Review: Big Fish

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Big Fish
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a very charming book, and I’m glad I picked it up. It’s always refreshing to read a southern writer. I have to say, after reading this book only because I loved the movie (like so many others, I’m sure), that the movie makers did an astounding job of adapting it. The book is chronological, simple, and sparsely told. The movie not only adds characters, nuances, and scenes, it also tells the story nonlinearly and mixes elements of several of the tall tales together.

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Review: The Secret History

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The Secret History
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book started off so well, opening with a murder, with intrigue, with the premise of well-to-do socialites drawn in to exploring their ancient carnal natures. There was even a passage toward the beginning–by whom I assumed would take on a leading role but turned out to be little more than a side character–about how the Greeks believed in ritualistically cutting loose since repression was prerequisite to cold-blooded, predatory evil. I thought that’s what this book was going to be about, and in the exposition, it certainly seemed headed in that direction.

Around page 150, Henry confides in the narrator the group’s machinations, popping the bubble Tartt so carefully constructed, and dashing the book’s sense of mystery. From there on out came 400 pages of prose consisting mostly of various characters visiting other characters’ dwellings in every conceivable combination to talk about “what to do next.” The author obsesses over drinking, smoking, sexual pairings, prescription drugs, food, and insomnia. I got the same nihilistic impression from Another Country, The Great Gatsby, and The Sun Also Rises, that sense of “how is this kind of depraved, shallow materialism supposed to drive the plot forward?” It’s employed not as a device or critique, but presented as the actual meat-and-potatoes of the book itself, that I am supposed to spend 400 pages caring about these trust fund babies’ furtive glances, hurt feelings, fragile friendships, sleeping and eating habits, blackout episodes, and betrayals. I didn’t.

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Review: Lit

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Lit
Lit by Mary Karr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an incredibly deep, heartfelt memoir. There are lots of references to the author’s childhood and mother that are alluded to either sideways or conspicuously glossed over. I assume it is because the author assumes the reader has read The Liars’ Club. I haven’t, but I intend to, after this. Perhaps the themes of broken childhood and alcoholism are too tightly interwoven to completely separate. My only criticism is that, like most books longer than 300 pages, the author drones sometimes, or gets off on tangents unrelated to the central story. Of course, it is difficult to stick to a central story with the memoir format, but still. There was cuttable material here. What’s left is a well-written exploration of a woman’s interior — that of alcoholism, brokenness, and literary light.

Oh, and funny as hell:

In natural childbirth classes, with women sprawled around the room on wrestling mats, the men had seemed mystified by the process. One night in the car going home, Warren said, When are we supposed to learn the stuff that stops the pain?
We already have, I said. That’s what the breathing exercises are.
My God, he said, that won’t accomplish anything.

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Review: The Vegetarian

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The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a powerful, nearly perfect book. I think the first part is the strongest, in which Kang sets up the creepy premise: that terrifying, murderous nightmares possess an otherwise ordinary woman to give up meat. As the book progresses, we see this oddity evolve into an obsession, then to a complete departure from reality as the protagonist descends into madness.

Each of the three parts is told by a different point of view: first her husband, then her brother-in-law, last her sister. The first two parts compound the inherent violence of the prose by presenting the heroine as a kind of possession of the narrator. This insidious undertone really emphasizes the symbols of dominion, control, and social behavior the author explores throughout the book. Parts one and two also each end with a frightful crescendo. Sadly, part three breaks all of these patterns and continues the still creepy story as an emotional relationship between two sisters. I had in mind as I was reading some kind of ultimate, grotesque climax, bordering on science fiction, but alas, it never came. Nonetheless, this is an incredibly original and creative book, and I hope more of the author’s work is translated into English.

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Review: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this little gem in a used bookshop for one dollar. I was faintly aware of “the longitude problem” but totally unaware of the details. This book packs an extraordinary story of those details in a mere 180 pages. The story involves father-son inventors, royal arch-nemeses, Galileo’s invention of the telescope, danger on the high seas, the invention of modern clocks, and 18th-century arms races among countries seeking to dominate the oceans (spoiler: England won).

If you have never heard of John Harrison or his forty-year quest to build the perfect maritime clock, this easy afternoon reader is a geek’s dream. It’s a great underdog story about a rural craftsman attempting the impossible, trying to crack the greatest unsolved science challenge of his day, using an approach completely at odds with the astronomy elite… to claim a million dollar prize (well, £20,000 in those days). This is exactly what we wander used bookstores hoping to find.

