Disclaimer

These are reviews originally posted to Amazon as customer reviews. They're intended for entertainment and informational purposes only. (Apologies for any typos, bad grammar, or offensive language.) This isn't sponsored by Amazon or represent them in any way, although they do have a very nice site and I recommend checking it out for your next book purchase. Feel free to comment on the books if you've read them or tell me how much my reviews suck or whatever.
That is all.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Marry Me

Marry Me by John Updike
December 21, 2006



I'm not sure if "Couples" or "Marry Me" came out first, but I'd already read Updike's "Couples" and so "Marry Me" seemed like almost the exact same story except with fewer couples. One of my complaints with "Couples" was that there were so many characters it required a scorecard to keep track, so at least Updike simplifies it in "Marry Me" with only two couples.

The plot of the story is that Jerry and Sally are having an affair on their respective spouses, who have had an affair with each other previously that no one else knows about. When Jerry reveals the affair, his wife asks him to stay with her for the summer, which makes a miserable time for all. I won't say how it ends, although the last chapter kind of confused me as to how it ended anyway.

At any rate, this book as I've mentioned above is similar to "Couples" in that it takes place in the early '60s in a small eastern town, features couples cheating, and does not have a particularly happy view of humanity. It features Updike's great writing, but it doesn't cover any new ground. The reason I give it three stars is because while the writing may be terrific, it isn't saying anything that's NEW. If you decide to purchase and read this book, understand that you're getting a well-written book, but not one that is much different than "Couples" or John Irving's "158-Pound Marriage" or a host of other books about people cheating on each other.

That is all.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Brazil

Brazil by John Updike

December 14, 2006


I've read a number of Updike's books and I can honestly say this is the worst I've read. This has to be one of the worst books I've ever read, period. It's only made worse by the author's stellar track record otherwise.

For a story that's supposed to be a retelling of "Tristan and Isolde"--a precursor to "Romeo and Juliet"--this book is as romantic as a night at a strip club and as tragic as wearing two different socks. From my count Isabel fathers 5 children whose father is most likely NOT Tristao. That tells you all you need to know about the romance. As for the tragedy, both characters had less personality than a Brazil nut, so why should I care? By page 200 I'd have killed one of them myself if it meant an end to this horrible book.

Here's a summary of the plot: Tristao is black. Isabel is white. They meet on a beach in Rio. They go back to her uncle's place so she can lose her virginity. Over the next few months they have sex a bunch more times. When her father gets upset about their relationship, they run off to Sao Paolo and have lots more sex on a sort of honeymoon. She's captured by hired goons and he spends two years making Volkswagen Beetles until he rescues her and they go off into the wilderness where he becomes a gold miner and she proceeds to have sex with anyone who will pay--and in the process fathers the first two children who are likely not Tristao's. He finds a big gold nugget that brings heat down on them so they flee into the jungle. (Here the story really begins to go off the rails.) Their two children are taken away by hostile natives and never seen again. Then Tristao and Isabel are captured by some kind of warrior-missionaries and Tristao is enslaved to make canoes while Isabel becomes the head warrior-missionary's third wife. She gives birth to her new husband's child--who is mentally challenged--while having relations with the guy's second wife all while Tristao continues to toil away for the next three years. She finally goes to see a shaman so she can free Tristao by switching races with him. So now she is black and he is white. They head back towards civilization, having a lot of kinky sex on the way. Eventually they return to her father in Brasilia, who seems to convince himself that his daughter just got a really great tan in the jungle. Tristao becomes a middle-manager in a textile factory. Isabel becomes a docile wife, giving birth to the one child who might be Tristao's. Then she grows bored and has a fling with a tennis instructor, giving birth to twins who are definitely not Tristao's. (He maybe has a few flings of his own in the meantime.) And then after a dozen years one of them goes on a walk and dies. The end.

That's what the story is, more or less. You talk about the societal issues and allegories and whatnot, but what I described above is the actual content of the story. It's not about love; it's about SEX. These two people are faithful to each other only until someone else walks by. It's not tragic, unless you think (like I do) how much better off these two would have been never having met. The plot itself becomes ridiculous and the last 50 pages tedious.

I am actually feeling in quite a funk now as I write this. This book surpasses disappointment to a level of utter revulsion. You can say I'm a prude or a simpleton, that I don't GET it, in which case we'll have to agree to disagree. I have no use for this book and I deeply regret wasting time to read about two people for whom I have nothing but contempt. If this is any kind of portrait of the human spirit...it's better not to contemplate that thought.

Self

Self by Yann Martel

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

November 15, 2006


I'll start by saying I'm one of the few people who hasn't read "Life of Pi", so I didn't have any expectations going into this. I'll also say reading "Self" doesn't make me want to read anything else by Martel. If it's as dull and dreary, count me out.

I heard the premise of this book from someone else and was intrigued. In researching my purchase I found out it's a loose modernization of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" and so I thought I'd give both a read. It's probably unfair to compare a first-time author to Virginia Woolf and clearly Martel doesn't fare well in the comparison. The reason isn't so much the story but the style.

While Woolf's writing is alive with wit and whimsy, Martel's is a dull grind punctuated by outbursts of graphic descriptions of potty training, masturbation, menstruation, just about every sexual position, and rape. In between those we have dull, cliche, or trite insights from our unnamed narrator. Self manages the amazing feat of being uninteresting as both male and female.

For the moment to focus strictly on "Self" the book is about Self who is born a man and then after his parents die in a plane crash while he's in prep school he starts to become female, the final change occurring during a trip to Portugal. From there she goes to college, having an affair with a professor, has a lesbian affair in Greece/Turkey, works on a couple bad novels, and finds true love in Montreal. That's not the end, which I shall not spoil for you.

The end is the only thing that saved "Self" in my mind from rating one-star. There's a very tragic twist--I've provided a clue above somewhere--that was painful to read and the ensuing aftermath was enough to put me in a funk the rest of the night. That's some effective writing. The rest, not so much.

A problem I have actually with "Self" and "Orlando" is one of logic. In both situations the character wakes up a woman and this does not seem to bother her at all. In "Orlando" it's done through a whimsical scene involving fairies so I was prepared not to take it all that seriously. Whereas "Self" tries to be a more realistic book; how can I logically be expected to think someone would wake up with a sex change and not care? Self discovers this change, rolls over, and goes back to sleep! Then the next day she goes out to get new clothes and a passport as if it's no big deal. I can suspend disbelief to some extent, but this was pushing it. Come on, admit it, if you work up with different genitalia you'd be pretty freaked out. You wouldn't roll over and go back to sleep. That issue really stuck in my craw the rest of the way.

There's another question of logic too. In "Orlando" he becomes a she at the age of 30 after years of womanizing and so forth in Queen Elizabeth's court. In "Self" he becomes a she at 18, still a virgin and pretty much uninitiated in manhood. The difference then is that it's hard to make a case about societal roles and sexual identities when the character hasn't had sex (or hardly any relationships) or really lived in a defined role. So I definitely think Woolf got it right on that one.

