Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits (Knopf, 1985)
The House of the Spirits has set a new record at Goat Central. I have been trying to read this bIsabel Allende, The House of the Spirits (Knopf, 1985)
The House of the Spirits has set a new record at Goat Central. I have been trying to read this book for three years. Three solid years (well, just shy. Another two weeks and I would have made the anniversary). Why did I keep trying? Because when I'm actually reading it, it's not half bad. But every time I put it down, there is nothing, not a single thing, about it that makes me want to pick it up again. So I'll end up going six to eight months between chapters, then feel guilty, resolve I'm going to finish it this time (no, really), pick it up, and read another chapter. At which point I'll need to set it down again to take a break, for Allende is second only to Doris Lessing when it comes to writing long, drawn-out chapters where nothing at all occurs. And another six to eight months will pass...
So I'm breaking the cycle. I tried again tonight, and I realized that this whole time, I haven't cared about a single character in this book. Sure, they're all relatively well-written, but it's not enough to be well-written if they never actually get around to doing anything except pontificating. And that, well, they do a lot of that. I'm assuming this book doesn't have a plot; if you haven't started your plot a third of the way into the book, you need to go back and do a few more writing workshops.
I have had many people, when I have mentioned in the past that I was trying to get through this dog, positively gush at me about how wonderful a book it is and how much they learned from it. I assume what they learned was the patience of the grave. I, unfortunately, failed that lesson. There are far too many other books in the world for me to waste any more time on this one. (zero)
Outside Valentine is pretty much tailor-made for me. I'm a sucker for the subject matter (three storiesLiza Ward, Outside Valentine (Henry Holt, 2004)
Outside Valentine is pretty much tailor-made for me. I'm a sucker for the subject matter (three stories paralleling the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate), the book was released by a major press but dropped off the radar after getting almost no publicity at all, and a whole lot of critics liked it a whole lot. And yet I've spent the last couple of years trying to get myself to like it and failing miserably. It's not that the book is badly-written, but there's not a single character in here, not even Caril Ann Fugate, who makes me care what's going to happen here, and the only plot point with any suspense surrounding it at all is the contents of the safe-deposit box in the 1991 story. And even that wasn't enough to keep me going past the halfway point. There are a slew of well-drawn characters here who are simply wandering aimlessly through their settings. (And even Terence Malick was capable of making Starkweather and Fugate wander aimlessly through Badlands in a compelling manner.) November is always them month where I go through and prune the reading list of stuff I simply can't bear to read any longer. I axed five books this year, which is a new high for me. Of all of them, Outside Valentine is the one I most regret, but there's way too much reading to do for me to try and force myself to finish this one. (zero)
I received a copy of Comfort Food back in the ice age, 2005. I was supposed to review it. INoah Ashenhurst, Comfort Food (Old Meadow Publishers, 2005)
I received a copy of Comfort Food back in the ice age, 2005. I was supposed to review it. I started reading it, and everything was going along swimmingly until a trip out to see my parents in the wilds of the Poconos-- where I misplaced the book. A year later, it turned up. Needless to say I'd forgotten everything I'd read of it previously, so I started over from scratch. So I'm a year late and quite a few dollars short, but I did finally get to the “review it” stage. Unfortunately, I think perhaps it would have been better for everyone involved had the misplaced book never turned up again.
I can't give you a plot summary; Mark Twain would have a great deal of fun pulling out the old blunderbuss and taking cracks at those who would attempt to find a plot here. This is, instead, a loosely-related series of stories revolving around a core group of characters who all (I'm pretty sure, anyway) know one another. Now, I rush to add that this is, in itself, not a bad thing. When it's done correctly, it can make for a stunning novel. Why didn't it work in the case of Comfort Food?
