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Medieval Women (Canto)
Medieval Women (Canto)
by Eileen Edna Power
Edition: Paperback
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Power's lectures may date from the 1920s and 30s, but they still offer an adequate introduction, December 18, 2010
This review is from: Medieval Women (Canto) (Paperback)
"Medieval Women" contains a useful but sometimes agonizingly basic overview of half the European population, focusing in its five sections on attitudes toward women, aristocratic women, working women, education, and nuns. The texts--lectures that economic historian Eileen Power had delivered, revised, and fine-tuned for two decades--were among her papers when she died in 1940, and M. M. Postan, her husband (and a famous historian in his own rate), prepared them for this collection.

The resulting book is neither as comprehensive nor as grand as the title might lead you to believe. But in the 1920s and 30s (much less in 1975, when this collection was published), there was little on the topic for general audiences. Previous to its publication, most (male) scholars had focused on the hagiography of saints and abbesses, the biographies of well-known royal women, or the portrayal of women in literature. In other words, with few exceptions, what historians understood of women was gathered largely through the idealized filter of fiction. Power does not ignore these sources, but her lectures instead exhibit an additional familiarity with the types of documents that later scholars would dig into to reveal the lives of women in more factual detail: statutes, court records, wills, and letters.

To those who have read other books in the field, Power's book will inevitably seem cursory and lean. Still, what's surprising is the continuing relevance (and overall accuracy) of her impressionistic survey. Furthermore, because these were originally delivered as lectures, the five chapters are easy to read, and they are nicely supplemented by several dozen illustrations. Even though it was never intended to be a book, this collection of Power's lectures is much better than the lamentable "Women in the Middle Ages," by Joseph and Frances Gies, and it remains a good introduction for students and general readers who are not quite ready to dig in to more elaborate textbooks and monographs.

The Plato Papers: A Novel
The Plato Papers: A Novel
by Peter Ackroyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.50
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4.0 out of 5 stars Both witty and silly: a satire of the present in a future that's pretty much beside the point, December 13, 2010
In London of the distant future (3700 A. D., give or take), hardly anything is known of the past and what has somehow survived, it seems, just happens to be stuff that, in today's world, interests the likes of--well, Peter Ackroyd. The exceedingly rare fragments of text lucky enough to have escaped the apocalypse is treated as scripture. There's Poe, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and a lone reel of an Alfred Hitchcock film. The names (but not the words) of Chatterton, Orwell, Pope, Priestley, Wilde, Bellow and Frost are remembered, if sometimes in bastardized form. Yet somehow the conflagration managed tastefully to incinerate everything written by the astronomically better-selling and far more widely available British authors like Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Enid Blyton, or Edgar Wallace. The future holocaust has it in for popular culture, it seems.

Ackroyd is completely aware, of course, that his imaginary utopia is utterly preposterous, but today's world, rather than tomorrow's, is his real preoccupation. The Age of Witspell described in the novel (if you can call it that) has some things to say about our so-called Age of Mouldwarp--and it does so inside a series of overt allusions to Greek classics.

The hero, Plato, is London's lead orator; he regales his fellow citizens with fanciful and completely erroneous reconstructions of the past (our present), and his magnum opus is the compilation of a dictionary of long-lost terms (e.g., telepathy = suffering cause by television; fibre optic = a course material woven out of eyes). Interspersed with the faux dictionary entries are monologues delivered by Plato himself and dialogues among the increasingly dismayed citizenry. But Plato begins to doubt the truth of the official version of history, including his own research--and he eventually leaves the safety of his familiar city and wanders into a prohibited area, a cave, which turns out to be a vision ("Perhaps it is possible to embark on a journey while remaining in the same place"). Yes, it's Plato's Re-Republic.

