Sarah B. (caffeinegirl) - Reviews

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Abou and the Angel Cohen
Abou and the Angel Cohen
Author: Claude Campbell
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 1.5/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 9/8/2012


This novel was inspired by the poem "Abou Ben Adhem" by James Henry Leigh Hunt. It picks up a few decades after the poem, when Abou is an old man living in a goatherder's tent behind his son-in-law's house in Gaza. He is again visited by an angel, this time a ragged but smug angel named Cohen. Much is made of how Abou is not comfortable with a Jewish angel, although Cohen tells him that angels don't have human religious affiliations. In their conversations, Cohen is very casual and uses English slang that either confuses or embarrasses Abou, and he discusses millennia of human culture with flip observations. He is so smug and pedantic it's nauseating.

Whenever Cohen talks, I hear the author complaining. People make up religions faster than angels can keep track, people grow so much food that it is too cheap to support farmers but in other areas they starve to death, people breed so fast they will extinguish themselves, people can't resist infidelity and rape because they were made to have sex, people developed agriculture and turned women and children into chattel. Oh people! In fact, the subtitle of this book could be "Humans: you can't live with them and you can't live without them!" I think Cohen's condescending tone -- keep in mind he is addressing Abou, a gentle old soul who was once told that his love for his fellow men placed him at the top of the list of people who love the Lord -- is supposed to be funny. I'm not sure. All I know is, I've had enough: I did not finish the book.

I'm curious about why Campbell, an American who has not as far as I can tell spent much time in occupied Palestine, chose to write a novel set there. I don't get the impression that he is uniquely qualified to speak to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, or to the Muslim experience in Palestine. Instead I suspect that he is indulging in Orientalism here. Abou is Muslim in that he dislikes Jews and refers to God as "the Almighty Allah", but I don't get the impression that Campbell had anything more than that to give him. I think Abou is really the author wanting to be the one who loves his fellow man more than anyone else, proud and humble at the same time. And Cohen is the author's jaded world-weary sarcastic self who sees humans as just slightly clever-enough beasts. The conversations are not profound or even amusing. This novel is tiresome. Not recommended.


All Families are Psychotic
All Families are Psychotic
Author: Douglas Coupland
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 11
Review Date: 10/4/2013


The last time I read Douglas Coupland was in the 1990s, and while I'm not sure his fiction will age well over time, I was hoping his talent would transcend the moment in which he wrote. I'm not sure if the book is too dated for me, or if my reading priorities have changed, but I was disappointed. The characters in this family are kind of kooky and awful, but I didn't see the humour in their awfulness. Maybe I've been spoiled by the incredibly well-written and flawlessly-executed Arrested Development, but I failed to make any emotional connection to the characters in this book. Even so, I might have gone on to finish it if I hadn't accidentally picked up and started a much more engaging book. Once I'm finished that one, I don't see myself coming back to finish this one.


The Amateur Marriage
The Amateur Marriage
Author: Anne Tyler
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 98
Review Date: 1/11/2017


I usually love Anne Tyler's novels, but this one left me lukewarm. Although it is, like her other novels, thoughtful and well written, I didn't get much from it. The characters live, age, etc. Huh.

After reading it, I learned that Tyler had intended to keep writing this book for her entire life, weaving new parts of the family into it and extending it back in time. She saw it as a work without an ending. This helps explain the lack of structure. Also, I'm not sure that this kind of work qualifies as a novel? Either way, it was lovely but totally missable.


American Wife
American Wife
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 107
Review Date: 6/29/2013


I came to this book after the twist was widely known, so I knew from the beginning that Alice Blackwell is a fictionalized Laura Bush. I think that the process of coming to realize that this is the case would have been electrifying, and I'm sorry I couldn't read this book without prior knowledge, but I do feel the book stands strong even with its secret revealed.

