2010 TBR, Animals, Book Review, Fiction, Nature, Richard Adams

Review: Watership Down by Richard Adams

Summary:
Watership Down is like a psychic-Rabbit equivalent of The Grapes of Wrath, except Richard Adams is not quite the writer that John Steinbeck is. At the start, a small group of rabbits from a relatively peaceful, advantageous warren leave their home at the urging of a small, mysterious rabbit with the gift of foresight. They traverse across the wide countryside, encountering roads, rivers, and floating devices for the very first time. They also make unlikely friends, and dangerous foes (or should I say, does – hah!). Ultimately, this is a story of family and friendship, love and survival, strength and adventure. The “realistic” portions of the story are interwoven with stories of rabbit mythology, which makes the novel read much like an updated adventure story, with Greek, Egyptian, or other traditional mythological throwbacks (I’m thinking of something like Louise Erdrich’s work, for instance, which tells one story of a modern people, but demonstrates how the people are still driven by and attached to their ancient mythologies and folklore).

The Good:
There are two pieces of this novel which stand out: characterization and story progression. I found Adams’s character development within the rabbit warren to be masterful, in that each rabbit – from the prominent leaders to the more conspicuous followers- are distinguishable from one another and necessary to the overall story. Hazel-rah, Fiver, and Bigwig all develop in their own way as the story progresses, and each seems to find his place in the end. Kehaar, the gull who befriends the rabbits of Watership Down also shows growth throughout the story, and the many enemies (cats, dogs, foxes, and other rabbits) are all distinctive from one another and demonstrate the traits we would expect in these types of antagonists.

Story progression, too, was very well done. The rabbits’ path is easy to follow (the plot line involving the river I found to be particularly endearing, as I am a huge fan of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and the included maps are reminiscent of something out of classic fantasy novels, like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. With each new point on the trail, there are things to be learned, characters to be encountered, and stories to be told (and made).

The Bad:
While the story was engaging and interesting, I found that it took me longer than I would have expected. It is hard to find particular fault, except to point out the following: First, I did not particularly like the fact that certain “rabbit language” was infused into the prose & dialogue. This is a typical complaint of mine as I feel it detracts from the story when you have to try to remember what certain words mean; perhaps I just do not like to make the effort and I do continually remind myself that Shakespeare, in his plays, invented an incredible amount of vocabulary that is still in use today. Still, I have my likes and dislikes, and this is a dislike. Could it have been executed in a way such as to distract me less and, thus, not bother me as much? Yes, I think so. Adams’s prose in general I found to be a bit scientific and mechanical. The story was passionate and quite intense in parts – the rabbits were often times fighting for their lives, and they truly grew to care for one another, except only in the words. The true feelings did not come across (maybe because they were not human feelings, rabbits being uncomplicated by such trifles) but, after hearing how this novel so impacted many friends and associates of mine, I could not help but wonder “why?” A novel like Where the Red Fern Grows, for instance, I found to be much more emotionally challenging. Perhaps I just cannot relate to animal narrators.

The Final Verdict: (4.0 out of 5.0)
I was actually going to give this novel a bit lower of a rating but, upon further reflection, I realize that my bias toward non-human narrators and toward nature stories in general might be impacting my neutrality when it comes to reviewing the novels characteristics and achievements on their own; still, I would hope that an animal story done right would still be a story done right. This one, I felt, lacked a bit of something that should have been there to grab me and drag me into the story. I felt I was an outsider to the journey when I would have liked to have been a traveler and an adventurer. Still, there were many pluses; a lot of the humor was quite good – cute and appropriate. The characterization and plot development, and the final resolution were all positive. Overall, I found the read to be entertaining and certainly something that many, many readers might enjoy but I will likely not pick it up again.

Published by Avon Books, 1969
ISBN: Unknown
Challenges: 2010 TBR Challenge
YTD: 30
Source: Owned Copy

Rating: 4.0/5.0

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2010 TBR, Book Review, Fiction, Kurt Vonnegut

Review: Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Summary
Kurt Vonnegut’s  The Sirens of Titan: A Novel is another brilliant morality tale of science meets religion meets the future meets politics and “so it goes.”  This novel seems to take on, full scale, the battle between omniscient destiny and free will. In this tale, a wealthy New Englander, Winston Niles Rumfoord (and his dog Kazak) gets the raw end of space-travel-gone-wrong deal.  He ends up trapped permanently on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons; however, he is also caught in a temporal flux, traveling back and forth through space on a never-ending, cyclical loop.  As he can see the past, the future, and everything in between, he decides to play a little game which, ultimately, was actually predestined by an alien race, the Trafalmadorians.

