Tag Archives: 2 stars

#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.

#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.

#26: Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher

Begun: 3/31/2011
Finished: 4/4/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 2/5

It is a truth universally acknowledged (or at least clung to with desperation) that if something works once, it ought to work again.  Nowhere is this less true than in the world of novels and writing, where when one author captures lightning in a bottle, a hundred lesser imitations inevitably follow, attempting to duplicate the first author’s success.  It never works.  Okay, it hardly ever works.

Just as Rick O’Riordan went after the Potter audience with his Percy Jackson series, Catherine Fisher is going after the Hunger Games audience with this first book of a series.  Call it the dystopian-future-fantasy genre.  The difference is that the Percy Jackson books are…well, good.  The same cannot be said about this book.

You know how a lot of people will say about a book that they could see everything happening in their heads?  That the writer had a strong visual sense, and a vividness to the writing that made the characters, plot and settings come alive in their imagination?  This is the opposite of that.  If I had to choose one word to describe the writing in this book, it would be vague. Everything is vague.  You know you’re in trouble when some event or situation is being described and you have to go back and re-read to figure out if it’s metaphorical or not.  There is no strong sense of setting or place.  I was never quite sure where we were or what it looked like or the relation in space of the various settings or events of the plot.  I spent the whole book sort of adrift in Stuff That Was Happening, none of which was ever made very clear or striking and none of which invoked a strong emotional response.

The plot itself is pretty vague, too.  A young man, Finn, is a prisoner in Incarceron, a seemingly infinitely large facility that people simply are born inside, live and die in.  For 150 years the population has lived there, wondering if Outside really exists.  Well, it does, and Outside lives under a decree that they must all be stuck in Protocol, being true to the Era, which seems to be a sort of pseudo-Elizabethan time period (although the rich are able to cheat rampantly).  There, Claudia is set to marry the heir apparent to the throne, and her father is Warden of Incarceron.  She and Finn both separately discover crystal keys to the prison that allow them to communicate, Finn vows to escape, she vows to discover the truth about the prison, and stuff happens.  It’s all rather haphazard, the characters are ciphers, and the Big Revelation about the true nature of Incarceron (you knew there’d be one) is profoundly unsatisfying and left me going “Really?  That’s what you’re going with?  That’s the best you could do?”

I didn’t think it was possible for characters in a novel to have so little chemistry with each other, but there really isn’t any life to the interpersonal interactions here and everything’s just fairly flat and vague and without affect.  I’m giving it two stars for creativity and because…well, it isn’t that bad, I guess.  But I can’t recommend it, and I don’t think I’ll bestir myself to read the sequel.