Category Archives: Books

Book Review: 2017 Revue

Books. I continue to read way too few of them. 11 in 2017. Pathetic. I really felt like my book count would be higher this year.

This was the year of Persephone. Fully 9 of the books I read in 2017 were her recommendations. She did not let me down. We have similar taste in books, though she is much more of a hopeless romantic than I am, as evinced by the Laini Taylor books. Everyone should right now go read “This Side of Paradise” and “Night” and “The Alchemist”. “Lolita” too, but that’s more daunting than the others. All in all, a very good reading year despite only reading 11 books. Thanks Persephone!

The Best of Spanish Steampunk edited by James and Marian Womack – 2/5 stars

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – 4/5 stars

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl – 3/5 stars

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor – 3/5 stars

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor– 3/5 stars

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald – 5/5 stars

Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor – 3/5 stars

The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho – 4/5 stars

Night by Elie Wiesel – 5/5 stars

Dawn by Elie Wiesel – 4/5 stars

Day by Elie Wiesel – 2/5 stars

 

Book Review: Day by Elie Wiesel

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

I realized something very early on into reading “Day”. Elie Wiesel has a very bad relationship with women. Neither “Night”, nor “Dawn” has a viable female character in it so this unhealthy relationship stays hidden, thought there are hints of it in “Dawn”. With “Day”, it is out in full force and really detracts from the novel. Here, women come in two different camps. There are the mothers and there are the objects. The early concerning scene was when Elezer (who is Wiesel’s id) and his girlfriend, Kathleen, are walking down the street when Kathleen gets catcalled by some construction workers. She expresses anger at this and Elezer completely blows it off. He does so very poetically and beautifully, but still blows it off. This is the best that Kathleen or any other non-motherly woman is treated throughout the novel. What’s left is women being tolerated, pitied, scorned, or objectified.

Horrible depictions of women aside, “Day” is also incredibly depressing, but in a way that it absolutely should be. Elezer is a Holocaust survivor who gets hit by a cab in New York City and ends up in the hospital for weeks as a result. Bedridden, his mind wanders from past to past questioning his life. Always in the past. There is nothing for him in the present or the future. Survivor’s guilt is a thing. “Day” explores it in depth. It sucks. Elezer’s mental scars run deeper and stronger than any scars he might gain from his car accident. Wiesel is very good at evoking the sadness and pain that accompany those scars. Unlike the other two novels, there is absolutely no hope to cling to here. Everything is horrible and will continue to be and all you can do is deal with it. That’s the lesson here.

If you can get past the whole treating women like crap thing, this may be a book you should read if you’re not affected by such a doldrummy book. That sort of sadness would not normally bother me in a book, but I can’t forgive a novel that treats its women the way this one does. It is a shame Wiesel included this book as the third of the “Night” trilogy because he was really on to something with the other two novels. The other two were by no means happy or terribly hopeful, but at the same time there was hope. A realistic hope. Or perhaps they were just dreams and “Day” is all those dreams coming crashing down to the earth.

Book Review: Dawn by Elie Wiesel

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

The most shocking thing I discovered upon reading “Dawn” is how little I know about the history of the creation of the state of Israel. In my mind the narrative went kind of as follows: The world, feeling absolutely horrible about the mass extermination of Jews and their complicity of silence in not doing anything about it decided to partition Palestine into two countries so the Jews would have their own homeland. It didn’t happen like that. Like at all. Boy did our world history classes suck back then. And now. But we’re Americans, we like our history sanitized.

