In the 1920s, Cora volunteers to chaperone young and willful Louise on a trip from Kansas to New York City so Louise can tryout for a distinguished dance company. It’s a time of intolerance—of alcohol, of jazz, of short skirts, of bobbed hair—and Cora who (mostly) agrees with this intolerance tries to instill morality into Louise. However, it is Louise Brooks (a future famous silent film star) who ends up teaching Cora a thing or two about tolerance and acceptance.
Most of the book follows their journey to and in New York City. Cora, whose orphan beginnings are shrouded in doubt, is searching for the truth of who her parents were. In her investigation in the city she meets some interesting characters that help open up her worldview. While most of the Kansas storyline is dull, author Laura Moriarty does a fairly succinct job of providing the pertinent background information needed to create these fully realized characters.
She also does a great job capturing the spirit of the era. It is very easy to picture New York at this time with her descriptions of the atmosphere and character of those who reside in it. And the New York section of the book is by far the most compulsively readable part.
However, the book strays into tedium in the last 100 pages. After the reaching the revelations we’ve been expecting our characters to attain, the story drags out. Moriarty jumps through time to provide quick glimpses of what happens to the character in the next 60 years of their lives. Aside from a heartfelt reunion scene between Cora and Louise, there is little of interest in the snippets of scenes here and there; and they feel like a repetitive rehashing of Cora’s expanding change of morals that we have already learned from the first part of the book.
Moriarty has crafted a great story and setting, a fully imagined world. It is definitely a treat reading parts one and two, but avoid the third part. Instead, put down the book and you can easily imagine how well things might work out for the characters after seeing what choices they make in New York.
Posted by xoxojk on June 27, 2012
The critical darling The Artist, is a silent film about silent films. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius wanted to pay homage to that era of Hollywood and he certainly succeeded. The film follows two actors in Hollywood during the late 20s as they deal with the rise of talkies in a world that has been silent.
The plot itself is fairly simple. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the big silent film star at Kinograph Studios. But, with the creation of talkies, he finds himself quickly replaced by “fresh meat” like rising star Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). George attempts to make his own silent film to prove that people still want them, but it inevitably fails when it’s released the same day as Peppy Miller’s new film. The stock market crashes; and George, finding himself unemployable, gives in to despair (despite the fact that Peppy tries to help him). The story itself feels holds few surprises, but it is strong enough to hold the film together.
However, it is the style of the film that the director was more concerned with. He wanted to use as few intertitles as possible, so as not to distract the audience. Thus, the story could not be overly complex. And, with a limited use of intertitles, he often uses them for comedic effect. The symbolism in the film, though, is a bit overdone. George’s failed silent film ends with his character sinking in quicksand, an all too literal portrayal of the depression he sinks into thereafter. But Hazanavicius utilized other symbols in the film to better effect. He incorporates sound into a few scenes for dramatic and symbolic effect that work wonderfully. The take the audience (and characters) by surprise and add a special dimension to the film that the original silent films could’ve never had.
The acting in the film was truly great. Dujardin does a wonderful job as George. He really strikes you as the movie star he is playing. His comedic scenes in the first part of the film are done splendidly and make a nice contrast for his dramatic work in the later parts of the film. In most of his scenes, however, his acting is overshadowed by the adorable Jack Russell terrier that follows him everywhere (and later has a very important role to play). Bejo’s Peppy grows as a character as well. She almost forces her way to the top, and then tries to use her influence to make George happy. There’s a yearning for George you can see in her eyes. There are plenty of sparks flying between George and Peppy in the beginning of the film, but somehow they get lost in the drama that comes later and they never seem to regain their full romantic force. The romance in their relationship is brought up at first and then never fully resolved, which is the only really disappointing aspect of the film.
Overall, the film appeals to a wide audience, and it is one of those films about Hollywood that reminds you why you fell in love with movies. I was neither surprised nor disappointed that it took home the Best Picture Oscar.
