Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Gathering by Anne Enright

Veronica Hegarty is thirty-nine. She is one of twelve siblings in an Irish family. Her brother Liam has committed suicide by walking into the ocean in the English resort town of Brighton. Three details of his death are important to her. He wore a yellow raincoat. She believes this is because he wanted his body to be found. He was not wearing socks or underwear. She attributes this to his concern about his appearance. They must have been dirty. His pockets were filled with rocks. He wanted to die.

Liam was an alcoholic. The family called him a “messer.” He did things deliberately to aggravate people. He treated his women poorly. He was depressed. Veronica spends most of the book wandering at night, trying to reconstruct the past from childhood memories, to try to determine what lead to Liam’s tragedy. Her recollection contains clues that are almost indistinguishable from the muck of half-truths and outright fabrications from which they are dredged. She finally settles on a vaguely recalled childhood memory when she thought she witnessed sexual abuse of her brother by a shadowy acquaintance of her grandparents.

Veronica is an unreliable narrator, but she is the only one who has the knowledge and the will to tell the story. Her recounting is stream of consciousness, which is true to the way the mind works when emotional involvement and imperfect memory cloud revelation. The narrative jerks back and forth in time and follows a long and winding road to its conclusion. By the time the secret is revealed, I am weary of the journey.

People have told me that they do not like stories told in the first person present voice. I’ve always wondered why, because its immediacy makes it the most compelling point of view in the oral tradition. This book answered the question for me. I believe it is neither the person nor the tense that alienates readers, but the stream of consciousness style employed by writers of literature who use first person present. It traps the story in digressions and dead ends and hides the conclusion behind a pall of toxic fog.

The Stranger - Albert Camus

1946; American translation by Matthew Ward - 1989. 123 pages. Awards : Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. Genre : Classic Lit. Overall Rating : B.
There are two very good 5-Squared reviews of this book; one by Julie here; the other by Amanda here.
This is one of those books where it's good to read those reviews first. Amanda's gives the plot, but really The Stranger (better translated as "The Outsider") is a philosophy/character study, where the events serve merely as background. The spotlight here is on Absurdism, and you're welcome to read the Wikipedia article on that here.
The central character is Meursault (his first name is never given) and his approach to life can be seen in a couple of quotations :
" nature was such that my physical needs often got in the way of my feelings..." (page 65)
"My mind was always on what's coming next, today or tomorrow." (pg. 100)
In a way, Meursault reminded me of Homer Simpson, albeit without any comedy. "To be or not to.... oooh, look! Doughnuts!" He must have been a handsome devil, because he certainly didn't have a romantic bone in his body. When his GF Maria asks him if he loves her, he says :
"I told her it didn't mean anything but that I didn't think so. She looked sad." (pg. 35). Well d'uh!, Meursault. Shortly thereafter, Maria asks if he wants to marry her (she's a slow learner), and he replies, "I said it didn't make any difference and that we could if she wanted to." (pg. 41). Yeah, we have a real Romeo here.
What is Absurdism?
The central theme of this philosophy is that the world is absurd. Not as in Three Stooges absurdity, but in the sense that it is an indifferent, uncaring universe. There is no such thing as karma; good things happen to bad people, and vice versa.
If this is so, Camus offers three reactions; two of which he regards as unsatisfactory. First, you can commit suicide ("life isn't worth living if there isn't any meaning to it"). Second you can embrace a theological rationalization ("if there is no God, I guess I'll have to invent one to bring meaning to life").
The third alternative, adapted by Meursault and the only one advocated by Camus, is to be indifferent to the events in life. Thus, Meursault has little or no reaction to his mother dying, and likewise little or no reaction to his boss's proposal of a key promotion involving the desirable perk of moving to Paris. These are no more important than the sun beating down on his head, or him eating something because he's hungry. Alas for Meursault, this means he is equally indifferent to killing a man, which results in his trial, conviction (he is an absurdly incompetent defendant), and sentence to death via guillotine.
At the end, Meursault becomes aware of his impending demise, and in the last couple pages, breaks out of his indifference. Personally, I would've liked the narrative to continue right up to the point where the blade is about to fall, but I suppose Camus knows better than I when to end a story. This is a very interesting book, but only when you're in the mood for philosophical musing, not an event-packed storyline.
What is Existentialism?
Absurdism is an offshoot of Existentialism, and The Stranger is frequently said to (also) be an existential story. Everything I know about Existentialism comes from reading Waiting For Godot and Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead, and the philosophical outlook in those two plays is markedly different. Beyond that, Existentialism is a vaguely-defined entity that no two people seem to agree on ("Progressive Music" is like that, too), so we'll have to wait until I re-read (or someone else reads) WFG or R&GAD for a lively discussion of that.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Just After Sunset By : Stephen King

This newest release by Stephen King is yet another short story collection. Now as I have stated on the On Writing review I love Stephen King and have read his novels for years and love them. However, when it comes to short stories they tend to fall a little flat. He is a genius but for some reason he cant convey the same level of fright and terror when he is limited to a short medium. The stories this time around kind of fell flat, I kept rethinking how the stories could be better and make more of an impact. The scare factor was pretty low. :( Well written don't get me wrong but just not satisfying. It had my brain working but not in the direction that I wanted it to be in. I know this is a short review but honestly all I can say it don't waste your time reading this novel unless you are a die hard fan.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Return of Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

