Back to Blood (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe (2012).  This was Wolfe’s last novel, and I liked it better than his penultimate effort (I Am Charlotte Simmons) but probably not as much as A Man in Full, and certainly not as much as his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities.  This is mainly the story of Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban cop on the Miami police force who finds himself at the center of large, significant events three times in the course of the story.  I found him a little hard to empathize with (because he’s kind of a self-pitying sap), but he does give us a window into various aspects of Miami’s unique culture(s).  We also spend quite a bit of time with his ex-girlfriend Magdalena, who dumps him for her boss, a sex-addiction-treating psychiatrist who likes to appear on TV.  We see some of Miami’s upper crust through her escapades and through her eyes.  The tale, which also involves Russian oligarchs and art forgery, seems a bit implausible, and it’s a smidge over 700 pages long.  But Wolfe’s writing is pretty entertaining, and I enjoyed the book enough to finish it.

Memoirs of Hadrian (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951).  I learned of the existence of this novel from Joseph Epstein’s The Ideal of Culture, and it did not disappoint.  It is a fictional memoir of the Roman emperor Hadrian (reigned 117 to 138) in the form of a long letter to his adopted grandson and heir, Marcus Aurelius.  Hadrian’s death is near, and he sums up his life and tries to offer some advice to his successor.  I get the impression a ton of historical research went into this work, so I assume it sticks pretty closely to the facts as we know them.  I really liked it, but then I’m a sucker for the swords-and-sandals genre.  So your mileage may vary.

Longbourn (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker (2013).  In the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is the name of the estate where the Bennets—the family at the center of the story—live.  Longbourn is a novel about the servants of those very same Bennets, before, during, and after the events of Pride and Prejudice.  I liked it well enough.  The main character is Sarah, a young servant whom the Bennets took in after she was orphaned as a child.  Two interesting men come into her life at the same time—a new servant working down at the Bingleys’ house and a mysterious stranger the Bennets take on as a footman.  It’s kind of fun to watch little snippets of Pride and Prejudice take place in the background, and to see the Bennets from a different (and not very flattering) angle.

The Sparrow (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (1996).  How about a science-fiction novel about first contact with an alien species that is chock full of religious talk?  That’s what The Sparrow is.  In the near future, a radio telescope discovers unmistakable signs of intelligent alien life on a planet in the (relatively) nearby Alpha Centauri solar system.  Remarkably, the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are the first to mobilize after this discovery, putting together a team of priests and lay people to pilot an asteroid-turned-starship to this alien world.  The author’s style didn’t really grab me, especially the many scenes that I guess were supposed to be humorous.  Also, the story takes a long time to get going because Russell starts out telling it on two tracks: the story of the discovery and mission preparation, and, some 50 years later, the story of the Jesuits’ attempt to figure out what went wrong by interviewing the mission’s sole survivor and returnee.  But after bouncing between these two narratives for a while we eventually get to the first-contact adventure, and I must admit that part of the story held my attention.  Although I can’t say I loved the book–there’s some fairly gruesome/lurid stuff in the first-contact-adventure part of the story–I sort of want to read the sequel to find out what happened next….

Brave New World (book review)

A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932).  I read this classic dystopian novel a long time ago and was inspired to re-read it by an episode of the National Review podcast called “The Great Books.”  It is a weird story, much weirder than I remembered it.  Huxley set his tale in the distant future and predicted a caste-bound society in which people are created in laboratories and subjected to extensive physical and psychological conditioning so that they will be perfectly adjusted to their eventual caste and status in life, whether the lowly, semi-intelligent worker class or the higher classes who do the finer work in the bio-factories and conditioning centers.  (The caste descriptions are, unfortunately, pretty racist.)  Everyone, save only the tiny group of world-governing Controllers, is kept mindlessly content with a feel-good drug called soma, constant entertainments, and endless recreational sex.  But off in the wilds of New Mexico is a reservation of people who still live the old way, and the action of the tale is sparked when a reservation dweller called the Savage makes his way into modern society and questions everything he sees.  Definitely worth a read.  The volume I got also featured a subsequent Huxley essay called “Brave New World Revisited,” but I found it very tiresome and couldn’t finish it.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones (2018).  I saw a glowing review of this new book and promptly ordered it.  It didn’t live up to the hype, but it’s fine.  It’s a slightly oversized book that is full of reproductions of maps, both real maps from long-ago days and modern maps of fantastic places like Oz and Middle Earth.  The illustrations are pretty cool.  The book also contains lots of short essays by “a team of distinguished writers and illustrators” about how wonderful and inspirational maps are.  I found the essays pretty forgettable, although I did like the one about Dungeons & Dragons by Lev Grossman.