The Good
The cynicism and dark humor are superbly written – just over the top enough to remain non-offensive, but certainly damning.  The description of the army of neurologically controlled Martians (who are actually displaced humans) and their equally radio controlled commanders is brilliant; that Rumfoord takes the time to kidnap these Earthlings in order to build up a Martian army, which is then sent on a suicide mission to invade and destroy Earth, all to bring Earth together as one “planet” as opposed to separate, self-interested nations is just genius.  It also must be partially what inspired the Hegemony of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (Ender, Book 1) series.  What eventually comes from this plan is the creation of all Earth’s crowning achievements – Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, etc.  The Trafalmadorians were the designers and creators of Earthling history, the purpose of which was simply to send benign messages to a stranded, wandering Traflmadorian on Titan.  Also created from this joining-together of the planet is a new religion which is, essentially, an anti-God religion.  The new religion is the religion of man, which decides to desert God because God has created and deserted man.  Words luck Luck and Will are all banned and, instead, everything that happened is the result of “accident.”  The story was fast-paced, creative (Vonnegut creating and referencing multiple scientific and historical works, including an Encyclopedia of the Universe, all to enhance and progress his plot is simply incredible) and thought provoking.  Who are we, really? What are we here for, really?  And what’s the point?

The Bad
One plot device which was used excessively, I feel, was the “memory wipe.”  There were moments where it seemed that part of the journey for the main characters: Unk (Malachi Constant) and Bee (Rumfoord’s wife & Malachi’s mate).  There are moments where it seems that these two characters will begin to remember things from their past lives, on Earth and on Mars, but these movements fall flat and, ultimately, it does not seem to matter whether or not they do remember anything at all.  This is probably the point (What good is memory?) but I did find it a negative in terms of plot device, as it became distracting and did very little for the storyline.  The back-history between Malachi Constant and his father, also, seemed unnecessary, since Malachi never knew his father, was dropped his father’s fortune in his lap, only to lose it, and then never remembered his father or the fortune thereafter, which left him with nothing to learn.  Again, this could be the point – since Malachi ends on a new world, with new purpose (sort of) but, aside from allowing the reader to see that there really is no point in anything, what does it do for the story?  These were very small objections, however, and in the end there is little to put in the “nay” column.

The Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0
It may be telling that Vonnegut sold his rights to the film adaptation to none other than The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. Unfortunately, Garcia passed away prior to finishing the screen play, but one can only imagine what this book in Garcia’s hands could have been in film form.  Also a hint as to the purpose of the novel is to look at the character, Chrono, a young, restless, almost wild boy throughout – who answers only to his mother, and even then with some resistance.  In the end, Chrono becomes one of the native majestics of Titan, an honorary blue Titan bird.  He completely abandons his humanity and, instead, takes on the traits and characteristics of an animal which, while noble and beautiful, is also without conscience, without morality, and without any conception of “self” – all of which would seem to be what makes humans so proud to be human.  Vonnegut would assert, then, that it is much greater, much freer, to be a Titanian bird than a human being?  The novel left me, overall, feeling that the purpose of life is no real purpose at all, it just to exist and “to love whoever is around to be loved.”

Published by Dial Press, 1998
ISBN-10: 0-385-33349-8
Challenges: “TBR 2010”
Source: Owned Copy

Rating: 4.0/5.0

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2010 TBR, Book Review, Edmund White, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge

Review: Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White

Summary:
The Beautiful Room is Empty picks up shortly after where White’s earlier memoir, A Boy’s Own Story, leaves off.  This work discusses not just the growth of boy-into-man, but also gives a historical account of the period. The 1950s and 1960s – the rise and fall of the Beatniks.  The advent of hipsters.  The strain for one man to understand what being homosexual means, and for one nation – one culture – to begin approaching a similar question.  What is “gay?”  A disease?  A malady? A psychological disturbance or a physical perversity?  White seamlessly weaves the individual and the populous struggle and turmoil.  There is the question in general, and the answers as approached through different lenses: class, education, region.  How do the Midwestern intellectuals, mundane and suburban, treat homosexual?  What about the artsy, edgy New York City high-rollers?  The rich? The destitute?  What’s the difference between a “trick,” his “john,” and day-life versus night-life?  This novel attempts to answer these questions, and more.  Really, though, it’s a novel of questions.  It’s a memoir of life, as lead by the author – someone still obviously affected by the pain, the struggles, the joys, and the many, many questions of his youth.
The Good:
White’s prose is beautiful, almost musical.  The pages turn rapidly because sentences and paragraphs flow richly and uninterrupted.  Ideas, encounters, and the (many) literary references are approached with caution, but also with a shy confidence.  Personal experiences, like the narrator’s experiences in a prep school – guarded from the subversive Art College just across the way- conveniently and realistically mime moments in time, the greater American sentiment.  The psychological fascination with homosexuality as something to be cured, the insecurity of the gay men and lesbian women, so totally aware of who they are, yet still trying to cope with the realization that society around them will not accept their own reality, all wrapped in the narrator’s concession that what he does he knows to be wrong (the consumption of anonymous, meaningless sex, night after night – not being gay in general) and that, though he comes from a dysfunctional family, it is not the family that makes the man.  It is both the personal touches, the narrator’s struggle to find meaningful love – and to lose it – friendships, loss, embarrassment, shame, self-consciousness and body image, coupled with the bigger ideas of society, religion, and law (the many references to gender laws, some of which included laws that banned women from wearing more than three articles of “manly” clothing, and a law which required that in each group of men at a night-club, at least one female must be present) which makes this story so impactful, so believable and so important.  The personal struggle is terribly hard, but White also wants us to remember that, there was a bigger struggle.  Yes, the “Pink Panthers” at the Stonewall Riots found themselves to be a bit ridiculous, yet they were, for the first time, standing up for a certain right being denied them, singing “We Shall Overcome” and, upon waking up the next morning, are crushed in spirit when they find that no mention of the riot, the movement, the importance of their presence can be found in any newspaper.  It was a painful time in America, and that strife and clawing-struggle is purposefully and powerfully represented by White in The Beautiful Room is Empty. 
The Bad:
There is an uncomfortable amount of time and attention paid to the many sexual exploits of the narrator.  Certainly, I understand the inclusion and, admittedly, believe it to be entirely necessary if the novel is to be truly honest.  Still, I did oftentimes find it distracting.  How could White have remained honest without the repeated, saturated references to prostitution, glory-holes, bathroom orgies?  I can’t say – and for this reason, I understand the necessity.  Still, I find myself wishing a bit more attention had been paid to the personal relationships, the professional growth, the assimilation of the narrator into “normal” culture, and his feelings in these situations.  This is my only gripe, and it is a minor one, because despite my need to find fault with any novel, there’s little to find here.  I believe the work could have been strengthened, certainly, by more attention to the late-blooming, loving relationship between the narrator and Sean, which is quickly ended but obviously important to the narrator and his personal growth.  The novel also might be more enjoyable if a closer connection could have been made between reader and the narrator.   Though White makes an effort to open up the narrator to observation and examination by exposing inner thoughts & feelings, by placing his narrator in the darkest depths of his own embarrassment and making the reader bear witness, yet we don’t ever really get to know the narrator. Not even his name.  We know that writing and artistic appreciation drive him, but we don’t ever see any prowess or success in this – in fact, very little time or attention is even paid to the task of writing.  Perhaps the novel itself is the writing, the final outcome, the “what” that had been developing from all of these experiences.  If that’s the case – I missed the hint.
The Final Verdict: 4.5 Out of 5.0

The Beautiful Room is Empty is quite an accomplishment, despite White’s guardedness over his narrator.  I can understand if the story was too personal to disclose anything more than what was disclosed and perhaps, to White, the most sensitive nerves truly were exposed.  Ultimately, the development in plot and in prose & style from A Boy’s Own Story to The Beautiful Room is Empty makes me believe, as I seldom do, that the author’s every concealment and revelation was intentional.  There are later works in this “series” and I can only imagine that the work continues to grow and improve.  That the honesty will continue to be more honest, the writing will continue to run fluid and the self-realization will continue to occur in tandem with the greater growth and understanding of a people.  Truly enjoyable, if at times uncomfortable.

