Archive for October, 2011

Cannonball 32: The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's WifeThe Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Man, I have been having the worst luck with Holocaust books, lately.

The Zookeeper’s Wife was recommended to me by a dear friend. The story itself is actually quite remarkable. It’s the true story of Antonina and Jan Żabiński, who ran the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. After Poland was taken over, Antonina (the titular character) and Jan began helping the Underground by harboring Jews in the zoo, in the animals’ empty cages.

It really was amazing, how they used their zoo and their wits to save lives and to survive themselves during this harsh and uncertain time.

So why did I only give it two stars? Because, dear God, Ackerman’s writing made me want to puke. I mean, it wasn’t Tatiana-de-Rosnay-bad, but it was pretty bad. Basically, what Ackerman did was read through Antonina’s letters and interview surviving relatives and stuff. Then she thought to herself, “What must Antonina have been thinking? What must Antonina have been feeling?”

But I highly doubt that Antonina thought of herself as a character from a book, and that she didn’t organize her thoughts as though her mind was a screenplay. There was a forced drama to Ackerman’s writing that, to me, cheapened the genuine gravity of the events of the book.

And maybe this part isn’t Ackerman’s fault, and I know I’m pickin’ nits, here, but I also took issue with the dust jacket book summary, which made a big deal of the Żabińskis being Christian. That’s actually why my dear friend recommended the book to me: “It’s a really great story and it’s so interesting and, oh, they were Christians and –”

There were nothing but cursory mentions of God in the book. I’m not saying that I think the Żabińskis were bad people just because they didn’t God it up enough to satisfy the likes of me — far from it; they were heroes — but I did feel a little misled. I’d expected there to be much more in there about how their faith informed their decision to join the Underground, and it just wasn’t in there. And, from what I could gather, they were Catholic. Get your facts straight, publishers. That’s just lazy.

I think that the Żabińskis’ story is incredible, and I think they deserved a better write-up than they got. I hope that, someday, some other writer does this story justice and washes the memory of The Zookeeper’s Wife from my brain.

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Cannonball 31: The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal HistoryThe Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Discomfort Zone is author Jonathan Franzen’s personal memoir. In the book, he covers stories of growing up in a Midwestern, Protestant town with Midwestern, Protestant values.

The beginning chapters of the book really shine. They’re engaging and beautifully written. But, for me, Franzen starts to lose steam after the second chapter, and the book ends with a bit of a whimper.

Still, those first two chapters alone make the entire book worth reading. Given the chance, I’d love to drown in those words again.

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Cannonball 30: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

FreedomFreedom by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. While many people found the characters unlikeable and flawed, I actually identified with them all the more because they were so unlikeable and flawed. They reminded me of me — they screw up, sometimes royally, but they mean well.

But the way other people feel about The Corrections must be how I feel about Freedom.

The first part of the book chronicles the Berglund family’s swift descent from model family to cautionary tale. Walter and Patty Berglund are liberals living the good life. They have a beautiful home and two lovely children. But it all falls apart when their son Joey inexplicably moves in with his girlfriend Connie and renounces his parents’ politics. Patty and Walter fight more and more often and finally abandon their perfect life in St. Paul in favor of a totally different life in Washington, D.C.

The second part of the book is an “autobiography” told from Patty’s point of view, written at the urging of her therapist. We learn of how she was actually first attracted to Walter’s “bad boy” musician roommate and best friend, Richard Katz, but finally submitted to Walter’s wooing after a knee injury railroaded her basketball career. We also learn that she later had an affair with Richard.

The third part of the book follows Richard, who has become something of a success because of an album he wrote based on his affair with Patty. But he eschews his fame, preferring instead to install decks for rich Manhattanites. Walter contacts him, asking him to be part of a concert to raise awareness about overpopulation, a pet cause of his. When Richard comes to D.C. to meet with Walter, he tries to start things up with Patty again, but she rebuffs his advances, declaring that she really loves Walter. She shows him her “autobiography,” and he leaves it on Walter’s desk, knowing that Walter will leave Patty once he reads it.