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Review: Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

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Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anything with the word “Pulitzer” on the cover is generally a safe bet when it comes to books you’ve never heard of. I picked up this well-regarded travelogue when bulking up on civil war fodder, and it did not disappoint. In fact, I got far more than I bargained for. I was expecting a fly-on-the-wall, war correspondent style dive into the world of civil war reenactors, and several chapters were exactly that. But the author delves so much deeper. Horwitz spent several years traveling the south visiting sons & daughters of confederate veterans, sites of controversial riots, murders, rebel flag spats, and monuments. This amalgam, presented in clear, regimented, one-chapter-one-topic format, does a good job initiating one into the world of the “occupied south.” Some of the unfiltered testimony, the extreme voices of the lost cause and racial enmity are difficult to read. Horwitz doesn’t editorialize; he presents these voices plainly, right alongside those of “liberal confederates” who make annual pilgrimages in great-great grandfathers’ war regalia to relive battlefields.

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Review: An Intimate Look At the Night Sky

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An Intimate Look At the Night Sky
An Intimate Look At the Night Sky by Chet. Raymo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Picked this little guy up at the library after getting a new telescope. It’s a nice introduction to astronomy. Ironically, I knew most of the technical science, but nearly nothing about skywatching itself. The author prints season-specific maps and spends one page talking about the constellations & greek myths, and a second corresponding page talking about the nebulae, galaxies, binary star systems, etc, viewable in that part of the sky. That marriage makes skywatching very engaging, enabling the reader to really synthesize and remember what’s where in the night sky.

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Review: Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains

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Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains
Bushwhackers: The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains by William R. Trotter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There are maybe 3 or 4 chapters worth reading in this book. My favorites were those detailing some of the half-legendary “mountain lore” raiding and getaway stories. I am especially interested in JV Hadley and Albert D Richardson, two (separate) detailed accounts of northerners who escaped confederate prisons and made their way to friendly territory in Knoxville. There were so many Unionists in North Carolina they’d formed an “Underground Railway” for escaped prisoners.

Most of this book though is a recap of the war in the mountains: Thomas’ Legion, Burnside, Stoneman’s Raid, etc.

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Review: Between the World and Me

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Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very difficult book to read and to process. In the abstract, I think I can start to step into his world and see through his eyes. But I am missing thirty years’ worth of experience that would inform my instincts. Not to mention the entire body of art, literature, and history neatly wrapped up in what society calls “African American Studies.”

One thing is for sure, though. I, as a white male, do not buy into the mythology of our country’s founding. That heroic, liberty-loving humanists launched a beautiful struggle to form a more perfect union of rule-of-law-loving white Christians. I believe that America has always been defined by the melting pot, and how different waves of immigrants (voluntary and involuntary) have moved through the cycle of persecution, oppression, struggle, and then equality.

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Review: Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves

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Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves
Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves by Belinda Hurmence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like Elie Wiesel’s Night, these firsthand accounts of a horrific episode of human history are above criticism. It is fascinating, in an academic way, to read about the American slavery experience from the slaves themselves, rather than the extensive secondhand literature. You get a sense of which elements were cherry-picked for cinema and which were overlooked. Most shocking is their manner of describing it. The vast majority of subjects answered, when asked whether slavery was a bad thing, in the negative. The typical response was along the lines of “slavery was bad because it broke up families, but we were better off then than we are now.” This unsettling statement contains a hint of all the injustice borne upon free persons of color since the end of the Civil War. Freedom without equal opportunity was a recipe for incredible suffering, the last vestiges of which still haunt us today. The writer prepares the reader for this odd nostalgia in the introduction, where she reminds us that the individuals most ready and willing to fight (before and after slavery) were the least likely to survive, and that the subjects interviewed, the survivors, were most likely the meekest and most compliant (today we would use the word brainwashed) among their people. That in itself is a tragedy.

I’m glad that someone finally thought to interview surviving slaves, even if it took until the 1930s (most subjects are in their 80s and 90s) for a government program to do so. This book is an excerpt of an enormous multivolume series housed in the Library of Congress. Its historical value cannot be overstated.

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