Review: Under the Dome

Under the Dome
Under the Dome by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Took me two days to read this behemoth, of which I am proud, and crowing about. You could say four days—after I got it from the library, I was too shocked at the size of it to read anything for a whole day, and then the second day of reading bled past midnight by a few minutes. But I’m calling it two, if only to give others who are also afraid of 1000+ page books some hope. You can do it!

Let’s just go ahead and call Stephen King the Tolstoy of Horror. He takes dozens of characters and finds a way to balance them out, from the main characters all the way down to those little snapshots of minor characters. King realty does write like what you’re reading is a movie transcript.

Or the Tolstoy of Maine, if you want. Which is to say, I don’t know that I’d call this novel a horror novel. Certainly horror is King’s bailiwick, but then this novel is mostly people dealing with people (you know like what, for example, most zombie or disaster novels are about).

Or even the Tolstoy of King, if you want. (Can you tell I’ve not read much Tolstoy?). He’s written, what, like, 60 novels so far? And even retired a few times? He’s created a universe through his 40+ years of writing, with different icons and bits and pieces running thematically through much of his work. For Stephen King fans, Under The Dome is right where they want to be.

Under The Dome is a mixture of The Tommyknockers, The Regulators/ Desperation, and Needful Things. It’s got bits of It and The Dark Tower and The Talisman / Black House. It will remind you of The Stand. If you want to go out on a limb, you could make that case that Under the Dome does for many other Stephen King novels what The Cabin in the Woods did for many other slasher films. It explains them.

Taken alone, I have to say, though, the novel was a bit thin. The ending a bit of a let down. The plot a bit predictable. The characters a bit one-dimensional. But placed in the King multiverse? Under The Dome is exquisite, essential King.

View all my reviews

Review: The Finkler Question

The Finkler Question
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to pass judgment on a book (for what else is a review) without coming across as biased, or prejudiced, or when the book is about race, racist. In fact, maybe it’s impossible. And nothing’s worse for a middle-class white man than to be judged “racist.” A man who is racist has no authority on any subject, even if race isn’t a factor. (He’s a brilliant mathematician you say? But he’s a bigot, so who’s to say his maths are even that good?)

So it’ll be hard to say anything about The Finkler Question without sounding like an anti-Semite. Still, I refuse to say “oh well” (that’s the middle-class mantra) and just say what I got to say, and judgments be damned. I want to walk the fine line, if I can.

Overall, I liked the book. The ending was damned depressing, and although there were a few chuckles, I could only survive the read by holding its characters at arms’ length. But Jacobson’s writing style is engaging, provocative in the right places without being showy, expository in that way that makes telling, not showing, a pleasure to read.

But this idea that “everyone hates Jews, and no one hates them more than Jews themselves” I just couldn’t accept. As a concept (and here’s me being racist, sorry) it was just too stereotypically Jewish. Personally, I don’t hate Jews. I don’t even know that many. The few I know, I like, but not because or despite their Jewishness.

So what I did was, I took the message as a trope, not a truth, and applied it to one of the main characters. Everyone hates Treslove, and no one hates him more than himself. That made the whole novel work for me.

View all my reviews

Review: The Book of Three

The Book of Three
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can’t recall exactly the first time I read The Book of Three, but what a fortuitous day that was. It was a school library, I think, me just wandering the shelves. The title was intriguing. And the book was so good, it instilled in me a joy for browsing books and picking up random ones. I won’t say its better or worse than anything else, but I was too young for Tolkien back then, and Harry Potter was still 20 years away.

I’ve been binge reading, lately, interspersing more random library finds with stuff from my past. I thought I’d give The Chronicles of Prydain another go. Rereading it brought back no memories, because I was too immersed, back then, to have noticed anything else. Taran’s swashbuckling adventures are fun, exciting, with lessons to be learned.

Sure, it’s a bit thin in places, but then, it’s a kid’s book. This is important: kids don’t need to justify things with a lot of exposition and explanation., Just get on with it. And I think that’s why adults read young adult fiction now and again. Not because want to be kids again; we just want to get on with it. Swing a sword, fight evil, resist triumph without a lot of pseudo-philosophical moralizing.

A fun, quick read. First in a series of five.

View all my reviews

Review: The Locked Room

The Locked Room
The Locked Room by Paul Auster
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I know this guy who used to be a poet. He told me about how he would go to these writer’s retreats, and sit around with other poets who would just blather on, all these anecdotes meant to pre-inform their poetry. And he hated it. And I hated The Locked Room.

