That is all.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
by John Cheever
I'm a little confused about the description in the synopses here of the "nightmarish" prison. Falconer didn't seem nightmarish to me at all, just the opposite. Farragut is never beat up--except by a sadistic deputy warden, who is the only one who could be considered nightmarish but he isn't around for much--or raped (in the shower or anywhere else) or thrown into a dank hole for weeks at a time. Falconer isn't where I'd choose to take a vacation, but it's far from a dungeon, gulag, or concentration camp.
The story is about a college professor named Farragut--married to a beautiful but unfaithful and uncaring wife--who murdered his elder brother, though he claims it was an accident. The doctors and witnesses said he hit the brother twenty times with a fireplace implement, which hardly seems accidental. Farragut is sentenced to Falconer prison where he meets an assortment of characters like Tiny the guard who sneaks in tomatoes and other goods, big-talking Chicken Number Two, and the dashing Jody, who becomes Farragut's lover for a time. Ultimately Farragut comes to a momentous decision, which I won't spoil for you.
Perhaps because I read both recently, "Falconer" reminded me of "Catch-22" only set in a prison instead of the military. In both the authority figures are painted as uncaring dolts, the protagonist is trying to maintain his sanity in an insane situation, and both make the same decision at the end. Both books have a subtle, absurd humor to provide light to what would otherwise be a dark situation.
I prefer "Catch-22" if only because it seemed more fully developed. My copy of "Falconer" came in at 211 pages and to me the end with Farragut's big revelation and decision seemed a bit rushed. This might be because Cheever is a more prolific short story writer than novelist. I think he could have easily made this twice as long to make Farragut's realization a little less abrupt and to flesh out some of the supporting characters and such.
But that aside, this is still a great book that will make you laugh and think, so spend some solitary time with it.
That is all.
by Cormac McCarthy
Ultimately a lot of my problems with this are the same as when I read "Cities of the Plain" recently so I'll just cut and paste from there to save time.
I suppose McCarthy's writing is fine if you enjoy the Hemingway style, which I don't. I'm not sure what's so beautiful about sentences that go "He shaved and showered and toweled off and got dressed." Seems kind of ugly actually. Reminds me of the stories I wrote in junior high. But he has a Pulitzer and a National Book Award and I don't. Take that!
A few of the author's style choices left me more than a little confused. Let's go down the list:
1. McCarthy doesn't use quotation marks so sometimes it's hard to know when someone is talking and when McCarthy is narrating.
2. McCarthy is adverse to using proper names so you end up with confusing pronoun use. In one case he made it sound like wolves had built a fire. This is especially a problem when the author starts out a new section or chapter with "He" and then we have to wait a few sentences to figure out the "He" in question.
3. Most aggravating of all is that a lot of characters speak only Spanish and McCarthy puts their lines IN Spanish. So tough luck if you don't know any Spanish. I wasn't too bad off since I took a few Spanish classes in high school, but some terms still threw me--and I didn't have a Spanish-English dictionary handy. If this were a movie we'd have the benefit of subtitles but in a novel we have to try and interpret the gist of it from the character's actions, sort of like playing charades.
Here's a new one though:
4. The central character (supposedly) is "the kid" but after joining up with "the judge" and Glanton "the kid" steadily disappears until he's just an anonymous part of the gang as they terrorize Mexico and the southwestern United States. A good quarter or more of the book hardly mentions "the kid" at all until he resurfaces at the end for the final confrontation with "the judge."
As the reader I think I really missed out by another of McCarthy's habits of never getting into the character's minds. Since the characters are so opaque and the central character disappears, the final confrontation between "the kid" and "the judge" doesn't make a lot of sense. I never did understand why "the kid" didn't just off "the judge" when he had the chance, a direct result of "the kid" vanishing and never having any idea what he was thinking.
But suffice it to say if you enjoyed "The Road" then this is pretty much the same thing. A group of people going through a bleak wasteland full of blood, gore, and death. Only in this case it's "the kid" and the gang inflicting most of that blood, gore, and death in order to collect Indian scalps--or Mexican scalps will do in a pinch. Pretty much the whole book is them going from place to place killing people or getting chased off by people trying to kill them. If you're looking for anything happy or hopeful or any of that, you better keep on walking.
