#38: Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland

Begun: 5/10/2011
Finished: 5/14/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4/5

This was the first book I’ve read by Susan Vreeland, but this, her latest novel, is just one of a large pantheon of works by her and other authors that might be called “fictionalized history.” A specific historical person or event is borrowed and a fictionalized tale is woven around it and what is known about it through historical records. One could argue that “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” started this, but many others have followed.

In this case, the historical person of record is Clara Driscoll. Until very recently, no one knew her name. But through the discovery of her correspondence with family, it was learned that she and the other women who worked in the factory of Louis Comfort Tiffany were largely responsible for the design and manufacture of the stained-glass lampshades for which Tiffany became so famous, and which are the most enduring and well-known legacy of his studio. Vreeland spins a meandering, episodic tale of about fifteen years of Clara’s life, from the time she was first widowed through her second marriage, between which she worked for Tiffany (who refused to employ married women). The book doesn’t have a clear plot arc, rather it unfolds in a series of episodes and happenings in the life of Clara and the cornucopia of colorful people that fill her life.

Too many people, actually. The book suffers from character overpopulation, especially where Clara’s Women’s Department is concerned. So many girls and women pass through her department that it’s hard to keep them straight or even develop any attachment to any of them. The men in her life (of whom there are quite a few as well) are given more development. Vreeland hits us with too many people right up front as Clara moves into the boardinghouse where she was to live for fifteen years. A few people stick out, including the trio of gay artists Clara befriends and the stoic Englishman who seems at once kindly and mysterious, but my head was spinning with a few too many new names. Less breadth and more depth might have better served the narrative.

Clara is a very appealing first-person narrator. Casual, conversational, just self-aware enough so as not to be annoying but still blithely sallying forth when we can see her flaws. She spouts off a few too many monologues and speeches, and the book also contains just a little too much description of the genesis of each lamp idea from flowers or gardens or aquariums. They become repetitious. Also, it seems that no man, gay or straight, can help but fall in love with Clara despite her age (relatively advanced for a single woman of that time) and her self-described plainness.

This was one of those books where I could really see the strings. Captain Exposition helpfully drops in from time to time to info-dump us into submission, and Vreeland has an annoying fondness for name-dropping prominent events and people of the time. Witness the scene in which Clara and two of her girls are having lunch and Clara points out a writer at a nearby table who has absolutely nothing to do with anything just so she can say “You know, he goes by O. Henry!” It’s the literary equivalent of that “This Picasso guy will never amount to anything” scene in “Titanic.” Pointless but for us all to give a chuckle at the historical irony.

And yet I really enjoyed the book despite the fact that I’m picking it apart. I felt connected to Clara, if less so than to anybody else in the story, and I cared about what was happening to her. I wanted to find out what would happen next. So what else is important?

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#37: Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady

Begun: 4/30/2011
Finished: 5/10/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 2/5

I find myself in the frustrating position of having to review a book that I did not particularly enjoy but having absolutely no clue how to explain what I didn’t like about it. I can’t think of a single thing that the author could have done differently that would have improved the book for me. Except written about something else, perhaps.

It isn’t that I don’t know much about chess. The book isn’t particularly chess-intensive. It isn’t that it’s badly written, although Brady’s objectivity is a tad suspect. It isn’t that the subject matter isn’t interesting. Bobby Fischer’s wack-ass life is certainly fodder enough for a good read. I just didn’t enjoy reading about it. It was boring. It was frustrating. It was increasingly off-putting.

The fact that Fischer was not a particularly likable person, ever, doesn’t help, and by the end of his life he’d become an extremely UNlikable person. While Brady attempts to explain his behavior and give rationales for why Bobby was the way he was, it’s hard not to just view him as a total bastard, a diva, and a demanding egotist. Not that the biographies of such people can’t be interesting, in fact I’d venture to theorize that difficult people make for more interesting copy, it’s just that I didn’t find this biography interesting. I couldn’t tell you why it didn’t work for me. I can only tell you that it didn’t.

#36: The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

Begun: 4/21/2011
Finished: 5/05/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 2.5/5

Average. Average, average, average. I didn’t dislike this book. I didn’t like it. If the color beige could be a book, it’d be this book. This is the Muzak of books.

Three sisters return home to the small college town where their professor father and housewife mother live because their mother has cancer. Well, two return, one never left. Cordelia, the flighty hippie, unexpectedly pregnant, and Bianca, New York urbanite fired for embezzlement, show up with tails between their legs while Rose, the overbearing One Who Handles Things, resists the chance to move to England with her fiancee. And throughout the book they bump up against each other’s idiosyncracies, meet and interact with various men about the small town, deal with their parents, and Learn Important Life Lessons.

