Friday, July 1, 2016

Book Review - Stephen King's The Colorado Kid

The Colorado Kid by Stephen King
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: October 4th, 2005
Format: Kindle, 184 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Dave Bowie and Vince Teague are reminiscing about an old unsolved case to their new intern at The Weekly Islander newspaper. A man was discovered on the beach twenty-five years earlier, cause of death unknown, whose last few hours defy explanation. A year after his death the victim is nicknamed "The Colorado Kid" because of a pack of cigarettes he had on him when he died. He is eventually identified as James Cogan, but an identity doesn't solve a crime. Vince and Dave speculate on how in all their years as newspapermen this is the only true mystery they have come across. They have their theories, but the truth might never be found; they are getting up their in age, now the intern must carry the torch. She must remember "The Colorado Kid."

For quite a few years now I've had two close friends addicted to the television show Haven. I have spent the barest minimal energy to occasionally mock their love of a show with Eric Balfour in it. Come on, there's a reason he dies like five minutes into the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Yet their love of the show combined with Netflix having every season available to me meant that my willpower was broken over one summer by my love of marathoning shows. That and there's just something that's cheesy and fun about Stephen King shows, why else would I have Rose Red on DVD and stayed with Under the Dome to the bitter almost incomprehensible end? While falling for the show, because I did despite Eric Balfour's presence, I was also impatient. Could I figure out the mystery of "The Colorado Kid" before they did on the show just by picking up the book? So that was my grand plan, spoiled by Stephen King.

If you're going the way I went, from the show to the book, or even the other way around, from the book to the show, know now, they have minimal resemblance. In fact the mysterious murder of "The Colorado Kid" and the two lovely old codgers running the newspaper, Vince and Dave, are the only resemblance you are going to find betwixt the two. Though on the show they do love to liven things up with as many Stephen King references as they can, which is fun for his fans. I do find it interesting that in a television show that's basically Smallville without the superheroes, that the two characters I connected with most are Vince and Dave. Because the book, and in some regards the show, is Vince and Dave's story. Still, it is a flawed story, both on the page and on the small screen.

The main flaw, and hence the crux of my problem with the book is that it has no ending. Vince and Dave spin a yarn, that might have certain clues as to the outcome, but it is never spelled out, never revealed. For a person like me, this lack of closure is infuriating. I want to know if my theory is right! Life is full of ambiguity, fiction is there to give us some closure that we won't find in life. King has had a love of experimenting with endings for quite awhile. The ambiguous ending is the easiest cop out, but he has also serialized his tales, like with The Dark Tower, so that you can't skip to the end, thus having a drawn out conclusion. I have a feeling a lot of this has to do with his being raised by a mother who would read the end first, but that's just my opinion. Yet, even though he set out to try something new, I can't help myself wanting something old and concrete. This was like sitting around with your grandparents while they told you this fantastical tale but then five minutes before they were done they forgot the ending.

But the biggest question I'm left with is why this is part of the Hard Case Crime imprint of Simon and Schuster? How is this a hardboilded mystery? Hardboiled is noir and dark and Dashiell Hammett and dames and guns and lots of smoking... what hardboiled isn't is two codgers telling an intern over soda in a cozy Maine newspaper office about an unsolved murder. This story is far more Murder She Wrote and Jessica Fletcher than Sam Spade. Seriously, I am baffled by this. Was Stephen King's outline for this story "Would She Learn the Dead Man's Secret" and then he punked them? Was he purposefully subverting the genre? I haven't read King extensively, but this was just, odd. So odd in fact that he apologized in the afterword for what he did. I think I'll stick to the show, the early episodes before it got too weird and cancelled. Thanks for the effort Stephen, but you should know you shouldn't make excuses for your work.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review - Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: April 28th, 2009
Format: Hardcover, 374 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

At Buckshaw, the ancestral home of the de Luce's, Flavia spends her time lovingly researching poisons and thinking up ways to exact revenge on her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. What else can one do with a distant philatelist father interested only in his stamps, a dead mother, and sisters more concerned with reading and makeup then forging sisterly bonds? Add Mrs. Mullet, a cook who keeps plying them with her unwanted custard pies, and Dogger, the shell shocked comrade in arms who saved the Colonel in the war and is now the house's general dogsbody, and you can see why Flavia likes the uncomplicated world of chemistry to that of her fellow man. Lucky for Flavia the long dead Tarquin de Luce had a fervent love of chemistry equal to hers and she has inherited his envy inducing laboratory in Buckshaw, where even the china has a story to it. But their peace is soon to be disturbed, and not by the shrieks of Feely as her pearls are disintegrated by Flavia, or the muffled sounds of Flavia trying to extricate herself from the closest where her sisters imprisoned her. No. Murder is about to strike Buckshaw, foreshadowed by a dead jack snipe with a postage stamp skewered on it's beak. In the middle of the night Flavia is woken by her father arguing with a man in his study. She is taken back to bed by Dogger and she blasts music to lull herself to sleep rather than stewing in her habitual discontented and inquisitive mindset, but not before she heard her father say he had murdered a man by the name of Twining twenty years ago.

