Book Reviews (Spencer, Hemingway, Coupland, Murakami, etc.)

I have been reading a ton (thank you, Katy Geisert Torrance Library!). Here’s a rundown:

Scott Spencer

Scott Spencer

* Willing –Scott Spencer *

We start with the one and only Mr. Spencer, who wrote my favorite book of all time. His “Waking the Dead” was also amazing, and “A Ship Made of Paper” was pretty solid. But he hasn’t always been perfect, as I found “Rich Man’s Table” disappointingly hollow.

I read “Willing” right before I went to Europe, and I knew it had received mixed reviews, so I was a bit wary as I went into it, but it actually started off very promisingly. Basically, a guy has a quietly devastating break-up with his girlfriend and ends up going on a packaged “sex tour” (basically a trip to Europe with high-end prostitutes thrown in). Spencer does a great job of depicting the break-up (Ouch in a nutshell) and the guy’s ensuing downward spiral.

It’s on the sex tour itself when everything starts to fall apart. And when I mean everything, I’m talking both about the guy’s fragile state of mind and the book itself. “Huh?” moments start creeping in until finally, the guy’s mother shows up. Well, that twist is no more awkward as the story’s wind-down, and the ending ends up feeling both tacked-on and tacky. It’s like Spencer had a deadline he absolutely had to meet to submit the book, so he tried to wrap things up as best as he could in his last five minutes. No dice; the ending pretty much invalidates any truth he had found up to then. (By the way, the worst literary ending I ever read? “Something Happened” by Joseph Heller. Great writer–“Catch-22” is one of my favorite books–but man, that ending left me feeling like I had drunk from a sewer)

* Go Ask Your Father –Lennard J. Davis *

I had started to read this I think the day before I set out for London, so I brought it with me even though I didn’t really have big expectations from it. It’s basically a non-fiction tale of a college professor whose Dad dies, and then his wacky uncle tells him out of the blue, “Oh, by the way, I’m really your biological father” (thru artificial insemination). So the writer goes on a DNA hunt to find out the truth about himself, and in the course of that journey, he gives up the histories of both his family and DNA testing. A lot of it is technical and very dry, and the emotional level never really quite simmers to have a whole lot of impact. From beginning to end, the book remains Davis’ story, and the reader never really gets pulled in. It actually illustrates a reason why I prefer novels to non-fiction; often times, the truth is simply what it is, while fiction allows the reader to decide a meaning that reflects his or her own life.

* Girlfriend in a Coma –Douglas Coupland *

Douglas Coupland may be best-known for coming up with the whole “Generation X” moniker, but make no mistake, the dude can write. My favorite book by him is I think one of his lesser-known ones: “Hey Nostradamus!” It’s about the aftermath of a mass school killing, and while not flawless (one shady mobster figure feels really out of place), the book finds emotional truths all over the pages, and there’s one segment involving a psychic and magical puppet characters that is just stunning and heartbreaking in its quiet way.

“Girlfriend in a Coma” again shows Coupland’s way with dialogues and young characters (he really should write a teen TV drama), and the whole story feels magical (about a group of friends who have to deal with one of them falling into a coma) until the magic pretty much spirals into overkill just before the end. Just like in “Willing,” the ending puts a huge dent on the book, only this time, the problem is that the ending is TOO complicated with all kinds of metaphysical and sci-fi overtones that even Coupland can’t quite pull off. Still, there’s a great deal to like in “Coma,” despite the ending.

* A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway *

We all know Hemingway is a literary genius, blah, blah, blah, but actually, you know what? I don’t know it. Oh, I know I’m supposed to like him and hail him as the writer of his generation, but I. Just. Can’t. I’ve tried to like his writing, but it is just so dry, as in “He went into the house. He talked to the woman. Then he went back out.” He emotionally flattens every scene in his books, which works on a stark tale like “Old Man and the Sea” (I did like that one), but when you’re telling a wartime love story like “A Farewell to Arms,” it’d be wise to reach under the surface (“under the pink,” as Tori Amos would say) and show some FEELING at least once. I mean, is it really too much to expect an adjective every now and then? Oh, well, I guess it’s not as bad as William Faulkner, who had the opposite problem and would write ten pages just describing how a tree was casting a shadow (after “Light in August,” I thought, ‘Never again’).

Young Ernest Hemingway (looks a bit like Tom Cruise!)

Young Ernest Hemingway (looks a bit like Tom Cruise!)

