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2004 Book Reviews
2005 Book Reviews
2003 Book Reviews

Welcome to Book Reviews by Non-Descript. All reviews are the opinion of the author who either likes the book or not, and will tell you exactly why.

Recommend a Book!

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47. A Seahorse Year, Stacey d'Erasmo
Pages: 360
This may very well be the first time I've used this word: Fabulous. A Seahorse Year is fabulous.

46. You remind me of me, Dan Chaon
Pages: 356
Too close to home. If I were sending Christmas presents this year, this would be the book for those to whom I am closest.

45. Gilgamesh, ed. Stephen Mitchell
Pages: 290
Absolutely beautiful, both translation and story.

"Then I was frightened, I was terrified by death,
and I set out to roam the wilderness.
I cannot bear what happened to my friend -
I cannot bear what happened to Enkidu -
so I roam the wilderness in my grief.
How can my mind have any rest?
My beloved friend has turned into clay-
my beloved Enkidu has turned into clay.
And won't I too lie down in the dirt
like him, and never rise again?"
Shiduri said, "Gilgamesh, where are you roaming?
You will never find the eternal life
that you seek. When the gods created mankind,
they also created death, and they held back
eternal life for themselves alone.
Humans are born, they live, then they die,
this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
This is the best way for a man to life."

44.The Conquest of Gaul, Caesar
Pages: 263
Interesting, but not what I had hoped. Why was I surprised? Caesar was a strategist seeking to strengthen his position, not an explorer curious about what lay beyond.

43. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
Pages: 1,103
My fortune for a Christian intellectual who shares my profound reaction to wait and hope.

42. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Pages: 438
More kick than Pride & Prejudice, but I still don't like this Austen. I hear she had sisters who also wrote. Are they any different?

41. Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours, Jules Verne
Pages: 297
Enfin, je l'ai lu!

40. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Pages: 742
Not my favorite Dickens but a pleasure to read for its humor. Of all the Dickens I've read, David Copperfield packs the most acerbic wit but please, must the female characters be twit-angels or vile-succubi?

39. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
Pages: 782
I doubt this book will please most readers; perhaps they will be confused and feel it drags on and is senseless. Others will rejoice and revel in pleasure, will yearn for more magic, will walk into the quiet and ask the King to show his face. I love this book.

38. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
Pages: 471

37. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Pages: 838

36. Eventide, Kent Haruf
Pages: 300

35. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
Pages: 400

34. Breaking the Tongue, Vyvyane Lou
Pages: 405

33. The Pearl Diver, Jeff Talagrio
Pages: 240

32. Confinement, Carrie Brown
Pages: 352

31. Brilliance of the Moon, Lian Hearn
Pages: 328

30. Aloft, Chang-rae Lee
Pages: 343

29. The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
Pages: 973

28. The Hidden City, David Eddings
Pages: 457

27. The Shining Ones, David Eddings
Pages: 470

26. Domes of Fire, David Eddings
Pages: 484

25. The Ruby Knight, David Eddings
Pages: 406

24. The Sapphire Rose, David Eddings
Pages: 467

23. The Diamond Throne, David Eddings
Pages: 448

22. A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe

Publisher: Barnes & Noble, 2004. First printing of text 1722.
Pages: 259
Obtained: Barnes & Noble (yes, I have no scruples)
Historical fiction is a favorite indulgence (The Name of the Rose, The Pillars of the Earth, myriad others) and the plague a constant interest, so Defoe’s (fictional) treatment of the London plague of 1665 was, despite its subject matter, an escape or respite from science and writing books of my own. While A Journal of the Plague Year is dismissed by many literary critics or relegated to the also-ran category of British literature, I find Defoe does a captivating job of engaging the reader via the narrator’s compelling voice. The terror of plague, houses being shut up (meaning you’re doomed to die because you’re not allowed to leave premises), the desperation of living to die: We draw in death when we breathe, and therefore ‘tis the hand of God; there is no withstanding it(190); all come together in a moving, trenchant manner few others carry off well.

21. On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, Peter Handke

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997
Pages: 186
Obtained: Moe’s Books
It is unfair (unethical?) to judge a book by the eloquence of another, but I am not a professional book reviewer and run with liberties. . . . Silent House is a revised version of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Man with a psychedelic undertone. I found the conversation between the pharmacist and the narrator evocative and tinged with that sadness I enjoy, but I couldn’t become absorbed into the text.