In the early dawn hours she awakens and goes out into the garden to find the intruder almost dead in the cucumber patch, his last words uttered into Flavia's face. The authorities are called and the investigation begins. But Flavia has her own investigations to conduct, starting at the public library and the death of this man named Twining. To her trusty steed, Gladys, her mother's old bicycle that Flavia uses to race off to the library. Which is closed... but soon a librarian approaches. The retired Miss Mountjoy, the bane of the village, has returned to help the current librarian. But her arrival is felicitous, she happens to be the niece of the murdered Twining, who was a teacher at Greyminster, the school Colonel de Luce attended. Twining committed suicide in front of all his students by jumping off the top of the school tower after a prize Penny Black stamp was taken from the headmaster and destroyed in front of his eyes. Flavia, intrigued, then goes to the local inn, assuming that the mystery man had to be staying there. In his room she finds the stamp that was supposedly destroyed... and it's twin! But back at Buckshaw it might be too late... her father has been arrested! Can Flavia save the day and her father before Inspector Hewitt and the other detectives? Or will she need saving herself?

When the dearly departed David Thompson from Murder by the Book casually mentioned a new and unique mystery that he thought I'd like I had little inkling that it would be the start of one of my favorite book series. Six years have passed since he sent me that email, five years since I first read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and David died. I can't believe it's been that long, but the sheer joy with which I've devoured the following six volumes attests to the fact that time hasn't stayed still. Flavia de Luce has worked her way into my heart. Part Addams Family, part Eloise, she's precocious but in a way that isn't cloying because it is balanced by her fondness for the macabre.  Bradley's world is populated with overtones of Christie and Du Maurier, which I'm sure he would gladly confirm. He has given us a wonderful mystery that reads like the best of the British whodunits but with a unique narrator in the guise of Flavia. Her family and their estate remind one of a dysfunctional Larkin family, they all have their little quirks and obsessions. Whether it's Flavia and her chemical compounds or Daffy and her books or the Colonel and his stamps, Bradley has created a myriad of interesting folk and their foibles who you can't help but love. But their bizarre personality quirks aren't just their for the sake of creating a semblance of depth in these people, they are integral to the plot and to the solving of the mystery. Only those with the experiences and backgrounds that the de Luce's possess would be able to see the greater picture.  

Though re-reading it all these years later with the sheer number of books I read per year details have become hazy and it was nice to refamiliarize myself with Flavia's origins. The truth is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is rough around the edges. Bradley has matured as a writer over the years to be more polished and to tell Flavia's story in a more assured and competent manner. With his development over the past few years he has definitely secured Flavia's place among the cannon of British whodunits, even if he's Canadian. But here this assurance is lacking and there are times when I was distinctly put out. Flavia waffles between being mature for her age and being very slow on the uptake. This results in her inner monologue occasionally becoming repetitive and simplistic in her deductions when the answer is actually right in front of her. While the mystery isn't really the driving force of Flavia's story, it is hard on the reader when they are so far ahead of Flavia that you start hoping that she'd get on with it already. But then again, this slow style is typical of the cozy genre and for a first outing, it's better than some writers achieve in their entire life. Yes, it might be a little clunky, yes, it's not perfect, but it does lay the groundwork magnificently for a solid series to come.

What really strikes me coming back to the beginning is just how British this series is. It's not just that this story could only happen to this family but also this could only happen in Britain. My love of Lark Rise to Candleford has made me more then a little obsessed with running a small rural post office in Victorian England, and the history of the postal service and the issuance of stamps and the Penny Black and it's connection to revolutionary forces and how it oddly ties into the climax of the movie The Young Victoria; well, the Anglophile in me was doing a happy dance. I find it interesting that in my original review, which I might have liberally borrowed from here, I found the reminisces of Colonel de Luce over long and unnecessary. But the truth is his unburdening in that little jail cell is the core of this book. Not only do we get this postal history but how much more British can a book get than long reminiscences of boys going to boarding school? The halcyon days of Greyminster and Colonel de Luce's mentor, Twining, are the stuff of Waugh and Powell, but here, here they take a deliciously dark twist. These settings, this time period, it just makes you long to dwell in the world, to walk the crumbling Buckshaw estate and wade out to the little folly. It is a world that is gone and we long to recapture, and here it is thanks to Bradley.    

