Book Review: The Laws of Subtraction

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To be fair, I didn’t finish this book (which is why it gets one star). I was only able to finish the Introduction (which was promising), and most of the first chapter. When Mr. May talked about design (and I’m not even a design major, much less an artist), I was engaged, but as soon as he started talking about cars, I could feel myself enter outer space.

I like to say that “Brevity is literary minimalism”; Mr. May broke his own rule by using the phrase “shrug our shoulders” (xii)–what else would one shrug?

I was actually looking for a book on minimalism (not the art, but the lifestyle), and this book just seemed to go on and on about other things. I must say, the title was clever, but the six simple rules he comes up with don’t make a lot of sense to me, such as “Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing”. (One could replace “doing nothing” with “doing something else”.) That said, I did like his “better with less” (xiii) adage (in conjuction with, but not opposed to, “more with less”). Another quote I liked was “The ability to use patterns to create meaningful relationships from seemingly unrelated elements is a uniquely human attribute and the hallmark of creativity” (12). This has to be one of Glenn Beck’s favorite quotes.

However, he lost me when he said, “If I could figure out how to get this particular portfolio of insight and inspiration into your head with an affordable form of magic that removes the written word entirely, I would” (xv). A writer wishing the abolition of the written word? I don’t think so. Not enough people read now.

I do believe that “what isn’t there” is as important as “what is there”. We always talk about the need for plenty of white space in writing or “reading between the lines”.

I tried to read a few of the contributors, but couldn’t get into those either. This book might’ve made a good series of heavily truncated blog posts, but that’s about it.

Book Review: Black Beauty

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I’d read this book almost a decade ago, and it made an impression on me, for it gave a voice to those who could not communicate in a way we could understand. Black Beauty isn’t a novel with a plot, but a series of vignettes—a timeline of one horse’s life.  Rather than The Five People You Meet in Heaven, it’s the multitude of people one horse meets on Earth who pass through his life, and how each person (or animal) illuminated Beauty’s understanding of the world.

The first time I read Black Beauty, I had expectations of something other than what I read—something more along the lines of National Velvet.  However, upon recursive reading, I saw that Beauty was Every Horse—a creature who makes friends with most of those he meets, for he has a servant’s heart, and is almost a Christ-like figure in his willingness to bear upon him the sins of men (and flightiness of women), complete with stripes from a whip, and the white star on his head, as if he was touched by the finger of God.  However, I saw Beauty like an innocent child who is shuttled to a series of foster homes, giving me a feeling of nomadic insecurity.

Sewell weaves a Christian narrative in a way that shows that what is good for God is also good for horses and humans: “If workingmen don’t stick to their Sunday…they’ll soon have none left.” (Loc 1612). Humans, like animals, are often valued for their productivity, rather than the value God has placed on them, “For ye are bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 16:20).  To have a day of rest actually increases productivity.  Sewell’s “spirit sense” has universal appeal in that even though it comes across as didactic at times, it does so in a way that employs common sense rather than religious dogma (i.e. “The Golden Rule” vs. “The Ten Commandments”): “There is no religion without love, and people talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast it is all a sham…” (Loc 582).

If one is expecting an exciting horse story, this isn’t the one; War Horse is closer to that.  What I loved more about Black Beauty is that the horses have verbal communication between themselves (something not in War Horse).  We’re not just privy to Beauty’s lots, but those of his friends and handlers; the story of Ginger, who considers Beauty her only friend, is one that would touch any animal lover.

Black Beauty highlights how what happens to humans can affect a horse’s life, for inasmuch as a horse may be considered part of the family, they are still property. Anna Sewell did a wonderful thing when she wrote this, and for that alone, it should get five stars; each little chapter reveals a simple truth, put plainly.  The book doesn’t contain many literary elements such as metaphor or foreshadowing, but it’s a charm bracelet with a clasp connecting Beauty’s life.  The anthropomorphism device and the spare writing style puts the reader in Beauty’s horseshoes in startling verisimilitude.

The brightest moment of the text for me was (next to the ending)—just as in “War Horse”—that wonderful familiarity when someone from our past who was kind to us, crosses our paths through happenstance.

