did not finish: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (audio)

aviatorI was determined to give Melanie Benjamin another try (following Alice I Have Been), and had hopes for this novel of the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I was hoping for something like Loving Frank or The Paris Wife, I suppose – both wonderful books about historical wives. But I was disappointed.

I gave this novel a more than fair chance: I did not give up until partway through track 144 of 209, which is unusual. Generally I will recognize a book that I’m not going to like much earlier than this, and give up on it; if I have made it well over halfway through, then, it’s generally worth finishing. This one was different.

Early on, I was intrigued by Anne’s story, told here in first person, and wanted to know what would happen to her. (I mean, other than the obvious historical points: marry the guy, have the baby, who is then kidnapped.) I did observe to myself that she was awfully boring, but assumed that part would get better. But it didn’t: the Anne Spencer Morrow, later Anne Morrow Lindbergh, that Benjamin presents is hopelessly boring. She has no personality of her own, being first consumed by admiration for her older sister Elisabeth and international hero Lucky Lindbergh himself, and later resigned to serving her famous husband selflessly, if unhappily. She whines about the harassment of the press; she whines about Charles’s heavy-handed, cool approach to marriage; she laments that she is bound to follow him everywhere like a puppy. But she never begins to have a personality of her own.

This unlikeable and uninteresting protagonist is unfortunately accompanied by no one more interesting or likeable than herself. Charles is stiff, and sympathetic toward Hitler and the eugenics movement. The beautiful Elisabeth is unable to accept herself. There was no character in this story that I was able to feel remotely warm towards. And then Charles’s sinister remarks about genetic purity in the Morrow family (Anne feels the need to hide from him her brother’s mental illness and her sister’s sexual identity) escalate to praise of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and I became downright disgusted. As the Lindberghs consider moving to Germany in the late 1930’s, Anne acknowledges that something (she can’t quite put her finger on it – !) is wrong, but feels that the protection from the media is worth whatever less-than-wholesome business Hitler might be up to, alongside his repression of the press that so disturbed her family in the States.

These people were so unlikeable, and their politics (Lindbergh’s politics, and Anne’s contented acceptance of those politics when she found herself well served) so repellent, that I suddenly found I couldn’t go any further, and hit the “stop” button midway through a Lindbergh rant about Hitler’s righteousness and the wrongs committed by the Jews. Now, I would like to point out that I am capable of reading about horrible ideas, thoughts, arguments, and actions, when there is something to be gained: a point to be made, or history to be learned. But I didn’t see any of these benefits looming. I felt no redemptive value imminent. If Benjamin accomplished something salutary in the final quarter (or so) of this novel, then it came too late for me.

This also means that I missed the final, juicy bits about Lindbergh’s other women and children born out of wedlock. Ho hum. If you’re interested in the gossip, I’d wager you could read about that stuff without suffering through the rest of this novel.

Sadly, another DNF for me from Melanie Benjamin; I can now feel safe in not trying any more of her work. Generally, I don’t rate books I’ve not finished, but having made it over halfway, I’ll go ahead and make a call on this one.

Rating: 3 nurses.

did not finish: Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter

shadowsFull title, Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine. Briefly: I was excited about the concept of this book. History; true crime; alcohol!; and a strangely-spooky-but-real tale of apparent insanity, set in a vineyard, of all places. I recognized in this book the spirit of The Inheritor’s Powder and The Remedy, among others. (I may also have a burgeoning interest in amateur botany, based upon A Garden of Marvels, The Drunken Botanist, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.) Additionally, the author is an accomplished journalist, which I thought promising.

But where the concept hooked me, the text failed. I found a profusion of sentence fragments. And sometimes this works, for dramatic effect – although I think it still works best in limited dosages, because for gosh sake, sentence fragments are the breaking of a grammatical rule and should be used sparingly and with respect for the rule being broken. (I still recall Mrs. Smith, my sophomore and junior year English teacher, and her lecture about Hemingway’s use of the passive tense, wherein Cohn “was married by the first girl who was nice to him.” She taught us that you have to be a Hemingway-caliber writer before you get to go messing about with the passive tense like that.) And Potter has a tendency to tell his reader what character thought, felt, did or said in rather distant history, which I found off-putting and untrustworthy in a journalist. As intriguing as his story looked from afar, I found it insufficient to keep me on board through these difficulties. Oh, and there were rather too many references to God in the opening pages for my personal taste; if these were going to be drawn together and made relevant to the story, it didn’t happen in time for this reader.