And then there's Dogger. Dogger is a product of this time and this place and he is the heart of this book. Knowing, as I now know, Dogger's full past, seeing the clues, the little crumb trail that Bradley started here makes me realize what a long game he was playing. But it's not just Dogger, it's the way the de Luce's take care of him and even shelter him. They know Dogger is special and they treat him as such and let him do as he does in order to recover. Dogger is also the balancing force to Flavia. Flavia spends so much time talking about death and poisons and how she would eliminate her siblings, she's a bit out there. In fact, some people might be put off by her love of these deadly arts and that she solves the murder by rather gruesome knowledge. Inspector Hewitt doesn't even want her to finish her demonstration on her articulated skeleton Yorick because he's more than a little spooked. Therefore Flavia needs some way to humanize herself. While anyone who was a young girl would attest to the fact that young girls do spend much of their time planing the downfall of their enemies, it might not be so palatable for readers, and here is where Dogger comes in. Flavia helps Dogger however she can. She helps him through his attacks in whatever way he needs, whether it's a helping hand, a cup of tea, a lie down in his bed, or acting as if everything is OK, Flavia just knows what Dogger needs and does it. He humanizes her and she anchors him, they are the true dynamic duo of this book, sorry Gladys.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

A Certain Age by Beatriz Williams
Published by: William Morrow
Publication Date: June 28th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The bestselling author of A Hundred Summers brings the Roaring Twenties brilliantly to life in this enchanting and compulsively readable tale of intrigue, romance, and scandal in New York Society, brimming with lush atmosphere, striking characters, and irresistible charm.

As the freedom of the Jazz Age transforms New York City, the iridescent Mrs. Theresa Marshall of Fifth Avenue and Southampton, Long Island, has done the unthinkable: she’s fallen in love with her young paramour, Captain Octavian Rofrano, a handsome aviator and hero of the Great War. An intense and deeply honorable man, Octavian is devoted to the beautiful socialite of a certain age and wants to marry her. While times are changing and she does adore the Boy, divorce for a woman of Theresa’s wealth and social standing is out of the question, and there is no need; she has an understanding with Sylvo, her generous and well-respected philanderer husband.

But their relationship subtly shifts when her bachelor brother, Ox, decides to tie the knot with the sweet younger daughter of a newly wealthy inventor. Engaging a longstanding family tradition, Theresa enlists the Boy to act as her brother’s cavalier, presenting the family’s diamond rose ring to Ox’s intended, Miss Sophie Fortescue—and to check into the background of the little-known Fortescue family. When Octavian meets Sophie, he falls under the spell of the pretty ingénue, even as he uncovers a shocking family secret. As the love triangle of Theresa, Octavian, and Sophie progresses, it transforms into a saga of divided loyalties, dangerous revelations, and surprising twists that will lead to a shocking transgression . . . and eventually force Theresa to make a bittersweet choice.

Full of the glamour, wit and delicious twists that are the hallmarks of Beatriz Williams’ fiction and alternating between Sophie’s spirited voice and Theresa’s vibrant timbre, A Certain Age is a beguiling reinterpretation of Richard Strauss’s comic opera Der Rosenkavalier, set against the sweeping decadence of Gatsby’s New York."

The only thing I've read my Beatriz Williams is The Forgotten Room... perhaps seeing as how much I love the 20s this will be bumped up the tbr pile?

Every Frenchman Has One by Olivia de Havilland
Published by: Crown Archetype
Publication Date: June 28th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 144 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Back in print for the first time in decades—and featuring a new interview with the author, in celebration of her forthcoming centennial birthday—the delectable escapades of Hollywood legend Olivia de Havilland, who fell in love with a Frenchman, and then became a Parisian

In 1953, Olivia de Havilland—already an Academy Award-winning actress for her roles in To Each His Own and The Heiress—became the heroine of her own real-life love affair. She married a Frenchman, moved to Paris, and planted her standard on the Left Bank of the River Seine. It has been fluttering on both Left and Right Banks with considerable joy and gaiety from that moment on.

