Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Natural by Bernard Malamud

The Natural

The Natural by Bernard Malamud
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[Audio Version]
The 1984 adaptation of Bernard Malamud's The Natural
featured  Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. As played by Redford, Hobbs was a a wild-eyed, mildly arrogant innocent, cocky but ultimately likable. The result was a pleasant and upbeat film with a tried and true Hollywood happy ending. There was barely a hint of the calculating dark side that motivated the Hobbs of the novel. Sure, Redford had a few questionable moments and associated with a few too many shady characters, but nothing that the movie version of Roy Hobbs couldn't rise above.

I had heard, or perhaps read, that the book was considerably darker than the film. While I enjoyed the Redford interpretation I was looking forward to something a little meatier than the sugar-coated movie treatment.

I have no rule for myself about reading the book before seeing the movie. Movies don't wreck the book for me. Nor do I shy away from downbeat novels.

The Natural's reputation was of being one of the better baseball stories ever written. However, even though I was a captive listener as I drove in rush-hour traffic twice a day, I don't think that I could have gotten through the 6-disk set without the memory of Robert Redford’s Hobbs in the back of mind. It gave me hope that the thick as a brick novel-version of Roy Hobbs might find some sort of redemption before it was all over.

From the beginning, Roy Hobbs comes across as a self-centered, borderline narcissist. His only virtues are his conceit, his arrogance and his ability to throw a baseball. Hobbs is a completely humorless figure oblivious to the needs or insidious designs of those around him. The problem is that Hobbs is so unlikable that whether people are intent upon doing him harm, or in some cases good, it is impossible to care. Whenever it appears that Hobbs might actually take a turn towards likability, it is his own boorishness that ultimately undermines any progress. He never shows any serious growth or maturation. Instead he wallows in self pity, bemoaning his run of bad luck, which is considerable, but mostly of his own doing.

The Natural is not the only book to feature an unlikable jerk as its main protagonist, but without much of a hook beyond the main character being a gifted underachiever, there is little about Hobbs that is engaging or even interesting. It's hard to feel for a self-centered character who has no understanding of consequences and never accepts responsibility for his actions, whether it's engaging in a one-night stand that almost cost him his life, fathering a child that he'd rather not acknowledge or causing the death of the scout who signed him.

Nevertheless, perhaps because of the memory of that Redford movie, I persevered with hope that Hobbs might turn a corner towards self-redemption. No such luck. The closest that Hobbs ever comes to introspection is his regret about being caught fixing a game. It ends up costing the backstabbing Roy whatever remained of his career. By the time a former fan, a young boy approachs Hobbs and ask, “Why did you do it?” I had ceased to care.

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Charlie Martz and Other Stories: The Unpublished Stories by Elmore Leanord

Charlie Martz and Other Stories: The Unpublished StoriesCharlie Martz and Other Stories: The Unpublished Stories by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Charlie Martz and Other Stories is, as the title suggest, a collection of some of the unpublished works of Elmore Leonard.
As can be expected there are several variations of the same story. Several of the stories feels as though they were never really completed--not surprising when a dead author releases a new book. Nevertheless, this remains a must-read collection for any would-be writers interested in the evolution of a style. In spite of a few rough spots it should also be an entertaining collection for any readers, or listeners.

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Sunday, July 9, 2017

And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich

And the Trees Crept InAnd the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This applies only to the audio Version

If what we are discussing is the production values of the audio product then this would be a 5 star review. However, as a novel-length story And The Trees Crept In was lacking. Although at times it could be atmospheric and even creepy, it failed to sustain that effect. Eventually tension gives way to boredom and frustration due, in no small way, to the main character's inertia. In the end this felt like it could have been a decent short story or maybe even a novella. As it is, it is a short story stretched to novel length without the benefit of any additional material.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving

Avenue of MysteriesAvenue of Mysteries by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Image that T.S. Garp and Owen Meany were brother and sister. Next imagine that they started life as poor Mexican dump kids. (Is there any other kind, but poor?) And rather than calling themselves Garp and Owen their new names are now Juan Diego and Lope.