As mentioned above, Self doesn't really do a heck of a lot before or after the change. After an opening on potty training there's a flood of dull childhood memories about fish in the eyes and boiling carrots and so forth. There's one brief fling with a girl in seventh grade that doesn't get far. Then there's going off to the private school, where Self is pretty much invisible. Then comes the plane crash, which isn't all that exciting as written, the trip to Portugal, and the nonchalant sex change. From there we have the tired cliche of the student-professor affair. The lesbian affair with the older woman is less cliche and slightly more interesting. There's not much else going on until the end. Whereas in "Orlando" you have queens, kings, princesses, Gypsies, and famous authors among 350 years of history. Which sounds more interesting to you?

In the end "Self" is a dull slog and "Orlando" is a witty romp. Is there even a real choice here? Maybe if you really like "Life of Pi" I suppose.

Of course in my opinion "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides trumps both of these books. It deals with the same issues in a different, more realistic way that's just as much fun as Woolf. That's my pick of the litter.

That is all.

Niagara Falls All Over Again

Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth Mccracken

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

November 6, 2006


I have to say, Elizabeth McCracken would be one of my favorite authors if she had more than two novels to her credit. Her debut novel "The Giant's House" blew me away and the sophomore effort "Niagara Falls All Over Again" was another great read that kept me turning the pages from start to finish. I am terribly disappointed there isn't anything else of hers to read except for a collection of short stories.

"Niagara Falls All Over Again" focuses on the comedy team of Carter and Sharp as narrated by Mike Sharp--whose actual first name is Mose--from their rise in Vaudeville during the Depression to their fallout in the television era of the early 50s. This features a lot of the stuff you'd expect about a Hollywood novel--drinking, wild parties, affairs--but the sleaze and excess is never there for shock value or just for the sake of being there, rather to illustrate the misery and coping of Carter (especially) and Sharp. While in the act Carter was the happy-go-lucky manchild and Sharp the stern taskmaster, in real life Sharp is the one who ends up with a happy life: wife, kids, steady employment while Carter goes through wives faster than someone with a cold goes through Kleenex and ends up in a trailer park twenty years after their act split. It may sound as though Sharp has everything hunky-dorey, but he does miss Rocky and this leaves a hole in his life no one else can really fill.

If there's anything to complain about with this book, it's the "breakneck pace" as one book review put it. For the most part it feels like we're always getting the summary and never immersed in the actual moment as it's happening. So it all feels like, "We went to a party and had some drinks. I talked to this person. I went home." (Only written much better than that.) This of course is necessary to summarize a whole life in 310 pages, but the result is that the novel and the characters outside Carter and Sharp feel a bit hollow.

And let's face it, I could have read another 310 pages of McCracken's writing. It's comic at times, touching at times, and loaded with snappy metaphors and similies a hack like me could never dream of conceiving. It's a truly smart, engaging, and insightful novel about the relationship between two people. This isn't quite as good as Chabon's "Kavalier and Clay" that similarly explores a partnership between entertainers beginning in the Depression, but it's very, very close.

I can only hope the author's next effort--should there be one--is as good as her first two.

That is all.

American Pastoral

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful:

October 30, 2006


I found this book to be fascinating and frustrating to read at the same time. Fascinating in that Seymour Levov--the Swede--is such a robust, fully realized character. Frustrating in that the first hundred pages are dedicated to Philip Roth (ie, Nathan Zuckerman) and his class reunion and his prostate cancer and his admiration of the Swede. Frustrating too in that this is a novel that doesn't go from point A to point B directly but instead swoops around in endless circles so that in the end we find there's not much more we know about the plot than we did at the start.

What there is of the plot is that the Swede thinks he has the American Dream. He runs the glove factory his father built, he marries the former Miss New Jersey, he has his dream house in the country (and vacation home in Puerto Rico), and he has a beautiful daughter named Merry. But soon enough everything starts to go downhill for the poor Swede. Merry develops a stutter that won't go away despite the help of "experts" and her interests in the counterculture of the 60s become radical until one night she blows up the post office/general store, inadvertantly killing a local doctor. The pain of Merry's terrorist act and subsequent years on the lam begin the downward spiral of the Swede's inner life as he's tormented in trying to figure out what he did wrong. Eventually we're led to believe his wife (after getting an expensive facelift in Switzerland) is having an affair and race riots in Newark have decimated the Swede's factory. When the Swede does meet Merry again she's wasting away as a Jain so dedicated to her new religion that she won't even bathe and one day will die from starvation.

That's really as far as the story ever gets. We're left to fill in the details from the first third of the book when Philip Roth talks with the Swede's curmudgeonly brother Jerry, but we can't ever be entirely sure what happened to the Swede's first wife or daughter, although we do know he gets a second wife and has three boys at some point. What we can be sure of is that even if the Swede appears happy on the outside he's broken on the inside.

As a character study this book is simply fascinating. Roth really gets inside the Swede, fleshing out all his thoughts, hopes, dreams, and fears for us to see so that we have a complex portrait of a "typical" upper-middle-class American. The object of the book then isn't so much for entertainment but to make us think about our concept of the American Dream and America in general.

It's unfortunate we have to suffer through a hundred dull pages of Philip Roth, er Nathan Zuckerman, before the story gets going. Once Roth gets out of Roth's way the story begins, although if you're hoping for a straight-ahead plot-driven yarn this isn't it. This is definitely NOT airplane reading or beach reading. It's a very intimidating read with paragraphs that go on for pages and that keeps skewing from one tangent to another tangent, though it all forms a rich tapestry. Perhaps not as good as Updike's Rabbit Angstrom novels, but interesting nonetheless.

So if you can get past the first third of the book the rest is definitely worth reading to give you a lot of food for thought. If you only want entertainment, better look elsewhere.

That is all.

Rock Springs

Rock Springs by Richard Ford

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:

October 16, 2006


While a novel is like a symphony where all the various pieces are part of one whole, a collection of short stories is more like an album of popular music where each selection stands apart from the rest. The biggest problem of "Rock Springs" is that it sounds like an album of one song played over and over again.

Each story in "Rock Springs" features a down-on-his-luck man in Montana who has (or is about to) lose his job and has a wife/girlfriend who works at a bar. Something then tears the man and woman apart, whether it's an affair, murder, or they just plain get sick of each other. The narrator gains some insight. The end.

The first stories are interesting, especially the title track which features a petty criminal named Earl taking his daughter and waitress girlfriend across the country to evade the law for writing a bad check. Over time, though, the formula is repeated so many times that it loses any appeal and the stories become predictable and dull. And all of these stories bear a striking similarity to Ford's novel "Wildlife" which also takes place in Montana and has a down-on-his-luck man losing his wife.

The stories all have similar narration as well, all sounding as if they were written by someone with only a 4th grade education and featuring Ford's typical clunky dialogue. The dialogue is especially bad in "Children" where an Indian boy and his friend entertain his father's mistress. (This I suppose was the most unique of the stories.)

