Hard to get through the beginning chunk (A Madman in Love) of this chunky novel, but it paid off. Much of the rest of the novel focuses on Mitchell anHard to get through the beginning chunk (A Madman in Love) of this chunky novel, but it paid off. Much of the rest of the novel focuses on Mitchell and Leonard, and Eugenides paints them well - young, intellectually sharp, confused males. Mitchell's personal exploration of religion as well as Leonard's topsy-turvy path through life with manic depression are richly drawn. Possibly one of the best depictions of manic depression I've ever read. The section when Mitchell volunteers at Mother Teresa's in Calcutta was also extremely well written. I empathized with both characters, but never with Madeleine, the romantic interest of Mitchell and Leonard. She comes across as spoilt and as an air-head. To me, she was never as richly developed as either of the two males, and I failed to understand what either one saw in her. ...more
Both the gloom and the voyeurism made me actually recoil from finishing it. I began to dread having to return to the pages. The childhood described inBoth the gloom and the voyeurism made me actually recoil from finishing it. I began to dread having to return to the pages. The childhood described in this novel - along with the death and illness of the parents - felt and smelled as gray as cement to me, and the fairly explicit retelling of the siblings playing doctor and nurse on each other created a fogbank of dread. Obviously extremely well-done in terms of the writing and the plot. ...more
A skilled portrayal of a married couple and their kids following the death of their youngest child. For all her skill at delving deep into the motivatA skilled portrayal of a married couple and their kids following the death of their youngest child. For all her skill at delving deep into the motivation, frustrations and personality of each character, I felt manipulated by the closing chapter. In it, the author for the first time addresses the reader with "What else do you want to know?" as if we were nothing but voyeurs along for the ride. She turns the mirror on us, and we're given a laundry list of mundane events among strangers, which is really an invitation to consider the white lies and hurt that exists in all of us. A bit heavy-handed, maybe? The book cover image takes the cake for being painfully mismatched (trying too hard to be relevant, or simply trying too hard). ...more
The Falktopfs, living in close proximity to the WTC on September 11, 2001, are far from perfect. They are somewhat self-absorbed, she a dancer, muse aThe Falktopfs, living in close proximity to the WTC on September 11, 2001, are far from perfect. They are somewhat self-absorbed, she a dancer, muse and wife of a famous choreographer almost twice her age who has just lost his own dance company and is, for all we know, "finished," at least in that game. She, Suzannah, has been absorbed lately not with dancing but the well-being of their son Nikolai, an autistic child even though neither parent ever says so, at least not until late in the book when someone asks what is wrong with the child. Schulman does something quite astonishing in her 24-hour-span novel - she imagines how the stress of that day may catapult and heighten the stress that exists in this particular couple, but could be anyone's stress, really. What they witness that morning from their windows sounds both believable and somewhat removed and all the more horrific. The power of single images that stay with you, you realize a nanosecond after, as Suzannah does, only to shield Nikolai's eyes and chastize herself for letting him even catch that one glimpse. The Falktopfs - because they can - escape to a private estate in the Hamptons before the bridges and tunnels are shut down that morning and indulge in such frivolity as buying elaborately frothy cupcakes at "The Barefoot Contessa." Well, at least Gerhard, the husband, does in his newly found purpose of being a rescuer, an organizer, someone in control. Talk about delusion. None of it can distract from the private hell they can no longer avoid. An interesting look at the inner workings of overwrought artists, a marriage hanging by a thread, denial, and all the various excuses we make for our actions. With such a powerful build-up of tension throughout, the ending was not as conclusive as I had anticipated....more
In the closing remarks, Krakauer says "Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why..." acknowledging the infinite appeal of any kind of reIn the closing remarks, Krakauer says "Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why..." acknowledging the infinite appeal of any kind of religion or faith. From the subtitle "a violent faith," it is clear that he makes no attempt to be "objective" about Mormon fundamentalism or LDS, but objectivity is not possible, not in philosophy, and certainly not on violent crimes or faith. I found the book hard to put down. Krakauer's writing is sharp, exquisite in style and pace. Weaving the story of the Lafferty brothers' brutal murder of their sister-in-law and baby niece in 1984 into the history of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the Mormon wagon trains, the author creates a historical backdrop of astonishing depth and insight. In an attempt to make sense of both the violent history of this faith in general and the horrid murder in particular, Krakauer succeeds by quoting one of the perpetrators extensively, framing his words in historical context, quoting from many interviews and many different texts as well as from the court trials. If your knowledge about the Mormon faith extends to Utah, BYU, Joseph Smith, and the no coffee-alcohol-tobacco thing, which is about the extent of my prior knowledge, this book is eye-opening in more ways than one. As I read and frequently shook my head at what I was reading, I felt deeply uncomfortable because if I had that reaction about this particular sect, I have to be honest and show the same disbelief and outrage at all religion including whichever faith I, or you reading this, were raised in or how that faith is self-righteously being touted as the "only right or good" faith. Kudos to Krakauer for tackling such a deeply complex subject and raising important questions. ...more
