Review: The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know the story of the crucifixion? Is there anyone who can speak and understand the language of Western Civilization who hasn’t seen The Passion, or The Last Temptation, or been dragged by a friend to Sunday school, or at the very least looked up the Wikipedia article on Easter? I am genuinely curious what such a person would make of Toibin’s Testament of Mary.

Anyone not know of Michelangelo’s Pieta? The painting by Velasquez? How would such a person take on this thin, 80-page novel? Is it possible to evaluate the story based solely on its language, its style… Mary as an aging woman, not a saint or the mother of Christ, but someone who watched her son brutalized in the name of Roman justice, Jewish politics, Messianic posturing. A simple woman, fraught with her own inadequacies, and, in counterpoint to the biblical mythology, sins. Can anyone read this and not compare it to the tropes that prop up the most prominent religion in the New World?

Because, if not, this book would seem to be merely blasphemous. Mary is a sinner. Jesus was proud. His disciples were madmen, and the writers of the gospel were opportunists. But let me be clear: this is no irreverent tome. This is not apology disguised as feminism. Toibin’s Testament is a point of view, one that asks us to consider the story without the religion, to discover the spirit rather than have it shoved down our throats. It’s that ironic opposite of blasphemous, one that casts a light on all those other inspired works and exposes them for the soul-seducing frauds they are.

That is, for those of who know the story of the crucifixion all too well. Who can’t help but see Jesus symbolism in every other plot we’re forced to sit through like obedient children in the pews. But for those special few, those with the intellectual curiosity but not the educated bruising, who can read this story without prejudice—I wonder what they think.

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Review: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 1 of 5 stars


Characters I can’t seem to like. No plot to speak of. A prose style that despite being plain doesn’t offer the pleasure of being perfunctory. Set in a places I don’t care about, in a time I don’t care about, a time of life that’s more or less meaningless to examine. Started off as a three-star novel, and I only kept reading it because my wife is reading it and we like to read the same things sometimes so we can talk about them. And she only picked it because she read—and said she liked—Middlesex.

Struggled to get through even a page at a time, and so it became a two-star novel. Was a steady two as I slogged through. And then page 313. Total unmitigated bullshit. Made me sick to my stomach. Became a one. I am getting really tired of this misogynistic crap. I’m no white knight, I’m no feminist, I’m not some kind of activist—I’m a middle-aged dude raised in the Midwest, so I’m sure I’m guilty of male privilege as anyone else. But I don’t need to see yet another book, written by a man, where a woman is most fulfilled when she’s gives herself, even for a few moments, to madness.

What was good about the book? Uh, I don’t know. The Franzian narrative style, the “tell don’t show” that’s nearly documentary. That let me get through pages quickly. The ending was good, because it meant I was done reading. Eugenides is more than capable of creating tension between characters, so there’s that.

But the pseudo-intellectual treatments of literature, criticism, religion, psychology? Bunk. Don’t waste your time with this terrible novel. And be wary of blurbists who say its good. What else do they say is good? Avoid those too.

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Team Meeting

fiction by Jason Edwards

The Skipper hadn’t said a word yet. Pacing in front of the boys, in his baseball pants, a size too small. His baseball shirt a size too big and his nylon manager’s jacket, against the cold March air. His grey mustache, big enough to hide his mouth, stained in places with tobacco. Pacing back and forth, looking at these men, these grown men with their salaries and their agents and their endorsements and their fans. All of them in their uniforms too, some of them shivering, most of them scowling, casting glances around at each other or the gray sky or the sunflower seed shells all over the dugout floor or the splatters of ‘bacco juice or the skip, pacing back and forth. Wad in the skip’s cheek as big as a golf ball or maybe a cantaloupe or even a pluot. The skip spat another spit of ‘bacco juice into the dirt, even though the floor of the dugout was concrete, and even so it made a ding like he’d hit a spittoon. A big fancy brass one. “So what I’m saying,” the skipper said “is you got to put the bat on the ball.”

The boys looked at each other, frowning. Behind the skip, the assistant manager stood there, stoic, with his clipboard and his sweatshirt and his big ass whistle, which had not been blown once in ten years of assistant managering.

“I ain’t one for speeches,” the skip said. “Words ain’t what I do.” He spat again, ding. “But I know one thing. One word that pretty much sums up this stupid game.” He stopped, suddenly, and somehow peered at every single one of them in the eye. “You put the bat on the ball.”

