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May 31, 2017

marie antoinette

In many ways reads less like a historical biography and more like Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"—colorful, domestic and comical for much of its length, before jackknifing into horrific violence during its final stretch.

December 6, 2016

becoming steve jobs

Addresses some of the perceived shortcomings of Walter Isaacson's authorized biography while coming up short in its own ways.

June 29, 2016

the leftovers

Another masterful beige fugue of suburban middle-class anxiety from Tom Perrotta. In anyone else's hands, using a Rapture-like event as a jumping-off point probably would have resulted in some seriously pulpy, paranoiac prose, but here the premise is explored in ways that are both surprising and sensible. The novel loses some momentum about halfway through but the final chapter gave me chills.

March 11, 2016

cleopatra

I picked this book up (well, downloaded it to my Kindle) in 2012, quickly read the Cleopatra-Julius Caesar chapters, then didn't look at it again till just this past week, whereupon I finished the remaining Cleopatra-Mark Antony chapters. Historical figures, especially ancient ones veiled in myth, make for tricky subjects. Even the most skillful biographers are forced to survey them as if through a telescope—like storms on distant planets, rendered cool and static across a vacuum of eons.

February 26, 2016

2061

Typical Clarke: Fitfully brilliant, visionary at the edges, but burdened with a sort of avuncular avoirdupois along its midsection.

July 2, 2015

the martian

Setting aside my initial reservations about its rudimentary dialog, dad-joke vernacular and prose that sometimes reads like a series of standardized-test math word-problems, I genuinely enjoyed this novel. The absence of monsters, alien viruses and time travel loopholes is refreshing. I think Andy Weir has the potential to become a kinder, more optimistic Michael Crichton—or a less mystical Arthur C. Clarke.

March 13, 2015

the man in the high castle

Despite having watched countless adaptations of Dick's works over the years, and read authors who've clearly been influenced by Dick, this is the first time I've actually read one of Dick's novels. (That's a lot of Dick for one sentence.) It was Amazon's recent pilot for a Man in the High Castle series that spurred my interest in this particular tome, its Wikipedia entry promising an alternate twentieth century where batshit-triumphant Nazis are colonizing Mars and Venus while the equally triumphant but more circumspect Japanese are covertly attempting to stop them from nuking the regions of Earth they haven't already decimated. The novel doesn't entirely live up to that gonzo description, as Dick is more concerned with the metaphysical implications of the I Ching and having his characters dryly debate philosophy (when they aren't quarreling like lovers from Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night). When Dick does write action or delve into hard science, he does so cleanly and with vigor. The mindfuck ending is both appropriate and a bit of a letdown.

December 18, 2014

celebrity detox

Some years ago a friend gave me a copy of Christopher Ciccone's "memoir" Life With My Sister Madonna as a joke. I decided to leaf through its pages before consigning it to some obscure corner of my library. Two hours of noncommittal leafing later I realized I had accidentally read the entire book. I approached Celebrity Detox under similar circumstances. O'Donnell's account of her controversial first stint at The View is interspersed with childhood recollections and broad ruminations on fame (repurposed from an earlier, aborted manuscript that was intended to bookend her eponymous late-nineties talk-show run). The confessional tome is surprisingly light on gossip (imagine if someone had declawed Joe Eszterhas' Hollywood Animal) and covers a very specific and ephemeral moment in popular culture; nevertheless, O'Donnell's go-to ghostwriter, Lauren Slater, manages to shape the various free-verse blog excerpts and longer narrative anecdotes into something resembling a professional and publishable whole. That may be faint praise but it's more than I was expecting—which is also paradoxically less than I was expecting, since there isn't a whole lot of celebrity score-settling or axe-grinding to rubberneck at.

September 8, 2014

the vacationers

Breezy comedy of manners is occasionally sour but mostly agreeable—although the ending is so tidy it's practically gift-wrapped. This is the kind of novel a movie studio options envisioning a Nancy Meyers-style romp but ends up adapting into something leaden and gawky like The Family Stone.

July 5, 2014

the story of a happy marriage

Patchett's deeply personal essays are crisp and incisive in a way that reminds me of Joan Didion; but whereas Didion's candor has always been alpine, almost glacial, Patchett's is warm and welcoming—which should come as no surprise to readers of her bright, big-hearted fiction.

