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Joe Kraus

Kingston, PA, United States
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  • Creative Quest

  • By: Questlove
  • Narrated by: Questlove, Fred Armisen, Tariq Trotter, and others
  • Length: 8 hrs and 44 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 411
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 379
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 375

In Creative Quest, Questlove synthesizes all the creative philosophies, lessons, and stories he's heard from the many creators and collaborators in his life, and reflects on his own experience, to advise listeners and fans on how to consider creativity and where to find it. He addresses many topics - what it means to be creative, how to find a mentor and serve as an apprentice, the wisdom of maintaining a creative network, coping with critics and the foibles of success, and the specific pitfalls of contemporary culture.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Questlove once again is my fairy godmother

  • By Richard on 04-26-18

Weird & Insightful, and a Compelling Conversation

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-17-18

I read this one for a lot of different reasons, ones that don’t cohere, but that I think reflect some of the messiness, serendipity, and inspiration of this intriguing work.

1) It was on sale. That may sound silly. I can certainly afford to buy full-priced books – even the audio books I consume at a clip of 4-5 a month these days – but I find it overwhelming to look at the tens of thousands of options in the full bookstore. Instead, it’s easier to look at the ones Audible puts on sale for just a day. I pass on most, but one in ten or sometimes twenty will grab me. This one did.

2) I’ve thought a lot about creativity and its sources myself. I have an essay about plagiarism that, filtered through some practical concerns, became a class I designed (with help) for incoming Honors students called Ideamaking. I have another essay about the distinctions between creation, invention, and discovery. Until I started thinking about this book, I hadn’t realized how consistently I’d been asking the same sort of questions Questlove is.

3) I don’t know Questlove all that well. For that matter, I don’t know hip-hop as well as I’d like. From what I understand, he’s an articulate figure within the genre. He’s someone sufficiently on the cutting edge to matter, yet he’s also got a capacity to talk to “squares” like me or Jimmy Fallon, guys too old to have absorbed hip-hop in our adolescence. His voice holds up here, and I enjoyed my time with him, but there are spots where things get a bit repetitive. I liked it, but I think it might have been stronger at about one-fifth shorter. Some of the references came too quickly for me, but I’m trying to catch up now that I’m finished. I have a D’Angelo song playing right now. It may still not quite do it for me, but I am hearing it in a different way. I am imagining how I might really enjoy it, and that has to count as a real win for this book.

4) I discovered only after starting this that Questlove’s co-author is Ben Greenman. Ben was a classmate of mine at Northwestern. He didn’t rise to the level of friend, but we had at least a couple classes together and spoke a handful of times. He was himself a strangely creative person. I remember him most dramatically in a class where we were both a little bored. I compensated by forcing myself to be over-interested, to take absurdly complete notes and raise my hand often to try to find ways to engage with the material. Ben said nothing. Instead, he’d stare at the professor as he wrote – somehow not looking at his notepad – strange free association stories and essays. I never got to read any of them (he wouldn’t share) but I asked him about them a few times. I probably even tried a couple times to read over his shoulder if I happened to be sitting next to him.

5) Questlove talks a lot here about the nature of collaboration, so it’s intriguing to read this for signs of my old acquaintance’s contributions. I can’t tease out too many of them – there’s the occasional literary reference that seems to have his fingerprints on it – but Questlove acknowledges Ben a handful of times. I imagine Ben is proud of his contributions to this (I certainly would be) and it’s interesting to think of how certain works of art that grow out of collaboration, even when they have one person’s name on them, have multiple influences. This is, in part, Ben’s book. Maybe there are even an atom or two of it that grew out of the conversations I had with him after class or in one of Evanston’s bars – not my ideas, but ideas Ben sharpened when he explained them to me and the rest of our class. You don’t have to be the knife that carves the wood; sometimes you contribute by being the whetstone.

6) And then there’s the fact that Questlove (and Ben) have some thoughtful things to say about how to understand and possibly stoke creativity. I liked his breaking down the notion of cognitive disinhibition, the sense that we can’t be afraid of new ideas even though we set up all sorts of barriers against them. (My father wrote about a different version of the same thing in a short essay called “Circumventing the Self-Censor.”) I also liked the way he emphasized the notion of “seeds.” In a way that brings those two things together, he says, “It’s not about letting everything in; it’s more about not keeping things out.” The line between the two is thin, but it seems the sort of notion that, in its necessary vagueness, becomes a useful meditation for the would-be creative.

7) And, in a final thought, I really liked his discussion of “negative theology” as a metaphor for the unwritten (or uncomposed) work. That is, in some Jewish theology, we can’t know G-d directly so we work to know what G-d is not: not localized, not time-bound, not singular in essence. We should not worship our own art – I’ll add that as paraphrase and caution – but we can begin to recognize it before it comes into existence if we decide what we don’t want it to be. I like that idea enough that I think I will use it as part of the next brainstorming activity I do in class.

