Monday, October 31, 2011

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here: A Review of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Happy Halloween, everyone! And to my Pagan followers, Blessed Samhain!

Title: House of Leaves
Author: Mark Z. Danielewski
Edition: Paperback; 2-Color (house appears in blue)
Publisher: Pantheon Books (2000)
Pages: 709
Challenges: Read Me Baby, One More Time; GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: The first time I read House of Leaves, I borrowed my friend Amanda's full-color copy, after both she and one of my exes (neither of whom have ever met the other and who are as different as night and day) recommended it to me. The copy I read this time is my own, which was given to me by a friend who had gotten it from a friend.

About the Author: Mark Z. Danielewski is an American author. He is the son of Polish avant-garde film director Tad Danielewski and the brother of singer and songwriter Annie Decatur Danielewski, a.k.a. Poe.

Danielewski studied English Literature at Yale. He then decided to move to Berkeley, California, where he took a summer program in Latin at the University of California, Berkeley. He also spent time in Paris, preoccupied mostly with writing.

In the early 1990s, he pursued graduate studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television. He later served as an assistant editor and worked on sound for Derrida, a documentary based on the life of the Algerian-born French literary critic and philosopher Jacques Derrida.

House of Leaves, Danielewski's first novel, has gained a considerable cult following. His second novel, Only Revolutions, was released in 2006. Though released to less critical acclaim than his debut, the novel was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. Danielewski's work is characterized by experimental choices in form, such as intricate and multi-layered narratives, typographical variation, and inconsistent page layouts.

In 2000, Danielewski toured with his sister across America at Borders Books and Music locations, promoting Poe’s album Haunted, which reflects elements of House of Leaves. (from GoodReads

Synopsis: Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet. No one could have anticipated the small but devoted following this terrifying story would soon command. Starting with an old assortment of marginalized youth--musicians, tattoo artists, programmers, strippers, environmentalists, and adrenaline junkies--the book eventually made its way into the hands of the older generations, who not only found themselves in those strangely arranged pages but also discovered a way back into the lives of their estranged children.

No, for the first time, this astonishing novel is made available in book form, complete with the original colored words, vertical footnotes, and newly added second and third appendices.

The story remains unchanged, focusing on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. 

Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story--of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all of their dreams. 

Review: People have said a lot of things about House of Leaves, but one descriptor that comes up over and over again is, if you'll pardon my French, "mind-fuck." This book is exactly that. A psychological novel that explores the unknown nature of darkness and the toll that it can take on the human mind, House of Leaves has the distinction of being one of those books that, as clichéd as it sounds, I'd dub "life-altering." Despite the fact that I'm a night owl and that I'm not easily spooked, after reading this book the first time, I looked at closets and dark corners with trepidation for months. In addition to this new-found (but temporary) uneasiness, I found that this book also changed my perceptions of insanity, loneliness, and, yes, the usefulness of footnotes.

The book tells a three-fold story. The main narrative is about Will Navidson, Karen Green, and their new home on Ash Tree Lane. Shortly after moving in they discover that the dimensions of the inside of their house are bigger than those of the outside. The secondary narrative is that of Johnny Truant, a drug-addled young man who finds and assembles the manuscript of a scholarly book written about a non-existent film about the house, titled The Navidson Record, after his friend's neighbor, Zampanó, dies. The tertiary narrative surrounds the late Zampanó and is inextricably linked with both The Navidson Record and Johnny Truant's story. I think it's safe to say that already you can tell that this is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. What Danielewski/Zampanó/Johnny Truant do with this riddle is even more impressive.

When people discuss this book, inevitably the novel's structure is one of the first things they talk about. And with good reason. Much like The Invention of Hugo Cabret used images to tell much of the narrative, so House of Leaves uses words to create images. Part of the reason why many people are reluctant to read this novel is because its sheer size is intimidating and because they see images like this:

Part of the chapter in which an expedition is launched inside the house to tackle the large spiral staircase that has grown within the dark and expansive interior, Danielewski uses footnotes in order to give the reader the impression that they too are walking down a never-ending staircase. Yet, for every page like this, there are pages like this:

Sitting on its side it doesn't look like much, but when you flip the book, it becomes a ladder of words, reflecting a ladder which one of the characters climbs in the book. There are even pages that have maybe one or two words on them, which means that for every page it takes you several minutes to read, there are entire sections of the book that you can get through in under a minute. But enough about the book's structure.

The plot itself is deep and interesting and the dizzying shifts between Zampanó's original text and Johnny Truant's footnote intrusions brings a uniqueness not found in other books. By making connections between the book and his own life, Truant subtly suggests to readers that there are connections to be made in their own lives. And there are. The characters that fill the pages of The Navidson Record are easy to relate to, which is quite a feat considering that their development is not constructed through a first person narrative like Johnny's but through a third person outside observer who shifts his focus from their troubles to anything from carbon dating to the story of Jacob and Esau.

Some have called House of Leaves a gimmick, but I prefer to see it as a refreshing break from the ordinary novel. Danielewski is a talented writer who uses both fact and fiction to create a terrifying story of family problems and personal struggles. This is not a story of monsters and boogeymen; it is far more chilling than that. House of Leaves is a book about how the extraordinary can either destroy a man or make him stronger. Just as it leaves the characters forever changed, it will leave the reader affected as well.

I'm giving House of Leaves 5 out of 5 Gabriels.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sarcasm Is the Lowest Form of Wit: A Review of Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News by Bernard Goldberg

Title: Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News
Author: Bernard Goldberg
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Regnery Publishing, Inc. (2002)
Pages: 232
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: This was found in my search for more conservative sources to use in researching the book I'm working on. It turns out that Goldberg isn't actually conservative, but he does criticize what he considers to be an overabundance of liberalism in the media, so I guess it counts...sort of. This book was obtained from my library.