If you accept that "The Plato Papers" as a little curio or a Calvino-like fable, then you'll probably find that much of this material works and good chunks of it are witty--but there are nevertheless passages and puns that are surprisingly lifeless. Ackroyd's fabliau tosses out hundreds of literary and philosophical "jokes," some clever and quotable, others just downright silly. But even the best comedy has its misfires, and the occasional lapses might be overlooked if the framework lives up to the task. Alas, as a work of fiction, the book is just not as successful. The best dystopian works (1984, Brave New World, Handmaid's Tale, Canticle for Leibowitz) are always equally adept at both creating a believable future world while simultaneously satirizing the contemporary one; such works inhabit the mind much longer because they depict not only the existence we're leaving but also the one we're entering. Ackroyd is so obsessed with sending up our own age through the prism of the past that the future he's imagined seems somewhat beside the point.

The Big Clock
The Big Clock
by Kenneth Fearing
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.30
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A company man, trapped at work, December 11, 2010
This review is from: The Big Clock (Paperback)
George Stroud works for a mega-publisher that seems a lot like Time-Life or Conde Nast; he's just a big, reliable wheel in the company clock, working in a "gilded cage full of gelded birds," a building that "seemed to prefer human sacrifices, of the flesh and of the spirit." As the executive editor of one of the company's more successful properties, a true crime magazine, he nevertheless has a somewhat uneasy relationship with his boss, Earl Janoth, and he spends time in front of the mirror imagining what demands he should make.

When Stroud cheats on his wife and sleeps with his Janoth's girlfriend, the boss-employee relationship gets a wee more complicated--especially when Janoth shows up at her apartment and Stroud barely escapes, seen but not recognized. Moments later, Janoth and the woman get into a fight (each accusing the other of having same-sex trysts--this in a 1946 novel!), and she ends up dead on the floor. What happens next is a game of chess, with each side trying to pin the murder on the other: Janoth and his man Friday use the resources of the firm, assigning Stroud to head the team that must locate the man seen fleeing from the apartment; Stroud, however, knows his boss is guilty but understands that all the evidence points to himself. He is now literally trapped at work.

To reveal any more of the plot would be saying too much. Most of the novel is told from the perspective of Stroud, but Fearing includes a few chapters told from the others' points of view to fill in the details (and it also unexpectedly adds to the feeling of entrapment, since they all seem to be closing in on Stroud). The entire novel is suspensefully, masterfully told. In the end, Fearing intentionally leaves some loose ends, but he does so with a joke Stroud tells to his daughter, about a little girl who pulls away the threads of her sweater until she "was just a heap of yarn lying on the floor." The 1948 movie, a classic in its own right (sanitized but mostly faithful to the novel), leaves no thread dangling, but I prefer the morally ambiguous ending of the novel. After all, we know who the killer is--we've always known--but rather than concerning himself with the formulaic conventions of detective fiction, Fearing keeps his focus on his theme: the company keeps grinding along, the company man keeps working, and the clock keeps ticking.

A Very Simple Crime
A Very Simple Crime
by Grant Jerkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.56
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An expertly crafted thriller with a regrettably unambiguous ending, December 4, 2010
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This review is from: A Very Simple Crime (Paperback)
A finely styled noir thriller, and an impressive debut, "A Very Simple Crime" features two similar (but oh-so-different!) lead characters. We first meet, through first-person narrative, Adam Lee, whose wife (a notably wealthy heiress) is slowly going mad after their violent, developmentally disabled son has been institutionalized. Surrounded by the crazy, he seeks refuge in a weekend with another woman--and it gradually becomes clear that Adam himself might be nuts, too. A bit of a loner and a loser, he has been eclipsed his entire life by his older brother, and he has a tendency to attract women who (in his mind) suffocate him with their love.

The opening section recalls the dark prose and characterizations of noir writer Jim Thompson, and it might be the best part of the book. But then the novel shifts gear, adopting a tone more suitable for police procedurals. We are now introduced to another lonely loser, Leo Hewitt. Like Adam Lee, Hewitt's star has dimmed; he completely botched a high-profile case and, supplanted by an ambitious underling, he feels trapped in a dead-end job as "everyone's errand boy." When Adam Lee's wife is murdered, apparently by her son, Leo realizes the evidence doesn't quite add up and sees a chance to escape his cubicle. Both Adam and Leo are looking for ways out of their situations--but there the resemblance ends.