Dear Committee Members (book review)

Another book review from The Movie Snob.

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher (2014).  I had a heck of a time getting a copy of this comic novel after reading a good review of it long, long ago.  First I prowled the used bookstores for months and never found it.  Eventually I gave up and ordered it on Amazon.  Doh!  The package never arrived.  More months passed.  I discovered the Amazon locker service and ordered it again.  Finally, I had it!  Amazingly enough, it was worth the wait.  The entire book consists of letters, emails, and the like written by a fellow named Jason Fitger over the course of a year.  He’s an English professor at a second-tier liberal-arts college, and after publishing one very successful novel many years ago he pretty much fizzled out as an author.  He vents his frustration (both professional and personal) in his letters, many of which are letters of recommendation for students.  I laughed out loud more than once at his splenetic utterances.  And I gave it to my sister and then my best friend from college, who are both college professors, and they both liked it.  Highly recommended.

The Tiger’s Wife (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (2011).  This novel made a decent splash when it came out.  Unfortunately, I read it during a rather turbulent time in my life, so I couldn’t pay it as much attention as I usually do the books I read.  Still, I liked it well enough.  The first-person narrator is a young female doctor in an unnamed Balkan country in the aftermath of the wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia.  Although some of the novel is set in the present day, a lot of it consists of stories about the narrator’s grandfather, also a doctor.  Some are stories about his childhood and others are about his adult life, particularly his several encounters with a mysterious figure called The Deathless Man.  The superstitions of the Balkan villagers are well and interestingly portrayed.  Definitely worth a read.

Lila (book review)

A new book review by The Movie Snob.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (2014).  This beautiful novel is the story of a character who appeared around the edges of Robinson’s last two novels, Gilead and Home.  Lila was born into impoverished and probably dire circumstances back in the early twentieth century.  We don’t know much about those circumstances because when she was very young (but just old enough to remember) she was stolen (rescued?) by a vagabond woman called Doll.  She grows up on the road with Doll, wandering around with other migrants and suffering through the lean years of the Depression.  We follow Lila’s story until she’s a grown woman, and we leave off shortly before the events of Gilead pick up.  Hers is a lonely and precarious existence, and Robinson convincingly portrays how someone raised in such conditions would think about the world.  It is a really sad book, but I loved it.

Crossing to Safety (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner (1987).  This one sat on my shelf for a while.  Although the blurb on the back cover told me it is “one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth centuries,” somehow I just wasn’t sold.  Now that I’ve finished it, I’m like . . . meh.  It’s about two married couples who become best friends in their young adulthood and stay friends, more or less, for the rest of their lives.  As a study of marriage and friendship, I suppose it is pretty good, although these folks are much better educated than most and consequently chew on their problems with a lot more eloquence than is the norm.  Personally, I didn’t find their story all that engrossing, but the writing is good.  For the great American novels of the twentieth century, stick with The Great Gatsby and All the King’s Men.  And Death Comes for the Archbishop.

A Gentleman in Moscow (book review)

Another book review from the so-called Movie Snob.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (2016).  I enjoyed Towles’s first novel, The Rules of Civility, and I enjoyed this one quite a bit too.  It’s about Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who has returned to Russia from abroad shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution.  In 1922, he gets hauled before a revolutionary tribunal and narrowly escapes execution.  Instead he is sentenced to permanent house arrest—at the fabulous Metropol Hotel where he has been staying.  The novel is the story of what happens to the Count after that.  The writing is always graceful, and the Count is a well-drawn and endlessly amusing character.  I found some parts of the story very moving, but others were maybe a shade too fairy-tale-like.  And I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending.  But on the whole, I very much enjoyed the story and would recommend it to just about anyone.

