My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sometimes a reader needs to go back and fill in the gaps in one’s literary history. That’s what lead me to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Somewhere down the line, most readers come across this play, but I must have missed that day because I never read it. The faculty book club where I work has come to my rescue though, by adding it to the upcoming fall season’s list. It turns out (surprise!) A Doll’s House is pretty good.
Opening near Christmas in a small Norwegian town in the late 19th century, A Doll’s House is the story of Nora Helmer, a surprisingly obnoxious, ignorant, childlike heroine. Nora is married to a lawyer named Torvald who has recently been promoted to bank manager, a position that appears to promise significant financial gains and heightened status for Torvald, Nora, and their three children. Nora, identified often as a spendthrift, is quite excited about Torvald’s promotion and can’t stop talking about ways she’d want to spend the money.
Money continues to drive the plot creating a tense little series of events between Torvald, Nora and several other characters: Christine Nora’s old school mate, Krogstad, an associate of Torvald, and Dr. Rank, a friend and doctor to Nora and Torvald. So what are we supposed to take from this? Kept women go crazy? Is Nora like this because she’s dominated or does she want to be childlike? Is it more than a story about a powerful man subjugating and infantilizing a woman or the reality that men can marginalize the women around them? The answers to these questions are varied. The good news is that this play does have layers. Yes, on the surface, we have a helpless protagonist seemingly oblivious to plight until it arrives on her doorstep. Still when it is revealed that Krogstad was angling for Torvald’s position and became upset that he was relegated to disfavor due to a past dishonorable act, we see the measure of its aims. The road to hell is certainly paved in this play.
A Doll’s House reminds me of Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Both of these short stories were published only a decade or so after this play, and are both much more forthright about the dangers of a possessive husband and the damage of a person being denied identity and dignity. They are also American with clear links to women’s suffrage in the US, and the reality that women were informed by their husbands on how to act, think, and believe. A Doll’s House is far more subtle, and in my opinion slightly misguided at times. As Dr. Rank says, “One can’t have anything in this world without paying for it,” and it’s that payment, that sacrifice that I feel does not quite make sense. What does however, is the haunting and masterful metaphor of a doll’s house. What images does such an item conjure? Why? This exploration of a doll’s relationship between its house and owner and how that relationship mirrors society in some ways is marvelous and timeless. Read A Doll’s House and then read (or watch the HBO miniseries) Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn if you don’t believe me.
The end of the play is also considerable. The subject of freedom is introduced and its relationship to hope. Most of the debate over this play will stem from the actions in the final act and over what exactly happens next. This is precisely what should be discussed at the end of a play like this, making it a fitting finale for a mostly effective piece of drama. B
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My interest in this book came directly from the supposed capture of the elusive serial killer known as the Golden State Killer. I was previously unaware of his existence or his crimes, but when police captured the man they believe to be the killer on April 25th, 2018, decades after he had committed his crimes, I became curious. It turns out Michelle McNamara, crime novelist and former wife of comedian Patton Oswalt wrote a book about her search for the Golden State Killer (a name that she coined) earlier this year. McNamara died in 2016 while writing the book, but her lead researcher finished it and released it. Now with the news that the killer was actually captured the same year the book was released, I had to get it and read it!
Gillian Flynn’s forward is a nice intro, as she forms some context for McNamara as a writer, given she was previously unknown to me. Flynn also never really met her, but the two crime writers have a great deal in common and Flynn is adept to convey that. This book’s true impact an equal result of McNamara’s voice and chilling reality. Knowing a bit about McNamara is essential, and the forward does that well. Sadly, the afterword by McNamara’s widowed husband Patton Oswalt is just crushing, but in true Oswalt form, also very funny and touching.
McNamara is the best kind of narrator in that even though she had the glamorous lifestyle of being the wife of a successful comedic actor, even though she had more access than the usual armchair-sleuth, she makes it clear that none of that mattered. This woman would have stopped at nothing to follow her leads, and while she clearly appreciated an advantage here and there, she would have been able to build this network of contacts and gather her evidence regardless of what lot she held in life. The geographic profiling she presents is fascinating, and the details she includes make it clear to me that these crimes, that took place over 10 years and were originally thought to be committed by multiple offenders, are quite clearly carried out by one person.
The book is a well organized collection of evidence that works in many ways. First, McNamara pieces together sprees of horrendous violence with great care, allowing us to play detective. Second, she instills a new level of personal fear in each reader by relaying the events leading up to each crime in such a way that it is undeniable to assume this could not happen to us. I have woken up several nights while reading this book, checking locks and ensuring alarms are set. Finally, the case she makes for the “Golden State Killer’s” evolution is chilling and disturbing.
Unfortunately, McNamara’s passing in the middle of writing this book does leave it with a sense of incompleteness. Even though her lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and an investigative journalist, Billy Jensen, finished the book for her and prepared it for release, there’s just a fragmentary sense about the way the story ties up. I wish so much that McNamara were able to follow her left over leads and of course, I wish that she could have lived to see suspect Joseph DeAngelo arrested and charged for the murders, rapes, and burglaries she describes in this book (DeAngelo’s arrest was practically 2 years to the day after McNamara’s death). Even without closure on the killer, there’s just something missing without McNamara completing her investigatory tasks and if, just possibly if, one of those pseudonyms in her notes connects to DeAngelo.
