Book Reviews

I mostly review books here, but you may find some short stories along the way.

Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott

Operating InstructionsA friend gave us this book as we’re expecting our first baby. Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions was a joy to read. The memoir recounts her first year as a single mom, the highs and lows are described with honesty, humor, and heartache. While this book is about her and her son, Sam, it’s also about her friend, Pam, and how life doesn’t stop just because something good is happening to you.

I feel like this book works on three levels. It’s about being a new mother, but it’s also about faith and spiritually, as well as dealing with a friend’s cancer. God is central to Lamott’s life and that belief provides a place of strength and shelter.

The book is disarming and very funny. My wife and I read it aloud to each other over the past few months and it was wonderful to share. Thankfully, it’s not a parenting book. Instead, it’s a glimpse into parenting and the life of a single mom.

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

The FlamethrowersRachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is a sexy novel that’s more than a coming-of-age story. The novel revolves around Reno, a young artist who moves to New York, and the Valera family, a powerful Italian family that operates a motorcycle and tire empire. Reno falls in love with the Sandro Valera, who’s left the family business behind and is a sculptor in New York.

I’m trying to be careful using that term coming-of-age, because I don’t want to turn off readers. When I hear something described as a coming-of-age story, I tend to avoid it. Maybe it was reading too many bad short stories for Prairie Schooner. Though Reno is young, naive, and learning about the world; she’s also alluring, strong, and interesting. Does the reader know more than Reno? When it comes to men and relationships, probably yes. When it comes to motorcycles and art, Reno may have more knowledge than the reader.

But while the book centers on Reno and her relationship with Sandro, it also provides a multigenerational arc that speeds along rubber tires, lights streaking through the night. We see how Sandro’s father became enthralled with motorcycles when they were first invented. We see him build and design his own machine and how that love for speed becomes a multinational corporation involved in Italian politics.

The book takes in the 1970’s and radicalism swarms around the characters. Who is Sandro and how does he reconcile his past with his cultivated image as a disinterested artist? In the midst of untrustworthy characters, Reno navigates as best she can. Something will burn in this novel. The question is, what?

Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless BrooklynJonathan Lethem‘s, Motherless Brooklyn, is a novel full of obsessions and constrictions. The narrator, Lionel Essrog, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, which goes undiagnosed until his teenage years in an orphanage. Language and movement are rituals for Lionel. He has tics that recur, names that haunt him of people he’s never met. There’s an urge, an almost impossible desire to touch shoulders, to straighten objects, to find order that exists momentarily for Lionel. Not only is Lionel hemmed in by Tourette’s, but also by his upbringing and the city.

The novel mainly takes place in Brooklyn with forays into other parts of New York City. For Lionel, his world exists within these confines. Caught between his place in the city, or his fear to venture outside of the city, and his paternal love for his employer, Frank Minna, place and relationships overlap with his Tourette’s. What can Lionel control? That question runs throughout the novel as he seeks a killer and tries to unravel the mystery of how Frank Minna died.

Frank Minna is the sun around which a cast of characters, including Lionel, revolve. A small-time crook in Brooklyn, he co-opts Lionel and three other orphans at the age of fourteen to provide manual labor for low-risk, illegal jobs. That word, co-opt, fits far better than adopt. Frank is not a parent. He fills a need for the boys, but also manipulates and uses them. Frank is a role model for them, but what are they learning? How to be a crook? How to feign love? How to move through the world as if different rules apply to you? The boys become young men and work for Frank under the guise of detectives and chauffeurs. With the novel settled into Lionel’s point-of-view, we see the world as Lionel would like it to be.

But what happens to that world when Frank Minna is no longer part of it? Early on, Frank is killed. With the absence of Frank in Lionel’s life, Lionel is also pursuing the question of who he is without Frank, as well as Frank’s killer.

Playful and moody, Motherless Brooklyn is a fast-paced read that will have you murmuring eatmeBailey, while words rhyme in your head.

The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man by Marshall McLuhan

The Gutenberg GalaxyMarshall McLuhan’s book guided me back to the path of media studies, which I hadn’t even realized I’d been on. Between his book and The Information, I went back to my Information Sciences degree and in particular, a course called, Information Theory. It was like something triggered and I remembered why we were housed in the School of Communication. Anyways, The Gutenberg Galaxy is an intriguing mosaic of the effects of the printing press and language. At times, the book moves from point to point with little connection. McLuhan seems to be in a conversation with himself and it’s the job of the reader to keep up.

My lasting impression of this book is that there are ideas of value here, but they aren’t always communicated well, or they are stuck between sections full of obscure references which drag the reader down.

Debates in Digital Humanities

Debates in Digital HumanitiesLet me begin by saying this will be a disappointing book review. Not because the book is disappointing, but because, you, as a savvy reader, will be disappointed by the time and lack of depth I spend reviewing this book. Enough, let the letdown begin.