There are two aspects to the writing of a novel (and I hear all the novelists groaning as I say this at my oversimplification). There is the art of writing a novel, which involves all the mental and emotional process. It's the story you want to tell, the life you infuse into the characters. Then there is the craft of writing a novel. It's the way you tell the story. To translate this over to movie talk, the art of a film is the actors and the set. The craft is the script and the set design (or, to break away from the parallel, it's also the director and the cinematographer and the sound effects editor and the gaffer and the best boy and...). Ashenhurst has the art bit down; there are stories to be told here. The craft bit, on the other hand, goes wonky on a fairly regular basis. Even the back jacket copy gives you a basic idea of the confusing nature of the book. “Stan Gillman-Reinhart is a graduate student at a small university in Bellingham, Washington in 1993. Through his experiences and frustrations we meet Delany Richardson, a budding writer and old friend of Stan's; John Snyder, a local musician; Brian Fetzler, Stan's stoner roommate; Dave Griebing, a mountaineer and Delany's ex-boyfriend; and Bridgette Jonsen, a former heroin addict and Dave's current girlfriend.” Yes, you can follow it if you read it through a few times, but it's not exactly writing that sparks the interest, is it? Things don't improve once you open the book up. The list format of the jacket copy isn't just a convenient way to introduce browsers to the stable of characters, it's also a characteristic of the writing:
“He sighed as the tired departing passengers slowed to a trickle. “He stood up and hoisted his heavy pack over his shoulders and picked up his guitar case, adjusting his hand on the handle. He moved out and walked down the narrow passage to the exit. He pulled on his shoulder straps, unsuccessfully trying to spare his back the strain.” (p. 42)
Four sentences, a paragraph and a half, all starting with “He”. It lulls the reader to sleep, almost. As a bonus, you can add in a bunch of “his”es, plus “hand”, “handle”, and “heavy” in the second sentence in case you missed the alliteration. Which, again, can be all well and good when it's in the middle of a paragraph that scintillates, something where the writing is as good as the best writing you've ever come across, but here we have deadpan declarative sentences. There's no excitement to them at all. It might be possible to make a case for the old “if you want to write a story about boring people, write a boring story” adage-- that the tenor of the prose mirrors the character's boredom and exhaustion from his recent trip-- but in order to make something like that work, you have to be a master of prose. (The obvious example here is James Joyce's “The Dead”.) Here it just comes off monotonous.
I tried to find a way to give this book a decent review, but I just couldn't. There are books I revel in giving bad reviews to, books where the author has so totally blown it that there's really nothing to do but enjoy the ride as you spiral down a black hole of woeful writing, pathetic plot, and cardboard characters. Comfort Food is, emphatically, not one of those books. I understand what Ashenhurst was trying to do here, and I think that with a great deal of revision, this could be a fantastic novel. In its current state, though, it is not. It is the skeleton of a fantastic novel, but it seems to have been infested with flesh-eating bacteria. (zero) ...more
A friend of mine passed this onto me a couple of years ago. It took me a while to get round to actually picRichard Melo, Jokerman 8 (Soft Skull, 2004)
A friend of mine passed this onto me a couple of years ago. It took me a while to get round to actually picking it up, which I simply attributed to laziness and a pile of books to be read that grows to resemble the Matterhorn more with every passing day. Then I actually read the back copy, and realized that there was some sort of psychic vibration driving me away. Still, I'd promised myself (and my friend) that I'd give it a go, so I did. Silly me. I normally give books fifty pages before consigning them to a short life of flight out a window, but I broke the rule slightly on this one; a new chapter began at page forty-eight, and it was the longest chapter I'd encountered so far, so I catapulted it on its way after only forty-eight pages. Given the problems I had with the book, I can be relatively sure that it wasn't going to get any better.
Jokerman 8 tells the story, if the back copy is to be believed, of an ecoterrorist organization. I'm oversimplifying, of course, but there it is. But apart from a few words from the narrator, the first forty-eight pages takes place in flashback, to the leader of the group's (I'm supposing here, apologies if I'm incorrect) genesis and youth. I got a distinct sense of Mervyn Peake here (you know, the chap who wanted to write a thousand-page book whose protagonist turned two at the end?), but Richard Melo is by no stretch of the imagination Mervyn Peake; any humor and intrigue to be found in these pages was entirely lost on me.
My problem was less with the story itself than with the writing style. I was soured on the book from the opening pages, the "few words from the narrator" I mentioned earlier, which are just plain awful. I soldiered on, hoping that the writing would get better once we got into more structured territory, but it didn't; where in matters of form I was put in mind of Mervyn Peake, stylistically I got a very strong sense of Tom Robbins with a dash of Richard Brautigan (more in the sense of social consciousness than humor). Now, I'm perfectly willing to admit that my problem with the style could well be my failing, since I've loathed every Tom Robbins book I've ever tried to read, but once again I have to say: Richard Melo is no Tom Robbins. There's the same sense of absurdity in the situations and in the actions of the characters, but there's no real coherence to it. The most apt comparison I can some up with is that Melo is Sjoman's I Am Curious to Robbins being Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism. You might get a few chuckles amidst the vast confusion and stupidity of Sjoman, whereas Makavejev actually made a movie worth watching.
