Harris’s Dictator

Dictator: A Novel

Robert Harris

The final volume in Harris’s novelization of the life of Cicero, this one covering his actions during the time of the assassination of Caesar up to his death on the orders of Marc Anthony. Cicero is one of Rome’s most memorable senators. A brilliant lawyer and rhetorician who was also deeply immersed in the political upheavals that brought Rome from a democracy of sorts to a dictatorship under Augustus.

Harris takes liberties here, for sure. For instance, we know little to nothing of the motivations of many of the actors in this time period, never mind what they actually said. And the apparent warmness between Augustus and Cicero, at least for a time, is dubious, I think. But whatever, it’s a popular novel, not a text book, and if you’re interested in ancient Rome, as I very much am, it’s a fun ride.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

Book Review: Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready

Shovel Ready
Adam Sternbergh

A crime novel set in post-apocalyptic New York City featuring a hit man with a heart of gold as the hero.

New York has been hit with a dirty bomb, and most of the city has fled, or now lives their entire lives jacked into virtual reality. Except our hero, who lives in Jersey and kills people. Except when he teams up with a group of misfits to take on the powers that be and protect a young girl.

A mix of the clever and the trite, this book is by turns clever, and too loose with the corny jokes and crime novel clichés. Still, I enjoyed it for the dark confectionery ride it is. If you have a tolerance for a certain level of crime novel cliché, you’ll probably enjoy it too.

Recommended for the enthusiast.


Review: LaValle’s The Changeling

A book that starts out as a heartwarming tale of parenthood, turns real dark, real fast, and ends up a surreal exploration of a world of monsters, cults, and heartbroken parents in New York City.

Kinda about parenthood, kinda about race and difference, kinda about the role of social media, and kinda about the immigrant experience. All and all pretty spectacular. Some of the best writing about what it feels like to be a new dad that I have ever read, some of the most disturbing scenes of grief. Written with a love of New York City and subtle type of immigrant and racial justice politics.

A great book, if you can buy in on some supernatural elements, but fair warning, some of this can be tough going for parents of young children.


Review: Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl

The Wind Up Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

Global warming, mega corporations bent on world domination, genetically modified food, floods, plagues, mechanical sex slaves. The future in the Wind-Up Girl isn’t very uplifting, but the way Bacigalupi tells this story of a future Thailand beset by environmental disasters, and voracious mutlti-national corporations is incredible. No surprise, I guess. When Bacigalupi isn’t writing science fiction, he’s working on environmental issues. It shows. The nuance with which he walks us through what the world could look like in a 100 years is specific, jarring and compelling. I couldn’t put this one down and it remains one of my favorite science fiction novels of the past decade. Well written and excellently plotted, with carefully constructed characters inhabiting all levels of this future dystopia, it’s a must read if science fiction is your thing.


Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller

Top five novel of the small-group-keeps-knowledge-alive-in-post-apocalyptic world sub genre of science fiction. You either love this kind of novel or you don’t. I love them, and have read scores, A Canticle for Leibowitz is among the best. It spans hundreds of years, and includes scores of characters all involved one way or another in the preservation of dimly understood science from before a nuclear war wiped out much of civilization. It is very much a book of its time (1960), a warning against nuclear holocaust, and heavy handed in a way much of the writing from the silver age of science fiction was.

In general, science fiction doesn’t age well. Yesterday’s future hold little interest. Only the best books, the ones that touch on more than a proposed future, but also on questions of character, or the larger forces which inspire humanity survive. A Canticle for Leibowitz is that kind of book and if you can get past the sometimes purple-ish prose, its worth the time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

I read it. Cover to cover. I was 19 and people said it was a work of genius, so I gave it a go.

Did I understand it? No.

Was it pure hubris to think I could understand one of the pivotal works of this difficult author with no background what so ever? Yeah, possibly.

But I was a kid, so I said fuck it and plowed along. Much of it went over my head, even the plot (such as it is) was difficult to grasp. I knew the writing was beautiful, and some of the jokes amusing, but more than that — it’s hard to say.

Seems silly to even write a review of a book I have to admit I didn’t really understand, but these reviews are about more than the books themselves. They’re about me and where I was when I encountered them.