June 28, 2014

console wars

Harris manages to write in a manner that's incredibly ponderous while also seeming rushed, recalling an eleventh-grader pulling an all-nighter. For a tome that clocks in at nearly six hundred pages—and feels twice as long—there's remarkably little breadth or context beyond the narrowly chronicled rivalry between Sega and Nintendo. I remember the landscape of the 16-bit console gaming era being considerably more varied than what's documented here. (Somehow the Atari goddamn Jaguar rates more mentions than the NEC TurboGrafx-16, which is never even acknowledged.) There is also Harris's problematic over-reliance on imagined conversations: sizable portions of the text are just clunky made-up expository dialog, sometimes lazily plunked down in screenplay format. Incidentally: I've never in my life read a reputably published book with this many typos. I lost count after the misprints entered the double digits. Lots of then/than there/their/they're-style mistakes that suggest dictation-software errors; however, I don't even know what to make of the excerpt from a Businessweek article that contains a bunch of typos not present in the original article (I was so astonished that I actually Googled said article just to double-check). I mean, shouldn't that simply have been a copy-paste kind of dealie? Did anyone at HarperCollins even read, let alone proofread, this thing? Has Gremlins 2 bedlam befallen 195 Broadway?

November 30, 2013

the circle

Eggers' latest novel falls somewhere between Michael Crichton's Disclosure and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in its literary ambitions, juggling episodes of glossy corporate intrigue with passages of gleaming social(-networking) satire. In its inability or unwillingness to commit fully to either, it ends up running perhaps a hundred pages long, almost all of that excess polemical—and the final ten pages, especially, tantamount to a bone-dry civics lecture.

November 18, 2013

2010

Clarke's stolid, avuncular brand of science fiction holds up surprisingly well for the most part—his dorky, Gene Roddenberry–esque digressions about space-age sexual mores notwithstanding.

April 10, 2013

this one is mine

In many respects, Semple's first novel reads like a rough draft of her second and more celebrated one, right down to the cardinal pairing of a drifting, privileged wife and a saintly, successful husband. The author's television-background flair for dialog is evident here, although the narrative is more haphazard and her characterizations not as generous. The casual mingling of real brands and imagined events that energized Bernadette feels forced and guidebookish here. ("Violet arrived at Kate Mantilini before one so she could score a booth. The busboy brought some of their fabulous sourdough bread.") There is also a curious preponderance of Los Angeles street names that recalls Saturday Night Live's Southland satire, "The Californians." Where the novel succeeds, it overdelivers, but where it falters, it's a slog.

January 2, 2013

a hologram for the king

The prose is frequently duller than I would expect from Eggers, although it contains some beautiful fragments. The characters are equally listless. The story is a fitful mingling of The Sheltering Sky and Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe novels, lacking the former's cold clarity and the latter's vitality. The three hundred–odd pages lurch by.

December 21, 2012

penumbra's 24-hour bookstore

Robin Sloan combines the relaxed technological fellowship of Douglas Coupland's Microserfs with the deceptively low-key topicality of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. There's an ingratiating sliver of Joshua Ferris in there too, near the end.

December 2, 2012

the age of miracles

If Roland Emmerich's disaster epics are self-parodies, then Karen Thompson Walker's end-of-the-world coming-of-age saga may be read as a full-circle parody of those parodies: an earnest, human-scale downsampling of global catastrophe. In chronicling the ordinary dangers of adolescence amidst supernatural upheaval, the novel shares some DNA with Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (albeit sparing its heroine the latter's sexual violence). Walker's fondness for simile and lyrical cataclysm also recalls Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead. The end result is a decent stab at science fiction wrapped in a pretty good sketch of teenage girlhood.

November 4, 2012

where'd you go, bernadette

Maria Semple assembles a Jennifer Egan-worthy gallery of characters, observes them with Tom Perrotta's eye for casual detail and imbues their improbable journey with humor, emotional authenticity and breezy, beach-read momentum.

