Yelp Book Club

Hey Yelp Cincinnati book club folks,
With Alex Shebar leaving we need to re-dedicate ourselves to the club. I’m working with Chris Green on setting up an August meeting time and location and will let you know as soon as we get something set. The book is American Gypsy: A Memoir. (I’m right, right?) I’m thinking August 13 or 20th as possible dates. What think you? Please share this with any book clubbers I may have missed. Anyone else want to join us? Buy the book, read it, show up.

My review of Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne

Telling truths goes a long way with me. In a couple of ways, Wild Abandon did that (although I’m not sure it was intended) then any redemptive aspects fall off a cliff.

There’s a bit of truth said about the traditional roles of men and women in society. A woman just won’t respect a man who abdicates his traditional role as provider especially while he clings to the perquisites of being the ‘head of the household’ (or commune, in this case). Oh, and usually, the chick will go with the guy with cash.

Although there are plenty of people who advocate for remaking society in many ways including turning us all into a commune-based society, almost all remakings of society end badly whether it’s the French Revolution or Jonestown. Jacobians always play at being Pandora and are surprised at what happens when the lid is lifted. When they’re put in charge, bad things happen.

That’s not a political statement so much as a belief that human nature is a constant. Society, in many ways, is a way to deal with the bad parts of our nature. Tear down long-established structures of our society and those evil spirits are released. Wild Abandon shows this decline. It doesn’t show the world we want to be but the world as it is.

While these truths are put forth and a story is kinda, sorta built around it, the novel falls flat. Maybe a bit more insight into the characters. It felt as if so many punches were pulled and points suggested but not made.

Maybe a plot would have helped. There wasn’t much of one. I believe that shows in the ending which was incomprehensible and fantastic. It’s the kind of ending that will garner nominates and awards for book prizes for whatever reason those folks like that sort of thing. Usually it’s just a sign that the author had no place to go with the story and may not have even known where the story was going from the beginning.

Wild Abandon is just another example of a rule I’m developing. Very few novels should be written. Most novels should be short stories. Most short stories should be poems. Most poems should be a line on a fortune cookie.

My Review of A Visit from the Good Squad

I didn’t want to like this book. It’s considered ‘literary’ – it won the Pulitzer, for goodness sake – and anything literary post-1970 (maybe before) usually means incomprehensible. Or insulting.

I usually explain this away with the belief that most novels should have been short stories while most short stories should have been poems. maybe it’s a market failure (soon I think to be rectified by ereaders) that make writers puff up decent ideas into sellable word count. Or it’s ego.

Goon Squad isn’t incomprehensible or insulting. And it doesn’t bog down in a swamp of verbiage and inane plot twists to pad out the word count.

It’s a relay, really, of short stories threaded together loosly by character names. A prior chapter’s mention of a minor character who is now driving the narrative does illuminate that character so it isn’t strickly a trick of calling a short story collection a novel. But it’s not really more than a bunch of short stories.

And I like that. Egan acknowledges that 100,000 words of a interesting record producers life and career that spans forty years of pop music is still going to be long slog.

Oh, and another thing I liked about this piece of literature. There are stories here. Real actual stories. I’m not much past the toddler plead of “tell me a story”. When an author gives it with a style (or multiple styles in Goon Squad’s case) it’s such a joy to read.

My amazon review of Pushed Too Far

The book can be found here.

++++

This book was competently written. The author spins a yarn without the usual authorly flaws of getting distracted or indulgent. You want to be taken for a ride? This author takes you on one.

But to me, it’s a ride I’ve been on a few times. I don’t read thrillers or cop books too often but something about warm weather makes me drop whatever tome I’m trudging through and pick one up.

And it’s always the same thing. A serial killer with a couple quirks killing people in unusual and highly improbable ways and the cops who chase them and finally confronts them in a conflagratory showdown.

This book offers that, like I said, competently. However, the author has some tells. I could see the plot points and twists coming far in advance. It was almost as if the author put up a Willie E. Coyote pointer that instead of “BIRDSEED HERE” it said “PLOT POINT HERE”.

I guess what really bothers me is: Who reads this stuff? And who wants to write this stuff? After one disgusting murder I put the book down and said ‘No more’ but my compulsion to finish every book I start took over. The gold standard was Harris’ Silence of the Lambs. It was a psycho-killer story with notes of grace and insight into humanity. After that, do we really need more serial killers? I guess by that standard do we really need any more romantic comedies after His Girl Friday?

