Posts Categorized: Novel Reviews

Review: Laughing Whitefish – Robert Traver

Last week, on vacation in Michigan, I heard an interview on Points North about the reprinting of Robert Traver‘s (John D. Voelker’s) novel Laughing Whitefish.  It sounded interesting on two levels.  First, I love the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Second, the story of how a Native American woman sued a mining company over her father’s unpaid claim sounded fascinating.  Having read the novel, I can tell you it is fascinating.

Laughing Whitefish works in two ways.  First, Robert Traver does an excellent job describing the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, what drew people there, and what still draws them.  He also describes the relationship the state had with mining and forestry.  For a state known for its natural beauty, Michigan’s history is steeped in environmental destruction in pursuit of natural resources.  Traver remarks on this tension.  Characters have moments of regret, of asking whether their ancestors understood how the creation of the Sault locks would unlock the region and risk the beauty and wonder of the area.

The other important facet of Laughing Whitefish is how Traver describes the treatment of Native Americans, how this landmark court case was won, and the impact it had on relations between the state of Michigan and Native American tribes.  It reminded me of the dismal nature with which lands were usurped and reinforced the ugliness of American expansion.  It’s easy to ignore this past.  It’s easy to look at places names and not think of their origin.  It’s easy for other, more recent American tragedies to take precedence.  However, we must not ignore the past.  We need to remember.

What detracts from this novel is the side story and use of language.  The love interest between the young lawyer, William Poe, and his client, Laughing Whitefish, is obvious and poorly constructed.  Also, there are times when the language feels clunky.  Is this because Traver was trying to capture the language of the time or was it a lack of mechanics?  It’s difficult to tell.  Maybe, it just seems clunky compared to how we currently speak.  The other small point which detracts from the novel is how the court cases become stale.  Traver makes an issue of the slowness and tediousness of the law, but from a perspective of narrative flow he could have still captured this idea without sacrificing the pace of the novel.

Overall, Laughing Whitefish is an interesting novel and a reminder of our past.  It frames the rights of an individual against the interests of a corporation.  In a presaged paragraph the character Cassius Wendell speaks of corporate power.  Cash tells William Poe that he is

“forgetting that corporations are organized primarily for profit. The special genius of the corporation is that while it possesses a kind of immortality and can never die, it is never bothered by a heart or soul or any qualms of consience.  Corporations can do—and omit to do—things that their stockholders would be horrified to do by themselves.  They can do so because the responsibility is finally dispersed among so many that no one is to blame because all are.  That is the great fearful power of the modern corporation.”

As we look back at Enron, credit default swapsBritish Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe as well as new rulings on corporate personhood, the quoted passage becomes especially haunting.  Not only does Laughing Whitefish tell an important story, but it provides a backdrop for the current struggles between the rights of corporations and the rights of individuals.

Review: The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano follows the lives of two friends from childhood into adulthood.  The central characters are both scarred by early tragedies, which brings them closer to each other than to other people, yet still, those tragedies remain a barrier.

The novel opens with Alice as a child, her dislike of skiing, and her father’s oppressive persistence that she ski.  Alice crashes and is forever disabled with a leg that drags.  Also, as Alice ages, she is crippled through anorexia.  The eating disorder does not cripple her physically for years to come, but it does cripple her emotionally as she hides the secret from those who love her.

Mattia is a twin, a gifted math prodigy, and a caretaker for his sister, Michela, who has a cognitive impairment, which is never explicitly named.  Mattia resents Michela and feels burdened by her.  When they are both invited to a birthday party (their first invitation ever), Mattia abandons Michela at a nearby park and tells her to wait.  She is gone when he returns and never found.  Did she drown?  Was she kidnapped?  Mattia and his family never know.  Mattia grows up with his guilt, which his mother adds to through blame, and begins to self-harm himself through cutting.

