Sunday, December 7, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Gail Carriger's Soulless

Soulless: The Parasol Protectorate Book 1 by Gail Carriger
Published by: Orbit
Publication Date: September 29th, 2009
Format: Paperback, 382 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

It is the reign of Queen Victoria and the British Empire is vast and ever expanding, thanks in part to the Werewolves and Vampires. The supernatural are acknowledged the world over, but only England has truly accepted them into their daylight world and even into Victoria's government. They even have their own watchdog agency, BUR, the Bureau of Unnatural Registry. This revelation has resulted in technology exploding in the industrial era to harness the power of steam and create a veritable Wellsian world. Now Alexia Tarabotti enters into our story. Alexia deftly straddles these two worlds, not supernatural and not fully human, she is preternatural, soulless, and can cancel out supernatural powers. Preternatural's being used for centuries, particularly by the Templars, to hunt and kill supernaturals. But these are not Alexia's concerns...she's more worried about finding a nice cup of tea and a little something to eat...if a party says that there is to be food, food there should be! What else is a spinster who tragically takes after her dead Italian father in looks and is extremely outspoken to do at parties specifically designed to marry off her two step sisters? But her peace, and the treacle tart, are destroyed by a surprisingly ignorant vampire. She prevailes with her trusty parasol and BUR, in particular, Alpha Lord Maccon and Beta Professor Lyall, arrive on the scene to tidy up the loose ends.

The next day dawns surprisingly normal, till out on a walk with her best friend, and fashion victim, Ivy Hisselpenny, Alexia is invited to the hive of the Vampire Queen, Countess Nadasdy. From there everything goes pear shaped and it's up to Alexia to sort it out, despite Lord Maccon's interference, in more ways then one, some of them surprisingly intimate. There are disappearing rogue vampires and werewolves, and not even her trusty go to gossip, the vampire dandy Lord Akeldama, knows what to make of it. With the full moon fast approaching will Alexia be able to keep her overly large nose out of this supernatural business? Or will she storm into the fray, trusty parasol (made to her specifications) in hand And will she get the man even though she has been a resigned spinster since the age of 15?

Soulless is the author Gail Carriger's first published work. I have to say I'm surprised and impressed. Surprised in that it is such a well written polished piece with great Victorian vernacular and lots of wit. Plus as an aside, I only found maybe two typos, it's unheard of for a book to be that well copy edited! But what impressed me was the author's world building. The England of dirigibles and dandys is wonderful. I found the science and the history she created to be easy to understand, despite it's complexities, and I can't wait till the next book to re-immerse myself in this world...too bad I have to wait till March! The interaction of science with the supernatural was also so well done and logical, you never once felt that she was trying to force one or the other on a preexisting history of the British Empire, but was explaining the oddities of the British Empire itself with the world she created. If only Prince Albert were still alive...I can picture him with Professor Lyall, both equipped with Glassicals and studying the latest scientific aspects of chloroform while waiting to give a presentation to The Royal Society.

Overall the book was able to work on many levels, one of which was to overcome typical romance genre stereotypes. I don't think I'll ever really like Ivy Hisselpenny, she is too wide-eyed innocent best friend who Alexia will endeavor to find a good match for in subsequent books. Also the throwing together of the heroine with the gruff hero so early in the novel was surprising to me, usually they wait till the very last moment. But Carriger made this work in the end with not the least bit of diluted suspense and the conclusion made me wish I hand Changeless right away to dive into to read of Maccon and Alxia's further adventures. Alexia herself is so wonderfully abrasive and forthright and knowledgeable with such a love of food you can't help embracing her instantly. Who cares that she's the typical spinster stereotype, because when you get down to it, there is nothing stereotypical about her. She is a woman who takes after Victoria herself, not those insipid heroines always needing a man to save them.

But now I must get to my favorite character, Lord Akeldama. He's a dandy to be sure, and a rogue vampire due to a mysterious disagreement over waistcoats, but he's so much more. He's a complex little spy who loves Alexia because she makes him feel human. But his spy network is really where it's at. His trusty Drones, led by Biffy. These dandy's are everywhere and hear everything, but at the same time are so stereotypical and a product of their time that they are a part of the scenery. They are perfectly calculated by Akeldama to be his eyes and ears lending him the appearance of omniscience. Also lets not forget they are great little helpers, in every sense of the word. Do to their cackling dandy herd mentality and the name of Drones and knowing that the author is a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, I can't help myself envisioning a whole different take on the Drones Club. This one would be more stylish, with lots more purple silk and more overt Wildean overtones. I would pay to read about that...really I would. Perhaps in an upcoming sequel by Gail Carriger...

Moste Importante Steampunkery:
Dirigibles as transport! Dirigibles seem to be the go to manner of travel in the world of Steampunk, but in Alexia's world not only are they transport which she longs to experience, but they have created a fashion trend. Clothes for  floating about in the sky, properly weighed so your skirts don't go whoosh. We can't have any hint of scandal or impropriety, heaven forfend you see a lady's knee.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Jennifer duBois's Cartwheel

Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois
Published by: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Publication Date: September 24th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 416 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Lily Hayes didn't know that deciding to do a semester abroad in Argentina would be the end of the life she knew. Lily thought it would take her out of her comfort zone, give her a greater view of the world. Instead she's in a prison cell accused of murdering her roommate Katy. As her family comes to her aid, the life Lily really lead in Buenos Aires starts to take shape. The drugs, the men, the conflicts with her host family and her roommate. Everything starts to take shape proving Lily's guilt, which the media devours like a hungry animal. DNA, timelines, secrets, lies, can Lily actually return to the life she had or will her life ever be tainted by what happened to Katy and that cartwheel she did while being interrogated?