About the Author: Bernard Goldberg, the television news reporter and author of Bias, a New York Times number one bestseller about how the media distort the news, is widely seen as one of the most original writers and thinkers in broadcast journalism.  He has covered stories all over the world for CBS News and has won 11 Emmy awards for excellence in journalism.  He won six Emmys at CBS, and five more at HBO, where he now reports for the widely acclaimed broadcast Real Sports.

In addition to his ground-breaking book Bias, Goldberg has written four other books on the media and American culture — Arrogance, 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America: (And Al Franken is #37), Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right, and A Slobbering Love Affair, about the news media’s romance with Barack Obama.  All  have all been New York Times bestsellers. (truncated bio; for full biography see here)

Synopsis: Think the media are biased?

Conservatives have been crying foul for years, but now a veteran CBS reporter has come forward to expose how liberal bias pervades the mainstream media. Even if you've suspected your nightly news is slanted to the left, it's far worse than you think.

Breaking ranks and naming names, Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist Bernard Goldberg reveals a corporate news culture in which the close-mindedness is breathtaking, journalistic integrity has been pawned to liberal opinion, and "entertainment" trumps hard news every time.

In his three decades at CBS, Goldberg repeatedly voiced his concerns to network executives about the often one-sided nature of the news coverage. But no one listened to his complaints--or if they did listen, they did nothing about the problem.

Finally, Goldberg had no choice but to blow the whistle on his own industry, to break the code of silence that pervades the news business. Bias is the result.

As the author reveals, "liberal bias" doesn't mean simply being hard on Republicans and easy on Democrats. Real media bias is the result of how those in the media see the world--and their bias directly reflects how we all see the world.

Review: When I picked this book up at the library, I expected a well-documented book that gives an intelligent criticism of network news organizations. What I found, instead, was a personal-experience-driven book rife with thinly-veiled attempts at character assassination and a whiny "I'm-the-victim" attitude that made Goldberg seem just as biased as the media figures he criticizes.

It's obvious from pretty much the first page that Goldberg has a personal beef with CBS. In the age-old tradition of methinks-the-man-doth-protest-too-much, Goldberg asserts ad nauseum that this isn't the case, but throughout Bias he takes pot-shots at CBS and, more importantly, Dan Rather, who Goldberg must really hate. This would all be a lot more excusable if this book were being advertised as a memoir or something of that nature; instead, Bias is touted as a hard-line analysis and exposée of the inherently liberal bias infecting newsrooms all over the country. Goldberg comes off as more of a petulant child than as a real critic.

There are quite a lot of interesting ideas in this book. I don't disagree that there is bias in the media (although I would posit that it's more of a corporate bias than it is a bias leaning either to the left or the right), nor do I feel that it isn't important to explore that bias and to see it for what it really is--an attempt at swaying public opinion one way or the other. I stopped watching the news a long time ago because CNN, MSNBC, FOX, CBS, etc., etc., have all devolved into scare-mongering agents for private companies and corrupt politicians.

There's no mention of any of that in this book. Instead, Goldberg goes on and on about how the media is rife with stories that are designed to evoke a response from the audience that benefits a liberal agenda. Call me crazy (or biased, if you'd like), but some of the things that are ascribed to the "liberal agenda" (income equality, civil rights, universal health care, etc., etc.) don't seem all that problematic to me. Much of what Goldberg finds wrong with today's media hinges on the belief that smaller government and less interference from public interest groups is the ideal for society. Ignoring the inherent bias of conservative news outlets like Fox and The National Review, Goldberg simply warns them not to follow in the footsteps of the dreaded "liberal media." Hate to tell you this, Bernard, but conservative bias in the media is just as real and as prevalent as liberal bias. How can you warn someone against something that they're already doing?

One of the biggest problems I had with Goldberg's book, however, is his constant snide remarks. Adopting a sarcastic tone on everything from feminism to homelessness, he spends more time ridiculing marginalized groups and their advocates than he does exposing bad practices by the media. When he occasionally deems to delve into what he sees as being wrong with the news today, most of his evidence comes from his own experiences, which is fine except that there's little to no corroborating evidence. The book is poorly-cited (meaning, not at all), so anyone wishing to fact-check his claims is unable to do so. While there's no bibliography, there is a self-serving appendix consisting only of letters people sent him congratulating him on his supposed heroism in the face of adversity. Smooth, Goldberg. Really smooth.

This relates to yet another aspect of this book that I found troubling. Goldberg can't seem to decide if he's a hero or a victim. He bounces back and forth between the two roles, bemoaning the unfairness he suffered at the hands of CBS' media moguls, especially Dan Rather, before serving up an unhealthy helping of self-righteousness. He seems to view himself as a light in the dark, a candle that was successful in emancipating itself from the bushel of media politics. It severely diminishes his arguments and ends up making the reader more annoyed than anything else.

Some of the pluses of this book are Goldberg's wit, which is actually quite funny when he's not being a sarcastic jerk; the fact that Bias is a quick, easy read; and his (very) occasional on-target criticism, which is too few and far between to be of much use. Had he spent more time working on a scholarly, unbiased book rather than on a book brimming with a "woe-is-me-and-here's-some-people-I-don't-like" attitude, Bias might actually have been quite good. Instead, it falters under Goldberg's preoccupation with what he considers to be grave ills committed against him.

I'm giving Bias 3 out of 5 Gabriels.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Future Is Soon: A Review of 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America by Albert Brooks

Title: 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America
Author: Albert Brooks
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (2011)
Pages: 375
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: The cover caught my eye in the library but I resisted picking it up because I didn't think I could fit it in this month. When one of the books I was reading ended up being difficult to get into, I replaced it with this.