Still, this book is a gripping account of true crime. The job Haynes and Jensen do finishing things up is admirable, and it would be a shame if this book never was completed. McNamara’s discussion of how the first generation of detectives working this case were having health problems, and the second generation was nearing retirement speaks volumes for the importance of dedicated civilians like her who keep a case like this relevant and in the spotlight. This too is reflected, sadly, in Haynes and Jensen’s work on finishing McNamara’s book. Rarely is a true crime novel so much about the hunter as well as the hunted. This is one of the best aspects of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and the best reason to recommend it. B+
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was one of the coolest books I’ve read in years. It hits the sweet spot between geek-chic and epic adventure. Ready Player One is author Ernest Cline’s story of Wade Watts, a high school student living in Oklahoma City, OK in the year 2044. Energy and environmental crises have rendered the world mostly back to the stone age with petroleum-fuel a thing of the past and poverty running rampant. One advancement has managed to proliferate through the classes however, and that’s the Online virtual world known as the Oasis. The Oasis is a place where everyone can escape their reality by entering a virtual space where they can be anyone and do nearly anything. All you have to do is log on to the Oasis, invent your avatar, and you’re in.
The Oasis is mostly an entertainment device, but it does serve many practical purposes as well. With the infrastructure of the real world crumbling, the Oasis has become a place of commerce, communication, and even education. Cline’s concept of Oasis Public School is singularly brilliant. All schools are monumental cathedrals of learning. No constraints of money or even physics, and there’s an emphasis on the “safety” of this as opposed to the normal school experience.
The Oasis is the biggest thing in the world and it has made its creator, James Halliday, a trillioniare. However, Halliday takes ill, and with no heir or even true friend to designate his belongings, he releases a statement that he has hidden an Easter egg, or hidden object, deep within the Oasis. Whoever is first to find the egg will inherit everything.
Wade, under his avatar Parzival is one such egg hunter, known in the book as a “gunter,” a highly problematic term, if you ask me. This sets up an episodic adventure where Parzival travels through the Oasis searching for clues to lead him to various keys that help him unlock gates that will eventually lead him to the egg. This plot design is not unlike the fourth installment of the Harry Potter series, The Goblet of Fire where characters must discover clues to solve various tasks in order to move forward. The catch is that in order to really play the game Halliday has laid out, it helps to know Halliday the man, which is to say you’d better know your 1980s pop culture, music, movies, and video games.
Ready Player One offers a well-articulated argument for the appeal of video games beyond the clichéd and superficial escapist entertainment quality. It also makes a case for danger to progress video games pose regarding the distraction from reality that they create. This conflict puts the reader in an interesting state of mind where on one hand, I want to read more about the journey to find the egg, but on the other hand, I want to know more about the characters and who they are.
The antagonist of the novel comes in the form of Nolan Sorrento, the head of Innovative Online Industries, who wants to inherit and monetize the Oasis. Sorrento hires players to search for the egg on his behalf in exchange for suiting up their avatars with the best suits, armors, weapons, credits, and access possible. These sell-out gamers come to be known as “sixers” due to the fact that all of their avatar names are actually just a series of numbers that start with sixes.
Speaking of “gunters” and “sixers,” Ready Player One is reminiscent of Clockwork Orange in its contextual generating of a lexicon of its own. Unlike Orange, many of the curious terms are actually real, but they are so niche to the gamer community, that they may as well be Nadsat.
Ready Player One is an enjoyable love-letter to 80s pop culture. I lost count of the times the narrator, while “gunting” through various media items, expressed identical feelings for certain shows, games, and movies that I experienced (Family Ties, Comic Books, John Hughes movies). Additionally, I need to experience a flicksync of Groundhog Day. It would be amazing.
There is a lot more I could say about this book, but it would just be gratuitous rambling about how much I loved this reference or that moment. I was just enraptured by the book and all I can hope is that Cline has plans to explore this world even more somehow. Cline has written a modern-day Willy Wonka where if you want the keys to the candy store, you need to prove your worthiness.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Dan Brown tells subtlety to get lost in his latest literary scavenger hunt of academia, Origin. This time Brown’s symbologist protagonist finds himself in Spain hunting down the mystery surrounding a billionaire computer scientist, and former student of Langdon’s, Edmond Kirsch. Kirsch was gunned down at an event he was hosting at the Guggenheim Bilbao, where he claimed he’d be making a presentation that would end the age of religion and usher in the age of science. However, Kirsch is murdered before he can unveil his discovery. Furthermore, two prominent religious guests are also assassinated soon after launching the world into a tizzy. Langdon connects with the Guggenheim Bilbao curator, Ambra Vidal who helped Kirsch organize the event and who is also engaged to married to the current Prince, soon to be King of Spain. No doubt about it, powerful forces are at hand who want to ensure Kirsch’s discovery never sees the light of day, and they are obviously willing to kill to keep it secret. Now Vidal and Langdon serve as the Brown-cliché team set on solving Kirsch’s murder, and more importantly, uncovering his discovery and releasing it to the world.
