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Brooklyn: A Novel
Brooklyn: A Novel
by Colm Toibin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.34
105 used & new from $1.75

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary ordinary girl, January 30, 2011
This review is from: Brooklyn: A Novel (Hardcover)
When Amazon readers react so differently to a novel, as they do here, something is going on, most likely in the novel. Most of the reviewers' negativity seems to be variations of `but nothing happens'. Well, let's see why that reaction might occur. Colm Toibin has created in Eilis an `average' Irish Catholic girl and traces her journey through perhaps the most difficult time of a person's life: the years from late adolescent into young adulthood. Toibin gives Eilis the added challenge of living through that crucial period in the context of emigrating from Catholic rural Ireland to the urban melting pot of Brooklyn, then back again to Ireland.

Instead of our hero being outsized in emotional or physical or material resources, placed in unexpected situations (i.e."something is happening to someone interesting") here we are shown how an ordinary person might react to the ordinary challenges (and tedium) of such a external and internal journey as well as to its few (but crucial) decision points. It is no small feat for a mature male writer to keep the narrative firmly focused on an "ordinary" young woman's responses to a life that presses, sometimes quite insistently, on her retiring, pre-feminist uncertainty. Never does the author intervene to stand apart from or above Eilis's self-understanding, nor does his prose ever remind us of its skill. So does Toibin invisibly envelops the reader in Eilis's experience, much as she herself is.

And indeed, isn't Eilis's life the sort of that most of us live? Life goes on, from day to day, in a routine way,even if it is a difficult one; then some obstacle or opportunity emerges which we face, like it or not, with our ordinary intelligence and ethical skills (or lack of them). Eilis seems in some ways, a female Willy Loman, but as a figure who may enjoy a happy life, as opposed to Miller's tragic Willy. She, like Willy, is ordinary--yet we care about her fate as if it were our own: what will she decide about Tony, about going home to Ireland, about returning the Brooklyn? These are the events that will define her life (and her ethical self) though she does not always recognize this (as we sometimes do not) and she, like us, does the best she can (which is none too good at some points and wonderfully courageous at others). She is, in a word, human-- and to create such an ordinary `heroine' is a triumph of literary art.

Novels surely serve many purposes; they can take us to other worlds, introduce us to fascinating people with the tragic passions of an Anna Karenina or the towering rage of Ahab. But occasionally, a novelist will present us with someone with an more or less ordinary life...and make us see how extraordinary that life appears to the one who lives it through. Just as ours is to each of us.

In regard to the last point, one major reservation There was a `deus ex machina' quality to the solution of Eilis's final choice: whether or not to return to Brooklyn. To make her development complete (and so the novel), she should have been allowed to make her own decision, rather than having it forced upon her by a somewhat unlikely chance event (though to be fair, life often seems to produce such accidents). Still, to become fully human seems to involve making ethical decisions through an act of the will. This , in the end, Eilis was not allowed to work out, and she and the novel are the poorer for it. Still, Brooklyn is a major work of art, whose issues, as several readers have noted, remain for us to puzzle over long after we have finished this brief and beautiful story.

Out Stealing Horses: A Novel
Out Stealing Horses: A Novel
by Per Petterson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.00
621 used & new from $0.01