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (book review)

From the pen of The Movie Snob.

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis (2013).  This novel has its strong points, but the cover blurb from NPR calling it the first Great American Novel of the 21st century seems way overblown to me.  The book is divided into five major sections, and I thought the first two were the strongest.  In “Book One,” the protagonist is a human-rights lawyer who’s called upon to travel to Haiti and help investigate the murder of an American woman—a woman he briefly knew and was dazzled by a couple of years earlier.  Book Two is a harrowing look at a (different) woman and her young son trying to escape Croatia to safety at the tail end of World War II.  Book Three, which seemed the longest, is about a seventeen-year-old American girl living in Istanbul with her diplomat father.  It was pretty good.  I thought the last two books kind of went off the rails.  Anyway, I thought the writing was strong, but be warned that there’s a lot of sordid stuff in this tale.  And, as I mentioned, I didn’t care for the wrap-up.

The Big Green Tent (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya (2010; trans. 2015).  This is a big old novel about life in post-Stalinist Russia.  I liked it.  At first, the book is a cohesive story about three boys who befriend each other around the time of Stalin’s death in 1956 and the teacher who inspires them to love Russian literature.  But after a few chapters the novel gets fragmentary, jumping around in time and sometimes following other seemingly minor characters on long (but interesting) tangents.  Many of the characters are involved in one kind of dissent or another, and the danger of exposure, arrest, and imprisonment is always right around the corner.  I haven’t read that many Russian novels, but the characters in them always seem fascinatingly larger than life to me, especially in their passions and appetites.  I read this 500+ page novel in fits and starts over a few weeks, so I was often confused about who the various characters were, but I don’t think it diminished my enjoyment of the story very much.

Home (book review)

A new book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Home, by Marilynn Robinson (2008).  It has been more than 10 years since I read and reviewed Robinson’s previous novel, Gilead, and now I wish I had read the two novels back to back, or at least closer together.  Gilead was the autobiographical story of an elderly Iowa minister, and figuring large in his story were his dear friend Boughton and Boughton’s black-sheep son Jack.  Home tells much of the same story, but this time from the perspective of Jack’s sister Glory, who is a close-up witness to the ripple effects of Jack’s sudden return to the tranquil pond of Gilead, Iowa.  In my review of Gilead I took its narrator, Ames, to be a pretty saintly guy, but Home puts him in a rather different light.  Anyway, I thought it took a while to get going, but ultimately Home packed a pretty good punch.  I recommend it.  And maybe I won’t wait 10 years to read Robinson’s 2014 follow-up, Lila.

Life After Life (book review)

A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson (2013).  Apparently this was a #1 national bestseller.  It’s got a weird gimmick, for sure.  Ursula Todd is born in 1910 England.  And she immediately dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord.  Then she’s born again—but she’s not reincarnated as somebody or something else, in the usual way.  Rather, it’s like God hit the rewind button, and so she’s born again on the same day, at the same time, to the same parents.  Only this time, she’s not strangled by her umbilical cord.  And so the novel progresses . . . until she dies again.  And is born again, on the same day, etc., etc.  At first I thought this was just a series of different possible stories about Ursula, but it gradually becomes apparent that the same Ursula is somehow living all these lives sequentially because she starts getting these weird feelings and premonitions and déjà vu type sensations that lead her to act differently and thus live out completely different lives.  I thought parts of the book were very good, especially the parts about World War II (which she experiences in some very different ways in her various incarnations).  But the Groundhog Day-style gimmick didn’t do much for me, and at the end I wasn’t sure whether poor Ursula will ever get out of her timeloop.  So I’ll give it three stars out of five.

The Interestings (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Court.

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer (2013).  I enjoyed this novel about a group of teenagers who become friends at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970s and mostly manage to stay friends as they grow up and experience adulthood.  The central character is Julie Jacobson, an awkward girl from an undistinguished background who is nevertheless adopted by a gang of cool kids.  Rechristened “Jules,” our protagonist is intoxicated by her new friends and spends most of the rest of the book yearning to recapture those adolescent summers—and being a little envious of the seemingly awesome lives two of her friends make for themselves afterwards.  Having recently been a fortysomething myself, I was perhaps naturally inclined to warm to the book’s themes of growing up and dealing with the pressures of adulthood, family, responsibility, loss, and mortality.

The Devil and Webster (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

The Devil and Webster, by Jean Hanff Korelitz (2017).  I thought I would like this recent novel more than I did.  It’s about Naomi Roth, the president of a small, exclusive, and very liberal New England college called Webster.  She’s a former 60s radical herself, so she’s fine with it when a bunch of students start camping out on the main campus lawn to protest the college’s decision to deny tenure to a popular (African-American) professor.  Unfortunately, the college denied the fellow tenure because it discovered he had committed some serious plagiarism; unfortunately for President Roth, the college’s strict confidentiality rules preclude her from telling the students anything about the tenure process or decision at all.  So the school year goes on, and the protest—led by a charismatic young Palestinian student—threatens to balloon out of control.  Making matters worse, President Roth’s own daughter is a Webster student and very much a part of the protest.  The story is entertaining enough, but I didn’t find the ending very satisfying—it somehow left me wanting more.

Trieste (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Trieste, by Daša Drndić (2012).  Drndić is a Croatian novelist and playwright, and this is a powerful and unusual novel about the Holocaust.  The central character is Haya Tedeschi, an assimilated Jew who lives most of her life in a town on the fluid border between Italy and what eventually becomes Yugoslavia.  She turns 20 during World War II, and she has an affair with a handsome German officer who is stationed nearby for part of the war.  But the novel’s focus doesn’t really stay on her all that much; Drndić stuffs the novel with facts and digressions about World War II and the Holocaust, biographical sketches of various Nazis, and testimony from Holocaust survivors.  She indicts the many bystanders who knew what was happening to the Jews passing through their cities and towns in railroad cars and did nothing.  She indicts the Catholic Church for baptizing Jewish babies to save them from the Nazis but then refusing to return them to their parents after the war.  There’s a lot of information about a secret Nazi project to increase the “Aryan race” by kidnaping promising-looking babies and then adopting them out to good German families.  And near the end, Drndić instructs us about how 5,000 Norwegian women who had liaisons with Nazis during the war were sent to work camps after the war, and many of their babies were adopted out and subjected to all sorts of abuse.  Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA was the daughter of such a liaison (although her mother moved to Sweden in 1946 and they avoided the abuse)!  It is a powerful and disturbing book.

The Mountain of Kept Memory (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Mountain of Kept Memory, by Rachel Neumeier (2016).  My cousin Rachel has written another winning fantasy novel.  This one centers on a brother and sister, Gulien and Oressa Madalin.  They are the children of Osir Madalin, the remote and ruthless king of Carastind.  But the kingdom is beset by enemies, and it seems that Osir has lost the support of the Kieba—a mysterious sorceress who lives in a mountain far to the east and who formerly aided Carastind in times of need.  Osir seems disinclined to try to heal the rift, so Gulien and Oressa—who are young adults but sheltered and inexperienced in the ways of the world—take it upon themselves to seek the Kieba’s aid.  This is an exciting tale, and Neumeier keeps the reader guessing about some of the main characters’ true intentions and agendas.  Highly recommended for lovers of fantasy and magic!

Commonwealth (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (2016).  A more descriptive title for this recent novel might be “Divorce American Style,” but maybe that didn’t have quite the same ring to it.  I was thoroughly engrossed by it.  In the first chapter we meet two families, one headed by a cop named “Fix” Keating and the other by a prosecutor named Bert Cousins.  Bert meets Fix’s beautiful wife Beverly at a party after the baptism of Fix and Beverly’s baby girl Franny, and things go from there.  After the opening chapter, the other chapter bounce around quite a bit chronologically (over several decades) as we see how the Keating and Cousins kids (six in all) fare after their parents’ bad behavior throws them all together.  I enjoyed the writing and the story, and I highly recommend it if it sounds like it might be your cup of tea.

