Rates a solid “good” for me. Not great, not the best ever, but quite good. This is only the second Lisa Scottoline book I’ve read, but so far it confiRates a solid “good” for me. Not great, not the best ever, but quite good. This is only the second Lisa Scottoline book I’ve read, but so far it confirms that the most interesting part about her books is the character development. In some books, especially in the legal-/mystery-thriller genres, you’re really more interested in the mystery than in the actual characters. The suspense builds as the action moves forward, regardless of whether the characters are well written or not. In Scottoline’s case, it’s the characters that keep you interested. Which is not to say the mystery wasn’t good – I was just as surprised as Mary was at the end to find out the identity of her tormentor. But I enjoyed getting to know Mary and the people around her, and that was as big a part as anything else motivating me to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next?
Quick plot summary: Mary DiNunzio is the South Philly Italian-American girl who made good, went to law school and became a skilled lawyer on the brink of partnership at a Philly power firm. Just when the competition for partnership starts heating up, Mary starts getting some unwelcome attention: she gets hang-up calls at home, chilling anonymous notes at work, and realizes that someone in a big, dark car is following her on the streets. Is the harassment related to the partnership race? Is it someone with a twisted romantic interest in her? Is it both? She’s in danger, her friends are in danger, and there’s plenty of potential suspects in her office alone to keep her on edge.
In the end, the mystery sort of resolves itself, without a lot of sleuthing on anybody’s part, but again, what really moves the story forward is not the mystery’s twists and turns, but the character and the world that Scottoline creates. Mary is smart and likeable, with a couple of top-shelf friends ready to take one on the chin for her, or kick some sense into her, as the situation requires. She’s also got a full and realistic home story, with her parents still cooking age-old Italian recipes and rooting for the home teams back in South Philly, and even a distant twin sister, long ago disappeared into a convent (this is Catholic, Italian South Philly, remember?) but still ever-present in their lives. What gets Mary through the chaos she is living through is not the cops or detectives or legal maneuvering. It’s the people she holds on to, that hold on to her, that get her through the day. ...more
Really enjoyed this one. It’s definitely a fast-paced read – I blazed through it in a single day. Of course the single day was the day after a transatReally enjoyed this one. It’s definitely a fast-paced read – I blazed through it in a single day. Of course the single day was the day after a transatlantic flight, so I’m sorry to say it didn’t help my jet lag any to lie in bead reading from midnight straight through till 4:30 a.m. But with books like this, who needs TV?
Quick plot summary (some spoilers ahead, so it’s hidden): (view spoiler)[Grace Rossi is the career lawyer in the chambers of Federal Circuit Court judge Armen Gregorian, working with several law clerks and a legal secretary to research cases and work on opinions. One day they’re all working on a big death penalty appeal, the next day they wake to the unfathomable news that a much-loved member of their team has committed suicide. First, they’re devastated, but it doesn’t take long before some of the group start to suspect it was no suicide. But who would want this person dead, and why? Following her instinct, Grace starts her own investigation, but every lead she turns up seems to just turn things around more. In the end, far more mysteries are uncovered than that one unexpected death. (hide spoiler)]
I always feel funny rating these kinds of books on Goodreads, especially when I’m about to give a book a 4 or 5. It seems a bit unfair, not to say inaccurate, to give a lightweight murder mystery the same rating I’ve given Amy Tan or Jane Austen or, good God, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But I have different standards for different types of books, and I try to base my rating solely on Goodreads’ scale of “OK”, “liked it”, “really liked it”, and “It was amazing”. Scottoline writes well put-together mysteries, with strong characters that draw you in and keep you turning pages. The genre has certain conventions, which I expect, so I don’t knock a book for being formulaic when that’s pretty much inherent in the genre. I primarily judge this type of novel based on how much I enjoyed reading it, with plus points for going beyond the formula and especially for challenging expectations.
This book does a bit of both – sticking to the formula and stepping away from it. For example, in Final Appeal, the love story sub-plot you expect in this kind of novel is there, for sure, but it takes a turn out of left field – what Scottoline does with it is not where you expect it to go. I also especially appreciated the fact that the main character Grace is a single mother, but doesn’t have Single Mother Issues. She’s just divorced. Has a career. And a kid she loves, who spends a lot of time with Grandma ‘cause Mommy works. B.F.D. It was so nice not to have to have a sub-plot that spins out of a troubled relationship with the ex-husband. Or Grace having angst over being away from her child. Or any agita about having a new relationship. Instead, Scottoline gives her readers a well-balanced single mother as a simple fact of life. How refreshing.