Posted by xoxojk on June 27, 2012
The line, “I’m a big fan of the lie of omission,” (said by possible wife killer Nick) perfectly sums up author Gillian Flynn’s writing in Gone Girl. Her prose style is compulsively readable and enjoyable, but the reader is quick to learn that not everything is as it seems. Flynn has packed enough unpredictable twists and turns into this genius novel to keep any reader full engaged to the very last page.
The story opens with Nick discovering that his wife has gone missing. Quickly the police are involved and all the clues seem to point to Nick as the culprit. As we follow Nick’s attempts to find his wife (did he really kill her?), we also follow her diary entries from the previous years that tell the story of her and Nick’s relationship. Amy comes off as a great wife who has recently been stuck in a souring relationship (but did Nick really kill her?).
It’s not long before we realize that we can’t trust Nick (he tells us in almost every chapter that he’s lying about things), but there is also something that doesn’t quite sit right with Amy’s narrative either (and when you start part two, you’ll know why). Flynn has created two deeply flawed characters that you concurrently sympathize with and despise.
Though this novel is classified as a mystery/thriller, it’s truly a character-driven story about a married couple at the darkest time of their lives. Flynn’s pacing and plotting of the story are perfect, always giving enough to advance the story but without revealing everything. She also has a gift for description that’s concise and incisive.
This book is definitely one of the greatest books of 2012. I highly urge all of you to read it.
Posted by xoxojk on June 26, 2012
The titular Red Book is Harvard’s way to keep the alumni connected to each other. Every five years, graduates enter updates about their lives in anticipation of meeting again for their upcoming reunion. This book finds our four heroines (graduates of the Class of 1989) meeting up for their 20th year reunion.
You would think a book about four women who were the “best” of friends in college would involve lost of fun adventures with the gang, but this novel rarely puts all the women in the same room together on the weekend of their reunion. We never get the sense of their chemistry as friends (there are not Sex and the City diner sex talks or Desperate Housewives poker games). Instead, author Deborah Copaken Kogan weaves complicated and indulgent stories about four women who just happen to know each other.
All four women are facing cliché unhappiness in their lives, and the setting of their great, old school of Harvard teaches them to refocus what’s left of their lives on being happy. Addison is a spoiled housewife and wannabe artist in a loveless marriage who faces bankruptcy. Clover (the stock African American character) has rushed into a marriage with a man who doesn’t want to have kids, so she steals sperm from her college ex-boyfriend. Mia has a happy marriage to a famous film director and is raising four wonderful children, but her yearnings to return to the stage have cast doubts on her life choices. And plain Jane (a Vietnamese girl adopted by an American family who now lives in Paris), struggling with her mother’s recent death from cancer, learns that her mother, deceased husband, and all other men in her life have cheated on their spouses.
The first third of the book is a pure recounting of each character’s entire lives up to the point of the reunion. The book continues to weave remembrances and excessive inner monologues into the story to distract from the lack of action. Kogan uses these inner monologues to address her thoughts on current events—if you consider 2009 current—and various stances on morality and mortality. Though there are some great moments when Kogan’s critique of pop culture resonates, they are mostly lost in the convoluted storytelling.
It could be that I’m just too young to sympathize with these older women (it’s been 2 years since I graduated college, not 20), but nothing about these characters feels genuine. They come off as contrivances for a clichéd story about following your dreams. The entire plot of the book can be found in the opening and ending Red Book entries by the characters (don’t get me started on how the three annoying characters have happy endings and the one character I managed sympathy for gets a crapshoot of an ending).
The Red Book tries to be so much that if fails to be anything at all.
Posted by xoxojk on June 21, 2012
Anna Davies debut novel Wrecked has an intriguing premise. After losing her friends and boyfriend in a tragic boating accident, high school senior Miranda develops a connection to the mysterious stranger who saved her life. The stranger, Christian, is a betwixtman—an almost merman—from Down Below—the enchanting world below the water—who is charged by the evil witch queen Sephie to kill Miranda since she was supposed to die in that accident.
