Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

The Adventures Of Augie March / Saul Bellow

Published in 1953, and the winner of the 1954 National Book for Fiction, The Adventures of Augie March is a novel that uses an episodic style to tell the life story of its eponymous character. It introduces Augie March, growing up during the Great Depression, and traces his growth into adulthood. Bellow uses a series of encounters, work scenarios, and relationships to highlight the development of a boy into a man.

March’s boyhood years are spent in Chicago and it is obviously a city the author holds dear. With a keen eye, he portrays its squalor, beauty and corruption, capturing the essence of this bustling metropolis. The book celebrates, too, the American ideal that someone born into poverty can rise in society through sheer determination, with the help of luck. However, as a good many of its characters learn, success does not necessarily guarantee happiness.

For me, the most interesting parts of the novel are the early sections set in Chicago. When March reaches adulthood, his adventures take him to Mexico, different parts of the U.S., and finally to Italy and Paris. Throughout, he gets involved with a string of different women, jobs, homes, times of poverty and wealth. Included is a description of March during World War II when, as a merchant marine, his ship is sunk, and he ends up on a lifeboat with a man who turns out to be a lunatic. At times, it feels like the author has thrown into the story everything but the kitchen sink.

March is clearly intelligent, compassionate, and observant of the world around him. Still, there is nothing heroic about him or his actions; he seems to have no definite goal in mind. Instead, he tends to go along with the schemes and dreams of others. In the end, his “quest for identity” does not lead him to an epiphany. It is the journey and not the destination that ultimately makes March the person he becomes.

I read this novel back in my college days but remembered none of its details. Revisiting it again later in life, I better appreciate its depths and meanderings. Not that I was completely wowed this time around. Parts of the story struck me as far fetched and unnecessarily verbose. Still, I did marvel at Bellow’s talents as a writer. In this novel he seemed intent on writing a classic American novel. For me, it was worth a second read to discover how close he comes to succeeding.

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Our Souls At Night / Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf set all of his novels in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Our Souls At Night, his final book written shortly before he died, takes the reader back to the same city. It is a story stripped down to the bare bones, one devoid of poetical embellishment, simply focusing on precise narration of casual conversations. It deals with an older couple who, lonely in old age after the deaths of their spouses, start to share a bed at night.

In the beginning, companionship proves to be the important ingredient that brings them together. Addie Moore and Louis Waters have been neighbors for decades, but until Addie approaches him out of the blue with a proposition to share her bed, they had never before been close friends. In a town as small as Holt, his nightly visits to her quickly become fodder for gossip. It also sends ripples of concern throughout the family tree. Their children soon express disapproval and begin to try to derail their relationship.

In the early stages of reading this book. I was ready to dismiss it as too paper-thin, lacking the necessary depth to elevate it to the status of Haruf’s earlier works. However, my opinion had shifted by the time I reached its sad and yet compassionate conclusion. To me, the author proved in this compact story that less is often more. Addie states in one of the book’s final chapters, describing their affair, “it’s just old people talking in the dark.” Even if devoid of poetic flourishes, it still touches the reader’s heart.

The author’s bare bones description of his characters’ need to share a lifetime of memories with someone provides the book with a surprising depth. It is a satisfying conclusion to Haruf’s literary career. For readers new to his writing, I urge them to dive into his earlier work as well. His Holt stories capture the small town in loving detail, showing both the warts and kindnesses found in the heartland of today’s America.

The Sympathizer / Viet Than Nguyen

This novel won numerous awards after its publication in 2015, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  It is a story of the Vietnam War, told from the North Vietnamese perspective.  The narrator is a spy in the South Vietnam army who is subsequently sent, following the North’s victory, to the United States to keep tabs on the remnants of the refugees fleeing the fall of the government in the South.

Nguyen is certainly qualified to tell this story.  Born in Vietnam, his family came to the U.S. following the Communist takeover of the South.  His background gives him a distinct perspective on the war and its aftermath.  This is important since most of the literature on the war published in this country over the years is presented from an American perspective.

The novel’s nameless narrator is a Communist undercover agent implanted in the South Vietnamese army’s ranks.  But he is a man of two minds, attracted to the beliefs expressed by both sides of the conflict.  To complicate matters, his two best friends from childhood have taken opposite sides in the conflict.  One is a true patriot, an assassin assigned to the C.I.A.’s Phoenix Program.  The other is the narrator’s North Vietnamese handler.  The three remain loyal to each other despite their political differences.