“Dawn” is not autobiographical like “Night” was, but it is still a very obviously personal novel as Elie Wiesel tries to put to paper his struggles both with his post-Buchenwald life and all the psychological horrors that go with it and with what the Jewish people had to become in order to make their state of Israel a reality. It follows a boy named Elisha whose background is much like Wiesel’s. Elisha is lost both physically and spiritually in Paris after being freed from the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. While in this lost state, he is visited by a man named Gad who works for what can only be described as a terrorist movement in Palestine that is trying to wrest the land away from British control and establish a Jewish state. Gad manipulates Elisha’s religiosity by behaving like the rabbinical messenger of fate, Meshulah. Elisha accepts and joins the Movement. I am not sure if Wiesel meant Elisha’s acceptance to be one of manipulation, but that is how I took it. Elisha is eventually tasked with the murder of a British officer named John Dawson whom they have captured in retaliation for the British capture of a fellow Movement member named David B Moshe. Moshe is scheduled to be hanged at dawn for his crimes. If the hanging goes on, John Dawson’s death will soon follow at the hands of Elisha. The book explores Elisha’s coming to terms with this very personal killing.

This is another very powerful novel by Wiesel. His use of the dead coming to visit Elisha is very effective, especially Elisha’s childhood self who “died” prior to being sent to the concentration camps. His dead mother’s (as well as other’s) use of the phrase “Poor boy!” to describe Elisha and the predicament he finds himself is haunting. “This is war”, is the refrain of his compatriots who do not envy Elisha’s task. Yes, it is war. But does it have to be? Is there another way? The novel asks those questions, but has no answers for us. How could it? Jews had a different answer for a very long time and look where it got them. It’s time to try something different. But at what cost? This fight for independence was the beginning of something or possibly the end of something. But what? I’m not sure Wiesel knows the answer, but he is very effective in asking the question.

I would not say that “Dawn” is quite as effective of a story as “Night” is, which again should be read by everyone, but it is a wonderful “coming to grasps with horror” novel. If such could ever be described as wonderful. It is certainly a novel that makes you think. About war. About life. About death.  And novels like that don’t come around very often.

Book Review: Night by Elie Wiesel

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

“Night” is one of those books that is very difficult to read because of the subject matter but is a must read exactly because of that subject matter. It is the biographical story of teenage Elie Wiesel’s time in World War Two and traces his time from the beginnings of World War Two in Sighet, Hungary, to the rounding up of the Jews in his town in 1944, to his travails in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, to his emancipation at the end of World War Two. It is important to be reminded again and again that this stuff happened. It is so far outside our experience that it’s very difficult to believe that it did happen. That it does happen in places we don’t care about. That it can happen. Even here. Even now.

I have, for a long time, been uncomfortable with the concept of good and evil and the battle of good versus evil with which a majority of humanity seems to view the world. Reading “Night” greatly reinforced that discomfort. I choose to view the world as comprised of those who have retained their humanity and those who have lost it or have had it taken away from them. Our humanity is a fragile and precious thing that can be snuffed out as easily as blowing out birthday candles. Luckily, we share a common interest in our own humanity and the humanity of those close to us. Sadly, we choose to retain the humanity of our own cohort at the expense of the humanity of another cohort. I use the word “cohort” on purpose because the big trouble comes when we become militaristic against another group of people. This is what happened to the Jews in World War Two. The Nazi cohort went against the Jewish cohort and systematically and effectively removed the Jewish humanity while maintaining a perverse Nazi humanity as justification. The Nazis definitely took it to the extreme, but war requires both a loss of one’s own humanity with regards to the “enemy” and a reinforcement of one’s own belonging. This is the central terror of Nationalism. And once the Jewish humanity was removed well past the stereotypical nonsense that still pervades society today, it became trivial to snuff their souls. Because they don’t have them. Look at them fighting for scraps. They kill each other for a piece of bread. I can beat this one’s father right in front of him and he will do nothing. Surely they wouldn’t participate in the killing of their own people if they were human. It is a mercy to kill them. They are suffering. You don’t feel bad for putting down a horse who is lame. Is the Jew who killed another Jew for his shoes evil? Is the father who shared his bread with his starving son good? No, one had his humanity stripped from him and the other was able to maintain it for at least a portion of the time.

Reading “Night” should be thought of as taking a journey of the soul. There are times when I was close to tears and I still well up in the eyes thinking about those times. There are times of such stark beauty that it is almost preposterous to believe that such things can exist in dark times and I still smile when I think of them. Well, smile and well up with tears. It’s an emotionally complicated book. My journey is continuing with Elie Wiesel’s other two books in the trilogy, “Dawn”, and “Day”. Do yourself a favor and read “Night”. If you’ve already read it, read it again.

Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

“The Alchemist” has the power of vocabulary that will stay with you for the rest of your life. I will from this day forth forever be living my Personal Legend. Perceived truths of goodness and love will always come from the Soul of the World. Being able to communicate with individuals or animals or nature without the use of spoken word will always be speaking with the Language of the World. So poetic! It is a very influential book, indeed, that can impart such things unto its reader and any book that can do so deserves to be read by everyone.

The story revolves around a young shepherd boy named Santiago, but throughout just called the boy, who has a recurring dream. This dream informs him that he should go to the Pyramids in Egypt to find a great treasure. While extremely content with his shepherd life, the boy is disturbed by the dream enough that he follows it and meets a series of figures along the way who encourage him to do so. Thus begins the boy’s Personal Legend.

The ideas in this book are romantic and seductive. How could it not be when it’s called following your Personal Legend? The boy travels from place to place, sometimes finding things easy, sometimes finding thing difficult and meets all of these interesting people, some following their Personal Legend, some not. It’s basically my dream life. Where the book shines, though, is in its ideas about love. There aren’t any mind-blowing pronouncements or earth-shattering revelations about love, just more of a matter-of-factly but beautifully stated and mentally appealing realities about love. I didn’t come out of the book thinking “Wow, now that’s love!”, but more of “Oh, of course that’s love! Why would it be any other way?”. I found it immensely satisfying.

The ending, I will admit, is a bit trite for my tastes. Not nearly as trite as I was fearing, fortunately, but there are a variety of other endings that I would have been quite happy with. It should also be said that the ability to follow your Personal Legend comes from a place of extreme privilege. One of the themes of the book is that the whole universe conspires to help you on your Personal Legend if you are willing to follow it. It is true that the boy suffers hardships, but his starting point was as a pretty successful shepherd. There is not any acknowledgement of this in the book. Those who are not following their Personal Legend are portrayed as scared or lazy, not necessarily in a bad way, mind you, just kind of now worthy. It’s not quite a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” message, but it teeters dangerously close to it.

“The Alchemist” is a book very much worth reading. It is beautiful and won’t take much of your time to boot. It is eminently quotable and poetically delicious. I shall leave you with a quote from the book that I think sums up the wonderful qualities of “The Alchemist” nicely: “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”

Book Review: Dreams Of Gods And Monsters by Laini Taylor

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

“Dreams of Gods and Monsters” is book three of Laini Taylor’s “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series. It brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. This novel recaptures much of the magic that made book one a delight to read and that was missing in “Days of Blood and Starlight“. Though, it does take a while for the story to get going. Whereas book one was all hope and love and magic ending in tragedy, and book two was almost all tragedy, book three starts with tragedy and grows back into hope and love and magic. It also ties myths and legends brought up in book one rather satisfactorily.

For the longest time, something was picking at my brain while I was reading this book, but I couldn’t figure it out. There was a complete not-rightness to it that was thwarting my enjoyment. Finally, around half way through, I figured it out. It was time. Or more specifically, the complete lack of passage of it. The entire novel takes place over a span of just about 72 hours if you don’t count the epilogue. In that time, an impossible amount of events take place. Worlds are traversed, large distances are flown, patience is lost because of decisions taking too much time. Once I figured that out, I started to enjoy the book a lot more. I am not sure if it was because of that or because it happened to coincide with the return of a bit of mirth and levity to the story. It might also be because the wishes finally made a comeback. Wishes in the trilogy were a beautiful source of ridiculousness packed into an almost currency-like system. They were completely lacking in book two and it was all the worse for it.