In the meantime, we also keep tabs on their son Joey (little mention is made of his sister Jessica throughout the book). Despite his rebellion, he’s still his mother’s pet. He has a horrifyingly emotionally abusive relationship with his girlfriend, Connie, and he alternates between pushing her away and commanding her to draw near. He marries her at one point, but still flirts with the temptation to stray with other more desirable women.

By the end of the book, the family is pretty much splintered, but Franzen somehow is able to cobble together a happy ending for them.

In my view, the Berglunds were too unlikeable, even for me. I couldn’t identify with Patty’s controlling nature, Walter’s passivity, or Joey’s manipulation. I couldn’t identify with any of their selfishness. Maybe it was because, unlike the Lamberts of The Corrections, the Berglunds had no redeeming values to temper their flaws. I was continually baffled by their decisions. Even unlikeable people in real life feel some altruistic urges, don’t they? Don’t they?? I felt like Franzen was trying to test the boundaries of how unlikeable he could make a character before readers would finally say “uncle.”

Well, I’m saying “uncle.” I just couldn’t get into any of the characters and, as a result, felt that the ending was empty and overwrought.

But, man, this cat can write. Franzen has created some truly unlikeable characters here — but he did so with a beautiful hand. I couldn’t like the characters, but I could certainly appreciate the skill with which they were created.

My question is whether it’s worth wading through over 500 pages of beautiful writing to consume the unredeeming story of a family who cares about no one but themselves? I don’t know that it was.

Franzen is trying to write about freedom, here, but, in the end, I got the sinking feeling that all of the characters were still enslaved to the behaviors and attitudes that caused all the drama of the book in the first place.

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Cannonball 29: Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic by Jeff Smith

Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One VolumeBone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume by Jeff Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really don’t get all the fuss about Bone. I mean, sure, the characters are cute, but I have to say that I found the actual story pretty trite and done a million times over.

The story starts with the three Bone cousins: Fone Bone (our hero), Smiley Bone (the buffoon), and Phoney Bone (the libertine). They’re being run out of town because Phoney Bone, while running for mayor, ended up making a bunch of people sick and destroying a statue of the town’s founder. During a locust storm, the Bones get separated, and Fone Bone winds up in a lush valley. He meets a girl, Thorn, and her grandmother, Gran’ma Ben, but all is not as it seems.

Once again, the illustrations were adorable, but the story was just… meh. It’s bad fantasy with great illustrations.

I can write long, rave reviews about good books and even longer rants about bad ones, but when it comes to the middlin’ ones, all I can really say is: Meh.

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Cannonball 28: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

High FidelityHigh Fidelity by Nick Hornby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nick Hornby has a real gift for sympathy. He discerns situations and reactions that are common to the human experience and is able to articulate them in such a way that every reader can identify with what he’s written. And, in High Fidelity, he delves into one of the most common human experiences: falling in and out of love.

High Fidelity is the ultimate book about relationships. It covers the initial euphoria of attraction, the crushing blow of heartbreak, and the sobriety and caution with which heartbreak can cause us to proceed the next time around.

Rob Fleming is the hapless main character that gets to experience all of the highs and lows of relationships in Hornby’s book. He starts the book by listing his top five break-ups of all time. We also learn that he has really screwed up his last relationship with a woman named Laura. That relationship is the central focus of the book. Although we see other relationships of Rob’s, both before and after this one, they’re all discussed in light of their bearing on his relationship with Laura.

high fidelity

John Cusack and Iben Hjejle as Rob and Laura in the film based on the book. It's a good movie, too; made back when John Cusack and Jack Black were likeable.

I never do this, but there were certain passages of the book that were so good that I just had to read them aloud to my sister. Hornby really just hits the nail on the head as far as how people behave and think when they’re in relationships, especially when it comes to the mistakes we make.

Now, I wouldn’t look to this book as an example of how to conduct oneself in a relationship. But it certainly gives insight as to how many people react to emotions and situations in their own lives when it comes to the opposite sex. That insight can be helpful in not only understanding your own behavior in these types of circumstances, but also in understanding what it might be like for the other person involved as well.

This review doesn’t even begin to do justice to the book, but suffice it to say that I absolutely loved it. Hornby writes with simplicity and nuance, a quality largely lacking in popular literature today. It’s a fast read, but a good one.

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