1953; 176 pages. Later renamed "Ring For Jeeves". Genre : British, light humour. Overall Rating : B.
P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) was a prolific British writer, best-known for his "Jeeves" series. Jeeves is a butler, somewhat in the style of "Benson", if you remember that TV show. Wodehouse is known for his satirical wit, and his stories usually have gobs of threads going on, which somehow all get resolved by the end of the book.
In The Return of Jeeves, the 9th earl of Towcester (pronounced 'Toaster') has fallen upon hard times, having money only for a few servants, one of which is Jeeves. He's trying to sell the family mansion, and is moonlighting as a bookie. Alas, the bookmaking falls victim to someone winning on long odds, forcing the earl to welsh on his paying-off. He flees to the mansion, where an ex-flame shows up to buy the estate. So does the irate bettor, who is secretly in love with the ex, which ticks off the earl's current betrothed, whose father wants to horsewhip the earl, but finds he has to borrow the earl's horsewhip to do so. Meanwhile, the earl's sister and brother-in-law show up; the latter of which has the marvelous talent of saying the worst thing at the worst time. Confused? Don't be. It's all quite easy to follow in the book.
What's To Like...
The humor is great yet somewhat subtle. Jeeves is wont to quote Shakespeare and other classical authors. The threads described above just keep getting more tangled, and it is a marvel to see how they all get tied up in the last couple chapters.
There's only about 4 settings in the book, which would make this ideal to stage as a play. The story is mostly wordplay, so this isn't a book to read if you're a-thirsting for action-packed thrills.
"England and America are two countries, separated by the same language." {George Bernard Shaw}
One of the real joys of reading The Return of Jeeves is that it's written in "British", not American. There were a slew of words and phrases that just aren't used on this side of the pond. Some examples :
"bally", as in 'a bally palace if I ever saw one'.
"brass up", as in 'you mean he can't brass up?'.
"S.P.", as in 'the chaps have a big S.P. job on for the Derby'.
"scrag", as in 'Set on him, you mean? Scrag him?'.
"napper", as in 'swat Mrs. Spottsworth on the napper with a blackjack?'.
"by Clarkson", as in 'a vague, unidentified figure in a moustache by Clarkson'.
P.G. Wodehouse was despised by the British "upper crust" because he portayed them as bumbling boobs. But authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have acknowledged his influence on their writing style. So if Discworld or HHGTTG are your kind of humor, and you find the King's English a bally fine thing, you might give Jeeves a try.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

This book was morose. Morbid, even. I loved it.

The main character, Helen Knightly, kills her elderly, mentally ill mother, Clair. That's not giving anything away - it's stated in the first sentence. I would like to say that with this act of - what? mercy? - she puts them both, mother and daughter, out of their misery, but Helen's misery continues as, over the next twenty-four hours, Helen recounts a life devoted to protecting and catering to a woman who she feels never really loved her and fumbles over what to do after what she has done.

Everyone surrounding Helen agrees that she sacrificed herself to her mother, and when Helen commits the one, profoundly simple act that might end that sacrifice, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to help Helen weave her way out of the reprecussions.

The plot was moved along by a narrative that went back and forth between Helen's memoir of her mother and the fallout after she kills her. The characters and dialogue were realistic. This was a deep, thoughtful account of family, responsibility and human fraility - an excellent read. - 5 stars

Monday, November 24, 2008

Brimstone - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

2004; 726 pages. Genre : Mystery-Thriller. Overall Rating : B.
A charred body is found in a house on Long Island. It appears to be a case of SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion). None of the surroundings are burnt - just the victim, but he appears to have been fried from the inside out. Oh, and there's the small matter of a cloven hoof branded into the floorboard.
After a second murder under similar circumstances, FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast and detective Vincent D'Agosta work to find a connection and a motive, and to see whether this is the work of natural or supernatural forces.
What's To Like...
Preston & Child have the thriller motif down pat; this is another good effort by them. There's lots of action, no slow spots, a bunch of threads to follow, and a couple red herrings to keep you on your toes.
Pendergast and D'Agosta are a knock-off of Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson. Indeed, Brimstone reminds me of The Hound of The Baskervilles, with maybe a dash of "Wild Wild West" thrown in.
What's meh...
At 720 pages, this could've been downsized a bit. And the characters seem a bit two-dimensional, although maybe that's just because I read this immediately after The Grapes Of Wrath. Finally, there was one short burst of preachiness in it - aimed at the Fundamentalists. And while I pretty much agree with the sermonette, it nevertheless seemed out-of-place and uncalled for in a mystery novel.
Bottom Line...
Brimstone is the fifth book in Preston & Child's Pendergast series. I've read #1, #5, and #8. Although they follow the same formula, there is still enough variance in the plots to where they don't become stale. And despite being the first book in a "trilogy within a series", this is a stand-alone story. I like that. It's much less aggravating than some series, such as Robert Jordan's The Dragon Reborn, where you work your way through a thousand pages, only to discover that nothing gets resolved. We'll give Brimstone a solid "B", and recommend it especially to Arthur Conan Doyle fans.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Shepherds Abiding by Jan Karon

Desperate for human contact, I picked up this book from my local library in hopes of joining the book club when they held their December meaning.