Any softness of plot and sloppiness of storytelling, for instance book three has a bit of a deus ex machina going on, is overcome by Laini Taylor’s writing style. She has an almost melodic, poetic voice in her writing. It isn’t often where I find myself paying much attention to the chapter titles, but hers are delightful and intriguing in how they fit into the chapter’s story. It isn’t just that, though. Taylor is also quite adept at capturing little moments with clarity and beauty. I feel as if she’s almost missed her literary calling and instead of writing novels, she should try her hand at the short story, the most difficult of narratives.

Having finished the trilogy, I am not sure I can whole-heartedly recommend reading it even though I quite enjoyed the journey. I think the hopeless romantics in the audience will get a lot of enjoyment out of these books. Also, Taylor has also created quite an imaginative world and has left enough rough edges to allow the more creative among us to smooth out those edges with their own stories. I also must remind myself that these are young adult books and, while pretty dark at times for young adults, it is a series that would very likely appeal to them as well.

Book Review: This Side Of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Jean-Paul’s rating: 5/5 stars

Man, can F. Scott Fitzgerald write. Often, when I read books, I have delusions of grandeur that I could have written that book. With Fitzgerald, I fee like a complete hack and illiterate.  There are so many moments of absolute prosaic brilliance in this novel. There are definitely parts where my mind wandered, only to be shaken into stark clarity by what I was reading. Kind of like you feel when you jar awake while dosing behind the wheel.

“This Side of Paradise” is a novel for wanderers and travelers, both of the soul and of the body. It’s not quite a coming of age story as much as it’s a discovery of self story. The novel revolves around Amory Blaine, which is appropriate because Amory Blaine thinks the world revolves around himself. He is every spoiled rich kid you have ever met. He spends much of his youth disdaining everything and coming up with simplistic ideas about society, always with him smack dab in the middle of the spiderweb. Basically, take any teenage with time on his hands to think profound thoughts with little guidance and you have Amory Blaine. Here’s the trick, though, he’s actually likeable. Fitzgerald has a way of making deeply flawed, obnoxiously rich people very likeable. As Amory grows older, his methods of questioning the world mellow, but even to the end he is a selfish person, but by then he knows that of himself.

Fitzgerald’s prose is very scattershot in this novel. It’s much of the reason I enjoyed it so much. He switches often from long paragraph prose inside Amory’s mind to back and forth banter between friends to poetry to a play format to a weird question and answer session with himself. At times, especially the long periods inside Amory’s brain, it can be difficult to focus, but the journey is well worth it. I especially loved the play format where Amory’s love Rosalind enters the picture. It had such a delightful, almost Jane Austiny feel to it. It was an “I can’t put the book down” moment that is difficult to recapture these days. Second favorite was the back and forth banter between Amory and some random rich dude about socialism. These moments all just kind of come out of nowhere and are almost short stories thrown into the middle of a novel, but they are wonderful.

Many people will probably be upset with the ending, but I think it is perfect. I will not say what it is, but it’s almost like Amory has come full circle. A little wiser, perhaps, but just as directionless and just as despairing. At the beginning of the novel, I really disliked Amory Blaine. By the end I had to ask the question: oh my god, am I Amory Blaine? Was I like Amory Blaine when I was in school? We are all Amory Blaine. Well, without the money.

I have a theory about Amory Blaine. I didn’t really know what the book was about when I started reading it and reading it doesn’t really help you to know that answer so I was kind of searching for meaning or direction in a directionless and meaningless novel. There was a part when Amory was in Princeton where he sees a ghost of a friend who had died. Many pages are used describing this period of time where Amory sees this ghost. At the time, I thought that this may be a story about a young man who develops schizophrenia and here was his first episode. There were some holes in this theory. A friend saw the ghost as well. But maybe that friend was part of the schizophrenia as well. Amory did seem to only see this “friend” in his house. Then other friends saw the ghost as well and the premise started to get ridiculous. Nothing was mentioned of the ghost after that, which is pretty par for the novel. But then, there was this really weird question and answer period between Amory and himself. It was almost as if two distinct personalities were talking to each other. The rebuttal to that, of course, is who doesn’t have conversations with themselves? But it didn’t feel quit like that was what was happening. Then you take into consideration the fact that his wife, Zelda, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and I have to wonder if there were any other hints that this might be what was happening to Amory. I guess we’ll never know.

