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by Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Hardcover
785 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars simply adequate, June 7, 2011
This review is from: Freedom (Hardcover)
Like any book that receives this much critical acclaim, "Freedom," contains something that appeals to a wide and disparate group. It resembles Franzen's previous book, "The Corrections," in its focus on a dysfunctional family. And when Franzen writes dysfunctional characters there is generally a sexual element to their relational issues. The dysfunction sexual relationships that are the centerpiece of Franzen's writing no doubt contributes to his popularity. Franzen almost had the dubious distinction of winning the Bad Sex in fiction prize.

A secondary element that makes the book popular, is its being held up as a model of "America," and the benefits and problems of unbridled freedom. It is claimed that it embodies some key American experiences, and to a certain extent this is true. However, due to the focus on a specific time and issues, the writing is limited and the book itself is not likely to be interesting to readers a decade from now.

One serious problem that I had with the book is Franzen's writing which leaves some characters one-dimensional, and gives the impression that they are only written in to move the plot along.

This is an interesting (mostly) readable book, but probably not a good representation of anything specifically "American." It is far more accurate to describe it as simply an adequate novel.

War Dances
War Dances
by Sherman Alexie
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.46
113 used & new from $0.90

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Light musings on mortality, June 7, 2011
This review is from: War Dances (Paperback)
The title story, "War Dances," appears to be an autobiographical musing on mortality, focusing on Alexie's learning that he has a brain tumor and his experience with his father's hospitalizations. The structure of the story is unusual in that it is short (only 34 pages long) and divided into sixteen subsections. Each subsection, "My Kafka Baggage," "Symptoms," "The Symptoms Worsen," "Blankets," etc. is a succinct scene that together, cluster around and build up the story of mortality that Alexie wants to tell.

Though mortality is the subject of several of the stories, the telling is very light and humorous. This is an easy to read summer book.

Go Tell It on the Mountain
Go Tell It on the Mountain
by James Baldwin
Edition: Paperback
94 used & new from $0.01

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars fathers and sons, June 7, 2011
"Go Tell It On The Mountain" starts with John, a 14 year old narrating his family story, living in Harlem. His parents had migrated North to New York as young adults and he is the first generation to grow up in the "liberal" North rather than in the "segregated" South.

John's father dislikes him, but the secret to his dislike is hidden from John. John has deep scars from his father's dislike though which emerge when he enters a trance-like religious state in church:
"Then his father was upon him; at his touch there was singing, and fire. John lay on his back in the narrow street, looking up at his father, that burning face beneath the burning towers.
'I'm going to beat it out of you. I'm going to beat it out.' His father raised his hand. The knife came down. John rolled away, down the white, descending street, screaming: 'Father! Father!'"
The father seems to symbolize both John's father and God who is invoked by each character as an overpowering presence who must by appeased, despite uncertainty as to what his wishes are. John's vision seems to be a way of reaching an understanding of his father and his relationship with him.

Call It Sleep: A Novel
Call It Sleep: A Novel
by Henry Roth
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.83
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2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars fathers and sons, June 7, 2011
This review is from: Call It Sleep: A Novel (Paperback)
Call It Sleep was published in 1934, but is set between 1907-1917. The father of the family had immigrated from Germany and the novel opens with the arrival of his wife and son. The story is recounted through the boy, David's eyes. He is very impressionable and sensitive, and his father's animosity aggravates his sensitive nature. Adjusting to life in New York's slums is a challenge. Roth's writing was unique in its use of Yiddish and vernacular speech for dialogue and the scenes that are described are evocative.

David's father has a very belligerent character and doubts that David is actually his own son. Because of this doubt he treats his wife and son cruelly. His cruelty, Roth implies, pushes the mother and son to be unnaturally loving and close. Frequently David's love for his mother seems to cross over into a sexualized feeling. There are frequent references to his mother's bosom, jealousy of a family friend who attempts to seduce her, etc. For example, after an upsetting incident David says: "'Mama! Mama! Mama!' Only the sheltering valley between her breasts muffled his scream of fear to her heart."

Or earlier,
"With knees drawn up, David watched her wipe the linoleum beneath his chair. The shadow between her breasts, how deep! How far it - No! No! Luter! When he looked! That night! Mustn't! Mustn't! Look away! Quick!"

The relationship between David and his mother (who's name, Genya, is used rarely) appears to not be healthy, and until the end of the novel the reader wonders if David will end up having a mental breakdown as he does not seem functional. He also does not seem like a realistic 4-12 year old boy.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 21, 2012 11:07 AM PDT

Let the Great World Spin: A Novel
Let the Great World Spin: A Novel
by Colum McCann
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.55
698 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Walking on a wire, June 7, 2011
This novel centers on Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers on August 7th, 1974. This single event has been taken as the starting point by Colum McCann from which the lives of a multitude of individuals are effected.

