A Long Way Gone is a hard book to critique because it's an important story to tell, but it could have been told a lot better than it was. It's the memA Long Way Gone is a hard book to critique because it's an important story to tell, but it could have been told a lot better than it was. It's the memoir of a young teenager who was forcibly recruited to join the army in Sierra Leone; it was published more than a decade after the events described, but I think the author was still too close to the events to be able to tell the story in all the detail it needed. For this book to resonate with and affect the reader, it needed a lot of details and some sense of the author's emotions, but what should have been the most poignant parts of the book - the time he actually spent as a soldier - were hazy, like he still wasn't ready to tell the whole story or open up fully about what had happened during that time. Other parts of the book, especially the time he spent in a reformatory camp after leaving the army, were told in much more detail - in contrast, it really felt like Beah was unable or unwilling to describe his time as a soldier.
It also doesn't help that the book is written at a pretty low reading level. It's not advertised as being a book written for children, and the subject matter is obviously very dark, but just in terms of reading comprehension I would guess the reading level for this book is probably late elementary. This means that the book is a fast read, but again, the reader just can't connect very deeply; it feels like everything is being told too simplistically.
The book is also frustrating in that it ends before the story is over. Beah mentions at various points that he ended up in the US with an adoptive mother, but he ends the story while he's still trying to get out of Africa. He's made it out of Sierra Leone and into Guinea, but still seems to have many hurdles before him if he's ever going to make it to the US. I really don't know whether he left off so abruptly because he plans to publish a second memoir that picks up where this one ends, or if somehow he really felt that this was the best place to end things, but it feels abrupt and unfinished.
There has been a lot of controversy about the accuracy of Beah's story - not about whether it happened at all, but there have been arguments that his timeline is off and that he spent only a couple of months, not a couple of years, as a soldier. Honestly, the parts about him being a soldier were so hazy that I'm not sure if it matters if his timeline is off - this is still a tale worth telling, and I just wish he'd been able to do a better job of telling it well. Maybe someday he'll publish another memoir when he's had more time to come to terms with what happened to him and be able to allow himself to go into more detail about his experiences....more
This is an awful lot of book for such a very thin storyline. Written and set in the late 1800s, Là-Bas focuses on the writer Durtal, an atheist who adThis is an awful lot of book for such a very thin storyline. Written and set in the late 1800s, Là-Bas focuses on the writer Durtal, an atheist who admires but finds himself unable to believe in Catholicism. Durtal is writing a book about Gilles de Rais, a friend of Joan of Arc who who later became a Satanist and sodomized and murdered children. Over many dinners and conversations with his friends Des Hermies and Carhaix, Durtal comes to believe that what his book is lacking is something to relate his 15th-century history to the present day - namely, Durtal feels he needs to learn about contemporary Satanism.
Much of the book is taken up with academic discussions about religion and philosophy. Even the presumably scandalizing sections about de Rais's excesses are told with a historian's narration, and they are brief and rare - so while there are some unsettling passages in the book, the overall feeling manages to be tedious. Even the famous description of the Black Mass toward the end of the book is interrupted before it can become too uncomfortable - Durtal flees partway through.
Overall, I was surprised at how the book managed to have a mostly Catholic feel to it in spite of being about an atheist researching a Satanist. Even the priest who conducts the Black Mass clearly believes deeply in Catholicism and has only turned to Satanism out of anger that the world has been waiting too long for the Second Coming. It was no surprise, then, to learn that Huysmans himself struggled with his disbelief and returned to Catholicism just a few years after writing Là-Bas.
This is very much a novel of ideas, and many of the ideas are interesting, but it's very long for the slim amount of ground it actually covers. I appreciate what Huysmans was doing in this novel, but it felt like a slog to get through....more
I think I switched my rating between three stars and four stars half a dozen times before settling on three - Night Film does a lot of things right, bI think I switched my rating between three stars and four stars half a dozen times before settling on three - Night Film does a lot of things right, but it still didn't quite work for me.
At the center of the book is a highly successful cult filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova, whose output was from the beginning dark and horrifying, and later became so unsettling that his films were no longer commercially available and had to be watched at covert screenings in tunnels and under bridges. He has a following of obsessed fans who believe his movies expose you to the darkest corners of experience so that you can learn to live without fear. He is a total recluse and hasn't been seen or released a new movie in years.