All of the stories are similarly dreary, which reflects real life, but I couldn't help wishing for something to brighten the somber mood a little. None of this is to say "Rock Springs" is a bad collection of work, just that it's repetitive. You can read the first story or two and not miss anything with the rest.

That is all.

The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:

October 6, 2006


There are a lot of books out there written purely for entertainment and then are the more scholarly, "artsy" books like "The Stone Diaries" that unless they get Oprah's endorsement usually aren't read in the mainstream. These latter category of books have more freedom to experiment with different styles and techniques. This can make for an interesting story or it can make for a dull, albeit somewhat thought-provoking read. Again the latter categroy best describes "The Stone Diaries."

I hate to say a book is boring because I sound like a five-year-old trying to squirm his through an opera, but this book is BORING. The problem lies with Daisy herself. She isn't interesting. She does nothing interesting. Almost nothing interesting happens to her. Her first husband for all of two weeks gets drunk and falls out a window; that's the most interesting thing that happens to her. That and her birth in the kitchen of her father's Manitoba home when her mother was either too stupid or too lazy to find out she was pregnant. Everything else is as common and ordinary and unexciting as the lint in your dryer. She grows up, moves with her father to Indiana, goes to college, gets married and widowed, visits Ottawa, gets married again to the much-older man who helped raise her after her mother died, has three kids, gets widowed again, becomes a garden columnist, gets fired, gets depressed, gets old, gets sick, dies. The end. It almost sounds more interesting describing it that way than it reads in the book.

The most agonizing part for me is it takes the book so long to even get to Daisy. The first 90 pages of the novel go by without knowing more than basic information about her. We read nothing about her childhood except her getting sick and developing an allergy. We read nothing about her teenage years in Indiana or her time in college. We go through a good third of the book without knowing ANYTHING important about the main character of the story. We're told plenty of background about the people around her--including the life story of her dead mother--but very little about her until she's already widowed the first time and on her way to becoming the Canadian June Cleaver.

The only way to appreciate this book, especially near the end, is to think, "Daisy is like me" or someone you know. But then it's pretty depressing to think most of us are this bland and ordinary. We'd like to think we're special but if we see ourselves in Daisy then we are anything but special.

The narration for this book was confusing as well. It refers to Daisy in the 3rd person most of the time, but then throws in first-person references as well. There's also a paragraph or two halfway through saying how unreliable Daisy is as a narrator. Upon reading that, what am I the reader supposed to believe? All of this as well as the frequent time shifts, cuts to letters, "theories", recipes, notes, and so forth left me dazed, confused, and feeling empty.

Of course you can say, "This won a Pulitzer, so what do you know?" I've read many of the Pulitzer winners over the last 15 years or so and there aren't many I'd recommend reading unless you're a literary snob. I'd theorize it's because most of these winners aren't written with the intent of entertaining readers.

All in all I think there might have been a way to make this uninteresting topic interesting, but Shields doesn't do enough to make that happen. You're better served contemplating your own dull, empty life than reading someone else's.

To close, I'd like to point you to John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom books, starting with "Rabbit, Run" that chronicle a relatively ordinary person in a much more fascinating, entertaining way. The last two books in the series even won Pulitzers. There's a literary experiment that succeeded brilliantly.

House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:

July 27, 2006


I have to say that for a book I bought for next-to-nothing on a whim solely for the purpose of reading on a flight to New Mexico, House of Sand and Fog was much better than I'd hoped. I had already seen the latter half of the movie version and so I knew the basic plot, which seems very close to the source material.

Colonel Bahrani and his family come to America after the Shah's overthrow in 1979 to build a new life. While wealthy and privledged in Iran, Bahrani can only find a job picking up garbage as a "garbage soldier" along the northern California highways. He wears expensive clothes to and from work so that his neighbors, many of them Persian, do not believe him to be poor. The former colonel sees a classified ad in the newspaper for a house auction and decides this will be the way to generate money for his son's college education.

Unfortunately the house used to belong to Kathy Nicolo, a recovering alcoholic/cocaine addict whose no-account husband left her not long ago. Due to a clerical error the house that belonged to her father was repossessed and put on auction. By the time she and her lawyer persuade the county to give back what they wrongly took, the Bahranis have already moved in and the colonel refuses to simply give back the house.

The interesting dilemma for the reader is the same as with the movie. Neither Bahrani or Kathy are particularly likable, so who do you root for? Who is right? The answer is that no one is right and you really can't choose one side over the other. This isn't about good guys vs. bad guys. Bahrani obtained the house legally, why should he have to give it back for no profit and find somewhere else for his family to live? At the same time, Kathy's house was wrongly taken from her, isn't the fair thing to give it back to her?

Now if these two people were reasonable they could broker some kind of deal or compromise. But Bahrani is an autocratic, stubborn man who refuses to yield and return his family to poverty while Kathy is a frantic and desperate woman who sees losing her father's house as the final crash for a life that's been spinning out of control for years. Neither of them is about to be reasonable and neither is about to give in to the other's demands.

So this sets up the ultimate confrontation, the rails greased by Kathy's new boyfriend, a deputy sherriff who's leaving his wife for her (maybe) until the whole thing goes off the track with kidnapping, extortion, and gunplay in the climactic scene.

Overall I thought the writing was sturdy. The shift in language for parts narrated by Bahrani and Kathy helped show the differences between them. I'm not sure why so much time was given to Deputy Lester in the second half or why it was in third person, but it didn't detract from the overall story.

On the down side, the struggles of the characters were a little melodramatic and at times shrilly so, such as Kathy's mammoth bender near the end and Lester's racist attempt at intimidating Bahrani. And the end where certain characters are imprisoned went on for too long; I didn't need to hear all the check-in procedures for the county jail, especially twice.

Still this is a very good book, even for airplane reading. I recommend both the book and the movie, which I plan to watch in its entirety very soon. Make sure you do the same.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Giant's House: A Romance

The Giant's House: A Romance by Elizabeth McCracken

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:

May 9, 2006


I'm not sure if anyone else has noticed this but because I read both books recently and they sit next to each other on my shelf, I couldn't help noticing some similarities between "The Giant's House" by Elizabeth McCracken and the later bestseller "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger. For one thing, just look at the covers next to each other: both feature two pairs of shoes with empty shoes representing the tragic heroes. The subject of both is very similar: a tale of love and loss between an ordinary woman and an extraordinary man (giant vs. time traveler) who meet when one of the characters is very young. I'm not bringing this up to accuse anyone of anything, but to say that if you like one read the other.

Speaking just for "The Giant's House" it really is a tremendous debut novel. Peggy's narration is often witty and cynical without being too bitter or self-pitying. The book is populated with interesting characters from James the giant to his tragically unhappy mother to Oscar with his get-rich schemes and ultimately to the infamous Mr. C. Sweatt. Peggy is actually the least interesting character which is by design because she's narrating and she doesn't see herself as particularly interesting or unique.