Because I feel like City of Glass and Ghosts where just blatherings setting up icons in The Locked Room. There’s the various names of people, the various artifacts. Graves and Alice in Wonderland and red notebooks. Borrowing an overcoat might be a metaphor for something, at the reader’s discretion. But when it’s mentioned in one story and then another, the reader no longer has a choice. And as a reader, I do not want the author telling me what to think.

This is not a screed affirming “show don’t tell.” I don’t even want the author to show me anything, not on purpose any way. Just write your damns story. I’ll find meaning in it if I want to. The Locked Room is so damned Freudian, and I mean that pejoratively. The main character has sex with his child-hood friends wife—and it’s angry sex! Bullshit.

The only part of The Locked Room—or the entire New York Trilogy, for that mattered—that I found the least interesting was Fanshawe’s sister. Finally, I thought, a part of the story leaked through and not “expertly crafted” as a symbol of something. That is, until the sentence: “Ellen is no more than a literary device.” I gnashed my teeth. I decided that no, Auster must have realized that she’d leaked in, and so he came to grips with his lack of control by shoving in that sentence. Ha.

Whatever. I’m done with the novel(s) now, and I can move on to middle-class meaninglessness. Fiction forwarded by cognitive dissonance, existential angst held at arm’s length and not propped-up by so-called Post-Modernism. Post-Modernism can bite my ass.

View all my reviews

Review: Ghosts

Ghosts by Paul Auster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Took me three days to read this novel. Blame it on the weekend—I’m busier on weekends. Blame video games, football games, other distractions. Blame City of Glass, which impressed me in no way. Blame mostly this so-called existentialism. I guess I just don’t get it. I take no pride in that ignorance, you know. Ghosts is sixty pages of I don’t know what. (Is that even a novel. Is that even a novelette. Should I not be reviewing these titles individually).

All of the characters have colors for names. Real names are reserved for referenced movie stars and the characters they play, or for the disguises main character Blue dons. So what? Yeah, so what.

I said existentialism (cause that’s what it says on the ironic “pulp” style cover of the novel: “A Penguin Existential Mystery.” But all the critics say “post-modern.” Here. I think “post-modern” means “A writer who’s been published before has been published again and since other folks said what he wrote was good this must be good too but we don’t get it at all but we still have to say we do or we look like idiots.”

Apparently, we have entered the post-post-modern age, thank goodness. Nevertheless, on for me to the next one in this Trilogy. I wonder if it will also have a guy watching a guy and losing himself.

View all my reviews

Review: City of Glass

City of Glass
City of Glass by Paul Auster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The writer mentions Through the Looking Glass, and so glass means mirror. Why not call the novel “City of Mirrors”? Because that’s too obvious. I guess. This is my introduction to my review of the first novel in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy.

A thousand years ago, or maybe fifteen or so, I interviewed P.J. Rondinone, a writer in New York who’d studied with Barthelme. We talked about how Rondinone took Barthelme’s stories and New-Yorked them, a legitimate enterprise, as Barthelme talked about when talking about Borges talking about Menard re-writing Don Quixote. Now, I’ve never read Don Quixote, so I didn’t know, at the time, that Cervantes himself claimed that Don Quixote was actually written by Cid Hemete Benengeli. I went on, myself to write a rewrite of Rondinone’s re-write; I office-cubicled one of his New-Yorked stories.

I’ll not be doing the same with City of Glass, this review notwithstanding. Paul Auster mentions Don Quixote in this novel, and his character Daniel Quinn is a New-Yorked Cervantes. Not a New-Yorked Quixote—Daniel Quinn is himself a writer, you see. And so is Paul Auster (the minor character in the novel). Daniel Quinn gets a phone call, a wrong number, falls through the mirror, and Alice-in-Wonderlands through his own creation: a New York of characters.

It’s a miasma, an existential mess, characters scattered by the god Auster (not the minor character in the novel) like mankind scattered at Babel. By the end, The writer gets mad at himself for not caring about his characters more, robbing them of hunger, taking away their sunlight, abandoning them, both literally and literarily.

A very expertly constructed and unsatisfying read.

View all my reviews

Review: The Guns of Avalon

The Guns of Avalon
The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gave myself a few days “rest” (read other books) and jumped back into the Chronicles with book two, eagerly, a rainy morning fit for nothing else but reading. Finished a few hours later.

In book one (Nine Princes in Amber) Zelazney begins with amnesia, establishes conflict, allows the reader to discover just as the main character recovers his memories. Here in book two, there’s a new mystery, and now the reader is the main character’s partner, along for the ride to figure out what’s going on.