Now imagine that Juan Diego is an author of books that sometimes appear to have much in common with some of John Irving’s more famous, and infamous, works. But don’t read too much into that similarity because as Juan Diego often protests, his books are not autobiographical. Although, I do have a suspicion that he does protest too much.

“Avenue of Mysteries” contains miracles or possible miracles. There is religious ambiguity as well as sexual ambiguity. There are several John Irving style deaths, meaning comical, tragic and untimely. There are ghosts, or at least potential ghosts, or at least we hope they really are ghosts. They might be.

Juan Diego’s life plays in the present day, on a pilgrimage of sorts, to the Philippines where a somewhat obnoxious former student serves as his host. It’s is on this trip that he meets two women who may or may not be mother and daughter, who may or may not even be flesh and blood, at least not of the type we are used to. Juan Diego's past returns to visit him often, in his dreams and in his imagination.

If you have read John Irving in the past and you liked his work, I think you will really appreciate “Avenue of Mysteries”. It is not a re-tread of past glories, but a re-imagining of many. There is much that is familiar and, perhaps, I got too caught up in the “That’s from…” game. However, this doesn not feel like re-hashed leftovers—OK, maybe a little bit—although maybe more like a fresh serving of a favorite dish, with just enough that is new to keep it interesting.

I think the best books are the ones where the characters become more than props in an opera and, for whatever reason, whether you want them dead or alive, you give a damn. In that way I think this book is a grand success.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham

Rogue LawyerRogue Lawyer by John Grisham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Audio version)
This is a bona-fide john Grisham novel, so naturally the central character is a lawyer in a mid-size southern town.
Sebastian Rudd doesn't bother with the ordinary cases. His clients are the type of people who are just shy of beyond a reasonable doubt guilty. He drives around town in his mobile office, a black bullet-proof van.
Unlike most Grisham novels, at least the ones that I have read, "Rogue Lawyer" is not driven by a single tale of moral dilemma. Instead, several key episodes in the life of Sebastian Rudd are interwoven into a well-paced tale.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(audio version) Great use of POV.
Rachel, Anna, Megan, Tom and Scott. One is an alcoholic. One, well actually three, are cheaters. One, maybe two is abusive. One keeps secrets. One is a liar. One is a very good liar. Two are trying to regain control of their lives. Three think they are in control of their lives. They are all wrong. Four don't realize that they are in danger. Two will die. One is a killer. And these are their good traits.

The story is told from the point of view of Rachel, Anna, and Megan. And as is usually the case, people observing the same event often perceive things differently. Some books use this POV gimmick to have each character tell their version of events. "The Girl on the Train" avoids that tedium by keeping the narrative moving forward regardless of whose eyes we are looking through.

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two CitiesA Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After approximately 1000 words, I was almost to the point where enough is enough. The dialogue is stilted; the characters, like the actors in a high school play, seem overly mannered. However, read on and the world takes shape, events become important and the high-school players turn into real people, living real lives, in troubled times.

Unlike most modern novels which attempt to live by the rule that you must grab the reader in the first page or two “A Tale of Two Cities” requires a small act of faith by the reader. It’s a very small investment in stage-setting that pays out big in the end. I knew there had to be a good reason this is considered by many to be a timeless classic.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016


SweetlandSweetland by Michael Crummey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[Audio Version] I picked up “Sweetland” hoping that it might be the Canadian equivalent of Steinbeck’s ‘Sweet Thursday”. I’ll state here that there is a real possibility that this unrealized expectation may have affected my ability to appreciate the first couple of chapters but I don’t think so. I’ll describe those chapters as plodding but necessary in order to create a solid foundation for what followed.

What followed was the unfolding of the life of 70-year old, Moses Sweetwater. While adopting a bit of the persona of a grumpy-old-man Moses is neither an evil man running from a long-history of mis-deeds nor a super-hero saint. He just is. Life happens and he regularly, dutifully confronts occurrences as needs be, without excuses and without an expectation of pity or accolades for any of his actions.

