Thursday, January 25, 2007

Lisey's Story

By Stephen King

Let me start off by saying I am not a big fan of Stephen King. I have read quite a few of his novels: The Shining, Cujo, The Green Mile, The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Desperation, The Dead Zone, It, Dolores Claiborne, Needful Things. I was hoping that this book would be more in the vein of Dolores Claiborne than in that of Desperation. This is because I am not a fan of horror or suspense stories. Well, Lisey's Story combines both, being an insightful look at strong woman, like Dolores Claiborne, but with horror elements too.
Lisey is a woman in her 50s whose successful novelist husband, Scott, died a couple years before. She thinks she is coping with Scott's death OK, but when she finally begins to clean out Scott's office, she has to face her memories of their life together; mainly she has to deal with the craziness that Scott brought with him into their marriage. Craziness runs in both their families, but it runs so strong in Scott's that he refused to ever have children, not wanting to pass on the "bad-gunkies," as he called it. As Lisey's is trying to cope with remembering Scott's bad-gunkies, she also has to deal with a catatonic sister and some weirdo who wants to slice and dice her out of pure mean craziness.
The story starts off slow. I didn't really start to get into it until the part where Lisey is attacked by the weirdo. The pace of the story picked up pretty well then. Some of the language was hard to handle, lots of peculiar terms are used like bool, and smucking and SOWISA and puffickly huh-yooge (it took me a while to figure that one out) and they get in the way of the story somewhat, although I think King uses these words because they are so much a part of Lisey's internal dialogue and are part of the language of Lisey's marriage with Scott. Though the novel starts out kind of slow and kind of confusing (I had a hard time remembering what SOWISA was supposed to mean), King is a good story teller and his characters are interesting, charming and worth reading about.

The Green Bay Tree

By Louis Bromfield

What a waste of time this novel was. Completely pointless, as far as I could tell. It's mainly about a beautiful, rich woman, Lily. Is the reader supposed to admire this character? Because there really wasn't anything to admire. She is lazy, willful and she does nothing interesting. Her main attribute is her beauty. She gets pregnant and refuses to marry the father. Are we supposed to admire her because she decides to go it alone and stand on her own two feet? Big Deal! It's easy to stand on your own two feet when you have a big fat bank account. Towards the end of the book she shoots a couple of German soldiers (during WW I) but that scene was completely unbelievable.
Are we supposed to admire her cold, arrogant mother? Frankly, I can't admire a woman who won't acknowledge another person because that man is, to quote the book, "a dirty Jew." That isn't the only racial epithet used in the book, where some of the mill workers are called Dagos and Hunkies. I wasn't familiar with the term Hunky but, from reading the novel, I think a Hunky was a word for a person from Russia. Maybe we are supposed to admire the mother because she put up with an abusive husband? That doesn't make her admirable, that just makes her stupid.
I know the reader is not supposed to admire Lily's younger sister, Irene. She is portrayed as an unbalanced religious fanatic. What's completely unbelievable is that Irene became unbalanced when she discovered Lily had taken a lover. I know this book was written in the 1920s but how could finding out your sister is a slut knock anyone off balance?
There wasn't a single character that I liked or cared about in the entire novel.
When I first wrote this review, I didn't understand why the novel was titled The Green Bay Tree. I just found out recently that it is from the Bible: Psalm 37:35 "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree." So apparently, the sexually liberated Lily is the wicked and flourishing green bay tree. This is nice to know because it was a puzzle.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Dogs of Babel