Some of them nodded. Some of them rolled their eyes. Some of them secretly fondled their smart phones in the pockets of their nylon team jackets.

“You. Carlos.”

One them looked up. “It’s Gregory.”

“Same thing. You put the bat on the ball?”

Gregory frowned, looked around, got no support from the other boys. “I’m a pitcher.”

The skip paused for a moment, chewing furiously. “Did I stutter?” Spit, ding.

“This is the AL, skip.”

The skip nodded. “If I wanted sass, I’d go watch a movie in a negro theater. Answer muh question.”

Gregory tried not to smile, succeeded “That’s… that’s racist.”

The skip just shook his head. “Sparky, am I holding a ticket stub?”

The assistant manager checked his clipboard. “No skip.”

“Just checking.” He went back to pacing. “You put the bat on the ball.”

Murmurs, knuckle- cracks, the slick and slither of nylon jackets elbowing each other in the frosty dugout.

The skip spat again, nearly hitting one boy in the shoe, who nevertheless dodged it. “You, what’s your name, Rodriguez.”

“It’s Sanchez.”

The skip nodded. “Where you from, Rodriguez.”

“The Dominican Republic.”

Spit, ding. “No, before that.”

“Uh, Santo Domingo?”

“No, before that.”

“San Geronimo?”

The skip nodded, scowled, stopped pacing, stuffed a little more chew into his cheek, took up pacing again. “They play ball there, Rodriguez?”

Rodriguez smiled. “That’s all they do, skip.”

“Do they put the bat on the a ball?”

Pause. “That’s all they do.”

“Write that down, Sparky.” Spit, ding.

Sparky wrote it down.

The boys were silent, watching the manager. The cold March air was getting colder. The view from the dugout was gray misty sky. Some of them thought about their wives, their kids, the small-town parade if they ever made it back home. Apple pie and sitting onna bale of hay, gingham dresses and a coy little wink, curly blonde hair and the way she smelled in the spring-time sun, her hand so frail and smooth taking his and leading him ‘round back of the clapboard church, the doors of the old hand-dug cellar yawning open, down into the cool darkness, the way she put those leather straps on his wrists and ankles, cutting his clothes away with a rusty knife and forcing the dog collar on him and whipping him until he cried for his mommy and his body failed him and he hung there in chains and the terrible stink of his own fear.

Spit, ding. “Sparky, what’s the team ERA?”

The assistant manager checked his clipboard. “2.32.”

The skip nodded. “Not bad, not bad. How many Ks we getting per game.”

“Uh, about ten.”

“Not bad, not bad.”

“We were number one in the league last year,” a voice said from the back.

The skip stopped, a statue. “Whaju say boy?”

The crowd of nylon team jackets parted to reveal a shorter-than average little runt of a man, head bowed, poking at a cell phone like he was a five year old kid and the phone was a dead bird. Probably a god damned short stop.

“We had the lowest runs-against last year, Manless got the Golden Glove, we had only 55 errors, which broke all the records.”

The skip started to spit, but couldn’t. “Whaju say, boy?”

The kid finally looked up. “You asked what our ERA was and then said ‘Not bad.’”

The skip folded his arms, leaned back, peered at the kid. “Gonna have to try harder, boy, I didn’t go to no college.”

“You said ‘not bad’ like it could be better. I couldn’t be better. It was already the best. We’re number one in, like, seven categories.” The boy looked nervous, real nervous, and had to swallow a few times. “So back off,” he managed, in a small voice, the kind short-stops use.

Around him, the rest of the team was utterly silent. Utterly still, and yet edging away from him as much as possible.

The skip slowly extended an arm, pointing at the field “That look like the sorta place where seven categories wins balls games,” spit, ding, “boy?”

“Well, sort of, I mean-”

“When you go out there today, you gonna wave seven categories in the other team’s face, hope they just give up and go home to their kids and their nintendos, boy?”

“Today? It’s the middle of March!”

The skip put his hands on his hips, legs wide for balance, leaned back and looked up at the sky , chewing noisily, and muttered “Well goddamn.” He spat, looked at the boy. “You some kind of genius? Is that what I’m dealing with here today, son? A bona-fide genius?”

The kid shrugged. The rest of the team remained invisible.

