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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review of THE WILLOW TREE by Hubert Selby Jr.



Advent Book Calendar – Day 12
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Willow Tree by Hubert Selby Jr.
2 Stars
In the South Bronx, Bobby, a thirteen-year-old Black, and Maria, his Hispanic girlfriend, are attacked and savagely beaten. Bobby is taken in by Moishe (a.k.a. Werner Schultz), a concentration camp survivor, and nursed back to health. Bobby plots his revenge while Moishe tries to teach him that hate will destroy him as well as his victims.

The use of run-on sentences with little punctuation may require some adjustment at the beginning. It does not impede the reader’s understanding, but reading it reminded me of reading a student’s initial attempts with the interior monologue style before he/she is completely comfortable with it.

Bobby has a limited vocabulary, but that is not surprising in a young teen; the problem is the author’s limited vocabulary indicated in the exposition. For example, emotions are always “flowing”: “a sense of gratitude flowing through him”; “feeling the joy flowing through him”; “affection flowing between them”; “happiness flowing through mind and body”; “a sense of being lost flowing from him”; “hatred flowing through and from him”; “a sense of strength and softness flowing through him and around him”; “love and gratitude flowing through him”; “a sense of freedom from everything flowing through him”; “a warmth flowing through him”; “the comfort and peace gently flowing through him”; “love, compassion and empathy flowing from him.” And then there are the tears that are flowing so often!

Tiresome repetition is found in other descriptions as well. For instance, there are 357 references to eyes, and at least 120 of those mention eyes either opening or closing or blinking. One is to believe that the relationship between Bobby and Moishe gradually becomes closer, but their relationship is often reduced to their laughing together and eating ice cream together. Several dozen times it is mentioned that Moishe and Bobby start laughing uncontrollably. And how many times must the reader be told that the two enjoy chocolate sauce with their ice cream?

There is a definite lack of realism. Moishe lives in a subterranean apartment, which made me think of the late 1980’s television show Beauty and the Beast, except that Moishe’s sanctuary has all the amenities. Why a concentration camp survivor would choose to live in such an environment is never explained. And Moishe has no friends? Not once in the months Bobby spends with him does Moishe interact with anyone other than Bobby. He seems to have limitless funds even though his only job is repairing appliances. Why does an old man have a rowing machine that he himself never uses?

The theme of the book, that hatred destroys those who hate, is not one which people will find objectionable. What I did find objectionable is the development of this theme. The pace of the book is painfully slow. Actions are repeated over and over again: each day is spent with Bobby planning his revenge and working out to get fit; Moishe preparing food and the two talking, Moishe revealing something about his concentration camp experiences; Bobby taking a tour of his old neighbourhood while Moishe worries until he returns; the two sharing ice cream with chocolate sauce before going to bed. All this leads to a predictable ending.

This was a disappointing read. Except for the opening, it lacks a plot; because of the limited diction, it makes for a tiresome read; it lacks realism when it could offer gritty details about life in the South Bronx; several times it lapses into melodrama. Give me West Side Story which addresses some of the same issues more effectively.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review of THE HUSBAND'S SECRET by Liane Moriarty

Advent Book Calendar – Day 11
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
2 Stars
The novel deals with three women whose lives intersect after each learns something which changes their lives. Cecilia is a Tupperware salesperson par excellence and the mother of three daughters; people tend to label her the perfect wife and mother. She discovers a letter written by her husband, a letter which she is not to open until after his death. Like a modern-day Pandora, she opens it. She discovers a secret that tears apart her seemingly perfect life. Tess is a career woman whose husband decides he is in love with Tess’s cousin, their business partner. Rachel is a school secretary whose daughter was murdered two decades earlier; though no one has ever been charged with the crime, Rachel becomes convinced she knows the identity of her daughter’s killer. The women’s reactions to these pivotal “realizations” impact the lives of many others.

I chose this book to read during an 8-hour plane flight and, by sheer chance, I chose well. It is a light read that does require much thought. I could put it down and pick it up easily three weeks later when I was taking a return 8-hour flight. It maintained my interest sufficiently so I did actually finish it, but it is fluff.

None of the three women is particularly likeable because of the decisions they make. Though a reader may feel some sympathy for the situations in which the women find themselves, it is impossible not to see that the women also bear some responsibility for what befalls them – the murder of Rachel’s daughter being an obvious exception. And inaction, infidelity, and impulsiveness do not endear these women to this reader. The author made an attempt to portray them as dynamic characters who learn something about themselves, but what they learn would be evident to virtually everyone. One of the women, for example, realizes that love after years of marriage is “an entirely different feeling from the uncomplicated, unstinting adoration she’d felt as a young bride.” Really?!!

