Monday, May 11, 2015

Ozeki, Ruth (A Tale for the Time Being)

You can know your science and still produce a book that doesn't have anything to do with it. This is one example.

Ozeki did do her homework. If you want to know how tidal effects work, or what Japanese pop culture is like, or later on in the book, what quantum mechanics are all about, she gives you all that. Almost exactly as if she did do her homework. It's that dull and pedantic.

Her being pedantic is not my sole criticism. My bigger criticism is that the book takes a turn about 3/4 of the way through that came smack out of left field. It felt not at all in the same vein as the rest of the book - instead designed only to shock and startle you. Actually, there were two left field turns - one that startles, and the other that bewilders. (For those who've read the book, the bewildering one is more closely related to metaphysics.) Having one come right after the other threw me for a loop. If I hadn't thought she had no business writing a novel about what she was writing about before, that did the job for me.

I know that she at least has experience regarding Buddhist nuns, being one herself. The writing related to that subject seemed forced. Imagine how the rest of it seemed.

Poehler, Amy (Yes Please)

Unfortunately, this book is a set of aphorisms. Don't forget to brush your teeth. Tell people you love them first. Enjoy your youth, because aging sucks. I don't even know if all those are in the book, but you get the point.

I don't read biographies to learn from a celebrity how to live. I read biographies to learn about how the celebrity lived. I wish Poehler had read some biographies before she started this one, specifically I wish she had read some biographies by comedians. She'd have learned that you still have to write something that resembles... a book. With themes and essay-like forms and beginnings and ends. Instead of a random pile of chapters not even all written by her.

It's not that it wasn't funny, because it certainly was in parts. But I vastly prefer - because Parks & Recreation is after all my favorite TV comedy of all time - her writing for television, and her acting. She should stick to the day job.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Lynch, Scott (Red Seas Under Red Skies)

The second book of a series is likely the hardest to write. If you don't do something slightly new with it, it feels like a) the first book and b) a placeholder on the way to the third book (especially if you're writing a trilogy, which he is not). Therefore, Lynch had a great deal of fun with this book by creating a pirate-drenched swashbuckling adventure.

It's not that hard a stretch. Locke and Jean are, after all, thieves. Stick 'em on a boat and they're pirates. Except they're not really, and that's where Lynch has a great deal of fun with his protagonists. If conceivable, he puts them in even more dire straits than in the first book - many of those straits revolving around their complete and utter lack of knowledge about the sea and sailing - and then does what all good authors must at the end of Book Two. He creates the kind of situation that seems on the surface like it is insurmountable. (Like at the end of Season 2 of Farscape when Aeryn and John... oh, never mind, no one's watched that show but me.) I have no fear that in Book Three he will find a way to spin the story back in favor of our favorite thieves.

There were even some bits of the story that made me weepy. He has a way of making us care deeply for his fictional personalities, which I find more than a little astounding because, let's face it, these guys are, well, thieves. Gentleman thieves, yes, but they're still thieves from and on the wrong side of the tracks.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Juster, Norton and Marcus, Leonard (The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth)

After having the good luck to see Norton Juster recently, I picked up a copy of the annotated version of one of my childhood favorites. It still is one of the best books I've ever read (of any genre).

It isn't only that Juster did his homework on the framework for this story - as evidenced by many of the annotations by Leonard Marcus - it's that he could put himself in the head of a child so well. That he could remember his own struggles and triumphs as a child. And that he could roll those experiences into a book designed quite clearly to gently teach a child the benefit of learning. It probably helps that he was avoiding writing some other book (which he'd been funded for) to write this one!

So, word plays and math puns aside, it's astounding to me that he was able to write something now considered one of the dozen or so best children's classics of all time, without having written anything for children before that. That's talent. As is Feiffer's - those illustrations are so perfectly perfect (and the annotations do an excellent job describing Feiffer's genius as well as his deficiencies, and how those deficiencies ended up being genius for this book).

The annotations themselves are sometimes, oh, a bit too erudite or off the mark. In most cases, however, they were illuminating (I particularly like the explanation of why you clink glasses with people when making a toast). Not as good as the Annotated Alice (what could be?), but fine enough.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Didion, Joan (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)

I'm pretty sure you can't read a Didion book and not recognize the power of her writing style. Unfortunately, I feel like I need to be an anthropologist, or perhaps a psychotherapist, to parse and value what she's saying.

I liked a couple of these essays a great deal, i.e., "On Keeping a Notebook" and "John Wayne: A Love Song", because they were simple but resonated with what I know or have experienced in life. Most of the rest were banal, such as "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" or "Goodbye to All That", which I chalk up to it being 50 years after the fact and everything about these places/venues/people has been done or said before. Or the essays were impenetrable, such as "Notes from a Native Daughter" or "On Morality", which just made me feel utterly dumb. Or they were of the - well, I have to write something or they won't pay me - ilk, such as "Where the Kissing Never Stops" or "Rock of Ages".