And what’s going on is that the very fabric with which these tales are told is threatened. The first half of the book is simple fantasy-warfare, fought in a realm of little (seeming) consequence. But the hero’s journey needs this land to persevere, if his soul is to be as noble as his blood. He can’t claim a birth right if he’s not worthy of it. And when he wins, his reward is the tools he needs to fight the real fight…

Although it’s not the fight he thinks it is. Which means, when he wins, he hasn’t won what he thought he’d won. To the victor the spoils? Yes, things have spoiled. By the victor’s own hand. What now, Corwin? How will you keep your victory from being merely pyrrhic?

I’ll be deep inside book three in a few days to find out. If I seem a little more cautious than I was at the end of book one, that’s only because there’s a lot more at stake here than some swashbuckling through a few hours of reading. The entire series is at risk.

View all my reviews

Review: Five Star Billionaire

Five Star Billionaire
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Four people dealing with Shanghai—the book jacket will tell you five, but one of them is Shanghai, for all intents and purposes. He’s the ostensible narrator, in his own sections, the giver of unsolicited, but not unwanted advice. His platitudes are chapter titles, and they amount to a reluctant resistance to existential angst.

The other four are narrated in third person, intimacy held at arm’s length. We Westerners will call them inscrutable, that word laced with a little less racism than the erstwhile “Oriental.” But this is the Occident in the East, now, this new Shanghai, same as they old Shanghai, to steal a line from that currently-revered band from the 70s. Or 60s. Or whatever—it was before my time.

This Shanghai is all too familiar to those of us, readers, who’ve experienced The Character of A City through books. This new China is New York, is New Angeles, is New ‘Cago. (Sorry, I’m trying to be inventive. I’m not doing a good job. I’m a foreigner her myself). Themes of aliens but not alienation run through Aw’s novel, copy cats without simulacrum, fate without destiny.

I liked the minor interweaving of the character’s lives in the novel, liked the small shifts in style Aw achieved between chapters. It got a bit tedious towards the end, despite the all-to-predictable “surprise” (not enough of a pay-off to justify the tedium, but then I don’t think that the surprise was intended to be any kind of pay-off or climax; see above, re: fate without destiny). There were a few places, maybe, where a character’s own character shift was a bit sudden… but I didn’t mind that so much.

Read this because it’s on the Booker prize long-list for 2013. I don’t think it will make the short list, (read this review post-October and see if I’m right) but I’m still glad I read it.

View all my reviews

Review: Harvest

Harvest by Jim Crace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Novels set in tiny rural villages are quiet, contemplative, maybe even gentle. Not this one. There’s a quietness and a contemplativeness, but there’s no gentleness; this is a violent, frustrating, challenging little novel.

Crace is an expert at setting a tone and a mood, almost immediately. We’re made intimate observers of the action, via his narrator, who himself is 12 years in the commonwealth but still not completely accepted by its people. In this way we’re explained what needs to be explained, but not over much so. Details like names and dates are left out, adding to the intimacy, making this less a chronicle and more a memory. All within a rich, almost-but-not-quite inscrutable vocabulary peculiar to the setting.

We’re tugged along by the narrator’s urges, in a place where humans are little better than animals. His libido colors some of his wonderings, leading him astray in though if not in deed. But there’s a poignancy there too, witnessing the kind of injustice that only humans can invent, and the fatal consequences of that invention.

Every year I try to read as many books from the Booker long list as possible, with mixed results. A few bad ones (in my opinion) a few good ones, a few great ones. Last year it was Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies; this year’s it’s Jim Crace’s Harvest. I’m looking forward to going back and reading his other award-winning writing.

View all my reviews

Review: Nine Princes in Amber

Nine Princes in Amber
Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m trying to decide if I should review this title as a stand-alone novel, or the entire series as one. Or both? How about both. Okay, both.

Begin with a man coming out of a coma, with no memory. A clean slate for the reader, a way to get some action started without requiring a lot of set-up. Toss in conflict– someone wants him to stay asleep. Add some texture– his “recovery” is borderline miraculous. At this point, the writer is free to make it up as he goes along.

And the reader may even suspect as much. But this is just the shadow of truth, and as the main character rediscovers himself, the reader discovers the wonderfully detailed universe the writer has in store.

The reader, appetite whetted, becomes ravenous. In the reader’s hand, a feast! But is it more than he can chew? 10 volumes? But he must. The reading is too good. The adventures too rich, the impulse for justice to strong.

This is the the first book in the Amber Chronicles. And as stories go, it even stands alone, if you want it to– the hero doesn’t exactly win, but he perseveres. Zelazny manages to balance the ending just right– the reader can stop where the hero escapes… or plunge into the next book, explore the deep potential of the world Zelazny has created, lock arms with the hero and pledge to stay by his side until he triumphs or dies trying.

This reader can’t wait to continue.

View all my reviews