Posts Tagged ‘Book review’



January 21, 2010

Mariilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping has been praised by people a lot more intelligent and a lot more important to me. That’s why, since I read the book over a month ago, I haven’t been able to think of anything new to say. I loved the novel. It was one of the best books I read last year, but I don’t feel competent talking about it. Maybe after a couple years of grad school in American Literature I’ll feel better about my critical skills.

But I have had a couple years of grad school in film studies, and this novel felt very cinematic to me. Almost like a Terrence Malick film, in which everything washes over you as though in a dream. Characters and settings are all important and plot devices get lost in the wind. Nature takes over and moves people aside, drowning them under layers of lake water. Days of Heaven works with some of the same themes, the locusts playing the same role as the flood.

What I loved about this book was how much it wandered without being tangential. I don’t know how I got such a pleasant, sleepy feeling while I read when there is a lake full of waterlogged bodies and a caretaker that might leave at any moment. Robinson has a way with prose that seems very Southern and meandering, but by not placing the novel in the South (it takes place in Idaho) there is a sense of danger and immediacy.

What immediately jumped out at me – and seems to have jumped out at every other literature critic – is the strong, self-sufficient female characters that manage to form unconventional but somewhat satisfying bonds with each other. Taking tropes of classic American literature (“My name is Ruth” v. “Call me Ishmael”) and then reformatting them to fit feminine identity without making them “Female,” Robinson creates a novel that is as strong a myth as any in the Canon.


Revolutionary Road

January 6, 2010

I started Revolutionary Road with the same misgivings I had when reading The Reader. It’s hard to read a book – even one hailed as a modern classic like this one is – when you disliked the movie adaptation so much. And it’s only this combination of readership that I have a problem with. I can read the book and then see and like the movie, like the movie then read the book, and read the book and dislike the movie. I can’t deny that my experience with one narrative form heavily influences how I view the other, but I tend to stay, I think, more objective than most people about adaptations. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to create that distance between seeing a bad movie first and then reading the book. My reading experience is so influenced by the casting, delivery, setting, color, frame, etc. of the movie that it becomes almost an entirely different book.

I became more aware of my bias when reading Revolutionary Road, so I think I was a bit more successful with my processing (which still continues. I only finished the thing yesterday) but I still have no idea how I might have felt about Yates’s novel had I not been so – almost – indoctrinated by the film.

That said, I managed to like the novel. Love it, in fact. DiCaprio and Winslet’s voices echoed in my head during all the pivotal – and frequent – fight scenes, but it was the inner dialogue of these characters that made the book so much more successful. The setting Yates paints is as idyllic and cliche (these days) as the movie presents, but each character is more than the cookie-cutter image they portray. Somehow – and I’ll have to see it again to really analyze this, probably never figuring it out – the movie never captures the real conflict in the Wheeler home.

I have never hated a character in the book more than I hate Frank Wheeler. And while I don’t think Yates intended Wheeler to be the monster he comes across as in 2010 (after all, he based the character on himself), there is certainly a level of disgust in the narrator’s depiction of Frank. Both Frank and April have unrealistic expectations while selling themselves completely short, are obsessed with what society thinks of them while pretending to shun society, and are stuck in gender roles that neither of them can ever live up to. But it’s Frank’s false sense of self-assuredness that ultimately causes everything to crumble. I mean, the dude forced his wife to have his baby (rather than aborting it, like she wanted to) because he has some idea that she wouldn’t be a real woman (or “female” as John Givings calls her) if she didn’t have a natural motherly instinct. THEN…oh my God…then as soon as she decides that she will, indeed, keep the baby – giving up all her dreams as a result – he goes and sleeps with a woman in his office because that cements his proper place as a 1950s Man. Blech.

But Yates has such a detachment from the plot of the story. His bounces from character to character in the suburban neighborhood (mainly focusing on Frank’s perspective), describing all of their actions as a omnipotent narrator, that I don’t think he intends to embody. At the same time, there is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve read since Where the Red Fern Grows where Frank cleans up the bathroom where April, essentially, killed herself. The narrator remains descriptive and detached through it all.

Creepy. The whole novel is creepy, because it’s just as relevant today as it was in the 1950s. Yes, some of the images come across as cliche at this point (the unfulfilled housewife ironing in front of the television), but the brilliancy of the novel is how it indicts every reader who thinks they might be above the Wheelers. Aren’t you, then, just heading down the same road that lead them to tragedy?


Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl

January 3, 2010

Would there be anything better than owning a pet owl? I could replace all my little wall hangings and figurines with the real thing. Me and my owl would be the best of friends. Actually…I might rather own a miniature donkey or a pet orangutan or even just a dog would be nice. But my point is that owning an owl sounds really cool, which is why I read this book.

It’s not that cool. Mostly it’s just a lot of hard work, like taking care of a perma-infant for twenty years. But according to this Stacey person, it’s can be very rewarding work. Her stories of cuddling with her owl, blow drying him after his self-imposed baths, and learning his complex system of communication are fascinating. Most interesting of all were her stories of the biology department at Caltech, a group of people she presents as being as alien to us as the professors who populate Hogwarts School of Magic. In fact, this author has an annoying habit of continuously comparing things to Harry Potter and other popular sources so her audience will really understand her life.

The book is written at about a fourth grade reading level, which isn’t always a bad thing if the prose manages to still be interesting. Here it’s just too simple and repetitive. Even though I was learning a lot about owls and the caring process for a wild animal, I still felt like during the actual reading process I might have been getting dumber.

I should probably give her a break since this is her first, and probably only book. It doesn’t seem like her life has been devoted to literature in any way and there’s nothing wrong with simple prose. Still…it was annoying. I can’t deny that I was annoyed, right? The best part about this book was the subtitle.


Books About Books

December 24, 2009

Like a lot of avid readers, one of my favorite literary genres is books about books.

I just recently finished Nick Hornby’s The Polyphonic Spree, a collection of his essays for The Believer on his monthly reading habits. I’m a big fan of Hornby’s, but I enjoy his personal essay format most of all. (31 Songs was another one I got through in one night). Most interesting to me was the discrepancies between his “books bought” lists and his “books read” lists. Even when I go into a book store determined to buy one book that I will immediately read, I usually end up with two or three and choose to read a stack from the library before I ever get around to even taking my purchases out of the bag. Unfortunately, I would have been much more interested in hearing about Hornby’s “books bought” list. Not that he isn’t contagiously enthusiastic about the books he does read…I’m just not so much. He reads a lot of biographies about poets I’ve never heard of (because I’m practically illiterate) and sports books.

Which is why I’m a bigger fan of Anne Fadiman’s books about books. Ex Libris and Rereading (which she edits) are two of my favorite reads this year. Fadiman and the other featured writers not only talk about books and authors, but the myth surrounding books and their interactions with books as a whole. One essay in Ex Libris that I particularly loved was about Fadiman and her husband combining book shelves. While Scott and I didn’t have to suffer through this event (we have much different tastes when it comes to reading) the associations and importance she places on each material binding of pages was very relatable. Where were you when you first read The Catcher in the Rye? I don’t remember the plots of every book I read, but I always remember where I was and what I was feeling. While I wasn’t always captivated by the books they were reading or rereading, I was always interested in their associations with the books.

Anne Fadiman’s father is Clifton Fadiman, the creator of the Lifetime Reading Plan. While there are problems with a literary cannon – especially this one, which stays pretty European – lists like these always appeal to me. I like checking off each entry as I read them, feeling a sense of accomplishment and some kind of validation that what I’m doing is not just leisure, but putting me on track to becoming an educated, well-rounded individual.

Not this one. I have to leave an element of surprise for those that haven't seen the real thing.

My all-time-favorite book about books is Matilda. A book I chose to immortalize (kind of…) on my ankle with the image of Matilda curled up in a giant armchair surrounded by stacks of books at the library. This is one of those books that you read chapter by chapter with three or four other books because it just makes you so excited to read. Though Charles Dickens was pretty far in my future at this point, reading Matilda made me excited to read the classics that so many kids are avoiding. I owe Roald Dahl a lot.

Work by Brian Belott, part of the "book/////shelf" exhibition at the MoMA.


Rosemary’s Baby

December 24, 2009

There isn’t much of a chance that I’ll forget about this book, since one of my favorite films follows it so closely. I was surprised at how little artistic liberties Polanski took with his horror masterpiece. It was interesting to note the differences that literary form and film form can create in tone and theme. The claustrophobia doesn’t come across as well in the novel that doesn’t have the convenient tool that framing can provide. Likewise, the maternal desperation of a bored housewife can be more thoroughly articulated through Rosemary’s inner dialogue in the novel.

