Monday, March 2, 2009

Book Reviews

Many in the blogosphere have chosen to use this venue to give birth to their inner critic. Some comment on movies, others on music, techies write about updates in technical wizardry, gamers let us know what they most like to play, and avid readers give the lowdown on books. Since I've used this blog to publicize my own writing, the least I can do to give back to the literary community is share my thoughts about the words of others. Going forward I will post a review of each new book I decide to delve into. I don't provide a great deal of detail about plots in my reviews because you can simply head over to Amazon for a synopsis of any title that piques your curiosity. Instead I comment on what chords a particular piece of prose has struck in me. Sometimes this means I pen a fair amount of text, but for the most part it only takes a few sentences to convey what I wish to say. If you are registered at you can find reviews I've written and star ratings I've given to hundreds of books I've read throughout the years. In this blog entry I will simply post reviews of novels (and one memoir) that I've read over the past twelve months (give or take, a couple of these I probably read further back than that), minus star ratings. In a future posting I will share mini-reviews of favored children's books read to my daughter. Hope you enjoy and perhaps find these reviews of use if you're considering buying/borrowing any of the following works:

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England [Brock Clarke] - A breezy read full of observations about the human condition that seem almost wise had they been made by a child, but since the story is told from the viewpont of an adult they come off mostly as whimsical, quirky and border line idiotic, terms that aptly describe just about every character in this novel as well as its cutely odd plot. If you like a heavy dose of absurdity mixed into your mysteries, and plenty of literary references tossed in for good measue, this is the book for you. If I was the type, this would probably qualify as a single sitting read. Mild curiosity and amusement along with a dash of irritation at the narrator's inability to solve relatively simple problems in blatantly simple ways (because he is by definition a bumbler, and the author insists he must live up to this description no matter what) propels the reader forward to an ending that is not intended to take anyone by surprise, but manages to be somewhat poignant if not quite profound.

Black Betty [Walter Mosley] - With Black Betty, Mosley delivers what you'd expect from an Easy Rawlins mystery if you came to it having already read a few others such as I had. The crime to be solved is made to seem convoluted but ultimately turns out to be relatively simple. But as with each book in this series it isn't really about the plot. It's about Easy's singular way of seeing and evaluating and dealing with the people he encounters along the way, his perspective on a period of time that seems both long ago and immediate. His character is further fleshed out with each novel, and going along for the ride with him on the particular case he's working on is always a pleasure. If you enjoy the writing of Raymond Chandler you'll probably enjoy that of Walter Mosley and vice versa, only with Mosley you get an added dose of social commentary, not to mention Easy's psychotically entertaining buddy, Mouse.

The Castle in the Forest [Norman Mailer] - I admire Norman Mailer's mastery of the written word and appreciate the amount of research obviously involved in writing this book, not to mention the fascinating premise of his final novel. Watching Hitler from birth to adolescence through the eyes of one of Satan's minions who is helping to guide his path to pure evil sounded like a brilliant concept. But Mailer's execution fell a good bit short of my expectations. I can excuse the odd fascination this book shows with bowel movements, less than fragrant smells, and other unpleasantries. Mailer chooses to equate bad hygeine with evil as if the best way to convince readers a person is born to be bad is by making him gross. Considering that in this book he is the result of incest, something I'd never heard about Hitler before, I suppose it makes sense that he wouldn't be especially cuddly and huggable well before evil and hunger for power took full control of his actions. So I took the rampant incest and pedophilia in stride. I'm less forgiving however of the ridiculous amount of detail that is given to the raising of bees. Yes, the goings on of a beehive is intriguing. The Secret Life of Bees is a book that pays homage to this fact with just the right amount of attention. The Castle in the Forest goes on about bees well beyond what my interest in the subject was willing to tolerate. Then there is a big chunk of this book that leaves the main plot behind to follow another one about the coronation of Nicholas II. This section is connected to the rest of the novel because the narrator remains unchanged, but it has far less to do with the plot of Hitler's upbringing than the word count warrants. Mailer actually states that the reader can skip the section and resume reading 40 or so pages later if they want to, and after slogging through the section anyway I wished I had taken his advice. At least the book provides a pay-off to the reader after all the attention to bees, but I feel the Nicholas II section should have been edited way down. If I'm being overly harsh it's in part because I had such high hopes based on the rich opportunities the plot seemed to provide, and the talent of the author. The end result is not a bad book, simply an admirable effort that I found more disappointing than memorable.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli [Andrew Sean Greer] - A fascinating read about a man who ages backwards, starting off with the body of an old man and mind of an infant and ending up in the reverse situation. Despite this science fiction type scenario, Confessions basically belongs in the category of absorbing literature anchored by an ill fated love affair. Most of us have far less dramatic reasons for things not working out with the great loves of our lives than Max Tivoli, yet ultimately our reasons are all one and the same. The timing was not quite right. This was a very enjoyable read. I was absorbed right from the start and totally connected with the doomed narrator, hoping against hope that his plight would lead to a happy ending, knowing that even when this is an impossibility it doesn't mean that one's dreams can't be fulfilled (if only temporarily) along the way. After all, life isn't all about the inescapable end, it's about the "along the way".

