The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #20: Who Could That Be at This Hour?

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I don’t know where to begin with Lemony Snicket’s (aka Daniel Handler’s) newest foray into the world of the series. “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, whose weird and wild sense of mystery incorporated a plethora of new vocabulary words and a huge helping of literary, scientific and philosophical allusions, offered an exciting alternative to the Boy Scout of Hogwarts. And after the final book (fittingly titled The End) Handler seemed all too happy to walk away from Snicket, satisfying himself with silly one offs like the hilariously Hannukkah-themed Latka Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming.

 

Yet Snicket is back in a series titled “All the Wrong Questions” which begins with Who Could That Be at This Hour? A prequel of sorts that throws us into the world of Snicket before he was simply the chronicler of the Baudelaire triplets’ exploits, WCTBATH takes us to an odd setting, filled with odd adults and odd children in which only our protagonist can offer a rational perspective.

 

There’s plenty of mystery and vocabulary to play around with, and even a few well chosen allusions (though, since Snicket is a child at this stage he only alludes to classic children’s literature). But there’s simply no core to the characters. Snicket always remained mysterious, aloof and distant as the narrator of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” so you don’t really know him, and you don’t particularly care about him in this book. Nor do you have any fear about what will happen to him, because, obviously he goes on to a whole other series in a few years.

 

Having a big walking question mark as your protagonist leaves you hoping that supporting cast members will carry the load, but there’s none of the quirky magic that filled “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. No random lectures on Herpetology or digressions into goofy divinations, instead there’s just a pack of local people who lack an ounce of the depth you find in the other series.

 

When clever characterization is stripped away, all that is left is a pile of authorial idiosyncrasies and a plot so wrapped up in mystery that you’re not only unsure about what happens, but unsure why you should care. As a fan of Snicket’s/Handler’s, I was truly disappointed to reach that conclusion.

 

Here’s hoping I missed something, that some commenter will correct me, that someone somewhere out there knows why an authorial encore should be cheered for and applauded every bit as loudly as the first finale. Please, tell me I’m wrong.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #19: The Red Pyramid

For more on young adult fantasy literature (especially meta-cognitive thoughts about the nature of YA Franchises) check out my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

Rick Riordan never really left the page. One year after finishing the Percy Jackson series he was back with not one but two series. The similarly Greek themed “Heroes of Olympus” and an Egyptian styled series called: “The Kane Chronicles”. My school happened to have a cache of The Red Pyramid the first book in “The Kane Chronicles”, so naturally I picked up a copy both to see if Riordan still had a deft touch for action-adventure with a dollop of mythological education, and to see if it was worth discussing in the classroom.

 

To be sure, Riordan has a teacher’s style, a strong ear for teenage dialogue and a fair sense of fun when delving into exposition heavy monologues. He attacks Egyptian mythology with the same sincere appreciation of history and coming-of-age stories that made Percy Jackson such a pleasure to read, and seems all too happy to guide readers beyond American shores into London, Paris and Cairo.

 

Beyond different deities, Riordan separates “The Kane Chronicles” from Percy Jackson in one major way: altering the narrative focus from a single first-person point of view, to a pair of narrators telling their story through an “audio recording” that comes close to second-person point of view. It’s a clever conceit, one that I haven’t seen done in young adult series before and it helps to equalize the power balance between his two protagonists, the siblings Carter and Sadie Kane.

 

Unfortunately, that conceit also mucks up the act of story telling. The story starts with a plea to go quickly and a sense of urgency, then the narrators fixate on prosaic style. I readily believe that teenagers (whether they’re descended from an ancient order of Egyptians or not) would record their every thought, feeling and interest. I don’t know as I can make the leap from that kind of teenager, to the kind who possesses an incredible recall for events of several months before or who casually incorporates description like: “His clothes were similar to those he’d worn the day before, and I had to admit the guy had style. His tailored suit was made of blue wool, he wore a matching fedora and his hair was freshly braided with dark blue lapis lazuli“particularly if there’s an urgency to telling the reader a particular story.

 

While Sadie and Carter often sound like teenage siblings (particularly in the bickering, squabbling, under-your-breath insult arena), they also sound far more worldly than any teenager/magician/possible demi-god has a right to. The narrative bogs down in their descriptions and whenever there’s a hint of an explanation coming up, both characters are hurtled into a fresh action sequence, jumping from one monster to the next with a seemingly interchangeable array of adult guardians.

