Sunday, May 25, 2008

Straight Man by Richard Russo

I just finished Straight Man, by Richard Russo for my Tuesday night book group. We, meaning the reading public, are supposed to be enamored of Richard Russo, the author of Empire Falls, because he's written award winning books. I have to say, however, that though I attempted to read Empire Falls, it bored me half to death in the first 25 pages, and that Straight Man is also a book I never would have finished had it not been assigned to me. I picked up another book that was recommended by a web site, called "Tales from the Town of Widows" by James Canon, and I was equally unimpressed by that volume, which was supposed to be somehow Cervantes-like, and was instead full of horrible characters leading dull and depressing lives.
But I digress, as does Mr Russo, constantly and in the most annoying fashion possible, in this novel.
Straight man is about the chair of the English Department at a small Pennsylvania University named William Henry Devereaux, Jr, who has the irritating habit of using his entire moniker when referring to himself. Hank Devereaux thinks of himself as a loose cannon, a witty and urbane man, and a good person, when he is, in actuality, none of these things. He's a coward, a man bent on lusting after a variety of women who are not his wife, though he claims to love his wife,(Lily, who sounds like a rather hard nosed b*tch, but then, if you're not a complete bimbo in this novel, then you're a vicious b*tch, because that's the only two kinds of women Russo can conceive of, apparently)and who has nothing but contempt for most of the people he knows, including his friends, whom he mercilessly lambasts mentally if not verbally.
We are supposed to find all the machinations of the English department highly amusing, and I suppose the bizarre characters are supposed to make us laugh at their stupid antics. I found instead that there was nothing but horrible mean-spirited portrayals of people and that the cynical jokes were not even remotely funny. The entire book was depressing and full of cruelty and vitriol. Hank hates his father, who was an academic and very cold and distant, who left Hank and his snobbish mother when Hank was a teenager. Though he didn't have a great relationship with his father, Hank tried to kill himself but was rescued by his mother who told him that they would jointly forget about him, and move on with their lives. So Hank moves on to a life he detests, running a department of incompetant fools who have it out for his lazy, drunken self. At one point, Hank tells a TV news reporter that he will kill a duck a day on campus if he doesn't get his budget for the year. He never does it, of course, but some nutball writing student does it for him, causing Hank to spend a lot of time dodging the campus police and animal rights activists. The only decent prose in the book is in Hanks op/ed pieces for the local newspaper. Other than that, the prose is bogged down by details that are unimportant to plot movement and boring narrations to boot. Hank is having problems with his prostate, though he believes, because his father suffered with kidney stones, that they must be the culprit in his problem as well, and a great deal of the book is spent with Hank describing his inability to urinate, or the small amounts that he urinates and that he has to go to the bathroom all the time. Way too much time is spent with discussions of Hanks penis, which made me believe that if any novel could be called the opposite of chick lit, this would be it. I really could care less about Hanks penis or his problems urinating, and I was horrified to think that there are a number of men whose minds probably work just like Hanks, with constant reference to their groin, women they'd like to get into bed, and men that they hate, yet still go out to bars with and drink themselves into a stupor. There are a number of long descriptions of hangovers, vomit and other grotesque bodily functions, but again, I assume this is integral to 'guy lit' As there was nothing enlightening, entertaining or informative about this book, I can't really say I'd recommend it to anyone, unless I happened to know some cynical academic men who want to read about a loser professor and his dept of outrageous characters, none of whom are likable or worth reading about.
Russo has been compared to several famed classic authors, but the only one I think he can lay claim to being like is Stendahl, who is the worst classics author in the world, as far as I am concerned.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Three Good Books and One Lemon

