The Bookworm's Library

A room without books is like a body without a soul -- Marcus Tullius Cicero

Tag: Family

The Road by: Cormac McCarthy

Review:

I am in a distinct minority when it comes to this book.  But, at least for  me — this is a stellar example of a painful read!  Granted, part of it was the subject material.  Post-apocalyptic has never really been my first choice of reads.  I find them fatalistic (which, I guess, is the point) and at times even unbearable.  This book was certainly no exception.

I guess the first thing that really made me struggle with this one was the characterizations.  Yes, I understand McCarthy’s literary assertion that with the death of the world, comes the figurative death of the individual.  But, in this instance I think it went too far.  In a book where individuals are stripped of everything, including a name, it is really hard to form some kind of connection with them.  This, in turn makes it more than a struggle to engage with the whole story.  Every time I read “The Man” or “The Boy”, it made me want to put the book down and move on to something more enjoyable.  The characters were so stripped of identity that there was nothing memorable about them.  Simply put — they were shallow to the point of non-entities.  But strangely enough — this complete non-character approach did insure this one stays in my memory, even if it is only because of my degree of dislike about everything in the book.  

Unfortunately, this non-entity status undermined everything else about the story.  I just felt like there was no point.  It seemed like McCarthy was trying demonstrate the absolute depth of human depravity — with no redeeming value whatsoever.  Moral integrity, empathy, love, compassion — even interest in humanity as a whole — all gone.  The “protagonists” (and I use the term loosely), never seemed to be going anywhere.  There was no purpose for their continued existence, or reason for them to keep going.  I felt like the entire commentary was “a return to the sea — from whence we came”; but to what end, I have no idea. There is no rebirth, no vision of a potential future — even if it was a rebuilt shadow of what once was, no reason to go on living; the book had very little power and really no purpose to the whole story.

The graphic nature of the book is one of fatalistic moral depravity.  It was almost unbelievable that the entire conflict of the story was a father’s attempt to teach his son morality, while living in a world of no morals or social moors, is pointless.  Even “The Man’s” explanation of why killing is wrong (you can’t say a sin — there is no God; and you can’t say illegal — there is no law), when he has just killed a man, is almost farcical.  If “The Man” was really troubled about the killing — that may have been one thing.  But how is he suppose to teach “The Boy” that it is morally reprehensible to take a life, except in the most extreme situations of life and death, when that is the only kind of situation that exists — and “The Man”, himself, seems completely indifferent to the entire act?  What is left to teach “The Boy”, except that killing is nothing more than a means of survival, with no significant principle attached to it?

For most readers of apocalyptic literature, you are frequently familiar with the common theme of the struggle to maintain humanity, in the face of the world being reduced to no social boundaries, whatsoever.  There are no laws, no regulations, no expectations and no reason or purpose to consider your neighbor; in fact there is no reason for the individual to engage with others, for  any reason.  But, another common theme throughout this type of book, is the attempt of men to rebuild something that shores up that which is lost — in order to keep him from declining into a complete existence as just another animal.  McCarthy certainly got the moral and social disconnect in place.  But he fails to give society any reason to go on living.  It is simply the wilderness of the greatest predator of all; man is cut loose as animals, in a ruined world.

Overall — this is simply a book that I can’t recommend.  It is fatalistic, depressing and over the top oppressive.  There seems to really be no point to the book, and I came away feeling that it had been a colossal waste of time.   

The Lacy Reader by: Brunonia Barry

Review:

For readers, there is a moment when you open a book and simply fall headlong into a story that becomes so real, it evolves into a part of you.  The reader doesn’t just read the book –but lives it.  This happens for many different reasons.  Sometimes is it the writing style, others it is the setting or characters.  Frequently, it is a combination of several things.  But generally, it is a combination of things that come together to speak to the reader as a friend, confidant, lover and loved one.  This is true for Barry’s Lace Reader.  For me, it is Barry’s passion for Salem.  Her love of this unusual city is evident in every aspect of this book.  Salem takes on a life of its own, incorporating not only the tragic and horrifying history, but the present and even the future.  And it is a life and existence that encompasses not only the well known history of trials, injustice, religious obsession and madness — but also one that incorporates the foundation of American ideals.  Industry, trade, tradition, culture and family.  