8) So this book is all those thoughts and more. It’s not my usual audio fare, but I mostly enjoyed it. It’s a strange book with an appeal to only a certain sort. If you’ve read this much, though, chances are you’re one of those sorts.

  • Poser

  • By: Jacob Rubin
  • Narrated by: Robert Fass
  • Length: 8 hrs and 15 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 20
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 19
  • Story
    3.5 out of 5 stars 19

All his life, Giovanni Bernini has possessed an uncanny gift: He can imitate anyone he meets. Honed by his mother at a young age, the talent catapults him from small-town obscurity to stardom. As Giovanni describes it, "No one's disguise is perfect. There is in every person, no matter how graceful, a seam, a thread curling out of them... When pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire."

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • metaphor for the intellectual immigrant

  • By Raleigh on 07-07-16

Remarkable Mimic at the Heart of Personal Story

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-13-18

I came across this one when I was looking into some questions of impersonation and politics and found that Rubin had written a thoughtful essay on Dana Carvey’s take on George H. Bush. I thought it was very well done, and it didn’t hurt that I share his opinion that Carvey introduced a new twist into Saturday Night Live’s political discourse with that act.

In any case, this novel starts out beautifully as it fulfills a difficult ambition. Giovanni can impersonate anyone. He’s a prodigy; even as an infant even he responded to the facial expressions greeting him. To make this work, Rubin has to be a skilled mimic himself, has to be able to perform one voice after another on the page.

And, for most of this, he is. The guy can write, and the joy of discovering that in this, his first novel is part of what makes reading it so rewarding. It’s a novel that carries with it some of the weight of the act that Giovanni puts together and then performs in a seedy little theater.

So the character and context here are terrific. The story that develops in that space takes more time, and, while it starts out just as impressively, it tails off toward the end.

Initially, Giovanni finds himself drawn to impersonating others because it seems he may have no self at the core of his identity. When Max, a two-bit show biz manager finds him, he gives Giovanni someone to imitate. Through that mimicry, Giovanni finds a public pose that allows him to market his skill. Max is a bit of shyster, but he’s ultimately loveable, and that gives Giovanni a purpose.

From there, Giovanni finds himself drawn to imitating Bernie, a much more serious theater owner. Bernie represents a more sinister allure than the pleasantly shady Max. He’s aggressive in business, disparaging of those who work for him, and ultimately ruthless. If you throw in Lucy, a not-so-talented singer-actress who may or may not be the first person (beyond his controlling mother) to love Giovanni, and you have an almost mythic array of characters and relationships.

The novel starts to weaken a little when Rubin has to move those characters into new situations and settings. We leave the Broadway-like setting of the first two-thirds or so and wind up, first, in Hollywood where Giovanni becomes an unlikely movie star, and then in a less clear context where he becomes a right-wing political provocateur. Shaped by Bernie, he brings his capacity for mimicry to the campaign trail, and he weds his gifts to a cruel species of politics.

The novel is two or three years old, but, in that respect, it feels as if it’s anticipating Trump in the way that Kosinski’s Being There anticipated Reagan. Where that previously unthinkable empty suit candidacy was central to the whole novel, though, this feels somewhat appended. It’s not, ultimately, a political or even social novel. At its best, and that best is impressive, it’s a personal one.

The tragedy of Giovanni’s life is that he’s not sure he can find himself beneath the voices of others that he wears like a protective suit. Rubin gets back to that in the end, after his detour into perhaps too-public a life, and brings those ideas back as Giovanni meets a peculiar therapist who mostly understands him.

It’s not a complaint to say that this excellent set-piece veers a bit too long into picaresque. Rather, I’d be happy to try to imitate Rubin myself since I’m awfully impressed by what he’s pulled off.

  • The Unknown Terrorist

  • By: Richard Flanagan
  • Narrated by: Humphrey Bower
  • Length: 9 hrs and 44 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    3.5 out of 5 stars 46
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 27
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars 28

What would you do if you turned on the television and saw you were the most wanted terrorist in Australia? Gina Davies is about to find out. From the author of the international bestsellers The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould's Book of Fish comes a fast-paced thriller that paints a devastating picture of contemporary Australia. Five days, three unexploded bombs, and every truth of your life turned into a lie. What would you do?

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Beautiful, Gritty, Thought Provoking

  • By Dennis on 10-30-11

One of Our Great Living Writers Stumbles

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-09-18

I am currently auditioning Flanagan for my favorite active writer. He got off to a great start in my reading with two of my favorite novels of the last few years – The Narrow Road to the Deep North and First Person. At his best, he strikes me as world-class, as someone who ought to get sounded out for a Nobel Prize, especially given that he comes from Tasmania and gives voice to a culture the rest of the world doesn’t get to glimpse all that often.

I had more mixed feelings about his Death of a River Guide, but that was the first he’d written, and I figured he’d learned more of his craft afterwards. This one, though, is a disappointment. It may well have packed a certain power when it first came out, but at this point it seems to be cherishing insights that we now recognize as commonplace.

