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Joe Kraus

Kingston, PA, United States
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  • Patti Smith at the Minetta Lane

  • Words and Music
  • By: Patti Smith
  • Narrated by: Patti Smith
  • Length: 1 hr and 23 mins
  • Original Recording
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,210
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,097
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,083

Patti Smith: Words and Music features live audio of performances captured over three evenings at the Minetta Lane Theatre, woven into a single, one-of-a-kind audio event.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • A bonus for fans of Just Kids & M Train

  • By tru britty on 11-02-18

Half Memoir, Half Concert -- I'd Rather All of One

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

Reviewed: 12-01-18

I got this one through Audible, but didn’t consider it a “book” until I saw the New York times had reviewed it. If it’s good enough for them, then I suppose it’s good enough for me.

I love Patti Smith at what I think of her as her best, as a kind of punk poet. I admit I get tired of her work (though not her, never her) when she lapses into the heavy recitation rhythm stuff, when she reads a poem mid-concert and seems to ask, implicitly, if we wouldn’t rather be sitting by ourselves and reading. No, no we wouldn’t – not even those of us who do happen to read our share of poetry in other circumstances.

But, on balance, I like Patti Smith very much, and I certainly enjoyed her Just Kids. It’s justifiably celebrated as one of the great rock memoirs.

This, it turns out, is a kind of greatest hits live. It’s her reading excerpts of her two memoirs and then punctuating them with live music. The memoirs are very good – I enjoy those prose breaks more than I do the poetry interruptions – but I’ve read them. And the music is generally great, but it doesn’t really rock here. For the most part, these are late-middle-aged reworkings of the classics, songs that – beyond their excellence – are supposed to matter here because of the context of her memoirs and because of what we bring to them from our past as well. They tend to linger, to move more slowly than the album versions or, presumably, the classic concert arrangements.

This is, in effect, Smith’s answer to Springsteen on Broadway. She isn’t selling out at a major theater, but she is reuniting with her fans. She’s talking through the music, not feeling that rock spirit but capably performing a script.

I doubt I’ll ever find Smith truly boring – and this is certainly not – but I did get the sense I’d heard it all before. She’s one of the rock queens, someone I’m glad to see basking in her well-deserved renown. I’d be interested in a full concert, one where we get to see her rethinking the music as music, slowing it down and drawing new nuances from it.

Framing the music in her strong memoirs makes it something that, live, must still pack a punch. Recorded – as something that we’re supposed to acknowledge as a book – it leaves me hungry for something purer: another memoir or another concert.

  • The Little Friend

  • By: Donna Tartt
  • Narrated by: Karen White
  • Length: 25 hrs and 51 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    3.5 out of 5 stars 822
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 691
  • Story
    3.5 out of 5 stars 693

From the author of The Secret History comes a dark, suspenseful novel of lost childhood. Harriet Dusfresnes is a child in Mississippi, haunted by the murder of her brother when she was just a baby. He was found hanging from a tree in their backyard; his killer was never identified, nor did the family ever recover. Only Harriet's teenage sister might have seen what happened that day, and she has blocked it out from her memory.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • The Little Friend's Friend

  • By Nathaniel on 08-14-10

A Potentially Powerful Story Spread Too Thin

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

Reviewed: 11-30-18

I am as big a fan of The Secret History and The Goldfinch as anyone. I think each is a modern masterpiece, and I think Donna Tartt is one of our most gifted contemporary writers on the strength of the two of them. But this one, released a decade after the one and before the other, lacks the dark urgency of The Secret History and the vast canvas of The Goldfinch. It has a powerful kernel at the heart of it, but it’s too small a story to carry the weight of its 600+ pages.

The idea at the heart of this sounds impressive. A little girl, Harriet, comes to understand the inexplicable murder of her brother years before as having been perpetrated by a down-on-their-luck family of drug dealers and dubious evangelicals. With her precocious intelligence, she tracks down what she thinks is the real evil without understanding that evil is ultimately beyond comprehension. It’s a coming-of-age narrative with a twist – a twist of a knife where we can never see the hand behind it.

