If I were, I suppose, a less realistic fellow, I would probably make a New Year's Resolution about staying on top of my reviews, instead of letting five months go by before getting down to it. But, to borrow from the inestimable William Goldman: "We are men of action; lies do not become us."
Let's get down to it then, shall we?
Little, Big, by John Crowley: As regular readers may know, one of my favorite authors in any genre is Gene Wolfe. So when I heard that John Crowley, and particularly his book Little, Big, were important to understanding Wolfe, I immediately put it on my list. Having finished it, I can see a lot of similarities to Wolfe; there are also echoes of Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez. It took me a long time to read it, it was difficult and took work to understand, and even having finished it and having had several months to think about it, I'm sure that there's a lot I missed. Yet just like a Wolfe novel, the prose was beautiful, the story was layered and profound, and the experience, though challenging, was deeply rewarding.
Little, Big is the story of Smoky Barnable, who at the beginning of the book meets the beautiful and enigmatic Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes on a journey to fulfill a prophecy and marry her. It's also the story of the complicated history of the Drinkwater family, their roots and their destiny. It's also the story of the strange house that the Drinkwaters live in, which sits on the edge of two worlds. And most of all it's a fairy tale, but the older, darker, twistier sort of fairy tale. It's a beautiful though often puzzling story, and filled with little pearls, some of which have stuck in my brain. This one, for example:
"Cloud had said: it only seems as though the world is getting old and worn out, just as you are yourself. Its life is far too long for you to feel it age during your own. What you learn as you get older is that the world is old, and has been old for a long time."
I am certain that I'm going to revisit this book some day, and I'm equally certain that when I do, I'll discover all sorts of nuggets I didn't notice the first time. It'll be a while before I'm ready to put in the time again, but when I do, it'll be worth it. (Read 4/11/2012 - 7/9/2012.)
The Sharing Knife, by Lois McMaster Bujold: It seems to be a bit of a pattern for me that what I like most about Bujold's books is the setting. This series, comprising four novels (Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon), follows an unlikely couple on a series of adventures exploring their world and its magic. Fawn is a young woman who leaves her farm to make her own way in a nearby town after her boyfriend gets her pregnant and then leaves her. Dag is a Lakewalker, a member of a roving patrol dedicated to keeping the land safe from malices--ravening monsters who feed on life energy.
I've heard that this series was intended as Bujold's experiment with blending the romance and fantasy genres. For me, the strength of the series is as usual for her writing: an intriguing and well-imagined world with a rich (if sometimes frustratingly unexplored) backstory; a novel system of magic, the consequences and details of which are well explored; and a (mostly) interesting cast of characters. Where I personally felt it lacked compared to Bujold's other work was in the more romance-y parts--Dag is a little too competent, Fawn is a little too much of a diamond in the rough, and much of the character tension felt a bit melodramatic. Still, I read the entire series in just a few days, so you can tell I was entertained. (Read 7/13/2012 - 7/18/2012.)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender: What if you could taste the emotions of whoever made the food you were eating? What insights would it give you into the people around you, and would you be able to bear it? In Aimee Bender's book, this is exactly what happens to the protagonist, Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday. We follow Rose through her childhood and early adulthood, as she learns to cope with this affliction, as well as to deal with what she inadvertently learns about the people around her. It's a beautiful book, lyrical at times, and with a haunting ending. Fantastic stories give us the opportunity to explore the familiar experiences of life in new ways, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does it better than most any story I've read in a long time, fantasy or otherwise. Highly recommended. (Read 10/12/2012 - 10/16/2012.)
Summerland, by Michael Chabon: I think Michael Chabon may just be the perfect writer for me. Perhaps not, but in any case he clearly thinks about and loves many of the same things I do. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay he showed his interest in the 1940's and the golden age of comics. In Manhood for Amateurs, his anecdotes about being a father, a son, a husband, and an American felt so familiar that it almost felt like he could have been talking about me. And now with Summerland he shows that he loves a fable, a fantasy, and a coming-of-age story just as much as I do. Summerland is a fairy tale drawn from the legends of many cultures--including Norse, Irish, and Native American myths and folklore--but told in a deeply American way. It's a YA novel, but like the best YA it holds up just as well for more mature readers. I absolutely adored this book, and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough for it. (Read 10/31/2012 - 11/6/2012.)