This is a decent addition to Brown’s little Langdon library. There is plenty of evidence of Brown spinning his wheels, but Origin works a little better than Brown’s previous novel, Inferno, which I still liked (ending aside). Even though half the world’s population hung in the balance in Inferno, the stakes seem far more intense in Origin even though very few are in any true mortal danger here; immortal maybe, but not mortal. Brown still carries on his manipulative strategy of drawing out events to create suspense, and while it works more often than it doesn’t, I feel cheap for liking it.
Brown does seem more energized as a writer with Origin though. Perhaps it’s because it’s the first time since The DaVinci Code that he’s pushed the envelope a little. Brown actively invites discourse on spirituality, religion, atheism, and everywhere in between. It’s still the madcap European art history and literature escapade that readers have come to expect from Brown, but this time there’s a little bit more of an edge, and there’s a futurist quality that elevated the story slightly. In fact, Origin has some real Blade Runner qualities; a scene about the Black Widow Maman sculpture compares nicely with the Turing test scene from that Blade Runner. In the Blade Runner scene Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) told a replicant that her embedded memory about a spider and eggs it carried was an implant – that the memories weren’t actually hers, and in Origin, Brown emphasizes the sculpture’s egg sack vividly. This inspires me to consider what Brown may be hinting at regarding the reality that we consider truth, and what exactly informed us that way. And speaking of replicants, Langdon is also accompanied with an advanced artificial intelligence museum docent named Winston of Kirsch’s creation that is so human it could be a repicant! Anyway, I digress.
The point is, if you like Dan Brown, and you were kind of scared off by Inferno, then Origin should bring you back to center. Origin most impressively rights the wrong of the devastatingly dull ending of Inferno by giving us one that is kind of baffling. I’m still kind of trying to figure it out, and while I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad ending, I can say with absolute conviction that the fact that I’m pondering it makes it a thousand times better than Inferno’s ending. Origin probably won’t raise the needle in terms of your expectations or enjoyment of Brown, but it’s a fast read with action, mysteries, some fun art and literature trivia, and it’s all wrapped up in a mildly suggestive controversy about the future of religion. Of course, being a world-wide best selling author, you can bet Brown only dips his toe in controversy. It would be nice to see him explore his characters’ ambiguity rather than keep the heroes, heroes, and the villains, villains, but alas, Origin never reaches that level of potential.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nothing delights the former English teacher in me more than reading about readers. Even more is when I get to read writing from readers about reading. But there’s a special category reserved for reading from readers writing about readers reading. If you’re like me, then Annie Spence’s debut book, Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks sits snugly in that latter category. In the book, Spence, a librarian, delivers a collection of amusing, mostly humorous, sometimes touching, always witty little eruditions to various books she must “weed” from circulation at the library for numerous reasons.
There you have it. A genius little gimmick to provide some ground rules for a librarian who wants to write about books. However, the brilliance of Dear Fahrenheit is that while the premise of the book is a list of a librarian’s opinions, the truth of the matter is that you continue reading not because of the books discussed, but for the commentary provided. Now, I’m guessing Spence would disagree with me here and say that many of the books she discusses are far more important than her thoughts about them. That may be so, but in my experience reading this book, I couldn’t care less if the book she was talking about was one I liked, hated, or even knew existed. It’s Annie’s take and sassy attitude that you begin to crave and not so much the books she discusses. I was enthralled more with her position on each one than on anything else.
Not only that, but in the dozens of books she writes to, not one was loved or broken up with in a similar way. Each of Spence’s letters are uniquely based on some facet of her experience with the nuance of that book. My favorite letter, directed at the Frog and Toad books, is one I doubt is often singled out, but to me it is the one that most captured the voice of who I think Annie Spence is (this coming from someone who does not know here whatsoever), and it’s just perfect. I also really enjoyed imagining Annie Spence at a restaurant next to a table of ladies trying to have a book club meeting about The Namesake, and asking all the wrong questions, while Spence stirs uncomfortably resisting the urge to intervene and take over.
In fact the overall selection of books is just bizarre and outstanding. I’ll admit that if Spence’s primary goal it to entertain, mission accomplished; and if her secondary goal is to inspire the reading of both obscure and renowned books while simultaneously warning against the travesties of mass-market garbage literature, then bravo!
If there’s a tertiary goal, it’s to get Jeffery Eugenides attention, and I daresay that goal is accomplished as well.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the lists Spence curates at the end. Books of lists are as old as books themselves, but the spin that Spence takes on lists is very enjoyable. Instead of books to read at the beach, how about a list of books that send you down a rabbit hole to another book that sends you down the rabbit hole to yet another book, and so on and so forth.
All in all, this is a fun, breezy, and funny book that aims right for the book lover’s heart and finds its target. I look forward to Spence lending her voice to other literary topics in the years to come, and if she ever wants to franchise this concept out to the cinematic realm, I’m available!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve been so busy this summer, I had to put my reading habit on hiatus for a few months. The good news is: 1 – I think I’m out of the woods and am looking forward to picking up a good book again and 2 – I found a brilliant fix to satiate my reading appetite during the busy days!
What is the fix, you ask? I’m sure you’ve heard of Audible, Amazon’s audio book company. Well, I thought I’d give it a whirl and see if there was a book I wanted to listen to during my commutes or moments of down time. Traditionally, audio books are not my preference because the only time I choose to listen to them is when my attention is divided (driving, working), so unless it’s incredibly captivating, I’d rather read the book traditionally. However, I saw on the Audible landing page that Amazon was producing and releasing an X-Files audio book fully dramatized and voiced by all the show’s stars. This sounded worth it, so I got it and I loved it!
