Category: Books & Writing


The Devil in Silver
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

(I received an advance copy of this book.)

Well, what can I say. It took me forever to finish this book. It starts out well enough: a good-hearted thug named Pepper is wrongly committed to a psychiatric hospital, and he encounters an entity that some believe is the Devil. Cool!

But then I got bogged down in the middle of it, where it began to crawl like molasses, as though the author rambles without knowing where the story should go next. Where is the Devil? Instead of seeing more of that story, we get an entire chapter about the life of Van Gogh and several chapters about a unit romance. This might be interesting if it wasn’t so forgettable and meaningless to how the story started. The characters all verge on being quite interesting, but we never quite get to know them well enough to love or hate or miss them if they are suddenly taken away.

I am not sure where this book fits. It’s really NOT horror, though parts of it read that way; it’s not a thriller, as it is painfully slow in some parts and makes no sense in others; it’s a not really a character-driven book and kind of loses track of some of the interesting personae.

In the end, it seems it might not have been the Devil at all. Then, is the book really a commentary on society in general and psychiatric care specifically?

I’m left stumped and rather disappointed. There are glimpses of really terrific observation and writing here, but it’s rather like a first draft, not having been edited for flow and best content. (Yes, I know this was an advance, unedited copy, as evidenced by the typos, missing words, extra words, and so on – but you’d think the STORY would be finished.) There are also disturbing missteps, like the author addressing readers directly many times, jarring them from their story experience.

All in all, this was not one of my favorite reads of the year.

Review: Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe Hill is a terrific, imaginative writer. I read Horns a while back and was blown away by the bizarre nightmare-like quality of the events. It’s easy to see the beginnings of that in this, his first book. He certainly excels—and the story is at its best—when the odd and surreal are at the forefront.

What I love about Hill’s style is that he paints intricate portraits. He provides the reader with vivid descriptions of what’s going on, how it looks, and what direction its going. You needn’t guess how big an apparition is or to which side of it the protagonist is standing, because the author tells you. He has a keen sense of place and continuity, the lack of which can be incredibly annoying and confusing for readers. (This detailed quality of narrative is also something I have always loved about his dad, Stephen King. Maybe Joe inherited it! It’s certainly hard to teach—I know from years of teaching composition and rhetoric…)

The only thing that lacked for me was the ending. “After all, that’s the most important part of the story, the ending” (Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King). Here’s why I was slightly disappointed with it:

[SPOILER ahead]

While dark and violent, the book as a whole is quite hopeful—it’s all about fighting something that seems indomitable, love conquering all, and that kind of shmaltz. Well, the ending got a bit too wrapped-and-tied-with-a-bow for me: Jude and Marybeth live happily ever after, travel the world, and can even be friends with a girl who tried to kill them and is related to the demented dead dude that they narrowly escaped. Hmm.

Another issue with the ending that is that it was wrapped up in that neat bow too quickly and tersely. For example, we get told that Jude has some more musical success, and that he rebuilds another car—all portraying the return to normalcy. I’m not a big fan of being told; I’d rather SEE. It would have been great to witness instead a few scenes of that return to normalcy.

Finally, something seemed incomplete … the story is seeped in the triumph of the human spirit, grounded love, and hope for the future; what better symbol could there be of that than if Marybeth were pregnant at the end? Instead, she and a rapidly aging Jude take a trip once in while and otherwise live in seclusion. Is that all there is after all they went through? But, of course, that’s just my opinion; others might think their life is bliss.

Overall, this is a satisfyingly creepy thrill-ride (on the nightroad) for fans of the macabre. Enjoy!

Review: The Dog Stars

The Dog Stars
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robinson Crusoe meets adult Lord of the Flies

Another post-apocalyptic tale … have we had enough of these yet? Apparently not. Luckily, Peter Heller’s writing style is fresh and engaging and brings readers into the psyche of the main character almost before they know it. From there, it’s an easy trip to perceiving how Hig resists the decline of the small remaining population and retains hope amid the overwhelming losses of both tangibles and his inner humanity. This book is thought-provoking and, as other reviewers have mentioned, quite poetic. It also has a good balance of the solemn and the ludicrous. At times, it moved a bit slowly for me, but that seems to be part of its point — life is often slow when all you have it time. After depressing glimpses of the population that’s left — either sickly and dying or Mad-Max-ish marauders — the unresolved ending provides hope for the future.

Piccadilly Jim (2005) is the third filmed adaptation of the P. G. Wodehouse novel of the same name (1917). I’ve read some scathing reviews, berating everything from the scattered costuming (though I found some of the outfits hysterical and the hairstyles even more so, approaching those in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) to the change in the main character’s motivation and contrition.  I can understand all of that.  Yet I still found this movie extremely entertaining.

