Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Strayed, Cheryl (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail)

I have 5 minutes to write this review today, so... the highlights:

a) She's an open and caring introvert but also a people person. I really appreciate that.
b) She totally F-ed up her early years. Which she's also open about, and I appreciate that.
c) The end result is that she isn't an entirely sympathetic character, and I was disturbed by that. I mean, I understand how F-ed up and crazy you can be if you've gone through what she's gone through, but she has urges I can't begin to understand. Or urges that sounds like addictions, which even in her retrospective-healthy state look like things you should seek therapy for. You'll know what I mean when you get there.
d) I still loved the ride. She puts it all out there for you and she writes nicely (not gorgeously or amazingly, but nicely). Also, the PCT is one hell of a journey, holy cats.
e) (There are some contradictions in the story, but I'll leave that to bitch to my book club about.)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Walter, Jess (Beautiful Ruins)

Oh my, yes. I'm not a slice-of-life fan like some of the folks in my book club, but I appreciate a stellar read when I meet it.

I'll compare this book with - yet again - "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides. In this case, it truly feels as if the authors of both volumes were writing stream-of-conscious or off-the-cuff. A novel for the sake of telling a story. Not without its own themes, mind you, but created far more to tell a story (with a capital S) than to tell a lesson (unfortunately, very much usually with a capital L).

The difference is that "The Marriage Plot" is shite, and this is brilliance.

This novel plays with its characters - and especially with the 2 main protagonists. But that's completely wrong because Walter excels at taking bit parts and making them come alive after a few paragraphs. More so than any author I can name at this very moment. It's rather breathtaking, in fact.

The other thing the novel plays with is time. It's very likely its central theme. Not just that we jump around from the 60s to the present time and back throughout. But that time is essential to how the characters grow and learn and become who they always should have been.

I did think the ending was a mite bit too pat (haha, for those who have already read it). I forgive Walter because he gave me Richard Burton in a boat off the Italian coast extemporaneously being the genius he truly was.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Semple, Maria (Where'd You Go, Bernadette)

Don't you sort of have to know this is a satire going into it? Isn't that a necessary part of the reader's responsibility? Because if I'd known the whole thing was a satire I wouldn't have been so confused and concerned about the author's obvious hatred of Seattle. This finally became glaringly obvious to me at some point - perhaps the mudslide? perhaps the description of the 5-street intersections? perhaps the Canadians??

But when you get there... Then it's a rollicking, hysterical mess of a novel, pinballing around from one silly cultural comment to the next and ending up in Antarctica of all places. This author definitely wrote for Arrested Development. You can see the lack of segue from a mile away. Plus, she thanks Mia Farrow, buried in the acknowledgements. Now I need to know why in the worst way.

Besides all that, I did finish the book in a little over 24 hours so it clearly was fun and funny enough to keep me guessing and wondering what the next bizarre plot device will be. I don't understand the need for a reading group guide at the end, though. Is this book actually deep? Did I miss something again?

Wright, Lawrence (Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief)

What interested me most going into this book was whether it was fair. In a non-fiction book, I'm all about knowing whether a book is designed to be sensational or whether it is actually doing its best to be impartial on the subject matter. I don't think any book of this type can be all one way or the other. I mean, it would be asking a lot to think that Wright didn't try and find a subject that interests a great deal of people when he chose Scientology to investigate. He certainly did that.

For the very large part of the book Wright lays out the facts for us. I think I only noticed him resort to opinion and disdain a few times, and he only veered off course once. (This was when he was describing the interesting life of Paul Haggis and in particular a film that he created and which won an Oscar. The description of the film was unnecessary, but it was only a couple pages, and it was clearly intended to show the ups and downs of Haggis' life in Scientology and in Hollywood, so we can give it a pass.)

About a billion things have already been said (trumpeted! worried over! frothed at!) so I'll limit myself to saying that while I have nothing against the Scientology method, or what Scientologists believe will help and heal them, I am as concerned as the next person about an organization that has gone beyond manipulation to keep its membership intact, gone beyond mere lauding to keep its most important people present, and sustained a leadership that it would be hard to believe is not completely crazy-cuckoo.

Fortunately, I think there is no way such an organization can sustain itself for long without the cracks starting to really show. Implosion is likely imminent. I will say that I feel sorry in advance for those day-to-day Scientologists who will find it difficult to impossible to practice their beliefs after that happens.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Butcher, Jim (Storm Front)

This is pretty much the pulpiest pulp I've read in a long while. It should be clear to anyone reading this that the writer is completely homegrown, ie, has he even taken a writing class? By the end, I got extraordinarily tired of "oh, I'm going to die" - 4 paragraphs on that - and then the obvious "oh, wait, I forgot about using that [insert magical device]! good, now I'm not going to die."

I understand the series gets better. But will I stick around to find out? I love fantasy, but this guy seems to have ridden in on the coattails of Ms. Rowling and then followed in the footsteps of Ms. Evanovich. I see the basic appeal, but there isn't much that's actually, well... clever, here.

