Monday, October 24, 2011

Latest Round of Book Reviews

Play Like You Mean It: Passion, Laughs, and Leadership in the World's Most Beautiful Game: Autobiography by [5 stars out of 5]

My five-star review is not based on the literary merit of this book. The writing is basic and the degree of in-depth analysis you'll find between the covers is rather elementary. None of this took away from my enjoyment of Play Like You Mean It. I happen to be a die-hard NY Jets fans so I am the primary audience. But fans of football in general, sports in general, and the motivational process required by a coach in the NFL and beyond will also find this to be a valuable read. If you enjoyed the HBO program Hard Knocks that featured the Jets leading up to their 2010 season, don't walk but run to get a copy of this book. You'll fly through it so quickly you may decide to immediately read it a second time just for the heck of it. Even if you are not a Jets fan I'd think anyone that has heard interviews with or even just brief soundbites from Rex Ryan will find him to be an intriguing figure. Everybody want to have a boss like him, someone who shows such relentless confidence in your abilities that you can't help but fall for his spell and perform at optimum level. His cockiness is contagious because it's built on genuine belief that he has an eye for talent and the ability to get the absolute best out of those who buy into his program. His positive energy would infect anyone but the most cynical of people, and extreme cynics are not the type you want around anyway, no matter how talented they may be. Read this book if you're a Jets fan. If you aren't, there's a pretty good chance you will be by the time you reach the last page. Rex makes it quite easy to root for him even if you start off otherwise inclined.

Freedom: A Novel by [4 stars out of 5]

The pluses. Franzen is a fantastic writer and towards the end of this rambling novel I was absorbed, truly felt I knew and understood the main characters, and found myself caring and hoping for the best. The minuses. I think Franzen could have accomplished just as much with not nearly as much. He gives a great deal of detail about areas that I frankly did not care all that much about. I am marginally interested at best in bird migration patterns and the environmental politics of overpopulation. Even if I found these subjects to be fascinating, when reading a novel I'd still want less data and more story. A good novel is often one that is well researched, but there's sharing information in a way that's interesting and advances the narrative, and then there's oversharing every bit of knowledge acquired on a topic whether critical to plot development or not. Some readers will be strongly tempted to skim certain parts of this novel, and if they do I can't say they'd miss all that much. They certainly wouldn't lose track of the storyline, which considering the bulk and page count of Freedom is relatively straight forward despite not being told in linear fashion. It's the story of a marriage, the two people within it and the loved ones closest to it. The couple has two children, a boy who a considerable portion of the book focuses on, and a girl who is really just a secondary character. Had it been the other way around the story would have been minimally impacted. The most significant person in Walter and Patty's lives is Richard Katz. Walter basically has a guy crush on the college roommate who ends up becoming a rock star, and Patty has romantic/sexual interest that eventually is acted upon. Walter eventually gets a romantic interest outside of the marriage as well, the much younger Lalitha who works with him and basically lives with them. Patty is jealous of Lalitha from the get go even though Walter is about as loyal a guy as you can find. This is just one of many ways that she has managed to become increasingly overbearing. Good old Walter trusts both his wife and best friend completely until he finds out that they have betrayed him, which is especially overwhelming since their relationship got started in the first place when Patty didn't screw Walter over by screwing his best friend, though this is due to Richard's restraint, not Patty's. The latter part of the book, after Walter finds out about the affair his wife finally allows herself to have along with the rather poor opinions she's held about him throughout their relationship, is by far the strongest section and ultimately made it worth reading through to the end. I'm glad that I overrode my impulse to quit on account of waning interest in the lives of rather self absorbed people. Franzen writes about these characters rather than through them, which makes it harder to care about them, particularly when what they're doing and going through is not all that riveting. But he writes so well I held fast to the belief that if I kept with it, I would eventually be rewarded for my perseverance. And so I was. I know there are people who think more highly of this book than do I because Franzen received much public praise for it. I also know people who gave up on it rather than pushing through, and I see their point of view as well. Hence this mixed review. But since more credit is given for finishing than starting strong, I'm generously giving Freedom 4 out of 5 stars. His prose earns my upmost respect. The ultimate thing a novel should accomplish though is not achieving a certain rating, but making readers want to read the author's next book. I'm not sure if that will be the case with Franzen based on how hard he needlessly made me fight to make it through this one.

Silver Sparrow: A Novel by [4 stars out of 5]

Silver Sparrow is an excellent novel written in a sure handed manner by a very talented author. It tells the tale of a bigamist, a man living two separate lives, one out in the open and the other in its shadow. His first family is the result of youthful reckless behavior and following the directions of his mother to make things right. Family number two is formed by falling in love as a grown man, but perhaps one who has not matured very much. After all, a mark of adulthood is understanding you need to make choices, that holding onto one thing often comes at the expense of letting go of another, that if you don't make those choices to your best advantage eventually they will be made for you without allowing you much say in how things work out. This man is at the center of two families but the story focuses on the women in his life, his wives of unequal billing and primarily the daughters they respectively give him who had no say in how their dangerously connected families came about. Over the course of the narrative the half sisters learn that family is not so much a matter of blood, as one of choice of loyalty.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey: A Novel by [5 stars out of 5]

Simplicity is a powerful weapon, and often times less truly is more. The title of this book serves as partial synopsis. To flesh it out I will add that Ptolemy Grey is nearly 92 years of age and suffering from dementia that leaves him in a helpless state. He's at the sad stage where he won't even turn off his television or radio, which simultaneously play 24/7, because he surely won't remember how to turn them back on. When the grandnephew who visits periodically to check on him is killed and a less good hearted relative replaces him, the final act of Ptolemy's life starts to undergo a transformation. He eventually finds himself with a new roommate who cleans up the pile of filth he lives in without messing with his sacred memories. In fact, his memory and faculties are restored by a doctor's experimental medicine. The medicine is sure to reduce the number of Ptolemy's remaining days but also makes them worth living, allowing him to put his affairs in order, to finish up plans that had been laid to rest, to administer justice as he sees fit, and to remember for awhile what it feels like to love and be loved. This is a beautiful story told by a master craftsman.

Hunting in Harlem: A Novel by [4 stars out of 5]

This was a fun read, in part because of the intriguing premise (former convict turned politician turned budding real estate titan hires some ex-cons to assist in his master plan to transform Harlem into a Black Utopia by ridding it of undesirable elements), and in larger part because of the strong writing of Mat Johnson. The book is populated by colorful characters described in smile to laugh out loud fashion. Two of the three ex-cons are larger than life, so Johnson puts the narrative in the hands of the third since he is the straightest arrow and thus the character readers are most likely to identify with. Snowden ended up in prison basically by unfortunate accident whereas his two colleagues earned their sentences through actions caused by their volatile personalities. One is a brute who operates in brawn over brains fashion, the other an intellectual firebug. The three men start off their new jobs by moving furniture but quickly graduate to creating additional vacancies by killing tenants who are deemed unworthy of the new Harlem they are bringing about. This brings on moral dilemmas for two of the three men, but by then they are in so deep that rather than turning back it makes more sense to keep swimming until they reach the other side, if in fact there is one. Do the ends justify the means when it comes to revitalizing a community? How about when it comes to becoming a Best Selling author? Johnson asks these questions with addictive prose in Hunting in Harlem. I highly recommend it.

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