Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley

Boy was  this book different than I expected. The only book of Huxley's I had read in the past is his dystopian Brave New World, which this is a marked departure from (or maybe Brave New World is a marked departure from this). Gone is the futuristic setting, the omniscient, despotic government, the Soma. In it's place is a chattering group of wildly irritating British upper class characters who mill around, moving into and out of each others' lives.

The book is rather unstructured, mostly following around said characters as they drink, each, cheat on each other mercifully, and even commit brutal violence against each other. Oh yeah: and they philosophize. Oh boy, do they ever philosophize. During many points of the book, the dialogue degrades into what must be a vehicle for Huxley's own musings over various great, esoteric topics. While these are sometimes insightful and even enlightening, it gets to be a bit much when they stretch to more than a handful of pages. Anyone who has read Ayn Rand's fiction will understand what I mean. I don't know many people in real life who complete a fifteen minute monologue when surrounded by good friends.

Where this novel really succeeds is in its characters. Though they are all caricatures, Huxley creates such an amazing number of them and them manages to keep them all relevant throughout the story's entirety. This perhaps shows the social inbreeding that existed in upper-class British culture in the early twentieth century, but it seems like almost every character knows each other here. It is said that many of these characters are based on real people that Huxley associated during his lifetime. In fact, the only likable character in the entire novel is supposedly based on the author D.H. Lawrence.

While this is hugely different than Brave New World, Huxley's satire still cuts with the same sharp edge when dealing with the sheltered, filthy rich upper class as it does when castigating totalitarianism. As I said, these are not likable characters and I would put all my money down on betting that this is not accidental. They all seem to show a disdain for the poor (or even just the non-filthy rich), work, democratic government, and even each other. If Huxley wanted to show up that the rich were not good people, he has made himself loud and clear. There is no Great-like subtlety here.

I was on the fence about this one. I tore through certain sections of the book and then slogged through others. It's an interested, if flawed, book and I'm glad that I read it, but I don't believe that it has the staying power or accessibility of A Brave New World.

You'll like it if you like: social commentary, writing about early twentieth century England, sharp-witted satire, philosophical meanderings, excellently executed prose.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Wow, it has been a long while since I wrote a review. I didn't forget about you all, though. I've still been reading, though, so I'm five books behind. I'll be knocking these out in the next week or so to try to get up to date. I'm going to be changing to a briefer reviewing format to try to not get back in this situation again. Since I won't be providing as much detail in the reviews, feel free to email or tweet me with any questions on the novels. As always, thank you for reading and continue to feel free to send me any recommendations for stuff you've enjoyed recently!

Plainsong, written by Kent Haruf, tells the interconnected story of a handful of individuals' live who live in the rural plains of Colorado. In typical small town manner, the lives of each of these individuals touches each others', providing a very human, touching picture of a type of living that most of us readers don't even know exists. Plainsong is almost devoid of a plot, instead focusing on letting us "know" the characters and what drives them. This is a gritty novel that is at times very emotional.

The dreariness and featureless-ness of the plains both provides the backdrop for the story-telling and at the same time is the defining factor in what makes the characters tick. The writing style reflects this setting, forgoing eloquent, grandiose prose and instead relying on terse, short sentences that drive straight to the point. This is an amazingly touching novel. Too often we "city slickers" poke fun at the real rural community for its supposed uneducated and backward nature. It's too easy to forget that these individuals are not caricatures, but real people with real problems. While their problems are certainly different than ours, they are just as real and, many time, far, far less trivial. This is easily one of the best books I've read this year and give it my highest recommendations.

You'll like it if you like: Cormac McCarthy (but with a heart), human interest pieces, character building, concise writing styles, small towns drama, emotionally-driven works.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

It's been awhile, but the RNG finally drew another Modern Library Top 100 novel, and this one actually wasn't terrible.

Sister Carrie follows a small town girl who moves to Chicago to escape the drabness and parochial nature of her tiny burg. She imagines glamour, excitement, and all of the other glitz that comes with the "big city". She moves in with her working class sister and her husband, where this vision falls apart. She struggles to find a job and, when she finally does, she abhors her long hours and terrible working conditions as a seamstress. Luckily for her, she is quite the looker and is snatched up and taken care of by an up and coming young man who has fallen in love (or something along those lines) with her immediately. She finally gets to enjoy the social life she dreamed of when heading to Chicago.

