, on the other hand, Martin creates characters, and drama, and a fully realized and complex world with the best of them--and as a result, AGOT is, despite its flaws, a very good, and very satisfying, fantasy epic.
I make all of these caveats because the incredible reception of the HBO series, which I've not seen, made me go to this book looking for a writer who was realizing the promise of Robert Jordan, without all of the incredible flaws that accompany the later Wheel Of Time novels. I found a series that had its own immense flaws instead. But now that I've understood that, I think I can get down to the business of reading and enjoying the series for what it is--and being moved by it, challenged by it, and engrossed by it.(less)
While I don't know if I'll read any more of these books, this was, on its own, a very solid novel, with some really great scenes and some really compe...moreWhile I don't know if I'll read any more of these books, this was, on its own, a very solid novel, with some really great scenes and some really compelling characters. At times, it does get a little bit too cheesy, and even schmaltzy, on the whole this is a very, very good fantasy novel. It does the genre conventions well, and its ultra-violence disturbs us enough to help us see into some of bigger questions Goodkind wants to have us think through in our world. The quest seems a little under-whelming, and the universe and mythos of the book's world isn't as fully developed as I'd like. But, for that to happen, this one book would have had to be a series itself. While it's the first book in a series, it's satisfying enough on its own, feels enough like a complete saga jammed into 800 pages. (less)
Disappointing. A promising beginning turns into a flat story, with Anakin and Obi-Wan appearing for no real reason other than to put familiar faces in...moreDisappointing. A promising beginning turns into a flat story, with Anakin and Obi-Wan appearing for no real reason other than to put familiar faces into the narrative, and Zahn wastes the truly interesting characters of Thrawn and C'Boath. The book feels increasingly rushed as you get near the end, and I get the feeling that Zahn was just phoning this one in for a paycheck by promising to tell the backstory of the two great characters from a later series. Not terrible, but a let-down, and not really worth your time.(less)
Not as strong as the previous book in the series, but still some really great stuff here. Leia's interactions with the Noghri people on their home pla...moreNot as strong as the previous book in the series, but still some really great stuff here. Leia's interactions with the Noghri people on their home planet is a high point of the book, though, and a really great contribution to the Star Wars universe.(less)
You surely have to be a fan to really enjoy these Star Wars novels, but even then, a lot of them read like well-done fanfic, and not good science fict...moreYou surely have to be a fan to really enjoy these Star Wars novels, but even then, a lot of them read like well-done fanfic, and not good science fiction on their own. Heir to the Empire, however, is just flat-out solid, both as a sci-fi novel, and as a great continuation of the saga from "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away."
Here's the basic premise: the Empire's been destroyed for a few years now, but that doesn't mean that all of those folks who were once loyal to the Empire, nor all of the old Imperial weaponry, have been destroyed or co-opted into the New Republic. And those remnants, lead by a mysterious Grand Admiral, are out to reestablish Imperial hegemony. And you know what? As a fan of the series, I always had the feeling that the destruction of the second Death Star couldn't be the end of it--and Zahn gives us a very probable, extremely satisfying continuation.
Old characters are back, and new characters are compelling and just as interesting as the old favorites, fitting in naturally with the story. Zahn's done a great job writing an intriguing adventure story, that builds on the the themes of the films, and includes enough political and interpersonal drama and turmoil to make the book a really, truly, good bit of fiction.
A Star Wars fan needs to read this. And while a familiarity with the series is necessary, even the less-nerdy among us will find a fun couple of afternoons of adventure and intrigue here.(less)
While the opening chapters feel dated and generally pull down the book's overall move, the later portions of the book are quite intriguing and strong....moreWhile the opening chapters feel dated and generally pull down the book's overall move, the later portions of the book are quite intriguing and strong. What begins as a somewhat uninteresting work that asserts how little young people of the last decade or so read becomes a cri-de-coeur about the abandonment of tradition and "canons" (both Left- and Right-wing) and the myopic acceptance of youthful solipsism as something "innovative" and "creative," and the ramifications these have for our culture, and our democracy.
An uneven work whose ultimate point is, nevertheless, a necessary one. (less)