Friday, May 1, 2015

Book Reviews April 2015

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins.  There is a lot of buzz about this book being a good read, the kind that is hard to put down:  and that is true.  It’s not the most exquisitely crafted or well-written story, but one does get swept up in the plot, which moves along quickly and suspensefully.  Basically, the narrator takes the train into and out of London each day, and she pays particular attention to a house and yard near where she used to live.  One day she notices something that leads her to report the situation to the police.  The narrator herself, however, is an alcoholic who experiences frequent black-outs after which she can’t remember what she has done.  We quickly see her as an unreliable narrator – as do the police see her as an unreliable witness – but in her zest to fill in her own blank spaces, she stumbles on to many a twist and clue.  It’s enjoyable, if a bit frothy, and a good book for a plane ride, say.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.  This book was on many “best of 2014” lists, which is how it made its way onto my kindle.  It is a (very short – it takes about an hour to read) rendering of a trouble arising in a marriage, and is told from the wife’s point of view via quotations and bits and pieces, rather than a linear story.  It reminded me of the writing of Lydia Davis, only not as avant garde.  I liked it, but I wasn’t as impressed as I expected to be.  It’s very atmospheric and moving, although I ended up not being very invested in the main character’s happiness, as I think I needed to be to love the book.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.  This is the first book in a science fiction trilogy that got really good reviews last year.  All three parts were published in 2014.  Science fiction isn’t a genre I know much about, so this review will be a little out of context.  Basically when the story begins a female biologist (known as The Biologist) sets out with three other women (the Psychologist, the Anthropologist, and the Surveyor) to explore Area X, a part of the Florida coast which thirty years ago was invaded by something alien (perhaps – no one really knows what is going on), and thus closed off to the public, who were told that some environmental catastrophe had occurred.  The powers that be keep half-heartedly sending in expeditions to try to learn more about what is happening.  The biologist is part of the 12th expedition, but doesn’t know much about any of the previous expeditions (except that her husband, who was on the 11th, came back a shell of himself and then died of cancer).  The focus of the book is very narrow – the context I just explained was revealed very slowly throughout the whole book, and I often got impatient to know more about what was going on.  The majority of the action takes place in an underground tower – kind of like a reverse lighthouse – which the expedition members explore with much dread.  There are words written on the inside wall of this tower in some kind of moss/lichen, which soon infects the biologist.  And we spend A LOT of time walking down the tower with someone or other, and then running back up, although it’s a bit of a better book than I am making it out to be.  I’m waiting to see what happens in the second book, Authority.

Girl In The Band by Kim Gordon.  This is a memoir of Kim Gordon, one of the founding members of the band, Sonic Youth.  She writes a bit of her childhood and how she became interested in art and music, and then maps out what led her to move from LA to NYC, and her jobs leading up to the formation of Sonic Youth.  From that point on, she writes more of the back story of their various albums and tours, and also goes into detail about her many side projects, both musical, design, and art; and of course, she also writes about the end of her marriage to Thurston Moore, the other founding member of Sonic Youth.  It’s a good book – she’s not a writer, per se, but she does a good job of conveying how she lives her art and why, and also how she tried to balance her art and music and family life.  She comes across as being very direct and even noble – she is not a game player.  The book reminded me a lot of Patti Smith’s book, Just Kids, for the obvious reason of both being memoirs written by female musicians who were trailblazers, but also because of the intersection between art and music that both women insisted upon.  I enjoyed it.

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer.  This is the second book of the “Southern Reach” trilogy and I liked it very much.  The Southern Reach is the government bureaucracy that is in charge of “Area X”, the part of Florida that has been cut off from the rest of the country by something alien.  In this book, we follow John Rodriguez, otherwise known as Control, who has been made Director of the Southern Reach and is trying to figure out what is going on.  As he learns then so do we, so a lot of what is very vague in the first book gets flushed out a bit – although there is still much that we don’t know (and I have a feeling we won’t ever know).  John tries to piece together what has happened in all the expeditions, what we know, and what our theories are.  Meanwhile, there is some kind of transformation happening to the building itself, and to many of the people who work there.  It’s all very well done and I looked forward to reading it on the train each day.  On to book three!

