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.

Friday, March 19, 2010


I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of this book.  It's too bad the story did a horrible 180 for the last third that completely ruined my enjoyment.  If not for that I would have definitely given it 4 if not 5 stars.  But 3 is the best I can do and that's being generous.

In those first two-thirds this seemed like one of those books that seemed so closely tailored to me I thought the author must know me--if not actually then through some kind of telepathy.  The story focuses on Kevin Quinn, a Michigander (like me!) who was raised in Royal Oak in suburban Detroit.  Later he went to Ann Arbor to the University of Michigan, where he cycled through several majors before earning a worthless General Studies degree that earned him a job as an editor at the university's Center of Asian Studies.

The main problem is Kevin's life is that he's drawn to women much younger than himself.  While Kevin is 50, all the women he's been with are significantly younger.  His current girlfriend Stella is 35 but tries to pass herself off as 29.  It's this attraction to younger women that lands Kevin in trouble on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Austin, Texas for a job interview.  Sitting next to him is a girl named Kelly who is half his age, if not younger.  But Kelly reminds Kevin of Lynda, the fling of his youth, the memories of which call to him like a siren's song.

When Kevin sees Kelly again outside a Starbucks in Austin, he finds himself following her around the city.  This is only the first act of the story.  The second focuses more on Kevin and a Latina doctor who aids him in a moment of need.  Kevin also evaluates his relationships to Stella, Lynda, his father, a girl he met before Linda referred to as The Philosopher's Daughter, and a woman he spent a number of years with named Beth.

This story could have been turgid and boring, but Hynes's writing is witty and insightful enough to keep things humming along.  It helped for me that most of his observations about Michigan and Midwesterners were bang on the money.  (The only thing I'd take issue with is that the author kept referring to Detroit's main airport as "Detroit Metro."  That's fine if you're an out-of-towner but there's no way Kevin would think of it as "Detroit Metro" any more than someone from Chicago would think "Chicago O'Hare" or "Chicago Midway."  Usually we refer to it simply as "Metro" or "Metro Airport."  Adding the "Detroit" seemed like a bit of authorial intrusion to indicate to the reader that it's located in Detroit--actually, in Romulus but let's not quibble.)  The only significant issue I'd had was I would have suggested the author scale back the current pop culture references.  Those sound nice in the moment and I got most of them, but in 5-10 years references to "Sex in the City," "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Battlestar Galactica," "Lord of the Rings," and so forth are going to seem moldy.  Still, for me the first two-thirds then were a breeze to read and very enjoyable.  The way Hynes delved so deeply and entertainingly into Kevin's inner life brought to mind Richard Ford's "Independence Day" and especially David Gates' "Jernigan."

It's such a shame then that after creating this wonderful portrait of a character, Hynes decides to throw his story away and turn it into "The Towering Inferno."  (Slight spoiler.)  It just seems lazy to me, like when an excellent thriller movie devolves into a series of car chases and kung-fu fights at the end and you just wonder why the filmmakers felt they needed to dumb down the product at the end for the popcorn crowd.  Though the best example might be "Huckleberry Finn" where Twain/Clemens had such a great story going with Huck and Jim and then threw it all away by inserting Tom Sawyer and his shenanigans into the end.

In the same way I feel betrayed here.  I followed Kevin this far, I wasn't going to stop reading just because there wasn't enough "plot" to the story.  More to the point, I liked Kevin and I wanted to see him work things out--or not.  Instead, the book takes a shortcut that left me unsatisfied and angry.  To me it just seems like Hynes lacked the courage to let the story unfold naturally, so instead he fell back on a deux ex machina device.  It's quite a wasted opportunity.

I'd definitely recommend reading the first two-thirds of the book.  Once you get to Part 3 though you might want to stop reading.

That is all.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner

By Khaled Hosseini

(4/5 stars)

The structure of this story should be familiar to readers of Charles Dickens, John Irving, or Patrick Dilloway.  It starts off with a young boy who grows into a man and then deals with some of his lingering issues.  The only difference is that instead of taking place in London or New England or Iowa, it's taking place in Afghanistan.

Amir's mother died in child birth, something his father (referred to as Baba) seems to hold against him.  As much as Amir would like them to be close, Baba always seems disappointed in him.  They live in a well-off neighborhood in Kabul in the '60s and '70s, back when Afghanistan was still a monarchy.

Amir's best friend is his servant Hassan.  Hassan is an outcast not only because of his harelip and occupation, but also because he's a Hazara or someone with Mongol blood to give him a more Eastern appearance.  Despite this, Amir and Hassan are as close as brothers, in large part because they suckled at the same breast.

Then after a kite fighting tournament to which the title refers, something terrible happens that creates a rift between Amir and Hassan.  Not long after, they're separated when the Soviets begin moving in, setting off political chaos that remains to the date of this review.  Amir and his father go to America, while Hassan and his father stay in Afghanistan.

Over the ensuing 25 years, Amir becomes a man and finds a wife, but he never forgets Hassan or the moment of cowardice that ruined their friendship.  The only way for him to redeem himself--to be good again as a friend says--is to go back and face his demons.

This is definitely a book that came along at the right time.  With the 9/11 attacks planned by terrorists sheltering in Afghanistan and the subsequent US invasion, the American public was obviously hungry for any insight into Afghanistan and its people and Islam.  And the author doesn't disappoint here.  The problem the US faces, as did the Soviets and British before them, is that Afghans are reckless and not prone to following rigid rules, as Hosseini describes during the kite fighting.  And it has its own melting pot of cultures that to outsiders would seem trivial but to them (as demonstrated by the very different lives of Amir and Hassan) are extremely important.

There isn't a lot I can say negatively about this book.  My main complaint was that the ending was so obvious.  It's the kind of ending where you know what's going to happen 50-100 pages in advance, so you wonder why it takes Amir so long to figure it out.  I won't say what exactly, but if you read the book you might see what I'm talking about.

Other than that I only have a couple of nitpicks.  One is that after Amir gets into his fight and gets his jaw wired shut, he mentions that his voice sounds like Al Pacino in "The Godfather."  I assume he meant Marlon Brando with the cotton stuffed in his cheeks.  Maybe this was intentional to show Amir's incomplete grasp of American cinema.  Or it's an oversight.  Not a big deal, but a little jarring considering "The Godfather" is one of the 10 greatest American films ever so you'd think an author would be able to keep track of who played what character.

The only other thing is I found it a little odd and creepy that Amir romanticizes a woman's unibrow and big nose.  Maybe it helps if you're from Afghanistan on that score.

Anyway, this overall is a good book.  I wouldn't put it up there with Dickens or Irving's best works, but it's close.  Generally though it follows the same pattern of following the main character from pretty much birth to present, so that even though it focuses on a different culture it should seem pretty familiar.  If you're looking for a similar book that's a bit more challenging, check out "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie.

That is all.