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Nordic gem, September 27, 2010
This is a gem of a novel, many faceted, subtle, yet brilliant. The many favorable Amazon reviews make clear that Petterson speaks to a human condition that many readers recognize. Its tone is quiet (mostly) but its story is terrible: acts of adultery, child abandonment, fratricide (however unintentional), all occurring in the context of inarticulated, largely male relationships. And all this seen through the eyes of a fifteen year old boy, yet made bearable and even somehow beautiful by means of some of the most disciplined prose I have encountered in modern fiction. The "hero" Trond (though we are warned more than once that one may not be the central figure of one's own life) seems to absorb all of this gradually (as we do) with the necessarily confused awakening of young adulthood, and eventually with acceptance: but we need to remember that the other `hero' of the story: the Trond of some 50 years later is, for all of his stoicism, a man who has had two failed marriages, sired children for whom he feels little (or little the he can express), and most important who has decided to live out his remaining days cut off from the rest of humanity. This last plan is, to some degree, frustrated by his growing friendship with his neighbor, Lars; Lars, who turns out to be the unintentionally fratricidal brother of Trond's youthful summer of `awakening'. Both of the old hermits have, the reader may assume, found life with other people, and perhaps with themselves, too much to bear. The hero's insistence that 'you can choose what hurts" should surely be taken ironically; neither Trond, nor his father, who taught him the principle, could choose what hurt.
The astonishment of this book, however, is Petterson's ability to make his characters (and readers) accept these terrible blows of fate--for both Trond and Lars, this was the loss of the person they loved most: Trond's father and Lars's twin brother--as bearable. The simple yet elliptical prose distances the reader just enough that the sorrows of these characters seem fated, even somehow fitting, rather than arbitrary dooms.
As several readers have noted, however, this is because love is an equal partner with loss in this fine novel; it does not triumph, but it does soften the blows of fate and intertwines with them to create a credible picture of an often too dark, sometimes too bright, Scandinavian world of men who struggle to find words for it all. All of this is revealed to us slowly and indirectly, and finally, is ennobled by Petterson's deceptively plain prose, tough, and plain and, throughout, essentially compassionate. Like these Norwegian men themselves.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 21, 2011 4:59 AM PST

The Redbreast: A Novel
The Redbreast: A Novel
by Don Bartlett
Edition: Paperback
59 used & new from $0.49

75 of 86 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars So close to so good..., July 21, 2010
This review is from: The Redbreast: A Novel (Paperback)
I share many of the enthusiastic reactions of other reviewers of this novel. As a writer and storyteller, Nesbo is way in front of the recent Scandinavian masters of the genre who have, in my view, produced the best police procedurals in the last generation, though I find Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallender procedurals), the reigning champion of the genre, tedious. But Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, of some decades ago, still reign supreme.

Nesbo has some first-order talents: his characters are leanly drawn, yet complex; his story telling skills are masterful: the scenes of violence, for instance, are unexpected and devastating -to the reader as well as to the victims, and sometimes to the perpetrator. (Nesbo seems is more comfortable with violence than with tenderness, but maybe that's a weakness of the genre--and of his hero, Henry Hole.

In the end, unfortunately, the very richness and complexity of the plot paralyze the story. The denouement seemed contrived and self-conscious. The plot device used to convince the reader that the villain of the piece could be one and the same with one of its most noble characters was fatally unconvincing. The extensive `confession' of the culprit had a flatness that seemed entirely unsuited to the character and somehow vulgarized the entire experience. Part of the problem, I think, was that Nesbo had too much complexity to unravel at the end. There were too many important characters, all with much the same experiences, and with some pretending to be someone else, reducing the huge machine of a plot to a crawl for the final 50 pages

Moreover, some of the twists and turns seemed superfluous and distracted from the central story's momentum. Why for example did he need to introduce Sofia at all? Why the largely extraneous side story involving Inspector Waaler, which, astonishingly, was never resolved. Did Nesbo himself get so confused, he forgot to settle with this character?

So I was in the end hugely disappointed at this bravura undertaking-- because it came so close to being so good.

But I'll give Nesbo another chance; a thinner and more disciplined book could take him over the Sjowall/Wahloo bar.
Comment Comments (17) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 17, 2014 2:57 PM PDT

The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church
The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church
by John L. Allen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.15
103 used & new from $0.01

58 of 62 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Once and Future Church, July 12, 2010
It seems a sad commentary on the reading habits of contemporary Catholics that this important and informed book on the future of the Church has only seven reviews. John Allen is one of the most readable, well-informed, and well-placed (the National Catholic Reporter's man in Rome) observers of Catholicism today. Although he may be fairly placed in the more liberal camp, this book is surely no liberal rant (pace reviewer `bundasthedog', who does not appear to have gotten much beyond the first page or's usually considered crucial to have read a book one reviews.) Indeed one of the many suggestive conclusions Allen reaches is that the terms `liberal' and `conservative' will have much different and more complex nuances in the coming `global Church' of the 21st century.

