Emma by Jane Austen – Volume II

Reading Volume II, I was, yet again, amazed at how adeptly Ms. Austen juggles her numerous plots and sub-plots.  She sure knows how to seamlessly weave together an entire town’s worth of story lines:  marriages, gossip, deceptions, schemes, secrets – really, Austen’s awesome.  For a novel to work (at least for me) all the characters must be well developed, interesting, and meaningful to the plot.  Volume II accomplishes this wonderfully – not just in advancing our initial townsfolk, but brilliantly adding several new characters into the mix – most notably, Mrs. Elton and Mr. Frank Churchill.

Two of my favorite scenes occur – Mr. Churchill’s escape to London for a mere haircut (or perhaps some super secret mission to be uncovered later!) and the anonymous gifting of Jane Fairfax’s pianoforte.  Frank’s haircut (I feel improper calling him his Christian name – does anyone else ever feel this way when reading classic literature?) with its silliness is worthy of several genuine chuckles (who knew classic literature could be so amusing!).  And the mysteriously appearing pianoforte much discussed at the dinner party hosted by the Coles adds intrigue worthy of any well constructed detective novel, but also begins to reveal Emma’s true feelings towards Mr. Knightley she’s still very much unaware of.  I love how Austen does that – revealing truths while creating secrets.

I think my biggest revelation so far in this re-read is how much I’m enjoying knowing everything that happens in advance.  Being spoiled allows me to pay attention to the intricacies cleverly woven by Ms. Austen so much earlier on than a first reading would allow.  I particularly love this in respect to Miss Fairfax and Mr. Churchill.

Another striking matter is how little Mr. Knightley has actually been in the story thus far.  He’s far too often holed up in Donwell Abbey seeing to his farming and whatnot.  I find myself pining for his attendance at Emma’s little social dalliances because I am a fangirl.  And fangirls should never be denied.  Despite his solitary nature, Mr. Knightley does fulfill his social engagements, keeping him from hermit status, and his presence is always pivotal to the story and never needlessly wasted.  He may not say much, but what he does say can not be ignored.

Excited to embark upon Volume III where our hero and heroine will finally find their way to one another and all will be well in Highbury!

Book View: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

So…once upon a time I was an English major.  During my stint as an English major, I learned about many literary movements – Victorian, Romantic, Modernism, and so forth.  Then we covered Post-Modernism and I suddenly wanted to switch my major to Physics, build a time machine, and brain-wash all the great post-modern writers against writing their crazy, rambling nonsense.  Alas, this dream never came to light and so, several years later, I’m still trying to make some sort of coherent-ness out of Thomas Pynchon’s novels.  If you have found this elusive enlightenment, please share your wisdom in the comments.

You’re probably thinking, what’s this lady going on about already?  See, I’m determined to read all the books on TIME magazine’s 100 best English language novels since 1923 (see full list here).  And of course, Pynchon makes an appearance.  Actually, I think he makes two appearances (I’m afraid to check) and so I decided to get him out of the way early.  Bravely, this week I read (stumbled through) The Crying of Lot 49 and still haven’t recovered.

I don’t even know how to write a synopsis for this tiny little novella, but here goes:  Oedipa Maas (yes, that’s her name) receives a letter informing her that an ex-boyfriend has passed and named her as executor of his estate.  During her executor duties, she uncovers a long-lived feud between rival postal companies and what appears to be a global conspiracy represented by the following symbol:

Oedipa spends the rest of the novel as amateur detective trying to discover the truth behind the mail mystery and how her ex was involved.

Sounds logical, even mildly interesting, no?  Well, the thing you have to know is that Pynchon’s novel is a satire of life, of writing, of story – of everything.  So what appears to matter doesn’t matter, and that’s the point.  A main theme is breakdown in communication symbolized by the difficulty the reader has in following Pynchon’s narrative.  This book is a hot mess and a hot mess on purpose.  Without Sparknotes, I would never have been able to follow along.