Of the four books I've read recently, only one deserves a rave A+ review, and that would be the book I least expected to like, Walter Koenigs "Warped Factors: A Neurotics Guide to the Universe." I've read several Star Trek autobio tell-alls, (I think Jimmy Dohan and Nichelle Nichols are the only ones I've not read) and George Takai was entertaining and interesting, but he didn't have the gravitas and the self-imolating humor of Walter Koenig, who played Chekov in the original series (refered to as TOS). Koenig is a strange guy, but full of zest and wit, and he's able to tell a story that is rife with juicy tidbits about his costars and his life. Koenig also played Bester in one of the best SF TV shows of all Time, Babylon 5. As the head of the facist-like Psi-Corps, he was just menacing and oily enough to give you goosebumps. Koenig is also a very smart guy, who felt he wasn't utilized enough during TOS, and I've got to agree with him. Chekov was at least as much fun as Sulu, and a lot of great things could have happened if the writers had ponied up a bit more for his character. The prose in this book is actually good, if a bit stiff and formal at times. I would recommend this humorous tale of an actors life well lived to anyone who wonders what it must be like to be type cast and live to tell about it.
The other books I completed were "Broken" by Megan Hart, "The Erotic Secrets of a French Maid" by Lisa Cach, and "Jemima J" by Jane Green.
"Broken" is an erotic romance, which basically means the author can feel free to descend into soft porn. There are more than a few romances that should be rated X, but I think this one actually uses the sex in a way that isn't offensive, which is refreshing. The story revolves around Sadie, who is a psychologist married to Adam, who, due to a skiing accident is paralysed from the neck down. Sadie meets Joe, an attorney/mediator once a month to hear his 'confessions' about his promiscuous sex life. Sadie, of course, is entranced by the tales of Joe's liaisons with nearly every kind of woman imaginable, including three prostitutes that he manages to satisfy all in one night. Unfortunately, Joe feels something is missing from his life, and he doesn't realize that Sadie is falling in lust with him, mainly because she's celibate at home. Hart's prose is nice and straightforward, though she does succumb to a couple of romance novel cliches that make my gums bleed, such as a "throbbing" penis and 'pebbled' nipples, but those moments aren't rampant and they don't spoil the overall tenor of the novel.
I believe Hart was trying to show the reader that even the lowest horn-dog gigolo eventually discovers that sex without love or at least a strong emotional commitment to ones sex partner is empty and soulless and unsatisfying. I was intrigued enough by Broken to pick up Harts "Dirty" and I'm hoping that I enjoy it as much as I did Broken. This is a novel that will appeal to women who are lonely or have sparse sex lives, and men who wonder what it would be like to sow ones wild oats like there's no tomorrow.
"The Erotic Secrets of a French Maid" has a title problem, but is an otherwise good novel. The main character isn't a French maid, first of all, she's a Seattlite who dresses up once as a French maid, but is told to drop the terrible accent and bad costume and then never goes back to it.
The protagonist, Emma Mayson, is a newly-degreed architect in a town that is overrun with them, so she ends up having to work as a maid to wealthy Microsofties to make ends meet. While working for one particular hot geek (and you'll just have to trust both the author and myself when we assert that there really are nerds who are hotties) she offers to help Russ with his cooking, as he's also never home long enough to make himself decent meals. Unfortunately, she's also brewed up this idea that it would be nice, since she's sans boyfriend, to provide some smart guy with sex for money, so she can satisfy her cravings for good sex while still making a living. She merely mentions it to Russ, not realizing that he's not really listening to her at that point, and doesn't think she's serious anyway. A bit later, when Russ asks Emma if she will provide the extra service she was speaking of earlier, Emma thinks he's talking about sex, when Russ is actually asking her to cook for him three nights a week. Once he sees Emma doing her sexy maid routine, and realizes his error, Russ, like most men, just considers himself fortunate to have a woman agree to fulfill his fantasies on a regular basis without having to be married. Cach's prose is as smooth as butter, shot through with wit and humor, and her plot just zings along at a brisk pace. The inevitable HEA is worth every penny, and I enjoyed all the references to Seattle lore and landmarks. This book deserves at least a B+ grade, and would appeal to those who like light romances with some good sex thrown in.
The final novel is an awful tome, "Jemima J" which I found not only difficult to read, but riddled with cliche and an extremely annoying narrator. The story is based in England, where poor Jemima is 100 pounds overweight (and this is seen as being extremely ugly and obese, when it isn't) and toiling away at a small-town newspaper doing the Top Tips column (something like Hints from Heloise in the US) because apparently every male in Britain is a prejudiced swine who would refuse to promote someone on the basis of talent and merit because they happen to be fat. Jemima carries a torch for Ben, who is the handsome city reporter, and Ben, in turn, has the hots for Jemima's pal Geraldine (who is beautiful and thin, but a complete idiot who uses Jemima to rewrite all her copy) while Geraldine couldn't care less for Ben because he's a small time reporter without any advancement prospects, ie not wealthy. Jemima has two horrible roommates, thin and gorgeous, but tasteless women who go out every night and try to find handsome and wealthy men to use. Jemima waits on them like a maid, because she has no self esteem, of course, being fat. Jemima cuts photos out of magazines and dreams of being thin and beautiful, and spends a great deal of time hiding the food she eats because she's ashamed of having an appetite. There are a plethora of shallow people in this book, nearly every character, and we're meant to believe that the whole of society is this cruel mix of surface people who care nothing for any ones spirit, mind or heart, unless its wrapped in the perfect thin package. Jemima meets up with a California guy on the Internet, and when she has to send him a photo, she has Geraldine photoshop a picture of her face made to look thin on a models body. Inevitably, the California dude, who just happens to own a gym near Hollywood (yeah, right) wants to pay for a plane ticket to see Jemima in person in three months. Jemima panics and starts going to the gym and not eating, and loses 110 pounds in three that is actually possible if you don't spend all day, everyday at the gym. Its also dangerous and unhealthy to starve your body, because your metabolism goes into famine mode and hangs on to every single calorie you consume. There is also no way that Jemima wouldn't have hanging skin from losing weight so fast and in such an unhealthy manner. Jemima discovers, after living with the California dude, that he's actually practically married to a larger woman who is his assistant, but he needed to have a girlfriend who looked thin and in shape because of his gym, and what people would think if he had a fat wife or lover. Insane as that may seem, there's more! Jemima's secret crush on Ben is realized when Ben just happens to come to California for the TV station he works for, and doesn't even recognize his old pal Jemima from the newspaper....gee, who'd have thunk it? The HEA is marred by its impracticality and the exclamation by our heroine that she's stopped being obsessive about her weight, and is now a size 10, as if that's somehow 'normal.' Puuulllease.
Even the British ex-pat Jemima meets in California is a cliche, yowling "bloody" this and bloody that all the time. The prose in this novel reads like an outline that has just barely been filled in, and the plot is stopped cold every chapter by this insidious omniscient narrator who smugly tells the reader what is going to happen next, what the characters are thinking, how wrong they are in their thinking and exactly what you, the reader, need to be thinking. Its not just annoying, its galling after awhile, and it doesn't end until the final chapter of the book. It appears that Green has nothing but contempt and pity for those who are overweight, and she has no clue how to safely lose weight, or how the body deals with losing weight. All the shallow characters are seen as somehow normal, and good things only come to Jemima once she's thin, giving the reader the idea that larger people can't have a love life, marriage, children or a decent career, which is total BS. I wouldn't recommend this atrocious novel to anyone, ever. It's a waste of paper and printers ink.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Like A Charm by Candace Havens