That is all.
by George Eliot
About halfway through when the little bundle of joy shows up in Silas's house I couldn't help thinking Dickens would have done a much better job with this story. As it is, the second part (which is actually the last third of this slim novel) is awkward and sloppy and doesn't make a lot of logical sense. Why does the father confess after he finds out he's going to get away with it scot-free? In "The Telltale Heart" Poe established the kind of guilt that made the eventual confession make sense, but there's nothing like that here to prod the father into doing anything--especially when he's waited so long as it is. By the time he does come forward and want to take responsibility there's really no point in doing so anymore as Silas has done the work for him.
Anyway, I could see why kids would hate reading this. I'd recommend they watch the old "Wishbone" episode from PBS instead. That got to the point and trimmed out a lot of the useless fat and would be far more entertaining for your kids--who doesn't like to see a dog wearing clothes?
That is all.
by Norman Mailer
Or maybe it is your grandpa's war story; I wouldn't know because my grandpa was in the navy. Anyway, those looking for a rollicking action adventure about WWII in the Pacific had better look elsewhere. It's not a John Wayne movie or even "Saving Private Ryan." This is a psychological study of men grappling with the elements and themselves in a hellish environment. (Substitute the jungle for sand dunes and tropical humidity for 130-degree heat and Japanese soldiers for Arab terrorists and it would fit perfectly into modern times.)
This is a fictional account of the taking of an island in the Pacific by American forces. The story focuses primarily on a recon platoon lead by the abusive tyrant Sergeant Croft. There are about a dozen men in the platoon at the beginning including the Mexican sergeant Martinez, the former hobo Red, the Jew trying to fit in Goldstein, the intellectual Jew/platoon runt Roth, a couple good ol' boys Wilson and Ridges, gangster wanna-be Polack, brownnoser corporal Stanley, and seemingly All-American boy Brown. There's also General Cummings and his surly Ivy League aide Hearn, who have a very conflicted and adversarial relationship.
This relationship ends with Hearn being assigned to the recon platoon for a quixotic mission to explore behind the Japanese lines. This patrol leads to three men dying, two quickly and one very slowly.
But again this isn't a book about the war. There's really only one real battle and a couple of skirmishes. The real war for the soldiers is with the jungle and themselves--physically and mentally. A lot of the book details the platoon's fatigue as they tramp through the jungle or work on constructing a road to resupply the front.
None of these guys come off as your stereotypical characters from a war movie and Mailer's greatest strength is delving beneath the tough guy surfaces to show the fragile individuals underneath. Several sections of the book are referred to as the "time machine" and detail the platoon members before they went to war. None of them are heroes, but just ordinary guys who don't care about causes and flags, only about getting back home to their families and friends.
There's no glory to be had anywhere in this very long, very detailed narrative. If you're looking for action and excitement, look elsewhere--maybe ask your grandpa to tell one of his stories. If you want a realistic portrait of war, then look no further.
That is all.
by Thomas Pynchon
I'd always stayed away from Pynchon's novels because A) They are longer than the average Harry Potter book and B) They sound bizarre. "The Crying of Lot 49" then was a good way to get my feet wet because at least it was only 150 pages. Somehow I'm sure it's just as bizarre as his other novels. And yet for as strange as it was, it was a compelling novel that kept me reading right through to the end.
The story is about Oedipa Maas, a young suburban housewife with a DJ husband nicknamed "Mucho" at the local rock n' roll station in Kinneret, California. She receives a letter from the estate of a former flame named Pierce, a billionaire with his hands in all sorts of pots. Oedipa has been named an executor and so travels San Narcisco, where she meets the lawyer Metzger, once a child actor named Baby Igor.
This leads to an affair, which would have been where most novels would stop, but the affair is only the tip of the iceberg here. In looking over some of Pierce's properties like the weapons manufacturer Yoyodyne, Oedipa starts to see a muted post horn everywhere--on a restroom wall, on Pierce's stamps, on a Yoyodyne engineer's notepad--and becomes convinced after watching a rather gory play that there's a secret postal system known as Tristero that has been operating in Europe and the US for 400 years. Her search for answers causes her to delve deeper into madness. A trip back home finds her husband and shrink hooked on LSD, the latter taking her hostage when police find out he worked with the Nazis at a concentration camp.
