Monday, May 15, 2017

Dear Julie

Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters by Susanna Fogel
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This book is so clever/funny/witty, I don't even know how to review it.  But I'll try, for the sake of getting more people to read it.

First of all, poor Julie.  Her family is crazy.  I mean, everyone's family is crazy in their own way, right?  I think most families have one or two "normal" people in them, but not Julie's.  Or at least, those relatives never wrote her any letters.  But she gets letters (e-mails in later years) from a wide assortment of other relatives, as well as from her boyfriend's dog, her dead grandfather and great-great-great grandmother, and her own IUD.  These last are perhaps the funniest of the book.  I was afraid these antics would get tired as the book went on, but they definitely don't.  Fogel holds the book tightly together almost right up until the very end (which is part of the reason I only give this book 4.5 stars - the last few letters pierce the fourth wall too much).

But who is Julie?  Well, we never really find out.  And that's the other reason I give 4.5 stars.  I kind of wanted to hear Julie's own voice, although I couldn't decide whether I wanted to hear her give her own explanations, or just hear her losing it with some of the nonsense her family comes up with.  To do so would have totally destroyed the wonderfulness of this book, though, so I actually give Fogel credit for not giving us an easy way out of this book.  But if a book ever cried out for a contiguous sequel, it's this one.  Susanna Fogel - please write more!  Please write from Julie's perspective.  Or at least give us another compilation of letters from her family so we can know what happens next.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

not funny

Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means by Michael Krasny
Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction, humor
Review: Krasny could have saved his own time and effort, and better served his readers, by just giving us a compilation of Jewish jokes, without the so-called analysis in between.  His writing is very choppy, moving from one thought to another without much in the way of connectivity, and his analysis is shallow.  We all understand that humor is in the eye of the beholder, and that the same ethnic joke when told by a non-(insert ethnic group here) is, or can be seen as, racist, but might be considered hilarious when told by a member of that ethnic group, especially if being told to another member.  That certainly doesn't need to be repeated at least half a dozen times in the space of 300 pages.  But that's what most of the analysis seems to boil down to, whether he's talking about Jews as outsiders, Jewish stereotypes, or even the way Jews experience joy.

Overall, Krasny seems more interested in name-dropping (he told so-and-so a joke when he interviewed him on his radio program, his close friend so-and-so, etc.) than giving us any new or interesting material.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

writing about reading

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Review: Dear Pamela Paul,
Please come and live with me and be my literary big sister.
I am,
Yours devotedly in reading.

No, for real.  Every reader must read this book.  Pamela's descriptions of the joys (and sorrows) of reading are beautiful.  She is exquisitely thoughtful in connecting the books she records in Bob (her Book of Books, in which she lists everything she's read since age 17) to her life, or to her reflections of the life she was living at the time she read a particular book.  She also discusses many of her travels, giving them equally thoughtful and literary treatment.  Seriously, this is the book about reading that I wish I could have written.

FTC Dsiclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Monday, March 20, 2017

what's going on here?

Ill Will by Dan Chaon
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Are we supposed to pity Dustin Tillman, because of what he went through as a child, hate him for what he did in response, or respect him for being able to put his life together afterward?  I don't know.

Dustin not only can't be relied upon to tell the truth, he doesn't even know what the truth is.  He is described by other characters as spacey, delusional, suggestible, and gullible.  So fine, I promise not to take anything he says at face-value.  This is not difficult because, among other things, he's unable to finish most thoughts, either in conversation or in his internal monologue.  Which makes it hard to take him seriously as the clinical psychologist with a successful practice he's supposed to be.  In the end, this was the most challenging part of the book for me.

So are we supposed to believe what he finally lets on that he really remembers about the night his parents, aunt, and uncle died?  Or perhaps the real question is, do we really care about what happened by that point?

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

to make it up or not make it up

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Review: I'm used to reading non-fiction books that are written in such a readable way that it feels like reading like fiction (e.g. Erik Larson).  That's easy.  Reading a work of fiction, based on true events, and written in the style of narrative non-fiction is easy too, but much more confusing.  I had to look for reviews of this book to convince myself that it is indeed fiction.  I was able to find a article in which Crichton himself says that he did hardly any research, which answered the question for me.

Having settled that, I will say that in some ways this book was much less readable than other books, fiction or non, due to Crichton's (excessive?) use of slang.  In other respects, he does a wonderful job of painting of picture of the times, and I assume that having his characters speak in the slang they would have used is part of that effort.  Unfortunately, although clarity rarely suffers, since Crichton defines the slang terms used as they come, readability does.  Instead of drawing me deeper into the world of Victorian-age criminals, the slang distracted and annoyed me.  No harm in slang, of course, but everything in moderation.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Flatland

Valley of the Moon by Melanie Gideon
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: I thought the premise of this book was really great, and I wasn't even too put off by the poor plot mechanism (a fog that seems to have a mind of its own in that it comes and goes as needed at exactly such intervals that will create maximum plot tension, really?) that Gideon uses to make it happen.  No, what bothered me about this book is that all the characters seemed completely affectless.  This seems strange to say since many of the characters demonstrate great emotion, from joy to extreme grief, but I never bought it.  Characters appeared grief-stricken over a death of someone who was "like a sister," except that up until that point, I'd thought the characters didn't even like each other that much.  About 25 pages from the end of the book, I was caught up in one character's emotions, but it only lasted for about 3 pages, and then I was back to Flatland again.  For all that, I liked the book, and read on to find out what would happen and how it would all be resolved (out of curiosity, rather than any concern for the characters), but this was not a book that kept me up at night.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

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Changers, Book 3: Kim by T Cooper & Allison Glock-Cooper
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Have I mentioned the plot holes?  Yeah, ok.  Moving on.  After all the drama that happened in Book 2, this book was pretty tame.  Yes, Kim has to deal with some fat-shaming and body image issues, but those don't get much emphasis in the story.  Instead, this story seems to be mostly a gap-filler.  Kim learns some things about how the Changer world really works, does a little rebelling, and ultimately comes back home ready to move on to senior year and whatever identity s/he will inhabit then

The authors are clearly trying to build up to a big show-down between the Changer establishment and those who seek to change it (and a proxy show-down between Ethan/Drew/Oryon/Kim and his/her father).  Although there wasn't much substance in this book, I'll be looking for the next book to see how it all plays out, and ultimately which identity s/he chooses.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.