Monday, July 21, 2014


The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It's a short book, so it seems only fair to keep this review short.

I like Neil Gaiman, particularly Sandman and American Gods, so I was reasonably excited to see a new novel.  The man has a way with words, and this book was certainly not short on incredibly beautiful, often insightful prose. There is a lot being made about this book being told from a child's perspective, and Gaiman sometimes, as the blurbs on the cover suggest, nails what it is like to be a child. His particular brand of magical realism lends itself to such moments.

But that's just it: it's just more of the same from Gaiman. Here, a disenfranchised character is trapped in a mysterious world of magic and intrigue, just like in American Gods, Coraline, Mirror Mask, and Anasi Boys (I've never read Neverwhere, but I hear it's similar to the above).  Rather than a loner on the end of town, it's a child (which I guess is interesting in it's own right, but hardly new even for Gaiman).  Gaiman is incredibly clever and can write sentences like few others around him, so I was hoping that I might get a different kind of story out of him instead of the same old narrative with different characters and settings.

In short, this feels like a rut. It's a fun rut and a pretty rut, but in the end, a rut is still just a predictable path through which things eventually become banal.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Of Mice and MenOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I rarely say this, but this book is damn near perfect.

When I was in my second year of my Master's Work, I read The Grapes of Wrath, also by Steinbeck, and I loved it.  Dark, some times funny, more often times scathing, and intercut with scenes of animals literally crossing the road acting as nice metaphors for people trying to "make it" in the the real world.  I love it.

I kept a bit of distance, though, from Steinbeck because a lot of my favorite author's have left me flat with other, less-canonical or popular books (Palahniuk being my go-to example for this phenomenon).  Even Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown tainted my opinion of Rushdie, which until that point, had been just short of fanaticism (see my review of the above mentioned novel here).

I have been really interested in both Of Mice and Men and Travels with Charley for some time, but I was afraid of ruining my Grapes of Wrath buzz, but when some kids I am tutoring were assigned this book, I took the opportunity to read it.  And this was a good choice.

Like a lot of Steinbeck, this book is about the attainability of the American dream (note: there might be some spoilers in this review, so tread carefully; that said, my edition was 107 pages long, so it might be easier just to read the book first, and the return to the review to agree with me then).  Having written and lived through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, Steinbeck is, obviously, a little cynical when discussing the dream of land ownership and ability of a person to be his own master.  Instead, Steinbeck's characters, all of them, are trapped in a system that is not set up for people to succeed (Candy being the obvious example of this institutionalized culture of failure and dependency).

This does not make for a happy story, and if this is being read for some light, summery entertainment, I would suggest another book.  The ending, which I will not spoil here, is the only possible way to play out the circumstances, and everyone can see it coming (the reader, George, the others on the Ranch...everyone but Lenny).  Again, like with Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck is not afraid to dissuade the reader from the preconceived and naive notion that everything will work out well in the end if people just work hard and keep their heads down.  Some people, as Steinbeck argues, are just not capable of making it in this world.  And there is only one solution for these people.  Maybe that does spoil it, but whatever.

This book is poignant, particularly for the struggles America is currently in, and if it's been awhile since last you took it on, give yourself the afternoon and burn through this very excellent novella.

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

God Is Disappointed in YouGod Is Disappointed in You by Mark Russell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, I'd like to give this a 3.5 out of 5, but Goodreads still only allows whole integers for reviews.

Moving on: I picked up God is Disappointed in You at Comic Con this past July from one of my favorite publishers of non-superhero based comics, Top Shelf.  I like most of what Top Shelf puts out, and often buy new books blindly from the publisher because I can trust that their choices are sound.

This book, like most of their catalog, was pretty good, and I was not surprised to see it on their self (despite the presence of single panel, often tangential cartoons instead of an entire narrative told via comics).  It does what a lot of Top Shelf books do: sheds light on a serious (sacred, even) subject with a deft and witty hand.

The premise of the book is simple: retell the Bible, chapter by chapter, with no chapter being very long.  It was the concentrated, boiled down version of the book.  Mark Russell takes a nuanced approach to the job, breaking down the chapters, focusing on the important, central aspects of each chapter and presenting it in a clear, plain, often funny language.

Russell has a good voice, too.  I often and literally laughed out loud while reading the book, particularly during the early chapters of the Old Testament where things were really strange.  My favorite chapters also altered the delivery of the chapter from just a straight narrative to something more modern.  I think Leviticus was turned into an emailed memo.