As an example of post-modern literature, Pynchon’s novels (all of them) excel.  Where Modernism tries desperately to make sense out of chaos (think Virginia Woolf), Post-Modernism accepts the chaos, embraces the chaos, and then spits the chaos back into your face.  If this sounds exciting to you, then give it a go, but just know these novels are far more challenging that Shakespeare or Dickens.  I’d suggest starting with DeLillo’s White Noise, which is infinitely more readable than Pynchon.

If you must read The Crying of Lot 49, I’ll admit that it’s not all bad.  Of the six chapters, I enjoyed three – especially the scene where Metzger seduces Oedipa.  Oedipa’s night of endless roaming the streets of San Fran, spotting the muted post horn symbol everywhere was also fun to read and very well done.  Pynchon’s talent lies in language and imagery – he can also be quite humorous at times.

After finishing this book, I immediately picked up mind-trash (a.k.a. The Vampire Diaries 1&2) to give my brain a rest.  Look for that review this week as well as my first Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men!

Book View: The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar

Thrity Umrigar’s newest novel is set to be released tomorrow, but I won an ARC from Goodreads a couple of weeks ago.  My first experience with Umrigar has been such a pleasant surprise – so much so, in fact, that I intend to read everything she’s ever written.

Armaiti, Kavita, Laleh, and Nishta become the best of friends during the late 1970s.  They all attend college in Bombay (currently Mumbai), India and quickly develop a bond as deep as sisterhood.  The four friends are rebels, revolutionaries, political activists, and idealistic believers in the equality of all people – and then they graduate.  Armaiti heads to America, Kavita battles loneliness and hidden secrets despite major successes,  Laleh struggles to align her ideology to the rich, comfortable life she finds herself in, and Nishta disappears.  Thirty years later, Armaiti is diagnosed with a brain tumor and given six months to live.  Faced with her past, present, and ever-shrinking future, she once again calls on her three dearest friends in an attempt to make some sense out of the world in which they now find themselves.

I read The World We Found in the course of one 24 hour period which is a rarity for me.  Umrigar excels at character development.  Very quickly Armaiti, Nishta, Laleh, and Kavita became my own friends – the girls I was so close to once upon a time.  They were so very real, honest, and captivating; I cared deeply about what happened to each and every one of them and couldn’t stop turning the pages until a resolution had been obtained.  I say resolution, not ending, because I believe one of the ideas Umrigar wants to get across to her readers is that nothing is ever over or complete – that time may pass, but the story can always pick up, change, and dreams can always be fulfilled – even in the face of death.

I was also so pleased to learn so much about India, as I admit to knowing next to nothing.  Umrigar does a fantastic job of portraying the class struggles, the religious prejudices, and the beauty of a country that has always seemed so foreign and far away.  She manages to show instead of preach – always refreshing.  She creates a vivid picture of India – not so much its buildings, monuments, and tangible treasures, but rather the people and culture that live within these physical spaces.

So please go get yourself a copy tomorrow!  You’ll love the beautifully drawn female friendships, the armchair travel to India, the pleasant memories of your own past, and a new author that you will want to cherish for many years to come!  I’d love to hear what everyone thinks – especially in regards to Nishta’s story!

Next up:  The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – my first read of 2012 and holding steady at 5 stars unless the ending ruins it!  Stay tuned to find out!

Book View: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

My first audio book ever!  Sarah Drew’s narration of Delirium by Lauren Oliver was a great place to start.  Her voice could be slightly whiny at times, but I just chalked this up to proper character treatment as Lena was often whiny.

Delirium is a young adult dystopia set in a world where love has become a deadly disease.  The government has put the US in lockdown mode and requires all citizens to receive the ‘cure’ once they turn 18.  So instead of a world driven by love, hate, and passion, Lena (our heroine) now lives in a world filled with fear and indifference.  She’s perfectly content until she meets Alex, a boy from the outside wilds, who helps her uncover the truth the government has so desperately hidden beyond the city’s electrified fence.  Insert cliffhanger and anxious waiting for second book in series here.

A world without love definitely qualifies as an interesting premise and Oliver does a masterful job at creating a backlist of literature, government propaganda, and medical pamphlets to convince readers that there is something to fear in loving freely.  As a reader, you can almost become convinced that a world without passion, without hate born from passion might be better – until the incident with the dog (no spoilers beyond that!).  Then you realize indifference doesn’t solve our world’s problems, only creates new issues.  Issues with no hope of resolution because no one cares enough to change anything anymore.