The book opens with the apparent suicide of his 24-year-old daughter Ashley, a former piano prodigy. Her death causes journalist Scott McGrath to reopen old files on Cordova - files that resulted in him becoming totally disgraced as a journalist after publicly accusing Cordova of engaging in sinister activities in real life, not just on the screen. Scott, along with two twenty-something sidekicks he meets in the course of his investigations, becomes convinced that the whole Cordova family is involved in something truly dark, maybe even paranormal.
The book is frequently interspersed with text-heavy images of web pages, magazine articles, and items from Scott's case files, so that you alternate between hearing Scott's perspective and looking at the media he's looking at. There is also an app, Night Film Decoder, that allows you to access additional content like audio, video, movie posters, and journal entries at specific points in the book. A lot of the additional content in the app is throwaway, but a few of them do really serve to heighten the creepy feeling of learning more and more about Cordova's world.
The narrative is compelling, and I found myself staying up late several nights in a row to read just a few more chapters - but the writing is not actually very good, the characters are two-dimensional, and I just couldn't suspend my disbelief quite enough to accept some of the book's premises (especially the way Pessl seemed to want Cordova to be both a cult filmmaker whose films are so horrific that most people can't bear to watch them and a highly successful, household-name director who earned a Best Director Academy Award).
I had heard from a lot of other people that the ending of the book was a big disappointment, and when Pessl kept mentioning how Cordova's films consistently end in a way that leaves the entire story open to multiple interpretations, I was pretty sure this meant that Night Film was going to end without any resolution - and indeed, the book falls flat when it stops abruptly, but in a way that felt more like giving up than like leaving the reader with anything to wrestle with. It wasn't a cliffhanger kind of situation where I felt angry at the author for leaving me to decide what happened next; it felt more like the author wasn't sure where else to go with the story and decided to cut it off in hopes of seeming "mysterious."
Overall I feel like Night Film does some really interesting things, but it's a lot of surface without the depth it promises. It's not nearly as creepy or as smart as it sets out to be, though I liked the premise enough that I was able to forgive some of that just because I wanted to see where the story would go next. It's an interesting book, but not one I'd specifically recommend to anyone because I think the execution could have been so much better than it was....more
Opening with an erotic dream, followed shortly by a ghostly visitation, Oleander Girl had me worried about what I was getting into for the first couplOpening with an erotic dream, followed shortly by a ghostly visitation, Oleander Girl had me worried about what I was getting into for the first couple of pages, but it isn't the fluffy book you might expect from its first two scenes. Set in Kolkata in the early 2000s, Oleander Girl looks at race, class, and gender concerns in India and in post-9/11 America as its main character, Korobi Roy - orphaned at birth and raised by her grandparents - prepares to be married but then drops everything and travels to America to track down information about the parents she never knew.
Oleander Girl is beautifully written and a pleasure to read, and for that it easily earns four stars. However, for all the challenging topics it takes on, it doesn't delve nearly far enough into any of them. Where there should be struggle, things fall easily into place. Situations that feel challenging are often resolved in the very next scene; where she expects hostility Korobi almost always finds warmth and forgiveness from the people around her. Even the love triangle - a fiance at home in India and a growing infatuation with a new friend in America - seems ultimately just to give Korobi a safety net rather than causing any deep soul-searching about the different lives she could lead by choosing one path or the other.
It's not that anything in the book is unconvincing; I just felt that Oleander Girl touched on a lot of issues without really wrestling with any of them. It's a lovely book, and it's a better book for incorporating these issues than it would be without them, but it could have been a whole lot more. Regardless, I look forward to reading more books from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni....more
I deliberately avoided this book for years because everything I'd heard about it made me pretty sure it was not a book I would enjoy, but my book clubI deliberately avoided this book for years because everything I'd heard about it made me pretty sure it was not a book I would enjoy, but my book club picked it so I found myself reading it, years after all the hype about it. I know lots of people love this book and I really did approach it with an open mind, but it was exactly what I expected it to be and I definitely would not have finished it if not for book club.