Book Review: Days Of Blood And Starlight by Laini Taylor

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

While the first book in this trilogy, “Daughter of Smoke and Bone“, was light-hearted fare with hints of darkness, “Days of Blood and Starlight” is dark fare with hints of blackness.  Karou, after re-experiencing the trauma of her own death as Madrigal and the revelation that the Seraph she loved both as Madrigal and then again as Karou is responsible for the near annihilation of her fellow Chimaera, is almost unrecognizable from the first book.  She has gone from messenger to the Chimaera resurrectionist, Brimstone, now dead at her lover’s hand, to the heavy burden of resurrectionist for the rag-tag leftovers of the Chimera army and taking unquestioning orders from the new Chimaera commander, Thiago.  This is a little jarring given there’s no real build-up to this and she’s gone from unknown participant in an unknown war to the key element necessary to keeping the war going.  This change of personality is understandable, but it’s a weakness of the book that it’s glossed over.

Much of the rest of the book follows Akiva on the Seraph side and Karou on the Chimera side.  They follow twin paths leading to the same conclusion and their paths cross and separate multiple times throughout.  On Akiva’s side, he’s already dedicated to figuring out a way to stop the madness of this war and must tread a delicate line to see his dreams to fruition.  Karou, on the other hand, starts out as pretty much dedicated to the war effort and only slowly realizes that she’s become kind of a monster and must slowly back away from staring into that particular abyss.  The Akiva story-line is well thought out and the evolution of his two partners is explored in a depth that makes that evolution make sense.  The Karou story-line, on the other hand, is kind of a mess.  If you read it as the tale of someone suffering through post-traumatic stress disorder, Karou’s actions and reactions make a little more sense and this is why a bit of a fill-in narrative about Karou for the time between book one and book two would have been appreciated.  Taylor also kind of shoe-horns Zuzana and Mik from book one into book two and while their interactions between themselves and with Karou are delightful, they really don’t add to the story and it’s obvious that Taylor just needed to include them for the sake of letting people see their favorite characters again.

The biggest problem by far with the book is the facile use of a violent attempted rape to further the plot.  Sadly, I can’t even say that it does that, since the rape scene is immediately followed by a strange coincidence that remains unexplained and made the rape completely unnecessary.  The only possible explanations are to either make the reader hate the attacker, even though there was plenty of reason for the reader to already to do, or to make the victim fear the attacker, even though there was already plenty of reason for her to do so.  If you read the story without the rape, you would miss literally nothing from the book.  It was so distasteful, I pushed my review down a star.

Despite that major bit of distastefulness, I did rather enjoy this book.  Probably better than the first one.  It is certainly not a happy book, but there are good surprises throughout and the Akiva arc is definitely Taylor’s best thought out portion of the series to date.  War makes fascists of us all and this book made that clear while wrapping a compelling story around it.  I’m still kind of on the fence as to whether I would recommend the series to anyone except to the young adults they’re supposed to be written for, but we’ll see if book three can kick me off that fence one way or another.  “Harry Potter” this series is not, but that’s an impossibly high standard.

Book Review: Daughter Of Smoke And Bone by Laini Taylor

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

“Daughter of Smoke and Bone” belongs firmly in the glutted young adult “teen doesn’t know who she is but discovers she is so much more” genre, but does a good job of distinguishing itself from the pack.  Taylor does this by giving the main character a pretty weird life right from the get go.  Taylor does a good job of giving her characters, both human and other, an exotic flavor while keeping them relatable at the same time.

The main character is Karou, a 17 year old with blue hair and tattoos living in Prague and going to art school by day and owning one of the coolest names of bookdom.  By night, Karou is a messenger/gofer for an individual named Brimstone who lives in some sort of trans-dimensional space and collects teeth in exchange for wishes.  Karou was raised from birth by Brimstone and his assistants who are all chimaera, animal/human hybrids of varying sorts.  Karou keeps this portion of her life secret from her human friends, including her best friend Zuzana, a spunky, wisecracky, ball of energy who goes to school with her.  Obviously, since this is a book they want you to read, Karou doesn’t keep her secret for long after it is revealed to Karou that seraphim have invaded Earth and that the seraphim and chimaera have been at war for thousands of years.