In high school, Alice and Mattia meet.  They don’t fall in love.  Or, perhaps, they don’t fall in love at once or together.  Also, it is never stated, but it seems that Mattia might suffer from a mild form of Asberger’s syndrome.  Due to Mattia’s social awkwardness, he is often confounded by Alice, or doesn’t know how to respond to her actions.

Instead of falling in love, it might be better to say they fall into understanding.  Both have scars plain to see on the outside of their bodies, but the deeper scars, the anorexia and guilt, are visible mainly to Alice and Mattia.  They know one another and accept the other person.  There are no demands or questions.  Instead, their relationship builds on acceptance and respect.  Will that acceptance and respect be beneficial or will that lead to their continued isolation?  The question is left to the reader and depends on the reader’s interpretation.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a portrait of two young people finding their place in the world.  It’s poignant, beautiful, and shares an interesting perspective of two people, twin primes, forever near one another, but divisible only by I.

Review: The Wise Man’s Fear – Patrick Rothfuss

Magic is elusive.  It contains mystery, it is hard to explain, yet it is also recognizable. In Patrick Rothfuss‘s, The Name of the Wind, the magic was apparent.  The novel was fantasy, but it was also original.  It didn’t fall into the traps of so many poorly written fantasy novels as illustrated in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.  The story was intriguing, the writing was above average, and the main character, Kvothe, was interesting.  The Name of the Wind is a wonderful book.  As I said though, magic is elusive, and upon reading The Wise Man’s Fear, it’s clear that Rothfuss has lost it.

If the first novel had not been so good, this would not be a problem.  The writing is not as careful nor as creative.  Sections that should be summarized fill 60-200 pages. Sections that should be expanded are summarized. Instead of the overall narrative progressing, the reader is forced to follow vignettes (I can’t think of a proper term) that are tedious, boring, and do little in terms of plot.

The interesting parts of this series are the Chandrain (sort of like Tolkien’s ringwraiths), the Amyr (sort of like the Templars), and how/why Kvothe is now the innkeeper in a backwater town, hiding out, and seemingly powerless.  These are the interesting parts and nothing was added to them.  Instead, we see Kvothe learn how to become a masterful warrior (cliche), outsmart and have sex with a fairy/demigod of sexuality (tedious), stumble through his relationship with Denna (repetitive), struggle at university (repetitive), and earn enough money to escape poverty.  While these stories may be part of the fabric of who Kvothe is, they do little in the novel.  Rothfuss seems in love with the character, but unable to navigate time and structure.  It seems like he could have packaged these stories as a collection and sold them separately, instead of trying to force them into The Wise Man’s Fear.

Whether or not Rothfuss is able to rediscover his magic, and learn the name of storytelling is an open question.  After reading The Wise Man’s Fear, I have my doubts and will not be reading the third book.  He called it once, can he call it again?  Perhaps, he needs Elodin to guide his way.

Review: The Russian Debutante’s Handbook

Gary Shteyngart revels in the absurd. Whether it is in Super Sad True Love Story, or, in this case, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Shteyngart has an eye for the ridiculous.

In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook the story follows Vladimir Girshkin, the only son of Russian immigrants, as he navigates life in New York City.  Having moved from Leningrad/St. Petersburg at the age of twelve, Vladimir has romanticized life in eastern Europe and is trying to balance his heritage with the culture of the United States. When the novel begins, Vladimir is twenty-five, living in New York after graduating from an expensive, Midwestern, liberal arts college, and is working in the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society (picture Ugly Americans minus the creatures).  In his quest for money and status (themes Shteyngart seems especially drawn to) Vladimir gets involved with a psychotic client, delves into organized crime, and finds himself in Prava (the Paris of the 90’s), deceiving and defrauding Western expats all in the name of capitalism.

There are funny characters, and humorous moments, but the novel is repetitive, and weighed down by a lack of vision. Part way through, it seemed as though Shteyngart had no clear idea where the novel was headed. Transitions are jerky, and sections don’t always fit together well. Moreover, the repetition of Vladimir’s low self-esteem and deceptions becomes increasingly annoying.