In fact, many of Allen's predictions should give a good deal of comfort to classic Catholic conservatives: there will be, he predicts, no women priests; dogma will become both more conservative and more central to Catholic life; the papacy will retain much of its current perquisites and importance, though it will likely become less "Roman".

There are also trends that will give heart to classic Catholic liberals: the role of women and the laity will continue to increase; concern for social and economic justice will move to the forefront of Catholic ethics; the Western domination of Catholic culture will diminish greatly. That is nothing more than to say that the Catholic Church will change much as the world that it finds itself in changes. Allen balances this view, however, with a conviction that Catholic `identity' will sharpen itself ever more clearly against `the world'.

The reader who stays the course will not only benefit from such predictions but will be able to meditate on the deeply researched data that support them: such as: that Pentecostalism, in and outside the Catholic Church, is the fastest growing religious phenomenon of our time; that for the fastest growing Catholic populations--those of sub-Saharan Africa-- Christianity is a brand new religion, lacking the centuries of cultural tradition that often weigh it down in Europe and other traditional Catholic cultures; the astonishing volte-face of the Catholic Church over the issue of capital punishment over the last century. Allen describes this last development by introducing the reader to the 19th-century papal guillotine immaculately preserved in the Roman Museum of Criminology and by describing the almost liturgical ceremony attending the execution of papally-condemned criminals. The story is typical of the elegant interplay of statistics, prediction, and historical vignette that enliven this readable `story of the future'.

Predicting the future is, however, a perilous undertaking. The reader may recall one of the most famous examples of this from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Still regarded as one of the finest historians of the European Middle Ages, Gibbon proved a poor predictor of the future. Writing in 1776, he argued that the Enlightenment thinkers and leaders of his day had finally overcome the terrible tribalism and irrational militarism that had darkened Europe's earlier history. The Enlightenment understanding of the past and the triumph of reason, he predicted, would produce a future free of major wars, and an end to economic disasters, and of political tyranny.

Let me then issue a small caveat in the context of Allen's predictions for the course of The Future Church. Much of his optimism regarding the Church of the next century rests upon the vibrant Catholicism of the "southern" churches of Africa and Latin America. Allen's description of the population trends and projections of economic growth, the rise of education, and the spread of democracy in these cultural areas will make them Catholic powerhouses of extraordinary economic strength and political clout.
However, if history is any guide, the rise of education, economic prosperity, and popular sovereignty have proven extremely corrosive to religious belief and commitment. The entire history of Europe suggests this conclusion; as one recent example, one might look at John Paul II's beloved Poland, whose religious and political freedom was perhaps his most sought after goal. When, to the world's surprise, this was achieved more easily and quickly than anyone could have imagined, the result was not a free and devoutly Catholic (and grateful) Poland, but an incresingly secular and materialistic society that reportedly broke the aging pontiff's heart. I see no reason to believe that the emerging economies and increasing freedoms of Africa, Latin America and South and Southeast Asia would not take the same trajectory towards secularism and religious indifference. This development would take the history of Allen's `southern Church' (and so the Catholic Church as a whole) in directions quite different than those he imagines in his book. It is surprising that so astute a reporter ignored this fundamental trend in history and in contemporary emerging cultures.