I’m giving it four stars because the author accomplished what she set out to accomplish. I just don’t know why you’d want to accomplish it or read what she accomplished.

Review of Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith

There are some very narrow minded reviews of this book on Amazon.com. They’re put off by the novel’s prose and style, I think. I want to slap them. The book is called Alison Wonderland. With a title like that you should expect something a bit…askew. And if you don’t get that, you should be disappointed.

In Alison Wonderland there is no rabbit hole or looking glass to toss you into a new world. You only have to dip into the prose of author Helen Smith to enter a world recognizably ours but has been jumbled up. It’s as if God had bumped into the table that holds the world.

I was charmed by the book – the stories, the characters, the plot and the occasional acts of fellatio.

The reader may want to keep Mark Twain’s warning at the beginning of Huck Finn in mind when reading this book….”persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” There is a plot – thin as spider’s silk – but the joy in the novel is the characters and the writing.

I’ve never read a beating scene such as this:

Alvin, gym-muscular under the fat, is fit enough to remain conscious while the shit is kicked out of him. He curls up to protect his belly and his balls and puts his hands over his head. The silent man kicks his arse, his kidneys and his hands where they grip his head. Alvin feels nauseous and afraid. He didn’t ask, and perhaps they wouldn’t have told him, but he has no idea who they are. They could be anyone. They could kick him until he dies. When he thinks they won’t stop, they stop.

That’s just fun to read.

Then there are just nice little sentences scattered throughout the novel. Such as:

Smoking makes me feel guilty and the guilt makes me feel melancholy.

or

I never realized before that taking care of someone else makes you love them more than when they take care of you.

The book is slightly mad. It’s characters are mad. Mad like a quirky aunt. Or a hatter. Mad in the best sense.

My review of A Body at Rest

The novel can be found on amazon here.

*****

It’s been years since I read Austen’s Emma and I’ve never been able to read Don Quixote but I’ve always been attracted to the theme of the novel. So when A Body at Rest was proposed for a book club I delved right in.

And was somewhat put off by the protagonist. Wikipedia quotes Austen on writing Emma, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” I liked Emma, so unlike Austen, Susan Petrone accomplished Mrs. Austen’s goal with me..

Her character Martha acts so selfishly throughout the book from start to finish that I began to wonder if she was a sociopath. A truly horrible character with no redeeming values that I could find. But then I realized, no, she’s not a sociopath but is, I thought, possibly be a true representation of an overly educated but still skilless generation of people who are smug with self-satisfaction even though their curriculum vitae gives them no reason to be. Maybe they’re all sociopaths.

There are several episode of pure selfishness. One example early on brought this into focus. We have an aside about the importance of fully funding free clinics and national health care. Whether you agree or no all I could think was to tell the character, “So you’re white and educated yet you choose to not to get a job with health insurance but work as a cocktail waitress engaging in the risky behaviors of promiscuity and smoking and you want ME to pay for your health care? Go to hell.”

Heck, I think immature Emma was a teenager but Martha is pushing thirty. Ugh.

Anyway, the A Body of Rest’s Martha has no George Knightley to correct or critique her behavior. Everyone just seems to uncharacteristically roll along with the selfish behavior. They act as if her selfish behavior is just AOK. This made them all unbelievable. I could detail a dozen or so acts but don’t want to give away much more of the plot. Martha seems at the end just as selfish as at the beginning. So why make this trip?

Complete off-putting narrator aside (even Hannibal Lecter had some charm, for god’s sake!), I expected more to be said in a novel with two very different characters as inspiration. I also expected a sally or two but there was no real action. Quixote was pushed to the side for a large section of the story so we could bath in the narcissism and condescension of Martha. There were some good bits in there but what I thought was a wonderful premise to say so much about the human experience or today’s world versus 1800’s England or 1600’s Spain was squandered.

The prose was uneven and and times trite. The formatting (which I don’t hold against the author) of the ebook needs plenty of work.

Review of The Age of Innocence

So like most folks I saw the movie before I read the book so couldn’t get the visuals out of my head…but what are ya gonna do?

Here’s what I discovered in doing the inevitable comparison between the novel and the film: Over two hours the story is compelling and issues important. But when Wharton’s narrative is read over several more hours than a film takes the watch, I couldn’t care less about these folks.

Yeah, sorry that your rich and constrained by your ephemeral tradition….but who cares?