On the other hand, while I liked the dynamic of the judge’s chambers – all the different characters, their interactions, etc. – some of the characters were a little overdrawn, and felt a bit unrealistic. I also got a little lost in the unraveling of the central mystery. I’m not completely sure I followed all its subpoints and the places it branches off. There are ups and downs to that, because it’s always nice not to have a totally down-pat mystery that’s too easy to solve, but at the same time, too complicated can be a problem, too. In this case, getting lost in the finer points of the mystery was not really a problem. I didn’t really worry about it because the main resolution was clear, and in the end, as I’m always saying, Scottoline’s books are as much about the characters as they are about the mystery.
Two things, before I leave off:
One, I have to write down this great, if slightly crass, line: “[Ben] straightens the knot on his tie, already at tourniquet tension; between the squeeze on his neck and the one on his sphincter, the kid’s twisted shut at both ends like a skinny piece of saltwater taffy.” (p. 3)
And two, below, some of my specific reactions to some of the characters and situations, which I can’t reveal without spoiling the book, so they’re hidden: (view spoiler)[He sounds like a gorgeous person in more ways than one, and I want to love him, but Armen is just a little too perfect. At the end I’m almost glad he was killed off, because if he’d been around for the whole book, he might have been too much to bear. Ben was a little too over the top, although I bet if I thought about it hard enough, I could probably point to one or two law school classmates of mine who might remind me a little of him. Sarah was sometimes annoying but at the same time she mostly came off real. I can imagine knowing someone like her. Artie is a goofball I could imagine too, though I suppose I have to admit he was a little unreal too. Eletha was a great character on her own, though I didn’t feel the Armen-Eletha love child story. I also absolutely LOVED the “Shake and Bake” character and subplot. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Once again, a solid mystery page-turner with tight suspense and well-defined characters. As the story progresses and the mystery deepens, the ground kOnce again, a solid mystery page-turner with tight suspense and well-defined characters. As the story progresses and the mystery deepens, the ground keeps shifting under protagonist Rita Morrone’s feet. Every new turn seems to bring to light a new clue or a new suspect, and the reader is alongside Rita as she tries to sort out the truth from a maze of dead ends.
Quick plot summary (with some [hidden] spoilers ahead): Rita Morrone is a partner in a Philadelphia law firm, a trial attorney with a well-honed sense for the intangibles that come in alongside the law in any court case. For example, the opening scene has her playing on the sympathies of a jury that knows only that they are resuming the trial after a break occasioned by death of “counsel’s mother”. They don’t know which counsel, though – an ambiguity that Rita adroitly exploits to win points for her side. But it’s not this case that forms the backbone of the novel. (view spoiler)[The new murder case starts with a sexual harassment complaint, in which the defendant is not only a prominent judge, but her long-term boyfriend’s father. But then the accuser turns up dead, and it turns out that Rita’s boyfriend, the accused judge’s son, has also been the accuser’s lover. (hide spoiler)] All of a sudden she is in the middle of a murder case where several people close to her turn into very plausible suspects.
As always with a Scottoline mystery, it’s the character development that is the high point with me. Rita’s stomping grounds is that center of South Philly Italian Catholic daily life, the Italian Market on 9th Street – specifically, the butcher shop where she was raised, mostly by her father alone, and where he still tries to eke out a living. Her upbringing there has made her an expert on some unusual things: knives and poker. She joins her father and a small crew of his old, old friends in a weekly poker game, and it’s the wisdom she picks up at her father’s side, through life and through poker, which provides the insight to navigate the twist and turns of her legal cases. “Don’t watch the player, watch the cards,” her father admonishes her when he suspects a client is manipulating her. The other poker players become her allies when she needs to bluff her way to information as she investigates the murder. And they are the first people to come to her rescue in times of trouble.