20. Angels in America, Part One, Tony Kushner

Publisher: Theatre Communications Group, 1992
Pages: 119
Obtained: Half Price Books
If I was the outwardly-emotional type, I’d declare Angels in America changed my life. Read it. Watch it. Nota bene: I watched the film adaptation before reading the play, and I wonder why the director took a (minor? I’m not so certain) liberty with Hannah. In the film she’s far more sanctimonious than in the play – a Mormon who sneaks a drag off a cigarette can’t be all that bad, can she? Did I say I love this play?

19. The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves, Curtis White

Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003
Pages: 205
Obtained: Half Price Books
Self-congratulatory condescension, even towards himself and his ilk, those shut-ins on the ivory tower who play homemade Jeopardy with headings like Young Derrida and Post-Modernism: Words that rhyme with iconoclast. Curtis White’s The Middle Mind really isn’t so terrible in itself; his ideas are amusing and dead-on in many ways that are thoughtful if not downright hostile to both liberals and conservatives alike, but I didn’t appreciate the endless – from beginning to conclusion – sarcasm and philosophical musings lumped together like a horrid public relations campaign gone wrong. The Middle Mind helps me define the term bloated. If you’re wondering, here’s his take on the Middle Mind:

The Middle Mind is pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the right’s narrowness, and incredulous before the left’s convolutions. It is adventuresome, eclectic, spiritual, and in general agreement with liberal political assumptions about race, gender, and class. The Middle Mind really rather liked Bill Clinton, thoroughly supported his policies, but wished that the children didn’t have to know so much about his personal life. The Middle Mind is liberal. It wants to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and has bought an SUV with the intent of visiting it. It even understands in some indistinct way that that very SUV spells the Arctic’s doom. Most important, the Middle Mind imagines that it honors the highest culture and that it lives through the arts. It supports the local public broadcasting station, supports the symphony, attends summer Shakespeare festivals, and writes letters to state representatives encouraging support for the state arts council. The Middle Mind’s take on culture is well intended, but it is also deeply deluded.

18. The Valley of Light, Terry Kay

Publisher: Atria Books, 2003
Pages: 239
Obtained: gift
I feel as if I read Walmart's How-to-Do-Business-Recipe: Tug heartstrings, give consumers what they want, don't expect too much, rely on cliche and rip off original content. The Valley of Light is A River Runs Through It in North Carolina and lacks even the compelling narrative of the original story of man's quest to find his Self via fishing. Throw in a mentally-retarded boy who drowns (why is it only these characters who suffer hardship?) and a town that says He's with his mama now to deal with its collective, from-thin-air grief, a widow, a man - I think the term would be hobo - a ghost, and fishing, and you have enough multilayered plot devices to feed what could be a great story. Unfortunately, The Valley of Light doesn't satisfy, just like Walmart: Stocking everything does not quality make. Book automatically lost one half star due to its title.

17. The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett

Publisher: Perennial, 1992
Pages: 336
Obtained: Moe’s Books

This recent string of overthetopgreat books is ruining my rating system. The Patron Saint of Liars doesn’t shine as well as it should in this review, but I suspect what gleam there is fits: It’s middle of the road, doesn’t ask for too much or give too much, an afternoon read. It’s like reading a rerun when there’s nothing else to watch.

16. Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, Amanda Davis

Publisher: William Morrow, 2003
Pages: 259
Obtained: Cody’s Books

Add another one to the Winner list and it is only because The Turtle Warrior has run away with the 5-star that Wonder When You’ll Miss Me doesn’t have highest honors. Heartache that isn’t minimized or trivialized, doesn’t indulge in smarmy we’ve-seen-it-all-before tough-life characters, thoroughly unique: Psychological issues galore that probe rather than gloss, palpable and real in a way that Ricki Lake, Oprah, and Dr. Phil can only wish to have as a guest. And yet how fun to run off to the circus and fall in love with a cast of characters that Amanda Davis brings to life. I have to go with my gut; five stars it is.

15. The Man in My Basement, Walter Mosley

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2004
Pages: 249
Obtained: Cody’s Books

Deliciously creepy in an understated manner from the get-go, an intriguing twist on race relations whose point barely registers yet permeates the entire novel. White man rents basement, brings cage, hires (black) homeowner to serve as warden, and the two discuss history and current events. I wouldn’t let The Man in My Basement out of my hands until I had finished the (short) novel, wish all the while I was taking an English course so I could write a paper. Why four stars instead of five? Because of the ending; too neatly done for me. Highly recommended.