Debates in Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, is a good introduction for those wanting to learn more about the field; however, it feels like there is a lack of cohesion in the volume. I used this book in my introduction to digital humanities course and we read the following essays:

I do recommend reading this online versus in print, because of the way passages can be flagged. In an essay that may be dull, the flags provide a visible sign to the reader that this part may be interesting. Or, at least, other people found it interesting. And though the book feels disjointed at times, the best way to approach it is through a hopscotch-like pattern, jump to the section that are useful and leave the others behind.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

The Information: A History, A Theory, A FloodLook around you. See the computer or mobile device before your eyes. Now, step back in time. Imagine the 1980’s, visualize a place without the Internet or mobile devices. Can you see it? Great. Magazines, newspapers, fax machines. They’re all there. Now, go further back. Forget about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. In the history of computers, they’re no Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, Charles Babbage, nor Ada Lovelace. But, don’t get hung up on computers. Think of their function as pieces of communication technology. Envision the sweeping changes caused by the telephone and before it, the telegraph. Imagine information that travels no faster than a horse. How quiet, how large, how mysterious the world must have seemed? However, we’re not quite there. The printing press, the written word, spoken language to text, spoken language translated to drum beats. A time when language was more free-form. Can you see it?

If not, don’t worry. In The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, James Gleick unfolds this history of human communication. The writing is clear and engaging. Gleick starts with African drums and how they were used to communicate across distance. One drummer pounding out a message, while another passes it along. The sounds filled the night air as messages were transmitted. It’s a fascinating book with appeal to those interested in technology, computers, or math. This semester, I used the book in an introductory digital humanities course. It provided a great reference point for the course and helped make the connection between technology and human experience.

Overall, I highly recommend the book. I learned a lot from it, but best of all, I enjoyed reading it.

Review: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

raising steamTerry Pratchett‘s latest Discworld novel, Raising Steam, feels like the 40th book in the series. By now the pattern is set. Pratchett picks something to satirize and away we go to Discworld to watch it play out. In this case, it’s technology, specifically trains. And, that’s fine. It’s expected. It’s like eating breakfast at your favorite cafe, because you know the pancakes will be just fluffy enough, the bacon will be crisp, and the coffee cup is never empty. But, after writing forty novels in this series it seems like Pratchett is afraid to take any risks.

The first Discworld novel I read was Thief of Time. In that novel it felt like there was a real threat. There were consequences. In Raising Steam, the plot feels like a manufactured crisis. The reader knows nothing bad will happen to Moist von Lipwig. The crisis with the dwarves is both a play at extremists and luddites, but it’s also flimsy. Is it the writing? Is it’s Pratchett’s love for his world? Part of it stems from the depictions of Moist von Lipwig as always coming out on top. If that’s been established, then we know nothing is at risk.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel for letting me visit Discworld again; however, the magic wasn’t there. It was predictable and the humor came across as a loud noise in an empty room. Have we heard the jokes before? Or is a satire with nothing to risk just not that funny?

Review: At Night We Walk In Circles by Daniel Alarcón

The structure of a novel serves the narrative. If the structure doesn’t make sense for the story being told, then it doesn’t achieve its purpose. In Daniel Alarcón’s novel At Night We Walk In Circles, the structure is that of interviews and scenes that read like third-person omniscient. It’s a strange effect as the narrator remains out of frame for most of the novel. He’s nameless. His connection to the other characters is uncertain. The knowledge he has to tell the story seems too great. But, it works. The reason it works is that the amount of information he gathers from the characters and from their writings creates a framework for him to become such a powerful narrator. How can he describe their thoughts after an event? He can turn to that page in their journal, read it, and weave it into the larger story.

The narrator, through pursuing the story and discovering how events led to a moment where his life intersected with the other characters, creates a sense of mystery that propels the story forward. Who is he? Why is he telling the story? The answers will come and they’re worth the wait.

In some ways, At Night We Walk In Circles reminds me of Roberto Bolaño’s, The Savage Detectives. Both novels use diaries and interviews to tell the narrative. Characters speak to an unknown narrator and a sense of mystery surrounds the narrative as the truth, or some version of it, is uncovered. Both novels revolves around writers and artists who inhabit the edges of society.

The premise of Alarcón’s novel is that a radical troop of actors reunites to celebrate the performance of their play, The Idiot President, for which the writer, director, and actor was imprisoned by the government. In this re-casting of the play, a young actor who worshipped the writer is chosen to act in the play and travel the country with the other two actors. What follows is a sense of losing one’s way, an understanding of love and imprisonment, and a question of chance and fate. Though perhaps fate is too strong a word. Instead, it may be a question of what outcomes become inevitable as people make choices? As the young actor follows in the steps of his hero, he becomes both the memory which haunts the hero, as well as the hero himself.

At Night We Walk In Circles is an enjoyable novel that transports its reader deep in the Andean mountains, moving into thinner air, higher altitudes and leaving the reader moments to pause in delight at the vista below.