The epilogue left me shaking my head. In it the author reveals some secrets about the characters, secrets which, had they been known, would have changed people’s lives. She concludes with this paragraph: “None of us ever know all the possible courses our lives could have and maybe should have taken. It’s probably just as well. Some secrets are meant to stay secret forever. Just ask Pandora.” This suggests, again, that the author tried to write interpretive fiction, but missed the lesson about letting the work speak for itself.

This would be a perfect book to serialize in a women’s magazine, were such things still done.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review of I AM A TRUCK by Michelle Winters

3.5 Stars
I saw this book on the shortlist for the 2017 Giller Prize and its description intrigued me. 

Agathe and Réjean Lapointe are getting ready to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary when Réjean goes missing, his beloved Chevy Silverado left abandoned by the side of the road.  There is no evidence of foul play so it seems like he chose to disappear.  Agathe grieves but eventually has to move on with her life so she gets a job where she meets the free-spirited Debbie.  Her new friend teaches her about rock and roll music and how to drive. 

It is Agathe’s spreading her wings that is much of the appeal of the book.  Agathe and Réjean led an isolated life:  “They moved into a cottage in the woods [outside an English-speaking village], and began a life of increasing seclusion, and the prospect of communicating only with each other in a town where no one spoke French. . . . Being separated by language from the world around them strengthened their bond of exclusivity.  Gradually, they retreated from the world altogether, existing solely for each other in the confines of their home.”  Their motto becomes “‘Il n’y que nous.’”  In many ways, Réjean makes the decisions; he decides, for example, that they will listen to French folk music on the radio, saying, “’Notre musique, ça’” though Agathe has a preference “for a crescendo, some histrionics, something loud.”  When Réjean disappears, Agathe must become more independent, and she ends up gaining an identity separate from her husband.  She is able to cultivate her interests.

Martin Bureau, the Chevy salesman who sells Réjean his beloved Chevy trucks, also struggles with identity.  He is a lonely man but gradually he and Réjean developed a friendship.  (For Martin, it’s actually more of a bromance.)  When Réjean is gone, Martin struggles since for him the important part of his identity is being Réjean’s friend.  He becomes obsessed with watching over Agathe. 

The book is a quirky mixture; there is much subtle humour but there are also events which are anything but funny.  There is a mystery surrounding what happened to Réjean, but it becomes secondary to how characters develop when a person central to their identity is no longer present. 

In some ways, this is a quintessential Canadian novel.  It has both English and French dialogue which may pose a problem for non-bilingual readers, but not much more than a basic understanding of French is required.  (Actually, much of the dialogue is Franglais.)  An English speaker chooses to learn French but does so in secret.  The book even mentions the Anglophone/Francophone conflict:  “At home and school, [Agathe and Réjean] had been taught that the Anglophone world was trying to oppress them, monopolize their culture, and eradicate their language.” 

This is an unusual pick for the Giller Prize.  I don’t think it’s of the literary quality worthy of such an award, but it is a quick read with some nice touches.  I will not be able to see the Chevy Silverado commercials on television without thinking of this book.

Review of THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

Advent Book Calendar – Day Ten
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
1 Star
I read this book thinking I might learn more about Ernest Hemingway and so might find something to like about him. In the end I liked him no more and didn't like his starter wife, Hadley Richardson, much either.

The book is a novelization of Hemingway's first marriage to a woman eight years his senior. The couple lived primarily in Paris where Hemingway became part of the literary scene (which included notables such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald) as he forged his career and reputation. The book is a fictionalization of Hemingway's memoir, "A Moveable Feast," which was published posthumously.

Hemingway, at this point, has not yet morphed into his boozy Papa persona, but there is certainly forewarning of the drunk-sodden bully he became. He is boastful, insensitive, mean-spirited, insecure and egotistical.

Hadley comes across as a fine and decent but uninteresting person. She is bland, interesting only because of her proximity to a famous writer. Admittedly she led a sheltered life before meeting Hemingway, but she seems very naive for her age. Even when her husband betrays her, she is too good-hearted and continues to see him as some sort of romantic hero. One might not expect her to behave like a modern woman faced with her husband's infidelity, especially since she herself describes herself as Victorian, but some anger and meanness would be normal. Her one negative flaw is her distant, rather indifferent relationship with Bumby, her son, a relationship certainly influenced by her husband's view of a child as anathema to the Bohemian lifestyle he favours. Hemingway describes his first wife as "everything good and straight and fine and true" but those are not, perhaps regrettably, the qualities of an interesting literary character.

