Book Review: I GAVE YOU ALL I HAD, by Zoe Valdes

Wow. I'm not sure I have it in me to describe this book, but I'll try: a love story and a revolution. Cuca Martinez, on her first night out in steamy Havana, meets/dances with/kisses and falls forever in love with Juan Perez (aka "the Uan"). When Juan disappears, Cuca waits, convinced that he will reappear to claim her--meanwhile the Cuban revolution is underway, and as Cuca waits (and waits and waits), her country falls into poverty and corruption, and Juan still does not come back.

But this is not a tragedy--anything but. Valdes gets out the fat brushes and the bright colors and paints Havana in bold strokes, bringing in characters vivid and wild--a cockroach and a rat who fall in love and are married, two fat and feisty aunties, an enchanted hurricane, the Mafia, Edith Piaf, and Cuca's eccentric neighbors, who have names like Fax, and Xerox Machine. It is something of a fairy tale.

From chapter to chapter, I GAVE YOU changes from romance, to drama, to political history, to comedy, and at first these changes feel abrupt, but as Valdes weaves on, the threads begin to merge and form one complete, brilliant picture. I will not tell you of what.



Book Review: THE HOURS, by Michael Cunningham

THE HOURS follows one day in the life of three women: Clarissa Vaughn, a modern day writer planning a party for a renowned but terminally ill friend; Laura Brown, a housewife in the 1950s, who reads Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway in between planning her husband's birthday dinner and taking care of her 3-year-old son; and Virgina Woolf, as she writes Mrs. Dalloway.

I was partial to Laura--the day that Cunningham describes shows a shift in her personality, a subtle shift that makes way for the more dramatic days to follow. The character developement is subdued, but very powerful, and is paralleled by Virginia Woolf's writing of Mrs. Dalloway--as Woolf assigns a particular trait or circumstance to her character, Clarissa Dalloway, that trait begins to emerge in Cunningham's characters, almost as if Woolf is shaping their lives herself (which, indirectly, she does).

The perspective changes from one woman to the next with each chapter, and Cunningham binds the scenes with repeated images--yellow roses, the act of buying flowers, the planning of parties--though each image shows up in markedly different circumstances. The whole book is very lovely, I think, and the continued references to Mrs. Dalloway add an interesting echo to the braided plotlines. However, I haven't read Mrs. Dalloway. I suppose I'll have to, now.



Book Review: PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA, by Roddy Doyle

PADDY C. is written as a series of scenes--there are no chapters, only a line break denoting a change in time or location. This gives the book a fluid, dream-like feel, which makes sense, given the fact that the narrator is ten-years-old. There are political overtones to this book, but mostly it is a "childhood's end" type of affair, as Paddy Clarke (the aforementioned 10-year-old) runs amok with his friends, learns to love his little brother, and begins to listen in as his parents fight downstairs. Well-(no, fantastically-)written, Doyle earned his Booker-Prize-winning keep with this one. Also, I love the title.



Book Review: I, CLAUDIUS/CLAUDIUS THE GOD, by Robert Graves

(These are 2 separate books, but they join seamlessly at the middle, so I'm treating them as one story.)

Graves' classic historical novels (written in the 1930s, about Ancient Rome circa AD 1) follow Tiberius Claudius, adopted grandson to the Emperor Augustus (if I remember right), through several generations of poisonings, exiles, executions, and frame-ups, as his relatives compete for the Emperor-ship. Claudius--deemed an idiot by his family, given his various physical infirmities and a serious stammer--manages to outlive his power-hungry, poison-happy (but brilliant, in her own bad way) grandmother, Livia; her corrupt son, Emperor Tiberius; and the downright mad Emperor Caligula, to eventually become Emperor himself. (This is all on the back of the book, I swear. I'm not ruining any more than the blurbist did.)

Both books are excellent--full of detail, but not so laden down with historical facts and asides that they're difficult to read (though I learned plenty about battle tactics, that's for sure). They're narrated by Claudius himself, in the form of his "memoir", I suppose, and are the sort of books that leave you dazzled by the sheer magnitude of the project. How many years of research went into writing this? I want to know.



Book Review: EMPIRE FALLS, by Richard Russo

Russo takes this story several generations deep, painting the small town of Empire Falls in layers that include everything from the town's prosperous industrial days to its present diminishing state, after the sale of the local textile mill left most residents out of work. Each character seems to stand in for a whole family, one generation building upon the next, so that the effect is of a town creating its residents, rather than the residents creating the town.

What I admired most about EMPIRE FALLS was the way Russo wove several subplots together, never over-stressing one at the expense of another. He manipulated ordinary events in a way that didn't attempt to shed to light on them so much as make them feel right. I felt every second like he'd never lost sight of the climax, and, as the story rode toward it, it seemed as though the story was working itself toward a resolution.



Book Review: ATLAS SHRUGGED, by Ayn Rand

Give her several (hundred) pages to get going. I assure you, though, that once she does, Ayn Rand will get the little gears of your head grinding--to read such a thought-heavy book can be exhausting.

All I'd ever heard about this book was that it was about capitalism, which sounded terribly boring, until I actually considered the possibilities of a novel about capitalism--there can't be too many of them around, can there? I hadn't heard of any others that sided with the big tycoon, so reading ATLAS SHRUGGED was a continual challenge to the stereotypes that I, growing up in the liberal northwest, have come to accept as fact (yuck). While I can't claim to have found any of the characters completely likeable, they were fascinating, and eventually I came to admire them, which is definately something.

Rand's writing is every bit as concrete as her ideas; every gesture and nuance, every tone of voice is described in such exacting detail that what each character is thinking and what sort of person they are is plainly visible at all times. However, 1,000+ pages of this can grow old, and fast. Every scene is drawn out, but well done.

After a while it becomes clear that every conversation is serving Rand's personal philosophy (Objectivism), and at times ATLAS runs dangerously close to "preachy." I found myself skimming some of the larger passages about "living for one's own happiness," "earned rewards," blah blah blah, but though I didn't necessarily agree with everything Rand had to say (because this is, of course, a book with something to say), I applaud her for saying something so fearlessly different.

What got to me eventually was the unbearable consistency of Rand's characters--because though they were many-layered and very original, they got to be irritatingly perfect. To see these impeccably finished characters have exactly the right response to every situation got a little, well, boring, and as the book went on (and on, and on) I kept hoping that something would happen to shake their undying, absolute belief in themselves--just for a change of scene, really. But, without ruining anything big, suffice it to say I was disappointed. As I closed the book I was forced to acknowledge that, however daring Rand's characters, the book was not about them at all--it was about Rand's "personal morality." I felt slightly cheated.

However! It really is a good read, the story being quite unpredictable and not at all what I expected. Those of you into really philosophical reads (think Daniel Quinn's Ishmael) will enjoy it, I think, and anyone 100% dead-set against The Man should read it as an educational venture. To open your eyes to how the other side lives.

(Should you find yourself feeling bogged down by the long sentences, weighty pauses and heady philosophy, take an afternoon off and read Hemingway's Old Man & The Sea. It's refreshing, I promise.)



Book Review: OLD MAN & THE SEA, by Ernest Hemingway

Old man hooks big fish; fish drags old man out to sea. Classic man vs. nature theme (according to my English degree), but Hemingway is a genius at short, gorgeous sentences. I respect that tremendously--the ability to say big things in little spaces. This book is small and brilliant. Hemingway won the Pulitzer for it in 1953.