For me, the most effective and gripping part of the story is the author’s description of the fall of Saigon.  In this section, Nguyen describes the desperation and terror of the city’s population as the remaining Americans and a few select Vietnamese flee the country.  The author does an excellent job of portraying the difficulty these refugees faced when trying to find a place in the American culture once relocated here.

The mood darkens when the narrator tries to return with a group of fighters intent on overthrowing the Communist regime.  It was at this point that I began to feel manipulated by the author’s attempt to portray the narrator’s dual roles and the schisms that resulted in his consciousness.  While it is evident that he is trying to present how the North Vietnamese had become as evil as what they replaced, this portion of the book did not ring quite as true as the rest.  It felt more like a lecture than simple description.

Having read a nonfiction account by this author of the war’s aftermath, I found that both books suffered from a verbosity that detracted from the point he was trying to make.  Still, this novel proves an uncomfortable read, one that vividly portrays that no parties involved in the conflict emerged with clean hands.

Without a doubt, The Sympathizer will not be “a feel good” read for an American audience. Nonetheless, it is a piece of fiction that needs to be digested and understood in this country.  While no side emerged with a clear conscience, this novel presents our guilt in a disturbing manner.  Caught in the crossfire, it was the Vietnamese themselves who suffered the most lasting scars of this war.

Learning To Drive And Other Life Stories / Katha Pollitt

In this collection of essays, Katha Pollitt focuses on her own life. A poet, essayist, and columnist for The Nation, her work has won national acclaim. With sharp insight, she addresses marriage and other sexual relationships, childhood and parenting, radical political involvement, and an early job spent proofreading pornographic novels. All of the above is viewed from the perspective of an individual in late middle age who is dealing with body issues, betrayal, and acceptance of the hand life has dealt her.

What makes this a worthy read is her scathing self-honesty. While a card-carrying feminist, she is not afraid to address the faults of the Movement. The best essays here are the ones that focus on her various relationships with men over the course of her life. While her humor is razor sharp, Pollitt is not afraid to turn its blade on herself.

What I appreciated most was her daring to write what most of us only dare to think. As a result, she has drawn criticism from both sides of the political aisle. While her politics are clearly left-leaning, she is the rare author who seems capable of exposing the faults of both sides of today’s political/cultural divide. There is heartbreak aplenty exposed in these essays. Her brutal honesty and use of humor elevate to pitch perfect her reflections on contemporary American life.

1848 : Year Of Revolution / Mike Rapport

In his book 1848, Mike Rapport takes an in-depth look at the spontaneous social and political upheaval that swept across Europe that year. This turbulence shook the feudal systems of governance to their roots and briefly allowed a more representational form of government to seize the reins of power. This topic is a mammoth undertaking on his part: separate revolutions took place in France, the German and Italian states, across the Austrian Empire, and in other European locations. In the end, more than 50 countries were caught up in the fledgling push for democratic representation.

The rebellions were led by the combined forces of moderates, liberals, and socialists based in the cities of Paris, Milan, Venice, Palermo, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Munich and Berlin. Joining them initially were the peasants based in the countryside, seeking abolition of serfdom. This led to either the toppling of old regimes or major concessions on their part.

However, once in power, the coalitions that led the rebellion soon began to fall apart. The moderates were alarmed by the socialists’ agenda, and the radicals began to fight the liberals over governmental structure. Meanwhile, once the feudal governments granted the peasants their demands, the peasants switched allegiance back to the conservatives, as they opposed the social changes being enacted by the liberals and radicals now in power. The killing blow to the new coalitions was the fact that the feudal regimes for the most part retained control of their armies. Another factor was the rise of nationalism in different countries, which led to persecution of minorities, whose response was to champion the security of the feudal systems in place.

As Rapport shows, all of the above brought about the collapse of the new representational forms of governments once the feudal systems brought their armies into play to suppress and crush the rebellions. By the end of the year, the conservatives were able to grab back the reins of power across Europe. In reading this book, I was reminded of the courses of events following the recent Arab Spring in the Middle East, and, to a lesser extent, the backlash that occurred in the American Presidential election of 2016.

1848 is not an easy book to read. It is crammed full of minute details of what took place in each country. This means that one is inundated with thousands of names of people, cities, and battles. I would have appreciated a glossary of the key players involved plus maps to help me place where the sprawling events were taking place.

