One-Minute Book Reviews, vol. 11

Hey howdy hey!  I’ll warn you up front, the first review has somewhat of a spoiler.  It’s not that I tell you what happens but more like what doesn’t happen.  In this month’s lineup, two are really good, but two are not so good, and one is okay as long as you can accept a suspense story that never really explains what the suspense is all about.  Oh well.  Read and learn.


Bird Box18498558
By Josh Malerman (2014)

Have I mentioned that I’m tired of post-apocalyptic stories?  I think so.  Have I pointed out being annoyed by first-person present tense?  Pretty sure. So why would I read Bird Box if it’s both and more that I don’t like?  Because my kid, who reads more than most people I know, enjoyed it.  Good enough reason for me.  Unfortunately, as close as I was to enjoying it, Bird Box falls short in the end.

People of all ages, male and female, are going nuts.  Not just nuts but to the point of either murdering others or committing suicide.  Why?  It’s not certain at first, but it seems to be connected to something visual.  People are seeing something that causes them to flip out.  Some have put blankets, sheets, anything over their windows and keeping everyone inside.  Finding food is not easy, or it shouldn’t be easy, but the characters we follow seem to be managing.

Pregnant Malorie and her sister, Shannon, are doing okay while monitoring CNN to follow the events that seem to have spread from the Detroit area to a worldwide event.  When the pregnant woman finds her sister dead, she also finds a corner of the blanket pulled away from the window.  The visual thing is confirmed.  Nobody leaves the house without a blindfold on when possible.  This all seems like a fun premise, and I enjoyed it for a while until a few things got in the way:

First, there are alternating chapters or sections that take place, half of the book being in the “present,” in which Malorie struggles to survive with her two kids after the loss of her sister and ventures out in a boat heading somewhere we haven’t learned about but slowly understand while we read the other chapters that take place back in the “past.”

Second, there’s the “past,” in which Malorie has not yet given birth and finds a safe house with others also trying to survive.  She found the safe house in a newspaper ad because electricity and the Internet seem to have gone away.  If so, then how can anyone still print newspapers?

There are two problems with the alternating “present/past” thing.  First, both are written in first-person present tense.  It’s illogical to have two different time periods but write both in present tense.  Please don’t even suggest that you can – you can’t.  Second, when you do this – and I have done it – you are building suspense that must reveal something.  In this case, what must be revealed is what is happening, what is it that people are seeing that drives them to murder or suicide?  This is called “a contract with the reader.”  You’re telling them something like this:  Follow me. I got something that, when people see it, they’re driven to suicide. Follow me and there’s something really cool at the end.”  If you don’t provide that payoff, you’ve broken your contract, and the reader should be pissed.

Let’s just say I was more than just a little pissed when it was over.

The Feverk2-_b6c66816-ec29-4b17-840f-a02550ac94c4.v1
By Megan Abbot (2014)

I read, or tried to read this book right after Bird Box.  The previous book partly annoyed me because of the first-person present tense, and this was the same.  Strike one.  The stock characters included a good-looking but roguish hockey player and a pretty but plain girl infatuated with him.  Strike two.  Then I started to get the vibe that it was going to become an “anti-vaccine” kind of story.  Strike three.

Girls are getting the HPV, which has been proven to be necessary and effective.  Girls are also having seizures and thrown to the brink of death.  The red herrings as to the causes run rampant, and too much time was spent on the daily doings of teen girls instead of actually solving what the hell is going on.

Abbot has been praised for her realistic depiction of teenagers.  Yeah, that’s great, but I could also get the same thing watching my own kids for a week or two.  Regardless of the realistic depiction, a compelling and fair story is necessary too, but I didn’t find one.

Who I Am: A Memoir51QF5yqiZvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_
By Pete Townshend (2013)

There’s not enough praise I can lend to the autobiography, especially to any classic rock fan.  Let’s start with the bonus, which is having listened to this on audio CD as it was read very sincerely and with occasional humor by the author.  For Townshend to laugh at the funny parts was very genuine and felt as if he were telling me the story in the passenger seat as I listened while driving.

Townshend takes us back about as far as can be imagined and chronologically runs through is life from school boy to Who boy and doesn’t pull any punches.  He tells it like it was, both the good and the bad, leaving me expecting there would have been complaints or perhaps lawsuits from certain celebrities who may not have liked how they were depicted.  The lack of response seems to confirm everything he told.  There isn’t much to do in regards to a review except to recommend it highly and give you a few fun facts from the book:

Townshend was studying to be a graphic artist while playing early gigs with The Who.  Late shows and occasional drug use often caused him to appear very sleepy in class.  His teacher asked what was happening, and Townshend explained.  When the teacher learned Townshend was making more money with the band than the teacher, he advised Pete to quit the artist thing and focus on music.

Roger Daltrey was an excellent trombone player and was often chased by the police for beating people up.

Townshend’s legendary guitar smashing was born from his struggle with masculinity.  However, after watching Jimi Hendrix on stage, he realized anger and masculinity were not partners, and he calmed down the violence.

Also regarding Hendrix, his agent brought Jimi to Townshend before he had performed much with the hope that Pete would be able to teach him a few things.  After watching Jimi play, Townshend told the agent that there was not likely anything he could teach him.  He added that he hoped to watch Hendrix more and maybe learn a few things from him instead of the other way around.

Townshend had a friend, Jim Marshall, from whom he bought amplifiers.  Strictly in an effort to be louder than anyone else, Pete bought several amps and stacked them up, thus creating what was later known as the Marshall Stack, a rock concert staple through the 70’s and into the 80’s.

The guitar windmill, another signature Townshend move, came to him as he watched Keith Richards making a similar motion while warming up his arms before performing.  Townshend used it to warm up but then applied it while playing.