Another problem I have with this book, and perhaps with Shteyngart’s writing, is that Vladimir Gershkin is so similar to Lenny Abramov from Super Sad True Love Story. Both characters are Russian immigrants who are overly nostalgic, obsessed with money and status, suffer from low self-esteem, have poor luck with women, are intelligent but unmotivated, balding, hairy, and describe things in similar ways. Essentially, Shteyngart lifted Vladimir Gershkin, made a few modifications and placed him in a distopian future under the name of Lenny Abramov in Super Sad True Love Story.  Lenny hit the point of being annoying in that novel, and reading another incarnation of Lenny is too much.

While there were parts of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook I enjoyed, I started skimming after 200 pages.  My urge to see what happened outweighed the problems I had with the writing. Shteyngart is a talented writer, but needs to look beyond himself for a subject.  If you’re interested in his writing, I recommend Super Sad True Love Story as it is more focused and sharper.

Review: The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

First, I don’t care about Jonathan Franzen.  Is he an egoist?  An asshole?  Does he have regrets, or view the world through the eyes of a depressed cynic?  What I do know is that Jonathan Franzen is a talented writer who crafts sentences with care.  He draws out complex characters and is able to make readers feel for them.  The characters may not be likable always; but, at least they are interesting.

I’ve read through some reviews where people feel Franzen has projected himself into the novel through his characters.  Unless you personally know the writer, I don’t think you can easily make that judgement.  I may not like a star athlete, but I can appreciate the level at which they compete.  The same is true with writers.  There may be aspects about a writer that a reader doesn’t like; but, the reader needs to evaluate the writing and not the person who wrote it.

The Corrections is a heartfelt novel about family.  What makes up a family?  How well do we know the members of our family?  What secrets does a family keep?  We see a limited view of Alfred, Enid, Gary, Chip and Denise through the eyes of the others.  It’s easy to take at face value how the characters perceive Gary, until the book shifts to Gary’s perspective and the field of vision expands.  Then, we understand Gary, know what drives him, and how, let’s say, Alfred and Enid’s view of Gary may be skewed.

Are there moments that could have been edited or may seem like a stretch?  Sure.  At points, moments of flitting dialogue press down on the reader.  Does Franzen need to demonstrate his ability at describing annoying conversations for five pages?  Could one page have sufficed?  Does Chip need such an extreme experience in order to grow up?  Probably not.  But, was it funny?  Did it interfere in the aims of the novel?  Does Franzen need to take such an obvious jab at christianity as a drug?  Could he have written that more subtly?  Were emails between characters just a fast way to convey information to the reader?  At the time, because the sentences and descriptions were so good, these areas didn’t bother me.  The book was so enjoyable, that I read and read.  Looking back, there are moments that could have been better, but that’s a pretty human fault, a fault we have with most things in life.

Overall, The Corrections is the best book I’ve read in 2011.  It’s full of humanity.  It captures the way in which we fail one another and ourselves.  It demonstrates how love transcends those failings.  No matter how much we’ve been let down or let others down, there are still moments of beauty, moments of love.  However you may feel about the man, Jonathan Franzen, don’t let it stop you from reading a terrific novel.

Review: The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson mixes tension and suspense with a campiness reminiscent of the board game Clue.  The result is a slim novel that delves into the supernatural, full of colorful characters whose actions and responses are an attempt to deflect or rationalize the presence that embodies Hill House.

The premise for the novel is that a researcher into the supernatural, Dr. Montague, rents Hill House for the summer and recruits people to live there with him as research assistants.  The assistants are supposed to observe, take notes, and discuss any oddities with Dr. Montague.  These characters include Theodora, a sexy, outgoing, young woman who may be empathic; Luke, the eventual heir to Hill House, who is funny, deflective, and wealthy; and Eleanor, the narrator, who is searching for a new way to define herself.

