I have read this book at least ten times and every time, I find it to be utterly beautiful and captivating. I generally read it every winter,10/27/08
I have read this book at least ten times and every time, I find it to be utterly beautiful and captivating. I generally read it every winter, but this year, my reading came a bit early, as this novel was selected for my book club. I could write pages and pages on this novel's merits, but I encourage you simply to read it and see for yourself. In my opinion, this is Austen's best novel (though of course, Pride and Prejudice is quite a close contender for the title).
The short summary:
Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth met and fell in love in their youth... but Anne's family disapproved of a young man without position or connections, and she gave him up under intense persuasion. Now, eight years later, Anne is still unattached, her family is close to financial ruin, Wentworth is doing quite well for himself, and he's seen as quite a catch to all who know him. While the fate of these two clearly occupies our attention for the most part, Austen delves into many topics in this novel, including health, wealth, and what merits the term "good company."...more
Is it cliche to write about how I adored this book? I suppose it is, but it won't really stop me.
Nearly two years ago, I suggested The Book of LaugIs it cliche to write about how I adored this book? I suppose it is, but it won't really stop me.
Nearly two years ago, I suggested The Book of Laughter and Forgetting for my book club. It was quite a success so this time around, I put this forth as well and I do hope that it draws out a similar reaction. This is the novel for which Kundera is best known, I suppose, and that does make quite a lot of sense. I'm not sure if I would term it as "better" but I certainly tore through it at a quicker speed. Some of its popularity might be attributable to the fact that it is quite sexy, too (though I've been warned away from the movie's extreme focus on those parts). I must say, though, I felt so very much like a young woman in her twenties, underlining passages while reading on the subway and finding parallels to my own life and romance. The fact that I am a young woman in her twenties hardly made me feel any better about the matter, but I can't help it. The style was lovely and the story was captivating. If you know anything about Czech history, I'm sure that it would help your reading, but even my minimal knowledge was enough to see me through. The most important thing was to embrace each of the four main characters, despite their very human faults. I found a bit of myself in each of them and while some people might find this novel to be a bit depressing or irritating, I find that there was tremendous beauty in it, far lovelier than anything that might feature a lesson learned or a saccharine sunset....more
With all due respect to my book club's selector this month, I must admit, I wasn't gung-ho about this book when I agreed to it. When I went to purchasWith all due respect to my book club's selector this month, I must admit, I wasn't gung-ho about this book when I agreed to it. When I went to purchase it, I even hoped that the little bookstore in my neighborhood wouldn't have it so I could buy myself an Agatha Christie novel for that weekend instead. But it was there and so I bought it... and I quickly realized that I had underestimated this book and the author. Josh Swiller did a great job with this. It wasn't necessarily the events in his story that kept me going at a steady pace, but the narration of the author. You know the story will be heartbreaking and you know that Peace Corp volunteers are often thrown into situations where they're expected to make a difference in the face of incredible odds. But really made the book for me is the fact that you just really like Josh Swiller. He has a wonderfully snarky sense of humor. Born and raised in Manhattan, Josh lost pretty much all of his hearing by age 4. But rather than surround him with a deaf community, his parents didn't really discuss it much and he (and one of his three brothers) went to regular schools, relying on lip-reading and hearing aids. He didn't even meet many deaf people (again, besides his brother) until he was in his twenties. He fights with his brothers (particularly Zev) and he admits that he might have used the sensitive soul angle to get laid in college, but after attending Yale, he wasn't sure what to do with himself. So he signed up for the Peace Corp... and he was shipped off to a small village in Zambia. If only for his style, I recommend this book. Unlike some people who write memoirs of going to Africa and having their lives changed or being deaf, Swiller is first and foremost a guy you can relate to, and it's only on the second level that he happens to be deaf. He articulates his experience as a deaf person in ways that I have never encountered. Perhaps the most interesting point is that he finds his deafness minimized in Africa. People make a point of speaking directly to this important white man in their community, so he can read their lips with greater ease. Otherwise, he's just another white guy in Africa who realizes that he doesn't know how to achieve his lofty goals and so he's got to adapt to the situation and do what he can. So I say "Well done, Swiller," and thanks to this month's book club selector for making me read a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and wouldn't have otherwise picked up....more
It's not that I didn't like this book... Okay, that's exactly what it is. But the real issue I had with Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is this: I've eithIt's not that I didn't like this book... Okay, that's exactly what it is. But the real issue I had with Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is this: I've either had every conversation in this book (which I enjoyed more than these essay versions of them) or I've walked away from the conversation because it didn't interest me in the slightest. I can name at least ten people I know who could have written this book (give or take an article or two), and probably could have written it better (including the person whose choice this book is for my book club).
I didn't dislike it all, though. It was amusing in parts. It's just that I didn't find it to be wonderfully clever even though it was clearly trying very hard to be.
I could talk a lot about why I didn't like this book for little reasons, but on the whole, I think my distaste for it was rooted in the fact that I couldn't simply read it at my leisure, picking it up and putting it down to read a single article and then switch to something else, because we're reading this for book club and thus my reading has a deadline. Had I been able to just skip an article (such as the mind-numbing article on basketball) or stop reading one (like when he made repetitive references to Sigur Ros and Devo as though they were symbols of uniqueness, only to make them ordinary by constantly referencing them) so I could move on to something else or read an essay every few days, then I probably would have a kinder outlook on this book.
But here's the kicker as to why I can't simply dismiss this book. Do you know the game "Table Topics"? Or have you read the If...? books? They work on the same premise... posing a "what if" kind of question that you're supposed to then discuss with people. This may seem lame, because it implies that you can't have a natural conversation with your friends without the assistance of cards, but I found them amusing in college... and probably still would, given a particularly creative bunch of friends and a few bottles of wine. "If you could only listen to one album again for the rest of your life, what would it be?" "If you had to kill an innocent person to end world hunger, could you?" "If you were exiled from your current country, what new country would you pick as your new home?" "Which famous dead person would you most want to have a dinner conversation with?" "If you could either sleep with one famous person and never tell anyone or give the impression of a deep and loving relationship to the world but never actually sleep with them... which scenario would you pick?" (I actually think he did pose this question somewhere in the book...)
Anyway... there's one "essay" in this book that's my favorite part, not just because it's funny, but because it seems like it unwittingly captures the whole essence of the other articles -- or at least distills what good this book can accomplish. It's a small section of twenty three questions that the author would pose to a person and their answers would determine whether or not this could be his soulmate. Think of Table Topic and If...? questions (like those above) and multiply them by ten on a specific and weird scale... then you'd get the kind of questions that he asks.
For example, here's a fairly ordinary but still interesting one:
Every person you have ever slept with is invited to a banquet where you are the guest of honor. No one will be in attendance except you, the collection of your former lovers, and the catering service. After the meal, you are asked to give a fifteen-minute speech to the assembly. What do you talk about?
And here's a weird one that I quite enjoy:
Defying all expectation, a group of Scottish marine biologists capture a live Loch Ness Monster. In an almost unbelievable coincidence, a bear hunter in the Pacific Northwest shoots a Sasquatch in the thigh, thereby allowing zoologists to take the furry monster into captivity. These events happen on the same afternoon. That evening, the president announces he may have thyroid cancer and will undergo a biopsy later that week. You are the front page editor of The New York Times: What do you play as the biggest story?
And one more for kicks:
Someone builds and optical portal that allows you to see a vision of your own life in the future (it’s essentially a crystal ball that shows a randomly selected image of what your life will be like in twenty years). You can only see into this portal for thirty seconds. When you finally peer into the crystal, you see yourself in a living room, two decades older than you are today. You are watching a Canadian football game, and you are extremely happy. You are wearing a CFL jersey. Your chair is surrounded by books and magazines that promote the Canadian Football League, and there are CFL pennants covering your walls. You are alone in the room, but you are gleefully muttering about historical moments in Canadian football history. It becomes clear that—for some unknown reason—you have become obsessed with Canadian football. And this future is static and absolute; no matter what you do, this future will happen. The optical portal is never wrong. This destiny cannot be changed. The next day, you are flipping through television channels and randomly come across a pre-season CFL game between the Toronto Argonauts and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Knowing your inevitable future, do you now watch it?
