It's difficult sometimes to separate the quality of a book from the subject of the story. Grandma Gatewood's Walk is a wonderful book, but largely because of the merits of its subject: Emma Gatewood, who, starting at the age of 67, hiked the entire length of the Appalachia Trail thrice, as well as the Oregon Trail. Gatewood, affectionately dubbed Grandma Gatewood, was such an inspiring individual, and her story is one that I doubt many born since the 1960s are familiar with.
Like many works of non-fiction, Grandma Gatewood's Walk suffers from repetition. There doesn't seem to have been enough worthwhile material to complete a full book-length work, so some of the story has been stretched to cover the holes. And while the writing is competent and clear, this is far from the most brilliant or enlightening book. But it all goes back to the subject of Emma Gatewood, and Ben Montgomery does a stand-up job presenting her as a very interesting and inspiring person. Montgomery makes this book all about her, and in that regard, he succeeds.
Need another podcast that talks books? Check out The Bookmark. This week we talk non-fiction with Megan.
I don't like being a complainer, but I'm finding it increasingly annoying to add new books to booklikes just about anytime I read anything published in the last year. I'm sure I'm not alone. I'm tempted to stop posting anything that requires me to add a new book. Surely, this must be a huge critique of potential users trying out the site for the first time, so why is this an issue?
Anyone know if there's been any more talk about this? Is there an end in sight?
My feelings about the second book in the Timmy Failure series largely mirrors the first. In Mistakes Were Made, quite a bit of the book's first half is familiarizing the reader with the characters and their story. The narrative of the second half sort of rushes through things, yet has some of the story's funniest moments. In Now Look What You've DoneStephan Pastis doesn't take nearly as much time setting the stage. The result is that the jokes start right from the beginning, and these moments are Timmy's best in the novel. Once the larger story is established, it actually begins to drag quite a bit. There's a balance in there somewhere that I imagine will be found in one of the subsequent books in the series.
I shall press on as I want to see what other hijinks Pastis can invent, and I'm most curious what will happen with Molly Moskins.
Despite the way she's portrayed, Molly's actually quite endearing. Molly, if you're reading this, please listen: If Timmy doesn't ever catch on, know that I do. I love the smell of tangerines and I think symmetry is vastly overrated. You will always have a special place in my heart. -CB
In the 1920s, two aspiring writers roomed together while students at Stanford University. The first was an emigrant of Finland named Carl Wilhelmson. He sent out his first novel, Midsummernight, and had quick success finding a publisher. He might have written more books—evidence shows he did—but as the author and his work have nearly disappeared from all record, it's difficult to find proof. Today, no one seems to know of Wilhelmson. The second young writer didn't have the same success with his first novel, The Green Lady. He struggled with writing it and had no luck when sending it out, so he moved onto a second manuscript, which was published. It was a poorly received adventure tale about the pirate Henry Morgan. The writer himself hated the book. After years of starts and stops, he was eventually able to publish what had been his first novel, after many harsh rewrites. It was given a new title:To a God Unknown. The writer's name was John Steinbeck.
I learned about Wilhelmson from the massive Steinbeck biography by Jackson J. Benson, simply called John Steinbeck, Writer. I was curious. Who was this writer who found success where Steinbeck couldn't? And why has this one novel practically been lost to the world? I set out to find a copy of Midsummernight. I also did a little research on Carl Wilhelmson. Unfortunately, I was unable to learn much. In fact, I wasn’t able to find a single review anywhere online. (I had to manually enter the book on Goodreads myself.) If this book wasn’t sitting right in front of me at this very moment, I’d find it hard to believe it existed. Here’s a thought: I may be the first person to read this novel in ten… twenty years. Possibly even longer. Certainly, it hasn’t had very many readers in the last half century. There is a relatively small list of libraries worldwide, mostly university libraries, that still own this book. And that thought frightens me a little: a fine book, mass produced, can disappear in less than a century. I'm sure it has happened to many works, but none that I have been so close to.
I was able to find a brief description for the novel:
A mystical romance novel set in Finland, Midsummernight is the story of a boy who runs away from home at the age of ten, serves in the Russian navy, and lives the life of a sailor on the Seven Seas in many ships, and in many lands.