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time [Mark Haddon]- This is a quirky story told from a unique point of view that leads to innumerable smiles and a good number of chuckles. I had never heard of this book when it was loaned to me, but I'm so glad it found its way into my hands. There are plenty of more ambitious books out there, and plenty of books that are more impressively written. But many of them end up being completely forgotten over the passage of time. This distinctive tale on the other hand is one I suspect I'll fondly recall for a long time.

Disobedience [Jane Hamilton] - Jane Hamilton has a way with words, with etching characters who seem as real as your friends and neighbors, and for moving a minimalist plot along at a pleasing pace courtesy of splendid first person narration. Disobedience was a pleasure to read and I would not hesitate for an instant to pick up another of her books. What more need a novel accomplish than that?

The Emperor of Ocean Park [Stephen L. Carter]- The fact that this book explores university politics featuring east coast black upper-middle class characters made it stand out from the pack, but once you get over this facet (which I did pretty quickly), what you're left with is a well written and fairly intriguing mystery, more memorable than some I've read, less so than others. I suppose a book like this one is an antidote to the urban/hip hop/gangsta/etc. genre of "literature", not so much because it features black characters who are articulate, educated and well to do, but because it was written by someone who fits this description. Ultimately I could care less if the narrator of a novel I'm reading is a college professor or a drug dealing pimp. I only care that the story is absorbing and the characters ring true, and this book did a decent if not quite extraordinary job of accomplishing that feat.

Everything is Illuminated [Jonathan Safran Foer] - A modern masterpiece. These charmingly quirky characters will stick in your mind long after reading this wonderful novel. The hysterical narration has great fun with butchering the English language in inventive ways. This book reads like 2 or 3 (maybe more) great stories all rolled into one deliciously complex novel. When you're going to write about something as terrible as the Holocaust, humor is brilliant way to delicately approach it. This book blew me away. A novel written this beautifully comes along no more frequently than once per decade, if that often.

Hidden in Havana [Jose Latour] - Not well written at all, dialogue competing with the narration to be most stilted. The rule of "show don't tell" (not that I'm a strict rule follower) is completely obliterated, and perhaps the biggest sin for a book billed as a thriller - it was not particularly suspenseful or thrilling. I somewhat reluctantly pushed my way through since it was easy enough to read (the author makes little attempt to utilize poetic prose or vocabulary anyone would need to look up in the dictionary). But if you like your reading material to be of superior quality to something you could have written yourself by 9th grade, I recommend taking a pass on this tepid tale. English is not the author's native tongue, although he has become comfortable enough with it to write a couple novels in English according to his bio. I'm not entirely sure if Hidden in Havana is one of them or if it was translated, but either way it fell short of my expectations for a work of fiction put out by a major publisher (or a minor one, or self pubbed for that matter). I learned a little about Cuba in the process of reading this book, which is cool because I'm a bit of a Cubaphile. Other than that this was a novel soon to be forgotten.

I, Lucifer: Finally, The Other Side of the Story [Glen Duncan] - A clever, enjoyable read about demonic possession from the demon's point of view.

Killing Time [Caleb Carr] – I read this novel because I very much enjoyed Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and its sequel. Besides belonging to a different genre than his earlier work (science fiction rather than historical fiction/mystery) it is also much less of a page turner. The title aptly describes my experience reading this book.

The Kite Runner [Khaled Hosseini] – I read this book to see what the big fuss was about. I'd say it pretty much lived up to the hype. When all is said and done it may not end up in the cannon of classic literature, but I can certainly see why it was such a popular summer read recommendation. The author tells a compelling story that draws you in immediately and doesn't let go until the dramatic end. The characters are richly drawn and true to everyday life, even though the element of this story that brought so much attention to it in the first place is its "exotic" setting, thus proving the point that our similarities are far more striking and significant than our surface differences.