Sittenfeld's Laura Bush is fascinating. She has liberal values, but no passion about them. She has class consciousness, but she unquestioningly forgives the extremely privileged people in her life for not trying to understand their effect on less privileged people. She has morals, but doesn't really make her decisions based on them. She's passive, private, almost quiescent. Her decisions seem to be based on her emotional reactions to past events, rather than on a strong moral character. And, being married to a politically controversial and even divisive person, her own moral positions on political issues is constantly questioned by the public -- but Sittenfeld gives us a Laura Bush who is motivated by completely different issues, and who lacks both the channels and the inclination to explain her inner self to the public.

One thing this novel exceeds at is explaining how an unremarkable, slightly liberal school librarian could be charmed, then swept off her feet, then wed by George Bush. In fact, as others have pointed out, this novel may be more successful in explaining George Bush to us than it is at explaining Laura. Sittenfeld's descriptions of him ring absolutely true.

In the final section of the book, the public harm done by the Bush administration forces Sittenfeld's Laura Bush to examine her own culpability, which focuses all the experiences she has in the first part of the book into this one question. Although I found several preceding parts to be a bit slow, the book really picked up for me as this moral question came into focus. Many readers were dissatisfied with Alice's conclusions, but I felt there were consistent with her character, and every compromise she had made, and I thought the novel as a whole was successful. Recommended.


The Anita Bryant story: The Survival of our Nation's Families and the Threat of Militant Homosexuality
Review Date: 2/23/2009


Anita Bryant wrote this book in 1977 as a response to an ordinance passed in 1977 in Dade County, Florida, that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bryant, who up to this point had written lighter, chattier books about "how the Lord had touched her life," believed that God had tapped her on the shoulder and given her "direct marching orders." She believed that an ordinance guaranteeing civil rights would provide children with the [mistaken] idea "that there is an alternative way of life -- that being a homosexual or a lesbian is not really wrong."

Since Bryant admits before this time she had given no thought or study to homosexuality, The Anita Bryant Story contains a great deal of misinformation, sensationalism, and unsubstantiated generalizations about homosexuality, which Bryant hastily put together in the emotional heat of seeking repeal of the ordinance.


Arcadio
Arcadio
Author: William Goyen
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.5/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 9/28/2011


This is both an imaginative novel and a southern gothic, so it was impossible for me not to love it. It was the first I have read by William Goyen, so I rely on Reginald Gibbons' biography to learn that the novel's themes of friendships and alienation, betrayal and reconciliation, wandering travellers, and of course living as a divided person, were all literary obsessions for Goyen and that they and carry across most of his works. Goyen wrote this novel in the last few months of his working life, as he was dying of cancer, and it is a very open and emotional exploration of the themes that of his life. I don't remember how I came across this lyrical little book, but I am glad I did and would recommend it to anyone. It is a great story beautifully told.


Await Your Reply
Await Your Reply
Author: Dan Chaon
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 45
Review Date: 2/15/2013
Helpful Score: 1


Was this book perfect? This book was perfect!!! I loved everything about it. The writing was so spare, barely noticeable but I loved it. The plot: so twisty, but (maybe because of the low-key prose) it didn't feel gimmicky. The characters! I'm pretty sure I was Lucy at 18; I would have cut off my left arm for a George Orson, thank God I never met one. The question of the book, which is whether or a person can change his/her identity and still be the same person, was fascinating. It's a literary mystery, which seems to be becoming my favourite genre. By the end, I wished all the books on my bookshelf could be this one. Recommended.


The Bad Mother's Handbook
The Bad Mother's Handbook
Author: Kate Long
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.2/5 Stars.
 3
Review Date: 2/6/2011
Helpful Score: 1


I liked this book, but I was disappointed because of the title and the cover. On my copy, it's called "The BAD Mother's Handbook" and it has a child's drawing of a bottle of Tanqueray gin on the back. I was expecting "Bad Santa" bad, not "made some mistakes as a parent" bad. None of the characters in this book is at all bad; in fact, they wouldn't even make it into Desperate Housewives, let alone an R-rated movie. Very misleading! It was a fine book, just not very exciting. If you are looking forward to reading a story that should have been called "Touching Story about how an Unplanned Pregnancy Changes the Lives of Three Generations of Women," run out there and get this book. If you're hoping to cozy up to some unscrupulous and mischievous parenting, move along. ;-)


Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie, Ina Rilke (Translator)
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.7/5 Stars.
 683
Review Date: 2/29/2012


At 184 pages, this was a short, sweet book, but not "an unexpected miracle" (ugh, Los Angeles Times Book Review!). It felt distant and unreal to me, partly because of Sijie's prose and partly because he did capture the disconnected, aloof, but open-hearted emotional state of a teenager. I wished the story had been dense where it was sparse, but it was more like a poem than it was like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I found it bothersome that neither the main character nor the love interest had a name in the book, and I found the seamstress character even more emotionally remote than the others. In the end, the book was just like the titular character: both were lovely, but neither moved me.


Basher Math: A Book You Can Count On
Basher Math: A Book You Can Count On
Author: Simon Basher, Dan Green
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.3/5 Stars.
 3
Review Date: 11/25/2011


When I told my 5-year-old daughter that I bought her a book about math at the school book fair instead of the cheesy dinosaur paperback she had requested, she angrily walked 20 feet ahead of me the whole way home from school and refused to talk to me. When I asked her to just take a look at it, she snapped, "I hate math" (already, at 5?!?). But then she saw the illustration on the front cover, and she agreed to look through it. Then she asked me to read it to her. Then she hung the poster above her bed and I spent the next week reading this book to her every day. Now she counts herself among the people who like math and even recommended this book to an adult who she knows also likes math.

I wondered if she was just enjoying the illustrations and the really fun prose, so one day I asked her what negative numbers are. She explained that's what you use to count numbers that are less than zero. She's not perfectly clear on all the concepts in the book, of course, but what's important to me is that she now sees that math has a fun and exciting side. Now that she knows that there are cool math ideas out there, hopefully she won't just go back to "I hate math" as we slog through the basics of addition and subtraction.


Be Cool
Be Cool
Author: Elmore Leonard
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.4/5 Stars.
 34
Review Date: 1/2/2011


I liked this book, but I didn't love it as much as other Leonard books. It's set in Hollywood, and although the main character Chili Palmer is out-of-place (having missed both movies, I managed to picture a middle-aged retrosexual and not John Travolta for Chili), the rest of the characters are mostly pretty terrible Hollywood stereotype people. I didn't want to know them better and I didn't care if they succeeded or failed to achieve their superficial desires. Except Eliot: him I loved. Fortunately, Leonard's talent for writing -- especially for writing dialogue -- kept me engaged even when the plot didn't.


Before I Go To Sleep
Before I Go To Sleep
Author: S. J. Watson
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 8/18/2014


The idea of this book is pretty sweet: Christine wakes up each morning with total amnesia, and the only thing she has to hold her life together is a journal she has been keeping which contains everything she has learned about herself. So she has this fascinating memory problem, which means she is completely defined by the book that she is writing. Sounds great!

Unfortunately, the execution was so bad. Not only was the writing terrible, but I could not at any point agree that Christine writes her journal in amateur-novel style. NOBODY would do that. Obviously, she would write it in point form (remembering that she has to read the whole thing every morning), but I was willing to suspend my disbelief and just go with a journal that has lengthy descriptions and even dialogue in it. But I still kept getting angry at Christine for wasting her time on so many words. She is constantly writing things like, "I heard his key in the lock, the door pushed open, feet being wiped on the mat. A whistle? Or was that the sound of my breathing, hard and heavy?" Over and over I kept thinking that this can't possibly be a journal. Nobody wonders after the fact whether that noise she heard was a whistle or her own breath! You just write down what it was, and move on. Better: if you are both a) rushing to write everything down before your husband gets home, and b) aware that you have to read the whole thing tomorrow morning and every morning after that, you skip that crap and GET TO THE POINT.

Finally, the ending. ***spoiler*** It's common for film directors to take a clever premise, explore it thoroughly, and then resolve the problems posed with straight-up violence. You know what, though: that's really boring, and also it's what your audience thinks is probably coming, so don't do it. I skimmed. Part III of the book could use a complete rewrite.***end spoiler***

Despite how disappointing this book was, I kind of enjoyed reading it. There was genuine tension in the plot, and the author did a good job making sure I didn't know whether to trust the main character's story (she is told she has a history of paranoia) or her husband's (her journal says "DON'T TRUST BEN" on the front page). It was an unsatisfactory novel, but a satisfying airport read. So, I would recommend it maybe if you need something to pass the time in an environment where it's hard to focus, but definitely not if you have something good waiting on your bookshelf.