I noticed one review where someone said they didn't understand why Peggy loves James. The answer to that is simple: a mutual loneliness and love of books. James' size keeps him isolated from other people, who drop by his house and come up to him on the street to gawk and ask inane questions about how much he eats. Peggy is similarly isolated as the town librarian; she's around the people and town but not really a part of anything. It's this mutual feeling of isolation and loneliness that allows Peggy to overlook James' height and his age to fall in love.

The story follows James from 12 until his death a decade later and how Peggy becomes increasingly a part of his life. First she helps him find books, then brings books to him, and soon is helping to design his house and spending most of her free time there with him. James has to make sacrifices--including a brief stint as a circus performer--to make the money needed to provide for his unique needs and never can live a truly "normal" life.

My only real complaint is that the end gets a little too rushed, going into summary mode for the last ten pages or so. Also, what wasn't clear to me was why Peggy lies about the father of her child. Still, those are minor imperfections in a great novel and can be easily overlooked. And I have to mention the shorter length is one reason "Giant's House" is better than the other book I mentioned earlier, although I suppose it's funny a book about a giant is only average sized.

This is one of the best first novels I've read. I highly recommend it.

That is all.

Back Where He Started

Back Where He Started: A Novel by Jay Quinn

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:

April 27, 2006


Conflict is the essence of drama. This book has no conflict, thus no drama, thus no interest for me reading it. But I persevered until the end, although the book seemed over before it ever began.

I've noted this in at least one other book in which the story is so happy and everyone is so well-adjusted there seems no point in the story except to reinforce how crummy the rest of our lives are. Why can't we be more like Chris and his family?

Everything rolls off Chris like water off a duck's back as he's dumped by his long-time partner, his youngest "son" gets married, his "daughter" and "daughter-in-law" get pregnant, and he finds true love (again) with a gruff fisherman/dog trainer. In the end there's really nothing about any of that that worries him too much and as a result there's nothing that worries me too much either. There was never any doubt this would turn out Happily Ever After for all involved. I could have stopped reading after 100 pages (and I did consider it) and not missed anything important.

Chris himself sounds like a woman throughout and if not for the racy homoerotic scenes, I would have thought he was a she. The dialogue is horribly stiff and unconvincing. The editing is awful, with more than a few errors in the text. An amateur effort by all concerned.

There's nothing for me to recommend except if you want a comforting little yarn that will never excite you for a microsecond. Think of it as "The Notebook" only with two men. If that's your sort of thing, go for it. But it's not for me.

That is all.

Christopher

Christopher by Allison Burnett

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:

April 19, 2006


I didn't have high hopes when I read "Christopher: A Tale of Seduction." Just the last part of the title makes the book sound unsavory. But you know what they say about judging books by their covers. Imagine my surprise to find an entertaining, engaging, and enlightening novel about love and life.

The book follows the enigmatic BK Troop through 1984 with a chapter dedicated to each month. BK has just moved into a new building only to find his neighbor is the sexy and newly single Christopher. (BK as you may have gathered already is a gay man; Christopher is not.) What follows are BK's attempts to seduce Christopher by becoming his friend and mentor as Christopher attempts to put his life back together after a divorce.

While it's BK's intention to do the seducing promised on the cover, the actual seduction is Christopher bringing out BK's humanity through his youthful idealism and familiar struggles with identity. In becoming Christopher's friend and mentor, BK is forced to accept a relationship not built on carnal lust and thus learns to appreciate Christopher--and himself--more as a human being. That I think is the biggest triumph of the novel.

There are a number of misadventures detailed in the book that range from the humorous--Christopher joining a New Age cult--to the very dark--Christopher making love to a 16-year-old student. The various ups and downs of Christopher's recovery are recounted as a memoir through BK in a witty, cynical voice that reminded me of David Gates' "Jernigan."

This book flew by in no time at all. I laughed, I didn't quite cry, and I learned about the human condition. All in all, "Christopher" is a real diamond in the rough.

BTW, despite BK being gay and falling in love with Christopher, this is not a novel ABOUT being gay. This isn't "Brokeback Mountain" after all. I'd say give this novel a chance to impress you too no matter your sexual preference.

A Son Called Gabriel

A Son Called Gabriel by Damian McNicholl

6 of 10 people found the following review helpful:

April 7, 2006


What dooms "A Son Called Gabriel" is a combination or too much ambiguity at the end and too little focus throughout. By the unsatisfying end, I never felt any connection to the book or to the relatively flat characters. It might just be that I've read far better books on the subject of a young man grappling with his sexual identity.

I agree with another reviewer who remarked this entire book could have been condensed into a Part I with a Part II and possibly Part III that get to the meatier times in Gabriel's life after he leaves for college. That Gabriel plays with girls and dolls and wants to be a hairdresser at 7-9 is interesting--albeit stereotypical--but doesn't warrant 100 pages of development. The early teen years also don't add a lot. Really nothing gets moving in this story until Gabriel's 16-18 or so and by then it was almost over.

There's a lot of lip service given to the Catholic-Protestant "Troubles" in the 60s, 70s, but it's never clear how any of this really affects Gabriel's development. Since he's boyfriend to a Protestant girl, I'd have to say the political tensions didn't matter a whole lot to him. In which case, it doesn't add much to the story.

At the end of course there's the big Scarlet Letter/Empire Strikes Back twist, which only distracts readers from the fact that the ending raises more questions than it answers. What will happen to Gabriel in London? Will he and Fiona stay together? Was Father Brendan a homosexual? We'll never know unless there's a sequel in the works.

As for the writing, it was average. I thought the author was guilty of run-on sentences at a few points, but that's just me. There wasn't enough scene-setting. Instead, we get a lot of rushing through test preparations/results and repetitive encounters with school bullies.

As a result of all the rushing around, there wasn't time to really develop the characters. The rest of Gabriel's family isn't much different than any sitcom family because there wasn't time to really settle in and flesh out their personalities into more than one dimension.

That is all.

True Enough

True Enough by Stephen McCauley

March 27, 2006


Whenever I write down what I thought of a book I've read, the ones I feel ambivalent about like "True Enough" are the hardest to write. It's easy to find something to say when you really love or really hate a book; it's much harder when you don't really care about what you've just read.

For myself, I think the problem is so many of these social satires written with ironic detachment ("The Sportswriter" by Richard Ford comes to mind) leave me feeling empty. In part I think it's because while I'm optimist I'm jaded enough to already know love stinks and life stinks. If that's all you got, then it's not enough. Tell me something I didn't already know. Or at the very least, feed my naive notions that true love exists and life can get better.

But to be fair, "True Enough" is amusing and often funny as a satire about the whiny pseudocrises of upper-middle-class Easterners. My favorite part is when Jane gets out of her car to confront the impatient soccer mom in the SUV. I'd need several more limbs to count the number of times I've wanted to do that sort of thing.

