iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #60: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is a charmingly obsessed history nerd with a particular fascination for presidential assassinations and the cottage industry that has sprung up around them. Her book covers the first three assassinations in American history, those of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. Perhaps she decided there were more than enough books about the Kennedy assassination.

Of the three, Lincoln’s is the most well-known, and it takes up the largest portion of the text. Vowell visits the reconstructed Ford’s Theater, Booth’s grave site, the prison that housed Dr. Samuel Mudd, the houses that the president and his assassin and his collaborators lived in, and many, many museums housing artifacts of the shooting. Vowell quickly and capably presents the historical facts around the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, and her wit and verve make this brisk retelling worthwhile even for those quite familiar with the event.

The Garfield and McKinley assassinations are much less renowned, and often are barely covered in standard high school American History classes. Therefore these two sections are a little quirkier than the Lincoln. There aren’t many memorials to Garfield, making those that exist obscure and well worth the attention. McKinley’s presidency has been so thoroughly overshadowed by that of his successor, Teddy Roosevelt, that the circumstances surrounding his death were unfamiliar to me. Especially of interest was the account of Roosevelt receiving the news that McKinley had been shot, making him president. The rambunctious V.P. was summitting a mountain at the time, requiring an Army messenger to sprint uphill to deliver the message.

Vowell’s interest in anything with even the slightest connection to these events is infectious, and her ability to connect the administrations of the past with their more recent successors is amusing and interesting to consider. While Vowell’s unflagging liberalism might rankle some, her self-deprecating humor makes it be irritated by her.

For both serious students and for those who could stand to fill in the gaps of their education, Assassination Vacation is a quick, fun look into some of the darker moments in our nation’s history.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #59: Slaughter-house Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This is my third time through on Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel. Vonnegut is my favorite author and undoubtedly the one who had the biggest impact on me. I read all of his novels and most of his published work between the ages of 15 and 21, so I hit him at just the right time. Vonnegut’s skepticism, his anger, and his deconstruction of widely held beliefs let me know that I wasn’t the only person having blasphemous, sacrilegious thoughts about God and Uncle Sam.

But because I was at a susceptible age when I first encountered Vonnegut, I am always a little apprehensive about diving back in. What if I discover that Vonnegut wasn’t the revolutionary, incendiary figure that I still venerate today?

Nevertheless I have reread quite a few of the novels, and the results are quite interesting. Some of my favorites seem to dim with maturity, while others that I ranked in the middle or rearguard have become more valued. Cat’s Cradle started to seem tedious the second time through, whereas God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Deadeye Dick seemed much better crafted than I gave them credit for. My favorite Vonnegut novel is thus constantly in flux and will be for the rest of my life I suppose.

I read Vonnegut on my own in high school after an intellectual rival of mine told me about it. (I was that kind of kid, I couldn’t stand thinking any of my friends might be better-read than I was.) While I enjoyed the unconventionality, the humor, and the brazen strangeness of the book, I was undoubtedly too young to truly get Vonnegut’s central thesis.

A college course on American authors really allowed me to see Vonnegut’s fear of the power of narrative, it’s ability to convince us of things that are dangerous and untrue. It was the best experience I had as an English major in college, going through Vonnegut’s carefully laid-out argument against traditional stories. Vonnegut constantly eludes to the Cinderella fairy tale, war movies, or the Gospels of Christ, to show how these narratives teach the wrong lessons and serve more to keep people under control than anything else.

This time I read Slaughter-house Five on the Kindle, which I think possibly might have diminished the experience a little bit. This reading found me more impressed than entertained. I suppose it’s hard to be surprised and delighted three times by the same thing. Still, Vonnegut’s commitment to his anti-narrative stance is impressive. Vonnegut’s story, of the WWII POW Billy Pilgrim’s coming “unstuck in time” due to his traumatic experiences during the bombing of Dresden, doesn’t really come to an end. Nor does it really begin. In the phenomenal first chapter, Vonnegut introduces the idea that anti-war novels are ineffectual, that stories about war do more to propagate it than end it, and that the story form in and of itself is dangerous. This is why he tells the reader upfront pretty much everything that will happen in the course of the novel, from Billy’s abduction to Tralfamadore to his death at the hands of an assassin in 1976.

Technically, the book never makes it to 1976, at least not the way readers would expect. We never see Edgar Derby shot for stealing a tea kettle either, but we’ve heard it so many times that its omission can go unnoticed.

Where does the book end? Well, according to the Tralfamadorian concept of time, all events occur at once, and could only have occurred in that way. So there is no end, no beginning, just a series of moments, carefully chosen, all adding up to one arresting image.

 

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #58: Serenade by James M. Cain

For me, when it comes to American crime novels, the Holy Trinity are and always will be Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. Picking between them would be impossible, because they all have their strengths. Chandler had the best way with words and the best detective. Hammett was great at creating a world populated with captivating characters and his plotting was always incredibly strong. However, in my opinion, James M. Cain had the darkest, most compelling imagination of the three. Cain’s novels are explorations of horribly flawed people in desperate situations and at the mercy of emotions beyond their control. There is something primal about the evil Cain taps into it, and his best works are often quite disturbing.

