by John Updike

i realize this is meant to be a modern classic, but dudes, this is a weird little novel.

into what would otherwise be a poignant and well written character study, Updike has entwined strange tendrils of Greek mythology.

the opening scene is exemplary of this trend; we have our main character, a high school teacher, shot with an arrow by one of his students through the leg and trailing a bloody hoof.see, he’s a centaur, apparently. once he reaches aid in the form of a mechanic able to cut the arrow, he goes back to class and struggles to complete his lecture under the jaundiced eye of his in-school nemesis, the vice principal.

the point of making any of these characters mythical creatures is completely lost on me and the execution seemed inconsistent from both a psychological and practical sense. a centaur that drives? how many legs do they have again?

to my mind this choice distracted from what would have otherwise been a solid, if somewhat gray, snapshot of a father-son relationship captured over the course of a handful of wintry days.

not bad per se, a little bizarre. perhaps just not to my taste.

Ballantine Books (1996), Paperback, 320 pages

(Bantam Spectra Book) by Neal Stephenson

i’ve had quite a few people prod me to read this novel and finally over one weekend, i did. thank you prodders.

i consider myself tech fringe; by which i mean while i am not a tech person myself, so many of my loved ones and friends ARE that i am relatively comfortable with broad concepts, and a fair amount of jargon. i’m pretty good with jargon. as such, i found this book easy enough to immerse myself in despite its rather techie bent.

set in an indeterminate future where capitalism has finally unraveled the fabric of government and where society calls upon “franchulates” to provide the services and protection we would normally expect to receive from an administrative body. not strictly dystopian in feel, there is certainly a simultaneously chaotic and invasive feel to the way society has drifted. there are not, precisely speaking, laws to provide the structure one typically encounters in culture. however, there are certainly mores and norms which seem based on whatever sub-set of values each person chooses to buy into. in the most literal sense.

written in a rollicking and energetic prose, this is a novel for the intellectually curious and spiritually unbiased. for interwoven into a wry and playful examination of the effect of technology and consumerism on human society, is a reflection on how spirituality can be fundamentally invested in these expressions of culture. how we find transcendent meaning in technology, and how this can easily be corrupted. i found it utterly refreshing to see this subject taken up by an astute participant in a socio-techological dialogue. attempting to convey a cerebral experience of modern life with room for the unexplained and mystical is remarkably difficult, and often leaves one unable to confidently communicate understanding of either. this work does so convincingly and with a deft command of language.


By Steven Millhauser

this was a strange little book all around. charged with an understated but tangible fervor for capitalism, architecture, and sex it hinted ineffectually at the themes and thrust of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”

and though it purports to be the “tale of an american dreamer” no dreams emerge from the imagination of our main character. it seems young Martin Dressler can do no wrong. everything at which he sets his hand is wildly successful. as such, he seems to have no character or depth. he has standards to which he adheres, but they seem to have no real origin or function.

as he sails through his strange life, Martin mounts new heights of success and attempts increasingly ambitious undertakings along the way. yet all of this happens without any apparent motive force driving his actions. it is almost as if things vaguely occur to him, he does them, and then they are wildly successful for no apparent reason. it is a singularly uninteresting way to watch events unfold.

near the end of this novel it takes on a strangely esoteric tone which is totally out of step with all that came before it in the book. we foray from a fairly believable 19th century landscape into an improbable past where nothing we have been led to expect seems true any longer.

even the eventual ruin of the main character leaves one feeling ambivalent at best. since triumph came so easily, it is hard to muster much sympathy for his fall. his unswerving devotion to his last venture seems strange and without real purpose, except to see to the end of his unbridled success.

i read this book in the course of one evening and found it almost utterly without merit. had i had something else at hand, i doubt i would have bothered to finish it.