Rita is a well-drawn character, flawed, real, and easy to like, though not without her abrasive moments. She’s quick-witted and snarky, but she generally keeps her barbed comments to herself, prefacing many replies with unspoken zingers that we readers get to enjoy. (She hands a document to an opposing witness. “You want I should read it?” he asks. No, I want you should make a paper airplane, she retorts, mentally, before speaking the words, “Yes, please, read it.”.) She’s also smart and has good instincts, making her a character that readers want to follow. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I'm a Grisham fan from the "old" days - The Firm, The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill . . . . There used to be a time when I would rush to the "4-Day BoI'm a Grisham fan from the "old" days - The Firm, The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill . . . . There used to be a time when I would rush to the "4-Day Book Express" shelf at my local library the minute a Grisham book came out, for the best chance to be able to read it straightaway without having to wait in a 3-month hold queue. But my intensity began to fade as he started to drift away from those winning formulas, starting around A Painted House. Since then, I still try to read his books, but without any sense of urgency. After missing a few, I've been catching up a bit, out of order, and I have to say what I'm learning is that the quality of his novels these days is all over the place. Gone is the consistency and reliable suspense of The Client or The Rainmaker, which in addition to giving us unlikely heroes, also gave us clever plot twists and the thrill of being in on the underdog's "gotcha" victory over some real nasties. Instead I find I've been working my way through exasperating letdowns like The Associate and poorly-executed "issue" tales like The Appeal.
The Appeal has a good chunk of the raw materials for a successful popular awareness-raising story. The victims in the story are all salt-of-the-earth type small town folk, from the working-class townspeople who did nothing to deserve their fate but drink the water (and shower with it, and cook with it) that came out of the taps in their factory town, where the factory blithely dumped noxious barrels-full of its toxic chemicals; to their earnest pastor, who finds his calling in ministering to the psychological needs of a cancer-stricken community; to the plaintiff's lawyers, a local-girl(-and-boy)-makes-good married couple who refuse to give up on the case, losing all their comparative wealth in the process, ending up teetering on the edge of personal bankruptcy. Most of the villains are easily imaginable, too: The factory and its rapacious owner, who are indifferent to workers they exploit, as long as the profit is pouring in. The Northern lawyers with the flat, nasal accents, there only to rip off the locals some more. The morally corrupt politicians, making a buck everywhere they turn. Only the shadowy political "fixers", working in the background, pulling all the right strings to the benefit of their deep-pocketed clients, could test the reader's credulity -- but, honestly, in the era of Koch Industries and the Koch family foundations, their nefarious behind-the-scenes machinations seem a lot more believable than not now, too.
So, the story seems to have all the right players in all the right spots, but still, Grisham just can't take it across the goal line. The pace is tense, but largely lacking in dynamics. As first one then another potential high point is snatched away at the last moment, each successive bit of apparent good news brings not a feeling of relief, but rather one of foreboding -- OK, what's going to go wrong this time? It just becomes an insistent drumbeat of bad news. It's really a shame, because with The Confession, Grisham actually demonstrated that he could pull off a successful "issue" novel. In that one, all the flaws of the capital punishment system are exposed, with lots of real cases thrown in for good measure, while at the same time Grisham keeps his readers engaged with an entertaining, suspenseful read. The problem at issue here in The Appeal, the power of private (corporate) money in the election of ostensibly neutral judicial offices, is a real one, and the potential ramifications are really as scary as he makes them seem in this book. But instead of making this reader want to take to the streets to fight the injustice -- like The Confession did -- The Appeal left me wondering where I could get my hands on some happy pills. The influence of corporate money in today's America is so pervasive -- and so effective, it just makes you feel hopeless about the possibility of change.
The series of events portrayed in the book didn't fail to show me how bad the problem is. In fact, I'd have to say the the book succeeded -- leaving me nothing short of depressed.
This is not my first Jennifer Weiner book, but in the course of reading I discovered it was her first to write. Which makes it interesting that this hThis is not my first Jennifer Weiner book, but in the course of reading I discovered it was her first to write. Which makes it interesting that this has been my favorite one so far. I've enjoyed the others I've read, but it seems Weiner really hit the ground running with this one. The narrative voice is honest and direct, and not always right. Cannie is lovable, occasionally exasperating, and reflective of far too many women in our appearance-obsessed culture.
There's lots to like in the book -- starting from the just fantastic premise of a woman discovering that her ex-boyfriend has just published a column in a popular national women's magazine on the subject of, ye gads, "Loving a Larger Woman". How could you not spin a tale off that premise? I also very much appreciated the fact that not all the conflicts resolve themselves, or sometimes don't resolve very neatly or nicely. The story is more true to life because of it.
