Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Reviews

I had a blog a while ago, and decided to reformat (which became the page you're reading now). Most of what I wrote over there is fine where it is, not being read by another human being -- but some of the book reviews, I've decided to move here. Some of them were written a while ago.

When I borrowed Dear American Airlines: A Novel by Jonathan Miles from the library, I expected a scathing, funny account of a character annoyed with air travel. Since this is something we pretty much all have in common, I was eager to get started.

The first little bit was fantastic -- and if the entire novel had stayed with the airport and the guy's ire, the novel would have been perfect. However, the character goes off on tangents, talking about his past, translating another story about a Russian soldier, leaving only about 20% of the book about what I expected it to be about. I almost felt like the author had tricked me: luring me in with one story, and making me sit through two others.

Anyway, it was well written (although I'll admit I skimmed the last half). Go read the excerpt on -- it's very good.
Another book I finished was I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley. Like David Sedaris, it's best to have her read the stories to you. I'm sure she's got a busy schedule, so I got the audiobook instead.
Besides the amusing stories and laugh-out-loud moments when she said she experienced something I thought only I went through (like finding it annoying when a movie character shares my name), I was impressed by her writing ability. It was smooth, easy, and very smart. Looking forward to her next book! Listen to "The Pony Problem" 
Finished listening to Carrie by Stephen King. Boy oh boy, the man can tell a story! I love the suspense technique he used through the whole novel - I've never seen the movie or read the book before, but basically from the first chapter you know what's going to happen at the end. That's what makes it scary, though, because you're left guessing exactly how it's going to happen, or when. I'm also really impressed with the way Mr. King portrays his characters: in this story (haven't read all his stuff, so I don't want to make a blanket statement), everyone is very human. Carrie is picked on and humiliated -- oh yeah, and has telekinesis. The story ends at the place the characters logically take it, without anyone suddenly turning into a freaky monster, void of any emotion.
I finished David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I absolutely love his essays, but when he branches into fiction (as he does in one title), he exaggerates so much that the story becomes difficult to relate to (at least for me). But listening to him read his own work is half the pleasure - I'm not sure I can read one of his books to myself anymore because I've been so spoiled. In fact, have a listen here.
I listened to Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries). I've read her other books, The Namesake, and Interpreter of Maladies, and this collection was comparable with those. Nice descriptions of the emotions of everyday people, but sometimes those emotions run pretty dark; one story (Only Goodness) left me pretty drained and wanting to be out of that situation at the end. Luckily for me, it was just a story, not something I'd actually experienced, so I went about my day as though it never happened. That's the beauty of Lahiri's work, though -- she can really make you believe you've gotten your heart broken.
I gave up on The Girl Who Played With Fire because it was pretty confusing with all the Swedish names and places (and then it got started with drug people and and lesbianism, and most importantly, I couldn't figure out where the guy was going with all of it). Then I ran across this parody from The New Yorker, and it addressed most of my complaints.
More enjoyable, and just as exotic, is Miyuki Miyabe's The Sleeping Dragon. Her images are very real - like when the characters are outside in a typhoon. Without being redundant, she reminds the reader just how drenched everyone is.

 Took me a little while, but I've finished Persepolis (part 1).  Like Delisle's Pyongyang, I went into this story not knowing a whole lot about the culture behind it.  
The story was a little slow, but if the narrator is to be believed (and since the book is labeled "memoir", I think she can be), Iran was not a nice place to grow up in the early 80's.  I'm looking forward to reading the second part -- possibly even watching the movie after that.


Today I finished reading my first graphic novel.  While superhero stories and stuff with a lot of violence isn't my favorite thing, I've shied away from them for a long time.  But after talks from my sister (who just wrote a short graphic novel), and seeingPersepolis everywhere, I thought I'd see what was out there.

The one that immediately caught my attention was Guy Delisle's Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.  I love to travel, so realizing there are a handful of countries out there I'll never be able to visit simply because I'm American leads me to be curious about that place.  Once I saw pictures of North Korea'sRyugyong Hotel (and how creepy it is), I thought a little research about it might be worth my time.  (I mean, talk about secluded: Google maps doesn't even have anything labeled in that country!)  So when I saw this graphic novel, I was intrigued.

The story impressed me.  No one turned into a robot, and there were no vampires.  With pictures accompanying the text, reading was almost like watching a movie ... or almost like being there.  I guess there's the appeal of comics!  Well worth checking out: the author mixed humor and curiosity into a very strange subject.
 In paper form, I've been reading Gyles Brandreth's Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries.  This involves Oscar Wilde not as the author, but as the character.  Now, I could think of a lot that could go wrong with a project like this, but Oscar Wilde is the MAN, so I had to give it a shot.  The first scene opens in Madame Tussaud's, so that settled it.  (Yes, Madame Tussaud's was around in the late 1800's.)
I have, unfortunately, not been diligent at reading, so in a month, I've only read about 200 pages.  While a little dry in places, it's well done.  The dialogue isn't so stiff that I can't find the humanity in it (although, being a period piece, it's much more stiff than this blog, for example).  A few of the side characters are boring, though -- however, I've just gotten to the murder (i.e. the good part), and I'm totally slacking.  Gyles Brandreth 1, Melanie 0.