But there are all sorts of small matters that detract from that powerful central notion. For one, Tartt introduces a number of characters who, in the end, don’t contribute all that much to the story. We don’t need to see so much about Harriet’s sister or about the inner lives of her many aunts. The characters are likable enough, but they blend together somewhat, and they ultimately distract from what seems the central point about exploring the possibility of evil as a child. A little of such characters would have accomplished as much as the couple hundred pages we get of them.

For another, Tartt jumps from perspective to perspective. At times that has the virtue of placing Harriet’s questioning in a different light, letting us see through her eyes as a thoughtful detective and then see her through others as a little girl trying to find her way. At other times, it gets clumsy. [SEMI-SPOILER] In the scene where Danny and Harriet confront each other at the water tower, the action gets slowed as we switch from one pair of eyes to another. Sometimes, to my annoyance, it gets repeated.

There are parts here that venture into noir territory – what else can you call a novel that opens with the awful murder of a 13-year-old boy – but Tartt eventually shows (SPOILER: through the contrived way that Harriet survives the showdown with Danny) she doesn’t have the stomach for that. She blinks, and we get instead something that returns to the safety of conventional narrative.

Overall, I’m afraid I found myself checking how much I had left simply too often for the book to feel like a complete success. Tartt writes excellent sentences, and sometimes I’d linger over a particularly strong line, but the narrative just kept slowing down. I’d be curious to see the “studio-cut” of this, the roughly half-as-long book that would tell the same story with the excess cut out.

At the same time, I know what Tartt did before this and after, so I think the smart play remains to leave her to her own devices. This won a lot of awards when it came out 15 years ago, so maybe it’s just aged badly. In any case, with Tartt seeming to take a decade between books, I continue to look forward to the next one she rolls out, presumably in five more years.

  • Killing Commendatore

  • A Novel
  • By: Haruki Murakami, Philip Gabriel - translator, Ted Goossen - translator
  • Narrated by: Kirby Heyborne
  • Length: 28 hrs and 27 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 436
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 411
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 410

In Killing Commendatore, a 30-something portrait painter in Tokyo is abandoned by his wife and finds himself holed up in the mountain home of a famous artist, Tomohiko Amada. When he discovers a previously unseen painting in the attic, he unintentionally opens a circle of mysterious circumstances. To close it, he must complete a journey that involves a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious 13-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • A Masterpiece and A Good Novel To Start

  • By Elif Kaya on 10-18-18

Another Full Canvas from the Master Painter

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

Reviewed: 11-16-18

I have read most of Murakami’s work by this point, and all of the would-be masterpieces: Kafka at the Shore, 1Q84, Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, and Hardboiled Wonderland. I obviously enjoy the guy’s work, or I wouldn’t keep coming back to him, and I am as excited as anybody else at this newest bid for greatness.

On balance, I think this one delivers yet again. It’s got the familiar tropes of a main character who slowly sheds his all-around-nice-guy persona to reveal peculiar darknesses; a secondary world that may or may not be distinct from what we know everyday; sustained reflections on the nature of art in a world craving for certainty denied it; and even, though not until the end and then only in small bits, cats as totems.

The more I read this, though – and I believe it’s Murakami’s first to deal so extensively with painting – the more I began to see some parallels between Murakami and painters in general. Above all, I found myself thinking of Murakami as a kindred spirit to Marc Chagall. Both had a tendency to reuse mystical tropes, and both worked on either medium-sized or vast canvasses. Both eschewed strict realism but neither embraced anything like full-blown abstraction.

Thinking of Murakami in such a light made me realize that there may not be all that meaningful a difference between his works. That’s not criticism; it’s just an effort at explaining why a single writer has shown he can write at least five different novels sized to be career-defining works. What I’m suggesting is that Murakami is less about plot or arguments and more about arranging a variety of tropes, images, and motifs into ever-fresh ways. His imagination is so deep and his feel for balance so strong that the real question seems to be how a specific composition fits together.