Okay, last one, for real:
Let us assume you met a rudimentary magician. Let us assume he can do five simple tricks--he can pull a rabbit out of his hat, he can make a coin disappear, he can turn the ace of spades into the Joker card, and two others in a similar vein. These are his only tricks and he can't learn any more; he can only do these five. HOWEVER, it turns out he's doing these five tricks with real magic. It's not an illusion; he can actually conjure the bunny out of the ether and he can move the coin through space. He's legitimately magical, but extremely limited in scope and influence. Would this person be more impressive than Albert Einstein?
These make me think that Chuck Klosterman missed his true calling as a "Table Topics for Gen X" writer. ALL of his essays seem to serve one purpose for me: they're mildly interesting, but they make me think of more interesting things that I then actually want to discuss with other people.
Weirdest thing of all, but I actually think this might be a good book for discussion at book club... not for discussing the merits of the book, but because Klosterman's random topics (the true meaning of Saved by the Bell, the weird interest he has in people who have met serial killers and lived, etc.) will hopefully inspire other things we want to talk about in the Table Topics sense of things.
My mother tried to make the point that perhaps Klosterman was really intending to inspire conversation with these topics. At first, I found it hard to believe that Klosterman, who writes about saved by the Bell and cartoon cereal characters, is really trying to inspire discussion... but that's totally it. I might find his writing to be somewhat lacking, but he really is creating a jumping-off-point for people who might find these topics to be of interest.
So Klosterman, despite all of the complaints I have, I give you three stars.
Oh, and if you don't pick the Loch Ness Monster, then I don't understand what you could possibly be thinking....more
Hurray for wonderful book club members that create interesting lists and select good books.
I enjoyed Lost City Radio. I didn't really adore it, but I Hurray for wonderful book club members that create interesting lists and select good books.
I enjoyed Lost City Radio. I didn't really adore it, but I read it quickly and found very little fault with it. It struck me as a novel that junior high or high school teachers might encourage their students to read as a means of introducing them to certain historical events, and it would be an excellent way to do this. And I don't mean that as a slight that some people intend when they assign books to a certain age group or something. I'm not saying that only eighth-graders should read this, but it made me somewhat feel like I was back in school and about to study a South American civil war.
On top of that, I often find a certain similarity in the tone of stories that focus on missing loved ones, particularly when we're talking about situations like this where a Latin/South American country suffers civil war and many disappear. It's horrific and sad and so very upsetting to live with the knowledge that there will never be closure to the feeling of loss... It's one of those things that I cannot possibly comprehend and I hope I never will.
So, the story. This novel focuses on three characters in an unnamed country, weaving back and forth through time as we eventually learn about what (predictably) links them together. While our focus remains on these and a handful of others, the two main locations are the jungle and the city. The circumstances of the civil war and the country are vague, which means we bring in our own vague knowledge of many Latin/South American countries that have experienced civil wars, dictators, rebel armies, and mass disappearances that foster a culture of fear. And because of that, we automatically have ourselves a scenario and we're free to focus on what this means to our characters and what it does to change their lives.
First and foremost, we have Norma. Norma hosts "Lost City Radio," a Sunday radio program where callers phone with names and descriptions of missing loved ones. While her face might not be known to the country, it's practically impossible for her to speak outside of the radio without being identified. The people love her. She is repeatedly stopped and handed lists of names to be read on her show. Lost City Radio is often the site for staged reunions and everyone in the country seems to tune in, desperate to locate their own missing family, friends, and loved ones.
Norma's own husband is one of the missing, though she cannot speak his name on the air without fear of some action being taken. Possibly a member of the rebel group, the IL, Rey was a man who was taken into custody and imprisoned on the very night that he met Norma. He was released and met her once more a year later, so Norma returns to this fact constantly as an excuse for why she cannot quite let go. His ability to disappear and reappear in her life became so ingrained with their relationship that even now, ten years later, she cannot help but hope. She does not know how involved he was with a rebel movement and deluded herself into believing that her husband was a man who kept no secrets.
The third character that we have is young Victor, an eleven-year-old boy who is sent by his village to see Norma and bring her the list of their village's missing. His mother has just died, he never knew his father, and his teacher (who accompanied him to the city) appears to have abandoned him at the radio station, so Norma takes charge of him and it is at that point where we begin our story.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, though most everything came as a given in the plot. A weaving storyline will do that, as you assume certain things to fill in the gaps and then, when you double-back, your assumptions are confirmed. Thus, you're thankful that Alacron is a good storyteller and you're compelled to finish the novel based on that alone, because you know what's going to happen. I found this to be one of those books where you don't shed tears, and yet you still feel sadness pervading every page. It's a constant emotion in the book, despite small bursts of anxiety, fear and even some joy, as we're looking back on events that cannot be changed, and it's only once we reach the end that we look forward to what can be done. ...more
Ugh!! I finished this last night because I couldn't bear to spend another day of my life with this in my purse. So why did I read it? For the11/10/08
Ugh!! I finished this last night because I couldn't bear to spend another day of my life with this in my purse. So why did I read it? For the same reason that many young women read books they might not be thrilled with... I had to read it for my book club (...which normally picks much more intelligent and interesting books). As I mentioned to the person selecting the book when she solicited comments about her short list of options, I've never been tempted to read a Picoult book. I doubt that I shall read another.
The short summary is this: after her parents' separation and divorce, Faith White starts talking to God (who she sees as a woman and calls "her Guard"). Faith starts healing people and develops what appears to be Stigmata. Divorce, medical things, custody battle. In short, complications ensue for father, mother, daughter, and the hot Southern television guy that's supposed to be proving Faith to be a fraud if he wasn't falling for her mom.
My irritation at this book exists on many levels. As far as being pertinent in a GoodReads review, here are a few. Oh, and I'm not too concerned about spoiling things for anyone reading this review, as I hope you don't pick up this waste of trees, so if you really don't want me to spoil the incredibly obvious and uninteresting ending... Don't read any further.
1. This was an incredibly formulaic book... It's as though Picoult had worked out a system for churning out books with interchangeable characters geared to a female marketplace (Working on her seventeenth book and she's only 42, is she? You don't say!). Names and details were changed, but otherwise it was like you might see: [Insert protective mother example here!] [Insert love scene here!] [Insert courtroom drama here!] I'm betting that if I picked up another Picoult book, I'd find myself in a book with the names and situations slightly changed, but ultimately, the exact same outline.
2. For a book that is essentially beach reading, it took itself way too seriously. You realize mass markets are made for beach totes, right? Pure and simple. That's the level of the writing, the intricacy of the characters, etc. I have nothing against beach reading or silly books, believe me. I find them to be delightful when that's what you want. But this book wants to pretend that it's about religion and protecting children... and funnily enough, she gets way more preachy about what children need in the courtroom scenes rather than being preachy about the religion (where everyone seems to be rational and accepting, aside from one small spectacle on Larry King). Oh and speaking about the focus on children...
3. For a book where characters kept insisting that the main story here (be it in the media frenzy, hospital scenes, or custody case) was about Faith (the child), I actually didn't think Picoult paid much attention to Faith until the last page of the book. (And then it was to do something incredibly inconsistent with the story she was writing.) Instead, the real drama centered around Mariah, the mother. (Maybe because Picoult is aiming for a middle-aged female market of wives and mothers, who want to know that just because they're not a gold-star mom and life isn't going smoothly, they're still great and could have a happy ending?) Picoult put way more effort into the relationship between Mariah and the tele-atheist Ian (though certainly not enough to convince us that their coupling is anything but unbelievable). Faith just wanders in occasionally to talk about drowned kittens and spurt blood from her hands and side.
4. I didn't find any of the characters to be deep or complicated... Or particularly likable. The mother is needy and spineless. The grandmother is a stereotype of a strong grandmother figure. The father is an adultering asshole that the writer wants to pretend like she's not depicting as an ass, so she throws in a moment or two where he sees other kids and misses Faith, or he worries a bit about diving right into a new family. The tele-atheist is way too simplified, would never actually be interested in Faith's mom, and his big secret was incredibly obvious. And for a story where "everything is uncovered" in these people's lives by detectives and media snoops, they conveniently miss a few things which, surprisingly enough, benefits the characters you're supposed to be rooting for.
