The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

June 5, 2014

willa-cather-the-song-of-the-lark-001 Plot summary (from the publisher): The Song of the Lark is the self-portrait of an artist in the making. The story revolves around an ambitious young girl, Thea, who leaves home to go to the big city to fulfill her dream of becoming a famous opera star. Along the way, her realization of the mediocrity of her peers propels her to greater levels of accomplishment, but in the course of her ascent she must discard those relationships which no longer serve her.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I am almost always intrigued by stories of success, so there were some aspects of this novel that appealed to me. I liked that Thea was able to rise above her small-town beginnings to achieve that “$1,000-a-night” status that her aunt bragged about so much. Thea’s road wasn’t easy and she definitely deserves some credit for staying the course.
  • Cather does a good job of showing how many people are behind the success of one great artist. If Thea didn’t have timely financial help at exactly the right moments on her journey, she would have ended up teaching piano lessons in Moonstone for her whole life.
  • I loved that Thea and Fred were driven into a cave together by a ferocious storm. This scene totally reminded me of the exact same situation with Aeneas and Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. That had to be the inspiration, right??
  • I liked how Cather showed various folks from Moonstone popping up in New York to see Thea perform. That seemed like a totally natural reaction, as people everywhere are always willing to cheer on one of their own.

Disliked:

  • I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea that all of Thea’s financial help came from men who were in love with her. She wasn’t that beautiful or even personable, so I found the idea of Ray Kennedy, Dr. Archie, and Fred all coming to her aid to be a bit of a stretch. Then again, what were the alternatives back in those days? It’s not as though she could have gotten a bank loan on her own or anything!
  • The chronology of events wasn’t always laid out in a linear fashion, which served to confuse me on a couple of occasions. For example, when Dr. Archie and Thea were talking about how Thea failed to make it back to Moonstone after her mother died, I had to thumb back through several chapters to see if I had somehow missed that episode. But no, it was explained in detail only later in the book.
  • Thea wasn’t particularly remarkable or interesting to me. The only thing that set her apart from run-of-the-mill folks was her singing voice, and that’s obviously not something that can come through on the printed page. Other than singing, she was dull and even sort of ungrateful to some of the folks that had helped her.

Rating:

Having enjoyed some of Cather’s other works, I’d hoped for similar success with The Song of the Lark. But although this book does have its merits, I found the protagonist uninteresting and the story a bit too long for my tastes. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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A Death in the Family by James Agee

May 31, 2014

death in the family Plot summary (from the publisher): Published in 1957, two years after its author?s death at the age of forty-five, A Death in the Family remains a near-perfect work of art, an autobiographical novel that contains one of the most evocative depictions of loss and grief ever written. As Jay Follet hurries back to his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, he is killed in a car accident–a tragedy that destroys not only a life, but also the domestic happiness and contentment of a young family. A novel of great courage, lyric force, and powerful emotion, A Death in the Family is a masterpiece of American literature.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • This was such a wonderfully written book that it was a joy to read (despite the subject matter). Agee’s prose is often lyrical, giving the reader a chance to truly revel in the language. This is certainly a book I intend to read again.
  • The portrayal of the family’s reaction to Jay’s death was so raw and realistic as to be utterly captivating. I especially liked Rufus’ reaction: he wanted to go outside so other kids could see him and he could be the center of attention for once. That was just so perfect for a 6-year-old.
  • All through the book, I wondered how much was true and how much was embellished (since I know the story is autobiographical). I guess it’s a testament to Agee’s skill that I couldn’t detect where reality ended and fiction began.

Disliked:

  • Well, clearly this is nobody’s fault, but I’m saddened by the fact that this book was assembled and published posthumously. As such, we’ll never the know the exact order in which Agee intended the scenes to unfold. Again, not anybody’s fault–but a disappointment nonetheless.
  • Some parts of the book were rather dull and plodding, which, for all I know, Agee might have revised/polished had he lived long enough to finish the work to his satisfaction.