The Last Templar [Raymond Khoury] - I'm a sucker for any knights templar related fiction. This one fit the bill nicely without shattering the earth or taxing my brain too heavily. A pleasant light read for those who gobbled up all of Dan Brown's books and are hungry for more of basically the same meal, give or take a couple appetizers.

A Long Way Down [Nick Hornby] - I was intrigued by the premise of this book which started off strongly enough but faded greatly and ultimately left me disappointed. Hornby is a fine writer with a gift for creating distinctive, likeable characters. He also has a knack for clever plots. With this book he managed to concoct a fine beginning and decent middle but failed to deliver a clever and/or memorable ending.

Me Talk Pretty One Day [David Sedaris] - A highly enjoyable read. The early chapters were particularly hysterical, causing me to laugh out loud numerous times as he described growing up as an effeminate boy with a frustrating lisp. I'm not a big memoir reader, particularly those of people who are most famous for writing a memoir, but word of mouth led me to give this one a shot and I'm glad it did. I didn't find the entire book quite as hysterical as the first few chapters but it did make for a pleasant read and I continue to get a kick out of the catchy title.

The Pleasure of My Company [Steve Martin] - The greatest obtacles are those we impose upon ourselves. As for the deepest wounds, they tend to come from those who love us considerably less than by all rights they should. This wonderful little book eloquently expresses both of these points. It belongs to that popular category of fiction which is narrated in first person from the perspective of a character who is emotionally and/or mentally challenged, thus magnifying commonplace exploits to Mount Everest proportions. I'm looking for a shorter term to name this genre so that perhaps I will be given official credit. The Pleasure of My Company falls into this category, yet also rises above it in spite of its brevity. The book is not a single word longer than it needs to be yet manages to elicit an impressive number of smiles and chuckles, then closes with a flourish that tugs at the heart. Steven Martin is a fine writer indeed.

The Polished Hoe [Austin Clarke] - The pace of the narrative mirrors that of the characters it is about - island time. If you're looking for brain candy or twists and turns every few pages that will keep you on the edge or your seat and cause you to speed through the reading process in a couple hours, this isn't the book for you. But it's pretty good if not quite great and I'd definitely recommend this novel to fans of well written literary fiction.

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey [Chuck Palahniuk] - What a fascinating read by a ridiculously talented author. Other than being a fan of the film version of his novel "Fight Club", I didn't know a whole lot about him. Now I know that he is a writer to greatly admire and envy. It took me a few pages to adjust to the experimental form this novel is written in, but once its hooks were in me the book never let go of my rapt attention. Slowly but surely it reveals its secrets, not showing you the little man behind the Wizard of Oz in one fell swoop, but rather, exposing the method behind the madness in brilliant little increments. By the end I was left in a joyous daze. My perception of reality will never be quite the same.

The Road [Cormac McCarthy]- I expected another good read from this Cormac McCarthy book and as usual he did not disappoint. If you're looking for optimism or to be uplifted, steer clear of this novel. If you can appreciate a masterly set tone of isolation and despair, a brilliant exploration of survival instincts, and a somber ode to parental love in an apocalytic setting, this is just the book for you.

The Savage Detectives [Roberto Bolano] - The blurbs made it seem like this book would be the greatest thing since sliced bread (from the perspective of those who think sliced bread is spectactular, that is. I personally prefer loaves that need to be sliced, but I digress). The blurbs throw around names of authors I deeply admire such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the only literary work I was reminded of was On the Road. Kerouac was smart enough to keep his tale of random wandering fairly brief, whereas readers have nearly 600 pages to plow through to make it to the end of The Savage Detectives. I stopped after about 150 of them when it became apparent enough that there would be no characters created with sufficient depth for me to care one way or another about, and no particular plotline to speak of. Roberto Bolano was a talented writer who apparently had little interest in writing beginning-middle-end narratives. I could see why certain people would love this novel. There is no doubt that Bolano was a gifted author, simply not my particular cup of tea.

