Book Review: And So It Goes (Kurt Vonnegut: A Life) by Charles J. Shields

Standard

Vonnegut is one of the authors I’ve put aside for years because the temptation to copy his style is too great. Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle would certainly make my Top 100 books list if I had one. There are few modern writers who have created more memorable lines, from brilliant socio-cultural observations (“History! Read it and weep!”) to simple human experience (“then every cell in Billy’s body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause”).

While I was delighted to hear that Mr. Shields had published a biography of this very influential writer, I was initially dissuaded from pursuing interest after reading Christopher Buckley’s review in the Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times, which described a “sad, and often heartbreaking biography.” Fortunately, I received it as a Christmas gift and my fundamental interest in Vonnegut overcame my reluctance to take on anything gloomy.

I think Janet Maslin’s review reflects my reading experience more accurately than Mr. Buckley’s. What Ms. Maslin and I read was a well-paced and structured narrative attempting to describe an enormously complicated and contradictory man. While there are certainly aspects of his life that would clearly qualify as tragic, Mr. Shields has compiled a compelling, cohesive and balanced narrative that weaves together tragedies and triumphs to give the reader a satisfying,  complete picture of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Yes, he alienated his wife, most of his children, a good part of his family and numerous friends—but he was also capable of passionate love, strong commitment and unqualified friendship. Yes, he produced piles of forgettable stories for the mainstream magazine market and some very bad novels—but he also gave us one of the great American novels in Slaughterhouse-Five. The man was a fundamental contradiction, something that I believe made his writing that much stronger.

While Mr. Shields gives detailed accounts of his relationships with his wives, children and lovers, I found the passages dealing with writing to be more dramatic and engaging. The author chronicles in varying degrees of detail the development, publication and reception of each of the novels, giving the greatest amount of attention to Slaughterhouse-Five. I found it amazing that a book that reads like it wrote itself was instead the product of years of struggle against writer’s block, which disappeared only when Vonnegut returned to Dresden and failed to find what he thought he needed to write the novel. Vonnegut went there to collect details and background on what he missed by waiting out the great firestorm in a cellar (about which he felt absurd guilt). Instead, he returned to a place that bore little resemblance to what he had experienced, which forced him to realize that he had to make a significant detour from the path he believed he had to take. Much to his credit, he literally went with the moment, discovering that time itself is the overriding influence on meaning. It was almost as if something inside him reached out and grabbed him by the ears and shouted, “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

As a struggling writer (aren’t we all?), I was encouraged by the fact that Vonnegut considered himself a failure during much of his early career, bemoaning the fact that one of his early novels “only” sold 6,000 copies, a figure that a self-published author would die for. Even to the end, he complains that he doesn’t have the status of a Kerouac. These are the parts of the book that “rang true” (pun intended)  for me, confirming that the author’s job is to write the best book he or she can write and realize up front that the reading public may not be in sync with what you have created. Times change, tastes shift, and fame comes with its own form of baggage, as Vonnegut learned during the long, dry period following the success of Slaughterhouse-Five.

The downsides of the book, as Ms. Maslin as pointed out, are that the author did not get to spend much time with Vonnegut before his death and was denied permission to quote from Vonnegut’s letters. I also would have liked it better had Mr. Shields devoted more attention to the development of Vonnegut’s alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. That said, And So It Goes is a fascinating, readable story of a living paradox, a strange concoction of fire and ice, a writer who lived beyond his time . . . in more ways than one.

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Standard

Let me first disclose that I have been a Mac user for all my adult life. My first computer was a Mac and I have owned several since. I currently own a MacBook Pro and an iMac as well as an iPhone and an iPad.

When I work on something made by Apple, I feel delight. When I have to work on an ugly piece of junk running the incredibly tedious Windows operating system, I feel depressed.

Steve Jobs is the person primarily responsible for creating that delight. His greatest achievement is to insist on high artistic standards in a world used to settling for mediocrity. That attitude led to defeat in the PC wars but also to a stunning turnaround and numerous victories after his return to Apple in the late 1990’s.

English: A cropped version of :Image:SteveJobs...