Rating:

A Death in the Family by James Agee is a well-written and realistic–yet unfinished–portrait of how family members react to the sudden death of Jay Follet. It’s easy to get caught up in the author’s language and style, making this a mostly enjoyable read. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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A Prayer for Owen Meany

May 25, 2014

a-prayer-for-owen-meany Plot summary (from the publisher): In the summer of 1953, two eleven-year-old boys—best friends—are playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy’s mother. The boy who hits the ball doesn’t believe in accidents; Owen Meany believes he is God’s instrument. What happens to Owen, after that 1953 foul ball, is extraordinary and terrifying.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • John Irving prides himself on writing amazing first sentences, and considers the opening of Owen Meany to be one of his best. I have to agree: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he was the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Wow.
  • It was great that Owen’s dialogue, diary entries, and newsletter articles were presented in ALL CAPS. Was all caps considered “shouting” in typewriter days as it is now on the Internet? If not, can Irving be considered the pioneer of the concept?
  • I really enjoyed reading about Owen and John’s friendship. They seemed like such complete opposites, but their friendship ended up being full of genuine love and mutual respect.
  • Dan Needham and his relationship with John was wonderful, too. I’m glad Dan and John stayed together, even after John’s mother’s death, and I loved that John considered Dan to be his father — even after learning about Reverend Merrill.
  • I liked that Owen was kind of a mystical figure. I actually don’t quite know what to make of him, whether he was truly an instrument of God or not (though I lean towards “yes” because he foretold the exact date of his death). Either way, he believed it and acted accordingly, which made him sort of noble and tragic all at the same time.

Disliked:

  • This novel was way too long and had too many dull patches along the way. In particular, I didn’t like any of the “present day” stuff with John moping around Canada railing against the Reagan administration. That stuff could have been completely excised without affecting the main storyline at all.
  • I thought Owen’s death scene was a bit underwhelming. I knew the dead soldier’s crazy brother would be the instrument of death as soon as he was introduced, so that wasn’t a surprise to me. Still, I was hoping the buildup to the event would pay off in spectacular fashion — but that’s not what happened. The only surprising thing about the death was that Owen and John used the move perfected from all that time practicing “The Shot”. I had no idea that would actually come into play!
  • Speaking of no payoff, what did it matter that Reverend Merrill turned out to be John’s father? Unless I missed something, that little nugget had no impact on the story at all.
  • Simon and Noah kind of went nowhere as characters. I was expecting a lot more from them since Irving spent so much time describing them early in the novel. But only Hester got any real attention as the story progressed, which made me wonder why I had to sit through all the stuff with the cousins in the first place.

Rating:

I’ve read a few John Irving novels, so I’m fairly used to his writing style, quirky characters, and unbelievable happenings. And even though I wanted to love A Prayer for Owen Meany because of all the praise it has earned since publication in 1989, I can’t muster up anything more than lukewarm feelings to the book. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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Missing You by Harlan Coben

May 22, 2014

harlan coben Plot summary (from the publisher): It’s a profile, like all the others on the online dating site. But as NYPD Detective Kat Donovan focuses on the accompanying picture, she feels her whole world explode, as emotions she’s ignored for decades come crashing down on her. Staring back at her is her ex-fiancé Jeff, the man who shattered her heart—and who she hasn’t seen in 18 years.

Kat feels a spark, wondering if this might be the moment when past tragedies recede and a new world opens up to her. But when she reaches out to the man in the profile, her reawakened hope quickly darkens into suspicion and then terror as an unspeakable conspiracy comes to light, in which monsters prey upon the most vulnerable.

As the body count mounts and Kat’s hope for a second chance with Jeff grows more and more elusive, she is consumed by an investigation that challenges her feelings about everyone she ever loved—her former fiancé, her mother, and even her father, whose cruel murder so long ago has never been fully explained. With lives on the line, including her own, Kat must venture deeper into the darkness than she ever has before, and discover if she has the strength to survive what she finds there.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I thought Kat Donovan was a decent protagonist. Sure, the “hard-drinking cop” thing has been done before, but at least she had some redeeming qualities (like not being right 100% o the time, which is a personal pet peeve of mine when it comes to thrillers). Put it this way: I’d read a procedural featuring Donovan any day.
  • The identity theft storyline was actually fairly interesting and was the one that kept me turning the pages. I wanted to learn more about the scam and go into more depth regarding Titus’ motivations (could he really have abducted/killed nearly 30 people just for money???). Unfortunately, this being Coben, one major plot line was not enough.
  • There were several mentions of Win, erstwhile enforcer for Myron Bolitar, in this book. Too bad it sounds like the guy has gone off the deep end and is now a “Howard Hughes-like recluse.”

