Wednesday, February 22, 2017

THE DARK TOWER I: THE GUNSLINGER by Stephen King

I don’t know what possessed me to read two fantasies in a row.  I know that The Dark Tower movie is slated to come out this summer, but I’m stopping with Book I in this series.  The gunslinger, whose name is Roland, is on a quest to find the Dark Tower (purpose:  unknown) with an intermediate encounter with the “man in black.” I thought at first that the “man in black” was Death or the devil, who has the power of resurrection, but Roland is no saint himself.  Other than Roland’s wiping out a town, nothing much happens.  A boy named Jake becomes Roland’s sidekick for part of the journey, and he seems to provide some sort of conscience, but that’s about it.  After I read the book, I went back and read the introduction and found that Stephen King wrote this book in 1970.  The author himself proclaims this book to be pretentious and demonstrating the influence of an abundance of writers’ workshops.  Is this book supposed to be about a post-apocalyptic future or perhaps an alternate universe?  Again, King gives us a few hints but not a lot else to go on, and I’m thinking the desert in question is the Mohave, and the big chasm is the Grand Canyon.  Anyway, why does Jake seem to be more informed about the past than Roland, when Jake is so much younger?  I suppose these unanswered questions have inspired other readers to continue with the series.  I know this series was inspired by the Child Rowland fairy tale, alluded to in Shakespeare’s King Lear and then immortalized in Robert Browning’s poem, but this book does not stand on its own merits, without its possibly more meaty sequels.  I can also see Tolkien’s influence, but then I struggled to get through The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well.  The movies were marvelous, though, and I hope the same will be true of the film version of The Dark Tower.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman

If Harry Potter and friends were a little too squeaky clean for you, this book might be just the ticket, especially if you love fantasy novels in general.  Quentin Coldwater unexpectedly finds himself at Brakebills College, which, like Hogwarts, is a school of magic for those with magical gifts.  Unlike Hogwarts, there’s a whole lot of drinking going on and a decent amount of sex.  Quentin is a melancholy teenager with a bit of attitude and an obsession with a children’s book series about an alternate universe called Fillory—clearly akin to Narnia.  This novel has some high-flying moments, both literally and figuratively, but Grossman is no Rowling.  I found the Harry Potter books to be entertaining, suspenseful and very clever, whereas this is more about agonizing over how to have a fulfilling life when you can conjure up anything you want.  For me, the kids are definitely more compelling characters while in school and still learning the extents to which they can manipulate the universe than after they become adults with too much time on their hands.  There has to be a quest, and there is…of sorts—after graduation.  However, it’s more of an exploration and ultimately a dangerous adventure.  Although a specific goal does emerge, it gets tangled up with a spate of strange creatures that don’t seem to have any real purpose other than to instigate mayhem.  This novel was just not my thing, so I won’t be investing any time in the sequels or the TV series.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE by Diane Ackerman

Amid all the horrors of WWII, heroes and heroines did rise to save as many Jews as they could.  In this case, the Zabinskis—Antonina and Jan—are Warsaw zookeepers who refuse to give up.  Serving as a waystation en route to more permanent refuges, they gladly provide temporary shelter to hundreds of Jews.  They manage to save not just people but also art, animals, and a massive, meticulously compiled insect collection.  The author culls Antonina’s diaries to deliver an in-depth history of the impact of the war on the residents and structures of Warsaw.  The residents include both the human and animal varieties, and both suffer upheaval and countless loss of life.  Almost everyone who lodges in the Zabinskis’ villa at one time or another survives the war, but the animals are not so fortunate.  Ackerman minces no words in her descriptions of the brutalities and senseless killings that Warsaw suffers at the hands of the Germans.  The animals steal the show in this novel, providing both occasional humor as well as heartbreaking poignancy, as the family chooses some unusual species as pets.  On the whole, the book is very readable and historically enlightening but a little distant as far as the humans are concerned.  Even the horrific scene where Antonina believes that her son has been shot is not as moving as I would expect it to be.  In other words, the author recounts events without speculating on the associated emotional responses.  I enjoy reading nonfiction books that read like novels, but this is not one of them.  It reads like history, and I am not a history buff.  That’s not to say that this isn’t a story that needs to be told.  It is, but the telling of it may be more vivid in the movie.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