"Nothing reveals a lack of comic inventiveness more reliably than the
presence of reflexive epithets, eliciting snickers not because they
exist within any intentional 'context' but simply because they are crass
words that someone is saying out loud."--Susan Jacoby, The Age of
American Unreason.

The above quote is spot-on, and one of the reasons that I never used profanity in my stand up comedy class. I always felt that, as my dear departed friend Muff used to say, "Only stupid people without a decent vocabulary need to swear. There are always better words to use than curse words."

But, I digress.

I happened across Candace Haven's "Like A Charm" while I was in Iowa, and it sounded like my kind of book: magic, a smart female protagonist and a library full of ghosts, with a romantic storyline. Sigh. Darn near perfect escapist reading formula.
Though I was a bit taken aback by the shapely blonde on the pink cover, holding a pink book (I think its a chick-lit cliche to have a pink cover)I still had a good feeling about the novel from the moment I plucked it from the shelves.

Fortunately, my gut instinct was right, and this trade paperback paranormal romance novel was charming, funny, interesting and read like a dream.
Chick Lit in general, unless you're reading the masters like Jennifer Weiner, has devolved into a lot of whiney female protagonists agonizing over every extra pound of fat and scrutinizing every other female they know, being b*tchy about it, and trying to snag a hot guy they never think they're good enough for. There's usually a lot of talk about clothing and parties and having/dealing with kids is always a huge grind that leads the poor woman away from her vain self, which is seen as a bad thing.

This novel doesn't stop on the trail of whine, however, not even for a short tantrum, as its too busy with the mystery of why our heroine, Kira Smythe, doesn't realize she has magical powers lurking inside of her, and why she doesn't want to give up her boring lawyer life for the fun of her hometown hunk, and the gorgeous library she's been willed by an old mentor.
The story runs thus:
Kira is a high-powered attorney and workaholic who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, far enough away from her embarrassing hippie parents that she doesn't have to deal with them but once or twice a year on holidays. But all work and no play gives Kira mono, and she collapses after a horrific scene in which a client commits suicide.Kira returns to her parents ashram/retreat in Sweet, Texas, and discovers that they've become successful retreat owners (they have three) and lavender farmers,though they still eat a vegetarian/tofu based diet, which their daughter finds disgusting. While Kira's recovering, she reconnects with an old friend from high school, who is now the local doctor, and he just happens to have a hottie journalism pal, Caleb, who gives Kira the "tingle" that tells a gal when she's destined for some seriously hot sex. Meanwhile, though, Kira also reconnects with her old mentor, Mrs Canard, who happens to own and run the local library, which is home to a bunch of book-loving ghosts who come there to check out their favorites as well (who knew that you could read in the afterlife?). After Mrs Canard dies, she leaves the library to Kira, along with an apartment above the library and the proviso that Kira must run the library herself,and move back to Sweet, otherwise the whole place will be sold at auction and the town won't have a place to find books. Sweet, it should be mentioned, is home to a coven of protective witches and more than a few eccentrics and magical folks, including a pastry baker from South Africa. Kira has also been fired from her job, so she's being wooed by a number of law firms in New York. Hence, she has a lot of decisions to make, in amongst the romance that's forming between Kira and Caleb,who discovers that the lovely Kira is, gasp, a virgin. I don't think its such a stretch to find a woman who has been working too hard to find the right guy, and who has been waiting for the man who gives her the tingle to give in. I certainly tried to do that myself, and after dating a number of bizarre guys who had no clue what to do about sex anyway, I finally found the man who is my husband now, who did, indeed, make me tingle when he touched me. Everything turns out alright, of course, and there's the standard HEA, but I do have to say that I didn't see the stalker thing coming until it actually happened.
Havens prose was spunky and zingy, just like her heroine, and the plot zoomed along at a breathless clip. There was just the right amount of tension, humor, sex and mayhem to keep the reader engaged and interested throughout the novel. Of course, any novel that has a library or readers and bibliophiles in it is already a hit with me. I would recommend this book as a joyous read to anyone who enjoys magical romance with a twist, a good ghost story combined with chick lit, or just an entertaining read.