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Hild: A Novel
Hild: A Novel
by Nicola Griffith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.14
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dashed Hopes, April 6, 2014
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This review is from: Hild: A Novel (Hardcover)
Is it fair to write a review of a book you abandoned on p. 278? If so, then don't take this this review under consideration. But the fact that I had to abandon the book--despite absolutely loving medieval historical fiction--might be a review comment unto itself.

Other critical reviews cite most of what ultimately led me to jump ship. The density of historically "accurate" names of places and persons certainly makes it a challenge, but I like novels that test my reading skills. Unfortunately, the authenticity one hopes for in the use of such language tips over here into pretension and obscurity. Just because a word is archaic doesn't mean its immune from becoming repetitive; part of the reason I stopped reading was that I didn't think I could handle seeing the word "gemaecce" or "aetheling" one more time. Didn't medieval people have synonyms?

I also realized I had to stop when Hild and some of the major characters arrive at a place and have all sorts of emotional recollections of it. First of all, because of the obscurity, I had no idea they had ever been to this place; and then when I figured out what the place was, I had no idea that its earlier depiction was meant to show that they liked it. Despite receiving almost the whole story through Hild's point of view, you have almost no sense of her as a person--what she cares about, what she thinks of her own self, what she loves or hates. In a story about a person, not knowing that person makes for some disappointing reading.

Griffith can really write a beguiling sentence, but sometimes she gets carried away to the point where style trumps sense. A typical scene has a sentence about a bird and its sounds, as well as what kind of tree it's in; followed by a few incomplete sentences meant to show the mystical nature of Hild's thoughts; and then some obscure references to events from earlier in the novel that make you wonder whether you had missed the scene the first time.

I really did want to like this book. I was so eager for it that I bought the hard copy. And then despite my growing frustrations, I lasted as long as the entirety of some shorter novels. So fascinating is the topic and character, and so adept at style is the author, that I almost want to pay someone to craft this into a novel that readers can enjoy. I heard somewhere that a sequel might be planned. If so, I'll have a look at it with new hopes that the issues that let this book down are addressed, and that a fascinating book worthy of this fascinating character--and a talented stylist--has been written.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 22, 2014 6:48 AM PDT

The Best American Poetry 2010: Series Editor David Lehman
The Best American Poetry 2010: Series Editor David Lehman
by Amy Gerstler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.40
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Still seeking great poetry, May 23, 2011
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I buy this collection as often as I can because I love poetry; I teach poetry and want to stay alert to what is considered great poetry today; and I would like to write poetry and feel that reading excellent models is the best way to learn. After reading this collection, though, I have to wonder why I love poetry; I guess I know what's being written but don't care that it is; and I have no interest in writing poetry if this is what I'm supposed to do. I bought the collection with high hopes because I had read some work by guest editor Amy Gerstler and very much appreciated what she had written. The collection, however, ended up being as disappointing as many of its former editions (unlike its very compelling cousin, Best American Short Stories). A few of the poems had some fine turns of phrases, but almost none carried any emotional impact. I couldn't help thinking of a cartoon I once read where a "poet" gets women swooning over him by mouthing vaporous phrases of pseudo-significance. (There were exceptions, but I don't want to call out individual writers, and there certainly weren't enough to give value to the book as a whole.) Mostly it was just people writing odd conjunctions of words or, in the case of the prose poems, whole sentences, which might or might not have any meaning, and certainly had little impact on the heart. Poets today often wring their hands about why they are writing only to an audience of each other, but a collection such as this, with its lack of appeal, might help illustrate why this is the case. My concern isn't that this book fails to live up to its title; my concern is that it might live up to it all too well.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 30, 2012 9:02 AM PDT

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel
The Tiger's Wife: A Novel
by Téa Obreht
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.17
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510 of 574 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars not what was predicted, April 26, 2011
I certainly have read worse books in my life, but few have been as disappointing. This is not entirely the author's fault, since she and her book have been so publicized and honored prior to arrival that expectations were extraordinarily high. The novel is, however, "OK," a far cry from the praise pre-pub comments trumpeted. What is refreshing about the book is that we at least have an author who knows how to craft a careful sentence and cares as much about how she tells a story as the story itself. The fantastical elements, noted in other reviews, also are signs of a fertile imagination. Unfortunately, neither of these strengths quite overcomes the weaknesses, of which I would cite two primarily: 1) the primary narrative asks us to be emotionally moved by the death of the narrator's grandfather, but we really do not know any of the main present-day characters in enough depth to share their loss. In fact, despite the good will of the narrator (she's a doctor trying to help sick orphans!), she comes off as whiny and self-involved; 2) on the other hand, the parts of the narrative that show real strength, in which the novel turns toward folklore in stories about the titular tiger's wife or the deathless man, end up overwhelming so much with details that we begin to wish the stories to come to an end. The imagination, in other words, seems to have run amok. A great steak doesn't taste better by adding more of it to the plate. (If you've read a lot of Rushdie over the years, you might also tire more quickly of these passages, as they are reminiscent of much of his work.) It's nice to see an author with a big imagination and fine skill with words get published; it's just unfortunate that that imagination and skill didn't result in a novel that lived up to its potential, or its hype.
Comment Comments (16) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 4, 2012 12:42 PM PDT