Oh, and one thing I always love about Jennifer Weiner's books is the love for Philadelphia that comes through the pages. Her novels are full of references to local neighborhoods, sites, and hangouts, that go beyond simple place-name dropping. These are places that the characters take delight in going to, that are part of the fabric of their daily lives. As someone with a comparatively recent connection to the place, it's nice to recognize the city in her works -- I've even learned of places through Weiner's books. :)
One or two little niggling complaints, too, which, because they reveal plot points, I've hidden behind this spoiler warning. --> (view spoiler)[ The one big plot point that I found somewhat annoying is that Weiner makes Dr. K turn out to be a lot younger than Cannie thinks he is. Granted, he's still a bit older than Cannie is, but all I could think was, why not let her fall in love with someone who was 15-18 years older than her? I know, on one hand, there's a real danger that it could have easily misplayed as a troubling extension of Cannie's daddy issues -- as in, trying to recreate in her love life the constructive, loving relationship she didn't have with her father growing up. But on the other hand, it would also have been a good statement of how people are really so much more than their externalities -- whether it be age, or weight, or something else. That would have been a nice complement to the lesson Cannie needs to learn about herself.
Finally, just a little comment: I did find it odd that we never see or so much as hear anything more about Bruce's girlfriend after she assaults Cannie. The story just seems to bury her and her role in the incident through a few passing comments about, "oh, we don't really know what caused Cannie's pregnancy crisis." Well, I don't know about you, but it seems pretty clear to me! (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Absolutely classic Mary Higgins Clark, incorporating all I have come to expect from one of her books: an intriguing, page-turning plot, crisply writteAbsolutely classic Mary Higgins Clark, incorporating all I have come to expect from one of her books: an intriguing, page-turning plot, crisply written scenes, a fair number of plausible suspects to keep you guessing, and a perfectly frictionless reading experience that lets me blaze through the story in a single sitting.
I hadn't read a Mary Higgins Clark book in years -- and now, she's got so many of them I couldn't even begin to remember which of them I've read -- when a co-worker offered to pass along one she'd finished. As much as I love reading good non-fiction, and as many meaty titles as I've got waiting on my to-read shelf, sometimes you just need a simple, easy, fast-paced read to mix things up a bit. And I've learned that a Mary Higgins Clark book is guaranteed to be entertaining.
This one didn't disappoint, built around a surprisingly original plot conceit: a well-off, well-adjusted, well-liked young man simply walks away from his life one day, without warning or explanation. No trace of him can be found after his disappearance, but every year, once a year, he calls his family for the briefest of greetings -- on Mother's Day. Finally, after years of this, his sister decides she must renew the search for him, in the process uncovering more mysteries than she can solve, as her brother's case becomes intertwined with that of other people who go missing.
The resolution, when it comes, happens a bit too quickly, but nevertheless, caught me by surprise. Even for a lightweight mystery novel, I would prefer a bit more substance and content (see Tami Hoag) but I really can't complain too much about this one. I was looking for an easy, quick, fun read, and I got it....more
Secrets to the Grave is an able follow-up to Deeper than the Dead, suspenseful and plenty engrossing, though it comes up a little bit short of its preSecrets to the Grave is an able follow-up to Deeper than the Dead, suspenseful and plenty engrossing, though it comes up a little bit short of its predecessor. I'm an unabashed Tami Hoag fan, and Secrets to the Grave is a perfectly good offering, but at the same time, she's done better.
I was happy to revisit the key characters of Deeper than the Dead, and so soon after the events of that book that some many, many details carry over. I still enjoy the relationship between Anne Navarre and Vince Leone, and the stories of some of the children that were at the center of Deeper than the Dead are handled believably. True to form, the story begins with a shocking crime, and I'm providing my customary warning to the squeamish. If you blanch easily, better brace yourself for the first few chapters.
To her credit, Hoag dialed back quite a bit on the "someday in the future we'll have this technology" crystal-ball commentary from characters that so annoyingly permeated Deeper than the Dead. Still, she can't resist a few such mentions, and guess what, it's still intrusive. However, something I will praise her for is her very realistic treatment of the lasting trauma reactions of crime victims. While her characters seem a little more aware of "PTSD", both by name and as a syndrome, than seems appropriate for 1986, Hoag doesn't hesitate to show the reality of the characters' symptoms and complexes. Also well done is her treatment of the then still-developing field of child advocacy in the criminal justice system -- she generally manages to show readers its early stages without resorting to those "someday this new-fangled thing will be commonplace" asides.