This description is absolutely terrible. Yes, our protagonist, Otto, does have a history of exploring the world aboard many seafaring vessels. But this is all part of the backstory that's covered in a single chapter toward the beginning of the book; it is not the actual plot of this novel.
So what is the story? Midsummernight is about Otto's return to Finland after this period at sea. Presumed by the members of his village to have died, Otto returns to his homeland with intentions to keep his visit brief—he wants to return to the fast-paced, bright world he has become accustomed to. Although Otto has been, in many regards, replaced and mostly forgotten, the village welcomes him back and Otto begins to acclimate to the people and the customs of his childhood. Despite the promise of adventure, the bulk of Midsummernight is actually a love story. Upon his return, Otto falls madly in love with a girl named Aino. But Aino has already been promised to another. It's a story we're all familiar with, but it's orchestrated well here, particularly in the first half. As the story proceeds, Otto's infatuation takes a turn for the worse, and the relationship begins to bear some similarity to that of Heathcliff and Catherine (Wuthering Heights). Though Otto is not as vindictive as Heathcliff and Aino is nowhere near as manipulative as Catherine, this increasingly toxic relationship sours what had been an endearing story about a doomed romance. Otto becomes so petty and argumentative that he alone brought this novel down from five stars. It's not that I cannot accept a character who behaves in such a manner in my fiction, but there's a point where, as a reader, you're so annoyed that you just wish you could strike them from the page.
One thing I did not expect from this novel—not that I really had any expectations whatsoever—was the exploration of magic. There is a question throughout of Otto's ties to the traditions of his homeland and how it wars with the influence of the larger, more modern world. This is echoed in the so-called advancements of the village. While the village as a whole still holds firm to many of the Finnish traditions, a large part has also embraced Christianity, forsaking the traditional beliefs. There still remains a remnant who practices these folklores involving healing and wizardry. Though it's not a prominent theme, the belief in magic does factor in on multiple occasions. There's even a layer of magic for good intentions versus magic for bad.
Written decades after the so-called end of Romanticism, Midsummernight draws heavily from the style. A tortured love affair. A regard for the traditional. An exploration of the supernatural. And yet, Carl Wilhelmson seemed to be asking, what happens when these elements meet the modernity of the subsequent literary movement. Perhaps there was just too much of the romantic in Wilhelmson's novel, and it was just too much, far too late. Readers had moved onto the glitter of Gatsby, the straight-forwardness of Hemingway, the consciousness of Woolf. Maybe this is why Midsummernight has died a very slow death, misplaced in the damp halls of some retirement facility for forgotten works of literature. And yet evidence exists that Midsummernight was not an only child. According a letter Steinbeck wrote to a fellow former classmate, “Carl has finished two [novels] and is about a third through his third.” In a separate letter written later, Steinbeck wrote “Carl Wilhelmson’s Wizard’s Farm is being published by Rinehart and Farrar this summer.” (I found no other mention of this work, though a short story entitled “Wizard's Waterloo” was published in a couple magazines around this time.) The last correspondence from Steinbeck to Wilhelmson was written in 1946 and mentions the latter's desire to “get to work.”
What happened to Carl Wilhelmson? Surely, someone out there has the answer. Census records from the 1930s show a Carl Wilhelmson, born in 1889, living in San Francisco. His occupation is listed as a writer of fiction. Probably this is our Wilhelmson, but the same person does not appear in the 1940 census record, even though we can assume he was still living as of 1946. One might assume that Wilhelmson even lived well into the 1970s or 80s. Maybe someone still living knew the guy. Clearly, I want to know more. I haven't given up my search.
So now a review exists for this novel. I can't say it's a particularly good one, but I can say with some confidence that at the time I posted it, it was the best online review that existed for this novel. Hopefully, others will follow. And hopefully I've played a small part in keeping this writer from being entirely forgotten. So much toil goes into writing a book, and all most of us can hope for is an escape from obscurity. Let's not forget Carl Wilhelmson, author of Midsummernight.
[Epic movie trailer voice] Once there was a world. A world where great lands divided the seas. A world where one could live and die without ever having seen the ocean.