“Yep, what I figgered. This kid’s a genius. Write that down; Sparky, Rodriguez here is a genius.”

Sparky wrote it down.

“Uh, my name’s Cordry.”

Spit, ding. “Alright then. We’ll do it the college way. Now.” Chew, peer, chew, eyes narrow, chew some more. “What’s this game called?”

The kid scowled the scowl of a four-year-old forced to sit there until he ate his peas. “Baseball.”

The skip nodded. “What’s the last part?”

“Ball,” the kid said, still frowning.

“What’s the first part?”

The kid puffed a sigh, barely controlled an eye-roll. “Base.”

“Is the e silent, you college- goin’ sumbitch?”

“Yes?” Around him, the team started becoming visible again, edging a bit closer.

“So what’s after S in the alphabet.”

Counts on his fingers. “T.” Teammates started looking at each other, eyes wide, grins slowly emerging. The gray March sky seeming not so gray, not so March.

“So what’s that make with a silent e?”

Pause, big grin, “Bat!” A few giggles, a couple of chortles from the team. A “yeah” and a “you tell ‘im!”

“So what’s that all together?”

“Bat-ball!” The team jumps to their feet, tackling the kid, as if they stadium wasn’t empty but full of roaring fans and the kid returning from a grand-slam homerun in the top of the eighth, putting them up by three and that much closer to only one game back, just one game back and they’d be looking at a possible division win for the first time in a decade, rolling all over each other in the dug out while the fans go nuts and the PA blares their theme song, this crazy group of guys rolling around in their nylon team jackets smeared and splattered with tobacco juice and field dirt and broken sunflower seeds, the sweat and tears of 155 stupid games in the hottest summer on record and all that hard work finally starting to pay off, rolling around in the frigid dugout in the middle of march and wind whipping, ignored by all of them, around the utterly empty stadium.

The skipper stood there, looking at them, nodding his head like a general nods at a battlefield strewn with dead bodies. “Now, that’s called the Socrates way.” Chew, spit, ding. “You put the bat on the ball.”

Review: About Schmidt

About Schmidt
About Schmidt by Louis Begley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I guess it’s my own fault. Shipwreck was not the sort of book I would have picked up on my own, but I was in a beggars can’t be choosers situation, and it turned out to be a good read. So I was eager to try more by Louis Begley. And I had seen the film version of About Schmidt, and all of the reviews said it was nothing like the book at all. So much potential, right? Guess I got my hopes up too high.

I don’t have a problem with books about old people. I actually kind of like them. And yes, I’m a middle-class mid-western kid who has an irrationally bias against the comfortably well-off living in New England—but I’m fine reading books about them. But this, this just smacked of self-indulgence. In Shipwreck an old man lays a young girl, and since it was so integral to the plot, I accepted it. But in About Schmidt, how am I supposed to believe it at all?

Because that’s what About Schmidt comes down to, for me. A retired lawyer finds himself discommoded by women (they’re either shrewish or slutty) and Jews. So, what, I’m supposed to dislike this Schmidt, therefore? Then why is every other character in the novel so unlikable too? And why (spoiler alert) is Schmidt rewarded so well in the end?

I’m hesitant to read more by Begley simply because, in the two books I’ve read by him so far, About Schmidt (1996) and Shipwreck (2003) are more or less the same (and in that respect, alas, About Schmidt has diminished my former praise for Shipwreck). At least in his later work the writing’s better. The dialogue not so amateurish, so flat, so peppered with exclamation marks.

Maybe I was just unlucky, maybe I just happened on the two books where the main character has his cake and eats it too. Maybe I should try one more Begley and see if all of his stuff isn’t just a lot of self-indulgent masturbation.

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Review: The Kings of Cool

The Kings of Cool
The Kings of Cool by Don Winslow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Kings of Cool is a fairly complicated read. Or should I say relatively. Not Anna Karenina complicated, more like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels complicated. But you should be able to follow it, if you do few things.

One is to read the sequel first. Read Savages before you read The Kings of Cool. The prequel does not stand on its own, which would be ironic, except that the prequel was written after the sequel. Which is why Kings is subtitled “Prequel to Savages.” Should put “prequel” in quotes. Kings is more of an extended flashback.

(Good on Winslow if he had that back story in mind when he wrote Savages. I’d me even more impressed if he just took what he had and back-filled appropriately. But never mind that.)