In the end we're left with questions instead of answers, which is a little irritating. But in a novel that seems to be about the breakdown of reality and communication, what do you expect?
This novel was published in 1965 and really was prophetic about the turmoil upcoming as the Vietnam War escalated and rampant drug use--including LSD--caused most of a generation to lose touch with reality.
I couldn't help thinking that if I knew more about science like entropy and thermal dynamics and if I had been born before 1964 I would have understood more of the satire and wit employed here. That's the risk you take in writing a satire, though.
At any rate, this book was fascinating in spite--or because of--all its strangeness. If you're looking to take a good trip without the aid of chemical enhancement, here you go.
by Joseph Heller
I'm almost at a loss to describe just how great this book is, but I'll give it a go anyway. Suffice it to say Mr. Heller's tale of war, courage, and madness is as relevant today as it was on its first printing. It's a book that will make you laugh, make you think, and make your heart ache all at the same time.
This is the story of Yossarian, an American bombardier stationed on Pianosa under the command of the vain Colonel Cathcart. No matter how many missions Yossarian and his comrades fly, the colonel demands more of them, gradually raising the number from twenty-five all the way up to eighty. Yossarian becomes increasingly desperate to escape the certain death he knows is waiting for him, especially as his friends are seemingly knocked off one-by-one not just by German gunners but sometimes by friendly fire or outright bizarre circumstances--like being smothered by a cat. Surrounded by pompous, preening, madmen like Cathcart, Yossarian turns out to be the only sane person on the base because he still has at least a shred of conscience.
The satiric wit employed to paint the Army Air Force as bumbling stooges might have seemed ridiculous until a few years ago. Now with Gulf War II and soldiers being sent on four, five, or more tours of duty it doesn't seem quite so far-fetched that a Colonel Cathcart or General Peckem could really exist.
As good as this book is it can be a challenge keeping all the characters straight and all the events in proper order. And like a "Saturday Night Live" skit this goes on a little longer than it should until the bit starts to lose some of its impact. The end is tremendous as Yossarian does the only thing he can do in the face of overwhelming stupidity and madness.
If you're a fan of M*A*S*H the movie or TV show then this book is right up your alley with its wisecracking antiheroes and bumbling commanders. Really to me "Catch-22" seems like the precursor to that movie/series only on a grander scale.
And hey this is one of the only books to add a new word to the dictionary, so that's neat too. Go ahead and give this a read; you won't be disappointed.
That is all.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
by Cormac McCarthy
If I'd known this was the third in a trilogy I never would have read it, not having read the other two. Might have been nice of the publisher to have put that somewhere on the cover--front or back--so people who are just browsing the shelves (like me) might have some idea what we're getting into. Just a suggestion.
Anyway, I suppose McCarthy's writing is fine if you enjoy the Hemingway style, which I don't. I'm not sure what's so beautiful about sentences that go "He shaved and showered and toweled off and got dressed." Seems kind of ugly actually. Reminds me of the stories I wrote in junior high. But he has a Pulitzer and a National Book Award and I don't. Take that!
So the conclusion to this supposed trilogy no one bothered to tell me was a trilogy is basically a Western-style "Romeo & Juliet" or "West Side Story" where two kids from opposing sides fall in love. In this case John Grady Cole is a cowboy on a small New Mexico ranch in 1952 and the girl is a 16-year-old Mexican whore. If you know anything about "Romeo & Juliet" you know how this is going to turn out.
A few of the author's style choices left me more than a little confused. Let's go down the list:
- McCarthy doesn't use quotation marks so sometimes it's hard to know when someone is talking and when McCarthy is narrating.
- McCarthy is adverse to using proper names so you end up with confusing pronoun use like: "After Oren had gone he sat over his coffee for a long time." Who's "he?" Oren was the last guy referred to but it doesn't make any sense if he left the room to be sitting over his coffee. This is especially a problem when the author starts out a new section or chapter with "He" and then we have to wait a few sentences to figure out the "He" in question.
- Most aggravating of all is that the girl speaks only Spanish and McCarthy puts her lines IN Spanish. So tough luck if you don't know any Spanish. I wasn't too bad off since I took a few Spanish classes in high school, but some terms still threw me--and I didn't have a Spanish-English dictionary handy. If this were a movie we'd have the benefit of subtitles but in a novel we have to try and interpret the gist of it from the character's actions, sort of like playing charades.