That world is gone. Humanity waged war on the oceans... and it lost.
In a last ditch effort to save what precious little they have left, an entire nation has constructed a wall. A wall that keeps desperate marauders out. A wall that keeps a nation in.
Before Waterworld, there was... The Wall.
This film is not yet rated.
In this prequel to the 1995 film Waterworld, the water is rising, land masses are shrinking, and a technologically advanced island nation has built a wall. If only a big giant wall meant to keep outsiders on the outside had some real-world application. Really, you can quickly forget the connection between this book and Trump's wall. What you cannot unsee is the birth of Waterworld.
My biggest complaint about this book is simply that a well-meaning, relevant agenda does not make up for a story that is not compelling. The plot is thin—there's the part of the book on the wall; then there's the part off on the wall. The world-building lacks originality—it's 50% of our modern world; 50% of a post-apocalyptic water world; with the addition of a wall. And the characters do absolutely nothing to make me care.
I'm beginning to wonder why I gave this novel three stars. Maybe because I'm very reserved with one and two star ratings. A book has to be terrible to receive either from me, and though The Wall bordered this territory, I can say it had some redeeming qualities. Like that scene with the pirates—that was riveting and heartbreaking. What else? There was that concrete poem:
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
concrete concrete concrete concrete concrete
I liked that part. And there was the pirate scene.
Hopefully my feelings regarding Waterworld have not been construed by my tongue-in-cheek approach to The Wall. I'm that one guy who has found memories of the box office flop. I was also fifteen or sixteen when I saw it. Maybe if I'd read The Wall when I was that age, I'd have found it profound and thrilling.
Every Booker Prize long list has its one or two books that makes you wonder, “Why on earth was that selected?” We readers don't always agree on what those books are, but there's often some consensus. This is only the second book from this year's long list I've read so far, and I truly hope that after I finish the remaining eleven, I can say this was the worst of the lot.
News of the World is a story about the way two very different people can change one another. It's a simple story—in fact, an old and familiar one—about a young girl who was captured by a Native American tribe and now is being forced to return to her old life. There's nothing new or surprising about this story, but it is told with such care and attention to details that the too familiar story has been given a fresh coat of paint.
The best part of this story is perhaps the details of Captain Kidd, a very old man who travels the country reading newspapers at public gatherings. It's such a fun idea for a character, giving readers a unique view of the time and steering far from the expected chaperone—an army general or a sheriff.
I'm a little surprised that this book was a National Book Award finalist. It's good. It's entertaining. But it never struck me as something particularly special. It's definitely one I would recommend to anyone looking for a fairly light, historical novel.
What is propaganda? I'd define propaganda as the dispersal of information that lacks objectivity in order to push an agenda. Modern society adds a negative connotation to the word: propaganda is the work of a sinister force—but this isn't the case. One can place the propaganda label on something they themselves support. The Overstory is propaganda, and though I love trees and agree with many of the sentiments expressed in this novel, such blatant eco-grandstanding has no place in my fiction.
As a novel, The Overstory is most impressive at the beginning. It is then when the stories are disparate, and yes, this means it feels more like a collection of short stories, but they were really good short stories. When I think back on this 500-page behemoth, it is these stories that I easily recall. These stories show a pivotal moment in each character's life, many at a young age, a moment that is genuine and often heart-wrenching. It is within these first hundred pages that I see Richard Powers' strengths as a writer. Here is where the seeds of a good story are planted. However, the story grows, and once the various threads begin to interact with one another, not only does the plot become tiresome, but the heavy-handedness of the theme weighs the story down. It becomes exaggeratedly sentimental. There are no strong opposing forces amongst our main characters. Everyone is willing to give their life for their friends shrouded in bark. There are no counter arguments worth any weight whatsoever. And that's called propaganda. The intentions are good, but the orchestration reeks of a not-so-hidden agenda.
It's all just a bit too much. No, it's more than a bit. It's overwrought. If The Overstory had ended as a collection of interconnected short stories, it would've been more delightful, conveyed its message more clearly, and saved a whole lot of trees in the process.
