Tag Archives: freedom

The Singer Not The Song?

On First Glance

Novelist Amy Hatvany (Outside the Lines, Best Kept Secret) introduced an interesting discussion on Facebook by asking, “Do you think most book reviews are about the book or the reviewer?”   Interestingly, most of the respondents – a majority of whom seemed to be writers – selected the latter option.   I would like to respectfully disagree with this perspective.

It’s sometimes asked about a great song, “Is it the singer (the artist) or the song (the product)?”   When it comes to a review of a new book, I think the reviews are mostly about the product, before touching upon the author and/or the reviewer.   Why do I say this?   Because I’ve had multiple instances in which I love a book (often a debut or second novel) by an author, only to be disappointed by a later work.   So I know that my judgment is not about the writer as a person – or as a writer in general – but about the latest book he or she has completed.

This does not mean, as I’ve said before, that mine – or another reviewer’s – is the correct view.   It’s simply the one arrived at by a particular reader-reviewer.   I have no problem with considering other views as likely to have merit because each of us comes from a different time in life with different experiences…   Let’s say we were considering two memoirs by women writers.   Would we expect the one written by the 55-year-old cancer survivor to be the same as the one written by the 25-year-old right out of college?   Of course not – yet each would be a valid view on life as she knows it.

It’s All Personal

Someone wrote that music mix tapes/CDs are as much about the person putting them together as the person they were intended for.   I certainly concur with this.   We each demonstrate something of ourselves in the things we love – whether it’s a book, painting or music selection.   Sometimes people can learn more about us, inadvertently or not, by studying our favorite things.   And this begins to explain why book reviews are, yes, also about the reviewer.   The fact that a reviewer likes or does not like a particular book tells us something about him/her, and we hope the connection is revealed in the review and not kept hidden.

One of the highest recommendations for a book is that a friend has read it and loved it.   I recently lost a good friend who sought to convince me, since last September, that I must read the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.   Since the paperback’s over 600 pages, I declined the invitation.   But now I will likely do so.   Why?   Because I will not have the chance to communicate with my friend again; and I suspect that in reading Franzen’s novel I will find something of her in it that will help me to see why she loved it, and what it had to do with her time on earth.

Very Personal

Some innovative new research appears to indicate that our personal views about books and films are even more individual than we suspected.   There are automated programs based on mathematical algorithms that attempt to predict what we might buy.   At Amazon, for example, you might be informed that, “If you liked this book by author Joe Blow, you may also like the new novel by Sally Snow.”   But guess what?   These programs don’t seem to work in practice.

As noted in an article in the U. C. Berkeley alumni magazine, California (“Taste By Numbers”) – quoting Professor Ken Goldberg:  “When you’re rating or evaluating something like a book or a movie…  you’re doing something that’s a matter of taste.   I think it’s not easily pigeonholed into a series of boxes.   Matters of taste are almost physiological.   It’s literally taste – part of your digestive system.   Or we talk about a gut reaction…”

So the next time you read a review of a book that you don’t agree with, you may want to chalk it up to simple differences in life experiences – or the reviewer’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome!

Joseph Arellano

This article is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Weiss of Sacramento, California.

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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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No Direction Home

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 496 pages)

He didn’t really know where he was going and he didn’t care much.   He just liked the feeling of freedom, walking alone in a strange town on a day when nobody…  was likely to meet him or greet him.   He could go “invisible,” a word and an idea he relished.   Since the age of twenty-three he could not go anywhere where he was not recognized.

Bob Dylan has said (and it’s repeated in this work) that he has only read the first of the many books written about his life.   That’s because after he read the first bio of Robert (Bobby) Zimmerman, he felt like it was all fiction – it did not seem like he was reading about his own life.   To some extent, I share the feeling after reading this huge tome on Dylan’s professional life in music.

When I read Dylan’s own Chronicles I felt like I had engaged with the man…  His all-too-unique voice came through so clearly and he seemed intelligent, clever and likeable all at once.   But after reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, I felt as if the man, the musician, had suddenly become invisible again.   “You’re invisible, you’ve got no secrets to conceal…”   (“Like A Rolling Stone”)

The role of the modern biography should be to transform a legendary human being, living or dead, into flesh and blood.   When I read the equally long (480 page) biography of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood, I felt as if I’d spent days in the presence of an athlete that I’d never met.   More importantly, I felt sorrow when I finished the true tale as I knew that I would begin missing the feeling of being in the presence of the late Sugar Ray’s bittersweet personality.