my initial moments reading this book were filled with eager anticipation and mild confusion. i owe this both to the skill of this first-time novelist at capturing the particular and compelling timbre of a corporate creative environment with uncanny accuracy, and the peculiar manner which he employed to do so. once i was able to comprehend the mechanism of the “first-person-plural” narrative voice, and stopped waiting for the narrator to identify as a singular individual, rather than what i like to call “the global we” i was better able to settle to the meat of the story.

never having been a corporate creative type, i do count some of my closest friends among them, and i can easily sense the rightness of Ferris’ portrayal of this group of people and their surroundings. the petty alliances and betrayals, the contempt and dependence grown from too much familiarity, the currents and eddies of myriad social and occupational entanglements; all of these resonate with a genuineness and authenticity one can judge even without having experienced it firsthand.

Ferris deftly captures the crawling unease amongst the characters caused by the drift of layoffs and quiet corporate calamities mounting around them. the responses of this group to these pressures are fascinating and absurd. they turn on each other with a mixture of scorn and compassion that is singularly convincing. moreover the array of individual reactions are fascinating, unpredictable, and utterly compelling. all this told with the unabashed lack of objectivity in vaguely stream-of-consciousness meandering, complete with temporal shifts, repetitions of scenes and exchanges that perfectly depict the storytelling style of the consummate office gossip.

amusing and well-told, fundamentally interesting and poignant in its honesty.



The Good Thief

Hannah Tinti

Publication: The Dial Press (2008), Hardcover,

336 pages Publication date:2008

This review is of the as-yet unreleased “The Good Thief”, a novel by Hannah Tinti and published by The Dial Press. It becomes available in the fall of 2008. I obtained an advance copy via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. Thanks to The Dial Press for its participation in the program as well as LibraryThing for making it possible.

This novel represents the first full-length offering from the author Hannah Tinti. It shows, from its very beginning, some fair promise. Yet though many elements of this book revealed this potential with intriguing language and vivid imagery, the hand of a first-time novelist seems all too apparent as the course of our tale unfolds.

We follow Ren, an orphan who begins in the care of the monks of St Anthony’s. They seem like a harmless bunch, if less than totally compassionate to the plight of their charges; those children not adopted are conscripted into the military and rather forcefully consigned to this fate whether they will it or no.Young Ren stands out even amongst the other orphans as an especially difficult case since he is missing one of his hands. We are treated to a poignant scene of one of the brothers discouraging a kindly seeming farmer from taking Ren away due to his infirmity. “You won’t want that one.” This seems, forgive the unavoidable pun, rather heavy handed. Ren seems fairly resigned to his condition, having known no other, but his fear of being left unchosen manifests in a tendency for petty theft which sometimes earns him the lash.

Then one afternoon, the miraculous happens and Ren is claimed by a stranger purporting to be his uncle. The fellow asserts the missing hand is proof that this lad is in fact the child he seeks. The monks let this character have off with Ren with nothing more than a faretheewell and a copy of a book Ren had been idly inclined to swipe during the interview between the monk and supposed long-lost uncle. Once the pair leaves the orphanage it becomes apparent rather quickly that Ren’s “uncle” may not be exactly what he claims, and that indeed he is a bit of a reprobate. His interest in the orphan child seems to be rooted primarily in the sympathy Ren’s missing hand can arouse in the common passerby. More, he is delighted by Ren’s apparent aptitude for theft since, as it happens, our good man Benjamin Nab (cringe) happens to be quite the burglar himself.

From this still rather engaging beginning, things somehow go astray. What at first seems to be a novel capable of interesting scope and questions of morality against a backdrop of desperation instead becomes a tale narrow in the extreme and focused to a rather distracting degree on all things grave; by which I do not mean serious.

We are shuttled in time and place between a boardinghouse, a graveyard, and a mousetrap factory, with the sometime addition of the hospital where the remains our heroes have begun to unearth for profit are to be delivered. The intensity with which this novel focuses on the details of graverobbing make it not for the faint of heart, and yet rather than seeming truly creepy or eerie, instead just feels awkward. Like lingering too long over a consoling embrace.