Better luck next time.

did not finish: Tantric Coconuts by Gregory D. Kincaid

tantricOh dear. I had such high hopes for this one. And with such a great title!

Ted Day is a workaholic small-town Kansas lawyer who gets carsick. Wild Bill Raines, Ted’s grandfather, demanded that Ted finally take a vacation – and then died suddenly, leaving Ted his old beat-up RV. Against his better judgment, Ted resigns himself to a road trip with his elderly terrier, Argo.

Angel Two Sparrow is a spiritual consultant whose father fears she has inherited the “loco gene” of the women in their Lakota family. She has just inherited No Barks, a half-wolf dog, and a converted Bookmobile (converted into what, it is unclear) from her father’s Aunt Lilly – not upon that lady’s death but upon her imprisonment, having shot and killed her ex-husband because a bear told her to in her dreams. Angel’s ambition is to be a traveling spiritual consultant, so No Barks will accompany her in the Bookmobile.

The two bump into each other, hard, and literally, at a campground in New Mexico. They exchange a few witty and vaguely flirtatious lines and then get into the meat of it: Ted agrees to be Angel’s student (her first, though he doesn’t know this), and he and Argo join her and No Barks in the Bookmobile for a two-week course of study. At which point this intriguing and charmingly odd (if slightly over-cute and dialog-challenged) story takes a turn for the worse. I was dismayed to find myself reminded of Sophie’s World all over again: Ted and Angel turn out to be mere vehicles for the expression of simplified spiritual philosophies, and the dialog becomes downright atrocious. (“I’m glad you mentioned this, and I want you to know I’ve taken your observation very seriously,” intones Angel on page 85, as if she had just completed a series of classes in management-speak. I made it five more pages before quitting on page 90.) Author Kincaid also includes the occasional footnote recommending further reading, including one pointing his reader to the Wikipedia page on neuroplasticity.

I was taken by Ted and Angel’s contrasts and the possibility for a rather silly romance, which may indeed be where they are heading, but terrible dialog and a transparent use of these characters to teach Philosophy 101 will not allow me to follow them there. Best of luck to them, and the dogs too.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900’s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

did not finish: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (audio)

gone girlI couldn’t do it, friends. This is a very well-known and much-loved novel of the last few years, and the word on the street is DON’T READ ANYTHING ABOUT IT before you read it! So I will say very little. Repeat: this is a spoiler-free, very short review.

There is a mystery. I did not read far enough to solve it. I am not very bothered by this. The reason I put it down so easily was: I didn’t like the characters. Possibly this is part of the trickiness of the book somehow; this book is famously tricky (I believe there is something about an unreliable narrator? but there are two narrators? I don’t know). But for me, the big failure was that I didn’t like these people so I couldn’t care about them enough to keep reading (listening) through the fact that they annoyed me very much. That’s all.

My audio version read by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne was fine. They read the characters as obnoxious people, which seems to have been right on point, so I guess they did their jobs.

No rating; I only made it about 1/5 of the way through, so I’ll leave it at that.

did not finish: The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (audio)

borrowerI made it exactly 25 pages into this one (although via audio, which was about 30 minutes, give or take). I remember hearing about The Borrower ever since it came out in 2011, and it sounded real cute: children’s librarian befriends sweet little boy who might be gay and whose censorious, bigoted, ultra-religious parents are a drag; she ends up either liberating or kidnapping him, depending on your angle, and they have adventures together. Nice story, right? In fact, it opens with a story time reading of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which drives home the fact that this plot has been done before. And that’s no complaint or criticism. As Makkai notes in the voice of her narrator, “you can always count on a librarian for a derivative prose style.” I can dig that little joke (and also fear it is too true).

