Tag Archives: biographies

It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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Coming Attractions

This is a quick look at recently released books, and soon-to-be-released books that I’m looking forward to reading.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster; 10/24/11)

This is already the best-selling book in the country, based on pre-release orders at Amazon.   Isaacson earlier wrote the mega-selling Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and the recent, tragic death of Steve Jobs will only heighten the interest in this almost 700 page biography.   This is an authorized bio, as (according to Reuters) Jobs knew that his death was imminent and wanted his kids to know him through this expected-to-be definitive work.   Jobs had made clear to his friends and co-workers that nothing in his personal or professional life was off-limits.

Steve Jobs will also be available as an audiobook; unfortunately, an abridged one.

Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (Picador; 09/27/11)

If you’re like me, one of the two dozen or so individuals who did not read this book when it was originally released, you now have a chance to pick it up as a Picador trade paperback for just $16.00.   USA Today called Franzen’s novel about a troubled marriage, “Smart, witty and ultimately moving.”

Blueprints for Building Better Girls: Fiction by Elissa Schappell (Simon and Schuster; 09/06/11)

This is a hybrid between a short story collection and a novel, as Schappell has penned eight interlinked tales (“Spanning the late 1970s to the current day…”) about the experiences that turn girls into women.   Tom Perrota, author of The Leftovers and Little Children, says of Blueprints for Building Better Girls:  “Elizabeth Schappell’s characters live in that zone where toughness and vulnerability overlap.   In this remarkable, deeply engaging collection of stories, Schappell introduces us to a wide variety of female characters, from reckless teenagers to rueful middle-aged moms, and asks us to ponder how those girls became these women.”

The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 10/11/11)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides returns with a story about a not-so-calm year in the lives of three college seniors (one female and two males) attending Brown University in the early 1980s.   It’s about love lost and found, and the mental preparations that young people must make before entering the stolid world of adults.

The Drop: A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company; 11/28/11)

From the author of The Lincoln Lawyer and The Reversal, comes the latest thriller involving LAPD Detective Harry Bosch.   A bored Bosch is getting ready for retirement when two huge criminal cases with political and other implications land on his desk.   Both cases need to be solved immediately and, as usual, Bosch must break some major investigative rules in order to do so.

“Connelly may be our most versatile crime writer.”   Booklist

Joseph Arellano

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My Book Review Rules

I first posted my Lucky 13 book review rules and policies on July 31, 2009.   I am now reposting them with a few revisions and applicable updates.

The Lucky 13 Rules

1.   I am interested in receiving review copies on most subjects but especially biographies and memoirs; music; poetry; sports; science fiction; business books; nonfiction survery books; inspirational books (but not directly tied to religion); popular fiction; crime dramas; mysteries and suspense thrillers; family novels; Young Adult (YA) novels; children’s books and stories involving animals.

2.   I am not interested in vampire or zombie books; conspiracy theory books; political tracts; books promoting racism or hatred; books laden with philosophy or religion (been there, done that); overly simplistic self-help books (of which there are many); or books in which the author says the same thing on every page!

3.   If the reference to popular fiction was too vague, let me be clear:  yes, I will and have read “chick lit” (distinct from bodice rippers or old-fashioned romance) books.

4.   Whenever possible, I like to receive early stage review copies – paper bound galleys or ARCs, even if they are subject to final review, editing and corrections.   No one wants to write the last review of a new book.

5.   Yes, I do want to review books that are being re-released in paperback – especially in trade paperback form.   In this economy, paperbacks are often the only books on the radar screen of economy-minded readers.

6.   I finish around 80 percent of the books I start, but if I can’t finish it – meaning that attempting to do so is  more painful than dental work, I’m not writing the review.

7.   I’m a speed reader but it nevertheless takes me forever to read pages that have not been editing by someone in the world!

8.   Send an e-mail to me at Josephsreviews@gmail.com if you want to know if I’d like a copy of your book.   My receipt of your book does not equate with an automatic positive review (I simply try to be honest) nor a guarantee that I can or will finish it.   Again, I cannot guarantee that I will post a review of your book because you have sent it to me.   Also, please do not send me follow-up e-mails asking when I will be reading/reviewing your book.

9.   Some authors want me to not only review their book but to include a link to their website, or their Twitter account or other online address.   Sorry, I don’t do that.   Readers who have seen my review(s) and are interested in more information on an author can do a Google search.

10.  I do not read/review digital or e-books or pdf files.   (I have nothing against technology, it’s simply a matter of eye strain.)

11.  I love audiobooks on CDs, so if your book is available in this format and you or your publisher can supply me with an audiobook copy, it’s a big plus.

12.  Publishers, if you send me a book, please do include a P. R. sheet with some background information on the book and the contact information for the assigned in-house publicist or contact P. R. staff person.   If I post a review, I will be sure to let the contact know when it is posted.