If you don't already know, the plot involves Desmond, a gay man in New York having trouble with his long-term relationship to Russell, and Jane, a woman in suburban Boston having trouble with her long-term relationship to Thomas. Desmond gets a temporary teaching job in Boston while finishing his biography on an unknown torch singer. This brings him into contact with Thomas, who teaches in the same department, and by extension, Jane. Jane is losing her job at a public TV station to her go-getting assistant Chloe. Jane is secretly seeing her ex-husband Dale on the side, at first at the behest of her friend who is having trouble in her long-term relationship with Dale. What starts as drinks eventually becomes much more. In the meantime, she gets an idea to do a series of documentaries on minor celebrities like the singer Desmond is writing about. They start working together even as their relationships seem to be going to Hell and in the end wind up in Florida during a tropical storm to inverview the singer's daughter. There's more, but I won't spoil the surprise ending.

I felt a little cheated at the end where the author switches to the viewpoint of Rosemary, Jane's cynical friend who made a mint on a teary memoir of her husband's death. The switch kept me as the reader from really knowing how things had worked out for Jane and Desmond about a year after the Florida excursion.

For the most part while reading this I kept waiting for something exciting to happen, but nothing ever did. Even the big surprise at the end elicited a yawn. Too little, too late for the big shock. After lulling me into a detached-ironic-stupor for 300 pages, why try to shake me out of it in the last 15?

I don't have any complaints about the writing itself, nor did I find anything to rave about in that area. Which is symptomatic of the whole thing. At the end I shrug and say, "So what?"

The whole point seems to be that love and life doesn't work out as we planned. To quote a very popular movie, "Well I'm glad you're here to tell us these things." I'd never have figured that out on my own. So what?

That is all.

The Line of Beauty

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

14 of 22 people found the following review helpful:

March 9, 2006


In many ways "Line of Beauty" compares to a previous Booker Prize-winner, "Atonement" by Ian McEwan. Both feature stellar writing, well-drawn characters, and a very sleepy beginning that puts the reader in mind of Victorian novels. McEwan's sleepy beginning picks up in the second and third acts, leading to a startling revelation. Hollinghurst's sleepy beginning persists right through to the end of the book, without any sort of revelation that could be described as startling.

I'm sure like "Atonement", "Line of Beauty" can be a challenge for an ordinary reader to plow through because it is slow going. Lower-class Nick Guest moves into the upper-class family of his college chum Toby just as Toby's father Gerald is elected to Parliament. The story then follows four years during the Thatcher administration in the mid-1980s as the Fedden family and those around Nick face a few crises.

The problem is the crises aren't particularly interesting or shocking. Gerald is sleeping with his assistant. His former lover Leo dies of AIDS and his current lover Wani is in the process of dying from the disease. That's it. Had this book been published in 1994 instead of 2004 the AIDS angle would have seemed more fresh and surprising, but by now there are plenty of books and movies on the subject so it's not bringing anything new to the table. Gerald's affair, well, that sort of thing has been going on since humans first walked the earth. There's nothing particularly shocking or new about Gerald's affair. If he had been engaging in some kind of really obscene behavior like the cross-dressing politician in McEwan's "Amsterdam" that would have made it a little more fresh.

And then of course this being a novel of the 1980s it falls into the Holy Trinity of '80s stereotypes: greed, coke, and AIDS. Any novel involving the 1980s has to have greedy businesspeople slurping down cocaine like Al Pacino in "Scarface", worrying about AIDS the whole time they're having sex with random strangers. It's like how every '60s novel has to feature hippies, Vietnam protests, and LSD. It may be true, but hasn't it been done to death already? Do we need one more novel covering that same tired ground?

In the hands of a lesser writer this might have made the book tedious, but Hollinghurst is a very gifted author. His sentences are beautiful. Even if he is plowing over the same old ground, at least he's doing it with style.

Would I recommend the book? Sure, just so long as you know what you're getting into. Expect beautiful writing, but no real surprises.

That is all.

The Mermaid That Came Between Them

The Mermaid That Came Between Them by Carol Ann Sima
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

February 17, 2006


Let me put it simply: this book is so dreadful that every copy needs consigned to the bottom of the sea where only real mermaids might be able to read it. There's nothing to recommend this book from the laughably awkward dialogue to the nonsensical narration, to the choppy sentences, to the complete misuse of dialogue tags. This is an amateur effort that makes no sense, has no interesting or compelling characters, and is completely disgusting.

I always hate to rail about filth in books because it makes me feel like an old prude (I'm not old at least), but talk of a five-year-old's "pee-pee" as mermaids sexually abuse the young Jacob Koleman and later the father-son-mermaid incestual threesome warrant the tag of disgusting filth.

As mentioned before, the dialogue is laughably awkward. None of these characters ever utters a line that sounds even remotely like something that would come from a human being. Nor are these terrible lines arranged in any way that could be misconstrued as a conversation. Basically everyone spouts random nonsense.

I might be able to describe the plot for you if any of it made any sense. From what I gather, Jacob is abused by mermaids early on and has a lifelong fixation. Eventually after his divorce he ends up meeting a mermaid who is trying to reproduce. There's a lot of talk about menopause, Marilyn Monroe, and Disney that doesn't add up to anything.

The writing doesn't help make the plot any clearer; if anything the writing makes the plot LESS understandable. The author uses lots of choppy sentences mixed with odd metaphors and cliches that gives the whole thing an ADHD feeling. Maybe there's an interesting story in here, but I haven't found it.

The characters are all so bizarre (and speak so poorly) that none comes close to seeming like a real human being. At least the mermaid has an excuse. Some like the agent's secretary and the crisis counselor are so bizarre they seem more like aliens from another world than real people.

Anyone who likes the book might try to call it whimsical or fun, but it's just bad. Not even bad in a campy B-movie way, just BAD as in terrible, horrible, dreadful. This makes my Top 5 for worst books I've ever read. Highly recommended you stay away from this garbage, considering there are so many more worthwhile entertainments out there. Find one and don't look back.

The Lost Language of Cranes

The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

December 6, 2005


Fair warning: I'm going to reference the end, or rather lack of ending in this review.

Leavitt is noted for his short stories, so it isn't much of a surprise that "The Lost Language of Cranes" is a short story padded into a novel that in sort of an ironic twist winds up being too short, ending before any of the issues put forth are resolved.

The gist of the story is that Owen and Rose have been married for 27 years, but now they're facing a crisis. Their Manhattan apartment is going co-op forcing them to either buy or move, a predicament I think few outside of New York City really understand. At the same time, Owen has been disappearing for long stretches of some days, especially Sundays. We soon learn he's going to certain X-rated theaters for a little homosexual hanky-panky. Owen is homosexual--always has been--but is trying to keep it from Rose and his son Philip. Although it turns out Philip is also gay, but has been keeping it from Mom and Dad. He gets involved in a serious relationship with Eliot, adopted son of a writer Philip admired. Before long, Philip is "coming out" to his parents, which inadvertantly causes Owen to come out. Mayhem ensues.