There are basically three suspects, and anyone who's read enough mysteries knows the initial guess can't be right, especially with the victim's inheritance at stake. So Jerkins yanks the reader back and forth between the remaining two, competently pointing the evidence from one suspect to the other. A tribute to Jerkins's skill is that at one point in the novel, after I thought I'd had it all figured out, I realized that I could more accurately identify the perpetrator by tossing a coin. In the closing chapters, everything ends up making sense and all the loose ends are tied up in a tidy resolution.

But perhaps too tidy. Jerkins is so busy dotting the i's and crossing the t's of his whodunit that he nearly loses credibility on two points: first, the climactic trial scene is wholly and uproariously unbelievable (from either a legal or dramatic perspective) and, second, a previously reticent suspect breaks character and becomes effusively chatty while explaining the entire crime. I do agree with another reader who felt that the last chapter was unnecessary (as was much of the penultimate chapter). Formerly ambiguous characters become one-dimensional types; the line between good and evil is boldly and clearly drawn. Once you've closed the book, there's really nothing left to ponder. Just a tad more ambiguity would have added the right amount of complexity to this very simple crime.

That Old Ace in the Hole: A Novel
That Old Ace in the Hole: A Novel
by Annie Proulx
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.33
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Panhandle and its peripheral characters outshine the plot, November 23, 2010
At the center of Annie Proulx's encomium to the people of the Texas Panhandle is Bob Dollar, a rather inert, indolent, aimless transplant who arrives undercover as a scout for the despised hog farm industry, which has been steadfastly buying up land in the area. Most of the locals take to the young man, even though they are too country-smart to believe a single word that comes out of his mouth. Fortunately for Dollar, he doesn't do much talking; he likes instead to listen to the local lore and gossip of current and past generations, and he's particularly hoping to find out from his landlady about the "deep scars on her grandfather's back" that he notices in an old photo.

Even though Dollar undergoes a few Chaplinesque experiences (involving an extra-spicy pepper that lodges in his throat and various insects and arachnids that manage to get into his car while he's driving), he pales in comparison to the colorful residents who warily host him. It's the droll folksy humor of the banter and throwaway jokes of the tall tales that make "That Old Ace in the Hole" such a pleasure to read. (Typical bathroom graffiti: "Jesus is Coming!" and in a different hand: "We'll git him agin.")

Because Proulx does such a wonderful job of depicting the inhabitants of the panhandle (my birthplace, actually), the missteps are unfortunate. While most of the novel is told from Dollar's perspective in the modern-day fictional town of Woolybucket, a few chapters are historical flashbacks that are quite charming but are so scattered as to seem mere afterthoughts rather than an integral part of the book. Other passages describe current events after Dollar has completely left the scene, resulting in quite-random shifts in perspective that are both conspicuous and jarring. The overall effect is an unevenness in tone and structure that can be bewildering.

Worse, the story pitting the hog farms against the ranchers is rather one-dimensional and the author's clear advocacy for the traditional way of life (while admirable) leads her plot into a cul-de-sac of sorts, with an unbelievable series of events that culminates in an even more unbelievable resolution. It is explained more than a few times that Bob Dollar, well-meaning and somewhat curious but not all that bright, feels he must carry through with his job finding potential hog farm locations--a job he quickly grows to hate--because completing his unsavory mission will somehow compensate for the lack of responsibility evinced by his parents, who had abandoned him as a child. ("I think it's important to finish what you start.") Even for armchair literary psychology, this is pretty weak.

Yet for all the book's failings, I couldn't help but enjoy nearly all of it. Somehow Proulx's anecdotes, legends, tall tales, humor, and traditions cumulatively outweigh the architectural deficiencies of the work as a whole, not to mention the namby-pambiness of Bob Dollar himself. The stories of the Panhandle and its natives prove to be more compelling than the narrative destruction sowed by Proulx's unlikely interloper.

