Freedom-A Review

FreedomFreedom by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I almost gave this five stars, but the widespread praise made me pull back a bit. I don’t want to be lumped in with the other reviewers who have been so quick to shout ‘genius!’ and ‘masterpiece!’ and ‘Oprah!’

But the fact is, I quite liked the book. You’re taken into this family drama and you just roll along with it. My only problem with it is that the hero of the book, if there is one, is Walter, and Walter seemed to me to be a crank. I liked his best friend Richard, and his (Walter’s) wife Patty a lot better. The son was almost unbearable. But still, thoroughly worth reading.

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The Last Samurai (No, Not That One)-A Review

The Last SamuraiThe Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let me start off by saying, because I’ll be posting this to my blog, that this book has nothing to do with the film starring Tom Cruise. The film was fine, I don’t have anything against it, but the stories could not be more different, except that they both have to do with Samurai, in one way or another.

Helen DeWitt put everything into this book. That’s not to say she tried to cram the whole world into 500 pages, it’s just to say that she put herself into this book. All of it. I have to believe that. The scope of it, the emotion, the stories–it must have taken everything she had.

It’s a wonderful book.

It’s a wonderful book about a boy and his mother and about genius and heroism and goodness. There’s also a fair amount of stuff in there about various languages and some mathematics and music, and some of it’s quite technical. But this should not dissuade you from reading it! You do not need to understand irregular Arabic verb forms to be utterly taken in by the tale she’s telling. And it’s completely satisfying.

A final word of advice if you have the book on your shelf and are thinking about cracking it open: after about 50 pages, you will want to know what else DeWitt has written, and you will Google her name and discover, to your dismay, that she has written only one other book and that this book is only available as an ebook on her website. Then you will find some interviews with her, or you will find her blog, and you will discover that she has not been treated kindly by the publishing biz. Don’t read these things. For weeks after I read that stuff, all I could hear in my head when I opened to my bookmark was the voice of the writer, Helen DeWitt, who has been beaten up by a business gone crazy in its death throes, and not the voice of her narrator.

Don’t let this happen to you. Read the book in full. Let it take you in. Then write a nice review of it, or buy it for a friend who likes a good story, or write a glowing letter to Ms. DeWitt thanking her for writing it.

It’s that good.

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The Pregnant Widow – A Review

The Pregnant Widow The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I can see why some reviewers had a problem with this book. It’s talky, and there doesn’t seem to be much going on.

But that’s also kind of what I loved about it. It was just what the doctor ordered for the start of the summer: a funny book about a bunch of characters who seem like they’d be good fun to hang out with, which is basically what I did for the month I took reading it.

I’m a huge fan of Martin Amis–as in, ‘favorite living author’ huge–and that probably biases my review of this book a bit. His style strikes all the right chords with me. Reading it was like drinking a really great cocktail, and not getting a hangover.

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Await Your Reply – A Review

Await Your Reply: A Novel Await Your Reply: A Novel by Dan Chaon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I defy anyone to read the first page of this novel and not be compelled to finish it.

Await Your Reply is about identity theft and high-tech criminal enterprises. Think Tom Ripley, if he were alive and at large in today’s world.

But, and I don’t want to scare anyone off, it’s also about something much deeper: it’s about the very notion of identity itself, the impermanence of it.

It’s got the pacing and plotting of a good thriller, but it’s populated with very believable characters, and it’s written in beautiful prose. A very satisfying read.

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Kindle’s Killer App

Instapaper is a godsend for Kindle users.

I’ve written a couple posts about my search for an application that would make moving web content to the Kindle a simpler process. I have found that application.

With Instapaper, you get a little “bookmarklet” (a little button that goes on your browser’s bookmark toolbar or in your bookmarks drop-down menu) that, when clicked, grabs the text from the website you’re reading (a story in the New Yorker or a long blog post, whatever) and saves it for later reading.

Later, when you’re ready to spend some time reading and digesting, you surf over to the Instapaper website, and there are all your saved articles. You can either read the text right on the website (it’s very readable once all the obnoxious webpage-y stuff is stripped out), or you can click the little button on the right side of the screen that will download all your saved articles into a nice little Kindle-formatted package. It takes the three or five or 25 articles you’ve saved, formats them for the Kindle’s screen, puts them into one file, and creates a table of contents. You can even create different folders to organize your saved articles before downloading them.

As a bonus, Instapaper has a “Browse” page that lists popular and recommended articles from around the web that you can add to your “Read Later” list.

Brilliant. I’m in love. Screw you iPad.

Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you’re looking for some hard-edged, well-written science fiction, you’ll like Iain M. Banks. This was my first Banks novel. He showed up on my radar when I read a particularly favorable cover blurb on his latest book, Transition, from William Gibson. So I did some checking.

Turns out, Banks is quite well-regarded by readers of science fiction (Consider Phlebas is 100 percent space opera–frak-tastic space opera) as well as his more, er, literary efforts, which he writes as Iain Banks (no middle initial).

In fact, everything I read about his work was so positive that I began collecting his sci-fi books before I read even one of them. The problem was, Consider Phlebas is hard to find, and I wanted to read it first.

Finally, it came out in a Kindle edition, which I had preordered. One day it just showed up on my home screen, and I jumped right in as soon as I finished The Blind Side.

It’s a good book. The imagination on this guy and his willingness to see things through to their gruesome conclusions make for a sometimes jaw-dropping reading experience. It’s a quite good introduction to his work. I gave it four stars instead of five because it felt a little like he painted himself into a corner toward the end of the book, but even then he kept me interested.

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The Blind Side – A Review

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Michael Lewis is one of my favorite non-fiction writers: a great storyteller and a great “explainer.” He’s written several books about the business world (Liar’s Poker), and he’s also written about sports.

The Blind Side is obviously in the latter category, but that’s not all it is. It is also a fascinating story about the human spirit, class, and the American dream, as cheesy as that sounds. It’s not cheesy at all (I’m paraphrasing Malcolm Gladwell’s blurb a little bit here).

If you enjoy football at all, you’ll enjoy the discussion about the changes in defensive and offensive strategies. But you’ll also enjoy the unfolding of Michael Oher’s story.

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Recently Read Short Fiction

I’m on one of my occasional short fiction kicks. I’ve discovered a great podcast, the New Yorker fiction podcast in which one of the magazine’s current fiction contributors reads one of their favorite stories from the archives. It’s a great way to sample some of the classics.

I’ve also been dipping into Richard Ford’s A Multitude of Sins and Hemingway’s Men Without Women. I downloaded Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It for the Kindle, but haven’t waded in just yet.

I’m enjoying Ford because I take a certain comfort in his style, and I appreciate his subtlety. Hemingway, of course, is always good. I was going to get to one of Meloy’s stories during the nap today, but Sean just didn’t sleep long enough. Maybe tomorrow or tonight…

The Zenith Angle, a Review

The Zenith Angle The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Zenith Angle was disappointing. I ignored other reviews that said as much because I’m a fan of Bruce Sterling’s work. Ah, well.

The ingredients of a good Sterling novel are here, but he over-seasoned the dish. Perhaps in an attempt at satire, he essentially turned his novel into a long rant on the state of security (specifically cyber-security) in the post-September 11th world. And it gets tiresome.

You follow his hero, Derek Vandeveer, on his odyssey from the world of the dot-com into the world of bureaucracy. The plot, when it emerges, seems to come from nowhere. There’s nothing organic about the transition from cyber-warfare to space-warfare.

Worse than that, his characters are not believable, and his dialogue–which is usually serviceable–is terrible.

What more can I say? I’m hoping the next one will be better. The Caryatids is already queued up for Kindle download.

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