Delirium began quite slowly – which can be understandable when you’re building a new world.  A lot of exposition takes place, but I kept waiting for the pacing to pick up – for the action to overtake the languid plotting and that just never happened – until the final few pages.  And by then I was so frustrated that the cliffhanger wasn’t even that exciting and was completely predictable.  I was also frustrated with character development – Lena’s character changes and grows a bit (somewhat reluctantly), but Alex is rather flat and Hannah, in my opinion, regresses.  For this reason, the love story between Lena and Alex didn’t ring true.

What did work for me was the thoroughness of the world.  Oliver’s strength definitely lies in her imagery and description.  The evil government and their incredible lies juxtaposed against a Portland, Maine backdrop of endless sea and the freedom of flying seagulls.  Seeing the citizens completely under the charm and control of representation they’ve put their blind faith in is so scary.  Not only is the US separate from the world now, but each individual city is locked down from each other.  You never leave your little fishbowl – you never know what exists outside that fence.  Terrifying.  The Wilds was also done so well (the world outside the fence where the uncureds and sympathizers live).  The broken streets, abandoned houses, and bombing remnants are visceral and haunting.  I could picture my own street in the aftermath of a civil war.  These were the images that made Delirium soar.

I’ll get around to reading the second in the series, Pandemonium, once it’s released.  I hope the pacing picks up and that Oliver convinces me these characters are worth following for a third book.  If not, I’ve enjoyed the world she’s built and believe she’ll only grow as a writer over time.  Can’t wait to see what she has in store for us next!

I hope everyone has a Happy New Year!  I’m excited for 2012 and many books ahead.

Book View: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is fantastic.  I cannot imagine a world where someone would read this chunky novel and hate it – so please do not shatter my illusions.  Besides, Henry James loved it and he knows all.

On with the story!  Molly Gibson is a young girl of 17, raised by her father after her mother dies, who must navigate the English countryside during the 1830s.  Her father remarries and the new Mrs. Gibson is certainly a less-than-perfect stepmother for Molly, but Molly does gain a beloved stepsister (but really a romantic rival).  How will Molly survive her new family structure and will dear Cynthia steal away all the eligible bachelors?

In short, I would love to teach this novel if I ever manage to become a teacher of such things.  Gaskell, while appearing to write a rather light-hearted romantic sort of story, has actually crafted an intelligent and decisive work of social commentary.  She goes beyond writing about manners and class structure (though these themes are present) and journeys into deep questions of marriage’s necessity, nature vs. nurture, and what makes family family.  At the end of the novel, even Molly’s often clueless stepmother stops to wonder that “people talk a good deal about natural affinities” and what concepts beyond mere blood or familial title make us bound to each other.

For these reasons, I think Wives and Daughters was way ahead of its time.  You have women shunning marriage and enjoying being in middle age with no husband or prospects.  You have fathers that can’t get on with sons and mothers who are clueless about their daughters.  Then you have the charming relationship between Molly and her father that puts all other parent/child bonds to shame.  There are social scandals in the name of good and people crossing class lines with a nonchalant shrug of their shoulders.  With this novel, you get a front row seat to a cultural evolution of sorts and it’s a tremendous ride.

I loved Molly dearly as a vehicle of honesty – she’ll show you the truth behind every other character’s motives.  Cynthia is such a complex female and sister to Molly – a perfect FOIL really.  You’ll root for Molly while booing Cynthia only to end loving them both.  Don’t be dismayed when you learn Gaskell died before finishing the novel.  At 650 pages, the story is fairly complete in its final written chapter.  There are no doubts left as to who marries whom and besides – the BBC miniseries will give you a proper ending.  And do watch the mini-series because it is amazing and so loyal to the book.