Now, if that sounds dull, blame this reviewer. “Sweetland” succeeds in bringing Moses Sweetland to life. Once that happens and the reader (or listener) comes to know and empathize with the characters, then outcomes matter. And that is what makes for a rewarding reading experience.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New Earth

New EarthNew Earth by Ben Bova
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[Audio Version]
Imagine a future where climate change is threatening the human population. Imagine the good fortune of finding an earth-like planet waiting to be explored and possibly colonized. Unfortunately, it will take your team 80 years to get there, 8 years before earth receives their first transmissions and another 80 before they get home. So far, so good. Except, I guess things are so bad on earth that it’s unthinkable to send their best. So somehow they manage to put together a team consisting of the dumbest experts imaginable.

Had I been reading this book either in a traditional format or on a Kindle I think I might have put it down and continued on to something else after a chapter or two. It’s possible that because an actor was reading to me, and I was stuck in traffic anyway, that I was a little more patient in allowing this story to play out than was warranted.

So, without going into spoilers, how can I be so down on the book and yet listen through to the end? I can’t say. It may be that this book was the sci-fi novel equivalent of an episode of Gilligan’s Island. You know what happens in the end. You know that the castaways will do something petty and stupid to bring about that end. Yet, because you like some of the actors you stick around and watch the inevitable take excruciatingly long to happen.

I’ve not read Ben Bova before. It’s my understanding that he is a well-respected author and that this may not represent his best work. Oh well, while I’m not about to rush out looking for another Bova novel to read, I won’t let this one stop me from picking up another should it appear that it might interest me.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The People in the Trees

The People in the TreesThe People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one tough book to review.

I almost gave up early on. Basically this is the fictional autobiography of an especially unlikable narcissist and probably sociopath who's only redeemable characteristic is that be is a brilliant, or maybe just extremely lucky, medical researcher who goes by the name of Norton. I may have quit the book early on except that Norton's rat-a-tat-tat narration, somewhat like Oskar in "The Tin Drum", kept me intrigued. It wasn't that I particularly liked the experience, but the book seemed in a hurry to get somewhere and I wanted to get there too.

That somewhere actually turned out to be a lost civilization known as the "Dreamers", the people in the trees. They represent an amazing discovery with a twist that yada-yada could change the world. As events proceed Norton, when he's not behaving like a petulant child appears, almost appears human. Will he ever atone for his sins? Maybe. He rescues (adopts) children from the land he helped destroy. Guilt?


Nope, As it turns out Norton is even worse than I'd imagined. This brought up the question: What was I reading and why?

If execution is everything then this novel is worthy of three stars--probably more. Yet I can't recommend it. Maybe as an expose of the mind of a sociopath it has merit--maybe. As for me, I feel as though I was led through a dark and dreary labyrinth. There were hints of light along the way, but not much. I think there was a Catholic moment that may have thrown me off: penance, forgiveness, and time spent in Purgatory. But, after turning the final corner it turn out the glimmer of light was actually a pile of shit! This book is definitely not for everybody. As it turns out it wasn't even for me. Yanagihara may someday be considered a great author, but this is not the book that will have me looking up whatever other work she may have out there.

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Tunnel in the Sky" by Robert A. Heinlein

Tunnel in the SkyTunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Going into this book I knew the author and the title and little more.

I wasn’t surprised in the beginning when it appeared as though this might go all space wizardry with worm-hole like transport to distant planets. However the story didn’t take the Tom Swift route. It turned slightly domestic as it followed the main protagonist, a teenage student named Rod Walker, from lollygagging about, to his trip through a tunnel from the east coast to his home in the southwest, dinner with his parents and sister, his school, and finally the survival assignment that would set the main stage for the novel; a weekend on an unexplored but hopefully habitable planet.

Rod is dropped off, as are numerous others, for his weekend of survival. However catastrophe leaves them stranded on the planet and soon Rod does begin encountering fellow students. His first conscious encounter, after having been mugged, is with Jack. Jack is actually the female Jackie but, it appears due to her competence, Rod never actually catches on that she is not a male. It is another student who first makes this observation.

Eventually the colony attracts others. It is here that the story takes a turn that reminded me of Lord of the Flies. However, in Tunnel in the Sky the stranded survivors attempt to avoid any sort of regression by recreating the civilization that they left behind. They form a governmental body with marriage certificates, and stabs at democracy.

