Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Latest Book Reviews

SAG HARBOR - Colson Whitehead is a wonderful writer. Although I wasn't a Sag Harbor summer kid myself, the author and I are about the same age so much of his reminiscing about his experiences as a 15 year old stirred similar memories I possess. Sag Harbor is a work of fiction, not a memoir, but it reads as much like the latter than as a novel, and no doubt it was largely inspired by the author's youthful days. Not a whole lot happens in Sag Harbor, basically a group of teenagers kill the abundance of time they have on hand, and I know plenty of readers would have a problem with this. I wouldn't have minded if the story had been more eventful, not that books must be bang bang shoot 'em up to impress me. After all, if you're writing a memoir about a period of time when nothing particularly earth shattering took place but it nonetheless was vivid in your thoughts because it was a critical period of your life, then you need to be true to what did and didn't happen. But if you're writing a novel, certainly you can feel free to throw in a little drama. Whitehead resists this temptation and simply gives us a first person tale about an introspective person on a summer vacation somewhere roughly in between the end of his childhood and beginning of his manhood. What does Benji think about as he makes his transition to becoming Ben? For the most part he reflects on his days up to that point for he knows they will soon be coming to an end, and he wonders what the future will hold for him. He holds memories that are both crystal clear and cloudy. As for his insight into tomorrow, like the rest of us he can only guess a little and hope a lot.

The Picture of Dorian Grey (Oscar Wilde) - I knew what this story was about long before finally reading it. That's probably common. The famous premise is a fascinating one, though I found myself wondering if the narrative would have been even more impactful if written as a short story or novella length rather than stretched out to a full novel. The Lord Henry character who serves the purpose of putting bad ideas in Dorian's head gives multiple speeches throughout detailing his hedonistic world view. If the number or word count of these lectures was cut in half I don't think the story would suffer much from the absence. Another decision made by Oscar Wilde was not to show readers very much of Dorian's behavior. His first act of cruelty is laid out before us as is his final one, but in between we are only told that his bad reputation precedes him without being shown what he has done to earn it. It's left to our imagination. A few more scenes exhibiting decadent behavior rather than various dinner party conversations in which a pro decadence philsophy is expressed would have made for a juicier read. Would it have made for a better read? That's arguable, as perhaps it also is whether this book is intententially homoerotic or simply written during a time when heterosexual men were much more comfortable going on and on about how good looking a guy was. What's beyond debate is that Oscar Wilde came up with a great idea to build a story around, one that is as timeless as the desire for eternal youth.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson) - I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. Larsson's debut novel and the two sequels that were published either simultaneously or else in rapid succession have topped Best Sellers lists for what feels like forever. As happened previously to me with the first Harry Potter book and The DaVinci Code, curiosity won out. I was unable to let the cult phenomenon pass me by. But I was not overwhelmed when finally getting around to reading it. The character this novel is named after is its strength, even if the story is not primarily about her. Her distinctive personality and outlook set her apart from cookie cutter characters to be found in many genre titles. But the writing (or it's translation) was mediocre at best and as for the plot, it's engaging but by no means tremendously original. This is a whodunnit, but the ending is not especially difficult to guess at least partially if not completely. I don't even consider myself a particularly strong follower of clues in mystery novels, but one does not need to be Nostradamus to make accurate predictions here. I'm by no means trashing the book. It's fairly engaging and certainly easy to read. But my verdict is that unlike many others, I don't feel compelled to read parts 2 & 3. I'm fine with waiting until the inevitable movie adaptations hit cable. There is no shortage of thrillers/mysteries that are equally or more compelling than this book. The things I can think of that made Larsson's work stand apart are the Swedish setting (which is really no big deal), the fact that the author died after delivering the manuscripts but before publication, and that they were published basically at the same time so readers who enjoyed the first could go immediately to the second and then the third title in the series. Immediate gratification. The mystery of why these books became such huge sellers is a much more puzzling one than those Larsson writes about. But perhaps things get juicier as one delves deeper into the series.

Middle Passage (Charles Johnson) - What a wonderful, powerful, thought provoking, surprising read. The first two attributes are on account of Charles Johnson's mastery of the written word. His prose grips the reader from first sentence and doesn't let go for a second. It goes by so quickly that I found myself wishing it had been padded to last another 50 pages or more. Why was it surpising? Well, I expected it to focus primarily on the horrific middle passage in which people were enslaved and transported in barbaric fashion from Africa to America. And the bulk of this book does in fact describe such a voyage. But before we get to it we are introduced to the protagonist, a fascinating character who is a freed slave that ends up on the ship basically by accident as he flees to avoid a forced marriage to his impatient girlfriend, a seemingly mild mannered lady who has taken matrimonial matters into her own hands in rather brutish fashion. Once he is aboard ship and particularly once it has monstrously taken on cargo, which includes not only members of an ancient African tribe but also their god, the narrative is so intense and perilous and chock full of life and death double dealing on the unpredictable high seas, that the early part of the novel is mostly forgotten. But without giving too much away, as Middle Passage reaches its conclusion suddenly we are back in the world of the original cast of characters. The physically battered protagonist is much changed mentally and emotionally due to his adventurous ordeal. But he has one last dangerous set of circumstances to navigate before he can be fully saved. Ironically, being saved means opting for a degree of monogamy and commitment that his avoidance of got him into so much trouble in the first place. Freedom has an entirely different definition to him from beginning of the story to the end. So yes, this book as expected was about the atrocities of the slave trade. But slavery is more of a backdrop than focus of the action packed tale. What it ultimately ends up being about is the lengths a man goes to live a carefree existence, and what he must go through to learn that caring for people other than himself is a far superior way to live.

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On my birthday I significantly discounted cost of Kindle edition of Patches of Grey, which was of no use to you if you happen to be a Nook owner who shops at Barnes & Noble web site. Well pout no more because the Nook edition is now on sale as well for just $2.99

1 comment:

  1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movie was really, really good. Actually all of the were so good that I downloaded the eBooks. I have yet to start reading though.