The book's main weakness for me was the field of suspects for the crime. In typical fashion, there are several potential perpetrators -- including a couple you know can't be the killer, because that would just be too easy -- but none of them are particularly compelling. I think part of me was always waiting for another character to be introduced who would wind up being the actual perpetrator. In the end, I also found the true killer's identity to be somewhat unconvincing -- between details of the crime that you wouldn't think would fit such a killer, and a motive that seemed out of proportion to the actual crime.
I dithered for a long time before picking my star rating on this one. What I really wanted to do is give it 3.5 stars. The murder mystery was good, though not one of Hoag's best. On the other hand, the character development and storytelling was quite good (the description of an ordeal suffered by the murder victim's closest friend Gina is a particular standout). All told, the story held my interest well and the narrative kept pushing me forward (including a couple nights into the dark wee hours with my book light), but still, I couldn't quite bring myself to round up, so it ends up with a solid 3-star, "I liked it" rating. :)...more
An arresting, memorable tale, astonishingly well told. Room is the story of 5-year-old Jack,and his Ma, who live as captives of a man Jack knows onlyAn arresting, memorable tale, astonishingly well told. Room is the story of 5-year-old Jack,and his Ma, who live as captives of a man Jack knows only as "old Nick", a name he once heard on television for a scary man who appears only at night. Ma was abducted by "old Nick" and has been held for seven years in an eleven-by-eleven foot room -- the "Room" of the title; the same room where Jack was born; the place Jack, who narrates the story, knows as a proper noun: "Room", as in, "Goodnight, Room".
I'll admit I was simultaneously intrigued and leery when I picked up this book. My interest couldn't but be piqued by the notion of a novel based on real-life headline-making abduction-captivity stories, which spark in us that unsettling mix of shock and curiosity: how terrible it must have been for those held in captivity -- but what must it have been like? At the same time, even as I began to read it I was prepared to be annoyed. Nine chances out of ten this "told-from-the-perspective-of-a-five-year-old" gambit was going to be awkward, maudlin, and flat-out grating. But, to the contrary, Emma Donoghue's uncommonly good book laid my hesitations to rest almost from the first page.
In Jack, Donoghue has created a truly unforgettable voice. She never lets you completely get away from the awareness of the menace underlying every moment in Jack's and Ma's lives, and yet it's impossible not to get caught up in Jack's unique worldview. His natural inquisitiveness and exuberance make the story impossibly fun to read. Jack is also extremely intelligent and perceptive, with a vocabulary and complexity of expression that would be rare for a child of his age under normal circumstances, but understandable given that his only interactions are with a single real-life adult in the confines of their one-room world, and with the make-believe world of "outer space" that Jack can view through the different "planets" (channels) on TV. Against all odds, in her limited space, with only the minimal resources she has at hand, Ma is determined to create a stimulating, healthy, and happy environment for her child. She brings a dogged creativity to every detail of Jack's life: everyday objects become every manner of toys; "Phys Ed" happens daily on a "track" revealed by piling up furniture and rug on the bed; even her weekday-only ritual of standing on the table and screaming up at the tiny skylight (the one window to the outside), in a long-shot effort to attract help, is just another game to Jack.
For Jack, none of what surrounds him is in any way abnormal, and as he grows older (the story opens on his fifth birthday) hints of the tension between his understanding of his world, and the greater truth that Ma must inevitably one day reveal to him, are beginning to show. That tension and the impact of unforeseen revelations seamlessly quicken the pace of the novel, and between that and the sheer imaginativeness of the story, I found the book nearly impossible to put down. Above all, even as I appreciated the inherent danger and tragedy of his situation, I was captivated by how Jack processes all of his experiences, and I would get so caught up in the world of the novel as to be more than a little disoriented to return to my own world. I'm sure I even heard Jack's voice in my own head more than once, observing my own "room" as I came back to earth.
Room is simply one of the best stories I've read in a long time. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and selected as one of The New York Times "Ten Notable Books of 2010", and it's certainly easy to see why. ...more
I did want to like this book. . . . I picked it up at some point after having read a piece about Naipaul in the New York Times several years ago. I caI did want to like this book. . . . I picked it up at some point after having read a piece about Naipaul in the New York Times several years ago. I can't remember now what the piece was, exactly, but it talked about him as an author and mentioned A Bend in the River as a notable work, and I was intrigued. After having read it, though, I have to say I'm underwhelmed. The prose is well-crafted, no doubt. However, the story itself didn't keep me as engaged as I expected - in fact, my interest dwindled the longer I read. I think I just kept waiting for some great epiphany about the narrator, the world around him, or the other characters. What I got instead was little in terms of revelations, mainly some philosophical/rhetorical wondering, and a generally dispiriting tone.