So make plans to include Wives and Daughters in your 2012 reading.  You won’t be disappointed!  I cannot wait to read something else by her as this was my first Gaskell.  The writing is so clean and easy to read, yet sucks you in and keeps you turning the pages.  She doesn’t go in for major cliffhangers, but there’s always some secret you’re waiting to be divulged that keeps you intrigued.  This novel was emotionally cathartic over Christmastime as I was dealing with my own family dilemmas and estrangement from my father.  Perhaps not as bitingly witty as Austen, but a pleasure all the same.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting on Delirium by Lauren Oliver so stay tuned!

Book View: Austenland by Shannon Hale

Title: Austenland
Author: Shannon Hale
Pages: 208 (paperback edition)
Genre: Chick Lit/Austen spin-off
Original Publication Date:  May 29, 2007
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Source: Kindle

You might have noticed the slight change in post title – I’ve decided to rename my ‘reviews’ to ‘views’.  A sort of blogging nickname, if you will.  Why?  One of my main goals of 2012 is to stop taking things so seriously (including myself) and just try to have more fun.  So why not start here?  So long uptight Reviews and hello whimsical Views!  Feel free to mock me in the comments.  Basically, just hoping to keep things conversational in the 2012 because reading is meant to be fun – at least outside of school!

Ok…enough already and on with the view!  Austenland is one of those Pride and Prejudice spin-offs (or professional fanfiction) that I so dutifully avoid.  You see, I’m an Austen purist.  Elizabeth Bennet is so close to my idea of a perfect character that I cringe when anyone tries to rework her.  FOR SHAME!  Earlier this year I gave Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a little read (I mean, who doesn’t like zombies right?) and came away seething in anger.  So what convinced me to give Ms. Hale a shot?  Very simple:  Kindle Daily Deal for which I’m a complete sucker.  Also, I’ve dedicated December to reading whatever floats my boats since I’m way past my reading goals for the year.

Austenland follows Jane (shocker!), a thirty-something New Yorker, on a trip to England bequeathed to her by a dearly departed insanely rich Aunt.  She’s been booked as a guest at an English resort of sorts that caters to women obsessed with all things Austen – think of it as a huge role playing game for the Darcy obsessed upper class.  And for a woman who has sworn off men because no one could ever possibly live up to the incredibly sexy Fitzwilliam Darcy (as portrayed by Colin Firth in the 1993 BBC miniseries), Jane is the perfect nut…er…vacationer.

Essentially, Hale has written chick lit for Austen fans.  As with all chick lit, the entertainment lies in the journey, not the ending (since they all tend to end the same way).  And Austenland’s journey begins on rocky footing.  I had a hard time relating to Jane on any plane existent on planet Earth.  Who is ashamed to love Pride and Prejudice – so much so that they hide their dvds in a potted plant?  Also, who can’t have a normal relationship because of a fictional turn-of- the-19th-century man?  Crazy people who should be committed come to mind.  So Jane and I did not get off to a good start, but rather surprisingly, we finally hit it off once she reaches Pembroke Park and recognizes the cray-cray that lives inside, coming to her senses and learning to enjoy her life as it exists in actuality.

I do applaud Ms. Hale for remembering that fans of Austen are often intelligent women who can enjoy the entertainment value of good chick lit without wholly abandoning their literary tastes.  She writes a really brilliant moment in Austenland where Jane discovers her behaviors often mimic those of Darcy more than Elizabeth Bennet’s.  A great gender switch and blending of gender identity – highly ironic in a genre so tooled towards women.  If only there had been more of these brilliant little revelations.

All in all, there’s nothing award winning or knock your socks off about Austenland.  Jane suffers as a relatable protagonist and often comes off as a caricature of Austen fans. But if you love the BBC’s P&P, you’ll probably find something to enjoy here – if not, go ahead and skip it.  The story is filled with cliches down to the quintessential airport chase scene at the end.  You’d be much better off finding a few hours to settle down with the P&P dvds, as long as you promise not to hide them in any household greenery!

I would like to add that many people seem to enjoy Hale’s middle grade and young adult fiction.  So perhaps those of you interested in her writing should begin there!