Image via Wikipedia

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs clearly illustrates this fundamental genius, this obsession with doing things right rather than “good enough.” However, Isaacson is equally graphic about the man’s flaws: his habit of publicly humiliating others, his occasional deviousness, his strange dietary habits. The result is a balanced view of a person who had a tremendous impact on people all over the world, but also a person with defects like any other human being. Both his achievements and his defects were of the extreme variety, for the essential core of Steve Jobs was an endlessly burning intensity, and Isaacson certainly captures that all-consuming drive.

Unfortunately, it takes him a while to get there and find his literary rhythm. The first few chapters read like a biography rushed to publication too soon in order to capitalize on someone’s fame. The formula of anecdote/quote from Jobs becomes old very fast and I came very close to closing the book and moving on to something more interesting. What kept me going was I wanted to read the story of how Jobs saved Apple from destruction and as the story progresses, Isaacson’s writing becomes less formulaic and more compelling.

It is difficult to comprehend how low Apple had fallen in 1996. I had a PowerMac 7500 at the time running System 7.5.2 and I can’t tell you how many times each day the familiar exploding bomb would appear on the screen and I’d have to restart. They produced a laptop that kept catching fire. They were led by old, tired men in suits. Market share vanished, the stock bottomed out. The end game was near; Apple would either go belly-up or be carved up like the turkey it was.

Fast forward to 2011. For a couple of days, Apple was the richest company in the world. Apple stores have redefined the retail experience and are nearly always full of customers playing with various devices. iTunes and iPods created a new normal in music distribution. The iPhone and iPad redefined the mobile communications and entertainment experience.

How did Steve Jobs pull this off? This is where Isaacson’s story shines. The narrative is both exciting and educational, as it describes not only a marketer on top of his game but also the clear-headed strategist and the visionary synthesizing new opportunities that were on no one’s horizon. But while the story of Apple’s turnaround confirms this book’s value, the early years before, during and after Apple provide the paths that led to later success.

I want to make two small points. Bill Gates actually emerges as a respectable character, something that may offend some of the hardline Apple fanatics; he and Jobs simply saw the world differently, and both views had their value. Second, I have greater confidence in Apple’s future because Jobs simply didn’t create great products, he restructured the company’s DNA to ensure that his focus on artistic excellence would outlive him. It also doesn’t hurt that Jonathan Ives, Jobs’ equal in design, is still with Apple.

The general consensus is that this is a 4-star biography, and I would agree with that assessment. Weak opening aside, this is an educational book from a business perspective, a cautionary tale about self-balance and narcissism, and a story of how, in too rare circumstances, artistic vision can work to change the world.

Book Review: Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift

Standard

 

I love an intense experience: a rich cup of espresso, a fine Malbec, a taut and well-played game of baseball. Intensity is a state the occurs when a stimulus is powerful enough to remove you from current time and place and immerse you in an alternative world where senses, emotions and thoughts become more vivid and alive.

That pretty much describes what it’s like to read Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift.

The second installment in the Cassidy Jones Adventures series does not let up for a moment, from the exceptionally well-written prologue to the end of the book. Even the relatively quiet and “normal” parts (when superhero Cassidy exists in the context of teenage reality) turn out to be fascinating vignettes of the teenage experience, with all the wild-card emotions coming into play. Plot development is tight, the story is well-told and the characters surprisingly authentic for a fantasy adventure.

As I pointed out in my review of Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula, Cassidy is an exceptional character who would still be exceptional if she were cured of her super powers. At times mature and perceptive, at other times hopelessly adolescent, Elise Stokes has developed a character that is anything but a caricature. This foundational strength is even more apparent in this second book as Cassidy becomes more comfortable with her accidental capabilities while becoming less comfortable with the simmering conflict inside her. She is a very competent superhero but also a teenager with shaky confidence, and it is this combination of strength and vulnerability that makes you want to cheer her on. We never forget that Cassidy, albeit in the exaggerated transformation to superhero, is a young girl always in danger of losing control, which also happens to be what it feels like to be a teenager.

Ms. Stokes has also strengthened the supporting cast, with Emery Phillips (Cassidy’s partner in adventure) also serving as something of a role model who tries to temper Cassidy’s typically teenage tendency to unfairly judge other people. We see this as Emery enlists the help of a chain-smoking layabout named Jason, whom Cassidy immediately rejects as a colleague and whom Emery calmly defends for his virtues and unique moral code. Emery’s dispassionate and open-minded view of human nature contrasts nicely with the labeling tendency we all have in our teenage years (and which some of us cling to through adulthood).

