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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain
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:

  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 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.
  3. 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

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.