Thursday, January 05, 2012

Two Good Books, One Unexpected Bad Book

I've recently completed three books, "Steve Jobs" (a biography) by Water Isaacson, "Howard's End is on the Landing" by Susan Hill (literary memoir) and "Blueyedboy" by Joanne Harris (general fiction).

Steve Jobs died of cancer in late October, 2011 at age 56, bringing to a close an era of great Apple Computer products and leaving a legacy of innovative products that changed the world. Jobs has fascinated me since I first learned of the company he founded in his garage with Steve Wozniak in the 1970s. Until Apple came out with the Macintosh computer in the early 1980s, computers were impenetrable tools that I thought I'd never learn to use, because I am not technically inclined, and I stink at math. In 1984, while searching for a way to get my master's thesis on paper without a gallon of white-out, I was shown into the computer lab at Lesley College, where some brave soul sat me down in front of a Macintosh, spent 15 minutes showing me how to use it, and then left me to play. I wrote my entire thesis on that Mac, and was wonder-struck at how easy it was to cut and paste paragraphs, to spell-check the document and to save it all to this little floppy disk that looked just like something from the bridge of the Enterprise on Star Trek. This was a technological revelation, that computers were accessible to the rest of us, that I shared with hundreds of thousands of people who all discovered the fun of computing thanks to techno-tyrant and geek god, Steve Jobs. I remember cutting out photos of him in magazines and marveling that such a young,handsome man also happened to be a genius at making and marketing personal computers. So despite my 80s crush, or perhaps because of it, I started the hefty Isaacson biography with some trepidation; after all, celebrity biographers these days tend to focus on the 'dark underbelly' of their subjects, leaving no stone unturned in their quest for the 'dirt' on the famous person they're writing about. However, I had read that Isaacson, an old-school journalist who's been covering tech for decades, had written a fairly grime-free version of Jobs life that wasn't too heavy on the tech talk, but still managed to create a balanced view of the man's life and many accomplishments.
For the most part, what I'd heard was true. Jobs biography is only slowed down about three times by tech jargon, and it doesn't go on for page after page with no explanation. Isaacson's prose is sturdy and clean, reading like a well-researched newspaper article in the New York Times or the Washington Post.
And though there are chapters about Jobs eccentric diets and hygene, his soap-opera-worthy relationships with women and his offspring, Isaacson never sneers or seems judgemental, rather he lays out the information in a studied fashion and lets the reader decide for themselves what to make of it all. Though its a tad long, at 598 pages, I found Steve Jobs the biography to be well worth the time and effort it took to read it. On a side note, the photos in the middle of the book are almost as revealing as the text. All in all, "Steve Jobs" is a fitting tribute to the pioneer of Apple Computers and the father of iMac computers, iPod MP3 players, popular iPhones and iPad computing devices. I would recommend this book to anyone who runs a business, loves Mac computers (as I do) and to those who are curious about the life of a wealthy tech god. A solid A!
Susan Hill's "Howards End is on the Landing" is the third book I've read in the last 6 months that is a non-fiction, personalized account of a bibliophiles goals in reading for a year, either a specific number of kind of book. ("Tolstoy and the Purple Chair" and "So Many Books, So Little Time" are the other two)
But "Howard's End" has the advantage of having been written by a British woman who has also been a writer/editor and publisher, so there's loads of charming British wit, wisdom and insider insight into the glitteratti of the book world.
I found myself chuckling and alternately tearing up at several junctures in this marvelous book, and I found myself slowing down so as to savor each well-written paragraph.
Hill's year of reading is to be guided by one rule, that she not buy any new books, but instead should either re-read or read for the first time books she already has around the house. As any bibliophile worth the title knows, there are always books tucked away in nooks and crannies that we are delighted to re-discover, often by accident. And so it is here, as Hill charms and beguiles us with tales of meeting famous literary figures, from Iris Murdock to the actor/novelist and wit Stephen Fry, and on to the Sitwells (Edith, Oswald and Sachie) and of all the wonderful fiction she's read, from Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens. Hills lists of books read and re-read are larded with anecdotes, reviews and personal memories that engage the reader and make them feel as if they're having a lovely cup of tea by the fireplace in the library of Hills ancient home. Because she's a seasoned novelist, Hill's prose is impeccable, and her slender volume is finished all too swiftly...I found myself yearning for more. I'd recommend this book to all those book-lovers and anglophiles out there who enjoy bolstering their reading list and learning about book lust on the other side of the pond. A solid A here, too.
Unfortunately, now we come to the one bad book of the three, Blueyedboy by Joanne Harris.
Harris is one of the few authors I have on my "I'll read anything she writes" list. I've read everything she's written, and with the exception of "Gentlemen and Players," I have loved all her previous works, including the book that made her famous, "Chocolat" which was made into a movie with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche. Harris had a way of evoking time and place with sights, sounds and smells that made the reader feel as if they were there, peeking in the window of the French chocolate store, or cloistered in a nunnery. Her prose was always lush, inviting, sensual. So I had no hesitation about ordering her book "Blueyedboy" from Amazon, because, though it had only been printed in the UK originally, I assumed it would be a rich and decadent mental treat, like her other works.
I was wrong.
Alas, from page one we are treated to the emails and blog posts of the title character, "BlueyedBoy" who professes to be a serial killer who still lives with his extremely abusive mother in a depressing little town called Mawbry in England. This woman, whom one can barely call a mother, systematically beats, poisons,bludgeons and bullys her sons, until two are dead and the one remaining is a sociopath whose one overriding goal is to kill his mother in as brutal a fashion as possible. B.B., as he is often called, is also abused by his brothers, but manages to survive his horrific childhood only by dint of being afflicted with synesthesia, or the ability to ascribe colors to music, or smells to sounds.An old professor and psychologist, Dr Peacock, attempts to help BB come to terms with his "gift" and his world, and shows him the only kindness and affection he will ever know. But other than Dr Peacock, there is nothing kind, gentle or decent about any of the other characters in the book. Most are delusional liars, syncophants, users, gossip mongers or bullies. The reader shudders to think of living among these people, for whom backstabbing, snobbery and ruthless manuvering seem to be a daily occurance.
I had a strong feeling from chapter 1 on that the protagonist was, in reality, afflicted with Multiple Personality Disorder, and all the characters represented in his life and on his blog were just different facets of himself. Rather like Norman Bates acting out murders while dressed as his dead mother. Though that would have tied up a lot of loose ends and made sense of things, Harris decided to complicate things further by making BB and another character in the book both be people who have taken over a dead sibling's persona as their own. While I assume this is supposed to be a shocking twist in the plot, I found that it muddied the waters too much and made the story more confusing. I was also appalled at the ending, which really wasn't an ending at all. It was one of those ghastly things where an author just leaves you with a scene half-finished, so you're left to wonder what actually happened to the protagonist. I felt this was tremendously mean-spirited of the author, and I find that I've resolved not to buy and read any more of her books, from this moment forward. I don't know what has happened to Harris to turn her from writing fine prose to writing horrific drek, but whatever it is, she's just lost a faithful reader. I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone but those who like twisted horror novels with no ending. This novel gets a D, and I'm only being generous because of Harris' past works.