When this book was drawn out of the hat at book club (yes, we do trust the caprice of fate for our next reading selection) I was actually intrigued. Despite being another book fictionalizing actual events, the second in a row for book club, I thought that this book could give me something I've been craving, closure. Cartwheel is based on the Amanda Knox trial. Loosely based. Though it should be noted, hitting all the important details of the case from bar owners to feces. Oddly in my family the Amanda Knox trial is a source of contention. Why would this be? Well, my father and I both strongly believe in Amanda's guilt. Everything I've heard and seen makes me certain of this fact. It doesn't mean this is true, this is what I believe to be true. My mother strongly disagrees with my father and I having such a blanket statement of her guilt. So anytime the subject comes up my mother gets exasperated with us for condemning this innocent young girl (innocent my ass is what I usually reply with.) Therefore, subject on contention.

I was hoping that Cartwheel would give me some kind of closure so that I could move on and get to a stage where I didn't feel the need to bring up the Knox case and keep the strife alive. Because dammit, she's guilty and if this book could give me this proof, even ersatz proof, then I could quite literally close the book on all this. But this is just what made me seethe with rage at Jennifer duBois. Life doesn't give us clear cut answers, that's why we turn to books. Life is easier in books. You have a question, you get an answer. Straight forward and easy, hence why many people would rather live in books. She had the chance to write a what-if answer, an ending. An ending that we will probably never get in real life and she blew it. There was no ending, there was no conclusion. To you, Jennifer duBois, I say fuck you.

Yet the ending, or lack thereof, isn't the only gripe I have with this book, not by a long shot. Having a book with multiple narrators is tricky. There has to be balance and variety to keep the book's forward momentum. A bad narrator is the kiss of death, the reader will just check right out of the book. Cartwheel suffers because the book is hard to get into because the narration of Lily's father is mind numbingly dull. Logistics about being there for Lily, money worries, lawyers blah blah blah. I don't care about police policies or the legal system, get to the murder, get to the juicy bits, don't drag the opening to breaking point so that the average reader will just toss the book aside. If I didn't have the hard and fast rule that I finish what I start, and I definitely finish what's for book club, well, this book would have been flung out a window shortly into starting it.

The only bearable narrator was Lily herself. She gave you the first person, though unreliable, narration that was needed. Seeing things through her eyes made the story temporarily work. Where the book really failed is that once the arrest happens we abandon Lily and her thoughts. She's just a person in a box. We get no insight, no revelations. The "ending" sneaks up on us and it's muddled and ill conceived and what really happened!?! We lose Lily's voice and then everything falls apart and there's no more pages. WTF!?! Really, just give us the whatever ending? It's like Jennifer duBois got to the end and threw up her hands and just gave up. Could she really not make up an ending? Isn't that what writers do? I invested time and energy in this book, I deserve closure!

In fact, here's how the book should have ended. Tie everything together and make it interesting. Eduardo the lawyer and his weird wife, make them no longer peripheral, make his crazy wife's return a ploy to distract him from his work because she's being paid to help the case for Lily. Just an idea, because, really, what other purpose do these two characters have otherwise? But what I think would have solved all my issues with wasted opportunities would have been if we had one final narrator at the end, and that narrator was Katy. To get the truth from her point of view, to have her speak from "beyond the grave" and tell us what really happened. Why can't writers just get it right sometimes? Because getting it wrong, well, it hurts us all.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

American Psycho - Marie's Review

In 1991 I was a middle-schooler watching Fresh Prince, listening to Roxette and ripping pages out of TigerBeat to post on my wall. My reading list was comprised of school assignments, and it most certainly did not include the newly-published American Psycho. I didn't even know this book existed until nearly 10 years later when it was adapted to film. Another 14 years passed before I actually read it.

American Psycho is Bret Easton Ellis' critique of America's consumer culture, and Patrick Bateman is the ultimate consumer. He makes a ton of money on Wall Street and then spends it on brand name products - skin care lotions, silk ties, tailored suits, sleek furniture, gourmet meals. He knows the only acceptable bottled water to drink and always has his trusty Zagat guide handy when planning meals. He walks into the room and can tell you the designer for every stitch of clothing that everyone is wearing. What he can't tell you is who anyone is...not even in his own circle of friends.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Hannah Kent's Burial Rites

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Published by: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: August 29th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 338 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of killing her lover and employer, Natan Ketilsson. She has been scheduled to be executed. Agnes is sent to an isolated farm at Kornsa, near where she grew up, to await her execution. The family of four living in the croft at Kornsa must allow Agnes into their lives for the duration because of the will of the District Commissioner, Björn Blöndal. Divided by prejudices, most the family doesn't trust the murderess, but over time, slowly, they do get to know Agnes, and she is far from what they expected. With the counsel of a local Reverend, Tóti, Agnes tells her story, knowing that nothing can stop her impending death.

Books based on actual events are tricky. My main problem with them is you know what's going to happen. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last execution in Iceland. Therefore Agnes is going to die. No matter how much you love or hate her this will not change the fact that the end of her story is a fixed point, she can not live. As for her imagined life, in some regards I was at an advantage and in some regards I was at a disadvantage. I knew nothing about Agnes and the legend that has grown up around her seeing as I'm not familiar with Icelandic history or urban legends or even Iceland when I started this book. This gave me a clean slate. I could view her story with no preconceptions. Yet Hannah Kent was obviously out to change these preconceptions. So how could I fully understand what she was trying to do without being fully aware?

What I felt this book lacked was a coda that showed how maligned Agnes was in her time. Some historical context after the fact that would have shown us exactly what the preconceptions were that Hannah was working against in writing this book. The national museum still has the axe and the chopping block used in Agnes's execution on display. Is this because of it being the last capital punishment, or the triumph over evil, or to remind them of a wrong they did as a country? The problem of trying to find out the folklore surrounding Agnes now, the wanton witch, is that the web is populated with Hannah's story of setting things to right, or at least giving us an unbiased view. So while we won't know the truth, I'd at least like a glimpse into the mindset of the times.

