Poor Quality Book Reviews #2

Number one of my poor quality book reviews can be found here. These are copied out of my Moleskine book journal, which I fill in when I finish books, late at night, delirious.


When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

“Oh how I loved laughing along with David Sedaris, my new best friend. My new cynical, lovable, laughable best friend David Sedaris. I laughed out loud a lot, and it was because things were so dead on because they were honest and therefore embarrassing.”


Solar by Ian McEwan

“Character was off. Who would John Beard appeal to? I hope that’s not what Ian McEwan is like.”


Shopgirl by Steve Martin

“Steve Martin’s writing is not somehow comedic but has all the perfections of his comedy: it’s precise, it’s well-timed and it connects with the audience by going into and through them, to a place from which we all come. The humanness of it all that he observes and translates is somehow perfect in comedy and in prose fiction.”


Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic

“Very informative and enlightening.”


Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

“This book was so easy and kind but still revealed so much about something so incredibly obvious: wolves are just dogs, and we already know dogs.”


Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

“I loved this book and couldn’t believe it existed and didn’t have everyone talking about it. It was so much about Hemingway and from Hemingway that I felt he was whispering to me.”


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

“Captivating. I stayed up wide awake until 1:30 a.m. reading this book.”

“One year later, I can’t believe how much I seem to have liked this book from my prior review. I have since convinced myself I hated it.”


Dracula by Bram Stoker

“This book could have been a lot shorter with a lot fewer characters.”


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“I kept telling people ‘I’m still at the crime part,’ then I realized most of the book is about the internal, moral punishment of committing a crime and that the joke was on me. Russian names posed a significant comprehension problem for me.”


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

“I liked Alice’s spunk, but sometimes she was just rude.”


Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann

“I keep trying to catch pages of this journal where I have not yet filled in my review because a book felt too big to write about so close after putting it down (or I was lazy). Now who knows what this book is about. I know that I loved this weird book I had never heard of.”


The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

“I did not actually fall for any of the characters (not even Jeffrey Eugenides). The ending was memorable but felt like a cop-out.”


Away by Jane Urquhart

“I didn’t finish. I got lost in this book and not in the sense that I was consumed by it. In fact, I was rejected by it. I liked it at the beginning for its writing and then it turned into a poem. I try to like poetry.”


It Chooses You by Miranda July

“Miranda July feels like my best friend, and this book her latest hobby. I am amazed at how creative and lovable my best friend is and though I don’t really know where the hobby’s going, of course I’m interested.”

(photos borrowed from dalaigrandma.blogspot.com, bookreview.mostlyfiction.com, avonellelovhaug.com, blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu, wolvesontario.org, desktopretreat.blogspot.com, goinswriter.com, serendipity3864.files.wordpress.com, 25.media.tumblr.com, wendyvancamp.files.wordpress.com, claudiobadii.altervista.org, dana.deathe.net, englisch.schule.de, laimyours.com

Love to Hemingway Style

I just read (the foreword of) Carlos Baker’s biography of Hemingway (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story). I was afraid a biography of Hemingway might dry up the mysterious longing I have for him, the kind that makes me want to keep returning to his standoffish narrators to find out more about him, knowing I never will.

(photo credit The Toronto Star)

Instead, I found this: “The small boy who shouted “Fraid o’nothing” became the man who discovered that there was plenty to fear, including that vast cosmic nothingness which Goya named Nada -Baker

Hemingway in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Placewrites: “What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.”

I quickly realized something in the foreword to Baker’s Hemingway biography: Baker writes like Hemingway! Or at least he channels the same emotion Hemingway did in his writing. Paula McLain also managed to do this in The Paris Wife, through the character of Hadley. I don’t feel any distaste for these emulations; in fact, I can’t get enough of them. I am obsessed with Hemingway-style writing. Did you hear Corey Stoll inMidnight in Paris? I can’t get enough of the beat.

“The romantic activist, the center and in many ways the originator of his own universe, became the pragmatic moralist whose leading aim was to find out how to live in life, how to last and (having lasted) how to convert a carefully cultivated stoical fortitude into the stuff of which his fictional heroes were made.” –Baker

The Hemingway-like sentence construction “the stuff of,” the “having lasted” in brackets, it all makes me tingle. Did I connect with Hemingway’s writing for the same reasons that everyone else did? Of course. Did I take it and make it my own and try to pretend no one but me had ever read this? Of course I did. That’s what all great art does. I love John Mayer. John Mayer loves me.

