Friday, December 11, 2009

Cannonball Read, Book 4: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

This is a daring book -- one that doesn't let you lull yourself into complacency assuming that you know what is going to happen next. When you think you're sure of what's coming, you can be even more sure that while you might be close, you'll never be exactly right.

The story is hung around Willie Cooper, a girl who comes back to her hometown (here called Templeton, but really Cooperstown), after an affair with her married professor that didn't go particularly well. Just in case she wasn't feeling badly enough, the same day she returns the city discovers a kind of Loch Ness monster washed up on the shore of the local lake, and her mother decides to inform her that her anonymous father actually lives in the town.

About half of the book is concentrated on Willie's story -- how she tries to get her life back together, and her research into who her father may actually be. The other half is told from the point of view of other people in the town - some current day, others from the distant path. Some tell their stories through letters, others through diaries, others through what seems like oral testimony. The changing narrators keeps the book interesting and energetic.

The way Groff uses different voices is clever, and although at first glance this might seem almost like a light chick lit novel, it definitely isn't. It's sometimes surprisingly dark, and certainly doesn't follow chick lit genre traditions. The twists are genuinely surprising, and the characters are not one-note.

However, there are a few passages in which Groff seems to get too caught up in aesthetic concerns. She lingers over negative descriptions of older women's aging bodies and men's balding pates. Old age is equated with ugliness.

The book also seems slightly incomplete -- I feel like if she had added on another hundred pages or so I would have liked it much better. The resolution seems a bit too cut and dry, and some of the explanations almost terse. This is the author's first full-length novel and it shows a bit. This is more than a collection of related short stories, but it doesn't feel like a whole either.

Another aspect which was slightly irritating was the inclusion of supernatural occurrences. A ghost inhabits Willie's house, and some minor characters have some rather strange powers. I'm not necessarily against ghosts and such -- for example, in Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits they work perfectly --but here they seemed more like a loophole for Groff to explain the mystery without having to work too hard to come up with a more plausible explanation.

In the end, I'd give this book a C+. I'll probably take a look at her next book, to see if she's matured as a writer. She's definitely got talent, but it needs honing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cannonball Read, Book 3: Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter

I was really sad that I didn't like this book. I'd read The Emperor of Ocean Park a few years back and loved it -- Carter combined good scholarly writing with just enough tension and plot to make 500 pages fly by.

Palace Council didn't fulfill the promise of that other book, though. It starts out well. We meet our characters, all living in Harlem near the end of its Renaissance -- there's Eddie, a famous award-winning author, Aurelia, the upper-class woman he's hopelessly in love with, and a number of other upper class characters from Harlem society, including Langston Hughes and peripherally, many other important figures from the time, including Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. The vaguely sinister conspiracy is introduced and you start to get involved in the story.

And then, somewhere along the line, it starts to go wrong. Aurelia does things that seem completely out of character without any explanation. Clues lead the reader astray and not in a pleasurable way. Mysteries are introduced and never resolved. The villains of the story seem to just magically always know how to appear at the exact worst moment. And the worst part is that the conclusion seems somehow tacked on -- it's built up for hundreds of pages and then the resolution is just blah. It's like eating a huge Thanksgiving dinner, but the only thing offered for dessert is stale graham crackers.

I probably wouldn't have been so frustrated if it weren't for the fact that Carter is really a good writer. This is a book that has a passage like this "The American Angle...involved the determination to stay far ahead of everyone in the world but, at the same time, to keep everything exactly the same. We wanted endless technological progress that would never alter society one iota. We wanted to dominate the world without suffering any consequences."
And this: "Her hand on his back was affectionate but tentative, the touch of a woman who knows that her man is in love with someone else, and that her own perch in his life is so precarious that the stiff wind of a single argument would blow her away." Stephen Carter is smart and has really interesting things to say, so it's just really disappointing that the book ends up so...meh.

This book might still be worth a read if you just decide from the beginning not to care about the actual mystery and read it for the fascinating descriptions of Harlem society and a new look at the culture wars of the 60s. But if you do that, you might as well stop reading about 150 pages before the end and save yourself some irritation.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Cannonball Read, Book 2: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

This is a book that I'd been meaning to read for years and years -- it came out in 1997. I'd seen it tons of times and always found some other book that looked more interesting or was on sale at that moment. I finally got around to buying it last month.

