21 August 2013

Books: East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

East of Eden is the only the second book I’ve read by John Steinbeck. I, like many, read Of Mice and Men when in High School. I picked up East of Eden during Borders closing sales as a remainder, thinking I should read what many consider an American classic. For the last few years, it has sat –like many more- unread in a box in the garage. In the nearly two years since Borders closed, and not having money to buy every book I wanted, I’ve been revisiting those lonely cardboard boxes in the dark, musty garage of SoCal. 

I retrieved the book while looking for something else a few months ago. I brought it in, and set it aside while I read books I took out of the library. After finishing the Neil Gaiman book in a day, I picked up East of Eden and began reading, more on a whim, than making it my next choice to read (I do struggle, at times, figuring out what I want to read next, unless there is something I really, really want to read).

I won’t say I hate this book –hell, Steinbeck had a great talent with writing prose- but it pretentious, overtly melodramatic, self-satisfied, even patronizing to its readers. But its greatest problem is that it ultimately nothing to say. I know many consider this his ultimate novel; even Steinbeck felt that East of Eden was the book that represented everything he has written in the past. But the novel goes on and on, never really rising above anything more than a pot-boiler/re-telling of Genesis and the Cain and Bale story from the Bible. 

Perhaps part of the problem lay in the fact that Steinbeck tries to making it semi-autobiographical as well. His knowledge of the Salinas Valley in Northern California is extensive, yet you can’t bring that story to life with such dull, talkative characters that never grow, never learn. Perhaps that was Steinbeck’s goal, to point out that humans never learn from their mistakes and history will always repeat. It’s too black and white for me, and maybe in 1952 this was what readers wanted –though I’ve read it was major disappointment when it came out and only decades later is it considered great. 

In the end, it was a struggle to finish. It’s about 350 pages too long and by its end, when no one learns anything, I could no longer care about any of the characters, for all were pretty irritating and, mostly, dull.  

05 August 2013

Books: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

While The Ocean at the End of the Lane is short –a mere 178 pages- its none the less a brilliant tale of dark fantasy by one the best authors on the planet. It’s a magical tale that evokes a time when childhood seemed to stretch on forever, where time could stand still and where in the darkness, with its crevices and folds that only exist within our peripheral view, hide our dreams and nightscapes. 

The slim book begins with a middle-aged man from Sussex, who has returned to his home town for a funeral. While his family home no longer exists, and he feels a bit disenchanted with his family, he none the less feels drawn to a farm at the end of the road. It was here that our narrator begins to remember the little girl named Lettie Hempstock, her mother and grandmother and the pond that Lettie claimed was actually an ocean. As he sits by the pond, memories long since forgotten begin to flood his mind and he is taken back in time to when he was seven years old when he encountered dangerous, strange happenings that should have never happened to a child, let alone forgotten. 

But the pond evokes memories, pulling them from their hidden cellars and dank hiding places and our middle age man remembers Lettie –the magical young girl who promises to protect him from the dark things that have come after the death of a lodger; for this suicide will be the catalyst for creatures they’ve existed since time began, but banished by powers that live on the farm, in the pond, to get a foothold in this reality. And its target for entrance is a seven year-old lonely boy.

The book reminds me much of Ray Bradbury (and Stephen King), who’s love of his childhood, and that carefree time in our lives where summers where fine, soft and full of hope only to be replaced by the fall and The October People.  

Gaiman packs his story with an emotional punch and grounds his characters firmly in reality that you feel that even with the dark, magical forces wreaking havoc, you can easily identify with the boy (and in a lot of ways, the unusual logic children use to explain how the supernatural and family woes can morph into something horrible).

02 August 2013

Books: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (2013)

Melissa Maerz, in her review of BBC America’s Broadchurch miniseries wrote that the “British tend to take their whodunits like they take their tea: dark, slow-boiled, and so bitter that you need a while to finish.”

Perhaps this is why I took a longer time reading The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith –who, in reality, is Harry Potter author JK Rowling (though I do go through times when I read many books quickly and then slow down and hardly read at all). Like many, until the press broke that Galbraith was more famous than God, this book was not even on my radar. It’s not that I don’t like thrillers and whodunits –hell, I read Agatha Christie in my early teens (and kinda overdosed on them as well), but for reasons that cannot be simply explained, this book would have never been read by me or more than the supposedly 1500 copies the book has sold prior to the world finding out that Rowling was the author. Well, maybe not. Had I still been working in the book business, had Borders still been open or had I moved onto Barnes and Noble, this title may have come under my interest.

And as soon as I saw the tweet that author Joe Hill put out revealing Rowling as the author, I quickly put the book on hold at my library (via the internet, because it was a Saturday and the library was closed and would not reopen until Tuesday) and then had the B&N in Glendora put a copy on hold for me as well –had I known that Rowling, using Galbraith’s name, had signed some copies of the book, I would’ve hunted down what that B&N had and tried to get that, as those are the copies that have more value than the first edition I did buy (though I’m curious at what was the print run for the first edition). 

Much like The Casual Vacancy, The Cuckoo’s Calling relies on a lot of mean, bitter characters, folks that are toxic to themselves as well as others. Some readers criticized Rowling for doing such a one-eighty last September with Vacancy, and I’m sure one of the reasons she chose a pseudonym with this book was probably two-fold –one to see if the biggest author in the universe could publish a book with no one knowing about it and thus taking the pressure off of her, plus to see if reviewers and readers would embrace a new crime writer in what is an already crowded field –though the prose of the book is vastly superior to most writers. 

Galbraith has created a complex and compelling detective in Cormoran Strike as well as a fully likeable and able assistant, Robin Ellacott. From the start, we know Strike is down-on-his-luck, having split from his long-time girlfriend that forces him to be living out of his office. He is a former military man, who lost a leg in Afghanistan. He’s well organized and thoughtful, despite his sometimes slovenly looks. He is also the son of a famous musician, but tries to hide from that. 

With bills due, threats of death from a former disgruntled client, Strike’s life takes a turn when new secretary Robin shows up (Strike has had many temporaries, but because he can’t afford a real full time assistant) followed by the John Bristow, the half-brother to Lulu Landry, an exotic looking model who recently plunged to her death from her luxury apartment. The police ruled it a suicide –Landry, while famous and rich was also a bit unstable- but her brother thinks it was murder. 

At first, Strike does not want to take the case –the police have closed their investigation, after all- but seeing the money lawyer Bristow is offering, he decides to investigate. Methodical as ever, Strike and very curious Robin are quickly thrown into the world of celebrities and their hanger-ons, as well as a look into Landy’s sad, short life. The characters are vividly drawn and the solution is stylish. 

Since the word broke Galbraith was JK Rowling, the sales of the book went through the roof. Some cynical folks thought this was the plan all along to boost sales of a book that had only sold about 1500 copies between its April 30th release and July 20th. But the story was not that simple (read it here). 

Anyways, Rowling says she’ll continue to write under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, which means more whodunits featuring Cormoran Strike and trusty assistant Robin. I think I’ll be there to read them.