The New American Economy, by Bruce Bartlett: This book is somewhat inflammatorily subtitled "The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward." So I was a bit surprised at how much of it the author dedicates to defending the basic principles of supply-side economics. On the other hand, he also spends a good deal of time explaining and defending the roots of Keynesian economics, as well, so it does seem fairly even-handed, at least from a historical perspective. To sum up the general thesis of the book, Bartlett argues that both Keynesian and supply-side economics were developed to respond to very specific economic problems, and while each was very good at dealing with those specific problems, both encountered difficulties when they were expanded beyong their initial intentions. In the last chapter, Bartlett goes on to explain why he feels that spending cuts alone will be insufficient to solve our nation's fiscal issues, and why he believes that consumption-based taxes--and particularly a VAT--is the best way to raise new revenues. I'm not sure that I buy every aspect of Bartlett's argument, but if nothing else I found this book to be clearly written, easy to understand, and it gave me an interest in doing further research of my own. (Read 11/8/2012 - 12/19/2012.)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Back in August, Juliette and I had a rare date night and decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, the movie we planned to see--I can't remember which it was--was sold out, so we ended up seeing Timothy Green instead. There's not a whole lot I feel I need to say about it. The writing was mediocre and the acting wasn't much better, but even so, it was fine. Not particularly good, but not terrible, either. (Viewed 8/17/2012.)
The Campaign: This may sound like thin praise, but this was probably one of the better Will Ferrell movies I can recall. Of course, that was largely due to the presence of Zach Galifianakis, who imbued his performance with an earnestness that was quite surprising. I know that that may sound a bit hyperbolic--after all, the movie overall is a pretty broad and crass comedy. Still, there was something kind of touching about Galifianakis' Marty Huggins, without which I don't think the movie would have worked nearly as well without it. (Viewed 9/1/2012.)
Argo: I'm sure that by now everyone has heard all about how amazing this movie is, how skillfully the tension was built, how masterful the performances were. Certainly I heard all of that before we went to see it. I kind of wish I hadn't, because I'm pretty sure that there's no way that any movie could have lived up to the hype showered on this one. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I certainly thought it was well done. But to hear some people talk about it, Argo was a tour-de-force, a masterpiece, and while I liked it quite a bit, I don't see myself coming back to it in the same way that I regularly revisit, say, Casablanca, or even The Big Lebowski. (Viewed 10/19/2012.)
Wreck-It Ralph: Given the importance of video games in my childhood--especially the games of the Atari and 8-bit eras--you'd think that Wreck-It Ralph would have my name written all over it. It didn't quite push all the right buttons--though not for lack of trying--but I did enjoy it pretty well. Moreover, I got to see it with Jason, and getting to share a movie experience with my son always improves it for me. The nerdy/retro game references were fun for the most part, even if they felt a bit shoehorned in at times, but what really worked for me were the scenes between Ralph and Venelope--there was an honest cuteness and nice chemistry between the two characters and their voice actors, which I quite liked. In any case, I'm sure that we'll be buying this one when it comes out on disc, since Jason loved it so much. I won't mind when we do. (Viewed 11/17/2012.)
Silver Linings Playbook: The last movie I saw this year turned out to be the best. David O. Russell's mixture of mental illness and rom-com tropes was one of the most refreshing and interesting takes on the romantic comedy genre I've ever seen. It was funny without being forced or clichèd, the humor stemming from genuine interaction and fully realized characters. It was also emotionally rich--heartbreaking at times, joyous at others. The performances were outstanding, including, of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads, but Robert DeNiro very nearly stole the show with his portrayal of the protagonist's obsessive-compulsive father. I'm so glad to have ended the year on this movie, because it was just about perfect at what it did. (Viewed 12/22/2012.)
Fall Review Roundup
Here's a brief, non-inclusive list of things that have happened since I wrote my last review: I had a birthday, Jason had a birthday, the seasons changed, I shot my first wedding, and my daughter was born. I also read five books and saw three movies. Here are some quick takes, just to help me get caught up:
The Wise Man's Fear: After such a strong debut and after waiting impatiently for as long as I did, I was a little worried that the second installment of Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle wouldn't live up to my hopes. I needn't have worried, though--this second chapter may be even better. I'm not sure how Rothfuss will be able to wrap up this series in just one more book--there seems to be so much story still untold--and I'm sure that it will be years yet before I get to find out, but, man, I'm hooked. (Read 6/26/11 - 6/30/11.)
Manhood for Amateurs: I received this as a birthday present from a friend of mine who has very good taste in books, and who paid me the incredible compliment of telling me that she chose this for me because it reminded her of my writing. Having read it, I can kind of see what she means, in that the essays in this collection are about the same sorts of things that I tend to think and write about: fatherhood, American culture, pivotal moments of his youth and young adulthood. The difference is in the quality of writing--it almost seems impossible but his prose is both unmistakeably in his voice, so particular to himself, but at the same time so resonant and familiar that it felt like he was reading my mind. Suffice it to say, if you enjoy the stuff I write here, you will love this book. (Read 7/6/11 - 8/15/11.)
