Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: The Body Artist by Don Delillo

The Body Artist: A NovelTitle: The Body Artist

Author: Don Delillo

Pages: 124

Source: Personal library

Rating: 5/10

Summary (From book flap):

In this spare, seductive novel, he inhabits the muted world of Lauren Hartke, an artist whose work defies the limits of the body. Lauren is living on a lonely coast, in a rambling rented house, where she encounters a strange, ageless man, a man with uncanny knowledge of her own life. Together they begin a journey into the wilderness of time -- time, love and human perception.

My Two Cents:

I just need to learn to stay away from Don Delillo's books. I read White Noise in college and thought it was fabulous. So, I gave Underworld a try. I barely made it through that huge tome, and all I remember about it is that it was about baseball. I figured, though, that maybe that was a fluke of a book and I didn't take to it since I dislike baseball so much. That led me to giving The Body Artist a try.

I had the same issue with this book that I had with Franny and Zooey: Nothing happens. I know this is like the hallmark of all those esoteric modern novels that hipsters worship, but it just doesn't work for me. I found myself, even in just 124 pages, spacing out and wishing for it to be over. I know this sounds harsh, but there just wasn't much about this book that I liked.

The one saving grace of this novel is Delillo's writing. He certainly is one of the great craftsman of the English language currently alive. His sentences are varied and complex, and he has a knack for turning a phrase. But, really, that's about all I found to like about this book.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton

Mr. ToppitTitle: Mr. Toppit

Author: Charles Elton

Pages: 387 (I have an ARC, so page numbers in finished copies may differ)

Source: Publisher for review

Rating: 7/10

Summary (From back of book):

When Arthur Hayman, an unsuccessful screenwriter turned children's book author, is accidentally hit by a cement truck in London, his dying moments are spent with a passing American tourist, Laurie Clow, who is fated to bring posthumous fame to his obscure series, The Hayseed Chronicles, and the enigmatic and sinister Mr. Toppit who is at the center of the books. While Arthur doesn't live to reap the benefits of his books' success, his legacy falls to his widow, Martha, and their children -- the fragile Rachel, and Luke, reluctantly immortalized as the fictional Luke Hayseed, hero of his father's books. But others want their share of the Hayseed phenomenon, particularly Laurie, who has a mysterious agenda of her own that changes all their lives as Martha, Rachel, and Luke begin to crumble under the heavy burden of their inheritance.

My Two Cents:

I have very mixed feelings about this book. I thought Elton's writing had a great flow to it and made this book really easy to read. I also thought he created some really solid, vivid characters, especially Laurie and Rachel. Also, he created a really interesting concept with The Hayseed Chronicles. It was so intriguing that I actually found myself often wishing that the series really existed so I could read it.

My big hang-up with this book, though, is that it just didn't seem to feel very cohesive. Sure, all the scenes orbited around Luke and the fame of his father's books, along with the downfall of his family, but it just seemed as if there were episodes thrown in for shock factor alone. The section where Luke is visiting Laurie in Los Angeles is full of these non sequiturs, and the whole portion just kind of hangs together limply. I think maybe it's because we really don't get to know Luke outside of the fact that he really dislikes all the attention paid to him because he is the iconic main character of his father's books. I couldn't tell if things that he did and said while at Laurie's house really were in or out of character for him, so they all just kind of seemed to come out of nowhere.

Generally, though, I did enjoy this book. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin: A NovelTitle: The Blind Assassin

Author: Margaret Atwood

Pages: 521

Source: Personal library

Rating: 9/10

Summary (From book flap):

The novel opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura's story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist.

Told in a style that magnificently captures the colloquialisms of the 1930s and 1940s, The Blind Assassin is a richly layered and uniquely rewarding experience. The novel has many threads and a series of events that follow one another at a breathtaking pace. As everything comes together, readers will discover that the story Atwood is telling is not only what it seems to be -- but is, in fact, much more.

