Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: “A Horse Walks into a Bar” by David Grossman

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

I hadn’t read anything by David Grossman, but this novel won a Man Booker prize in 2017, and Grossman is widely acclaimed in Europe.  So, it’s worth a look, no?

‘A Horse’ is set in a one-man standup show in Israel. The show isn’t exactly a jokefest, as the performer unloads a confused and unhappy recollection.  The crowd isn’t exactly an audience, as the performer seems to have invited people from his story to the occasion.

This peculiar performance, uninhibited in substance and style, is very difficult to grok. What is he up to?  Why is he subjecting us and himself to this nasty stuff?  And why is he doing it in this forum?

The mystery makes the story compelling, I suppose. But the unsympathetic character made it hard to continue to the (underwhelming) end.

Honestly, I didn’t really enjoy the story, and I’m not sure what the Man Booker people saw in this book particularly.

  1. David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen, A Horse Walks Into a Bar, New York, Alfred A. Knopft, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Bonfire” by Krysten Ritter

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

Bonfire is the first novel by actress and producer Krysten Ritter.  (OK, I had no idea who she is—if I have seen her shows, I didn’t know.)

Ritter is a good story teller, and here she takes advantage of the medium, working in a lot of monologue, memory, and flash backs that would be difficult to do on the screen.

The story itself is pretty tense and complicated.  A team of investigators comes to a small Indiana town, determined to dig up environmental crimes perpetrated by the multinational company that pretty much owns the town.  The protagonist, Abby, is also from the town (symbolically named ‘Barrens’), and soon sinks into the confused muck of her childhood.

I gather than Ritter is from such a small town, and the town, its people, and their history are extremely believable.  At least, on the surface.  Everybody knows everybody else, life is dumb but dull.  But there is obviously something hidden going on in Barrens.  But is it illegal chemical dumping?  Corporate corruption?  Or something else?

Abby is drawn to investigate the disappearance of a girl in her high school. This old mystery only seems more sinister the more people tell her to forget about it.  Is it connected with the present day investigation?  Is there really even a mystery, or is it just an old tragedy?

The story is well written, but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it very much.

The town is pretty grim and far too close to home to be anything like fun to read about. Abby is pretty freaked out from the start (honestly, she should never have come back), so a lot of the story is a jumble of misapprehension and poor judgement on her part.  There is a lot of pain and the ultimate mysteries are grim and ugly.

At the end, I wondered, what is the actual point here?  Abby is compelled to uncover the truth from her past, despite the pain and danger she endures.  Is knowing the truth worth it?  I dunno.

  1. Krysten Ritter, Bonfire, New York, Crown Archetype, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Strange Practice” by Vivian Shaw

Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

Vampires and other uncanny monsters in London.  Again. The latest generation of Van Helsings (they dropped the “van” during the War).  Yawn.

Well, actually, Shaw crafts a charming story from these unpromising ingredients, which I really liked.

The “monsters” in question are mostly pretty nice, if rather angsty.  (When you are hundreds of years old, you can get tired of everything.)

Greta Helsing is a doctor, with a specialized practice serving the supernatural inhabitants of London.  Who knew that vampires et al have health problems?  Who knew that human medicine is even partly useful for those problems?

In any case, Dr. Helsing is a truly dedicated healer, deeply caring about her patients however “different” they are.  People are people, and we certainly come to worry about her and her charges.

The story unfolds as something nasty is terrorizing London, killing humans and non-humans alike.  Greta and some rather astonishing old family friends are assaulted and must track down and eliminate this supernatural peril. Along the way, she meets a variety of extremely interesting Londoners, who pull together in common cause to overcome this extremely dangerous threat.

I gather that this book garnered considerable praise when first published, which is deserved. I haven’t read Shaw before, but if this is representative, I look forward to more from her.  (Her blog is intriguing, if not completely understandable.)

  1. Vivian Shaw, Strange Practice: A Dr. Greta Helsing Novel, New York Orbit Books, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Pope of Palm Beach” by Tim Dorsey

The Pope of Palm Beach by Tim Dorsey

It’s February, so it’s time for another Serge Storms book from Tim Dorsey.