Ultimately I feel this novel loses its focus, or rather, that its focus becomes diffuse and something it ought not have been. If what we were looking for was an amusing tale of orphan scamp makes good, many of the detours in the tale were unnecessary and distracted from that vein. Likewise if we were seeking the heartwarming tale of orphan scamp finding his true family, we are not presented with an account that really wins our loyal attention. Finally, if we were meant to be engaged in the story of orphan scamp learning the trade of graverobbing, we could have done without the heart-of-gold-makes-good-finds-his-family element.

A not unworthy effort for a first novel, it would have benefited from a clearer sense of identity and a lighter touch.

Rating: ◊◊½

Tuesday Thingers

Today’s topic: Recommendations. Do you use LT’s recommendations feature? Have you found any good books by using it? Do you use the anti-recommendations, or the “special sauce” recommendations? How do you find out about books you want to read?
i will say, i wanted this to be a feature i would get a lot of use out of. i liked the idea that i could access this list at the library and pick up things i might not otherwise know about. i alternate between knowing exactly what i’m looking for when selecting books, or being totally paralizyed by indecision and overwhelm.
but despite this, i’ve not yet gotten anything on the list of recommendations. i think i tried to find some that looked interesting based on the critera they listed for mentioning it; “Why this is recommended” but the ones i was primarily intrigued by weren’t available at my library at the time.
also, lately i’ve been toying with various book-selection methods that are almost a psychological experement of sorts. i’m interested in what makes me want to read a particular book. so far i’ve tried:
  • jacket/cover art- i don’t read any of the reviews or synopsis, just let the title and the cover art speak for the book.
  • taking out random books and reading the first chapter.
  • going to the shelf where my favorite books are and turning 180 degrees and taking something from the shelf opposite
  • selecting subjects at which i am terrible and trying to find a humanizing book about it.

my results have been hit or miss, but to some extent i find the time spelunking in the library as much a worthwhile pursuit as the payoff of an excellent read. and i have found a few gems this way…

i have it. bad.

this was reinforced last night when i picked up my latest random acquisition from the library; a book called The Rain Before it Falls by Jonathan Coe. this book is not only enjoyable to read, with a breathtakingly lovely premise and resonant singing prose, but it is a pleasure to touch and feel and hold in my hands. i am a great lover of the tactile merits of books, and this one is a beauty. a hardback from the library, i can’t strip it of its cover like i am wont to do left to my own devices, c’est la vie. it is otherwise delightful. taller and narrower than a typical hardback, the pages are an ever-so-slightly thicker than usual weight of paper finished in an uneven pseudo hand hewn edging that is a true delight to take hold of when the time comes to turn the page; soft and fringe-y. there are no heading numbers on the chapters, and i find this attractive for its spareness. the overall physical presence of this book is as lovely as what is unfolding in its pages, and that is a rare treat indeed.

and i realize this is something i haven’t thought about very much, but that i have definite opinions about. i like the variety of surfaces a hardback can offer; some are smooth and satiny in their paperstock, others have a more clothlike exterior with a nubbly texture that provides a satisfying grip. in terms of bed-friendliness (i must read myself to sleep at night or not get there at all) i prefer a stiff cardstock cover paperback of the type that are becoming more popular. they are larger and more enjoyable to hold than the standard paperback novel (though these cant be beat for one-handed-splayed-fingers reading while doing something else). they are also nicer to look at on the shelf; which i will admit has caused me more than a few times to spend extra money on the edition with the nicer spine and cover. silly, but a powerful motivator for me nonetheless.

listening to NPR the other day they were discussing the merits of various electronic reading devices and that same inner librarian i was mentioning yesterday shuddered at the notion of giving up a paper book to be held in hand. the weight of the text in my fingers, smell of ink and paper, the sound of the page as i turn through from one to the next; all these add in small but crucial ways to the pleasure i take in  discovering a book in full. i suppose one could say i want to know a book. in the biblical sense.