Of course, as she gets used to this lifestyle she can't leave well enough alone and seeks "better", in the form of an older, more established man with more money. In a flurry of events, her and this new man run off together, first to Montreal and then to New York City. The two have a difficult time getting on their feet, and live destitute for quite some time. It is at this point that she begins her upward ascent as an actress and he begins his converse path from a weathy socialite to unemployed to beggar. Carrie moves on and he moves to the streets.

The book was not terribly engaging, but it was a somewhat easy read. The characters are well developed throughout the novel, but not of them have an iota of likability surrounding them. The best part of this book, by far, is the description of Chicago and New York City. Everything from the build environment, to the street cars, strikes, women's (and men's) fashion, and the Broadway scene is amazingly detailed. The reader can almost picture him or herself walking through these newly booming metropolises (that's certainly an awkward word), getting lossed in the hustle and bustle.

It's not a terribly uplifting story and in some place is actually pretty depressing. While it's a relatively interested story, it doesn't dive deep into the social commentary like something from Fitzgerald would. Regardless, it's enjoyable enough and if you like period fiction concerning the rise of the cities or the early Twentieth Century, this one might be worth checking out. I give Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser six out of ten stars.


I'm still a review behind since I just finished Plainsong by Kent Haruf, but I should have that one up soon. On deck after that is Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley. As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: Falconer by John Cheever

I can't believe it has been almost a month since I've posted a new review. I've been putting off this one for a couple of weeks for a few reasons. The first of which is that I have been crazy busy with house stuff. Amazingly enough, renovating a 125 year old house isn't conducive to reading, let alone writing my reaction to what I have read. Who would have guessed?

The other is that I just didn't want to write anything about this novel. I didn't enjoy reading it and I didn't expect to get much fun out of writing about it. I'll go ahead and finally do it, but you can't make me like it!

Falconer is a faux-intellectual piece of work about a strung out drug addict named Farragut who is in jail for the murder of a certain someone (wouldn't want to ruin it for those of you who still want to read it after this review). Farragut also happens to be a middle class intellectual, unfortunately for us reading about him. Not a whole lot happens in this book; much is in the way of flashbacks that reference his wife and the tumultuous relationship it seems they had before he was incarcerated. There is a lot of music by Farragut about this an that as well.

Pretty much nothing of importance happens in this book. Sure, things happen, but very few of them are particularly exciting, engaging, or thought-provoking. The characters are formulaic, unrealistic and none act in a manner which I expect anyone would ever act in prison. None of them, and particularly not Farragut, are likable whatsoever. Some of them are pitiful, but none with redeeming qualities.

There is really no plot to analyze, only the daily life of a prisoner and the earlier mentioned flashbacks. Outside of a couple interesting moments, such as a prison riot (which amounted to nothing), this is a tremendously boring book. It took me quite a long time tp read, all outside factors held constant, despite barely being over 200 pages. Even the writing itself is quite annoying. The dialogue is completely absurd at points and high culture references are made frequently for absolutely no reason. This is 1970's suburban edginess at its stupid, cringingly vacuous worst.

It should be noted that there is a good deal of content in this novel that could be considered obscene by some. If you are the type who burns books or tries to get them banned from libraries, this one probably isn't for you. There is a pretty good amount of vulgar language and explicit sexual content. Strangely enough, this didn't bother me as much as the writing and the rest of the book itself. Frankly, I was offended by how crappy the book was as a whole, completely outside of any potentially offensive material.

With all of this terrible-ness in mind, I give Falconer by John Cheever three stars out of ten. There is virtually no reason to pick up this book unless you're a huge John Cheever fan (do those exist?) and this is the last book of his you haven't read yet. Otherwise, don't waste your time.


I promise it won't be another month before I get another review up. I actually just finished Sister Carrie (#33 on Modern Library top 100) by Theodore Drieser, which is what prompted me to get my butt in gear so I didn't have to stack up reviews. Next up after that will be Plainsong by Kent Haruf. See you soon!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Review: The Thin Red Line by James Jones

Is there anything more American than the glorification of World War II and, more specifically, the United States' role in it? I would argue not. Look at the wide collection of popular culture offerings, from Band of Brothers (great), to Pearl Harbor (terrible), to the absurd number of WWII video games created since video games have existed. Hell, even the term "The Greatest Generation" was coined to describe those who grew up in the Great Depression and fought in WWII. If there is anything that defines World War II it is 1a) American Exceptionalism and 1b) its glorification and the glorification of the soldiers who fought in it.

