Friday, May 3, 2013

Reviews...of books of course

Below you will find reviews of varying lengths and degrees of analysis for the novels I've read most recently. Well, technically one of them was not read since I did not make it all the way to the end.  Not even close.  I only got about 70 pages in.  The remaining 10,000 pages (perhaps I exaggerate a bit) were left unexplored for reasons you'll see noted below.  Some of these reviews are raves, other books were panned.  I call them as I see them, and my opinions may differ considerably from your own.  If you've read any of these novels, please share your thoughts with me in the Comments section.  If my recommendations steer you towards or away from any of them, let me know.  As always - Happy Reading!

The Girl on the Green Bicycle (Monique Roffey) - Monique Roffey is a fine writer and her vivid descriptions of Trinidad make readers feel its tropical heat and lush ripeness. Trinidad is as much a character as the setting. In "The White Woman on the Green Bicycle" readers are transported to this island (not too far from my birth place of St. Thomas) and observe its shifting political climate over the course of turbulent decades. The struggle for independence from the authority of Europeans is backdrop to the story of a rocky marriage that is up front and center. In the first section the title character does a great deal of complaining and bemoaning her situation. I found it difficult to like or relate to this miserable woman. Even though her husband is no saint, at first he is the more tolerable of the two. Yes he's an alcoholic and a serial adulterer, one who in his older years does not bother to have mistresses but settles for prostitutes. But we also see decency in his dealings with people and root for his efforts to atone and win back his wife's affections. I don't want to divulge any spoilers so will simply say that after the dramatic conclusion of the first section, we are brought back in time to when the couple first arrives in Trinidad. They are much younger, more vibrant, seemingly deeply in love with each other, more open to giving things a chance. But while the husband is happy to be in Trinidad where he knows he can be far more successful than he would have been in England, his wife sees island life as a temporary necessity to experience, and then to endure. The cause of her unhappiness is the same from beginning to end, and she is honest about it all along. Her husband selfishly and dishonestly leads her to believe throughout the years that he has an exit strategy, that they will eventually be returning home. But in truth he feels that they already are home, and believes/hopes that his wife will come around in time. If she does not, so be it. Rum and women and professional achievement and growing wealth help him deal with the aggravation of having a wife who hates where she is yet won't/can't leave. Time marches on and revolution is in the air. If the Trinidadians achieve the freedom they long for, perhaps the woman on the green bicycle will get what she desires as well. But she is waiting for this outcome to happen, not making it occur by taking action. She does not attempt to change her circumstances but instead suffers them noisily, as well as quietly in letters she writes but does not send to a politician. The book draws to a close as the day of her personal emancipation seemingly draws near, but we know it must be a mirage because we have already learned that Trinidad will not let loose of its grip on her fate. Not everybody can enjoy a book that is about someone who holds a little less hope and a little more bitterness with each passing day. By the end, which is the book's beginning, she is relentlessly resigned to her fate. But that doesn't mean her bicycle doesn't have one last ride left in it. I'm happy to have read this sad book.

The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides) - Girl likes boy. Girl likes other boy as well. Both boys like her. Which one will she choose? Which one should she choose? If she chooses wrong does she get a re-do? That's my simple synopsis of an uncomplicated story (nothing at all complicated about love no matter how much trouble it somehow manages to cause) that is interesting and compelling and wonderfully written.

Tinkers (Paul Harding) - Basically a beautifully written poem about the slow art of dying. I don't recommend it if you're looking for plot driven fiction. If you enjoy a canopy of words eloquently interlocked, check it out. I could say more, but I've probably said enough.