Snarky. While Stacy Schiff may be a historian, and "audacious" enough to tackle a biography of someone whose life and times are at best poorly documenSnarky. While Stacy Schiff may be a historian, and "audacious" enough to tackle a biography of someone whose life and times are at best poorly documented, Schiff's writing is both breezy, enticing, page-turning and utterly condescending. For some reason, the author feels the need to boil everything down into descriptors usually found in People magazine, (e.g. "sex and excess") or expand a depiction of Cleopatra for fifty pages by rephrasing the initial message ("Cleopatra was out of place in Rome"). We get it. I detest writers assuming their audience is stupid and will only keep reading if the writing is at the level of current Entertainment channels on TV. Ultimately, a book with some interesting information and a lot of fluff. ...more
If you saw the French film "Of Gods and Men" and are curious about the life and death of the seven kidnapped French monks in Algeria, this is the bookIf you saw the French film "Of Gods and Men" and are curious about the life and death of the seven kidnapped French monks in Algeria, this is the book. Regardless, it's an excellent in-depth look at the Cistercian or Trappist order, a historical/political overview of Algeria during and post-French colonial rule, and an altogether fascinating read on spirituality, the faith and love of these committed monks of their Muslim neighbors, and it is deeply engaging and beautifully constructed. The political power struggles are presented in perhaps excruciating detail. The writer is a serious journalist and historian - you may feel like you get a lot more than you bargained for when you embark on this book. A good thing. More of us here in the Western world, with our very limited understanding of Islam, should read serious works like John Kiser's The Monks of Tibhirine. Peace. Yes, that. But let's not forget love....more
If nothing else, the author is being honest - portraying himself as who he is, a) a gifted writer who can be witty, profound and petty, and b) a fairlIf nothing else, the author is being honest - portraying himself as who he is, a) a gifted writer who can be witty, profound and petty, and b) a fairly average privileged middle-aged American male with all the cliches that go with that (no alcohol or tobacco, whiny if things aren't up to his spoilt expectations, self-indulgent, fearful, and needy).
Having said that, the book is engrossing, fascinating and fabulous. If you have the remotest interest in Russia, like or love Russian literature, and are intrigued by the country and its melodramatic soul, and IF you can look past the author, as he almost begs you to do, to get past his haphazard, hesitant and "I'm scared but fascinated" approach to Siberia, then my guess is you're going to love this book. It has added to my understanding of Russian history, the prolonged tragedy and profound abuse and poverty of the ordinary Russian populace -- the soul of the people if I may call it that. It's given me historical context to literature I've read -and thought I understood- all the way back to Anna Karenina to more recent works that are more about Russia than they are Russian (see my review of Jorge Volpi's "Season of Ash").
Pieces of this long and seasoned travelogue (from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s) are sublime. His Russian guides Sergei and Voldya deserve more thanks than they get. The author's sketches are also worth mentioning, they are far superior to the very limited number of photographs. ...more
Reminded me of "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat-Moon. A guy who challenges himself to leave his life behind for a while and discover the country,Reminded me of "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat-Moon. A guy who challenges himself to leave his life behind for a while and discover the country, at least some large part of it, by taking the slow road, in this case the waterways that interconnect from the Hudson River down the Mississippi, essentially turning the eastern part of the US into an island which Nat Stone was determined to circle by rowboat. Which he did in two trips. I found his narrative thoughtful, calming, and inspiring. He isn't interested in impressing anyone. The pace of covering real distance with nothing but stamina, muscle, adrenaline and peanut butter and crackers in turn offers an intimate view of the land and its people. Great observations, and lovely encounters. ...more
Equally drawn into the luminous, dreamscape prose and equally appalled by it. Banville has made an art out of drawing out any utterly insignificant moEqually drawn into the luminous, dreamscape prose and equally appalled by it. Banville has made an art out of drawing out any utterly insignificant moment (and many significant ones, too) into the type of self-absorbed minutiae that warrants a new word for it. About 3/4 through the book, I finally decided I no longer cared about the character, his grief, or even this type of befuddling exposition. ...more
Among the best of McEwan's novels for its brevity, satire, witty plot, and sharp & fine observations (the air in Amsterdam a curious mix of "cigarAmong the best of McEwan's novels for its brevity, satire, witty plot, and sharp & fine observations (the air in Amsterdam a curious mix of "cigar smoke and ketchup" - perfect!). To me, the man is a master at storytelling even though I often find the twists and turns of his novels and, as a result, the endings unsatisfying and sometimes preposterous. "Atonement," "Enduring Love," "Saturday" come to mind. "Amsterdam" is delightful, satirizing two men whose fame and success causes them to think they're infallible, and who strike a devilish deal with each other at the funeral of a former lover. ...more
Loved it. Covers the years between Chernobyl and approx. 2000, and is ambitious in its scope (the fall of the Soviet Union, the human genome project,Loved it. Covers the years between Chernobyl and approx. 2000, and is ambitious in its scope (the fall of the Soviet Union, the human genome project, the stock market shenanigans, the IMF, loans to 'developing' nations, the corporate world vs. oligarchy, the Berlin Wall, and I haven't even mentioned political prisoners or chemical weapons). The novel follows three women, their children, and three couples over the years while also providing a background to the main characters (an American, a Russian and a Hungarian) by painting an ever so detailed portrait of their parents.