There are also a few aspects that I found especially distasteful, though I imagine they played better when the book was first published in the late seventies than they do now. For one thing, it was hard to reconcile myself to the constant reference to "Africa" and "Africans". It's clear Naipaul did not want to identify the country he is speaking about (and it's also clear that the country in question is Belgian Congo/Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo). But the effect, particularly jarring from today's perspective, is to essentialize an entire continent of 54 states and countless ethnic groups into a wildly over-generalized notion of "Africa" and "Africans". Also shocking to the 21st century reader is an act of utterly gratuitous domestic violence, that (despite the perpetrator's feeling guilty afterwards) is treated as a completely unremarkable -- and supposedly, in the perpetrator's emotional state -- understandable. The woman even holds herself to blame for it.
So, on the whole, something of a disappointment. The story didn't grab me -- though there is plenty of good writing in there. The author provides evocative descriptions of place, and some excellent turns of phrase (for example, on the strange compression and conflation of place-sense that airline travel causes: "The airplane is faster than the heart.")
I'll leave off with one quote that resounded particularly strongly with me:
"'You can go back many times to the same place. And something strange happens if you go back often enough. You stop grieving for the past. You see that the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn't exist in real life. You trample on the past, you crush it. In the beginning it is like trampling on a garden. In the end you are just walking on ground. That is the way we have to learn to live now. The past is here." He touched his heart. "It isn't there.' And he pointed at the dusty road."
Victor Serge's Conquered City is an extraordinary novel in every sense. It captures the period of one year in the Russian revolution, when the revolutVictor Serge's Conquered City is an extraordinary novel in every sense. It captures the period of one year in the Russian revolution, when the revolutionaries are in control of St. Petersburg (or, rather, Petrograd) and have begun a period of purges, reprisals, and terror. It is impressionistic, episodic, and truly a communist story, in its root meaning of communal. It is not an individual person's story, but rather a story, told through glimpses of dozens of different lives, of both a people and an idea in a particular moment in history. In Serge's novel, the revolution itself is the main character, a strange, amorphous but unitary creature -- at once rough beast, fighting out of instinct and elemental need, and political-philosophical being, pressing onward through exceptional, sometimes nightmarish, times, driven by a deliberate consciousness of a higher purpose, an intellectually cohesive and morally justified imperative.
Born in Brussels in 1890, a child of Russian exiles, Victor Serge participated in anarchist movements in both France (where he was jailed for several years) and Spain. In 1919, he traveled to Russia to join the revolution. His fortunes in Russia rose and fell with his degree of agreement with the Soviet political establishment. He was expelled from the Party in 1928 and later imprisoned, and eventually permitted to leave the Soviet Union. Conquered City, written in 1931 in quick succession after two other revolutionary-themed novels, is a reflection of what he witnessed during the civil war in St. Petersburg.
The New York Review of Books Classics edition of Conquered City includes a foreword by translator Richard Greeman which illuminates the novel a great deal, providing important context. For example, this excerpt from the foreword quotes Serge to describe both his primary thematic interest in writing the book, and his conscious aim to create a narrative greater than any one character:
"His goal in writing Conquered City, he wrote to [French author Marcel] Martinet in 1930, was to 'reconstitute with the greatest accuracy and precision the atmosphere of one period of the Russian Revolution. . . . In [Conquered City], I would like to dramatize the conflict of that power grappling with history and itself -- and victorious.' Serge went on to outline for Martinet his plan for this new novel which he believes will be 'radically different' in its form compared to
'any I have read. . . . It will have a sort of plot, central if you will, but like a narrow thread running through a complicated design. . . . It is not a novel of handful of people but that of a city, which is itself a moment and a fragment of the revolution. I keep rather close to history -- without writing history -- and chronicle, but above all concerned with showing the men who make events and who are carried away by events. From this standpoint, the characters have but a subaltern importance, they appear and disappear as they do in the city without occupying the center of the stage for more than a few instants.'"