About the Author: Albert Brooks is a writer, actor, and director. He has written and directed several classic American comedies that are considered prescient and incisive commentaries on contemporary life, including Lost in America, Modern Romance, and Defending Your Life. Brooks has also acted in more than twenty motion pictures for other directors, including Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, Pixar's Finding Nemo, and James L. Brooks's Broadcast News, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.

Synopsis: Is this what's in store?

June 12, 2030, started out like any other day in memory--and by then, memories were long. Since cancer had been cured fifteen years before, America's population was aging rapidly. That sounds like good news, but consider this: Millions of baby boomers, with a big natural predator picked off, were sucking dry benefits and resources that were never meant to hold them into their eighties and beyond. Young people around the country simmered with resentment toward "the olds" and anger at the treadmill they could never get off of just to maintain their parents' entitlement programs.

But on that June 12, everything changed: A massive earthquake devastated Los Angeles, and the government, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, was unable to respond.

The fallout from the earthquake sets in motion a sweeping novel of ideas that pits national hope for the future against assurances from the past and is peopled by a memorable cast of refugees and billionaires, presidents and revolutionaries, all struggling to find their way. In 2030, the author's all-too-believable imagining of where today's challenges could lead us tomorrow makes gripping and thought-provoking reading.

Review: The above synopsis uses the word "sweeping" and I have to agree that this novel is just that. Primarily covering a period of about a year, 2030 delves into some particularly sticky territory via interesting characters and intelligent social commentary. Yet, as much as I wanted to thoroughly enjoy this book, I found it to be a poorly-constructed novel that focused too much on the commentary and not enough on the characters.

Earlier this year I read Piers Anthony's On a Pale Horse and, although I really liked it, I commented that it was heavily weighed down by the recurring issue of a patient's right to die. That issue returns with a vengeance in this novel and it's joined by a dozen others, such as the advance of medicine, the budget deficit, global warming, youth dissatisfaction, the political process, technological developments, etc., etc., etc. I felt at times like I was reading a treatise rather than a novel, which is not what I had signed up for when I picked up this book.

Brooks' novel is inconsistently funny with poor character development and a penchant for telling rather than showing. The basic premise is interesting and I was invested enough in the narrative to want to find out what happened in the end, but, when I finished the novel, I was left feeling dissatisfied and confused as to what Brooks' overall point was. Was he trying to incite a debate over assisted suicide? Was he attempting to raise the issue of changing the requirements dictating who can and cannot be president? Was he suggesting that we should be more open to a global environment in which we work with other countries rather than against them? Or was it something else entirely? There's no shortage of possible answers, which can be attributed to Brooks' bringing far too many issues to the forefront of his book.

For much of the novel, the emphasis is not on the characters or on dialogue. Instead, the book reads too often like a textbook, recounting a lot of unnecessary background information that would have been more effective had it been weaved into the story itself rather than written as separate digressions. For example, instead of the one mention of global warming (a statement about the fact that it was now evident and no longer disputed), Brooks could have used changed weather patterns to illustrate to the reader that global warming had been proven. Hell, even having a weatherman or a scientist talking about the topic would have been better than simply stating it outright.

And that is the true fault in Brooks' writing. His characters take a backseat to the issues he presents in 2030 and they are forced to develop because he tells the reader that they have. There were a lot of interesting characters, especially Brad Miller, President Bernstein, and Paul Prescott, but because there were so many people involved in this book and because Brooks spent more time on explaining how the world had changed by 2030 than on anything else, these characters felt disingenuous and fake. Their dialogue was occasionally funny and interesting but it was often poor and dull. Their lives ultimately end up intertwining in irrevocable ways, but by that point the reader has lost interest and is just trying to get to the part where everything that has happened makes sense. That part sort of comes at the end but, like had been previously mentioned, the final goal of Brooks' novel is so unapparent that it distracts the reader from taking any meaning from what they've read.

On the whole, 2030 is a novel that drowns in a lake of issues. Some of what Brooks suggests is interesting and his world of tomorrow is pretty believable. Some of what he describes is just possible enough as to be unsettling. He doesn't rely on some gimmicky sci-fi future, preferring instead to explore the results of things happening right now. This could have been a really good novel if there had been more showing and less telling, more true character development and less fitting characters into a mold to make his plot fit nicely, and more real narrative and less needless exposition.

I'm giving 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America 3 out of 5 Gabriels.

-Gabe (who will turn 44 in 2030)

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Collision of Religion and Politics: A Review of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg

Title: Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism
Author: Michelle Goldberg
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company (2007)
Pages: 253
Challenges: GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: I've mentioned before that I'm researching a book that encompasses myriad topics. This particular book was cited in something that I read (although I can't remember what) and I was instantly interested in reading it. It was obtained from my library.

About the Author: Michelle Goldberg is a contributing writer to Salon. Hew work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the New York Observer, the Guardian (London), Newsday, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Synopsis: In this journey through an America in the grips of a fevered religious radicalism, Michelle Goldberg takes us from the classroom to the megachurch to the federal court, demonstrating how the growing influence of dominionism--the doctrine that Christians have the right to rule nonbelievers--is threatening the foundations of democracy.

Review: I've discussed my views on religion (as well as my own non-religious identity) on here before, but I think that it's important for me to revisit that before I review this book. I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy. I respect the right of every citizen to hold their own beliefs, whether they be highly religious or not at all. I do, however, strongly believe that no one's personal views on the existence of a higher power should ever infringe on someone else's freedoms. This means that you can believe what you want to but you can't tell anyone else what they can or cannot do based on those beliefs. This is why the idea of Christian Nationalism scares the crap out of me.