This runs counter to Vietnam, Korea, now Iraq and Afghanistan, or even World War I, where much of the works are cynical or even flat-out negative. Watch Platoon or The Hurt Locker after watching Saving Private Ryan and tell me the tone is the same. All too often, WWII movies make their characters this impossible amalgamation of fearless Norse gods of war coupled with the prototypical crafty American underdog. Glossed over is the terror of being shot at, mortared, grenaded, or bombed by individuals whose sole purpose of existence is to make sure you die. Works covering other wars don't have this issue, but most covering WWII (especially the Western Front) do.

Enter The Thin Red Line. This novel, on which the movie of the same title is based, follows Charlie Company during the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific Theater of WWII. It starts with them on a ship immediately before transport to the island and finishes with American victory on the island. During this time period, "C for Charlie" goes from combat virgins to relatively battle hardened men who have all experienced shots fired in anger. The interesting part of this novel is watching them slowly progress from the former to the latter.

If you like to read military books because of the tactics, this novel is probably not for you. The small skirmishes, the battles, and even the war itself is not the point of The Thin Red Line. What is important here is the effect of all of those things have on an individual's psyche. The Thin Red Line is essentially a character study of the way war affects a company of men who have never stepped foot in a war zone before. The results are about as varied as one would expect. There are almost equal numbers of displays of bravery, cowardice, cruelty, and glory-seeking. There are lesser amounts of friendship and kindness among the men.

The characters and their development are the draw here. For all intents and purposes, the war and fighting is merely a vehicle to drive these characters to change. Watching them go from smooth-cheeked young men to battle-hardened veterans over the five-hundred'ish pages is very rewarding.

Jone's writing throughout is relatively concise and to the point. Even when relatively important characters are killed in action, there is no grieving or hammering the point. This suits the cynical atmosphere and theme of the book well, as there should be no point in dwelling on a cog in a machine that can be replaced immediately.

This cynicism is reflected not only in the writing itself, which sometimes drifts into dark humor, but in the minds of the men themselves. The terror that comes at first with their entrance into battle turns to shock and apathy. Many of the men realize that they are not cowards, but only because they have come to the know that they and their lives mean virtually nothing in the grand scheme of things. This is certainly a different way of portraying WWII soldiers' way of think than in most other popular works.

Just a note: for those of you who don't want your sensibilities offended, this book isn't for you. It includes acts of extreme violence (duh), lots and lots of profanity, sexual content, and some just general grossness (think rotting corpses, dragging entrails, etc.). None of this bothered me, but some of you might be more squamish, so keep this in mind.

What did I think of the book? I really enjoyed it, especially as a counterpoint to many of the other WWII books I've read. It is a gritty, realistic portrayal of the way war deeply affects the bodies and minds of human beings. I was really impressed with The Thin Red Line and definitely will be seeking out the movie. Do I recommend it? Yep, especially if you're remotely interested in war novels. You don't need to know military strategy, tactics, or ranks to enjoy it (though the latter is helpful).

I give The Thin Red Line by James Jones eight out of ten stars.


I realize that reviews have been sparse recently and apologize for the lack of content. Life, as it tends to, has sprung up and massively reduced my free time. Regardless, the next book chosen is Falconer by John Cheever. I'm not familiar with this novel at all, so we'll see how it goes.

In other news, I'll be starting a new beer blog next week called A Beer a Day. The title pretty much gives the theme away, but check out the initial post describing it if you're interested. While you're at it, you can 'Like' the blog on Facebook (pretty please?) and follow on Twitter. I'm starting it to separate the beer and book content, uncluttering this blog a bit. Plus it just sounded fun.

Additionally, I will be joining the wonderful crew at CincyVoices, primarily writing articles about good beer with @brewnas, but it looks like I'll have relative independence to write about other topics which pique my interest. It's going to be a great opportunity to team up with such a knowledgeable individual on all things beer related. I'm going to learn a lot and have a great deal of fun doing it!

As always, thank you all so much for reading! It would sure be boring to write these reviews if no one was interested.