When I mentioned this book is padded, in particular is the sidebar story of Eliot's roommate Jerene. She came out to her adopted parents years ago and they soon disowned her. Since then she's been working on a never-ending dissertation until she decides to say the heck with it and work first as a bouncer at a lesbian club and then as a counselor on a gay helpline, which Owen later calls. While her life may serve as comparison or contrast to Philip and Owen, it doesn't contribute a whole lot to the story of Philip, Owen, and Rose.

Most of the writing is good, but some of the dialogue is clumsy. My belief is if anyone in a book or movie says, "I feel..." without being in the presence of a therapist, it's a red flag for poor dialogue. It's not natural for people to say, "I feel like..." in my experience. At other times the characters spouted dialogue that seemed too melodramatic. But with a first novel you can't expect absolute perfection.

Now what really annoyed me about the book is the lack of a decent ending. The book ends with Philip and Owen being outed, but everything is up in the air. We don't know what's going to happen between Owen and Rose; will they stay together? Eliot breaks up with Philip, who soon is spending a lot of time with his friend Brad; are they going to become serious? Not even the issue of the apartment, mentioned so prominently throughout the book is resolved. What good is an ending that doesn't end anything? It feels arbitrary to me. Maybe with a little less padding there would have been more space to focus on more important issues.

Except for some insights into the gay nightlife scene of 1980s New York City, I didn't think this book told me a lot I didn't already know. Mostly I thought it was a bland novel, but a worthy first effort.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Home at the End of the World

A Home at the End of the World: A Novel by Michael Cunningham

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:

November 11, 2005


To make this real simple, I found "A Home at the End of the World" to be a very enjoyable read. Cunningham has great literary skills to make all of his characters seem tragic and beautiful. The story avoids a lot of cheap sentimentality, even as Jonathan's lover is dying of AIDS at the end, in favor of a more realistic, reflective tone as Bobby, Jonathan, and Clare come to terms with growing up.

I'm sure some readers could be put off by the switching of point of view (all written in first person) with each chapter, but I never found it confusing to keep track of whom was speaking. The only thing I did have a problem with was the writing was TOO good sometimes. Bobby was a blue-collar kid from Cleveland who'd been using drugs since he was 9 but he narrates like a poet. I thought his narration should have been a little rougher, the same with Alice (Jonathan's mother) as well so all four narrators didn't so similar. It's a minor flaw in an otherwise great book and very easy to look over.

The story itself is the tried-and-true "coming of age" story, only with the twist that Bobby and Jonathan are ex-lovers and wind up living with Clare, an older yet equally immature woman, in New York City. There's the potential for a coming of age story in New York to seem tired because it's been done many, many times before, but there is a freshness to the story because of the unusual circumstances surrounding the characters. I'm sure the issues about homosexuality and HIV/AIDS (which is never directly mentioned although we know what "the disease" means) were more controversial in 1990 than today, but the point is never to shock readers with any of that. Jonathan's homosexuality, Bobby's ambiguous sexuality, and the spectre of AIDS all fit inconspicuously into the story.

In short, there's very little I can say against this book. The writing is super, the characters are interesting, and the story is captivating. I think you should give it a try.

In addition I also recommend Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" which features great writing and some of the same issues.

Liner Notes

Liner Notes by Emily Franklin

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful:

October 21, 2005


Have you ever known someone whose life seems so wonderful that you can't help wishing something really bad would happen to them? That's what "Liner Notes" is. In fact, I've invented a whole new term to describe the reading of this book: reverse catharsis. Everyone in this book is so happy and well-adjusted that it makes you think your own life is pretty rotten by comparison.

The story is that Laney's mother suffered from cancer through Laney's childhood. Now as Laney is going back to Boston to start a new job, her mom invites herself along on Laney's cross-country drive from San Francisco to Boston so they can bond. I'd like to say at this point they have a bunch of adventures or do anything mildly interesting, but pretty much they reminisce over a box of mix tapes. Their journey across America is so bland and vague it could have been written by someone who'd only read about the USA from AAA guidebooks.

Exhibit A is when Laney and Mom detour to Las Vegas. Now since they're in Sin City you think all sorts of wild things could happen to them. All they wind up doing is playing the slots for a couple hours, eating at a buffet, and sipping margaritas on a balcony, where of course there's another mix tape flashback.

The overall problem with this book is what I mentioned in the beginning. Everyone is happy and well-adjusted. Laney's mom had cancer, but has now made a full recovery. Laney's brother is in medical school and on his way to being a doctor. Laney's father runs a very successful pottery business. Laney has good relations with all of them. The only problem is Laney and her mom weren't extremely close and Laney hasn't found the love of her life yet, a problem we know will be solved from Page 1.

There's hardly anything even remotely close to drama or conflict in this book. The one possibility is that Laney gets pregnant with "Crappy Jeremy" and has an abortion. You'd think that would make for something interesting, but this issue is quickly buried and forgotten. Otherwise, Laney and her mom get along so well that a cross-country trip to "bond" seems pointless. There are no obstacles thrown in their way so the outcome is never in doubt.

Then of course the last 30 pages go into full summary mode with the tacked-on overly happy ending. Anyone with half a brain could have seen that coming. Everything works out so wonderfully for everyone that you expect them to form a chorus line and break out into song. It made me want to scream.

Overall this book is so light, so shallow, and so uneventful that it gets tiresome waiting for SOMETHING to happen, only to learn nothing does. Even Lifetime movies of the week have some kind of drama. But if you want a cozy little book to give you a warm fuzzy and reassure you about how good and wonderful the world is, this is your book. This is excellent beach/airplane reading for those who don't want want to be excited at all. People on high-blood pressure medicine maybe.

It's not to say that I absolutely hated this book. I thought it was very NICE. Far too nice. I liked all the characters, but as I described in the beginning, I started to jealously wish something very bad would befall them.

To read a far more interesting story of a young woman coping with issues, I suggest "The Dive From Clausen's Pier" by Ann Packer.

The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful:

October 7, 2005


This is the first time I've ever encountered the sort of narration used in "The Virgin Suicides." Instead of one central narrator, it is a collective of the local boys told through "we" instead of "I" or "he", which takes a little getting used to for this reader. At first I found this unique and interesting, but by the end I thought this device kept me from really experiencing the story on a personal level. Everything became so detached it was as if reading a newspaper account.

It didn't help that the Lisbon girls all seemed like clones except for Lux and Cecelia. The other three--Mary, Bonnie, and Therese--are so little-used it's hard to remember anything specific about them. Lux is certainly the best-drawn of the five girls, as her adventures on the rooftop and so forth are well-documented, but even she remains impersonal.

The boy narrators themselves are even more vague and impersonal. We know very little about any of them, except names and scant bits of information. I suppose it's ironic in a novel about how unknowable the Lisbons are that the reader knows even less about the boys telling the story, except that they loved the Lisbons.

By the end, like reading an obituary in a newspaper, I feel badly for the Lisbons, but it's that momentary, vague blip of sadness before flipping to the sports page.

I undertand that's the point of the novel. No one understands the Lisbons as much as they try. It makes for an interesting literary exercise; however, it doesn't really make for an entertaining book.