Serge's work has been largely unknown until recently, but the NYRB Classics series has brought him a new world of readers. Greeman's foreword notes that as a Russian writer who published most of his work in Paris, Serge embodied a dual cultural perspective. Greeman adds, "Ironically, Serge's literary cosmopolitanism and Marxist internationalism has prevented him from being domesticated into the university, where departments are divided into national literatures like Russian and French, both of which apparently ignore his work." I can attest to this personally. I have a Masters degree in Russian literature, with a particular interest in early 20th work, and yet I had never heard of Victor Serge before a friend introduced me to this novel.
Serge's work stands out among other fictional accounts of the revolution. He was committed to the revolution and remained dedicated to its ideals, but was not blind to its contradictions and excesses. The revolution's young idealists often wound up either corrupted by the regime or disenchanted by it, resulting in a literature that either falsely idealizes the revolution, or rejects and condemns it completely. But this piece occupies an unusual middle ground, providing a refreshingly multi-layered picture that encompasses both the hope and the tragedy of the revolution, seen through the eyes of a true believer. Serge's point is that within its own success, the revolution carried its own demise. In remaking society, it remade itself, purging the contaminating elements within itself and in the process becoming many of the very things it fought against.
Beyond the politics, the novel impresses stylistically and narratively. It is filled with deeply evocative images and passages too numerous to count, which convey a full atmosphere of advance, defeat, struggle, hope, resignation and acceptance in the smallest detail. For example: looking out over a still, clear winter morning panorama of the city, at a time when shortages, hunger, and industrial collapse pervade the city, a character observes, “All this beauty was perhaps the sign of our death. Not a single chimney was smoking. The city was thus dying.” (p. 57)
Elsewhere, an official of the new regime reflects on having been stopped and questioned by a sentry guarding a woodpile, and voices his discomfort with his own relative privilege, and its contradictory necessity:
“He had taken me for another wood thief at first. I could have been one. People steal the wood that belongs to everyone, in order to live. Fire is life, like bread. But I belong to the ruling party and I am ‘responsible,’ to use the accepted term, that is to say, when all is said and done, in command. My ration of warmth and bread is a little more secure, a little larger. And this is unjust. I know it. And I take it. It is necessary to live in order to conquer; and not for me, for the Revolution.” (p. 35)
Also, true to Serge’s intent, while the barest outline of a plot can be discerned among the details, it is not nearly the most important focus of the story. The reader is carried along from chapter to chapter, peeking into rooms and lives that sometimes also bounce tangentially off one another, deflecting the narrative into another room, another scene, another story. Many characters lives’ intersect, usually unbeknownst to the characters themselves. Sometimes fates of parties with quite opposing motives and loyalties mirror each other in their crises, if not their intent. Often, the story throws the reader from the end of one chapter into the middle of a unrelated conversation or action in progress at the beginning of the next, leaving the reader to orient herself to the new surroundings and events. And in the end, the entire novel seems to fold back on itself, completing its year-long journey on a night that is almost a perfect stylistic echo of the opening night, which at the same time, it clearly does not parallel in action.
The effect of all this is powerful, an aesthetically complex story that conveys the paradoxical reality of the social and political revolution, communicating the principled idealism that drove it, as well as the individual hardship that it caused. ...more
Great suspense from Scottoline, with a unique premise: a woman sees a photo on a "Have You Seen This Child" mailing that looks exactly like her son. NGreat suspense from Scottoline, with a unique premise: a woman sees a photo on a "Have You Seen This Child" mailing that looks exactly like her son. Not wanting it to be true, she still is driven to get to the bottom of it. The closer she gets to the truth... well, you know. It's a suspense novel!
Scottoline keeps you turning pages in her well-established brisk-paced, compact-chapter style. But as always, a standout of Scottoline's story is the character development. She builds a robust internal world for her main characters, in surprisingly little page space. Her protagonists are almost always very real, with wants, dreams, and foibles we understand and relate to, and family and friends we recognize.
Between the pacing, the engaging characters, and the writing style, it never takes long to get through a Scottoline mystery, but what a great way to spend a weekend!...more
The main character in Scottoline's Dirty Blonde is one of the most unexpected heroines I've encountered in a long time: a freshly minted young judge wThe main character in Scottoline's Dirty Blonde is one of the most unexpected heroines I've encountered in a long time: a freshly minted young judge who's still establishing herself on the bench, and whose personal life revolves around some decidedly less than high-brow extracurriculars. When two participants in a civil case meet a violent end in the aftermath of one of her decisions from the bench, Judge Cate Fante falls into the circle of suspicion, which only intensifies when her dirty secrets are discovered and hit the papers.
