Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Cardturner

Seeing as how he's my favorite writer, I was really excited to read Louis Sachar's new book, The Cardturner. My wife even ordered it for me in advance and I eagerly awaited its arrival for several weeks. To my disappointment, the book was not all I'd hoped for. Don't get me wrong, it's still quite good, but it doesn't measure up to some of Sachar's other classics like Holes or the Wayside School books. For the most part, it follows a somewhat conventional plot structure, something that Sachar has often successfully avoided.
The story is about a teenager named Alton Richards who gets roped into being the "cardturner" for his bridge-obsessed, blind uncle. Alton's parents want him to make a good impression on the old man because he is extremely wealthy and they'd like to be included in his will, although they never directly say that. This part is responsible for a lot of the humor in the book, which is successful most the time. In my opinion, Sachar has always been able to deliver the laughs.
As he gets to know his uncle better, Alton also learns more about himself and his family history. He also learns some new things from his eccentric uncle. You get the idea.
The story focuses a lot on the card game bridge, something I know next to nothing about. I like that Sachar chose to write about something so unhip and uncool. As I read in an interview with him, every other teen author right now is writing about vampires so writing about an ancient card game for old people is like career suicide. Well, he didn't quite use those words, but something like that anyway. And I agree, at this time when it seems that every author is writing the same stories, it's refreshing to find a story with no pretensions and no attempts to be trendy or cool. My problem was that I just felt like Sachar didn't reach his potential. To borrow an analogy my friend once used, The Cardturner is like vanilla ice cream: it's good because it's ice cream, but it lacks something and fails to reach its full potential of awesomeness.

On the Road

I just finished reading Jack Kerouac's famous novel about young people on the road in search of meaning and excitement. I'd heard a lot about this book; it always seems to be on lists of top 100 American novels. I suppose part of this is not just due to actual content of the book, but to the historical significance it possess. That being said, I'll say that although I enjoyed parts of it, I didn't particularly care for the book as a whole.
The book chronicles the travels of Sal Paradise, (commonly thought of as Kerouac himself), as he travels across the US throughout several years. Before I read the book, I thought everything in it took place during one trip, but it is actually a few different trips which Kerouac made over several years of his life.
In the book, he often has little money or way of transportation and has to make his way as he goes. Although some people, like myself, would not enjoy this, Sal flourishes in this type of lifestyle.
He frequently travels with his friend Dean Moriarty. Sal has an intense respect and love for Dean. Dean, perhaps more than anyone else in the story, is just looking for a good time. Though he is portrayed as kind, he is also irresponsible, and, I thought, a bad husband and father, a fact which he himself acknowledges at one point. I think one of the book's themes was the pull that life on the road exerts over these men, even managing to lure them away from their families and responsibility. By the end of the book, I was somewhat frustrated with Dean because he often comes across as selfish.
However, I also enjoyed this book in some ways. Despite what I've said about Dean, I liked his excitement for life and humanity. One can't be too negative or critical of him because he's so positive about everything life has to offer. I guess he's the type of guy that's hard to really dislike for a long time. This definitely seems to be the case with Sal, who always finds himself back with Dean.
This book can take some time to get through. Although it's only around 300 pages, most of those pages are dense with words and Kerouac's detailed descriptions of nearly everything he encounters. Overall, pretty good book but not exactly my thing.

Friday, May 7, 2010


This is the first novel by Don DeLillo. DeLillo is a well-known American writer whose novels often make top 100 lists. Because of his reputation, I was curious as to what his books were like. I read this one for a class this semester and it is the first of his I've read. It centers around a young, successful man named David Bell who works unhappily in advertising. Toward the beginning of the novel, Bell realizes the shallowness of his life and wants to change it. His desire is to escape the world he lives in and create a great work of art. He wants to capture the essence of America in a documentary film. Fair enough, but the reader sees through the course of the novel that David, who represents America in general, cannot really do anything unique. Everything he does is merely a reproduction of images he has already seen. All his attempts to be artistic are plastic reproductions of works by real artists.
Las Vegas is a great example of what DeLillo is getting at. Vegas is filled with buildings that are commercial reproductions of real works of art. Because they are nothing more than copies, they give the buildings a cheap, inauthentic feel. DeLillo argues that this tendency affects Americans on many levels. For example, what Americans see on TV is what they try to emulate and copy in their own lives. For people like Bell, life becomes nothing more than a reproduction of images seen on the screen.
I liked the theme of this book but I don't know that I cared much for the delivery. At the start of the book, I dug the writing style, but by the end I had grown a little tired of it. Interesting, considering this is one of DeLillo's shorter novels. I know that most of his more well-known books came after this one so I'm curious if I would like some of those better. I just felt that this story, though good at times, wandered a bit and went on too long.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Remains of the Day

