Wednesday, February 22, 2017


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.