In the end, though, I couldn't take it, and out the window it went. Bloody horrible. (zero) ...more
Bless Me, Ultimahas gotten itself a lot of attention over the past decade or so. It seems like every tRudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (Tonatiuh, 1972)
Bless Me, Ultima has gotten itself a lot of attention over the past decade or so. It seems like every time the book makes it onto a school reading list, someone, somewhere, challenges it. (It's ironic that the book also landed on Laura Bush's list of the ten best novels for people of all ages, since the ones who challenge books are oftentimes the same ones who follow mindless, slavish devotion to the Bush regime.) That's the sort of thing that attracts me like a fly to honey, because no one ever challenges books for the right reasons. When it comes right down to it, there's only one right reason to challenge a book on a school's reading list: because it's a bad book. I'm sure there's someone out there who would say of people who challenge books because they have “bad language” or “champion the homosexual agenda” or are in some way “explicit” that they're doing what they believe in their heart to be the right thing, and so are honorable. I'm not one of those people. I think they should all be rounded up and carted off to form their own community in Kansas, where they can all be on the school board and choose all the books in the school library to make sure nothing offensive ever passes the eyes (and minds) of their beloved oversheltered rats. (It would make a great social experiment, too, and the parents' heads would explode when their kids still managed to discover sex and profanity without ever once having read Catcher in the Rye. But I digress.) In any case, I have found it very rare that these two conflicting reasons for trying to get a book out of the hands of the nation's school students intersects. But, after eleven months of trying to stomach this dog, I confess that this is one of those times. I do think this book should be kept away from schoolchildren. Not because of any explicit content; I must not have gotten far enough to find the offending scene(s) (or the parents of today are even more sensitive than I berate them for being). Just because it's the kind of book that a kid gets assigned in school, suffers through, hates, and then takes one more step down the path to abandoning reading because it's such a damnable chore. If I'd have had to stomach this in high school, I might have ended up feeling the same thing. Nothing of any consequence whatsoever happens during the portion of this book I read (and I admit that I used the strictest possible interpretation of the fifty-page rule on this one). We get so little character development that there's no justifying of nothing happening during the portion of this book I read. And it lacks entirely the readability that would have kept me going past fifty pages despite having no character development or plot advancement. I find myself wondering what on earth those first fifty pages were for, and why some merciful editor didn't make massive cuts to them. I'm sure that any information that would later become useful could have been distilled into a tenth of the space. But I'm not to put myself through, extrapolating from the time I've already spent trying to make myself read this, another three and a half years to see if I'm right. Onto the bonfire it goes. (zero)
Ben Shapiro, Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future (Regnery, 2005)
When a book is blurbed by both Ann Coulter and Laura SchleBen Shapiro, Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future (Regnery, 2005)
When a book is blurbed by both Ann Coulter and Laura Schlesinger, that's as good as having your cover be a portion of one of those old maps that says, in the middle of the ocean, “here be dragons”. Anyone attempting to read such a treatise must immediately know that one must gird one's loins and prepare for a deeply distressing experience. Ben Shapiro's Porn Generation satisfies-- no pun intended-- on all counts.
The book's most glaring deficiency is that Shapiro condemns sex researcher Alfred Kinsey for being, in the words of Daniel Flynn, “a charlatan who embarked upon research to confirm his pre-drawn conclusions”(20), and then embarks on exactly the same quest himself. He sets the scene by outlining a moral standard (without footnotes, of course, though the book does contain copious footnotes), and then writes to that standard, grasping at whatever straws are necessary to advance his own viewpoint, no matter how questionable-- or outright ludicrous-- those straws may be. He never thought to question the statistic he cites that one in three brides in 1946 were pregnant when they wed? And if he did, why doesn't he at least mention it?
The footnotes themselves make for tremendous reading, better than the book itself. They read like a primer of places to go to get your daily fill of religionist nonsense. Is there truly anyone who would cite worldnet daily with a straight face? There is-- Ben Shapiro. But then, this should come as no surprise; the moral standard that Shapiro would hold us all to is, if course, the Christian moral standard. None other could possibly be valid.
Standing against this Christian moral standard is an enemy Shapiro defines as “social liberals.”All social liberals, of course, have the same mindset, the same agenda, and the same set of beliefs. All social liberals, for example, are proselytizers of sexual freedom, while simultaneously being fervently anti-gun and anti-smoking. It actually made me take out my gun permit and look at it to make sure it hadn't disappeared while I was reading this book and smoking my way through a pack of Maverick 100s. Thankfully, Shapiro's parallel universe, where “social liberals” march in lockstep and have as their sole desire to topple the moral foundations of this supposedly Christian nation, exists only in his mind.