Finally, I saw this on Shelf Awareness today,and because my birthday is on 12/12/12 this year (I'll be 52) I had to sign up:

Cool Idea of the Day: 12/12/12

Village Books,
Bellingham, Wash., has launched 12/12/12, a program that aims to have participants read 12 books in 12 months this year. As Lindsey McGuirk, digital marketing and
publishing manager, explained, "It's a reading goal for those of us who tend to be on the slower end of reading (like myself) and feel daunted by readers who can conquer a book a week."

Readers can register with the program, which is "as noncommittal as
possible," on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or in the store. Village
Books asks participants each month what book they've chosen for the
month, checks in in the middle of the month about the book and asks at
the end of the month how readers liked the book. "If they feel like
joining any of the discussions we're holding on Facebook, Twitter,
Goodreads or in the store, they're more than welcome to," McGuirk added.
People who join the discussions each month are entered in drawings to
win one of four $5 Village Books gift certificates.

For more information, including a downloadable PDF that people can use
to track their reading lists and accomplishments, click here


Drina Turner said...

I was delighted by this review. Your voice is so clear and honest. I immediately trust you. Your review gave me a clear picture of what to expect should I select any one of them to read.
Thank you for your bracing commentary and happy belated birthday.

DeAnn G. Rossetti said...

Thank you so much for stopping by, Drina! I appreciate you taking the time to read my reviews and blog and comment. Thank you also for the kind words and birthday wishes. :)