I have no patience for this kind of self-aggrandizing storytelling. I get that he's doing it to be funny, that it's all some sort of cover-up for not actually feeling amazing and fascinating and perfect, but it's just not a kind of humor that works for me. The underlying narrative is interesting, but I found it very hard to sympathize with a narrator who spends most of his time telling me how great he is. I was particularly put off by his immature generalizations about race and his seeming belief that women exist to sleep with him.
There are plenty of good anecdotes scattered throughout this book, but the storytelling style was very much not for me....more
I seem to be very much in the minority here, but I found this book tedious in the extreme. The story is conceptually interesting - the main characterI seem to be very much in the minority here, but I found this book tedious in the extreme. The story is conceptually interesting - the main character is born over and over again into the same life, each time haunted by new, seemingly inexplicable ideas about consequences that might follow certain actions or decisions, so that the continued overlay of these past lives gradually begins to steer her into directions that avoid certain fates.
Unfortunately, in practice this means we spend a lot of time seeing the same scenes play out over and over again with sometimes only minor changes from one to the next. It takes almost 130 pages for Ursula to make it past the age of 8. That is a lot of pages to spend reading about all the different ways a child could die in the early 1900s. It gives the reader ample opportunity to question her decision to read 500-plus pages of death scenes.
Once Ursula starts living into her teens and twenties the book becomes a little more engaging, but there's still just so much repetition. Every once in a while the narrative diverges from the norm in some big way, and those stories always end in such spectacularly awful ways that she never repeats anything like them again; these stories stand out the most for their difference but also make it harder to keep track of what's going on in the main narrative arc since they introduce elements that do not occur again.
Ursula, in the stories that keep her alive long enough, lives through both world wars, which gives a particularly wide array of ways she gets to die. There are illnesses, accidents, domestic abuse, and bombs, bombs, bombs. It's exhausting to watch the same person die in so many ways. And while it's interesting to explore all the different life choices a person might make and to reflect on the significance of each one of our seemingly unimportant decisions, the philosophical value wasn't enough to offset the tedium of the book for me.
A final complaint: The book opens with a scene where Ursula is in a cafe, getting ready to shoot Hitler and prevent the second world war. I felt that this plot element cheapened the story; there was no real support for the idea that she retained enough memory from past lives for her to transition from senses of deja vu to seeing into the future so clearly that she might know in 1930 that she should attempt to kill Hitler. This felt like pure fantasy shoehorned in to try to give Ursula's life some kind of cosmic significance that really wasn't necessary.
(Okay, I lied, one more complaint: Life After Life really, really needed an editor to do something about all the comma splices. OH MY GOSH.)...more
Last month was a rough month for me and I was not looking forward to reading WWII nonfiction for my book club, but I was running out of time and so afLast month was a rough month for me and I was not looking forward to reading WWII nonfiction for my book club, but I was running out of time and so after a couple of days of glaring resentfully at my Kindle I started to read Unbroken.
Mercifully, the book starts well before the war with the childhood adventures of Louis Zamperini as he grows from rough-and-tumble neighborhood menace to dedicated track star. At the age of 19, he goes to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and competes in the 5,000 meter race, and although he doesn't come close to winning he knows he has a good shot at the gold in four years. His training finds him closing in on what was then seen as an impossible feat, the four-minute mile, and Olympic gold is looking ever more likely. But then the 1940 Olympics are canceled, and Pearl Harbor is bombed, and instead of setting a world record for speed, Louis joins the Air Force.
Even at this point in the book, things aren't too dark. Louis is in training, making friends, learning a new skill as bombardier in a flight crew. He sees how often equipment failures and other acts of chance injure or kill people even outside of battle, but Louis's crew is skilled and their plane is sturdy and fate seems to be on their side for quite some time.
Everything changes when Louis and a few members of his crew are sent on a rescue mission in a dilapidated plane that suffers a mechanical failure over the Pacific. The crash kills all but three crew members; Louie and his friend Phil and a third man, Mac, lash together two life rafts and spend the next 47 days adrift on the Pacific with no food or water - they catch birds, fish, and rainwater when they can, and waste away to almost nothing. Mac passes away, and Louis and Phil are near death themselves when they finally land on an island shore - whereupon they are immediately captured by the Japanese. And this is the point where the book starts getting really hard to read.