Nonetheless, The Future Church is a book not to be missed by anyone who will be journeying with the Catholic Church in the 21st century, or even by those who watch the stately if often mysterious march of this ancient institution from the relatively bright corridors of History into the dimly lit path of the Future.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 29, 2012 8:55 PM PDT

Far North: A Novel
Far North: A Novel
by Marcel Theroux
Edition: Hardcover
61 used & new from $0.01

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious and fun... but flawed, November 21, 2009
This review is from: Far North: A Novel (Hardcover)
This novel started out with a bang (literally) and its cold and ominous atmosphere hooked me immediately as few of my recent reads have done. The first chapters were riveting: one unexpected scene after another while the author skillfully wove in the larger historical and political background as we went. Theroux also developed a sort of homespun metaphysic for Makepeace that allowed her to survive. and make sense of, her dangerous post-apocalyptic world. Her suicide attempt, aborted with the sight of a plane droning overhead, was only one of many splendidly conceived scenes.

Why then did my disappointment mount as the novel went on? Perhaps it was because the next 300 pages were more of the same: the same sorts of surprises, more bad guys who can't help it, the same edge-of-the-cliff crises. The story began to resemble more the Perils of Pauline than the organic development of a character within a evolving narrative. Neither the main character or the novel ever moved to a different level (a requirement of the more ambitious literature that this tries to be).

It is illustrative of this developmental failure that the final scenes required the manufacture of a coincidence (Makepeace meeting again a major figure from her childhood); as Aristotle noted, creating coincidences (deus ex machina) to close a narrative rather than using the logic of character and organic plot development is a failure of literary imagination.

As an example of Theroux's failure to develop character, I never quite believed in the femininity of Makepeace. Granted, she had `masculinized' herself to survive in this macho defined world. Still, I never got the sense from this male author that his main character was, underneath it all, a woman. Makepeace was a guy, despite Theroux's occasional reminders to the contrary.

Finally, the narrative contained loose ends in abundance: why did Makepeace lose her first child, what were the actual powers of those coveted blue lanterns? And so on. Are these teasers for a sequel or just careless plotting?

Nonetheless, I returned to this well-written novel, with its sympathetic hero(ine) and, above all, inventive plot with anticipation every evening, though that lessened every day as well.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 1, 2010 5:35 AM PST

Into Great Silence (Two-Disc Set)
Into Great Silence (Two-Disc Set)
DVD ~ The Carthusian Order
Price: $19.59
27 used & new from $13.73