Stripper Gina Davies goes out one evening with an attractive Middle Eastern man. When he’s murdered soon after, the authorities mistake her for his partner, and she becomes the most wanted terrorist in Australia. Taking place in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster, this novel tries to capture the universal paranoia of that moment. The central notion is that we have to find someone to blame, that our culture demands almost a collective sacrifice to begin to feel safe again.

As the novel moves along, Gina becomes that central sacrifice. She’s elevated to it by the machinations of an over-the-top journalist who has it out for her ever since she rebuffed him at her dance club, and then she eventually embraces it herself. She comes to see herself as almost a “painted bird” (to take the title metaphor of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel) whom the rest of the world has turned upon. And [SPOILER:] she embraces it, deciding at the end to kill the journalist and own up to the fictional crimes she’s been associated with.

While there’s something in the general paranoia of that situation, it feels cliched by this point – and that’s before we get to such flat characters as the pudgy journalist, the heart-of-gold best friend stripper, or the overweight cop who’s a step slow to solve the whole problem. We’re almost two decades away from the sense that terrorists have the power to rewrite the narrative of the culture, and Don DeLillo was making that point at least as far back as Mao II in 1991. From within the years just after 9/11 – and this was published five years after – it felt as if “we” were trying to recover our mutual bearings, as if we accepted a sense of arbitrary guilt. Some of that manifest itself through efforts to understand the experience of the dispossessed of the Middle East. More of it came clear through impulses like George W. Bush and the Neo-conservatives drumming for war with Iraq.

Gina’s eventual self-sacrifice seems to me an ironic rendering of that neo-conservative notion. ‘The world is off its axis. We have to attack someone to restore it.’ In the end, though, I don’t find it all that satisfying. I’m not in an especially ironic mood – with Donald Trump as President, there’s already a toxic level of irony in our everyday lives – but I don’t know that I’d have appreciated this even a few years ago. I simply don’t see Gina’s fundamental transition. In fact, I can’t quite shake the fact that it took a bad coincidence for her not to turn herself in before things reached crisis levels – when she arrives at the police station, a detained man creates a scene and the police clear the station. No such accident, and no such novel.

I could almost forgive the empty center of this if the novel weren’t rife with other problems. Gina is almost always called “the doll,” a name that comes from her performance as a pole dancer. That is, she’s objectified from the start, from even before she turns into an accidental terrorist. The first thirty or forty pages seem larded with gratuitous descriptions of her naked self, yet, in the classic irony of pornography, her nakedness is precisely the shield that makes her invisible.

As a consequence, when she does transform, it’s less clear what she’s transforming from: is it the clear-minded woman saving her dollars for a dramatic new start, the spend-it-while-she-has-it would-be fashionista, or the almost-enlightened woman who recognizes her suffering in the suffering of others. She performs as all three from the very beginning, and her final self-sacrifice seems more dramatic than narratively determined. I just don’t see the growth that would stamp this as a true success.

I’m not giving up on Flanagan. I’m still shooting to read all of his work. I hope this one is simply a one-off mistake, a misstep by a writer as talented as anyone I know of right now.

  • The Year of Magical Thinking

  • By: Joan Didion
  • Narrated by: Barbara Caruso
  • Length: 5 hrs and 5 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 2,532
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 1,515
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 1,532

"Life changes fast....You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends." These were among the first words Joan Didion wrote in January 2004. Her daughter was lying unconscious in an intensive care unit, a victim of pneumonia and septic shock. Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, was dead. The night before New Year's Eve, while they were sitting down to dinner, he suffered a massive and fatal coronary. The two had lived and worked side by side for nearly 40 years.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Great book to Read, but I didn’t like it

  • By Michael on 05-08-15

A Jazz-like Reverie of Grief

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-06-18

I’ve been ambivalent about W.B. Yeats’s poem, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” for many years. In it, Yeats grapples with the death of the son of his long-time friend Lady Gregory by reviewing the many deaths that have shaken him over the years. He thinks of his grandfather, an uncle, and a mentor figure, and only after that, he turns to think of Robert Gregory, shot down as an aviator during World War I. As he concludes, “a thought of that late death took all my heart for speech.”

On the one hand, I’ve admired that line for its implicit power. Here is arguably the greatest poet of the century claiming that words fail him. In so quiet a way, he pays the deepest respect he can to the friend and son-like figure he’s lost: he’s said that even he cannot find language for the deep grief. On the other hand, it looks like an instance of Yeats blinking in the face of his own great pain. It is, in that view, a kind of cowardice. Owning up to it would mean wrestling with a pain that might make him question all he knows of his life; it might mean a naked self-examination he chose not to undertake. (There’s a lot to be said about Yeats’s fundamental cowardice, the sense of his living his life and career in a self-scripted fashion that ultimately underwrote his fascism, but that’s a story for another time.)