I suppose that would have been fine for the unimportant characters, but a character central to the plot I sort of like to know what she's saying. Imagine if you were reading "Romeo & Juliet" and Juliet made all those romantic speeches to Romeo in Klingon? It just wouldn't have quite the same impact.
Another thing that bothered me is the characters are all so opaque. We never get inside their heads, so it's almost like a movie or TV show. The advantage of novels versus those mediums is that in a novel you can get inside the minds of the characters to see what makes them tick. Maybe since this was the conclusion of a trilogy the author figured he'd covered all that background already. But really I might as well have just popped in a DVD of "Unforgiven" or "Open Range" or something like that.
It's not all bad, though. Though I really can't substantiate it McCarthy seems to have a good eye for the period details. And there's some nice rapport between the cowboys that makes for good dialog. So at least it's not a boring read, except for the 30-page epilogue 50 years in the future that's mostly some old unnamed guy rambling on about dreams. I'm not sure what the point of that was.
Anyway, I suppose if you've read the other books in this supposed trilogy you'd be a lot better off than me.
That is all.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
by Kurt Vonnegut
Don't be fooled by the "plot" descriptions of a "timequake" making everyone have to do the same things over again from the last ten years. That makes up possibly 1% of the this novel. Another 50% is dedicated to Vonnegut's memoirs with the balance being dedicated to the life and stories of the fictional Kilgore Trout.
What this book ends up being is one of those rambling yarns Abe Simpson might spin that starts, "Back in my day..." There's no cohesive narrative in the slightest and you know what, that's OK by me. I've never read any Vonnegut except a short story back in high school (I hated that story, BTW) so maybe this wasn't the place to start, or maybe it was a great place to get a little background--if you believe anything Vonnegut tells you. After reading I'm a little dubious about what is fact and what is fiction, but now I'm rambling.
The simple truth is that Vonnegut's writing is so smooth and so funny that the lack of cohesive narrative or characters or any of that jazz one excepts from a book in the "Fiction" section isn't all that disconcerting. There are some great insights into life, history, science, and writing that are worth reading even if they aren't "true" as in actually having happened they're true in spirit and that's what's important. More to the point, this book is so short that I breezed through it in about 5 hours.
So if you're going on a trip, why not take along something that will make you think instead of another crime story or romance novel or Hollywood gossip rag? You'll be better off for it.
On a side note, it was eerie reading this a few months after the author passed away. (I trust I don't need to include a spoiler warning for that.) Vonnegut makes several references to his death--and those of various relatives and acquaintances. Most disturbing was he predicted he would still be alive in 2010. He ended up a little short from that mark, but in the meantime he accomplished far more than most of us.
That is all.
Friday, July 13, 2007
The Yiddish Policeman's Union
by Michael Chabon
I can summarize my review as follows: This is the best-written cheesy mystery/thriller EVER.
I stayed away from reading this book when it first came out because nothing about it appealed to me. I'm not Jewish, I hate alternate history, I don't read mysteries or thrillers, and I've never been to Alaska. The only reason for me to ever read this book is my faith in the author. I sense the publisher felt the same way since you'll notice the author's name is much larger than the book's title on the front cover and spine and the back prominently talks about all his OTHER works. It's like they're saying, "Who cares what this about; it's Michael Chabon, one of the best freaking writers alive! Buy it!"
The thought that keeps humming through my brain is: whatever possessed the man to write this? To me, this is like Picasso writing a cookbook or Einstein publishing a book of poetry. It's a complete waste of talent for such a great writer to concoct something that's part a mystery that isn't mysterious and part a thriller that isn't thrilling.
If you haven't read the other reviews and such to know what this debacle is about, it's about Meyer Landsman, a policeman cut from the John McLane mold in that he generally shambles around with a hangover all the time since his marriage--to his former partner and current boss--broke up. He's woken from his stupor by the manager of the motel where he lives to investigate a murder next door. A mysterious chess-playing heroin addict has been murdered. As Landsman investigates the killing, he's drawn into conspiracies that involves Hasidic gangsters (the leader of whom is like a Jewish Jabba the Hutt), a fanatical American government that makes the current regime seem tame, and dairy cows. In this alternate universe Palestine is still in Muslim hands, having routed the Zionists in 1948, but the arrival of a Messiah--Jabba's son, who is the aforementioned chess-playing junkie--signals that it's time to bring on a new Crusade to bring on the End of Days.
