The Mill On The Floss

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on August 30, 2011 by acousticchick

 

First of all, George Eliot was a chick. Neat, huh? You learned something new today (maybe)!

‘The Mill on the Floss’ is really, really depressing. The whole story revolves around Maggie’s devotion to her brother and her struggle for his approval. Unfortunately, her brother is a cruel jerk. While they’re kids, he’s always telling her he doesn’t love her if she makes any sort of mistake. When they grow up, Maggie falls for the son of her father’s rival, and her brother makes sure to forbid her from seeing the guy. Since this is mid-1800’s England and misogyny is the name of the game, Maggie goes along with her brother’s mandates and lets him make her life miserable, until both of them die in a flood which was probably a regrettable bit of symbolism for all the tears she had to cry.

Allow me to clarify one point here: I didn’t hate this book, and I don’t hate Maggie’s character. If nothing else, she provides an interesting conundrum. Everyone’s motivated by something, and it usually has to do with gaining or keeping someone’s approval (even if it’s his or her own), so I can’t really criticize Maggie for that motive. There’s also something to be said for making a choice and going with it. I can’t say I think her choice to hand over the reins of her life was a great one, but it was hers, and the fact that she didn’t waver is mildly inspiring to someone as easily distracted as I am. She seems to forfeit happiness (in the form of romance), but if she thinks her self-denial makes her brother happy, and her brother’s happiness makes her happy, then she is happy. Uh, right?

Chaim Potok Double Feature

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , on August 30, 2011 by acousticchick

 

‘The Promise’ and ‘My Name is Asher Lev’ tell the stories of young Jewish men. Chaim Potok fleshes out the straightforward plots of each by delving into the complex inner lives of his characters. He writes simply and directly.

Reuven, the main character in ‘The Promise,’ is studying to become a rabbi. Instead of relying on blind faith and traditional Talmud interpretations, he uses reason. One of his own instructors accuses him of heresy, but his methods of study are meant to reinforce his faith (and that of others), not dismantle it.

Asher’s desire to be an artist is in direct opposition to his father’s wishes. At the end of ‘My Name is Asher Lev,’ everyone he knows believes he has turned his back on his faith, but it’s still very much a part of him, both troubling and inspiring him. In spite of the conflict it brings, Asher keeps painting.

The beauty of these stories lies in their realism. Potok doesn’t present a black-and-white approach to faith, with fundamentalism and atheism in competition. He illustrates that faith is multifaceted, personal, and that it doesn’t have to look or behave in a certain way. Without vilifying religion or its adherents, his stories encourage independent thought.

The Blood Of Others

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on August 9, 2011 by acousticchick

I read most of ‘The Blood of Others’ while intoxicated. I didn’t plan it that way; it just ended up happening. I’d just moved out of my friends’ dining room and into a real live apartment, and I had lots of space and silence to fill. I did that the best way I know how to: with lots of books and a bit of alcohol.

I’m pretty good at reading while drunk, so I can’t blame the vodka for the fact that I remember very little of the book’s midsection. Instead, I blame its angsty protagonista, Helene. She’s supposed to come off as spirited, but she only manages to be bitchy, demanding, and childish. There are already a wealth of uninteresting female leads out there, so having determined that Helene was one of them, I gave up and started skimming pages.

If you want the few plot points I managed to glean, though, here you go: Helene tries to manipulate some guy into being her One And Only. He tells her to leave him alone. In a storm of pouting, she goes out, gets really drunk, and ends up pregnant. (Not only is Helene boring, but she’s a terrible problem-solver.) The pregnancy gets complicated, Helene gets sick, and Mr. One And Only finds out and is overcome with guilt and decides he does love her after all. So they end up happily ever after, or as close as they can get with such a botched basis for a relationship.

Actually, Helene might die. I don’t remember. I don’t particularly care, either. I think at one point I found myself hoping she would.

Oh, and World War II is going on in the background. It’s almost not worth mentioning, but there are a few German invasions and some stuff about underground political parties. That part of the book could have been good, actually, but the author seemed to feel it was less interesting than the magnificent romance she was crafting. Or she was just using a wartime setting to add some depth to her novel, which is a pretty lame trick.

As a writer, though, Simone de Beauvoir isn’t hopeless or anything (if you can ignore the contrived romantic dialogues). She does kind of a cool thing with pronouns, switching perspective within paragraphs to give deeper insight into a character’s thoughts or motives. For example, she might start out by saying, “Sam walked into the room,” and then a few sentences later Sam becomes “I” and you start seeing the room through Sam’s eyes, which are now “my eyes.” It’s a bit complicated to describe and a bit more complicated to decipher at first, but it’s the one thing I liked about the novel.

I give it one Charles out of five.

Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , on April 27, 2011 by acousticchick
 
I probably would have enjoyed reading a collection of essays more if I hadn’t been reading Harold Bloom’s new book at the same time. The two books were vastly different, but the lack of straight-up storytelling left me a little bogged down. Still, Albert Camus remains one of my favorite authors and if I have any criticism for his essays, it wasn’t that they were dry.

