Monday, December 30, 2013

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Atlantic, 2013).

Dear heaven, what a brick of a book. What a long, ponderous, dreary brick of a book.

This isn't the first very long critical darling of a novel that I've read this year that was desperately in need of some pruning shears before publication, but I'd rather read The Goldfinch another two times than deal with this again. Bob Shacochis apparently set out to map America's loss of identity through the last several decades with his rumbling story about a mysterious woman murdered in Haiti, but all that he did was leave me completely cold.

I had lots of problems with this book, but the central one is that Shaochis writes in a peculiar, incredibly detached manner. It genuinely feels and reads like he could not care less about his players, and the act of transcribing the story is a mammoth task. He even eschews quotation marks around what is sometimes dialogue and what is sometimes a report of what was conveyed, which has the unexpected effect of pushing readers further away from the story. Dialogue draws us in; this doesn't.

I probably would have been happier had I abandoned the book after its first section of about 200 pages. Two of the characters who have been investigating a murder, in what is all too often laborious detail, finally find the culprit, and then Shacochis just stops caring to detail it. Over the course of a few paragraphs, he just sums up what happened next, and how they felt about things months and years later. He might as well have just written "yadda yadda yadda." I felt so cheated. Then the story pops back six decades, as a Nazi collaborator in what will become Czechoslovakia is murdered, beheaded in front of his son. In time, long, long after any reader will ask "why in hell am I reading this," we'll learn that the young boy will one day become the father of the woman killed in Haiti.

Perhaps the book wants to talk big about geopolitics, and make Big Important Points, but sometimes the best way to talk about Big Issues is to actually talk about them, and not around them, and not as badly as is done here. Eventually, loose ends are tied, and surprises sprung, and connections made, but long past the point where I'd stopped caring. Firmly and flatly, this was the biggest waste of my reading time in 2013. Not at all recommended.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, 2013).

There's a part of me that felt some serious disappointment with Neil Gaiman's most recent novel, because it's just so very Gaimanny. You name the trope, it's in here. Young protagonist, very old magic, trinity of crone / mother / youngster, names having power, tempting from magic circles, mysterious creatures / forces from other realities crossing into ours... this is a story that he's told before, quite honestly.

I'm not sure that he's ever told it so well, however. It's a story remembered by a man in his late forties, who had forgotten most of the events, decades ago, that began with a boarder stealing the family car and killing himself, and ended with a childhood friend moving across the ocean to Australia. But when he revisits the rickety old farm where the girl lived, he remembers a much more vivid story, of some force from another world influencing ours, of a visit to that land in the company of his new friend to try and persuade the force to leave, and of what happened when the creature followed them back to our world.

It is whimsical and interesting, and just long enough to not overstay its welcome, but it mostly follows a very predictable path. Even the fate of his friend - "Australia," indeed - is unsurprising. Gaiman's prose is so darn fine that it mostly didn't matter that this was a story he's told in comics and novels before. The ending, however, does contain a few unexpected revelations and quite heartbreaking gentle little twists. I admire Gaiman's power, but I'm ready for him to blaze a few new trails. Recommended with reservations.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of What's the Worst That Could Happen? (Mysterious Press, 1996).

When I went to Amazon to get the link for the picture above, I was surprised to learn that this book was kind of adapted for a feature film a few years back. I say "kind of" because the main antagonist of the book, an industrialist called Max Fielding, is there, and played by Danny DeVito, but the protagonist isn't. This novel is one of Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder books, with the hangdog thief stuck in one spiraling, ridiculous situation after another, but John Dortmunder was dumped from the movie and replaced by a wacky thief-with-a-heart-of-gold played by Martin Lawrence. I have absolutely no desire to watch such a thing. I sounds like it makes Robert Altman's bizarre 1970s-set, ending-changed Long Goodbye look like a slavishly faithful adaptation.

The book sees Dortmunder in another mess. On the day that his girlfriend gifts him a cheap ring, he gets caught by a multi-millionaire breaking into one of his homes. The industrialist was absolutely not supposed to be there; he's in the middle of chapter 11 reorganization and the house should have been closed and empty, but he needed a love nest for his affair with a Playboy playmate. Fielding holds Dortmunder at gunpoint and, when the police arrive and cuff our "hero," Fielding decides to claim that the ring is his, just to needle Dortmunder for having the moxie to dare to rob him.

After escaping, this quickly becomes a really sore point for Dortmunder, who doesn't have many resources, and none outside New York City, but it's a matter of pride. He is going to get that ring back from the globetrotting Fielding, and if he causes the big shot undue embarrassment and aggravation along the way, then so be it.

It's a really fun book, mostly quite unpredictable and deeply silly. I enjoyed it thoroughly and happily recommend it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley (Fantagraphics, 2011).

What a nice surprise! I had no idea this comic strip was so good.

Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks launched a Mickey Mouse newspaper comic in January, 1930. Five months later, Floyd Gottfredson came on board to draw and then script the adventures of our hero, ostensibly as a temporary position, and stayed in charge of the feature until he retired from Disney forty-five years later.

Sure, I'd read many accounts of these being really entertaining adventure-comedies, but my antipathy toward both funny animal stories and Walt Disney left me unwilling to sample them. Two years ago, however, Fantagraphics began releasing a really nice line of hardcover archival reprints. The first volume contains all of the strips from January 13, 1930 to January 9, 1932, along with a whole pile of essays and bonus material, including images from other reprint collections around the world.