Louis is transferred from one POW camp to the next, frequently abused even above and beyond the horrors his fellow POWs seem to be subjected to. It seems that Louis's Olympic fame is both the thing that saves his life - the Japanese feel it might be useful to have a famous American available to them and want to keep him around - and also the thing that causes some prison guards and officials to seek him out with particular malice.
This part of the book is difficult to read on a number of levels. The abuses in the POW camps are appalling, and spending so much time reading page after page of all the ways humans can be cruel to other humans is challenging. However, at this point in the book Hillenbrand is also weaving in tales about so many guards and POWs that it can be hard to keep people straight, which is a different kind of exhausting for the reader. Also, the whole book is by necessity based on people's recollections of a time more than half a century ago than most of them have probably worked hard to forget about, so there are times when the book feels a little less "nonfiction" and a little more authorial speculation about what people would have been thinking and feeling in the camps.
Overall I'm glad I read Unbroken, though I wish my reading hadn't coincided with a dark time in my own life. I'm glad to have learned about Louis Zamperini's life, and I think on the whole Hillenbrand did an excellent job telling the story....more
I picked up this book without knowing anything about it and was surprised at how quickly I was engrossed - I read it every spare minute I could find oI picked up this book without knowing anything about it and was surprised at how quickly I was engrossed - I read it every spare minute I could find over the next few days.
The book opens with the unexpected reappearance of Nicholas Slopen, who had died several months before. He looks different, but he is most certainly alive and knows things only Nicholas would know. After setting the stage for this new Nicholas to leave behind a journal, we go back in time to learn through the journal about the events that had led to the appearance of this bedraggled and tattooed version of the staid Samuel Johnson scholar who had been killed months before.
The story is compelling and is best approached without knowing too much of the plot, so I'll keep my description short. The comparisons to Frankenstein are apt - it's a literate and philosophical exploration of reanimation and what it means to be a human being.
The earlier portions of the book are fascinating, before the reader has any idea about what is actually at play. Nicholas meets someone who appears to be possessed with the spirit of Samuel Johnson and who has written letter after letter in the same handwriting and with the same vocabulary as Dr. Johnson, but who appears otherwise unable to communicate or interact with other people - a savant. I was having a really delightful time speculating on what was going on with these apparent reincarnations, but unfortunately the author tries to take things in an overly scientific direction toward the end without having enough plausibility behind the ideas to make the later parts of the book hold up well. In spite of the ending, though, this was the most fun I'd had reading a book in ages, and I look forward to reading other things from Marcel Theroux soon....more
Oof. The prose in May We Be Forgiven sucked me in, while the story itself did everything it could to make me want to throw my hands up in the air andOof. The prose in May We Be Forgiven sucked me in, while the story itself did everything it could to make me want to throw my hands up in the air and walk away. It starts on an authentic enough note - an unbearable family Thanksgiving, with the narrator's brother making an ass of himself while the children refuse to look up from their phones. From here, things begin a march to the absurd, first in minor ways but soon becoming totally over-the-top.
Here are some of the things you have to look forward to in this book:
Embarrassing Chinese stereotypes!
An alternative prison where adult men are thrown together in the woods and abandoned to themselves Lord of the Flies style!
Experimental medicines at the nursing home that get formerly bedridden seniors dancing and taking swimming lessons in their diapers!
An impossibly expensive bar mitzvah trip to South Africa featuring a magical negro!
The prose is excellent and some parts of the book are truly funny in their dark weirdness, but so much of the story is just too nonsensical, and the overall motion of the book from disorder to a perfect happy ending didn't sit well with me. There's no real struggle; things go weird and then fall exactly into place without any effort on the part of the narrator. (Then again, a lot of details in the story point to the idea that the narrator is delusional and remembers situations quite differently from other people - he describes himself as if he is entirely passive and his whole life just plays out from other people acting on him, but when we hear those people's voices, they frequently say that he took the first action/made the first move. So is the entire book just one giant delusion? I don't actually think that was the author's point, but it possibly makes the story more interesting to read it that way, even if it's only replacing one kind of frustrating reading experience with a different one.)