Despite being quite enamored of Cain’s work, I had never heard of Serenade, which was his second novel. After reading it, I can definitely say it doesn’t rise up to the level of Mildred Pierce or The Postman Always Rings Twice. However, it is a worthy read for fans of hardboiled crime novels. Cain’s narrator is John Howard Sharp, an opera singer gone to seed who finds his career revitalized by his relationship with a Mexican-Indian prostitute before an untimely act of violence throws everything into jeopardy.

Sharp is a hard character to get a bead on, and nearly impossible to like. Cain does such a good job presenting his bitterness and disdain for the world, especially Mexico, that it makes Sharp thoroughly unlikable right from the beginning. Even his love for Juana, so powerful he risks prison to bring her into the U.S. with him, is not enough to redeem him. In the tradition of the genre though, Sharp is an impressive specimen. He is a crafty businessman and negotiator, scheming and operating his way into a series of lucrative performing gigs on practically guile alone. Juana is less developed as a character, perhaps an unfortunate side effect of the era in which Cain was writing.

Cain’s prose is as sharp as ever, but in Serenade his plotting feels off. The novel purports to be about a deadly triangle, but the third side doesn’t enter until two-thirds of the way through, and thus isn’t given enough time to become a meaningful presence before the necessary events unfold. Perhaps that problem could have been solved if Cain hadn’t been so eager to indulge his own personal love of classical music and opera by having Sharp discuss at length his opinions on numerous great composers, some he admires and some he disdains. One or two of these discussions could have been illuminating, but collectively they bored this reader.

When Cain is focused on his characters’ emotional states, their predicaments, and their instincts for survival, Serenade becomes a gripping read, but there’s not enough of that to rate this in the first line of Cain’s work.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #57: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

If you’re the kind of girl who used to dream about curling up with a leather-bound book in the window-seat in your library, perhaps with a fire going and a cup of tea near at hand, then I’ve found your new favorite book.

Published in 1948, I Capture the Castle isn’t the tale of a medieval siege, but rather a sweet story of an innocent young girl trying to make the best of her unusual situation. 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain lives with her father, her stepmother, and two siblings in a dilapidated old castle in the English countryside, and writes about her days in a series of journals as practice for when she becomes a real writer. Decades after his first book made him a wealthy man and an influential thinker, Cassandra’s father has failed to publish a followup and has sunk into eccentricity. The family has no money for the upkeep on their wildly impractical domicile and has sold off the furniture to buy food.

The Mortmain’s luck begins to change when their landlord’s death leaves their lease on the castle in the care of the Cottons, a family of Americans who journey across the pond and become entangled in the lives of the Mortmains. Cassandra’s older sister Rose is hellbent on escaping the dreary poverty she has been consigned to, and sets her sights on marrying Simon Cotton, the oldest son and inheritor of the castle.

Rose’s ambitions are awkward for Cassandra, who understands how hard poverty is on her sister, and sympathizes with her while still feeling uneasy about the callous nature of her pursuit of a wealthy husband. On top of that Cassandra deals with the usual troubles of a young girl: first crushes, first kisses, conflicted feelings about love and boys.

Dodie Smith does a remarkable job getting inside the mind of her creation. Cassandra’s narration has not a single false note in it. If at times the narration is long-winded, or lacking in action, it is understandable as the writings of an inexperienced young writer. Ms. Smith is probably more famous as the author of One Hundred and One Dalmations, but I Capture the Castle is a rewarding read, especially if you can start a fire and curl up in the window-seat.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #56: This One is Mine by Maria Semple

This One is Mine is Maria Semple’s first novel. Many on this site have read and reviewed her follow-up bestseller, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and I am one of them. I loved Bernadette because it was easy to empathize with all of Semple’s characters despite their profound flaws. Semple was able to craft situations which put her characters into conflict based on their unique, imperfect personalities.

This One is Mine is Semple’s first attempt at such a difficult balancing act, and while its humor and understanding are evidence of the author’s immense talent, many of the characters are too unlikable for this novel to be as memorable as Bernadette.

This One is Mine is about a fissure in the seemingly strong marriage between self-made millionaire and music executive David Parry and Violet, an unhappy former TV writer. Their once strong connection is tested by Violet’s encounter with a charming low-life named Teddy Reyes, a bass player in a Rolling Stones cover band. Alongside David and Violet’s story, David’s sister Sally, a past her prime ballerina, laments her status as a single 36-year-old and schemes to trap a sportscaster on the rise into marriage and parenthood.

