The Night In Question by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

Tobias Wolff has written yet another fantastic collection of short stories with The Night in Question.  Wolff has yet to disappointment me with any of his writings thus far, and since I believe I’ve read all of his works but for one or two, it does not seem as though that may be a possibility.  The Night in Question is a collection dealing with all too human aspects in a series of stories that are unlikely, but certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.  The peculiarity is not the focus in Wolff’s stories; rather, it’s the human reaction to the peculiarities that make his writing rich and enlightening. 

Once again, I recommend virtually any of Wolff’s work with supreme confidence, and The Night in Question is no exception.  My particular favorites in this work were “Flyboys,” “The Life of the Body,” and one that was very unusual for Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain.”

Falconer by John Cheever – A Book Review

John Cheever is very good at his craft.  His main characters as well as his supporting characters are very well developed; he is an expert at description and dialogue; he knows the way the human minds works in all its logical and illogical glory.  That being said, while I appreciate all of Cheever’s talents, I did not care for Falconer, my first Cheever novel. 

Falconer simply did not interest me.  Yes, all of the above qualities existed, but they weren’t enough to make me care about the main character or his plight.  And if I don’t care about the story, no matter how talented the craft of the author, I simply cannot give it a stellar review.

If you want to study the work of a man who knows what he’s doing in regards to the art of writing, Falconer is for you.  If you want to read about the plight of a man who is battling addiction and loneliness while incarcerated, Falconer is for you.  But, this is not a page-turner, and it would be unfair of me to lead you to believe as such. 

I also believe I should be up front and tell you that there is a great deal of homosexual behavior described between the prisoners in this novel.  That may be important to you, it may not, but it’s there nonetheless.

Beck At Bay by John Updike – A Book Review

John Updike is one of those names I had always heard of but had never checked out.  Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided that it was time for me to get acquainted with Mr. Updike.  I must say that the first work I chose to read of his did not disappoint me. 

Bech at Bay is the last in a series of books that feature Henry Beck, and aged writer who still manages to find himself in precarious adventures.  Bech at Bay is a series of short stories that loosely make up a larger story.  At times hilarious, at times insightful, and at times rather disturbing, I found myself quite pleased with Mr. Updike’s work.  I look forward to reading more of it.

Out Of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – A Book Review

I am a big C.S. Lewis fan. He won me over as a child with his Chronicles of Narnia books, but it was his thought-provoking and inspiring Mere Christianity that solidified his genius in my mind.

That being said, it is with great vacillation that I must reveal I did not care for his science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, the first in the Space Trilogy series.

I did not like it for the reason I don’t care for much of the science fiction I read, and that is specifically the use of ridiculous words that are supposed to be the natural language of the foreign environment. I believe that doing this in abundance, as Lewis did, distracts from the overall story and breaks up the cohesion and fluidity.

Also, for me, Lewis really opened my eyes with Mere Christianity. He literally knocked me out with his elegance and ingenuity. But, most of what he talks about in Mere Christianity is employed as themes throughout Out of the Silent Planet. Ordinarily this would not be a bad thing, but it just didn’t work in my mind for this particular novel. I won’t ruin the plot for you if you choose to read it, but a man travels to a far off planet and there is life there that seems to represent everything we were meant to be. Where the story fell short was in the fact that Lewis spent so much time explaining everything, not very much actually happened.

Now, I’ve heard the second book in this series gets much better, and that the third is even better still. Based upon this news alone, I may try the second book. But, if I were to base my further reading of the Space Trilogy off of Out of the Silent Planet only, it would be the last.

Back In the World by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

Are you reading Tobias Wolff yet?  Are you?  If not, you should be.   

With Back in the World, Wolff gives us yet another outstanding compilation of short stories.  As always, Wolff’s stories are brief and absolutely potent, offering all the complexities and awkwardness of the human condition in a direct and entrancing manner.  His stories are so rooted in everyday life that when something unusual takes place it reminds us just how odd life can sometimes be in the middle of all the humdrum.  Never does he take us beyond the possibilities of reality, however, and I believe that’s why I so remarkably relate to his work.

I unconditionally recommend all of Wolff’s writings, and Back in the World is certainly not to be excluded.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx – A Book Review

I decided to check out Close Range: Wyoming Stories on the recommendation from Stephen King in his memoir, On Writing.  Imagine my surprise when I saw that it included the (very) short story “Brokeback Mountain!”  You know, the source material for the 2006 Academy Award Best Picture nominee.  But, I’ll get more into that later.

 I’d heard good things about the author, Annie Proulx, and wanted to read her work in order to better myself as a writer.  I was totally unfamiliar with any of her writings, so I must say I was more than pleasantly surprised when I found myself absolutely riveted by her short stories.