I think of Yeats as I think about this powerful memoir of Joan Didion because, in contrast, Didion is fearless as she contemplates the loss of her husband and the imminent loss of her only child. From its opening line, “Life changes in an instant. The ordinary instant,” we see Didion acknowledging the most difficult truth possible: that she may not know enough even to be writing the words that she is. In fact, she acknowledges that she wrote those words and then had to come back to them later to realize the vulnerable place she’d set upon to begin with.

Overall, yes, this is a book about mourning, and it’s been good for me to read it in the lightening shadow of my own mother’s death this summer. But what I take away most from it is Didion’s absolute insistence on looking the unknown in the face and not blinking. She cries a lot. She allows herself to be distracted by quotidian memories of a life that, charming as it is, isn’t all that interesting for those of us who didn’t lead it. And she finds solace in quick references to classic and contemporary books that she sees as providing glimpses of the same grief she’s experiencing. But, throughout, she is grappling with the kind of deeply honest question that Yeats so articulately side-stepped: an idea I’d paraphrase as “What’s left of me when so much of my world is gone?”

If that weren’t enough, the first 30-40 pages of this are absolutely stunning. It’s hardly news that Didion is one of our best living essayists (although it may be worth noting, as I read this book almost 13 years after it came out, that she hasn’t written a great deal since this great public disrobing) but the quality of her prose is flat-out lyrical in that opening sweep. I must have read parts of this when it came out because much of it was very familiar. I hadn’t read it all, though, yet it remained familiar even as I kept going to passages that must have been new to me.

The metaphor that kept coming to me was jazz. It felt like I was reading a solo by someone like Dexter Gordon or John Coltrane, like I was hearing something the musician/author was creating in the instant. In the best jazz, you get the sense that the next note is arbitrary, as if it could be any number of possibilities, but that, once played, it could only have been that note. It’s as if the musician/author is unearthing something that hadn’t existed until it did, and that then had to be the way it was.

I’m not sure quite how long that lyrical section runs on, but that’s part of its power. It catches you up and wraps you in its language. It may as well be a poem, and I suspect even Yeats might have admired its technical power.

Then, not abruptly, we get interrupted by Didion’s reconsideration of the life she’s choppily trying to resume as well as by memories of the everyday life she and her husband lived. I’ll own up, as many other reviewers have acknowledged, that it gets a little slow in those parts. I’m sympathetic when she describes the child-made bookmark she finds in the last book her husband was reading or when she listens to his voice on the answering machine message, but I’m not particularly moved. There’s a quotidian quality to it, an almost boring sense that she’s making a public record that would ordinarily belong to her private self.

As I kept going, though, I began to sense that even such slowness was part of the jazz composition effect. The quotidian is counter-point to the lyrical. Didion knows she’s good in those early pages. She knows she’s found the voice that made her famous and that she’s using it to grapple with her new crisis. And yet, in a way I find beautiful beneath the ordinariness, she doubts that. Unlike Yeats, she lets herself ponder herself without “the coat” (as Yeats puts it in one early poem) of her great language. He boasts “there’s more enterprise in going naked,” but she’s the one who goes to that place of vulnerability that he can never let himself reach. She is, in other words, unafraid to step outside her Coltrane-like technique and confront her loss in language ordinary enough for most of the rest of us to have used.

  • Mother Night

  • By: Kurt Vonnegut
  • Narrated by: Victor Bevine
  • Length: 6 hrs and 3 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,207
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,001
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,004

American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy during World War II, is now on trial in Israel as a Nazi war criminal. But is he really guilty? In this brilliant book rife with true gallows humor, Kurt Vonnegut turns black and white into a chilling shade of grey with a verdict that will haunt us all. Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • “We are what we pretend to be”

  • By Robert on 09-04-12

Eichmann In His Own Head

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-01-18

I’m now halfway into my third period as a Vonnegut reader. The first was when I was in high school and the beginning of college. He was, then, the first “serious” contemporary writer I discovered, the first novelist who gave me some of the tools to make sense of the adult political world I was discovering, in large measure, through the critique he offered of it.

The second was, for most of my life as a serious reader and thinker about literature – a period when I got advanced degrees in American literature and taught full-time at the college level – when I generally dismissed Vonnegut as a writer of his moment, as someone who was “fun” when I came across him but who no longer had a great deal to tell us.

The third started seven or eight years ago, I suppose, when I re-read Cat’s Cradle and realized it remained, to paraphrase Ezra Pound’s quote that “poetry is news that stays news,” still novel. Since then, I have been slowly reworking my way through the Vonnegut canon. They haven’t all held up – Breakfast of Champions, for instance, strikes me as gimmicky and unrealized even though it has moments of being fun – but most have. I am, for instance, trying to weigh whether I can live with standing behind the claim that “Slaughterhouse Five is one of the important American novels of the 20th century.”

The sum of all this is that I am contemplating some big project on Vonnegut, an academic article or even a book about him and the distinct way he addressed the narrative of trauma. My thesis is that, unlike Hemingway who taught us that trauma expresses itself in the difficulty of forming the coherent sentence, Vonnegut gives us easy sentences that push against the possibility (a possibility he sometimes casts as immoral) of creating the coherent narrative. Another possibility is a senior seminar or adult ed class where we look at Vonnegut’s canon.