Burial Rites does suffer because Hannah is a first time author. The book lacks a polish that would smooth over the rough patches and the literary tricks she pulls out of her bag. I think that literary tricks are the bane of first time writers. They go to school, learn all these concepts and narrative techniques, and then decide to use them all in their first endeavor as a writer. The key to writing a good book is to let the story tell you what it needs, not to shoehorn in things just to show you can do it. I know at least one of my fellow book club members would agree with me that Hannah's annoying preference for "Head-Hopping" is something that needed to be worked on to avoid the disjointed nature it brings to the narrative.

For those of you who don't know the term, or have never experienced this technique in writing, "Head-Hopping" is when an author switches the point-of-view character in a single scene. One second you're in Agnes's head, the next you're in Tóti's head, and on and on. While it gives you a more direct connection to the characters then omniscient narration, it can be confusing at times and feel contrived. But then again, I've never been a fan of literary tricks. Nothing has or even will annoy me more then in John Scalzi's Redshirts that his first, second, and third coda were written in first, second, and third person respectively. That's just a writer being indulgent. Seriously, ask yourself does it benefit the story? If the answer is no, it benefits my ego, then cut it.

Yet I was able to look beyond these initial flaws because underneath there was a fascinating story that transported me to another place and time. Plus, seriously, if you're feeling bad about your life, it's not as bad as it could be, and this novel is here to prove it. Though it was looking from Iceland to the greater world view of the time that staggered me. Iceland is a country above the tree line, the use of wood in buildings at this time is rare and used only for the wealthy or places of importance. The country is bleak and dark and filled with mud, lots and lots of mud. Houses are sod with sheep bladders as the membranous windows through which the little light sneaks in. Summer days are spent preparing for the long winter days to come when all you do is stay indoors and knit.

If someone was to tell you that this was 1830 you might be in shock, I know I was. At this time Jane Austen had already come and gone. Queen Victoria would be on the throne of England in only seven more years. Napoleon had already stirred up France, bugged off to Egypt, been incarcerated, escaped, and died. The Revolutionary War in America was almost fifty years prior! If we think of these times do we think of an advanced country like Iceland, a country where one in ten people have written a book, and think, mud huts filled with knitters? NO! This just blows my mind. To think of this greater world view through the eyes of this story and this time just astonishes me. Sure, I could tell you you should read Burial Rites it because it's like Icelandic Brontës, but in truth it is so much more amazing.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: March 6th, 1991
Format: Paperback, 401 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Patrick Bateman and his friends are the epitome of yuppiedom. Young, highly successful investment bankers, they wear the right designer labels, they are seen at the right restaurants, and they drink the right bottled water. Bateman could be any one of them, only he harbors something darker behind the veneer that is the true depth of those around him. He satisfies a violent blood lust killing women and men. They might have offended him, they might have merely looked at him the wrong way, or they might have a better business card. As Bateman fuels this dark need his desire to kill comes sooner and sooner. But with everyone living in their own hermetically sealed bubble who would even notice his crimes?

American Psycho is one of those books that everyone knows about. Like classics that people brag about reading, I'm not sure how many of those people have actually read this book. The bookseller at Barnes and Noble who checked me out and who has literally never said more then a few words to me ever (even more impressive when you think how often I go to the bookstore) got all gushy about this book and Bret Easton Ellis, but with the caveat that it is violent. He wasn't wrong. This book is not an easy read. The violence and culture of the time make it hard to swallow. Yet there's something about the underlying message lambasting our culture that calls to us and makes the book still relevant. Why else would there not only be a movie but a musical, which actually makes more sense then you'd think, and a contemporary television show about an older Bateman in the works? Because Patrick Bateman is the zeitgeist of the late 80s in New York, whose afterimage can sadly still be seen today.

There's a thin line between camp and horror that Ellis walks in the book. American Psycho succeeds when it's subtle. Before we witness Bateman kill firsthand it's scenes like the one at the laundromat when he's trying to explain through belligerence and a language barrier the importance of getting his sheets whiter then white. Of course the sheets bear the hallmarks of the previous night's killing, but having not seen the killing the interaction is laced with dark humor. Not to mention my favorite scene where he decides his colleague must be killed for having a nicer business card. Being suggestive works far more then being graphic, and it's not long before Ellis is graphic. This is when the book shifts, and in my mind, starts to fall apart. Our imagination can be pretty horrific with just implying what happened, but Ellis, he is one sick fellow for some of the imagery he conjures, especially what happens to Bateman's ex from college.

Yet one does wonder how deliberate this downward spiral is. It's clear that Bateman's killing spree is ramping up, and therefore it does make sense to go gorier and grosser as he unravels, but it makes for a less readable story. The unraveling raises the question of how much of this is real? Was Bateman so sick that he hallucinated it all? How else would Paul Owen be seen after Bateman killed him? I have a theory about Paul, but that will hold for a minute. It's the questioning of Owen still being alive as well as his seeming ability to get away with it all that makes one think perhaps it didn't happen. With the amount of drugs Bateman takes and looking to scenes like the chase with the helicopter, one can see how the "it's all in his mind" theory is plausible. And is it any less horrific to know that these are just his thoughts? For my money, I think he was a murderer, but I do like the ambiguity.

Going back to the zeitgeist and Bateman's mindset, I think American Psycho is a scathing attack on our culture during the late 80s. It's a flawed attack, but it gets it's point across admirably. One of the reasons it's hard to get into this book is the sheer number of designer brands Bateman lists. Every article of clothing in the whole book from Bateman's own wardrobe to everyone else he encounters is stripped down to their socks and shoes. After awhile you think that perhaps Ellis could lighten it up because he's gotten the point across, but he doesn't. I think that the fact that he doesn't give it up shows even stronger the relentless consumerism in our society. But it's not just the buying of more and more designer labels, it's also the lifestyle that goes with the designer labels, the physique that must be maintained, the music you listen to, everything is detailed to the nth degree and it shows how vapid and shallow our culture can be at it's very worse.