In the Suicide Mountains
In the Suicide Mountains
by John Gardner
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Ah, that"--the happy medium between spelling out the moral of the story and letting readers interpret it for themselves, November 6, 2010
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During the course of this winsome and lively fantasy novella, the mysterious Abbot of the Ancient Monastery, unbidden, entertains his despondent guests with three adaptations of Russian tales. After the first story, Prince Christopher (who really doesn't want to be a prince, much less the king) says, "It's an interesting tale. Yet one thing I don't understand, father." "Yes?" responds the abbot.

"I don't understand why you've told it to us."

"Ah, that," replies the abbot.

Throughout his career, Gardner wrestled with this very issue, seeking the answer to the question so often asked by readers: "What's the point of the story?" During the mid-1970s, he published several books of fairy tales for children (such as "Dragon, Dragon") and surreal Gothic stories for adults (including "The King's Indian"), as well as "In the Suicide Mountains." As he said in an interview soon after the book's publication, he "was constantly playing literature against life, looking for the answers literature gives, or so we're told." Gardner constantly tried to identify "Ah, that"--the happy medium between the lecture and the poem, between spelling out the moral of the story and letting readers interpret it for themselves.

In the main story of "In the Suicide Mountains," we meet Chudu, a 200-year-old shape-shifter despised by his neighbors and blamed for every misfortune or tragedy in the vicinity; Armida, the beautiful Cinderella-like prisoner of her domineering stepmother; and Christopher, the un-heroic prince who likes playing the violin and reading poetry. To make him less "feminine," the king has given his son the impossible task of finding and killing the villainous Six-Fingered Man--but once all three travelers meet up, they discover that each of them have something in common: they have lost the urge to live.

Beautifully illustrated with black-and-white drawings by Joe Servello, the book can be read and enjoyed--assuming you can get your hands on a copy--by any child and teenager old enough to read "Harry Potter," as well as by adults with an interest in medieval literature, folk tales, fantasy, and metafiction. (Considering the current popularity of books featuring dwarfs, dragons, shape-shifters, magic, and the like, this book seems a likely candidate for a publisher to reprint.) With a pitch-perfect combination of light morbidity and whimsical humor, Gardner guides his three heroes through episodes that display how "life follows art"; the trio find self-worth both through storytelling and through the adventures they reluctantly confront. There is plenty of "Ah, that" to be found in this short novel, but above all Gardner confronts the issue of suicide and offers the answer that, often unexpectedly, life offers reasons to live to even the most despondent among us, if we just leave ourselves open to its possibilities.

Let's All Kill Constance
Let's All Kill Constance
by Ray Bradbury
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.99
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cliche-ridden, ephemeral farce with a few strikingly memorable moments, October 16, 2010
The far-and-away most memorable scene in "Let's All Kill Constance" is when the Bradbury-like narrator, searching for clues in a film star's disappearance, encounters a hermit surrounded by old, decomposing newspapers in a hovel on top of a Los Angeles hill. All of recent history is here, a "tunnel of bad news," and its guard turns out to be one of the actress's discarded husbands. Indeed, it's moments like this--and there are several, fortunately--that almost keep Bradbury's roman-a-clef from being as dated and forgettable as an old pile of newsprint.

Constance is on the run because two old books--a previously discarded address book and 60-year-old telephone directory--have shown up on her doorstep, and the few remaining living persons listed within seem to be marked for death. From there, the bodies pile up in a predestined order ("Final Destination" style), and the obvious suspect might be Constance herself--except that some of the deaths are possibly coincidental rather than homicidal.

Bradbury probably had fun writing this novel; he and his characters tour the landmarks, the beaches, and even the underground storm drains of Los Angeles in 1960--when the author was at the height of his own real-life Hollywood career, writing film treatments and teleplays. The reader, alas, doesn't have quite as much fun. The oh-too-cute opening ("It was a dark and stormy night") of Bradbury's third mystery novel serves as a warning: cliches ahead. The prose is surprisingly sloppy for a writer of Bradbury's caliber.