So there I was, a nineteen year old kid living in Brooklyn, working in a bookstore with fellow bookstore clerks who ran the gambit from barely functioning junkies to PhD in English from Brown. I was desperate to pile as much knowledge and “culture” into my life as I could… and multiple people kept name dropping Pynchon. So I struggled through, on the train, in cafes all in isolation, too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I didn’t really understand much of what I was reading. Laughing occasionally at a joke, but generally just riding along, taking what I could.

When I finished the book some co-workers were eager to discuss it, but I demurred. I’d change the subject, embarrassed by how little I got out of it. It was a silly exercise, from start to finish, and not the last time I’d read something I didn’t understand.

But that was young Sean, eager, often grasping beyond his means. I’ve tempered that as the years have gone on, and I’ve learned (and read) a lot more. I should probably read this one again.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Ellison’s Invisible Man

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

It always feels a bit absurd to review a classic, especially one with the profound emotional and political resonance of Invisible Man. I could leave it at this – you need to read this book – but I’ll say a little more.

I came to Invisible Man with a bit of hesitation. I often feel this way with classics. I’m worried it won’t be as good as described, or that reading it will be a slog. Neither of these fears were justified here. Invisible Man, the story of a black man in America attempting to make his way through a horrific, though often darkly comedic and surreal, world of racist America, is an incredible work of fiction. It is compelling entertaining, and moving. Is it challenging? Emotionally, yes, the horror of race in America is in your face here. Technically, its a brilliantly written, but accessible read. Unlike many classics, the pages turned themselves here.

What else is there to say? Of course you must read it.


Roy’s God of Small Things

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

I read the God of Small Things almost fifteen years ago, so let’s be honest, my memory is a bit hazy. I remember being blown away that it was a first novel, but in hindsight, that may have been naïve. Its complex narrative structure, following twins in two parallel story lines, full throated investigation into the social ills of India, including the caste system, misogyny, and more, and its gorgeous prose could only have been the work of someone who labored over every page for years and years as an inspiring novelist would. I remember feeling like the prose was beautiful and the sense of place illuminating, but the political message a bit too polemic. Still, an important book on the nature of love and politics in India. Worth your time,


Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late

How Late It Was How Late
James Kelman

When I was twenty, I lived in Berkeley California and worked as a tele-fundraiser for a number of large nonprofits. Yes, I was the guy calling to ask you to donate to the Sierra Club. My co-workers were an incredibly eclectic mix of punks, artists, ex-cons, and weirdos. One of these co-workers was a guy working his way through a phd program (in literature? I forget). He also did the whole book scout thing on the side, picking up books from thrift stores and discount markets and then reselling them to the higher end used bookshops. He opened my eyes to an enormous amount of literature and I wish I knew whatever happened to him.

Anyway, among the literature he opened my eye to was this novel of a man struck blind, wandering a bleak sad Edinburg, written almost entirely in a Scottish dialect.

“You know that Walden books in downtown Oakland?” He said
“Yes” I replied
“They have a stack of remaindered copies of How Late It Was, How Late”
“Its up for the Booker prize, I went down there and found two American firsts in the pile, you should pick one up.”

So I did, even though I was a kid, and didn’t know what the Booker Prize was or even what a remaindered book meant. I read it, and it made me work, in those first fifty pages, parsing the language, figuring out what the hell was going on, and then I loved it, ever dark, sad, bleak Scottish page of it, and without a random co-worker at a shit job, I’d have never know it existed. .

I still have that copy by the way. American first edition.


Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie

Can Rushdie write? Yes, he prose is beautiful, if too baroque at times for me. I read this over a decade ago, and there are scenes I can still remember clearly.

Can he craft a compelling story? Yes, as this story of the transformation of India, and those who lived there, as it moved from colony to nation state makes clear he can carve a complex story down into the parts that matter most.

How about his characters? Are they well drawn? Undoubtedly. Saleem, the center of the story, and a child born at midnight on the day India received its independence, is superbly rendered. I remember things about him to this day. His family and the others who populate this book of how one struggles and grows in a world of tumultuous change are also vivid.

So why didn’t I like it as much as I thought I would? Perhaps expectations were too high; perhaps I was expecting too much. Perhaps it was the tinges of magical realism that didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps it was something else. Undoubtedly, this is a brilliant book, but perhaps not a book for me. An important book, and a book well worth reading, but one that left me emotionally underwhelmed. Either way, in the end, I was left feeling like I’d read a book that I both admired and did not particularly enjoy. imagine your experience might be different.

Recommended for the enthusiast.