In such a light, it may be that this is somewhat weaker than the other top Murakami’s. Still, I think I’ve felt that about each of them since Kafka at the Shore (which was the first I read). I’ll finish, decide it’s good but a little less good, and then, as I reflect on the whole of the novel in the following weeks. I’ll find it ultimately as satisfying as the others.

That’s certainly my experience here. In the midst of my deep enjoyment of the novel, I was looking for reasons to be skeptical. I was troubled by the inelegant telegraphing of our protagonist’s friend, the son of the great painter, who has some news about his involvement with the protagonist’s ex-wife. I was frustrated that the opening pages essentially reveal the final key images – the faceless man, the idea of portraiture, and the penguin charm of the little girl – and take away some of the joy of narrative suspense. And I was bothered that some major tropes seem to get introduced only late.

And yet, as I reflect on all of this, it’s not so much that those images and tropes are out of balance as that they are out of the balance I would have anticipated. As the novel comes into focus as a whole, I find myself appreciating all at once again that Murakami hasn’t merely recycled his old stand-bys; he has instead reappropriated them for this new literary canvas.

We get a few more explicit articulations than usual of the fundamental Murakami method. At one point, the mysterious Menshiki says, “Instead of a stable truth, I choose unstable possibilities,” and “I choose to surrender myself to that instability.” Our protagonist can’t quite embrace such uncertainty but – and this is the dimension of the novel in which he is like the Nick Carraway to Menshiki’s Gatsby – he does indeed go partway. He’s willing to accept that we can’t know truth entirely but that we have to embrace something. As he puts it near the very end, “Maybe nothing in this world can be certain, but at least we can believe in something.”

In the end, though, I’m less interested in why Murakami does what he does or even for why it works. Instead, I am happy to enjoy the peculiar blend of symbol, fantasy, and melancholy that he finds a way to paint in fresh fashion over one after another of his massive canvasses.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • The Last Pass

  • Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End
  • By: Gary M. Pomerantz
  • Narrated by: Gary M. Pomerantz
  • Length: 12 hrs and 15 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars 9
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 9
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars 9

Out of the greatest dynasty in American professional sports history, an intimate story of race, mortality, and regret. About to turn 90, Bob Cousy, the Hall of Fame Boston Celtics captain who led the team to its first six championships on an unparalleled run, has much to look back on in contentment. But he has one last piece of unfinished business. The last pass he hopes to throw is to close the circle with his great partner on those Celtic teams, fellow Hall of Famer Bill Russell, now 84.  

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • A very good biography of Cousy

  • By Hebern on 11-19-18

Great Premise, Not Quite Fulfilled in Good Book

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

Reviewed: 11-06-18

I picked this one up because I read a great excerpt of it in Time. As Pomerantz describes it, this is basketball great Bob Cousy doing something remarkable, let alone for a 91-year-old who’s lived most of his life as a celebrity: reflecting on his own role in race as it played out in his lifetime.

I don’t regret picking up the whole book, but I do feel marginally misled by that excerpt. This book does deal with Cousy as he reflects on his friendship with Bill Russell; the two of them were the twin stars – Russell clearly the greater one – of the first NBA dynasty, one electric and one rock steady, one white and one black. It deals with that friendship, or strange lack thereof, in a beautifully written opening section, and then somewhat less satisfying at the end.

In between this is a different book altogether, also a good one, but not quite what I’d been sold on.

The heart of this is a biography of Cousy, and it’s certainly well done. Pomerantz has great admiration for the man, and he certainly persuades me to share it. Cousy himself felt like an immigrant, felt like a child of the ghetto who experienced a fraction of the native distrust that so haunted Russell.

I had no idea Cousy was, essentially, French, that he was the child of two French immigrants and that English was his second language. (I got to thinking that, alongside Tony Parker and, maybe someday, Frank Nkitlina, the French have a lot to boast about in their point guards.) I’d taken his name for Irish and that, of course, would have made him royalty in Boston. Instead, he could never quite overcome a combination of accent and speech impediment, and he could never quite be home in the world of celebrity athlete that he had a real hand in creating.