This story, loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, had plenty of potential, but Davies squandered it all. She spends too much of the book following the depressed Miranda as she skulks around Whym Island blaming herself for the accident (and being blamed for it by everyone else). She spends too little time developing Christian and his inner turmoil between killing Miranda and loving Miranda.
When they met, I hoped the story would pick up; but the novel’s elements had already begun to bore me. The book is full of forgettable characters that keep popping up solely to cause Miranda more grief. And when the book reaches its climactic finale, Davies spends so little time with the buildup that it fizzles instead of exploding.
Buried in Wrecked is a decent story, but Davies fails to fully draw it out. Teenagers, for whom the book targets, would most likely find few faults with it; but the book lacks any appeal for older audiences. Hopefully her next endeavor isn’t such a wreck.
Posted by xoxojk on June 18, 2012
Protagonist Dell Parsons states in the very opening lines, “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Author Richard Ford lets the reader know in advance that this book isn’t about the actual events so much as the psychology surrounding these crimes. It’s a bit of a risky move, because Dell’s slow and introspective narration makes many of the book’s passages excessively tedious.
Dell’s parents are the ones who, in an act of desperation, rob a bank (and not very successfully). Dell spends the first half of the book describing his family and how they reached this point. Once his parents are in jail, Dell is whisked across the border into Canada by a friend of his mother’s. She delivers Dell to her brother and unintentionally puts him in the care of yet another criminal.
But Canada—a boring and unremarkable title—is not about the action of the plot but the motivation behinds those actions. Some of Ford’s writing is reminiscent of John Irving (especially his 2009 novel Last Night in Twisted River) with many instances of foreshadowing and repetition of phrases. Ford also presents some very intriguing thematic elements (that I’m sure book clubs will get a kick out of discussing). But the naïveté of Dell—as he addresses and examines those elements—grows tiresome, especially when it’s combined with future Dell’s narration and justification.
There are definitely some gems in Canada, and the overall themes in the book give it a place in literature. It just requires too much trudging through the duller parts of the book to make this a truly spectacular novel.
Posted by xoxojk on June 14, 2012
Edgar Kellog has quit his job in corporate law to pursue a career in journalism, which lands him in the lower Portugal region of Barba. Barba has landed on the world map after the aptly named terrorist group SOB (Os Soldados Ousados de Barba) began blowing up planes and malls in the name of Barban independence from Portugal. Edgar is hired as a foreign correspondent to replace the infamous Barrington, who has vanished. Barrington, Edgar quickly learns, is the kind of man that Edgar has despised his whole life. The charismatic man whom everyone adores not matter what, who lives in a bubble of popularity and good luck. Aside from reporting on the political turmoil in Barba, Edgar is also charged with discovering what became of Barrington.
In Lionel Shriver’s new novel (a blessedly less cerebral book than We Need To Talk About Kevin), she has created a vividly tumultuous world of political terrorism and irreverent journalism that ably represents our contemporary world. The novel was originally written almost ten years ago; but, due to current global events, was forced to wait for a more appropriate time to publish a book that looked upon terrorism so irreverently. If you’re tired of hearing (or reading) about terrorism: fear not. This novel casts a disparaging look at terrorism and the journalism—and journalists—who perpetuate it.
In Edgar’s quest to uncover the truth about Barrington’s disappearance, he uncovers far more than the bargained for. Faced with a choice between revealing well-kept secrets and inevitably returning to obscurity or perpetuating those secrets and becoming the popular boy he so yearns to be: Edgar faces a dilemma.
The stakes escalate at a perfect pace, making the novel a truly engaging read. Shriver balances the political drama with Edgar’s personal struggles flawlessly. The reader never feels too drudged down in Portugal’s issues, and Shriver’s tone makes it humorous when it could be oppressive. Edgar makes for a likable protagonist, even when doing despicable things. His past grudges, which he wears like a heavy backpack, are ones that many can sympathize with; and his sharp—if derisive—view of his environment is easy to agree with.