While I found it a bit of a slog to wade through the specifics presented, it proved to be worth the effort. I came away with a much better sense of what led to the outbreak of rebellions and why they ultimately were unsuccessful. While a democratic Europe failed to take root, the events taking place in 1848 led to the creation of a united Germany and Italy, and seeds were planted for the European governments that emerged from the ashes of World War II. For the patient and persistent reader, 1848 will make this complicated period of history comprehensible.

Dead Presidents : An American Adventure Into The Strange Deaths And Surprising Afterlives Of Our Nation’s Leaders / Brady Carlson

I’ve heard Brady Carlson speak often through the years… he is a reporter and the on-air host of NPR’s Weekend Edition for Wisconsin Public Radio. In Dead Presidents he proves to be a delightful individual to spend time with on the written page as well. In this humorous, informative book, Carlson travels across America visiting Presidential grave sites, museums, monuments and memorials. What he finds provides us with rich details of our leaders’ contributions to American history.

His writing stye is colorful and highly readable. Diving into this book is like spending time with a gifted tour guide who quickly becomes a good friend. While I was a history major in college and well-read on the details of American politics, Carlson presents numerous facts that I had not encountered before. He shifts from the somber to the macabre with ease, and yet his stories remain amusing throughout, all the while without belittling any of our past presidents.

What most interested me is how he contrasts the ways in which the different presidents were viewed at the time of their deaths as compared to later years. He also shows that the way we memorialize our presidents reveals more about America than it does about them. This book succeeds because, while funny, none of the profiles come off as cheap comedy. Carson simply shows that our past leaders were as fallible as we ourselves are: capable of great deeds despite obvious flaws.

He ends his book describing the ”Marshfield Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival and Presidential Family Reunion and Missouri Walk of Fame.” This is an annual event that draws the descendants of past presidents, giving them a chance to interact and reflect on what it is like to be a relative of such famous figures. Who would have guessed there is such a festival? Thanks to Carlson’s reporting skills, this and many other facts are revealed along the way, to the the reader’s delight.

Sanctuary / William Faulkner

When Sanctuary was published in 1931, it was Faulkner’s fourth book.  Two previous novels, The Sound And The Fury and As I Lay Dying, are both considered classics today.  But it was Sanctuary that provided Faulkner with his first commercial and critical breakthrough.  I had read those two earlier novels and both proved to be complex works of art that stood out to me as among the best literature written in the Twentieth Century.  Expecting a repeat performance, I was taken aback when Sanctuary turned out to be a “potboiler,” having much in common with other works in that genre.

Set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, the story takes place in 1929.  It deals with a controversial topic, the rape and abduction of a well-bred Mississippi college girl, Temple Drake.  I can understand why audiences of the time were drawn to the book.  It dares to tackle a topic most authors in the 1930s refused to address, fearing censure and condemnation.  The novel proved to be an uncomfortable read for me, dealing with the dark side of Southern society at the time.  After all, it features rape, murder, and the lynching of an innocent man who is set ablaze by an angry crowd believing he was responsible for the rape of Temple Drake.  While Faulkner is to be commended for tackling a topic as dark and chilling as this one, it does not mean he succeeded in rising above the genre he was emulating.

The novel’s three main characters are Temple Drake, Popeye, and Horace Benbow.  Popeye is a criminal with an unsavory past, and the man who rapes Drake with a corncob, then kidnaps her.  He is someone who represents pure evil, and though impotent, he yet is able to dominate Temple and change her into a willing girl who submits to his perverted needs.  Benbow is the lawyer who represents the man accused of a murder that takes place at the time of Temple’s rape and abduction.

My problem with Sanctuary is that its only fully developed character is the lawyer Benbow.  Temple and Popeye remain mere caricatures, their actions left unexplained and at times challenging belief.  Faulkner is a gifted author and his prose at times elevated the work to admiration on my part.  But the bulk of the story seemed overblown, meant to shock, showing evil with no redeeming conclusion.  That is not necessarily a bad thing; however, I expected him to get beneath the skin of his characters, and he fails to do so for the most part.

Benbow is a decent person, but his heroism is overwhelmed by the villainy that darkens the rest of the book.  While it may have aroused the sadistic interest on the part of readers at the time, it failed to rise above “potboiler” status for me.  There is probably a reason this novel does not rank among Faulkner’s best remembered books.