June 21, 2012

fiasco

I'm not entirely sure how this book wound up on my Kindle. I presumably have Ambien CR and Amazon 1-Click to thank for that. Author James Robert Parish is some sort of entertainment journalist and quickie celebrity biographer; he covers his subject with the haphazardness of a high-schooler pulling an all-nighter. This is a shame. The history of Hollywood's biggest flops is a colorful one and deserves a better account than this repetitive, unevenly fact-checked collection of run-on sentences, awkward syntax and Wikipedia-lite analysis.

November 12, 2011

steve jobs

Walter Isaacson profiles the late Steve Jobs the way an iRobot vacuum cleaner navigates a room: he bounces off obstacles (usually his subject's intransigence); goes bounding in unpredictable directions (oscillating between chronological and thematic chapters); and covers some ground compulsively (Jobs' personal and emotional hygiene) while curiously sidestepping milestones (the ill-starred Apple III, the wirelessly networked iBook)—amounting to an authorized biography that doesn't always feel authoritative. A notable exception occurs near the end, during a pensive section where Jobs contemplates his own mortality, and the quiet enormity of an eventful life cut short finally speaks for itself.

August 20, 2011

a visit from the goon squad

I'm leery of composite novels—their fits, their spurts, their stops and starts—but Jennifer Egan writes with a unifying vision and startling clarity. Even the fabled PowerPoint-presentation chapter transcends gimmickry and packs an emotional wallop. The only real misstep is the cyberpunk-lite epilogue, an overweening codicil where the author does far too much telling and not enough showing.

July 7, 2011

state of wonder

With its corporate intrigue and tropical setting, Ann Patchett's feminist Heart of Darkness reads more like a literary take on Michael Crichton's Congo. The heart-wrecking final chapter, however, is vintage Patchett.

January 15, 2011

little bee

Author Chris Cleave is a well-meaning observer of the human condition but he has a tin ear: His characters speak in clunky, confessional tones—and they don't so much converse as give each other lectures. Meanwhile, the narrative jumps around chronologically in what feels like a contrived attempt at intrigue but results chiefly in the story foundering between Nick Hornby-esque Brit-com and jarring Flannery O'Connor-ish reversals—with melodramatic results.

August 16, 2010

my hollywood

Mona Simpson's saga of women and children and Los Angeles is recounted in alternating chapters by a television writer's wife and her Filipina nanny. Their trenchant observations about marriage and parenting build to a moving conclusion that's marred ever so slightly by a Hollywood ending that feels like the second act break from a Katherine Heigl movie.

May 25, 2010

pirate latitudes

Crichton reportedly pecked at this novel off and on for nearly thirty years before the completed manuscript was posthumously discovered on one of his computers. As such, it's a competently researched and adequately constructed set-piece delivery mechanism that favorably portends the film adaptation Steven Spielberg, also reportedly, already has dibs on. The nautical yarn begins to fray around the tenth or eleventh climax, and late-period (i.e., quadruply divorced) Crichton's penchant for punishing his token female characters rears its ugly head ("Emily, you are a bitch and a whore but you are not, I’ll wager, a murderer," one character magnanimously informs his adulterous wife—incidentally one of the few women in the novel who isn't an actual prostitute); but compared to the howlingly mean-spirited and terrible Prey and Next, Pirate Latitudes isn't such a bad swan song. Suggested pairing: tepid Virgin America absinthe.

April 29, 2010

the privileges

Jonathan Dee's examination of the titular privileges, and the wealthy family that enjoys them, is refreshingly humane in its survey and nuanced in its portraiture. The novel's final third unfortunately veers into manufactured suspense—scenes literally cycling like the climax clockwork of a Michael Crichton thriller—till everything comes to an abrupt and thudding conclusion that feels unnecessarily deterministic yet unsatisfyingly incomplete. The good parts, however, deserve notice. This is seventy percent of a great novel.