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2010 TBR, Book Review, Fiction, John Steinbeck

Review: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Summary:
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is an intense, harrowing account of one family’s struggle to survive, after being dislocated from their Oklahoma ranch and forced to move to California – land of prosperity for work.  The Joad family and their local (former) preacher, Jim Casey get caught up in the web of agricultural monopolies & Hoovervilles.  They bounce from farm to farm, job to job, and camp to camp, as they search for enough work just to feed themselves.   The story ends on a note of acceptance and understanding, but without promise or hope.  The reality of the Great Depression and the dust bowl devastated “Oakies” seems to settle over the entire novel, the entire country, without so much as a glimmer of better days to come – though the Joads are sure to keep on. 
The Good:
Steinbeck’s use of language and scene as emotion is absolutely brilliant.  His description makes the moments – and there are many intensely moving moments.  He also breaks up the storyline with chapters interspersed that tell almost like a news reel.  There will be a chapter, for instance, on the life of a cotton picker, what a man can expect to be paid, how he struggles to feed his family off it, how the pickers are forced to fight over bolls and weigh down their bags with rocks for extra pay; how the scales are tipped in the farmers’ favor and how arguments ensue which are for the benefit of pride, but never truly resolve anything.  Then, in the next chapter, Steinbeck brings his reader back to the Joad family and their personal struggle.  The reader finds the Joads in the midst of situations described in the former chapter – only this time the impact is more intense, because we know this family – we are rooting for this family, but we already know, we have the facts, that this family is doomed to fail.  Still, Steinbeck forces us to cheer them on and to believe, like the Joads believe, that everything will turn in their favor sooner or later.  The format – the style and language- make this novel read like a play or a movie, as something almost watched rather than read.   Steinbeck’s close, personal relationship with California is also an asset to the tale; he knows these peoples’ destitution and pain; he knows the land and what it does to people, how it promises wealth and easy-living, then turns on those emigrants who have come to reap the land’s riches.  Steinbeck touches on this in many of his novels – East of Eden, for instance, but nowhere else is the land such an active character, such an antagonist to the Joads success – and to the success of all the “Reds.”  Still, these folks love the land, and will continue to work for just a small space of their own; so we too love the land.  Finally, Steinbeck is clearly speaking out in preference of the Union.  Casey and Tom Joad – likely the novel’s two most conscientious and laudable protagonists – both, in the end, come to the conclusion to “organize.”  They believe it is the only way to get ahead, to get out of the slums and to earn a living for the people and their families.  At a time when Unions were being demonized by big and small corporations alike, Steinbeck was courageous –and right- in his championing of them. 
The Bad: 
The only negative I see in The Grapes of Wrath is the lack of resolution.  What happens to Connie, for instance, or to Noah?  They disappear – walk away from the Joad family and are never heard from again.  Are we to believe that they made it, or that they perished?  Jim Casy, when he chose to take the fall and was driven away from the Joad family, letter returns as a hero – so, in contrast, we can assume that the two deserters met a less heroic fate? Tom Joad, too, the novel’s main character – in close race with Ma Joad- disappears at the end.  We get a sense of where he’s going, but we never know if he succeeds.  Finally, the story of the Joads themselves, or at least those Joads whom are left, is also left unresolved.  Just when things start looking up for this family – when a little money has come in, when the family is fed and food is not wanted – all luck turns, and everything is washed away.  The Joads are flooded out of their camp, lose their truck and their reserves.  Rosa Sharon loses even more than this and yet we see her giving care to another in the last moments of the novel, a “mysterious smile” on her face.  Steinbeck leaves a lot to the imagination which, in a six hundred page novel, seems unnecessary.  My interpretation would be this: the Joads will never make it, but they will never give up trying.  This seems to be the reason for Rosa Sharon’s smile – like Mona Lisa’s.  Sad, resigned, but alive.
The Final Verdict: 5.0 out of 5.0
Not since Melville’s The Confidence Man and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have I felt an author has so completely and implicitly captured the American spirit.  The only faults to find in this novel were that too much, though not much really, was left unresolved.  Why doesn’t this reduced my overall score for the novel?  Because Steinbeck knew the problem itself was unresolved – yes, characters in this novel wandered off and were never heard from again; so it was with the migrant laborers, split from their families to find work, with promises to strike it big and return with wealth and advantages.  The language and dialogue were masterfully wrought, and the novel’s structure is something unique and wonderful.  The interspersed chapters of detached observation give the readers a clearer understanding of what is really happening, and the realization that, left with only the Joad family’s journey, we too would continue to be hopeful when there was no reason left to be positive.   It is no wonder that The Grapes of Wrath is considered by some, such as Dorothy Parker, to be “the greatest American novel.”
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2010 TBR, Book Review, Elizabeth Bowen, Fiction