Disliked:

  • What is with Coben and the “long-lost love” theme? This crops up in sooo many of his books that I wonder if he has Nicholas Sparks-like intentions of dominating the romance genre. Good grief, the fact that Kat couldn’t get over Jeff in 18 years wasn’t romantic. It was pathetic and completely unrealistic. Everything that had to do with these two and their twu wuv was stomach-churning.
  • So Jeff high-tailed it because he accidentally shot Kat’s father and couldn’t deal with the guilt? Yeah, okay. So much for their wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime relationship with a soulmate to whom you can tell everything.
  • The Aqua character was over-the-top and annoying. Ditto the too-perfect Stacie character. It’s as though Coben put zero thought into these secondary players and instead relied on stereotypes.
  • How fantastic that everything happened to work out at the end! Everyone was saved! Jeff and Kat have a future together! Kat and Stagger and Chaz made up and will be able to work together after all! Hooray!
  • The violence in this book was a bit graphic at times and seemed inserted just for the shock value. I guess that’s what sells these days.

Rating:

While some of Harlan Coben’s standalone novels are thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining, I wouldn’t count Missing You among that number. Maybe it’s just that his formula is becoming stale or maybe I’ve just read too many similar books to be able to appreciate the genre like I should. Whatever the cause, I thought this one was subpar. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

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Light in August by William Faulkner

May 16, 2014

light in august Plot summary (from the publisher): Light in August, a novel about hopeful perseverance in the face of mortality, features some of Faulkner’s most memorable characters: guileless, dauntless Lena Grove, in search of the father of her unborn child; Reverend Gail Hightower, who is plagued by visions of Confederate horsemen; and Joe Christmas, a desperate, enigmatic drifter consumed by his mixed ancestry.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • This is one of the more accessible Faulkner books available. The plot is mostly understandable, as are the characters and their motivations.
  • I was utterly captivated by Lena Grove and her relentless search for Lucas Burch. She tracked him down ON FOOT from Alabama to Mississippi, which speaks to her sheer determination. And her naiveté, I guess, since she seemed to want to believe the best of him until the end.
  • Byron Bunch was so pathetic, but I ended up liking him anyway. Love makes you do crazy things, so he must truly have been in love with Lena to do so much for her despite her circumstances.
  • Joe Christmas was intriguing, too. I didn’t like him or dislike him; I managed to stay neutral throughout the book. He was probably supposed to inspire some stronger feeling one way or the other, but I could take him or leave him. (I certainly could have done without the castration scene though!) I’m listing him here with the “Likes” because his story took up so much of the book and didn’t put me off it, which counts as a like by default.

Disliked:

  • I did not like anything having to do with Gail Hightower. I thought his flashbacks and family history were boring, and I couldn’t figure out how those things tied into the main plot.

Rating:

As I wrote above, Light in August is one of Faulkner’s more accessible books and serves as a great introduction to his work. Neither Lena Grove nor Joe Christmas or their separate fates will soon be forgotten. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

May 10, 2014

the book thief Plot summary (from the publisher): It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I thought Liesel’s relationship with Max was awesome. The way she brought him the snow in the cellar (to have a snowball fight and build a snowman) and the little gifts she gathered for him during his illness are touches of character that I shall not soon forget.
  • Come to think of it, this book was filled with memorable scenes like the ones I just named. For example, painting words on the wall while learning to read, Rosa Hubermann coming to the school and pretending to scold Liesel out in the hallway so she could reveal that Max had woken up, Rudy Steiner’s death (along with finally getting his kiss, albeit too late) were all just fantastic.
  • I’m glad that Liesel ended up living a long, happy life and becoming a famous author before Death finally caught up to her, especially since he had been “tracking” her and those around her for so long.

Disliked:

  • Books about this particular period in German (and world) history are just far too depressing for my tastes. Obviously there’s no way to put a happy face on what happened; I’m just stating a personal preference in literature.
  • Some parts of this book were boring (and even a bit repetitive). For instance, the sections that covered Hans Hubermann’s time in the army were boring, while the stuff about Rudy and Liesel’s thievery, while entertaining at first, soon started to feel rather repetitive.

Rating:

I read The Book Thief based entirely on its reputation as an “amazing” story and a runaway bestseller. While I found that it lived up to the hype in several places, I had mixed feelings on the work as a whole. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James Watson

May 4, 2014

the double helix Summary (from the publisher): By identifying the structure of DNA, the molecule of life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionized biochemistry and won themselves a Nobel Prize. At the time, Watson was only twenty-four, a young scientist hungry to make his mark. His uncompromisingly honest account of the heady days of their thrilling sprint against other world-class researchers to solve one of science’s greatest mysteries gives a dazzlingly clear picture of a world of brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions, and bitter rivalries.