Yawn.

The “quirky” bit is that their father’s an obsessive Shakespeare scholar who speaks to them in quotes from the Bard, as they also speak to each other. Um…yay? It doesn’t mean much to the story. It might just as well have been quotes from Poe or the Bible or the movie “Fight Club.” It’s all fairly unobjectionable until about the last thirty pages when suddenly the author erupts into paroxysms of cliche as each sister has Meaningful Realizations about herself which are exhaustingly detailed in the internal monologue of the book. The parents are given little to no characterization and everyone else in the book are flat cookie cutouts, especially the men in the sisters’ lives, who all seem to be saints (except one). There’s nothing remotely “weird” about these sisters. Not even “slightly off.”

I gave this two and a half stars instead of two because of one thing: a unique point of view technique I’ve never seen before. The story is told in typical third-person-limited point of view (the most common one in modern fiction) but the point of view is multiple. It’s as if the book is told from the point of view of The Sisters, as a unit, and treats them all equally. The book talks about “our mother” or “our childhood” even while all three sisters are in camera. It’s interesting. Pity it wasn’t used in the service of a more interesting storyline. It did hold some local interest for me in that the fictional Barnwell College, in Barnwell, Ohio, is described as being an hour from Columbus (where I live). Not that anything unique about Columbus is mentioned. Rose is spoken of as teaching as Columbus University (which doesn’t exist).

Changing horses midstream

The pitfall of doing a project like this is that it is a little bit confining.  It’s hard to be as casual about one’s reading when you have such a concrete goal in mind.  If I read 100 pages of a novel and I’m just not feeling it, it’s difficult to set it aside as I’d normally do, because I need that book for the tally and I’ve already invested however long it took me to read those 100 pages.

Well, today that’s exactly what I did.  I had begun The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, a book that came highly recommended.  I gave it 112 pages.  Nothing about the book was engaging me in the slightest.  Perhaps I don’t respond well to multicultural literature.  Perhaps I don’t give a crap about Diego Rivera.  Perhaps I found the narrator so utterly featureless that I…well, for whatever reason, the thought of reading the entirety of its 500 pages was just beyond the pale.  So I said, to heck with it.  I’ve got a whole stack of books here I’m dying to read, why should I waste my reading time on a book I’m not enjoying?

It helped that after a very productive week in which I read two different books in one evening each, plus I have another one 2/3 read that I could have finished in a few hours, I’m ahead of the game.  I’m up to 35 books read and I’m ahead of schedule, so I felt I could afford the time I wasted on The Lacuna to be nonproductive.  Sorry, Barbara.  Not this time.

I’m also eyeballing the Philip Roth aspect of my 2011 book project.  While I am doing very well for my 100 book goal, I’m a tad behind in my Roth goal.  I’m only on my 7th of his books, roughly 1/4 of the way through his 29-book output, so unless I step it way up, I won’t make it.

My project has always been twofold: to read 100 books in 2011, and to read every book Roth ever wrote.  I’m considering divorcing those two goals.  I will still read 100 books this year and I will still read every book of Roth’s in order, but perhaps I don’t need to read all Roth’s books in 2011.  I could stretch that aspect of the project into next year as well.  It would give me more longevity on the name of this blog, that’s for sure!

#34: Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Begun: 4/27/2011
Finished: 4/27/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 5/5

loved this book. Full stop. Loved. It. My initial reaction, that it’s just like Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, was echoed right there on the jacket blurb (which I had failed to notice before beginning).

Caveat: I have not read Walls’ famous memoir The Glass Castle. I understand that it’s largely about how dysfunctional and neglectful her mother and father were. Walls started out intending to write this book about her mother’s childhood on a ranch, but ended up writing about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a remarkable character. Spending early childhood living in a dugout house on a river in Texas, at fifteen she rode 500 miles to take her first teaching job. She took herself off to Chicago on her own to get a diploma, returned to take more teaching jobs, broke horses, and with her husband ran a 160,000 ranch, where their two children were born.