The book is a Christmas-themed addition to Karon's Mitford series, of which I have read none. It focuses on a retired clergyman as he secretly remodels a nativity scene for his wive's Christmas present. There are a host of other minor characters, impossible to keep up with unless, perhaps, you've been a fan of the series all along. One of my complaints, in fact, is that Karon makes little concessions for readers new to her series, with very little background or explanation for characters, scenarios which are probably familiar to her fan base, but are confusing to those outside of her loyal readership.

Another complaint, and this may seem terribly morose of me, but there you have it (I yam what I yam), the whole thing was just so entirely too lighthearted. There were no real deep struggles or problems for any of the characters. There was no high drama. You knew, at every point in the novel, that the characters were going to be okay. There was no villian. There was no intriguing conflict. There was no antagonistic action that brought tension enough to keep you reading in suspense, thus there was, for me, no climax. The retired clergyman prayed that he would finish the nativity scene in time for Christmas. At one point he dropped and broke an angel. Big whoop.

The whole thing was all too quaint. The ending was sugar sweet happy. Bah. Humbug.

I really can't complain, because it is exactly what I would expect from a book club at my local library, which is supported by a small, conservative Christian community. I'm not downing Christianity at all, but I would like to discuss a book that has a little more bite to it, a little more meat to chew, a book that deals with religion, faith, or any other topic in a more complex way. - 1 star

Getting Mother’s Body by Susan Lori Parks

This book is similar to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in that both are set in the South. Both involve traveling, one to bury the mother, the other to dig her up and transplant her. The family members have ulterior motives. The Bundren father wants to get teeth and find a new wife. The Beedes want to get the fortune that is rumored to be buried with Willa Mae, pearls and a ring. Both young daughters seek abortions. Both stories are told by different characters taking turns as narrators.

Billy Beede is pregnant by a coffin salesman who turns out to be married. She adapts to her situation by manipulating people, a skill she learned from her mother. She survives by taking control of her situation.

Billy refers to her mother as Willa Mae, because she was raised mostly by her aunt and uncle. She recalls her mother swindling people and getting thrown in jail. Willa Mae recognized peoples’ vulnerabilities as holes and knew how to exploit them. Billy is both an extension of her mother and her own person. In the end, Billy settles down, but her mother never did.

The characters and their circumstances are frustrating, but in the end, one steps forward to do the right thing and all ends well.

Book Links - Discontinuing

All -

Sorry for all who enjoyed having the links to Amazon on the bottom of the reviews - they're being discontinued. Unfortunately, in yet another bid to ensure I do not grow to arrogant in my appraisal of my own skills, my script was not particularly well-formed and would frequently muck up people's titles, put up related, but wrong books (box sets, audio books, etc), or otherwise generally cause havoc, and I think it's probably just causing more trouble than it's worth ;P. Thanks, all, for your patience with it, I appreciate it.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Speciman Days by Michael Cunningham

This is another book that I read before I was in the Bowels of Hell. I don't remember much about it other than enough to know that I'm glad I don't remember much about it. After his complex, wonderful novel The Hours, which borrows from his literary predecesors and upon which one of my favorite movies is based, Cunningham makes another adempt to follow it up by once again weaving three distinct narratives together through heavy use of motif.

In this instance, however, he fails.

Maybe the circumstances of this novel were just too strange for me. The first story is set during the Industrial Age, when a young boy is haunted by his dead brother through the noises he hears in the machines all around him. The last story is set at some point in the (near?) future, when aliens have made their place on earth, amongst humans and human-like machines. Weird. Maybe I'm just under-exposed to sci-fi. However, Cunningham doesn't exactly shine when he tries to do normal either, because the middle story, the one set in current day and arguably the most down-to-earth, as it were, is completely forgetable because, well, I've forgotten it. There was something about a female cop and a young boy in trouble. The cop tries to save the young boy but takes it too far and runs away with him; at that point, it goes back to wierdness, but that's at the end of the story.

Weirdness isn't necessarily the noose around a novel's neck - I like weird, just not this weird. For example, I couldn't buy into the relationship that develops between the android and the alien in the final story. I couldn't feel the young boy's pain in the beginning when he thought his brother's spirit was, literally, in the machine that killed him.

The stories are connected through the motif of machinery, but the only other tie that binds is weirdness. It went from weird, to wierder, to wierdest.

But because of Michael's previous work, I feel almost guilty saying that, like maybe I'm just not getting it. Maybe it's actually brilliant. I dunno. Anyway; - 2 stars

What You Have Left by Will Allison

For the past few months, I have been in the Bowels of Hell, kissing the foul, puckered asshole of life. Thanks to Amanda and Terry for your concern; you've helped me come out of it a little bit, at least enough to get back to posting.

