Twenty-year-old twins Julia and Valentina have a near-symbiotic relationship. They inherit an apartment overlooking a famed historic cemetary in Londo...moreTwenty-year-old twins Julia and Valentina have a near-symbiotic relationship. They inherit an apartment overlooking a famed historic cemetary in London from their mysterious aunt Elspeth, whom they have never met, and leave the US to take up Elspeth's challenge of living there for one year - only to find she is haunting them, sending messages from the beyond the grave. When Valentina begins to form a bond with Elpeth's grieving former lover Robert, a doctoral student working on a history of the cemetary, fault lines appear not only in the twins' intimacy but all along the precariously balanced relationships between the living and the dead.
In many ways this is a brilliant book - full of striking imagery, original narrative moves, and mordant wit. There are passages almost Proustian in their ability to provoke thought. The book is not without flaws, though, and in places definitely reads like a book that wasn't plotted, but rather improvised, because there's some meandering and the story line sometimes flounders for a while before getting back on track. I was loving it though up until the big resolution of the climax and the wrap-up ... the ending was both confusing and emotionally jarring, and lacked believability in part because of insufficient characterization of one of the major cast members prior to a sudden, barely foreshadowed moral reversal.
(view spoiler)[I don't think we were well-prepared for Elspeth turning out to do something so amoral and evil as murdering her own daughter and taking over her body. There is one little line from Robert about how Elspeth isn't always entirely nice, and that is all the preparation we get - the rest of the time Elspeth seems fairly delightful and non-psychopathically evil. Moreover, if Robert really knew Elspeth well enough to suspect she might do such a thing, it's much more difficult to believe that he could have loved her as devotedly as he did. For most people, I would think that non-niceness, let alone evil, would be a big turnoff - and Robert doesn't seem so naive or inexperienced that he'd let this slide just because of his physical attraction to Elspeth. So that really bugged me. I also didn't buy that Valentina was happy as a freed ghost - she should have been living her life, studying fashion, getting a boyfriend ... I really wish that instead Valentina had found some way to take her body back from Elspeth and learned to live her life independently of Julia - that would have been the more logical ending to me. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
A historical novel set during the fall of Jerusalem and the fortress of Masada from 70-74 CE. It tells the story of four different Jewish women who en...moreA historical novel set during the fall of Jerusalem and the fortress of Masada from 70-74 CE. It tells the story of four different Jewish women who end up at Masada.
This was an ambitious book, with Hoffman trying to render ancient women's thinking poetically and ground them in a wealth of historical details. But the narrative was bloated, meandering, and repetitive, especially the first 200 pages. (We hear that Yael's father treated her like a dog about 30 times.) It could have been better if the structure of the plot had been more structured and disciplined.
I did find the bits about ancient Jewish women's magical practices picturesque and entertaining. I took them with a grain of salt though, as I know the historical record is very sketchy and often can't be reconstructed with anything remotely approaching the confidence a historical novelist has to display. I got the impression she relied heavily and somewhat anachronistically on earlier biblical history in painting her picture of Judaea under the Romans. E.g. calling the Nabataean Kingdom "Moab" and describing remnants of the Ashtoreth cult.
The attempt at writing in a poetic voice also often fell flat for me and just seemed humorless and overwrought.(less)
Saramago offers his magical realist version of the life of Jesus, in which both God and Satan act as Jesus's mentors, and Jesus submits to God's will...moreSaramago offers his magical realist version of the life of Jesus, in which both God and Satan act as Jesus's mentors, and Jesus submits to God's will that he die an agonizing death - even after God admits that his purposes aren't wholly unselfish and the religion of Christianity that will result will do a lot of bad things to a lot of people.
It's funny that, with such an irreligious premise, Saramago's Jesus is still so close to the Biblical Jesus. He is the son of God, has strong spiritual leanings, performs miracles, eschews worldly wealth and power, and steps forward to fulfill his destiny at God's behest. Granted, he does some very human things, like becoming Mary Magdalene's lover without marrying her, and questioning his divine father's purposes for him.
On the whole I didn't find the book very engaging - there's an emotional aridity and undercurrent of disgust toward the human condition in it. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic or likable. Also, the whole thing with mushing chunks of back-and-forth dialogue into paragraphs without quotation marks or markers was gimmicky, silly, annoying, and made much of the dialogue hard to follow.
A couple of thing with the treatment of historical details also annoyed me. Saramago can't seem to resist taking the occasional potshots at the treatment of women in the ancient world, underlining contemptuously what marginal roles women were forced into. But to me this was kind of like trying to knock down a straw man. It's just too easy to try to judge the ancient world by our own standards, and I would argue it's much more constructive to try to understand it on its own terms. And besides, there's all kinds of evidence, from Sappho to Cleopatra to Hypatia to Jewish women like Babatha, Beruriah, and Maria the Alchemist, that women's submissive roles and attitudes were far from monolithically universal.
Another quibble was his assumption that the rabbinic rulings that later shaped up into normative Judaism already were widely practiced even in rural, only recently converted areas like Galilee. In fact, the rabbis of the Mishna are always lamenting how the "people of the land" and "Galilee of the Gentiles" knew squat about the Oral Torah and did their own thing most of the time. So I didn't buy that Joseph the carpenter and his family would necessarily have been so anachronistically observant.(less)
A series of linked abusurdist erotic vignettes, with strong doses of surrealism and humor.
So this is a sex book, make no mistake. From reading formal...moreA series of linked abusurdist erotic vignettes, with strong doses of surrealism and humor.