Walls describes the book as a “true life novel.” She has gathered information about her grandmother’s life (she died when Walls was eight) from family oral history and discovered that most of it was corroborated by other sources, but where it conflicted, she went with the oral history. She writes the book first-person in her grandmother’s voice, and what emerges is an intriguingly intimate account of this woman’s life. Some things are gone into in detail, others are skimmed over, as it is with memory and stories told about the past. The life Lily led is itself fascinating enough. She is a complex narrator, resourceful and independent, but with flaws. She is severe and even cold with her children, pragmatic to the point of being mercenary, and short-tempered. I’m guessing most people found her intimidating, difficult and forbidding, but I found myself wishing I could have met her myself.

#33: These Things Hidden, by Heather Gudenkauf

Begun: 4/26/2011
Finished: 4/26/2011
Format: Trade paper (library)
Rating: 2/5

I was considering a moratorium on books that have those “Book Club Questions” printed in the back. But then I remembered that The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a masterpiece and one of my favorite books, had them, too. Perhaps the type of question ought to be the deciding factor. The Tartt questions were deep literary analysis, as opposed to the sort of questions you might find in the short-answer section of an eighth grade English test.

This book is the print equivalent of a Lifetime Movie of the Week. No, that might be an insult to the good people of the Lifetime Television Network. It’s bargain-basement Jodi Picoult (although there are those who might contend that Picoult herself is the bargain-basement version). It zipped through my visual cortex and skimmed across the surface of my consciousness leaving so little impact that in a week I will probably have forgotten that I read it (which I did in one evening).

Hailing from that perennial book-club favorite genre of Dysfunction Porn, this book is about fallen Golden Girl Allison, a 21 year old parolee just released from prison after having been convicted of A Terrible Crime. And yes, Gudenkauf spends the first seventy pages or so playing that “Let’s keep referring to the Terrible Crime and its consequences without actually saying what the Terrible Crime was, because that’s the only way I know how to hold your interest.” I thought, dear God, please let this not be drug out for the whole book, which it isn’t, but information about the crime in question is (predictably) distributed piecemeal, in dribs and drabs, as Allison deals with the Central Casting characters around her: her formerly pushy parents who’ve disowned her, her traumatized sister who won’t speak to her, her tough-as-nails lawyer, the kindly halfway house owner, the Earth Mother bookstore owner. A token effort to give these people some personality has been made but no one has any resonance as a real person.

Another issue I had with it is the level of mother-baby-child worship that was present, which to me seemed excessive. It almost bordered on fetishization. That could just be my perspective; I’m the least maternal woman ever so I don’t really get that, but this book was so fixated on babies and children and adults, even teenagers, and their obsessive devotion to them that it was a little icky to me.

The book is written from several points of view and every time she switches, Gudenkauf feels it necessary to start a new chapter (instead of just inserting a section break) resulting in a million tiny-ass chapters, some less than a full page, each one headed with the name of the person whose point of view we’re enjoying. Claire! Brynn! Allison! It’s point-of-view via Mouseketeer roll-call.

And golly gee, things build to a climax. Gee whillickers, a bit character zooms in to set things into motion. Oh my goodness, there’s are Echoes of Past Trauma being replayed before our eyes. This might as well be a paint-by-numbers. I cared about no one and nothing in this book.

I’m giving it two stars purely because I reserve the one-star rating for books I actively dislike, in other words, books that engender a negative emotional response. This one simply engendered no response at all.

#32: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Begun: 4/6/2011
Finished: 4/25/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 5/5

You know when you’re reading a book, a long one, and you get to that point where you’re just like “Well, crap. I just have to push on through to the end, now.” I got there last night with Justin Cronin’s The Passage, and as a direct result I only got three hours’ sleep.

Some books are agreeable sorts. They ask for some time with you, for you to share some emotions or thoughts as you read them. This book? Not enough. This book would like very much to take you by the throat and do some breathplay on you while playing experimental German techno music in the background. It would like to barge into your kitchen and start baking something crazy, like bacon avocado cookies. It would really appreciate the opportunity to play Red Rover with the other books because those would be some busted-ass wrists on the other team. This bookdemands an investment. A big investment. This book thinks you ought to make an informed decision and that eye protection should possibly be worn in this area.

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Any book of this length (750+ pages) is a big investment. The only question, do you get a decent return for it? For me, the answer here is “hell yes.” When you’ve just read 700+ pages and are still eyeing the diminishing thickness of pages to be read with dismay that it’ll be over soon, that’s a return on your investment. Even when you’re well aware that this book is the first of a trilogy. The Passage was my designated Big Ass Novel for April, the book I get to spend the whole month reading. It was also my Nighttable book, but after three weeks I wasn’t very far because nighttable reading tends to be sleepy time for Lori. I was only 150 pages in by last Friday, so I decided to take some weekend time and really attack it. By Sunday night I was up to page 550, and last night I picked it up intending to read another fifty or so but then Book decided that it was Not With the Having Of That and that I’d be finishing it tonight, encroaching dawn notwithstanding. For this reason, today I am functioning on three hours’ sleep. But it was worth it.