Up next:  I’ve just begun Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell.  A huge chunkster novel that I have no hope of finishing before the new year.  However, I’ve also just begun my first audiobook from audible.com – Delirium by Lauren Oliver that I’m quite enjoying thus far.  For the January book club discussion, I finished reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern last night and can’t wait to discuss it with everyone (a little hint…I adored it!).

Happy Monday!

Book Review: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Title: Motherless Brooklynn
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Pages: 311
Genre: Fiction/Detective/Crime Novel
Original Publication Year:  1999
Publisher: Vintage
Source: Personal Copy

Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn was a book I purchased several years ago that has sat on my TBR shelf collecting dust.  Thank goodness that is no longer the case because this little book was thrilling, captivating, and tenderly subtle.  Published in 1999, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, an entirely deserving recommendation.

Lionel Essrog is a “carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster” – in short, he has Tourette’s.  He’s also one of a gang of orphans – called Minna Men – who have found a family and pseudo-father figure in Frank Minna, small-time Brooklyn mobster.  When Minna is killed, Lionel – the Human Freakshow – begins to question his fellow Men and decides to strike out on his own in a gritty detective story that plays homage to Ray Chandler and other ‘hard-boiled’ crime novelists.

Lethem’s novel is the best love story I’ve read all year.  Perhaps because the love he writes isn’t between fictional man and fictional woman, but rather between a novelist and wordplay, a writer and his heroes, a man and his home.  Lionel’s Tourette’s allows Lethem the ability to turn phrases and create word mash-ups that would make “Glee” weep – ‘spread by means it finds, fed in springs by mimes, bled by mingy spies’.  This wordplay also ensures that Lionel transcends beyond gimmicky plot device and becomes someone we respect and trust – he’s the only reader of the bunch having spent most of his solitary hours in boyhood hiding in the orphanage’s library reading every single book.  Quoting directly from Ray Chandler’s novels, Lionel offers the perfect vehicle for Lethem to show readers his affinity for those novelists who came before without coming off as a second-rate imitation hiding behind the tenuous at best pronouncements of adaptation, retelling, or sequel.

What Motherless Brooklyn accomplishes most successfully is sense of place.  Appropriate since our backdrop is pronounced boldly on the cover.  So many authors have written beautiful prose and lyrical imagery devoted to Manhattan, but so often forget the boroughs that are much more the heart of NYC.  Lethem puts you on the streets of Brooklyn from the ‘70s through the ‘90s – the corner shops and deli sandwiches, the ethnic neighborhoods, the crime, the dirt, and eventually the gentrification.  You’ll want to walk the very same streets and meet the people who make Manhattan run everyday but can’t afford to live in the astronomically high rents of Soho or the Upper East Side.  You’ll walk away with the same Us vs. Them attitude the denizens of the outer boroughs feel on a daily basis – or so says my Queens-raised husband.

A word of warning – the big mystery of who killed Frank takes a back seat for me.  The whodunit is predictable and all the characteristic clichés of this sort of detective novel are present – shady mobsters, lady bombshell, underhanded deals, and huge scary men with no names.  Motherless Brooklyn isn’t trying to create a new mystery, only trying to tell the mystery in a different way so that we see the people, the places, and periphery around the central mystery that so often lingers in the background lost in the need to develop page-turning plot.  These elements, though always essential, hardly ever get to share the limelight in much the same way that writers are overlooked as we sit glued to the explosions and salacious scandals produced by film and television directors, actors, and producers.  Highly recommended.

Now that I’ve recommended this novel to all of you, I’d like to challenge those of you who’ve only visited the Manhattan idea of NYC to walk, drive, or take a ferry to each of the outer boroughs.  Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and enjoy strolling through the picturesque streets and the beautiful brownstones of Brooklyn; head over to Flushing, Queens and enjoy some of the tastiest Asian food you can get in this country; take in a Yankees game, visit the zoo, or tour of some NY’s highest rated college campuses in The Bronx; and the Staten Island Ferry is one of the top experiences you can have in NYC – the best photo opportunity for the Statue of Liberty – and once you reach the island you’ll discover the finest Italian food and some of the friendliest NYC natives.  Plus, the prices are cheaper!

Share some of your favorite things to do outside of Manhattan in the comments!

