#CBR8 Review #17

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis

It’s no secret that I absolutely adore Christopher Paul Curtis. Both The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 and Bud, Not Buddy are landmarks in children’s literature (though adults can and should read them, too). I’d heard about Bucking the Sarge some years back, as Curtis was making a foray into young adult territory. Now, after devouring the book, I can’t help but hope he will stay there for a while, maybe even venture forth an adult book. One can hope.

Luther T. Farrell is an aspiring 15-year-old philosopher. Not in the same way other precocious and obnoxious old-for-their-years children are (hem, hem, Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). No, Luther’s just a smart kid with a crappy home life and a head full of dreams. He lives in Flint, Michigan, where he and his best friend Sparky are trying to figure out a way to get out. His mother, the Sarge, is a scary slumlord who exploits the poverty of others to try and maintain a good life for her and her boyfriend, Darnell T. Dixon. Luther is forced to balance school and working for the Sarge in one of her adult group homes. At the same time, he tries to figure out a winning science project that will beat his nemesis Shayla’s. And by the way, he has an enormous crush on her and can’t figure out how to be anything but 15.

Curtis is a genius. He hits readers with some heavy, heavy stuff, but he does so in a way that keeps it interesting, light, and relatable. There’s a plot point that involves exploitation of Flint citizens that made me gasp—this book was written in 2004, and we’re just now hearing of Flint in 2016? Very, very sobering. This book reminded me of Jason Reynolds’ The Boy in the Black Suit or Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get out of Here, but I like this one quite a bit better. Curtis makes his characters come alive, and his cast is diverse and balanced. I highly recommend this book, but it’s definitely heavy. You should probably be in a good place when you read it.

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#CBR8 Review #16

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

Back in college, my literary theory professor talked my class through a whole bunch of theoretical approaches to texts, including historical criticism, formalism/New Criticism, Reader-Response Criticism, etc., etc. You get the idea. At one point, he mentioned that Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller would make an excellent companion to our semester. I bought the book and promptly didn’t read it. But now that I have, I really wonder why we weren’t required to read it in his class. This is exactly the kind of book ripe for beginning literary critics to examine.

This is a book with many threads. The overall story is that of the Reader and the Second Reader (Ludmilla) who pick up If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, only to discover that their copies are corrupted. This leads us down a major rabbit hole of book-within-a-book threads that reminded me a lot of the twists in Inception.


BRAAAAAAM, bee-yotches. You think that you have a grasp on the story, but Calvino continually rewrites and revises the novel, so that you end up with different books and different authors with each twist. Only the readers remain the same…or do they?

Anyway, the book was an interesting premise that occasionally got bogged down in the conceit of the changing-of-the-books one too many times. Sort of like the van falling in Inception (amirite, that part took FOREVER).


But even so, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is well worth the experience, particularly if you are willing to be patient and let some of your expectations regarding literature and the reading experience be broken down just a little.

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#CBR8 Review #15

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

When I was in college, my English Department had two annual traditions: the beginning of the year welcome-back-brunch hosted by the faculty; and Yankee Book Swap in the winter. Basically, it’s Yankee Swap with books. Or White Elephant, or Nasty Christmas, whatever you and The Office call it.


But still. Yankee Swap. Just. With. Books.

That means there are books people fight fiercely over (one year it was Suite Francaise, another The Namesake, I heard this year it was Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On), and others that are total wildcards. Nine years ago, when it was my turn, I saw a book wrapped in a Matthew McConaughey ad, and I was intrigued (this was before McConaughey revealed that he didn’t wear deodorant and wanted to smell like a man. Dealbreaker). I unwrapped to reveal Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner, a book which moved to grad school, and then two different apartments with my spouse before I finally read it.

[Sidenote: Marie Kondo is a fricking genius, you guys. I am finally seeing all the things I can get rid of, simply because they DON’T SPARK THAT JOY]

As you can guess, I did not actually like this book. In fact, I counted down the pages until I could officially finish and count it as another Goodwill treasure (if I’m tallying correctly, I’ve already earmarked 3 for giveaway! Hooray!). It received a lot of wildly loving or wildly hating reviews on Goodreads, so let me explain my one-star review, my first for CBR8.

Edgar Drake is a shy, middle-aged piano tuner, sent to Burma on commission of the British Empire to tune a rare Erard piano owned by an eccentric army surgeon deep in the northern parts of Burma. What he finds there is much more shocking than…

Honestly, no. I felt this very telegraphed Heart of Darkness setup ALL THROUGHOUT THE BOOK, and there was no payoff. Like, none. The writing is beautiful but full of eloquent nothings and longings that ten-year-olds would have. The pacing is poor and haphazard, with about 250 pages of nothing and about 10 pages of breakneck action followed by inexplicable plot twists. Did I mention this is a C-level Heart of Darkness? Because that is my number one reason for disliking the book. Conrad was and is a genius. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it does not an excellent read make. This was not a worthwhile read, and even the history parts (British occupation in Burma) could not make up for the poor plotting and pacing and characterization issues that plagued the novel.

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#CBR8 Review #14

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Several years ago (like 12 or 13 now, but I’m not counting), House of Sand and Fog received a ton of Oscar nominations, including actor nods for Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo. I, being the read-the-book-first type, picked this up in a garage sale with the intent of reading in order to watch the movie. I’ve only just now gotten around to it, and I have to say, I think the moment has passed on this book.