This is a book I read before I entered the Bowels of Hell. I was looking on the bookshelf at the library under "Allison" just in case they had something by Dorothy Allison that I hadn't read, when I discovered this author by the same last name, also the same state of origin, South Carolina, my own state of residence from birth on.

Besides the last name and the place of origin, Will Allison also has in common with Dorothy Allison the ability to plainly and deftly tell a common story about common people in a way that is engaging rather than boring - the kind of story I like best.

Because I read it months ago and no longer have it in front of me, I no longer have access through memory or the ability to look up names and specifics of the book, so the best I can give by way of summary is to say that it is roughly about a woman who is raised by her grandfather after her mother dies and her father, incapable of raising a daughter, leaves. It is told from different perspectives, including that of the now grown daughter's husband, which also keeps the reader's interest piqued.

It is a small novel, and Will is no Dorothy, but a good read nonetheless.

- 4 stars
What You Have Left: A Novel
By: Will Allison
Amazon Price: $14.00

Monday, November 17, 2008

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Long ago, in my youth, I subscribed to the notion that, if a work of art were sufficiently beautiful and perfect (at the time I believed the words to be somewhat interchangeable, a notion I've since been disabused of) that it would unavoidably affect the audience that through sheer muscular power, it would overtake the human reader, viewer, listener, etc with the message it meant to convey to them.
The implication of any such idea is, of course, fairly arrogant - if someone does not understand or enjoy some beautiful thing, it must either needs be that the beauty is not good enough or that the viewer is less than human.
That's hogwash, Emily Dickinson taught me that. Beauty, like all good things, is what it is, and requires the hard work, and often the incidental good luck, of the viewer to enjoy it. Statements to the contrary - statements that a given work of art must be enjoyed by any sufficiently sensitive soul, are demeaning to beauty itself, and horrifyingly dismissive of humanity.
Moby Dick is like that. IT's not an easy book, it's not really even a 'fun' book, I suppose, although it can be fairly involving at times. But it is beautiful, beautifully constructed, beautifully conceptualized (though, in accordance with my other disabused notion, far from perfect). Recounting the plot would be pointless, as the plot is far from central to the story. Recounting the characters would be pointless, because their exceeding humanity makes them difficult to express in short words. Like the Bible, the beauty of Moby Dick is in it's utter density and breadth. Of all American novels, there are many that are more poignant, there are many that are more perfect, there are a few that are equally beautifully wrought, but there are very, very few that approach it in it's complexity, in it's ability to speak to such a low, hollow place that it echoes into all hollows of the consciousness. In some sense, every struggle of the American people is tied up somewhere in the story of a whaling ship chasing a white whale, in it's mad captain, in it's invisble narrator, in it's 'heathen' harpooners, in the mysticism of Starbuck, and the blind, mindless humor and courage of Stubb.
I've heard that Moby Dick is the favorite novel of President-Elect Obama, a fact I found out after starting this novel, and after writing about my feelings about the new president's task in rebirthing American history. In the best and worst of ways, in the congenial fraternity of the men squeezing the lumps out of the spermaceti, in the mad defiance of Ahab staring down the whales gullet, in the fading spectre of the Rachel coursing the sea in search of it's lost children, and finding only the wandering Ishmael floating on his best friend's empty coffin, this novel seems like an appropriate metaphor, hopeful and hopeless, spiritual and godless, full, empty, overblown, excessively simple, endlessly faulted, and completely whole, for America as she crouches with the lance today, as she stood on the bowsprits of history in Melville's time, as she will lie at the bottom of an endless ocean a year, a hundred years or a thousand years from now.
Moby-Dick or, The Whale (Penguin Classics)
By: Herman Melville
Amazon Price: $13.00

