The Winter of Our Discontent – 4/5
This is John Steinbeck’s last novel and it begins with our narrator, Ethan Allen Hawley, trying to reckon with what it’s like to have once had money and then not to. He’s a veteran who came home to find his father had squandered the family fortune to make a risky investment (war profiteering) that didn’t pan out. So now a while on, married with two kids, Ethan works out a grocery store for an Italian ex-pat. He’s offered a shady deal to receive kickbacks and he thinks about it. He knows he needs money and his wife certainly intimates as much. She’s got a little money too, but Ethan wants to try to help out an old childhood friend who is a wanton alcoholic by this time. Ethan is pulled in multiple directions as he tries to sort out the course of action that offers the best possibility, or at least the one he can live with. One thing I like about his book is that the stakes are high enough for the lead character, but not dramatically so. Sometimes the narration of life in novels looks toward the extreme to find the literary merit it wants to represent, but life isn’t always like that, and certainly novels don’t always have to do so. It’s a minor Steinbeck when it comes down to it, but you can do a lot worse than a minor Steinbeck. It presents an idea of man who had something and lost it, and is wondering if maybe he can have it again.
Hamlet’s Enemy – 2/5
This is a book of ostensible literary criticism, but it’s not written by a critic or a writer (of literature). Instead, this is a study of “madness” in Hamlet, from the perspective of a psychologist. And well, there’s some issues with that when it comes do to it. This is from the mid-1970s and it feels like it, although a book like this could certainly still be written today. There’s a kind of scholarship to it, but like with a lot of works in which someone’s expertise in one field is somewhat misapplied to a new field, this book suffers from missing the target. More broadly, because this book is written from the 1970s, the very psychology itself has shifted. It’s out of date, and also off target.
For me, it’s also an issue to look for the clinical in art because of, well, art. Would you try to diagnose a skin malady from a painting? Maybe, but it couldn’t be confirmed. And so looking for specific diagnoses in old literature leads to some issues as well. The biggest problem of course is that the book just isn’t very interesting. It offers good analysis of line-readings, but not in any kind of extraordinary depth. Instead, it feels like a passion project or a vanity project of a smart person and an expert in one field, playing out a fun theory in another field they don’t know enough about to really work with.
God is Not Great – 3/5
I flirted with being a lot more aggressive with my atheism at very times in my life, and likely will again in the future. I mostly keep to myself about religious matters and grew up going to evangelical Baptist church and have a lapsed Catholic for a dad, which means there was some bleed over. And being an English major and grad student, and now an English teacher, the stories and teaching of the three Abrahamic religions have permeated almost everything I’ve read. As far as Hitchens books go, this works more like a memoir than an argument and I think it’s packaged in a way that draws away from what’s good about it. Like his friend Salman Rushdie, he’s a smart and erudite writer who has really considered the ways in which religion has functioned in the West and counter to the West for centuries. In his critiques on Islam, he’s much more measured than he often is, and I always find it a little weird and uncomfortable to be nodding right along with critiques of Catholicism and Protestantism and then clam up when it comes to Islam. But alas.
The book is better than I would have hoped, but still marred by Hitchens’s failures to add the context of geopolitics to the mix. But he’s no Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins in the way that they refuse to provide any context whatsoever. His vision is also more humane, if not totally actually humane.
“Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely soley upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”
The Client – 3/5
At the beginning of this John Grisham novel (his fourth, I think), Mark and his brother are smoking cigarettes in the woods when they spot a car all by itself. The car has a hose in the exhaust leading to the rolled up window and in trying to fish the hose out, disrupting the suicide attempt inside, Mark is snatched up and brought into the car where the distraught but menacing man inside pulls out a gun. The man is a lawyer for a mafia capo who, it’s revealed, is on trial for killing a US Senator (Grisham loves to kill a high-profile politician for a plot), and the man in the car knows where the body is hidden and the pressure is getting to him. In the tense opening of the novel Mark eventually gets free, and the man dies anyway. Now Mark knows where the body is and as he’s answering questions about the car, it becomes clear to Federal agents that Mark is key to their case. They pursue him. Mark knows that this information is dangerous and hides out and hires a lawyer to protect him. In the meantime, his brother goes into shock from the experience and Mark and his single mother are pulled in all directions as Mark tries to figure out what’s the right and safe thing to do. The novel mostly deals with the chasing and litigating of these questions. It’s longish for a Grisham, but just as compelling, and just as silly.
“Children make lousy clients. The lawyer becomes much more than a lawyer. With adults, you simply lay the pros and cons of each option on the table. You advise this way and that. You predict a little, but not much. Then you tell the adult it’s time for a decision and you leave the room for a bit. When you return, you are handed a decision and you run with it. Not so with kids. They don’t understand lawyerly advice. They want a hug and someone to make decisions. They’re scared and looking for friends.”
“There was something unfair about a system in which a little kid was brought into a courtroom and surrounded by lawyers arguing and sniping at each other under the scornful eye of a judge, the referee, and somehow in the midst of this barrage of laws and code sections and motions and legal talk the kid was supposed to know what was happening to him. It was hopelessly unfair.”