June 22, 2008

the pixar touch

Having read a reasonable number of Apple and Disney corporate histories over the years, I found myself largely familiar with author David A. Price's documentation of Pixar's story-so-far, given the digital animation studio's longstanding residence at the intersection of the aforementioned companies' millennial trajectories. This familiarity lends a warmed-over air to Price's account, an impression exacerbated by the obvious fact that the author didn't have direct access to most of the story's major players: much of the text reads as if it were culled secondhand, albeit skillfully, from readily available sources of business journalism and various internet clearinghouses. In some instances, Price will allude to seemingly interesting episodes in the Disney-Pixar-Apple narrative without elaboration—whereupon a simple Googling by the reader of the pertinent terms will yield comparatively more colorful and informative rundowns. The lack of intimate insight into the workings of Pixar also results in a portrait of its principal functionaries that occasionally deviates from the established public-relations depiction of a creative utopia—hinting at intriguing patterns of ego and pettiness—but subsequently fails to build on those glimpses. The absence of any real inside dish is most glaring in light of the book's release having obviously been timed to benefit from the marketing ramp-up to Disney-Pixar's WALL∙E, which Price makes no reference to whatsoever. To be fair, unlike a lot of his Disney-Pixar-Apple-chronicling peers, Price seems to have a genuine fondness for and familiarity with the companies' products, which comes across in the ease and accuracy with which he tackles the relevant technicalities and business machinations. It's just a shame the end result is so flatly rendered.

June 3, 2008

personal days

Ed Park's contribution to the office lit genre invites comparison to Max Barry's Company as well as Joshua Ferris' Then We Came To the End—sharing the former's mind-fuck-as-occupational-hazard anxieties and the latter's distinctive use of the first person plural narrative voice in its early goings. With respect to quality, it falls between the two—head and shoulders above Barry in terms of the polish of its prose and the sophistication of its observations but not entirely sustaining Ferris' fit and finish. Park strikes out on his own in the novel's stream-of-consciousness finale, achieving an almost noirish tone that's simultaneously gripping and just a bit heartbreaking.

April 14, 2008

run

Ann Patchett's latest novel, set against the backdrop of a particularly snowy and eventful winter day in Boston, is par for the author's course, examining issues of class, race and gender, among other topicalities, with expected elegance and generosity. If the novel finally fails to scale the operatic heights of lyricism set forth in Patchett's previous novel, 2001's magic-realist fable Bel Canto, and the coda feels ever so slightly forced and artificially sweetened, it's only because the subject matter this time around, and the thoughtful characters Patchett has created, seem a bit too sensible for the gentle excess of idealism that concludes the tale.

December 2, 2007

the clothes they stood up in

November 30, 2007

the uncommon reader

November 29, 2007

the lovely bones

November 26, 2007

little children

November 24, 2007

the abstinence teacher

A simple, humane novel about people seeking answers and finding them in other people.

September 5, 2007

spook country

May 6, 2007

the tourists

The book is dedicated to Bret Easton Ellis—an early warning. The narrative is riddled with inauthentic observations, awkward flashbacks and soapy, obvious plot twists.

May 3, 2007

the bell jar

Girl, Interrupted by way of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

April 8, 2007

you don't love me yet

Judging from this self-indulgent alt-rock novel, writing about music is indeed like dancing about architecture.

March 21, 2007

then we came to the end

Joshua Ferris' elegiac workplace seriocomedy captures that magic hour between the implosion of the dotcom era and the explosions of 9/11. The latter events are never explicitly mentioned among the story's myriad antics and ruminations, but the specter of innocence redefined and priorities redirected nevertheless brings depth and nuance to what could have been just another throwaway corporate chronicle.

December 10, 2006

next

The usual Crichtonian miasma of misanthropy, misogyny, dry exposition, drier polemics and outrageously misapplied technology. If for nothing else, worth reading for the inevitable poo-flinging scene involving a transgenic ape passed off as a developmentally-disabled human second-grader. That said, this is a badly written novel even by the author's lax standards. The too-numerous storylines cycle so wildly that it's difficult to keep track of which cardboard character said or did what to whom in any given reading.

September 18, 2006

out of my head

The usual irritants of Gallic literary convention aside, this compact French thriller is a legitimately gripping tale of botany, mistaken identity and betrayal. An elegant page-turner.

September 4, 2006

2001

A recent reviewing of the Kubrick opus impelled me to pick up Clarke's novel; and while his telling lacks the director's signature atmospherics, the author's crisp grasp of science is expectedly illuminating and visionary, despite the story's somewhat ragged metaphysical ending. The usual caveats apply concerning Clarke's sturdy prose, stolid dialog and square characters.