14. GOAT: a memoir, Brad Land

Publisher: Random House, 2004
Pages: 210
Obtained: Dallas

Whether Goat is fiction or a real memoir, it is fundamentally a hard-luck story about two brothers, one the alpha male and the other not, and fraternity hazing rituals. Yet by the conclusion I cared no more for either brother than I did at the beginning, having felt cheated almost of the work involved to understand Brad and Brett. I may be doing a two-and-a-half-star disservice because while I found Brad thoroughly compelling (though frustrating), Brett’s character is never fully developed and thus engenders more confusion than anything else. While reading I was struck by how out of touch I must be with college life and fraternities, having come from a no-Greek, Christian (meaning no alcohol) alma mater, and having a brother too independent to want to fit in at all costs. Yet Brad’s motives are plain, leaving no sense of discovery for the reader, and in the end is merely an insider’s look at hazing rituals. Disappointing, though beautifully written and evocative – at least the first 30 pages, I mean.

13. Above the Thunder, Renée Manfredi

Publisher: MacAdam/Cage, 2003
Pages: 333
Obtained: gift

Perhaps I am too great a skeptic to believe people radically different from each other can forge bonds and live in a comfortable Maine lodge, supervised by a woman who befriends those suffering from AIDS, cherishes a girl who hears voices and spins tales about her hundreds of past lives, and drives off into the West to find – surprise – a tall, dark, and handsome stranger. Because I cannot suspend my disbelief when confronted by intentional heart-warming it is easier to criticize Above the Thunder for what it is not rather than the merits of what it is. It is well-written and engaging with intriguing characters – particularly Flynn – that unfortunately compete for detail and development. When one of four dominates interest, the other three remain half-characters, most especially Stuart. An enjoyable read into the nature of impossible – doomed? – relationships between unlikely pairs, relationships that cannot and do not last. One line stood out in particular: Every human being must do one of three basic things during his lifetime: leave something living, create something lovely, or make something better. If anything, Above the Thunder gives you food for thought.

12. What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal], Zoe Heller
Publisher: Henry Hold and Company, 2003
Pages: 258
Obtained: Cody's Books

The perfect foil to the emotional investment with The Turtle Warrior, this is a story of a teacher-student relationship, more like Mary Kay Letourneau than Mr. Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver. Barbara, the narrator of What Was She Thinking? is hilarious as she tells the tale of her (lone?) friend who embarks (descends?) on a sexual relationship with a 15-year old student. What I particularly enjoyed was how Barbara, the narrator, became the focal point rather than the teacher in trouble; to say character development is one of Zoe Heller's strong points is an understatement. What Was She Thinking? is an entertaining, probing read - I recommend it.

11. The Turtle Warrior, Mary Relindes Ellis

Publisher: Viking, 2004
Pages: 368
Obtained: Cody's Books

For a few days now I've thought about this review, wondering how to synthesize and relate how powerful a reaction The Turtle Warrior elicited from me. Is it enough to say this is one of the finest books I've ever read, or that in mid-March I've already decided this wonderful book about pain, Vietnam, the metaphysical and the corporeal, will be my gift for Christmas 2004 to those on my list? Books like these are the reason I read fiction, not as an escape but as a vehicle towards my own redemption as a person. Those of you who know me will understand, though if pressed I offer the following as the first step towards synthesizing the novel:

That night and the weeks that followed gave rise to our private scars and unspoken grief, some of it floating in the air of the house, some visible enough like braille on our faces and bodies so that it could be read with fingertips. Some of it spoken aloud.
The Turtle Warrior knocked me on my ass. Mary Relindes Ellis will hopefully come away with a prize for this one.

10. The Onion Girl, Charles de Lint

Publisher: Tor Books, 2001
Pages: 508
Obtained: gift

Recommended by a reader of Non-Descript. MR, you are banished. No more book recommendations from you. Couldn't make it past 100 pages; fairies (not the San Francisco type), magic, incest: What the hell? When the day comes that there is nothing more to read, when not even the ingredients label on shampoo is new, then I may consider picking up this waste of paper again. As it's said, bloody unlikely, yo. Or something like that.