Still, her transition from Hollywood celebrity to parisienne was anything but easy. And in Every Frenchman Has One, her skirmishes with French customs, French maids, French salesladies, French holidays, French law, French doctors, and above all, the French language, are here set forth in a delightful and amusing memoir of her early years in the “City of Light.”

Paraphrasing Caesar, Ms. de Havilland says, “I came. I saw. I was conquered.”"

This book seriously sounds kind of fun and raunchy, like Mitford sister goes Hollywood... with a vintage cover to die for.

Grace Sees Red by Julie Hyzy
Published by: Berkley
Publication Date: June 28th, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"The New York Times bestselling author of the Manor House Mysteries and the White House Chef Mysteries is back with another nail-biting murder mystery for curator Grace Wheaton.

Grace Wheaton, curator and manager of Marshfield Manor, and her benefactor, Bennett Marshfield, are discussing how to help her roommates Bruce and Scott with their wine shop troubles when Grace’s trusted—if testy—assistant, Frances, calls, saying she needs some assistance of her own. Arriving at the address Frances has given them, they find a coroner’s van and police cars parked outside an upscale assisted-living facility called Indwell.

One of the elderly residents has been found dead under suspicious circumstances, and Frances, seen arguing with the man earlier that day, is now a person of interest. It’s up to Grace to clear her assistant’s name and find the real killer—before another Indwell resident checks out early..."

No, I didn't add this book JUST because of the tuxedo cat on the cover... though that is VERY important. I actually added for my mom. Not the cat. Well, not all the cat.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Mystery

To me a good mystery isn't just a genre, but the key building block to ALL stories. What better driving force for any narrative than a question that begs answering? It doesn't have to be a true "whodunit" with a murderer caught at the end of the day, but all books should have some "mystery" to them. So what makes a book labelled a "mystery" actually one? Especially considering my weird take on the need of all books to have this driving force? Well, personally, it's that there is a murder. The more complex, the more convoluted, the more devious, the better. If I was said to have any kind of weird superhuman abilities it would be that I'm really good at solving crimes, of the televisual and written variety. Therefore I really like my mysteries to try to trick me. But more than that, the crime shouldn't get in the way of good character development. There has to be a balance between finding the killer and wanting the detective to succeed. All while making the book stick to your hand so that you can't set it down until the very last page. I remember some of the first "adult" books I read were mysteries. Of course they happened to be Lilian Jackson Braun's "Cat Who" books, but they are still a staple of the mystery genre, if at the cozy end of the spectrum. But that's what is wonderful about mysteries! They have all these subgenres from cozy to true crime. From books for those who like the mystery but can't handle the darkness of humanity, to those who love it. Personally, I love it all!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review - Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: March 6th, 1991
Format: Paperback, 401 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Patrick Bateman and his friends are the epitome of yuppiedom. Young, highly successful investment bankers, they wear the right designer labels, they are seen at the right restaurants, and they drink the right bottled water. Bateman could be any one of them, only he harbors something darker behind the veneer that is the true depth of those around him. He satisfies a violent blood lust killing women and men. They might have offended him, they might have merely looked at him the wrong way, or they might have a better business card. As Bateman fuels this dark need his desire to kill comes sooner and sooner. But with everyone living in their own chemically aided hermetically sealed bubble who would even notice his crimes?

American Psycho is one of those books that everyone knows about. Like classics that people brag about reading, I'm not sure how many of those people have actually read this book. The bookseller at Barnes and Noble who checked me out and who has literally never said more then a few words to me ever (even more impressive when you think how often I go to the bookstore) got all gushy about this book and Bret Easton Ellis, but with the caveat that it is violent. He wasn't wrong. This book is not an easy read. The violence and culture of the time make it hard to swallow. Yet there's something about the underlying message lambasting our culture that calls to us and makes the book still relevant. Why else would there not only be a movie but a musical, which actually makes more sense then you'd think, and a contemporary television show about an older Bateman in the works? Because Patrick Bateman is the zeitgeist of the late 80s in New York, whose afterimage can sadly still be seen today.

There's a fine line between camp and horror that Ellis walks in this book. American Psycho succeeds when it's subtle. Before we witness Bateman kill firsthand it's scenes like the one at the laundromat when he's trying to explain through belligerence and a language barrier the importance of getting his sheets whiter than white. Of course the sheets bear the hallmarks of the previous night's killing, but having not seen the killing the interaction is laced with dark humor. Not to mention my favorite scene where he decides his colleague must be killed for having a nicer business card. Being suggestive works far more than being graphic, and it's not long before Ellis is graphic. This is when the book shifts, and in my mind, starts to fall apart. Our imagination can be pretty horrific with just implying what happened, but Ellis, he is one sick fellow for some of the imagery he conjures, especially what "happens" to Bateman's ex from college.