Killing Floor – 3/5
DID YOU KNOW HE’S TALL? AND HE’S SMART?! AND TOM CRUISE WAS A TERRIBLE CHOICE TO PLAY HIM!
Actually I am not convinced Tom Cruise is a terrible choice to play him, but yes, he’s not very much like he’s described in the book. People just love their large big boy military policeman, who is a cross between Cain from the Kung Fu and Rambo.
In this first novel, which is marred by too much coincidence and a British writer trying to sound American, there’s actually a pretty solid story (if the big coincidence part weren’t here). Jack Reacher is sitting in a diner after walking into town from a early morning bus. He’s surrounded by local cops and arrested for murder. Turns out someone killed somebody nearby and Jack Reacher matches the eyewitness account. This seems strange given that he’s like 6’5 and 240 pounds, but so it goes.
Anyway, once he gets talking he’s able to prove that he wasn’t around and he becomes trusted to the local detective and one of the (hot) deputies. This leads to him helping with the case. It’s a small town in Georgia that hasn’t had a murder in 20 years, and in the coming days there will be about ten or more. Go figure. It’s silly and not as bad as Jack Reacher polemicists would have you believe, but it’s not going to change your life. Unless you’re my father in law, a loyal Democrat/retired banking attorney who has recently fallen in love.
The Uplift War – 4/5
This is the third novel in the trilogy and while I didn’t like the second novel as much as the first, I like this one the best. Like a lot of trilogies, the opening novel sets everything up, the second moves everything into place, and the third lets it all play out. Here, we’re on the planet Garth, where humans have settled (apparently humans are mostly only ever allowed to settle on planets that failed as colonies previously) and this one is working out better. Along with the humans are the Chims (elevated Chimps) and cetaceans (umm, elevated cetaceans — mostly dolphins), and unelevated gorillas, and other species. The Chims are revolting against another alien species also on the planet, and they are demonstrating a real penchant for self-actualization and vigor, even though they stand no chance militarily. Their persistence though leads to an opportunity to not just be uplifted, but actually given full sentience and independence, if they can prove themselves worthy of it. And of course, they’re smart enough to know how offensive the test is, but also understand that they must make a compromised set of choices.
It’s a really good and satisfying conclusion to what has been a little inconsistent of a series for me.
“But there is one more reason to protect other species. One seldom if ever mentioned. Perhaps we are the first to talk and think and build and aspire, but we may not be the last. Others may follow us in this adventure. Some day we may be judged by just how well we served, when alone we were Earth’s caretakers.”
Monkey: Journey to the West – No rating
It doesn’t make a lot of sense to rate a book like this for numerous reasons. The introduction to my version compares this to Don Quixote and other Renaissance fictions, and the episodic nature of the this book makes sense, but it’s not a lot like Don Quixote otherwise, except for the fable like quality and the rascality and the sense that there’s a lot of social commentary here whether I got it or not. But the book is more like myth and novel together, more like a Gilgamesh at times than anything else. The book was put together and told more than written, apparently, bringing together many different Monkey stories into the novel form. My edition is also about 1/3 of the total amount of material available, and probably if you read a version, yours would be about the same. Apparently a lot of the rest is a little too bogged down in minutiae. So a streamlined version makes more sense. I also learned that really no one quite knows who wrote this even though there’s an attributed writer. It’s not like Don Quixote in that Cervantes is a well-known figure, and not like Shakespeare where while there are gaps, there’s no reasonable doubts about that authorship.
The book is about Monkey, a mythical creature who seeks and then attains immortality, and then uses it almost exclusively for mischief.
I distinctly recall when this movie came out and the advertising for it was EVERYWHERE. It was part of the John Travolta comeback along with Pulp Fiction, and when you watch it, it just feels so weak and thin. The book less so, but still somewhat compared to a lot of other Elmore Leonard novels. The movie was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who I generally like, but soon after you had Jackie Brown and Out of Sight come out, which really showed what you could with an Elmore Leonard novel if you were so inclined. The movie begins with Chili Palmer, a loan shark, going to get some money he’s owed. This leads to a chase to a lead to a chase to a lead until he’s eventually giving some advice on scripts in Hollywood. It’s one of those books that suggests the backroom deals in Hollywood operate almost exactly like the frontdoor deals in the mafia, and well, Elmore Leonard would know. It’s also a reminder that every petty criminal is a creative at heart, and vice versa?
“That’s what I like to hear. Where are you?” “The Nugget, downtown.” “What’s the matter with Mesas? Give you casino rate.” “The Strip,” Chili said, “you have to get a cab to go anywhere. Here, you walk out the door you’re in Vegas.” Right there out the window, the Pioneer, Binion’s, Sassy Sally’s, all the grind joints, hot slots, discount prime ribs, keno, bingo, race and sports book . . . cleaning and pressing While-U-Wait . . .”