Category Archives: 2-2.5 stars

“Across the River and Into the Trees” by Ernest Hemingway

Across the RiverTitle: Across the River and Into the Trees
Author: Ernest Hemingway
ISBN: 978068482553
Pages: 288
Release date: December 12, 1996 (this edition)
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Plot Summary

Would it be too cynical to say “none to speak of”? Oh, all right. A 51-year-old army colonel goes to a town in post-WWII Italy to visit his girlfriend and go duck hunting. While there, he tries to get his affairs in order, reminiscing about his life and how he turned into such a sourpuss.

Analysis

Glad we got that plot taken care of. This story is really about two relationships in the Colonel’s life: with his 19 year old girlfriend Renata, and with his own past.

The book has innumerable flashbacks to more interesting times in the Colonel’s life, featuring battles lost and won, and mistakes made that cost lives. It has left the Colonel a coldly competent but bitter man.

What the novel fails to explain is exactly what Renata sees in him. Renata is almost painfully naïve for the entire story. She apparently comes from a wealthy family, but nonetheless is happy to pose and preen for the Colonel, and finds nothing amiss about the fact that he constantly calls her “daughter” and is in fact older than her father. Here are a few examples of their not at all romantic interactions:

The Colonel said. “Turn your head sideways, beauty.”

“Like this?”

“Like that,” the Colonel said. “Exactly like that.”

And then there’s this gem:

“Walk a little ahead so I can see.”

She walked ahead and the Colonel said, “You walk like a champion before he is the champion. If you were a horse I would buy you if I had to borrow the money at twenty per cent a month.”

“You don’t have to buy me.”

“I know about that. That was not what we were discussing. We were discussing your gait.”

What a charmer! There is nothing a woman loves more than being compared to a well-bred horse!

It seems like half of their interactions are just the colonel commenting on how beautiful she is. Wouldn’t she get tired of this? I know I did.

Why a beautiful young girl from a good family can’t find better prospects than a 50-year-old colonel who occasionally drops by isn’t explained. Which is a real shame. None of their interactions feel true, and as a result Renata comes across as a very limited, flat character.  The Colonel is a bit better developed, but still isn’t exactly compelling. It doesn’t help that the characters have to do all the heavy lifting for the nonexistent plot.

Conclusion:  There are better Hemingway books to read, and I recommend you check one of those out instead.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Across the River and Into the Trees for yourself from an independent bookstore. Each sale from this link helps support Melody & Words.

“Green Girl” by Kate Zambreno

I’m very pleased to publish this review with The Washington Post!

Green GirlIn Kate Zambreno’s ‘Green Girl,’ a young American wanders through London

Long before Lena Dunham and her “Girls,” writers have wrestled with youth’s peculiar blend of narcissism and self-hatred: the sense that success is just around the corner and that one’s best days are long gone. Early in “Hamlet,” Polonius tells his daughter, “You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance.”

The rest has not been silence. With “Green Girl,” first-time novelist Kate Zambreno joins this long-running conversation. Keep reading…

“If You Knew Suzy” by Katherine Rosman

If You Knew SuzyTitle: If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Reporter’s Notebook
Author: Katherine Rosman
ISBN: 9780061735240
Pages: 320
Release date: May 2011
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Memoir
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection (memoir class)
Rating: 2 out of 5

After her mother’s death, Katie Rosman is left reeling. Her mother, Suzy, was only 60 years old, and the diagnosis of lung cancer came as a shock to the nonsmoker. After Suzy’s death, Rosman, a journalist, decides to investigate her mother’s life in order to understand how she faced her own death.

She interviews disparate but important people in Suzy’s life: a boutique clothier, a doctor in the ICU, a Pilates instructor, an antique glass collector, a golf player. In so doing, Rosman comes to a fuller understanding of who her mother was and the impact she had on her loved ones.

I liked the idea of this book, but I wasn’t a fan of how it was executed. Rosman’s voice is bubbly and fun, and it was at odds with the seriousness of her subject; she comes off as shallow and immature.

In fact, I was turned off on the first page, when the author recounts stealing her mother’s credit card and going on a shopping spree on the day that Suzy dies. Sure, shopping was a thread that connected mother and daughter, but it still seems insensitive and wrong somehow. My distaste grew as Rosman painted a picture of a sometimes selfish, neurotic woman who was terrified of dying.

She seems uncomfortable in the memoir genre, seeming more comfortable in interviewing others—even including complex details about those she interviews that have nothing to do with Suzy’s story.

Far from feeling closure at the end, I thought there were topics in her life and her mother’s life that Rosman left untouched. She details the thousands of dollars that her mother spent on collectible glass, but she fails to detail—and perhaps she doesn’t have enough information to detail—her mother’s inner life.