If you like short stories, I recommend Appetite by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh.  It's about a guy who is a waiter and his adventures, if you will.  The thing I loved the most about this story is that he describes almost everything I've ever felt about work (anywhere - retail in particular, but some of it goes for the office, too).  The opening scene where the main character wants to ask for a raise is painfully vivid (in a good way).  Also, the character has a dream, but instead of faking out the reader by having something good happen and then PSYCH!! waking up, the author accurately describes a confusing jumble of memories and TV shows, and conversations that might have been.  When the character wakes up and realizes he's been asleep instead of watching TV, instead of feeling played, I think, "aww, that's happened to me too."
What bothers me about modern literary fiction in general (and what happened with this particular story also), is that sometimes nothing really happens.  There are a bunch of good characters who flash back and dream and interact, but when it comes to the ending, I'm left feeling a bit ... blah.  I will tell you that I'm totally lost when it comes to symbolism, and that might be holding me back with the genre.  Someone please clue me in: when reaching the end, am I supposed to feel something other than, "huh.  Well ... that's it, I guess"?
I listened to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button after a failed attempt at watching the movie.  Really, after listening to the original short story, I can see why I had trouble watching the film -- it's sort of a novelty piece.  What happens when a guy is born old and slowly becomes a baby.  Not my thing when it comes to plot, but whatever.  It's short.

Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner was an excellent book.  I liked the characters, and the story was cute (and sometimes heartbreaking).  I chose this book because I was reading Miss Snark's blog, trying to figure out how to tweak my query letter.  She said the first few pages of Good in Bed were exactly the kinds of first pages she wanted to see from new authors.  Naturally, I had to check it out, and I got sucked into the story.  Of course, that's what you want.
I tried hard to "read as a writer" and pay attention to why the story was so good -- why the words flowed so effortlessly.  But since it was so smooth, I glided right through and I have no idea how to emulate this woman.  Perhaps reading a few more of her novels will teach me a thing or two.

So I went to my library, and ended up borrowing Mind's Eye by Hakan Nesser, who is, apparently, pretty popular in Sweden.  I thought, Good! I like European things, and the description of the story sounded interesting.
The mystery starts out really promising.  Guy wakes up and doesn't know what happened (quite like what I just wrote -- one reason I chose this book), and discovers his wife is dead.  Guy goes to prison, but he didn't do it -- and gets murdered himself (don't worry, this is all in the blurb, so I'm not giving anything important away).  
That's all good.  Interesting.  Okay, now what?
The investigators investigate.  They talk to people.  Halfway though, they're talking to people.  At the 3/4 point, they're talking to people.  At the end, they're talking to people.  
I don't know.  If you read on Amazon, it got really good reviews, but I didn't feel it.  It was sort of like the middle sagged all the way to the end, and all the questioning became really repetitive.  Very much a plot-driven story, since the characters didn't really have lives of their own (not as much as I like -- i.e. they didn't really do any extra-curricular activities that weren't mentioned as a side-note).
Nothing strikingly "wrong" with the story or the writing style, just not my cup of tea.
Reality TV Bites by Shane Bolks
I've decided to branch out and read some stuff I normally wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole, such as the above listed book. Chick-lit/Romance has never really been my thing, and I avoid reality TV like the plague (most of the time). I'll say this right now: this book isn't badly written. Light, yes. Shallow, yes. But sometimes we need something that's "just entertaining", and for that, it does its job. However, one thing I'm having difficulty wrapping my head around is the abundance of brand names (especially the uber designer ones).For example: (a spur of the moment composition by me, not a quote)

nail polish. "Oh dammit!" she said into the phone.
"I mean, hello?" she covered her eyes, careful not to touch the
Maybeline as she tapped her Prada heels on the linoleum.
Is it just me, or does it seem a LOT like a bunch of product placement? An elaborate commercial? I understand saving time by saying "the Volkswagon Beetle" rather than describing the car in painful detail -- but it's a shortcut, am I right? It seems as though if I'm not familier with the product itself (like So and So's Dashing line at Boss), I almost need to look it up in order to get the picture the author is trying to paint - a hinderance instead of a help. And what about the people 50 years from now who might read the book? A certain super-cool very specific cell phone 1) isn't going to be cool anymore and 2) there's the possibility that NO ONE will know what it is.

While we're at it: cuss words (not a problem in Reality TV Bites, but a pet peeve nonetheless). When anyone says (or writes) ANY word way too much, it's irritating. Another example? I'm glad you asked:
"I waited for the bus for over an hour. The bus was supposed to run on the
bus' schedule of 15 minutes. Busses are usually punctual, but this bus
kept me waiting. When I turned my head, the bus came and I missed the bus
and I had to wait for another bus. That bus was also a little late because
the bus didn't stick to the bus schedule."
Ok? It's like that with gratuitous use of the F word. ANY word. So please, all you Hollywood screenplay writers, that guy who shouts on the street corner outside my bedroom window, and Chatty Chatterson on the cell phone across the aisle from me: USE SOME OTHER WORDS!

Rant over.

No comments:

Post a Comment