So this is a sex book, make no mistake. From reading formal book reviews beforehand I had the impression it was a novel with a plot, but it's not really that - though characters and places and concepts recur, there's no real extended story arc, it's more a series of delightfully absurd short stories. In a twisted kind of way, it reminded me of Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories From Wayside School, if the characters were all adults and were really, really into phalluses and fellatio and porn. As erotica, it's interesting because there's kind of a light, bubble-gum tone throughout - there is no particular darkness or sense of risk or danger here. It's very playful and unserious. I think it's rare that erotic writing can manage to be both arousing and funny, or arousing and light in tone, yet somehow I think House of Holes does it.
I found the writing wonderfully inventive and clever, and it was a pleasure to read. Just a lot of fun. I would recommend this to folks who are urbane and not offended by explicit references to human anatomy or variegated sexual practices. This is basically thinking persons' porn, without being too thinky.(less)
The story of Jesus as you've never heard it before, from the viewpoint of Christ's best bud, Levi who is called Biff. I was really skeptical going int...moreThe story of Jesus as you've never heard it before, from the viewpoint of Christ's best bud, Levi who is called Biff. I was really skeptical going into this whether I would like it - it looked just plain silly and ridiculous - but I'm so glad I gave it a shot, because it has now earned a spot on my top-favorites shelf. LAMB is far from being just goofy humor, but tells a serious story that weaves in a fantastic amount of interesting historical detail along with plenty of smart, sharp comedy. Another cool thing about the book is that it manages somehow to be simultaneously totally irreverent and yet surprisingly respectful to both Christianity and Judaism, not to mention Zen Buddhism ... though the ancient Hindu goddess Kali isn't portrayed quite so flatteringly ... Believers and unbelievers can both enjoy this equally, I would think - and it's thought-provoking as well as fun. Just an all-around awesome achievement as a book.
Religiously conservative readers be cautioned though - there is some swearing and PG-13 sexual content.(less)
A historical novel set in Ancient Egypt, depicting events leading up to the ascension of a (real, historical) female Pharaoh to the throne. This was w...moreA historical novel set in Ancient Egypt, depicting events leading up to the ascension of a (real, historical) female Pharaoh to the throne. This was wonderfully well done. The prose is ambitious, the devotion to historical realism is palpable, the characters are complex and engaging, and the plot is gripping. For me the prose was actually a little too ambitious - my personal preference is for a slightly more streamlined style, and I believe loading up your paragraphs with too many juicy metaphors and similes and poetic word choices can actually get in the way of the flow of the story (I had the same problem with Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl). But fans of that sort of juicy prose will find everything to love here, and no shortage of exciting plot either.
The most interesting thing to me is how deeply the narrator seems to enter into the religious/mythological worldview of her main character - things that a modern reader would find ridiculous and superstitious, or suspect of being self-serving claptrap rather than sincere beliefs, are treated with such seriousness that by the end I wanted to call this a work of magical realism. I wasn't sure if I entirely liked that aspect of the book, but it was fascinating, and I really felt like I'd been given a glimpse into a truly alien mindset.
The devil pays a visit to Moscow in the 1930s accompanied by a strange assortment of companions, spreading confusion and panic through the city. Meanw...moreThe devil pays a visit to Moscow in the 1930s accompanied by a strange assortment of companions, spreading confusion and panic through the city. Meanwhile, a struggling writer, known only as "the Master" has given up on a novel about Pontius Pilate; his lover Margarita proves she is willing to sell her soul to the devil to save her beloved and his manuscript.
This is a very strange book. The author seems to go back and forth between focusing on several different concerns. One strand of the narrative focuses on the Devil and his companions who go around Moscow playing tricks on people and exposing their greed and stupidity. A second strand is the relationship between the Master and Margarita, who are not particularly virtuous people, though they are also not greedy or stupid - more importantly, their relationship is an almost idealized portrayal of True Love and its redemptive, all-conquering power. A third strand deals with the depiction of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua (the historical Jesus), presented through excerpts from the fictional Master's novel.
The first strand left me cold, and it took up the most space in the narrative - who needs to hear about how greedy and stupid people are? We see it every day in the news and on the subway. It was depressing and almost nihilistic. The second strand was interesting and Faustian, but the characters and their relationship are portrayed more symbolically than descriptively - we don't really get to know them very well or get in-depth characterizations. However, the third strand of the novel, the chapters about Pontius Pilate and the historical Jesus, were amazing. These chapters were painstakingly drawn in beautiful, heart-rending detail, and I felt that Pilate and Jesus were far more real than any other characters in the book. Those parts were utterly engaging and extremely well-researched, too - you could tell.
What I wish Bulgakov had done was just to write the novel about Pontius Pilate that the character the Master did in the book. In any case, the book is worth reading for the Pontius Pilate parts alone.(less)
Set in the rural, heavily Mormon town of Moab, Utah, this is the story of Hyrum Thayne, a semi-literate Jack Mormon* who, though he didn't quite manag...moreSet in the rural, heavily Mormon town of Moab, Utah, this is the story of Hyrum Thayne, a semi-literate Jack Mormon* who, though he didn't quite manage to graduate from high school, falls in love with the works of Dickens and decides he wants to become a scholar. With a collection of quirky characters to beat every prior notion of quirkiness you may ever have had, the cast includes an Oxford-educated two-headed cowboy, a mad poetess who believes she was abducted by aliens, a mysterious narrator who tries to piece together Hyrum's story, and a bunch of townspeople who believe the Communists have teamed up with the ghosts of ancient Indian robbers to deface their library.
Well-written, fun, and disturbing. Recommended especially if you're interested in literary Westerns and black humor.
Full disclosure: I am involved with publishing another book by this author.
*The term "Jack Mormon" refers to someone who was raised a Mormon but no longer actively attends Church or follows all the practices of Mormonism.(less)