In both versions of the narrative I get so frustrated with Guy. Obviously. The dude is an insane sexist, whose patriarchal views of male responsibility drive him to sacrifice the family he wishes to support. When Rosemary starts suspecting that her pregnancy is abnormal, she’s surrounded by men like Guy and Dr. Saperstein who pat her on the head and tell her to stop worrying as though she were the child. What can they possibly know about pregnancy? Ira Levin carefully presents a fairly generic horror plot through the eyes of the emerging feminist movement in 1967.

I’m still working out the implications of Rosemary’s maternal instincts at the end of the novel. Is this merely a way of saying that biology supersedes any feminist desire? Or, more likely, is it a way for Rosemary to take control in a closed society where she is consistently preyed upon and used for her body?


The Three Musketeers

December 14, 2009

And of course, there are four of them by the end.

Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan are pretty unlikable dudes. They’re supposed to be the heroes of this story, but I found myself much more drawn to the female characters that are carelessly tossed to the side. And I mean that almost literally. Whenever a musketeer meets a new woman that takes his fancy, he gets rid of his old crush by completely fucking them over, eventually getting a few of them killed. Our heroes also duel to the death over vain and irrelevant things, spend ridiculous amounts of money, beg when they can’t be frivolous anymore, own “lackeys” that are basically slaves whose lives are risked on whims, and practice copious amounts of animal cruelty.

But even with all that, I was still entranced by the novel. Mostly because of the villain in the last half: the Countess de Winter, aka: Milady. She is one badass motherfucker. She’s a henchman of the Cardinal, who’s the overarching villain. He sends her on his evil bidding and for no reason I can see besides loyalty, she’s always ready to comply. She steals diamonds, seduces men who she then gets to stab people, escapes near hanging, is married to two men at once, and carries poison in her ring! Until the Countess shows up, I was getting a little bored (which is why I picked up the reader) but as soon as she starts flirting with D’Artagnan I was totally in.

This is one of those books that you put so much attention into that you can’t really afford not to like it. I find that with longer books I’m much more likely to fall in love with them over the long time I spend reading them. This was not the case, however, with Moby Dick. I didn’t start liking Moby Dick until I started reading extensive criticism on it.


The Reader: A Review

December 11, 2009

I have a film blog where I snarkily review movies, but since I write it with my friend Brian, I always feel weird posting about things other than movies. And for some reason I’m really attached to this blog even though I never write anything in it. I can’t decide what it should be for. And this is not a commitment at all. I’ve just noticed that I forget everything about the books I read unless I have to write about them. Albums, too. Movies most of all. Maybe this can be my “Don’t Forget” blog. Yeah, that’s coherent.

I read The Reader one night when I was starting to get a little tired of the far superior Three Musketeers. I was surprised to find out how closely the book followed the movie, which I thought was terribly structured, but somehow the book doesn’t feel as artificial. That’s not to say that I really liked it all that much. The plot goes a little like this: boy and old lady bone, old lady moves away, boy is devastated but he pulls it together and goes to law school. While there he attends some nazi trials for war crimes and finds out his old lady lover was once a nazi that put a bunch of women in children in a church and let the building burn down. Bummer. She’s also illiterate, a realization that is meant to be a surprise, I think, but it painfully obvious in both the film and novel and is made even more painful by the flashbacks employed in both. So anyway, editorials aside for now, she goes to prison and the boy starts recording novels and poetry for her on tape. She learns to write from these tapes, then kills herself the day she’s supposed to get out of jail. From there it seems to go on and on with pages (probably about 10, but felt longer than the entire book) of regret and guilt.

I just read a review of a film called Thieves that Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote. He talks about how adult movies made for adults are rare. Movies like The English Patient pretend to represent adult feelings, but rather appeal to young adults with an overblown fantasy of love. Totally, right? And I loved the novel version of The English Patient. But I recognize it’s the perfect book for an early 20-something who had never really been in love before, and thinks feeding a burn-victim peeled plums is so beautiful.

The Reader feels a lot like The English Patient, actually. But with much more unbelievably silly sex. Anyone who has sex like they describe in this book, even in the early stages, has obsession issues they need to work out with a therapist (even ignoring the creepy Oedipal stuff going on). The fact that she’s an older woman didn’t shock me as much as it has other readers. Affairs with older men/women are common enough in fiction, but the pedophillic overtones in the novel are seriously creepy. In a good way, though. The allegations are subtly introduced and then her tendencies are left to the reader to decide. Does she only hang out with young people so they’ll read to her and not suspect her illiteracy? I, personally, doubt it.

Anyway, Oprah picked it for her book club, so I’m biased against it.