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Whitney

Whitney

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Night Film
Marisha Pessl
JR
William Gaddis, Frederick R. Karl
Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories
Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami
Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges, Anthony Bonner, Anthony Kerrigan
Underwood and Flinch - Mike Bennett Great old-school style vampire story. The five stars is for the podcast version, as Mike Bennett is a fantastic reader. Great assortment of characters that all come together in a ripping good yarn. The podcast is available for free. I recommend starting with the short story "Night Crossing", which is an excellent introduction to the world of the novel.

Shadow Show

Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury (Audio) - Sam Weller, Mort Castle, George Takei, Edward Herrmann Very uneven in the quality of the stories. Most of them just okay, a few quite good. The only one I'd call great is Neil Gaiman's (no surprise), but the ones by Kelly Link and Joe Hill came close.
Boneshaker - Cherie Priest I read Boneshaker because I haven’t read much Steampunk, and this one makes a lot of ‘best of” lists. It was fun, but ultimately lacking in depth. It was also fairly lazy writing, with a focus on providing a lot of pretty window dressing without putting much effort into building a solid foundation. The author acknowledges as much in the afterword, saying that much of the book is a stretch, but “isn’t that what Steampunk is for?” So in 1863 there are lots of airships, and factories full of people wearing goggles moving pipes around, and confederate trains full of filters for gas masks. Why do all these things exist in 1863? Because - Steampunk!

This books also engages in one of my literary pet peeves, maintaining suspense by a constant game of “I’ve got a secret”, wherein the big secret is not something the characters have to work to find out but something they simply aren’t telling us, even though it’s a third person narrative in which we know their thoughts.

Despite it’s failings, the book is still fairly engaging. Seattle as a walled zombie necropolis with a mad scientist and lots of nifty (if ridiculous) gadgets makes for an entertaining read, although not a particularly weighty or well-considered one.
The Fifty Year Sword - Mark Z. Danielewski My advice for people reading this book is to read it along with the performance (with shadows) available on YouTube. Trying to follow along with the different colored quotation marks is an exercise in frustration, but hearing it read brings out the lyricism. Which voice is saying exactly what is not as important as experiencing the different voices stitching together the intertwined stories. Some of the imagery is fantastic, and there’s a unique use of language that supports and evokes that imagery almost perfectly at times.
To Say Nothing of the Dog - Connie Willis A very fun book, with a lot of loving fun being poked at cozy mysteries and Victorian sensibilities. The repetition of various gags and character foibles grew a little tiresome, but overall a light and enjoyable read.
Room - Emma Donoghue One of the most overrated books I’ve ever read. Yes, it deals with very intense issues, but it offers no insight about those issues or the psychology of the people involved in them.

I won’t bother rehashing the plot; I figure everyone has the basic idea by now from other reviews. I am in agreement with those who find Jack, the five-year old narrator, to be annoying and frequently unbelievable. In the hands of a better writer, telling the story from Jack’s perspective would lead to revelations about a child’s perceptions of horrific things. But instead of Jack’s perceptions, we just get Jack’s descriptions; frequently sprinkled with obnoxious baby talk. For example: Jack, hidden in the wardrobe, describes the repeated rape of his mother by her captor as ‘creaking the bed’. There is no indication of any lasting psychological effect this is having on Jack, which is because there isn’t any! After they escape, we find out that, thanks to his mother’s super creative shielding of her son, he is a normal, well-adjusted lovable kid; he just sun burns easily from his life spent indoors. Bullshit.

We also get few indications of the inner life of his mother. She occasionally goes catatonic in the room. She tries to commit suicide on the outside. These aren’t psychological insights; these are just the actions of someone who is messed up.


I can’t help feeling this book is a kind of ‘mommy porn’. Someone trying to imagine a world where it’s just her and her little boy and she will protect him from everything and they will be each other’s world. As mentioned in many other reviews, there are endless references to Jack’s breast-feeding and his repeated proclamations about which breast is ‘creamier’, also in obnoxious baby talk. This does nothing to dispel the creepy mommy porn vibe of the book.
The Complete Knifepoint Horror - Soren Narnia The five stars is for the podcast of these stories, where the headlong first person narration really works well. These stories have great atmosphere and really memorable and creepy imagery. Most of them follow a similar arc, with a narrator getting drawn into some weird situation that escalates into a nightmarish extreme. Like the narrators, the reader / listener is usually left without any solid explanation for what takes place, which leaves a lingering sense of unease instead of any real sense of closure at the end of the stories. Available for free on iTunes, so you have nothing to lose by checking it out!
The Good Soldiers - David Finkel This book is a soldier’s-eye view of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. Finkel tells the story of what it was like for one infantry unit from the time of their deployment until their return home (the ones who weren’t killed or seriously injured) a year later. Finkel’s focus in on what the soldiers were experiencing, and for the most part he avoids editorializing about the politics surrounding the war except to show how disconnected they are from the day-to-day experiences of the people on the ground.