I'm not interested in needing a masters degree in literature (or anthropology or psychotherapy) to get something out of an essay. But I still think her writing has a depth and strength to it that makes me want to read something more penetrable by her. Perhaps her post-1960s work is more accessible?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Alcott, Louisa May (Little Women)

Every decade or so I read this childhood favorite of mine. Every decade I get something more and something different out of it.

This decade I interspersed my reading with YouTube clips from the 1994 and 1949 movie retellings. If only to remind myself that my best and earliest memory of the book was via my own imaginings, not flavored by what I had seen at the theater. Despite Bale's rampant adorableness and Allyson's chewing of the scenery, the memories I do hold of the book are based on Alcott's own descriptions.

Cold winters described by those hot turnovers Meg and Jo would carry to work. Poverty described by the abject awfulness of the Hummel's abode (those broken windows stuffed with sacks!). Jo's struggles with her temper compared in detail against Amy's struggles to be a lady. Love and marriage described in decidedly simple terms - for this day and age - but replete with notions that will never be untrue or not resonate in any time. And those descriptions of 1860s Europe - like a balm to the soul.

So, this decade I recognize the value in a good, strong moralistic tale that doesn't demean or belittle any particular type of person or group of people. It may hold up Christianity as its basis for that morality, and that befits the time and place in which it was written. It's pretty hard to go wrong with: be kind to your neighbor, help those who have less than you do, and work on your character to be a better person.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Smith, Zadie (On Beauty)

I am probably not quite smart enough to review this book, but I'll give it my best shot.

Clearly, it is a book about perceiving and perceptions of beauty, whether that's body shape, rendered in art, elderly vs. youth, or the natural world (not much of that). But there's so much else in here that I can't fit into that theme. Sure, a book doesn't (and probably shouldn't) have only one theme, but there's a whole separate set of treatises on the role of academia, all kinds of politics, and, of course, race and ethnicity. It's a long book, and it can basically hold all of this, but it means I got lost in the comings and goings of the characters.

So, I read the book and was intrigued by the multiple lives and their method of conversing and communicating with others, but in essence it felt like a set of short stories strung together with a common thread among them. I kept being thrown off the scent into the next story, trying to figure out how it hung with the rest.

Also, most of this felt like an apology. Oh, Levi is acting this way for this reason. And Carl has a different reason for acting as he does. And Kiki. And ridiculous, dumb-ass Howard. Why apologize for how different people think and react? You're telling, not showing, then. Isn't that a cardinal sin of writing?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Rothfuss, Patrick (The Slow Regard of Silent Things)

Listen, Patrick. Writing a book that really didn't work as a book (novella, vignette, who cares what you call it), and which you completely acknowledge doesn't work as a book (or etc.), means that when you rationalize that away by saying that it's for the special broken people because your main character is as broken as your writing, you're just pissing off those of us who recognize that it's not a good book even more than you did as they were reading it.

Here's a thought. Write something better next time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Coelho, Paulo (The Alchemist)

Perhaps no surprise but this book did nada for me.

I am not sentimental. Sure, I can tear up for personal emotionally-heavy moments, but in general I'm not the kind of person who appreciates display of emotion in most venues (I kinda just want the people or the book or the film to rein it in). I guess that makes me hard-hearted, but that's just who I am.

Consequently, having to read about someone's life journey to find personal treasure, which is thwarted at every opportunity, who keeps having to listen to his heart and the wind and the sun and heaven-knows-what tell it what to do or else he's not living correctly as a person made me want to throw the book across the room. It was just such horsepucky. So, if I'm not sentimental enough to listen to my heart, I'm a horrible person who can never feel the Soul of the World (ptooey) and reach my personal treasure? Which, I'm going to ruin it for you, really is actual treasure, ie, money. Yup, that's what matters in life.

Blech.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Williams, Tennessee (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)

I only recently saw this movie, and was worried that I wouldn't be able to read the play without seeing Taylor and Newman in my head the whole time. They lasted through the first act and then faded. Likely that is due to the nonsensical Hays Code making the movie an utterly different experience than reading the play.

It is fascinating to me that Williams was able to write such a loaded screenplay - most definitely and not obliquely about homosexuality - in the 1950s without serious repercussions. (Maybe there were some, but it is as lauded as it was when it came out - heck, it even won a Pulitzer.) I guess I would have expected it to at least do poorly at the theater, and there is no evidence of that. Did it strike a chord with viewers because of its vast spectra of themes? Not just homosexuality - but repression, death, dying, greed, lust, you name it.

My copy of this has two versions of the third act. If you have this in your copy, definitely read both versions (well, read one, and skim the other) after you've read Williams' description of why he changed it. Totally worth it to see how playwrights do what they do.