I didn’t think I was a fan of stories about Wyoming and ranchers, but Proulx didn’t seem to care.  Each and every story in this collection drew me in and fascinated me.  As clichéd as it sounds, her characters are truly masterful.  Like in the land of the living, they are all flawed; they made terrible mistakes, and then they had to learn to live (and die) with the repercussions.  Her characters defy stereotyping, though they all had one thing in common-they were tough.  Each and every one of them was a product of the land they lived on, and so they had to be tough if they were to survive.  Some were tougher than others, and some survived better than others. 

Close Range worked for me because it disturbed me.  I don’t mean that in a negative way at all.  I mean that these stories stayed with me long after I read them.  They almost haunted me.  They reminded me just how glorious and monstrous it is to be human, especially when you have to work yourself to the bone in order to endure.

Though Proulx has an unorthodox writing style that can sometimes be a little difficult to read, I find her completely in touch with what it is to be a human being and her realistic depiction of such, especially of those living on the ranches of Wyoming, is the work of a person who truly has an adroit grasp on her craft.

So it’s hard to write this review without acknowledging the short story found in this collection, “Brokeback Mountain.”  I think it’s important to establish the fact that I am not an advocate of homosexuality; however, I also don’t believe homosexuality warrants discrimination and certainly not hate crimes.  That being said, the short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” like all the other stories in Close Range, is truly a heartbreaking account about two human beings told in such a manner that it will resonate with you no matter what your personal beliefs.  I’ll leave it up to you to determine if these men were in love with one another, but it is certainly a story of longing, confusion, denial, and terrible loss.  In other words, it captures aspects of the emotional essence of the human condition, albeit in a controversial and unsettling fashion.  That is the power of Proulx.

I look forward to reading more of her works.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan – A Book Review

This is probably one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read.  I don’t mean disturbing as in thought provoking and edgy, I mean disturbing as in tasteless and barbaric.  I found nothing redeeming about this novel whatsoever.  McEwan may be a fine writer, but his choice of subject matter and plot, in my eyes, leaves much to be desired.

In The Cement Garden, four children, a boy and two girls in their early and mid-teens, as well as one very young boy, lose their father and then, not much later, their mother as well.  Faced with the prospect of what to do with their mother’s body, they make a very unusual decision and find themselves without any supervision at all.  The novel describes in detail the slow descent these children experience as they do not employ any self-discipline or civility.

Our narrator, a young boy in his mid-teens, is truly one of the most despicable narrators I’ve ever come across.  He is not evil, but he is the portrait of apathy.  He refuses to keep himself clean, he is sexually perverse, he is mean-spirited, and he is lazy beyond words.  I’m afraid the rest of the characters are not far behind him in likeability.

If McEwan wanted to present a story with completely unpleasant characters committing one odious act after another, well then, he succeeded unfalteringly.  I did not enjoy this very brief novel in any way, shape, or form.

A Model World by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

Michael Chabon once again proves why I believe he is America’s premier living author.  In this collection of short stories, he presents many normal circumstances, every day sorts of things, but he gives them to us with such captivating, realistic characters that you must turn the page to find out how everything ends.  Now, this is not the stuff of thrillers, mind you, but rather, his collection is the stuff of life.  These characters are your friends and family, and Chabon treats them with both reverence and brutality.  Such is life.

Chabon’s writing is unassuming and wildly intelligent.  There is much at the surface of his work, but it is also so pleasing to plunge into the depths of analysis if one feels so inclined.  Just as I always have, I highly recommend you read Chabon’s work.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

Michael Chabon’s first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, proves an enticing read.  As usual, Chabon’s characters practically jump off the page and his dialogue is both realistic and somehow magical.  He captures a manner of speaking through his characters that many of us wish we employed in real life. 

The plot, while tightly thought-out and concluded, seems scattershot and unpredictable throughout, which I loved.  I think most of us can identify with Art Bechstein, the main character, as he faces his first summer after graduating from college.  Like most of us, he gets more than he bargained for, but none of what he expected.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh feels somehow fantastic while completely rooted in reality.  The characters are amplified versions of people you probably know, and the situations Art finds himself in with these over-the-top characters, while not beyond the realm of possibility, are certainly unlikely, and that’s what makes this book so fun and, at times, so heartbreaking.  You’ll be amazed at the inappropriate things you’ll find yourself laughing at while reading this work. 

While The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is not as complete as Wonder Boys or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it is still a must read for any fan of Michael Chabon.

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx – A Book Review

Though this is only the second book I’ve read by Annie Proulx, I can tell that her style and voice will keep me coming back for more and more of her work.  Proulx blends the utterly fantastic with the totally mundane so seamlessly that she can pass virtually anything off in her writing and you’ll accept it as commonplace. 

Her characters seem completely well rounded in this collection, even when the stories are brief, and she compels you to care about them, though many of them are not what I would describe as “likable.” 

Just as she describes the state, her stories seem to be about nothing particularly special, yet you find yourself drawn into them and fascinated by their potential.  Proulx does not disappoint.