The condensed and plain-spoken narrative helped to show the connections and shifts that happen between Genesis and Revelations.  I learned a lot about the Bible, and any claims of sacrilegiousness are really unfounded; Russell knows his Bible, but he is not afraid to laugh at some of the more absurd moments.

All of this said, I felt like the book became repetitive, especially towards the New Testament, where the narrative gets longer and more disjointed.  The premise of the narrative felt like a good trick that I kept seeing over and over again.  Eventually, I stopped being impressed by it.  And finally, I became numb to how expertly he was disseminating the text.

It might be a text that is better read in short bursts, like the Bible itself, rather than in a few prolonged sittings.  I often found myself thinking that this would have been one of the most shared blogs had he published it electronically first.

Another issue I had was with Shannon Wheeler's cartoons.  There were times the cartoons seemed to link up nicely with the narrative, and I then it seemed like the two were working in harmony.  Other times, especially in the New Testament, the cartoons seemed to try to be offensive, which is not the point of the book.  One cartoon in particular, where Jesus on the cross takes a phone call, was so incongruous that I found it distracting.  Several times I wondered what was the purpose of the cartoons?  The book stood alone without them, and rarely did they add anything to the text.

This is not to say that Wheeler was unfunny.  In fact, some of the cartoons were genuinely hilarious.  However, none of them were particularly necessary.

All in all, God is Disappointed in You is a good book and worth the cost.  It's funny, and I learned some about the Bible (which is nice).  However, I find that it works better as a book that is read in short, disconnected bursts, like Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

PastoraliaPastoralia by George Saunders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading a dense (albeit, a sometimes funny) book about the fundamentals of science, this George Saunders collection was like literary candy.

Like most of Saunders' work, the stories were genuinely very funny in a sort of bizarre way.  The first work in the collection was a novella in which the central characters are reenactors in a natural history museum.  The characters are meant to act like some sort of primitive version of mankind and are never allowed to break character.  Despite this very bizarre conceit, Saunders writes a touching tale in which a woman has a breakdown as her life falls apart around her, and how her coworker is left to deal with this.  It's a great examination of the mundanity of work life in the least mundane setting possible.

The thing about Saunders is that he can do that: filter the common and the everyday from the bizarre and unusual.  There is a universality to his work, all of it wrapped in a sugary package of prose.

That said, I liked this work less than other things I've read by him, namely The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. I was really hoping form something that blew my mind life the aforementioned book, but this one just left me flat towards the end.  While I wasn't quiet bored by this book, by the end I found I was struggling to get through the last few stories.

But, not a bad book by any means.  Even the stories in which I started to lose interest were readable and entertaining.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of ScienceThe Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 I am no scientist, but I like reading about science. I make for a difficult audience for science writers in that my understanding of all science is flawed, primarily theoretical, and wanes more than the moon (Who gave us the moon, indeed, Bill O'Reilly).

So, once again, I found an interesting looking book at the store with a title and book jacket description which piqued my interest. Angier's books promised to get me up to speed with all the developments in the scientific community, fostered by testimonial evidence culled from hundreds of interviews and other personal sources with which the writers was familiar.

At first, this is exactly what I got, and I really liked reading the alternating perspectives between a shifting mass of scientific voices and Angier. It was a clever way to assert one's own authority: aligning oneself with a multitude of expert voices by co-opting their ideas. The first two chapters on thinking scientifically and probabilities were actually quite good.

As the book progressed through the more hardcore science-y things (like physics, two types of chemistry and so on), the voices of the scientific community fell distant behind Angier's own understanding. At times, Angier was genuinely witty, and at times quite poetic. She seemed to favor clever word twists to drive home a point, and at times I was really impressed by this.

It was, however, a trick that became quickly played out. All the narrative flash was not enough to cover the fact that she all but stopped quoting other scientists in her book. By the end, I found myself getting quite annoyed with her obvious ploys to be clever.

Everything had to be so fucking clever.

By the end, I was drawn to the book far less than I was at the beginning, which is exactly the opposite reaction a novelist wants, particularly thriller and crime novelist who live on the tension of unresolved quarrels. The final chapter, on of my favorite pop science-y things to read about...took me forever to finish, because I was getting so tired of the puns and word-play to science reference ratio.