But not only does American Psycho attack our habits, it attacks what these habits make of us. Throughout the book Bateman is again and again mistaken for other investment bankers. He is interchangeable with his colleagues. Indistinguishable. Hence Paul Owen also being interchangeable and being able to be seen from beyond the grave.  The only thing that really separates Bateman is his blood lust. He is just a cog in the machine that is our culture. When he finally confesses his crimes they are viewed as a joke. Not only that, but the man he confesses to doesn't even realize he is Bateman! Once again he could be anyone. Everyone is only concerned about themselves and their problems, nothing else is relevant or even absorbed into their consciousness. This anonymity gives Bateman great freedom in being able to commit his crimes, but reflected back on us, this interchangeability means that Bateman might not be the "American Psycho" of the title. What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Lisa Lutz's The Spellman Files

The Spellman Files (The Spellmans Book 1) by Lisa Lutz
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: March 13th, 2007
Format: Paperback, 358 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

"I cannot pinpoint the precise moment when it all began, but I can say for sure that the beginning didn't happen three days ago, one week, one month or even one year ago. To truly understand what happened to my family, I have to start at the very beginning, and that happened a long time ago." So begins Isabel's narration leading to the major event that happens to the Spellmans. But before we can get to the what, there's the how, presented in a pastiche of images from the history of the Spellman family. Isabel, our erstwhile and extremely dysfunctional heroine, was born into a family of PIs. Her father's an ex-cop, forced into early retirement by a bad back, he took up the only solid living an ex-cop is uniquely suited for, Private Investigation. On the job he met Olivia and it was true love. Their firstborn, David, was everything a child should be, hansom, athletic, smart and hardworking, growing up to be a lawyer. When Isabel came along she felt that it was only right that she was everything David was not, unruly, hard to handle and a juvenile deliquint... and perfectly suited for Spellman Investigations. But when Isabel was 14 the family was in for a surprise, in the form of Rae. Olivia and Albert found out that they were going to have another baby, while at the same time Al's brother Ray was dying of cancer. Rae was named in honor of the heroic ex-cop who then didn't die. Uncle Ray had an epiphany. If clean living made him sick then he'd just do what he wanted, mainly gambling, drinking and whoring which lead to a depletion of his resources and he moved into the residence of 1799 Clay Street, home of Spellman Investigations and the whole Spellman clan, minus David.

What follows is a narration of the odd events and circumstances that result when you've been raised in a family where spying, tailing, car chases, recreational surveillance, bugging, extortion, blackmail and all around prying into each others lives is the status quo. "The Spellman Wars" take many forms, from Rae stealing "new uncle Ray's" lucky shirt and holding it for ransom, to Isabel meeting a cute dentist on the job and then pretending she's a schoolteacher in order to date him, to mass sugar consumption, to fake drug deals... the wars are manifold with many skirmishes and allegiance shifts. But in the end Isabel decides that maybe this isn't the life for her and she asks to be let out. Her parents agree to her leaving if she can solve an extremely cold case involving the disappearance of one Andrew Snow, thinking that in a job where mysteries are rare, perhaps this will whet her appetite and return the status quo. But the status is very not quo when all the duplicity and infighting leads to Rae's disappearance.

I can not emphasize enough how much I enjoy the Spellmans in all their dysfunctions and obsessions, which I can sadly relate too. The interesting quirks and different forms of addictions each character possesses is hilarious, but at the same time, oddly realistic. From Rae's addiction to sugar and recreational surveillance, to Izzy's drink and Get Smart, to Uncle Ray's women and cards. Each character has there own set of flaws that make them unique, but at the same time, obviously related and relatable. Also the way the story is told in little snippets, like a dossier, makes you see the overall history of the characters through specific incidents and examples versus having an extremely long backstory. It also stripes away the Hollywood glamor of the PI's life showing the dysfunction and strained relationships that result from needing to always know the why. Isabel's headlong pursuit of the truth is single-minded and self destructive, but haven't we all been there? Knowing we should stop and we've gone too far, but knowing that we will still do it anyway. Fans of Veronica Mars will enjoy the same kind of mystery combined with a dry wit. I really can't recommend this book, and all Lisa Lutz's books enough! But be forewarned... be prepared to having the overwhelming desire to watch mass quantities of Get Smart afterwords! Luckily now available on DVD.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Emma J. Chapman's How To Be a Good Wife

How To Be a Good Wife by Emma J. Chapman
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: October 15th, 2013
Format: Kindle, 288 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Marta has lived her married life to her older husband Hector quite literally by the book. She has learned How To Be a Good Wife. Though the book doesn't tell you want to do when your son goes off to college and your life becomes meaningless. Marta starts to unravel. She drinks, she cleans, she takes her meds, she doesn't take her meds, she starts to remember, but are her memories real? She remembers a room under the house and being held captive and brainwashed till she was the wife Hector wanted. She tries to tell her son, Kylan, but he has his own life now. She is unhinged, she is a danger to herself. She is not the Marta that they remember, but did that Marta ever truly exist?  

If you have a book with an unreliable narrator there has to be some kind of revelation, an inside or outside force that is able to give some kind of resolution to the unfolding drama, even if it is a dissatisfying resolution, re Agatha Christie's Endless Night. To be left without any closure makes for a disgruntled reading experience. But then again, being in Marta's brain for even the short amount of time it took to read this book had already alienated me against her and her antics, so what's one more nail in the book's coffin eh? Marta is scatterbrained, obsessive about the weirdest things, her dinner party for her son is such a disaster it makes the Christmas dinner in The Ref look like the best party in the world. She's unstable, unlikable, and, well, selfish. Why did I read this book again? Oh yeah, book club.

The question though remains, did or didn't Hector create this wife? My mind thinks no. Because it's just too outlandish. If he had done it his own mother would have been complicit, something I don't think she'd ever have done. Plus, let's look at it this way. If Hector was making the perfect wife, after all these years of brainwashing why would she crack? Yes, empty nest syndrome, but this is a major psychotic break. And her meds wouldn't make her more compliant, after all this time she'd totally be in the thrall of Stockholm Syndrome, so drugs wouldn't be needed. Whereas if she's just crazy, going off her meds would do something. They'd make her go back to her natural crazy state. But in the end I don't care. No, seriously, I hated each character so much there was no sympathy and well, fuck the lot of them.