At first the book was dense, so full of characters and detail it made my head spin (it starts off at Chernobyl and with three unrelated scenes in which someone has died). If you can get through the gnarly, disturbing start, you may find yourself hooked to what can only be called a page-turner, and a minor doorstop, clocking in at 400 pages of tiny print.
Kudos to the translator. What a fabulous job. My only criticism would be the warped historical details. Does anyone fact check these days? Does it matter? Why would anyone be so ambitious to cover three or four or five complex systems, and events, and get most of it right, but some of it wrong? How does that happen? Is that artistic license? ...more
Enjoyed it immensely. Taking one historic event --- the feat of spanning a tightrope between the WTC towers shortly after their completion in 1974, anEnjoyed it immensely. Taking one historic event --- the feat of spanning a tightrope between the WTC towers shortly after their completion in 1974, and then doing the unthinkable, walking it, lying down on it, and surviving --- the author hooks a variety of disparate characters to the New York City of that time. Their lives circle and spin, detached from each other, in their own orbits until they collide or cross paths at the time of Philippe Petit's tightrope walk. Their connection to the event is at best coincidental, and thoroughly imagined. I wondered how the novel would read without the tightrope walker. Why did the author use that event as the hitch? Was it to capture a readership? The book is not about Philippe Petit at all - it's a glimpse at NYC in 1974. Watch "Man on Wire" if you're interested in the tightrope walk....more
If you've only heard of Timothy Leary as the 'father' of "Tune in, turn on, and drop out" counterculture LSD-addled hippiedom, and have read Huston SmIf you've only heard of Timothy Leary as the 'father' of "Tune in, turn on, and drop out" counterculture LSD-addled hippiedom, and have read Huston Smith only in terms of comparative religion classes in college, have no clue who Ram Dass was or is, and know of Andrew Weil only as an old hippie dude who has figured out how to market himself and his products, then you're in for a treat. Their connections going back to Harvard and the very early 1960s make for an interesting read. I am a tad turned off though by the notion that these four men (and nothing else ?) killed the Fifties. A sensationalistic sub-title at best, awarding too much power to just four characters who - as it turns out - were intensely different, with very different takes on things, and in fact had lasting differences of opinions. And were sometimes not very nice people. Why the author would want to give these guys (Leary, Alpert aka Ram Dass and Weil) so much power I fail to understand. There are fundamental generational shifts that happen all the time, and many more people did good work without being as narcissistic as Leary, Alpert or Weil. Smith I'm excluding because he doesn't really fit in with the other three. ...more
1933 - 1934, Hitler's first year in 'office,' is the focus of Larson's narrative non-fiction book about the new American ambassador to Hitler's Berlin1933 - 1934, Hitler's first year in 'office,' is the focus of Larson's narrative non-fiction book about the new American ambassador to Hitler's Berlin. His "garden of beasts" is a dramatized translation of Tiergarten, a district of Berlin and home to a large park (in which the royals centuries earlier hunted deer and wild boar) and home to many embassies and government buildings. Larson has written a suspenseful page-turner, and his recreation of a time and place none of us can recall works for me. William Dodd (the ambassador) is not a perfect man and perhaps not the best man for the job, but he was the only one who accepted. What it would've taken to be an effective ambassador in Hitler's Germany is all hindsight - most including FDR didn't really know what they were up against or what to make of Hitler. Larson's portrayal of Dodd is exceptional in his sincerity because Larson takes the trouble to try and understand a man in that man's era. The only part of this book that wore thin was the extraordinary focus on Ambassador Dodd's daughter Martha, a flirt bar-none, double-dating Gestapo and Russian embassy staff alike. What we glean from following Martha around is perhaps telling and authentic, but her dalliances and the slightly juicy aspects of witnessing her naive infatuation drag an otherwise worthy, historically interesting and detailed book down into a territory bordering sensationalism....more