June 30, 2006

the fountains of paradise

Space-elevator yarn—or ribbon, to borrow the novel's idiom—is your typical visionary Arthur C. Clarke specimen hobbled by the author's typically wooden characters and dialog. Nevertheless, the ideas alone are worth the slog, and it's a quick read despite the intermittent and unnecessary forays into South Asian mysticism.

June 22, 2006

disneywar

James B. Stewart's account of the Eisner years at Disney isn't as dishy as I would have liked, frequently glossing over the inherent cattiness of the entertainment industry in favor of dry, repetitive boardroom-minutes recaps; and the author is embarrassingly, squarely out of his depth whenever he attempts to discuss pop culture (poor fact-checking abounds); but the petty-sociopath-pathological-liar portrait of Eisner that emerges is nevertheless comprehensive, if somewhat lacking in editorial insight.

May 27, 2006

jpod

What passes for cute in your twenties is often tragic in your forties. In that respect, Jpod doesn't so much revisit Microserfs as it does rip that earlier novel off—poorly—and that's a real tragedy. Douglas Coupland clearly had a couple of good yarns in him, but over time his biting irony has calcified into bitterness and his acute bead on pop culture has lapsed into a lazy litany of hyphenated consumer references. Jpod is so disposable it should come with an expiration date. I won't even get into the author's tedious attempt at "flexing" by writing himself into the story—which I suppose is meant to operate on some level of parody but exhibits at best a deluded sense of self-awareness. Dull-de-dull-dull. On the plus side, the text is so larded with badly typeset pictographic garbage that the book may be consumed in a couple of noncommittal shittings. Oops. Sittings.

April 30, 2006

the last tycoon

Even discounting its unfinished narrative, Fitzgerald's final fragment of a novel suffers from the usual deficiencies of his non-Gatsby oeuvre—or perhaps, more aptly, the inability of his non-Gatsby work to sustain the author's moonlight-cold voice. To wit: the chronology of events is problematic; the writing is frequently fussy and mannered; and the characters are as staged and distant as mannequins. There's passing beauty and occasional incisiveness here, particularly in scenes involving the inner workings of the film biz, but the story as a whole, or subset thereof, never gels.

April 17, 2006

bel canto

Ann Patchett's musical saga of Latin American guerillas and their political hostages manages to be magic realist without veering into surrealist camp. If you're willing to suspend disbelief and accept that a world-famous soprano can sooth a bunch of ornery insurgents—and that genuine love can blossom despite obvious Stockholm Syndrome overtones—the graceful prose and (perhaps overly) picturesque imagery will go down real nice-like.

April 15, 2006

the safety of objects

This uneven collection of A.M. Homes' short stories begins bangingly with the deadpan tale of a stagnant married couple who rekindle their spark by lighting up a crack pipe. A subsequent vignette about an abducted boy who induces a sort of buyer's remorse in his kidnapper is somewhat less effective but nevertheless intriguing. The rest of the stories are frequently too similar in their quietly desperate neurasthenia, eventually blurring together in a single high-pitched whine that's all posturing portraiture and not enough plot.

March 27, 2006

prep

When it's good, Curtis Sittenfeld's prep school picaresque is ingratiatingly so—by turns nostalgic, observant, funny and heartbreaking. When it's not so good, the story becomes grating, its neurotic heroine insufferable, its supporting characters somewhat arbitrary and occasionally inscrutable. Nevertheless, this is a solid first novel—deeply felt, literate and, finally, rewarding.

March 18, 2006

girl with a pearl earring

Tracy Chevalier's debt to Vermeer is as plain as her simple, evocative prose in this imagined account of the artist's complicity with his subject and muse. The author's unspoken, and perhaps unintentional, debt to the writer Guy de Maupassant is equally profound, if more subtly summoned by the story's gently sustained sense of life's ironies, justices and injustices. This is a book best enjoyed, like some good paintings, in a single sitting.

March 13, 2006

the brief history of the dead

Lyrical and slight, The Brief History of the Dead combines a magic-realist meditation on the afterlife with intriguing hints of science fiction, but the story ultimately flounders in the wake of author Kevin Brockmeier's endless similes and metaphors. Lovely as the imagery is, the omnipresence of the word "like" begins to whine like tinnitus. The penultimate chapter is so choked with purple, belabored visuals that it's practically one unicorn and a rainbow away from reading like a precocious teenage girl's diary. And the conclusion is an abrupt copout, period.