There is a modest bungalow on the California coastline that has little in the way of wealth and riches. Yet there is a property value, as well as a view, that make it the linchpin for conflict between Kathy Nicolo and Colonel Behrani, the protagonists and main voices. Colonel Behrani has fled Iran with his family and has dodged his own suspicious past. Tired of working undignified trash pick-ups and other odd jobs, the Colonel wants a chance to give his family the American life they thought would wait for them. He buys an auctioned house in order to flip it. Kathy is a recovering addict who has decided to get a divorce. She owns the house, though she has been evicted for not paying property taxes to the county. The evicting police officer is Sheriff Lestor Burdon, a bored and chivalrious married man, and that’s where the story takes off.

The premise itself is interesting, and the house as representative of the American Dream, as well as the warring voices of Kathy and the Colonel, would make this an interesting study for a college class. HOWEVER. The execution is painfully botched. The last half of the book veers into hilarious melodrama that then turns into serious Game of Thrones-level WTFery. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that Lestor is Theon Greyjoy who thinks he’s Joffrey Baratheon/Lannister. It’s painful and stupid and incredibly bad. This book would be a one-star experience, except the premise is really interesting, AND the Iranian-immigrant experience is definitely worth reading. I just can’t believe this was nominated for a National Book Award. It goes without saying that I am giving this book to Goodwill.

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#CBR8 Review #13

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

Back in 2010, I took a Joseph Conrad/Graham Greene seminar as part of my MA degree. I quickly learned to love both authors, but especially Greene’s craft. My personal favorites are Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair (I still don’t get the looooooove for The Power and the Glory. Someone explain to me, plz?). A Burnt-Out Case was on our list, but as it turns out, our semester turned out to be shorter than our reading list (and we read a book a week, which is about right for an average graduate literature seminar, not to mention the theory and secondary readings). So I have moved this book around twice and am finally reading it. So: this is not the Graham Greene in my “love” column.

Querry is a famous architect, known by sight, who has tired of everything: fame, fortune, family, you name it. He decides that the best course of action is to recover in a remote location where his prestige means absolutely nothing. He finds himself in a leper colony deep in the Congo, where clashes between colonials and the indigenous folks have emerged. He befriends Dr. Colin and M. Rycker, but it is his friendship with Mme. Rycker, however innocent, that will turn the conflict into its startling pivot.

I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t love it, either. The themes are interesting, but I found them a bit overworked. A lot of Catholic academics at the Catholic institution where I am currently employed frequently refer to Graham Greene as a “Catholic” writer. This is both true and not true. Yes, Greene does explore the Catholic faith, institution, and Christian themes. Yet, as this book shows, he’s deeply ambivalent about it all. Perhaps if this had been the first Greene book I’d read, I would have found the ideas more compelling. As it is, I am well familiar with Greene’s major themes, so this was nothing new.

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#CBR8 Review #12

A Happy Death by Albert Camus

For months now, I’ve been meaning to read all the books on my bookshelf that I’ve never read before. And for months, I’ve been distracted by the pretty new shiny books at the library. But now, it’s time. I’ve cleared out my library loans, and I have a clean slate (apart from an audiobook, but that’s for my commute). I received Albert Camus’s A Happy Death for my college graduation from my dear friend D, who majored in English, Math, and French (she’s crazy smart like that) and is getting her PhD in Math. I decided it was finally time to read the book.

I read The Stranger probably 7-8 years ago, but I don’t remember a whole lot about it. According to the good people of Goodreads, A Happy Death was written first but remained unpublished for a long time and should be considered sort of the origin point for The Stranger. The plot is fairly simple, but seems straightforward: a man kills his lover’s former lover (who has suffered greatly as a cripple), escapes punishment, and then seeks out meaning and a happy death. But is it possible to find a happy death?

This is an intensely psychological novel, and sometimes, it’s hard to understand the plot or the direction the novel is heading. But Camus deliberately avoids plot-heavy stories, I’ve learned. This is about the workings of the mind and how you represent it in text. I’m glad I read this novel, almost seven years after graduating college, even if I’m not entirely sure I got everything I was supposed to out of this novel.

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#CBR8 Review #11

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

When I was a little kid, I greatly enjoyed the Disney Peter Pan adaptation. I was extremely weirded out by the Mary Martin live action adaptation, but that was many years before I understood and appreciated androgyny. Last year, Christopher Walken slept-walked through a spectularly boring live-action Peter Pan starring Allison Williams. It was awful, but it led to one of the Fug Girls’ finest hours, a liveblog with more cowbell. That said, I’d never read the book until now. As it turns out, I wasn’t missing out.

Peter Pan is the world’s shittiest child. I could pretty much sum up the book in that sentence, but there’s so much more than that. In fact, I am sure if Sigmund Freud had read it, he would have clapped his hands in glee, and said, “To the couch!” because there are so many unresolved father issues in this book. We have Wendy Darling who does not want to grow up and finds herself forced into motherhood and child bride-dom. Then there are the Lost Boys who are captured by Peter Pan and whisked away to Neverland (when you think about Michael Jackson naming his ranch Neverland…ick). We won’t discuss the racist as f**k cultural references. And then Captain Hook, who always plays Mr. Darling in like every movie adaptation ever. It’s so…unsettling. And Freudian. I have forgiven it exactly one time:


And even then, Jason Isaacs, it’s only because I love YOU SO MUCH PLEASE COME BACK TO AMERICAN TV I MISS AWAKE SO MUCH IT HURTS.



Is Peter Pan worth the read? Um, maybe, if you feel the need to read classic children’s books and then wonder what the hell J.M. Barrie was smoking when he wrote it. Or, if you like works that encapsulate repressed Victorian sexuality. Otherwise, skip it. And don’t bother rewatching the Disney cartoon. It’s embarrassingly racist.

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