Pomerantz has a number of fine passages where he gives a sense of what it must have been like to watch Cousy play in his early days. He was, after George Mikan, the second inventor of modern play. And, where Mikan brought a combination of low-post precision and brute size, Cousy brought flair and creativity. Cousy is the forerunner of the basketball wizard – the Houdini of the hardwood. I think his Youtube clips probably don’t show the great panache of his original moves. Next to the greats of today, to Step Curry to take the exemplar, he must seem drab. In context, though, as Pomerantz describes it, he was a revolution.

This does begin to drag a little in the second half. Pomerantz has some great material, but he recycles the best of it. I think, in the end, the book would have been just as effective, and a little sharper, if it were about 20 percent shorter.

But the culmination here is the profile of Cousy in his waning years. Pomerantz lets us see him as a man unafraid to ask himself a difficult question: how was it possible he could have enjoyed such spectacular on-court chemistry with Russell yet not known the extent of what he endured as an African-American in Boston. (In one harrowing scene – one we get at least three times – vandals broke into Russell’s home, painted racist graffiti, and defecated in his bed.) Cousy seems to have been well ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to race – he roomed with the Celtics first black player, and he served as a Big Brother to a handful of adolescent African-American boys – so he could easily plead his own documented good works. Instead, he probes his conscience for times he failed to ask the necessary question, for times he might have been even braver than he was and put his hard-earned reputation at risk.

And, while there is a lot to chew on in those culminating reflections, the somewhat disappointing truth is that they’re unresolved. Outside of a powerful scene in which Cousy, in a live television interview, began crying when asked about his relationship with Russell (another scene repeated multiple times) Pomerantz isn’t able to show us too much detail in Cousy’s reflections. I’m persuaded to admire the basketball player, admire the dignified way he’s aging in a world slowly forgetting the magnitude of his innovations, but I don’t quite have a sense of how I should admire him.

Cousy, that is, deserves admiration for his intention to ask himself deep questions at a time most of his contemporaries have faded or died. Pomerantz deserves credit for laying out those intentions as clearly as he does (and for the loving and attentive biography he works around that project). In the end, though, we see only the first half of the play – the pass as it’s leaving the hands of thoughtful man Cousy and careful writer Pomerantz. Good as this is, I’d like to see the second half of the play, the part where we see the pass get caught, the part where we see the reconciliation with Russell. And that, I’m afraid – both in life and in this otherwise fine book – we do not get to see.

  • Siddhartha

  • By: Hermann Hesse
  • Narrated by: Michael Scott
  • Length: 4 hrs and 38 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 26
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 23
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 23

Siddhartha, born the son of a Brahmin, was blessed in wealth, appearance, intelligence and charisma. In order to find meaning in life, he discarded his promising future for the life of an ascetic. He wandered as a shramana and searched for Gotama the Buddha. However, this man, Siddhartha, was not a follower of any but his own soul. This popular book provides the listener with insight into the philosophy and thoughts that shape Siddhartha's path to enlightenment.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Another great listen

  • By Roy Bodshaug Jr. on 11-24-18

A Call to Lose Oneself through the Self

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

Reviewed: 10-29-18

When I was in high school, freshman and sophomore era, I first discovered Kurt Vonnegut and then – at the instigation of some older cousins – Herman Hesse. They were the two “serious” writers I first came to, and I can still see their books intermingled on an adolescent book shelf. (They were those thin, cheap mass market paperbacks, probably $ 1.75 or $1.95 each, and I recall the Hesse as being a sort of yellow, though I have a self-diagnosed color amnesia and can generally not remember the color of anything I’ve seen.)

I remember enjoying the Hesse, but I think I enjoyed it more for the idea of myself reading Hesse than for the Hesse itself. I liked the sense of myself as a 15 year old casually paging through a book that college students were struggling over. In any case, I don’t think I understood the context of what Hesse was saying. To me it was a kind of self-help manual. Now, revisiting – still somewhat casually – it seems to me a broadside against more established European philosophy. I must have seen that Siddhartha was “for” the power of the individual experience – the necessity of traveling ones own path – but I’m sure I had no sense that it was arguing against a philosophical tradition that saw itself as building upon those experiences that preceded it.