The book was written in the mid-fifties and it’s hard to totally ignore the times from which it came. The women are on the cutting edge of equality when survival is questionable but expected to fall back into the traditional roles of domesticity as conditions allow; skirts for formal square dancing and all. This isn’t a criticism; just interesting. At the time it was probably a bold step forward; today it reads like one foot stuck firmly in the door.

I did have a problem with the main character. It may be a 50’s thing but by the end of the story, in spite of being portrayed as a savior of the community, I think he’s evolved into a whiney, who- gives-a-damn hindrance to the colony. For reasons that aren’t logical he decides against his own proposal of moving to a safer, defensible area. When rescue does happen he acts sullen and spoiled, like a dictator who enjoys the illusion that he was overwhelmingly elected.

In the end this is a well-written, sometimes exasperating book. The characters are observed and recorded but their motivations weren’t , at least to me, very clear. Lately, I find , that I prefer books that are more involving yet able to avoid crossing the line into navel gazing. Three stars seem fair. This is a good book, but not one that I’ll be thinking about much after this review..

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"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Judge a book by its cover and you might think that “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” is simply the story of Jacob De Zoet, a clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company who arrived in Dejimi, a port off the coast of Japan in 1799. But this book is a thousand times more ambitious than simply the story of an honest clerk. It’s about everybody he meets, and the culture, and the crime, customs, traditions unrequited love, and forbidden practices. De Zoet is not some superhero who marches into all these situations and saves the day. In some cases his influence barely rates a ripple; in others he remains forever unaware.

The story is broken up into sections that sometimes feature a cast of characters within only the slightest connection to De Zoet. Yet, De Zoet never feels far from the action even when separated by time and distance.

****Possible Spoiler***

I clicked on the 4-start rating and immediately felt as though I had clicked one-star too few. This is easily a 5-start book—almost.

While reading I did get caught up in the life of De Zoet; what he did, what he might do, what he should do. The novel is certainly involving on that level. Maybe my disappointments with De Zoet are actually my own. After nearly 20 years living off the coast of Japan he remains unavoidably affected yet essentially unchanged. When he is forced to leave, leaving his son behind, one hopes for a desperate action, even if knowing it would be doomed to failure. No desperate action happens and De Zoet returns “home” where he is celebrated as a wartime hero. The extraordinary life that De Zoet’s has lived seems to have had little effect on him. For better or worse he lives out the remainder of his days as the same humble, honest, hardworking and loyal man that he sought to be from the beginning.

A great novel, a truly great novel, but I think I’ll leave the 4-star rating—at least for now. The book is put away, yet the story continues to play in my head. What was, what could have been—but wait! It’s only fiction. Probably the highest 4-star rating I’ll ever leave.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

GhostwrittenGhostwritten by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 1-Star Review of a 5-Star Novel.

Attempting to even write an adequate review of a novel as grandiose as Ghostwritten is intimidating. It can lead you to drop pretentious words like grandiose into a sub one thousand word review in hope of compensating for a paucity of proper words. I’m primed for a great review but as a word-smith I'm feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand. Prepare for disappointment.

Unfortunately, I have to begin by admitting to a cheat. I did not actually read “Ghostwritten”. I listened to it as I drove to and from the office every day. The experience left me undecided as to whether or not being unable to flip back a page or two is truly a disadvantage. There were several occasions where I played a disk twice. Normally, I would not want to hear the same passages read back to me so soon after having heard them the first time. But I found that a second listen allowed for a greater appreciation for what I had heard. It allowed me to pick up subtleties that I had missed.

Back to point, on the surface “Ghostwritten” may appear as a disjointed collection of short stories. That’s primarily because it is. Yet each tale is woven into the others in ways that are not immediately obvious. Mitchell manages to create a full world where the parts are as inextricably connected as they are disjointed. Separate yet together, playing upon and dependent upon one another.

In the end the magic of “Ghostwritten” is not about getting caught up in the adventures of any particular protagonist. It is about getting caught up in a world where the connections that bind us are made real while the barriers that would divide us are swept away.

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