By Carolyn Parkhurst

A man's wife, Lexy, is found dead under a tree in their backyard. Is it an accident or suicide? The police decide she must have fallen accidentally since there was no suicide note or any indication that she was depressed. But the only one who truly knows is the sole witness, the couple's dog, Lorelei.
The man, Paul, can't seem to get over Lexy's death. He is a linguist and he decides he is going to teach his dog to talk so he find out what really happened. Needless to say, he fails. He does some more research and discovers an underground group that is altering dogs surgically to enable them to speak. He contacts this group and, to his horror and dismay, they kidnap Lorelei, intending to perform their torturous surgeries on her. He gets the dog back but her voice box has been removed and she can make no sound at all.
This story isn't really about the man's desire to talk with his dog. It's really about his wife. As we read along, it starts to become apparent that all is not well with Lexy. She makes beautiful masks and one day her husband makes a small criticism about one of her masks. She flies into a rage and smashes the mask to bits. Anger isn't her only issue, she's got other problems too.
I felt sorry for Paul. Lexy's death really messed him up badly. Towards the end of the story he's not eating much and wearing the same clothes for days and the house is filthy. But I didn't like Lexy. She kept too much hidden from him, her real feelings and thoughts that she didn't really share herself with him.
It was an OK read, although the dog-talking premise is dumb.

The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love

By Joan Medlicott

Three women in their sixties live in a boarding house run by an unpleasant, overbearing woman. When one of the women, Amelia, inherits an old farm house, they decide to fix it up and live there. So Amelia hires a local man to do all the repairs and remodeling and pretty soon the three have moved to a very small mountain community to start life anew.
So next throw in some pretty standard plot devices to add a little drama (one woman gets lost on a hike to do some photography, one woman accidentally starts a fire, one woman gets jealous, one woman's son has a lover with HIV, and there is a challenge to legitmacy of the inheritance) and that's basically the story. It's an OK story if you can overlook a few things, like how stupid these women seem to be at times. I mean, a kid of 14 would know you don't wander off into a forest by yourself and if you're going to burn leaves, don't set the whole orchard on fire. I just don't think that would happen to these women unless they are all senile, in which case they should be in a nursing home.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

By Thornton Wilder

1928 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by the man who wrote the play, Our Town.
It starts out with the collapse of the San Luis Rey bridge in which five people fall to their deaths; kind of a grim way to start a novel. The novel proceeds to look at the lives of these unfortunates, posing the question, why them? Were they terrible sinners who deserved to die? Or perhaps they were saints being called home to their reward in heaven?
One of them was a lonely woman whose whole life revolves around her daughter. Her daughter, however, lives in Europe and really would rather that her mother just leave her alone. The woman is accompanied by her maid, who also dies in the bridge collapse. The maid is a young orphan who is in training to take over the job of running the orphanage when she matures.
The third person in the group is a man who recently lost his beloved twin brother.
Next comes an elderly man who is accompanied by a young boy that he has recently undertaken to educate. The boy is the son of an accomplished actress that the man raised & trained.
So what do these people all have in common? They were loved better after they were dead than they were when they were alive. Each one shared their life with some person who failed to value them properly. The mother's daughter was contemptuous of her mother. The head of the orphanage was too impersonal to the young maid. The twin brother was jealous of his brother's love for a woman. The actress despised the man who was responsible for her great success and she was indifferent to her little son.
Only after these five people were gone did their friends & families realize how important they were and how very much they would be missed. Only then is their love realized and perfected.
This is not a happy story. It is a forerunner of Wilder's theme in
Our Town,which he wrote about ten years later, that people are blind to the true meaning of their lives. They go along being cruel or indifferent to the ones they should treat the best, the ones who should be held dear in their hearts. Just like the souls in Our Town, the survivors can only look back and wish they had lived their lives differently, more aware, more lovingly.
I can't say I liked this story. It makes you think, I guess, but I found it depressing to read about these five knowing that they end up smashed to death. I didn't like Our Town either. They are both too morbid and not my cup of tea.
However, the story is well written and very readable and interesting. It drew me in despite its sad beginning. If you like stories that delve into the meaning of life then you would probably enjoy this novel.