5. Picoult wants you to think she's giving you a book where things might not be what they seem, and issues are complicated... She just doesn't want to put the effort into writing that book. There came a point where I stopped and wondered if Picoult was ballsy enough to do something (aka make this not about a kid hearing God, but make this about whether or not Faith or Mariah was lying and was mentally unstable). But that was a fleeting moment. I then remembered what a predictable book this had been up to that point and sure enough, we had to endure a hundred pages or so of courtroom scenes where Picoult desperately wanted us to think that the happily ever after for mother/daughter was in jeopardy.
Those are just a few things that bothered me. Thankfully, this book club meeting isn't for another month or so. I'll rant here and to my friends for a few more days, but perhaps by the time we meet, I'll have come up with something constructive to say or have thought of some interesting questions to pose for discussion. But right now, the only thing I'm left wondering is how many times Picoult watched Contact and how hard she thought about covering up the idea that Ian's character was really just Matthew McConaughey playing for the other side?
Sigh. Not what I would be choosing for a book club of intelligent young women....more
1/27/09 My book club settled upon reading this book this morning... and then later in the day, we heard that John Updike had passed away.
2/12/09 Finish1/27/09 My book club settled upon reading this book this morning... and then later in the day, we heard that John Updike had passed away.
2/12/09 Finished this last night and while I know I didn't love it, I must admit that the writing was exquisite and the plot certainly made me think, and I imagine I shall keep thinking about it for some time.
A brief summary: The Witches of Eastwick unsurprisingly focuses on three witches who live in the fictional Rhode Island town of Eastwick during the late 1960s. Magic witchy power is established as the result of leaving or being left by a man, and so our three divorced women have formed their cozy coven, where chief activities seem to be drinking and discussing the other people in the small town of Eastwick (particularly the married men they sleep with). While the witches themselves seem to help create a good amount of the town's gossip, the real show starts when the dilapidated mansion on the edge of town is purchased by a devilish single man named Darryl Van Horne. A mysterious scientist and collector of tacky art, the women are quickly drawn into a foursome with this fellow, assembling to play tennis and enjoy orgies in his hot tub. But after a shocking event in town that occurs midway through the book, things can't possibly stay the same.
Whenever I read a male author writing about an intimate circle of women (or vice versa, I imagine), I tend to pause and consider if it all rings true. I suppose the thing that surprised me most was that I did fine Updike to be fairly accurate with his women (treating them perhaps more as human beings rather than women), but once in a while, there was a false note or a simplistic detail that didn't quite feel right. But overall, that was my only true critique of the writing itself.
In various reviews, I have heard this book declared to be misogynistic. Now... I'm not entirely sure that I agree with the accusation, but I do find a few things to be interesting on that topic of the male/female dynamic/power struggle. For instance... The insertion of this male figure into a circle of women as a plot point. At first, I assumed he might have magic powers, thus making him more a warlock in command of a coven (after all, he seemed to be a scientific genius and a musical prodigy, as well as quite cold to the touch), but he turned out to be impotent in that manner of speaking... Just a devil genius who wasn't so very devilish as simply debauched (which is perhaps fitting for a lesser demon who isn't even so strong as to really wreak true havoc). The three women become completely wrapped up in his existence, bending themselves to fit his needs and yield to his requests -- he even starts to direct their creative energies (for example, Alexandra, a sculptress, abandons the small figurines she had previously done at his suggestion that she work in a larger medium, only to end up discouraged). While their relationships prove interesting (both as a larger group and as individuals played off of each other), Darryl ultimately isn't as interesting a figure on his own so much as he's interesting for the effect he produces on those around him.
Another notch against Updike in terms of a misogynist accusation is the ending (which I shall not explicitly state here). Sure, we have ladies who appear rather unhappy or at least unsatisfied throughout the course of the novel, but I find it hard to believe that things could turn out so tidily after the three join together to cast a spell that intends to bring death to another character. I wasn't exactly expecting equal comeuppance or anything, or even punishment for their actions, but it seemed a little too neat in how we backed away from what appears to be happy endings all around.
To the idea of magic... I have a small problem with the initial idea that a woman's powers only manifest themselves as a result of a man -- being left or leaving. It seems to be a somewhat male concept that magic would only come from this particular relationship break. He kept rather close to certain ideas of witchery, but it seemed a very fluid thing in the novel that popped up when it was convenient or amusing. One thing I did like, as it pertains to witchcraft, is that oftentimes, the magic was used for rather selfish little things. Now... I think that some more good natured magic could have been injected (we got a good look at squirrel-killing and such), but it's an interesting concept that, since magic became part of their existence like anything else, there wasn't a particular devotion to only using powers for good or evil. It helps, I suppose, that it wasn't as though they were incredibly powerful. Alexandra creates a rainstorm to clear a beach so her dog can run. Sukie turns milk to cream for her coffee. Jane seemed somewhat disappointingly ordinary as a witch when it turned out she could fly.
In any case, clearly you can tell from my half-formed thoughts that this was an interesting novel and I'm quite looking forward to my book club's discussion of it. I've been told that this is not a characteristic Updike novel, but as long as his writing is of such a quality elsewhere, I shall certainly be reading more of his work in the future....more
Written as a series of letters from a "true Indian entrepreneur" to the Premier of China (all of which are written over the course of a week, mostly aWritten as a series of letters from a "true Indian entrepreneur" to the Premier of China (all of which are written over the course of a week, mostly after midnight), The White Tiger tells the story of Balram Halwai's life from his childhood in "the Darkness" (rural India where electricity and education are scarce) to his eventual rise to be an Indian businessman with his own employees and blood on his hands. From the beginning, he lets the reader know that he is a murderer and that he killed his master, and so you're left to make what you will of his up-front confession as you discover what led up to such actions.
This novel deals with a lot of issues confronting India (and indeed, probably a good part of the world that sees itself divided into the haves and have-nots). At the forefront is the intense social class divide and the feelings of anger and entrapment that result. The idea of being caged and trapped in a caste or in a situation is crucial here. Balram is called out early in his life as a "White Tiger" by a school auditor when he displays all that he has learned from his studies. This idea, that he is a "creature born once every generation," fixes itself in his mind and is what he uses to press onward and upward. Balram also discusses the rooster coop -- his metaphor for life, full of the trapped souls who cannot envision a world outside of their cramped existence, even as they witness others killed and sacrificed. He quotes poets in his struggle to escape the rooster cage and be a white tiger, awake in a world of those who are still sleeping.
On the whole, I enjoyed this and feel like its portrait of India in social turmoil will stay with me for quite some time. This was my selection for book club -- well, one of the several that I presented, and of course, everyone was gung-ho about this one, the one I didn't own already. The cover touts comparisons to Invisible Man and such, but I'm not quite sure I felt that this had the same amount of depth, or perhaps that's simply because this book was so short in comparison to other novels of social inequalities. Certainly, it was a very interesting book and I liked the narrative voice -- it made for a rather quick read but as a result, I think it might have undercut its importance to some degree....more
Oh my goodness. I devoured this book... I actually had to keep it in a separate room so it would be out of my line of sight and I could prolong the reOh my goodness. I devoured this book... I actually had to keep it in a separate room so it would be out of my line of sight and I could prolong the reading experience.
A longer review will follow, but here's the basic plot.