What put me off in the novel was the way these characters floated above New York in their fine linens and polished shoes without ever getting the dirty of normal human life on them. Not a single service person was anything other than a prop. Only in the final chapter was anything of the times touched on. It did remind me of Jane Austen writing all those novels during the Napoleonic wars and not once mentioning them. But at least with Austen their middle-classness was often at stake. There seemed to be a fear of slipping into poverty or disrepute.

Not in The Age of Innocence. The worst thing that could happen? Not much. They’ll go on being rich and attending balls and the opera. Sorry for the slight disappointment in life.

I gave this four stars because Wharton can obviously compel a reader forward on her prose because I couldn’t care less about the story. Also, the final chapter is perhaps the finest final chapter I’ve ever read in a novel. It is a quiet and wistful chapter full of reflection and regret yet contentment. Much like many men I presume feel in their 50s – or now probably older – looking back on the paths not taken.

My review of Wodehouse’s Something Fresh

Something Fresh is the first novel of P.G. Wodehouse’s that I’ve read. It won’t be the last, but I’m not clamoring for another.

I love Wodehouse’s short stories. They’re brilliant and as a writer I’m jealous of what he can do with plotting and prose and humor. But as I saw noted in a documentary of Wodehouse one can become sated with him. His short stories are just the right amount to put you in a chipper mood and in the mood to say ‘Hi, ho,’ and tackle the day. I’ve argued that an hour with Wodehouse is equivalent to four in a therapist’s chair for chasing the blues away.

But at novel length, well, his prose and general silliness becomes cloying. In the same way Shakespeare’s dramas and tragedies had those comedic walk on parts to lighten the mood I’d have loved for Wodehouse to have just a bit of seriousness to ground the meringue of his plots.

Review of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers

I wish The Leftovers’ narrative was as true as Tom Perrotta’s prose.

He writes in an elegant, simple, straightforward style with only the occasional discordant notes. It’s his prose that pulled me through the novel. It certainly wasn’t the plot.

What is untrue of his narrative?

Let’s start with the central premise. It’s a trick. A set-up. A mere device to set the characters in motion. The Rapture-like nature of the central event is only examined in a cursorily way. Maybe this was done out of fear of having an honest discussion of religion. Maybe not. Either way, the Rapture nature of the loss of so many loved ones could have been a mass murder, a tragic crash of a bus loaded with townsfolks. It’s only used to set off the characters on various paths of healing from a loss. Except when there’s loss people naturally turn to religion – in all of it’s forms. For a meditation on loss, I’d rather turn to Russell Bank’s The Sweet Hereafter.

Even as a plot device, there’s not much examination or explanation of how the world reacts when millions disappear. News reports, government actions, heated debates. Anything even referred to would have helped draw me into this world. Heck, even description of CCTV footage. The event happens in a prologue and then the action picks up three years later. The practical guy in me wanted more.

Then I especially didn’t buy into the ‘trueness’ of some of the characters. A woman leaves her family. While this happens in life. It’s rare and, if happens, drugs are usually present. Or mental illness. Men leave their families, women don’t. Women especially don’t leave teen daughters. However, on the whole the women seemed truer than the fellas.

The men in this novel frustrated me beyond belief because….because…they didn’t act like men. They are inactive pushovers. They bend to whatever circumstances are presented to them without so much as a whimper. Maybe that’s the state of manhood in the 2010s. I just wanted one of them to take action. To kick in a door. To say “enough!” None did. Not even a man who built a successful liquor distributorship and retired early – no easy feat for a milquetoast guy who dreamed of retiring with his wife while working but then lets her abandon the family and wander into a cult across town with only minimal protest.

There were some nice bits in this book. As I stated, the writing is elegant. However, I felt like either punches were pulled or never even thrown. Heck, in a book about a Rapture-like event, the word Jesus was used as a blasphemy and exclamation as much as referencing the religious figure.

My Review of Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics

A disclaimer up front: I bailed on this book about 20% of the way through. So take this review for what it’s worth.

I should have loved this book but I didn’t. I love economics. I love the debate.

Let’s face it, the material can be esoteric. While I have some economic education I found myself swimming in rough waters at times in this book. The writer didn’t guide us through the various viewpoints so much as clip a paragraph from Keynes then clip another paragraph from Hayek with a counterpoint. The problem with these is that the two economists were writing to and for other economists. It’s not the easiest lingo to understand in 1930 much less after 80 years has passed.

The book started promisingly enough for me. The two economists alone on top of a building at night assigned to watch for German bombers. From my limited knowledge the two men could not have been more different but more alike in many ways. I wish that was explored more. Maybe it was in the final 80% or so but I just couldn’t push through to find out.