I would highly recommend Eugenides' other novel--the Pulitzer-winning "Middlesex"--over this one. In "Middlesex" Eugenides provides both a thought-provoking premise and an entertaining novel instead of just the former.

Columbus Slaughters Braves

Columbus Slaughters Braves by Mark Friedman

October 2, 2005


"Columbus Slaughters Braves" I think had all the elements for being a great novel, but instead of a home run it dies on the warning track. The reason is the novel is too short and brusque to become emotionally invested in the story or the characters.

The story is about Joe Columbus and his brother CJ who grows up to be a gifted third-baseman for the Cubs while Joe becomes a teacher in a Maryland school and has an icy relationship with his wife, who spends an increasing amount of time at the law firm where she works. When CJ becomes ill, Joe has to put aside years of bitterness and jealousy to go to his brother's side.

What I appreciate about this novel is that it resists the urge to deevolve into Nicholas Sparks-style sentimentality. There are no hokey make-up speeches or teary farewells. In that way I think it is a more realistic novel about estranged brothers.

As I said earlier, I think what keeps this from being a great novel is that it's so short, coming in at just 200 pages in paperback. That means the story doesn't develop at the pace where the reader can really get close to the characters or become invested in the story. As a result of the brusque storytelling, it seems too dry to be a home run baseball novel.

Ladder of Years

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

September 17, 2005


I found "Ladder of Years" to be deeply unsatisfying. My basic problem is the same one I had with Tyler's later "Amateur Marriage" in that everything in "Ladder of Years" seems to be cobbled together from earlier works. I haven't read all of Tyler's works, but this one seems mostly an amalgamation of "The Accidental Tourist" and "Breathing Lessons" in that Delia is pretty much Maggie Moran from "Breathing Lessons" who ends up leaving her spouse and living with someone else like Macon Leary in "Accidental Tourist." So at the end of the day I feel I haven't seen anything new, which I find very disappointing.

The story on its own is the typically plodding Tyler yarn. Delia gets fed up with her husband, kids, and relatives during a trip to Ocean City. Finally she leaves the beach and gets a ride to Bay Borough, Maryland, starting a new life there as Miss Grinstead. Eventually she becomes the "live-in woman" for Joel the school principal and his 13-year-old son Noah. She maybe starts to fall for Joe when she goes to her daughter's wedding to find her family falling apart. And pretty much that's where the book leaves off.

It's unclear to me what Delia plans to do from there. Is she going back to Bay Borough and stay with Joel? Is she going to stay with her husband and children? Is she going somewhere else entirely to start over yet again? I prefer to believe the first option, but there is no concrete resolution, which always annoys me. These "non-endings" as I call them I always find irritating.

My question to wrtiers everywhere is this: why do you write the story if you have no intention of ENDING the story? What is the point in taking me along through 326 pages and then just leave me hanging?

Well anyway, as I said before, I didn't feel I got anything NEW from this book that I hadn't already seen in Tyler's other works. There are all the Tyler staples of Baltimore, the scatter-brained wife, the stoic husband, and the spinster sister living with the family. So much of the story is composed of these staples that Tyler injects very little that is NEW.

However, if you haven't read Tyler before it's not a bad place to start. As I said earlier, the pace is plodding but you do feel emotionally attached to Delia so you want to find out what's going to happen to her.

If you have read Tyler's other books, then I think you can just skip this rerun.

Until I Find You

Until I Find You: A Novel by John Irving

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful:

September 11, 2005


In sports, especially boxing, there are always those formerly great athletes who stick around too long for one last season or one last fight and in the process tarnish their legacy by revealing themselves to be merely ordinary. Starting with his last book, "The Fourth Hand" and continuing with "Until I Find You", John Irving is tarnishing his reputation as a great author of books like "The World According to Garp", "The Cider House Rules", and "A Prayer for Owen Meany." For a huge fan of Irving's older work like myself, "Until I Find You" is without a doubt the author's most disappointing effort.

The book gets off to a pretty good start with 4-year-old Jack traveling to Scandinavia with Alice, his mother, supposedly in search of his womanizing father William. This turns out to be untrue for the most part. The pace at this point is good as Irving takes the reader to Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Amsterdam (which should be familiar to Irving readers from "A Widow for One Year") where we meet lots of interesting tattoo artists, organists, choirgirls, and the obligatory prostitutes. By the time Jack and Alice board the ship for Canada, there could be an interesting story about the relationship between Jack and his parents.

But then it takes Irving about 600 pages to really get back to this story. For those 600 pages we have a lot of filler and the obligatory private schools and wrestling lessons that have become Irving staples. In the case of his earlier works, they add to the story, but in "Until I Find You", it does little more than fill the reader in on each year of Jack's life.

The most controversial aspect of the book, the sexual abuse of Jack at the hands of a Portuguese nanny and to a lesser extent the sister of his mother's girlfriend, serves no real purpose in relation to the overall story. It's almost as if it came from another novel and somehow got mixed in. There was so much talk about Jack's "little guy" at this point in the book I seriously thought of not finishing. I found the almost constant discussion of 9-year-old Jack's "little guy" to be more disturbing than just about all the gore and debauchery in "American Psycho", the book I read before this. Not just because it was talking about child abuse, but because it didn't seem to ADD anything to the story. What did this have to do with Jack's missing father or mother? Granted if he had a mother and father looking after him maybe he wouldn't have been abused, but it didn't really help move the story forward.

Mixed in with the child abuse during Jack's elementary school years at St. Hilda's mostly girl's school are several ham-handed attempts to create humorous situations. The writing here is so self-conscious and obvious that I found myself groaning. The worst refers to one teacher who was born in a hurricane and Irving several times thinks it's funny to contrast this to her calm demeanor. The first time was mildly amusing, but he mentions this over and over again until it's just not funny.

After the child abuse, and mandatory New England prep schools--Exeter again!--and wrestling, Jack goes to Hollywood and even wins John Irving's Oscar for Best Screen Adaptation in 2000. None of this matters. Again, it's just a lot of filler. John Irving does not seem the logical choice to play an actor. Make no mistake about it, Jack Burns is a thinly-veiled John Irving. My personal theory is so much of the filler happens to Jack Burns because it happened to John Irving.

Therein lies the problem for me as a reader. In his own books--"The World According to Garp" and "A Widow for One Year"--Irving decries autobiographical writing and writing for therapy. Yet with "Until I Find You" he manages to do both. There can be nothing more disappointing when a great author BECOMES everything he's claimed to despise.

After the book plods along through the wilderness of Jack's life for 600 pages, it finally gets back to the point when Jack goes back to Europe and realizes that his mom was the bad guy, turning him against his father for all those years. Then Jack meets his long-lost sister and finally meets his father. Unfortunately, at that point the book ends, just when it was getting interesting.