In Copenhagen, a young Greenlander boy named Isaiah dies from falling off the roof of his apartment building. Smilla (our narrator and his neighbor, another Greenlander) sees his footprints in the snow and even while the police are ready to declare it an accident, she can tell from his tracks that something isn't right in that ruling. A child -- moreover, a child afraid of heights -- would not run so assuredly towards the edge of the roof. What follows is Smilla's determined search to understand how and why Isaiah died, which takes her far from Copenhagen's snowy streets and into the treacherous ice of Greenland....more
Let's face it, I was never going to like this book. I knew that from the beginning, though I did make a few half-hearted attempts to appreciate it forLet's face it, I was never going to like this book. I knew that from the beginning, though I did make a few half-hearted attempts to appreciate it for the style and the historical perspective. The fact that it takes place in mid-century China is the only reason it's getting two stars at all, really, because I found the details of their daily lives to be interesting (in a "dear god, how awful!" kind of way). The rationing, the regulation, the lack of agency in one's own life. The basic story is this: in Communist China, a couple needs to live separately for eighteen years before a person can divorce his or her spouse without that spouse's consent. Doctor Lin Kong married young to a woman his parents selected -- an unattractive woman with bound feet (which had passed out of fashion with the previous generation) that he was too embarrassed to bring with him to his hospital in the city, so he kept her in the country. (The fact that his wife, Shuyu, is incredibly simple and has no personality aside from blind devotion isn't really a factor, except it plays on one's pity for her.) She cared for his dying parents and gave him one daughter, Hua. Meanwhile, in the city, Lin develops a friendship with a nurse, Manna, that makes him think that he should divorce Shuyu. The novel charts the years spent waiting for the year that Lin can finally divorce Shuyu and marry Manna, and then follows along for a little while later as they all deal with the repercussions. I've heard that people disliked this novel because they found the characters unlikeable (particularly Lin, who is incredibly weak-willed), but I didn't have that problem. What I did mind was that on all counts, this is a stunted novel. The characters, the novel's revelation, even the language! To start, most of the more complicated aspects of a situation like this (married man intent on someone else, but who still wants to be a "good man") were never touched upon. Both Lin and Manna's thoughts about their relationship were incredibly simplistic, and I could never care about their worries because I knew they didn't really love each other... they simply committed themselves to each other without trying to really discover and love the other person. When Lin finally has this revelation, the tone of the voice in his head is so different it's as though a higher power said, "Enough! Don't you get it?" and had to explain it to him. I understand that this novel meant to explain how the political situation reduced people to the point where they are incapable of maturing in any way, unable to make decisions or have deeper emotions that they believed should guide their actions. Not one character is a sound emotional being. The only two people who seem to ever actually be happy at any point in time are the rapist and the blank-slate wife. It's meant to illustrate the time period where individuality was clearly not prized and where the only inner feeling that was encouraged seemed to be one's devotion. But there was just something missing at every single turn that made me feel as though the author failed in their attempts at producing something truly good and meaningful. When finishing the novel, I actually looked up to see if it might be a translation, which might excuse some of my issues with the language, but no, it was written in English. I suppose I knew it all along, though, as the language is purposely simple as to illustrate the emotionally stunted characters, but still not lovely in its simplicity. I'm thankful that this was a quick read, though (and with a title like Waiting, you can bet that I was worried this would make things feel like time was dragging on), and I'm sure that someone in my book club will have thought this book said something truly meaningful about love and life, so we'll be able to discuss it just long enough so that we can then feel justified in moving on to gossip about our personal lives. ...more
The experience of reading this book in public was not pleasant. I got several poorly-crafted observation jokes of "trying to be more intelligent, eh?"The experience of reading this book in public was not pleasant. I got several poorly-crafted observation jokes of "trying to be more intelligent, eh?" from some co-workers, who met my withering glance and then scurried away. But that was harmless in comparison to the on-edge feeling that I had in the subway, holding my book open as little as possible to minimize the potential for people reading over my shoulder. Was I ashamed of the topic? Not at all, but the language used to discuss a semi-sensitive topic sometimes left me wondering if people might think I was a racist as page after page went on about studies connecting race and IQ. (I realize that this suggests people read more than just a word or two when glancing at the things other people read on the subway, but still, it was enough to unnerve me. All someone needed to do was see "blacks with lower IQs"...)
That said, clearly the point of this book is to say that nature has little to do with IQ and nurture far and away takes the cake. And to make that point, many discussions of race and IQ had to take place (which bring us back to me feeling uncomfortable in the subway). Even in the event of disproving things, we do need to confront some awkward truths, and within Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, Richard Nisbett does a fair job at assuring us that we're not all doomed from the start to be limited in our abilities, though that doesn't mean we don't need to act fast in order to get our children prepared for their lives.
Nisbett includes a great deal of data to carry his point that environment is the major factor in affecting the intelligence of children (and for that matter, adults), which might seem overwhelming for someone who isn't a statistician, but I think it's all presented in a coherent manner, so I never found myself lost completely. Of course, the complex issue that is raised by Nisbett's work suggests that genes have little to do with predicting your IQ... but your cultural and socioeconomic influences do. The ugly truth of that statement? Your genes won't hold you back, but your ignorant family just might as soon as you're out of the womb, so keep those fingers crossed that you're born into an upper-middle class family that converses with each other.
Of course, that's the negative view that one can take away. The positive approach is that parents and schools (or any kind of programs) can have a big impact on the intelligence of children... provided that they're good ones. Without concerned and caring parents, experienced and committed teachers... well... things don't look good. The current socioeconomic system then becomes a kind of caste system, condemning children to repeat the lives of their parents and be unable to rise above, resulting in children who end up classified as disabled when different circumstances could have certainly avoided such a fate.
As a reasonably intelligent person, I feel that most of the conclusions drawn from this data are, in fact, things that make perfect sense if your mind ever happens to alight upon the topic. If you only surround the average child with influences that aren't encouraging or challenging, then the child's curiosity and intelligence will suffer as a result. Of course, Nisbett has data to back all of this up, resulting in some fascinating (and frightening) statistics. (And, of course, he states from the outset that not all families are alike an it's not great to make generalizations, but then the studies make their generalized statements and I start feeling awkward again.) For instance... a child in a middle class family will hear several million more words than a child in a lower class family, and beyond improved vocabulary isn't the only thing that results from that. Parents of middle class children (and again, the generalizations make me uncomfortable, but this was how it was presented in the book) are more likely to be engaged in conversation with their parents, to be asked questions that both draw out the child's opinions and logical reasoning abilities. When lower class children are spoken to by adults, they're often spoken to in terms of orders, such as to perform tasks, rather than engaged in conversation. It sounds pretty bleak, but thankfully, he did at least report on some programs that are invested in teaching better parenting skills or serving as day care facility with trained staff.
And lest you think he dodged some other issues in terms of race and IQ, Nisbitt did include chapters on "the Asian Advantage" and Jewish intelligence. While speaking of Asians, I feel that he didn't include nearly as much research in his discussion as he had with other chapters... which seemed rather odd, given that he himself does a great deal of research in Asia. He made some interesting (though not new) statements about the cultural differences between Asian and Western societies, given one's focus on the family and society's success and the other's focus on personal and individual success. What seemed a bit out of place, however, were statements like Confucius is responsible for all Asian thought, etc. (I did, however, like one Asian father commenting on the idea that it's not "Asian overachievement" so much as it's "American underachievement" when he witnessed his daugher's class give an award for completing all of the homework assignments.) And as far as Jewish intelligence, this chapter jumped away from his general format and seemed only to bring up the various theories that people have about why Jews are so smart and dismissed them pretty quickly. Perhaps he thought the majority of the book's arguments covered these, but still, it might have been worth repeating a bit.
We read this book for my book club and we actually had some great conversations result, particularly surrounding the idea of affirmative action and school funding. A great deal of Nisbett's points seemed to bring focus to early childhood development (though clearly, many educational researchers do), but almost to the point where it overlooked what can be done for older students. And I couldn't help but feel like I was waiting for Nisbett to make some kind of recommendation... to endorse certain practices or programs... but if you're waiting for that, you might as well skip to his last chapter when he tosses in a few common sense recommendations for parents (which can hardly be seen as serious, given that if someone is reading this book, they're clearly committed to their child's education and must be doing all these things already).