The Princess Diaries

By Meg Cabot

I wasn't familiar with this author's works before I read this book. I first heard of The Princess Diaries when I saw the movie version. I didn't know the movie was based on a book. After reading the book, I would say the movie was based loosely on the book. In the movie, a lot of the action takes place in Europe. In the book, it all happens in New York City.
High schooler Mia's parents never married and her father is the Prince of Genovia. He never thought Mia would be his heir as he always counted on getting married and having a family. But due to illness, he is sterile. So now his illegitimate daughter is next in line to the throne of Genovia. Not only that but Mia doesn't even know she is a princess until her father comes to New York and tells her that she is and that she has to learn the graces and poise a princess is expected to know.
Mia hates the idea. She just wants to be a normal teen and go the high school and hang out with her friends. Instead she finds herself being instructed in the fine points of etiquette by her domineering grandmother; being driven to school in a limo; and being shadowed by a body guard.
Poor Mia! She has never really fit in and now she feels even more alienated! Suddenly people who used to sneer at her want to be her best friends! But do they really want to know her or are they just sucking up to the "princess"?
An interesting story, very readable, and just the sort of thing that preteen & teen girls would enjoy.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Farewell Summer

By Ray Bradbury

A sequel to Dandelion Wine, this book continues the story of Douglas. The summer of 1928 in Green Town has give way to fall. Douglas is back in school and his spirit is troubled. He knows he must grow up but he wants to stay young and vital, he wants to stay a boy. He and his little brother Tom and their friends all decide that being a boy forever is what they all want. So they declare war on time, on age, on whatever it is that is trying to drag them into adulthood.
An interesting trip back to Green Town, but without the charm and affection of the first book. This story is a little coarser, the language is cruder, it is not as poetic as the first. It just doesn't quite capture that lovely picture like the first novel did.

Dandelion Wine

By Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1920. This book is a sort of a memoir of his boyhood days there. In the story, set in 1928, Waukegan is called Green Town. The main character is a 12 year old boy named Douglas. He and his little brother Tom live in Green Town. The story is about Douglas and Tom's experiences one typical summer in small town, Midwestern America. It is a charming and sweet book, thoughtful and loving in its portrayal. All is not sweetness and light though. Death walks the streets of Green Town and Doug begins to take his first tentative steps to adulthood as he grapples with the certainties of life.
I first read this book long ago. Bradbury recently came out with a sequel, Farewell Summer. I couldn't remember a lot about the first book so I reread it. I do remember wondering about the dandelion wine and looking up a recipe for it. It is made with dandelion flowers, sugar & citrus, plus various other ingredients as flavor enhancers. I am not a big fan of wine, but Bradbury's prose makes dandelion wine sound heavenly.

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living

By Carrie Tiffany

Jean and Robert meet on a train, a special train. This train travels 1930s Australia educating farmers in techniques to improve yield & improve their lives. Robert is a soil scientist. He has the unique ability to taste a sample of soil and tell where it came from. He is on the train to instruct farmers on growing better wheat. Jean is a seamstress. She is on the train to instruct farm wives on how to sew better clothing. Jean say she is not looking for love and yet she finds herself drawn to the taciturn Robert. He is the one who came up with the "Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living." They are 1. Contribute to Society for the achievement of mutual benefits. 2. The only true foundation is a fact. 3. Keep up-to-date. 4. Avoid mawkish consideration of history & religion. 5. Keep the mind flexible through the development & testing of new hypotheses. 6. Cultivate the company of wiser men -- men who are stickers -- not shirkers. 7. Disseminate. The labors and achievements of men of science must become the permanent possession of many. 8. Bring science into the home.
Robert has a dream. He wants to set up an experimental wheat farm and use his scientific knowledge to produce a better, more bountiful crop. He seduces Jean and they get married and move to a farm in the Mallee region of Australia and Robert goes about proving his hypothesis that science can produce better crops for farmers. But Robert founds out that farming isn't really science when the Mallee is plagued by drought for years and by infestations of mice.
It is hard to understand just what Jean sees in Robert. For one thing, she never really says. It is not clear whether she wed because she just wanted a husband or because she fell for him. She never even says that she loves him until the end of the story. Robert never says much either, although he plainly enjoys having sex with her.
Robert comes across as a cold fish and Jean isn't much better. It's hard to warm up to these characters when so much of their internal life is left unsaid. I guess the main point of the story is to point out the inadequacy of science.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Haunted

