Month: May 2017

“Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner Review

Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on Zanzibar

Author:  John Brunner

Published:  1968

Stand on Zanzibar won the 1969 Hugo Award for best novel, beating (among other books) Rite of Passage which was a book I really enjoyed.  While Stand on Zanzibar was much more ambitious than Rite of Passage, I preferred Panshin’s book to Brunner’s though Zanzibar was still much better than several other award winners from that era (sorry Delaney).

The first thing that strikes a reader beginning this book is the unusual structure Brunner uses to tell his story.  Instead of solely advancing a narrative, Brunner utilizes a macro-micro type of setting similar to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but with four separate styles of chapters.  The chapter styles alternate between:

  • Continuity – This is the basic narrative advancement
  • Tracking with closeups – This follows secondary characters, and then eventually becomes a second main plot passing through the book
  • The happening world – This is a scattershot macro section where rapid fire paragraphs give headlines, slogans, conversations, etc. to funnel a ton of information and create a sense of atmosphere
  • Context – Similar to the appendices tacked onto the end of Dune, these chapters just provide additional world building.

The plot of Stand on Zanzibar follows a few main threads that all deal with the overpopulation epidemic of the future (of the distant year of 2010!).  A super computer owned by a General Electric type company is used to direct decisions by the most powerful company in the world.  A small country in Africa has the very unusual characteristics of no murders or border conflicts for years and is looking for a new leader to replace their dying President.  A genetics specialist in Asia claims to have developed the secret to creating super babies for those so inclined; the United States sends a spy in to determine the truthfulness of the claim.

While this was a book that took me awhile to get interested in (it doesn’t really pick up or steer the plot until a long cocktail party chapter told through rapid fire conversation switches) I actually ended up really enjoying it by the end.  The science stuff actually holds up better than one would expect from the subject matter, as Brunner’s writing ends up having a kind of internet/twitter vibe with all the rapid fire information.  The interconnection of politics and major corporations also was well done.  Although some of the racial politics of the book have a very 1960’s slant, unfortunately some of the issues (police relations, representation at the corporate level) are still very relevant today.

If I had a main criticism of the book it’s that the characters are pretty flat, with only one of them being particularly interesting.  Donald is a spy sent to the small Asian country by the United States.  **Slight spoilers though the rest of this paragraph**  Before he goes he is basically reprogrammed Jason Bourne style to also be an assassin.  His character’s storyline is the most exciting one in the book, but that’s more a statement on the lack of competition by the supporting cast.  Norman is probably the main protagonist of this book, the lone black man on the board of the big company and the man most responsible for the super computer becoming the new president of the small African country.  Most of the tension in this plot line is whether the transition will be profitable for the company or not.

While I’ll probably remember this book as one that took a long time to get into and focused on style (unusual chapter structure) over substance (character development), I should point out that this was also the type of book that draws you in as it progresses.  The fact that not all of the plot threads end up connecting is actually a good thing as the two main characters start out roommates and too many connections at the end would have felt forced.

4-star

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“Hollywood Failure” by Will Phillips Review

Hollywood Failure

Hollywood Failure

Author:  Will Phillips

Published:  2014

I’ve mentioned my love of the website Kickstarter.com before, and Hollywood Failure is another book that we stumbled across on that site.  The author seemed funny enough in his video and indicated he had already written the book (which is usually the biggest hurdle to somebody self publishing) so we contributed some money to help his goal of publishing the book become a reality.  There’s a genre of books on Kickstarter that we (my wife and I) tend to avoid, and it’s life stories by people that aren’t famous and also don’t even lead particularly interesting lives.  It would probably be more accurate to describe this book as fitting into that genre, but had Phillips done that I know I would have skipped out on it and that would have been unfortunate because I enjoyed reading his debut work.  I’d recommend reading this book if the description sounds funny to you and then finishing this review because I’m going to give away a lot (although I do have some reservations about what audience would most enjoy it).

 **Spoilers from here on out, although the end of the book is given away on the Goodreads blurb**  Tom “The Fever” Seaver is a Production Assistant (PA for the cool kids) on an animated series where the head writer likes to shoehorn human voices onto animal characters.  Tom has goals though; not content to do bitch work for other people, he secretly aspires to writing his own comedy show.  I say secretly, because he goes about this by occasionally sucking up to writers on shows or mentioning a single script he’s worked on, not by actually trying to break into the writing field.  Throughout the book he’ll switch jobs, girlfriends and modes of transportation, all while staying the same basic person (“The Fever!”) throughout.

 Why am I assuming this is a mostly true story?  Well, the author seems to invite a little detective work by the not so subtle hiding of actor and tv show names.  The description of the first show Tom worked on obviously struck me as very Family Guy-esque.  His followup endeavor about a housewife who tries to become a rock star on the “Estrogen” network, didn’t ring any bells, but complaints about a cast member provide a description for an actor who could only be Richard Ruccolo had me checking his IMDB page and finding a show called “Rita Rocks” that matched the plot described by Phillips.  The amazing Internet movie database even lists Will Phillips as staff member, and his own IMDB page includes “Family Guy,” and two other project that Tom Seaver described working on, a CBS procedural (“Cold Case”) that got cancelled, and a web series about FBI agents (“Murder Squad”).  (Why not just search Will Phillips on IMDB?  Because there’s a ton of Will Phillips on there, damn you people with common names.)