The story is a retelling of the biblical story of Jacob and all his sons, but this time focusing on the story of his wives and his only daughter, Dinah. From what I vaguely remember from religion classes in elementary school, the details about the women are pretty sparse, so outside the basic foundation of the story, the author created most of the story. The first quarter of the book concentrates on the stories of the lives of Jacob's four wives, which are told quickly with broad strokes and was my favorite part of the book. The rest of the book tells the story of Dinah, going into much more detail, and passing from her childhood through to her death.

It's not exactly great literature. It doesn't make you think anything other than "oh, that's horrible" or "yay for her!"-- characters and events are pretty much either bad or good, there's not a lot of gray going on here. The characters are also almost all one-note: the wonderfully understanding and generous midwife or the arrogant, violent brother.

However, it's the perfect book for an airplane ride or for the beach -- the story is interesting and it pulls you in. There's a lot of fascinating information woven in about the way lives were lived 2000 years ago. And it flies by quickly, I think I finished the whole thing in about 3 1/2 hours.

Basically, it's a snack of a book. You read it, you feel satisfied, but a few hours later you already have a craving for something a bit more substantial.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Cannonball Read, Book 1: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

At its core, this book is about how a number of people find themselves on a boat leaving from India to bring coolies to work on plantations in the Mauritius islands, in 1838. The characters range from the owner of the ship to the ship's second mate to the coolies to the prisoners. The first half of the book concentrates on introducing us to the main characters and their initial circumstances, while the second half of the book takes place on the ship and begins to show us how they will interact together. The end of the book is a bit abrupt, a cliffhanger until the next book in the trilogy comes out.

Reviewing this book is a bit difficult, as all of the book's flaws are also strengths. For example, the main characters are interesting and come from diverse backgrounds. Reading about them you get an idea of what the various layers of Indian society must have been like at the time -- from the English plantation owner, to the comparatively wealthy Indian accountant working for the owner, to the poor poppy farmer living hand to mouth. However, while all of the characters are interesting and well-differentiated, there are a LOT of them. There are roughly a dozen main characters and something like twenty more secondary characters. I had to restart this book twice because I kept on getting confused between the various characters. Part of this is due to the fact that as an American I had difficulty remembering the various Indian names -- it's easier for me to keep Mary, Jack, Peter, and Eliza straight than Deeti, Kalua, Jodu, and Serang!*. I at least know right away that Mary and Eliza are women. Obviously, this isn't the book's fault -- it's just something that initially makes it more difficult to get into the book. Having to stop every two pages to figure out who the hell the character is can be a bit irritating. Once you get past this difficulty, though, the characters are all very interesting, and the fact that there are so many of them means that you get the enjoyment of watching them all interact in various ways.

The other good/bad aspect to this book is the combination of dialects that the book uses. I.E.:

"Launder say father-blongi-she go hebbin. That bugger do too muchi tree-pijjin. Allo time picking plant. Inside pocket hab no cash. After he go hebbin cow-chilo catchi number-two-father, Mr. Burnham."

"What'd you say we leave the steering to that badmash and find ourselves a drop of loll-shrub?"

After about the first hundred pages you kind of get used to not understanding half the things the characters say, and some of the other dialects are much easier to understand and provide some humor. I also discovered on Amazon that some editions of the book included a glossary at the back. Mine didn't, though.

One aspect that is entirely positive is the way Ghosh succeeds in teaching the reader about Indian society in the mid 1800s without ever seeming didactic. I feel like I know much more about poppy cultivation, opium manufacturing, Indian castes and Great Britain's economic and military policy but during reading I never got that at school feeling.

If you like wordplay and are willing to put in the initial work to keep roughly 30 characters with unfamiliar names straight, this is a rewarding and compelling book. If not, it's just frustrating and irritating. Now that I have met all the characters, I will definitely read the next book when it comes out.

*for the record, Deeti is an extremely poor female poppy farmer from a small Indian village, Kalua is a male ox driver from the same village, Jodu is a young boat operator from Calcutta, and Serang is a male sailor of unknown origins.

Sunday, October 18, 2009