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Summary 
Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris is an intriguing novel of love, secrets, betrayal, youth, family, and friendship.  There’s a whole lot wrapped up in this novel of fewer than 300 pages, but the separation into three distinct segments allows for much ground to be covered in such limited time.  The main characters (in the “Present”) are Leopold and Henrietta.  Leopold’s strange personality and his relationship to the adults in the novel is the crux of the story, and what becomes revealed as the story progresses.  Henrietta has a chance meeting with the boy during a brief delay at Mme. Fisher’s house in Paris (surprise!).  Though the novel is told in the third-person, it seems that the story would not have come to be had Henrietta not met Leopold – as this is the window through which we begin to look in on the other characters, both past and present.  The middle portion of the novel is “The Past,” in which the story of Leopold’s “coming to be” is told, and the other characters – Leopold’s mysterious mother, Mme and Miss Fisher, and Leopold’s absent father – are all identified and explained. 

The Good 
 Bowen’s House in Paris reminds me of a classic Romantic novel – beautiful language, powerful emotion, heroic relationships, and even a bit of gothic terror/mystery.  What makes the novel even more enjoyable, in some ways, is that Bowen manages to include all of these elements, but incorporate contemporary prose, so the reader need not wade through 19th century language.  Also, Bowen, while descriptive, does not saturate the novel with lengthy imagery.  This too proves to benefit the novel overall, because a reader does not get distracted by pages and pages of description about a tree or a meadow (though, admittedly, sometimes this can be fun) and, instead, gets to focus on the touching story, the interpersonal relationships, and the intense friendships.  The novel was also filled with short, meaningful moments, such as the tête-à-têtes between Leopold and Henrietta in Miss Fisher’s sitting room.  The narrator aptly describes their almost flippant abuses of one another (typically Leopold toward Henrietta) as such:  “There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.”   

The Bad 
While, on the whole, I found the novel interesting and enjoyable  – a fast, relaxing but meaningful read – I was still underwhelmed.  I found the subject matter and characters so very interesting, but something was lacking in the final execution.  When the novel concluded, I couldn’t help but feel just a bit gypped.  Leopold’s future – even immediate future – is only hinted at, but is impossible to tell what will really happen.  Miss Fisher and Madame Fisher are left unresolved.  The poor Italian family, Leopold’s guardians, are completely thrown overboard.  We never see Leopold’s mother, Karen, during “The Present” which, while in some ways masterful, is also extremely frustrating – where’s the momentous meeting between mother and child?  How does the family move on?  And, in “The Past” we witness Max’s fatal decision, but we’re expected to believe that the friendship between Naomi Fisher and Karen would surmount this – even strenuously?  While so much is said by so little – I fear too much is left out.  I had a generally good experience with the novel, and could certainly recommend it to interested readers – but not emphatically.
   
The Final Verdict: 3.5 Out of 5.0
Overall, I did enjoy this novel and I was intrigued by the Romantic elements being delivered through contemporary prose.  I found the characters incredibly intriguing, if not always believable.  