All of that is too-long prologue for my sense that Mother Night – which does hold up better than I thought it might – seems to me an important Vonnegut novel. It may clock in behind Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, but I think it’s right there with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in the next tier.

As I see it at the moment, Slaughterhouse Five is the culmination of Vonnegut’s career; it’s the novel he knew he had to write in order to express the central trauma of his life. Mother Night is, instead, an inspired idea for a novel, one that reflects on the news of its moment and that Vonnegut used as a means to develop the voice he’d use more personally in his later works.

The crucial news of the moment, which Vonnegut references in the novel, was the arrest and trial of Adolf Eichmann. Here was a man who, looking as Hannah Arendt would describe him, “banal,” stood behind the most horrifying evil of the century, perhaps even in all of human history. Arendt’s signature work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, actually came out after Mother Night, but each was grappling with the same question: how could our everyday life, our banality, persist while the memory of such crime lingered or, worse, while we allowed such memories to fade.

Arendt wrote as an observer, as someone frustrated with her inability to see Eichmann as a sign of such evil. In a way that strikes me as deeply brave, Vonnegut inserted his own consciousness. As a novelist, he assumed some of Eichmann’s guilt – he gives us a first-person protagonist who’s served as a heinous Nazi propagandist – but he complicated it.

Howard Campbell, Jr. is not purely evil. In fact, though he spoke as he did throughout the war, he did so as a secret agent, managing to transmit crucial information to the Allies. He is a hero of the most complicated sort, one whom politics and history can never acknowledge. And, as the compelling conclusion puts it, his heroism is still not enough to save him from himself.

So, where Arendt makes an abstract philosophical claim about the nature of evil, Vonnegut places the question on the individual. He asks, Is real but secret resistance to the evil sufficient motive to be seen, forever, as complicit with it. And he asks even further, Can any of us be innocent if we have lived in a world that permitted such evil. Those are powerful questions, ones that resonated with me as an adolescent but that likely would have mattered to me less in my young adulthood.

And, while there are some Vonnegut mannerisms that sometimes distract from that central seriousness, there is something timeless about this novel. I hadn’t read it in more than 30 years, but I found crucial plot points – [SPOILER:] that Resi is posing as Helga, that Bernard B. O’Hare has a false sense of self-importance, that the Blue Fairy Godmother reveals himself – not just familiar but seemingly necessary. That is, it took me that long to realize it, but Vonnegut achieves the level of “true fable” with this. He creates an imaginary experience that seems entirely true to its internal premises.

As a bottom line, I am still working through how exuberantly I am willing to praise Vonnegut. If he is as great as I think he might actually be – if he really is one of the crucial writers of the second half of the 20th Century – then this is a novel we ought to be reading for a long time to come.

  • Nutshell

  • By: Ian McEwan
  • Narrated by: Rory Kinnear
  • Length: 5 hrs and 26 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 1,628
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,482
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 1,474

From the best-selling author of Atonement, Nutshell is a classic story of murder and deceit, told by a narrator with a perspective and voice unlike any in recent literature. A bravura performance, it is the finest recent work from a true master. To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavour is just a speck in the universe of possible things?

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • The Long Version, and the Short.

  • By Ilana on 09-19-16

Hamlet in Utero

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-30-18

Ian McEwan is one of the world’s great novelists. This is not one of his greatest novels. That said, this is a lot of fun and, if you go into it without thinking it’s another Atonement or The Children Act, there’s a lot to recommend it.

This opens with a tour de force of comedy. Our narrator talks of “being inside a woman,” which feels like a metaphor for some deep emotional involvement. Instead, it’s no metaphor at all. Our narrator is actually a fetus, coming to term in the final months of his in-utero development, and understanding himself as a character in a complex family drama.

That drama turns out to involve a plot by his mother Trudy – aka Gertrude – and his uncle Claude (very close to Claudius) to kill his father. It took me a bit longer than it should have, though the insight dawned on me piecemeal, but that gives us an unborn “prince” who’s in the exact situation of Hamlet.

Once that central premise emerges, this drama becomes, as I read it, a comedy. McEwan works to include a variety of prenatal analogues to the Shakespearean play. We get something that feels like a ghost. We get levels of narratorial uncertainty, questions of do-I-act-or-don’t-I, and, in one far-fetched scene, a suicide attempt by wrapping the umbilical cord around his own unborn neck.

This opens with tremendous skill and, once I got my bearings (and the bearingless quality of the opening seems meant to reflect the emerging awareness of the developing fetus) I laughed for most of the first 50 pages. McEwan does an amazing job of milking the possibilities of such a pre-full-term narrator, and his language is rich, his observations clever, and his ‘unborn’ concerns surprisingly thoughtful.