This is Kazuo Ishiguro's most well-known novel. It is told in the first person by an English butler named Stevens. He works at a mansion in the English countryside called Darlington Hall. His narrative focuses on the events that happened years before when he worked for a man named Darlington, who, as is revealed as the story goes on, had ties with the Nazi party in England. He also spends a lot of time ruminating on what qualities the perfect butler possesses. A lot of his thoughts about this are unintentionally funny.
When I heard the description of this book, I was doubtful that I would enjoy it. But it's actually really good. I would even go so far as to say it's one of the best books I've ever read. Ishiguro has a talent for writing that is hard to match. The pace is slow, but it fits the tone of the book very well and the book is still able to remain interesting.
There are a lot of themes throughout, like how memory works. Stevens is an unreliable narrator who often omits important details. He is shown as someone who remembers events more as he wants them to be than how they actually are.
Stevens also represents English repression. Throughout the novel, he is in love with a woman named Miss Kenton but he refuses to act on or acknowledge it. He acts this way because he believes that the importance of his professionalism as a butler exceeds all other things. He sacrifices any type of personal life for his job.
By the end of the book, Stevens realizes that perhaps his devotion to Darlington was misplaced and that he has wasted many years of his life as a servant. Thus, it is up to him how he will spend the rest of his life, or the remains of the day, as it were.
The novel was adapted into an okay movie version in 1993 with Anthony Hopkins as Stevens.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Freak the Mighty

This book by Rodman Philbrick has several elements of a traditional young adult novel, but also contains elements that make it unique. For me, stories about kids with rare diseases can be bad, but in this case it worked well. What I mean with the diseases is that sometimes an author can try too hard to be different, but I didn’t get that feeling from Philbrick. Everything he put in there added to the story and seemed unforced.
The story is about a huge kid named Max who feels like he is slow and dumb. He becomes friends with his new neighbor, Freak, who is extremely intelligent and suffers from a growth disease that has left him only a few feet tall. As you may expect, they learn from each other and "grow" and stuff because of their unique friendship.
I like that the two main characters aren't super likable all the time. Freak is kind of snotty sometimes and Max can be sarcastic and rude. Max’s voice reminded me of a lot of kids I knew in high school, myself included.
This book raises interesting questions about judging people. For the most part, of course, judgments tend to be wrong. But this book also contains an instance where Max's grandparent's judgment of his father is correct. They say he's a good-for-nothing criminal and that pretty much ends up being true.
The ending is sad, I guess, although quite predictable. That’s one criticism I have with the book. Sometimes I just feel like the death of someone close is too common a theme in adolescent literature. Sometimes it can be the cop out way of adding drama to a story. I know authors are trying to stray away from stuff that’s unrealistically chipper, but it’s not like everyone around dying is always the best way to do that. But besides that, I did like this book a lot.
P.S. I saw a few minutes of the movie adaptation of this book, The Mighty. From what I saw, it looked bad. Like with most movies, it looked like they took a good story and made it really corny and sentimental.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Out of the Dust

Out of the Dust is a Newberry Award winner written by Karen Hesse. I had never heard of it but was assigned to read it for class. I was really impressed with the writing style. It is written entirely in free verse as opposed to the standard chapter by chapter narration. I didn't know if I would like a book written all in poetry, but it works well here. The poetry isn't fancy or pretentious, as I thought it might be. It's simple, descriptive and easy-to-follow.
The story follows a young girl born in Oklahoma during the great Dust Bowl of the thirties. From a young age, she is faced with challenges foreign to most Americans now. Her mother dies while she is still young and she spends months blaming herself for it. Her dad is quiet and withdrawn, always worrying about their farm on which he can't grow anything.
The girl dreams of moving away to a better life. Her ticket to this new life is her above-average piano playing skills. She has the potential to go somewhere with her talent and is somewhat famous locally. But that all changes when she accidentally burns her hands with boiling oil. For the rest of the book, she has to overcome the pain in her hands and learn to play again.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nice Work

This is the first book I had to read this semester for a contemporary British literature class I'm in. To tell the truth, I haven't been too impressed by anything in the class so far, with one big exception, The Remains of the Day, whose review is coming soon.
In the novel, by David Lodge, a conservative, industrialist man and a liberal literary theory professor woman are forced to work with one another as part of a government-sponsored program encouraging understanding between people from different worlds. It's not a bad idea for a book and the reader gets to see things looked at from two very different view points. Along the way, Lodge satirizes both ends of the spectrum. He's never mean, but he does point out the follies of both parties. On one side we have a man, Victor, who thinks that any thought beyond the practical is a waste of time. He's very pragmatic. Robyn, the woman, on the other hand spends all her time in school theorizing and thinking, but never really generating anything. Either of these extremes can be bad, and that seems to be Lodge's point. Of course, by the end of the book both Victor and Robyn have realized that perhaps a little of both worlds can be good for them.
Like I said, I wasn't terribly impressed with this book, but it's okay.