The only thing that saves this book for me is how compellingly written it is; it has moments that are really engaging, but every time I'd start to get pulled in, the author would do something so over-the-top that I'd just want to yell at the book again. I'd read something else from A.M. Homes because there's potential here, but this book was really not for me....more
I read this book in a frenzy after realizing at the airport that I was flying into Philadelphia one day before my old book club was meeting to discussI read this book in a frenzy after realizing at the airport that I was flying into Philadelphia one day before my old book club was meeting to discuss this book, and I thought it was short enough that I might have a shot at reading the whole thing in time to join them. This was probably not the ideal pace for reading Hemingway, but it worked out well enough.
I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea and maybe also some Hemingway short stories in school, but that's about the extent of my experience with his writings. I found myself really enjoying his writing style in The Sun Also Rises, but my pleasure in the narration was tempered by the things he was saying. There's some awful anti-Semitism in this book, and none of the characters are really likable at all. I found myself most sucked into the scenes where there was the least going on, like the fishing section, because I didn't have to think about how awful all the people in the book are.
I'd definitely be willing to give Hemingway another go (and A Moveable Feast has been on my to-read list forever) but I don't think I'd be in any rush to re-read this one....more
The Shining Girls imagines what would happen if a serial killer had sole access to a method of time travel. Harper Curtis stumbles upon a house that aThe Shining Girls imagines what would happen if a serial killer had sole access to a method of time travel. Harper Curtis stumbles upon a house that allows him to move to any time of his choosing between 1929 and 1993 just by entering and exiting its front door; already a violent man, Harper takes for granted that the strange artifacts in the master bedroom are a map telling him about young women he needs to kill.
I enjoyed that the book was set in Chicago across the twentieth century, and the writing is tight and compelling, but this is most definitely a book about a serial killer, and we meet woman after woman only to see her brutally murdered. The story slowly introduces us to Kirby Mazrachi, the one woman to survive an attempted murder from Harper, and much of the book then alternates between chapters about Harper and chapters about Kirby. Kirby tenaciously begins investigating violent crimes similar to the one she suffered, but she questions her own sanity as she begins to suspect that much, much older murders tie into her own assault.
The biggest weakness in this book for me is how little explanation we get about why Harper needs to seek out these particular women. They "shine" to him in a way that others don't, but the book doesn't even attempt to explain what "shining" means, nor does it attempt to give any explanation for the existence of the house or the weird way all times seem to exist at once when Harper is inside it. There's a lot that the reader has to take on faith in reading this book, and the murder scenes can be pretty difficult to read, but Kirby is a strong, engaging character, and I enjoyed getting to see her unravel a particularly unlikely mystery....more
I really enjoyed reading The Newlyweds, though it definitely has some major flaws, mostly arising from the fact that the author is a white American wrI really enjoyed reading The Newlyweds, though it definitely has some major flaws, mostly arising from the fact that the author is a white American writing in the voice of a Bangladeshi woman who moves to America to marry a man she meets on a dating website. The transition is a little too quick from young, naive Amina from a rural Bangladeshi village to jaded, modernized Amina from Rochester, and the book glosses over any moral struggles Amina might have had as a Muslim woman raised in a somewhat traditional religious home moving to a much more secular environment.
The writing is lovely, though, and in spite of the narrative being split between America and Bangladesh, the central conflict in the story - Amina realizing that her new husband George has kept a significant secret from her - doesn't really have anything to do with the two characters being from such different backgrounds. The central elements of the story could have played out just as easily between two characters from the same culture and upbringing.
Nell Freudenberger is a strong writer, and the book held my interest the whole way through even while a voice in the back of my head kept questioning how realistic some parts of the book were. Overall it feels more like a fluffy read about a couple who married too fast and without being entirely honest about their pasts than any kind of reliable portrayal of the experience of married life between people of two people from very different backgrounds and cultures....more
This novel by an Iraq war veteran about post-traumatic stress disorder is well written but ultimately left me feeling empty. It jumps back and forth bThis novel by an Iraq war veteran about post-traumatic stress disorder is well written but ultimately left me feeling empty. It jumps back and forth between scenes during the war and after the narrator has gone back home, and while it's evident that something happened to shatter the narrator to the point that he can no longer function, the book is too coy for too long about the source of the stress that caused him to become so unhinged. While the reader gets a good sense of the futility and meaningless of being at war, we're kept too distant from the narrator's thoughts and emotions to build up the sympathy necessary for a book like this to have a real punch.
