Thursday, May 26, 2011

the wild, wild west

Doc by Mary Doria Russell
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Challenge: 100 Book Challenge 2011
Review: I don't think I've ever actually read a Western, so I can't say for sure if this book qualifies as belonging to that genre, or if it's just plain old historical fiction.  Whatever it is, it's another example of Mary Doria Russell's mastery of her craft.  We already know that Russell writes great historical fiction and science fiction, but here she has chosen yet another period and setting vastly different from what she's given her readers before, and again with the meticulous research that her fans will by now take for granted.

If this book has a flaw, it's that it can be a little jumpy.  We are occasionally yanked back in time for some backstory, which always helps flesh out a character or plot point, but some way of distinguishing these short flashbacks from the rest of the narrative would have made the transition less jarring.  This small flaw is easily overlooked, though, as it doesn't take more than a sentence or two to adjust to the new setting.

And it's well worth overlooking.  Historical figures that many of us have heard of but probably don't know much about beyond the legend will come to life through Russell's writing.  Those who are more familiar with these figures will appreciate the research that Russell has done to go beyond that legend.  Everyone will enjoy a good story well told.

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

Sunday, May 8, 2011

sensationalized details

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury
Rating: 1 star (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Challenge: 100 Book Challenge 2011, 2011 Page to Screen Reading Challenge
Review:  When reading a book written some time ago, it's important to remember that standards and tastes may have been different back then.  Such is the case here.  It's entirely possible (in this case, likely) that this book was considered eminently readable when it was published in 1927, but today's readers might find it somewhat more difficult.

Asbury presents us with a dizzying array of names of people (real names, pseudonyms, and nicknames) and places (modern and historical), barely pausing for breath, let alone meaningful distinction among them (I lost count of the number of gangsters described as "huge").  A map would have been nice, and a cast of characters even better.

Anecdotes are piled one on top of another, with little or no explanation as to why any of them are important or how any of them are connected.  And each one is more sensationalistic than the last, making me wonder where Asbury got his information from.  A bibliography is appended at the end of the book, but it's impossible to tell which stories he got from which sources (and, indeed, which came from "personal interviews" with criminals and police officers).  So, as hard a time as I had just wading through the mass of details, I almost had an even harder time believing them.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

emasculating feminism

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: 100 Book Challenge 2011
Review: The ancient Greek play Lysistrata tells a powerful story about war and feminism.  This book, in which a school production of Lysistrata has a surprising effect on the community, removes every shred of meaning from the play.

Rather than being organized into a sex strike to put an end to a long-running war, the women in this book are individually struck by a spell that makes them just not interested in sex or intimacy any more.  Not only is there no larger purpose to their sudden refusals, but for the most part none of the women is aware that what's suddenly struck them is anything other than a personal change.  One of the girls undertakes a personal strike to stay in bed, alone, until the end of the war in Afghanistan, but this, too, just fizzles out, much like the desire of the women in town, and much like the plot of this book.

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