THE NIX by Nathan Hill

Faye abandoned her husband Henry and 11-year-old son Samuel and 20 years later is arrested for tossing a handful of gravel at a right-wing politician.  Samuel is now a disenchanted college professor who spends all of his free time playing video games.  Having squandered his advance for a book deal, he now needs to start writing in earnest or earn megabucks in Jakarta as a teacher, as advised by his publisher.  His mother’s attorney wants him to write a letter attesting to Faye’s good character, but his publisher wants him to write a scathing tell-all about Faye’s radical past, of which Samuel has no knowledge whatsoever.  The novel tells the story of both mother and son with extensive flashbacks to Faye’s brief stint in college in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention and associated protests.  The 1968 passages are action-packed, but the 21st century stuff not so much.  In fact, an entire rambling one-sentence chapter is devoted to the musings of another video game addict, and I did not get the purpose of including him in the book at all, which is way too long anyway.  On the plus side, the writing is wonderful but a little pretentious, especially in the aforementioned chapter.  The most entertaining character in the book is Laura Pottsdam, a student who Samuel loves to hate, because she cuts class and plagiarizes a writing assignment.  Her rationalization of how she has cheated her way through her entire education and then her doubt about her ability to succeed in a glamorous marketing job after college are priceless.  Then when a character from Faye’s wild and crazy past is identified in Samuel’s present, I had to applaud the beauty of the irony.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME by Hazel Gaynor

A group of folks from Ireland set out for a better life in America—on the Titanic.  Seventeen-year-old Maggie seems to be the only one not really excited about going, and that’s because she’s leaving behind the man she loves.  Now that her mother has died, though, she must accompany her aunt back to the U.S.  We know that Maggie survives, because 70-odd years later, she is the great-grandmother of Grace, who has given up college to take care of her ill and grieving mother.  Grace, too, left a boyfriend behind, as well as an opportunity to submit a feature story to the Chicago Tribune.    Maggie encourages Grace to resume her college career, reconnect with her boyfriend, and write Maggie’s story.  I sort of liked this novel, but I found it hard to separate it from the movie.  I was glad, though, that the book did not dwell on the disaster itself, because certainly I saw enough of that in the movie.  I also did not feel that this novel tugged at my heartstrings, as the victims are not very robust characters.  An unexpected twist at the end was gratifying, and the prose is smooth but not noteworthy.  I discovered at the end that true events, besides just the sinking of the ship, inspired this book.  I think this novel works as a tribute but not necessarily as an absorbing read.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

I generally steer clear of memoirs, particularly about death.  However, this book has garnered so much press that I felt obligated to read it.  A friend passed it along, and I was happy to see that it was very small.  Paul Kalanithi learns, before he finishes his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, that he has terminal cancer.  He accepts his fate with grace but also a sense of urgency, because there is so much that he wants to accomplish.  This book, though, is not just about his approach to his own death, but, more importantly, I think, it is about his approach to the mortality of his patients.  Paul is intrigued by the whole idea of the mind as a product of the brain, where the mind embodies all those traits and emotions that we regard as human:  hope, love, courage, ambition.  I know that the role reversal of patient and doctor is supposedly a central theme of this book, but I didn’t really see it that way.  Paul very much participates in his own treatment, without browbeating his oncologist, but he researches his diagnosis thoroughly enough to have a peer-to-peer conversation with her.  My favorite part of the book is probably his widow’s epilogue, in which she gives us details that Paul chose not to share.  I’m glad I read this book, if only to find out what all the fuss was about, but I had a rather lukewarm reaction to it.  I love that this book is his legacy, particularly for his family, and that, through this book, his influence is far-reaching.  However, I think the lives he improved and saved with his scalpel and his compassion in a short period of time are his most important legacy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett

Haven’t you always wondered what your life would look like as a movie?  The two families in this novel get to experience just that after Franny makes the mistake of telling her lover, a well-known author, the story of her stepbrother’s death.  A bestseller is born and eventually a movie.  Actually, everything begins at Franny’s christening, when a party-crashing assistant DA falls for Franny’s mother.  The ensuing divorces and marriage result in a blended family with six children--Franny, her sister, and their four stepsiblings.  We get to know all of these people as adults, but I had some difficulty keeping straight who were the offspring of which divorced couple, probably because there were two daughters in both families.  Maybe the names could have been a little less generic than Franny, Caroline, Holly, and Jeannette.  Only Albie, the only boy to survive to adulthood, has a standout personality as a child, and not just because he’s the only boy.  He’s a troublemaker of the first order, who becomes even less manageable after the two traumatic events of his life—his parents’ divorce and his brother’s death.  The timeline in this book is not strictly sequential, allowing the author to save the most important detail—how one of the six children dies—until very late in the book.  For me, this tidbit was what I kept reading to find out.  Not that I minded spending time with these characters.   As adults, they blossom from four virtually indistinguishable girls into four very unique and strong women.  I leave Albie’s fate for you to find out.  This book may not be as exotic as State of Wonder or Bel Canto, but it’s still a pleasurable read.