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.

Elwes, Cary (As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride)

As fun, fascinating and lovely as advertised.

Initially, I worried that this book would be "dishy" in some way, but there's almost none of that. And if there is any, it's subsumed by Elwes' disarming style of recollecting the ups and downs of the making of the film (mostly ups, really). I especially liked the little side notes from other cast and crew members (so that it wasn't only Elwes' voice but the voice of many), and recognizing how directors can be good managers or bad managers (just what the rest of us have to deal with in our workaday lives).

I don't want to say too much here - those who love the movie, and consider it an essential part of their childhood, will gobble up the book in no time at all.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Winters, Ben (The Last Policeman)

It sure has been a long time since I read a mystery novel I enjoyed this much. And one I finished in little more than 12 hours, too!

It's not just the premise - that an asteroid will destroy the earth in 6 months' time - it's the stellar plotting and writing. I mean, murder mysteries are all of a kind. You have to have some action, and between that action you need to have interviews. Lots of interviews, with lots of characters, hopefully designed to advance that aforementioned action and hopefully also obscure who the killer is so the reader finishes the dang book.

Therefore, the utter absurdity of someone pursuing a murder case when the Earth will be destroyed real soon now is the first unique card played by the author. The second card is absolutely believable characters. Not just our hero but every single person placed in his path - witnesses to fellow detectives to the old lady at the phone booth - I really do mean every person is realized and feels completely real.

The third and final card is interviews that are not boring. Please, those of you who write mysteries, read this one, if only as an exercise. Notice how he does not follow tried and trite methods of questioning that include "where were you at 10pm last night?" with each and every bloody person. Notice how he gives the detective a few charming tics in those interviews, which will be darned important later on.

There's really a fourth card - the author has thought about he would feel if the world is ending, and he's thought about how others will feel. How society will act. What will be repugnant and what will be understandable. If you don't like mysteries, you could read it for this reason and get plenty out of it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Amos, Kim (A Kiss to Build a Dream On)

As you all know, I rarely read romances, however, in the last 6 months I've read two. The first was a recommendation from this very author, and the second is the first foray of this very author in the genre. I feel fortunate to have read the ARC!

Admittedly, I wished the title of the novel was "Interior Design to Build a Dream On" if only because it was more interesting to me than the sex scenes. Granted, those are quite well done! It seems that at my age I'd rather read a great description of a beautifully-created room (recessed lighting! ooh! blue tables with bowls of lemons on them! aah!) than a great description of how folks are getting their rocks off. Hmm.

But that's really the great charm of these books - because I am looking forward to reading the series - that you can enjoy super fun descriptions of all kinds of relationships (friendship being key among them), interesting and heartfelt introspection from the main characters, solid and intriguing plotlines, the aforementioned romantic scenes, and bonus thrills and spills at the end. It's the best of all worlds.

Plus, so you're aware - cheese jokes. Knowing the author, she couldn't write the novel without them.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tartt, Donna (The Goldfinch)

I'd heard from multiple sources that this was one of those books you either loved or hated. I'd also heard that it was either a tough slog (it is rather lengthy) or that you get to a certain part about 2/3 in and throw up your hands. I also had the experience of not enjoying her previous debut novel (The Secret History). This is what I started with.

I agree with all the sentiments. It was definitely a tough slog in places. It's not giving much away to say that there is a lot, lot, lot of druggie and alcoholic and general bad behavior all around in this novel. I don't live my life this way, so it got exasperating. While we understand the reasons why, for the most part, it's hard not to want to reach into the pages, grasp Theo by the shoulders (or the neck!) and try to shake some sense into him. Because it just goes on too lengthily. Or so it feels at the time. When you're done, you understand how all the pieces come together. But that doesn't excuse the deadly dull parts.

I did also get to a certain part and throw up my hands. I was invested enough in the story to not also throw the book across the room and not retrieve it. However, I can see how some would. To them I would say that if you just give it another 75 pages it will pay off for you, and that the final 50 pages are some of the best writing - and the best summary (for lack of a better word) of an entire story - that I've ever read.

Therefore, to everyone I say: stick with it, it will pay off with all sorts of dividends.