I'm sure the intended audience of Broken Places & Outer Spaces is fans of Nnedi Okorafor's fiction. Though Okorafor is one of many authors whose work I hope to get around to, I have yet to make that journey with her. So perhaps, by not being familiar with her work prior to reading this short volume, I have missed out on something I might have otherwise enjoyed. If only one could know these things ahead of time...
I decided to read Broken Places & Outer Spaces because I thought it would be an inspirational and eye-opening look at the creative process. I was looking for something to spark my own creativity. Unfortunately, Broken Places & Outer Spaces doesn't offer much in this regard. Instead, what it offers is a very honest and articulate look at Okorafor's struggles related to a surgery that left her paralyzed for some time, a paralysis that detoured her from the path she had chosen, to that of being a writer.
Okorafor's ordeal is written about with such painful candor and splendid prose. It's a very well-written account of this time in her life, and in that regard, the book succeeds. But as anything else, it falls flat. If other parts of Okorafor's life had been explored, or if she'd put as much heart and soul into her transformation as a writer, I think this book would've worked for me. It's a wonderful account of the loss and grief one experiences from a life-changing event, but it's only one chapter in the author's life and Broken Places & Outer Spaces feels like only one long chapter in a much bigger book.
I've a longstanding interest in Malcolm X. There were many aspects of his character that fascinate me. One is the transformation he made in the final year of his life—his second awakening, the birth of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. In these days, el-Shabazz embraced the idea that there were other factors that went into making one “a devil,” not merely one's ethnicity. His overnight change of heart opened up considerable possibilities, a movement with a more unified front. I always wondered where el-Shabazz would've taken us had he been given the chance. I imagine he'd have taught us a few things, even if most of us would've been unwilling to listen.
It may be presumptuous of me to make such a comparison, but I see a lot of el-Shabazz in Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi is a brilliant, open-minded scholar who, unlike many of his contemporaries, fesses up to a history of hatred. Too many well-intentioned people deny ever having (or being capable of) a racist thought; by acknowledging his own racist past, Kendi puts himself on equal footing with those he's trying to instruct in the ways of anti-racism. The approach makes all the difference. Guaranteed, some will read (or glance at) this book and see nothing but another black man who hates white people—these are the same people who knew this would be the case before even turning the cover. I imagine they're not the ones Kendi wrote this book for.
In his previous book, Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi tackled the history of racism from its relatively unknown beginning, presenting a thorough and scholarly exploration; in How to Be an Antiracist he breaks it down into a contemporary format, highlighting the complete spectrum of racial hatred, addressing the question of what it means to be truly anti-racist. By presenting his own personal story, Kendi puts his victimization and vulnerabilities in full view, a move that makes him infinitely more accessible to the reader. The result is a book that is incredibly inspiring.
How could a book about racism be inspiring? By being informative, hopeful, and prescriptive. By not hiding behind platitudes. By keeping the tone instructive, not reactive and not incensed. Kendi shows that he has a very strong grasp of the subject—and though readers may disagree with a point or two of his from time to time—no one is dissecting the issue quite as thoroughly, and certainly no one is presenting a means to dismantle the racist system one mind at a time, as Kendi strives to do here.
All the time, I read reviews where people say “everyone needs to read this.” We have our personal interests and biases—one man's treasured book is another's kindling. So take my recommendation for what it's worth: I believe that every open-minded individual, whether they blatantly embrace racist thought, hide behind “not racism,” or strive to be anti-racist, can benefit from reading How to Be an Antiracist. Maybe you won't be as touched by this book as I was. Maybe you won't underline nearly as many passages as I did (something I never do, by the way, emphasizing how much this book impacted me). But I do think most of us will get something worthwhile out of it.
Lanny is an intriguing, brilliantly constructed little novel. It starts off with a poeticism that really grabs the reader, pulls them into the pace of this village, the voices of the individuals as well as the hum of the hive. It's lyrical without pretentiousness. The imaginative range of the narrative is both ominous and magical.