9. The Loser's Club, Richard Perez

Publisher: Ludlow Press, 2003
Pages: 176
Obtained: Barnes & Noble, via birthday gift card

When you read the phrase slice of life realism or literary pointilism and understand how it describes a work hyperfocused on a particular place, time, and character, then you understand The Loser's Club. Follow Martin Sierra's quest for love and connection amid the bars, clubs, and grime of New York City's East Village in a quick read designed for the sitcom-minded. Wait - is that one of Perez's meta-devices, a(n invisible) commentary through which vaunted universalism is achieved, or just the way young writers form their craft for today's readers? There's more to the eye than one might think, but when the stymied Don Quixote/Juan gets the girl in the end, it's just like a comedy on UPN and about as memorable.

8. Genesis, Jim Crace

Publisher: Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 2003
Pages: 246
Obtained: Barnes & Noble, via birthday gift card

Genesis reminds me of a high schooler on a basketball court wanting to impress a group of girls with a slam dunk, turning from the swish of the net to say, "I'm ready, ladies" but delivers a rim shot instead. Disappointing, though not the end of the world because nobody was paying attention anyways. Jim Crace tried too hard to deliver his point about the vagaries of life, confesses at the end of the novel that The details of our lives are undramatic, if we're lucky, and a little dull(245). Yeah, no kidding.

7. Wide Open, Nicola Barker

Publisher: The Ecco Press, 1998
Pages: 290
Obtained: Moe's Books

Wow.

6. The Voyage of the Catalpa, Peter F. Stevens

Publisher: Carroll & Graf, 2002
Pages: 391
Obtained: birthday gift

Naval adventure stories are a secret escape for me, from Moby Dick, The Kon Tiki, and The Life of Pi. Fiction, dry history, journals of voyages across the seas in shorthand - I love them all, more for the creaking of hulls and the whir of rigging, the depth of detail overwhelming my own visualization. The longing to escape, the psychoanalyst says. And when combined with history and my love of arcane facts, few naval adventures disappoint. Stevens' The Voyage of the Catalpa didn't disappoint, but neither did it captivate me, impatient as I was for the action. The (true) story of the rescue of Irish political prisoners (or traitors, depending on your view of British imperial history) by an American was enjoyable but not fulfilling as an adventure. With many history-based writing, the narrative tends to the dry and academic, and Catalpa was no exception, almost as if the author did not want to take liberty beyond fleshing out the details. I sought first-hand materials, such as Andrews' log and those of the (freed) prisoners, but in the end, The Voyage of the Catalpa was a lot of foreground followed by a scant retelling of the rescue itself. Not enough for me to smell the salt air and have my heart pound in danger, and close the book with satisfaction. I'd recommend Catalpa only to those serious historians interested in the formative events immediately preceeding the Irish Republic, and seek to learn little-known details. Other than that, beware.

5. The Pleasure of My Company, Steve Martin

Publisher: Hyperion, 2003
Pages:163
Obtained: The other evil some call Border's

The title caught my eye and I picked it up in October, unaware that the author was this Steve Martin. Left it on the shelf when I made the connection, thinking here's another celebrity actor-turned-writer like...Madonna, though she wasn't ever an actor, really. Put your disbelief (antagonisms?) aside: This is an incredible novella. Hit too close to home - you mean there are others who count ceiling tiles? - as I read about Daniel Pecan Cambridge's perspective on the outer world, one constrained by fear and neuroses. His longing to engage people and change, the clarity of his self-perception:

I guessed that one day the restrictions I imposed on myself would end. But first, it seemed that my range of possible activities would have to iris down to zero before I could turn myself around. Then, when I was finally static and immobile, I could weigh and measure every exterior force and, slowly and incrementally, once again allow the outside in. And that would be my life
Every sentence, I saw myself and I cried when Daniel faced the curb with Teddy, a young quasi-surrogate son, and made the decision to step across:
I could not leave Teddy with a legacy of fear from an unremembered place. I pulled him toward the curb so he would not be like me. Recalling the day I flew over it with a running leap, I put one foot into the street, so he would not be like me . . . I was the Santa Maria and Teddy was the Nina and Pinta. I led, he followed. I conquered each curb and blazed a new route south...
Perhaps mawkish, too sentimental towards mental illness. But it hit home again and again and while it is fiction, I also want to realize someday that
as much as I had resisted the outside, as much as I had constricted my life, as much as I had closed and narrowed the channels into me, there were still many takers for the quiet heart.
A journey in technicolor, The Pleasure of My Company, is, dare I say, me.