13.  New authors – especially of nonfiction or self-published books, please have an experienced editor vet your work before submitting it for review.

That’s it.   Good reading to all!

Joseph Arellano

Note:   Some self-published books are reviewed on this site, although they remain the exception to the rule.

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A Summer Reading List

Our local fish wrapper challenged its avid readers to come up with their own list of books to read this summer.   Here’s my list of ten (10):

Shut Your Eyes Tight: A Novel by John Verdon (July)

The second retired NYPD Detective Dave Gurney novel from the author of the mind-blowing Think of a Number.

Very Bad Men: A Novel by Harry Dolan (July)

Not quite as good as Think of a Number, but a close and exciting runner-up.

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (January)

From the author of Off Season, it’s set in the redwood country near Santa Cruz, with stops in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Hollywood-Los Angeles.

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (June)

The true story of the monumental love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   “Reads like a Shakespearean drama.”   USA Today

Skipping a Beat: A Novel by Sarah Pekkanen (February)

Her debut novel, The Opposite of Me, was endorsed by Judith Weiner.   Enough said.

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (April)

I’ve read it, but it was so much fun that I look forward to reading it again!

The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin (June)

What happens after a storybook wedding?

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (June)

This story has as many weaknesses as it has strengths, but it is highly engaging in an inexplicable way.

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (May)

Biographies of famous but  secluded figures tend to be either brilliant or full and complete disasters.   I’m interested in seeing which category this one falls into.

Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (August)

A debut novel about a woman who finds out that her dead husband (going on three years) may very well be alive.

Joseph Arellano

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Questions

The Quandaries of a Book Reviewer

It would seem, at first blush, that a book reviewer needs only to read the book in question and then write-up his or her thoughts.   Sometimes it is just this simple.   However, I’ve found that some unexpected issues – almost moral in nature – arise from time to time.   Let me go over a few of those here with you.

The Twin Books

Sometimes two books, fiction or nonfiction, are released at the same time and contain virtually identical content.   It may be that both books are biographies of a former First Lady or of a 70-year-old folk rock singer…  It may be that both novels tell a story that is the same from start to finish.   How does a reviewer handle this?   Is it relevant?   I think it is, but then how is the reviewer to make use of this factor?

Do both books get downgraded due to a lack of originality, or does one accept that this is simply what happens in life (independent and spontaneous creation)?   If two books are almost the same, does this not beg for a comparative review – a determination of which is better (like DVD versus Blu-ray)?   And doesn’t this mean that one of the two must be selected as the winner, and the other as the loser?

Should a reviewer ever express a suspicion that one writer may have copied the other – or at least cribbed an idea from the other?   Or should all of this be put aside, so that the reviewer is – in effect – placing his hands over his eyes, ears and mouth like a monkey?

The Shooting Star

Let’s say that the reviewer has a favorite author and is very much looking forward to reading this writer’s latest work (in our example, a novel).   For illustrative purposes, I will use one of my favorites, Pat Conroy.   If I’ve loved every one of his novels and then I find that his latest release is a dog, what do I do?   Or, rather, what should I do?   Do I compensate for this by stating that every author is going to have a down period (a compensation for a lifetime of achievement), or should I slam him since I know full well that he’s capable of doing better than this?

Is a talented author to be given a pass when he delivers something less than his usual best, or should the reviewer explicitly make the case that this author has gotten lazy – or something worse?

Pass/Fail

Some less-established authors may have only published a couple of novels.   I’ve found instances where one of the two is near-perfection (more often the debut novel), while the sophomore effort pales by comparison.   Is this something that should be mentioned in a review of the more recent release, or is it outside the bounds of propriety and relevance?   Is it acceptable for the reviewer to write something like, “While this new novel is not up to the standards of the author’s first, he clearly has demonstrated the ability to produce an impressive product the next time around.”

Does the average book review reader really care about whether the author is getting stronger or weaker, or does that reader simply want to know whether this book is worth purchasing?

The Same Thing, Over and Over

There are a few authors who write a great story – the sole problem being that they’re known for writing the same story, the same novel over and over again.   In one recent case, a publisher stated that a very successful author’s new novel was “completely new and different,” as if to apologize for all of the almost-photocopied novels (with similar cover images) that preceded it.   Should the reviewer judge each and every novel with the almost-same plot and resolution on its own merits – on “all fours” as law professors state, or is it justifiable to critique the author’s novels for a lack of originality?

If you love a particular author whose books happen to be very similar, does it bother you or is  it something that you’re able to put aside – like knowing that some rock bands are continuously original while others are not?

The End

If you happen to know the answers to these questions, please feel free to let me know.   In the interim, I will continue to stumble along not quite knowing (in the words of the immortal Van Morrison) “what is worst or what is best.”

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Greg Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 322 pages).   “The vision Jackie brought into editing embraced the recognition that every life has its own riches and meaning, waiting to be revealed by what she called ‘the hard work of writing.'”