The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002
The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002
Author: Dave Eggers
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 22
Review Date: 4/7/2015


Like most collections, this one is a bit uneven, but still excellent for when your attention is going to be broken frequently. I thought this one was leaning harder on humour than the other ones in this series. Some of the pieces don't age well (both pieces from The Onion should have been left in their own year), but "Journal of a New COBRA Recruit" was timeless and excellent.


The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004 (The Best American Series (TM))
Review Date: 8/15/2014


I like this series, which, like all collections, has some strong pieces and some not-so-strong. As usual, I liked the fiction more than the nonfiction. I found David Mamet's piece on names incredibly tedious, and Jon Gertner's piece on the study of happiness was 10 years outdated when I read it, though that's not the fault of the author. I had of course read David Sedaris' "Full House" because I am in that demographic whose clichés include having intentionally or unintentionally consumed all of Sedaris's work. The final piece in the book, however, Michelle Tea's "Transmissions from Camp Trans", was so good I couldn't put it down. I think I'd like to come back to that one and read it a few more times.

The fiction ranged from very moving to just okay. Christopher Buckley's "We Have a Pope!" was cunningly funny. I liked that this edition included works that were more clearly horror (Ben Ehrenreich's "What You Eat") and speculative fiction (Robert Kelly's "How They Took My Body Apart and Made Another Me") than mainstream fiction. I think "What You Eat" will haunt me for quite a while. I didn't understand the graphic short story, "Vickie, Lacey, Ray, Sharon, Corey, Derek, Carol, and Dave." It was 8 panels long.

I would recommend this collection, as long as you're comfortable with not being wowed with every story. Also, you should skip the foreword, introduction, etc., as there is nothing helpful there.


The Big Love
The Big Love
Author: Sarah Dunn
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.4/5 Stars.
 34
Review Date: 9/23/2015


This was a lovely bit of chick lit. Although I did not grow up in a Fundamentalist Christian culture, Dunn does a terrific job of describing her character's slow realization that mainstream dating is tricky, and doing everything right does not guarantee the outcome. As you would expect, it is a light (and sometimes funny read), and while it was a little breezy for my tastes, I can't say I didn't enjoy it.


The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit
The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit
Author: Chris Wormell
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 1.5/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 1/3/2010


Some people love this book, some people hate it. I'm a hater.

But no matter what you think about the theme, you need to know about this line: "But one day the monster never came out of his cave and the stone rabbit sat alone." My four-year-old daughter politely waited until I finished reading the story before asking me why the monster didn't come out of his cave anymore, and we have been talking about death for about a week now. My big complaint is that the author doesn't make it clear in the story that the main character dies (I'm still not sure I think this is appropriate in a story for preschoolers), he simply has the monster stop coming out of the cave. So I had to fill in the blank for her, and I'm not sure she is happy with my explanation. Four years old is a very literal age, and the book doesn't say what happened to the monster, and she doesn't see why I know the monster is dead when the book doesn't say so. I really think if the author is going to introduce such mind-altering themes (we have talked about death when she finds a dead ladybug outside, but this is the first time she realizes that every person she knows is going to die someday, so I would call that a heavy theme), he should at least have the courage to make it clear in the text. "One day the monster never came out of his cave" may be fine for a book for teenagers or adults (which I would argue this book really is), but it is just confusing to little children.

My daughter does not like this book and does not want me to read it to her again. She doesn't even want it in her bedroom. Her opinion might change over time, I suppose, but to be honest I agree with her assessment. I'm not the kind of parent who wants every children's book to be unambiguously cheery, but this one goes to the opposite extreme: unambiguously maudlin. If Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl is one of your favourite stories, you might like this one. If you think The Little Match Girl would be inappropriate as a picture book for preschoolers, stay away from The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit.