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer.  I ended up really liking this trilogy.  I feared when I was halfway through the final book that there wasn’t going to be a tidy ending in which the reader becomes all-knowing – and that fear came true.  But it was all so well-orchestrated, and one of the points, I think, is that what is happening to Area X, and even what Area X is, is greater than humans can understand at this point.  So basically I was fine being one of those dumb humans.  Anyway, the whole of book three takes place in Area X, and we go back and forth from Control’s point of view, to the copy of the Biologist’s point of view, to the Director’s point of view.  I don’t want to give anything away for those who might want to read the trilogy, and I do recommend it!  VanderMeer fills a lot of the background in here, and he does a really good job of first creating this otherworldly event, and then letting his characters spiral around it, pursuing different aspects and affected differently by the traits of what is going on.  The first book was the weakest – it remained a little too vague for my tastes – but the second or third were very good and his writing excellent on the whole. 

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith.  I had read on a blog that this book was a good read, and I did find the story compelling, in that it made me want to discover what happened next.  The writing was pretty rudimentary at best, though.  The whole first three-fourths of the book were set up in tiny little chapters that ended in “suspense” practically midsentence and then picked up right where it left off on the next page.  So why stop in the first place?  Why did an editor not fix that?  Especially because the next chapter would always begin with the exact same scene with the same person speaking.  It really chopped up the book in a negative way.  My other frustration with the book is almost the whole story or plot is one person telling another person what happened – it was all very “first writing attempt” to me (which was why I was very surprised when I looked the author up afterwards and discovered he wrote a trilogy which was nominated for the Booker award.)  Anyway, the gist of this novel is that a man, Daniel, who lives in London hears from his parents who have retired to Sweden, and his father tells him his mother has had some kind of nervous breakdown and is making wild accusations.  He then hears from his mother that she is on her way to London.  He meets with his mother, who insists that they go to a secret location, and listens as she tells her somewhat paranoid-seeming tale of what has been happening in their remote town in Sweden for the past year:  a conspiracy and cover up and murder.  Daniel doesn’t know what to believe, and decides to verify a few points on his own in the last quarter of the book.  Daniel, too, has been keeping that he is gay from his parents, a fact which Smith uses in ways that seem very outdated to me.  So on the whole I was underwhelmed. 

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt.  Donna Tartt is wonderful!  Truly a treasure.  I read The Secret History when it came out in the late eighties/early nineties and just liked it (although now I think I should go back and re-read), and missed this book, her second, when it came out ten years later.  Then of course I read The Goldfinch last year and found it an excellent read, so decided I should hunt down the mysterious second novel, and am very glad I did.  It’s an odd, atmospheric, original novel that is not what it at first seems.  The plot on the surface is that a 9 year-old boy is killed in a small town in Mississippi and 12 years later his sister, who was an infant at the time of the murder, decides to figure out who did it.  Harriet is our  narrator, and she is a gem:  a smart, untrusting, bold, child who receives very little parenting from her mentally ill mother and four elderly great aunts.  It thus seems like it is going to be a mystery of sorts, but the novel is 625 pages long, and takes place over a time period of only a few weeks.  Harriet wanders around the town in the heat of the summer with her sidekick friend, Hely, and tries to unravel the events of twelve years hence, while getting sidetracked from the very beginning.  It is a very slow-paced and leisurely book, and I think that is Tartt’s talent – to stitch together a whole piece by piece, until you find yourself in the middle of it with no desire to escape.  The ending was a little abrupt for my tastes, but it is a very good book.


Judith A. Ross said...

Of all the blogs I follow, your book reviews are among my favorite posts. It is almost as though we are still sharing an office and discussing books on our lunch breaks (because of course we never, ever discussed them when we should have been working !)

I also enjoyed Girl in a Band, even though I was not familiar with Sonic Youth when I started it. Part of what I enjoyed is that she is of my generation, so it was interesting to read about another path taken. Also fascinating was how she maneuvered as a woman in that largely male environment. And, according to my son, a New York musician, that is still mostly the case.

I also remember reading and discussing The Secret History with you back in the early 1990s and I, too, enjoyed The Goldfinch, so I'll be checking out the Little Friend as well.

Thanks for all of your fabulous recommendations. It does amaze me that with a job and a small child running around that you are able to read, remember what you read and then write about it. Keep 'em coming!

Elizabeth said...

Thanks, Judith! What a nice comment! It was actually Sean's idea for me to write book reviews on my blog, and I admit that at first I scoffed. But I am finding it quite fun. And useful, especially since a few days (or even minutes) after I complete a book these days, I can remember that I liked or disliked it, but can't remember why. At least now I can go back and check. It also helps that I can read on my commute to and from work. That ends up being 90 minutes per day of reading time.... But I am very glad you are enjoying them!