There are many in this country who erroneously believe that Muslims in America are just itching to implement Sharia law. After reading Goldberg's book, my attention has been turned elsewhere--to the small but vocal population of evangelical Christians who are actively seeking to impose Christian law on an increasingly secular United States. Kingdom Coming is well-researched and uses sources from evangelicals, secularists, and everyone in between to construct a convincing and terrifying picture of the growing influence of Christian fundamentalism in U.S. politics.

Relying not only on books, journals, and newspapers, but also on her skills as an investigative journalist and a number of interviews conducted with leaders and followers within evangelical Christianity, Goldberg shows the ways in which those with radical religious beliefs are trying to mold domestic and foreign policy to fit their own agenda. From abortion and sex education to gay marriage and charity work, Goldberg provides ample evidence for her claim that the growing number of evangelicals in this country have set their sights on taking control of government. This is not to say, of course, that every evangelical believes in dominionism or that every single leader in one of these churches is using his or her position of power to influence their followers into voting for a fundamentalist agenda. Yet, Kingdom Coming does an excellent job of raising awareness of those who do and it uses their own words as well as incredibly sound analysis of the available evidence to shed light on what is becoming a big movement within Christianity.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Christian Nationalist movement is the use of revisionist history and other agents of disinformation. Rewriting history to suit one's own needs is always verboten in my mind, regardless of who is doing the rewriting. What's really scary is that these misinformation artists are gaining popularity and believers, people who truly don't realize that the founding fathers didn't create the United States as a Christian nation and who will fight to their last breath to prove the complete falsehood that separation of church and state is an evil to be eradicated. Even people as notable as former VP Dan Quayle are guilty of pushing the idea that only those who believe as they do should have freedom in the U.S. Goldberg's book is full of well-documented and damning evidence showing the large number of people in power who have bought into the nationalist movement and who are using it as an excuse to curtail liberty and justice for all.

Kingdom Coming is a short, easy-to-read book that raises (and answers) a lot of interesting points. Although published before the advent of the Tea Party and other current radical right-wing movements, the information contained within its pages is just as (if not more) relevant to today's political landscape. Even after the end of the Bush presidency, the influence of radical Christianity in government and society is pointedly obvious to anyone paying attention. This book is a must-read for those who are looking to place this influence in context or for those who simply wish to gain an understanding of dominionism and Christian Nationalism.

Much of the book is shocking and quite a bit of it will make you rethink what you thought you knew about religion, the political process, and conservative politicians. Her interviews give a human face to the movement and to its people. You find that many of its proponents are regular people who only want the best for their families and who have been sucked into powerful religious organizations because of their fears about the world at large. They are people of faith who have been led to believe things that aren't true by people with lots of influence and deep pockets. This, I believe, is the saddest part of all. I truly feel that a good, honest education (without an underlying agenda) is a right for all Americans and the fact that there are people who are being purposely miseducated makes me beyond angry.

I'm giving Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism 5 out of 5 Gabriels.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Dark World of Intrigue: A Review of The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn

Title: The Dark Enquiry
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: MIRA 2011
Pages: 387
Challenges: Read Your Own Books Challenge; GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: This was actually one of the last books that I purchased from Borders before it closed. I had been anxiously awaiting it's release but was financially incapable of getting a copy until a few months after it came out.

About the Author: A sixth-generation native Texan, Deanna Raybourn graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a double major in English and history and an emphasis on Shakespearean studies. She taught high school English for three years in San Antonio before leaving education to pursue a career as a novelist. Deanna makes her home in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and daughter, and is hard at work on the next installment in the award-winning Lady Julia Grey series.

Synopsis: Partners now in marriage and in trade, Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane have finally returned from abroad to set up housekeeping in London. But merging their respective collections of gadgets, pets and servants leaves little room for the harried newlyweds themselves, let alone Brisbane's private enquiry business.

Among the more unlikely clients: Julia's very proper brother, Lord Bellmont, who swears Brisbane to secrecy about his case. Not about to be left out of anything concerning her beloved--if eccentric--family, spirited Julia soon picks up the trail of the investigation.

It leads to the exclusive Ghost Club, where the alluring Madame Séraphine holds evening séances...and not a few powerful gentlemen in thrall. From this eerie enclave unfolds a lurid tangle of dark deeds, whose tendrils crush reputations and throttle trust.

Shocked to find their investigation spun into salacious newspaper headlines, bristling at the tension it causes between them, the Brisbanes find they must unite or fall. For Bellmont's sake--and more--they'll face myriad dangers born of dark secrets, the kind men kill to keep...

Review: I've gushed about Deanna Raybourn's novels several times on this blog (see especially my reviews of Dark Road to Darjeeling and The Dead Travel Fast), so I'll spare you yet another hagiography of the woman who has become my favorite contemporary female author. I'll just reiterate that she is an insanely talented writer whose novels transcend genres and transport the reader right into the heart of the worlds that she creates.

So it was again with The Dark Enquiry. This time, however, I felt that Raybourn's plot was a bit thin and her minor characters not as well fleshed out as they have been in the past. While I don't think any of her suspects could ever be as vivacious and detailed as they were in Dark Road to Darjeeling, the line-up of would-be murderers and the bit players in her recent murder mystery paled in comparison to any of the characters I'd seen before. They were, of course, unique and could have been fairly interesting had it not been that the nature of her story caused them to disappear soon after they were introduced. Instead of a complex tangle of competing motives that continued straight to the end, the murder suspects this time came and went almost as if this were a TV procedural.