55 of 60 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Filming the imageless life, August 9, 2007
The last year or so has seen a virtual revolution in our understanding of the human aspect of Carthusian life. First there was the revealing study of several former Carthusian monks by Nancy McGuire, An Infinity of Mirrors, and now the documentary Into Great Silence. The reversal of Carthusian anonymity might be well symbolized by the haunting close-ups of the faces of Carthusian monks in the film. Previously, all that one would ever see of Carthusians in pictures was their backs. Even then, their cowls were raised to conceal any suggestion of individuality.
There is, nonetheless, in this revealing film, a fundamental flaw that leaves the Carthusians as mysterious (and perhaps open to misunderstanding) as they have ever been. The film is essentially a work of art, a sensitive rendering of a beautiful monastic environment. Yet anyone who approaches the Carthusian experience as essentially aesthetic is missing the point: and this error is likely the reason why so many attempt this vocation and soon depart (the retention rate holds steady at about 10% of all who enter). It is a life of unending sameness, intentionally tedious in its repetition, forcing the Carthusian to slowly minimize his submersion in the physical world with its seductions and beauties. It is certainly true that one paradoxical consequence of such routine is intense attention to physical details: the beautiful setting, the subtle nuances of the liturgy, the fly returning to a dinner pear. But in this film, such physical details seem to form the core of the life. In reality such attention to the beautiful small details of natural life soon becomes tedious (both for the Carthusian and the viewer of the film); and the monk must move beyond images to the spiritual core of the vocation: the imageless contemplation of God.
The film does attempt to suggest this core in the repeated images of monks engaged in meditative prayer. But watching someone meditate is a far cry from the experience itself. The latter is endlessly eventful and increasingly profound. The observation of it is unbearably tedious. I give the filmmaker credit for attempting to represent the Imageless,but the images of film are, finally, the antithesis of contemplation. Restless Americans seem to have particular difficulty with such uneventful living. Witness the change from of the original German title: "Die grosse Stille" to the English "Into Great Silence", the latter promising us action and movement rather than just Being, to put it philosophically.
On the other hand, in its attempt to present the Unchanging, the film is excessively silent. Although its structure suggests the flow of Carthusian days and seasons, the lack of explication leaves an uninitiated viewer with little understanding of the intentional balancing of this essentially eremitic life with community living: the alternation between solitary liturgical prayer and the choir liturgy is suggested, but not explained. The conversation for maintaining human relations in an otherwise intensely solitary life, is recorded here, the talk both erudite and amusing, another little known characteristic of Carthusian life.But its weekly occurance is not pointed out. The sleeping arrangements, the daily interruption of sleep at midnight for the night office, and the rigorous fasts (bread and water at least once a week) are significant elements of the life that are not featured here.
As other reviewers have noted, with one dramatic exception, the monks do not speak about their lives. I suspect that since Carthusians Have left "the world" this was a condition of filming. At first, I did not appreciate this, but on reflecting, their silence conveys the core of this life more powerfully than interviews which would likely have been mundane and pietistic. The Carthusian life, as the film makes clear, leaves speech far behind.
So, for a number of reasons, I was unhappy with the film. On the other hand, many weeks later, the images of these silent white figures in their echoing cloisters keep coming back at odd moments during my busy days in the world...theologically that is one purpose of this mysterious life.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 12, 2010 10:49 PM PDT

Saffron And Brimstone: Strange Stories
Saffron And Brimstone: Strange Stories
by Elizabeth Hand
Edition: Paperback
40 used & new from $0.01

9 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful prose but Private Idaho, April 28, 2007
Hand's often lucid, simple prose will stay with you as well as the intricately symbolic plotting. Some stories (Cleopatra Brimstone, a tightly woven morality tale) are much more satisfying than others (Wonderwall, a drug-drenched memoir of youth well lost).

But there is a self-referencing in all this that is disturbing. There is scant regard for others, indeed almost everyone except the narrator is 'the Other" in these tales. The repetitive taking of human life or consciousness seems as easy and frequent as in a gallery video game. One sure sign of growing up is recognizing the universality of our supposed uniqueness. Hand has real talent, but to write at a more meaningful level will require that her characters start loving someone other than themselves.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 18, 2013 7:11 AM PST

On Desire: Why We Want What We Want
On Desire: Why We Want What We Want
by William B. Irvine
Edition: Hardcover
36 used & new from $0.01

7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Irvine, Christianity and the Steps, April 28, 2007
Irvine is strongest in his review of the psychological literature regarding the manipulation of desire (through brain stimulation, etc). These experiments make the physical basis of "desire" disconcertingly clear,though the ability of the "mind" or "reason" to temper them is minimized in this section and yet featured in the section on "mastering desire" a contradiction not entirely resolved.

Christians beware. Irvine either knows little (or cares little) about this major religious system for controlling desire. He presents Christianity as little more than a system of suppressing desire by offering "pie in the sky by and by." (Catholic) Christian systems of targeted asceticism are at least as complex as the Zen practices that Irvine clearly prefers. Christianity is also a complex ethical system for living a satisfied life with others in this world, a dimension Irvine mostly ignores. Islam and Judaism fare little better.

He also gives short shrift to Alcoholics Anonymous (and derivative 12 step programs). Though comparatively modern, these have proven to be extremely successful in curbing what appear to be obsessive, genetically based desires of great power. How this is accomplished by combination of belief, community support and re-education is deserving of more than a paragraph in a 300 page book on Desire.

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