While I was intrigued by the idea of turning a reporter’s eye on a loved one, I did not enjoy this book. I wouldn’t have continued reading if it weren’t assigned in class. However, I did learn some tips. Interviewing those you wouldn’t normally think of can offer unexpected insight into a loved one’s life. And I also learned that having a tight, well-thought-out elevator pitch or story arc helps pull together otherwise disparate elements of a story, bringing it into tight control.

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy If You Knew Suzy from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

“Wings” by Karl Friedrich

Title: Wings: A Novel of World War II Flygirls
Author: Karl Friedrich
ISBN: 9781590135709
Pages: 304
Release date: April 2011
Publisher: McBooks
Genre: Historical fiction; romance
Format: ARC (Hardcover)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Sally Ketchum has had a hard life. Her father, a dirt-farming alcoholic and religious fanatic, made her childhood living hell. At eighteen, she meets a young, charming man named Tex Jones who frees her from the prison of East Texas, but their incredible bond is broken when he dies in a tragic airplane accident.

Sally is determined not to stay in the hardscrabble life to which she must return after Tex’s death, and her chance finally comes by way of an invitation to be one of the few female pilots the Army is training to transport planes during World War II—the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). But when Sally reports for training, she discovers that Congress has sent Mr. Waterman, an evil man who appears to be some kind of lobbyist, to shut down the revolutionary program.

As Sally pursues the one dream she’s ever had—to fly—she must come to grips with the death of her lover, deal with attention from new young men, and allow the scars of her troubled childhood to heal—all while fighting for the WASP to remain in place.

I’m fascinated by the idea of intrepid young women simultaneously taking on war aviation and the Army in one fell swoop. What guts! And I really liked the parts about flying; Friedrich seems to know his stuff and to have researched the era well.

I only wish that the book had focused more upon flying rather than Sally’s love life; it is when the story veers into her personal life—as it often does—that the dialogue stiffens and descriptions become a little too overwrought, with statements like “Sally almost didn’t recognize Geri’s voice. It literally dripped adoration.” What a visual image! But probably not the image the author intends.

Friedrich sets up flat, one-dimensional characters. Mr. Waterman is pure evil, while Tex Jones would make Jesus Christ envious. The good guys and the bad guys are in two different camps, with the notable exception of Dixie, Sally’s big-mouthed best friend. But even she ultimately consigns herself to the domestic life, going so far as to lecture Sally for not getting Bayard to marry her.

When Sally and Beau Bayard, her new love interest, are forced to land in a farmer’s field during a terrible storm, they encounter two walking stereotypes: a crotchety old farmer with a faithful dog, and his merry, welcoming wife. The pair are depicted as painfully naïve and out-of-touch; when the storm takes down the phone lines, the farmer’s wife is thrown into quite a tizzy:

Mrs. Black turned from the sink and gave her apron a terrible twist of worry over the storm and the wires and the life that took place beyond the boundaries of her fences, and so beyond her ability to understand and to control. The anguished look of helplessness that came over her could as easily have wracked the face of a savage following a sign of displeasure from the gods.

Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste, but it seems a bit much.

After their unexpected landing, Sally and Bayard are taken to an army base, where the commanding officer blows a gasket about Sally’s gender. The pair is then shipped to a whorehouse to sleep. Subtle. Sally notices Bayard’s hungry glances at the women, and later when Bayard asks her to marry him–8 hours after their first kiss–she brings it up.

He glared. “I just looked, for Christ’s sake. They were nearly naked. In fact, some of them were naked! That’s what women do. You use your bodies to get us interested. We don’t have any control over it!”

This is the climax of the story. Here, Sally is being tested; will she stand up for herself in a society hostile to her hopes and dreams by standing up to this representation of patriarchy and male chauvinism?

In a word, no. Sally ignores Beau’s comment, and he convinces her to continue their relationship. After that, my only interest in the story was whether she confronts him about it, and she never does. From there, the story peters out.

The climax occurred too soon, and no one seems to notice.

But perhaps that is because the main conflict of the story is not fully fleshed out. Is it between her and Bayard? Her and the army? Her and Mr. Waterman? Her and the other girls? Her and herself? Sally seems at odds with the world; she grows angry and fearful of anything or anyone standing in her way. Too much conflict spread around weakens its power, in addition to making her seem easily provoked and hot-headed.

The story centers around Sally forging a new life for herself, but has Sally changed significantly at the end? Is she any better or worse than when she began? That is the true test of a good story. Sure, she becomes more confident, but wouldn’t the story have been stronger if she’d asserted herself to Beau–if this were the turning point of her life, where the shuts down the “perfect man” in order to keep pursuing her freedom to dream? Because even then, no matter what happens to the WASP, Sally will know that she has the strength to take on anyone.

As it stands, the book is interesting, but it loses momentum and power by being bogged down with clunky dialogue, self-conscious showing-not-telling, and an unclear arc.