There were some incredible new characters introduced this time around--most notably the mysterious Sir Morgan and Lady Julia's new footmen, Pigeon and Swan--and many of the returning characters, especially those in Lady Julia's own family, were welcome sights for those who have been following the series from the beginning. The Roma camp that plays an integral role in the novel featured some interesting characters from Brisbane's past as well. Still, after how deftly Raybourn juggled competing story lines in her last Lady Julia novel, The Dark Enquiry seemed a little flat, at least in the middle of the book.

The beginning and the end were both pure, unadulterated fun and were much more similar to the other novels. They featured the same witty banter, thrilling action, and gasp-worthy surprises that I've come to expect. Beginning with a literal explosion and ending with a figuratively explosive unveiling of secrets, this novel held my attention for most of the narrative. It was just some of the middle bits that I felt dragged. This time around I really had no idea who was behind the nefarious plot and when it was revealed I was more shocked than I ever have been by a Raybourn novel. Everything about the ending was satisfying (except for one or two things that I can't get into here) and I found myself coming to appreciate some of the things that had seemed superfluous in the rest of the book.

I guess what I'm really trying to say is that The Dark Enquiry is a bit of a quagmire. The somewhat-dragging middle contains a lot of things that are essential for the ending, which shows that Raybourn hasn't lost her touch. It's imperative that readers keep this in mind because otherwise they may find their attention flagging a little. While I won't say that on the whole this is her best novel, I will say that what happens in the latter part of the book makes it well worth reading.

I think if I could raise any real issue with the novel, it was that Lady Julia was more than a little aggravating at times. Her desire to be a part of Brisbane's life and work while not realizing how important she is to him made her say and do things that were, frankly, obnoxious. I found myself wishing I could hit her upside the head a few times, to be honest. She is such an amazing character and I would hate to see her devolve into one of those silly female characters who thinks of herself only in relation to the man to whom she is married. Brisbane remains one of the strongest male characters I've come across in years and I don't want Lady Julia to lose the strength that I've come to associate with her.

Another novel is hinted at on the last page of The Dark Enquiry and I'm yet again anxiously awaiting it, as well as any other book that Raybourn has kicking around in that brilliant head of hers. I'd like to reread this one again sometime, knowing what I know now about where it all ends up, just so that I can fully appreciate the intricacies of the text. I think this is one of those books where a second read is called for (much like Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, which I didn't like as much the first time as I did the second).

I'm giving The Dark Enquiry 4 out of 5 Gabriels. While there are better novels in the series, I still can't rate this one too low because, honestly, it's still one of the best mystery/historical fiction novels on the market today.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Which I Am Being Lazy

There's no review scheduled today because I took yesterday off. In the next few days I'll be reviewing the latest Deanna Raybourn novel, Albert Brooks' 2030, and the chilling House of Leaves, along with a few non-fiction books. I'm currently in the process of tweaking my reading list for the rest of the year (I'm woefully behind on my challenges) and I'm also busy planning for next year. As I hinted on Twitter, I have some exciting things coming in 2012, including a fun, personalized challenge for all of you to join in on and a series read-along. I'll be announcing everything in December, but I figured I'd leave you guys guessing for the next two months by dropping in a teaser here. :)


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week they post a different prompt and book bloggers create lists of their top ten choices in response. Visit their blog for more information on how to get involved.

 This week's prompt is: Top Ten Books to Read During Halloween

1) House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: I just reread this book and will be reviewing it later this week, but this is one of those novels that instantly springs to mind whenever someone says they're looking for a creepy read. This unsettling story of a family living in a house bigger on the inside than it is on the outside never fails to give me the willies (as evidenced by my lack of sleep last night). Dealing more with the demons within and with the fear of darkness than with any tangible thing that goes bump in the night, House of Leaves gets under your skin and stays there for months after you've read it. 

2) The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams: Someone recently returned this book to the library while I was working and it immediately brought back memories of childhood Halloweens, especially the October in first grade when my teacher read this to us in class. I've always loved this book and, if I ever become a father, I'll read this to my kids every Halloween (or at least until they go, "Dad, seriously, I'm 45. Stop coming over to read to me at night."). The story of a little old lady who lives alone but who feels no fear, this book is a ton of fun.

3) The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: I just read this book (as in, this month) but already I'm adding it to my very short list of favorite haunted house novels of all time. I say short because, well, it is the list. I don't read much horror, psychological or otherwise, so for the time being The Haunting of Hill House, a chilling novel about four strangers staying in a haunted house for the summer, is in a league of its own.

4) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz: When I was in elementary school, I devoured these books. With their creepy (and sometimes funny) stories and their spooky illustrations, the Scary Stories books were always cherished favorites.

5) Zombie Haiku by Ryan Mecum: Mecum has a few books of supernatural haiku out now, but, in my opinion, his best is his slim volume of haiku written by a zombie. Hilarious, disturbing, and often nauseating, Zombie Haiku is amazing. This book is awesome/A great pick for Halloween/A haiku review.

6) The Berenstain Bears Trick or Treat by Stan and Jan Berenstain: In trying to find the title of this book, I discovered that I'd been spelling "Berenstain" wrong for the last two decades. Awesome. Anyway, any one of these books are worth picking up, but since it's Halloween, I'm recommending this one. It's a cute story about Brother and Sister Bear trick or treating one Halloween.

7) Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore: It's not often that you'll see me advertising books about vampires on here, so you know this one's got to be worth a read. This book follows the adventure of two newly-made vampires who are also just beginning to date each other. With Moore's signature humor and odd way of looking at the world, Bloodsucking Fiends is a very readable vampire novel. And there's no sparkling. Not exactly a Halloween book, but it's close enough.