“He admired courage and stoical endurance in women as in men, disliked hard backtalk, fishwifely screaming, false accusations, true accusations.”

“He divided all the world into good guys and jerks. With some notable exceptions, he preferred the lower and middle to the upper classes, although his taste in people (again with exceptions) was usually excellent.”

There was the fierce individualist who resisted fad and fashion like the plague, who held that a writer must be an “outlyer” like a gypsy”

Don’t we all wish we could resist the fad and fashion? Why is it so hard to do? Instead we emulate Hemingway. Hemingway is so stylish right now because we want to be stylish too. We want to be the person who started things, who made things simple again, who lived all over the world and did what he pleased and was a jerk but drank it away. We want to be tragic, we want to be the stuff of.

I don’t believe Carlos Baker is one of us, moving to Paris and wearing Hemingway moustaches (I wish I could). He was a contemporary trying his best to channel Hemingway the man. He succeeded at channeling what I know of the man – his writing – or so far his Foreword did, and through him and his prose we get to live a little longer through the words and the life of the man.

(photo from Wikipedia)

Cat Lit

Why aren’t there so many books about cats?

I listened to David Sedaris read one of his essays from Me Talk Pretty One Day last night on CBC’s broadcast of This American Life. The question above was his, but I adopt it too. With the impact cats (and of course dogs) have on our lives, why aren’t they a fundamental part of our literature? Could they be?

TS Eliot wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which got turned into Cats the musical. I would think that this, aside from any other children’s books where a cat is the main character (I didn’t have a cat growing up, I wouldn’t have read them), is the most extreme version of cats in literature.

(Photo credit Goodreads)

On most other accounts, I’ve only noticed cats in the sideground of stories. They walk by. Someone pets one. A well-employed characterization strategy in film and literature, used in order to help make a character more likeable, is to have them pet a dog, or insert a ‘pet the dog moment’. But how many pet the dog/cat moments can we have in a book before that dog or cat starts talking, and the story becomes comical?

Hemingway had a cat next to him in a lot of books. The cat minded his own business, as cats do. One cat, F. Puss, was actually Hemingway’s and Hadley’s son Bumby’s guardian, entrusted with looking after the two-year old child as Ernest and Hadley went out for drinks in Paris. (Hemingway was not exactly petting the dog with this moment). This is much like the dog Nana, in Peter Pan, though one is fictional and one is real life.

(photo credit Doggy Tails)

(In the original stage directions Nana was supposed to be a Newfoundland.)

There is a cat in my story. She doesn’t talk, but she is an important part of Jillian’s life. I first asked myself, how big can I make Lou? I love the Lou I know. Can I put her in this story with as much heart as I love her in real life? Well, no. Because Lou isn’t going to change the story, and I’m trying to tell you the story.

(Like, what if Lou wore a hat the whole story?)

But what if she did change the story? Story Lou almost did.

She presented a problem recently, and a pretty big one. I realized that Jillian can’t just up and leave, as my story demands she does. She has Lou at home, and Jillian would never leave Lou. So I’m in the process of editing Lou back in. Story Lou will have to travel, if this story makes any sense. Lou suddenly has the potential of turning things around.

How far can I take this? Can Loubie Lou become a plot twist? Where do we draw the line between cats as living, breathing, story-shifting characters, and pragmatic pet-the-cat moments?

I don’t know if cats can ever be anything more than pets in literature. Whether they can be symbols, whether they can carry themes, whether they can be present in scenes as more than just a function of their human owners.

What I do know is that we write literature to find out more about human character. About human characters. I don’t know that cats can tell us about that. I know that having them as pets is a part of what makes us human. I think because of this they will always serve a function in literature, characterizing us, humanizing us.

Hemingway’s Speech

This is how Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech begins:

“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.”

and how it ends:

“I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

I cling to anything anyone (especially Hemingway) says that helps explain my inability to speak my mind. I am only able to write what I mean, not speak it. Trying to argue with someone is like bashing my way through the woods. I need to picture my words, but can’t when they’re not written. I like to think this shortcoming makes me a writer.

I’m drawn to inspiring stories where people with real handicaps have used the written word to express themselves.

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby (Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon)


Any other stories to share? Experiences from the other side?