Cassidy also befriends a homeless fellow named (appropriately) Joe, the kind of person who rarely appears on anyone’s radar, much less that of a fourteen-year old girl. Her defense of Joe, who is being attacked by the typical gang of teenagers looking for kicks, tells us a lot about Cassidy’s fundamental sense of decency and fair play. The only problem I had with the book was that there was no final scene with Joe, as I think he could serve as a good friend and mentor for Cassidy; sort of an ironic version of Dumbledore.

I should also mention the forces of evil against whom Cassidy and Emery do battle. The initial encounter with Metal Man was so well-written that I felt like I was there. The final battle against the evil Lily White (a perfect name if there ever was one!) is more tightly-written than the climax in the first book. Ms. Stokes has not spent much time developing the characters on the dark side, which I feel at this stage of the series is a good choice (Voldemort was hardly real until the end of Book 4). However, at some point in the series, we will have to have a better understanding of Cassidy’s definition of evil so that we better understand Cassidy herself.

In my earlier review, I compared the first installment to Ms. Rowling’s efforts and certainly felt that Cassidy Jones held up well. In this second installment, Cassidy takes the lead. I never felt that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets added much to the series; Rowling really didn’t get moving until Book 3. With Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift, Ms. Stokes has taken the series to a higher level and the path forward is full of intriguing possibilities.

I will now exist in that exquisitely agonizing space of having to wait a whole year for those possibilities to play out in the next installment.

See the Cassidy Jones Adventures website for more information about the books and the author. 

Book Review: Sleeping with Patty Hearst by Mary Lambeth Moore

Standard

“As America debates its most famous kidnapping case of the 1970s, a divided family in North Carolina copes with its own missing person. Lily Stokes searches for her half-sister with help from her mother’s boyfriend, a freewheeling man who likes Lily a little too much. While keeping secrets at home and then escaping into an odd marriage, Lily takes an imaginative look at her mother’s notorious past and her sister’s surprising future. Sleeping with Patty Hearst is a gripping coming-of-age story with edge and heart.”

—-Trailer for Sleeping with Patty Hearst

Sleeping with Patty Hearst is the finest work of literary fiction I have read in the last ten years—a great book by a writer who has the potential to be very influential on the American literary scene.The characterization of this as a “debut novel” is technically true but somewhat misleading. Ms. Moore has extensive experience as a writer; it just so happens that she is now practicing this talent in the world of fiction. This book is written with confidence and courage; there are issues that Ms. Moore covers that the majority of Americans would prefer to wish out of existence (the positive and negative effects of family dysfunction, the soul-limiting impact of the practice of religion, and “inappropriate” expressions of sexuality that lie beneath the thin layers of our social facades). The character development and interplay are remarkable for their candor and authenticity and the Ms. Moore’s descriptive powers are exceptional. The plot contains fascinating and unexpected turns that kept me on my toes; each time this happened, though, I had to admit that even though I didn’t expect it, the twist was the most effective choice Ms. Moore could have made at that point in the narrative.

The relationships developed through the narrative are realistic, particularly so because the characters drift in and out of each other’s lives due to various circumstances and reasons. All are marked by varying degrees of self-and-other deception, as is the case in nearly all human relationships. This may seem like a minor point, but it illustrates how committed Ms. Moore is to truthful depiction of the human condition. We are not linear beings on linear paths; we grow, change, make mistakes, experience love and hatred for the same person at different times. Ms. Moore allows the characters to be true to themselves and exhibit both human virtues and deficiencies. You will find them both heroic and despicable at times, but there are very few novels in which the characters were so vivid, so genuine and so well-drawn as they are in Sleeping with Patty Hearst.What is best about her writing style is I never felt she was laboring. I detected no “author noise” in the narrative, which is one of the hardest things for an author to do, especially when the narrative is revealed largely in the first-person by the lead character. The writing is so fluid that it seems effortless, even though we know the opposite is true. It takes great effort to appear effortless and I genuinely appreciated this exceptional effort by Mary Lambeth Moore.

For more information on the book and the author, visit http://sleepingwithpattyhearst.com/