The stories are rollicking, odd, and completely unpredictable. Gottfredson's first storyline, "Race to Death Valley," is five wild months in which Mickey and Minnie chase after a crooked lawyer and his giant henchman, after the baddies get the drop on them and steal a treasure map. I didn't laugh out loud all that often, the way that I certainly do reading Fantagraphics' collections of the similar-period Popeye strips, but I was completely captivated and charmed, and left wondering what would happen next.

It's dated stuff, to be sure, and sometimes uncomfortably so. There are occasional blackface gags and "booga-booga" natives, as you see in a lot of juvenile entertainment from the 1930s. At one point, Mickey decides life's not worth living and spends an entire week trying to kill himself! Alongside those, however, there are insults and slang phrases that have fallen so completely out of style that they were quite pleasantly new to me. ("You're as much help to me as the seven-year itch!!") The artwork is really vibrant and exciting, in many senses of the word. Comics of the time were still developing their own visual language, and you can see how Gottfredson was developing what we now call speed-lines and other tricks to indicate movement. He joins a very elite crew - Osamu Tezuka is another - who tricked my eyes into seeing actual motion on the page rather than static images. My hat's off to the man. Recommended.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Goldfinch

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Goldfinch (Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

Dickensian in its sweep, The Goldfinch is Donna Tartt's unbelievably dense third novel, and it was badly in need of an editor. It is 780 pages long, and a full ten percent of them could have been excised had one character, Boris, actually been written to directly answer the questions that the narrator, Theo, asks of him. By the end of the book, Tartt had trained me, once Theo asks him "Where have you been?", to skip ahead a page and a half, past the broken conversations and evasions common to their friendship.

Another twenty percent could have been chopped away had somebody urged Tartt to focus on the plot and quit describing everything. Her prose isn't vivid enough to keep me interested in the characters, and while a story that takes place over the course of a decade isn't likely to have a great structural need to get to the point, I got lost countless times, unable to understand why I was reading it. There's a pretty good 500-page novel here, in other words, though not a great one. I share with the late Roger Ebert a disdain for stories that will end at any point when a character stops lying. This novel could have been a terrific novella, ending on page 144, had Theo just returned the damn painting to his future custodian and business partner James "Hobie" Hobart, actually.

The story begins with Theo, a fifteen year-old Manhattanite, visiting an art museum with his mother on the day that it is bombed. His eye is caught by a gorgeous girl his age, there with a much older guardian. He comes to after the first responders have been ordered to evacuate when a second device is found, leaving him in the eerie, silent ruins with the guardian, who had just - really bad timing - stolen Carel Fabritius's 1654 painting The Goldfinch and had it under his coat. The old man gives the small painting to the wounded Theo, who makes it home in a panic and hides the painting away to await his mother. She never makes it back. She was killed in the blast.

It's a hell of a great start for a book, and there's an epic element to its globetrotting jaunt as Theo moves from a foster family to Las Vegas and back to New York, leading to an exchange of gunfire in Amsterdam ten years after the theft. There's even an unbelievably terrific twist when Boris, his friend in Vegas and with whom he descended into drugs and delinquency, returns to the story many years later with a quite stunning explanation for his behavior on Theo's last night in Vegas that turns everything on its head. I liked it in spite of my dislike for Theo, who dances past one terrible decision after another for years, and with whom I did not sympathize at all. But I didn't like it very much in the end, and can't really recommend something with so many pages that I ended up breezing past in search of the plot. I know this book's a critical darling right now, but sadly, not recommended.

(The Bookshelf will be taking a couple of weeks off for vacation and return with a new post on the 19th. See you then!)

Monday, December 2, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Putnam, 2013).

Here's why a good title is important. I like the title of this book so much that I picked it right up when I saw it. A few days later, eyes watering up and a lower lip bravely trembling, I was very glad that I did.

Don't read anything else about this book beyond what I am about to say. The publishers have, sensibly, not given away a very critical plot point - although every Tom, Dick, and Harry on Amazon did so in their user reviews - although they did, shamefully, blow an equally critical one on the inside front of the dust jacket. I generally don't look at either reviews or the publisher's PR until after I have finished the book, but my eyes slipped about a third of the way through Karen Joy Fowler's 300-page novel and got an unwelcome clue about the missing brother of our narrator, a college girl at UC Davis named Rosemary.

Well, I say that she's a college girl, and she is for a time. It's a very interesting structure. Her story is written taking some of her mother's advice. To save time, she starts in the middle of the story, and that's when she meets up with her brother, who ran away from home ten years previously. Her sister has been missing for an additional five. This is a story of a really unhappy family, with two missing siblings, and how Rosemary's really unusual upbringing has messed with her ability to interact with people her age.

There are revelations about Rosemary's sister and her disappearance, and slightly less shocking revelations about her brother, but even more shocking revelations about his choice to disappear, and it builds very sadly and, occasionally, with quite a sweet comic turn. The structure works really, really well. By focusing on the middle of the story, and almost rushing through the end, we don't have the chance for the later revelations to linger too long, but at the same time, the effect is to make the quickly-referenced later material even sadder. This book broke my heart. Strongly recommended.