My Two Cents:

I have not read any Atwood for several years, and my only experience with her (Short of following her on Twitter!) is with The Handmaid's Tale, which is still one of my favorite books. I'm glad I expanded my Atwood repertoire, because I truly think she is one of the best modern writers. In my totally unofficial, based-on-two-books opinion, of course.

Atwood weaves a very complicated tale, moving back and forth between Iris' past and present, the text of The Blind Assassin and various news articles. She is able to switch her narrative voice to suit each need while still maintaining a through line and a cohesive feel to the book, which isn't an easy feat.

I liked the main character, Iris, much more as the narrative unfolded. At first, I felt sorry for her and realized she had gotten into a situation for which she was unprepared. As the novel went on, I continued to feel sorry for her because Atwood made it seem as if she was a totally helpless party in everything: Her marriage, the decline of her family's business, her sister's health. But, there were moments where Iris' strength and defiance shone through, partly in the narrative portions where she is older, but also in events from the past. Even though I could predict the big revelation that came at the end, it did not ruin my experience of the novel as a whole.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes good, solid writing and character development along with an interesting story (Who doesn't?).

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead: A NovelTitle: Gilead

Author: Marilynne Robinson

Pages: 247

Source: Personal library

Rating: 8/10

Summary (From book flap):

In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowa preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He "preached men into the Civil War," then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father -- an ardent pacifist -- and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the Union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.

This is also the tale of another remarkable vision -- not a corporeal vision of God by the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

My Two Cents:

I thought this was a really interesting book. I don't read a whole lot of epistolary fiction, especially epistolary fiction told only by one person. I did start to get a little frustrated (I think part of it was because I was starting in on the latter portion of the 24-hour Read-a-Thon) because, since the book is told through one person's letters and one person's point of view, the plot did not develop in any really linear fashion. As I was reading, I wasn't so fond of that device, but after I had finished the book and reflected on it a bit, I think the device worked better for telling the story than any traditional narrative would have.

Robinson's writing is really easy to read, but still very rich and descriptive. I liked how she was able to bring her own narrative style forward while still keeping the voice believable as coming out of Ames's mouth. I never have read a Robinson book before, but I think I will give some others a try.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Review: Proust's Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini

Proust's Overcoat: The True Story of One Man's Passion for All Things ProustTitle: Proust's Overcoat: The True Story of One Man's Passion for All Things Proust

Author: Lorenza Foschini

Pages: 120

Source: Publisher for review

Rating: 7/10

Summary (From Amazon):

Jacques GuÉrin was a prominent businessman at the head of his family's successful perfume company, but his real passion was for rare books and literary manuscripts. From the time he was a young man, he frequented the antiquarian bookshops of Paris in search of lost, forgotten treasures. The ultimate prize? Anything from the hands of Marcel Proust.
GuÉrin identified with Proust more deeply than with any other writer, and when illness brought him by chance under the care of Marcel's brother, Dr. Robert Proust, he saw it as a remarkable opportunity. Shamed by Marcel's extravagant writings, embarrassed by his homosexuality, and offended by his disregard for bourgeois respectability, his family had begun to deliberately destroy and sell their inheritance of his notebooks, letters, manuscripts, furni-ture, and personal effects. Horrified by the destruction, and consumed with desire, GuÉrin ingratiated himself with Marcel's heirs, placating them with cash and kindness in exchange for the writer's priceless, rare material remains. After years of relentless persuasion, GuÉrin was at last rewarded with a highly personal prize, one he had never dreamed of possessing, a relic he treasured to the end of his long life: Proust's overcoat.
Proust's Overcoat introduces a cast of intriguing and unforgettable characters, each inspired and tormented by Marcel, his writing, and his orphaned objects. Together they reveal a curious and compelling tale of lost and found, of common things and uncommon desires.