 

Still, give Riordan credit. He knows enough about what fans want to read (action and a healthy dose of mythology) that he can satisfy them while exploring other avenues of his own artistic interests as well (altering the narrative format, expanding the world around him). He even gives a satisfying glimpse into social dynamics of a mixed-race family, even if that point gets largely subsumed by falcon heads, swinging swords, ravenous hippopotami and plenty of explosions. I might not have asked for an encore to Percy Jackson, but I can’t say that Riordan’s half-assing his way off stage.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #18: Americanah

For more thoughts as I try to connect my fondness for Scotland, India and West Africa into one incredibly complicated post-colonial knot (and other more edifying writings) check out my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

You might recognize Adichie from her now famous TED Talk on “The Dangers of a Single Story”. She’s a marvelous raconteur, personable, sincere, and completely present amongst her audience. She knows what she’s talking about when she talks about an African’s experience in the modern world and the complex reactions to Africans in the west today.

 

AmericanahAmericanah serves as a platform for these observations. In chronicling the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze–as they do the business of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl and boy live abroad, girl and boy return to eachother–she lets the characters serve as mouthpieces for ideas, perspectives and beliefs (not unlike how Oscar Wilde used his). While that’s great for sparking a discussion about race, gender, class, identity, academia, profiting off of immigrants, and an array of other topics, it doesn’t necessarily make for a thrilling story.

 

Instead Adichie seems to favor speechifying over storytelling. Her ideas are provocative and engaging, but might make better fodder for another TED talk or a serious blog (particularly since she occasionally includes blog-esque extracts from Ifemelu’s race conscious blog). The lengthy middle section of the novel (the part after girl loses boy), seems to almost lose the primary force behind the characters, leaving them to observe and opine rather than do much of anything. Maybe that’s the state of things for lovers in my generation–there are certainly fewer beasts to slay and grails to retrieve–but as interesting as the observations are they aren’t the same as a well honed story. Luckily, the beginning and the ends of the book are excellent expressions of young lovers, and every bit as engrossing as a dose of Downtown Abby drama.

 

I want to be part of a serious conversation about race, and I know that Adichie’s book can start one, I just hope enough readers aren’t so distracted by the lack of “plot” that they let Americanah fall to the ground unfinished. She’s a diamond-sharp-mind and an eloquent writer pursuing vital topics, whether or not this novel serves her goals of observation and story telling, I’m not sure.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #17: The Casual Vacancy

For more thoughts on this and other bits of British nerdery, consider my eponymous blog: The Scruffy Rube.

Picturesque, pristine, and pleasant.

That’s the general tone that surrounds a lot of the English villages in my favorite British literature. Jane Austen wrote about scores of them, John Fowles’ beloved Lyme has the same tenor. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when I started reading JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy to find that she too had chosen to write about a seemingly serene little town, but Rowling’s setting was far seedier than her predecessors might dare to write.

The Casual Vacancy is about as far from the world of Harry Potter as you might care to go. The depressingly mugglefied air of Pagford village, could seems like a town so run-of-the-mill that it defies anything to be dramatic. But Rowling thrives when describing self-contained worlds that struggle for security and, to some extent, secrecy. That’s where an insular, overly-protective small town jives neatly alongside the vanishing charms and invisibility cloaks of the wizarding world.

The Casual VacancyThe two worlds connect again when Rowling turns her focus to writing about local teenagers, jaded by familial outrage and dedicated to personal interest. She has a masterful method for writing the tortuous logic and emotional angst that typifies teenagers, but her real talent lies in reflecting that same behavior in adult characters. Thus helping teens seem less immature and more relevant to the adult world that surrounds them.

At times it felt like Rowling dropped “gritty” bits of writing (profanity and eroticism) as a way of proving: “I’m not just the Harry Potter lady”, even if they weren’t terribly relevant or valuable to the story. But at its core, The Casual Vacancy shows the same strength of authorial imagination that put Rowling (and Harry) on the map in the first place.