Finkel doesn’t spare any of the details. He follows the soldiers through all the aspects of their service, including repeated deployments where Humvees and the people in them are ripped apart by explosives, and he tells the stories of soldiers (and their families) coping with their experiences during and after deployment, at the forward bases, at home, and in hospitals. Finkel uses the occasional literary flourish to heighten the emotional impact of the facts he is imparting, but for the most part he admirably lets the soldiers’ experiences speak for themselves.
The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt A very engaging read about two brothers who are hired killers, set during the California gold rush. The narrator of the book is Eli, one half of the Sisters Brothers and a somewhat unlikely assassin. Eli is portly and thoughtful, with a desire to be loved that is touching given his hopelessness at knowing how to go about it. Eli’s brother Charlie is a more stereotypical western gunman, hard drinking and often unnecessarily cruel. At the heart of the book is the brothers’ bond with each other, a bond that keeps Eli from being a better man and Charlie from being a worse one. At one point we are given a fairly predictable backstory of how the brothers came to be the way they are.

As a story of the brothers’ odyssey on their way to carry out a killing, the book has the requisite encounters with the odd assortment of colorful and entertaining characters. The dialogue is written in the formalized, contraction-less style of westerns such as True Grit and Woe to Live on, and the language works well with the droll sense of humor that permeates the book.

One of the things I consider almost a prerequisite for a good western (or ‘anti-western’) is that it convey a sense of the landscape and the culture of its setting. This is one area where I think DeWitt falls short. While there are some excellent descriptions of people and particular locations, DeWitt fails to provide any larger sense of place. This is a particularly unfortunate failure, given the rich possibilities of the California gold rush era. There are also occasional surreal / supernatural passages that have some intense imagery but that don’t integrate well with the rest of the novel.

I’m not sure why this book garnered quite so much critical praise, as it doesn’t seem to have any particularly deep themes or revelatory insights into human nature. It is, however, a very entertaining read that I recommend for its excellent characters and story and for its pervasive dry humor.
Prophets of the Ghost Ants - Clark Thomas Carlton I am editing this review due to a major turnaround in my opinion of this book. My original review contains a tirade about the way rape was depicted. Now, having read the author's blog, had a couple exchanges with him, and seen how some of the chapters have been updated, I don't believe the scenes I took so much offense at were at all intended the way I read them. In the new edition of the book this is even clearer. So here is my new, improved review:

This book presents a captivating picture of societies that have evolved around the relationship between humans (much diminished in size) and insects, with the different societies being influenced by which insects they have domesticated. There are a lot of fascinating details of the politics and social structures, as well as details of how war is waged between the different groups and their respective insects.

The author uses his setting to explore ideas of caste, religion and oppression, with the details being for the most part seamlessly woven into an adventure story involving a low-caste member of an ant-herding colony. While the politics are occasionally on the nose, the story and descriptions are more than enough to keep the book engaging throughout.

I am leaving my original review below, as it seems wrong to just expunge it, but it refers to a now defunct edition of the book and expresses opinions I no longer hold.


*****

I am looking at all the positive reviews of this book and wondering how I could be the only one who was completely put off by its depiction of rape.

If my book had been missing three pages, I would have had a lot of mostly good things to say about it. Things about the really interesting societies that different human groups have formed around different domesticated insects; about how the book opens up discussions about religion and tyranny (albeit a bit on the nose); about how it’s an exciting tale with fascinating details of how war is waged between the different groups and their insects. Then I got to the end where the main character rapes a women, and it ruined the entire book for me, as well as making me resent that I ever took any interest or enjoyment in what this writer had to say.

I’m not opposed to rape in books per se, as long as it isn’t done for funsies. The ‘bad guys’ in ‘Prophets’ rape lots of women, and it’s presented as wrong. But when the rapist is the book’s protagonist, Anand, it’s apparently not a bad thing to be raped because he is Handsome and Charismatic and Brilliant, so naturally women WANT him to rape them. I should mention the rape at the end is the second (or third, depending on how you keep score) committed by Anand. At least he felt bad about the first two.