A few of my favorite quotes from the texts are, as follows:

  • Ignorance is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness (Loc 806). Sewell speaks through her characters when she says that humankind is responsible for their own ignorance.
  • A real gentleman has got “time and thought for the comfort of a poor cabman and a little girl” (Loc 1696). That goes for ladies, too.
  • “…but he is blind as to what the workingmen want; I could not in my conscience send him up to make the laws” (Loc 1829). This resonates today, because of all the elites in Washington who don’t seem to have stake in the laws they pass. Moreover, the working class is also given a voice in this book (horses being a part of that station).

Black Beauty left such a mark on me that the end result of this inspiring story was my research paper—the best work I’ve written for a college course thus far: “Divine Equestrian: The Beauties and Beasts of Burden”.  One of my friends, who is a lover of horses (I, being more of a beach babe, have always admired these glorious animals from a distance), requested a copy and wrote this wonderful Christmas message (as I sent out stories, poems, and recipes in lieu of throwaway cards someone else wrote this holiday) on my timeline:  That was the most inspiring thing I’ve read about horses, ever. Yes, they are majestic, divine creatures who speak directly to your heart. Thank you for sharing your beautifully written paper with me…

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Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea

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This is one of the cutest, cleverest books I have ever read.  Despite it being liberally seasoned with fifty dollar words (I love learning new words as much as any bibliophile, but this novel was a bit rich), it did fit the culture of the characters.  I was skeptical that cleverness would override character development, but quite the contrary:  Every character was a delight, though sometimes I would have to look at the next page and see who wrote the letter.

The entire text is written in “epistle” form, which concerned me at first, but it was perfect for this book.  I thought the idea of child scribes an interesting one, because, according to the Mormon religion, the age of eight is the age of accountability.  The Island of Nollop sounded like such a unique place, I’d love to visit there myself, if it only existed.

Though “Ella Minnow Pea” seems a trifle little delight on the surface, there are deeper issues at play:  preserving the right to say what we want while still retaining our right to property, which is sacrosanct, the dangers of idol worship, ignoring scientific proof, the power of communication, the threat of incrementalism, and the atrocities that can happen when a tiny nation is somewhat cut off from the rest of the world, both culturally and technologically.  Though the book is set during the time it was published, it is not of this world, but rather an alternate reality—same time, same place, but in some other dimension—a parallel universe, perhaps.  I could not put this book down, because the journey to the punchline was so engaging.  The ending was brilliantly foreshadowed (though, to be fair, the author did not come up with the emancipating pangram on his own).

Towards the end, the book got a bit harder to read, but that didn’t last overlong.  “Ella Minnow Pea” showed that humans are resilient creatures, and that even if government can censor speech, they cannot censor thoughts; that mankind will always find a way to express themselves, even, like the Alison Krauss song goes, when they say nothing at all.

Book Review: The Headmaster’s Darlings

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Had I not listened to the author speak at my college, I probably would’ve never picked up this book.  Books about teachers who live to teach (what I call “vocational novels”) aren’t generally my thing, simply because I learn a little something from every teacher (good and bad, but never online), rather than a lot from one.  I prefer books about relationships, be they friendships, love stories, etc.  All of the relationships in this book are superficial, at best, nonexistent, at worst.

Before I continue, I will say that Ms. Clark’s “book talk” was fantastic.  The way she described her childhood home of Mountain Brook, Alabama, painted an intriguing picture; I was also riveted with the second part of her talk on her friendship with Pat Conroy (author of “The Prince of Tides”).  Though I’m the type of person who is impressed with credentials (Ms. Clark graduated from Harvard and has a Ph.D), I will say I’ve never found that the more academic or educated one is, the better writer they are; Ms. Clark is no exception.  Creativity and imagination can be nurtured, but I don’t believe they can be taught.

Though Ms. Clark is an engaging speaker, and this book is based on what she knew—real life high school teacher, Martin Hames, who changed her life (though I’m not quite sure how, judging from this book) and was, literally, larger than life (i.e. not fun-sized)—it stirred absolutely no emotion in me.  I did not care about any of the characters, including the one I was supposed to care for.

In her talk, Ms. Clark mentioned how it was important that even heroes have their flaws, but there was one thing Norman Laney (i.e. Martin Hames) was a party to that I found reprehensible (75).  Laney never seemed to care about helping his students grow as human beings, but only getting them into an Ivy League school (219).  That’s impressive, but there’s a whole big world out there that isn’t concentrated in the Northeast.  Rather than help students find the college/university that would be a good fit for them, his “one-size-fits-all” solution was to push them into the Ivy League.  I never saw him guiding his students to pursue their passions or help them choose a major.