With Marta we are given a woman who is neurotic and self-destructive as well as more then a little dumb. Instead of doing anything logical she runs around like a chicken with her head cut off. If she had just sat down and laid out her thoughts and provided proof of her delusion, perhaps someone would have believed her. Instead of making it seem like her illness was responsible for her inability to tell her suspicions Chapman made Marta's failings feel like an idiotic character flaw of the greatest order, total dumb blond syndrome. Perhaps her decision making is completely impaired, but for some reason I just don't think so. I have this feeling that Marta has a very fixed view of the world and her place in it and when things don't go her way she acts out. This seems to be supported by how everyone treats and coddles her. She's a selfish woman who may have issues, but in the end it's her selfishness that defines her. How else would you categorize the fact that she kills herself on the day of her son's wedding? She's making the happiest day of his life all about her.

Chapman is obviously trying to explore the themes of PTSD and what it does to us knowingly or unknowingly, after all if you didn't get it she talks all about it in her afterword. But the problem is we don't know if Marta is suffering from PTSD or is just run of the mill crazy. Either way Marta is not a sympathetic character so whether she was always crazy or became crazy signifies very little to the book itself. But I think if I was a sufferer of PTSD that this would signify very much to me if I was reading this book, which I wouldn't recommend anyone to do. Because How To Be a Good Wife doesn't exactly portray PTSD in a flattering light. In fact the book kind of makes sufferers of PTSD get lumped in with people with severe mental illnesses. Now, while PTSD is a mental illness, well, it's a different kind and to have it lumped in with the psychotics, this is doing the sufferers of this disease an injustice. In fact everything about this book should offend anyone with any kind of mental instability, because Chapman obviously doesn't get it and doesn't have the compassion to render their fight with compassion and honesty.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruin Zafon
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 2001
Format: Paperback, 487 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

There is a secret organization that lovingly cares for and protects rare and old books. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books has a tradition, that when you are first brought to the labyrinthine structure you must pick one book among the thousand of thousands and protect it for life. When young Daniel Sempere is taken their by his father he picks up a book by Julián Carax called The Shadow of the Wind. Daniel devours the book from cover to cover and has a fire burning inside him to know more about Julián Carax. But there are no other books by Julián Carax anymore. A man who has taken his moniker from the devil in Carax's book, Laín Coubert, has slowly been finding every copy of all Carax's titles and burning them. Daniel, along with his sidekick Fermín, start to unravel the mysterious life of Julián Carax and why anyone would want to remove his literary oeuvre from history. It is a journey that is dangerous and dark, with a twisted secret at the center of it.

Ever since I first watched The Neverending Story I thought how wonderful it would be to find a book that was truly magical. To wander into a shop filled with shelves and shelves of stories and have one call out to me and ask me to be the bearer of it's secrets. I think this is a dream that all bibliophiles hold deep in their hearts, that there is a story out there just for them and it will change the course of their lives. It seemed to me that Daniel Sempere, much like Bastian before him, had inadvertently stumbled into this dream. Devouring this book over the course of a few short days I realized that not every dream is satisfactory, and in the hands of the wrong author, can be dull, predictable, and at times insipid. And I would like it noted I devoured this book because I had a book club meeting fast approaching and it had nothing to do with the book itself. And to all those people who lauded this book I seriously want to ask you why!?!

Firstly, let's talk about incest. This has become, in recent years, the most overused trope I can possibly think of. I mean they even used it on a CW show! If a trope has trickled all the way down to be acceptable by the brainless teenagers who actually watch this station then it's time to get a new trope. From Flowers in the Attic to A Game of Thrones, seriously, is this supposed to shock us anymore? Sure, once it was a great taboo, and in actuality, it still is, but fictionally, nope. To have the big reveal of what destroyed Julian Carax's life was his love of Penélope Aldaya, whom he didn't know was his sister was laughable. All this build up, all these leads that Daniel Sempere searched and hunted through all the streets of Barcelona to come to this? Oh please. It's not like they knew they were siblings. Sigh, what some people find as a shocking reveal can be shockingly flat.

The predictability of The Shadow of the Wind might just be the biggest flaw. I saw the incest coming a mile off, just one scene with Penélope's father and Julian's mother and that's that. Of course it takes the characters hundreds of pages to get to this reveal which leads to my other main gripe, the lack of forward momentum. You'd think that a man hunting you down through the streets to destroy a book you are bound to protect all while trying to find out his reasoning would be a headlong rush with adrenaline pounding in your veins. You'd be wrong. It plods and limps through the streets of Barcelona occasionally even going back on it's self to retell things that were boring the first time. Oh, and the stupidity of the characters! Just wow. The height of this is when Nuria Monfort tells her side of the story, which was basically her retelling the whole book from her point of view! Almost a hundred pages of her being repetitive. Also, what really annoyed me, she supposedly wrote this all out by hand when what was her job? A secretary who could type really fast! And what did Daniel mention seeing in her apartment the first time he was there? A typewriter! Oh, for fucks sack. They all deserved to die.

But let's move to the bigger picture now. At the time directly preceding the action of Daniel Sempere the Spanish Civil War happened. Yeah, the war mentioned so subtly you could miss it wasn't World War II, because Spain remained neutral during that specific war. And despite what Wikipedia might try to convince you, the war is just the subtlest of afterthoughts and is in no way as important as it should have been. I'm not sure if this omission to not discuss the Spanish Civil War was accidental or on purpose. The book was written by a Spanish author so maybe he just assumed that this backdrop was common knowledge. Well, it isn't. A good editor when bringing this book to market in the US should have asked for something more to be slipped in, but then again, I don't really think it was well translated and well, in the end, I really didn't care.