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2010 TBR, Book Review, Fiction, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian

Review: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Summary:
The Idiot is Dostoevsky’s attempt at writing down the essence of true beauty, in human form.  Prince Myshkin, the idiot himself, is meant to epitomize absolute goodness and fairness.  He is kind and generous, forgiving and intelligent.  He has money, yet does not covet it.  Still, he is naive.  He does not quite know how to have an opinion, nor how to assert it.  He mistakes pity and an intelligent decisiveness for love and loyalty.  He spites (though not intentionally) his true love, for the well-being of a lesser creature, a sad, fallen, lonely “coquette.”  The story takes us from Switzerland, to Russia, and back to Switzerland – spanning just a few months, but seeming to tell decades’ worth of story and to be packed with mountains of history, both Russian and human. 
The Good:
The translation, firstly, is excellent.  Dostoevsky’s beautiful prose comes across clearly and, though I always wish to be able to read primary texts in their original languages, I did not feel this time as if too much was lost.  The story itself is also quite good.  Overly ambitious, I think, and Dostoevsky himself acknowledged that his task was almost (if not absolutely) insurmountable.  How does one tell of true, complete, unblemished beauty?  Is it really possible?  I believe Dostoevsky may have gotten closer than any writer I’ve yet had the pleasure of reading.  Also, though there were a number of characters – possibly too many (as the 19th C. Russians were wont to include), still the characters seemed, for the most part, to be distinguishable from one another, even if their names often were not!  The ending has taken some time for me to digest.  I found it immensely exciting and pleasing, though rather incongruous to the rest of this novel.  For a novel which seemed more in the vain of the Romantic (capital R, my friends), it ended on rather a Gothic note.  I couldn’t help but wonder Jane Austen’s exasperation at such an absurd denouement, but still, I truly find myself satisfied – if not at all, really.  I think the reason I’ve embraced this dystopic unsatisfactory satisfaction is that, perhaps, that was the point.  To be happy – or at least to concede to – what is unacceptable.  Unexpected, unwanted, out of place.  Prince Myshkin was all of these things, and treated rather unjustly at times for being assumed so; still, he pressed on in goodness and friendship, never doubting that, ultimately, those around him would come to respect him.  That they do is not in question, is it worth it in the end?  Hard to say, given the conclusion.
The Bad:
Well, I would have to say, though I mentioned characterization as a plus above, I am also a bit disappointed by it.  I believe that the characters were, indeed, distinguishable from one another – which is excellent, considering how many players there were in this drama; however, I do not believe that enough time and attention was paid to those main players.  Indeed, the story was ultimately a love-triangle between Prince Myshkin, Aglaia, and Nastasya.  While enough time (perhaps) is spent on Myshkin and the development of his character, so that the reader can come to appreciate him and his purpose, not nearly enough time is spent with Aglaia or Nastasya.  It is hard to understand most of what they do, what they say, and how they act, because nothing is said, really, about where they come from, who they are, what they want.  It is an unfortunate lacking, I feel, on Dostoevsky’s part.  I believe he sacrificed some characterization in place of political and religious personifications – which came in the form of Ippolit and his hoodlums (the Nihilists and atheists).  Dostoevsky spent quite a bit of time mentioning the Nihilists, loathing the atheists and the devout Catholics (who are not Christian), yet it didn’t seem that Nihilism, atheism, religion, or politics of any sort ultimately played much part in the finale of the story.  Too much superficial ranting, I think, and not enough subtlety.  Finally, I found the story lagging at times.  Not much happened for pages and pages at a time – then, in the turn of a page, we’re reminded that all of the past 500 pages occurred in the course of just 5 weeks time.  That actually distracted me for a moment; I couldn’t believe that so much (and so little) had been said, done, and discussed in just over a month.  I’ve read lengthy novels which took place in a shorter period of time (a day, for instance) yet – they just didn’t seem to be as stagnant.
The Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0
Weighing the pros and cons, I find myself in favor of The Idiot.  I think Dostoevsky’s intent was noble, and fairly well affected.  Prince Myshkin truly is a beautiful character, though it would be heartbreaking (and irritating) to know such an innocent, un-jaded man.  This was well addressed, though, in the attitude and actions of the people around him.  So many were annoyed to the point of wanting to do Myshkin harm, yet no one could.  Even cross words said to him, or jokes made at his expense, were soon looked on with regret.  This shows the good, and the bad, in human nature.  Dostoevsky could have, I think, spent more time on the story – and characterized his themes a bit better – but, in the end, I was moved and intrigued.  Even a bit inspired. 
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2010 TBR, Book Review, Bret Easton Ellis, Fiction, GLBT Challenge