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Women of Heart and Mind

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (Washington Square Press; $17.00; 608 pages)

This is, quite simply, a fabulous book about the careers of three key singer-songwriter-musicians of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond; the three just happened to be women.   There was a big surprise for me in the reading, as I had earlier read that author Weller interviewed both Carly Simon and Carole King.   She did not have the opportunity to directly interact with Joni Mitchell.

Based on this, I fully expected this to be a book strong in details about Carly and Carole, and weak on information about Joni.   This was not the case…  As someone else said, Weller spoke to virtually every musician, friend and intimate in Joni’s life and it shows!

The next surprise is that I was sure the tales of Carly and Joni would sizzle like steak fajitas, while Carole’s life story would sit to the side like a bland order of re-fried beans.   Instead, both Joni and Carole come off as fascinating early hippie-earth mothers, who were blessed with both tremendous intelligence and natural musical skills.   (Despite my initial doubts, Weller fully and effectively makes the case for Carole’s stature in modern rock and music history.)

Carly, sadly, comes off as a patrician – daughter of the extremely wealthy founder of Simon and Schuster – who married a fellow patrician.   This, of course, was James Taylor, whose father ran the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.   “James was a…  lifelong-privilege man.”

Here, Carly’s career appears to be a product of social connections, luck (she was often said to be the least talented of the singing Simon Sisters trio) and blatant use of her long-legged sex appeal.   “(There was) a sex-teasing leitmotif in every one of Carly’s early albums.”

Also, a lot of Carly’s story is devoted to James’ drug use and abuse; a topic that simply does not make for interesting reading.   The days of wine and roses, this is not.   Concerning Carly’s patrician status, Jac Holzman, founder and president of Electra Records said that he and the singer “were from similar backgrounds – haute Jewish New York, although she was certainly more Brahmin.”

Further, Weller notes that Stephen Holden of Rolling Stone wrote of Carly with faint-praise-turned-full:  “She has the whitest of white voices and uses it well, singing…  with her fearless enunciation.   Her almost literal note-for-note phrasing of songs is…  ingenuous.”

Weller has to be given props for finding the fascinating details you won’t find in other musician/band bios.   I’ll provide just one example here…

Weller writes of a young man who cleaned apartments in the Bronx in return for using the occupants’ pianos.   While most immigrant families managed to scrimp and save enough to purchase a piano, this young Italian immigrant’s family was just too poor to do so.   We came to know him as Bobby Darin, and one of the tenement flats he regularly cleaned belonged to the parents of a young woman who came to be called Connie Francis!

Weller may not be quite as talented when it comes to describing the turbulent culture and times of the ’60s and ’70s, but then this is still a rock and folk-music tale after all and not a pure historical overview.   All in all, this is a fabulous read that adds heft to the musical reputations of Joni Mitchell and Carole King, as it somewhat diminishes the career of one Carly Simon.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Orinda Books.   Girls Like Us will be adapted by writer John Sayles into a screenplay for a Sony Pictures film.

 

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Dead to the World

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir by Wendy Burden

It’s not just the folks with the famous names who live outrageous lives.   Their relatives, in this case the children and grandchildren, also feel the effects of super wealth and status.   Wendy Burden falls into this category.   She is the great, great, great, great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt.   There was still plenty of money and status associated with the family when she was born.   Unfortunately, her father William A. M. Burden III, a direct descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt, could  not take the pressure of life and committed suicide when Wendy was six years of age.

This sad event precipitated the handing off of Wendy and her younger brother Will to Grandpa and Grandma Burden for intermittent visits while mom escaped life and responsibilities overseas in the company of a variety of men.   This memoir is an over-the-top expose with all the dirty little stuff prominently featured.   The self-indulgence, disregard for others and general insular behavior exhibited by the Grandparents Burden is easy fodder for Wendy’s 21-gun salute to the grosser aspects of wealth.   Oh, did I happen to mention that the guns are loaded with bizarre details?

Who among us cares to know that Wendy collected dead birds and observed their decomposition a la the scientific method used at the body farm at the University of Tennessee?   If you’d rather eavesdrop on cocktails and dinner with the grandparents, you would learn that grandma was a champion at farting whenever she felt the urge.   According to Wendy, this urge was never ignored regardless of the folks in her vicinity.   The walls in their home may have been covered with museum quality paintings and sculpture; however, grandma and grandpa were usually too sloshed to notice.

The crisp details and well-crafted accounts of life with the super-rich begin to seem a bit suspicious once the reader gets past the shock and wit.   Yes, Wendy Burden is an excellent story teller.   Just how much is fact and how much is convenient recall – or perhaps fiction disguised as the truth – is anyone’s guess.   This reviewer finished the book with a sense of gratitude for a seemingly ordinary life.  

Recommended for snoopy readers who follow OMG! on the internet.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer..

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