I admire what Hesse is saying here – that you have to look yourself for wisdom, that relying on teachers will always necessarily subordinate you to the experience of an other. I plan to spend more time chewing on the intriguing notion that our Siddhartha found even the Buddha wanting, not because the Buddha’s spiritual growth was suspect but because, if the Buddha had found a way out of Sansara into Nirvana, the “chink” he found in the great chain of existence was himself. Our Siddhartha (because, of course, the Buddha shares that name, though Hesse uses a different one for him here) believes he has to find his own path. His answer will never be as powerful as the Buddha’s, but it will be his, and that is a necessary component for him.

I’m not sure how sold I am on the image of the voice of the river as that ultimate answer. Listening to the river teaches him that it’s possible to move beyond time, teaches him that – as much as there is to enjoy in the physicality of the world – there is a blessing in recognizing that all things pass and we are part of them.

I read this because I am excited to take on the sequel that my friend William Irwin has just brought out. (Check out Little Siddhartha when you get a chance. I have my copy sitting at home in the kitchen, and I can read it now that I’ve revisited the original for the first time since 1981.) As I reflect on it now, though, I can’t help putting it in conversation with Vonnegut, who lives very much in my consciousness at the moment since I have re-read his work recently more fully than at any time in those same 37 years.

I got to see Vonnegut speak in college, and he said something that’s hung with me. He was very cranky about meditation – as I understand it, his first marriage dissolved in part because his wife found her way into Eastern spirituality, and he felt it estranged them. He told us in Ann Arbor (though it was a canned speech, and I’m sure he made it on many other occasions) that he understood some of the appeal of meditation, of the desire to lose oneself within a larger space of consciousness. He felt there was a Western equivalent, though, one that wasn’t getting the same contemporary publicity.

That is, he said he understood reading as “Western meditation,” as proudly part of the tradition that Hesse implicitly broke with. The goal in reading as he saw it wasn’t to merge with the godhead; it wasn’t to find ones way out of a sense of self and to merge with the divine or another conception of the mechanism of the universe. Instead, he said, the idea is to find oneself within the conversation of one consciousness with another.

That’s stuck with me for a long time and, given the choice, I think I’ll always embrace the experience of my fully aware self shaking hands with another mind over the impulse to lose my mind within something larger.

Meandering as all this is, my point is that I find those two “serious” writers of my adolescence much more at odds than their mixed place on my shelf would suggest. Siddhartha, as I read it, advocates for fleeing the self through a journey dependent on the self. Vonnegut gives us characters who are alien, but pushes toward a sense of recognizing the self as a distinct someone in a lonely universe.

That’s probably too pat to do either justice, but it’s how things look on this morning, some 35 years after I last really saw those two authors as talking to each other, and talking to me.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Hi Bob!

  • By: Bob Newhart
  • Narrated by: Will Ferrell, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, and others
  • Length: 3 hrs and 34 mins
  • Original Recording
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 8,070
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 7,334
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 7,252

In Hi Bob!, American icon Bob Newhart gets together one-on-one with a handpicked cohort of luminaries in the world of entertainment, whom he happens to be friends with. Bob gets deep with each performer about their aspirations, their careers, how they got started, and how they grew to be where they are today. They make TV shows, movies, or albums, but they all like telling stories.    

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • really well edited, funny, sincere

  • By RCC on 09-24-18

Newhart Makes a Quiet & Funny Bid for his Legacy

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

Reviewed: 10-24-18

If you’re watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – and if you aren’t you should be – then you know that Lenny Bruce appears as the comic lodestar of the early 1960s. He’s the one pushing the envelope, the one who’s both a model for and a provocation to Midge as she figures out her own comic voice.

If you look closely, Bob Newhart is there as well. It’s his routine that Midge’s wannabe comedian husband steals and performs as his own. (It’s the skit where he’s on the phone, as Abraham Lincoln’s press agent, counseling him about how to speak to the nation about Gettysburg.) It’s funny, even in the show we see it’s funny, but it’s also safe.

