Tag Archives: I Thought You Were Dead

The Matter of Perspective

On Book Reviewing

wangs-vs-the-world

One of the issues that will come up for the book reviewer is the matter of perspective.   From what perspective will the reviewer summarize a book, a novel, for the prospective reader?   In my view it should be a middle-of-the-book perspective.

Let me explain what I mean.   Let’s say that I’m reading a popular fiction novel about a young woman in the Midwest who is bored with her life, hates her parents, and wants to run away to New York City with her artist-musician boyfriend.   One chapter into the story the reviewer doesn’t know enough to write anything.   Fine, but a reader does not actually want a “last page” review – meaning that the person who’s considering reading this novel does not actually want to know “what happened at the end.”   (At the end, she moves to Manhattan, dumps her boyfriend, gets homesick and moves back to Ohio where she meets the quiet guy she marries.   See, you didn’t really want to know all this, did you?)

So I think it often comes down to that middle-of-the-book perspective.   Halfway through a novel I should know whether it’s a page turner or boring, a book filled with surprises or highly predictable, etc.   Most importantly, I should know whether it’s a book I want to finish in order to find out what does happen at its conclusion.

I’m not saying here that a reviewer should stop at the halfway point and write the review.   What I am saying is that at this point a reviewer should be able to see how his/her review will start, and what pluses and minuses are going to be included in the review.   Conclusions are often over-rated.   If you read a book that you love for 399 of its 400 pages, and it ends in a way that you aren’t completely fond of, the odds are you’ll still recommend it to others (“I wasn’t totally happy about the ending but it was really, really good!”).   And a great or perfect ending never saves a boring and predictable story.   One would never say to a friend, “You know, I hated all 399 pages of this book but once I got to the 400th page I realized I loved it!   Those last two paragraphs saved it for me!”

Thus, a reader-reviewer’s perspective reached halfway through a new novel is likely the viewpoint that he or she is going to retain while writing the review.   There will of course be an exception, as there is to any and every rule in life.   On occasion, there’s that novel that starts off like a house on fire and somehow at the halfway point falls off of a cliff.   I hate to name names but, for me, I Thought You Were Dead was one of those stories.   Dead started out funny and unique but once the beloved talking dog Stella died, the story was essentially over.   Hhhmmm.

The reverse situation does not matter much.   If the first half of a story is awful and painful to read, there aren’t many readers who are going to stick with it for what might be a surprisingly brilliant second half.   At least I think most reviewers can assume this and write a review that honestly states, “This book may have gotten much, much better in its second half, but it was almost impossible to get through the first 200 pages of this mess.”

One final point is that a review written from the middle-of-the-book perspective means the reviewer is never writing a review with a so-called spoiler alert.   Remember, the reader does not really want to know what happens at the end; that’s his/her personal payoff for reading the story all the way through.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   

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Oil is the Word

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne (Harper Perennial)

“I’m not a sexy dancer despite my athletic skills.”

“To want what we have / To take what we’re given with grace…”  Larry John McNally

If only all 292 pages of Kapitoil were as entertaining as its first 130 pages, it would be an easy call to make this a highly recommended book.   But there seems to be a new virus going around, one that causes very good (and generally new) authors to write novels that begin like a house on fire, before sputtering out like a miniature flame easily dosed with a garden hose.   I Thought You Were Dead was a recent example of this, now joined in this non-envious genre by Kapitoil.   Still, don’t get me wrong, despite its flaws this novel by first-time Teddy Wayne is a bit of fun.

This is the story of one Karim Issar who comes to New York City from the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, circa 1999.   He’s a computer programming whiz who views himself as a talented racquetball player, despite the fact that the sport is out of favor by this date.   Karim is in the U.S. to work out Y2K solutions for Shrub Equities.   This is pretty boring work so Karim decides to spend his time creating the Kapitoil computer program.   Kapitoil uses news events to predict oil futures.   If it is successful, which it proves to be, Karim’s program will make an immense amount of money for his employer.

This set-up does not sound like the basis for a humorous story, but it is because Karim is an utterly literal person and his limited understanding of English phrases and slang often causes him to be confused.   For example, when a date tells him, “Let’s see if we can’t do it more often…”   He responds, “I would enjoy that.   But let us see if we can do it more often.”   Why Americans use negative terms like “can’t” when their intention is to be positive is completely puzzling to Karim.

Karim begins keeping a daily journal of unclear English terms with his definitions of what the words and phrases actually mean (His supervisor’s requests for a major league favor = a significant favor; buying a round = purchasing alcoholic drinks in bulk for several people).   Yet he’s often tempted to correct his co-workers’ grammatical mistakes.   When one says to him, “You tell me one million times”, he corrects her:  “You have told me one million times.”

Karim is such an alien to NYC culture that in reading this I was sometimes reminded of the role that Jeff Bridges played in the film Starman.   Seeing the confusing world of humans through the totally logical eyes of the Starman was highly entertaining and enlightening.   The same can be said for our protagonist in the first half of this novel.

The reader will soon guess, however, that the fun of following a befuddled if clearly brilliant Karim around the Big Apple is going to be diminished once his computer program proves to be successful.   Then the seriousness kicks in – and the fun quickly departs – because Karim has created something very valuable and there are many schemers who want to take him away from his goose that lays golden eggs.

Can Karim learn, in the space of just three months, who he can trust and who cannot be trusted?   How will he balance his need for acclaim and riches against a new girlfriend of a different culture (she’s Jewish) and less successful than he?   How will he address the needs of his beloved but ill younger sister – and his overly gruff widower father, back in Qatar.   It all winds up in an unexpected fashion, which this reviewer suspects will make many readers less than happy.

Kapitoil is a first fun and then serious tale of self-discovery.   At its conclusion, our protagonist has discovered who he is and what he values.   It is a morality play that is uniquely structured; entertaining and yet less than what it could have been.

Take Away:   Teddy Wayne has written a novel that reads like a teddy bear before it turns into an overly serious grizzly bear.   Let’s hope his next story is fun, fun, fun all the way through.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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A Shaggy Dog

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson (Algonquin, April 2010)

This reviewer had such high hopes for this novel, a “love story” by Pete Nelson.   Like many readers, I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein and hoped that this would be a worthy follow-up in the same genre.   In Stein’s book the animal protagonist is Enzo the dog; a dog whose thoughts can be heard by his race car driving owner.   Enzo is old and looking forward to his passing so that he can be reincarnated as a human being.   In Nelson’s book the featured animal is Stella the dog; a dog who can speak to her owner Paul Gustavson.   Stella is old and mostly immobile; she is fully prepared for her upcoming last trip to the vet.   Are the similarities a bit obvious?

I Thought You Were Dead starts off as a truly hilarious story due to Stella’s wise, sarcastic and biting voice.   The dog realizes that her divorced owner is pretty much a loser – he’s a hack writer who writes for the Moron series of books (like The Moron’s Guide to Nature, Paul’s current assignment).   Paul has a girlfriend, Tamsen, who takes out insurance in the form of a second boyfriend.   Paul might as well have the Beatles’ song “I’m A Loser” playing in the background of his life.

Stella’s spirit keeps the reader glued to the story until the point at which her health takes a turn for the worse, although it is not a fatal turn.   Because Stella looks at life as something to be enjoyed and valued in times of good health, she does not desire to hang around as something to be pitied when she drops stool around the house and has to be carried up and down the stairs.   In this, as in other things, she’s wiser than her owner.   Stella, in her wisdom, eventually convinces Paul that he must set up an appointment for her to be euthanized.

It is at the point of Stella’s sad death that the novel pretty much comes to an end.   Oh, Nelson continues it with a secondary plot about Paul’s father having a stroke and Paul having to come to terms with his past in order to understand his future.   Right…  It seems that Paul’s father crashed a family car when Paul and his siblings were young and tragedy ensued, a fact that everyone must deal with again for reasons that are not quite clear.   Paul is supposed to learn a great lesson when his father, recovering from a stroke, tells him not to drink.

One wonders if something happened in the author’s life that is being revealed here as a form of catharsis?   If so, it wouldn’t be the first time an author wrestled with his past in the form of thinly disguised fictional events.   In the forthcoming book The Mentor: A Memoir, Tom Grimes admits to including a factual incident in a novel he wrote – the night his father crashed the family automobile, “drunk and doing ninety.”

The family story in Dead feels like a secondary plot that was tacked on as the author could not decide what to write about once Stella the dog was removed from the spotlight in this novel.   It’s unfortunate as the glue lines attaching the funny and overly downcast plots are almost visible.   With Stella gone, the story limps painfully and overly slowly along to a conclusion – a disappointing one – that will come too late for the average reader.

There are some who criticize Anna Quindlen (unfairly in my eyes) for what they view as her slow and detached style.   Quindlen’s latest family novel, Every Last One, virtually soars compared to the final few plodding chapters of Dead.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   This one starts off as cute as a puppy before it turns into an old tired dog of a story.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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