You can’t read any press about this book without hearing how much like The Stand it is. I can’t deny the comparison but the criticism to me doesn’t stand up (heh, sorry) because any book that is post-apocalyptic bears some debt to The Stand. That book is to post-apocalyptic novels what Tolkien is to fantasy-quest novels. To paraphrase a higher authority than me, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien is to fantasy what Mt. Fuji is to Japanese art. It’s either in the foreground, the background, or you can’t see it at all because you’re standing on it. That being said, there are some elements shared withThe Stand that seem a bit too similar, right down to a wise old black woman (two of them, actually), a climactic nuclear bomb, and a journey to Colorado. There are also things that seem reminiscent of “The Walking Dead” (the graphic novel, not the TV show) including a group of survivors living in an abandoned prison and a ring where outsiders are sacrificed/executed.

Basically, if you took The Stand and compressed it down, that’s the first 250 pages of this book, about which I must also say that Misleading Book Jacket Blurb is Misleading. The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is the journey of one little girl and her former FBI agent protector as they navigate the post-apocalypse. And it is. For the first 200 pages. Then the book takes a significant time leap and veers off into totally new territory.

I suppose I ought to say what it’s about. Basically, your typical Government Project Gone Awry has been trying to use a weird virus found in some bats in an Amazonian jungle to engineer immortal supersoldiers, using twelve death row inmates as test subjects, but the virus instead transforms them into “virals,” superstrong creatures kinda-sorta like vampires (although this term is rigorously avoided) who are sort of a combination of the energetic-rage-zombies of “28 Days Later” and Nosferatu. Also they glow in the dark. The virals escape and start with the killing, “taking up” (infecting) one person for each nine they just kill, and within about a month the entire Western hemisphere is overtaken. Six-year-old Amy Bellafonte, the final test subject (the one surviving Amazon project research guy thinks the virus would work better on young people), survives and becomes a sort of superhuman hybrid but not a blood-drinking viral. FBI agent Brad Wolgast hides her in an abandoned summer camp for a year until a nuclear blast kills him (kinda).

Fast forward 92 years to one surviving FEMA colony in California populated by the descendants of children who were evacuated via train at the end of the epidemic. They live in a walled compound with blazing nighttime lights to keep the virals away and have their own society. Here’s where you are asked to make an investment, because Cronin spends a good deal of time here on worldbuilding and character backstory for an entirely new cast of people, but it’s worth the time because these are the folks we’ll be with for the rest of the book and, presumably, the others. Trouble starts with two things: one, the batteries for the lights (powered by wind turbines) are dying and cannot be fixed, so soon the lights will go out for good, and two, Amy appears in the camp. She is 100 years oldish but appears about fourteen. A band of colonists sets out to find the lab Amy came from and have wacky road trip adventures involving virals and the Army and armored trains and the Republic of Texas.

Cronin rewards your patience in setting the stage for these events by making this journey from California to Colorado jam-packed with action, which he’s damn good at conveying — not too much detail nor too little — and some really great plot twists. He’s not afraid to endanger and even kill major characters so you never get too comfy. He’s a little too dependent on the chapter (or section) ending cliffhanger, which we come back from several sections later to find that what was about to happen didn’t happen at all. He also employs an authorial device I hate, namely the Omniscient Narrator Interruption to say things like “Peter was soon to learn just what Alicia was capable of!” and such, but that’s pretty infrequent. The handling of point of view is spotty and sometimes unclear, but overall the writing is serviceable. I didn’t notice it, which is my criteria for decent writing. Nothing jarred me out of the story with a Speedbump of Bad Writing.

Another reason to invoke The Stand is the writing itself, actually, which is more than a little reminiscent of King’s. It’s all about story, story, story and anything NOT story is given the enthusiastic heave-ho. The book is a little light on character, although we get to know some of them quite well, and Cronin does well with the women, i.e. they are as varied and distinct as the men and about equally represented. Still, given these criticisms, the book more than delivered on the promise it made me for my investment of about 400 pages before things really got going, which is to make those first hours worth my time in the end.