Once again Scottoline keeps the tension taut and the pages turning with just enough suspects and intrigues. And at the same time, she manages to weave in stories of two human dramas that are altogether too real. The first is the subplot of Cate's closest friend, a mother raising an autistic toddler on her own, trying to cope with the challenges of a world that is often unfriendly to such children, at best, and very rarely an accommodating place for children with needs like her son's. Second, Scottoline also deserves kudos for incorporating in her story the tragedy of Centralia, PA, a town that was devastated by an underground coal seam fire that started in 1962 and has burned unabated ever since. Local officials failed to address the fire properly when it was still manageable, and now it cannot be controlled. Scottoline's verbal imagery of sulfuric steam rising from earthquake-style fissures in the ground, and the all-encompassing, dizzying stench of noxious chemicals in the air rival any photos of the devastation left behind. (Photos included on Scottoline's website show broken links as I write this, but I was able to find this blog post, which includes several representative photos.)...more
I've been a fan of Anne Tyler since high school, but I finally have to admit to myself that it's been a while since I've read anything from her that II've been a fan of Anne Tyler since high school, but I finally have to admit to myself that it's been a while since I've read anything from her that I'd consider extraordinary. The Beginner's Goodbye was especially disappointing. It mostly felt like a rewrite of The Accidental Tourist: a bookish, socially awkward, ineffectual man's life gets thrown into disarray by family tragedy. He stumbles his way through the aftermath, casting about for direction, both resenting and desperately needing the guiding hand of no-nonsense women, until he finds a promising new equilibrium.
All that might have been OK, too, had the writing come through in other respects. The one thing I have most admired about Anne Tyler's writing in the past is how she consistently creates immediately recognizable characters -- and not in the sense I described above of literally revisiting previous types. Rather, she has always managed to fill her books with people you'd recognize from everyday life: the man in front of you in line at the bank; the woman stocking the shelves at the used bookstore down the street. Again and again, Tyler has demonstrated a gift for drawing ordinary people in engaging completeness. So it's a bit mystifying that in The Beginner's Goodbye Tyler shoots so surprisingly wide of the mark. Aaron Woolcott is flatly unrecognizable as a real person of his age and experience in his era. Aaron is supposed to be in his early forties around 2010, and yet both his language and his worldview are anachronistic far beyond what might pass for the eccentricities of a someone who admittedly is a bit of an oddball. Consider this observation, on his "Sony Trinitron" television: "A while back, Dorothy and I had discussed buying one of those new-tangled flat-screen sets, but we'd decided we couldn't afford it." (p. 53). Or, this: "When Dorothy and I were courting, we barely talked about children." (p.67) This from someone who was 24 years old in 1996 or so, when said "courting" would have taken place. The man sounds like he's 80 years old. It's one thing to portray a character as an "old soul". It's another thing altogether to give a character dialog and mannerisms that put him 40 years out of his time. I am roughly the same age as Aaron Woolcott is in the book, and I simply don't recognize him. No man I know of his age, education, and income level would refer to a flat-screen TV as "new-fangled" -- he'd more likely be discussing whether or not to upgrade his iPad. Aaron also appears to possess a bizarrely specific knowledge of women's fashion, remarking on one colleague's "pencil skirt" at one point. (p. 150) Not to mention this: "She seemed to be wearing a crinoline underneath her skirt. I didn't know you could even buy crinolines anymore." (p. 83) I could ask 50 men my age what a crinoline is and not get more than a quizzical look from any of them.
Hence my disappointment in this book. Not only does it feel like a rough draft of The Accidental Tourist, it also fails on characterization, depriving me of the main pleasure of Anne Tyler's writing. I'm hoping this is just a temporary dip, and I'll still read every book she writes, but (taking a cue from another reviewer) I'd recommend this one only to "Tyler completeists". If you're not one of those, I'd suggest Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Morgan's Passing, The Accidental Tourist, and Saint Maybe long before I'd point you to this one....more
It's hard to say one "likes" as grim a book as this, but Red Cavalry leaves a powerful impression. It is a stark tale of war written from the point ofIt's hard to say one "likes" as grim a book as this, but Red Cavalry leaves a powerful impression. It is a stark tale of war written from the point of a writer supremely unsuited for it and yet thrust into it. The account vividly describes the violence and devastation, as well as the absurd banality that so often characterizes the world of those caught up in the daily realities of war. Babel's imagery is arresting and unforgettable....more