The book was called The X-Files: Cold Cases, and it is a completely original story adapted from Joe Harris’s graphic novels, woven into the fabric of the X-Files television series, and it takes place between the 2008 film I Want to Believe and the 2016 6-episode 10th season. The story revolves around a group of morphing acolytes (or foot soldiers of a cult) who want Scully’s baby, William. Confusion abounds as we wonder who’s real and who’s a shape-shifting morphing acolyte? Pure, uncut X-Files. The production is told in segments that feel like separate but congruent episodes and the background on what brings our cherished agents back from the fold is a story well worth being told.
The story in this production fits somewhere in the middle of the road of the X-Files legacy. What works is the production, the tone, and the pacing. This story is told with episodic pacing in that the action is continuous, fun, and effective. The tone is right on the nose for X-Files fans. Scully’s persistent intellect, Mulder’s dry aloofness, and the overall campiness of it all work flawlessly. The actors voicing their roles are as good as I’ve ever heard in an audio performance. Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully and Mitch Pileggi as Deputy Director Skinner are the standout performers, but all actors do a great job.
Additionally, we have some great surprises with appearances by The Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) and The Lone Gunman (who are not dead!).
However, like I said, this story does not quite reach the gold standard of some of the series’ most beloved storylines. Nonetheless, there’s no slacking here. This story has lots of action, tons of fun references for superfans, and includes a wonderful range of the most beloved characters. There’s also a decent mix of mythology and “Monster of the Week” plot lines, which is what made the series so appealing. You can do a lot worse with audiobooks, and with books overall for that matter. B+
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Let’s put this out there from the start. This book is raw, emotional, thoughtful, and heartbreaking. While light and breezy in terms of structure, the content is as heavy as it gets. This is not the first book written by someone with the grim perspective of knowing the end is near, but it may be the first by someone with as unique a set of experiences as Paul Kalanithi.
When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s account of dealing with the fragility of mortality. At 36 years old, as he is finishing up his training as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi suddenly discovers he has lung cancer that rapidly leaves him weakened and in pain. He recounts the irony of doctor turned patient and pads each experience with the proper oddness of hearing his family members say the things he’s used to hearing from those of his patients. Providing the patient’s experience and transformation from the doctor’s perspective is endlessly fascinating. The terminal diagnosis Kalanithi receives is while starkly shocking, never something to be pitied. Knowing you are living prolonged life rather than living a life with no idea when it ends does not have to be as tragic as it sounds.
I mentioned Kalanithi’s unique set of experiences. What makes him both a fascinating narrator and a powerful writer are due to two elements. One – Kalanithi has a broad background in classic literature, and two, as a neurosurgeon he has a great understanding of the brain, surgically. Rarely is there someone prepared to tell a story like this so eloquently, but Kalanithi’s background in literature makes him most apt to explain the seemingly unexplainable through allusion and metaphorical connections. That along with his surgical knowledge makes him keen to concisely tackle the psychology of terminal illness along with the emotional and report it to the reader in a palatable way. Kalanithi balances his perspectives of death as doctor and patient well. His doctor side resists the whole, “Why me?” mentality, and not to look at cancer as a “battle.” His patient side reexamines how his condition requires goals to strive towards a quality of life that is attainable and rewarding.
As his illness progresses, Kalanithi and his wife Lucy ask themselves questions about mortality, and they are questions that all people probably have asked themselves, only Kalanithi is willing to pose some possible answers and actions. Spirituality is noticeably absent but rightfully so. This story would not benefit from excluding or alienating anyone. Literature is the closest thing to spirituality, and as a book about mortality, it is appropriate that Kalanithi cites literature as a major calming for his spirts and in many cases the impetus for the questions he and Lucy pose and answer about life and mortality. One such answer results in the line, “We decided to carry on living, rather than dying.” In this way, When Breath Becomes Air is as interactive as it is poignant and beautifully tragic. This book ends abruptly, and while a short read, it is impossible to forget. A
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Turns out Bruce Springsteen has been a pretty busy guy! I know it’s hard to believe. As I read this enormous 528-page oeuvre, I had to admit, “This guy does nothing half-assed.” We start at the beginning, and I dare to say, we don’t gloss over much. Springsteen is the moody, insightful, straight-forward narrator you’d expect. The Jersey-Strong balladeer, rock legend, and BOSS does nothing to turn off fans and does a lot to gain even more new ones. This book is intelligent, engaging, and fascinating.
Springsteen’s inspiration for writing this book was the Super Bowl XLIII half time show in 2009. The experience was so rich and unique, he felt an urge to write about it. And then, he realized his life has been pretty rich and unique, so why not keep writing. We are dropped into suburban streets of Freehold New Jersey, where Springsteen comes of age. Representative of the best, worst, most typical, and most atypical experiences middle class America has to offer, Springsteen waxes on about his parents, family, heritage, religion, and of course – music. By chapter 18, about a third of the way through the book, the Springsteen that fans are somewhat familiar with begins to emerge.