Taylor has built a very interesting world here and there is a lot of material that I wish she had covered, but was sadly left unexplored.  This is especially true of the chimaera, of whom very little is explored.  I would have loved to see some anthropological (chimaerapological?) diggings into their society.  Perhaps this will be done in the next book.  Yes, this is the first of a series.  The whole chimaera vs seraphim war is intriguing and the bleeding of it into the human world and its impact therein is well thought out.  The whole system of wishes is well thought out, having varying denominations like currency (scuppy, shing, lucknow, gavriel, and bruxis, from weakest to strongest).  Imagine what you would have done as a teenager with almost unlimited scuppies, which can’t do much more than cause jock itch, and you have an idea of what happens to them in Karou’s hands.

My biggest problem with the book is that there are chapters and chapters dedicated to describing a relationship between the teenager Karou and a hundreds of years old angel named Akiva.  First off, eww.  Second, it’s not that the relationship was there which bothered me, but the superficiality of it.  Everyone is just so beautiful.  Karou, her ex Kazimir, Akiva, all the seraphim.  And if that weren’t bad enough, much of the evil/betrayal portrayed in the novel is done by ugly people or people jealous of beauty.  And before you simply accuse me of not liking romance, there is another romance story in this book that worked well and that I enjoyed.  There is also a lot of heavy-handed foreshadowing which I rolled my eyes at, but in Taylor’s defense, delivers quite effectively even if it is the very end of the book.  That the book just ended there was annoying as there was much left hanging and there was really no sense of accomplishment felt plot-wise.

Quibbles aside, this was a very enjoyable book to read and I’ve already started reading the next in the series.  Given that Taylor most likely started right in on the second book, I don’t have hope that she received much feedback about the first and thus will continue to populate the second book with my quibbles, but that’s ok.  I just have to remind myself that this is young adult fiction and not meant for masterpiece theater, though they are working on a film adaptation of the first book as we speak.

Book Review: Garlic And Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Jean-Paul’s rating: 3/5 stars

I have been living my life all wrong.  Instead of cultivating friendships with restaurant critics who would then take me for free meals while they review restaurants, I have this motley group of friends every single one of which is decidedly not a restaurant critic.  Friends, you have all failed me.  Completely and irrevocably.

How cool would it be to be friends with the New York Times restaurant critic?  Especially if hat person is Ruth Reichl.  That is the main conclusion I come to after reading “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise”.  The book follows her time as a restaurant critic between leaving the LA Times in 1993 for The New York Times till her departure from there for Gourmet magazine in 1999.  Now, you might be thinking that a book about a person’s time as a restaurant critic sounds like an incredibly boring story, but you’d be wrong.  Reichl, you see, has a hook.  After discovering that her likeness was pasted across all the popular restaurants with instructions for the staff to be on the lookout for her, Reichl decided to develop disguises complete with alternate personas.

The book is equal parts Reichl developing her disguises and trying them out at restaurants and just random weirdness that happens to you when you happen to be The New York Times food critic.  It is then padded with some filler copy of reviews straight from the newspaper and fleshed out with select recipes of some of Reichl’s favorite dishes.  The personal experience stuff is fun to read, if a little too polished.  In the afterword, Reichl does explain this polishing for time, flow, and various other literary reasons to create a book worth reading, which I appreciated.  The newspaper articles, with an exception or two, mostly break up the flow of the narrative and feel out of place.  And as for the recipes interspersed throughout, I WANT TO MAKE ALL THE THINGS!

If you enjoy food, you will likely enjoy this book.  It’s light reading and perfect for a beach vacation or airplane fodder.  People who do not like food will probably not get much enjoyment out of it, but you people are barely human so you don’t even count.

Now, to begin stalking Phil Vettel