Review 1637: A Perfect Union of Contrary Things

I have a few disclaimers before I begin my review of this book. First, punk, progressive, and grunge rock are not genres I’ve listened to, so I am profoundly ignorant of Maynard James Keenan’s work, which is perhaps a handicap for my review. Second, the author, Sarah Jensen, is a friend and ex-housemate, with whom I’ve been out of touch until recently. My belated discovery that she had written this biography piqued my interest in reading it.

Jensen follows Keenan from the time when he was a boy, leading a difficult life, to his present life as a musician, actor, comic performer, artist, winemaker, and writer. Yes, he truly seems to be a Renaissance man, continually working at something and giving his many projects detailed attention and effort.

Keenan’s young life was disrupted many times—by his parents’ divorce, his mother’s being incapacitated by stroke, his many households and schools. Although he is a seeker, his attitudes about formal religion are formed by his skepticism, even very early, about his fundamentalist upbringing and his anger at how members of her church told his mother she must have done something very wrong for God to have stricken her so.

Starting at high school, it seems, Keenan developed the philosophy that if you’re going to do something, you should do it well, and if you have talent, you should use it. He was a high school track star and gifted artist, whose dream was to go to art school. He accomplished that by enlisting in the army, where he so excelled that he was offered a place at West Point’s preparatory school. He attended that but with no intention of becoming an officer.

His path to such bands as Tool and A Perfect Circle was anything but direct, so much so that old friends weren’t even aware he was a musician. The tale of his progress through life is truly interesting.

The book is beautifully written, lyrical at times, and explores Keenan’s music, lyrics, and philosophy in detail. I felt a bit at sea in following the discussions of his music and his comic performances as part of Puscifer, as I explained before, despite having watched a few clips on YouTube.

If there was one thing that threw me off a bit it was the tone of the book, especially in discussions of Keenan’s performances, which felt more like, say, a Rolling Stone appreciation than a biography. That being said, I am more accustomed to literary and political biographies, which have more distance from their subjects than ones about living celebrities.

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Review 1585: Eight Perfect Murders

I had a hard time rating this high-concept mystery on Goodreads, because there were things I liked about it and things I didn’t like. Overall, however, I felt it was a fast-paced novel with a love for books, especially old-fashioned crime novels.

Malcolm Kershaw has a visit from the FBI at the beginning of the novel. He is part owner of a mystery and crime bookstore in Boston. Years ago, when he first went to work there, he wrote a blog post named “Eight Perfect Murders” in which he listed eight mystery novels with near-perfect murders. Agent Mulvey has figured out that someone is using the list to re-create not the murders but the spirit of the murders. Moreover, one of the victims is someone Malcolm knew, an annoying woman who used to frequent his bookstore before she moved away. Agent Mulvey wants Malcolm to help figure out if any other deaths are related to his list.

Right away, I knew Malcolm wasn’t a trustworthy narrator, and almost immediately I guessed there would be some connection to the death of his wife, Claire. The novel takes lots of twists and turns, but I expected some of them. Still, it clipped right along, was well written, and was full of references to fiction I loved.

Why did I have trouble rating it? First, it got bogged down in the explanations at the end. The murderer explains things, and then Malcolm explains what he’s been holding back, and it’s a lot. Finally, I don’t know that I like so much these high-concept twisty-turny novels that are so popular lately, possibly because they have too many twists to be believable. They remind me of the old mysteries that are only concerned about the difficult puzzle, only with better characterization.

Then again, the book is strongly atmospheric, set in a frozen, stormy Boston, and I liked most of it. There are almost no clues about the identity of the murderer but lots of clues about Malcolm’s own secrets.

I see that Goodreads has this novel labeled Malcolm Kershaw #1. I hope that’s a mistake. I’m just saying that because of the ending. Now I bet you’re mystified. (Note: I am posting this review from my notes about six months after I read the book, and I can remember almost nothing about it. That doesn’t happen very often, so I doubt that this book is going to become a classic mystery.)

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Review 1552: The Beadworkers

The Beadworkers is a collection of short stories but also some poems and a play about the experience of American indigenous peoples in the Northwest, past and present. These works provide insight into religion, thinking, and beliefs of these peoples. Most of the stories are set in Oregon.

Many of the stories center around feasts. The first entries, a poem called “Feast I” and a story called “Feast II,” are about the importance of water. “Feast III” is about Mae, a woman who has decided to become a migrant laborer after the death of her husband.

“The News of the Day” is set in 19th century Boston, where Charles and his roommate are studying. On the same day, they receive news of family deaths, Marcel’s father from illness in Paris, Charles’s family in a battle of the Indian Wars.

In “Fish Wars,” set in the 1970’s, a schoolgirl fears her parents are getting a divorce. In actuality, her father is fishing and getting arrested for it in hopes of winning rights to fish in ancestral waters.