Now, granted, this is Hollywood of a long-gone era and I'm sure many residents might have conversed in the vapid patois of the local luminarati. Yet aside from the doppelganger-narrator (an amateur detective who has written novels about book burning and Martians--yuk, yuk--Philip Roth, he's not), the supporting cast members, I'm afraid, are walking, talking stereotypes (the priest, the fortune teller, the blind man, the German, etc., etc.) who all manage to talk very much alike. And they do talk and talk and talk: most of the story is related in a clipped, elliptical dialogue that is meant, clearly, to evoke certain crime classics (especially the comic banter of "The Thin Man") but instead underscores that we're reading a light farce that often isn't funny and a noir novel that's rather short on atmosphere. It's all pleasant enough, but this ultimately silly and lackluster romp won't be one of the books Bradbury is remembered for.

We Disappear: A Novel
We Disappear: A Novel
by Scott Heim
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.17
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The ultimate vanishing point, October 10, 2010
This review is from: We Disappear: A Novel (Paperback)
In his interviews, Scott Heim sometimes invokes the films of David Lynch, and it's not hard to see why. His latest novel has the deceptive aura of a detective story (like, say, "Mulholland Dr."), but the narrator is so unreliable that the only mystery may well be distinguishing what's real and what's imagined. The book's hero, Scott, has fled New York for his home in Kansas, and he brings with him his crystal meth addiction. "I soon realized that a bus heading for Wichita was the worst place to be high"--and the ambiance doesn't approve much once he reaches home, where drug-enhanced paranoia and exhaustion begin to take their toll.

His mother, Donna, is dying of cancer, and her sense of reality is equally warped--by the treatments, by despair and panic, by the knowledge that she is about to lose her two children forever--and they her. As the cancer destroys her body, she begins to lose her mind in a memory of childhood abduction she claims has been suppressed until now, and she fixates on current news stories about other disappeared and murdered children. This wholly unstable mother-and-son pair scours the surrounding vicinity by car, looking for "clues" to modern-day child abductions, as well as to Donna's own past experience (which might or might not be wholly imagined). When, suddenly, a teenage boy turns up, a hostage in their basement, Scott doesn't know what to think or do. Has his mother lost her mind? Has he? Is any of this real?

A bit too much has been made, I'm afraid, of the parallels between this novel and the author's life (he uses his own name, he's from Kansas, his mother also died of cancer); suffice it to say that in this work of fiction, the mother's bizarre dredged-up memories seem to be a stand-in for Heim's real-life mother's childhood--the part of her life that is now lost to the author forever. So, yes, it's Heim's way of "working through" his mother's death--her "disappearance," if you will--but the novel is much more than that; it is an exploration of the thin line between reality and imagination, between obsession and madness.

If not for Dolores, a family friend and the only grounded presence in their lives, both Scott and his mother would probably both lose their moorings entirely. As Donna's health declines, Dolores serves as the ballast for both of them, although Scott nearly loses himself in his mother's neurotic and senseless investigation of her past. And, of course, there's the problem of the boy trapped in the basement. But, in the end, Heim's novel isn't really about kidnappings or murder or repressed memories; it's about our vanishing ability to show our love for each other before we, too, disappear.

by Joyce Carol Oates
Edition: Paperback
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Fall of the House of Bellefleur, October 9, 2010
This review is from: Bellefleur (Paperback)
The first of Oates's several "Gothic" sagas, "Bellefleur" is one of my favorite--perhaps the favorite--of her countless novels. A multi-generational chronicle of the rise and fall and aborted rise again of an upstate New York family, it borrows and develops devices from such American writers as Irving, Hawthorne, and Cooper and updates them with echoes of modern writers ranging from Faulkner to Garcia Marquez. Her story hops back and forth in time, revealing family secrets, legends, triumphs, and disappointments, as well as following the travails of a few truly tragic figures. (It's one of those novels that force you to flip forward frequently to the family tree.) At its center is Leah, the ambitious "uncontested queen of the household" who endeavors to restore the Bellefleur holdings to a legendary and expansive splendor.