When Townshend first saw Bruce Springsteen, he expected most of his fans would flock to Bruce and The Who would soon become extinct.

Townshend was often providing financial assistance for his bandmates because he wrote most of their songs, which gave him most of the money through publishing rights.  He tried to convince them to spend more time writing songs instead of partying and womanizing.

For those wondering how deep Townshend gets into the allegations against him regarding child pornography, he documents everything carefully and completely. I’m sure you’ll have no reason to believe it was anything other than a misunderstanding and a result of Townshend investigating and attempting to stop child pornography, not enjoy it.

My one criticism is that rarely ever did Townshend ever specify his age during any significant events in the book.  It isn’t vital, but it lends a little chronological perspective.

It’s a great book, and I hope you read it.

In One Personimages
By John Irving (2012)

Though I don’t usually care for first-person narration, it would not be possible for John Irving to write such a brilliantly thoughtful book as In One Person any other way.  What Irving does better than anyone I admire is create what amounts to an entire fictional life, including enough family, friends, and enemies to flesh out not just a family tree but a family forest.

First, a few criticisms:  Irving needs to stop having main characters who are novelists, enjoy wrestling, become teachers, participate in theatre groups, are without a biological father, attend prep schools, dislike Ronald Reagan, and suffer some kind of physical mutilation.  Enough with that.

As for the good stuff, Billy Abbott knows at grade school age that he seems to enjoy looking at boys and men, certain ones at least.  His family includes a grandfather who often portrays women on stage in keeping with the ancient tradition that women not be in theater and female characters are filled by men.  No pun intended.  His first real crush was on a local librarian.  Eventually, it becomes a little more than a crush.  There’s more to it, and all I’ll say is “Called it.”

Billy’s life is a mix of standing up for LGBT rights and defending those subject to intimidation, aggression, and bullying.  Billy is bisexual, not gay, and it is baffling to many around him because most people think of him, and those like him, as either gay or not.  They can’t conceptualize someone enjoying sex with both sexes.  Their ignorance limits them to one or the other.  Their further ignorance limits them more specifically to anti-gay.

The story jumps in time occasionally, but it’s nothing that upsets the flow.  Reading it is like opening a window into someone’s complicated but pleasant life and then opening door after door, window after window, then the closets (no pun intended) and under the rugs.  It gets a little dusty at times, especially when there are side stories that drone on a little too long and a little unnecessarily without really contributing to the overall story, but I supposed there were people who enjoyed them more than I did.

I likely have said this already, but Stephen King describes genre fiction as “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” and literary fiction as “extraordinary people doing ordinary things.”  In One Person is literary fiction.  Billy Abbott is an extraordinary person.  He does somewhat ordinary things, but he does them for reasons and in ways that absorb you to a depth at which you either wish you knew him or believe you already do.  Either way, unless you’re to any degree intolerance of LGBT or any alternative category, you’ll enjoy the life and times all contained In One Person.

At the Mountains of Madnesstumblr_mkjk1xDozx1s792qyo3_400
By H. P. Lovecraft (1936)

You might think I should be ashamed to say I never heard of H. P. Lovecraft until about two years ago.  I might think you should be ashamed if you regard him as one of the greatest science fiction writers who ever lived.  I should preface this by admitting I’m limited to only what is available on audio CD at my county library, important because it limits my choices.  However, I was told At the Mountains of Madness is one of his top five stories.  If this is in the top five, I’d hate to read what didn’t make it that high.

Dr. William Dyer, a geologist at Miskatonic University, tells a first-person account of an Antarctic expedition that comes up the ruins of what appears to have been an unknown civilization.  Instead of the frozen island being exactly that, it turns out that ancient beings had lived there for centuries and might still be surviving there.

I’ll save you some reading and summarize it like this:  Lovecraft does a pretty good imitation of H. G. Wells.  His language and writing style is nearly indistinguishable from the man considered the greatest science fiction writer ever.  For the record – not by me.  The superfluous language does nothing more than drag the story out from a short story to novella territory.

Dyer and Danforth, no, not a law firm but the geologist and his assistant, venture into a frozen fortress and an underground city to find six-foot tall blind penguins and black, blobby masses.  What bothered me more than anything about the story is that roughly 20% is a history of the civilization as told to us by Dyer.  However, there’s a significant problem – he tells us the history based only on his observation of wall sculptures he finds inside the icy city.  The details he tells are not possible to depict through static dioramas.

He tells us what the people ate, how they got food, who their enemies were, how they fought, why they lost wars, where they came from, where they went, how fast they moved, their swimming motion, and countless other things that could not possibly be deciphered from sculptures unless they had hundreds of thousands of words posted next to the dioramas.  It became too much “tell” and not very much “show” whatsoever, and this was mainly because it was written in first person.

Another problem was the assistant Danforth.  He saw something that made him go insane, but at no point did Lovecraft/Dyers reveal what he had seen.  However, he had also hinted that he knew but was afraid we might not be able to handle it.  I could be wrong about that, but there’s no way I’m going to re-read any part of it.  I’ll give Lovecraft another shot if I happen to find anything else on audio CD, but I doubt my conclusion about his writing will be any different.

I know my issue with the writing style is a little unfair because that’s what American literature was like at the time.  However, even with that partially valid excuse, it was an annoying read.

4 thoughts on “One-Minute Book Reviews, vol. 11

  1. Reblogged this on barclaydave and commented:
    Interesting book reviews, Townshend is one of my heroes and is the reason for this reblog. H.P. Lovecraft isn’t easy to fathom and although I’ve never read this book, the summation of Lovecraft echoes my impression. Comments should be posted on the original not this copy.

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