The last rape is presented as the woman getting her just deserts. For added fun, Anand humiliates her as well, and has lots of witnesses to her debasement, and he laughs uproariously. This is the guy who has liberated thousands of people and is supposedly a champion of the downtrodden. We have been encouraged to root for him for the entire book, and there’s no hint that maybe what he was doing was horrific. We are given to understand that Anand is consumed by anger due to his previous suffering and that is apparently sufficient excuse for his actions. I should mention Anand’s wife encourages him in this rape. She’s supposed to be sympathetic as well.

I do have to give Carlton credit for working two of rapists’ favorite excuses into one incident, not only did “the b want it”, but “the b had it coming” as well.
The Quest of the Warrior Sheep  - Christine Russell, Christopher  Russell A fun and quick read, pretty much exactly the type of humor you think it has. A fine book for children, or adults looking for some light and entertaining reading. Especially enjoyed the sheep mythology.
Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine, #1) - Ransom Riggs The conceit of this novel is that the story is supported by a selection of mostly bizarre photographs that are scattered throughout the text. It’s a cool idea (although used to much better effect by W.G. Sebald), but more often than not the technique comes of as clunky rather than revelatory. For many of these photos, you can picture Riggs finding a photo he loves and then figuring out how to shoehorn it into the story.

Despite this problem with the main concept, the story is entertaining and told well. It’s an inventive story of a boy travelling to a remote island to try and unravel the mystery of his grandfather’s past. It has many fantastical elements, but it is not nearly the creepfest that seeing some of the weird photos has led people to expect.

Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies - Amitav Ghosh A ripping yarn involving a disparate cross-section of characters caught up in the opium trade. It definitely falls in the ‘adventure’ category; it clearly has the characters to root for and the ones to loathe. The book gives an excellent view on a personal level of how the opium trade affected colonial policy, and subsequently those colonized.

I listened to it on tape, which I recommend. For the most part, Phil Gigante does an excellent job with the different accents and colorful slang, and hearing it spoken is half the fun.
The Imperfectionists - Tom Rachman I absolutely loved the first two chapters of this book. It had seemingly effortless and engaging writing, witty dialogue, and interesting characters. Unfortunately, my enjoyment started waning as I continued reading. A big part of this was Rachman’s female characters. As others have mentioned, there is a touch of misogyny in their portraits. A recurring theme of the book is the failed personal lives of the people who work on the newspaper that is at the center of the book, but the woman in particular are incredibly needy and mostly unpleasant, which got tiresome pretty quickly. Any one of these women I could have appreciated, but all of them were variations on this basic theme.

Another thing people (including me) had problems with is a particularly cruel act that occurs late in the book. I’m not someone who dismisses a book just because things that upset me happen (on the contrary, I think a good book should upset you to some extent), but in this case I don’t think Rachman earned the right to put this in. It seemed like he used this act as a shortcut to demonstrate the frustration and pettiness that had been reached by employees at the paper, rather than using it to punctuate the situation that should have been revealed through the main action and characters.

Unlike others, I did like the sections between the chapters that dealt with the founding and history of the paper. I thought the final one of these sections provided a nice, ironic counterpoint to the lives of the people revealed through the main chapters. Despite my problems, I still give the book 3 stars for its excellent writing and for some truly touching as well as comedic moments.
We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver A very painful and frustrating read (in a good way). Written as a series of letters by a mother (Eva) following a school massacre committed by her 15-year-old son, the titular Kevin. Ostensibly addressed to her husband, the letters are Eva’s way of trying to understand her son’s actions and her responsibility. Guilt ridden enough to make her something of an unreliable narrator, Eva relentlessly picks away at every scab in her and Kevin’s shared history: her ambivalence toward having a child is reflected in Kevin’s spitefulness toward her; his arrogance and disdain for others are her own intolerances and judgmentalism writ large.

Kevin shows none of the ‘warning’ signs of a young psycho in the making, but is subtly cruel and manipulative. This, along with his father’s refusal to see any problems, make Eva’s dilemma far more complex and sympathetic than just a simple story of a parent retroactively reflecting on their denial of a child’s problems would have been. Readers are left to wonder with Eva what she could have done differently and at what point it should have been done.

There are some flaws with the novel. In the space of 400 plus pages, the cataloging of the disturbing aspects of Kevin’s personality become a bit tiresome, and I thought that even the willful denial of his father would have been a bit strained. There are also some events revealed late in the novel that would presumably have colored Eva’s earlier recollections more than they do. Despite these quibbles, very readable and disturbing book that I had a hard time putting down.

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5)

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5) - George R.R. Martin It's a bit of slog compared to the other books, but still a ripping good yarn and a promising set-up for what's to come.