As the plot continued to get more ridiculous, I kept hoping for Mr. Chabon to pull a rabbit out of his hat, but that never materialized. Instead, the end seems tacked-on and by then the solution to the mystery makes little difference, so that it's completely underwhelming.
I suppose the biggest problem I have--and I'm sure others will have as well--is the colossal shadow cast by the author's previous adult novel, the Pulitzer-winning "Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." This novel is nothing like that, except for Meyer's fascination with the World's Fair and in the grand Chabon tradition one character turning out to be gay. The most notable difference is that while "Kavalier and Clay" had a sunny optimism of two poor kids bringing a dream to life and embracing The American Dream, "Yiddish Policeman's Union" is as dreary as its Alaskan setting, mired in a world of bitterness and hatred that is perhaps a dark reflection of our current situation.
On the technical side, the writing is of course superb, beyond reproach, and a heap of other complimentary adjectives. It's just that this great writing is in service of a plot better suited for Dan Brown or the "Left Behind" boys. On the whole, I don't know who this novel is aimed at. Mystery/thriller/alternate history fans will not enjoy the literary style or the heaping helping of Judaism or the slow pace with almost no payoff. Literary fans will enjoy the writing style but (should anyway) find the plot trite. I suppose if you know a lot about Judaism, you can tolerate alternate history, and you liked slow-paced mystery/thrillers with almost no payoff this is YOUR book. Me, I'm going to disavow its existence.
I'm going to tarry a moment longer to put forth a theory. The victim who sets this whole thing into motion, Mendel Shpilman the chess-playing junkie, is credited as the Messiah of the Jews with allegedly magical powers of healing and so forth that makes him a superstar at an early age. But Mendel grows weary of this gift and so goes into hiding, spending his time shooting heroin and hustling chess games for money, squandering his tremendous gifts. In a way you could say the same of the author. "Kavalier and Clay" made Mr. Chabon a superstar, but ever since then he's done the next best thing to hiding in putting out a children's book, a Sherlock Holmes novella, pulp magazines, comic books, and even contributing to the story for "Spider-Man 2." And now we have a cheesy mystery/thriller. Perhaps art does imitate life and in this case that would be a very sad thing.
That is all.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
I first read "Nobody's Fool" about 3 1/2 years ago and at the time I only gave it four stars because I was disappointed with the ending. After rereading the novel, I'm willing now to give it that extra star it deserves. This is a tremendous, tremendous book, even if there isn't really any conflict resolution at the end.
Upon second reading, I was reminded a lot of when I read Anne Tyler's Pulitzer-winning "Breathing Lessons." Both books have the same in-depth storytelling that makes the characters and the world around them seem so fully realized it's easy to believe you could find the town of Bath in upstate New York and run into Donald Sullivan, his cronies, and his nemeses.
And like "Breathing Lessons," the plot of "Nobody's Fool" sounds pretty thin for a 550-page book and not all that enticing. Donald "Sully" Sullivan is a rascally laborer (mostly working under the table) with a bum knee only getting worse, a best friend who smells worse than the garbage he sometimes hauls with his cousins, a lover married to someone else, an an ex-wife who thinks he's Satan incarnate, and a son he never thought much about. Over the Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays his luck seems to go from bad to worse as his estranged son returns after being let go from the college where he teaches, Sully's claim for full disability is denied (again), and he punches a police officer, landing him in jail. There's more to that, but it's hard to describe without going on and on about the background of the story because everything that happens seems to extend organically from Sully's bullheaded personality. The only "plot twist" involves the possible building of a theme park and the local savings and loan, but this doesn't contribute a lot to the overall story except to compound the bad luck facing Sully and just about everyone else in Bath.
The writing in this book is just about top-notch and as I said earlier, the setting and characters are about as vivid as anything I've ever read. There aren't the contrivances you find in most other books, including Russo's Pulitzer-winning "Empire Falls," which I feel is a lesser novel than "Nobody's Fool." The two share a lot of the same DNA, along with Russo's "Mohawk" and "The Risk Pool" but I think "Nobody's Fool" is where Russo was really on top of his game.