March 10, 2006

the deal

Author Peter Lefcourt charmingly acknowledges the datedness of this 1991 novel in the reprint's new foreword, but he doesn't touch on the usual timeless limitations of tomes about Hollywood—i.e., the unconvincing savoir-faux-familiar name-dropping and the informed cynicism and contempt for the industry at odds with a predictably unrealistic storyline and deus ex machina-tooled characters. Nevertheless, it's a light, upbeat read, and there are some decent laughs to be had at the expense of the typical parade of slutty starlets and irascible executives. Personal peeve: a lame romantic sideplot involving two thinly-written principals that does nothing but eat up whitespace.

February 4, 2006

jennifer government

Max Barry's would-be futuristic satire reads like a failed screenplay, replete with generic action sequences populated with dumb, spiteful characters. Its setting is thinly conceived and curiously dated, as if the hyper-capitalist day-after-tomorrow it presents exists only to excuse the author's unconvincing social speculations. He certainly doesn't seem inspired by the time-shift in any operational way. The novel's views on technology and media are so retrograde that, apart from its improbable corporate contortions, it may as well have been set in the early Nineties. The belabored, fake surface-cool is further undermined by idiosyncratically dull, repetitive prose and a persistent, almost dysthymic over-reliance on deus ex machina that would be laughable if it weren't so irritating. This is a bad book. Readers who think otherwise should probably steer clear of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, William Gibson or Neal Stephenson, whose effortlessly superior explorations they would likely find upsetting or alienating.

January 31, 2006

company

As long as it sticks to situation comedy, Max Barry's Coupland-lite corporate satire succeeds as a reasonably unchallenging in-flight diversion. Unfortunately, laughable-in-the-wrong-way sex scenes, lazy character arcs and preachy apparatchik posturing eventually sink what might have been a breezy, disposable trade paperback. Most embarrassingly, Barry's tendency to overuse stock descriptive phrases, carried over from his earlier works, is distracting and suggestive of slack editorial oversight.

January 29, 2006

monster

At least judging from this somewhat lazily, if entertainingly, written production diary of the 1996 Pfeiffer-Redford sudser "Up Close & Personal," the late John Gregory Dunne had less in common with his wife, Joan Didion, than with his tediously self-promoting brother Dominick. Catty score-settling, name-dropping and inexcusable factual lapses (movie titles incorrectly recalled, productions attributed to the wrong studio) aside, and the lamentable absence of Didion's brand of stately dry-ice observation notwithstanding, Monster is a quick, acerbic industry survey. Readers seeking more substantive dream-factory insight would do well to read The Devil's Candy by Julie Salomon.

January 4, 2006

pattern recognition

Gibson's familiar idées fixes—passing references to Cornell boxes, nodal points, lateral thinking and the like—survive his inaugural foray into the present tense intact. The added currency also allows him to wax hypertextually on topics as varied as terrorism, Russian oil, globalization and viral marketing. If Gibson's tendency to let his characters exposit lengthily loses some of its energy in the absence of a novel future setting, his peerless ability to channel corporate intrigue, consumerism, semiotics and Japanese culture into gleaming prose and brutal, beautiful set pieces is as vital as ever.

December 26, 2005

hollywood animal

It's a shame Joe Eszterhas and Russell Crowe never crossed streams. The resulting throw-down of wrong-headed self-righteousness and noble savagery would have been manful and awesome and totally not gay to behold. That imaginary near-miss notwithstanding, there's enough Social Darwinist star-fucking and petty industry score-settling between the covers of Eszterhas' doorstop to offer some schadenfreudelicious pickings if you're willing to wade through the sneakily index-less, haphazardly time-shifting free-associative text. The chapters recounting Eszterhas' childhood are helpfully labeled "flashback" and may be skipped entirely. (PS. Joe, if you ever Google this, please don't punch me or even threaten to do so in a sternly worded, manually typed letter. I will weep like a girl and we'll both be embarrassed.)