The whole time I was reading this book, I felt like I ought to be feeling something, but I just couldn't find anything to connect with....more
I had mixed feelings about this graphic novel, which alternately tells stories about two different Jimmy Corrigans (grandfather and grandson). I lovedI had mixed feelings about this graphic novel, which alternately tells stories about two different Jimmy Corrigans (grandfather and grandson). I loved the stories about the grandfather, set during his childhood against a backdrop of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago - but the grandson Jimmy, who has the most pages devoted to him, is a sad sack of a man whose sections are sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes just cringe-inducing. The stories were originally published as individual strips in a Chicago newspaper over the course of several years, meaning that the story doesn't always flow smoothly since it wasn't originally designed as a book.
An overarching theme here has to do with history repeating itself; both Jimmys are abandoned by their fathers as children, and the two even look so much alike that it can be hard to tell which Jimmy we're reading about when the stories change. Both also have active fantasy lives, and it can be hard to tell how much of their stories are truth. Both have many reasons to inspire sympathy in the reader, but they each also have some repulsive traits (the grandfather's offhand racist remarks; the grandson's overly sexual thoughts about women).
Overall I'm glad to have read this, but I expected to like it more than I did. The art is wonderful, particularly for the scenes set at the World's Fair, and the story is compelling and definitely generates a response in the reader, but I just couldn't find enough interest in the grandson Jimmy to want to spend as many pages with him as I did....more
I don't normally rave to people about books I'm still in the middle of reading, but while I was making my way through Five Star Billionaire, I couldn'I don't normally rave to people about books I'm still in the middle of reading, but while I was making my way through Five Star Billionaire, I couldn't stop bringing it up in conversations to tell people how much I was enjoying it. It felt like a five-stars-with-exclamation-point book for me; in spite of being a book that rotates through the points of view of multiple main characters, I felt invested in each and was equally eager to learn more about what would happen to each one. It's a shame that the book ends so abruptly, because the disappointment of getting to the last page and thinking "That's it? That can't possibly be it, there must be another chapter yet" shut me up about this book in a hurry.
The main characters in Five Star Billionaire are all Malaysian by birth but are living in Shanghai. One grew up in poverty and has moved there to try to improve her job prospects and find a rich boyfriend; one grew up in a wealthy family and has been sent there to manage a job for the family business; one grew up middle-class in a family with political ties and has moved there to start a new life as a businesswoman after things turn sour for her family in Malaysia; and the last grew up in an impoverished, abusive home, became a rock star after being discovered on an "Idol" type reality singing show, and finds himself trapped in Shanghai after his drunken antics cause his tour to be cancelled prematurely. In the background is also the shadowy five-star billionaire of the title, whose story is told in brief interludes between the main chapters.
For much of the book, the main characters' stories do not intersect at all, and what we really feel is how isolating and exhausting it can be to live in a huge, wealth- and appearance-obsessed city, especially as an outsider who hasn't lived there long. For quite a while, I thought the characters might actually have nothing to do with each other or would cross paths only incidentally, and that actually felt right for this book; it didn't bother me to think that Five Star Billionaire wouldn't follow the typical pattern of gradually interweaving the different characters' lives. However, the characters do begin to meet each other, and their intersecting backstories are also revealed, and immediately the book stops being about the impersonal city and draws us into human relationships. We begin to cheer on the various romances and business partnerships; Shanghai is no longer impersonal and overwhelming; we can see how everyone could end up happy after all. I think this is the reason that the abrupt ending, which leaves not a single personal or professional relationship satisfied, feels so inadequate and frustrating. It's as if Tash Aw really did want this book to be, all along, about isolation, but he teased us with a different novel halfway through and never provided a satisfactory conclusion to that book. ...more