Book Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

Title: The Girl Who Played With Fire
Author: Stieg Larsson
Pages: 724
Genre: Crime/Suspense Thriller
Publication Date:  July 28, 2009
Publisher: Vintage
Source: Personal Copy

So, this really isn’t going to be much of a review – rather more of a rambling session on Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.  (Note: I just realized that I had no clue how to spell millennium – who knew there were so many ‘n’s.)  Anyway, I read Dragon Tattoo this summer after listening to my co-workers rave about these stories.  How could I be the only one sitting silently in a corner during a book discussion?  To be honest, I should have stayed in that corner.

Dragon Tattoo was a huge disappointment.  The writing was poor, the first 100 or so pages completely pointless, and the plot poorly paced.  However, the central mystery, once we got around to it, was fairly interesting and kept me turning the pages.  When I had finished, nothing enticed me to read the second novel so I moved on to a re-read of Harry Potter without any reservations.  Flash-forward six months and I succumbed to short-term memory lapse – I finally had a hankering to read the second book.

Fire, at least for me, is the superior novel in that the suspense, surprises, and overall un-put-down-able quality of any good crime thriller was amplified.  The writing still leaves much to be desired – why do we need mundane descriptions of everything Lisbeth buys at IKEA?  Why write several pages of what Mikael does with his random afternoon – shave, shower, dress, sleep, microwave dinner…blah, blah, blah.  None of this adds to characterization or furthers the plot – it’s just mindless drivel.  Plus, the plot holes – the whole of Sweden is looking for Lisbeth, her picture on the cover of every newspaper, every prime time news show – and the police don’t consider for a second that she could be disguising her appearance, really?

The biggest problem with these books is the lack of editing.  At 724 pages, Fire could have easily been whittled down to 400 or so pages of tightly compacted plot – instead the first 100 pages, yet again, have very little, if anything, to do with the actual story told throughout the rest of the novel.  The murder mystery doesn’t start until around page 200 – what kind of editor lets this happen?  Is it just because no one wants to get accused of butchering a dead man’s manuscript?

Despite all the negativity, I do enjoy the characters.  Lisbeth is fascinating and I loved learning about her past.  Larsson does kind of jump the shark a bit with her, however, as she is hardly a believable real world being.  Regardless, she becomes this almost supernatural ghost – you can’t help but love her as she singlehandedly takes on all the men who hate women in Sweden.  I appreciate that for once a heroine is a bit out there – piercings, tattoos, wacky hair – I’m so sick of prissy, blonde model types getting all the love.

I won’t be rushing out to buy the final book in the series, but I figure I’ll eventually read it.  I am looking forward to the new movie adaptation coming out in a couple of weeks.  I’m fairly certain these are novels that will benefit from the cuts and slashes of  movie production – all the fat will be gone and we’ll be left with a succinct and exciting story.  The Swedish version was ok, but the actors that were cast didn’t match my mind’s eye very much which left me feeling very disconnected – especially with the character of Mikael.

Feel free to disagree with me in the comments!

 

Book Review: The Odds by Stewart O’Nan

Title: The Odds
Author: Stewart O’Nan
Pages: 192
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publication Date:  January 19, 2012
Publisher: Viking Adult
Source: ARC received from Goodreads

I won The Odds by Stewart O’Nan from the First Reads program over at Goodreads.com.  It’s O’Nan’s 13th novel, due to be released on January 19, 2012.  Luck was definitely on my side as The Odds has placed in my top 5 books of 2011.  I cannot wait to read more of O’Nan’s stories.

Art and Marion Fowler are a middle-aged Cleveland couple hanging by a thread.  During their 27 years of marriage they’ve weathered raising two children, secret (and not-so-secret) affairs, and the everyday wear and tear of time.  Jobless and on the brink of financial ruin, they decide to embark upon one last all-or-nothing weekend at a casino on Niagara Falls.