Don't feel intimidated by the size of the book if this isn't your usual kind of reading, for you're only reading about two-thirds of the pages... the rest are taken up by optional appendices, footnotes, and research citations. And yes, you can say that the title is stupid, as the book isn't much concerned with telling you how to acquire intelligence, be it for you or your precious little one. It was an interesting read (the studies were my favorite part, when certain things are isolated and the variables are charted) and you'll feel like it was worthwhile if you can manage to stir up some discussions on the topic. Since I work for an educational publisher, you can bet that it wasn't too hard to collect a group that wanted in on the discussion when I started talking about this book with co-workers, and I think that anyone (particularly parents) will be asking you to borrow your copy once you're finished....more
So... evidently, the review I've written for this book exceeds the GoodReads allowance of characters! I'm just going to post the "part one" bit of thiSo... evidently, the review I've written for this book exceeds the GoodReads allowance of characters! I'm just going to post the "part one" bit of things and some fun facts learned by Lev Grossman, and if you're interested in "part two," please visit my blog -- www.scatteredpaper.blogspot.com
Before I say anything, I want to thank Lev Grossman for being generous with his time and visiting my book club to discuss his book, The Magicians. He was open to all questions, insisted that we should pull no punches, and a lot of the stories he shared about writing the book were great. We were very excited about having an author there to discuss his book, and the fact that he spent two hours with us was a testament to his willingness to chat with readers.
That said, The Magicians is not without a few flaws and because I want to discuss everything in depth, this review has two parts to it. The first part is my usual review -- a general overview of the book and my overall reaction. The second part is a bit weird, because it's more or less a bunch of individual topics of discussion from the book, which means there are spoilers galore. BUT the second part ALSO has more to do with the visit that Grossman paid to my book club, so feel free to make your own decision about how much you read.
To start, if you heard this book described as "Harry Potter for adults" and you're looking for a magical book that could in any way merit the term "fantasy," this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a fiction book that deals with magic as though it is brought into our existing world for a select few as another facet of life, but there is a distinct lack of joy and wonderment, then your search is at an end.
I've had mixed feelings about The Magicians from the moment I read its description in a review, and those mixed feelings continue even now, after I've gotten to speak with the author and ask some lingering questions. I was initially intrigued by the idea, but had already decided to wait for paperback when my book club selected it, with the tantalizing potential of actually having Lev Grossman come to talk to us through the contacts of one of the members. I bought it; I took off the slipcover so it wouldn't be damaged as it knocked about in my purse; and I was immediately annoyed by the embossed "L.G." on the front cover. I like pretentiousness, don't get me wrong, but seriously? I should have taken this as a sign of things to come.
Those embossed initials don't even come close to the tone of the novel in general and the main character in particular. And not in a good "this is a really fascinating character" kind of way. I have so rarely wanted to punch a fictional person as much as I wanted to punch Quentin Clearwater, our protagonist. I'm a pacifist and I dislike violence, but it was a visceral reaction that would surge through me, forcing me to set the book down and take a deep breath before I could pick it up again. This annoyance would abate, and there were moments of pleasure and amusement, but through it all, I couldn't help but think that if I could just get in one solid punch, I'd be able to feel better about everything. Of course, Quentin does get punched at one point, and while I was pleased by that scene, I can't say that it really made me feel better, so perhaps I'm wrong about the therapeutic punching. (Note: despite the fact that Quentin is very closely aligned with the author in tone, this pugilistic impulse never focused on the author, thankfully. Though perhaps it helped that a month passed between my reading the book and discussing the book with the author and my book club.)
The basic storyline is this. Quentin Clearwater has grown up in Brooklyn with a penchant for magic tricks, an obsession with a series of children's books set in a land called Fillory, and a very acute awareness of his own incredible intelligence. He's always been advanced, he's always been an A-student, yet now that he's applying to and interviewing for colleges, he somehow feels a bit nervous. But when he shows up for his interview, he discover the body of his interviewer, dead of seemingly natural causes. A rather out-of-place and attractive paramedic offers Quentin a folder that might or might not have belonged to the dead interviewer and Quentin takes it, despite his friend cautioning otherwise. When Quentin inspects the contents, a slip of paper is blown away and in chasing it, he finds himself entering what appears to be an alternate world. Of course, it's not an alternate world but it might as well be; it's upstate New York and Quentin has arrived/been summoned to take an entrance exam for an elite school -- and once passing, he learns that the school is a school for magic. Instead of college, he will attend Brakebills and learn how to be a magician. Magic is real. His world is forever changed, but whether it's for the better or worse is up for debate.
Sound familiar? It should. (Well, at least up until the the better or worse bit.) It's the plot of countless fantasy novels where a young person is spirited away from a boring or painful existence and exposed to a world of magic. It is impossible not to think of Harry Potter (though Grossman insists that he conceived of the idea of this novel before The Boy Who Lived entered our lives). What makes The Magicians different is that it includes a few things that other similar novels do not (notably, lots of sex, alcohol, and swearing) and it ventures to pose some questions left unimagined in Narnia or Hogwarts. Instead of staying in school for the duration of the novel, these magicians continue on, into the world, and are left to ask "what's the point?" If you can cast a spell, can you ever really grow up? And if magic cannot make you happy, can anything?
A few words of assessment before I launch into spoiler-land. First of all, I am glad that I read this book. And I'm glad that it was written. I'm just not sure that Grossman was the best one to do it. It was very hard not to associate Quentin with Grossman (and Grossman himself admitted to being quite closely aligned with Quentin when he discussed the novel with my book club) and I think we get too bogged down with Quentin to really explore the more interesting questions about magic that the book touches upon. I did, however, like the book more after speaking with Grossman. Sure, it was nice to have a few suspicions validated, but it also reminded me that books are written by imperfect people with original ideas, and I'd rather have them attempt to bring those ideas into the world than leave them to languish in their minds.
For fantasy-lovers, I urge a bit of caution in reading this novel. True, the book is riddled with touchstones and nods to other works (Fillory is quite obviously Narnia and jokes are made at one time about Quidditch)... but perhaps the biggest issue that I had with The Magicians is that the tone of the novel felt calculated. It was as though Grossman (being a fantasy reader himself) knew his market well -- and to win over the readers with a sense of being "in" on things, he left these nods to other stories so readers could go, "hey, I know where he got that idea!" or "look at that joke about this other book!" But instead of feeling like there was camaraderie between reader and writer in this recognition, there was a touch of disdain. Even as Grossman tried to lure the readers in by presenting himself as one of them, it felt as though he looked down on their love of these other works. Quentin is never really happy (and indeed, my book club unanimously agreed that without medication, he was incapable of happiness), and so I had the distinct impression that if I took delight in those other fantasy novels and expressed happiness, then I was being seen as a bit childish. The novel judges fantasy as a genre for never dealing with deeper issues, and so similarly, the reader, too, feels judged. Grossman himself didn't give this impression in person, and insisted that he's always loved fantasy (though he does have some HP issues). Perhaps it was simply my own misreading, but this seemed to be a book with a lack of respect for lighter fantasy, save as a medium through which to tell people that they're indulging in escapism. If you can be happy, then you can't possibly have it in you to tackle the bigger questions of magic. Magic was discussed without any spark of belief or wonder or joy... and so I found it very hard to see any appeal in the worlds that Grossman conjured, or feel any concern for the characters who populated them. All of this doesn't stop the book from being very interesting and having some excellent moments that made me laugh or feel deeply for the characters. There are some delightful scenes that I re-read with relish. But on the whole, I had serious doubts about how honest Grossman was being, with the readers and himself, as it pertained to his relationship with fantasy writing.
From this point on, I warn you that I will give things away. If you want to read the book and don't want any plot points spoiled, stop now. If you have read the book already, don't think you will, or don't think that knowing things about the ending of the book will stop you, then by all means, keep reading and feel free to initiate discussion on any of the topics that I raise. If nothing else, this was a great book for raising discussion questions, both about the book itself and the fantasy genre as a whole. My formal review ends here. Now it's just summaries and interesting discussion topics.