My Two Cents:

I don't read a whole lot of non-fiction, so my expectations for this spare book were pretty low. I was pleasantly surprised by how much this book read like a novel instead of a piece of non-fiction. It moved at a quick pace (Of course, at 120 pages, it's hard not to move quickly) and kept me interested.

Foschini does a great job of painting Jacques Guerin, who you could theoretically call her main character. Sure, he was a real person, but his obsession with Proust and his quest to collect pieces of the author's life. I found Guerin a fascinating person, and could see the source of his eccentricities.

My main problem with this book, however, is that there was so much emphasis placed on Guerin's collection of things such as Proust's manuscripts and his bed that there was very little time left for his overcoat, the title object. Foschini's entire introduction is dedicated to her viewing of the coat, yet the coat only really comes into play for about 20 pages of the book. I would have liked to hear a lot more about the coat, if possible, and think it would have added to this book.

If you like non-fiction about authors and their legacies, or you like reading about people who collect things, you may want to check out this book. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

Sons and Lovers (Signet Classics)Title: Sons and Lovers

Author: D.H. Lawrence

Pages: 436

Source: Personal library

Rating: 9/10


This novel tells the story of the Morel family: Father Walter, mother Gertrude, and children William, Annie, Paul and Arthur. Not finding any sort of satisfaction in her marital relationship with drunk, abusive, brash Walter, Gertrude places all her love and devotion onto her sons. Her desire to protect them eventually leads to William's dangerous lifestyle and Paul's inability to move out of his parents' home.

My Two Cents:

I really, really enjoyed this novel. For some reason, Lawrence always has kind of held the same lofty place in English letters of James Joyce and, to an extent, Shakespeare. He just wasn't an author that, going through school, a lot of people read for fun. There was one short story that every English major at my college read, but I think I only knew one or two other people who read him extracurricularly. As a result, Lawrence just gained this kind of aura that I never tried to breech. However, I'm glad I finally did read Lawrence and can't wait to read more by him.

I really oscillated back and forth as to whether or not I liked or even felt sorry for Gertrude. For the first portion of the novel, I absolutely felt sorry for her. She had an absent husband who did not give her enough money to keep the home running each week. Walter constantly was out drinking and, when he came home, he was loud and mean. The only good relationships she had were with her children, who keep multiplying even though she hates her husband. But, as the children grew, I liked her less and less. She became one of those mothers who just cannot cut the apron strings. Her suffocation eventually leads to William leaving the house and going against pretty much everything he ever has been taught, to his detriment. Gertrude's hold on Paul, mostly because of what happened to William, is just frighteningly strong. By the end of the novel, he is in his late 20s, has ruined two potential romantic relationships because of his mother's co-dependency and still living at home. There just was something so wrong and even creepy about Paul's relationship with his mother as an adult that I just could not get over.

While I spent most of the novel wishing that Paul would just cut the cord on his own and leave his parents' house (He nearly does a few times), and I could understand that his care and concern for his mother was the driving force behind his inability to grow up, I still couldn't really feel very sorry for him. I think it's because of the way his worry for his mother manifests itself in his relationships with the women in the book. Instead of making things clear about his relationship with his mother from the start, he leads two women on for long periods of time, coming close to marriage a couple of times, only to turn into a rogue and a rake and treat the women horribly. I just could not feel sorry for Paul, not one bit.

Lawrence's writing is gorgeous. He really had a knack for evoking not only the physical landscape of the industrializing English countryside in which his novel is set, but he is able to render the overall atmosphere of the setting with stunning accuracy. I really felt as if I could picture not only the physical surroundings, but I could feel as downtrodden and low as many of the characters in his novel. This was just a beautiful novel that flowed really easily, and I could sit down to read and, before I knew it, I was 50 pages farther into the book.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Read-a-Thon: Midway Survey!