It doesn’t take much to see The Casual Vacancy in a post-colonial light. The most powerful residents hold tightly to a sincere belief in their own superiority, condescending to tell another group of people how they should be living their lives. When some make an effort to put the powerful and the powerless on a more equitable footing, those in power do all they can to stop it. [And that doesn’t even touch on the overt disdain reserved for the one Indian family in town, a particularly bitter–though likely accurate–pill to swallow]

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #16: Fever Pitch

For how this review of more modern London living relates back to the tried-and-true Rumpole and other classic British monuments, look at my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube

Fever PitchI was happy to find in Hornby ‘s work a memoir for a thinking sports fan (something I aspire to be on two other websites). It’s a great guide for academics who want to see exactly what drives an otherwise sane man to spend a large portion of his weekend (not to mention his salary) supporting a collection of athletes who don’t really know that he exists. Hornsby’s passion sears the pages, his concern and elation  for formations and strategies of his beloved Arsenal eleven are apparent from the first word to the last. It shows how, in a city as teeming and varied as London, you can still create an identity through a community, even if it’s just one that wears the same jersey as you on match days.

Unfortunately for Hornby, and–I imagine–many other fans, the sporting community of twenty years ago has changed. Arsenal no longer play at Hornsby’s beloved Highbury, but at a gargantuan beast of a place called “Air Emirates Stadium” a mile away. The old 1-0 grind out Gunners that Hornsby found an affection for have been replaced by a whirling collection of international stars (I recall Indian students complaining that the numerous French players on Arsenal made it less of an English team than a French one). Hornsby’s sincere admiration for fans of less dominant teams (your Nottingham Forests, Cambridge Uniteds and Wolverhamptons) is positively quaint in an age when, walking into sports shops throughout the country I could only see jerseys for Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City.

Hornby’s book, though academically intriguing is limited by the greatest limitation a sports fan has: sometimes the rest of the world thinks you’re speaking an alien language. Even I, a would be serious futbol fan, was utterly clueless about who on earth he was referring to for most of the book (just as Hornsby would be dumbfounded if I spent pages debating the relative worth of Brendan Harris versus Al Newman–give yourself credit if you know either of those two men). Sports fans thrive on sharing their community with others, but when writing about it, we risk shuttering the doors against anyone who’s not already part of the community. Worse still, those of us who relish the chance to discuss our community’s past are often held captive as time marches on and the community around us changes too. When that happens (as it does with Fever Pitch) you’re robbed of connecting the past to the present and learning what it all means and how it all relates.

I’m a fan, of English literature, and English culture, and English sports. But that doesn’t mean I understand what it is to be English as intimately and personally as those who actually are English. A little help from a smart writer like Mr. Hornby, will always be appreciated. A little more help will always be required.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #15: Rumpole and the Golden Thread

For many more thoughts on how this book relates to touring around London visit my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

For me, Rumpole stories (written by ex-lawyer John Mortimer) will forever be stories about familiarity and comfort, both because those motifs appear repeatedly throughout the series, and because the evoke those feelings within myself. Rumpole the aging defense lawyer is happiest with the Oxford Book of English Verse (which he quotes with aplomb), a stubby cigar and a bottle of cheap wine. As he strives to acquit each and every client he takes on (no matter how nefarious or cold-hearted they appear to be), he maintains his twin beliefs in the golden thread of justice (that we all must be judged as innocent until proven guilty), and that we live in a world of petty indecencies that the educated among us must endure.

Rumpole and the Golden ThreadTo me, Rumpole always sounds like Leo McKern, in large part because I heard the Australian actor reading the stories while bouncing along Montanan highways and byways in our family minivan. But he will always remind me of my father, a big and burly man who giggled at jokes I didn’t understand and got a wistful look in his eye when the poetry started to course its way through the main character’s monologuing. I love the idea of a noble, true, unflappable lawyer devoted to asserting the power of the human mind and the human soul. These are lofty ideas, but they sound every bit as good in McKern’s voice as they did during my father’s lectures. Walking about London you see those same ideals, high peaks, noble, sturdy architecture designed to endure, and in so doing manage to impress. Sure there are new flashes of steel and gleaming glass, but the core of London is as eternal as it ever was, and as consistent as Rumpole himself.