 The lyrical essays were split into three sections. The first section, “The Wrong Side and the Right Side,” were all philosophical musings with titles like “Irony” and “Death in the Soul” and “Love of Life,” and this was my favorite part of the entire book. The next two sections were more about nature and towns Camus had lived in lots of sunsets and seashores and a general feeling of freedom. This part of the book was a breath of fresh air at first, but being drenched in Camus’ sentimentality and nostalgia got a little wearing after a while.

 I only skimmed the critical essays, giving about six of the fifteen my full attention. None of the subject matter was uninteresting, but I was burned out and craving some fiction by this time. The last part of the book, “Camus on Himself,” was fun as far as biographies go, but it didn’t enhance anything I’d already learned about Camus’ outlook on life by reading his other books.

 At any rate, don’t let this ambivalent review curb any interest you have in Camus’ writing. If you’re in the mood for essays, this is a collection that won’t bore you.

I'm Albert Camus, and I approve this message.

Points Of View

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2011 by acousticchick

‘Points of View’ isn’t just a plain old short story anthology. Oh, no. Not only do you get to read a wide variety of stories (and by “wide variety” I mean that half of them sucked), but you also get to add a few notches to your intellectual bedpost. Originally a textbook, ‘Points of View’ features eleven categories, each preceded by a quick explanation of the perspective in which the following stories were written.

Instead of giving a run-down of each of the stories in ‘Points of View’ (there are over forty), I’m going to pick three to be Grand Master Champion Short Stories. To maintain the spirit of this blog, only stories written by now-dead authors get trophies, though half the stories I actually enjoyed were penned by people who are still alive. They get honorable mentions before the award ceremony. So let’s give a big round of applause for…

  • ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ by Lorrie Moore, for an accurate portrayal of the role doubt plays in romantic relationships,
  • ‘My Sister’s Marriage’ by Cynthia Marhsall Rich, even though I’m not sure if she’s still alive or not (a thousand points to whomever finds out), and
  • ‘The Circuit’ by Francisco Jimené z, for making me sad.

The first and second runners-up are ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor. I really liked both stories for different reasons. The first is creepy and suspenseful (something that’s usually easier to pull off in movies than in writing), and the second handles the mix of religion and childhood with humor.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for!

In third place is ‘The Stone Boy’ by Gina Berriault. Berriault weaves several conflicting emotions together by placing her main character in a situation that would be damning if he were an adult.

Second place goes to ‘Doby’s Gone’ by Ann Petry. This story is also told from a child’s perspective, and I’m always impressed when authors get this point of view right. Ann Petry strikes the right balance of simplicity and depth, using an imaginary friend to symbolize the move from innocence to experience.

And the winner of the gold medal and a brand new car is ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson. This story takes first place purely because I can’t say a word about it without ruining it, and you’ll only know that’s not a cop-out if you read it.

Othello

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on April 3, 2011 by acousticchick

‘Othello’ serves as a warning against letting jealousy control your actions. Iago, the bad guy, has some beef with Othello. Or Cassio. Or both. To be honest, I usually only get the gist of what’s happening when I read Shakespeare; there’s so much deciphering involved that I miss the finer plot points. Anyway, Iago decides to get even by convincing Othello that his wife is cheating on him with Cassio. He does a good job, too: He’s careful to keep his motives cloaked, he plants just the right doubts in Othello’s mind. Before long, Othello is caught in the throes of jealousy and kills his wife. (Just so you know, she takes it like a good woman in a classic tale and barely puts up a fight.) This act ushers in the typical bloodbath ending of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Iago’s wife exposes him for a liar, Iago kills her for it, and then Othello kills himself. The end.

The Razor’s Edge

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on April 2, 2011 by acousticchick

Last time I tried to review a book by W. Somerset Maugham, I stared at my computer for hours and erased every sentence I wrote. This time around is no different. What am I supposed to say? “‘The Razor’s Edge’ is about people, and they do things, and they have conversations, and life events happen, and it’s amazing to read about because you feel like you know them and you feel like you are them”? That sounds stupid, right? It sounds stupid to say that I know why Larry reads all the time and I know exactly what prompted Isabel to be such a manipulative bitch and I know why Sophie is a drunk. But that’s the thing about Maugham’s stories: His characters are you.

Ham On Rye

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on March 24, 2011 by acousticchick

I can’t decide what, particularly, about ‘Ham On Rye’ made me want to drink an entire bottle of wine. Maybe I was simply inspired by the alcoholism of the main character, Henry: As he knocked back bottle after bottle, my brain could have decided, “Hmm, wine sounds tasty.” It’s equally possible that Charles Bukowski’s unapologetically harsh storytelling shat all over my childlike sense of optimism, leaving me depressed to the point of desiring drink.
In small doses, Bukowski is refreshing. I read a collection of some of his short stories a while back, and his gritty, I-don’t-give-a-fuck writing was darkly funny and just depraved enough to be entertaining. In ‘Ham On Rye,’ Bukowski tells what I understand to be an autobiographical story of childhood, but there’s absolutely nothing halcyon or youthful about it. His main character is tired and scarred as an old man before even graduating high school.