But things went south quickly after that. Faced with the censorious mother, Lucy (the librarian/narrator) rails that she would never “defy the Constitution” by refusing to check out certain books to a ten-year-old boy at his mother’s request. Now, I sympathize with Lucy’s gut reaction and not with the nasty mother; but I think it’s only respectful to be clear on what the Constitution actually says. The First Amendment protects the right to speech, press and assembly; it most certainly does not protect the right to read anything one likes (unfortunately), and the rights of minors have been curtailed in our courts in favor of their parents’ right to decide for them, with abundant clarity. This use of the “defy the Constitution” argument was outrageous and left me reeling. From a librarian, no less!

Next Lucy notes that

I wasn’t at all concerned about (the boss) enforcing this, or even remembering it a month later. And if she tried to fire me because I’d checked out a book to a patron of the public library, I’d have so much free legal representation within ten minutes that her gin-soaked head would spin.

Well, that’s bold – and naive. If this librarian were fired for checking out a book to a ten-year-old that the child’s mother had expressing forbidden her to check out to him, I think her legal case would be in some doubt; and while it’s conceivable that the ACLU or a similar organization would take the case on, I wouldn’t bet my job on it. I’d put the chances pretty low, in fact. To think that every unjustly-fired, underpaid city employee gets “so much free legal representation within ten minutes” to make heads spin is… idealistic, at best.

And then Lucy snobs out on her profession of librarianship, except oops, it might not be fair to call her a professional because she’s non-degreed and thus in most work environments ineligible to be called a “librarian” at all (this is a subject on which there is some controversy within the field and I don’t want to enter into that now, but I think it does bear on the credibility of this novel): in reference to the cardigan she’s wearing,

I hated that I’d started to look like a librarian. This wasn’t right. In college, I’d smoked things. My first car had angry bumper stickers. I came from a long line of revolutionaries.

Now this made my head spin. Librarians are about as diverse as any other demographic group you’d care to examine, and certainly there are those cardigan-clad shh-ing grannies with buns; but there is also no dearth of tattooed, funny-looking, hipster, punk, revolutionary-as-hell librarians. And you know what? Some of us wear cardigans, too. Despite the disappointingly cartoonish view of librarians represented by these lines, they also made me wonder if Makkai realizes who her audience is for this book: I am assuming that at least in part those attracted by her basic plot would be librarians (I am one), and she just alienated us with her snobby narrator.

So. This review threatens to be as long as the tiny piece of this book that I read; I should stop. I think I’ve effectively communicated that I was disgusted by the 25 pages’ worth that I listened to, and very comfortable turning away towards greener pastures. In fact, I’m now starting a novel by Joe Hill, whose librarian character in NOS4A2 was possibly a little bit of a cariciature in the other direction – with her purple hair and all – but also closer to the librarians I know. So there.

I am not assigning this a number rating after such a brief read but clearly if I did, it would be a low number of my grumbles.

The Black Monk and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (audio)

blackmonkI am tagging this as a did not finish, although I did, in fact, finish two short stories (and barely started a third). I DNF’d the story collection, though. Meaning, I don’t seem to be a Chekhov fan. It’s funny when things turn out that way: when I turn out not to like an author who is Classic, or in this case, revered as one of the best short story writers of all time (I can’t remember where I’ve heard this, but I have. More than once. sigh). But it does happen.

I listened to The Black Monk and Gooseberries. It was remarkable to me how much these stories reminded me of Tolstoy (who, if you recall, I also did not like). I don’t know if it’s Russian writers with shared characteristics, or that they both evoke the same world and that’s what bothers me. At any rate, the Russian society on the estate felt very much like the same background, transferred from Anna Karenina to Chekhov’s short stories.

In The Black Monk, our protagonist visits the estate where he was raised family-like by non-relations. The father figure encourages him to marry the daughter of the estate (so, the sister figure?), and he does. At a party somebody shares the legend of the black monk, who is imaginary but shows up… sometimes, some places. Our protagonist sees the black monk, talks with him, and uses their conversations as fodder for his own writing (oh yes, he is a writer by profession). He gets caught talking to himself (as it seems – he’s talking with his imaginary black monk) and “treated” for his “illness,” which frustrates him. He and the wife split up. The end. This is a story in which nothing much happens, and the black monk bits I found uninteresting. Is this minimalism as a stylistic statement, or something? Is it not what’s there, but what isn’t there? (Like action, personality, conflict?) This is a well-regarded piece of literature, but it passed me right by.