Here's the quick summary of the rest of the book. The major bulk of the novel is spent in "Book One," where Quentin attends Brakebills and learns magic. The most shocking incident occurs when somehow, a magic force (referred to as "the Beast") "hacks" into Brakebills and seems to do nothing except freeze a class in place and devour a student, departing after a few hours of keeping the class frozen in place. The encounter with the Beast alerts us to the reality of other "dimensions" of existence. As for the rest of the magical education, there are a few interesting parts (the most notable being a semester where the students are transformed into geese, fly to Antarctica, and then spend the semester mostly in silence and practical application of the rudiments of magic in every possible condition) but otherwise it's not terribly memorable. Quentin acquires a girlfriend (Alice), as well as a few other friends, mostly by virtue of their being thrown together in their studies: Eliot (gay, cruel, and somehow Quentin's closest friend after Alice), Janet (self-obsessed and a bit promiscuous), Josh (lazy and skirting along), and Penny (detached, brilliant, though not quite a friend as punches Quentin fairly early on). When Quentin and Alice enter the real world (Book Two), they become lost as to what they should be doing (or at least Quentin does), and only gain direction (perhaps too late, though, as Quentin has cheated on Alice by having a threesome with Eliot and Janet) when Penny discovers that Fillory is real. (Now, if the reader is looking at a hardcover edition of this book, s/he would probably assume that we go to Fillory at some point, because there are maps. But we don't get to Fillory until we're already SEVENTY PERCENT THROUGH THE BOOK. So you'd be forgiven if you were surprised when we actually do go, because I had almost given up on ever getting to actual Fillory.) They do, indeed, go to Fillory (Book Three) and take upon themselves the quest of finding the guardians of Fillory who seem to have disappeared and left the land a bit lawless. Naturally, this goes horribly wrong as they're confronted with true violence and they discover that the Beast is actually one of the children who appeared in the Fillory books that was left behind and learned how to manipulate magic for his own purposes. Alice dies in destroying the Beast, and Quentin nearly dies as well. He revives, mends, and finds his way back to "the real world," (Book Four) where he gives up magic for a time, but when given the opportunity to re-join his friends and return to Fillory... he chooses Fillory once more.
Now, here are a few "fun facts" that my book club learned from Lev Grossman.
1. Grossman based the structure of the novel on Brideshead Revisited, which is one of his favorite novels. As strange as this might sound, consider the basic arch -- a rather idyllic beginning in an elite college atmosphere followed with an abrupt (and alcohol-sodden) entry into the "real world" where the characters find it hard to cope.
2. Grossman claims that he thought of the idea for this novel in the mid-90s, "before Harry Potter" as a result of his exposure to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin (with whom Grossman is now acquainted and on a first-name basis) and other fantasy literature that featured students schooled in magic.
3. There's no getting away from the comparison that Fillory is startlingly like Narnia. It's foolish to suggest otherwise. And in fact, Grossman told us that the first draft of The Magicians actually was set in Narnia, with Aslan and CS Lewis as characters. Of course, he then spoke with some intellectual property lawyers and friends who told him that sure, it's possible, he could go ahead with a book set in Narnia, but the legal issues would put him up against the CS Lewis estate and Walt Disney Pictures... so you're also up against unlimited money to fund a legal battle that could drag on. So the idea of immediately being set in Narnia was abandoned and Fillory was born.
4. In talking with Grossman, one inevitably finds that he tends to name drop. He's a journalist who does a great deal of interviews and he wrote a book that draws heavily on other novels, so it's easily forgivable. He admits to constantly adding in things that serve as nods to other works of fiction. You'd be right in your guess that the whole turning-into-geese thing is a nod to TH White's The Sword in the Stone and that the cacodemons imprisoned in the backs of Brakebills graduates are inspired from Larry Niven. Another one that I might add to this (which wasn't explicitly mentioned, though Grossman did mention this author as an inspiration) is Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. In this series, you find that a lot of power and magic is invested in children and when they grow up, their daemons stabilize -- and indeed, "growing up" might simply be synonymous with having sex. Grossman made a point of insisting that fantasy tends to see sex as the end of magic, whereas he believed that "sex isn't the end of magic, it's the beginning." I found this to be a great viewpoint, though the sex that occurs in The Magicians isn't always magical. On the whole, though, Grossman tended to say "I don't know if any of you have read [insert author/book:]" quite a lot, as he must be fairly used to addressing audiences that wouldn't know his more obscure influences. Quite proudly, I can say that there wasn't a single reference to a book or author that he made which at least one of my book club members hadn't read.
5. Grossman repeatedly mentioned that one of the issues he had with Harry Potter (and there were several) was with the character of Dudley Dursley. When Grossman interviewed JK Rowling, he even left some of his limited interview time to address the question of Dudley. Rowling insists that Dudley is simply an unimaginative child who has no interest in magic, but Grossman believes that he would. A child on the fringe of a magical world without any interest in it whatsoever? It rubbed him the wrong way. Julia (a girl Quentin grew up with and ends up dating his best friend while Quentin pines for her) is Grossman's answer to Dudley. Quentin thinks he sees Julia at the exam, then is confronted by her at a later date, when she's completely lost it -- she's a person driven mad by the limited exposure to this magical world and then denied access. Grossman's other issue with Harry Potter is with the fact that Harry is too much of a jock and never seems to pick up a book for the duration of his magical education. Clearly, Quentin's obsession with fantasy books is correcting what Grossman believed should have been a trait of Harry. Jokingly, he even called Harry "a bit of a douchebag." Of course, he also said that he was a fan of Rowling's series, "in the limited way on can be a Harry Potter fan."
6. As far as his alignment with Quentin is concerned, Grossman admitted, "Quentin is very much like me at his age... he's very much like I was at 34" (the age at which he started writing the book). He also noted that his own battle with depression certainly found its way into Quentin's character as well, along with his somewhat distant relationship with his parents.
7. The most surprising revelation of the evening, however, was when Grossman told us that originally, it was Janet and not Alice that was supposed to die. If you search the book, you'll notice that there's a great amount of foreshadowing that points to this. (Indeed, while reading the book, I was of the opinion that Janet would get it in the end... after all, she's one of the first to admit to sex and it's always the girl who has sex that ends up dying in the horror movie.) Eventually, an intervention was performed by his editor who sat him down and explained that Janet must be given a reprieve and Alice is the one who has to be sacrificed. This surprised me greatly, as I always rather assumed Alice would have to die, too, (after all, in the first scene with Alice, the breaking of the glass animal seemed to suggest that she'd be similarly shattered in the end). When I asked how on earth the book would end with Alice alive, Lev started to explain, stopped and smirked. "No, it really wouldn't have worked at all well, would it?" (I'll talk more about Grossman's use of female characters in the novel later.)
8. Yes, there will be a sequel, and as of now, Lev Grossman is planning for a trilogy. (One of our group adamantly insisted that he simply couldn't plan a trilogy as it didn't have a chance of working well. Instead, she suggested, he should write a sequel and if things go well, then go for the third, but if he plans for three, he'll fail miserably. Lev took this in stride.)
Somewhere between my beginning Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis and my book club discussion of it (which started about two minutes after I finisheSomewhere between my beginning Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis and my book club discussion of it (which started about two minutes after I finished reading), the following happened, roughly in this order:
* About twenty pages in, I feared that it was the most misogynist book I had ever picked up. * I mentioned this to my significant other and he took the book from me, opening it at random, and read, "Then I tried to rape her again." He balked and returned the book to me, commenting that he'd be interested in hearing the reaction from my all-female book club. * Despite my frequent discomfort, I became aware that there was some utterly beautiful writing in this book. * I figured out what the twist at the end of the book would be. * Martin Amis writes himself into the book and, surprised by this, I ditched my previous assumption as to how things would turn out and just went along with things for a while. * I lost count of the instances of exploitation, physical violence, intended violence, or verbal abuse toward women. But I also realized that the book wasn't misogynist at all. (And even if it had been, I had forgotten that no one beats John Updike for the title of most misogynist writer ever.) * Whatever his faults, one had to admit that the narrator was unflinchingly honest. * I returned to support my previous prediction of what the ending would be, despite the author being a character in his own novel. * I became aware that I was actually feeling sorry for the main character, somewhere around his futile attempts at reform. * I snickered at a very self-aware section that talked about the rush of finishing a book. * The twist ending sets in, as I predicted. * I finished the book. * While discussing the book with my book club, I realized that I actually really had enjoyed it.