This collection fell a little shy of my normal fondness. Two stories relied on the sort of “aha” revelations by confessing witnesses that feel more at home in an episode of Matlock. One of them sent the titular defender of innocence to a fictional African country that felt more like a hodgepodge of uncomfortable post-colonial stereotypes than good ol’ Mr. Rumpole story-telling. In all they weren’t my favorite Rumpole stories.

But they were Rumpole stories, and they were Rumpole stories that I was reading in the thick of the city, popping up the steps from the tube onto Tottenham Court Road or wandering down the byways past Fleet Street and the Old Bailey. It let me feel right at home in a foreign land, and I expect it will do the same for anyone else who picks the stories up generations from now.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #14: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers

For other thoughts on the New Raj, check out my other blog: The Scruffy Rube

In 2007, I went to Mumbai for the wedding of two colleagues. The ceremony was grand and lovely, the reception was the same, all held in one of the finest hotels in the city. After several hours of laughing, dancing and dining, I hopped in an air conditioned taxi and headed for the airport, off on another adventure.

The ambassador taxi, classically-styled and sleek on the dusky streets and in the darkened night, was often my preferred mode of transport. I could recline on a springy seat, and bounce along peering outside to the tumultuous traffic around me, or the cityscapes and country sides if my view wasn’t obstructed. On the airport road, we raced past walls plastered in advertisements for coke and cars, for skin bleach and kitchen tiles, all the while my eyes were scanning, sweeping up all the memories of the stars and the road and the signs.

But beyond my eyes and behind those signs was the Annawadi slum the subject of Katherine Boo’s award winning best seller Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a superb example of modern nonfiction-storytelling. Readers walk alongside the characters, through the crowded slum lanes and past the sewage lakes, confronting real-life dramas too easily ignored. The Hussein family struggles to move up in the world, not to a mansion, but to a more muslim friendly slum across town. Minor politico Asha hopes to move up, not to parliament, but to the position of slum lord…or slum lady perhaps. Their stories, and the quests of others like Fatima, Manju, Sunil and Kalu tap into an essential human striving, a natural desire to do a little better, gain a little more and to obtain the pride that goes with it.

Boo’s beautiful writing captures identity, style and a culture built on community: even if that community isn’t where we’d expect it. We can undersand sons and daughters seeking the blessings of their families and friends as they prepare for marriage, whether its in a slum or the finest hotel in the city. And we can understand how a garbage picker needs a guide to help and protect them as they start in on one of the few career paths open to them.

The goal of all this is not to guilt the reader but to reveal a place too often ignored. It’s not to shame us all, but to invite us to reexamine our preconceptions. I used to laugh about the “New Raj”, the wealthy foreign elite who used India as a playpen; I freely admit what I couldn’t see in the back of that Ambassador cab: I too am part of the New Raj, but now I am mindful of it.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #13: Cold Fury

If you liked…or heck…if you tolerated this review, perhaps you’ll be interested in my opinions about other things: available now at my independent blog.

Cold Fury by T.M. Goglein has a clever premise for a young adult novel. Granted, clever premises for young adult lit are about a dime a dozen these days. Still give Goglein points for creativity, rather than having a teenager come of age by discovering they are some kind of wizard/demi-god/vampire groupie/werewolf/dystopian rebel, he keeps us rooted in the real world; a teenager comes of age by discovering tehy are some kind of mafiosa.

Sarah Jane Rispoli makes for an interesting heroine, blithely naive about her family life until her parents and brother are taken hostage, she must make her way through Chicago’s mean streets while dodging bullets and bullies.

Sadly the execution of Sarah’s story is disappointing. It starts with the fact that we need 200 pages of exposition before Sarah figures out what anyone even remotely familiar with mafia-movie tropes knows inside of 20 pages.

Squeezing the rest of the book into a slim 100 pages is more than a little aggravating as it forces the reader into a frenetic hodgepodge of action movie styles [chase-chase-chase, shoot-shoot-punch, show down, punch-punch-shoot, chase-chase,-chase, repeat]. Add in your run-of-the mill teenage drama and you have a funky casserole where gossiping girls, swooning over boys, battling bullies and general hormonal angst either seem insignificant to the near-death experience we just read, or make the action sequences supremely alienating for real people with real problems.