The Cutting Season (Attica Locke) - I love a good mystery. I was intrigued by the mystery within a mystery concept of this book. I may have liked it even more if the narrative went back and forth following the two connected storylines, alternating between the present and slave days, only not via time travel the way Octavia Butler wonderfully did it in Kindred. The fact that Attica Locke sticks to a single setting is by no means a flaw, and like Octavia, Attica is also an excellent writer. That said, I can't say that I was blown away by this novel. I was thoroughly sucked in to the story, but emerged from it wishing there had been a little more. A little more of what I'm not quite sure. Plausibility perhaps. Things wrapped themselves up a bit too neatly and swiftly for my liking. My favorite type of mystery is the kind that's solved due to brilliant deductive reasoning rather than things (like drunken confessions) falling into one's lap. I especially like when I'm given the same clues and information as the character(s) trying to solve the crime, so I have at least a fighting chance at figuring it out on my own. Deciphering between misleading and critical details is my favorite part of reading a mystery if the author plays fair. I found The Cutting Season to be no better than average in my personal scale of judging a whodunnit, but the quality of writing and depth of characterization was excellent, so I'll certainly give other books by Attica Locke a shot and I would not hesitate to recommend this one.

 The Taste of Salt (Martha Southgate) - The Taste of Salt chronicles the effects of alcoholism on an African American family. Liquor destroys a marriage that begins with much promise, its grip not loosening on the father until he has been sent off to make a new life for himself. Their son Tick becomes an alcoholic as well, remaining sober for long enough stretches to set up an enviable situation working on the training staff for a NBA team, but repeatedly losing his battle to take things "one day at a time" and having to start all over again. His sister, like their mother, is not cursed with alcoholism but with having alcoholics as her closest blood ties. Josie copes with the pain and embarrassment by being away from her family. She has a dream fulfilled job as a scientist who studies her beloved ocean far removed from Ohio where her parents and brother reside, and she is married to a good man who treats her with respect and tenderness. In this setting it seems she has escaped the hurt that her parents and brother must endure. But Josie has self destructive tendencies also. She may not need a drink to make it through the day, but her inability to reach true intimacy with the man who has opened his heart completely to her wreaks its own brand of havoc. To survive their separate yet connected hurts, Josie and her brother and parents need to forgive each other and themselves. In clean and easy to read prose, Martha Southgate shows us that not everybody in this often sad world is strong enough to do that.

Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) – DID NOT FINISH.  I gave up about 70 pages in. This highly acclaimed book did nothing for me other than agitate and repeatedly put me to sleep midway through a sentence. Serpentine run on sentences in a tiny font filled with 6-syllable words may be attractive to some readers. They may even be attractive to me if used to establish a plot, a setting, a central cast of characters that I come to care about. Perhaps the author was paid by the word or character count, in which case a great deal of money must have been earned. I don't give up on books easily. I fought mightily to get through the pages that I read. The battle was lost. I didn't want to fight in the first place but simply wanted to enjoy a good book. Perhaps the next one will accommodate me.

The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown) - Dan Brown delivers again. I've enjoyed each of his Robert Langdon thrillers and hope he keeps them coming. He's a master at pacing, never a dull moment even as he bombards the reader with easy to digest information about symbols, religion, science, architecture, etc. Is it formulaic fiction? Certainly. Writing of the highest literary caliber? Certainly not. But as any baby will tell you, when formula is created just right it will be lapped up eagerly. One emerges from a Dan Brown caper feeling that a few new things have been learned in the process of being thoroughly entertained. Works for me. When I'm in the mood for a genre read I feel confident that Dan Brown won't steer me wrong. The Lost Symbol is the latest piece of evidence that he does what he does particularly well.