8) Fear Street by R.L. Stein: I grew up on Stein's books, both the Goosebumps series and the Fear Street novels. While obviously written with a younger audience in mind, Fear Street books can actually be quite chilling. The Fear Street Saga is a trilogy that I remember liking a lot, so if you're looking to read any of them, I'd suggest those first.

9) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: Whether you look at it as a novel about Victorian repression or as just a creepy, well-written novel, the story of Dr. Jekyll and his horrendous creation, Mr. Hyde, is worth a read. It's slim, fast-paced, and raises lots of interesting questions about the nature of good and evil in the hearts of men.

10) The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman: No TTT list here at Gabriel Reads is ever complete without Neil Gaiman. While not a Halloween book, The Wolves in the Walls is a great children's book that has the same creepy atmosphere that makes all of Gaiman's books so much fun to read.


Monday, October 24, 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday, which means it's time for It's Monday! What Are You Reading? hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. This weekly feature gives book bloggers the opportunity to share what they read the week before, what they're currently reading, and what they'll be reading during the coming week.

Now that I'm somewhat back in the swing of things, I've decided to try to pick up most of the memes I'd abandoned in the computer-less/internet-less limbo that has been the last few months of my life. As I'm still sans-internet (unless I pop down to the library), I may not be able to post every meme every week, but I'll do the best I can.

What I Read Last Week:
-The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn

-2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America by Albert Brooks

-House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

What I'm Currently Reading:
-The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner

What I'm Reading This Week:
-Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

-Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

-Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe (Illustrated by Arthur Rackham)

Upcoming Reviews: (although not necessarily this week...)

-2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America by Albert Brooks
-Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News by Barry Goldberg
-The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater
-The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman
-The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn
-The End of Nature by Bill McKibben
-Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
-House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
-Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg
-The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
-A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
-Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Obligatory Daily Post

Hey everyone,

There's no review today, as I've been writing reviews all week and my brain needs a break. I'm also behind on reading, so I wanted to focus on that on Friday and Saturday. Look for more reviews the rest of this month.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tina in Charge: A Review of Bossypants by Tina Fey

Title: Bossypants
Author: Tina Fey
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Little Stranger, Inc. (2011)
Pages: 277
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: I had seen this book on a lot of blogs that I followed and it seemed interesting. I’m not a huge fan of SNL but I find Tina Fey to be hilarious, so I checked it out of the library.

About the Author: Elizabeth Stamatina Fey was born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, just west of Philadelphia, in 1970 to Donald and Jeannec Fey. Going by the name of Tina, Ms. Fey considered herself a "supernerd" during her high school and college years. She studied drama at the University of Virginia, and after graduating in 1992, she headed to Chicago, the ancestral home of American comedy. While working at a YMCA to support herself, she started Second City's first set of courses. After about nine months, a teacher told her to just skip ahead and audition for the more selective Second City Training Center. She failed but about eight weeks later, she re-auditioned and got into the year-long program. She ended up spending many years at The Second City in Chicago where many SNL cast members first started out. Then in 1995, "Saturday Night Live" (1975) came to The Second City's cast, including Fey's friend, Adam McKay, as a writer, searching for new talent. What they found was Tina Fey. When Adam was made Head writer, he suggested Fey should send a submission packet over the summer with six sketches, 10 pages each. Tina took the advice and sent them. After Lorne Michaels met her and saw her work she was offered a job a week later. She admitted that she was extremely nervous working in the legendary Studio 8H; being a foot shorter than everyone else, younger, and being one of the only female writers at the time. After a few years, Tina made history by becoming the first female head writer in the show's history. Tina also made her screen debut as a featured player during the 25th season by co-anchoring Weekend Update with Jimmy Fallon. Since Tina and Jimmy have taken over Weekend Update it has been considered the best ever. This year she made it to full fledged star by becoming a regular cast member, though she is hardly on the show, besides Update. And during the past two summers, Tina and Rachel Dratch performed their two-woman show to critical acclaim in both Chicago (1999) and New York (2000) and made their Aspen Comedy Festival Debut. Tina is married to Jeff Richmond, a Second City director and currently lives in New York City. (from IMDb)

Synopsis: Before Liz Lemon, before “Weekend Update,” before “Sarah Palin,” Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon—from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.

(Includes Special, Never-Before-Solicited Opinions on Breast-feeding, Princesses, Photoshop, the Electoral Process, and Italian Rum Cake!)

Review: This book was not at all what I expected—and not in a good way. Tina Fey is a funny woman, one who has managed to make us laugh at everything from politics to bullying in school. Yet, as I was reading Bossypants, I couldn’t help but be bored. As I can’t really relate to things like parenthood or breast-feeding, I felt that I was out of the loop when it came to a lot of this book. I’m guessing I’m not the only guy who felt that way.

Bossypants is funny, but it’s inconsistently so. My mother tried reading it before I did and told me that she had ended up putting it down less than half-way through. If it weren’t that I was determined to write a review, I probably would have as well. I laughed from time to time, but on the whole I found it to be sort of…blah. She’s a decent writer, but I guess I thought that a book by one of the queens of comedy would be a lot more entertaining.

There were some parts that were interesting, especially Fey’s commentary on the boys’ club of comedy and her struggles to prove to Saturday Night Live’s writers that women could be just as funny. I also found some of what she had to say about fame and celebrity to be worth picking up the book for, but a lot of the time it seemed like an excuse to name drop or complain. These, among others, are parts of her life that I didn’t mind reading about. But periods and breast-feeding? Not so much.

I guess my issue is that much of Fey’s book is somewhat inaccessible to the male population. I’m all for gender equality and I’m a huge opponent of discrimination against women, so I’m not saying that every book should be readable by every facet of society. All I’m saying is that this is a book that women would probably enjoy more than men (my mother not withstanding).

