Review: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

With each new encounter, Twain proves himself to me to be both brilliant and complicated. The Prince and the Pauper is a tale of cautious optimism; unlike later works (Huck Finn, The Mysterious Stranger), in The Prince and the Pauper, Twain seems to still believe in humanity and its potential for goodness – for greatness. Though this novel is set in England, Twain is particularly concerned with the state of affairs in America, during the time of the Civil War – The Prince and Pauper’s search for identity – shouting to be heard, to be recognized and believed – mirrors what was happening in America, both in terms of politics and social justice. Writers were comic critics, and only the wealthy businessmen, politicians, and landowners had any real say. Still, in this novel, Twain seems to see a glimmer of hope. That he chose Edward VI, whose reign was short-lived (and whose demise was prophesied in retrospect) seems to imply that Twain believed America was at the cusp of a possible change for the better – the beacon on the hill. A final Eden, but that, in all likelihood, the greatness could not be sustained, and only memories would last. Brilliant, hilariously Twain-esque, and truly heart-breaking to one such as myself, who is more familiar with Twain’s later, more cynical works.

Review: The Wasp Factory by Ian Banks

While I respect Banks’s intent – to expose human cruelty and how one family member’s pain can lead to the dysfunction and pain of all others, I must say – this novel, like it’s characters, is just one hot mess. Though the book was relatively short – about 180 pages – it took forever to read, because the story lacked direction and, seemingly, purpose. The first one-hundred pages were self-indulgent and lacked a psychologically exacting purpose, though the novel attempts to set itself up as psychologically stimulating and purposeful. The dystopic¬†family structure is well-received and the effects of a mother-less household is understood; still, the only truly meaningful sub-plot of this story was the tragic experience of the narrator’s older brother, Eric. His downfall and the explanation thereof seemed genuine and honest – the pain and terror in his experience was not pressured or over-done. Had this been a story about Eric, perhaps it could have worked. As it is, especially as one who has read Eugenides’ Middlesex¬†the subject matter and it’s eventual revelation leaves much to be desired.

Review: A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White

A refreshingly realistic tale of a gay boy’s “coming of age.” White makes a point of expressing his distaste for fanciful boy’s tales in which all boarding schools are brothels of young sex and violence, then proceeds to tell a painfully true story (autobiographic) about a youth growing up confused – his mother’s companion, his father’s shame, his sister’s punching bag, physically and emotionally. The boy struggles with self-image, with friendships and sexual experiences, with religion and philosophy, with truth and farce. While the story itself did sometimes get dwarfed by the over-arching themes which it meant to present, the novel still ends powerfully in that its stays true to its purpose. The narrator accomplishes what he meant to, but is left without any deus-ex-machina type epiphany. While I find the comparisons to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye a bit stretched, I can see a mixture of Knowles’s A Separate Peace (A Boy’s Own Story being more explicit of events, whereas Knowles left much to implication) and Forster’s Maurice. Interestingly enough, early American gay literature tended to be more subdued than its British counterparts; however, white seems to invoke a bit of the beat generation’s bravado in A Boy’s Own Story. Still, the language is often loftier than story would seem to necessitate and the narrator’s pretense of genius (the narrator himself and all characters around him, including his mother, seemed to consider him something extraordinary, though no characteristics were developed to explain this) gets a bit nauseating. All in all, I quite liked the blunt realism, in spite of many instances of pretentious prose.

Review: Beautiful Children by Charles Bock

A stunning piece of realistic fiction – Bock truly surprised me. For a first novel, Beautiful Children was a home run. I’m typically cynical of new novels which are marketed as “New York Times Bestsellers” and large corporate bookstore centerpieces, as this book was, but I was pleasantly surprised by the honest beauty of Beautiful Children. The mastery Bock demonstrates in interweaving the stories of so many seemingly unconnected people and plots is genius; I generally give up in frustration or irritation when books bounce back and forth between story-lines and time-lines, but Bock had a way of making this disjointedness a realistic part of Las Vegas life. The third-person limited narration was genius – it left me guessing from one page to the next, from chapter to chapter and from story to story. As the novel progressed, I became more excited and terrified to discover how each of these characters relates to the others and, ultimately, to learn what the final pages had in store for these tragic deviants. I generally do not have sympathy for “hard-luck” cases, but Bock finds a Dickensian way of navigating through the everyday plights of the Las Vegas underworld, street urchin, and even the middle class, to make them all seem pitiful and simultaneously in need of championing. The underlying theme, obviously, is the very real problem of child and teenage runaways – how to stop this from happening and how to save the children, once they’ve gone. It was touching, inspiring, nauseating, and finally, beautiful. Had it not been for the somewhat anti-climactic ending (somewhat!), I would have given this novel 5/5. Still, it is very much worth the read.

>Review: Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

>My first thought, when preparing to sit down and review this book, was that this just was not one of my favorite Vonnegut books. I wanted to say that I was actually quite disappointed, having read three or four other Vonnegut books, and having thoroughly enjoyed each of them. I found Breakfast of Champions, at first, pompously bizarre and pointless. Then, I remembered that Vonnegut’s books are largely autobiographical and that many of his characters were developed across years and decades, and included in many of his novels. Breakfast of Champions, while typically cynical and apocalyptic, like all Vonnegut’s work, has another searing bit of honesty that, upon reflection, I find quite endearing. Vonnegut exposes himself in a back-handed sort of way. He’s telling his readers, and himself, that he’s realized that he is changing, has been changing, over time, and that some of his old thoughts no longer fit – some of his favorite characters need to be put away, or “made free” as Kilgore Trout finally is here. I think it took a lot for Vonnegut to decide to move on and step away from what was comfortable for him, what was so long developed, crafted, and nurtured. To put away what had been successful because it was no longer true for him as a writer – and move on. While not my favorite “read” or subject, after Slaughter-House Five, this is probably one of Vonnegut’s most personal and touching novels. Bravo.