In the end, my biggest pet peeve is that it's like reading a giant game of Zork. He stands outside a house. The curtains are drawn. He has a bad feeling. He sees a film canister on the ground. He wonders how it got there. He walks around the house. He sees a faery. Ugh. I'd rather play the game.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Kercheval, Jesse Lee (My Life as a Silent Movie)

In this completely enjoyable, absolutely beyond-question over-the-top piece of fiction, our protagonist loses both her husband and child in the first few pages (see, I'm not giving anything away there). It wasn't the best choice to start reading this month but it turned into something so crazy that I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Our author is a creative writing teacher at UWisconsin and she's had a surprising batch of stuff published (including a memoir about growing up around Cape Canaveral in the 60s that I may just pick up). I'm certain she's giving her students sound advice about writing because she knows her craft. She takes an actual personal story - she herself grew up in France and Florida - and makes it the background to this... ride. I can't describe it any other way.

How our protagonist acts throughout this book can easily be marked down to being distraught over the loss of her husband and daughter. It can also be marked down to an author saying to herself "well, I have this opportunity to write plot points willy-nilly simply because my protagonist is distraught." I don't think good novels work that way. Of course, bad novels work this way too - like "The Marriage Plot," for instance - and this particular novel isn't really bad. Just bizarro. With aspects of real-life thrown in for good measure.

Look, when you get to Russia, you'll understand what I mean.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hadfield, Chris (An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth)

Unfortunately, for all the awesomeness that this book contains, it leaves you with the feeling that you've been lectured at.

Probably most autobiographies have the tendency to "inform the user" of how their life would be better - like mine! - if only they listened to my wise experience and changed their ways. Then everything would be marvelous and you'd never have any problems. Of course, I'm being more than a bit snarky here - and Hadfield's book has many large sections that are not about bettering yourself - that are actually about space travel itself! - but in the end I have a bad flavor in my mouth from reading the book.

I completely understand that this man is NOT a writer first and foremost. He didn't have a ghost writer on this, and that is more than admirable. He's an astronaut who's done some of the very coolest stuff anyone's ever done in their lives, and it's perfectly okay for him to both trumpet his successes and give us some pointers in how that success occurred. Heck, his educational initiatives alone are phenomenal (and CSA should give him the hugest retirement package for that). But that doesn't mean that I wished the book was much more about the cool stuff that happens in space than about the tedious slog that is an astronaut's life on Earth and even in space.

It is, in the end, eye-opening though and I'm glad I read it, if only to understand both the thrills and the banalities of space travel.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Sanderson, Brandon (Steelheart)

This is a much less convoluted version of his usual novels. As befits a YA novel, since I find it difficult to keep all the parts together in any of his "for adults" novels (Way of Kings, anyone?).

I think he correctly grounds this novel in as close to present day as he can get. The more-real setting lets him more fully develop his main male character (not quite a teenager, a little older than that). The character's angsty issues include how he interacts with girls, how his spoken language (ie, metaphors) isn't quite up to snuff, his guilt over how he treated his father, etc. In other words, your normal young adult issues.

As an adult reading this, this was fine because he handled it pretty well. At times it seemed forced, like when they're on a high-speed chase through the steel-lined streets of Chicago and all our protagonist can think about is how he used a terrible metaphor in his last interaction with someone on his team. Um, I very much doubt that would be the case. But neither would an almost-teenager be so adept with guns and other bizarre warring technologies. (There's a LOT of warfare in this book. It doesn't pull punches.)

I enjoyed it enough to read the next one when it comes out this year. But I'll read the next Way of Kings first, you bet.

Wilde, Oscar (The Importance of Being Earnest)

The comedy in this famous play is surprisingly spot on and interestingly current. You could make any of these same jokes today. It's not as if Britain has stopped making jokes about class and culture, right?

Wilde certainly had a talent for farce - for that brand of ridiculous that is not supposed to have any bearing on reality. It teases reality, but sits soundly outside it. The great thing about farce is that you begin reading with that assumption - that nothing is real - and consequently it's all about the words and the plot. Since you can't take it seriously, this frees you up to enjoy the English language at its finest (and silliest).

I especially liked how Wilde created female characters the equal of the male characters. They are equally silly as well as equally eloquent. I would think the role of the "mother-in-law" would be a plum one for any well-established British Dame. In fact, can't you see Maggie Smith playing this in its next incarnation?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sloan, Robin (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore)

It was fun recognizing the Google jokes as they occurred. Let me explain why.

I work with Google (but not at Google, to be clear). I've actually seen a Google book scanner (and no, I'm not going to divulge anything about it. I take NDAs very seriously.) So when I came to the section in the book that says there's a sign on the door at Google that says "Book Scanner," I started laughing. Then, when the scanner is described in all its weirdness (bells! whistles! pointy arms!) I actually started hopping up and down because that was so funny. And, in the end, when the scanner technician tells everyone to step behind the yellow line, I just dissolved into giggles.

So, it's safe to say that anyone who takes anything described about the digital realm in this book seriously really, really, really isn't getting it. The author is creating a fun mystery based on our current digital technologies world, but making sometimes discreet and sometimes blatant fun of some of the things we spend our time on. (For instance, I'm pretty sure he doesn't believe in digital technology helping us become immortal.) If you Google the book (hah), you'll find there is much controversy around the final solution. I understand that folks are trying to clarify what actual real-life digital and analog widgets can and cannot do. Those folks just might not be getting what they're supposed to out of the book.

The ending actually is a teeny, weeny bit trite. But it made me smile, and it's the right thing to say anyway, so who cares?