4. White Teeth, Zadie Smith

Publisher: Vintage, 2000
Pages:448
Obtained: Cody's Books

Bitter: Why did I wait so long? When Samad inquires into the difference between Miss and Ms., he summarizes but one facet of White Teeth, the conflict between inward and outward perception:

"And this is some kind of linguistic conflation between the words Mrs. and Miss?" asked Samad, genuinely curious and oblivious to the nether wobblings of Katie Miniver's bottom lip. "Something to describe the woman who has either lost her husband or has no prospect of finding another?"
How to simplify White Teeth to a blurb beyond fantastic!? This novel is Multiculturalism 101, required reading, and saying so is the easy way out because it's so much more than strangers in a strange land (forgive me). Smith turns the world of expectations upside down - most notably with Alsana, the wife who steals the show, itself a fantastic undoing of the classical East-West typology - and smacks the (informed?) reader in the face with probing questions of immigrant vs. native cosmology and what it means to belong, finally, when one does. A wealth of symbols and narrative, humor and history, satire and poignance, overwhelming and beautiful. If you've read it, what do you think about Alsana's development as opposed to Irie's, much less the twins? Or the broader (cliched?) topic of the role women play in the text, contrasted by the male roles, especially Archie? And what about the conclusion? And please, before you rush off to comment I think Alsana is funny! in my guestbook, consider that your doltish and unimpressive note is not the discussion I seek. Damn, I love books that make me think.

3. Blankets, Craig Thompson

Publisher: Top Shelf Productions, 2003
Pages: 582
Obtained: Cody's Books

Story of first love - and its loss - the struggle of the non-conformist adolescent outcast, family, and faith, each thread comes together in a very moving, very here-and-now (literal) image that's hard to shake. Whether one calls the genre comix, graphic novel, or illustrated novel, Blankets is a powerful combination of words and pictures that promises to engross the reader and succeeds. After Art Spiegelman's Maus series (and Spiegelman is mentioned in Thompson's credits, unsurprisingly), Blankets is the book I'll recommend to anybody interested in the genre. I have to admit I was surprised by the depth of content and drawings, especially after last season's Summer Blonde. Don't be fooled: Just because it's a picture book doesn't mean there isn't a lot to grapple with.

2. The Last Summer of Reason, Tahar Djaout

Publisher: Ruminator Books, 2001
Pages:145
Obtained: gift

An Islamist Fahrenheit 451, an eerie foreshadowing of the author's own murder by fundamentalist zealots. A disturbing insider's window on a world the media can't get enough of: Veiled women, men with rifles shouting God is Great, a jarring rewinding of postmodernism. Evocative images: Son beating infidel! father, a bookshop gathering dust before being closed down, a withering lemon tree in the courtyard, the slowing of sand in an hour glass. I like this one, mostly because I'm a didactic critic at times and secondly, because it begs the question: When do you react and pull away from the herd - before or after the cliff is in view? The answer is most likely unsettling, if you really think about it.

1. Write Letter to Billy, Toby Olson

Publisher: Coffee House Press, 2000
Pages: 407
Obtained: Moe’s Books

Thriller or suspense comes to mind and while neither genre typically engages me, I was enthralled because Toby Olson’s narrative hooked me off the bat. Olson balances Spartan prose with inspired descriptions, just what I like. While the story of a sailor (wandering, rootless, searching) and his new-found-at-15 daughter can verge on the mawkish, that emotional discovery is thankfully not the driving plot device. Rather, the two end up vacationing in Southern California (diving, see the symbolism?) and piece together an enigmatic list left by a deceased father who had been researching a mysterious death prior to his own, a list that hinges on a compelling Write letter to Billy. What was his father intending to write? Resolving that question is what makes the pages turn and turn I did, up until the last 90 pages. Do you remember a movie starring Alyssa Milano and Arnold Swarzenegger where an enraged father searches for his dauther, kidnapped by drug dealers in Colombia? The end of Write Letter to Billy was too much commando, theatrics, and plot discoveries influenced by the need to cease writing. As I look at it, read the first 350 pages, then skip forward to the last five. As thriller-mystery-suspense books go, not bad at all if you discount the unfortunate 90-page blunder Toby Olson makes.

:::::: Rings :::::




 

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