Finally there’s Goglein’s stubborn insistence on the concept of “cold fury”, taking a genuine emotional sensation that many people may find familiar, and belaboring to such a point that you want to see it put out of its misery more than you wanted to see Fredo put out of his misery. Adding to that frustration, the effort to turn “cold fury” into some kind of mystical power…as if brutal criminal enforcers ought to be wearing capes and masks too.

Hey…that could be a clever premise: a young high-school student discovers that they’ve secretly always been a crime-fighting criminal! Okay…maybe not…but until I find my own clever premise, I’ll hope that Goeglin and others try to find better ways to execute solid ideas.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #12: Summerland

For this review and other thoughts about underwhelming books check out: The Scruffy Rube, my independent website.

I wanted to like Summerland so very desperately. I had enjoyed Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, I often enjoy young adult literature, I almost always enjoy baseball literature…this was as tailor-made for me as a four hopper to short is tailor-made for a double play.

But sadly, seeing all the separate enjoyable components does not automatically create an enjoyable whole (as anyone who has shared a shrimp, jalapeño pizza with me can attest). Though Chabon is talented, Summerland doesn’t show it. Though young adult literature has exploded into a range of superb genres and subgenres, Summerland doesn’t want to fit in any of them. Though baseball is, perhaps, the greatest thing ever invented (next to hyperbole of course) Summerland doesn’t show it.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the book is that Chabon seems to rely on the natural magic of baseball to carry through, allowing him to flit around the edges of the game with random bits of fairy stories and folklore creatures. Baseball is magic. Few people argue that point as often and vociferously as I do (for more proof of this see my nerdy baseball blog). However, baseball’s magic isn’t as simple as saying the word or alluding to a few bits of play-by-play. The magic of baseball and sports in general (for those who are truly consumed by it) is deeply personal, emotional to its core and needs to be treated with the same depth of description as Hemingway uses for war, or Marquez uses for…well…everything.

Without evoking the personal impact for himself, Chabon seems guilty of that greatest baseball book sin: “using the game to prove a point” (looking at you Bernard Malmud). Baseball is his way into a hyper-magical land of giants, fairies, pixies, sprites, demons and Bigfeet (bigfoots?). That glossing jars hardcore sports/literary nerds like myself. But if he were to take the time and let a lover of the game unfold the sport it might be a better complement to the magical world…or maybe I’m just picky.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #11: The Marriage Plot

For other thoughts on this book, the Monkees and how it all relates to Giacommo Puccini, read my independent blog: The Scruffy Rube.

More and more writers want to have a little something to satisfy everyone.

Jeffrey Eugenides (on the other hand) makes a meal out of not satisfying everyone. Satisfaction, after all, is entirely within the perception of the individual. Happiness, true rapturous happiness, is something reserved for the “happily ever after” endings of fairy tales and romance novels. And therein lies the focus of his most recent work: The Marriage Plot.

Take those peppy, cheery, “and everyone got married and had a wonderful life” stories from the late 18th century and plop it down on top of 1980s American uncertainty. Would Lizzie Bennett really want to find her way into Mr. Darcy’s arms, if employment were a viable option for a young woman? Would Heathcliffe wander the moors–woefully disconsolate–when he could just as easily go to a singles bar?

Eugenides knows the answer (I suspect that 98% of anyone reading this review does too), but he still drags us along through 406 pages of characters discovering what the Monkees once sang and we have all long suspected: “Love was only true in fairy tales”. That’s where Madeleine Hanna, directionless post-grad, wants to live: amid the fairy tale romances of the Brontes, Austens and Eliots of the literary canon. She makes a convenient female protagonist and even has to choose between two distinctive suitors: the Heathcliffian tortured soul (now rightly diagnosed as manic-depressive) Leonard Bankhead, and the aloof, Edmund Bertram (the beloved man of Mansfield Park) stand-in: Mitchell Grammaticus. In the end, Madeleine must decide whether to perpetuate this mash-up of archaic literary living, or to step out into the brave new world of empowered-women and independent living.

I appreciate the mash-up, I do. I appreciate the analysis, the brutal frankness, the irredeemable humanity of our three main characters. But I’m an Austen fan. I’m a romance/true love fan. Heck, I’m a Monkees fan. And though Eugendies presents a solid story to support his argument (one that fans of his writing or cynics of romance will undoubtedly enjoy), I want characters to find satisfaction both in themselves and in true love! I want them to see a face…and become believers.