Cars 2: It seems thin praise, but mostly what I can think to say about this movie is that it's not as bad as everybody said it was. Sure, there wasn't much to it, a lot of the milieu didn't make sense, and the first movie was better. But it was a fun little diversion, and Jason liked it enough that he's still talking about some of the characters three months later. (Viewed 7/9/11.)
Winnie the Pooh: I wish I could tell you more about this movie, but I fell asleep about 20 minutes in, and didn't wake up until the credits rolled. What I do remember seemed a little smug in its postmodernity--the movie is presented as a book being read, and it breaks the fourth wall several times by having the characters interact with the printed text of the book--but the characters were mostly as I remembered them and Jason liked it. ("Viewed" 7/17/11.)
Storm Front and Fool Moon: One of my co-workers loaned me the first two books in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, and I tore through both of them in three days. They were, as he presented them, quite fluffy but very fun reads. Urban fantasy isn't typically one of my favorite genres, but I enjoyed the characters and the fast-paced, action-mystery plots, and I'm looking forward to picking up the rest of the series one of these days. (Read 8/16/11 - 8/18/11.)
The Lion King: Ever since we got that CD of Disney songs for Jason, I've been excited for him to see The Lion King, and he's been excited as well. When it came to theaters in advance of the Blu-Ray release (I could go on and on about how much I hate the whole concept of the Disney Vault, but that didn't stop me from snapping up the Diamond Edition as soon as it became available) we headed over to our local cineplex, where we found that the only showing at a good time for us was in the 3D theater. Which is unfortunate, because this movie was really not well-served by being re-done in 3D. Let's leave aside the argument that 3D is gimmicky and distracting and potentially migraine-inducing--the bigger problem is that the 3D version is way too dark. This is a movie that is all about bright, beautiful, cinematic scenes, and to have it all smothered and dulled by light-eating 3D glasses is just shameful. It looks better on my TV at home, and that's just not right. (Viewed 9/17/11.)
I do have one more book left to review, but since I just finished it a couple of days ago I'm going to let it marinate a bit more and give it its own post, hopefully next week. Until then, have a happy Halloween!
Just a little administrative note: I'm no longer part of Amazon's affiliate program, so I no longer receive a commission for sales through links on this site. The links are there now only as a convenience to you.
By Elie Wiesel
Our copy of Night has been sitting on our nightstand for a long time. Juliette bought it in 2006, shortly after Oprah put it on her book list. I appropriated it a few months later, intending to read it quickly. Somehow, though, I just couldn't bring myself to read such a heavy story--I must have picked it up ten times over the past few years, only to quit after the first page. Last week I finally found myself with literally nothing else left in the house to read, so with an effort of will, I forced myself through it.
It's not that I have a problem with Holocaust stories, exactly. I read The Diary of Anne Frank in school, like everybody, and I went to see Schindler's List and Life Is Beautiful in the theater, and was moved by both. I'd even go so far as to say that I feel a certain responsibility to read books like this--the war and the Holocaust weren't so long ago, but they are far enough in the past now that they no longer feel immediate or real to many people. I think it's important that books like Night exist and are read, because what happened to the European Jews under the Nazi regime was a crime the magnitude of which should never be forgotten and must never be repeated.
But, responsibility or no, I just couldn't look forward to the prospect of experiencing such a story. It's just too much to bear, even just reading it. Admitting that makes me feel shallow and self-centered; if I am, then so be it.
Now, having finished the book and had some time to reflect on it, I can say that my fears were borne out--reading Night, with its brutally sparse and honest writing, was a harrowing, deeply disturbing experience, not least because I've been feeling my own mortality more keenly the past few years than I ever did when I was younger. And honestly I can't say what, if anything, I gained from the experience. Am I shocked and horrified, outraged at the ordeal the Jews went through? Of course. But then, I already was. In just the same way, after having read Night, I feel an immense respect and sympathy (if that's the right word) for the survivors of the Holocaust and their families, but I already felt that before I'd even heard of the book.
Nevertheless, I do feel like it was important for me to read this book and I feel I've done something worthwhile by having done so. It's not an experience I care to repeat, but that I had it at all feels meaningful.
Started: 9/7/2010 | Finished: 9/8/2010
By Giles Milton
If I were to tell you a story about an English sailor who sails halfway around the world, surviving scurvy and starvation to arrive half-dead in Japan, only to befriend the shogun, become the first Caucasian samurai, and open trade relations between England and Japan, you'd probably think I was making it up. But then, I'm not telling it nearly as well nor with as much detail as Giles Milton in his book Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan.