While Violet’s plot could easily have devolved into poor-little-rich-girl stereotypes, Semple’s creative plotting elevates the material above that. However, Violet’s irrational behavior and poor decisions are trying on the reader, perhaps especially on the male reader. Yet, Violet is a saint compared to the truly despicable Sally. Following Sally as she abused friends, plotted to get her way, lied to everyone including her fiancee, was too much to bear. Sally is every man’s worst fear, a total bitch who manages to fool a guy long enough to get a ring on her finger. If a male novelist had brought Sally Parry into the world, the literary world would score him as a base misogynist perpetrating the worst stereotype of woman imaginable. I’m not sure Semple should get off the hook just because she’s a woman.

Still, there’s too much to enjoy here not to like This One is Mine, even if it registers as something of a minor work by an incredibly talented woman capable of much more.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #55: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

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The History of Love performs a kind of magic. In a scant 250 pages, the last few dozen of which feature just a few sentences each, Krauss creates an entire world and entices the reader into it. Without ever breaking the spell by going into too much detail or explaining too much of her characters’ motivations, Krauss gets you to invest in the lives of Leo Gursky, Alma Singer and their compatriots and to feel what they feel along the way.

Leopold Gursky is an old man now. A retired locksmith who never married, he grew up and fell in love in his tiny Polish village before history intervened. Alma, the girl he loved, escaped to America while Leo escaped by the skin of his teeth, losing his whole family in the process. By the time Leo makes it to America and finds Alma, he finds her married and raising the son he never knew had with another man. Heartbroken, he spends the rest of his life basically alone.

But before their separation, the wildly imaginative young Leo had set down his love for Alma in a novel called The History of Love. The book’s tortured history gives Krauss’s novel its spine, as the text, which Leo thought was lost forever, resurfaces decades later in the home of a different Alma, named after the character in the novel based on the original.

This Alma, Alma Singer, is a teenage girl with a dead father and a mother who has withdrawn into a private world of grief. It was her father who plucked an obscure novel written in Spanish out of a used bookstore and gave it to the woman he loved as a present. How that novel came to be in that particular place at that particular time is a hell of a story as well.

Both Leo and Alma are trying to piece together mysteries at the center of their lives. Leo’s advanced age and Alma’s inexperience with the world make both their investigations dicey propositions, lending an unexpected edge of drama to the narrative that will have the reader flipping those brief final pages quickly.

The History of Love is a novel whose surface simplicity belies the complex reverberations of its characters choices. I’d recommend this book especially to book clubs, who could really dig into the story and its implications.

iamnothamlet’s #CBR5 Review #54: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

I have a genius problem. As someone who likes to think of himself as well-read, I feel compelled to check out writers who are hailed as geniuses. Time after time, however, I am disappointed, perplexed, befuddled, and downright enraged by the novels turned out by these geniuses. This puts me in a quandary. Either I admit I didn’t like the work of a genius, in which case I risk looking unsophisticated, or I come right out and call the emperor naked and hope history will see that he wasn’t wearing clothes.

One of the recurring problems with geniuses as I have found them is that they find the conventional novel format so restrictive and boring, whereas I find it useful and engaging. This is why James Joyce’s novels wound up straying closer and closer to being indecipherable to anyone besides the author, or why Thomas Pynchon’s novels sometimes seem to be intentionally provoking the reader with their obscure minutiae. In the case of Roberto Bolano, at leas as far as The Savage Detectives is concerned, the author is so interested in exploring the mundane and commonplace that he neglects to provide the reader with any reason to continue reading or to care about what happens to any of his characters.

The Savage Detectives is about, as much as it can be said to be about anything, two poets living in Mexico City who start a short-lived and little-noticed poetry movement called visceral realism before getting mixed up in some violence and travelling the world for twenty years.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first of these showcases the kind of talent that I would call indicative of genius. Through the diary of a young apprentice poet we meet Bolano’s protagonists, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, and their circle of unusual acquaintances. The poets become involved with an eccentric family headed by a mentally-unbalanced architect with two beautiful and intelligent daughters. This section is full of brilliant observations, well-drawn characters, and sentences that hum with the verve of original talent.

Then, about 150 pages in, the novel just stops dead in its tracks. Bolano takes the reader through the poets two decades of wandering through the use of an oral history format of people they knew and met along the way. Bolano wants you to marvel at his ability to use dozens and dozens of narrators to tell the story, especially as he has each narrator tell the story in ways that are self-serving, discursive, and occasionally nonsensical. It is admittedly quite the feat, but the technical accomplishment is meaningless to the poor  reader, who is just desperate for something to actually happen. Bolano presents walls of texts, paragraphs lasting as long as five pages are not uncommon. Often nothing relevant happens at all in these marathon monologues.

I have to admit this book tried my patience and wore me down. I can only very loosely claim to have finished it, because for the last 200 pages I was desperately skimming, looking for anything to offer some excitement comparable to that first section. Alas, even when we return to the diary format, and even when there is actual rising action, Bolano has rendered the reader incapable of enjoying it.