Reviews of books you love are always hard.  I don’t want to gush all over the place, but this little novella is stunning.   It reminded me of a much less flowery and very succinct Ian McEwan novel (no worries, Ian, I still love you).  The Odds is not a book you read for plot, but rather a book you study for superb characterization and frank honesty.  The Fowlers are not happy people; they are struggling just to breathe.  Art has worked for 20 years to make his wife happy and prove his love after an ill-advised affair.  Marion has stubbornly held on to the hurt of Art’s affair, but seems much more deeply affected by her own secret dalliance and the possibility that she never truly loved Art in the first place.  O’Nan creates such a tangibly tense atmosphere as we follow the couple on all aspects of their sight-seeing adventures – from blistered feet and stomach viruses to drunken Heart concerts and Jacuzzi tubs.  And just when you want to hate Art, or Marion, or both of them – you realize you can’t because O’Nan has perfectly painted the people who live next door, the people you call family or friends, the couple you see fighting or laughing in the mall – he’s created the very people we see, somewhat murkily, staring back at us in the mirror.  That’s what makes this novel so compelling and yet so wrought with third-party embarrassment and the inability to look away.  We know that at any moment we could become, that we already are, the Fowlers.

I’m not going to ruin the end for you although I really want to.  It involves a roulette game and the willingness to bet their entire life savings (not to mention their house and their marriage) on the spin of a wheel.  And while you don’t know if they lose all of their money until the very final page of the book, you soon realize it doesn’t matter because somewhere along the way O’Nan’s genius managed to convince you of whether or not they win at the biggest gamble of all – the game of life.

So pick it up in January and let me know what you think!  Despite my flattery, the book isn’t perfect (for instance, there’s no way fifty-somethings drink that much and have almost no signs of hangover the next day) and I know some of you will probably hate it – but that’s what makes reading so much fun and garners the best discussion.

Book Review: The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

Title: TheBourne Identity
Author: Robert Ludlum
Pages: 535
Genre: Spy Thriller/Action
Year Published: 1980
Publisher: Bantam Books
Source:Personal Copy

My first spy novel!  Of course, I’ve seen the movies and thoroughly enjoyed them.  Bought this book a couple of years ago from a discount bin and have just now gotten around to reading it.  The movie and the book have almost nothing in common besides a character named Jason Bourne so just because you liked the film does not mean you’ll enjoy the book – you’ve been warned!

The Bourne Identity follows a man pulled from the sea off the southern coast of France after being shot multiple times.  He doesn’t remember who he is or anything about his life.  Random things start to come back to him – languages he knows, phrases he’s repeated over and over again, and a bank account number removed from his hip leads him to begin his adventure to a bank in Zurich.  Once people start shooting at him things get interesting.

I wish I could say this book was a spy-caper extraordinaire, but no – huge letdown.  The narrative is excessively long-winded, convoluted, and clumsy.  Ludlum beats his readers over the head with italicized paragraphs repeated probably hundreds of times.  And while the premise of supposed assassin (Bourne) pitted against super assassin (Carlos the Jackal) sounds great in theory, Ludlum manages to destroy any awesomeness by jumping the shark of reality one too many times.  For once, I truly believe the movie was loads better – in plot, pacing, and characterization.  The entire plot was changed because it needed to be changed – sliced and diced into something far more believable and spy-thriller worthy.

Where Ludlum fails most is the poorly executed ‘love story’ between Bourne and hostage-turned-soul-mate Marie.  Jason, in a desperate attempt to escape his killers alive, uses Marie as a getaway device – slapping her harshly more than once, bruising her arm, screaming at her, and just generally treating her like a grade-A ass.  Then just about 30-40 pages later, she’s in love with him?  No matter how well-written the rest of the novel could have been – this sham of a love-affair would have ruined the entire story for me.

Let’s try to find some redeeming factors, shall we?  The action scenes, though few and far apart, were relatively entertaining.  I enjoyed Jason’s backstory being unfolded and learning his true motivations – something better done in the book than the movie.  Setting and place were well-done – murder and mayhem against the beauty of Zurich and Paris a great juxtaposition.  Although not intentional, I loved the dated phone booths, lack of communication devices, and other old fashioned technology that added a bit more suspense to the 1980 adventure.  Unfortunately, none of these pros are enough to keep me reading the series.  So long, Mr. Bourne!