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck

1939; 581 pages. Genre : American Literature. Awards : 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Novels. John Steinbeck received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. Overall Rating : A.
Steinbeck's masterpiece, which chronicles the journey of a family of sharecroppers who, having been forced off their Oklahoma farm, travel Route 66 t0 California, in search of the Promised Land.
What's To Like...
What can I say? The book is worthy of the accolades that have been heaped upon it. Steinbeck demonstrates his storytelling skills in the chapters dealing with the Joad family; then demonstrates his writing skills in the intermezzo chapters that step away from the narrative and give you a more direct relating of what was going on in America during the Dust Bowl era.
I especially liked the attention Steinbeck gives to minor characters. Like the cook and waitress (Al and Mae) at a nondescript truck stop in Chapter 15. Any other author would've just given them cursory attention, but Steinbeck makes them come alive. Indeed, the character development throughout TGOW is superb. These aren't two-dimensional people; they change and evolve throughout the book. Pa may lead the clan at the beginning, but by the end, it's Ma who is holding the remnants of the family together.
What's Not To Like...
If you're president of a bank or own a thousand-acre farm in California, you probably won't like this book. Indeed, such people raised a furor when TGOW was first published. It was banned in some places, and burned in others. Which is of course ironic, since it is well known that public interest in a book is directly proportional to the number of times it is requested to be banned.
Also, you can tell after 50 pages or so, that this is not a sunshine-and-puppy-dogs, happy-ending book. Finally, at 581 total pages, this is not a book to start on Sunday night, when you have a book report due on Monday morning.
What makes The Grapes of Wrath something special?
In 2009, it will be 70 years since TGOW was first published. It isn't showing its age at all. The poor and the displaced are still with us, and are still getting shafted by the rich and the powerful. And those who help the have-nots will receive their share of the oppression.
Casy the Preacher in the story gets labeled a Socialist and/or a Communist (and loses his life) merely for trying to organize the farm workers. Steinbeck got called the same things in real life in the 40's. Curiously, in the 60's, it was the left who called him a turncoat because he was sympathetic to the war effort in Vietnam.
In truth, Steinbeck was a populist. He supported the powerless, and whatever it took to enable them to live decent and happy lives. The personal cost was enormous. Besides being slandered and labeled a Commie, the FBI kept tabs on him for years.
In the end, things haven't changed much in 70 years. If you stand up for the little people, you must be prepared for the inevitable smear campaign. You will be called a Socialist, an elitist, an Al-Qaeda operative, a Muslim, an Arab, and a collaborator with revolutionaries. Just ask our president-elect.
To close, this is a great book. It spotlights the plight of the have-nots, provokes thought, encourages activism, and oh-by-the-way is a literary masterpiece. Highly recommended.
The Grapes of Wrath (Centennial Edition)
By: John Steinbeck
Amazon Price: $17.00

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Pact by Jodi Picoult

Don't let the fact that it says "a love story" in romantic italicized script on the front cover. This is not even close to a romance story.

The Pact is a wonderfully written drama about a teenage couple almost out of high school and a "double suicide" one suicide shy of being finished. This novel has a present and past tense style of writing jumping from years ago to "present" to illustrate the connection between the two teenagers and what set them off on the path at the beginning of the novel. The couple were raised together, their parents next door neighbors and best friends. They are only 6 months apart in age and inseparable. Both excellent students and had full fulfilling lives together ahead of them. One carried a secret that eventually drove them to want to vanish from existence, the other was clueless to why and wanted to be with their love.

This books brought up a lot of questions for my friends who read it as well. Why would a teenager with good grades, happy families, and the love of their lives want to kill themselves? For that matter why would any person what to kill themselves? Is it the easy way out like a lot of people think or is there more to it than that? Is is possible for someone to want to die and NO ONE can tell at all around them?

It made me think about how people put on shows and faces for people in their lives. Do we eventually get to a point in our lives when we cant remember who we really are? Do we eventually turn into the person we are pretending to be? Am I crazy if I can compartmentalize who I need to be for each separate person in my life and recognize myself doing it? Or is it a sign of being such a pleaser that I cant help myself from being what other want me to be bad or good?

We all wear masks in our daily lives, in this novel someones mask hid more hurt than you would think possible.

I high recommend any of Jodi Picoults books. If you have any questions about her novels let me know I've read most of them :D
The Pact: A Love Story
By: Jodi Picoult
Amazon Price: $7.99

Up in Smoke by Katie MacAlister

It seems like every time I find books I fall in love with they become a series and I end up having to spend more money on collecting them. This book is part of that group. Up in Smoke is the newest of 5 books in the Aisling Grey Guardian Novels.

This series of books is about dragons and witches, demons and demon lords. Katie MacAlister does an amazing job of making characters that are fun and engaging to read about. It is set in current times, thankfully because I don't have a lot of taste for historical settings in these books, and is considered Paranormal Romance.

The series, on a whole, is a great and fast read. They chronicle the story of Aisling Grey and her journey through becoming a Guardian and a Wren's (head of a sect of dragons) mate, along with stumbling into becoming a Demon Lord and Princess of Abaddon.

Jokes aside the action does get a bit hot and heavy with a lot of the characters and in usual paranormal romance style everyone tries to pair off. There is at least one more book coming for the series if not more. In this particular book May a doppelganger of a naiad and servant to a demon lord tries to keep her sanity and freedom while trying to love the dragon of her dreams.

Obviously there is more to these books besides scenes that fog up my glasses of I wouldn't bother reading them. There is a great humor and sarcasm in these books I cant get enough of. They are very addictive. As are most things I read hmm I think I see a pattern.

Is there a books anonymous? Meetings anywhere in Wisconsin? hmmmm

Up in Smoke (Silver Dragons, Book 2)
By: Katie MacAlister
Amazon Price: $7.99

Monday, November 10, 2008

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

"MY mind was a mirror:
It saw what it saw, it knew what it knew..."

This book was first published in 1916. It is a gathering of 244 dramatic monologues written in free verse by Edgar Lee Masters. It is based on the voices of the citizens of Spoon River, a fictional town, yet has been considered autobiographical in nature as it is close in character to the towns where Masters grew up.
I thought this book was thought-provoking and even amusing to read. It goes really fast since each page is a poem basically. He writes with a sense of truth and honesty without fear of complications or worries.

My favorite literary poems in the book are as titled: Fletcher McGee, The Village Atheist, Bert Kessler, and Alexander Throckmorton.