Money is a first person narrative, told from the perspective of John Self, a director on the verge of making his first major film after creating a name for himself by directing commercials that generally featured busty women in hot pants. He is a hedonist the likes of which you may have never encountered; he seems to live on prostitutes and pornography. Weighing sixteen stone, he consumes copious amounts of fast food and is always either drunk or hungover. He lives in London but makes frequent trips out to New York, where he has started to collaborate with Fielding Goodney, a young film producer, who insists that John should actually be spending more money. Also living in New York is Martina Twain, a "friend" of John's and the most normal person in the narrative. She's married and while John certainly wants her, you don't sense the same kind of filthy thoughts directed her as he seems to direct towards every other woman. Back in London, John has an unfaithful girlfriend named Selina who he knows is only interested in the money and potential security he can provide, though as John repeatedly gives into her demands, one can see that Selina clearly has most of the power in this relationship. John's father, Barry Self, is also in London (his mother died when John was young), though they don't have a fantastic relationship. Barry once invoiced John for the costs of his upbringing, which came to a little under nineteen thousand pounds; John wrote him a check for twenty.
John Self has an idea for a movie, which he originally calls Good Money (though eventually this becomes Bad Money and the obvious significance of this should not be lost on you). He and Goodney are looking to procure a writer for the script and four solid actors, though three of the four have basically been locked down and only the fourth is up for minor discussion by the time the book starts. First we have Lorne Guyland, whose career is waning, though he is unaware that. Slated to play the father, Lorne is constantly suggesting "improvements" to the script, which often feature explicit nudity and sex and the ultimate triumph of his character. Lorne repeatedly takes off his clothing when having conversations with John to make a point. Cast as Lorne's wife is Caduta Massi, who might be childless in real life (and thus seems to compensate for this by surrounding herself with family and children) but she is a strong motherly figure. She refuses to perform any nude scenes or any sex scenes with Lorne... and loathes all scenes with Lorne in general. Sexy Butch Beausoleil will play the younger waitress sleeping with both father and son, but refuses to do any menial chores; she agrees with Lorne that there should be explicit sex, but wants to emphasize that as the young woman, she is giving herself to an old man out of pity. And then Spunk Davis (whose name is intentionally awkward) is the questionable fourth; an intense Christian who doesn't smoke, drink, believe in violence, or have sex, with only one film to his credit. Two of John Self's duties are to try and convince Spunk to change his name and to be okay with a father-son fight. Goodney has also settled on a writer, who produces an excellent script that threatens to ruin the entire film with its incisive honesty into the characters/actors portraying the characters, which doesn't fly with actors who each want to be seen as a shining hero. Oh, and there's also this "Frank the Phone" character, an unknown someone who calls John when he's at his lowest moments and berates him for his behavior.
The majority of the novel is spent in drunken binges, reflections on handjobs, and John's careening between interactions with the people above (which are often drunken and sometimes sexual in nature). The surprise guest (as I mentioned before) is the character of Martin Amis, who appears as a writer that John occasionally sees around his London neighborhood and eventually John speaks to him at a pub. Amis comes into play when John tries to "save" the script by having Amis re-write it to appease the actors. At this point, John's life seems to be working itself out: Selina leaves him after becoming pregnant with Martina's husband's child, Martina kicks her husband out, and John essentially moves in with Martina, resulting in an interesting companionship where John can't seem to perform now that he actually "has" Martina. Of course, it doesn't last.
So why did I actually enjoy this novel? Don't get me wrong, there's a lot that just wasn't up my alley. I would never actually want to know these people or have anything to do with them, but that's the beauty of reading about them in a novel... when you've had your fill, you can set the book down. Of course, with this one, you don't want to set it down; despite the content, it's hard to refute that Martin Amis is quite the wordsmith. I don't know that I've ever encountered a writer who can make me laugh while simultaneously cringing to the same degree as Amis. I certainly don't like John Self as a person, for he's an incredibly unsavory character, but I can't help but be pulled in by his narrative. He's riding the wave of his success, completely binging on cigarettes, women, alcohol, porn and whatever else he can get ahold of. Money is at the root of almost every single interaction and Self appears to be the only one who cannot see that he's in for one heck of a crash should the money dry up. Such satire generally aims to bring about some reformation in the main character, but with the subtitle like "A Suicide Note" and with John's general grasp of the world, it is hard to hope for any true reform... which aids in the creation of an atmosphere of such tragedy and devastation while everything is still terribly funny. Self is only bringing all of this upon... well... himself.
Martin Amis, as you may well know, is the son of writer Kingsley Amis, who famously took little notice of his son's work. Evidently he once complained of his son's writing that all he's doing is, "Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, [and:] drawing attention to himself." Martin Amis attended many schools (and like John Self, he was familiar with both England and New Jersey), but ultimately he graduated from my college at Oxford University, Exeter College. He has been cited as "the Bad Boy" of English fiction (mostly because of his chosen topics for his novels), but I prefer the description the NY Times has used, which says Amis is simply at the forefront of "the new unpleasantness" style.
His comic talent lies simply in describing things as they are in the postmodern world and he is firmly rooted to this time period, describing it for all the energy and chaos it embodies. It might not be an obvious comparison, but it's actually somewhat clear to me that he found Jane Austen to be an influence upon his work, given the unflinching honesty and biting wit that he uses to describe characters. Perhaps that's why I ultimately found this to be quite an impressive novel. Of course, the fantastic sentence construction, shockingly beautiful prose and great comedic insight had to help.
I might not recommend this novel to the squeamish (and indeed, I'm not sure I'd ever actually *give* this novel to anyone, because I'm not sure what kind of message that would send), but if you're able to move beyond the unpleasantness, it's quite a compelling read. Would I wish to live in this world of selfishness, manipulation, and obscenity? Heavens no. But will I be reading more Martin Amis in the future? Fuck yeah....more
The Crown of Columbus was written by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, a husband and wife team of authors with Native American roots... sort of... weThe Crown of Columbus was written by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, a husband and wife team of authors with Native American roots... sort of... well, more on that later. Both Erdrich and Dorris are individually noted for their own accomplishments (Erdrich mostly for her novels, Dorris for his poetry as well as his nonfiction activism), but they frequently collaborated. They wrote together under the pseudonym Milou North, though The Crown of Columbus is the only novel where they publish using their individual names. It's impossible to not speculate on how they wrote this book, as it is told from a variety of perspectives, particularly weighted towards that of the two main characters: Vivian Twostar and Roger Williams. As a result of this, I immediately pictured Erdrich and Dorris as writing about themselves in slightly adjusted terms... two intelligent and passionate academics at Dartmouth who think quite highly of themselves and each other.
Louise Erdrich-- I mean Vivian Twostar is an untenured professor at Dartmouth College, heading up the Native American Studies department and clashing regularly with the administration, who might be less hesitant in their dismissal of her as an unconventional professor if it weren't for the fact that it would look bad to let go of the only Native American on staff. As a bit of a peace offering (no pun intended... well... not much of one) and to add to her meager list of published work (which might help her bid for tenure and secure some stability to her existence), she has agreed to write and publish an article on Columbus for the approaching quincentennial celebrations. Naturally, the college administration would hope for a Native American perspective, to which Vivian responds, "I told them to advertise on reservations for a series of 'Discover Spain' tours. Twenty-eight days, flamenco included. I said the government should erect a huge neon sign near Samana Cay that flashed morning, noon and night: 'Wrong Way to Calcutta.'" Clearly, Vivian marches to her own drummer, refusing to submit to stereotypes from any of the number of people who lay claim to her. She has a teenage son named Nash, whose father has long since left to start his "real family" out in California, and they share their home with Vivian's Grandmother, who raised young Vivian after her own mother left. Being left seems to be a theme in Vivian's life, so when she finds herself pregnant with the baby of fellow professor Roger Williams, she preemptively ends things with him, explaining that she knows he'll be frustrated, be disappointed, and abandon them soon enough, so they might as well end things now.