One of my favorites was “Beading Lesson,” in which an aunt instructs her niece in how to make beaded earrings, all the while mildly regretting that her sister, the girl’s mother, never learned to bead. In “wIndin!” an artistic young woman designs a Native American version of monopoly and tells about her relationship with Trevor, a Yakama gay man. Another favorite is “Katydid,” about the relationship between two young women, one who has abandoned her family because of their brutality, the other who has been abandoned by them.

Many of the stories evoke a sense of loss, as in “Falling Crows,” about the family’s reaction to a young man returned maimed from war, but most of them end in affirmation of some kind.

These stories are powerful and sparely written. Except for the final play, a reworking of “Antigone,” I really enjoyed them.

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Day 1067: The Boston Girl

Cover for The Boston GirlI keep trying Anita Diamant, hoping to encounter something as good as The Red Tent. So far, however, I have not read anything by her that comes close.

The Boston Girl is about the life of Addie Baum, the child of Jewish immigrants, from her young womanhood in 1915 until she is an old woman in 1985. It is written in the first person, as if Addie is speaking to her granddaughter.

This narrative styles is probably the biggest weakness of the novel. It is not a traditional narrative but one person’s side of a conversation. Although Addie does all the talking, occasionally she addresses her granddaughter directly, and that has a false, jarring effect.

In addition, although the narrative does tell a story, it is broken up more like a series of anecdotes. This style removes most of the tension from the novel, and there is no sense of a narrative arc. There is no climax.

The story deals mostly with Addie’s thirst for knowledge and her desire to accomplish more in her life than working in a factory. She also strives to earn a word of approval from her mother. She could have been an interesting and compelling character, but none of the characters in this novel feel fully formed.

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Day 978: Eileen

Cover for EileenJust by coincidence, I read Eileen before it ended up on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. So, unusually for me, I have already read a book on the list and can publish a review shortly after they announced it. Since I have only read one book on the 2015 short list so far for my project, this is really getting ahead of the curve for me.

* * *

Eileen is an astounding combination of character study and thriller. What is more astounding is that very little happens until the end of the novel, which still draws you along and builds suspense.

Eileen is an unhappy young woman who lives with her alcoholic, verbally abusive father in a suburb of Boston. She is deep in self-hatred and combines an ignorance of the world with a fascination with grotesque and ugly things. She is outwardly prudish but secretly obsessed with sex and bodily functions. All-in-all, she is deeply unpleasant, but we still manage to have some sympathy for her and understand how she got that way.

Eileen works at a prison for boys, where she has a crush on one of the guards. She spends a lot of her free time stalking him.

link to NetgalleyBut then she meets Rachel and becomes completely infatuated. She does not realize that Rachel is not the person she seems. Eileen’s occasional comments from many years later indicate that she has only a few days more in her hometown, and the suspense builds as we wonder why she left. One thing we know is that it involves Rachel.

This novel is a masterful character study of a deeply troubled person. She is all too human and believable.

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Day 290: The House of Velvet and Glass

Cover for The House of Velvet and GlassThe House of Velvet and Glass is a slow starter, which I don’t usually complain about, because if I’m enjoying a book enough, it can move as slowly as it wants. Nevertheless, considering how much I enjoyed Howe’s first book, I was surprised at how impatient I became with this one.

The novel begins with Helen and Eulah Allston, two entirely trivial women, mother and daughter, journeying back from a European husband-hunting expedition–on the Titanic. Although we’re told which ship they are on only at the very end of the first chapter, as if it were an ironic or surprising fact, the ship’s identity was very clear from early in the chapter.

Three years later, Sybil Allston is comforting her grief and anger at the death of her mother and sister on the Titanic by visiting a psychic. She is wholly convinced that she is receiving messages from the afterlife. On one of her visits, the psychic gives her a piece of crystal called a scrying stone.

Sybil’s father Lan Allston is a wealthy man who made his money through shipping, but he seems to spend all his time in his dark back parlor. Her brother Lanny looks as if he may be entering the life of a ne’er-do-well gambler and womanizer.

Not everything is as it seems, but I became extremely impatient waiting for the novel to go somewhere while we occasionally skipped backward in time to Lan as a young man in Shanghai or to Helen and Eulah on the Titanic.

Eventually, the novel becomes about a woman discovering her own powers, and the second half of the novel is much better than the first. But I did rebel against one thing. I particularly dislike it when characters in historical novels behave like modern people. I felt it would be extremely unlikely that Sybil would urge her father to bring home a woman they both think is a prostitute (and by their lights, is one) just because she has her brother’s blood on her dress. And I certainly don’t believe that her father would encourage Sybil to get to know her, although there turns out to be a reason for that. Completely unbelievable is the scene where Sybil takes her to her club or the scene where she goes, however, unwittingly, with her to an opium den.

So, a very mixed reaction to this novel. Ultimately, it became interesting, although the much-vaunted twists at the end were largely foreseeable.