Quote of Note:

“You’re stuck so deep in the part of bein’ a victim that it’d take a case of dynamite and the Second Comin’ to drag you out.”

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

October 3: A Bookish Libraria
October 4: Life in Review
October 5: Acting Balanced
October 10: The Life (and Lies) of an Inanimate Flying Object
October 11: Diary of an Eccentric
October 12: “That’s Swell!”
October 13: Man of La Book (with author Q&A)
October 18: Reviews from the Heart
October 19: A Bookish Affair
October 20: Bags, Books & Bon Jovi
October 21: Flight to Success
October 25: Unabridged Chick
October 26: Staircase Wit
October 27: 2 Kids and Tired
November 1: Joyfully Retired
November 2: The House of the Seven Tails
November 3: Life on the Road as a Pilot
Date TBD: A Cozy Reader’s Corner

“Hot” by Mark Hertsgaard

Title: Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth
Author: Mark Hertsgaard
ISBN: 9780618826124
Pages: 352
Release date: January 2011
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Genre: Nonfiction; environmental science
Format: eBook
Source: Personal collection & Netgalley
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

In Hot, Mark Hertsgaard approaches global warming through the prism of a parent concerned about the world his little girl will inhabit by 2050. A disappointed Melody Wilson hoped to read more solid advice.

In 2005, American author and journalist Mark Hertsgaard met with David King, then the British government’s top climate adviser, who told him that anthropogenic climate change (that caused by human activity) had already arrived–100 years ahead of schedule. Hertsgaard, a new father at the time, realised the implications: even if we were to halt greenhouse-gas emissions immediately, the planet was already locked into at least 25 more years of rising temperatures, making the world his newborn daughter would inhabit a very different place.

By situating Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth in the context of fatherhood, Hertsgaard attempts to stress the urgency and immediacy of a climate-change crisis that many see as a far-off–and therefore unimaginable–threat.

Continue reading this review at chinadialogue

“The Kid” by Sapphire

Title: The Kid
Author: Sapphire
ISBN: 9781594203046
Pages: 384
Release date: July 5, 2011
Publisher: Penguin Press
Genre: Fiction
Format: ARC (Hardcover)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 2 out of 5

Sapphire’s second work of fiction, The Kid, begins with the funeral of the protagonist of her first novel, Push (my review here). Precious’s son, Abdul, is nine years old, and in the wake of his mother’s death he faces a terrifying world completely alone.

Throughout the book, he is shuttled from one place to another: foster care; a school for orphaned boys; his great-grandmother’s ancient Harlem apartment; his middle-aged sugar-daddy’s upscale place; a downtown artist’s loft; and finally a mental hospital.

Abdul resolves to do whatever it takes to reach his dream of being a successful dancer, but the path to success is not easy. And just when it seems like he has made it, the side of him that he has kept hidden for too long takes over.

The Kid explores the line between victims and perpetrators and the sometimes self-perpetuating violence of rape. Patterns of sexuality as violence control Abdul’s life; he suffers abuse at the hands of his caregivers, and he begins inflicting abuse on other children.

It is impossible to separate his revenge fantasies from his actual life, and he insists that he only does bad things in his “dreams”; he can’t understand why he would be punished for that. Abdul blends reality and fantasy in a way that reminds me of Black Swan; in fact, he even references “Swan Lake” to describe himself at one point.

Identity is a central, if subtle, theme. While his mother, Precious, never let anyone call her by any other name, Abdul changes names like others change clothes. And just as Precious’s identity stood firm despite what others did to her, Abdul’s identity morphs with every name change.

When he is J.J., he is both a victim and a perpetrator of sexual violence. When he is Arthur or Martin, he uses sex for commercial gain. When he is Crazy Horse, he is a vengeful wild man. Abdul is so jealous of the life he could have had, he does not understand that he is choosing to become someone else–to lose himself–every time he gives up his name.

Furthermore, his sexual identity is tangled up in sexual violence. He despises homosexuality but he embraces it at the same time; the only way he knows how to survive is to offer himself to others, usually men.

He is never able to overcome the divide in his mind that threatens to overwhelm him, because he doesn’t really know who he is. His only goal in life is to find acclaim as a dancer–to be a “beautiful black boy” that everyone loves–but he sacrifices too much of himself to get there.

What impressed me more than Precious’s sense of self was her optimism; no matter what life threw at her, she kept going and reaching for a better life.

Abdul, on the other hand, rails against the injustices of his life. He believes that he would have been different–better–if his mother had lived, if he’d known his father, if he’d had more money like other kids, if, if, if.

He yearns for a “normal life,” and he questions why he “can’t just get a full deck like everybody else.” However, he never stops to think about the changes he has the power to make in order to better his life. Because he never accepts who he really is, he is never able to escape his enduring pain.

