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.

Pandora’s Grave by Stephen England – The book I’d take heading into battle

I’m not a military guy. I’ve no interest in military things. I respect them and value what they do. I stand when those who serve or have served parade by and upon meeting them I, to paraphrase Prince Hal, hold my manhood cheap.

But if I was given short notice that I was being tossed into battle to fight forces aligned against my country I’d want to make sure I had Pandora’s Grave loaded onto my Kindle. Re-reading it would give me a sense of what I was about to go up against. There’s is such a profound sense of realism in this novel that I’m agog at the amount of research that must have went into it. We’re accustomed to suspending belief when reading or watching fiction – especially in spy/thriller tales but not once did I feel Stephen England was asking me to. This felt like what those men tasked with covert ops must go through. That’s not only a sign of respect to the soldiers England writes about but a deep sign of respect to the intelligence of his reader.

Other signs of respect to the reader? An original plot that reaches back into history and writing that is direct and vivid with an economy of words that is a reflection on the stoicism of the type of men he writes about.

The sign of a good book for me is one that sticks with you over time. I have a feeling this will be one of them. Whether I’m reading about an archaeological dig in the middle east or another report of another explosion in that region my thoughts will wander back to Pandora’s Grave and the dangers the world faces and the men who silently thwart those dangers time and again.

My Review of Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams

In the novel the title character is described by the matriarch of a prominent family as pushy.

Mrs. Palmer settled the whole case of Alice carelessly. “A pushing sort of girl,” she said. “A very pushing little person.”

That pushing is the fatal flaw of the Adams family. But it doesn’t reside in Alice’s heart but her mothers. She’s a mother that believes she deserves more and is pushing her family members to get it – whatever that is – for her.

While titled after the daughter I felt as if the novel is about the mother and how her pushing destroyed her family.

She pushes her husband, a kind, appreciative man with no business acumen, into committing a moral if not a legal crime in the launch of a new business. The husband has just recovered from a long unidentifiable sickness and is on the far side of middle age. But his wife pushes.

She pushes her son, a young man just starting in life, against his nature. The son is a bit of a free spirit. His mother pushes him to be what his father wasn’t: a man of business and respectability. Her son just wants to shoot dice and have a good time before the shadow of adult responsibility falls over him.

Then there’s Alice. Much like Willie Loman to Biff she puffs Alice up and constructs grand dreams. She wants Alice to join their town’s high society and not marry some mere trades men. But their family is middle-class at best. It’s a fact felt deeply by both Alice and her mother but they somehow feel themselves entitled to enter the higher society. So they both push.

This pushing leads to deception and repels those that would welcome the Adams just as they are. It destroys the husband’s career. It destroys the son’s prospects. And it destroys a budding romance Alice had with a man who would have loved her just as she was.

Alice, in the end, figures this out. She comes to terms with it and begins the process of earning her way into whatever level she’ll obtain instead of pushing her way into it. Her mother, unfortunately, keeps pushing til the end.