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Tag: Book Reviews

Book Review: Ragtime

E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime. Wow. What a book. This is a page-turner (even with its unfashionably long paragraphs –some longer than a full page). We have an omniscient narrator fully in control of his material, a historical period (1910-14 or so) absolutely brimming with fascinating events and people (Magician Harry Houdini, Magnate JP Morgan, Architect Stanford…
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Book Review: The Journalist and the Murderer

Janet Malcolm. The Journalist and the Murderer.  Here’s another dark topic, though it’s not a dark book. And instead of the author’s website, because I couldn’t see one, I link her name to an interview in the Paris Review. This short non-fiction account examines the relationship (and lawsuit) between accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and journalist Joe McGinniss,…
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Book Review: The False Friend

Myla Goldberg, The False Friend. A compulsively readable novel about Celia Durst, a performance auditor in Chicago who returns to her small hometown 21 years after the disappearance of her childhood friend Djuna, when she starts remembering what really happened that day. But the deed she confesses to is not what everyone else thinks happened. Riveting. Back…
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Book Review: Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. This novel follows a group of men in various degrees of sociopathy (my layman’s diagnosis) as they hunt Apaches through the high deserts of Mexico and the southern US, slaughtering the inhabitants and encountering the aftermath of carnage committed by their Apache prey. McCarthy seamlessly integrates historical detail and language into this…
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Book Review: The Happiness Advantage

Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage. In the usual writer’s quest to work harder (or at least, to avoid extinction), reading about how to gain an advantage over fate is, alas, mandatory. This book is one in a long line of positive thinking texts that go back to Samuel Smiles in the 1800s (and probably earlier). But…
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Book Review: White Noise

White Noise, by Don Delillo. This novel is a black comedy about Hitler historian Jack Gladney, his fourth wife, Babette, and their kids, many of whom are from various prior unions. Gladney’s a large man who wears academic robes and dark glasses and enjoys a certain stature in his academic niche, despite an embarrassing inability to…
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Book Review: Jack Maggs

Jack Maggs: A Novel. Peter Carey. A third-person account of Jack Maggs, a Londoner shipped to Australia as a boy convict. It tells the story of Maggs’ return to London as a fully grown but immature man: now rich, physically imposing, dangerous, suffering from terrible headaches, determined to contact his son. Maggs is exploited by…
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Book Review: Carthage

Carthage, Joyce Carol Oates. This is a big (482 pages) and disturbing novel about the disappearance of 19-year-old Cressida Mayhew from her home in Carthage, a small town in upstate New York. The main suspect is damaged Iraq war veteran Brett Kincaid, who has recently broken his engagement to Cressida’s older sister, Juliet. Kincaid, physically…
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Book Review: The Twin

The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker. Trans. David Colmer. This first-person novel about a man in late middle age shows the power of clear, simple language in drawing the reader into the character’s world. The protagonist, a bitter and laconic farmer who gave up his own plans 30 years earlier in order to replace his dead twin…
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Book Review(s): Two by Kent Haruf

RIP Kent Haruf, who died November 30, 2014 at the age of 71. Here is an earlier post about two of his books. A wonderful writer. Plainsong. In this moving story of family disintegration and re-creation, Haruf’s distant omniscient narration is balanced by the weight of scene over narrative exposition—over one hundred scenes in forty-four…
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Book Review: The Brief History of the Dead

The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier. This novel connects the world’s dead to one character, a tenacious young woman named Laura Byrd, perhaps the last survivor of a global pandemic. Brockmeier does the seemingly impossible—makes us care about the dead. They’re dead! Who cares!? The point is, we all do. If we…
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Book Review: Pastoralia

Pastoralia: Stories and a Novella, by George Saunders. I’ve never read anything like these stories: interior monologue so skewed and entertaining that the action seems secondary. But there is action, and it’s pretty intense: a boy dies riding his bike, a poor swimmer plunges into a fast river in a possibly doomed attempt to save two…
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Book Review(s): Two by William Boyd

Any Human Heart. This novel is in diary format. It’s a testament to Boyd’s skill that it’s an involving read. A trip through the 20th century via the life of Logan Mountstuart, whose ups and downs involve public figures and fictional characters, and who has reserves of strength and humour that keep the reader gripped…
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Book Review: Death in Venice

Death In Venice and Seven Other Stories, by Thomas Mann. Trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter. Although it’s a hundred years old, this novella feels timeless and pretty near flawless. Gustave Aschenbach, esteemed writer, leaves his home in Munich for a vacation, seeking rest for his strained nerves. He alights at last in Venice, and there begins his doomed…
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Craft Book Roundup #1

Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them. This is one of the most useful books anyone who is interested in the nitty-gritty of writing could read. Chapters are organized by their topic, for example, “Gestures,” and Prose illustrates by showing how writers have…
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Book Review(s): Two by Jess Walter

The Zero. Brilliant. Funny. Moving. Satirical. Dark. Brian Remy, a former NYC police officer who now works (maybe) recovering documents from the buildings destroyed on 9/11, has only fragments of conscious awareness to work with. Sometimes he (and the reader) knows where he is and what he’s doing, but usually not.

Book Review(s): Three by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green In this coming-of-age story—several months in the life of 13-year old Jason Taylor: stammerer, poet, bullying victim—Mitchell uses simple language, never showy, to tell Jason’s rise, fall and final rebirth into a new maturity. Mitchell nails the first-person voice and the historical details of early 1980s. Impeccable pacing and a hugely sympathetic…
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Book Review: The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. Compelling, beautiful, heartbreaking: I read this book in three days. This elegantly written and structured little tome holds one man’s experience of war between its covers. At 230 pages it’s a tome not in length but in weight: it’s heavy. John Bartle is 21 when he arrives in Iraq in early…
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Book Review(s): Three by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace A terrific novel, compelling read, Coetzee at the top of his form. Interesting note: The first and last sentence of each chapter, when typed out in a separate document, read like a long narrative poem. They make sense! This, along …

Book Review(s): Two by Louis Bayard

The School of Night When disgraced academic Henry Cavendish attends the funeral of his friend, Alonzo Wax, two stories are set in motion: a mystery about a 17th Century letter, and a love story. Bayard is completely open on page one: 1. Alonzo Wax is a sneak, liar and thief, and 2. It’s a love…
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Book Review: The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. This story set in post-WW II England is a masterful exploration of the hazy edges of unreliable first-person narration. Faraday, a country doctor, narrates this tale of an aristocratic family driven to madness and suicide by “the little stranger” in Hundreds, their decaying Warwickshire mansion—but Waters gradually reveals …