Yet one does wonder how deliberate this downward spiral is. It's clear that Bateman's killing spree is ramping up, and therefore it does make sense to go gorier and grosser as he unravels, but it makes for a less readable story. The unraveling also raises the question of how much of this is real? Was Bateman so sick that he hallucinated it all? How else would Paul Owen be seen after Bateman killed him? I have a theory about Paul, but that will hold for a minute. It's the questioning of Owen still being alive as well as Bateman's seeming ability to get away with it all that makes one think perhaps it didn't happen. With the amount of drugs Bateman takes and looking to scenes like the chase with the helicopter, one can see how the "it's all in his mind" theory is plausible. And is it any less horrific to know that these are just his thoughts? For my money, I think he was a murderer, but I do like the ambiguity.

Going back to the zeitgeist and Bateman's mindset, I think American Psycho is a scathing attack on our culture during the late 80s. It's a flawed attack, but it gets it's point across admirably. One of the reasons it's hard to get into this book is the sheer number of designer brands Bateman lists. Every article of clothing in the whole book from Bateman's own wardrobe to everyone else he encounters is stripped down to their socks and shoes. After awhile you think that perhaps Ellis could lighten it up because he's gotten the point across, but he doesn't. I think that the fact that he doesn't give it up shows even stronger the relentless consumerism in our society. But it's not just the buying of more and more designer labels, it's also the lifestyle that goes with the designer labels, the physique that must be maintained, the music you listen to, everything is detailed to the nth degree and it shows how vapid and shallow our culture can be at it's very worse.

But not only does American Psycho attack our habits, it attacks what these habits make of us. Throughout the book Bateman is again and again mistaken for other investment bankers. He is interchangeable with his colleagues. Indistinguishable. Hence Paul Owen also being interchangeable and being able to be seen from beyond the grave.  The only thing that really separates Bateman is his blood lust. He is just a cog in the machine that is our culture. When he finally confesses his crimes they are viewed as a joke. Not only that, but the man he confesses to doesn't even realize he is Bateman! Once again he could be anyone. Everyone is only concerned about themselves and their problems, nothing else is relevant or even absorbed into their consciousness. This anonymity gives Bateman great freedom in being able to commit his crimes, but reflected back on us, this interchangeability means that Bateman might not be the "American Psycho" of the title. What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Tuesday Tomorrow

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond
Published by: Scribner
Publication Date: June 21st, 2016
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"An unforgettable debut with an irresistible love story, My Last Continent is a big-hearted, propulsive novel set against the dramatic Antarctic landscape—“original and entirely authentic love story” (Graeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project).

It is only at the end of the world—among the glacial mountains, cleaving icebergs, and frigid waters of Antarctica—where Deb Gardner and Keller Sullivan feel at home. For the few blissful weeks they spend each year studying the habits of emperor and Adélie penguins, Deb and Keller can escape the frustrations and sorrows of their separate lives and find solace in their work and in each other. But Antarctica, like their fleeting romance, is tenuous, imperiled by the world to the north.

A new travel and research season has just begun, and Deb and Keller are ready to play tour guide to the passengers on the small expedition ship that ferries them to their research destination. But this year, Keller fails to appear on board. Then, shortly into the journey, Deb’s ship receives an emergency signal from the Australis, a cruise liner that has hit desperate trouble in the ice-choked waters of the Southern Ocean. Soon Deb’s role will change from researcher to rescuer; among the crew of that sinking ship, Deb learns, is Keller.

As Deb and Keller’s troubled histories collide with this catastrophic present, Midge Raymond’s phenomenal novel takes us on a voyage deep into the wonders of the Antarctic and the mysteries of the human heart. My Last Continent is packed with emotional intelligence and high stakes—a harrowing, searching novel of love and loss in one of the most remote places on earth, a land of harsh beauty where even the smallest missteps have tragic consequences—“Half adventure, half elegy, and wholly recommended” (Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves)."

Something about the Arctic and human turmoil just has me sold on this book.

Man from Atlantis by Patrick Duffy
Published by: Permuted Platinum
Publication Date: June 21st, 2016
Format: Paperback, 240 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Dive deeper than ever before and discover the origins of The Man from Atlantis.