This one never loses that pitch of skill, but I did find it slipping a little as the novelty of the narrator wore off and the implicit echo of the Hamlet plot became central. That is, this feels like utter invention at the start. By the end, it’s an adaptation of something familiar, and it feels less capable of that pure reimagining of what it means to be human.

The end [SPOILER] is harmlessly fun, when our narrator foils his mother’s escape (who, in turn, foils his uncle’s) by precipitating the rupture of his placenta, causing himself to be born a couple weeks prematurely. The idea makes me laugh, and it’s a fitting conclusion to what becomes the heart of the second half of this, but it’s somehow less than the magnificent opening promised.

Certainly give a thought to reading this, but lower your expectations before you do. McEwan may yet win a Nobel prize. If he ever does, this one won’t get mentioned until the last paragraphs of the news story.

  • One of These Things First

  • By: Steven Gaines
  • Narrated by: Steven Gaines
  • Length: 5 hrs and 21 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 403
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 371
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 367

One of These Things First is a poignant reminiscence of a 15-year-old gay Jewish boy's unexpected trajectory from a life behind a rack of dresses in his grandmother's Brooklyn bra-and-girdle store to Manhattan's infamous Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, whose alumni includes writers, poets, and madmen as well as Marilyn Monroe and best-selling author Steven Gaines.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • An Unlikely Subject for Me

  • By Patricia on 10-08-17

Great Context Overshadows the Central Story

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-26-18

Stephen Gaines has a remarkable story to tell, and he has an engaging voice to tell it with.

As a teenager growing up in early 1960s Jewish Brooklyn, he has no clear idea how to deal with being gay and, in despair, tries to kill himself. As a consequence, he winds up in an upscale psychiatric hospital, one where Marilyn Monroe was recently treated. He’s essentially a child among assorted minor celebrities, a Jew among mostly WASPs, and a Brooklynite among the Manhattan elite. It’s a great fish-out-of-water experience, and the strongest part is unquestionably the color he sketches for the contrast.

The trouble here, as I see it, is that the context ultimately overwhelms the story. I’m a sucker for glimpses into that not-so-distant Jewish world, and Gaines delivers character studies of his neighbors and his bizarre family. (A highlight is his grandfather, a gentle man who seems irresistible to women. He has his wife, Gaines’s grandmother, his long-time paramour, who becomes the grandmother’s business partner and a key presence in raising him, and then he has his 40-years-younger final girlfriend with whom he mostly but not always lives in his final years.) He delivers as well in the vignettes around the people he meets in the hospital, most memorably the forgotten Broadway producer and theater reviewer Richard Halliday, a man best-known today as the second husband of actress Mary Martin. His stepson, actor Larry Hagman, hated him so much that he wrote in his own memoir about fantasies of killing him.

So the milieu is terrific and the characters memorable. They are so terrific that the central story, the place we begin, gets buried. Gaines is confused about how he feels and about how he should act on his feelings. He tries to kill himself by running his forearms through a glass window, and it’s heartbreaking. He’s skeptical of the treatments he receives in the hospital – a caring and thoughtful Freudian psychoanalyst thinks he can “cure” his homosexuality – but he does indeed become more aware of himself. The deeply troubled teen grows into a man whom I’d be happy to know, a man I get to know, in small part, through this book.

But we don’t get to hear the motivating story here. If it begins with the suicide attempt, the implication is we’ll learn how he came to grips with the crisis that precipitated it. Instead, Gaines’s story takes a backseat for most of this memoir to the characters he encounters. There’s a final chapter, one that feels almost disconnected from the rest of the book, when he catches us up on what’s followed, but it moves too quickly for real satisfaction.

I enjoyed this, but, to paraphrase its title, it feels as if he put several things ‘first,’ several things before the story he seemed initially to be telling.

  • Independence Day

  • Frank Bascombe, Book 2
  • By: Richard Ford
  • Narrated by: Richard Poe
  • Length: 20 hrs and 23 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 204
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 155
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 153

Apparently directionless since his divorce, Frank Bascombe migrates from one non-committal relationship to another. He freely indulges his tendencies to self absorption, over-intellectualization, and neurotic ambivalence. But all of that changes one fateful Fourth of July weekend, when, armed with the Declaration of Independence, he embarks on a mission to save his troubled teenaged son.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Great Book - Great Narrator

  • By Bv5678 on 01-07-09

An Exemplar on a Surprising Ethnic Type of Novel

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-23-18

I’ve nursed a theory for some time that it should be possible to define a category of ethnic literature around the WASP experience. We’ve done a lot to theorize African-American or Jewish-American literature, and we have given a lot of critical attention to the Fitzgerald-John O’Hara-Updike-Carver school of authors, but I don’t think we’ve thought of them as an ethnic group. They’ve been the “American” school against which other, accented figures get contrasted.