So, as we allow the history of American standup to solidify into a canonical narrative, that seems Newhart’s place in it. He’s the epitome of that formative moment’s notion of solid and safe. He is, to take a later era’s players, the Jay Leno of the early to mid-1960s, someone who reliably delivered laughs but didn’t leave behind the ripples of the more influential David Letterman or even Gary Shandling.

I think this book is Newhart’s answer to that implicit, whispered sense of his legacy. In it, he interviews – or, really, converses with – a series of today’s heavyweight comics. It’s loosely organized around topics, with the interviews broken up and spliced into something like a coherent whole, but the essence of it is to remind us that Newhart’s voice still resonates in the way he’s influenced this impressive wave of comedians. (And it is impressive: Will Ferrell, Conan O’Brian, Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Jimmy Kimmel, and Lisa Kudrow.)

And, while if it ever comes to Team Lenny Bruce vs. Team Bob Newhart I’m all in for Bruce, I think that’s a good thing. If the Bruce school of comedy is all about making comedy a weapon to go after the hypocrites who are – and always will be – in control, Newhart’s is simply about taking the sting out of the discomforts of the modern world. He sees hypocrisy too, and he looks at it with his eyes open, but he takes it on by gentling it. He isn’t angry, and that anger isn’t born from the ashes of a frustrated idealism. Instead, he’s amused by the human condition. Bruce wants to get us out of our seats and agitating the status quo. Newhart wants us to see that the status quo is us. It isn’t revolution, but it is a small step toward making us all a little better.

This is an audiobook, which is a good way to hear Newhart’s voice. There’s perhaps a little more warble than there was in The Bob Newhart Show days, but his impeccable timing is still there. He is, at age 88, still a very funny man, and part of the charm of this book is to remind us that he has always appreciated comedy as an art form, that he was one of the boosters of the generation (and possibly generations) that have followed him.

There are some good insights into how comedy works. Silverman, Ferrell, and O’Brian in particular talk with him about some of the art of standup. There are also some nice nuggets about the comedy world of five or six decades ago. I mean, who else alive can talk about headlining in Vegas in the mobbed-up moment of the Rat Pack’s preeminence.

But the real reason to listen to this is that it’s a lot of very funny people telling stories and jokes that, with few exceptions, hold up. Lenny Bruce was incandescent and, if you buy into the narrative around him, that very incandescence meant he was doomed to a brilliant but short career. Newhart always cast a gentler light, one that’s directed the way for more comics than he gets credit for, and, remarkably, it’s still shining.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • The Power

  • By: Naomi Alderman
  • Narrated by: Adjoa Andoh
  • Length: 12 hrs and 5 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,923
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,636
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 3,626

In The Power, the world is a recognizable place: There's a rich Nigerian boy who lounges around the family pool; a foster kid whose religious parents hide their true nature; an ambitious American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But then a vital new force takes root and flourishes, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power - they can cause agonizing pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world drastically resets.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • A necessary read

  • By Grace on 11-22-17

Great premise diminished by mixed direction

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

Reviewed: 10-22-18

This novel has a magnificent premise. It’s a premise on the order of Gulliver’s Travels or Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” It’s the kind of premise that allows you to see through a lot of the contradictions of our culture, that strips away the familiar and leaves you looking at possibilities that didn’t seem to exist before it. It’s the kind of premise that could conceivably give birth to multiple novels and short stories, all taking it in different and provocative directions.

The problem is, Naomi Alderman has given us multiple novels at the same time.

Alderman imagines a world in which women have developed the power to transmit electricity through touch. They can deliver paralyzing and even fatal charges that render them, all at once, the stronger gender. In the span of several years, men go from being implicitly in control – thanks to their larger muscles – to dependent, based on the fact that they would lose in physical encounters with most women.

Parts of this story deal with the personal level. We see young women who, discovering what they can do, take control of their lives, measure the emptiness of revenge, and deal with the complications of romantic relationships shaped differently from the ones they’ve been schooled to expect. (Think of much of the Jocelyn story here.)

Parts deal with the cultural. We see women pushing for notions of gender equality with greater power behind them. They don’t have to settle for the role of ‘little sister’ or ‘dependent girlfriend.’ They can take over and run things like the men who ran them before them. (Think of Roxy.)