I remember at the talk, when Ms. Clark was talking about Mountain Brook being an elitist bubble, one of the ladies spoke up and said, “Kinda interesting you went from set of elites to another?” (referring to Harvard).  I could tell Ms. Clark didn’t like that very much, but the woman was right:  the “Hah-vahd” types may promote diversity of race, gender, etc., but not diversity of thought (Christianity or conservatism, I imagine, isn’t very popular there).  I can read an author by his/her book, and it is clear that this author has a disdain for the blue-collar worker—those who don’t get a prestigious education and who prefer to work with their hands in a non-artsy way.

One interesting analysis occurs with the “dull” Midwestern doctor who tells Laney “…the South clings to the worst things about itself simply because it’s afraid it will lose what makes it unique if it changes” (222).  I can see this translated to food; the South is knowing for frying everything edible in existence, and our region, in particular, is weighed down with an obesity epidemic.  One of the missionaries I knew who served here (she was from British Columbia) gained 15 pounds while on her mission.

This book had so many different characters flitting in and out, I felt they were mere names in an obituary, for all I got to know any of them.  I think this would have been a stronger book had the author focused on one (perhaps herself in character form), or just a few students, whose lives were transformed by this particular teacher.  I believe it would’ve been even better had it been told with the immediacy of the first-person point-of-view (even if it was told through several viewpoints).  Moreover, the reader is never privy to Mr. Laney’s classroom lectures, but, I suppose, like plays, the real action happens behind the scenes (or, in this case, in his office).

If I was Martin Hames, I wouldn’t have appreciated this shady portrayal.  There was a bizarre chapter where he suffers from paranoia, thinking people believe he’s a pedophile (162), which was never mentioned before, and it’s never mentioned again, by him or anyone else.  Because of his morbid obesity, he is stereotyped as having no sexual feelings, because what would be the use?  (Lots of obese individuals still get married and have families—they’re just like anyone else, except bigger.)  I can understand his size making it extremely hard to get a date, but to never struggle with such feelings at all made him seem less realistic.

The “shrugging of shoulders”, “nodding of heads”, and “hung up the phone” were annoying.  He shrugged/she nodded/he hung up is sufficient.  The phrase “allowed for a pregnant pause to gestate (105) I thought an odd choice of words, though I understood the play-on nature of them.  I think many well-placed metaphors might have improved the book.  We see, we hear, but we don’t touch, taste, or smell.  Overall, the book was well-written, but it lacked any kind of warmth, levity, or humanness.  Though I did finish it, it was a task, because I was craving to feel something; I’ve read nonfiction books about business that have evoked more feeling in me than this book.  I don’t like to write a negative review about a local author, but it did win a Southern fiction award, so what do I know?  I simply know how the book made me feel (or didn’t feel); though I’d checked out her other Mountain Brook novels, I traded them in for something else.  I’d had enough of the secular deification of Norman Laney.  He just wasn’t all that inspiring to me, but I guess I had to have been there.

Ms. Clark was quite vocal about her upbringing, but her portrayal of Mountain Brook seemed very one-dimensional.  It strained my credibility to believe that “Brookies” thought everyone from New York was a Jew—never Irish, never Italian, but always Jewish.  That type of ignorance in the eighties (and yes, even in the Deep South) was hard for me to believe, though she lived there, I did not.

What rubbed me the wrong way about Norman Laney was referring to someone as a barbarian because they liked to hunt, fish, and watch Alabama football (and I say this as someone who hates spectator sports) is an elitist attitude.  One could say people who enjoy such things are uncultured, yes, but not a barbarian, however polite (130).  If there weren’t farmers, Norman wouldn’t eat.  Moreover, he talks about how this certain barbarian would never once go to Europe (lots of people can’t afford it), and they’re not going to fill their homes with fine art when they need that money to feed their families.

Part of society’s problem (in my opinion) is when we squirrel ourselves away in academia too long, we lose our spirituality (I’m not talking about religion, but just communing with nature).  “You’ll never catch me gazing at mountains or wildflowers…I want to see paintings and sculptures!  Don’t give me what God can do.  I want to see what man can do,” quoth Laney (124).  How unfortunate that someone would prefer to see a painting of a flower than a real one, but maybe, this is one of those character flaws the author was talking about.  Perhaps it is in this way that Laney is a bit hedonistic, as he is in his eating habits.  A piece of fine art goes up in value, whereas flowers die, so perhaps this was his thinking.  It was interesting how Laney made his glorious fat work for him, but for him to think that his outward appearance was what made him special was sad.  He was a one-man body-acceptance slow movement (131), though he did choose to get bariatric surgery in the end.  Laney was the type of academic who was only focused on his mind, and not his body, but if the body dies, the mind dies with it.

I know it sounds like I hated this book, but there were a few gems, such as Laney’s philosophy that Arts and Culture were integral to personal growth, even if one was majoring in one of the STEM fields (though the term STEM wasn’t used), or going to MIT.  “…his long-held belief that those who lived for Art and Culture had the greatest chance of fulfilling the best part of themselves” (74), as reading and writing strengthen empathy and critical thinking skills.

There was also an interesting quote at the bottom of page 97 I thought quite profound (about the interconnectedness of all things).  I won’t cite it, but if you ever come across the book, look it up.

One of the best quotes of the book was by one of the female colleagues of Laney’s: “…the need for future mothers to have an education worthy of their most important task of raising the world’s children” (141).  A well-rounded education is good for all moms—whether stay-at-home or working-outside-the-home.  Even Latter-day Saints are big on higher education for both genders, per their belief that “the glory of God is intelligence”.

One of the worst (three) parts of the book is when, towards the end, Laney starts spouting spurious, uncontested claims about Ronald Reagan having Alzheimer’s while in office.  My take:  the author wanted to get her dig in by “speaking through her character”.  These were the final sour notes in the book, and added nothing to the story.  The ending didn’t pack a punch, and seemed a bit rushed, after such laborious reading.

Though this was definitely a comedy of manners, there wasn’t much funny about it.

Book Review: Little Women

 

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I was around ten years old the first time I tried reading “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott.  I was at my grandparents’ house for the summer, and they had a set of “Reader’s Digest Condensed Books”.  I remember reading a bit, and quickly losing interest.  Then, when I was in my early twenties, I tried again, having just watched the June Allyson version of “Little Women” (1949), but after reading maybe a chapter or two, put it down again.  The story seemed to lack vitality then, and I finally forced myself to read 33% of the book (according to Kindle), though I had wanted to give up at 25%.  I’ve been wanting to write a modern version of the story, and felt I needed to read the actual book, get the big picture, rather than just the details on Wikipedia, SparkNotes, etc.

I am craving a good book right now.  “Little Women” doesn’t have anything going for it in terms of plot, characterization, or even locale (which is why I read Elin Hilderbrand’s books).  Even though we are told (rather than shown) how unique each girl is, they are bland as vanilla pudding, and the moralizing is a bit heavy-handed.  Marmee (what the girls call their mother) seems to have more “teachable” moments with her girls than candid ones.

What killed the book for me completely was all the inanity.  We are barely introduced to the girls before they have one of what one calls their “dressing-up frolics”, and we are subjected to some play young Jo wrote about characters named Roderigo, Hugo, Don Pedro, etc., which we come back to a second time, complete with some odd poem.  I have never been a fan of a “story within a story”—it comes across as padding and is never as interesting as the actual story (and that isn’t saying much).  This goes on for pages!  (Okay, maybe I didn’t quite read 33%, because I skipped through all of this.)

Then we get to “The Pickwick Club”—the girls’ secret society—in which a periodical of some sort, “The Pickwick Portfolio”, is read.  Pages and pages of awful prose.  I tried, but skipped almost all of it.  Every time an author inserts one of these “padding devices”, as I call them, it draws one out of the story—it’s like getting a flat tire on a long trip and having to pass the time by playing “Eye Spy”.

The last straw for me was at the picnic (chapter named “Camp Laurence”) when the guests play “Rig-marole” (where “one person begins a story, any nonsense you like, and tells as long as he pleases, only taking care to stop short at some exciting point, when the next takes it up and does the same”).  Again, pages and pages of painful drivel.  I forced myself to read more after this, but I felt, having read at least a third (probably closer to a quarter because of the portions I skipped), I could write a legitimate review.  After all, if a food critic cannot finish a dish because it tastes so bad, why can’t a book reviewer review a book she at least took several bites (or read several chapters) of?