By Chuck Palahniuk

This is supposed to be a novel but it is really a collection of stories strung together by a premise. The premise is a group of writers locked away from the world to work on their masterpiece for 3 months. But these people aren't really writers, what they want is a blockbuster that will bring them the big bucks and they will do whatever it takes even if it means cannibalism and self-mutilation.
So that is the framework for the stories, a group of people starving and hurting themselves in order to make their ordeal more saleable. Like anyone would really do that!
Despite the title, there are no ghost stories. The stories are pretty much straight up horror. They are gruesome and disgusting, full of nasty smells and nasty sights. But not really what you could call shocking. I already knew that those pool pumps can suck your guts out thru your rectum. I already knew that some hot springs are hot enough to cook you alive. I already knew that when you get burned your skin can slough off. I already knew that the process of decay involves insects and liquefaction and bloat. I already knew that a lot of people are perverts so I wasn't surprised to read about men having sex with a CPR dummy or whatever. (The movie "American Pie" pretty much established that men will screw anything.) I already knew that bums stink. I already knew that people like Typhoid Mary who have to be isolated to prevent the spread of disease.
The last story, "Obsolete" is just dumb. Video tape of Venus shows that Paradise is real and everyone on Earth kills themselves so they can get to Paradise. What the hell? No way!
Finally, it is hard to have any sympathy for the writer "victims" because most of them turn out to be homicidal creeps themselves and pretty much deserve what they get.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Arrowsmith

By Sinclair Lewis

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1926 but I am not sure why unless it is for its exposé of some of medical goings on common at that time (and which probably still exist in some form today). The novel starts with the young Martin Arrowsmith and follows him through school & medical school and his career in medicine. While in school he discovers he likes working in a lab best, but because of a stupid disagreement with his mentor, he leaves lab work and ends up in private practice in a small town with his young wife Leora, who is pretty much a zero. Her only quality is that she loves Martin.
Martin likes to do things right. He wants to do what is best and what is good medicine. But he doesn't sit right with the people of the small town who misinterpret his efforts and he ends up losing the respect of the community. So he finds a job with a public health department. But he steps on people's toes trying to do a good job and is forced out.
Next he ends up at a big research institute in New York City, working with his old college lab mentor. The pay is good and Martin gets to do what he is best suited for: research. It seems to be the dream job. But once again, he discovers his fellows at the institute all have feet of clay. For one thing, he is pressured to publish his research before he is absolutely sure of his results because the institute is looking for big, headline-grabbing discoveries.
Martin is sent out to deal with an outbreak of plague on an island. He is supposed to run a controlled test which would require injecting one group with his plague cure and keeping another group as control to see if the cure really works. But when he sees how the people are suffering he breaks down and injects everyone. And they get better. But was it because of the cure or because the disease just ran its course? He doesn't know. And Leora also dies, but that hardly matters since she was such a nonentity.
Martin meets a rich, society woman on the island and when he gets back to New York, they get married which turns out to be a big mistake. At first, it is fun going to work at the institute in a fancy limo. But, unlike Leora, the new wife expects Martin to pay attention to her and to their baby son; to show up for her society dinner parties, to learn to golf, play bridge and fit in with her luxurious life style, be a good example to their child. But things are getting really interesting in the lab and Martin can't tear himself away. He tries to explain to the new wife, but she just doesn't get it. Then she starts pressuring him to accept the directorship of the institute, which would mean giving up what he loves best, his lab work.
Martin is a well meaning but driven fellow. He is not very lovable. He is not a good mixer, he doesn't really fit in anywhere. He is only comfortable in the lab.
I didn't really care for the story. Martin is overbearing, obsessive, selfish, tactless, borderline alcoholic, and he is a lousy husband and father. I was pretty tired of him by the time I finished the novel.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Women and Gender in Islam

By Leila Ahmed

An interesting book that looks at the underpinnings of Islamic subjugation of women; it contains a lot of information about the beginnings of Islam. Unfortunately, Leila Ahmed seeks to shift the blame for Islamic abuse of women unto the West, Christians & Jews. Her theory is that the Islamic message absorbed the anti-female practices of other societies of the area, including the Greeks, Christians, and Jews. Also, it is the West's fault that Islamic hardliners are reinstating the old abuses: it is simply a backlash at Western dominance & Western values (including feminism) that they feel have been imposed on them.
It makes me tired. When will people stop laying blame and start taking responsibility for their own filthy messes?