I would have liked to see a lot more of Jack with his sister and father, to see if they could really make things work and become some kind of family unit. This might have been possible if there hadn't been so much filler taken from Irving's life. And so where the formerly great author fails is by delivering his autobiographical therapy session and not a compelling and well-thought-out novel.

After the subpar "The Fourth Hand" and even lesser effort of "Until I Find You", there is little doubt to me that Irving's best work is behind him. As a great fan and admirer of his work as an author, I only hope he realizes that he's stayed in the game for one fight too long. Time to hang 'em up.

American Psycho

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful:

August 21, 2005


This is a book most people should not read. People with weak stomachs or who have to close their eyes during the gross parts of horror movies should not read this. Young people who are frequent targets of bullying should not read this book, lest they get ideas. Right wing conservatives definitely should not read this. Bible-thumpers, don't even consider reading this book.

So who should read this book? Only people who are adult and mature enough to look past the gore, murder, and complete dearth of morality to understand there is a method to the madness. Like Ellis's previous "Less Than Zero", this is a book about what happens when someone born into wealth and privledge loses touch with reality and humanity. While Clay in "Less Than Zero" was content to mope around and snort lines of coke, Pat Bateman is the more extreme example of someone so frustrated by the emptiness of his life that he murders and tortures prostitutes, a business associate, an ex-girlfriend, and numerous random people.

For a while I enjoyed the absurdity of it all. In this CSI world of ours, it's hard to imagine a Pat Bateman could kill as many people as he does without anyone catching on. Even by the end, only a cabbie seems to actually figure it out. After a while, though, the gore and madness became too much even for me. In the end, I felt sad not so much for the generic victims, but for the killer who never could seem to find the help he needed.

It's impossible to say I "liked" the book. Let's settle for saying I appreciated the book's message. It is a fascinating, complex read, even if none of the characters except Bateman have much detail at all. I'd worry about anyone who really "likes" this book in any way other than literary appreciation.

As I said before, a lot of people should not read this book. About 99.5% of the world probably isn't equipped for one reason or another to handle this disturbing book. Parents, definitely don't allow your kids--especially teens with possible access to weapons--to read this. That is all.

Morgan's Passing

Morgan's Passing by Anne Tyler

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:

August 12, 2005


There's an easy way to tell the difference between a 3-star and 5-star book. A 5-star book you yearn to read all the time; a 3-star you can work on bit-by-bit, setting it aside for a few hours or a couple days, then pick it up again later. "Morgan's Passing" was definitely the latter.

The reason is while the characters are interesting, it takes the story a long time before it really begins to develop. In the meantime, as much as I enjoyed and was intrigued by Morgan, Emily, and the rest, there weren't any burning questions in my mind driving me onward. I kept plowing through little-by-little out of curiosity, to see where this all was going. I've come to expect that out of Anne Tyler books. If you've read many of her books, then I don't think you'll be disappointed. If this is your first time, I have to say it's worth reading but you have to be patient.

How this really differs from others I'd read--"Breathing Lessons", "Accidental Tourist", "Amateur Marriage"--is the male lead (Morgan) was not always stuffy and uptight as was the case in the others. Morgan's mischievious nature made for interesting reading, to make a dull, well-plowed subject more enjoyable. Other reviewers have vented their moral outrage about Morgan's lack of concern for his children and his wife, but I wasn't offended. I found it REAL. In real life we aren't all saints and sometimes we fall out of love with someone and in love with someone else. Real people are selfish and flawed. That's the beauty of the story and Tyler's books in general. They're about real people. If you want fairy tales, you can always book Emily and Morgan for a puppet show.

In the end, "Morgan's Passing" is slow but enjoyable reading. Fans of Tyler, already accustomed to this should certainly read it. Everyone else has to decide if they're equipped with enough patience.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Less Than Zero

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
August 4, 2005


"Less Than Zero" is certainly a book the California board of tourism would prefer no one ever read because it paints the Los Angeles area like the new Soddam and Gamorrah. It's 207 pages of going to parties, doing coke (and other drugs), with a little sex and debauchery thrown in for good measure. If I was planning a trip to LA, I'd cancel it after reading this book.

So if you don't know what it's about, the story is simple. Clay returns to LA from New Hampshire and meets up with all his high school chums. They drive around to various places, do a lot of drugs (mostly coke), and in the end Clay feels the futility of it all.

I really didn't think a book about drugs and partying could be boring, but it was. A lot of the reason is simply the monotony of the writing. Which is intentional I know for artistic reasons, but it still gets dull after a while for page after page of, "We went to this party. Someone was there. We went into the bathroom to do a line of coke. We danced to some 80s song. We got bored and left." It just goes on and on like that with a bunch of characters who are all blonde, tanned clones.

So, other than feeling LA back in the mid-80s was really messed up and rich people can eally screw up their lives, I didn't really feel much else. The book never scratches more than the surface of its many characters or the issues it raises which is because as Clay says, he doesn't want to care about people.

This is a quick read and an interesting one, but I can't imagine reading it more than once. After the shock wears off upon the first reading, there's not much point to keeping it around. I'd say you're better off renting than buying this one. Just don't read it if you're planning to visit the City of Angels anytime soon.

The Forms of Water

The Forms of Water by Andrea Barrett

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:

August 1, 2005


To start with, let me just say my expectations for this book were not very high. I fished it out of a bargain bin for a low, low price. I can honestly say I've read better books about dysfunctional families--"The Corrections" now there's a really dysfunctional family--and I've read worse. Overall, "The Forms of Water" was not life-altering but it wasn't a bad way to kill some time either.

The plot involves 80-year-old Brendan convincing his down-on-his-luck nephew Henry to go visit a parcel of land Brendan owns near a reservoir in Massachusettes. The reservoir used to be a town where Brendan's family lived until it was flooded in the '30s by developers. With no prospects, Henry is eager to survey the land in the hope of developing it when Brendan dies, which is not too far off. When Henry's sister Wiloma--who is part of some religious cult--finds out, she and her ex-husband go after Henry, followed later by Wiloma and Henry's kids. They eventually all meet at the reservoir; I won't go into the rest to avoid spoiling the ending.

Anyway, Henry and Wiloma don't get along, both are divorced and estranged from their kids. Brendan has spent most of his life in monasteries or a nursing home so he's not really connected to the family either. In the end the family is a complete mess and the journey to the reservoir does not lead anyone to really solving the problems in their lives.

Like a lot of literary novels, "The Forms of Water" ends without any resolution to the issues presented. Nobody has an epiphany or rounds the corner or anything like that. By now I'm used to these non-endings, but it doesn't mean I really enjoy them. I like things being wrapped up in some fashion just for the closure.

One problem I had with the book was there were too many characters. Some like Brendan, Henry, Wiloma, and Wendy are fairly detailed but others like Win, Lise, Waldo, and Roy are sketchy at best. I'm thinking the author could have eliminated a couple of these characters without it affecting the story at all.

I'd say "The Forms of Water" is a solid, competent novel, but it's nothing too exciting. There are a lot of other books I would read before this one, but if you're down to that point where you can't think of anything else, this is a good read.