What was interesting though was the discussion this book brought about in my book club as to what defines a book as Gothic. Luckily The Guardian has recently come out with a nice infographic to help you decide, Gothic or Not it. The villain could have been scarier, but the fact that he destroyed things by fire, that could be considered Gothic. The hero had a family AND a sidekick, this is definitely NOT Gothic. Was there spooky locations that might just be haunted... not really. It takes place in slightly olden days in a foreign country, so it's got that. There's snow and some rain and fog, but overall the weather isn't as oppressive as it should be. Overall, it didn't feel Gothic. Because to me, Gothic is a feeling more then anything else. A spookiness you feel in your bones that makes you keep reading late into the night out of sheer terror for what will happen to the hero or heroine next as they are cut off from the world and facing the horrors on their own. In other words, if you actually want Gothic, go read Rebecca or The Monk and stay clear of The Shadow of the Wind.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: 1955
Format: Paperback, 453 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Yossarian is stationed on the small island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean west of Italy. He's on a bombing raid, he's on leave in Italy, he's in hospital, he's out of hospital, he's in the mess, he's not welcome in the mess, his friends are dying, he might die, he just wants to go home. He knows he's in real and immediate danger, which is the thought of a rational mind. If he asks to go home he's admitting that he knows he's in danger and therefore sane. If he wants to stay he is obviously insane and must be grounded. Yossarian is trapped in a frustrating situation by contradictory regulations because of a non-existent clause. But the genius is the simplicity of this clause that controls everyone's life, it is Catch-22.

Sometimes a book just isn't for you. You read it, you give it a try, and it's not that you hate it, you just don't like it. There are many books I love which some of my best friends dislike and a few they outright hate. I let them have that hate because it's an educated hate. They read the book or books and decided it wasn't for them. I'm not here to judge, it happens, and it is a two way street. I just didn't like Catch-22. I tried, I really wanted to like it knowing how special a place it holds in some of my friend's hearts, but it just wasn't for me. Like Austen tends to alienate a good portion of the male population, I felt that Heller alienated a good portion of the female population. This book is a guy book, and that's the clearest way I have of saying it wasn't for me.

And I don't think it's the war aspect that makes it a guy book, but more that the depiction of the women alienates women readers. In fairness, not many of the characters are likable. They can be fascinating and compelling, but likable, not at all. The problem I had was that Heller depicted all women as whores who have a love of money or as wanton sluts. OK, this can be the starting point of a character, but you need to build beyond that. Don't make this a cookie cutter stereotype that applies to every single woman in your story. There's this misogynistic undertone that carries through the book and finds it's outlet in the rape and murder of the innocent Michaela, the one realistic woman. I can ascribe many what ifs to justify Heller's writing that he was parodying the way soldiers denigrate women or that he was trying to make women on a lower par with his men, but whatever I say or whatever is true, it still made me, as a woman reader, uncomfortable and not wanting to finish the book.

Though the content of the story bothered me far less then the literary techniques that Heller used. I didn't take issues with the non-linear narration, I only mention it because I have a feeling that this technique makes the book a better re-read then initial read, so I have that working against me. My main problem was that the book doesn't feel of it's time. How can I explain this? The book is about World War II but it was published in 1961. It feels like a book from the sixties instead of a book from the forties. The unattributed dialogue, the narrative structure, even the narrative tense felt more in line with writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and Kurt Vonnegut.

This disassociation between the time the book is set and this later writing style jarred my sensibilities and never meshed into a cohesive book for me. The best comparison I can give is between Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. I love the later book while disliking the former. The reason this newer writing style works for Vonnegut where it doesn't work for Heller is that Vonnegut's story goes forward and backward in time, it isn't just about World War II, so it is able to accept these new literary techniques, whereas Catch-22 is fighting against them every step of the way. A book needs to have harmony with itself to work. And a book really needs harmony to be an enjoyable reading experience.

The unattributed dialogue is on of the techniques that annoyed me the most. I know I'm not alone in being against this stylistic wordplay. I distinctly remember in one of my high school English classes that we had to read this short story that was all unattributed dialogue. Whomever had the book before me was obviously not a fan of this style either because they had gone through the entire story and written who was talking when, like in a screenplay. I was almost annoyed enough to do this here, but I really got to a why bother phase with this book rather fast. The writing would veer between being lugubrious to nonsensical, like an unsuccessful Lewis Carroll parody. At times it felt unoriginal and derivative or the worst and most repetitive of vaudeville sketches. Vaudeville can work, but think clearly, it works because there are actors delivering the lines and therefore keeping you away from the unattributed dialogue trap. This was like reading a vaudeville sketch; who's on first? Who knows, and really, do I care?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Published by: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: 1945
Format: Paperback, 351 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

"If it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe and Aloysius in a good temper." 

Vomiting through a window doesn't seem like the most promising start to a friendship, yet that is how Charles Ryder first meets a rather inebriated Sebastian Flyte. Charles is swept up in Sebastian's wake of luxury, decadence, eccentricities, and alcohol vapors. Throwing off his rather mundane life, Charles is wooed by the world of privilege that Sebastian belongs to. Charles falls not just for this sot with a teddy bear, but for his whole life; the family, the house, everything. Looking back on those halcyon days while mired in the WW II, Charles lovingly thinks of the world that has been lost forever. Yet Charles lost entre into that world earlier then the announcement on the wireless that England is at war. His love affair with the Flytes had soured over the years, moving from Sebastian to his sister Julia, Charles took whatever he could of this family, but it the end, it was something deep in the family that made certain he was never one of them, and never could be.

Before I became an avid reader Brideshead Revisited was one of those books that my father kept saying I had to read. I won't say that it's his favorite book, because the author is Evelyn Waugh and not Sherwood Anderson and the book's title isn't Winesburg Ohio, but Brideshead Revisited is firmly in place as one of his favorite books. Much like this little old lady I met at a Rembrandt show in New York who was insistent on how memorable his work would be when seen in it's original setting (ie Amsterdam), my Dad has the same tenacity and insistence of how the language of Brideshead Revisited would capture me and not let me go. Many conversations with him start "I remember how the language captured me the fist time I read..." insert any of his favorite classic books here, usually Jude the Obscure, but for this instance, Brideshead Revisited. Though, for Brideshead Revisited the refrain is more "when Lord Marchmain comes home to die..." or anything to do with Edward Ryder, Charles's father. Still, despite the copious copies of the book laying about the house, I just didn't pick it up.