Another thing you’re going to want to do is pay attention, but try not to guess what happens (even though you’ve already read the sequel and know what happens). The Kings of Cool does a balancing act between being another sex-drugs-violence thriller, and backstory—like maybe what fan fiction would be if it were written by the original author. I said it’s a complicated read, but that doesn’t meant the plot is complicated—I mean it is, but it’s not the plot that makes things complicated. It’s the balancing act.

The Kings of Cool answers a few incidental questions that you may have had from reading Savages, but then creates a few questions of its own. Another book in the works? Maybe. I think Winslow’s good for it. Maybe a story that falls in between the events of Kings and Savages.

(But that’s speculation again. Never mind that too.) The other thing you need to do when readings Kings is take yourself out of it. You’re a Boomer, or a Gen Xer, or a (what do we call Gen-X’es kids. I have no idea. I shall cynically coin: ) Bieberoh (ha, now they hate me). But the flashback characters are not the hippies you were, the 90s kids you were, the cell-phone junkies you are. You have to suspend that disbelief, and nevertheless tap into the angst and disillusionment that every generation feels when their rise to power is eclipsed by the realization that previous generation (or two) still has all the power.

Cause California’s a different planet and Laguna Beach is a different moon. You need to turn on, tune in, and sell out.

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Review: The Cleaner

The Cleaner
The Cleaner by Brett Battles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last week, while I was on vacation in Hawaii, I read Deceived (the sequel to The Cleaner), a book by Don Winslow, a book by Louis Begley, and a book by Louis de Bernieres. I liked how that went, so although I’m back home again, I thought I do the same thing, starting with The Cleaner itself.

As I mentioned in my review of Deceived, I’d actually read a sample of The Cleaner a few years ago, so getting back into it was easy. And like the sequel, it’s a thrill-ride, complete with steely-hard commando types who know all the martial arts, all the computer hacking tricks, all the ways to charm and woo. This is spycraft 101. License to kill, issued by the Extenuating Circumstances Department.

I could tell you the plot, but what’s the point? Good guys, bad guys, really bad guys, on-the-fence-guys. Guns and sex and double-crosses. Exotic locations. This is a thriller-by-the-numbers, but we don’t read this kind of thing hoping for Milton, do we?

Much of Deceived alluded to events in The Cleaner, so I knew what was coming, in terms of the big reveal. Still readable, I’d like to say. Still worth your time if this is your sort of thing. If this is not your sort of thing– don’t bother. Wait for the movie. Or wait for a similar movie based on a different book. They’re all the same, aren’t they? Reacher, Parker, Spenser… Cruise, Statham, uh… Cruise…

You get the idea. For me, it was a decent little read. I’ll be reading the third in the series, hopefully next week.

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Review: The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts
The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernières
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My copy of this book is sort of battered, even though I’ve only read it twice now. That’s because I tend to take my time with it, reading in fits and snatches. I carry around with me during that time, shoving it in a backpack, and airline seat back, next to the bed, next to the sofa, or on the floor in my office. It’s almost a companion more than a book, a lost friend revisiting for a short while.

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts is hilarious, tragic, sad, exuberant, disturbingly violent, magical and poignant. It’s got a structure that feels like a cobbled together collection of loosely-connected tales, although there’s a cohesion that belies more forethought than just a random gathering of pages. The characters are rich and humane, even the most terrible ones, the ones who deserve their awful fates. The plot is… meandering, if you insist on applying such an examination on the book as is required to understand plot at all.

Don Emmanuel is classified as magic realism, I suppose, but the real magic is the prose, the ebbing and flowing, wandering prose, the sentences that court and flirt and caress, making even descriptions of utter depravity readable and nearly acceptable. De Bernieres writes such that you want to trust him, put your faith in him that it’s good to hear these stories. He’s Aurelio, and you’re his daughter Parlanchina.

Maybe the best thing of all is that this is only the first book in a trilogy, and so if you’re smitten by de Bernieres and this anonymous South American country and it’s crazy, horny, brave and silly people, there’s still more to love and keep loving.

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Review: Shipwreck

Shipwreck by Louis Begley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shipwreck—review on Goodreads

Hawaiian vacation, day 5 of 6, third novel of three. From a stack of books in the rental cottage, all mysteries and spy thrillers. Had picked through what looked interesting or not previously-read. Gazed at the first few paragraphs of Shipwreck. Then the next few pages. Then was a quarter of the way through when the wife reminded me we were due for a sunset boat tour. Put the book down reluctantly.