In Gooseberries, a few friends gather and sit around and tell a story: the brother of one of these men, having grown up in the country but found work as a bureaucrat in a city, dreams about retiring to the country. He will have a farm, or something like it; and he will have gooseberry bushes. In time he accomplishes this: he has a country estate, and gooseberry bushes. The brother (who is telling the story, to his friends) visits, and is served gooseberries. The country-aspiring brother praises them highly, but they are in fact bitter. I assume this is the grand symbolic conflict of the story that is meant to impress me, but again I found it banal. Oh, there is some social commentary on the fact that this bureaucrat-brother now professes to be a nobleman and high-handedly distributes buckets of vodka to the peasants on special occasions, pretending grandeur. But again, this is a story in which nothing happens, and I am bored. So I stopped listening.

In many literary cases, we praise the understated. I’m thinking of Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer, and Hemingway’s, Hills Like White Elephants. The under-context of these stories remains pretty well hidden, but they are praised as masterpieces. (I enjoyed both, for the record.) In Hemingway’s story, nothing really happens; but it is still thought-provoking and oh, so emotionally evocative. In Cheever’s, a little more happens; nothing is said about what Cheever really wants to say; but it still works. I wonder if there’s something hidden in The Black Monk that, if explained to me, would make it so much more enjoyable? I suspect not.

Funnily enough, this audiobook I picked up right after The Gunslinger is read by the same narrator, George Guidall. That was an interesting experiment in the different voices and moods a good narrator can evoke. When I thought to notice, I could tell – obviously – that the same man read the two books; but it never would have occurred to me mid-story, because he does a fine job of bringing to life two such different worlds. The fantastic, dramatic made-up world of King’s fantasy series couldn’t be more different than Chekhov’s staid, frustrated Russian society, and Guidall did well by each, so none of my criticism falls on him. I was annoyed by the characters Guidall read; but I think he read them as they were written.

Rating: 2 empty comments.

did not finish: A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller (audio)

killing in the hillsI made it less than 20% of the way through this audiobook (28 of 156 tracks, if you like to be precise), so on the one hand I should go easy on it, not having read it to completion (or even close). But on the other hand, the fact that I quit so early does indicate my feelings about it.

I read good things about this debut mystery novel – somewhere – but can’t add to those praises. The setting in the West Virginia hills (or mountains) was promising at the start, and I liked the idea of our small-town female prosecutor and her troubled past; likewise her friendly, almost filial relationship with the much older sheriff. But there the character development ended. Our prosecutor hero, Bell, turns rather flat, and her teenage daughter Carla is far worse: a cariacature of the worst kind of whiny teen girl, she speaks in overly-self-aware brattiness, as if she were her own psychoanalyst which – hello – obnoxious teenagers are not. Similarly, the early bad guy is so hideously ugly in every feature as to be a cartoon – how easy to identify bad guys if they all looked like this! And he somehow simultaneously is a stark idiot, and shares Carla’s preternatural self-awareness. The dialog felt like nails on a chalkboard. And so I gave it up. The mystery remains unsolved, for me, and that’s just fine.

Narrator Shannon McManus was sometimes amusing, but sometimes a little overly dramatic (although a certain amount of that falls to the author, for sure). Her rendition of Carla I found unbearable, but that’s squarely on Julia Keller; that’s how Carla was written, I fear.

I’m happy for those who enjoyed this novel, but I am not among them.

Is it fair to rate a book I read this little of? Probably not.

did not finish: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (audio)

bonhoefferI’ve gotten better at putting down books I’m not enjoying. As I keep repeating to myself & others, there are far too many excellent books in this world for me to ever read them all, so why would I spend my precious, limited reading time on less-than-excellent books? But I guess I’m still working on applying this same policy to audiobooks. They are fewer, and a little harder to get my hands on, so I find myself taking more chances with audiobooks. But somewhere between a third and halfway through Bonhoeffer, I gave up.