As far as story, the first two-thirds of Lanny are wonderful. I was pulled into this village, and into the mind of the mythical creature known as Dead Papa Toothwort. The third part of the story lost me though, enough so I disappointingly felt the need to drop a star. I lost the thread of the story and the rhythm of its telling. Those with a more substantial attention span than I have may have a better appreciation for this section. I didn't follow.
Lanny is oh so comparable in subject and tone to several previous Booker Prize nominees. I don't know if that means it's more or less likely to receive a nod this July, but I won't be surprised if it's on the long list.
Detective stories are not, have never been, and never will be “my thing;” however, I don't want to grow stagnant as a reader, guilty of not trying to branch out from time to time. The Alienist came with high marks from many friends, so I thought it might be worth venturing into this uncomfortable territory. As my opinions on mysteries are probably not worth paying much attention to, I'm just going to quickly highlight what I liked and what I didn't.
What I liked:
1) Caleb Carr clearly put ample research into the period and the setting. The details are an impressive collection.
2) Carr introduces some wonderful characters who fall into some stereotypes, defy others, but never fail to be interesting.
3) The introduction of historical figures I was unfamiliar with (e.g., Jesse Pomeroy), forcing me to conduct some good old-fashioned research (i.e., Google).
4) When the plot moves, it's very fast paced.
5) It's more psychological and cerebral than I expected.
What I didn't like:
1) Well researched—yes, but painfully so. The story is bogged down by the inclusion of so many details.
2) Carr ignores the best characters for the majority of the novel. Though they're major players, the bulk of the second half of this novel focuses on Moore and Kreizler—fine characters, but lacking magic.
3) The shoehorning of historical figures (e.g.,Theodore Roosevelt) that I could've done without.
4) It's far too long. When the pacing slows, it really slows.
5) It's still a plot-based mystery and well... as we've established, that's “not my thing.”
At its best, The Alienist exceeded my expectations—and I must give it credit for that—but too often it was mediocre at best, largely the result of too much detail, too many pages, and not enough of knowing when to quit.
Raise your hand if you've heard of Percival Everett.
I imagine a few hands raise. Only a few. By no means is Everett a well-known or widely-read author. Why is this? We'll get to that shortly.
If you're one of the many not yet familiar with Everett, let me introduce you: Percival Everett is the award-winning author of more than thirty books. His first was published in 1983—his most recent 2017. Throughout his career, he's received dozens of honors for his work. What does Everett write about? Whatever he feels like—whatever has captured his attention. He's covered mythology and westerns on several occasions, with stops to explore poetry, baseball, and even philosophy as told by a four year old. The Washington Postlabeled him as “one of the most adventurously experimental of modern American novelists.”
So that's Percival Everett. Also, it's important to note for the sake of discussing Erasure that Everett is black.
Now let me introduce you to this phenomenal work of literature. The protagonist, Thelonious Ellison, is a brilliant and acclaimed author who is having trouble selling his most recent novel. There have been complaints from the publishers that Ellison's writing is not “black enough.” Ellison writes about a wide range of topics—one of his favorite subjects is mythology. Frustrated with the remarkable success of a novel titled We's Lives In Da Ghetto, Ellison scribbles an angry response, a parody that is thoroughly embraced by the literary world.
So why is Everett largely unknown? I think Erasure addresses that question. As a reader, I cannot say how much of this novel is truly biographical, but I don't think I'm completely off by drawing a comparison here. As an author of tremendous talent, Everett's frustration after twenty years of relative obscurity surely must parallel that of Thelonious Ellison. If only these authors would write something about what it means to be black, they'd find success.
In this one novel, Everett tackles the duplicity of the publishing industry. Though more authors of color are being published in recent years, there still exists some degree of expectation that these authors “stick to what they know,” even if it's not actually indicative of their experience. Erasure addresses this hypocrisy in a way that is both comical and heartbreaking in equal measures. It is a brilliant exploration of identity, a multi-layered look at what makes a person. Joining Ellison on this journey—a mother suffering from Alzheimer's, a brother discovering his sexuality, and a sister firmly committed to her pro-choice convictions.
Whatever the subject, Everett is an intelligent author with astounding insight and a knack for language. His work may not have achieved the status it deserves, but I believe that day will come. I know that I will be revisiting his work sooner than later.