Initially, not much happens in the novel.  It takes a while for the suspense to build.  Characters eye one another and the house seems harmless.  Who will fall prey to Hill House?  Who will betray the group?  Hill House works on the minds of the individuals who inhabit it.  Through the manipulations of the house, distrust grows and mania increases.  Much like the ghost seeking a way into bedroom doors at night, it also seeks a way into the consciousness.

While not as scary as House of Leaves, The Haunting of Hill House is a horror classic worth reading on a stormy Autumn evening.

Review: The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this book, because like a snack, it doesn’t require too much description besides it was tasty, left me undernourished, and probably has some high fructose corn syrup packed in.  The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde is fun, not entirely well-written, and left me thinking my time could have been better spent.  That’s not to say the novel isn’t enjoyable.  However, it is too long and sloppy.  Plot not working well?  Don’t worry, time travel will solve everything.

Besides being funny, Fforde does remind readers, who may have forgotten, what classics like those written by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austen mean to a number of people.  Having read Jane Eyre five years ago, I’d since moved on and left patient Jane with her disfigured Rochester somewhere in a mouldering country estate.  Due to the inventiveness of Fforde, I was able to reunite with Jane and Rochester, and follow their relationship in a new way.

I’m always being told to take snacks in moderation; however, it won’t take much effort in this case to stop at one.  Jasper Fforde has many more novels set in this world, but I’ll leave them for another reader.

Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan‘s novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is like going to a concert that starts strong, but then loses the beat, stops being music and becomes a decision: stay or walk out?  It can be a dilemma.  There’s the price of admission, combined with the foolish hope things will improve versus wasting time, and disappointment.  In my experience, there’s no real payoff in sticking around.  I have a harder time quitting novels, especially when I’m past the halfway point.  A Visit from the Goon Squad introduces two interesting characters that seem to be the focus of the novel, but then gets lost along the way as perspectives and time shift in ways that become less meaningful.

The novel begins with Sasha, a beautiful woman who’s a kleptomaniac, and then transitions to Bennie, her former boss and music industry executive.  From there the novel jumps back to Bennie’s teenage years, then progresses in time, but remains in the past from Bennie’s chapter, let’s call it the near-past, and focuses on a teenage friend of Bennie’s who has tracked him down.

Next, we stay in the past and explore the dissolution of Bennie’s marriage from his, at-some-point-in-the-future ex-wife.  Ex-wife in the making?  This chapter also showcases changes in the lead singer of “The Conduits,” the band Bennie first produced which made him famous.  The lead man is now a bloated, drugged out loser planning a “suicide tour” as his comeback and probable death.  Bennie’s brother-in-law is also introduced in this chapter as a washed-up reporter who went to prison for assaulting a celebrity he interviewed.

The next chapter is pretty funny, but really, serves little purpose.  Another new character enters the mix, a failed publicist, who gets hired by a third-world dictator to remake his image.  She, La Doll, the failed publicist, wants the dictator to be seen with a faded celebrity.  Of course, because things are so connected, that celebrity is the one whom Bennie’s brother-in-law assaulted.  After this, there’s a chapter from the brother-in-law’s perspective that is written sort of as an article.

It’s at this point I start to skim.  The article is annoying.  The character’s voice is annoying.  I’m looking at my watch, at the doors, wondering if I should leave.  But, I don’t.  Instead, I read on and we’re back in Sasha’s past.  Remember her?  She was from the beginning of the novel 100 pages ago.  It’s a pretty boring chapter.  We learn she had a dodgy past involving drug use, prostitution, theft, and traipsing around the world.  Annoyingly, this chapter is written in second person point-of-view, from the perspective of a character named, Mike, who is a jerk.  Thankfully, Mike is not long for the world.

Another shift occurs and we’re farther in Sasha’s past, reliving those dodgy moments while an uncle rescues her from abroad.  Of course, the chapter is from the uncle’s perspective, and at the end of this chapter Egan tells us everything that will happen to Sasha in the span of a paragraph.  Then, the novel goes downhill.