Let the Great World Spin: A Novel
Let the Great World Spin: A Novel
by Colum McCann
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.68
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars No Prize from Me, March 17, 2010
From an interview with Colum McCann in the back of the book, it seems like he's quite a decent fellow, so I'll raise a toast to him. (I've also enjoyed some of his earlier work.) And the characters in this novel are certainly decent also: despite their quirks and weaknesses, it's hard not to root for every one of them. But I'm afraid that my best wishes for both the author and his characters don't help my response to the book itself--which is, to put it simply, that I found it boring. I honestly had to work and work to finish this novel. I won't rehearse the plot of the book since you can find it in other reviews, but I think the conception (imagining the day of Philippe Petit's walk between the towers) was fantastic. The characters, as noted above, cry out for our sympathy. The ending is sweet. But somehow the whole piece, the way it tries to show the "two degrees of separation" that hold together a city, never holds together itself. In trying to manipulate the characters and their relationships through the complexity of their lives and this particular day, the novel feels more arranged than heartfelt: characters seem to have functions in a plot rather than lives in our imaginations. Scenes end up sounding like "set pieces," where the prose sounds self-involved and the characters consequently artificial. Some tumble into stereotypes, and others seem less than complete (e.g., one character is said to belong to a religious organization simply referred to as the "Order," as if this were a Dan Brown novel. Religious orders have particular names and identities, even if imaginary ones, so why not fill us in on this?). The shadow of the Twin Towers haunts this book, but the poignancy of this real event isn't enough to sustain a poignancy in the book's imagined ones.

The Gargoyle
The Gargoyle
by Andrew Davidson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.38
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3.0 out of 5 stars maybe next time, August 18, 2009
This review is from: The Gargoyle (Paperback)
The Gargoyle relates the tale of the consequences of a horrible automobile accident in which an arrogant, drug-addicted porn star--our narrator--gets horribly burned. While recovering he meets a mysterious, beautiful, erotic, and generous woman who is either a) a schizophrenic manic-depressive; or b) his love from centuries ago who has returned to sustain their love. To prove the latter, the woman tells of their earlier lives (as well as some other stories), and the plot of the novel provides enough other mysteries (such as a scar on the man's chest) to make her stories plausible. Unfortunately, as the novel proceeds, the stories the woman tells fail to come to life, mostly because they are written in the exact same voice as the narrator of the primary story itself. Aren't these supposed to be two different speakers? In addition, the excitement of the possibility that this woman is some kind of magical gift is lost as she grows ever more obsessive and self-absorbed, and by the end of the novel, despite some halfhearted attempts at ambiguity, we can't but feel that we've read a story about two suffering people who met in a hospital. We have just enough sympathy for the characters not to dislike the book, and the promise of its premise still lingers, but we also feel that the book missed out on a chance to exploit its originality. Let's hope that next time the promise meets the practice.