This story, on its surface, is a simple recreation of the old Salem witch trials, set in modern day America.  All the elements are present and play their role in the well known history that haunts American nightmares.  Ultra religious, well meaning cults — under the auspice of religion; misunderstood women and men — all of whom find themselves branded witches for differences in their beliefs, lives or the people they choose not to get along with; the mystique of an encapsulated, small town community that struggles to rise above the petty factions that drive it; the haunted investigator — compelled to do his  duty, which is unclear due to the complexity of a rapidly escalating situation, — all of these a more can be found in just the surface story of Barry’s work.  Barry eloquently paints not only a  city that once was –but also a city that is and is becoming.  

Like the witch trials of the 1600′s —  this book has a great deal going on behind the story.  It asks the question of what was really going on behind the curtain, that led to the  tragedy of so long ago — and how does that history shape our constantly evolving world today?  Have we really risen above the horrors of history?  And if so — how can we prevent a repeat of the sins of the past?  Through the exploration of these questions, Barry demonstrates a real love of Salem, not just its infamous history, but also the city itself — the people, the location and the elegance of a small town American setting that defines the term “home.”  

While there is only a framework of the past centuries that make up this small town — it is real, modern issues that go into the fleshing out of this work.  Towner is well developed as a character.  Struggling with a severe cases of post traumatic stress disorder, she is an excellent example of an unreliable character.  Her shift through various degrees of emotional and mental instability, offset with moments of dramatically sharp clarity, create a sense of uncertainty in the reader.  There is an overwhelming sense of foreboding throughout the book that is almost tangible at times.  The reader is certain there is much that is being said — without actually being spoken of.  Barry manages to maintain this sense of intensity throughout the book and only develops the actual story in pieces, one insight at a time.  

All of the characters demonstrate varying degrees of unreliability.  Their personal histories are filled with pain, suffering and secrets — both real and supernatural.  But the story also explores the same themes in families as units. The history of Salem adds to the issues —  creating a story that suggests that the key to today and the potential for a future all rests with finding reconciliation with the past.  The quest for this reconciliation for all of the characters helps the reader to identify with all of the painful and challenging issues haunting not only the characters, but also the reader.  

This is a great book for literary study.  The writing is eloquent and very good at demonstrating what writing can do.  It is moving, troubling, haunting and most importantly powerful in  the story it tells and the characters that tell it.  

The Great Gatsby by: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Review:

I can’t count how many times I have read this book over the course of my schooling.  My first time through, like most people, was in high school.  My last time was towards the end of my bachelors degree.  The story  is a great demonstration of how a reader’s response to a book evolves over time, shifting with each reading.  My responses ranged from wildly in love with the story through apathetic disinterest and even dislike.  In some cases I know exactly why I loved the book and sometimes it is more illusive — vague.  

Many of my responses in this book revolved around the characters –their depth and shallowness in turns.  I think the most intriguing aspect of the character development are the contrasts Fitzgerald develops.  Like all characters, they each evolve throughout the story — but their contrasting qualities remain constant.  Daisy and Gatsby are polar opposites.  Daisy manifests a degree of shallowness that both bugs the reader and enthralls them at the same time.  Gatsby does the same, but for different reasons.  His aloof, mysterious dealings and back story keep the reader wondering who is the real Gatsby.  

While this is a great example of characters that I love to hate —  and at this juncture of my relationship to this book, intense dislike of the characters is my general response — I can’t deny that their contrasting interactions build on each other.  The characters, particularly Gatsby and Daisy, actually develop the strength of the other, until they become real and believable.  It is this belivability that makes them tragic personifications in the extreme.  