Mistakes Were Made is not the sort of book I'd normally pay much attention to. I'm not a huge fan of children's lit and this one looked a bit too juvenile for me (not that I'm not very childish at heart). I picked up this novel for one reason: Tom McCarthy, genius behind such movie gems as The Station Agent, Win Win, and Up, is adapting the novel to film. McCarthy isn't a filmmaker who deals in adaptations, so I was intrigued with what this book was all about.
Frankly, I'm a bit surprised that McCarthy has taken on this project. It's quirky, which is right up McCarthy's alley, but it has a different tone than McCarthy's usual “quirky with heavy underlying dramatic weight.” But enough about a film that doesn't even exist yet.
This is a hilarious book. The humor is fresh and often unexpected—even though Timmy's lack of common sense is established early, the disconnect is so absurd and finely drawn that I laughed out loud every time he reached a conclusion. This is the kind of humor that can be understood by children and adults alike, but may at times be lost on some children.
The narrative was great and the plot worked fine for the style. I was very much engaged for the bulk of the story. At the point where the story begins to wrap, however, the plot sort of fizzled. The conclusion was very rushed and not all that entertaining. For a novel which spent so much time setting up the dynamics of the narrative and the setting, as well as introducing us to a myriad of wonderful characters, I guess there just wasn't enough room to build a satisfactory ending. Hopefully, now that the stage is set, the following books in the series provide a stronger story arc. (And, yes, I do plan on continuing this series.)
The Timmy Failure movie is schedule for release in 2020. I'm sure given McCarthy's handling, it'll be a fabulous movie—though one cannot forget (and maybe not forgive) The Cobbler.
Know when you're finished, and when you are, put your pencil or your paintbrush down.
- Stephen King Duma Key
I may not be your average Stephen King reader. I'm not enamored with the author, but I have thoroughly enjoyed some of his tales. Others have left me cold. The stories I tend to like are not the ones most of his readers go for—the only two I thought worthy of five stars were “The Body” and The Long Walk. Despite what some in the literati might say, King has some talent. He also writes to sell. That's a combination that can bring very mixed results.
Duma Key shows the author at his best and his worst. Well, maybe not his absolute best and worst—the complete, unedited version of The Stand did that. Duma Key shows the King who is a masterful storyteller and who can get in the mind of a broken man, as well as the King who has no internal editor (seemingly, no editor at all) and no understanding of how humans speak to one another.
The first two-thirds of this novel are not bad. The dialogue from Wireman is continually cringy, but otherwise, the tale of broken people finding a new life on an island in the Florida keys is satisfactory. Most of this novel is based on some version of reality. Sure, there's a little bit of strangeness, but it feels more like magic realism than King's signature paranormal horror. It works. It's not the author's most gripping or well-written tale by any means, but I think had it ended earlier, been given an ending where the magic had some beauty or relevance, I would've been happier.
Instead, King steers the final hundred-plus pages into the horror-filled paranormal. I know, it's Stephen King: it's to be expected. I just didn't think it worked for this book. It's in these pages that King loses any connection with reality. Suddenly, characters are able to pull the most outlandish conclusions from the sky. Terrible events occur that should emotionally destroy these characters, but they jump right up, quoting movies and attempting to outwit one another. Characters in a story should not act like characters in a story, unless we're talking metafiction (sadly, I somehow got the idea that this was King's foray into metafiction and I was disappointed with its exclusion). Finally, the “scary stuff” just wasn't all the interesting. For a Stephen King novel, that's damning.
I was excited to start Duma Key, but I must say I'm very disappointed in the end. There's just not much here in these 600 pages that made an impact. And yet, because I know King is so hit and miss, at least for me he is, I'll pull another one of his novels off the shelf in two or three years, and I'll find a sloppy narrative, some juvenile dialogue, and the possibility of a very engaging story.
This novel is as lyrical, engaging, and wonderfully charactered as you've heard. The epilogue is also as terrible as you've heard. (You have my permission to skip it.)
I have nothing to add, other than I would've loved to have seen more internal strife within the group and within the characters than we were provided after the initial set up. Some complacency is expected, but I thought this was a bit too relaxed.