Review: The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis

Summary
The Rules of Attraction takes place at New England’s Camden College – the starting point for many characters in Ellis’s later novels.  The novel is written in the epistolary fashion – each segment is a different character’s journal-type entry.  Sometimes these segments match up with what other characters are saying and sometimes they don’t (intrigue! mystery!).  The novel begins in the middle of a sentence and ends in the middle of a sentence, the author intending to make the reader believe that the story is cyclical – no beginning, no end, just boring repetition of the same mindless, emotionless patterns, themes, and events.
The Good
There were a few things I enjoyed about this novel, though I wish I would have read the Ellis books in sequence.  Still, I suppose this segment almost works well as a “prequel” to the other novels. 
I enjoyed the self-indulgent way that Ellis begins the story in the middle of the story (as if the reader is suddenly thrust into this group of “friends,” without prior knowledge, but with full, unsurprised acceptance) and then ends the story in the middle of a sentence (the reader fully knowing that, though these characters are going off for summer, Camden College will be the same when everyone returns – no surprises, no expectations that things will be different).  This very much reminds me of college – of the dreams and compromises we all have and make when we “go away” to school.  The lives we lead away from our family, parents, home towns, and the way we drift away, back into and out of it as summer comes and goes.
Another aspect of this novel which I found appealing was the epistolary style.  Each segment is written by a different character (though the same group of people throughout).  You don’t exactly get the feeling that these are journal entries, though, except for those italicized entries of perhaps the most tragic character – and these are particularly set apart so as to make the distinction from the rest of the group.  The rest of the entries seem to be brief insights into the character’s thoughts – none of which can be entirely trusted.  Sean, for instance, seems to be having an affair with Paul throughout the novel; yet, while Paul is open about it in his segments, Sean never mentions their “goings-on” nor does he ever even allude to it.  
 
Finally, I enjoyed and appreciated, as always, the honesty.  The brutality and pointlessness – the exposed wounds of these disillusioned, dishonest, self-centered, superficial bunch of rich, drugged-out nobodies, all of whom are certainly flunking out of college, but who will somehow graduate and go on to run companies, banks – drive expensive cars, travel Europe.  Those not so lucky – the scholarship kids – are the minor characters, the nothings, the nobodies with real problems, and the ones who are most slighted and damaged by this group who couldn’t really care less. It brought my college experience hurtling back, full force – and I imagine many people who had the opportunity to go away to college, to live in the dorms, to go to frat parties, local townie bars, to ditch class, pile into cars, wander around on cold nights just looking for something or someone to do.  Brilliantly realistic – and, as Gore Vidal put it, “wonderfully comic.”
The Bad
Too much sex and too much drug-induced nonsense.  Part of what makes this novel so great (the honesty) is also it’s downfall.  The sense of trudging through (not really trudging, since the pages turn so fast and the story is rather interesting, if morbid and sad) a book with no point, no purpose, no meaning.  And, yes, that is Ellis’s point – the lack of purpose and meaning to any of these people’s lives.  But there is no sense of redemption for any of the characters.  No revelatory moments, really.  No chance that any of these characters were in any way changed, that their experiences might have imbued them with a certain sense of reality – of growth.  Even if much of what Ellis is getting at in The Rules of Attraction is true, it’s still hard to believe that not one person would have learned anything about anything. 
I also can’t help but compare this to Ellis’s other novels and while this one may stand out more than, say, The Informers, it certainly does not compare in depth or breadth or impact as, for instance, Glamorama.  The story is good – but not great.  The point is well-taken, but not exactly revelatory or astonishingly executed.  The style is interesting, engaging, and perhaps even a bit “cutting-edge” (very 80s), but all of that doesn’t add up to a Glamorama or an American Psycho both of which were truly revolutionary and exposed the 80s and 90s for what they were: decades of decadence, disconnect, self-indulgence, and frightening pointlessness.
The Final Verdict 3.5 out of 5.0
I truly did appreciate what Ellis was trying to say and I think The Rules of Attraction is a great prelude to what Ellis did eventually accomplish with Glamorama.  Still, while I think the story was interesting and engaging, the characters fairly well-developed and understood, and the setting more than familiar to those who have had the “college experience,” I do not think that there was much ground-breaking revelation.  No real distinction in style or language.  There is much allusion to William Burroughs and, perhaps, a bit of Kerouac blended in for good measure.  All-in-all, I enjoyed the book but I can’t help compare it to Ellis’s other works and, in doing so, find that this one falls just a bit short.
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