Thursday, October 1, 2015

September 2015 Book Reviews

The Speechwriter:  A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim.  This book had me laughing out loud on the train for several days.  Swaim was the speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina who disappeared a few years ago claiming to be hiking on the Appalachian trail, only to have ended up in Brazil with his mistress.  He became infamous for this, as well as the bizarre non-apologetic apology press conferences he held once caught, and then went on to run for and win a SC State Representative contest.  The man has problems, and the mistress was the least of it.  He was a crazy dictator to work for, and Swaim’s descriptions of trying to guess what he wanted in his speeches, and to guess what was making him unhappy with the speeches, are truly funny.  Sanford treats all his employees (all young, because he refused to pay real salaries) as non-entities; he seemed to know nothing about any of them on a personal level.  There’s a hilarious scene where Swaim is riding in a car with him, and Sanford keeps tossing discarded items in his face from the front seat – not out of animosity, in particular, but just because once he was done talking to Swaim about an upcoming speech, it was as if Swaim was no longer there.  I enjoyed this book very much until perhaps the last chapter, in which Swaim tries to justify why he worked for Sanford pre-crisis.  At the end of a book in which Sanford is rightly portrayed as a buffoon (not necessarily a stupid buffoon, but his intelligence makes his buffoonery all the more inexcusable), Swaim tries to claim Sanford as a righteous pragmatist who was right about most issues – and fails in his justification for remaining beholden to such a horrible boss.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  This book is a gem:  all the fuss it’s been getting for the past year is deserved.  It is about two teenagers, Werner Pfenig, and Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose lives intersect for a few hours in occupied St. Malo during WWII.  It becomes clear early on that their fates are intertwined, but the majority of the novel is getting the two from childhood to that point.  Werner is an orphan and a kind of radio/engineer prodigy, whose talents get claimed by the third reich.  Marie-Laure is blind with a father who works as a locksmith in the “key pound” of a museum in Paris.  When the Germans invade France, he is sent out of the city with a valuable diamond – or a replica of it – to keep safe.  The diamond has a history of saving its owner while cursing all who are close to its owner.  The story moves steadily on, and most of it is utterly delightful.  Doerr is very talented at striking the right pace and providing the exact right amount of detail.  It’s charming without being twee, and disturbing without being wretched.  It’s an excellent novel.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  I did not like this book at all: it was a slog to read.  It’s about a young twentysomething, Clay, who gets a job in a very strange bookstore in San Francisco.  Most of the books available there are not for sale, and are for the exclusive use of a kind of secret brotherhood dedicated to uncoding the 16th century tome of Manutius, a man who allegedly discovered the key to immortality.  Sloan aims for whimsical and slightly grown-up Harry Potter-dom, but his writing is dreadful (at one point the two characters “crack open” a piece of falafel, and at another point, when Clay is trying to disguise a new book for an old one, he realizes the new one isn’t dusty, so picks up some dust from the shelf and “sprinkles” it on to the new book.  With his fingers.  Does dust sprinkle?!), he’s often sexist, and the whole google connection was tiresome (because he is twentysomething, and because he has a crush on a google exec, Clay uses the google super-computers to try to solve the code).  The book got a lot of really good reviews, which amaze me.  Although there are elements of the story that were interesting, the book was dreadful from start to finish.  Seriously.  Don’t read this.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen.  I’ve been a big fan of Franzen’s novels since Strong Motion in 1992, and think he is a one of the best writers out there today.  He can write about anything and make it interesting, and this skill of his is still going strong.  I didn’t, however, think Purity was a great book, as a whole, although I did enjoy reading it.  I’ll begin with the problems, which are that a lot of it seemed exercise-y to me and without the urgency that a truly superb novel contains all throughout.  That is, I feel like he mapped out the novel and then would sit down to write the backstory of this character, and then write the story of that character, and then fit them together.  I was happy each night to read this backstory, but there was a missing element somewhere.  The parts all fit into the whole, but for me they didn’t really come together, beyond how they fit into the plot.  Alchemy was missing.  He did a good job with the main character, Pip Tyler, who is quirky and smart and haphazard and always does the unexpected.  His portrayal of Anabel, however, was unsettling, and not in the way that it was meant.  He definitely is “mean” to Anabel, and almost makes her a caricature because of emphasizing her horrible faults, yet at the same time he forgives Tom for joining in with Anabel for so long.  A woman character is certainly allowed to be horrible, but there was something in the way he created her which made me uncomfortable, and uncomfortable at Franzen’s expense, not mine as a reader.  In general, his writing is so relaxed and interesting and smart, though, and I was happy to follow along and see where the book would take me next. 

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny.  This is Penny’s 13th Chief Inspector Gamache mystery, and I had originally planned not to read it.  I mostly enjoyed the first twelve, but almost all of the books take place in the same small town of Three Pines in between Quebec and the border, and with the same cast of characters, and it seemed to me to be mostly played out.  But then I saw some good reviews and was feeling warm and fuzzy towards the books and decided I would Continue.  And it IS a fairly good mystery, although I also think my original instincts were correct – that I’m done with the series.  One of the problems I’ve had with all of the books is that I feel like Penny likes her characters a little more than the reader can – especially Armand Gamache.  He’s smart and interesting and flawed, but at some point his portrayal becomes a kind of hero worship or crush, and it gets to be too much.  Yes, we know, he loves his wife!  He likes poetry and good food at the bistro!  He’s smarter than his enemies give him credit for being!  At least there is not a lot of Clara in this book, a character who only ever is mentioned as being messy to the point of always having food in her hair.  Yes, in her hair.  Because it is so hard to not spill food in one’s hair and then leave it there, sigh.  Anyway, this mystery begins when a young boy is killed and a huge missile launcher is discovered – both in Three Pines.  Gamache, who now lives there and is retired, still joins in with his former subordinates to help solve the case.  It has a faster pace than some of her books, and doesn’t rely as much on the inside characters, so in that sense it is a success.  And if you enjoy her mysteries, this one is a good one.  I think it is time, however, to move on.

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