The only problem as I mentioned earlier and in my original review is there is seemingly no resolution at the end. The novel just sort of coasts to a stop. Everyone's lives--including Sully's--seem to have taken a turn but we don't really know if it was for better or worse. It's disappointing especially because characters like Sully and Miss Peoples are so likable despite their faults that you really want to know what happens to them; you really don't want this book to end. And generally speaking, that's a great problem to have, which is why I'm giving back the star I took away before.
The caution here is that if you're someone who likes reading plot-driven books, this isn't for you. This is a slow, kind of sleepy narrative that appeals to only the more patient readers out there who can appreciate the completeness and reality of the world Russo creates.
By the way, the 1994 movie version of this starring Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, and Bruce Willis is also excellent. That might be better for those who don't want to plow through all 550 pages here.
That is all.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
by Joyce Carol Oates
This book was a real chore to plow through for me. What could have been a good story was marred by a jumbled plot and unsympathetic characters. In the end I was relieved to finish this and move on to greener pastures.
The plot at its simplest is similar to "The Lovely Bones" or "She's Come Undone"--at least the latter was also and Oprah book--where a girl is raped and the family goes all to pieces in the aftermath. In this case darling cheerleader and chaste Christian Marianne is raped after the prom in 1976. Until that time the Mulvaneys were a respected family. The father Michael Sr. owned a successful roofing company. The mother Corinne was active in the community and churches. The oldest son Michael Sr. was a star athlete and the other son Patrick on his way to becoming valedictorian. This all changes after the rape. In the community the Mulvaneys become pariahs. Michael Sr. becomes a raging alcoholic and loses his business. Michael Jr. joins the Marines. Patrick takes vengeance on his sister's rapist and then disappears to live off the grid. And Marianne is bundled off to live with a cousin before joining a hippie commune. And from there things get worse until they get better.
The first 100 pages or so reads like "The Waltons" written in the style of "The Shipping News" with lots of run-on sentences and fragments. Oates dances around the rape for a long time, well after anyone with an iota of intelligence has figured out what's happened. Especially annoying to me was when Marianne finally tells her mother, instead of getting to the aftermath of this we're hauled back for a flashback 24 years earlier of how Michael and Corinne got together. That's worse than those soap opera cliffhangers that make you wait 3 days (or longer) to find out who shot someone.
The biggest problem with the book then is after the rape. Everything from then out is told in jumbled snippets. Most of the growing and maturing the Mulvaney children do as they scatter from the nest is done outside the book so that we see only glimpses of it. It is essentially like looking at a family photo album where you see a picture of someone at 10 then 16 then 18 then 24 but you don't really know what happened between all those snapshots. Perhaps that was the author's intention, but it takes away from having a cohesive narrative.
It's amazing when you go back and think about it how absent the Mulvaney children are from much of the book. Michael Jr. goes off to the Marines and is almost never heard from again until the end. After Patrick takes his vengeance he too disappears with at least a third of book left. The youngest son (and narrator) Judd was barely present to start with. Marianne gets a couple extended parts towards the end and I wish she didn't because she was so danged precious, as innocent as a small child even at the age of 29; that got on my nerves.
There was no one in the book I was rooting for because I didn't like any of them. Michael Jr. and Judd are exempt because they were all but invisible so there was nothing to like. Patrick was an obnoxious know-it-all, sort of the Lisa Simpson or Stewie Griffin of the Mulvaney clan. I already went into Marianne. Michael Sr. was just a mean drunk (can you ever like someone who exiles his own daughter for being raped) and Corinne was such a spineless, overzealous doormat.
The author had this annoying habit too of overusing some expressions. Especially Marianne "plucking" her hair. It's amazing she had any left by the end. In the epilogue, Corinne mica-shimmering silver hair was referenced three times at least in case you were too dense to figure it out the first time. This is the kind of stuff that annoys me because I'm a very anal reader but I doubt most people would care.
Were there good things about the book? Sure. The descriptions that weren't overused were good. The characters mostly had different, albeit irritating, personalities. So it's got that going for it.
Bottom line is if you're a fan of Oprah books like the two I mentioned earlier then this is probably right up your alley. It's not for me.
That is all.