That said, if you don't know much about science, Angier is good at making common-sense connections between complex idea and layman's understandings. The beginning of the book is particularly good. For that, if nothing else, it's worth a look.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

This is a bit older, as I forgot to publish it before.

I Sailed with MagellanI Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few years back, I had the fortunate opportunity to have lunch with Stewart Dybek (though it's unlikely he'll remember it as much as I did).  He was quite delightful during the meal as we talked about his work, my past delusions of being a creative writer, and my current studies at SIU-C.

So, flash-forward several years, and I finally get around to reading I Sailed with Magellan, his follow-up to Chicago Stories, with which I was more familiar.  Regardless, my brief and pleasant encounter had not prepared me for the deep and profound sadness that threads through this collection of stories (a novel in stories, some would call it, but those people would be idiots).

This collection is more about a place than a person, though a young Polish Chicagoan, Perry, does tend to be in most of the stories, or one of his family members.  What these stories really give the reader is a taste of Chicago at a certain point in history.  More than other authors who use Chicago as the backdrop for their narratives (see: The Time Traveler's Wife, which was terrible), Dybek gets a sense of what Chicago looks like to a native.  There was more than just a parade of tourist locations; this took place in a neighborhood which was at one point filled with various European immigrants, but now has shifted.  This shift, this cultural and ethnic shift, is present in the narrative as much as the change that takes place in the characters.

Chicago, for Dybek, exists now only in memory.  And that, really, is the central point of the book: an exploration of the role of memory in narrative.  Most stories have very little present-day action.  For example, in the final story, Perry's brother Mick stands outside his old house, is asked one question several times, and then runs away (that's not really a spoiler).  The action that is in the present of the narrative is very, very limited.  Most of the story takes place as the narrator seamless drifts from present day observation to long recollection.  Connections are made between how the current situation and what past events lead to it.

It would be easy to label this stream-of-consciousness writing and lump it in with Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, but there is something more here.  There is an overarching sadness at not only the events of the characters, but how the city remembers it's citizens.  Throughout the course of the novel, the characters change quite a bit, both internally (their personalities and characterizations) as well as externally (where they live and what they do), but the city remains mostly static.  Buildings seldom change purpose, and instead are left abandoned when emptied.  Houses fall down and never reappear.  It's a horribly sad reflection on how a city is merely a holding vessel for a constantly shifting mass of people who never stop to see it for what it is. In the same way that a glass will give shape to the water within, so to does Chicago give shape to the characters therein.  

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone.  There is just one warning: don't approach it as if it were a short story collection.  Approach it more like a novel about a city told in a varied, shifting perspective.  But not, under any circumstance, a novel-in-stories.

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My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I have a fondness in my heart for Palahniuk.  I loved Survivor and Choke, and I was fond of both Fight Club the book and the movie (which I thought was beter). I even liked Haunted, though I haven't looked at swimming pools the same since then.

That said, his taste for the bizarre and absurd results in his novels having a sort of "same-y" quality.  That is, a lot of his books start to read the same.  You can expect some visceral descriptions of bodily functions, some bizarre aspect of the character's lives hyperbolized, and a broken structure that bounces through time and space in burst of short sentences and paragraphs.

In Invisible Monsters, which I understand has been "remixed" and released with a less linear structure and more chapters, we get more of this.  The main characters are caricatures which don't fully actualize until late in the novel.  In fact, the twist, which Palahniuk over-uses more than M. Night Shamlamananahna (or however it's spelled), was both unsurprising and hardly emotive.  By the time I find out the shocking secret about Brandy and Shannon, I don't care.  The characters are entirely unrelatable and horrible people (which I know is the point), so when one dies in the very beginning of the novel, I never fully care that, when introduced to her earlier in her life, that she will end up dead.

Maybe that's the point: that underneath it all nothing is real and we are all horrible people.  There certainly is some truth to that, and Palahniuk does a good job showing what most people already know to be true: people, on average, will just try to kill everyone is left to their own devices.  And there is certainly some truth to the idea that nothing we see is real (to say any more would give away too much of the plot).  But even if that is true, the ending left me flat.  I didn't care.  I didn't buy the character's motivations.  I just felt "meh" at the end.

But the narrow end of this wedge of critical cheese is whether or not I would recommend reading the book.  If you liked Diary and Lullaby or are just a massive fan of Palahniuk's work (there are some fanatics out there), then yes.  Hope to it.  Otherwise, read Fight Club, Survivor, Choke and Haunted.  Those are better books.