The Stand [Stephen King] - TGIF - Thank God I Finished. That's not meant to say I didn't enjoy this book. The Stand certainly deserves its status as a classic. But man was it long. You'd have to write a pretty teriffic book with a splendidly inventive plot and compelling characters to get me to commit to well over 1000 pages of prose. That's precisely what Stephen King accomplished, particularly with the early part of this mega-novel when the virus is doing its nasty business. Definitely no dragging going on there. But once the survivors have found each other hundreds of pages in, forming a community and establishing rules to live by in their post-Apocalytpic world, the story drags just a bit. Eventually the plot gets us to the final showdown portion which could be considered a tad anticlimatic since there was such a tremendous amount of build up to it. Anything short of the book spontaneously combusting in my hands would probably have seemed a little disappointing. But I'm no doubt being too picky here because I feel like I was reading this book for at least six months. It really is a wonderful novel, probably worth purchasing rather than borrowing from the library like I did so you don't have any pesky due date to worry about. It's been ages since I last read Stephen King. The Stand was a fine reminder of why I became such a big fan of his in the first place.

A Thousand Splendid Suns [Khaled Hosseini ] - This was a wonderful book. I enjoyed it every bit as much as The Kite Runner. While reading it I was reminded of the style of Pat Conroy, another master of the family saga. Also brought to mind was Alice Walker's The Color Purple, another well written novel filled almost exclusively with loathsome male characters and long suffering women. Such books make a guy feel a bit guilty for having a penis, but unfortunately they are inspired by the behavior of real life A--HOLES throughout the course of history and societies that have allowed and even encouraged such abusive inhumane treatment to flourish. Khaled Hosseini does a masterful job of weaving history lessons of his homeland into dramatic tales of people with the odds stocked against them whom the reader comes to strongly feel and hope for.

Trans-Sister Radio [Chris Bohjalian] - This was an interesting, sympathetic, insightful look at a "world" that I (and perhaps most people) knew very little about prior to picking the book up. The significant differences between people of different cultures, nationalities, religions, lifestyles, etc. only serve to shed light on how ultimately similar we homosapiens all are to each other, most especially in matters of the heart. Another lesson from this book is that having a sex change is hard damn work for everyone involved.

The Unknown Terrorist [Richard Flanagan] - Although it is very different in tone and style and subject matter, my experience reading this book reminded me a little of how I felt reading "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England". The narrator of that book did one stupid thing after another and the reader was supposed to accept these actions as reasonable because the character is described/definned as a bumbler. In real life of course people do not fall quite so neatly into such categories. Someone may bumble most of the time in certain areas but navigate smoothly through other sets of circumstances. As Chris Rock noted in one of his comedy routines when describing his political leanings - "I have some things that I'm conservative about, and some things that I'm liberal about". Nobody is always liberal or always conservative or always a bumbler, though it is true that some people act a certain way far more often than not. The "title" character of The Unknown Terrorist is a fairly complex one with a well fleshed out background, and the storyline is fueled by much bigger ideas than the comical Arsonist book. But I couldn't shake the feeling as I sped through its pages that the actions of pivotal characters were specifically intended to promote strong opinions held by the author and nothing but. He wanted to make certain points about politics and the media and about how easily the sheep like masses can be led to a prefabricated conclusion. If at any point one of the major characters in this reasonably but not overwhelmingly well written book behaved in a way that I personally believe would have been more realistic reactions/responses, the book would completely fall apart because little else was holding it in place. The wrongfully accused woman needs to be so paranoid from the get go (her drug use helped in this regard, I suppose) and distrustful of authority that the only thing she can think to do is run and hide even before she's really being chased. The decision makers in the media need to be so obsessed about breaking a big story that not only does truth become irrelevant, but so does having supporting evidence of any kind. The author is OBVIOUSLY cynical about our post 9/11 world, and anyone who does not have their head shoved deeply in the sand can recognize why this might be so, but I found myself torn between wanting to follow the storyline to where it was blatantly leading and wanting the characters to break free of the author's plot machinations and act in a common sense manner that would likely clear matters up within a few pages of text. Despite such frustration with plausibility, this was definitely a gripping and smooth flowing read.
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  1. You shouldn't have stopped at page 150, the second part of TSD is what makes it a masterpiece. Hopefully you will find some time to go further. Believe the critics, this is an astounding piece of fiction.

  2. If your curiosity was piqued by THE UNKNOWN TERRORIST, you might want to check out Flanagan's next upcoming book, called WANTING. The subject matter is more historical than UKT, and the writing and characters (one of whom is Charles Dickens) are beautifully textured.

  3. The Savage Detectives is probably the best Literary book of the bunch by far. It does not reach the level of structural sophistication attained by Bolano's 2666, but it will certainly be considered a 21st century classic.