“Moveable Feast” is pretty much a diary of Hemingway’s days in Paris, and it actually has a warmer feeling than his novels, probably because he was quite young then. Although the book doesn’t go beyond what it is (again, the whole non-fiction problem), it was still nice to read the book while in Paris myself (‘Ooh, I recognize that street name; I was there yesterday!’), able to imagine what the city might have been like in Hemingway’s days. Also, I was most fascinated by Hemingway’s interactions with F. Scott Fitzgerald (now there was a writer who went all the way under the pink; in fact, he swam there!). That part is both funny (Scott was apparently very childish and petulant at times) and troubling (apparently, Zelda was just as troubled a figure as she was said to be–perhaps even more). And really, the whole book is filled with bittersweet undertones because you knew Hemingway–this young, poor-but-content man with a wife and baby–would go on to find success but then end up killing himself with a rifle.

* The Time Traveler’s Wife –Audrey Niffenegger (what a mouthful!) *

You remember the Terminator movies, right? Well, imagine that Arnold Schwarzenegger (hey, a possible relation?) wasn’t a violence-crazed android from the future who was programmed to shoot at all costs. No, he was in fact a sweet, once-troubled-but-now-reformed guy from the future who was going to LOVE you at all costs. Well, there you have the premise for this book.

Of course, just like in the Terminator movie, the story makes no logical sense whatsoever (seriously, once you really think about it, the premise falls all apart), but that’s a part of the whole point. Just like the vampiricism in “Twilight” is a big old metaphor for the whole fear quotient of love and sex, this book uses time travel to represent the whole “waiting for the right one” and “need to suspend all disbelief and just believe” notions of love. So it’s almost unavoidable that the book can’t avoid being just as hokey and fantastical as the romantic cliches that it’s based on. That being said, it is still very cleverly constructed, and it remains highly readable throughout. All in all, it’s a solid McBook (basically, a McBook is the literary equivalent of a Quarter Pounder; tastes good but ultimately disposable; for me, books by J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, and the late Michael Crichton pretty much all fit into this category–however, not Stephen King, as his very best work like “Carrie” and “The Dead Zone” are real novels, not just McBooks).

* South of the Border, West of the Sun –Haruki Murakami *

You may remember that the last Murakami book I read, “Sputnik Sweetheart,” let me rather baffled and a bit frustrated (it was gripping but ultimately too elusive). Well, my faith has been restored and then some with “South of the Border, West of the Sun.” I love it; as of now, I can’t decide which one is my favorite Murakami novel, “Norweigan Wood” or this one.

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

Again, you have your typical Murakami stand-in as the main character (shy, quiet, unambitious, loves American music). And the guy basically re-connects with a woman he was best friends with when they were both just children and used to listen to American pop records (like “South of the Border”) together. What happens then? Well, there isn’t a whole lot of story (certainly less than “Norweigan Wood”), as the book’s largely about mood and mystery (the woman, now beautiful, clearly has some dark secrets she’s unwilling to reveal), but there IS enough that goes on to avoid the problems that “Sputnik” suffered from. It’s very film noir in a literary way while still remaining cohesive. The book is hard to explain–it’s a love story, but then again it isn’t, as it’s almost anti-love in some parts–but it absolutely works, and I can’t wait to read it again soon. McBook? How do you say “Heck, no!” in Japanese?

* Promises I Made My Mother – Sam Haskell *

Sam Haskell was a TV agent, and he basically applied his mother’s teachings to remain a nice guy throughout his life. That’s pretty much it. I’m really not sure what else to say. He’s clearly a very nice guy who loved his mom (his dad, not so much, with pretty good reason) who did a nice job of teaching him to be a nice person and to do nice things. It’s all very nice and very sweet, and by next week, I’ll probably forget that I ever read this. Seems like a really nice guy, though, and I wish him the very best in his future.

[Edit: One More]

* The Tribes of Palos Verdes – Joy Nicholson *

I started reading this today, and I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it. I’ve always loved a good coming-of-age novel, and this is a great one, about a teenaged girl whose family life falls apart around her, and the little happiness she finds comes through surfing. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking; most of all, it rings true (i.e. this is not 90210). I’ll definitely be looking forward to Nicholson’s next book.

Now here’s Mr. Blue Eyes himself (you may recognize the song from a “Simpsons” episode):

South of the Border – Frank Sinatra

2 Responses to Book Reviews (Spencer, Hemingway, Coupland, Murakami, etc.)

  1. Julian says:

    This morning, I thought of your/this Murakami and other book review post when I read an excerpt from an interview with Murakami. It was on the I’vebeenreadinglately blog

    I really enjoy that blog so I wanted to let you know about it.

    • tommylander says:

      Thanks, Julian! It’s actually the first interview I’ve read of Mr. Murakami. It’s always cool to catch a glimpse in the mind of a genius…

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