Parts deal with the geo-political. We see, for instance, the rise of a new nation headed by the angry and ambitious Tatiana, and we see Margot building a political and business consortium that allows her to become one of the United States’ most influential politicians.

Parts deal with greater and deeper anger. Allie, who reconceives herself as “Eve,” nurtures an increasingly apocalyptic vision in which she reinterprets traditional religious scripture as a mandate for women’s superiority, can never escape the shadow of the sexual abuse she experienced as an adolescent.

And parts deal with meta-narrative in which we see the events of the novel as the imagined reconstruction of a time of upheaval as reconstructed by a man 5000 years in the future. He’s trying in his work to question the, by that time, implicit understanding that women dominate men.

I wish Alderman had picked one of those stories to explore and broaden. Any one of them would likely have been powerful. Instead, it’s as if she’s taken a plate full at a story buffet. Like an analogous plate at a Chinese restaurant, the result is promising flavors that bleed into each other. There are different places that look as if they’d make a full and memorable meal, but there’s no opportunity to enjoy the full experience of any of them.

The clash of impulses shows up in many places. For one, most sections of the novel come to us in conventional (and effective) ways as present tense. We see characters respond to changing events and grow with new experiences. It’s “novel” in the sense that it seems to be working toward the new, toward a surprise discovery. At the same time, though, we’re supposed to accept the frame narrative that the entire story is the product of an archeologist historian so unfamiliar with our world that he can’t conceive of large scale issues like sexism or Christianity as we know it. At a level of representation, it simply doesn’t work. I’d like to read the novel that results in the confusion that Alderman exploits – that she exploits with real effectiveness in the closing exchange of letters in the final chapter, for instance – but that’s not the one she’s written. Given what we know of our future historian’s ignorance, there’s no way he could have known enough to write the larger story we’ve received from such a personal perspective.

Or, for instance, there’s the clash of scale. Much of this deals with the sort of narrative I expected when I first heard the premise. We see women, or really girls, who discover what it means to be powerful, who discover what it means to own a privilege contemporary women know to be denied them. We see characters like Jocelyn negotiating those changed sexual politics as their strength subtly shifts a balance that is, for purposes of their story, real but invisible. At the same time as individuals struggle for a fuller sense of self, though, we learn about other women who have taken over the government. These women have skipped the personal politics and gone straight for all-out war. I care about Jocelyn, but there’s only so much I can care when others have cultivated their strength to the point that armies are on the move. There’s simply a contradiction in the way we’re called upon to see the simultaneous effects of the power.

And, even at the level of the premise, there’s the question of what’s happening. This begins, as we see it primarily through Allie/Eve’s eyes as a mystical experience. It’s moving to sense that the power has emerged from millennia of repressed hurt and anger. Women deserve this power as something that can allow them to make amends for a sexism that stretches back to our animal origins. Somewhere around halfway, though, the mysticism gets pushed back as scientific explanations begin to predominate. It’s less a mystical notion than a physical one, and scientists identify an organ, “the skein,” as a bundle of nerves running through a woman’s collarbone, as the explanation for what’s going on. Unlikely men – a group of Jewish gangsters – come to understand the anatomy well enough that they can even surgically remove one skein and implant it into a man. I find that change in tone, that surrendering of the mystical, righteous anger that gave birth to one idea of the power, as much a sci-fi mistake as it was for the “first” Star Wars trilogy to reduce “the force” to something called midichlorians in the blood stream. It’s not just lazy storytelling; it’s also a diminishment of what made the work evocative in the first place.

There’s much to admire in what’s here sporadically, and I have a sense it might work very well in the apparently in-production large-scale television series that may come of it. Given a larger canvas – and, I trust, with the awkward framing device removed – it will be something to see the unfolding of a new culture as women establish themselves as the more powerful gender. I won’t forget the premise, but I will forget most of the confused and contradictory strands of the stor(ies) that emerge in this version of it.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • 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 591
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 545
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 541

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 49
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 30
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars 31

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.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful