Thusday Reviews!: The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman (A Mentor Review!)

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss FinchThe Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For me, the setting was the most interesting part of this graphic novel: underground London. The subterranean rooms offered a unique framework for the already-freakish elements of a circus. That the ringmaster, guides, and performers were all take-offs of traditional horror monsters made it feel like something entertainers would consider throwing together for a special Halloween performance.

With such a set-up setting, I anticipated a little more horrifying-ness. But, It opens with the three central characters meditating on the missing Miss Finch while eating sushi…which doesn’t strike me as a stressful opening. The comfort and expense of a sushi restaurant tells the reader/observer flat-out that this isn’t an Immediate Situation. Yet, when you get to the end, you realize that the disappearance happened a few minutes earlier…kinda cuts the tension in half pretty quick.

As it’s presented, there’s no real emotional attachment to the disappearing Miss Finch (we don’t even get her real name). She is presented as cold, not fun, proper, English, and basically as someone they’re stuck with for the evening. Miss Finch critiques the whole underground freak circus as being in ‘questionable taste’. Yet, when the opportunity for her to fulfill her wish (“I wish with all my heart that there were some [sabertooth cats] left today. But there aren’t”)comes, it slips into Mantasy World. Half-naked, Miss Finch — up until that point a scientific, academic woman — comes out with a couple sabertooth cats that try to eat an old lady. Then she disappears, still half-naked, off into the ‘sunrise’ with the cats.

So, yeah, some things didn’t quite work for me.

What did work:

I was entertained by the three central characters. They were sarcastic and world-weary and hard to impress. Lots of snide little comments: “Jonathan had originally become famous hosting an evening talk show…he’s the same person whether the camera is on or off, which is not always true of television folk.” I enjoy that.

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Thursday Reviews!: Good Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

Good Bones and Simple MurdersGood Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the first story of this book, “Murder in the Dark,” and when I was finished I turned to my husband, shoved the book in his hand, told him to read it and then he was to tell me HOW DID SHE DO THAT?

He didn’t really have an answer but his comment defined what I thought of the rest of the book: “It’s written with the confidence of someone who knows she can hit a homerun every time.”

Confidence oozes through every one of these pieces.

Least faves (because they just seemed a little too forced – and I wish I had a better word for that sensation, but that’s the best I’ve got!):
“Gertrude Talks Back”: Queen Gertrude gives Hamlet her opinion on her current and former husbands. Fine. But the tone somehow seemed dismissive – and the character of Gertrude never seemed dismissive in the play – which is doubly odd considering the information she is giving her ‘priggish’ son. And, this may seem an odd critique, but I think the white space between the paragraphs doesn’t do the story any favors. It gives it a fragmented feeling and I think that a piece riffing on Shakespeare would work better within the play framework – perhaps shaping the monologue in a block form like Hamlet’s own speeches would have allowed the words to have more impact instead of making the reader adjust both the form and the words.

“Poppies: Three Variations”: While this is probably the most complex exercise, it reads just like that: an exercise. She riffs on a verse about poppies by John McCrae by using the same words of that verse, in the same order, to tell three different stories. The first words of McCrae’s verse is ‘in Flanders’ and all three mini-stories have with ‘in’ followed somewhere by ‘Flanders’ followed somewhere by the next word in the verse. It’s a good way to stretch the literary muscle, but it’s like watching someone work out – we admire their physique but prefer not to see the huffing and puffing and sweat that go along with it. Just give me the calendar, ya know?

The stories that I absolutely adore are the ones that have a satirical bite to them.

“Simmering”: Oh! My FAVORITE by far. (I know, it’s unfair to choose favorites, but there you have it, anyway.) It’s all about what happens when men take over the kitchen. Go get this book and read that story.

“Murder in the Dark”: It set the tone for the rest of the book. Is the author just trying to manipulate the reader throughout (I’m totally okay with the way Atwood manipulates, by the way), is she just a magician showing nothing of reality? Puts the power with the writer…so I think my writerly friends will enjoy this a lot…as well as readers who like to figure out the trick. I still haven’t….

“Happy Endings”: A choose-your-own adventure marriage!

Atwood also illustrated the collection, and some are as provocative as the stories – which are also dominated by the bits and pieces of male and female anatomy. Interwoven among the stories is the question of objectifying the body: “Making a Man,” “Alien Territory,” “Dance of the Lepers,” and “Good Bones” hit on the question in a more direct way…but it’s everywhere.

Well worth reading – and it won’t take that long either.

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Thursday Reviews: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars…it’s a first of series and, while beautifully written (because Atwood just does that) I found that I could put the book down a little too easily. So I started it a couple months ago and just now finished.

The Main Idea
Snowman (known in the life-before-the-plague-hit as Jimmy) is trying to survive in a post-human world with a bunch of genetically mutated ‘humans’ known as the Children of Crake. Food is short, Snowman’s resources even shorter, and he is carrying the burden of guilt for his part/non-part in the plague that damned the human race.

The bulk of the novel is dedicated to Snowman’s background and how the world has become the shithole that it is: genetically spliced “pigoons” and “rakunks” trying to eat him, threats of infection from bug bites or cuts are very, very real, there’s a distinct shortage of alcohol, and for all intents and purposes, he’s alone.

The Neat-o Stuff
Atwood has a superb gift for creating a futuristic world that sounds witty and real and disturbing. I didn’t think twice about a website called Hottots – a site dedicated to child pornography. Or a cosmetic/self-help corporation compound called RejoovenEsense. Or a coffee company called Happicuppa. These things felt silly enough to be exactly what a marketer would come up with to sell an idea to the public.

Then there are the animals that get spliced together. Rakunks are racoons spliced with skunks and apparently they make interesting pets….

Her ultimate creations, of course, are the Children of Crake. I’m very curious to see how these guys evolve…because they have been designed by Crake: a genius who tried to eliminate certain things like emotion, and disease, and hierarchies in the Children’s genetic code. His experiments seem to have worked so far. But now this group is out in this post-plague world with only Snowman to guide them (assuming they need guiding). This is only the first book in the series, but I’m betting they have more human flaws than Crake would’ve wanted…after all, they were created by a flawed human being.

The Less Neat-o Stuff
Why I give this book only 3.5 stars in real life:

Like I said, it was a little too easy to put down.

Snowman is interesting and flawed. He’s a shitty situation. I definitely had sympathy for him. However, the background information that builds the world is done in flashbacks that stretch on for quite a while. There’s a situation with his mother, he’s got a couple daddy issues, his best friend (Crake) is a budding science whiz who will eventually destroy the world, and his the love-of-his-life, Oryx, is a former child porn victim. Yes, this information is important – but the parent sections felt more navel-gazing because Snowman wasn’t really in control at that point.

The story gets waaaay more interesting later (and definitely less put-down-able) in the last third, where Snowman/Jimmy is all grown up, participating in the marketing scheme that’ll destroy the world. Plus, the flashbacks coincide with his present life – and he has to escape some devious pigoons, figure out how to fix his damaged foot, and sort out what the hell he’s gonna do for the rest of his life (however long or short that may be).

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Thursday Reviews!: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

The Dharma BumsThe Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I’d read this alone on a mountaintop, or while camping, or just out in nature somewhere I’d probably’ve given this four stars. The descriptions of nature, the out-and-out enthusiasm for the outdoors, and the romanticizing of living out of a backpack (which, for an indoor girl like me, is a hard sell) were the most engaging sections for me.

That and the descriptions of food were somehow entrancing. Who knew pork and beans could be so effective as a literary presentation? And I’m not being sarcastic either. After Kerouac describes the cold during the mountain climbs, or the extensive traveling without rest, the descriptions of food seem to rejuvenate the reader as well as the lead characters. It’s a strange thing and I can’t think of a book that comes close to describing food in such a satsifactory way. (Odd praise, I know, but it worked for me.)

Had the nature and backpacking and food been the center stage for this novel, it would’ve been just fine for me.

My issue comes with the pop-Buddhism. It really felt like Ray (the main character/Kerouac doppelganger) was an enthusiastic guy trying to understand something that he wasn’t quite getting. He knew the terminology, knew some Buddhist practices and tried to apply it in his life…but there’s a section where Japhy (the Ultimate Dharma Bum) calls him out and says that Ray is just putting everything into words. And that is exactly right — I practically cheered when I got to that point. Ray is just describing and describing being “enlightened” but he never actually is, and doesn’t see it, and it gets annoying.

Really, it’s Ray’s childlike enthusiasm and joie de vivre that make the pop-philosophy forgiveable.

Side note — I found it hilarious that Alvah Goldbook, Allen Ginsberg’s doppelganger, was the poet to protest the Buddhism the most. Funny, because Ginsberg was the most faithful of Buddhists after Kerouac introduced him to the religion…his funeral was in a Buddhist temple. There’s just no predicting….

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Thursday Reviews! On the Road by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

On the RoadOn the Road by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having been on many, many, many road trips with my military family — I have to say that some of this story can be tedious. After all, spend enough time on the road, and you get dizzy with the monotony of the landscape. While there are those sections in this book, it is obvious that Kerouac’s reaction to the monotony of the road is the sheer joy of being on the road.

Kerouac’s observations are gorgeous, I really was swept away during the first part as he described eating apple pie in diners with almost no money in his pocket. I felt the wind as he sat in the back of truck stuffed with other men looking for work, trying to get home, or, like Kerouac, just enjoying the trip — with a few nips of some alcohol or another to keep warm. His real talent as a writer is putting the mythic beside the profane…elevating and degrading both elements at the same time, like with this passage on the first time he saw the Mississippi River: “And here for the first time in my life I saw my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up.” (pg. 12)

Yeah, but while the descriptions of the road are lovely, nothing good happens whenever these boys stay still. Wives and children are left. Drugs are done. High-flown philosophizing that allows them to bow out of life occurs. Whenever the road ends — on one coast or the other — it’s not good. Friends and family get tired of draining freeloaders real fast. And part of the frustration of the ‘still moments’ (as I call them) is that Sal and Dean (representations of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady respectively) are oblivious to the emotional damage they inflict. Even when confronted by fed up wives/girlfriends/mothers directly, they don’t see what they’re doing.

It was a relief to me, as a reader, whenever they started moving again.

If you enjoy any of the following: fast cars, loose women, music, travel (and all the side roads that go along with it), America, your crazy uncle’s stories, alcohol, and if you like it all set to beautiful language…well, you’ll find something to like in this book.

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Thursday Reviews!: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their TanksAnd the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was written in the couple years following the murder of David Kammerer — the real-life case which Burroughs and Kerouac were so close to, and on which this story is based. Facts and names have been changed to protect the innocent…but, like most Beat books, the source material is not as well hidden by code-names as the participants would probably like and the book wasn’t published until 2008. Fifty years later.

As if the subject matter wasn’t interesting enough, it’s also written by two iconic figures of the Beat generation: Burroughs and Kerouac. The story is told in alternating chapters, first Burroughs and then Kerouac taking turns at writing the chapters. This does result in a certain choppiness–which you would expect. After all, even icons were fledgling writers at some point and it’s hard to control consistency-of-tone with one writer, let alone two. But it’s not as rough as a reader would expect. According to the Afterword by James Grauerholz, Kerouac did type the manuscript “just as it is preserved, with no missing pages; he was a good speller and handy with punctuation.” So, there you have it: good writers can do good jobs.

The story is very much a slice-of-life kind of piece, not a sensationalistic recounting of a bloody murder. If you want to know the ins and outs of the Merchant Marines at the end of WWII, bars, how to get money outta your friends, and morphine use, then this is your book. (Okay, maybe not quite that extreme.) The murder isn’t a centerpiece the way that contemporary true-crime novels. The presentations of motive (and even that is not overt) and the story of the relationships behind the murder are central.

The overall voice reads very noir. The language is straightforward, which is why I think that the tone doesn’t shift as much as it could otherwise. Take for example: “Then we boarded the subway and went back downtown to Washington Square.” (Kerouac’s chapter) and “We took the Independent down to Washington Square and said good night at the entrance because we were going in opposite directions.” (Burroughs’s chapter). Subject matter and descriptions are pretty similar.

Dennison and Ryko are the narrators, and they do a good a job. The characters are observant, full of questionable advice, and their reactions to a potentially explosive situation are very cavalier…which adds to the tension of the story. As a reader, I felt that the two leads were just as likely to kill or be killed at any given moment. Or die stupidly. To put it another way, it’s like reading The Outsiders, only without Ponyboy’s conscience.

The title alone is worth a star by itself.

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Thursday Reviews: Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie (A Mentor Review!)

Sleeping MurderSleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was written waaaay before it was published in 1976. It sat in a deposit box waiting for the light of day. So there may be some inconsistancies with the rest of the series…but Miss Marple is not a series that you have to read in-order, in order to enjoy it.

That being said, I can see why this book was slotted for the end. The crime is two decades old, a “sleeping murder” or a “murder in retrospect” that is triggered by the main character’s (Gwenda) childhood memories. Today we’d call a case like this a ‘cold case’. By utilizing a murder-in-retrospect as the central mystery, Christie creates a reflective element that enhances the book itself, and also her series in general.

Let me clarify that last statement a little bit. Miss Marple is a character who has solved, and survived, many different cases. At the opening of this particular case, she is hesitant to wake it up. “Let sleeping murder lie.” But there’s no way the two main characters, Giles and Gwenda, will let it rest. It doesn’t matter how old the case, it needs solving. Miss Marple, of course, joins them in the investigation in spite of her reservations.

By focusing on this type of case, Christie seems to emphasize that no case is unimportant, no case it too old to ignore, and therefore, all of Miss Marple’s cases are important, and no book or puzzle is too old to ignore. As a final book, Sleeping Murder gives the Marple stories a certain gravitas. It’s worth reading just for that.

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