As she did in Kevin, Shriver has written another engaging novel that is nearly impossible to put down. She is a master of plot and tone and pacing—a refreshing read when so many contemporary novels feel overlong or wayward in storytelling. Shriver has the ability to interest the reader in the book’s subject even if it seems incredibly dull. The New Republic is definitely a book worth checking out.
Posted by xoxojk on June 13, 2012
Before Matt Bomer skyrocketed into pop culture fame by singing on Glee, he was the star of USA’sWhite Collar. Bomer plays con man and art thief Neal Caffrey (whose reliance on a fedora is more successful than Maria Bello’s on Prime Suspect and his spiffy suit collection would give How I Met Your Mother’s Neil Patrick Harris a run for his money). After being caught—again—by FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) upon escaping from prison, he convinces Peter to let him assist with the FBI in catching other criminals (something he knows a lot about) instead of sending him right back into prison. Thus is the premise for the show.
In season three the writers strike a perfect balance of procedural and serialized storytelling (something most shows fail at—except The Good Wife andScandal). The story picks up with Peter suspecting Neal of having stolen the Nazi U-boat treasure that supposedly blew up at the end of season two. In actuality, it was Neal’s criminal bff Mozzie (played to hilarity by Willie Garson) who stole the treasure. He convinces Neal to run away from New York forever and start a life of luxury and freedom in Europe.
Read the rest of the review at JustPressPlay.
See also: Brandon Touhey’s critique of the White Collar Set Design.
Posted by xoxojk on June 11, 2012
Christopher Buckley’s latest irreverent satire tackles US-China relations. As a master humorist and satirist Buckley weaves various convoluted plot threads into a fast-paced story. However, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? lacks the literally laugh-out-loud moments I’ve grown accustomed to from reading his previous works.
Protagonist “Bird” McIntyre is charged with fomenting anti-Chinese feelings in America by his boss in order to prepare the country for the unveiling of their super top-secret project Taurus. To help him, Bird enlists Angel Templeton, a stunning woman and the intimidating “directrix” for the Institute for Continuing Conflict. Their close proximity while plotting media manipulation—and Dalai Lama assassination—leads to a steamy extramarital affair. With his marriage and his job on the line, Bird must learn how to balance all these elements in his life that have slowly begun to grow awry.
The perspective jumps around to other key players like the leaders of China (who have purposefully confusing monosyllabic names—Fa, Lo, Han) and NSC director Rogers P Fancock. The sheer number of characters at times feels more congested than a Dickens novel—and the names are equally absurd—but there is a flow to the storytelling that makes it all bearable and interesting.
This is definitely one of Buckley’s weaker novels; but, even at his weakest, he’s still a more superb writer and humorist than so many other authors. His excessively astute vocabulary makes even the drollest of characters seem ironically intelligent, and the best part is that he manages to make it work well. If you’re looking to jump into the Buckley oeuvre then start with some of his sharper books—Thank You For Smoking, No Way to Treat a First Lady, Florence of Arabia—before tackling this book; but if Buckley is old hat for you, then this Asian outing will be a nice reminder of Buckley’s skills.
Posted by xoxojk on June 11, 2012
Bill Clegg’s follow-up to last year’s outstanding debut memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man is equally outstanding. Ninety Days picks up after Bill leaves the rehab he ended up at the end of Portrait and follows his journey to recovery.
As he struggles to stay sober, the reader feels like they, too, are a part of the struggle. And those times when he relapses can be deeply affecting passages. (I cried about three times while reading this book.) Bill moves back to NYC and tries to build a community of people who support him and his recovery. It is not an easy task and he runs into many stumbling blocks. But while this book is certainly gut wrenching, it is also very uplifting.
His final chapter addresses something that is oftentimes overlooked on the recovery front. It shows his life five and a half years after reaching that ninety-day mark and how he still has to struggle with his inner demons. However, he has learned how to save himself and learned how to keep his life straight. And for those of you who are struggling with addiction, his two books are very inspirational.
Posted by xoxojk on June 6, 2012