The story is actually basic and at times simple.  Man falls in love with a woman he can’t have.  At  the same time the shallow woman, flighty and disingenuous, who is oblivious to everything but the satisfaction of her own personal desires, come together with fatal consequences.  With Daisy, everything is about appearances, with little consideration to how it will affect others.  For Gatsby — it is all about Daisy and there are no others of any consequence.  The simplicity of these themes makes for a powerful commentary on the state of the human condition.  The contrasting opposites of the story — the two “eggs” of the city, rich and poor — in both substance and character.

The contrast also extends to the morals of individuals.  The various degrees of moral depravity are an interesting and well developed theme of the story that give a reader a great deal to reflect on.  The reader finds themselves justifying one character over another because they perceive one morally redeeming, in contrast to another.  But the fact is all the characters have fatal moral character flaws.  One is no worse than another — but in a contrasting development, Fitzgerald is able to present the question of are some character flaws worse than others.  

These opposing factors of this book, all come together to make for an interesting read and study.  But as far as a story goes — as I stated in the beginning — it is an evolutionary process.  Depending on perspective, age and reason for reading — responses to the book will vary greatly.  It is well written, as any classic should be.  But the reasons for the power of the book have less to do with the writing and more the themes that shape this powerful, if controversial story.  

The Dovekeepers by: Alice Hoffman

Review:

This is a book that I found simply stays with me for numerous reasons.  But I think, perhaps, the most powerful aspect is just that — the power of skillful writing throughout the story.  I have had an on again off again opinion of Hoffman’s books.  Many of them I have either had a hard time getting in to — or I have struggled to relate to the characters.  I get really frustrated with an author at times — and I realize this is simply unfair.  The author has an artistic vision — and they must stay true to that insight and story.  But, one person’s vision does not always work for someone else.  That is the struggle I have had with Hoffman’s writing.  Somehow, I just struggle with the style overall — which makes it difficult to get into a story, with the staying power to get through to the end.  Consequently, it was with some trepidation that I picked this one up.  In the end — it was the subject and title that drew me in.  I have always loved history — and historical fiction is certainly one of my preferred genres.  Stories that are set in the early Hebraic faith, and the history and challenges faced among the Jew’s have always captivated me.  So — Hoffman had her work cut out for her — at least with me, as a reader.  I had a great deal of expectations in relation to what I wanted to find in this book.  Simply put — Hoffman delivered in spades!

The women of this book are amazing in the stories they have to tell.  Each of them have beautiful lives to share and those lives are as unique as they are powerful.  Set in a time of great upheaval in the land of Israel — the Jewish people were being hunted, enslaved and annihilated.  The Romans were going to great extremes to bring the Jews to heal — and the resulting devastation was truly horrific.  In the midst of this upheaval, each of these characters — Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah — make up the foundation of this book.  Their stories manifest the challenges, joys and heartaches that accompanied life, as women in ancient Israel.  Their struggle to find and hold onto faith in the midst of rebellion and chaos really give a sense of realism to this story.  Hoffman’s research adds depth and dimension — allowing the reader to see into the minds and hearts of these four intriguing women.  Each of them manifests the struggles of being considered inferior in their families and among society.  Each of them gives insight into how women learned to live in this society, where they were denied so much — while at the same time so much was expected.  Each woman was the product of heartbreak and tragedy, and it is these back stories that allow the women to go from being characters — to being individuals with depth and dimension.  

The tragedies that forced these women into the troubled lives they live — also drove them and the remains of their families into a tragic appointment with destiny.  They ultimately find themselves in the last bastion of Judaism – Masada – where they will ultimately meet a troubling, mysterious end.     While history records the events leading up to the tragedy of the mass suicides of Masada — the questions of why continue to haunt the historical and archaeological records.  This story dares to ask not only why — but also to delve into the last, desperate motivations that would ultimately lead to the final collapse of the Jewish state, through the ignominy of death at their own hands, as opposed to the alternative — death or enslavement at the hands of their oppressors.  The feeling that Hoffman captures in the Masada stronghold forces the reader to step out of themselves and consider the struggle of the last choices facing this handful of people.  