Book Review: Gone Girl

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Though I enjoyed the movie, it did not make me want to read the book, until I read that it was compared to “The Girl on the Train”, which was phenomenal.  Interestingly, the book made me want to see the movie again.

I love the unreliable narrator form of storytelling, as I couldn’t tell whether the husband or the wife (or both) was a pathological liar, as we only get the story through these two.  I generally don’t care for multiple points-of-view (a la Jodi Picoult), as one character’s story tends to overshadow the other, but I have to say, I enjoyed both perspectives immensely (perhaps because they were two of a kind?).  Had the story simply been told only from character’s viewpoint, the book wouldn’t have been as powerful.  Together, the two stories weave together to form a narrative where the truth is subjective.

“Gone Girl” is a cautionary tale of marriage—the moral of how marrying, perhaps, the wrong person, can help one become their best self.  This is one of the rare books I’ve liked in which I didn’t feel any sympathy for any of the characters; it’s like a Greek tragedy with no heroes.  The only person I found myself rooting for wasn’t even born yet.

Being a writer myself, I enjoy reading about those who write for a living, who actually make money doing what I love.  Though I could understand how Nick felt about the state of the industry, I’m glad we live in an era where the readers vet writers, not just editors in some lofty, New York City agency.  However, I must say, Amy was the real writer in this—a true architect of the imagination.  She was the epitome of “Amazing Amy”.

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

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“The Girl on the Train” is told from the first-person viewpoints of Rachel, Anna, and Megan (a la Jodi Picoult)—all of whom are on different tracks in life, yet connected by a common thread.

Rachel Watson, the main protagonist, is an alcoholic who rides the train every morning and evening (whose reasons for doing so will make you wonder about her state of mind), and who, like Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Rear Window”, likes to watch the people in their backyard gardens as she rides by.  From this vantage point, Rachel watches her ex-husband and his new wife create a new life in the house she used to live in with him, and she sees in another couple (whom she has affectional named Jess and Jason) what she once thought she and Tom, her ex-husband, would be.

However, one day she sees another man with Jess (real name Megan) on the terrace; Megan ends up missing the next day.  Rachel believes she may hold the missing piece of the puzzle, and through this distraction, finds sporadic sobriety.  In an effort to find Megan, Rachel, in part, loses herself in the life Megan once lived.  She also crosses paths with a stranger on the train she believes has the answers to what happened “That Night”, but cannot remember whether he is her friend because of what he may not know, or a danger, because of what may know.

Rachel is an interesting character because she isn’t plugged into her cell phone with people she knows, but is far more interested in those she doesn’t know.  Though she is somewhat tuned out of the world around her, she tuned in to the world that lives inside her head—a world that shifts like the scenery outside her window to the world, that world being the window on the train.

As we get to know Rachel, we begin to wonder, is she or isn’t she an unreliable narrator, or is her perspective that far from reality?

Ms. Hawkins allows us to get to know the characters gradually, as one would in real life; the same goes for the mystery, which unfolds one clue at a time.  Hawkins richly layers each character with backstory that isn’t an information dump, but keeps surprising us; every tidbit gives clarity to what is going on in the present-day, such as why Megan has a hard time sleeping, or why Rachel’s ex-husband hates her so.

Megan’s story is compelling because she is seeing a therapist, to whom she reveals the source of her angst, and Anna’s, because of her near-obsession with her husband’s ex-wife.

The stories of Rachel and Anna, and then Megan’s story (which is told in “flashback”, leading up to her disappearance), happen about a year apart, but unlike “The Time Traveler’s Wife”, the timeline is easy to follow, and the story flows like the wine that Rachel consumes every day.  Rachel’s haze of consciousness lends itself to a (believable) state of amnesia, including blackouts, so the reader doesn’t know any more about whodunit than Rachel does.  Rachel and the reader will be in it together, trying to add it all up before the train goes off the tracks.

Due to Rachel’s fluctuating moods and penchant for lying, I constantly felt discombobulated, which only kept me reading till its chilling, unexpected destination.

*Review was originally published in the September 2016 issue of “The Corsair”– the Pensacola State College newspaper.  “The Corsair” online can be found at http://ecorsair.com/.