Each individual is given a chapter to delineate their world. There is the Irish priest and his brother working in the South Bronx and the prostitutes that the priest is attempting to help. Another story is added by a wealthy housewife whose son was killed in Vietnam. With each narrative strand added to the story it becomes clearer how all of their lives are intertwined. The final chapter is set in 2006 and brings the story to a satisfactory conclusion.

McCann's strategy in this novel allows in-depth views of his characters on the days before the tightrope walk, and the day of the walk. Notably absent are any details about Petit, but perhaps that is because he is a real person.

Best Friends: The True Story of the World's Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary
Best Friends: The True Story of the World's Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary
by Samantha Glen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.37
208 used & new from $0.01

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars a good read for cat and dog lovers, June 7, 2011
This is a very upbeat and light account of how the Best Friends sanctuary and organization began and expanded. Best Friends is now a large nonprofit which accepts volunteers and gives tours. Their motto is "kindness to animals builds a better world for all of us."

The book begins in 1982 when a large group of friends decided to pool resources and buy a 3,000 acre property in Utah. The purchasing of the property is the subject of part 1. A multipart animal sanctuary with a "Dogtown" and a "Cat World" as well as a "Piggy Paradise" and a "Horse haven" is described. The second part focuses on one of the founders - Faith Maloney - and her role in Best Friends. The lengthiest and final section, describes the financial struggle and growing pains that made Best Friends the functional nonprofit that it now is.

The author, Samantha Glen, manages to describe the personalities that started the sanctuary, the difficulties with growth, and the tales of animals reaching happier states of being with a straightforward narrative.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 4, 2013 3:04 PM PST

Ramses: Under the Western Acacia - Volume V
Ramses: Under the Western Acacia - Volume V
by Christian Jacq
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.59
148 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A continuation of a fanciful story, June 7, 2011
This final book in the Ramses series continues Jacq's fanciful tale of Ramses the flawless.
Ramses: "This is the real reason for my journey. No Tyrian who wishes to trade with Egypt must traffic in slaves.
The Phoenician was shocked, and it was all he could do to be keep calm and not protest vigorously. 'Majesty,' he said, 'slavery is a law of nature. Trading societies have always practiced it.'
'There's no slavery in Egypt,' said Ramses. 'Human beings are the gods' flock and no individual has the right to treat another as an object without a soul, or as merchandise.'
Narish had never heard such wild talk. If the speaker had not been the Pharaoh of Egypt, he would have thought him a madman.
'Weren't your prisoners of war reduced to slavery, Majesty?'
'They were sentenced to hard labour for periods that varied according to the seriousness of the accusations made against them. When they were freed they could do as they pleased. Most of them remained in Egypt, and many of them founded families.'....
[Ramses] 'Do you think the pyramids and the temples could have been built by gangs of slaves?' (pg. 290)

Reading this exchange was for me quite strange. Logically the answer to the question is that only slavery would enable the building of the pyramids. No people in their right minds would willingly do that kind of work. Whether the Egyptians call it slavery or indentured servitude is irrelevant. Jacq seems to twist historical fact to match a preconceived and modern picture of Ramses' morality. It is not worth serious reading.

Ramses: The Lady of Abu Simbel - Volume IV
Ramses: The Lady of Abu Simbel - Volume IV
by Christian Jacq
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.39
155 used & new from $0.01

1.0 out of 5 stars So unlikely as to lose any entertainment value, June 7, 2011
This book opens in the middle of the protracted battles with the Hittites. Ramses, with his lion, Invincible, and his army, attacks some rebellious Canaanites and brings them back into the Egyptian fold. There are multiple battles throughout the book, plots, domestic and foreign, to unseat Ramses, but he is always prepared. Moses is presented as a leader of the Hebrews who is rather zealous and unreasonable. The story of the plagues is retold as a failed public relations attempt to spin natural phenomena:

"Aaron stretched out his staff and declared loudly, 'Since Pharaoh still refuses to allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt, here, after the water that changed into blood, is the second plague Yahveh inflicts on the oppressor: Frogs, thousands of frogs, millions of frogs, which will go everywhere, into the workshops, the houses, the bedchambers of the wealthy!"...
"Satau smiled. Neither he nor Kha would have to do anything to combat this plague. Aaron should have consulted Moses before uttering a curse which wouldn't frighten a single Egyptian. At this time of year, the frogs' proliferation was quite normal - in fact, the people considered it a good omen. In hieroglyphs, the sign of the frog served to indicate the figure 'a hundred thousand', that is, an almost incalculable number, proportional to the abundance brought by the Nile flood." (pg. 299)

This reinterpretation of the Hebrew story is quite interesting and made me wonder whether there is good reason to believe that this was in fact the Egyptian perspective on events.

However, Jacq's portrayal of Ramses not just as the representative of the Gods, but as a God, with no human failings quickly makes any historical accuracy questionable. Ramses is although not monogomous only capable of loving one woman. IN UTWA Ramses states that, "The Royal Children - those are simply honorary titles" (pg. 24). Yes, although Ramses had two wives, and a harem, he only had three children, and all those historical records documenting his progeny actually refer to the official titles bestowed on them rather than to any genetic relationship. Ramses only love was Nefertari, who dies at the conclusion of the book.
Sure, this all sounds very likely and in line with human nature. Only readable if you are willing to suspend disbelief.