Here is an excerpt from Fletcher McGee:

SHE took my strength by minutes,
She took my life by hours,
She drained me like a fevered moon
That saps the spinning world.
The days went by like shadows,

Spoon River Anthology - Literary Touchstone Classic
By: Edgar Lee Masters
Amazon Price: $4.99

The Wednesday Letters by Jason F. Wright

This book has been reviewed as heartwarming and wholesome which sums up the overall feel of this book. It is very simplistic in its writing with lots of dialogue, good characters and an easy read. It reads more like you're sitting in a comfy couch and carefully listening to someone telling you a story. Though it was interesting and I loved the main concept of communicating with a person you care about through letters, it wasn't as realistic or captivating for me as I had hoped it would be.
In the beginning, the premise is that Jack and Laurel Cooper die in each other's arms in their bedroom of their beloved bed and breakfast Inn. Although this was a unique start, I couldn't quite fathom that it actually happens very much. As their three children, Matthew, Malcolm and Samantha, come together to deal with this tragedy, Jack's letters to Laurel are discovered and read together by the children throughout the book. Through these letters, interesting family secrets arise and have to be deciphered by their children. Malcolm has the hardest time dealing with all of this but his siblings are kind and understanding to help him through it and to find answers.
I did like the many examples that expressed the idea of love even when we don't understand or have all the answers right at that moment. It also emphasized the value of how tangible letters are and that they can be read over and over again. I found this comforting.
I'd also like to mention another point, through Laurel's tragic experience in the book that I won't reveal here, led me to consider the value of being completely honest in relationships. In this sense, Laurel kept a lot of baggage inside when if she had revealed them upfront with her husband than she may have had a better chance at getting the help she may have wanted or needed but then there wouldn't have been such a story, right?
Overall, it was an average read but it did have its likabilities. I enjoyed the book and have already loaned it out to a friend.

The Wednesday Letters
By: Jason F. Wright
Amazon Price: $13.00

The Stranger by Albert Camus

"The scorching blade slashed at my eyelashes and stabbed at my stinging eyes. That's when everything began to reel. The sea carried up a thick, fiery breath. It seemed to me as if the sky split open from one end to the other to rain down fire."
Here is an intense sample of this book and its rich detail that paints so clear in your mind that you can feel and see it. Although, I personally disliked this book, I can't deny it of its literary merit which makes the book a powerful voice and is a reason to read it. It was easy to read and very thought-provoking.
Here is another quote that I would like to share as well:
"Yes, it was the hour when, along time ago. I was perfectly content, what awaited me back then was a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet, something had changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent."
I liked the combative imagery of the words: familiar paths, summer skies, prison and sleep.
Since, I was curious about Albert Camus, I found out a bit about him. Camus' little book was published
June 1942: “L’Etranger” (The stranger). At that time, Camus was an unknown author and was only 28 years old. In the 2oth century, he is known for modifying the history of both literature and philosophy through his expression of what he termed "the nakedness of man faced with the absurd." He also won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. The translation I read was by Matthew Ward.
Albert Camus
photo of Albert Camus
The Stranger
By: Albert Camus
Amazon Price: $10.95

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

"Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart."
So begins Edith Wharton's, The House of Mirth filled with complexities about society at that time.
Instantly, the exquisite beauty of Miss Lily Bart amazed me and I found I could read about her for hours. Through all of her vanity, frailties and ambition I just enjoyed her character which I couldn't help but smile about her intellect or actions at times. I also liked Selden and his joyful personality. Finally, Mr. Rosedale grew my intrigue as the story progressed and eventually some respect toward him by the end of the book when he offered to help Miss Bart in her troubling situation.
Although, at first, I had a hard time getting into the book or even understanding the unique language of the book. As I continued reading it, the details eventually captured me. Here is an example of that detail in this paragraph of Miss Lily from the perspective of Mr. Rosedale: "As she leaned back before him, her lids drooping in utter lassitude, though the first warm draught already tinged her face with returning life, Rosedale was seized afresh by the poignant surprise of her beauty. The dark pencilling of fatigue under her eyes, the morbid blue-veined pallour of the temples, brought out the brightness of her hair and lips, as though all her ebbing vitality were centred there. Against the dull chocolate-coloured background of the restaurant, the purity of her head stood out as it had never done in the most brightly-lit ball-room. He looked at her with a startled uncomfortable feeling, as though her beauty were a forgotten enemy that had lain in ambush and now sprang out on him unawares."
Overall, I enjoyed this book very much. On a grade scale I would rate it an A- and I would recommend this book for others to read. At the Classic Literature Book Group I attend at the library, it was recommended there as a good first read for someone who would like to be exposed to classic literature.

The House of Mirth (Dover Thrift Editions)
By: Edith Wharton
Amazon Price: $3.00

Sunday, November 9, 2008

26a by Diana Evans

This is a story of twins in a mixed racial family. They live at 26a Waifer Avenue in Neasden, UK. It is about the twoness in oneness of twins. Bessi is physical. Georgia is mental.

Their mother, Ida sustains a long distance communication with her mother’s spirit. Their older sister, Bel, has psychic powers and can foretell the future.