Ireland: A Novel
Ireland: A Novel
by Frank Delaney
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.17
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12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars manipulative, August 18, 2009
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Considering my great interest in and affection for Irish literature and history, it's with some surprise and much disappointment that I cannot recommend Frank Delaney's "Ireland" as a worthwhile read. The plot involves the obsession that a young Irishman, Ronan O'Mara, has for an old Storyteller of Irish tales who Ronan first hears as a young boy in the 1950s when the man recites a tale in Ronan's home. The structure of the book uses Ronan's search for the itinerant bard and his subsequent studies at college to narrate a score of tales from Irish myth and history. Various speakers--village women, the Storyteller, a history professor, Ronan himself--are all drawn on stage over the course of the narrative to tell a tale from the Irish past as the novel tells of Ronan growing up and becoming a young man. All the good stories are here: The Book of Kells, Brendan the Navigator, the Battle of the Boyne, the Easter Uprising, and many others. These stories are fine enough, though a bit longwinded, but the structure of the novel that sets the stage for these stories is so contrived as to grow irritating. The Storyteller seems to harbor some dark secret that connects him to Ronan--a secret that everybody in the book seems to know except Ronan--and yet no one is willing to let Ronan in on the mystery. Why? The book wants you to think that it's because the secret is too painful, but really the reason is that without the mystery there wouldn't be any structure through which to narrate all the stories-within-the-story. As readers we feel less intrigued than manipulated: why keep deferring information and revelation? The book actually uses this deferral throughout, in points both big and small. For example, late in the novel Ronan's mother calls him to ask if he remembers a young woman from his school days and mentions that the woman wants to see him but won't tell him why. Then Ronan contacts the woman, who won't tell him what she wants. She visits and says she has something to show him but won't say what it is. She then takes him there, but won't say what's there. Finally the mystery is revealed, but it's one that readers would have guessed from the minute the mother calls, and all the supposed mystery building is just an annoyance. This all happens over three pages, so you can imagine what it's like to have the novel extend this game for over 500 pages to the broader mysteries of the Storyteller and Ronan's family. In the end, when the climaxes appear and revelations at last come into the light, we cannot share the narrative's sense of wonder and sympathy and celebration. The characters feel like functionaries and the mystery like manipulation. There are many great tales in the book, but "Ireland" unfortunately does not reach the same level as the stories it includes.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2013 9:03 AM PST

The Best American Poetry 2008: Series Editor David Lehman, Guest Editor Charles Wright
The Best American Poetry 2008: Series Editor David Lehman, Guest Editor Charles Wright
by Ralph Angel
Edition: Paperback
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth Your While, March 20, 2009
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If your only experience with this series is the unfortunate Best American Poetry 2007, then Best American Poetry 2008 might not be enough to persuade you of the value of this series or the worth of contemporary poetry. But I would urge you at least to give it a chance. In his introduction, editor Charles Wright refreshingly forewarns us that he likes "things to make sense" and that we shouldn't look for "language games, intellectual rip-offs, or rhetorical sing-alongs," all ideas that made me optimistic about the book's contents (and made me wonder if he was referring to the noted weakness of the 07 version). For the most part Wright stays true to his word, as a good number of these poems both please the ear and excite the mind. The clash of styles among the poems can be jarring--an inevitable flaw in any series of this nature--but that does not take away from the individual successes you find inside. Oddly the poems seem to be weakest in the middle (purely an accident of its alphabetical structure), when the unnecessary obscurity of so much contemporary poetry supplants the heartfelt intensity Wright seemed to be seeking. Everyone will have their favorites, of course, which is why I would recommend you take a look at the book--it won't please everyone, but everyone should be able to find something pleasing somewhere inside.

People of the Book: A Novel
People of the Book: A Novel
by Geraldine Brooks
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.07
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not a person of this book, March 11, 2009
The ad copy of Geraldine Brooks's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, March, speaks to her ability to conjure up the emotional intensity of a past world. I will trust that she did this, for I'm afraid her effort in People of the Book does not inspire me to read her more acclaimed work. While some of the episodes are intense enough in People of the Book to make me slightly engaged with the characters and their dilemmas, for the most part I felt pained at the lack of emotion and at the condescension of the story I was reading.

As readers are probably aware, the book alternates between the first-person narrative of a late twentieth-century scholar and restorer of books (Hannah Heath) and the imagined events of several historical moments related to a precious haggadah. We learn in a series of episodes in reverse chronology how the book came to be and to be where it is in the present day of Hannah Heath's narrative. Many of these episodes include plots where people's very lives are changed and even destroyed by their intense desire to protect so meaningful a religious text. This conception and construction is what attracted me to the book: I love stories about books and am an avid fan not only of history but of the history of book production and illustration. Yet despite my attraction to the subject, the episodes in this novel pass as little more than exercises in erudition. The historical set pieces are not constructed as short stories--with their own narrative arc--and thus they develop with little opportunity for us to engage in the emotional lives of the characters. This is especially troubling when you consider that most of the episodes concern some of the worst atrocities in history, including the Holocaust, the Inquisition, and the practice of slavery in early modern Europe. What these historical episodes do include is a wealth of historical reference, language and allusion, and yet this is exactly what bothered me: so much information was given for the sake of giving information, and not for the sake of emotional intensity, that I couldn't help feel that I was reading a book where I was supposed to learn how much the author knew rather than to feel how much the characters mattered.

Part of my sense of the condescension of these historical moments derives admittedly from the present-day sections of the book. While Hannah Heath speaks in the most openminded way of multicultural sensitivity, everything about her life is one of high-class elitism. She flies first class because of a special benefactor, jets around from London to Vienna to Sarajevo to Boston, lunches at Indian restaurants and describes Harvard square, and has as parents an internationally famous painter father and an internationally known neurosurgeon mother. When Hannah finally meets up with an israeli agent to bring together events to close the novel, you have the unsettling feeling you are in a spy parody and a long way from the impetus of the book to honor those who dedicated their lives to the beauty and cultural sensitivity that book represents. One example of the sources of my uneasiness might help make my point: at one moment in the narrative, there is a phone call that confuses Hannah because the person calling--a doctor treating an emergency case--assumes that she is a physician and speaks to her in the technical language of emergency care. It seems that Hannah is listed as next of kin in this emergency situation as "Dr. Heath." I don't know about you, but how many Ph.D.'s out there actually are identified on such forms as "doctor"? I know dozens of Ph.D.'s (and physicians too for that matter), and none of them use their titles outside of work, and even there only when necessary. It's a small point, but the whole novel has that tone of elitism, one I couldn't even shake in the historical moments when we were supposed to feel for the simple and downtrodden who gave so much for their beliefs, their families and those they loved. I wish I could recommend this book more heartily--and I'm glad that Ms. Brooks found a way to write what must be an inspiring novel in March--but I closed the book with relief that I would not have to be talked down to any more. If you want to learn about disparate moments of history and their practices related to book production, have a go at this; if you want to be emotionally moved and inspired, you might need to go elsewhere.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 14, 2009 5:40 PM PDT

Plague of Doves, The
Plague of Doves, The
by Louise Erdrich
Edition: Hardcover
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars despite the best of intentions, February 19, 2009
This review is from: Plague of Doves, The (Hardcover)
I tried. I really did. I mean, this is Louise Erdrich, right? Yes, that Louise Erdrich, the author of Love Medicine and Tracks and an important voice in contemporary literature. But despite my best of intentions, I could not engage with this novel and found myself skimming and skipping. As I was reading it, much of it seemed vaguely familiar, and I wondered if it was just more of earlier Erdrich. I soon realized, however, that I was reading the many short stories of hers I had read over the past few years, almost none of which had impressed me. Having them all together under one title didn't help much either. As a series of set pieces there are many vivid and memorable scenes (noted by other reviewers), but the characters in those scenes never develop fully into people about whom I could care. And I should care, considering some of the dramatic and tragic events that transpire--elopements, hangings, religious cults, kidnappings. The characters felt almost like automatons, going through their motions before stepping offstage. I had hopes that the complex relationships--and the central tragedy that unites them--would come together in the end with a big payoff, and perhaps it does . . . but by then I had given up. I skipped ahead and got to the end (which I knew already anyway from the short fiction) and closed the book with a sigh. I feel for the poignant history of American Indian characters, love the direct narrative style Erdrich uses, and thrill at the flights (: of imagination she takes, and yet none of these could rescue the book for me. I might add that my co-worker and a dedicated reader loved the book and, as she said, cried at the end, so maybe there are better readers out there than I. But I gave it my very best effort and read with the best of intentions, only to leave with less than the best memories.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 17, 2010 3:16 PM PDT

The Best American Poetry 2007 (The Best American Poetry)
The Best American Poetry 2007 (The Best American Poetry)
by Heather McHugh
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.40
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars a few pleasures, December 12, 2008
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To Heather McHugh's credit, she's up front in her introduction about what criteria and biases she brings to her selections of the "best" in American Poetry. But that doesn't save the collection from being eminently disappointing. As many others have noted, this is a series of poems that play with sounds (I know, that sounds redundant)--but then it's not much more than that. The formula seems to be: 1) sing some sounds to yourself; 2) when they take the shape of words, write them down; 3) make big margins; 4) publish poem in BAP 2007. ("I met the Duck and Duckess of Windsor," Frederick Seidel writes in a typical line from the book.) Some of this is quirky and fun, but after a while it grows tedious and even makes you wonder how original any of this material is if it all sounds so much the same. Each year's collection requires an entire reading to find the gems, but this edition requires much more work than usual. Ultimately it's worth it--there's three or four poems that will please you--but the series editors really need to be more responsible about what they call the book. Granted we will never solve the formula for "best," but "Poems Heather Likes" would be much more accurate.

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