I won’t say that it couldn’t do with a little cutting here and there, but I will say that he has verbose style that is also highly engaging and affectionate. His style is introspective, but also as relatable and proletariat as his reputation. I LOVE how he picks apart how his lyrics work and how he arrived at the arrangements that blew people away. I thought Born to Run was an amazing album, but it turns out I NEVER understood what it really was about.
And then there’s the insider facts sprinkled about like how, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” was Van Zandt’s only Born to Run appearance where he spontaneously arranged, badgered, and befuddled the jazz players of a prized NYC horn section. Or how that “and” was really important: AND the E-Street Band. He offers a beautiful epigraph for the band, a loving eulogy for Clarence, and a powerful epitaph for music and the main six guys who made up E-Street!
Bass – Gary Tallent
Organ – Danny Federici
Guitar – Little Steven Van Zandt
Drums – Max Weinberg
Piano – Roy Bittan
Sax – Clarence Clemmons
I also loved hearing about Bruce’s inspirations and hearing him explain how his sound and persona were influenced by certain acts that he grew up with.
I’ve heard Springsteen talk about some of his music before. For example, the freedom of Darkness on the Edge of Town or the misunderstanding of Born on the USA, but in the same way that a long form interview is better than a short excerpt, Springsteen’s ability to use this book to provide context to these stories and connect and reflect makes everything that much more fascinating.
And then, you also get little stories like when an excited Little Steven and, in solidarity, a Born in the USA – Bruce Springsteen are kicked out of the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm for wearing bandannas.
When Springsteen finally gets to the Super Bowl recount that inspired the book in total, we are already mired in his thoughts, experiences, and stories. It is crazy to think that if not for this 14 minute performance in 2009, the 400 pages that came before it may not have ever been written. That idea certainly adds to the weight of his recount his wild, crotch-sliding halftime show.
I know it may be unconventional, and for many readers, it may be distracting, but I can’t recommend enough that once you get to Book II and Springsteen starts really dissecting the albums, that you put on the albums in the background as you read. It really made the experience deeper reading about Born to Run while it plays quietly in the background, then listening to Darkness at the Edge of Town as Springsteen recalls “Badlands.” Next put on The River as Springsteen discusses his decision to do a double album, and blasting Born in the USA as he jettisons himself into the mainstream. I noticed Springsteen released a companion album to this book called Chapter and Verse. I wish I had known that before I started reading. It is a nice collection that certainly complements the book, especially with some of the early stuff from Steel Mill and The Castiles. Still, I like the idea of tying the albums as a whole to Springsteen’s progression. For example, when he discusses the construction of Tunnel of Love, “Brilliant Disguise” is not enough to represent these chapters, but that is the only track on the companion album from Tunnel of Love.
This book took me forever to read. I started it in December, and finally in February, I finished it. It was not so much a page-turner as I’d hoped it would be, but the chapters are short, which makes for easy reading. It is hard to give this one a rating because if you like the man, it’s practically required reading, but if you don’t it may not have the same appeal. I’d say it does have the potential to convert new fans (which is a challenge in itself), and there are insights about life, love, and fatherhood that are universally appealing. This is overall an easy book to recommend, and while the enjoyment factor will vary, no one will be disappointed.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is the surprise of the year for me. I don’t think the cover, book flap, or even other reviews prepare you for the experience you get when you read Double Cup Love. Huang is one of the most charismatic narrators you’ll ever read. I knew nothing of his work, I don’t watch Fresh off the Boat, and I have never really followed his exploits in food and media. However, after reading the first few chapters of this highly enjoyable memoir, I had a great impression of Huang. His New Yorker persona is engaging, his pop culture and sports allusions are creative and spot on, and his conversations about food, culture, and love are funny and inspired.
Double Cup Love is a memoir-style story about Eddie Huang’s journey of self-discovery as his passions converge, stirring a need in him to reconnect with his culture and visit China.
The narrator makes the memoir. My previous review of Norm MacDonald’s book is a perfect example of this. I loved that book because I loved Norm’s voice. The difference here, is that with Norm MacDonald’s book, Based on a True Story, you had to know Norm to understand the book and you pretty much had to like Norm to like the book. Here, with Double Cup Love, that’s not really the case. You don’t have to know Eddie Huang to understand the book (count me as Exhibit A), and your opinion of Huang enhances your feeling about the book, but no matter what you think of him, you can enjoy the book and what he has to say about the universal topics he discusses.