What’s a great novel without a chapter from a nine-year-old’s perspective constructed from bad Power Point slides?  I loved in Blood Meridian when the Judge gets rid of his notebook and draws people in Microsoft Paint.  Now, we’re in Sasha’s future, and it’s her kid who has the love for bad graphic design.  Luckily, this kills 80 pages of the book.  At which point there are 21 pages left, so what the hell, why not read them?

The novel closes with Bennie.  He’s now in his 60’s and Egan seems to borrow inspiration from Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.  The future is now and we’re all connected with smart phone-like devices, texting one another, following feeds, and in bed with corporations, but looking for authentic experiences.  It’s 20 pages and the end, so I read on.  The loser musician friend from Bennie’s childhood is the next Bob Dylan.  The chapter is from the perspective of a minor character in the beginning of the novel who goes on a date with Sasha 20-30 years ago.  Of course, every premonition Sasha has about the guy comes true, and she’s some backdrop, half-remembered story from his early days in New York City.

Egan writes with beauty and clarity, but her story lacks direction.  While the shifting viewpoints work in novels like The Savage Detectives, they don’t work here because the characters are never part of the larger story.  Thinking in terms of a graph, the characters are more like points instead of lines that connect ideas, emotions, and events.  The novel ends with a concert that is created through hype.  People are paid to blog about the event, like it on Facebook, text one another.  It feels like the same may have happened with this novel.  While it’s been a bestseller and won awards, it doesn’t seem to matter, the book meanders and loses itself.  Egan is a talented writer and it seems like some of the chapters were written to explore the characters of Bennie and Sasha, but at some point they need to come together into something larger and more meaningful.  A Visit from the Good Squad is an overhyped book that’s best left on the shelf.

Review: Great House – Nicole Krauss

Call me misleading, this isn’t really a review.  A review requires finishing or having enough knowledge of something to fool others.  I wanted to like this book, but just couldn’t get into it.  Restarting each section with a new narrator that didn’t seem to relate to the other narrators created a disjointed read.  I’m sure it comes together at some point, however, after reading a third of the book my patience ran thin.  Time to turn the page, and pick up something new to read.

Review: The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi has a problem.  Somewhere in his writing career he developed an inability to say no.  Adjectives come up to him on the streets; they ask for some help, just a little something to get by.  Paolo obliges.  Paolo does not say no to adjectives.  The result is a concept driven novel that stumbles through overly descriptive passages, and then falls back on overused phrases.  One example that comes to mind is the use of “blossom” in any scene involving blood or pain.  Pain blossoms.  Blood blossoms.  However, in The Windup Girl flowers rarely blossom.

Now, that I’m done with my minor gripes, I’ll return to the concept.  The Windup Girl is set in the near future where the global economy has collapsed.  Petroleum is a thing of the past, and global warming has caused major cities to flood.  Energy is measured in its most basic form: the calorie.  The twist is that the global food supply has also been devastated due to genetically modified seed stock and disease.  The cause and savior are powerful agri-business.  Think if Monsanto and Blackwater were part of the same company.

The novel takes place in Thailand, amidst factions all competing for a place of power within  the Thai Kingdom.  There are the farang business men looking to open new markets.  The Environment Ministry, which looks to protect Thailand from all invasive’s, including foreigners.  The rival to the Environment Ministry is the Trade Ministry, which hopes to open the borders to investment.  For good measure, throw in some gangsters, Chinese refugees, genetically engineered Japanese workers, muai thai fighters, and royalty.  What’s produced is a novel that is heavy on an idea, and weak on characters.  The Windup Girl is a cool concept, and one which readers may relate to.  However, it feels like Bacigalupi blended The Quiet American and Blade Runner, but without the inner turmoil of Graham Greene nor the electricity of Philip K. Dick.