Hoffman demonstrates a real aptitude for incorporating thought and emotion into the lives of her characters.  The myriad motivations that continuously trouble the characters are both moving and powerful.  And yet — the story is simple, in that the ending is already known.  But it is this knowledge that lends a sense of fatalistic desperation in not only the lives of the characters — but also in the mind and heart of the reader.  The desperation is, at times oppressive it is so powerfully developed.  But for all of that — the reader just can’t seem to walk away.  

This book makes for a great read.  It is captivating in the questions it explores, while relying on the history, to give depth and emotional tension to the whole experience.  Hoffman demonstrates a strong mastery of the use of language, and demonstrates how eloquent an author can be, when combining the drama of history with a well accomplished gift for language.  This is one that I would recommend to those who love historical fiction, drama and history.  It opens the door on what might have been, while reflecting on the struggles of a once condemned people.  

The Last Kind Words by: Tom Picarilli

Review

This is one of those books that really captivated me when I first saw it.  The premise was intriguing and spurred me into reading it.  It is the story of two brothers, a dysfunctional family, an unexplained murder of seven people, one brother seeking a means of getting out of the family business of burglary, petty theft and grifting and one just days from his execution.    There is plenty in this story to build on and a great deal of possibility.  Unfortunately, it just didn’t live up to the expectation.   There were some things that Picarilli got right — and then there was the rest of the story.

One thing I did like about the book was the interplay between Terrier and Collie.  The tension and animosity that had built over a lifetime of competition, contention and outright abuse really comes through.  The struggle that Terrier faces in returning, at the request of a brother he all but hates, to the town he thought he had left behind permanently,  is very real and very compelling.  These are two brothers that have a very volatile history and this comes through poignantly.  The shear audacity of Collie, to make a request to find the killer of a young girl he is convicted for killing, is a tall order — one that Terrier has no reason to give.  But it is this unstable relationship that makes this part of the story so real.  Terrier is caught between his duty and obligation to his family — his brother included — and his desire to simply leave it all behind and never look back.  

What I didn’t understand is how this same compelling writing didn’t carry over to the differences that exist between Terrier and his family.  Picarilli makes it clear from the beginning that when Terrier left, with no explanation or goodbye to his family, that there was a rift created.  They felt abandoned and betrayed and challenged Terrier’s loyalty upon his return.  But Picarilli never quite developed this into the underlying foundation it could have been.  His mother’s pain and desire to incorporate him back into the family, his father’s understated wish for him to get out of the family “business” since he was never really cut out for it, his struggle in coming to terms with his sister’s maturing into young womanhood and the bizarre relationships he has with his uncles, law and former associates all could have been so much more.  They seem superficial and just not a driving force.  

I also had quite a bit of trouble with the characters.  For starters, I am not quite sure what the purpose was behind naming the entire family after dog breeds.  It was just bizarre in the extreme.  If dogs were considered great in the stealthy business of theft I could see it — but somehow cats are more adept in this department than dogs.  I just didn’t understand it.  But considering the character development — this was the least of the issues I had with the book.  The characters never really developed beyond the superficial.  One review I read called them transparent — and this is a great descriptor.  There just didn’t seem to be any substance.   I guess I found them stereotypical in the extreme.  It made it very predictable.  Terrier, as a petty thief, turned investigator seemed to be Picarilli’s attempt at irony — but somehow this part of the story didn’t work either.  It just came across as trite and a bit condescending for the characterization and ended up falling flat.  Generally, I came away feeling like character development wasn’t one of Picarilli’s strong points.

Overall — I guess this would be a great, light summer read.  But as far as a great story that I simply couldn’t put down — it just never quite made it.   I felt like Picarilli was so focused on just telling a story that he rushed the detail.  It is a classic example of an interesting story that could have been great, if more time had gone into developing the supporting details and filled it out.  There needed to be more for the reader to move from passive reading to total engagement.  

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