Milton's book recounts the life and adventures of William Adams, the title figure who, indeed, became an influential member of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu's court, and helped establish the first English trade factory in Japan. But while Adams' life is a great story in itself, Samurai William provides a much broader view. Milton also goes into the history of the European East India companies in Asia and Oceania, the political turmoil at the beginning of Japan's Edo period, and the lives and struggles of the other men at the English factory. The complete picture is one of drama and adventure, presented with some great storytelling.
What struck me most about Samurai William was the sense of how Japan was both impressive and utterly foreign to its European visitors. It's something that you continue to see in Western attitudes toward Japan and its culture, but coming at it from the perspective of men for whom Japan was truly an unknown adds a whole new level, especially considering the relative levels of sophistication of Japan and England in 1600.
I think anyone with an appreciation for history and a good story will enjoy this book. Samurai William manages to both inform and entertain, which, in my book, puts it in the same class as all the best histories.
Started: 6/2/2010 | Finished: 6/18/2010
By David McCullough
Like most Americans, I've known that John Adams was our second President since I was in grade school. And, as I'd imagine is also true of most Americans, that was more or less the extent of my knowledge of the man. The first glimpse I got into Adams as more than just that one fact came in 2003, when I read Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. Ambrose, who clearly idolized Thomas Jefferson, didn't hold Adams in the same high regard. Indeed, I came away from that book thinking of Adams as an ambitious man, bent on consolidating power to himself, possibly even wishing to become an American emperor. A man who, fortunately, was defeated in his second election by Jefferson, before he could do any more damage.
The second impression I got of Adams--and of Jefferson, for that matter--came three years later when I read Joseph Ellis' biography of George Washington. Quite unlike the tyrant that Ambrose portrayed, Ellis described Adams as a man of integrity, while Jefferson, no longer quite the noble farmer-scholar, came off as a schemer, practically a villain. To Ellis, Adams was a patriot and a loyal Vice President, though not as effective a President as he might have hoped.
I started seeing copies of this book around the same time, but despite being interested to learn more about Adams as well as being attracted to a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, my reading list had gotten quite long by then and I put it off. It wasn't until HBO started airing its miniseries adaptation that I finally resolved to read it. It took me over two months to finish, but I now wish that I hadn't waited--this was an excellent read.
McCullough has a real gift for taking facts and sources and weaving them into a compelling narrative. It helps, of course, that Adams' life was so amazing. Here was a man who was involved in nearly every part of the American Revolution, indeed, nearly all of the important events of his era. But it's not merely the great events that make this book so wonderful to read. Because just as important are Adams' friendships, his relationship with his family, and, most of all, his marriage--indeed, the latter is one of the great love stories in American history.
This is the brilliance of McCullough's book, that it presents such a colossal figure in our nation's history in such human terms. By the time I was halfway through this book, I felt I knew Adams, certainly in a more personal way than any other man I've read about. In fact, by the end of the book I felt an attachment to him that rivaled anything I've felt from reading a novel--I lingered over his death scene for a long time, having a very real feeling of loss.
Simply put, John Adams, is the best biography I've ever read. It's balanced, nuanced, and just a pleasure to consume. Adams, himself, had his flaws, to be sure, but reading about a man of such integrity and passion and intellect, such warmth, wit, and good humor, I can't help but wish I'd been able to meet him, myself.
Started: 6/23/2009 | Finished: 9/2/2009
By Anthony Bourdain
My introduction to Anthony Bourdain came on a trip to visit my mom and stepdad, who are fans of his show, No Reservations. We watched several episodes on that trip, and something about the combination of exotic locales, sardonic humor, and a deep love of food caught me, and Juliette and I were hooked for several months afterward. It was just a matter of time before I picked up the book that first brought him to fame: his memoir, Kitchen Confidential.
Like a lot of people, I spent a part of my youth working in restaurants, first as a busboy, then a waiter, then a bartender. The experience left me with the solid understanding that I'm not cut out for that sort of work. Still, despite the fact that it was a difficult and mostly thankless (from the customers, at least) job, and despite the fact that I hope never to have to do it again, there's something alluring, almost romantic about that time in my memory. And talking to other ex-waiters, it seems this is a pretty common thing.
What I loved most about Kitchen Confidential was the authenticity. Granted, I've never worked in a restaurant kitchen--indeed, in most restaurants, the floor staff and kitchen staff are not only separate, they're at least a little antagonistic toward each other--and the two kitchens I came to know were nowhere near as profane as what Bourdain describes. Nonetheless, there was so much in the book that I recognized. It really took me back.