When I started to hone myself into the Anglophile that I am today I watched as many miniseries as I could lay my hands to, and Brideshead Revisited finally entered into my life officially in at least one form. At this point my father had already worn out his old VHS copy and for his birthday I had upgraded him to the DVD set which I now watched. Brideshead Revisited is literally THE definition of a miniseries, and it set the standard for what we expect in our miniseries today. Mainly it was the first to be shot entirely on location. I loved all the houses and scenery, and Anthony Andrews, such a perfect actor, as are every other actor save one, I didn't love Jeremy Irons. There's something about Jeremy Irons that bothers me. He has a wonderful voice, but I think his voice has led people to ignore the fact that he seriously can't act. I am 100% anti-Jeremy Irons. So watching the miniseries all I could think was, ok, I've had enough of this for quite awhile now (except the John Gielgud lunch scene, that can NEVER be watched enough), I don't think I'll read the book right now... and so, until this month, I had never realized how right my father was in this instance.

Evelyn Waugh's writing is like a palate cleanser, everything that you read before was lugubrious and everything that you read after is sub par. Brideshead Revisited shows how fast a book that is well written goes. Time disappears, the words just flow, except for the occasional drunken tumble over a word or phrase that is now out of it's time. The lunch between Anthony Blanche and Charles, where Anthony dominates the conversation, felt just as if you were sitting opposite him in that restaurant and were being overwhelmed by his torrent of words and your inability to get a word in edgewise, a sensation that I am sure we have all experienced with certain of our own friends and were vividly reliving while reading this passage. And even while I didn't necessarily like or relate to any of the characters, the language usage is so lush that you can't help but agree with the little quote on the cover that calls the book "[h]eartbreakingly beautiful... The 20th century's finest English novel." To write a story that is so of it's time and so unrelatable to a certain extent, yet to have it forge a connection with me, well that is wondrous writing.

Even if the world of the novel is unrelatable to a certain extent, except in our daydreams, it's the themes of the book we relate to. Waugh wrote this book looking back on a golden age that was gone, destroyed by war and an ever changing world. The Flytes embody this full stop. They lived at the height of decadence but look what happens to them. Their world ends and they are literally a dead end gene pool. Look to the four Flyte children, Brideshead has married a woman too old to bear children, Julia is living apart from her husband and due to her previous miscarriage on top of the fact a reconciliation is unlikely she will never have a child, Cordelia lives as a nun, and well, Sebastian, even if he wasn't homosexual, he's basically living a monastic life now. They are the world that has come to an end, so it is only right that they too have come to an end. This mourning for what is lost and can not be had again, their youth, this golden age, this innocence... the light snuffed out on the bright young things is the spine of this book. The world keeps turning, and while the story of the Flytes is a bit fatalist, we can relate to the loss, because as we age and move on we lose all the time.

Now I do have to address one thing. The Catholic question. Does it really matter? Yes and no. While I do find it ironic that a catholic wrote what might be the most anti-catholic book out there, the religion aspect is more a signifier then an actual physical thing. We are like Charles Ryder, we are on the outside looking in at this world of popery that we don't quite understand, even if some of us were even raised Catholics. But I really think that it's not a question of religion, but more a symbol of something in your life that you don't necessarily want but still you need it and it is all consuming to your detriment. So am I basically saying that Catholicism is a form of addiction like Sebastian's drinking? Now that I think on it, yes I am... Now I'm not saying that it is like this for anyone other then the Flyte's, but their relationship with God is unhealthy and not only brings down their lives but takes away their happiness and fills it with guilt and remorse. It's this dogged insistence that they stick to the old ways that links back into the fact that their time on earth is done. We must adapt in order to survive. At least Waugh was able to give us this loving eulogy to a world now lost.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Brideshead Revisited?

Having lots of Graphic Designers in book club can lead to some interesting things... thanks Mike for this!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Victoria Finlay's Color: A Natural History of the Palette

Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
Published by: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Publication Date: January 1st, 2003
Format: Paperback, 448 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Long before our modern world of chemicals dyes, all the hues and colors came from something found in nature. A tangible object, a plant, a bug, somewhere in nature's paintbox there was something that could make our ancestor's lives more richly hued. Victorian Finlay goes around the world in search of these "lost" colors and where they came from. Part travelogue, part memoir, and part history book, this read definitely isn't for everyone with her casual writing style relying on anecdotes and suppositions. This is by no means a perfect book, the author admits so herself. But for me, there was just the right combination of my interests and fields of study that I was sucked in.

I have never been one for history books or non fiction for the most part. I find it dry. Hence my interests lean toward historical fiction. In this medium I thrive. I am able to get the history that I am interested in without the dry discourses. The characters bring a human element that connects me to the subject in a way that I never would otherwise. This has had odd effects in my life, especially in history classes. I would always love the books that told a story. I remember in one class discussing the book King Leopold's Ghost about Africa in the 19th Century. The book was riveting to me, I just really enjoyed it, but during the discussion in class everyone was ripping it apart because it wasn't scholarly enough and made history too accessible. Well, you know what classmates in a class I very quickly dropped, history should be accessible. It's little anecdotes and stories that add a bit of the human factor into history and help me connect like I do with historical fiction.

The history and art history geek in me likes the more living narrative that Finlay infused in her book versus the dull dry facts and figures that she could have presented us with. Sure, this does lead to some problems, mainly invention, speculation, and supposition on her part that might drive those pedants in my history class to tear their hair out. But I read this book knowing that it wasn't a straight up history, though really, is any history cut and dry? This book is her take, her insights, her opinion. While I might disagree with her, I was never not entertained by her and the anecdotes she used to highlight the different colors.