Shapiro, as I intimated before, is also all too willing to simply take his sources at their word, never questioning whether they might, in fact, be slanting the truth, or not quite as cognizant of it as they think they are. Shapiro, citing wingnut Michelle Malkin, seems to think that, for example, self-injury is some sort of new fad. (The article of Malkin's he cites-- found on the wonderfully amusing townhall.com website-- is even called “The new youth craze: self-mutilation”.) A quick Amazon search on self-mutilation, or one on cutting, taking all of fifteen seconds, would have put paid to that idea pretty quickly. (It should be noted that Shapiro also publishes at townhall.com. Better yet, he cites his own articles. Now there's a source for you!) He also likes to use hyperbole for the effect hyperbole is usually used for, fearmongering. “If you spend any amount of time on the Internet, it's difficult not to find yourself in the midst of a hard-core porn site...” (171). Funny, I've been an IT professional for almost fifteen years now, and I've never “found myself in the midst of” a hard-core porn site when I haven't wanted to be there. Between my job, my research, the occasional game, booking trips, and the many other hundreds of things I do on the Internet, it's not an unreasonable assumption to say I'm on the Internet seventy hours a week, if not more. I drop by porn websites once every three years or so. Never by accident. So what?, you may ask. You're an IT professional. You know how these things work. Well, my mom is in her seventies and still can't set the time on the VCR. How many times has she been tricked into visiting a hardcore porn site? I'll take “zero” for two hundred, Alex.
I can't call this book entirely worthless; you can use the footnotes and the bibliography to compile a pretty comprehensive list of stuff you can use for your amusement when you feel like laughing at people who really believe that, to paraphrase the title of the townhall article Shapiro authored that he cites in Chapter One, the radical homosexual agenda is destroying American standards. As a piece of nonfiction, it's a joke; this is a two-hundred-thirty-two page op-ed piece at best, with every page dedicated to twisting and misinterpreting facts. (For, of course, no interpretation but Shapiro's could possibly have any merit.) As a joke, however, it's not funny enough to waste your time with. That there are people out there who would read this tripe and take it to heart pains me. If you must read it, please do so with enough of your critical thinking skills intact to at least realize that there are vastly different conclusions to be drawn from the facts Shapiro presents.
Christopher M. Hansen, The Great IRS Hoax, 3.9/ed (Family Guardian Publications, 2005)
For the last four months, I have tried to read this book. I trieChristopher M. Hansen, The Great IRS Hoax, 3.9/ed (Family Guardian Publications, 2005)
For the last four months, I have tried to read this book. I tried, even, to adhere to Hansen's challenge for this book: to read chapters two through six, which is the core of Hansen's argument that the IRS has no right to take your money. But, after two hundred eighty-three pages of some of the worst writing I have ever encountered, I simply gave up. (I should mention that after two hundred eighty-three pages, the beginning of chapter three was nowhere in sight.)
Hansen, as you might expect from the title of the book and the opening paragraph of this review, is one of those folks who's going to stand up and tell you not to take it any more. A rather excellent standpoint, it must be noted. But while the self-published The Great IRS Hoax has all the pitfalls of the self-published The Law That Never Was to contend with, it also heaps on other deficiencies that demarcate the line between The Law That Never Was being boring and repetitious, but tolerable, and The Great IRS Hoax being boring, repetitious, and intolerable.
First, I remarked in the review of The Law That Never Was about the use of multiple exclamation points in a chapter heading, and the amateurism and schoolyard bullying it conveys. Hansen takes amateurism and schoolyard bullying to a whole other level here, including using the IRS' seal at the bottom of every page, and adding a disclaimer that's so transparently specious as to insult the intelligence of his readers; if the court system comes after this guy, the crap in the disclaimer certainly isn't going to stop them (even if you don't assume that the IRS and the courts are corrupt, in which case nothing will stop them, as Hansen obviously does). By the time you've read through page four, you should have a basic idea of where this book is going. It gets worse throughout; he uses the time-tested and completely unworthy convention of renaming things the way he'd like them to be (e.g., the “Socialist Security Number”) in order to ridicule those things, and sounds like a six year old saying “nah-nah-nee-foo-foo” instead of a reasoned, intelligent human being setting forth an argument and inviting debate.