While I hate writing such a short review, I don’t have much to say about Bossypants. I’m guessing that a lot of people are going to disagree with what I’ve written here, and that’s fine. For me, though, this is a book that I wouldn’t pick up again.

I’m giving Bossypants 3 out of 5 Gabriels.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Politically-Minded: A Review of Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy by Noam Chomsky

Title: Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
Author: Noam Chomsky
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Metropolitan Books (2006)
Pages: 311
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: At one point I was doing a Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Chomsky’s name came up frequently because of his work with language, but I was more interested in him because of his work as a political scholar. This book was obtained from the library as part of the research for a book that I’m working on.

I couldn't resist using this picture.

About the Author: Noam Chomsky is the author of numerous best-selling political works, from American Power and the New Mandarins in the 1960s to Hegemony or Survival in 2003 and Imperial Ambitions in 2005. A professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT, he lives outside Boston, Massachusetts.

Synopsis: The world’s foremost critic of U.S. foreign policy exposes the hollow promises of democracy in U.S. actions abroad—and at home.

The United States has repeatedly asserted its right to intervene militarily against “failed states” around the globe. In this much-anticipated follow-up to his international best-seller Hegemony or Survival, Noam Chomsky turns the tables, showing how the United States itself shares features with other failed states—and therefore is increasingly a danger to its own people and the world.

Failed states, Chomsky writes, are those that are unable or unwilling “to protect their citizens form violence and perhaps even destruction” and “regard themselves as beyond the reach of domestic or international law.” Though they may have democratic forms, Chomsky notes, failed states suffer from a serious “democratic deficit” that deprives their democratic institutions of real substance. Exploring the latest developments in U.S. foreign and domestic policy, Chomsky reveals Washington’s plans to further militarize the planet, greatly increasing the risks of nuclear war; assesses the dangerous consequences of the occupation of Iraq, which has fueled global outrage at the United States; documents Washington’s self-exemption from international norms, including the UN charter and the Geneva Conventions, the foundations of contemporary international law, and the Kyoto Protocol; and examines how the U.S. electoral system is designed to eliminate genuine political alternatives, impeding any meaningful democracy.

Forceful, lucid, and meticulously documented, Failed States offers a comprehensive analysis of a global superpower that has long claimed the right to reshape other nations—toppling governments it deems illegitimate, invading states judged to threaten its interests, imposing sanctions on regimes it opposes—while its own democratic institutions are in severe crisis, and its policies and practices recklessly place the world on the brink of nuclear and environmental disaster. Systematically dismantling the United States’ pretense of being the world’s arbiter of democracy, Failed States is Chomsky’s most focused—and urgent—critique to date.

Review: As an undergraduate, I majored in Anthropology for about three years…until I finally came to my senses and admitted how much I despised it. Honestly, I think the discipline is interesting, but the program at my college was not the greatest and I take issue with some of the ways anthropologists have done business, both in the past and even to the present day. The class that really did it for me was one that was taught by a professor who was too Liberal even for me. I went to the first day of class, decided it really wasn’t worth it, and dropped the class the next day. Failed States was one of the books on the syllabus and, now that I’ve read it, I’m convinced it would have been the only one I had to read for that class that I would have actually liked.

While the issues discussed in Chomsky’s book are slightly outdated (it’s a criticism of George W. Bush’s presidency), much of the argument that he constructs is still relevant. Coming at the topic of the U.S. as a failed state from a historical as well as a contemporary perspective, Chomsky creates a well-argued book that explores the damaging effects of U.S. foreign policy that has implications for both the present and the future. While at times dry and difficult to get through, overall I found this to be a highly readable and engaging text that resonated with me as a citizen and voter of the self-proclaimed “greatest country in the world.”

The introduction to Failed States lays out three different criteria upon which a determination about a country’s failed state status can be made. From there, Chomsky proceeds to present an impressive amount of evidence derived from the Bush presidency, as well as previous administrations (going as far back as the early days of the nascent United States), to back up his claim that the U.S. is, ostensibly, a failed state. Given its position in the global arena, it could even be argued that it is the largest and greatest of failed states. Delving into topics like the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the treatment of Native Americans under Andrew Jackson, and the fight against Communist infiltrators, among others, Chomsky paints a depressing portrait of Washington’s detrimental effect on both its own people and on the rest of the world at large. Interventionism and war (preemptive or otherwise) are explored at length.

I really enjoyed this book, but, as I said earlier, I found parts of it to be hard to get through. Chomsky is a great writer, but at times his style became dry and, dare I say it, boring. The subject itself remained interesting, but his presentation of the material fluctuated throughout the book. I also took issue with the way he used end notes (this has been a recurring problem for me; see here and here). His book is well cited and he used a broad range of sources, but he falls into the habit of directing readers to his earlier book, Hegemony or Survival, for many of his citations. I fully intend to read that book, but if you’re citing something in the work that I’m presently reading, I expect to not have to refer to a different book in order to find out what your source is. If I have to see the words “See my Hegemony or Survival for…” one more time, I might scream.

Chomsky is very critical of the Bush administration, but he has no love of other presidents either. From Jackson to Reagan, from Kennedy to Clinton, he constructs a narrative of deception, interference, and anti-democratic actions throughout U.S. history. And he does it well. While I may have disagreed with him here and there, the overarching merit of his argument was never in question. Those of us who were politically cognizant in the last twenty years know that things have been rotten in Denmark for a while and have seen the changes that have been brought about as a result of corruption and foreign intervention. I think many who read this book will find themselves nodding and “mmm-hmm”-ing chapter after chapter.