As a research document, The Ballad of Bob Dylan is fine.   It adds to the historical record giving the reader citations as to the inspirations for Dylan’s songs (religious, personal and otherwise), and telling us – sometimes for the first time – about his interactions with other musicians.   But the read is simply flat, very much like reading a college textbook.   For me, many interesting facts got lost in the presence of too many uninteresting facts.   And looking at the singer-songwriter’s life by reporting on a select number of performances that were separated by decades just seemed too clever to me – the game was not worth the candle, as the law professors say.

If you’re a Dylan fanatic, then you will no doubt purchase and read this biography no matter what any review states; and there are two other new Bob Dylan biographies that you’ll need to buy at the same time.   But if you’re just curious about the man who is about to turn 70 (and maybe new to the whole Dylan craze), I would humbly suggest that you instead purchase the trade paperback copy of Bob’s own Chronicles: Volume One.   You might also ask one of your older relatives to lend you their vinyl or digital copies of Subterranean Homesick Blues, Highway 61 Revisited (“The album that changed everything!”  Rolling Stone), Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.   In this way, you’ll come to know both the man and the musician at his oh-so-fine, once upon a time, peak.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan is available from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks ($14.00; 293 pages).   Sweet Thunder: The  Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson by Wil Haygood is available in trade paperback form from Lawrence Hill Books ($18.95).  

“The best is always fragile, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, and it took a writer of Wil Haygood’s magnificence to appreciate what this meant in bringing the great boxer back to life.   Sweet Thunder is a jewel from beginning to end.”   David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967.

Slight Return:  I made this note to myself while reading The Ballad of Bob Dylan, “This book is like a brief for a lifetime achievement award.   It did not help me to understand who the man is.”


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More Than This

The Postmistress: A Novel by Sarah Blake (Berkley Trade; $15.00; 384 pages)

The time is the years 1940 and 1941 and Americans are attempting to stay out of the conflict in Europe.   President Franklin Roosevelt has pledged to keep American boys from dying in a new world war, but most Americans are well aware that he’s stalling for time.   Hitler’s armies are invading countries throughout Europe and something is happening to hundreds of thousands of Jews.   This is the setting for The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

Blake tells the story of three women – three very different individuals with different personalities and needs.   Iris is the postmistress of the title, a woman who is thorough and organized in everything she does.   Iris takes pride in her discipline and in her preparation for all things.   Although she’s lacking a suitor, she travels to Boston to see a doctor who will certify her virginity; she’s sure that some man will one day find this to be a factor in her favor.

Emma is a transplant to the east coast, a small and frail woman who lost her parents early in life.   She wishes to have a new stable life with her physician-husband.   But Emma’s husband feels the call to go to help the victims of the German bombing of London.

Frankie is the tough and ambitious radio reporter stationed in Europe working with Edward R. Murrow.   She’s frustrated and wants to travel to find the “real story” of what is happening to the Jews.   She wants to be the voice of truth, a human alarm bell.

Something happens to each of these characters in The Postmistress.   Iris eventually wonders if she has placed duty to her job above simple human kindness.   Letters and telegrams bearing bad news travel through her hands.   Will the point come when she should show some mercy by withholding horrible news?   Would it make a difference?   Or would it place her in a position of arrogantly playing God?

Emma feels that she may lose everything, including a child on the way, if her husband places the needs of those in England above hers.   It’s not America’s war, right?   But then she may be powerless in the face of her husband’s desire to serve his fellow human beings.

Frankie becomes tired and devastated over what she observes in war-torn Europe.   Hitler’s armies are on the march and the people in the U.S. who listen to her radio show seem to refuse to accept the truth – the truth that war is inevitable.   Who else but American boys and men will save the world?

Whatever is coming does not just come…  It is helped by people wilfully looking away.   People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth.

This novel tells us that stories get told when they need to be told – not before and not after.   There’s not a good time or bad time, simply the time.   Blake does a marvelous job of transporting the reader back to the early 40s in polite, calm and reasoned language.   Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to The Postmistress is to say that when you read it, you will place yourself in that time and place.   You will also ask yourself what you would have done in that time and under those circumstances.

Would you have sought delay as an isolationist (“It’s not our war.”)?   Or would you have been one of those who said, “We’re going to have to go at some point, so why not now?”   A simple question, perhaps, but the fate of the world – of freedom – literally depended on the answer.