When TV unveiled the series Man from Atlantis no one knew the how, where and why of Mark Harris. Over time the show’s star Patrick Duffy formulated his own version of the history of Mark and his people. Here at last is the book that gives every reader and fan of the show the life and mythology of Atlantis, who they were and where they came from. Patrick Duffy’s close connection to his fictional character gives us a special look "behind the scenes" of this amazing fantasy story.

Mark Harris, the Man from Atlantis, has been quietly living under the protection of Dr. Elizabeth Merrill who saved his life in 1976. By studying his abilities the two have contributed countless advances for mankind’s development. Only a select few know his true identity:

Jason the whiz kid of the science lab.

Stacy the bright young intern–who is constantly flustered by Mark’s presence.

Dr. Nagashima, a master of oceanic knowledge who Elizabeth lured from Japan to join her inner circle.

Then their California ocean side laboratory is shaken when several attempts are made upon Mark’s life. He discovers the assailants have powers similar to his and he is lead into the uncharted depths of the oceans. As he discovers his past Mark’s origins and genealogy finally come to the surface.

Includes photos from the author's personal collection."

Seriously, it's all about the fact that it's written by Patrick "Bobby Ewing" Duffy! 

Behind the Mask by Matthew Dennison
Published by: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication Date: June 21st, 2016
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A dazzling new biography of Vita Sackville-West, the 20th century aristocrat, literary celebrity, devoted wife, famous lover of Virginia Woolf, recluse, and iconoclast who defied categorization.

In this stunning new biography of Vita Sackville-West, Matthew Dennison's Behind the Mask traces the triumph and contradictions of Vita's extraordinary life. His narrative charts a fascinating course from Vita's lonely childhood at Knole, through her affectionate but ‘open' marriage to Harold Nicolson (during which both husband and wife energetically pursued homosexual affairs, Vita most famously with Virginia Woolf), and through Vita's literary successes and disappointments, to the famous gardens the couple created at Sissinghurst. The book tells how, from her privileged world of the aristocracy, Sackville-West brought her penchant for costume, play-acting and rebellion to the artistic vanguard of modern Britain. Dennison is the acclaimed author of many books including a biography of Queen Victoria.

Here, in the first biography to be written of Vita for thirty years, he reveals the whole story and gets behind ‘the beautiful mask' of Vita's public achievements to reveal an often troubled persona which heroically resisted compromise on every level. Drawing on wideranging sources and the extensive letters that sustained her marriage, this is a compelling story of love, loss and jealousy, of high-life and low points, of binding affection and illicit passion – a portrait of an extraordinary, 20th-century life."

I usually don't have paperbacks on this post if it's already out in hardcover, but seeing as I've never  heard of this book and if you're a true anglophile you NEED to know about Vita Sackville-West, viola, I doth recommend it!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review - Albert Camus's The Stranger

The Stranger by Albert Camus
Published by: Vintage International
Publication Date: 1942
Format: Paperback, 123 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Meursault's mother has died. He makes the long trek to her funeral, it was cost prohibitive to keep her with him and they had nothing more to say to each other. He feels that he should feel something, but there is nothing but the heat of the day and the inconvenience to his daily routine. The day after his mother's funeral he begins a long desired affair with Marie, a co-worker, going to a silly movie and having sex. Things are going along swimmingly with Marie, though she presses for marriage. Meursault says if she wants to get married they should get married, it makes no difference to him. He is passivity personified. He even helps his neighbor Raymond pen a missive to his mistress, seeing that there's no harm in it. Meursault's naivety as to his situation with Raymond will be his undoing. One day at the beach Meursault shoots and kills the brother of Raymond's mistress. The day was hot and the gang of men were following Raymond and Meursault and Marie to the beach. They had an altercation but everything seemed to be over. Then Meursault wandered back to the cool little cove where they first encountered the men, hoping to rest. The Arab was there and then he was dead. Killed by the gun Raymond gave to Meursault. Meursault confesses to his crime. He puts up no protest. The trial is tiring, but he is sure that he will get off. The sentence passed down is a shock to him.