1. What are you reading right now? I'm reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2. How many books have you read so far? This is book number three.
3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon? I'm not sure! I'll be glad to finish this book and then move on to another book.
4. Did you have to make any special arrangements to free up your whole day? Not really. I just told my husband I'm participating in a read-a-thon, so he can't expect my help with much!
5. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those? Sort of. My need to shift positions frequently is oh, so fun, as are the little legs kicking my book off my convenient book rest (My stomach).Of course, I was without a computer for most of the first half of the read-a-thon, which was a severe inconvenience.
6. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far? Nothing, really. This is my third read-a-thon!
7. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? Nope! It's fabulous!
8. What would you do differently, as a Reader or a Cheerleader, if you were to do this again next year? I'd actually set my alarm... Oops.
9. Are you getting tired yet? I'm nearly 34 weeks pregnant. I'm always tired!
10. Do you have any tips for other Readers or Cheerleaders, something you think is working well for you that others may not have discovered? Having a variety of comfortable places to sit is really helpful. Sometimes, a change of scenery can help you regain focus.

Good luck with the rest of the Read-a-Thon, everyone!!

Read-a-Thon Update

Hello, fellow Read-a-Thon-ers! This is the first I've had my computer back all day!

Here's what my Read-a-Thon has looked like thus far:

Started reading at 9 a.m. CDT. I was really lazy and didn't wake up until three hours into the day!

Finished Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. Review will come later this week, but I highly recommend it and now consider myself a Lawrence fan.

Started and finished an ARC of Proust's Overcoat, a great little gem of the true story surrounding Proust's infamous overcoat and what happened to many of his personal belongings after his death. Review will come later this week.

I'm now halfway through Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I'm really liking it thus far. I hope to finish it in the next couple hours here.

This is my third Read-a-Thon and, thus far, my most successful reading-wise!

I haven't yet participated in any mini-challenges (Just getting my computer back from a suddenly projects-oriented husband and all), but I plan to pop a few in while the potatoes for my potato salad are cooling.

Happy reading, everyone!!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

The Mayor of Casterbridge (Bantam Classics)Title: The Mayor of Casterbridge

Author: Thomas Hardy

Pages: 326

Source: Personal library

Rating: 9/10

Summary (From back of book):

Rooted in an actual case of wife-selling in early nineteenth-century England, the story builds into an awesome Sophoclean drama of guilt and revenge, in which the strong, willful Henchard rises to a position of wealth and power -- only to achieve a most bitter downfall. Proud, obsessed, ultimately committed to his own destruction, Henchard is, as Albert Guerard has said, "Hardy's Lord Jim ... his only tragic hero and one of the greatest tragic heroes in all fiction."

My Two Cents:

It's easy to see why this is considered by many to be Hardy's greatest novel. It blends all the classic qualities of Hardy's work -- fatalism, the plights of the lower classes and rural workers, a rustic setting -- and weaves a story that is compelling for the reader. As usual, Hardy's clear writing style full of stark description makes reading even the unpleasant scenes a joy.

Michael Henchard is probably my favorite Hardy protagonist of the four (Jude, Tess, Bathsheba and Michael) that I have met. He has an unwavering pride and ambition, but also a severe conscience that allows his remorse for his past wrongs to interfere with his plans for the future. As the novel opens, the reader is meant to hate Michael for his deplorable actions. Even as the early action unfolds, I didn't feel sorry for and even wished for Michael's downfall. However, as things really get rolling, I began to wish that things would look up for Michael and that he would stop being so hard on himself.

This change in opinion, I think, is why Michael is my favorite Hardy protagonist. Tess is a pitiable character from day one and there's really no change throughout the novel. Jude is much the same and an obvious victim of nothing but his circumstances. I just wasn't fond of Bathsheba at all, even though she's a unique female protagonist. But Michael is master of his own fortunes and his dynamic character changes make him much more interesting to watch.

If you are a fan of Hardy, fatalism or just want a really good story, I'd suggest picking up The Mayor of Casterbridge.
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