5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

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Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

Spooky Reviews: Doctor Sleep, Hill House, and Macbeth

16130549Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Final Verdict: 3.75/4.0
YTD: 58

Doctor Sleep is the long-awaited sequel to one of Stephen King’s most popular novels, The Shining.  In it, readers are given the opportunity to witness Danny Torrance as a seriously screwed up but equally well-intentioned alcoholic adult.  While some of the suspense of its prequel has not been carried over into this revisit, still King proves why he is a master of his craft and fans of the original will probably not be disappointed by this follow-up.

The story begins with Danny as a child, just a few short years after the events which took place at the infamous and nefarious Overlook Hotel.  Danny and his mom are living alone, relatively happy and healthy.  Danny’s connection with the Overlook and the otherworldly in general has, for the most part, dissipated.  At least, that’s the way it seemed.  Soon enough, we learn that the dead still visit young Danny – and he must reach out to his old mentor, Dick Hallorann, to learn how to lock away the demons for good.  Ultimately, Danny grows up allowing his mother to believe that his “shining” has dulled – he, like the girl he will one day meet- would rather deal with his abilities on his own, leaving his mom free of the worry and pain which would surely haunt her life, had she known how upsetting his own was.

As an adult, Danny becomes an alcoholic like his father.  He hides this, too, from his mother (who must surely have known on some level).  He travels the country, a homeless drifter, drinking, screwing, and working jobs just long enough to make a few bucks.  Eventually, he sleeps with a woman who, along with her son, will haunt Danny’s memories for years to come.  After this lowest-of-low experience, one which the reader should learn of on their own, as it is an anchor to Danny’s life trajectory, Danny eventually ends up in a small New England town where he meets the girl who change forever.  His relationship with her is one of mentor and mentee, and it aids in Danny’s road to sobriety.  There are others out there like him and Dick, after all, and this girl is more powerful than any he has ever met.

Just like those who shine for good, however, are those who exist from evil.  Vampire-like beings, once human, they feed off of the power of the shining.  This power is, of course, most concentrated in children.  These parasites, an ancient, powerful, and enormously wealthy and well-connected community,   travel the country in their R.V.’s, unassuming middle-aged and elderly folk whom nobody would bat an eye at, but who lure and kidnap children, torture them for their “steam” (what they call the excretions of their shining) and then kill them.

Eventually, psychically, their leader, Rose the Hat, crosses paths with Danny’s young apprentice, Abra.  At this moment, the scene is set for a battle that will come – that must– come; a showdown between good and evil, between shining and vampire.  Abra, Danny, and a few companions must face, head on, this enormous evil force and defeat it once and for all, or die trying.

Ultimately, Doctor Sleep is an intricate, well-developed, and moving sequel to a King masterpiece.  While it is not quite as horrifying as his earlier works, King’s talents as a story-teller remain unquestioned.  The emotional depth and strength of characterization he brings to this one, too, are admirable, particularly as King’s earlier works tended not to be much concerned with character development (they were much more about creating a mood of suspense or terror than about telling any one person’s story).   I was skeptical about the book at first, and remained so for the first couple dozen pages but, in the end, I find myself thinking about the book quite a bit – even weeks after finishing.  The mark of a good story, no?

Notable Quotes:

“After the things that she had seen and been through, she knew that shadows could be dangerous. They could have teeth” (7).

“The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser” (83).

“In her head every superstition and old wives’ tale still lived . . . she knew superstition was shit; she also spat between her fingers if a crow or black cat crossed her path” (88).

“Perhaps kids really did come into the world trailing clouds of glory, as Wordsworth had so confidently proclaimed, but they also shit in their pants until they learned better” (123).


51NlY23zNHLThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 56

This has been one of the most surprising reads of the year for me, so far.  I’m not sure why I didn’t realize that this Shirley Jackson is the same Shirley Jackson who wrote “The Lottery,” but it didn’t take too long to figure it out.  The Haunting of Hill House is simply overflowing with the most luxurious, sumptuous, sensual language imaginable.  It’s freaking beautiful – and it’s a horror story!  Well, sort of.  I would consider it to be more of a psychological thriller, akin to, say The Sixth Sense, but it is typically considered one of the best “horror” books of all-time, so there we go.

Anyway, what did I love about this book?  Well, the plot.  The characters.  The language, especially.  The book’s opening paragraphs are some of the best I have ever read, from anyone.  It’s the kind of story introduction any writer would dream of crafting – perfection.  The rest of the book is much of the same.  Romantic language that flows into the most bizarre, eerie plot situations.  Eleanor Vance’s troubled mind, Theodora’s narcissism and lesbian inclinations.  Mr. and Mrs. Dudley and their dunderheadedness.  Doctor Montague’s obsession with the other-worldly, an obsession which leads to tragedy.

On the surface, the book is a supernatural tale about four people who visit a haunted house, each for his or her own reasons.  Dr. Montague and his assistant, Theodora, are researching psychic phenomenon (specifically something called “haunting”).  The doctor is an occult scholar who has invited Eleanor there due to her documented experience with poltergeists.  The fourth is Luke, who is the future heir to Hill House.  Initially, the house seems a bit haunted, but in an “isn’t that odd?” sort of way – doors closing by themselves, strange noises in the night, etc.  Soon, though, the house begins to flex its muscles, almost as if awakening from a deep slumber.  It begins to recognize the people living inside of it, and the house sets its sights on one visitor in particular.

Beneath the veil of “thriller” are the many deeper elements of the story.  Jackson is positing feminist ideals, presenting lesbianism in an off-hand, natural sort of way (quite unheard of in 1959), and engaging her readers in questions of science, religion, and human relationships.  It is a complex, multifaceted novel, of which the supernatural is only the method, rather than the theme.

Immediately upon finishing this book, I went out and bought another Jackson novel (Hangsaman) and also watched two film versions of The Haunting of Hill House.  The first version (1963) departed slightly from the book, but it was much more true to the story than the remake (1999) and much the better film, overall.  The remake was, in fact, quite terrible.  In any event, the book is one of my favorites of the year – Jackson is a brilliant writer, one whom I regret not having really investigated sooner.  I could see myself spending a great deal of time studying her life and works sometime in the future.

Notable Quotes:

“Some houses are born bad” (70).

“It was said that the older sister was crossed in love, although that is said of almost any lady who prefers, for whatever reason, to live alone” (77).

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone” (3).

“Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?”

“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.”

“Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”