This is a book that flows like the best stream of consciousness types of books, like On the Road – albeit less ambitious. The enjoyment factor for Double Cup Love rests fully in your ability as a reader to accept some brashness and appreciate its layers. On one level it’s a book about food. On another level, it’s a book about relationships. However, on its most fascinating level, it’s a book about the Chinese-American’s place in modern culture. The story of race in America is complex and tumultuous, but the Chinese-American is often but a footnoot in that story. However, Huang represents a very topical and conflicted presence in America. A modern, young man with hopes for success living in a country where nearly all role models, icons, and artists do not reflect his heritage. This type of upbringing results in a unique and valuable outlook that is nicely represented in this book. In a way it’s a filling book, but… don’t read this book hungry.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve read quite a few memoirs of various levels of seriousness, heart, passion, and quality. I have never read one like Norm MacDonald’s Based on a True Story, and I loved it! I am an unabashed Saturday Night Live super-fan. I’ve always said, if I had the time to binge any show from beginning to end, it would be SNL. All 40+ years of it. So my initial interest in MacDonald’s “memoir” was the SNL angle. Upon finishing it, the SNL stories were actually the least interesting thing about the book. I put the word “memoir” in quotes a sentence back because it is not your typical memoir. There are touchstones of memoir in this book, but it reads like a novel and MacDonald’s persona is not that of a comedian telling his story. MacDonald invokes Mark Twain in the best possible way and has strung together a series of anecdotal loosely related plotlines all contained within an epic gambling narrative that spans the entire book. Norm’s storytelling is poetic at times. He pokes satirical fun at the writing process itself by including the interjections of an imaginary (and tortured) ghostwriter, he includes poignant asides about his adventures like assisting a young boy in his dying wish to club a baby seal, and then there’s Old Jack… The joy of his word choice is easily Based on a True Story‘s most winning quality. His jokes are polarizing like virtually no other comedian working today. However, you have to admit, his delivery, cadence, and syntax is unique, arresting, and in my opinion, brilliant. I mean, if you are nostalgic for Steinbeckian phraseology or feel it’s been a “pickler’s fortnight” since you read a book about guys who get “drunk as a boiled owl” and “cracker-barrel the night away,” then this is the book for you!
Here’s a litmus test for whether you should pick up this book:
“…getting to work with such experienced and talented movie actors proved to be a double-edged sword. Now I understand that all swords have two edges, so let me save some time by taking that back and just saying that getting to work with such experienced and talented movie stars was a sword.”
Did you laugh? Then buy this book!
This is not a “get to know Norm” book. You have to be familiar with Norm to like the book, and you have to have some understanding of Norm to know what’s real and what’s not. For example, Norm was infatuated with Sarah Silverman while a cast member at SNL. Norm was not arrested and imprisoned for conspiracy to murder Dave Attell because he was dating Silverman at the time. Both, however, are in the book. Norm twists reality into fantasy relentlessly in Based on a True Story, which results in most of its charm. Accompanied by his “AsSISTant” and foil, bone-headed Adam Egat, whom Norm continuously refers to by his full name, Norm regales us with tales of a comedian that span genres from prison memoir to rural coming-of-age drama.
If Norm’s book has one problem, it’s that if there’s not a punchline at the end of lengthy, deliberate, agonizing prose, then some may feel lost. This is likely an intentional decision, but as far as a reader experience, it’s not always ideal. However, what Norm does here is provide insights on comedy and life, but not with the out-rightness that one expects from the genre. We are treated to Norm’s Top 25 Weekend Update jokes, which are “nonpareil,” to quote the hopelessly morphine addicted, Lorne Michaels. There is also an unhealthy amount of references to answering machines and Charles Manson…NOT THAT ONE! Based on a True Story is clever, enjoyable and one of the funniest memoirs I’ve ever read; you’ll “laugh enough to beat the band.”
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Easily pigeonholed as another historical fiction account on slavery at first, but on second glance, Colson Whitehead’s novel is something more. The introductory sections of The Underground Railroad do feel a bit familiar to anyone who has a passing familiarity with media depictions of American slavery narratives. However, stay with this novel, and you will be tantalized and challenged with layers of philosophical truths and their relationship with history and contemporary culture.
The Underground Railroad in its simplest construct is a journey-novel. The protagonist, Cora, escapes her Georgia cotton plantation with fellow slave Caesar, and they embark on a journey via the Underground Railroad heading North to freedom. The novel follows Cora and Caesar as they cross from state to state, each containing its own horrors and redemptions, whether its South Carolina’s insidious agenda or North Carolina’s blatant white supremacist almost “holocaust-like” ideology – The Underground Railroad grounds us in Cora’s observations as she inhabits new “worlds” every 70 to 80 pages! These stark experiences are the crux of the novel’s true magnificence. Whitehead uses state lines to take the reader on a historical journey that peels back the layers of American slavery and shows the progressiveness and the stubbornness of a nation divided. It is a story of persecution but also survival for Cora as she must duck and dodge the horrors that have become common-place and ingrained in American culture. And to add salt to the wound, Cora is also being pursued by a maniacal and horrendously determined slave catcher by the name of Ridgeway who is hip the the underground railroad and is motivated to capture Cora at all costs. Ridgeway feels like a lost Cormac McCarthy villain and his looming presence transcends traditional characterization in that he embodies principles and overt constitutions beyond that of the simple “bounty hunter.”
There is a lot to absorb from this novel. It certainly is not the end-all, be-all of this genre. What it does, is provide innovative and extraordinarily well-written context to the larger conversation. Characters are vibrant and fascinating. Additionally, protagonist, Cora is rather understated, a brilliant decision by Whitehead, allowing her to be an observer more than anything else, allowing the reader to fall deeper under the book’s spell. This is a truly satisfying read and a book likely to live a long, relevant life in the canon of American literature.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a perfect example of the volatile nature of drama. I imagine “Sorry Wrong Number” was quite tense in its day. I also imagine that it is a story most deserving of being performed and not simply read in script form. The problem is that the tension and originality have worn away over the years. This story remains worthy of accolades in a nostalgic sense, but the predictability and nonsensical hubris of the Mrs. Stevenson leave a reader wondering what this story could be with some more moving parts.