Their father Aubrey is characterized as a repressed male animal. Surrounded by females at home, he is transformed by his friend Jack Daniels into Mister Hyde, who uses his daughter as scapegoats. He complains that he has worked for thirty years and this is the thanks he gets. When he goes beyond the limit, his wife takes a knife to him and establishes an uneasy peace.

Georgia is not of this world and is too frightened by cockroaches and the colors, red and orange. Yellow is good. She becomes increasingly difficult to understand as she descends into disordered thinking. She never learns to exist alone until a year after her death. In the process, she disrupts Bessi’s independence and hold on reality.

Georgia’s possession of Bessi parallels the story of Ode in Onia, a folk tale of evil twins told by their Nigerian grandfather during their interlude in Nigeria. While in Nigeria, Georgia is sexually assaulted by Sedrick, the security guard at the villa. It is not clear how far the assault goes before it is interrupted by her older sister. There are fewer details than were given in an incident where a cockroach landed on Georgia in the garden and she had to be rescued. Georgia packs her traumatic experiences away, as if by imprisoning, she can keep them from haunting her. It only serves to make them more frightening and builds a barrier between her and the real world. She drifts further into the supernatural until she has to escape to an afterlife. She would have been more content among mortals if she had exorcised her demons.

Bessi and Georgia change. Bessi becomes more of this world. Georgia withdraws. Georgia tries to shield Bessi from the dark fears by keeping it all within. It is never clear if there was a pivotal event that led to Georgia’s eventual swaying and spinning danse macabre. It could just as well have been the premature collapse of the twins dream of a fabulous flapjack empire. After she leaves her body, she has no qualms about possessing Bessi’s. Bessi gives her the right half.
26a: A Novel (P.S.)
By: Diana Evans
Amazon Price: $13.95

Friday, November 7, 2008

Fool Me Twice by Stephanie Black

Fool Me Twice by Stephanie Black was a suspenseful ride. Megan and Kristen are twin sisters. Megan is the nice, compassionate one, and Kristen is the greedy, self-centered one. Megan takes care of her needy widowed-mother, putting off college while working two jobs. Kristen stays as far away from them as she seeks the easy way out of things.

Megan, eager to please her sister, agrees to a scheme that Kristen arranged as a way to easy money. All Megan has to do is pretend to be Kristen and take care of a long-lost great-aunt that is on her dying bed. Kristen tells Megan that Aunt Evelyn will leave her money when she dies.

Reluctantly and uneasily, Megan agrees to Kristen's scheme. Soon, she finds that some of what Kristen told her is untrue, but maybe even Kristen doesn't know the whole truth. Many people are lying and their purposes are hidden.

I really liked this book, finding out new details at every turn of the page. It was suspenseful and interesting to find out who was doing what and why. I recommend this book if you want a fun, suspenseful read.

I'm A Stranger Here Myself - Bill Bryson

1999; 288 pages. Genre : Comedic Narrative. Overall Rating : B-.
Bill Bryson returns to the USA after spending 20 years in England. He buys a house in rustic, Newhartesque New Hampshire, and shortly thereafter, a journalist friend talks him into writing a weekly article for a British magazine called Night & Day; loosely themed around readjusting to American life. IaSHM is a collection of 70 of those articles.
What's To Like...
It has the typical Bryson dry, self-deprecating humor. Since they are weekly articles, all 70 chapters are essentially the same length - about 4 pages each. The topics vary widely, so if one doesn't float your boat, be of good cheer, you'll shortly be reading about something completely different.
It is obvious that Bryson reads a lot, and oftentimes that spawns the weekly topic. You will learn things like the origin of Drive-In Theaters, and that computer hackers successfully breached the Pentagon's security systems 161,000 times in 1996. He's possibly the only person I know that can write four pages about cup-holders (in the car and on the PC) and keep you interested. To appreciate that, try putting out four witty pages on that subject yourself.
What's meh...
While you'll catch yourself laughing out loud at times while reading IaSHM, this is an easy book to put down. The problem isn't Bryson; it's the format. Being limited to four pages means none of the articles have any depth. One of the chapters deals with inherently good- and lousy-sounding words. Kewl beans and something I'd really enjoy, but just as soon as the chapter got rolling, it was done.
The other format problem is the weekly deadline. It must be difficult to be newsworthily witty once a week, every week, for several years. What do you do when your Muse takes a couple weeks vacation? Some of the topics seem to suffer in this manner.
Uncle John, you have competition...
It took me a lot longer to get through IaSHM than I anticipated. After reading a half-dozen chapters in one sitting, they all start to blur together. I think it would be better to use this book as a Bathroom Reader. Alas, that's counter-productive for 5-Squared purposes. We'll give it a B-, and recommend that this not be your introduction to Bryson.
I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away
By: Bill Bryson
Amazon Price: $14.95

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

To start this review I'm going to quote a review from the back cover. "To say this is a terrific debut novel is really too mild...I found myself dreading the last thirty pages or so but was helpless to stop turning them. Then, after the lights were out, the story just stayed there in my head, coiled and hissing, ,Ike a snake in a cave. An admirably nasty piece of work, elevated by sharp writing and sharper insights." Stephen King

"Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, Camille Preaker's first assignment at her second-rate paper takes her reluctantly back to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. As she works to uncover the truth, Camille finds herself identifying with the young victims - a bit too strongly. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wanted to survive this homecoming."(back cover blurb)

This novel deals with relationships between mother and child as well as father and child in the light of horrible tragedy. The entire town is up in arms about the strange murder and disappearances of the girls and of course they rush to blame outsiders. Even calling in someone from the FBI doesn't help their cause and only while Camille comes back to cover the story do the clues start to make sense with her scarred past. The issue of small town America really sticks home, everyone knows everyone and is most likely related somehow. It reminds me of my home town actually.