There is nothing in the book to suggest that the marriage was special in any way, other than perhaps the fact that it survived as long as it did in an era of open marriages. Their romance seems rather tepid. What's with the stupid, unexplained nicknames? Hemingway may have loved her, but there is little evidence of his love, other than his avowals which are negated by his actions. Hadley does meet his needs: she has faith in his talent, has a small but useful inheritance, and is willing to follow him anywhere. Her only contribution is to serve as Hemingway's doormat?

The book becomes tiresome. The scenes are repetitive and mundane: endless gatherings of friends, excessive drinking, and vague descriptions of travels. The emotional life of Hemingway's first wife is not developed. The characters are not brought to life so the reader is not engaged. In the end, the book lacks substance and feels flat, much like Hadley.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review of THE VIRTUES OF OXYGEN by Susan Schoenberger

Advent Book Calendar – Day Nine
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger
2 Stars
This is the story of two women. One of them, Holly, is a 42-year-old widow with two teenage sons. She works at the local newspaper in Bertram Corners, a two-hour drive from New York City. She struggles with finances, trying to keep up mortgage payments on her home and survives only with the assistance of her wealthy mother. Holly volunteers as one of the assistants to Vivian, the other main character. Vivian is a 63-year-old quadriplegic; she contracted polio and has spent the last 57 years in an iron lung and is totally dependent on others for 24-hour care. The two have become good friends over the years.

Part of the novel is narrated using the third person limited omniscient point of view, focusing on Holly. Periodically, Vivian’s first person narration is included in the form of her unaired podcasts. It is these podcasts which I found most interesting. Providing the viewpoint of a woman who describes herself as “someone alive but trapped like a fly in tree sap” is original. Vivian tells her life story in these podcasts, explaining how she coped and made a life for herself despite her extreme circumstances. I found myself wishing her story were more developed.

Holly’s story I found much less interesting. Her situation, trying to provide for her sons and to make ends meet, is one with which many people could identify. It is sometimes difficult to have sympathy for her, however, because, though her financial situation worsens, she has not done much to help herself and her family, relying on her wealthy mother to help her pay the mortgage. It is only when her mother can no longer help that Holly seems to realize the severity of her financial straits. Only then does she fear losing the house and not having the money for her sons’ college tuition? Even then, she only panics and does little constructive to help the situation. She is the damsel in distress awaiting a knight in shining armour to rescue her.

A stranger does come riding into town. Vivian decides to invest in a cash-for-gold store and Holly serves as her assistant, meeting with Racine, the man who has set up a number of these stores. As expected, a relationship develops between Holly and Racine, but it consists primarily of Holly running away after dates and Racine mysteriously leaving town. Since little information is given about Racine, the relationship hardly seems grounded.

The plot is weak. Some events are totally predictable; for example, when Holly’s mother’s engagement ring goes missing, we know exactly where it will show up. There are a lot of convenient coincidences; for example, everyone in Holly’s family suffers financial setbacks at the same time. Inclement weather always seems to cause a power outage? And then there are the unbelievable events. Vivian studied the stock market and built a financial portfolio, going from penny stocks to blue chips, and is described by her broker as having the Midas touch so she is able to invest $120,000 in a business. But then this same woman learns that “’most of my investments are basically worthless right now’”?

The novel examines society’s relationship with money. The author makes a parallel between oxygen and money: “If money were oxygen, [Holly] was the one flopping around like a fish outside the iron lung. Society expected people to have money. It really didn’t know what to do with people who found themselves outside the norms of earning and spending and paying taxes.” Unfortunately, the resolution to Holly’s financial problems weakens the realism of the novel’s thematic development.

This book is a quick read. I just wish that the focus had been more on Vivian’s story rather than on Holly’s.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Review of THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho

Advent Book Calendar – Day Eight
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
1 Star
A friend recommended this book to me and gave me a copy, so I felt obligated to read it. The reference on the front cover to the book’s being an “international bestselling phenomenon” and the claim, on the back cover, that it has changed “the lives of its readers forever” should have forewarned me. I cannot understand why people would find this quasi-mystical self-help stuff uplifting and inspiring; if the vacuous platitudes it contains qualify as spiritual nourishment, the world is in deep trouble.

Santiago, a young Andalusian shepherd, has a recurring dream; as a result, he sets out to find a treasure near the Egyptian pyramids. During his quest, he encounters a number of people who help him realize supposedly profound truths about life. That’s it; that’s the plot, and it’s a very contrived one in that all events are there solely to preach some trite adage.