This is the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who lost a brother in World War I and was more prescient than many during Hitler’s rise to power. He was already involved in “the church,” but as Hitler’s government worked to take over the German church establishment, Bonhoeffer became even more active. I didn’t get this far, but apparently he also acted as a spy (for the anti-Nazi Abwehr), and was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

As a non-Christian, I thought I would be able to appreciate this as a work of history and biography. But I found myself too much irked by the unspoken premises: that Bonhoeffer, as a good Christian, was a good guy; that he could do no wrong; that the Christian church was inherently good. Christian readers of this book (who I can only assume are the majority, and its target audience) will naturally not be offended by these assumptions; but I am bothered by premises being treated as fact. Bonhoeffer comes off as a good and likeable man, and I may even miss him; but he’s presented as a totally good man, and I just can’t buy that about any human being. In other words, I don’t think Metaxas treats him objectively, and that tends to bother me a great deal in my reading. The religious bias, combined with copious quotations from the Bible, proved too much for me. In a shorter book, I would have hung in there: I made it 8-10 hours into its 22 hours! But I could go no farther.

I am happy to accept that Bonhoeffer was, on balance, a force for good against Hitler’s evil; but in a lengthy biography I would expect a little more objectivity, and would prefer a nonreligious starting point for study. I found his life interesting and would read another book about him. But not this one.

Rating: 2 sermons.

did not finish: Gold by Chris Cleave (audio)

You might recognize Chris Cleave’s name from the significant success of his 2009 bestseller, Little Bee. I did not read that one. But his new book, Gold, appealed to me: for starters and most obviously, it stars two female Olympic track cyclists. This is a rather obscure sport (particularly in the US) that I have competed in. Also it came recommended to me personally. Of course I was going to give it a go.

Hm. I wanted to like this book, for its subject matter if for nothing else. But there are two flaws in that thinking: first, subject matter alone rarely makes for an enjoyable read. Just because a book is about baseball won’t necessarily do it for a baseball player or fan. Secondly, as it turns out, I was too close to this sport. I’m sure Cleave did some research – he had some terms and concepts down, certainly – but he made several errors of inaccuracy that I believe are due to track cycling’s obscurity, and the public’s low awareness. These errors will go unnoticed by a large percentage of the average readership. In this respect I’m far from the ideal reader: I’m so close to the sport that I spot the errors and to me they are egregious. They rankled.

Unfortunately that’s not all that bothered me about this book. I found the characters to be a little one-dimensional (all good, all bad) and unbelievable. Really, the Olympic gold medalist is also model-gorgeous and could make a living posing for photographs?? Come on. (Okay, I guess there’s always Lolo Jones…) And the dialog was stiff, too. Particularly the parent-child dialog: every conversation was a heart-to-heart. I don’t think children really open up and get earnest and profound every time they talk to their parents (at any age). It didn’t feel real, because there were no mundane moments. And here’s the final kicker, fair warning to any who may be sensitive to such things: there is a (fairly central) little girl with cancer. That was a bit much for me personally, considering that I work full-time at a cancer hospital and therefore see enough of this. Just a personal reaction.

I made it a little better than halfway through this book, which sort of surprises me. I was certainly frustrated, annoyed, exasperated with it much earlier than that: in fact, I can pinpoint it for you. I was impatient with the first chapter’s interactions between Zoe and her coach, Tom; but I was really annoyed for the first time on page 11, when Jack relates that Zoe has won her first sprint and he has to get off the phone because her second is starting. The second ride of gold-medal round sprints should follow the first by more than an hour; putting them right back-to-back like that is completely unrealistic and was the first sign that the reality of track cycling would not be taken too seriously in this book.

But I made it past halfway. Why? I’m not sure. I was hoping it would get better? I cared what happened to the characters? But I didn’t, really; I’ve walked away not knowing the outcome of OH so many dramas, and that’s okay. Cleave failed to make me invest in his characters because he failed to make them fully human.

I didn’t read Little Bee; maybe it’s better than this. But Gold didn’t work for me at all.

Minor redemptive points: Emilia Fox’s audio narration was fine. And the only character I liked, related to, felt was human, was the coach. Some of his moments of self-doubt and retrospection felt real. More people like Tom in my fiction, please.


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