Sarah Blake displays an intelligence in the telling of the story that is, sadly, all too rare these days.   In the end, this is an important story about normal people occupying a larger-than-life stage.   Blake tells it impressively and beautifully.   The Postmistress is a story that you will be thinking about weeks and months later.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Postmistress was released in trade paperback form on February 1, 2011.

The Postmistress made me homesick for a time before I was even born.   What’s remarkable, however, is how relevant the story is to our present day times.   A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I’m tellling everyone I know to read.   Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help.

 

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Homeward Bound

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (Putnam, August 5, 2010)

“The person I used to be could have only made one choice; the grown up (me) might have made a different one.   That was how life was.   You only figured out the right thing after you were old.”

This is a finely told story of two persons and two cultures.   It may well appeal to those who loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford or The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz.   The many fans of Lisa See are also likely to be drawn to it.

This is first, the story of Shoko, a young woman in Japan at the end of World War II who marries an American G.I. – one of the many occupiers of her island nation – and then moves with him to San Diego.   In the USA she finds great prosperity, but also some loneliness accompanied by discrimination.   Her transformation is assisted by a guidebook, printed in Japanese and English, labeled How to Be an American Housewife.

The character of Shoko is based on the author’s mother, Suiko O’Brien, who told Dilloway that “her life would make a great book.”   It does, and Suiko relied on a book that her American husband had given to her called The American Way of Housekeeping.

The second story is the tale of Shoko’s southern-California raised daughter, Sue, a character who might be reflective of some of the author’s own experiences growing up.   Sue is a divorced mother who perhaps does not properly appreciate her own mother until Shoko begins to experience serious health issues.   Shoko understands that her time on earth may be short and she wants nothing more than to visit her estranged brother Taro in a village in Japan, one not too far from Nagasaki.

As children Taro and Shoko were told that they shared the blood of the Emperor’s royal family.   When Shoko, attempting to live on her own as a young woman, begins to spend time with a lower-caste man, Taro sees this as bringing shame upon their family.   He vows to never forgive her, and Taro also hates the Americans who bombed his country; thus, Shoko’s marriage to an American (a “Charlie”) is another sign of Shoko’s betrayal to family and country.

Once its determined that the elderly Shoko needs a life-saving heart operation, she is set on convincing Sue to visit Japan in her stead.   She wants Sue to find Taro and deliver to him a request and a message.   This may be the final thing that Shoko asks of her daughter and Sue elects to honor her mother’s wishes.

On one level this is about persons of one culture trying to find acceptance and peace in another one, one that is initially alien (“San Diego had become a foreign nation…”).   This is true of a Japanese woman suddenly transported to the U.S. and of her daughter who, several decades later, finds herself in older parts of Japan.   Shoko eventually finds the peace to state, “I became an American…”   Sue makes a transformational journey to the Land of the Rising Sun with her own daughter and finds that she’s “homesick” for a place she’s never been to before.

On a second level, this is about the interest and spice that’s added to life when one accepts cultures, and the habits, traditions and foods of “the others.”   In the end, the differences between us add to our experiences rather than subtract from them.   Dilloway’s story is a much-needed tribute to multiculturalism.   It is a telling that is an extremely effective one precisely because it includes examples of the sad destruction brought about by hating and fearing those who are different from us.

And finally, this is a tale of forgiveness.   It is one thing for Taro to be asked to forget the mistakes he and his sister made while they were young; it may be another to ask him to forgive a nation whose planes shot at him and dropped bombs on his village during the 1940s.   Yet, because Shoko married an American serviceman the issues become joined in his mind and heart.

The best scene in How to Become an American Housewife is the one in which Sue’s Japanese relatives take her to visit the Peace Park in Nagasaki, ground zero for the dropping of the second atomic bomb.   When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Taro and Shoko were close enough in their nearby village to see the lights from the explosion and hear the sound.   As Sue walks through the park, she comes to understand the horror of war, the terror of how it ended, and the fact that nothing can change the past.

Dilloway’s characters come to understand, as we all must, that the pain of yesterday is no reason to destroy the present.   This debut novel is an impressive tribute to one woman, a mother, who lived a true and large life.   It is also a tribute to the best characteristics of people in two very different countries who, separately yet together, seek to find comfort within the noisy turbulence of life.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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