I’m giving Failed States 4 out of 5 Gabriels. This book may not be for everyone, but it’s a fascinating read, especially now that we are out of the Bush era and are able to look back at everything that has happened as a result of his actions both at home and abroad. While I had a few issues with it, I would still recommend it, especially to those interested in politics, history, foreign relations, or current events.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Not Exactly Waterfront Property: A Review of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

NOTE: This is actually not my original review of this book, but it's as close as I could get. The first review (which was perfect in every sense of the word) was eaten by Word despite the fact that I was positive that I had saved my work before the program crashed. Needless to say, I was not a happy man. But, here's what I was able to recreate. It's not quite how I wanted it, but I couldn't remember everything exactly as I had written it.

Title: The Haunting of Hill House (in Novels and Stories compiled by Joyce Carol Oates)
Author: Shirley Jackson
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Library of America (2010)
Pages: 174 (p. 243-417)
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: It’s October, which is the only month that I really get a craving for spooky stories. As horror isn’t a genre that I delve into on a regular basis, I had no idea what to read. This book turned up in an internet search and the synopsis sounded intriguing, so I checked it out of my library.

This is the one picture of her I could find that didn't look eerily like my mother.

About the Author: Shirley Jackson was an influential American author. A popular writer in her time, her work has received increasing attention from literary critics in recent years. She has influenced such writers as Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, and Richard Matheson.

She is best known for her dystopian short story, "The Lottery" (1948), which suggests there is a deeply unsettling underside to bucolic, smalltown America. In her critical biography of Shirley Jackson, Lenemaja Friedman notes that when Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" was published in the June 28, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, it received a response that "no New Yorker story had ever received." Hundreds of letters poured in that were characterized by, as Jackson put it, "bewilderment, speculation and old-fashioned abuse." (from GoodReads)

Synopsis: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers-and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. (from GoodReads)

Review: My first taste of Shirley Jackson’s work was her controversial short story, “The Lottery.” For those of you haven’t read it, I won’t give anything away, but I will admit to vehemently disliking it and vowing never to read anything else she had written. Fortunately, that was ten years ago and I have learned over time that one disliked story should never deter you from reading other things an author has written. The Haunting of Hill House made me glad that I decided to leave my high school grudge behind. This book is incredible.

The basic premise is that four strangers are spending the summer at Hill House in order to observe supernatural phenomena. The house has gotten a reputation over the years, mostly because anyone who moves into it ends up leaving soon afterwards. The book follows the four main characters over the course of the summer and what happens to them at Hill House. There’s Eleanor, the 32-year-old woman who has spent the better part of her life looking after her ailing mother and who is only just now getting her first taste of freedom after the woman’s death; Theodora, an eccentric woman who enjoys antiques and who lives with (presumably) her female lover (referred to only as her “friend”); Luke, the nephew of the current owner of Hill house who is “a liar…[and] also a thief;” and Dr. Montague, the man who brings them all together by writing them a vague but inviting letter asking if they would care to join him for the summer.

If this novel is any indication of the rest of Jackson’s work, she is immensely talented at creating a mood. The book is at times warm and inviting and at others it is cold and forbidding. She chooses her words carefully in order to express just what the characters are feeling and, in doing so, these feelings transfer to the reader. Her vivid descriptions sink the reader into the story so that it no longer feels as if he is reading about things happening to other people; they are happening to him as well. It isn’t just that she creates images of the house and of its inhabitants. The reader experiences everything as if it’s in real time. It reminded me a lot of the “feely” movies from Brave New World—it was as if I was watching a movie but at the same time feeling every shaking of the house, every cold chill, every indication that something was not quite right.

The characters that Jackson creates are instantly likeable…and then become less so as the novel progresses. It isn’t that they are bad people or that they are poorly-crafted. On the contrary—these characters are deep and relatable. Instead, it’s that the longer they stay in the house, the more they become a part of it. Jackson knows exactly how to develop these characters based on their relationships with each other and with Hill House. It isn’t until Mrs. Montague, the professor’s wife, comes for a visit towards the end of the book that you realize that something else has happened as well. When I was reading the book, I thought I disliked her simply because she was obnoxious (which she is). The more that I think about it, however, the more I realize that it’s because she’s an outsider. She just doesn’t understand what the characters have been through…what I had been through. Because it isn’t only the characters that change throughout the course of the novel; it’s the reader as well. By the end of the book I, too, had become part of Hill House and Hill House had become a part of me. You become so immersed in this book that the actions of those characters that haven’t been on this transformative journey with you seem incomprehensible, silly, and, even, dangerous.

Although told in third person, we see the majority of the novel’s action through the eyes of Eleanor. She’s a character that you really feel for at first: lonely, naïve, sad, self-conscious. The direction her character takes during the novel is the most drastic of the four characters, but none of them come out of their experience unscathed. By the time you close the book, your opinions of all of them will have changed (for better or worse), but it is important that this happens. Jackson is telling a story not of triumph but of terror, a story of the deleterious effects that fear and paranoia can have on a human being. The psychological aspects of this story make it all the more terrifying because the ghouls that haunt this house aren’t visible; the unknown nature of who they are and what they want is scarier than any slasher film or monster movie.

The Haunting of Hill House is an insanely good novel. From her use of foreshadowing to her carefully-crafted bump-in-the-night moments to the fact that you come to feel as if you are a fifth main character, I loved everything about it. Anyone looking for a good spooky read this Halloween will find it between the covers of this Jackson masterpiece.

I’m giving The Haunting of Hill House 5 out of 5 Gabriels.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade I heard the song below on A Prairie Home Companion and, even though the house in the song isn't actually haunted, it kept going through my head as I was reading this book. It has the right sort of mood and some, pardon the pun, haunting vocals.