The story opens with Henry’s first vague memories. As a child, he’s confused and held down by his asshole father. As he gets older, he discovers fighting, girls, and alcohol but he also discovers books. That’s the one thing I loved about Henry: He was a jerk who picked fights, but he was also a dreamer. He had to be hard because the world was hard, but he retained something that you could possibly call a soul. He became a writer.

Don’t get the wrong idea here. Just because my hopelessly hopeful brain found something inspiring in ‘Ham On Rye’ doesn’t make it a nice, tidy story about a guy who overcomes hardship to follow his heart. If that’s what you want to read, this is not the book for you. There’s no sugarcoating. Some really awful stuff happens, not just your run-of-the-mill crappy childhood experiences.

I couldn’t put the book down. There’s something captivating about misery, something that goes beyond pity. Everyone’s broken, even if we aren’t broken in the same way; so Henry’s story was easy to relate to, even though my experiences have been far from identical.

Poetics

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , , on March 21, 2011 by acousticchick

With a name like ‘Poetics,’ I figured this was a book of Aristotle’s poetry. Enthusiastic, I set out to read the forty-odd pages in a single sitting. After valiantly re-reading the first page at least four times, I realized that that was not going to happen.

As it turns out, ‘Poetics’ is an essay about poetry. It didn’t take forever to read because it was boring in fact, some parts were quite interesting, especially to a reader who has any interest in linguistics but the essay is so detailed that it’s hard to follow. This is a rare example of something I’d rather read in a classroom setting. I’m sure there’s a lot to get out of it, but without a little guidance, I floundered.

21 Great Stories

Posted in book reviews with tags , , , on March 17, 2011 by acousticchick

I love short stories: Why use three hundred pages to say what only needs twenty? And this is a good collection of them all of the stories were well-written and there was a healthy variety of genre and subject matter. I enjoyed most of them, and the worst I can say about the few I didn’t care for is that they didn’t hold my attention. And now (since I’m tired of trying to think of a segue), here are twenty-one great stories, summarized in twenty-one words or fewer.

‘War’ by Luigi Pirandello
This story is about war, but it’s more about the dichotomy between what a person says and what he feels.

‘Eve In Darkness’ by Kaatje Hurlbut
Told from a child’s perspective, this one plays with the definition of sin.

‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ by Ray Bradbury
He’s not dead yet, but I couldn’t very well ignore him. Ray Bradbury is the shit.

‘Tobermory’ by “Saki”
A talking housecat calls rich dinner guests out on their character flaws. The humans’ response is surprisingly sinister.

‘The Two Bottles of Relish’ by Lord Dunsany
A story about murder that’s half Sherlock Holmes and half Alfred Hitchcock: short, sweet, and grisly.

‘Footfalls’ by Wilbur Daniel Steele
I’m usually pretty good at figuring out how a story will end; this one completely surprised me.

‘Hook’ by Walter Van Tilburg Clarke
This one’s about a hawk. It’s good and all, but still…that’s it.

‘Wine on the Desert’ by Max Brand
Some jerk murders someone and then dies. The foreshadowing is a little too obvious.

‘The Lady or the Tiger?’ by Frank Stockton
I’d forgotton that I’d already read this story. I love it, and I love the question it asks.

‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce
The twist ending is lackluster. The story is about a guy who gets hanged. It doesn’t really stand out.

‘The Cask of Amontillado’ by Edgar Allan Poe
In eighth grade, this story was ruined for me by an audiobook narrator with a lumbering voice.

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe
Classic, predictable Poe there’s darkness, death, and neuroticism. At least it’s well-written neuroticism.

‘So Much Unfairness of Things’ by C. D. B. Bryan
A boy gets expelled from school for cheating. Really good character writing.

‘The Necklace’ by Guy de Maupassant
A story about the consequences of being a greedy, vain bitch.

‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ by Arthur Conan Doyle
Sherlock Holmes. Enough said.

‘To Build a Fire’ by Jack London
Dude travels alone, on foot, in negative-seventy-five degree weather. Dude freezes to death. Surprise.

‘Leiningen Versus the Ants’ by Carl Stephenson
An M. Night Shyamalan movie where the twist is wait for it the bad guys are ANTS.

‘Eveline’ by James Joyce
Girl has hard life, girl gets chance to escape, girl chickens out. Thinking about why she chickened out is fun, though.

‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ by James Thurber
To Walter Mitty, reality is whatever he imagines, and what everyone else calls real is a distraction. Sweet.

‘What Stumped the Bluejays’ by Mark Twain
Exactly what you’d expect from Mark Twain: funny and charming.

‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck
A long-winded morality tale. “Riches corrupt” is an old story. But “man = half god, half insane” was a neat idea.