If you read for pleasure versus reading for a class you quickly realize that just because a book is defined as a classic doesn't mean it actually has to be good. In fact some of the most lauded and praised classics might be the most deathly and dull books you'll ever read. While I wouldn't classify The Stranger as the "worst" classic I've ever read, I will say that of all the members of my book club I liked it the least. Though my ambivalence to the book and how it influenced existentialism doesn't preclude it from being a good book to discuss. So while the book might not have met my expectations the discussion that arose from it was engaging, and I think that's why this book has stuck around. It's not perfect but it is perfect to get people talking. As to why The Stranger didn't blow me away, I've read similar books that are better written. D'entre les Mortes by Boileau and Narcejac, which was the basis for the movie Vertigo, captures existentialism and fatalism far better than The Stranger ever does. And it also has that very French vibe as well. But seeing as this book is written later, it was probably influenced by Camus. Therefore I suggest looking to a contemporary of Camus, mainly Daphne Du Maurier. Her short stories succinctly capture the feeling of The Stranger but with better writing. Just because she has been erroneously labelled as a "romance writer" it has lead to her being overlooked. Camus might be a good discussion topic, but for true existentialism go to Du Maurier.

Despite preferring Du Maurier, I am not going to argue the "classic" status of The Stranger. The truth is it is a classic. The reason this is is there is a timelessness to the book. Aside from the method of Meursault's execution and one mention of a movie star, I challenge you to pinpoint the time period of this piece. Not only could it have been set anytime during the past century, it could easily happen now. As my friend Mike pointed out, Meursault could just as easily have been going to a movie by Adam Sandler. Think of that. Could a man be condemned for enjoying an Adam Sandler movie? Now that would add an interesting modern take to the book without changing any of the underlying themes that Camus is trying to get across. Camus was all about the absurdity of life, that a man could be condemned for not showing what society thought as proper grief at his mother's death. If Camus were still alive I think the absurdity of being condemned for laughing at one of the worst comedians of all time would appeal to him. Plus, can you imagine the stir this modern take would create? It almost makes me want to make it into a film myself.

What is odd about The Stranger is despite having a first person narrator it almost feels like it was written in the third person. The reason for this is the passivity of Meursault. He outwardly has no emotions, no desires, he doesn't even really have a personality so to speak. He just follows the ebb and flow of life never really questioning anything until he is faced with his imminent death. One of my friends pointed out that this leads to a refreshing narrator because he does not have any ego. I personally would disagree. Yes he is passive, but being passive doesn't mean that at the bottom of all that there isn't an ego. The truth is he has a very well defined id. An id that is more animal than human. He only goes with the flow if it isn't an inconvenience to him. But look at his train of thought, it's all about food and sex and swimming. He only thinks about stuff that provides gratification to himself. He has an ego, but an animalistic ego that is all about his comfort. Sure he'll marry his girlfriend, what difference does it make to him, all he cares about is having someone around for sex. If marriage will secure this, then why not? The only incident in his entire life that isn't about his own pleasure was the murder he is accused of. He just did it because. Though you could argue that it was because of that nice cool cove.

But really, why kill this man? This is an action completely out of character. Meursault derived no apparent pleasure from it, and that was how he lived his entire life, so why do it? My theory is that there is something seriously wrong with him. Yes, you could look at the entire book as an emotionless man fighting against the inevitability of death and finally finding fire within, but I think that it is a study of a man who was seriously ill. I think that Meursault had a brain tumor. The book oddly backs this up. Firstly, people who have brain tumors often seem off, they don't understand how society works and are therefore often detached. Like people with aspergers they don't get social cues. They also don't understand dangerous situations, often having a childlike naivete. Therefore not crying at his mother's funeral doesn't seem odd to Meursault, while it's a "hanging" offense to the jury. His single-mindedness with devotion only to his own pleasure would also indicate that he has a tumor. But what I think is most significant is his reaction to the sun and heat. The sun is always too bright and overwhelms him. His brain can't process the light streaming through his eyes and he often complains of the sun and his head, much like someone with a migraine would. Only I don't think this is any migraine. I think that Meursault is a sick man because of something inside. This something doesn't see anything wrong with shooting a guy full of holes because it has no mechanism for censure of right and wrong. It lends an entirely different spin to the story but oddly backs up the futility of life. He is inevitably going to die so why fight? In fact he might not have had long to live even if he wasn't executed.