What I found most interesting was its novel use of the (relatively) new invention of the telephone and operator service. A play so suffocated by the passive treatment of the voices on the other line as an invalid woman is growing more and more hysterical is quite an intriguing idea. The paradox of something both so connective and so isolating is not without its charm. The concept is still pretty relevant actually. With technical advances, the conflict of “Sorry Wrong Number” has evolved into cinematic thrillers like Scream, Taken, and Unfriended. Still, much more could have been and has been done with this concept. Kudos to Fletcher to being a pioneer, but this play is most certainly a starting point and not an ending point for the genre.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve only read two Jack Reacher books now, and both were absolute page-turners – albeit disposable page-turners. My best advice on these books is that you have to be in the mood before you pick one up. Never Go Back slightly edges out A Wanted Man. We get some detail about Reacher other than his simplistic nomadic lifestyle. There are some twists about his past as well as a surprising number of references to Shakespeare and Romantic English poetry.
Never Go Back has Reacher meet his old military unit’s new commanding officer, Susan Turner. However, when he arrives he finds she is in jail and he has charges against him as well. The story progresses from there with Turner and Reacher working to clear their name and uncover a conspiracy against them.
As usual, my favorite parts are when Reacher has himself outnumbered or seemingly in a tight spot, but somehow wriggles free. The scene where Reacher and Turner attempt to escape the military base is great! This is the 18th book in the series, and I got the idea that I was missing out on some inside jokes and references. Still, the book works on its own. I’m not sure if I’m a full Jack Reacher fan yet, but I will continue to dip in and out of the series from time to time.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
So first of all, this book requires managed expectations from the get-go. Yes, this is a Harry Potter sequel in that the action takes place after Deathly Hollows and revolves around the same characters from the previous seven novels. That being said, this is a published script of a theatrical performance, which means J.K. Rowling is not the true author, although she did write the “story.” The play and the words you read in this book are written by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, director and playwright of the theatrical performance respectively.
This is not to say that the story does not feel authentic; it does. But much of the nuance, detail, and depth normally associated with reading a Harry Potter story are not experienced with this book; it is only 320 (script) pages as well.
The best part of this book is the story. Rowling sets the adventure 19 years after the events of Deathly Hollows. Harry and the gang are in their mid-thirties, and Harry is preparing to send his youngest son, Albus off to Hogwarts. Harry’s relationship with Albus is surprisingly strained however, and he struggles to relate to the young boy as Albus’s education at Hogwarts progresses. Albus’s sense of pressure under the Potter name affects him more than it does his older brother and younger sister. The story focuses mostly on Albus and his experiences from this point forward. Harry’s wife Ginny, Ron, Hermoine, Draco, and other familiar characters portray glorified bit roles in this story, but not much more. Fortunately, they are present enough and all serve a worthwhile purpose when they do appear.
Albus’s need to live up to his name causes him to take on an adventure with an unlikely partner, Scorpius Malfoy (son of Harry’s nemesis Drac0). The two boys and unlikely friends learn of a request from Amos Diggory, father of the late Cedric Diggory, that Harry (who now is Head of Magical Law Enforcement) use an illegal Time Turner to go back and save his son from being murdered during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. This sends Potter and Malfoy on a “Back to the Future 2” style adventure in the hopes of rescuing Diggory.
The book has some surprises and like I said, the authenticity of the Potter world is nicely preserved in this story. What’s missing are the immersive details and character balancing that made the first seven books so legendary. Potter fans should most certainly read this story and they will enjoy it, but don’t expect to be blown away or left feeling satisfied. While the story is enjoyable, and the end of the day, this book is unnecessary.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ok, I’ve read a few Chuck Klosterman books, and this is by far the most dense. Many of his books focus on viewing different aspects of the world through a pop culture lens, and while this one is no different in that respect the concept is pretty high brow this time around. Now, don’t get me wrong (a phrase Klosterman somewhat lambastes in the book), I loved the book, but be warned that this one is not a breezy ride through pop cultural perspectives on media and world events. The title of the book does a good job of describing its message. Klosterman analyzes media, history, science, and culture with the expressed intent on hypothetically proposing that like so many before us who were proven wrong in their respective fields by cultural advances, “What if we’re wrong?” about many of the things we hold to be absolute certainties. If many contemporaries of Aristotle agreed with his thought that gravity’s effect on a stone is based on it being made of a similar substance as the ground and thus, it “wanted” to be on the ground, then how do we know many of the things we agree about today are so correct?
The book goes on to discuss many of the facets of today right up to the latest current events of 2016, and wonders what future societies will hang on to from our time on earth. Will the cultural landmarks we consider eternal be left in the dust while total obscurities are held up in high regard? The book help my attention, but was a surprisingly complex little book. If you like Klosterman, there is plenty to enjoy and appreciate, but as Klosterman warns, don’t take it too seriously but rather use it as a form of broadening your perspectives on some of life’s truths.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
***Warning, I did not flag this review as containing spoilers because there are none in this review. However, without this warning I fear some may consider some of what I write below as potential spoilers.***
Some of the best and worst works of dramatic fiction are based on a character’s misinterpretation of events. The Girl on the Train uses this trope as well and while it does not result in the best dramatic mystery you’ve ever read, it’s also does not result in the worst. The Girl on the Train tells the story of Rachel, a recently divorced, unemployed alcoholic whose daily train rides are her only form of escape from her rather tragic existence. Her story soon becomes entwined with two other women whose perspectives along with Rachel’s comprise the 38 chapters of the novel. This is good summer reading fare and while it has some moments of unevenness, especially in terms of mood – it is a fast read that does keep you moderately engaged.