Everything I love about the show, too, is present in the book. Bourdain has a really distinctive voice, and by that I don't just mean his writing style, but also his actual speaking voice. And more than any other book I can think of, I found it really easy to imagine it being spoken by the author. I can't think of anybody else who manages to come off as both sarcastically arrogant and genuinely self-effacing, not the way he does.
Anyway, if you've ever worked in a restaurant--or are thinking about working in one--I highly recommend this book.
Started: 6/1/2009 | Finished: 6/19/2009
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs
By Chuck Klosterman
If you're at all like me, you have occasionally pondered the cultural significance of things like video games, movies, bands, and other pop culture phenomena. You may have even thought about writing down these ideas you've had, perhaps in a blog or book. If you're like me, well, reading this book may make you despair a little, since Chuck Klosterman does so much better a job with this sort of thinking and writing than I do.
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a collection of essays delving into such topics as what paying the video game The Sims tells us about ourselves, or the impact of MTV's The Real World on the personalities of young people today, or why Billy Joel is important despite the fact that he's not cool. It's sharp, funny, and, for the most part, spot-on in its analysis of American pop culture. The only drawback may be that Klosterman's touchstones are not universal--people below a certain age range were too young to be aware of these things when they happened, and people above that age range likely didn't care. So, if you're not between the ages of about 25 and 40, this book may completely miss you. If you are close to my age, though, I'd say this book is probably worth checking out.
Started: 2/13/2009 | Finished: 3/2/2009
Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and Its Whiskies
By Andrew Jefford
Before sitting down to write this review, I poured myself a glass of Bruichladdich single malt scotch. (The Links Torrey Pines edition, to be precise.) I bought the bottle earlier in the day, inspired largely by what Andrew Jefford wrote in Peat Smoke and Spirit. The scotch is good. So is the book.
A large portion of Peat Smoke and Spirit is, as the title would lead you to believe, about the distilleries of the Scottish island of Islay, and the whiskies they produce. That alone would be enough for me, and Jefford certainly describes the liquor beautifully. But the book encompasses so much more than that--more or less everything about Islay that you could want to know, from the history and geography and people to the flora and fauna and even the geology of the island. Having now read all about it, I have to say: I can't think of any place with a comparably inhospitable climate that I am so keen to visit. Jefford's love of the place is quite apparent from the way he writes about it--the prose is rich and inviting, never dull for a moment--and it really made me want to experience it for myself.
I think just about anyone with an interest in scotch or Scotland will enjoy this book. Just be aware that reading it may make you thirsty.
Started: 10/27/2008 | Finished: 12/8/2008
Marley and Me
By John Grogan
Ever since Juliette and I got our dog, Cooper, people have been telling us that we had to read Marley and Me. Juliette finally got around to it as part of her annual summer reading kick and convinced me to pick it up next. After V, I needed something easy to read that would get me emotionally involved. Well, this fit that bill perfectly. I'm always a little suspicious of bestsellers, but this was just great.
As a dog owner, there was a lot I found familiar, both in the highs and lows of Grogan's life with Marley. Cooper isn't anywhere near as neurotic as Marley, but he has had some bad times, and in Marley's antics I could recognize some echoes of Cooper's worse moments. And, likewise, the joy of having such a loving, faithful companion is something that, I think, all dog lovers will recognize.
It's strange how having a dog has changed my outlook on this sort of thing. Just a couple of years ago, I don't think that I would really have connected with this book. All of this dog stuff just seemed a little silly to me. And now? Well, I can tell you that by the end of this book I was literally bawling.
Marley and Me was hilarious and heartwarming in turn, and I have to agree that it's a must-read for any dog lover--assuming there are any left who haven't already read it.
Started: 7/12/2008 | Finished: 7/20/2008
Dreams from My Father
By Barack Obama
If this book had been entirely fictional, I would have found it very moving. The fact that it's an autobiography leaves me a little confused. On the one hand, I found a lot I could relate to in the story Obama tells of his life. At the same time, the cynicism I've long felt toward politics and politicians predisposes me to distrusting it. It really did resonate with me, though. The more obvious part that drew me in was the portrait of a young man coming to terms with his mixed heritage. What really struck a chord with me, though, was the search for the stories of his own past. Reading about Obama's discoveries about his father made me think about how little I know about my own parents' lives. Even the parts that I was around for meant something different to me than to them. It's a strange thing to think about, that as familiar as the people in my life might be, I really hardly know them. So I think I can say that more than anything I've read in a long time I found this book inspiring.
Started: 10/5/2006 | Finished: 10/24/2006