This is the twenty first novel (I think), recounting the chaotic, violent, and extreme Florida-philic life of Serge Storms and company, and it does what it is supposed to do.  In recent years, Serge has mellowed at least a little, and Dorsey has pulled back from the graphic description of weird violence.  But Serge is still subjecting well-deserving contestants to his deadly “games”, even though we are told enough detail to actually try them at home.

This episode takes place mostly in Palm Beach and near by (a place I have actually visited), and involves events from the past and present. Serge is doing a literary tour, visiting the sites associated with the many writers who live in and wrote about Florida.

As always, Dorsey enjoys telling the wacky and sentimental history of Florida.  In this case, Palm Beach is also Serge’s boyhood home, so there is considerable reminiscence about growing up in a less crowded and more innocent Florida.  The reader suspects that this nostalgia is autobiographical.

Of course, Florida is also full of eccentric people, and violent crime. There is quite a bit of deadly gunplay, corruption, extortion, and every other sort of misbehavior. And, of course, there is the general insanity, like lobbing alligators through drive-up windows.

These threads converge when Serge enters the life of a damaged and reclusive novelist, with predictably chaotic results.

(I have to wonder if the fictional book tour is autobiographical or wishful thinking.)

This novel is just what we expect from our February drop from Dorsey.

  1. Tim Dorsey, The Pope of Palm Beach, New York, William Morrow, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Man From The Diogenes Club” by Kim Newman

The Man From The Diogenes Club by Kim Newman

I haven’t read much by Kim Newman (“Mr. Kim Newman, Esq.”), so this reprinted collection is a pleasant surprise: it’s really good.  I’m not sure why I haven’t sampled Newman before.

The Man in the title is Richard Jeperson, and the Diogenes Club is, indeed, the one mentioned in the Canon, cofounded by Mycroft Holmes, and revealed in many non-canonical stories as the deep backup for British Secret Service and Police forces.  Given that Britain is under constant attack from uncanny forces (e.g., here, here, here), it’s no wonder it has a multifaceted uncanny defense establishment.

This particular collection focusses on his stories set in the 1970s in the UK.  Britain was, as usual, under constant attack from uncanny forces.  Newman is obsessed with the pop culture of the period, lavishing attention to popular music, fashion, TV, and life. You have to have been there to really appreciate the historical detail he sweats over.  (OK, I was in the US at the time, but there was a lot of cross-Atlantic cultural influence.)

Saying that these stories are set in the 1970s is a bit misleading, though, because there are all kinds of temporal and dimensional shifts, cross overs, invasions, and general messed-uppedness.  That’s why Richard Jeperson and colleagues from the Diogenes Club are on the case in the first place.

I’m not especially fond of supernatural fantasy, however humorous and nostalgic.  But Newman has a deft touch, giving us the wonder and awe (and seventies vibe) without overdoing the supernatural BS.  And anyway, it is set in the UK, so everyone is a Character anyway.

Definitely a good collection.

  1. Kim Newman, The Man From The Diogenes Club, London, Titan Books, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Animators” by Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators is Whitaker’s first novel, a story of two young artists out of the American South who meet in college, and become deep friends and artistic partners.  Whitaker portrays their intense drive to create animated cinema, and the complex and tangled personal and professional partnership they seem to need to make this happen.

The story covers their early career in New York, Florida, and Louisville Kentucky. A lot of stuff happens, and a lot of it is pretty awful. They work like crazy and, well, live like crazy, too. I’m assuming that this is a realistic portrayal of “the artist as a young woman.”

The artistic achievements cannot be separated from the deep, confused, and troubled friendship.  Sure, they need each.  And they also want each other and love each other (not sexually). But it’s not clear they understand each other, despite their intense close work together.

Whitaker tells about the deep personal meaning and the deep personal cost of their art.  Mel and Sharon are all about ‘courage’, and both think that telling their innermost secrets is important, because that is the only way to break out of their horrible past.  If this sounds painful, it definitely is.

There is a lot of pain in this novel.  Mel and Sharon achieve considerable success, but success is no shield from bad things happening.