Blackbird : A Childhood Lost and Found
Blackbird : A Childhood Lost and Found
Author: Jennifer Lauck
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
 79
Review Date: 4/26/2011
Helpful Score: 1


Lauck has an amazing story to tell about five or six years of her life, starting when she was age 5 and her mother's health went from bad to worse. The story was gripping, and I couldn't put it down.

I did struggle with the author's voice, especially in the first part of the book where she is writing from the point of view of herself at age 5. The childish tone, which is presumably meant to be true to a 5-year-old's voice, made the book almost unreadable for me. Here is an example from page 54 the paperback edition:

Dr. Smernoff comes over and puts his hand on Daddy's arm. Daddy stands up and the policemen and Daddy and Dr. Smernoff talk the way grown-ups talk, all at the same time.
Daddy puts his hands up and the police ask him a couple more questions and then they close their notepads. The policemen leave and the big one waves at me.
I don't know what to do, wave, not wave, and I just smile and put the sucker back in my mouth.


I have read several novels and memoirs about childhoods, but this is the first one I have read that tried to capture the language of a child. I'm not sure if she's trying to evince further poignancy (not necessary, since the story was powerful enough to tell on its own) or to try to be true to the 5-year-old main character. I think it is an unfortunate choice. Happily, the language gets more readable as the author moves later into her childhood, and the last half of the book is much better.


The Book of Dead Birds : A Novel
The Book of Dead Birds : A Novel
Author: Gayle Brandeis
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
 4
Review Date: 3/16/2013


There were parts of this book that I really liked, mostly when the main character, Ava Sing Lo, was describing her childhood. Ava's mother was mysteriously awful, and at the same time exhiliratingly different. I had read the opening passage, in which Ava's mother puts her on a see-saw and jumps down hard on the other end, sending little Ava high up into the air -- because long ago, women were kept within high walls and they had to jump up to see the world. This passage was what made me want to seek out this book. Stories about strange parenting are so interesting, especially ones in which the parents risk concussion in order to give their children wondrous and profound experiences. You have to love someone pretty hard to do that for them -- but at the same time, Ava's mother hates her because her skin is dark. So many mysteries!

Unfortunately, this note is not struck again in the rest of the book. Ava's mother continues to be awful, but not mysterious. They never discuss Ava's race. She doesn't give Ava any more dramatic experiences: in fact, she does the opposite, she shuts Ava down until Ava is a tight ball of frigidity. She is not magic, she is just very damaged. In the end, she doesn't teach Ava about flying over walls, she teaches her to become the wall, and Ava has to figure out how to get around that on her own. It wasn't at all clear to me that her mother actually loved Ava. I think, like the rest of her life, Ava was something she managed to endure.

It was a good coming-of-age story, and a good learning-to-fly story, but it wasn't as good a book as I was hoping it would be.


The Book of Ruth
The Book of Ruth
Author: Jane Hamilton
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.4/5 Stars.
 583
Review Date: 12/27/2015


I noticed this book on my shelf a few weeks ago and couldn't remember if I had read it or not, so I picked it up. I hadn't read it, and reading it now was one of those amazing reading experiences where one picks up the exact right book at the exact right time and it ring in one's head like a bell that has been struck. Now that I am done, I wish I hadn't read it so I could do that again. I can't believe this book is almost 30 years old, I can't believe it was a first novel, I can't believe I accidentally saved it for myself this whole time. Recommended.


Borderliners
Borderliners
Author: Peter Hoeg
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 9
Review Date: 5/14/2014


I think Hoeg is a very talented writer, but this book didn't quite come together for him. Parts of the book, especially when Peter was creeping around the school at night to save his friend August, were tense in a beautifully quiet way and I was moved. Other parts were very abstract discussions on the nature of time, and while those could have balanced the immediate tension of children trying daily to survive in a totalitarian boarding school, they were too abstruse for me. In the end, I never did figure out the plot. I skimmed over the last few chapters.

My expectations for this book were high because of how much I liked The Woman and the Ape. I'd try Hoeg again, but I wouldn't recommend this book.


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