See Now Then (Jamaica Kincaid) - This book just did not do it for me. I am a fan of Jamaica Kincaid from previous novels so my hopes and expectations were high. Even had they been low, See Now Then still would have fallen short of them. Nothing that I disliked about it is unintentional. It wasn't a case of poor execution. Kincaid wrote this story in the manner that she did with purpose that simply did not appeal to me. The constant repetition of certain words/phrases did little to lull me in. This is a short novel, coming in at under 200 pages. If the repetition was minimized to a more customary amount, the word count of See Now Then probably would not even qualify for novella status. It would have to make due with categorization as a long short story. There is no plot to speak of. Kincaid's goal is not to tell a tale so much as to invoke a mood. The mood is that of hatred. A man hates his wife, his family, his life. We aren't told why specifically, except towards the end when we're informed that the wife was condescending and mean spirited to a waitress. I suppose there is no why. Once you fall out of love with someone and yearn to be with someone else, anyone else, you feel like a prisoner who of course loathes the jailer. But the narrative isn't about the event with the waitress or any other one in particular. It's about a woman being aware that the man she loves does not love her in return, and eventually he does something about it. And it's about the relativity of time, how Now and Then are basically one and the same, a point repeated ad nauseam. We are made aware of the husband’s unhappiness from not much after the first sentence - a very long one, as the vast majority of them are, yet another characteristic that I didn't find endearing. The rest of the book serves only to reinforce this point. Gorgeous language can carry a non plot driven story a long way, but I wasn't so swept away by Kincaid's prose that I didn't notice or care that nothing was really happening. Not externally. Not internally. Not at all. I don't care to what degree this or any other novel may be autobiographical. I only care if I was absorbed by the tale, if I came to care about the characters. I was/did not. This is a subjective opinion, as they all are. You may love this book, and if you do, I promise not to hold it against you.  :-)

The Lincoln Conspiracy (Timothy O’Brien) - Since I'm a sucker for historical fiction, particularly when the setting is one I'm familiar with, especially when a fictional conspiracy is involved regarding events that really happened, I was quick to pick this book up. The Lincoln Conspiracy contains all of these elements, as it takes places in Washington DC shortly after the assassination of President Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth is the killer, but was he a lone zealot or acting on behalf of others? Timothy O'Brien asks these questions and makes up an answer for us. On the chase is a cop named Temple who walks with a limp that he turns to his advantage by making convenient use of his cane as a weapon on multiple occasions. Abe's wife Mary Todd has a cameo, and one of their sons plays a role in the plot as well. Sojourner Truth is also put to use. But celebrity cameos aside, The Lincoln Conspiracy is basically a cop story with horse chases in place of car chases. Temple finds himself thrust into the middle of a grand scale mystery and is determined to follow through to its resolution, no matter how much opposition is thrown at him. Will he get his man? What do you think? Since the official story we all know in 2013 is that Booth acted alone, presumably Temple is not able to prove and expose what he learns. This book makes for breezy reading that you'll zip through from beginning to end. Thanks to the well received movie, Lincoln is currently a hot topic and that has probably helped sales. I've read better in the genre. I've read worse. O'Brien did a pretty good job of visualizing the setting for readers but this book fell well short of wowing me.

Home (Toni Morrison) – The divine Toni Morrison has been giving us shorter novels to enjoy lately.  As with A Mercy, Home comes in at an unintimidating page count.  But in this novel, in addition to brevity (it can easily be read over the course of a day if you have some spare time) we are also gifted with greater accessibility.  Many non-book readers, and non literary fiction readers, steer clear of Toni Morrison because her exquisite use of language does not make for light reading.  Her poetic verse can be challenging to those unable/unwilling to sit still and focus.  If you have been avoiding her magnificent body of work for these reasons, avoid no more.  Home is the book for you.  Morrison’s prose, which remains as lush and eloquent as ever, is more straight forward here than in her previous books.  Faithful fans will get their fill and I encourage new ones to jump on board.  Just don’t expect a leisurely beach read.  She hasn’t gone quite that far.  A synopsis comes easily, contained in one sentence.  A veteran of the Korean War, haunted by blood soaked memories of his time there, returns to his hometown in Georgia to rescue his ailing sister.  Along the way, Toni Morrison paints the backdrop of their lives.  Cee has spent the majority of hers dependent on the kindness or lack of it displayed by those she encounters via circumstance.  Frank comes back to save her life, but in order to claim and do something of worth with it, Cee realizes she must develop her own inner strength.  Frank is wrestling too many demons to always reliably be her hero.  Much has changed over the course of the years since Frank last set foot in the town where they were raised.  Plenty remains more or less the same.  Home is there to provide familiar comforts, even though our return to it is inevitably in the form of a different version of ourselves.  

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