In any case, I start my theorizing with an observation out of Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited,” but it could be in any number of places in Fitzgerald: the idea is that much of what concerns him is ‘dissipation,’ the phenomenon of a gifted character making something into nothing. O’Hara certainly picks up on that notion in Appointment in Samarra, and the same notion is at the heart of the Rabbit novels; Rabbit Angstrom starts with something, a social place and the implicit promise of success, but he keeps fumbling it away. Along the way, such authors allow that experience to become entwined with the experience of America itself, to have them embody an idea of American decline, or at least – going back to Gatsby – the decline of a certain kind of middle-class, white and Protestant America. (Quick footnote: I know that Fitzgerald and O’Hara were not WASPs themselves, but they both so aspired to the status that they wrote, literally, the book on how to do it.)

I say all of that because, if I ever decide to prove that point, I can’t think of a better novel to focus on than this one. It’s excellently written, but I feel like uttering an “of course” when I say that. Ford is a master stylist, and – though I don’t hear it as much as I guess I’d expect to – Frank Bascomb is the clear heir to Rabbit. I admire Updike as an understated stylist (and also, in his Bech books, as an over-the-top stylist) and I think Ford can stand right next to him. If writers were law firms where talented senior partners brought in talented junior partners in their same mold, I can see doing business with Updike and Ford, and I intend it as a compliment to both.

Instead, what I take from this novel is less its acute exploration of mid-life self-recrimination and more the degree to which it asserts one man’s experience of life’s challenges as metonymy for a larger national reimagining. Take away the deep literary skill in play – which is, of course, the reason to read the novel in the first place – and this is all about a man who realizes he faces a reckoning as a father and as a numbed soul as ‘independence day” approaches. He takes his son on a road trip to the various sports halls of fame, to places against which all of us fall short, and he insists his son read Emerson along the way. It’s a mini-crisis, or an extension of the greater crisis, that young Paul can’t seem to find any use for Emerson except – right before the accident that resets the parameters of Frank’s life – to tear the pages out of the book. And it’s partial evidence of Frank’s moving past his “existence period” that he can begin to imagine Paul reading Emerson more carefully, that he can imagine Paul coming into his American birthright.

Once you look for such evidence, it’s plentiful and generally unsubtle. Even the epilogue portion of the novel deals with the ebbing of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams’s influence, on Frank’s casual insistence that he not only hasn’t forgotten them but that he thinks of them with a kind of intensity that surprises the neighbor-friend who brings the subject up himself.

All in all, Frank is ineffectively seeking his personal independence against the backdrop of the country’s uncertain stagger in that direction as well. The novel takes place in the months before the Dukakis/George H. Bush election which, though that feels like an achingly innocent political choice, looks to Frank like a choice between a liberal figure who’s mostly surface against a generally selfish and unreflective conservatism. (Again, that makes the book feel downright naïve next to what we see in the current administration.) Frank retains his strength and his ideals, but he has little he can apply that strength to and he has almost no sense of how to pursue those ideals.

I can see a case where someone might say that we’ve heard enough from privileged white men who can’t figure out what to do with the good fortune of their birthright. To that I’d say, first, there should always be room for voices of this excellence. The context of this one has changed enough that, where it might have been a contender for great American novel status 20 years ago, I think it’s probably worth downgrading it to really-good-American novel today. But still, this is a novel as excellent as what Updike was doing, and that’s a rare enough fruit that have to care about it if we’re going to care about literature at all.

I’d say as well, though, and this takes me back to where I began, that Ford isn’t insisting that we see his story as the only American story. Everyone who attempts what my old professor Julia Stern taught me to call auto-American-biography has license to put him or herself forward as representatively American. As readers, we need to see not just the soloist but the entire choir that emerges. If we set this work alongside the other excellent work of its era – alongside the best of Philip Roth or Toni Morrison – we can begin to see it in a light that continues to do it justice. There’s white privilege at the heart of this, and there’s a thoughtful sense of diminishment (or dissipation) that, in the unthinking hands of Trumpdom is appalling. But at bottom, this is a story of someone who wants the greatness that this country promised. If we grant him the standing to represent a larger group around him, if we allow him to stand as “ethnic” in the sense of representing a particular group experience in the coming together of America, then I think his voice has a clearer place.

  • The Hunt for Red October

  • By: Tom Clancy
  • Narrated by: Scott Brick
  • Length: 18 hrs and 42 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,769
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars 1,649
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars 1,643

Somewhere under the freezing Atlantic, a Soviet sub commander has just made a fateful decision. The Red October is heading west. The Americans want her. The Russians want her back. The chase for the highly advanced nuclear submarine is on - and there’s only one man who can find her. Brilliant CIA analyst Jack Ryan has little interest in fieldwork, but when covert photographs of Red October land on his desk, Ryan soon finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek played by two world powers - a game that could end in all-out war.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Spectacular

  • By Michael Borg on 08-02-18

A Thriller, Yes, But More so Engineering Porn

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-13-18

Talk about being late to the party. It’s been 34 years since almost everyone in the country read this book. For perspective, that means it’s now as long since it was published as 1984 was from the days of Stalin. So a lot has changed, even as Clancy’s Jack Ryan gets a third or even fourth life in the new TV show reboot.