The reason I wanted to see this film is because it stars one of my favorite quirky actors, Sam Rockwell. But the movie is very hard to find. I finally caught it on cable on demand. Since I was mainly watching it for the cast, which is a wonderful mix of excellent British and American stars, I was not as critical as some reviewers of the faithfulness of adaptation. But I can understand the chagrin of Wodehouse fans; it’s terrible as far as story adaptation (should basically be labeled “loosely based on”) and pretty muddled as far as the historical period in which it supposedly takes place. That being said, it’s a silly and fun farce, like The Importance of Being Earnest meets Bullets over Broadway, with odd characters, ridiculous situations, and melodramatic scenes.

In addition to Rockwell’s endearing expressions and splendid physical comedy, the rest of the cast is captivating to watch. Tom Wilkinson and Allison Janney shine as Jim’s mismatched father and stepmother, as does Brenda Blethyn as his disapproving aunt.  Rupert Simonian is supremely devilish as the spoiled Ogden. and Hugh Bonneville is dastardly as the German spy.  I found Frances O’Connor a bit tepid as the adventure-seeking, Jim-hating ingenue, but that may be more the due to how confused the character is than to O’Connor’s portrayal. In any case, it was a hoot watching them all interact.

Though it’s far from being a masterpiece, I found this movie distracting entertainment for a lazy weekend.  I’m glad I finally had the chance to see it.

 

B-

Review: Yes, Chef: A Memoir

Yes, Chef: A Memoir
Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m glad I read this book, as I’ve been a fan of on-TV Marcus Samuelsson, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed on several fronts. I think this is the first time I have wound up respecting someone less after reading their story than I did before.

First, I don’t read many (auto)biographical books, but I had read Tony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly years ago and loved it. It was irreverent, humor-filled, gutsy, and eye-opening about so many behind-the-scenes activities in the culinary world. I guess I was expecting a bit more of the same, but this is more of an earnest yet self-aggrandizing recollection of the important things in Samuelsson’s life. There really was none of the shocking or amusing content that made KC so fun to read. IN fact, the shocks of chef’s life were glossed over—for example, it surprised me how a line or two covered deaths of friends and family, while paragraphs were devoted to the use of a particular ingredient.

Second, in the past, I’ve heard chef talk very warmly about his Swedish upbringing. In this memoir, however, the character that developed for me seemed far more interested in pursuing his overriding personal goal (“chasing flavors”) and later identifying strongly with his birth family (despite being just 3 when adopted), regardless of any pain to his Swedish family … or to the child he fathered when he was 20. Although ultimately all the parts of chef’s life seem to come together in a happy ending, and he’s able to “give back” in the way he always planned once he’d “made it,” the way the journey rolls out and the personality that’s painted did not give me any warm fuzzies. Chef writes with more passion about food than he does about the people that made his life possible. There is huge section in which he talks of nothing but the kitchen world until mentioning, “Oh, my father died in Sweden, but I did not attend the funeral since I had to work.” (That’s not a direct quote, of course!)

Third, the story is disjointed at times, not flowing well and leaving the reader guessing about topics that have been brought up and then seemingly dropped, until they reappear much later. This is an issue that a good editor should have caught, as is the lack of “show, don’t tell.” There are characters who supposedly were vitally important in chef’s life, but we’re only told how terrific they were. We don’t see it for ourselves. For example, late in the book, chef talks a length about the man his (Swedish) father was and how that has shaped his own values. Yet the only interaction we can fall back on is the summer vacations described. We don’t see how hard-working, committed, or loving Lennart was; we only can take chef’s word for it.

Finally, for me, the end of the book became a tedious diatribe. For many pages earlier, chef had talked about wanting to erase the color card from the equation of his acceptance into the culinary world. I applauded that and agreed with him that he shouldn’t be referred to as “that black chef” but rather the chef that perfected that particular signature dish. However, by the end, he’s referring to himself as a black chef and championing the renaissance of Harlem and its flavor traditions, though he admits he’d never even made or eaten fried chicken since he was raised on gravlax and herring in Sweden. It was a real disconnect for me; it’s not his history or his struggle. Furthermore, I don’t like politics and try not to get overly involved, aside from staying informed and fulfilling the responsibility of voting (if you don’t vote, you can’t complain!), but I was overwhelmed by the Obama support, which is very scary as I watch the country sink deeper into depression under this administration’s nation-weakening policies. The final few pages of the book are filled with political, societal, and reflective thoughts about the role of restaurants in life, and it gets repetitious. But there seems to be another disconnect, at least for me, how any of the life chef has created for himself has anything to do with his real background.

In my mind, chef did not do himself any favors by publishing this book. The things I had admired about him—the melding of cultures in his life and cooking, the charitable work he does, the many awards and accolades he has worked hard to earn, and the respect he’s earned within the industry—are hardly seen within the covers of this memoir. For instance, on one page, in a couple of lines, he mentions some of the celebrities he’s cooked for or who have visited his restaurant. Why weren’t these stories in the book? Why are they just dropped names? That would have been far more interesting, at least to me, than hearing about the pig foot woman of Harlem.

All in all, this was not so satisfying a read. I’ll continue to follow Marcus Samuelsson’s career and even try cooking some of his fabulous dishes. But reading about his life in his own words did nothing to improve my opinion of him or tech me anything, except maybe wanting to try a few ethnic spice blends.

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