I really enjoyed this book. It was fast paced and addictive. I couldn't put it down literally! The author depicted a very strange form of cutting that I can't seem to get my head off of. The main character, and you see this early in so I'm not ruining anything, cuts herself....but not normal cuts. No Camille carved words into herself in every reachable inch and centimeter of available skin except for two spots on her body. It made perfect sense in a sick way. Every cut a cutter makes has a meaning implied because of the feeling behind it but Camille cut words some as normal as castle and some as meaningful as freak. Camille talks about at different points of stress in the story different words fire on her. They itch and burn talking to her. I find this concept amazing apart from the spellbinding story Gillian wove around her characters. Ive never seen someone so eloquently involve a bizarre and very sever form of cutting in a story before.

The other aspects of the story are as compelling and I found myself being able to guess the ending but not wanting it and then once I got it there was a thrilling twist that sent me reeling. I highly recommend this book. It's a thrilling and sick who done it with a great psychological aspect.
Sharp Objects: A Novel
By: Gillian Flynn
Amazon Price: $14.00

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Whiskey Sour - J.A. Konrath

2004; 289 pages. Genre : Murder Mystery. Overall Rating : B-
A serial killer is abducting young women, playing Operation on their torsos, and dumping their naked bodies butt-cheek-upwards into local 7-11 dumpsters. Police Lieutenant Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels tries to find the common link, and catch the self-dubbed Gingerbread Man before all of Chicago goes into a panic.
What's To Like...
If you like James Patterson's "Alex Cross" detective novels (that's before he went all sucky with his "Maximum Ride" stuff), you'll like J.A. Konrath. The killings are tastefully lurid (which is probably an oxymoron), and Konrath also mixes in a bit of punnish humor. Jack Daniels is non-stereotypically middle-aged and average-looking.
An example of the Whiskey Sour wit :
"He may be disfigured or disabled. He might have severe acne scars, or scoliosis."
"That's a curvature of the spine," Dailey added.
"Is that a hunch?" I asked.
"Just an educated guess."
I thought about explaining the joke to them, but it would be wasted.
On the other hand...
There are several places where you just go, "Am I expected to believe that?" For instance, our protagonist's police car is broken into, and a bag of candy is left on the seat. Suspicious? Nah. Damiels' partner tears into the bag without any hesitation and falls for the old razor-blade-in-the-candy-bar trick.
Then there's the "lucky break" itself. Interviews of the victims' family and friends get the usual response : "So-and-so was just the sweetest person around. Ww can't think of anyone who would want to kill her." Yet when the connecting link is finally found, it's something that even a remote acquaintance would recall and instantly think of as a motive for murder.
Then there's the clichés...
The books is riddled with them. Some, such as the two clueless FBI agents with their computer-generated profiling, are obviously deliberate. Ditto for the doughnut-loving partner of Daniels, who IMHO is ripe for killing or severe-hospitalization is some sequel.
But the not-so-deliberate clichés can be annoying. The oh-so-confident psychopath decides to also include our heroine on his hit-list. Gee, that's worked what - zero percent of the time - in the past? This naturally results in our heroine being pulled off the case. Which of course never stops any cop from staying involved one bit. Then there's the poor schluck who goes out on an arranged date (by MatchMakers, Inc., IIRC) with Daniels. Yeah, that's a ironclad guarantee for bodily harm by the jealous stalker.
Finally, there's Daniels herself. She's a burnt-out, workaholic, insomniac whose marriage was ruined by her devotion to the job, and who drinks way too much. Sometimes I think that is de rigeur for fictional detectives .
A little bit about J.A. Konrath...
Konrath's website is at His bio claims he wrote nine novels and received more than 500 rejections for them before #10 (Whiskey Sour) was finally accepted/published. He has done 612 book-signings in 28 states, and has sent 7,000 letters to libraries touting his books. I'd say he paid his dues.
If you visit his website, you'll be able to read the first seven chapters of most of the books in his Jack Daniels series (5 of them, I think). Except for Whiskey Sour itself, whch you can download in its entirety as a pdf file. Gotta love that.
In conclusion, this was a bit of enjoyable light reading. It doesn't strive to be anything more than an entertaining story, and to that end, it succeeds. We'll give it a B- and hope that the sequels have a few more twists and a few less stereotypes.
Whiskey Sour (A Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels Mystery)
By: J. A. Konrath
Amazon Price: $6.99