Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: Snow Child

Author: Eowyn Ivey
Title: Snow Child
Description: After the stillbirth of their child, Jack and Mabel start over in Alaska, both grieving over destroyed dreams and the implacability of aging. One day, though, they build a child from snow, and the next day, a live child appears near their cabin. Afraid to push too hard, but desperate for someone to love, they slowly come to know Faina, the mysterious girl who leaves every year when the snow melts.
Review source: I won this book from FridayReads.
Plot: Mabel believes that Faina is supernatural; in her childhood she had a book of folklore that told the story of such a Snow Girl who would die if she became too warm. Jack finds out more about her background, but nothing explains why she disappears every year along with the snow.
Characters: Jack and Mabel are characters who the reader really believes in. The secondary characters (the neighbor family who befriend them) are also fine. Faina, though, is impossible to grasp—probably by design.
Writing style: Both Jack’s and Mable’s points of view are featured. Ivey is an Alaskan, and she does have a wonderful sense of place in this novel (though not one I could warm up to, ha ha).
Audience: Literary fiction. Those who like retellings of fairy tales should give it a try.

Wrap-up: This wasn’t a particularly captivating read for me, though I did want to know how it would turn it out. 3/5*

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review: Tortilla Curtain

Author: T. C. Boyle
Title: The Tortilla Curtain
Description: This book follows two families: a wealthy liberal dilettante who fancies himself an environmentalist, and a Mexican couple who came to the United States for the good life—or at least a better life than the one they had in Mexico. The book opens with a violent encounter: the liberal hits the immigrant with his (very nice) car. The human impact on the environment in Southern California is a central theme in this book; both the wealthy suburbanites who try to create a pristine enclave in the desert and the desperately poor immigrants who live off the land because they have to have a marked influence, both on the land and on one another.
Review source: Thanks, Penguin.
Plot: There really isn’t a plot so much as a problem (enunciated in the description). Two conflicting ways of life collide; how will that affect each of the families who are just trying to get by?
Characters: The Mexicans, Candido and America, are especially sympathetic characters. It’s so easy to understand how they want a better life and are willing to do almost anything to jump through the hoops they need to – but how do you even figure out what to do, when the instructions are in a foreign language? Delaney, the wealthy liberal, thinks he wants to help (the environment, the immigrants), until it makes him a little uncomfortable, when he quickly retreats to isolationist conservatism.
Writing style: Spare and emotionally wrenching.
Audience: Social commentary/literary fiction.

Wrap-up: This kind of book is tough to read; no one wants to be confronted by so many tough truths, and Boyle recognizes that there aren’t easy answers. 3.5/5*

Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: Bonfire of the Vanities

Author: Tom Wolfe
Title: Bonfire of the Vanities

Description: The iconic novel of the 80’s. Bonds trader Sherman McCoy is involved in a crime committed at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong person. Early on, he is confident that his wealth can insulate him, but his world begins to lurch out of control as the novel follows Sherman, the police investigators, the lawyers, the reporters, and various others as the case plays out.  
Review Source: Another one of EW’s most influential books on the list I’m reading through.
Plot: Mostly this book is about Sherman McCoy. Is he a Master of the Universe? Or is he just a two-bit criminal? Maybe something in between.
Characters: No one here is innocent; everyone is complicit, and the more we learn about them, the slimier they grow.
Writing style: Wolfe loves to play with peoples’ accents. No reader of this book will ever forget the way Sherman’s bimbo calls him “Shuhman.” This was his first fiction, after having been very successful with non-fiction, and he still writes like a journalist. It’s easy to imagine him witnessing all of these conversations.
Audience: This is literary fiction. Those who enjoy Wolfe’s non-fiction and similar titles would probably also find it worth reading.

Wrap-up: I did not find this a fun read, but it held my interest. 3/5*

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: Letters and Life

Author: Bret Lott

Title: Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian
Description: Lott is one of the more respected Christian writers active today; this book is a collection of his essays on the Christian writer’s life.
Writing style:  In one way, he’s very down-to-earth; he teaches Sunday School and mostly goes to work every day. In another way, though, he’s different from us—not too many have been chosen by Oprah for her club. I do like the down to earth parts.
Audience: Anyone interested in Christianity and writing, or even in being a Christian thinker.
Major ideas: I’ve latched on to Lott’s idea of testimony as a framework for the writing life since the first time I heard him speak (at Calvin’s Festival of Faith andWriting several years ago). Here he elaborates on that.

Wrap-up: This is a small book, and nearly half of it is a long essay about the death of Lott’s father, which I could have done without (or at least he could have shortened it). I am sure it was necessary for him to write, but it didn’t do anything for me. The essays about the writer’s life, though, are completely worth the price of the book. 4/5*

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: Money

Author: Martin Amis
Title: Money
Source: It's on the EW list of most influential books.
Description: Ad exec John Self has landed a huge movie deal, making a huge movie with some odd people from the movie industry. Meanwhile, his love life is floundering, as he can’t quite give his girlfriend what she needs from him. He’s also nearly always drunk.
Plot: I pretty much described the plot above; Self is trying to get this movie made and keep his personal life together.
Characters: Well, the author himself is a key character here (known in the book as “Martin Amis”). No one in this book seems human to me, but I’m not sure if that is because the author and I run in different circles or because he did this on purpose to suggest something about money.
Writing style: Amis uses odd names, jumps in continuity, and a sort of air of remove. The effect is (or at least to me) complete indifference to anything in the book.
Audience: ? you tell me

Wrap-up: I pretty much hated this book; I kept reading because Amis could do some pretty impressive tricks with his language and every once in a while he’d blow me away, especially when he started riffing on money, the real subject of the book (yeah, I know, the title sort of gives it away). 1/5*

Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: America (The Book)

Author: Jon Stewart and the writers of the Daily Show
Title: America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction
Description:  A “lighthearted look” at American history and politics.
Writing style: Funny as heck.
Audience: People who can get a joke.
Major ideas: Let’s try not taking ourselves so seriously all the time.
Wrap-up: Two fairly major caveats: the book is almost 10 years old by now, and it has some fairly raunchy bits (words and pictures). These two aside, I laughed through most of it. Sometimes these political books can be so topical that they become not merely funny, but nearly incomprehensible. This book does a survey of American history, so that will always be there. It’s mostly just the stuff about the 2004 election that seems pretty dated. 4/5*