I doubt I’d have read this if not for finding it on sale and being on the hunt myself for something distracting. I figured, if nothing else, this would be a good thriller and keep me occupied.

I’m surprised to find that, with the notable exception of the final 50 or so pages, this is not much of a thriller. Instead, as I now recall from contemporary reviews, this is distinguished largely by its technical acumen. (I remember there were reports the CIA was concerned Clancy had gotten access to classified information; how else, they wondered, could he have known so much about the U.S. Navy’s resources. Clancy answered that all he’d done was to read Jane’s and other public information. He’d just read it very carefully.)

The early parts of this work – or, maybe better said, must have once worked, by letting us see Ryan and other analyst sorts doing the same thing Clancy did as a writer. They take scraps of discrete information, rub them together, and produce a conclusion. In a few cases here, that pays off at a narrative level. Unraveling the mystery of the Red October’s new advanced drive system has a nice feel to it, and I enjoyed the sense of being part of solving the mystery.

For large portions of the bulk of this, though, this turns into engineering porn. We get techies talking in a shorthand that would be utterly tedious if they weren’t also involved in hunting or evading one or another adversary. Even in that context, though, it can drag. Maybe when this material had the aura of being genuinely new – when it felt as if we were glimpsing a war that might happen – it had a different feel. Today, I’d like to see a good editor go at it. I suspect this would work just as well, likely better for the tightness, if it were half as long. (And I suspect, without having seen any of the films or TV shows growing out of it, those derivative productions have indeed accomplished that tightening.)

I’m glad at last to have a sense of what Clancy is all about. I have tried to appreciate that other sales titan of the 1980s, Stephen King, and I find him similarly wanting. There’s something there, but it seems to me attenuated. Take that for the little it’s worth since these guys count their sales in the millions, and I count mine on my fingers, but, there, I’ve said it.

And, at bottom, it’s fair to say that Clancy (and, of course, King) are vastly beyond someone like Dan Brown.

  • The Last Days of Night

  • A Novel
  • By: Graham Moore
  • Narrated by: Johnathan McClain
  • Length: 13 hrs
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,405
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,155
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,136

New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history - and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul's client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the lightbulb and holds the right to power the country?

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Favorite book of 2016

  • By Taryn on 12-19-16

Great Premise, but Marginal as Fiction & History

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-03-18

If I were an acquiring editor, I’d have swooped this one up in a heartbeat. The premise is compelling and tight, and it seems to have a built-in market. Paul Cravath is a young attorney in the late 19th century when he gets hired to represent George Westinghouse in his patent war with Thomas Edison over the future of the nationwide electrical grid. From Paul’s vantage, we get to see how this complicated chapter of American history played out, a chapter that bounced between legal, scientific, political, and financial venues before resolving itself in a network of power (literal and metaphorical) so familiar today that it seems it must always have been as it is.

On top of that, Moore does two other striking things. First, he reminds us that the clash between Edison and Westinghouse prefigured the technology clash of our own lifetime – most famously played out between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – and, second, he adds a sustained romance.

On the surface, then, there’s something for everything.

So, yes, I’d have published this if I could, and, yes, I read and mostly enjoyed it. Still, as instructive as this is – as compelling as it sometimes becomes when some detail of a patent seems likely to sway the battle away from DC current to the AC we know today – it has flaws that keep it from the level of the other recent historical fiction I’ve read. This falls short of the fully realized characters of David Liss’s The Whiskey Rebels and, as does almost everything else, it falls well short of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Bring Up the Bodies.

The characters here have a lot of interesting things to say, but they say them as historical personages rather than as real people. The dialogue, that is, is generally stiff, stentorian in the old word. Characters make grand pronouncements, clarifying intellectual elements of the plot, but growing flatter as they do so. Paul and others are shaped by the events around them rather than by their own distinctive identities. Paul is strong and clever when need be, and he makes foolish professional and personal mistakes when that’s what the story demands. He’s simply not consistently realized.

All that undermines the effectiveness of the love affair here. I root for Paul to win, but, as the romance takes more and more of the spotlight the longer the book goes on, his happiness seems pro-forma. Agnes is too good to be true, so much so that it becomes increasingly unclear why she falls in love with him. She too becomes flat, and – SPOILER – while I might have admired the affair if it didn’t end happily (as it looks to go for a stretch there) it feels too conventional in the end.

Above all, though, I feel a bit cheated that Moore has taken so many liberties with the history here. As the afterword makes clear, the big picture is authentic to what we know, but many of the day-to-day scenes and characters are presented in an invented chronology or are the product of multiple separate characters. The result is that this is, by admission, only marginally accurate history. (Moore himself generously acknowledges the sources from which he’s drawn.)

So, while I do enjoy having read this, I can’t help thinking that, in its inability to develop fully realized characters, it falls a bit short as a novel. At the same time, in the way it tweaks its own sources so routinely, it falls a bit short as history.