I know what Mel and I did with memory. We ran our endurance dry with our life stories, trying to reproduce them, translate them, make them manageable enough to coexist with. We mad them smaller, disfiguring them with our surgeries. We were young. We did not know what we were doing” (p. 351)

If there is a lesson in this story, it has to be to be good to the ones you love right now, because they may be gone soon.

Your life is the people you fill it with….And nothing’s good without them.” (p. 308)

I found this a well written and haunting story.  We care about these two kids, smile for the good times, root for their loves, cringe at their mistakes, and ache with their pain.  It is excruciating to watch in places, because they really, really, didn’t know what they were doing.

I certainly look forward to more from Whitaker.

  1. Kayla Rae Whitaker, The Animators, New York, Random House, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Earth is Weeping” by Peter Cozzens

The Earth is Weeping by Peter Cozzens

After 500 years, we are still working through the last days brutal European invasion of the Americas. In the United States, we still struggle to overcome the original sin of racism, which is obviously still present.  And the United States itself is built upon the morally shaky appropriation of the land, and the genocide that went with the theft.

The horrible fight lasted centuries, but it came to a swift and sudden end in the nineteenth century.

Peter Cozzens recounts these tragic last conflicts, as the tribes of the Western US were shattered, slaughtered, and imprisoned from 1863 to 1890.  His history uses a variety of sources, and tries to portray the range of opinions and actions among all the players. As always, the real story was more complicated, and even more tragic, than the Hollywood version.

One of the best things about Cozzens’ book is the portrayal of the complicated misunderstandings and misjudgments by all the participants. The “sides” were scarcely monolithic, and many people had confused goals and most had very little understanding of the other people they clashed with.

The Indians were divided and confused, with limited understanding, and many misunderstandings, of the oncoming white invasion. The many tribes were divided internally and preoccupied fighting their neighbors.  For that matter, some tribes allied with the US Army, and Indian scouts served in large numbers in every campaign.

On the other side, the white immigrants were a diverse lot. Some lived peacefully with Indian neighbors, working and marrying.  Many new arrivals had little understanding of the Indians they encountered, or interest in them.  And, of course, there was plenty of casual and viscous racism.

The US government and the Army were in between the tide of settlers and the Indian inhabitants in the way.  Both the civilian agencies and the military had decent people and also slimy bastards—and more than a few drunkards and blockheads.

Some of the most poignant writings of the period are from US Army men, bound to destroy the Indians, but understanding full well the injustice of that task.  From close up, it was possible for whites to not only sympathize, but to identify with the desperate, doomed, last stand of the Indian people.

Much of the story is a stream of follies by all sides. Indians did not understand the peril that they faced until way too late. In the early days, the Army underestimated the Indian fighters, at the end, they absurdly over-estimated the threat. The civilian agencies pursued horridly preposterous projects that mainly amounted to cultural erasure, and often, flat out genocide.

It is also a story of dishonesty deliberate deceit. The US government and Army broke every promise and treaty ever made.  In many cases, there was deliberate and viscous fraud.  In the end, the only thing that counted was military power.

Not that the Army or the government was really completely in charge of events. Greed trumped law and common sense, and the casual racism of nineteenth century America undermined even the best intentions. Gold strikes or rumors of gold generated floods of immigrants, regardless of government or Army policy.  Indian resistance or retaliation, real or invented, incited irresistible political pressures to eradicate all Indians, which often fell on innocent bystanders.

The result was all but certain from the start.  There were only a few Indians, and there were millions of whites.  Even had the tribes fought together as effectively as possible, it seems unlikely they could have prevailed.  As it was, they were defeated piece by piece, rounded up and imprisoned in smaller and smaller reservations, forced to abandon their culture or starve.

The book ends with the 1890 “battle” at Wounded Knee, which was the last combat between the US army and Indians. The one-sided slaughter should never have happened, accomplished nothing, and did no credit to anyone.

Wounded Knee is a fitting summary for the whole period.

  1. Peter Cozzens, 2016. The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. New York: Vintage Books.


Sunday Book Reviews