The novel’s triple point of view is nicely accomplished. At times, it is a bit gimmicky, but Rachel’s questionable recall of events is nicely tempered with Anna and Megan’s ignorant certainty. This is a quick read and while it has some moments of strength, at the end, you may notice it quickly fading from your memory, not unlike one of Rachel’s drunken blackouts.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Well, I am lost! What do I do now? 3 months ago, The Walking Dead was only a TV show to me. Now over 3000 pages of graphic novel later, I am hooked and left stranded like a walker awaiting the next paper-bound victim to devour. Hats off to Kirkman who just continues to build a universe that haunts, surprises, and entertains. The characters inhabit a separate and vibrant life on the page versus on the screen. For the first time, spoilers abound in any discussion of plot in this edition, but basically the Negan saga takes center stage and unlike the previous compendiums, some real progression of time takes place. As usual, characters you love will perish and new characters arrive that are as interesting and exciting as any from the past. And of course, the tension develops and does not let up all the way to the final panel. The end is absolutely bonkers! So as usual, I can not recommend these books enough and as much as I would like to think I can wait until compendium 4 to pick up another Walking Dead book, I expect I’ll be reading each sequential volume from this point onward!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While I sang the praises of Compendium 1 for certain reasons, I am thrilled to announce that I can sing the praises for Compendium 2 for completely different reasons! Part of the majesty of experiencing the first volume was to compare what I knew from the television series, The Walking Dead, to what I read in the graphic novel. The same was partially true with the second book, until I reached that inevitable moment when I got to move beyond the content that had been explored on the show. I am enjoying the story far more now that I am in untread territory. This second Compendium is wildly dark and emotionally gripping. The artwork continues to be outstanding and at times truly mesmerizing. Not a dull moment in these novels, which continues to impress me now that I am over 2000 pages into the saga! By the way, have Compendium 3 at the ready because this one ends on a real cliff-hanger!
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For a play written in the 1930s set at the turn of the century, this is quite a powerful little drama. The innovative nature of the stage manager framing the story and interacting with both the characters and the audience is stunning. I admit, I am not too knowledgeable about Thornton Wilder’s work, but I can see why this play has stood the test of time. Part sociological experiment, part morality play, Our Town on one level is extremely simple and yet on another relates a powerful message on what it means to be alive. I enjoyed this play very much and will certainly read more of Wilder’s material.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am hot and cold on graphic novels, but I can not deny the brilliance of The Walking Dead. I will admit I am a fan of the AMC TV show, which is what inspired me to read the compendiums. Therefore, my experience is more comparative in nature than if I had read the comics first. Still, the heart wrenching story details and spectacular artwork make this one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in the past year. Many of the details from the show are based on these comics, however the television show has altered quite a few specifics, and also it has transferred events that affect certain characters in the book to different characters in the show, which I think is exceptionally fascinating. Furthermore, The Governor…whoa! I can not wait to read the rest of the compendiums and eventually read beyond the television program, so that I can have a more pure experience with these stories and characters.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Station Eleven starts out with great promise, but ultimately becomes rather monotonous as it goes on. I had high hopes given the thematic premise evoked by the tagline, “Survival is insufficient,” but too much time was spent bouncing around between past and present. The novel depicts a post-apocalyptic mid-west where a band of actors and musicians travel to perform Shakespeare and inspire. This is the story’s strength, but just when things get going, the author (Emily St. John Mandel) meanders back to flashbacks of one character’s life before the pandemic. There are some beautiful passages in this book and some real subtext, especially in terms of the subtle comparison between 17th Century Europe and modern dystopian America. Nonetheless, the book leaves me unsatisfied by the end. I don’t get to read as many books as I’d like these days, so I was truly hoping for something great here, but alas – it was not a book of infinite jest or excellent fancy.
Someday, I hope to put all of this to use. This is a dense discussion of the art of screenwriting. I am pleased with the book’s down to earth approach and use of prime examples to make its point. I enjoyed it very much!
Ok, the key is to take this book for what it is. It is a rough draft of a literary classic. In that light, this is a serviceable companion to the art of writing and building a story. I enjoyed seeing some familiar language in its early stages and considering how this book made its way to To Kill a Mockingbird. I also think that when one compares the level of writing in this book to most of the top summer fiction, one would find that the value of good writing is something to be cherished. There is no doubt Harper Lee knows her way around the written word.
It’s no Da Vinci Code, but it’s classic Dan Brown. Very quick read, lots of ponder about art and history, and a lot of action. The ending disappointed, but perhaps this story is not quite done yet?
This is still my favorite book of all time. I’ve read it five times now, and I can never get over how perfect it is. It’s Victorian, it’s Gothic, it’s a coming of age novel, it’s a feminist novel, it’s a Romance, it’s a comedy, it’s got everything! Jane is a very complex, yet delicate heroine who struggles with the conflict of love versus her beliefs. Drenched in symbolism and filled with artistic elements and truly fleshed out characters, Jane Eyre is a brilliant piece of literature and history.