With humility unspoiled by false modesty, Watson relates his and Crick’s desperate efforts to beat Linus Pauling to the Holy Grail of life sciences, the identification of the basic building block of life. Never has a scientist been so truthful in capturing in words the flavor of his work.

Liked:

  • Watson was extremely humble in this book. I was very surprised at how much he downplayed his accomplishments — and the description above is right: it didn’t come off as false modesty at all.
  • I enjoyed reading about how other scientists were on the verge of discovering the nature of the structure. I think we often forget that many of history’s greatest names are known to us by virtue of winning these kinds of “races” by the slimmest of margins (Champollion vs. Young comes to mind, as does Darwin and Wallace).

Disliked:

  • Watson’s account is scant on details. I’m not sure if this was part of his effort to be modest or what, but I still don’t have a very clear idea of the precise steps taken to ascertain the double helix structure. I understand the broad strokes, but Watson does not get into the nitty-gritty here.
  • There was quite a bit of gossipy sniping in this book, particularly about Rosalind (“Rosy”) Franklin. Watson put her down at practically every turn, and even made petty comments about her appearance and make-up (or lack thereof). I realize the 1950′s were quite another era, especially concerning women in the hard sciences, but this was extreme.

Rating:

Although Double Helix wasn’t as detailed as I had hoped, it was still a fairly interesting firsthand account of one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in human history. Watson keeps things short and sweet (which was a plus), but ends up spending more time on dinner party descriptions and office politics than on science. I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

May 2, 2014

elmer gantry Plot summary (from the publisher): Today universally recognized as a landmark in American literature, Elmer Gantry scandalized readers when it was first published, causing Sinclair Lewis to be “invited” to a jail cell in New Hampshire and to his own lynching in Virginia. His portrait of a golden-tongued evangelist who rises to power within his church – a saver of souls who lives a life of hypocrisy, sensuality, and ruthless self-indulgence – is also the record of a period, a reign of grotesque vulgarity, which but for Lewis would have left no record of itself. Elmer Gantry has been called the greatest, most vital, and most penetrating study of hypocrisy that has been written since Voltaire.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Did Lewis really name-check himself, Main Street, and George Babbitt in this book??? I believe he did — and I think that’s awesome! Hey, he’s writing about a specific time period and if one of his books and/or characters was popular at that time, then why not include a few mentions?
  • I liked Elmer Gantry as a character. Sure, he was a pretty despicable person, but came off as a rather complex protagonist. He was often cold and calculating, and unflinchingly did bad things when he knew he would benefit in the end. He was a liar and a cheat, too. But somehow Lewis managed to make Lewis painfully human underneath it all. It was this human side that allowed me to identify with all his failings — and like him (at least a little) in spite of them.
  • When Elmer hightailed it out of the fire at the revival meeting that killed Sharon Falconer, the description reminded me of George Costanza fleeing the fire at a kid’s birthday party on Seinfeld. It was the same frantic pushing and shoving to get the women and elderly out of the way so Elmer could escape.
  • I loved the way some of Gantry’s hypocrisies were portrayed. For example, when the street hustler in London tried selling him some cards with dirty pictures on them, Gantry was wholly interested — until his wife came upon the scene, after which point he started inveighing against the sinning vendor for trying to pawn that smut off on Gantry. Ha!

Disliked:

  • The book felt overly long for some reason. Well, I mean, it was a long book (nearly 500 pages in my version), but what I mean is that the momentum of the plot flagged towards the end and was hard to finish up. Maybe a better word for this would be tedious.
  • I thought Lewis was rather hard on religion in this book, painting pretty much all of the preachers with the same brush of hypocrisy. I might have been more receptive to his overall message/views if he’d had at least one wholly decent man of the cloth in here.

Rating:

It’s kind of odd that I can’t come up with more than two things I disliked about Elmer Gantry, yet it was nevertheless sort of just “meh” to me on the whole. I certainly didn’t hate it, but it’s not one that I’ll likely ever come back to, either. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

April 28, 2014

goon squad egan Plot summary (from the publisher): Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Things started off well enough, with the hotel scene in which Sasha steals the woman’s wallet from the bathroom. I was hooked almost immediately (though that didn’t last).
  • I thought Sasha was the most interesting character of the bunch, and found myself paying more attention to the story whenever the focus was on her. If I’d been able to follow events through her perspective for the whole book, I might have had a better experience.
  • The writing style in general was pretty good. While I didn’t particularly care for Egan’s nonlinear story development in this book, I’d certainly be open to reading something else from her.