Obviously talking about life and death and this book being the epitome of existentialism, God will enter into it. The first half of the book leading to the murder followed by the second half of trial and condemnation, don't quite fit together. It's like Camus was trying to just show us this man's personality in part one but part two was where all the moral and philosophical reasoning reside. Which makes the second half far heavier. We only see Meursault lose his temper once and that is to the priest who visits him. Obviously this is the important part highlighted by English teachers the world over as the crux of the book. But by the time I reached this point I just didn't care. I didn't care if our antihero did or didn't accept Christ into his life. I didn't care if he was executed. I didn't care if he lived or died. That is the fault at the very center of this book. Yes we can discuss it, yes it might be a fascinating discussion, but a book comes down to the readers investment in the hero or antihero. I could not care less what happened to Meursault! But maybe that's the point? Maybe Camus is playing a double game? For those actually invested there's Meursault's struggle to come to terms with his death, and for the reader there's the struggle to actually care about the book. Or maybe I'm seriously just reading too much into things and applying meaning where there is none because so many people I know liked it and I thought it was just meh. Yep. Still meh.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review - Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: 1955
Format: Paperback, 453 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Yossarian is stationed on the small island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean west of Italy. He's on a bombing raid, he's on leave in Italy, he's in hospital, he's out of hospital, he's in the mess, he's not welcome in the mess, his friends are dying, he might die, he just wants to go home. He knows he's in real and immediate danger, which is the thought of a rational mind. If he asks to go home he's admitting that he knows he's in danger and therefore sane. If he wants to stay he is obviously insane and must be grounded. Yossarian is trapped in a frustrating situation by contradictory regulations because of a non-existent clause. But the genius is the simplicity of this clause that controls everyone's life, it is Catch-22.

Sometimes a book just isn't for you. You read it, you give it a try, and it's not that you hate it, you just don't like it. There are many books I love which some of my best friends dislike and a few they outright hate. I let them have that hate because it's an educated hate. They read the book or books and decided it wasn't for them. I'm not here to judge, it happens, and it is a two-way street. I just didn't like Catch-22. I tried. I really wanted to like it knowing how special a place it holds in some of my friend's hearts, but it just wasn't for me. Like Austen tends to alienate a good portion of the male population, I felt that Heller alienated a good portion of the female population. This book is a guy book, and that's the clearest way I have of saying it wasn't for me.

And I don't think it's the war aspect that makes it a guy book, but more that the depiction of the women alienates women readers. In fairness, not many of the characters are likable. They can be fascinating and compelling, but likable, not at all. The problem I had was that Heller depicted all women as whores who have a love of money or as wanton sluts. OK, this can be the starting point of a character, but you need to build beyond that. Don't make this a cookie cutter stereotype that applies to every single woman in your story. There's this misogynistic undertone that carries through the book and finds it's outlet in the rape and murder of the innocent Michaela, the one realistic woman. I can ascribe many what ifs to justify Heller's writing that he was parodying the way soldiers denigrate women or that he was trying to make women on a lower par with his men, but whatever I say or whatever is true, it still made me, as a woman reader, uncomfortable and not wanting to finish the book.

Though the content of the story bothered me far less then the literary techniques that Heller used. I didn't take issue with the non-linear narration, I only mention it because I have a feeling that this technique makes the book a better re-read then initial read, so I have that working against me. My main problem was that the book doesn't feel of it's time. How can I explain this? The book is about World War II but it was published in 1961. It feels like a book from the sixties instead of a book from the forties. The unattributed dialogue, the narrative structure, even the narrative tense felt more in line with writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and Kurt Vonnegut.

This disassociation between the time the book is set and this later writing style jarred my sensibilities and never meshed into a cohesive book for me. The best comparison I can give is between Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. I love the later book while disliking the former. The reason this newer writing style works for Vonnegut where it doesn't work for Heller is that Vonnegut's story goes forward and backward in time, it isn't just about World War II, so it is able to accept these new literary techniques, whereas Catch-22 is fighting against them every step of the way. A book needs to have harmony with itself to work. And a book really needs harmony to be an enjoyable reading experience.

The unattributed dialogue is on of the techniques that annoyed me the most. I know I'm not alone in being against this stylistic wordplay. I distinctly remember in one of my high school English classes that we had to read this short story that was all unattributed dialogue. Whomever had the book before me was obviously not a fan of this style either because they had gone through the entire story and written who was talking when, like in a screenplay. I was almost annoyed enough to do this here, but I really got to a why bother phase with this book rather fast. The writing would veer between being lugubrious to nonsensical, like an unsuccessful Lewis Carroll parody. At times it felt unoriginal and derivative of the worst and most repetitive of vaudeville sketches. Vaudeville can work, but think clearly, it works because there are actors delivering the lines and therefore keeping you away from the unattributed dialogue trap. This was like reading a vaudeville sketch; who's on first? Who knows, and really, do I care?

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