What is supposedly wisdom for the ages is overly simplistic clichés: “’It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary’” (15); “All things are one” (22); “people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises” (27); it is important “to cleanse our minds of negative thoughts” (46); “’the earth is alive . . . and it has a soul’” (79); “’concentrate always on the present’” (85); there is “a twin soul for every person in the world” (93); “’wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure’” (128); “’listen to what [your heart] has to say’” (129); “’Love is the force that transforms’” (150).

To ensure that the reader gets the message, there is endless repetition. “’Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure’” (115 – 116) is remarkably similar to “’Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure’” (128). “’If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. . . . life is the moment we’re living right now’” (85) sounds like “’The secret is here in the present. If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And, if you improve the present, what comes later will also be better’” (103). To also help readers who might have difficulty grasping the most significant ideas, the author has included ample capitalization: Personal Legend, Soul of the World, Language of the World.

My impression is that the book is intended to make people feel good. If they listen to their hearts and summon the courage to follow their dreams, they will accomplish their dream: “’The world’s greatest lie . . . [is] that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate’” (18) and “’There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure’” (141). And then there’s the ultimate feel-goodism: “’No matter what he does, every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world’” (158 – 159).

Certainly there is no new wisdom in the book. It might be useful as a self-help book for young people, but any semi-intelligent adult who has given some thought to life and the world will not learn anything new. What is disturbing is that the book advocates a type of selfishness: “’To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation’” (22). Any other responsibilities can be cast aside. Of course, if you are a woman, you don’t have dreams to follow. For Fatima, Santiago’s love interest, her only obligation is to wait patiently while her man pursues his dream because, as Santiago is told, “’she already has her treasure: it’s you’” (118)! There is also one great irony that seems to have been overlooked by the author and readers: Santiago claims he “’wasn’t able to learn anything from [books]’” and is told, “’There is only one way to learn . . . It’s through action’” (125).

The book is written in a fable style: the sentences are short, and the protagonist is simply called “the boy.” And like in an Aesop’s fable, everything is obvious. But, unlike those fables, this book is not entertaining, and to say that its didactic tone is irritating would be an understatement. Its one saving grace is that it is mercifully short. Alchemy it does not possess.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review of THE BOSTON GIRL by Anita Diamant

Advent Book Calendar – Day Seven
Since I started by blog, I’ve done an annual Advent Book Calendar highlighting books I have enjoyed and authors I really like.  This year I thought I’d do an Advent Book Calendar with a twist; for each day leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post a review of a book to which I’ve given only one star (Throw a book at this one) or two stars (Don’t put this book in your book bag).  Though I would not recommend these books, others have disagreed with me.  Each book, on Goodreads, has received a 3 or 4 Star average rating.

Review of The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
2 Stars
Anita Diamant is best known for her book The Red Tent which I thoroughly enjoyed. I cannot say the same for this one.

The novel is presented as a monologue delivered by 85-year-old Addie Baum in response to her granddaughter’s question about how she got to be the woman she is. She chronicles her life in Boston from her birth in 1900 to Jewish immigrants to her marriage in 1927. These years are covered in great detail, but her life after her marriage is glossed over.

The book is dull. It is a plain and predictable recounting of her life: this happened and then this happened and then this happened . . . Things happen to Addie’s family and friends but not to her. At a young age, she is recognized as someone possessing intelligence and “gumption” (15) and so acquires mentors and a circle of sympathetic friends who support her so she is never without a job or a place to live. When tragedies occur in her family, she seems largely detached; she describes her feelings, but she seems to recover quickly. The result is one dull anecdote after another with no suspense since nothing dramatic happens in her life. And once she is married, nothing noteworthy occurs?!

To add to the predictability, the chapter titles clearly indicate what is going to happen. Merely reading the titles will tell a reader what happens in Addie’s life: “You must be the smart one” (47), “Maybe I wouldn’t be a wallflower after all” (65), “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” (115), “I was still gun-shy about men” (143), “A girl should always have her own money” (165), and “This is Auntie Addie’s fella” (249).

The years 1915 to 1927 included some significant world events, yet Addie barely mentions some of them; as a historical narrative, the book does not succeed, although people familiar with Boston might be interested in some of the historical local colour.

The one thing that does stand out is Addie’s voice. Her tone is convincingly conversational and she speaks very frankly to her granddaughter. She can be witty and humourous. Unfortunately, she doesn’t offer any new wisdom; she tells her grandchild, “Don’t let anyone tell you things aren’t better than they used to be” (291). True but trite.

This book is lacking in substance, a shortcoming that means it will not be memorable.