Disliked:

  • The stories were a bit too disconnected for my tastes. Yes, obviously many of the characters overlapped and intersected, but because the chronology was so disordered, it was hard to keep their relationships straight.
  • The PowerPoint chapter. You’ll either love it or hate it. I hated it because it was wholly unnecessary and just screams out for attention.
  • The part about the woman who was a PR person for a genocidal dictator was a huge WTF. I mean, seriously, WTF was that in the book for?

Rating:

I picked up A Visit from the Goon Squad at my library because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner and therefore must have some merit (right?). And while there were a few moments of good writing and enjoyable characterization, the work as a whole wasn’t to my taste. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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Cracking the Egyptian Code by Andrew Robinson

April 23, 2014

cracking code Summary (from the publisher): In 1799 Napoleon’s army uncovered an ancient stele in the Nile delta. Its inscription, recorded in three distinct scripts–ancient Greek, Coptic, and hieroglyphic–would provide scholars with the first clues to unlocking the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs, a language lost for nearly two millennia. More than twenty years later a remarkably gifted Frenchman named Jean-Francois Champollion successfully deciphered the hieroglyphs on the stele, now commonly known as the Rosetta Stone, sparking a revolution in our knowledge of ancient Egypt.

Cracking the Egyptian Code is the first biography in English of Champollion, widely regarded as the founder of Egyptology. Andrew Robinson meticulously reconstructs how Champollion cracked the code of the hieroglyphic script, describing how Champollion started with Egyptian obelisks in Rome and papyri in European collections, sailed the Nile for a year, studied the tombs in the Valley of the Kings (a name he first coined), and carefully compared the three scripts on the Rosetta Stone to penetrate the mystery of the hieroglyphic text. Robinson also brings to life the rivalry between Champollion and the English scientist Thomas Young, who claimed credit for launching the decipherment, which Champollion hotly denied. There is much more to Champollion’s life than the Rosetta Stone and Robinson gives equal weight to the many roles he played in his tragically brief life, from a teenage professor in Revolutionary France to a supporter of Napoleon (whom he met), an exile, and a curator at the Louvre.

Extensively illustrated in color and black-and-white pictures, Cracking the Egyptian Code will appeal to a wide readership interested in Egypt, decipherment and code-breaking, and Napoleon and the French Revolution.

Reaction:

I have long admired Jean-Francois Champollion as the decipherer of the Rosetta Stone even without knowing much about his private life. In fact, I didn’t know much about him beyond the basics covered on Wikipedia and similar sites, but figured anyone brilliant enough to “crack the Egyptian code” was worthy of some admiration.

I picked up Robinson’s book more or less with the hope of confirming my already established bias in favor of Champollion. However, as I read through this work, I developed a growing sympathy for Thomas Young and wanted to learn more about him. It’s unfortunate that his name is not better known amongst laypersons like me, since he truly did make significant contributions to the study of Hieroglyphics.

As for Champollion, I found his life to be sort of boring. I quickly discovered that I wasn’t interested in any of the personal stuff (mostly family relationships, a brief history of his schooling, and some political intrigues), and only perked up once the focus shifted to Champollion’s trip to Egypt.

To Robinson’s credit, he handled this part of the book well. He used many of Champollion’s own drawings, diary entries, and letters home to describe the trip, and filled in the gaps as best he could with the help of secondary sources. I could clearly imagine Champollion’s excitement and awe at finally coming face to face with the culture, symbols, and structures he had been able to study only from afar (I was particularly struck by his having added to some graffiti by carving his name into one of the stones). I’m glad he was able to do that much before he died.

I also appreciated Robinson’s choice to include some hieroglyphic symbols, Champollion’s interpretations of them, and their currently accepted meanings. It’s amazing how he was so spectacularly wrong about some things!

Rating:

While it’s certainly no fault of the author’s that Jean-Francois Champollion’s life was rather dull (to me), I nevertheless have judge the book–at least in part–on its entertainment value. From the point of view of a non-scholarly layperson who was simply interested in learning more about JFC and how he cracked the code, I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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