Today’s topic: Book-swapping. Do you do it? What site(s) do you use? How did you find out about them? What do you think of them? Do you use LT’s book-swapping column feature for information on what to swap? Do you participate in any of the LT communities that discuss bookswapping, like the Bookmooch group for example?

Oh my god. My inner librarian is quivering in terror at the very prospect. i am a HOARDER of books, and only RARELY a lender of same. and usually only to particularly trusted fellow book lovers. not getting books back upsets me immensely.

on the other hand, i tend to be hard on books myself; i’m a spine breaker, a spiller of food, a taker of books into the bathtub and poolside, a ditcher of cover flaps. so i’m pretty reluctant to borrow books either since it requires me to be more careful than i want to.

i like the idea and see it as a good thing to do, but i feel about it much the way i do about public transportation: i’m in favor of the idea for everyone else, but only resort to it myself in desperation.


by Claire Davis

This novel had a sinuous way about it similar to its eponymous creature. Quick to slip away from scrutiny too intense or a light too bright being cast upon it, it still made for an enjoyable read.

The prologue of this book may be its very best bit: haunting, beautiful as a reflection on the transitory miraculous nature of love. That being said, there is plenty more worth coming across in the rest of the novel.

Nancy is our main character and a biologist by training. She makes her way through the canyons pursuing snakes and cataloging their behavior: a task that would send most people screaming into the night, but perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who has one, many times she prefers a nest of serpents to her own family.

There is a strange and ineffable dynamic between Nancy and her younger sister Meredith that develops as a thread of narrative focus. Though their interactions seem authentic and resonant, I think the story would have been better served by a deeper exploration of the sibling relationship between these sisters.

Apart from Nancy’s sister, there is also Ned, her husband. Blythe and harmless on his face, there is still something vaguely disturbing about his apparent lack of depth. When we begin riding around in Ned’s mind rather than observing him externally, stray thoughts begin to confirm something is amiss. Ned’s behavior devolves over the course of the tale and many of those niggling doubts about him we feel initially are justified.

I find it a little difficult to quantify what it is I think this novel is “about”; it seems part never-to-be-solved-mystery, part character study, part portrait of family dynamics. All of these elements appear, but none takes a dominant place as the clear theme of the tale. Despite this diffuse plot tendency, I still found the writing to be engaging and enjoyable to read.  Bonus points for vivid descriptions of Hells Canyon and environs.

St. Martin’s Press (2005), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 288 pages

by Stef Penney

picked this novel up off a table piled high over at the costco. as i am well aware, the origins of a book are not always indicative of  their quality, in this case, i will say i was happily surprised.

set at the twilight of the 19th century in a remote Canadian village, the tale follows the murder mystery that unfolds in the tiny community. a local trapper is found dead and shockingly scalped and the village is rocked by the evidence of this violence in their midst.

perspective in this novel switches from first person in the entity of Mrs. Ross who discovers the body initially, to a third person voice following various other important players in the drama. the inner life of this trapper is inexorably revealed during the course of the investigation, and everyone in the community is touched in some way by his life or eventually, his death.

to my mind the most compelling character in the novel is our Mrs. Ross and feel the story suffers somewhat from leaving her behind. it seems, in what i interpret as an attempt to keep the book from being typified as a frontier murder mystery cum romance, the author might have sacrificed some measure of consistency. chapters which give us an eye into the minds of the other characters are interesting and absorbing to varying degrees, but the way we go from being inside Ross’ mind to merely observing these others seems a strange choice which interferes with the flow of the tale.

gripping vignettes describing the ruthless Canadian winter and the effect the elements have on the action makes the environment its own character. depictions of landscape and weather have a remarkable immediacy. language is used effectively and deftly throughout the novel.

some minor complaints about a tendency to stray and leave some points raised but answered persist, but since this is a first novel, i think on the whole, they are easily overlooked within the context of an otherwise starkly satisfying story.


Simon & Schuster (2007), Hardcover, 384 pages

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