The book has a rocky (pun kind of intended) start with the chapter on ochre and the aboriginals. Finlay seems unable to successfully merge her personal experiences with the historical origins of the ochre medium. It feels as if she almost doesn't know what her own intentions with the book are. Therefore we are left with a muddy mess that made me fear for the rest of the book. Yet in the very next chapter on Black and Brown she finds a natural balance that she is able to maintain through the rest of the book. By taking real people and imagining their hunt for colors that mimic her own, she is able to create a tangible, though fictional, link to the past.

Finlay is telling us stories that bring the materials to life. There is a part of me that wishes that this was a TV Documentary so that I could see all the pictures and places she went to, as this book is lacking on the visual side. But there's another part of me that is glad this is a book. The stories about Turner and his laissez-faire attitude to the permanence of his medium choices making him the Jasper Johns of his age, with his cats and their flap on the door made from one of his paintings would have come across as a bad reenactment in a documentary. And Ruskin's slam against Turner that no pictures of his "is seen in perfection a month after it is painted" is not only humorous, but brings into account something I had never really thought about. Before chemical dyes color would change. There was a flux with it. The color you paint on the wall today will be a different color in a week, a month, a year, who knows, if there's enough arsenic in it it might just kill you.

I think that is what I will take away most from this book. It made me think. I am an artist and designer and with this comes a heritage, one I haven't in a long while thought about. I now want to go out into the world, go to museums, go to artist supply stores, meet Victoria Finlay and tell her to embrace Pantone. I want to go out and explore the paintbox of the world, which, while I find it a cliched and dumb phrase, same as "the world is my canvas," but, you know what they say about cliches? There's something right about them. Now let me see the earliest flight I can get to England to check out that Winsor and Newton museum...

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Published by: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: March 11th, 2008
Format: Kindle, 684 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

It is hard to grasp that a little boy who grew up in a tribal setting in South Africa would become the driving force to eliminate apartheid and would subsequently become the president of South Africa, and a man who changed history and shaped the 20th century. Nelson Mandela was fortunate in that he was allowed access by a flawed system to an education, an education that he would then use to dismantle that very system. There is no ambiguity that Mandela and his struggles symbolized freedom to the world and to South Africa. He was a great man. But being a great man doesn't translate to being a great writer. To me, the reason to read is for enjoyment and entertainment, and yes, education. But I like my knowledge presented to me in an engaging fashion. Therefore nonfiction has never been my genre of choice. The fact of the matter is life doesn't necessarily have a narrative. Life has a beginning, a middle, and an end, that is true. But not every life is worth or worthy of a book. Great historical figures, as well as annoying celebrities, are an exception.

Yet to have a biography or autobiography there needs to be more then this beginning, middle, and end. There needs to be insight as to how that time was filled. As a reader I didn't want just a dry telling of the facts, I wanted to know Mandela's feelings. I wanted to know his beliefs, his loves, his despair at spending 27 years of his life incarcerated. His feelings when Winnie went a little crazy, instead of a press release. This is what I desired, and instead I got brief glimpses of his life amid a struggle with no narrative, nothing to grab you and make you feel invested in his journey. Just a dry telling of the facts and figures that would make a statistician cry from sheer boredom. Flat, emotionless writing with so many names and acronyms, I wasn't sure if I could finish the book without loosing my mind.

To be fair, I will say that I was fairly ignorant of what the history in South Africa was, I kind of dropped that African history class in undergrad due to surly students and an indifferent TA that reminded me of Eric Stoltz. I did work on the play "Master Harold"... and the Boys about institutionalized bigotry and racism in Port Elizabeth during apartheid, but I can honestly say I don't remember anything about it other then how long it took me to paint that set. Therefore learning more about this time did hold some fascination for me and also underscored the fact that the world will basically turn a blind eye if you're killing your own people, Pol Pot, Stalin, early Hitler. But the fact that the government was just as bad if not worse then Nazi Germany and that this lasted not just a few decades but for almost an entire century is staggering. The travel bans, the pass books, the government did everything they could to push down the natives. The fact that the government was Boer, aka the Dutch who came and settled in South Africa, who are most known for that lovely Boer War, has made me draw the conclusion that the Boers are Bastards... I think this would make a catchy bumper sticker, don't you? Or Afrikaners suck. Your choice.

This is the world that Mandela grew up in. I liked that we saw his journey and how he questioned things. He thinks like I do in some respects. If he didn't know about something he would go out and find out everything about it before making a decision. He'd read and read and read till he came to his own conclusions. But this was a bit lugubrious to read about his reading. I don't want to be doing battle with my books. Really I don't. I take a certain glee in writing the reviews later... but that doesn't make up for the previous torture the book has inflicted on me. What I wouldn't have given for maybe a little bit about his family, his feelings about not being there for them instead of a day by day breakdown of one of his trials that lasted years, but felt like millennia. While nothing makes up for the life he lost locked behind prison walls, I can definitively say that I felt every single year he was locked away with him. 

With this book there is also a final question to be asked. How much did this book sanitize Mandela's image? The book was rushed to publication for his taking office as president with the help of his co-author, not, in my mind, ghostwriter as some have said, if it was ghostwritten, it would have been actually better written, so therefore, what was tweaked? What was taken out and what was kept in? In fact many people believe that Mandela was chosen as the image for anti-apartheid because his hands we clean. While he advocated the taking up of arms, he himself didn't.

There were little things in the book that disturbed me, such as his having a picture on the wall of the winter palace to commemorate the uprising that killed the Tsar and his family. How could anyone want to hang on their wall a reminder of the death of innocent children? Even if you are a communist, seriously? No. Just no. He also worshipped Castro, which recent articles have said wasn't talked about in the book, I just think they didn't finish the fifty million page opus of dullness, because Mandela clearly states his admiration of him. There are just so many thoughts spinning in my head about using one bad political model to fight another one... I just want to clear my head, get ride of the lugubriousness of this text, wipe away the cobwebs and have a real author come in and write about Mandela. With his passing I want a truly great writer of biographies to come along and do justice for Mandela, and maybe find a little bit of the truth... or at least don't varnish over things like Winnie.