Second, while Benson pulls religion into it in his forewords and afterwords, Hansen is obviously a zealot, and he's not afraid to let anyone know it. In fact, of the two hundred eighty-three pages I read, fully half of them are preachifying, bible quoting, and talking about how this material is only useful to Christians, because after all, all the rest of us loonies are already going to hell. Hansen says, “The only thing that educating and empowering ungrateful atheists and blasphemers accomplishes is to make them more vain.” Once you've gotten past the atrocious grammar in that sentence, mull the idea here. Christians are not only the only ones getting into heaven, they're the only ones who should be exempt from the government's biggest fraud!
The worst part about all this is once you get past the bullying, the spelling errors, the amateurism, the typos, the hatefulness, the endless annoying repetition, the offensiveness, the grammatical errors, and the nausea that all these traits in this book are sure to raise in you, there's a core of excellent information here. A good editor could whip this into a manuscript, probably no more than a quarter of its present length, that would hold its own with any of the (very few) books on tax protest that were actually published by someone other than the authors. Hansen obviously knows his legalese, and is more than willing to translate for us (well, at least for his fellow Christians, even if, in an amazing leap in logic, the book's disclaimer states that it's only for Hansen and his family). He obviously knows the tax code well, and points us to all the places we need to go to find all the gaping holes that makes the loopholes tax preparers try to get us to jump through look like the eyes of various needles. And those holes most definitely exist; Hansen points them out and discusses them at length. His arguments, when he's talking legalese, are persuasive and comprehensive. There is very much here to like, if you can wade through the thousands upon thousands of words of swine here for every word that resembles a pearl.
The problem is, I simply couldn't do it. After two hundred eighty-three pages, I'd had more than enough of being told what a horrible person I was for not gouging out my eyes and devoting my blind life to a sheep nailed to a cross, that I deserved everything the IRS threw at me, that all the women I know should not be allowed to work and should be happy to become mindless machines pumping out babies to consume even more resources than the festering mass of humanity on this planet already does, that the Bible is the only true lawbook, that the United States of America was founded as a Christian nation, and so many other pieces of sheer prejudice and creedism that it boggles the mind to imagine that no one's yet tried to assassinate this idiot. But then, since Hansen is so throughly convinced of the rightness of his filth, and the filth his followers so blindly and stupidly believe, that was most likely his intention; weed out the undesirables like me so I'll never find out his secrets.
Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold (Adventures Unlimited, 1999)
Okay, I tried.
I've crossed swords with the author before onAcharya S, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold (Adventures Unlimited, 1999)
Okay, I tried.
I've crossed swords with the author before on some of the very issues that show a blind spot in this book (the section on Evemerism is especially weak, for example; more on that below), but in many cases, her response ended up being "read my book," which then hadn't been released yet. Okay, so I got around to reading the book, or at least trying to read the book.
The Christ Conspiracy may well be on the most important subject to be written about in the last two thousand years. And what is here is well-researched, even if the source material isn't always of top quality. But the presentation is absolutely horrible. The book is just on the wrong side of unreadable; it seems almost as if it were written for the purpose of being presented as a textbook (the authors of which often seems if they're being deliberately obtuse). Interesting, this, because Acharya has a style about her that reaches for readability in today's culture; her diction is appealing to gen-X and younger readers, she's witty, a formidable opponent in debate, and simply quite likable. None of which actually comes out in her writing here; what we get is a four-hundred-page rant (well, okay, I only make it through two hundred fifty pages, but saw no reason to believe it would be any different to the end) that's dry as dust. It makes Bjorn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist) look like Stephen King.
What is most glaring, however, are the places where questions are raised that Acharya either refuses to answer or never thought of answering. I know the latter is not the case for at least one of these questions; she hammers away at evemerist interpretations of Christ by setting up a straw man, saying that anyone to whom evemerism attaches itself must have at least some of the characteristics that get exaggerated, as in the case of Paul Bunyan. Such is not the case. Reader's of Chinua Achebe's novel A Man of the People will easily see through this sleight-of-hand. For a real-life example, try Johnny Appleseed...or, perhaps, Jesus Christ. Such inconsistencies in question-answering are common throughout the book.
Worse yet, a number of her sources have either been discredited to the point where even the atheists don't consider them worthwhile anymore or are of questionable character in the first place.
None of the above is to say the topic itself, whether Jesus Christ truly existed or not, is not worth researching. The opposite, in fact; Christianity is an obvious amalgamation of earlier religions, and Jesus Christ may well have been a mythical figure, something the Gnostics have been claiming for almost two millennia without anyone really listening to them. But such an important topic needs far more solid legs in serious debate than will be found in this book. You can do far better.
First book fed to my starving dustbunnies in 2004. (zero) ...more