On one hand, Oates presents us with the utter zaniness of various members of the Bellefleur clan, including an ancestor who impulsively takes off to seek God's presence and live as an unwashed hermit in the mountains, a "troll" adopted by the family who becomes their most sycophantic servant, a child prodigy who shuts himself up in one of the castle's towers and pours out invention after brilliant invention, and a terrifyingly feral rat-like furball that turns out to be an enigmatically perceptive cat. On the other hand, as John Gardner points out in his review of the novel, "What drives Miss Oates's fiction is her phobias: that is, her fear that normal life may suddenly turn monstrous." And the monstrous abounds. But the murders, the massacres, the disappearances, the illnesses, the tragedies--each of which is horrific enough--are still not as compelling and terrible as the effects these incidents have on the family as a whole and on each of its sons and daughters.

In spite of the realism of Oates's descriptions (most apparent in the passages describing the natural wonderland that comprises the estate and in the scenes outlining the family's social and political milieu), the novel abounds in the improbable and the magical: age is malleable, mountain heights change, coincidences pile up, a local vulture carries away babies, various characters have psychic powers--not to mention the gnomes (or dwarfs or trolls) playing in a nearby field. Perfectly pleasant children unexpectedly commit unconscionably evil acts, an elderly aunt hides herself away in her bedroom, a century's worth of neighbors plot revenge for the least perceived slights, a certain room remains locked for more than seventy-five years because of some unspoken past tragedy. (The domineering Leah aside, the novel's real center may well be the castle itself, a garish atrocity from the family's earliest beginnings in America.) Everything leads to the cataclysm of the finale, followed by a coda recounting the choice made 150 years earlier that saved the Bellefleurs from total extinction after a similarly devastating event. True to the Gothic tradition, the untold sequel is foretold by the family's haunted and tragic past.

Exiles in America: A Novel
Exiles in America: A Novel
by Christopher Bram
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.99
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two families in "another country", September 25, 2010
Living in Williamsburg (the one in Virginia) are two sexually estranged longtime companions: Daniel, a frustrated artist and now an art professor, and Zack, a psychologist. Passing middle age, Zack has adopted a somewhat ascetic outlook on their relationship (they sleep in separate rooms), while his younger and impulsive partner sows a few wild oats with the occasional meaningless fling. Enter a brilliant Iranian artist, Abbas, whose emotional detachment vies with an oversexed personality, and his indulgent Russian wife, Elena, who knew what she was getting into when they married, and their two children. The resulting affair between Daniel and Abbas is a foregone conclusion, and much of the book is about the resulting emotional chaos among the members of these two barely functional families.

James Baldwin's "Another Country" travels through similar terrain (featuring three couples rather than just two), and the thematic similarity of the titles is probably not a coincidence. Like Baldwin's prose, Bram's meticulous sentences can be a thing of awe, and his characters, while often self-absorbed and even infuriating, are completely believable. Unfortunately, however, "Exiles" also reminds me a little of Patrick Marber's "Closer," in the decorous loquaciousness of its characters, who hyperanalyze every experience, statement, and action, as if they all were infected by the worst excesses of Zack's profession. It's a lot of talk and introspection, and what might work on the stage or in a story doesn't necessarily fly in a 375-page novel. The conversations in the first half of the book, dealing with fraught and emotion-laden issues, are so civil and precise and articulate that they seem surreal--an improbably messed-up therapy group plunked down in the equally improbable atmosphere of a colonial tourist trap.

The later portions of the novel are much less insular; the characters' self-inflicted crises are pushed aside by a truly perilous threat after Abbas's brother--a top Iranian official--sneaks into the country via Canada for a visit. Indeed, the last one hundred pages are so different in tone they seem borrowed from a different (and, dare I say, better) novel. Unlike many other readers, the ending didn't bother me at all; unless someone dies, relationships rarely resolve themselves in neatly wrapped Hollywood finales. Bram's postmodernist stance strikes just the right note. Forgoing the niceties of plot, the author instead sticks to his themes of exile and alienation; each of the four characters, flawed as they are, remain exiled in any number of ways--from their countries of origin, from New York, from their peers, especially from each other, and in the end from America itself.

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