More about Michael Dorri-- ahem. Roger Williams. In most reviews of this book that I've read, they cite Roger as being everything Vivian is not. Well, this is true, except they're both intelligent professors working on pieces that have to do with Columbus while living in Hanover, New Hampshire, so let's keep it in perspective. They approach life from different perspectives. A very white poet and English professor with a stereotypically wealthy WASP family, Roger lives the life of a bachelor with means. A creature of habit, he has a very specific routine and keeps a clean home, without clutter and without much complication. For some time now, he has been working on an epic poem about Columbus entitled "Diary of a Lost Man." Vivian completely disrupts his life, from even the first moment of their meeting. They quickly become lovers, enjoying their secret liaison until Vivian announces her pregnancy and, therefore, the end of their affair. It is Vivian who puts an end to things, but Roger does not follow her or demand to be part of her life. She has read him right in the sense that her family and their baby would entirely upend his existence but the question then becomes whether he wants to adjust and find value in this new life (or really, if he's even capable of doing so).
Vivian falls asleep in the library one day, to awake around midnight and find that she's been locked in. Heavily pregnant, experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, and worried about her somewhat troublesome teenage son, Vivian deals with her situation by continuing to research Columbus (um, because aren't we all this rational?). She stumbles across letters from the Cobb family, a Dartmouth dynasty that, according to these letters, seem to emphasize a family trait of feeling that the college has stolen something from them by misplacing a gift from one of their ancestors. During the course of that same night of Vivian's library imprisonment, Roger had a somewhat different encounter with an angry relative. He enters his home with the distinct feeling that a person who lives alone can have when they feel that someone else has been there. His fear is confirmed when he finds his personal diary missing (a diary with extensive discussion of his relationship with Vivian and his feelings about impending fatherhood). He's unable to focus on this theft when Vivian's Grandmother calls Roger, looking for Vivian. Alerted to her disappearance, Roger starts combing the campus and finds a different Twostar -- Vivian's son, Nash, who is ripping pages from Roger's diary and taping them to the doors of student dorms. Roger has to go through four different buildings to collect them all, but at the end, he is more than aware of Nash's negative feelings about Roger impregnating his mother. Vivian reemerges from the library somewhat anticlimactically and some time later, after giving birth (a girl named Violet), she makes steps towards reuniting with Roger. At the same time and with incredible ease, Vivian finds the missing Cobb donation (in a box so confusingly mislabeled that it's shocking anyone could ever understand that "Cabb" really meant "Cobb"...), which turn out to be possible pages from the diary of Columbus. Roger, already riled by Vivian's encroaching on his academic territory, finds their authenticity hard to imagine, but Vivian goes ahead and contacts the latest in a long line of angry Cobbs about this discovery. Henry, a businessman with a somewhat unsavory reputation, immediately wires Vivian a thousand dollars so she can come to see him in in the Bahamas (his ability to step foot on American soil without being seized by authorities is in some question). So naturally, Vivian, Roger, Nash, and Violet all head down to the Bahamas to discover the secrets of Columbus.
The Crown of Columbus jumped to the top of my queue as a result of book club. It might be the first time that I've showed up to book club without finishing the book (or at least to the point where I couldn't finish the handful of pages while I sat and waited for people to arrive). As a result, I asked my fellow members to summarize the ending for me so I could participate fully in the discussion and my response to their summary was "Um... WTF?" When you read the summary that I've provided above, using only this information, can you guess where this all ends up? You might think you can, but I promise you that you can't. Yes, you might be able to predict the fights that Vivian and Roger get into and yet love conquers all. Yes, you might be able to predict that somehow, Violet ends up washed ashore from the sea, given the opening chapter that foreshadows this. Yes, you might be able to predict that Henry is up to no good and he believes there's some treasure in all of this. Yes, you might be able to predict that these academics suddenly go all Indiana Jones on us just because they can! But you, too, will still wind up going "WTF?" I would tell you the ending so you could understand this immediately, but I wouldn't want to rob you of what I consider the strongest reaction this book elicited in me.
So, I can't absolutely say that I enjoyed this book and I would heartily recommend it, though there were several mildly amusing and interesting parts. (The scene where Nash rips up Roger's diary and pastes the pages to various dorm room doors sticks out in my mind.) I've read a number of high praise reviews online, so perhaps I'm in the minority (and maybe I can avert the fate of the college administration by offering criticism to Native American authors because I, too, am a teensy bit Native American?), because I only found this book to be so-so. Three and a half stars out of five feels generous, and if kept to whole numbers, I'd downgrade to three. The reason for it is this: no reader will every be as interested in these characters as I'm sure Dorris & Erdrich were. It's absolutely impossible. Vivian = Louise and Roger = Michael, fictionalized and with a few little twists (like Roger being white, except Michael was likely all white, too... more on that later). Clearly, these characters were drawn from their experiences and the amusing idea of "hey, we could do an Indiana Jones thing!" And much like Indiana Jones, we get all Biblical at the end, even when we thought we were just chasing something that belonged in a museum. I wasn't ever necessarily bored, but it was very easy to set this book aside for something else until the action scenes, and even then you kept reading because the end was in sight. The majority of the book is spent in Hanover, going through some semi-realistic relationship issues and some of the most detailed descriptions of pregnancy that I've ever encountered in literature (granted, I don't seek these out). We set ourselves up for complication. Personally, I feel that Vivian's dismissal of Roger is much too abrupt to be believable, but I made some allowances for this when she ends up returning to try things again. The whole Columbus plotline? It almost intrudes on the bigger issues surrounding Vivian and Roger's relationship and Nash's teenage rebellion. The only thing that made the Columbus plotline acceptable was the fact that Erdrich and Norris went to a great deal of trouble to look at the issue from a number of perspectives and even the characters themselves are open to new ideas. Vivian is looking for vindication of native people; Roger is looking for a man with ambition and poetry; Henry is seeking a clever entrepreneur. Eventually, we fly down to the Bahamas, find ourselves in an adventure novel (with quite limited adventure, though), and, by the end of the book, just when things look grim, everything turns out okay! And on top of that, silent and grunting Nash (Vivian advises Roger to think of her son as "Gnash" at one point) is ridiculously eloquent and observant in the one chapter that is narrated from his perspective (so Louise and Michael--I mean Vivian and Roger--are good parents, too!). Oh, and Henry Cobb is a terribly one-note villain. And Roger's poem sucks. Dorris is a much better poet than Roger Williams.
Frankly, I found that the story behind the novel about Erdrich and Dorris was far more interesting than the book, though incredibly tragic. Michael Dorris was the first single man to be approved for adoption in the United States, adopting a Lakota boy who turned out to suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Dorris brought the issue of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to a wider audience, particularly as an issue important to the Native American community, and wrote a memoir on his experience. He ended up adopting other children who likely suffered from the same issue. Dorris met Erdrich while teaching at Dartmouth (he was a teacher and she was a student). They married and eventually had three daughters together, living what appeared to be quite a lovely life, before the story takes a dreadful turn. Dorris's son who inspired his memoir was killed the same year that this novel was published. A few years later, the second son that Dorris adopted accused both parents of child abuse; Dorris and Erdrich were unsuccessful in pursuing an extortion case against him in court. Shortly after, Dorris and Erdrich separated and began divorce proceedings before Dorris committed suicide. The literary world was shocked, though later, it came to light that more abuse allegations were stirring, this time from one of their daughters. Since then, Erdrich has continued to receive acclaim for her work and only last year was nominated for a Pulitzer. Oh, and one last thing -- as for the Native American roots, clearly Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe tribe, but while Dorris claimed Modoc roots, this remains somewhat questionable. Evidently, since he is not enrolled in any tribe and there is no documented proof of ancestry, some people find his claim tenuous at best. What cannot be denied, though, is his devotion to Native American culture, and frankly I think this counts for a lot. Then again, I'm a very white redheaded girl with Acoma and Hispanic roots, so I know a few things about one's questionable origins.
As far as The Crown of Columbus is concerned, ultimately, the varied perspectives on Columbus and what he means for different groups of people were interesting, but the book wasn't as delightful as it could have been. Certainly it was pleasant, but there's a wealth of other fiction out there that have similar themes of solving historical puzzles... and you don't need to go to Dan Brown for it. If this is a genre you enjoy, then it's likely that you'll also enjoy this one. I'm just not sure I'd put a hugely enthusiastic recommendation behind it....more