Back from cruise, back to book. Next day, packed for return trip home, quickly, so I could read as much of book as possible before leaving. Before leaving, downloaded book to my e-reader. Finished book on plane.

Thus 4 stars. This is a dense little tome, the narrator’s prose style long and meandering, at points self-deprecating, but only barely so, hinting at a sense of shame if not outright guilt. The reader knows, fairly quickly, that something must go wrong. And then then reader guesses, and the rest is the intrigue and anxiety of finding out if you were right.

A main character you can sort of like if not respect, a lifestyle you can be envious of if not appreciate, all of it painted with an artistic disingenuousness. A heavy book for so few pages, a light book considering the subject matter. You won’t sink your teeth into it, as it were, but you’ll definitely get a taste for it.

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Review: Savages

Savages by Don Winslow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Savages—Review on Goodreads

Here goes.

First thing’s first: I like Don Winslow’s style. It’s quasi-playful without being merely silly. It’s smart without being intellectual, has a rhythm and pace that speeds the reader along, apropos to the subject-matter. A coupla guys living the good life have to deal with some of the evil the good life affords.

There’s sex and drugs and violence. I don’t know if Winslow’s style would be conducive to a novel that didn’t have sex and drugs and violence. A novel about drugs always has violence, I guess, and sex, and although a novel about sex doesn’t require drugs or violence, for my money it would get pretty boring pretty fast, Self indulgent. Savages borders on self-indulgent, but Winslow’s isn’t day-dreaming, he’s telling you a story, so I’ll forgive him that.

Lots of info about the Mexican drug cartels, and one hopes, lots of speculation about how the accompanying violence and greed could spill into the US. (And we better pray it’s just speculation, and not the revelation of really good research, because otherwise, we’re in big trouble.)

That the novel was made into a movie is a no brainer. By Oliver Stone, no less. Optioned before Winslow was even done writing it, no less. And yeah, the plot and characters are movie-thriller flat. Who cares. It’s a fun ride, and as I said, the style’s the thing anyway.

So as always the best praise I can think of is that, having read Savages, I want to read more by this guy. But I don’t know if I’m spoiled. Don’t know if his other stuff will have the same wit and creativity. Maybe I should have read something else first. Maybe I should have gotten ahold of that Winslow gestalt and seen riches in Savages I missed because of his treatment of text.

I’ll let you know. In the meantime, you should read Savages. It was perfect for my condition: on vacation, on a chair on a porch in Kauai guzzling beers and recovering from pounding surf. Fair warning: that’s no exaggeration about the sex and drugs and violence.

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Review: The Deceived

The Deceived
The Deceived by Brett Battles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m on vacation in Kauai, rented cottage, one of those cute little places complete with a fat stack of hard-back mysteries. The usual suspects: Block, LeCarre, Grisham, Cruz Smith. I choose The Deceived because I like the title. A beer, a comfortable chair on the front porch, and I’m ready.

I’m only half a page in when it starts feeling familiar. I’ve never been to Kauai, and when I was in Honolulu the only other time I’ve been to Hawaii, I read sci-fi in an air-conditioned Hyatt. So why am I getting deja-vu?

It’s beautiful here, by the way, in case you were wondering. Peaceful. Just like people say, but then you can’ always trust people, can you? I guess you can’t even trust me. But I’m getting off the subject.

I push the feeling away and keep reading. Nothing new in this one. Bad-guy anti-hero type chasing down leads and committing thrilling acts of daring-do. A mystery and spy novel in one. Great vacation reading.

About halfway through I figure it out– not the plot, but my feeling of deja-vu. I’ve read Brett Battles before, and this character. There’s a prequel to The Deceived, called The Cleaner. A few years ago I had the sample on my e-reader, and although it was interesting, it wasn’t as compelling as at least one of the other half-dozen samples I was evaluating, so I never got back to it.

But now I will. And that’s my review. The Deceived is a sequel, and good enough to stand on it’s own– there are a few references to the first book, and I know how it will end now, more or less. But Battle’s pacing, and his character Quinn, are interesting enough that I want to read more.

That’s seems like praise, to me. And I’ve got four days of vacation left- more than enough time.

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