Acceptance (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer (2014).  Well, I thought this final volume of The Southern Reach Trilogy was a bit of a letdown.  The first two books (reviewed here and here) were pretty entertaining, in a mysterious and slightly creepy way.  In the near future, some strange, possibly alien, presence has set up shop on Earth (in an area that sounds like Florida).  Scientific expeditions occasionally go into the zone, known as Area X, but they don’t always come back.  Readers expecting all the weird goings-on around Area X to be explained in Acceptance are bound to be disappointed.  There are hints and flickers of explanations, and there’s lots of backstory fleshing out some of the characters we already met in the first two books, but I didn’t find the “resolution” of the trilogy particularly satisfying.  Oh well, the destination wasn’t great, but the journey wasn’t bad.  And the first book in the series, Annihilation, is being made into a movie starring Natalie Portman as The Biologist.  Check out its IMDB page.

Love & Friendship (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, by Whit Stillman (2016).  Director Whit Stillman has written a novelization of his recent movie Love & Friendship, starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny.  (Although I never read it, he did the same for his movie The Last Days of Disco, also starring Beckinsale and Sevigny.)  I can’t say the novel really adds much to the film, but it is an adequate and enjoyable enough retelling of the schemes and machinations of the unscrupulous Lady Susan.  The novel’s narrator is Lady Susan’s nephew, who desperately attempts to make his aunt look like a victim of slander instead of the schemer she so clearly was.  As an added bonus, Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan is included in the appendix, so you can see the bones that Stillman built his movie and novel out of.  The package is enjoyable enough, but it’s nothing to get too excited about.

The Little Paris Bookshop (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George (2015).  I saw a glowing review of this novel, so I picked it up.  Although it was apparently a runaway bestseller in Europe a couple of years ago, and then it was a bestseller in the good old U.S. of A., I thoroughly disliked it.  It’s about a Paris bookseller named Jean Perdu.  He’s 50ish, and he has been nursing a broken heart for 20 years because the woman he loved suddenly left him without so much as a good-bye.  But now things are happening that may finally break Perdu out of his long grief.  How to summarize the things I did not like about this book?  The characters are unbelievable and behave unbelievably.  Coincidences pile up to make things happen right.  The pages drip with neo-hippie philosophizing and cloying descriptions of food and landscapes.  And the more I learned about Perdu’s mystery lover, the more I loathed her.  I kept hoping the book would get better, but it never did.  I urge you to give this one a pass.

News from Berlin (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

News from Berlin, by Otto de Kat (English translation 2014).  This slim novel is by a Dutch author, of all things.  The year is 1941.  Dutch diplomat Oscar Verschuur is posted in Switzerland with vague duties.  His wife is back in London; his only child, Emma, is living in Berlin with her husband Carl—a “good German,” working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  One day, Emma and Carl make it to Geneva, and during her brief visit with her father, Emma drops the startling news that the Nazis are going to invade the Soviet Union on June 22.  What should Oscar do with this information?  How will it affect his family?  I thought this 148-page story was interesting and well written (or well translated).  If you like WWII stuff, I think you’d really like this book.

The Humans (book review)

The Movie Snob is having a little trouble getting out to the cinema lately, so here’s another book review to tide you over:

The Humans, by Matt Haig (2013).  I enjoyed this little science-fiction novel that tackles some big eternal themes.  An extraterrestrial being from an unfathomably advanced race is sent to Earth in human form.  He has a specific and rather grim mission, but he is immediately side-tracked by his horror and disgust at the ugliness of human beings—and by his unfamiliarity with the importance of wearing clothing.  And then he’s baffled by the wife and son of the human whose identity he has assumed.  But mainly the story is in service of the alien’s (and Haig’s?) awe at humanity’s optimism (or self-delusion?) in the face of mortality and at people’s capacity for love and kindness despite all the horror and violence in the world.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a movie out of this book someday.