His dissociative behavior and strange internal dialogue are strong indicators of a schizophrenic antisocial personality disorder. A protagonist like that is hard to like. (Unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk.) As the book goes on, it becomes harder and harder to want to hear more about him; Abdul is increasingly and unrepentantly violent as his “dream” world and his real world begin to collide.

I only kept reading because of my obsessive desire to finish a book once I’ve started it. I needed to know what would happen to Abdul. But the ending was far from satisfactory; I really have no idea what happened to him or even who he really is, where his twisted “dreams” end and his life begins. And that’s probably the point–he doesn’t know either–but The Kid pushes this trope a little too far.

Sapphire seems to glory in the casual violence, the disappearing boundaries between pain and pleasure and between sanity and madness. And I get that–I like dark and gritty and uncertain. But she seems more intent on shocking readers with intensely graphic scenes than on inspiring any real emotion.

DeNeen Brown, in a review for The Washington Post, commented that “a sensitive reader may want to put the book down and turn away.” I do not consider myself a sensitive reader, but this book horrified and sickened me; I struggled to finish it, and I felt no closer to understanding Abdul after I’d turned the last page.

And to top it all off, you never find out what happened to Little Mongo, his older sister!

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy The Kid from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

Or check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

July 5: “That’s Swell!”
July 11: Sarah Reads Too Much
July 12: Books From Bleh to Basically Amazing
July 14: Dreaming in Books
July 18: Wordsmithonia
July 19: All About {n}
July 21: Reviews By Lola
July 26: Tea Time with Marce
July 27: Take Me Away
July 28: Regular Rumination
August 2: BermudaOnion’s Weblog
Date TBD: Reads for Pleasure

“The Passage” by Justin Cronin

Title: The Passage
Author: Justin Cronin
ISBN: 9780345504968
Pages: 784
Release date: June 8, 2010
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Literary fiction (among others)
Format: Hardcover
Source: Millie’s collection
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

I read this book because it was highly recommended on the internet as a vampire apocalypse novel good enough to be called literary fiction. I enjoy post-apocalyptic tales like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and World War Z by Max Brooks. And while I generally find vampires tiresome, I loved Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, so I figured Justin Cronin could make it work. But overall, I thought The Passage was uneven, inconsistent and overwrought.

The first chapter seemed designed to establish the book’s literary credentials, with a heartfelt story of the origins of the girl who lived a thousands years, born Amy Bellafonte. And while it is effective in introducing Amy and her mother, it also begins the troubling pattern of abrupt shifts in the narrative which often disrupt the story. Chapter 2 begins 17 pages later, with a creepy expedition into the jungle that uncovers something terrible and serves to establish the story’s horror bona fides.

The third chapter is another shift in location, characters, and so forth, this time to a proto-fascist near-future America. These characters at least stick around for a while. The story centers around Special Agent Wolgast, who has the unsettling job of interviewing death row inmates and convincing them to sign away all rights in exchange for their lives. What fate befalls them when they get to Colorado isn’t anything Wolgast wants to know.

But when he is charged with picking up the orphan Amy, currently the ward of a group of nuns, he knows he is crossing a line from which he cannot return. The first third of the book is a breakneck thriller, as various people try to get their hands on Amy. But the tension is muted because you know something extraordinary has to happen to her so she can become the Millennial Girl.

And then, once this situation is resolved, the novel skips forward ninety years to a post-apocalyptic compound in California. A whole new cast of characters is introduced, along with the rules of this new vampire-fearing reality. The vampires hate light, so floodlights keep the compound safe. But the batteries, charged by nearby wind turbines, are wearing out; without any way to make new ones, an expedition is needed to find a replacement. Thus, a band of intrepid young explorers must venture outside the safety of the lights to save civilization.

These shifts in setting, character and tone weighed down the momentum of the novel. This was the story’s central weakness. It is hard to reinvest yourself in new characters halfway through a story. And the problem isn’t just characters. At various times, this story attempts to be the following genres:

  • Thriller
  • Supernatural suspense
  • Post-apocalyptic horror
  • Military fiction
  • Fantasy
  • Literary fiction

And it doesn’t just borrow elements of these different genres; the novel always dives in headfirst, with jarring results. I couldn’t really commit to the story because it kept trying to be something new.

I’ve heard they are making a movie of this story, and I wish them luck–I have no idea how they are going to pull it off. This novel contains half a dozen different stories at least.

By the end, I really didn’t care about this novel. The plot twists and stunning coincidences seemed simply trite. And while individual pieces of the story could be great (strong prose, some interesting characters, a few vivid images of suspense and horror), overall, nothing comes together. The book asks too much of the reader to connect the many mismatched parts of this nearly 800-page story. And it’s a trilogy, so don’t expect too much closure at the end.