Rosie Carpe (European Women Writers)
Rosie Carpe (European Women Writers)
by Marie NDiaye
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.78
46 used & new from $0.17

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Unreflecting, June 7, 2011
"Rosie Carpe" is a novel (by Marie NDiaye) that is supposed to be about the woman of that name - but in fact seems to recount her story in a distant and disconnected way. It could also be said to be about identity, maternal connections, or the lack thereof. Though all of these elements are present it is not easy to make a claim that the book is about any one of them.

Briefly, Rosie, who is in her mid-twenties, arrives in Guadaloupe with her five year old son, Titi, and pregnant with a second child, of unknown paternity. Lagrand, Lazare's purported friend, picks her up from the airport. From him, Rosie learns that much of what she believed concerning her brother and parents is false. Rosie attempts to shape a new identify for herself in Guadaloupe, separating herself from her impoverished, colorless, insensate existence in Paris. In this attempt she seems to fail.

The first two chapters of the novel are narrated by Rosie. The third is split between Lagrand and Rosie and the final chapter is narrated by Lagrand. Of the two narrators, Rosie is both less trustworthy and less sympathetic. The first chapter, 36 pages describing hours waiting in the airport and the car ride home, details Rosie's generalized uncertainty, self-pity, and distaste for her son. The sense that Rosie is either mentally unstable or deficient becomes increasingly clear. Throughout the internal recounting of her life, in the second chapter, Rosie appears to be dull, unreflective, and not a real champion when it comes to decision making. Halfway through the book the reader can not help but feel disconcerted by Rosie's neglect of Titi and fundamental instability.

When Lagrand takes over the narrative role it is a relief since he is not only the only moral character in the book, but also (seemingly) honest about events in the world. He feels drawn toward Rosie, seemingly inexplicably, desiring her company despite sensing that she is lacking in an ethical center.

That Lagrand is a black Guadaloupean, and the Carpe family are white is no doubt significant from the author's point of view. Lagrand, who's mother was institutionalized, grew up with his grandparents and reflects that perhaps he was better off for it. Titi, who is an adult by the conclusion of the book, is also raised by his grandparents, but turns out less well. Lagrand, who became motherless, was able to identify that Titi was in a precarious position with his mother and to rescue him. Perhaps it is because of his own mother's abandonment that he can forgive Rosie and still love her.

Other aspects of the book which seem portentous are the names, Lazare, who disappears and seems to rise from the dead throughout the book; Lagrand, who is a great person; Rose-Marie (Rosie), the sister of Lazare; the family name of Carpe, perhaps. Unfortunately, attempting to find clues justifying the plot of the novel is a futile activity. Perhaps it is an elaborate parable about motherhood, love, and redemption, but it is more likely just what it appears to be - an unhappy novel about pathetic people.

Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas
Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas
by Dario Fo
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.29
53 used & new from $0.26

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Padan & Pigs, June 7, 2011
"Get moving! Quick, the ship is going under!"
Down in the hold the pigs were still squealing desperately.
"Save the pigs!"
"One should never go into the sea without a pig!"
Because these animals have an unrivaled sense of direction. They can orient themselves in the sea even during a storm. You throw them in the water and: TAK! They immediately point their snouts in the direction of the closest shore... When they go "OINK, OINK, OINK, OINK!" four times, you're headed to land, and they're never wrong!
And that's why the Genoese people say: "On every ship you should always bring aboard an authentic pig...besides the captain...who's just an ordinary pig."

If I am ever on a sinking ship I hope there are pigs available! This is just one of many helpful ideas embedded in the narration of Johan Padan and the Discovery of the Americas by Dario Fo. This is an unusual story in that it is told in a nontraditional manner with illustrations, and it is an alternate history, on the small scale, of interactions between Europeans and Native Americans.
Interestingly, the text is intended as a script for a one-man standup performance. It was originally composed in Italian "dialect," then translated to standard Italian, and then again into English (by Ron Jenkins and Stefania Taviano). The oral nature of the text is illustrated by the use of many words for sound effects. The narrative is told through dialogue and monologue. Despite the fact that this was composed as a script Fo started by drawing pictures to capture his ideas. From these pictures Fo then wrote his story. The line drawings illustrating the story are not high art, but they do show the scenes that were envisioned and mesh closely with the text.
As alternate history, The Discovery of the Americas is a small-scale story about the successful revolt of one group of Native Americans against a group of Spaniards with the help of Johan Padan. Padan, after spending several years with various native groups no longer sees them the same way as Europeans do (or as he did when he first arrived). So, when he encounters Europeans again he is surprised/reminded by their barbarity towards natives and casts his lot with them.
This is a thoroughly recommendable book. Though it is salacious and Eurocentric in parts it seems essential to the character of Johan Padan and the European world/belief systems being portrayed. The unique form also makes this a book that is engaging.

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