 Am I assuming that the entire story is true based on the author choosing a setting he’s familiar with?  For the most part, yeah.  There’s a few other things that contribute to that feeling: the frequent allusions to Tom going by “The Fever” had me laughing that Will Phillips likely went by “The Thrill” growing up.  In the acknowledgements page Will mentioned having a twitter page, which I looked up afterwards and believe I’ve located (@The Thryll), and also thanked a girl named Kirsten (which is a common name) and of course there is a Kirsten that played a very important role in the story in his life.  It’s possibly that was a fake name, but I doubt it because Phillips has too much fun with the name in a very relatable way.  The gimmick car and Flair chop scene also seemed too ridiculous to be fiction, sadly for the author.

 I read a ton of books, and normally I don’t go snooping around like a detective afterward.  Honestly, that was a lot of the fun for me reading this book was getting a little gossip about barely recognizable entertainment industry figures (my money is on Ian Gomez being the kind of guy to donate a weekend to helping on a web project) and feeling like I had to earn the knowledge through some online sleuth work and my own knowledge of Hollywood.  That on it’s own would not be enough to recommend reading a 250 page novel however.

 The best aspect of this book for me was the humor.  Some of it was lowbrow, but it was proud in its juvenile humor.  Any book with an extended sequence on sharting will likely not appeal to 100% of the population, but not everything is meant for everybody.  There are also about 12 to 15 professional wrestling references, so a working knowledge of Ric Flair will also add to your enjoyment of the humor.  The sexual sequences were handled well.  I was reminded a bit of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby in the honest, self-deprecating manner they were addressed.  Some of the humor could be categorized as “bro humor,” where Tom can seem anti-gay or anti-woman depending on his anger, and his classification of Mexicans (while probably flattering) is certainly rooted firmly in stereotypes.

 The more frustrating aspects of the book are inherent in the plot (and likely the author).  Although Tom realizes his roadblocks are internal, he doesn’t overcome them.  In fact, Tom self-sabotages himself in his work, finances and relationships.  The two main arcs throughout the book are his work on a web series and his relationship with Gracie.  The situation described to the reader is that Tom could maintain and improve both of these and be happy (or at least happier) but chooses to collect unemployment and be single instead.  The climax of the book (if this sort of episodic storytelling can have one) is the end of his relationship with Gracie.  By the time Tom has lost all his money, ended another relationship and spent too long on a Pawn Stars fantasy that anybody with a brain knows will never pay off the reader is ready to check out and Phillips wisely does the same in a two page wrap up.

 For a self published book, the book was well edited (I only caught one word omitted around page 165) and a pleasant typeface.  The covers on every self published book I’ve ever read get a bit more warped than other books after reading and this was no exception.  Any hopes of more of a character arc would really be hoping for an entirely different book.  Instead of hoping for that, I appreciate the humor and series of humorous events in Hollywood Failure and found it an entertaining read.

4-star

“The Talisman” by Stephen King and Peter Straub Review

The talisman

The Talisman

Authors:  Stephen King & Peter Straub

Published:  1984

A boy must travel to another world that exists parallel to our own to find a magical talisman in order to save his mother. Not the plot one would expect from a Stephen King book, even one that he coauthored. Here the other world is a place called the Territories, sharing more in common with a fantasy land than the America Jack (the protagonist) is used to. Jack begins the book in the New Hampshire (hey, we’re at least a few hours from Maine) and must get to California. In order to get there he’ll travel both in the real world and in the territories, sometimes on his own, and at other times accompanied by Wolf (a werewolf) or Richard Sloat (the son of the man trying to stop him). There’s a man trying to stop him? One could guess by the description that he’s an evil doer, trying to rule the world and **spoiler alert for anybody whose never read a fantasy book before, I guess** only the Talisman can stop him.

The book I was most reminded of when reading this was Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The two books have nothing in common except for why they didn’t work for me. In both books the author sets out to tell a child’s story but did so in a way that a child would not understand or be appropriate for. Instead of veering toward young adult, this book was firmly in the adult content genre. I’m an adult so that should have been fine, but it was also saddled with this boring and formulaic story straight out of a kid’s book. I enjoy kids books, but at nearly 700 pages the “will Jack find the Talisman?” story became downright tedious.

The villains in this book were over the top cliches, even in the annals of Stephen King bullies. Until the two sidekicks are provided to Jack the book has zero stakes because the length and subject matter guarantee Jack will keep advancing to California. The most interesting aspect of the book is the reciprocity between the events in the Territories and those in the real world. This is alluded to at one point for being the cause of World War I. After the cataclysmic ending of this book, I was looking forward to seeing how all of the casualties in the Territories would affect America; unfortunately King and Straub gloss over this beside mentioning emergency personnel being needed to respond to the area of the final confrontation.

This book has a pretty high average score on Goodreads, so I’m sure a lot of people enjoy something about it. I found the plot to be very generic of the fantasy genre, and the main characters (Jack and Morgan) particularly unoriginal. The book also presents the most unoriginal version of the magical Negro character that King has yet rolled out, and considering the regularity of the character archetype’s appearance (The Shining, The Stand, The Green Mile) that’s saying something. The only character I found at all interesting in this was Richard Sloat, and that was mostly because I was wondering if he would turn on Jack or not. Even the resolution to his story provided little conflict on whether to side with Jack or his dad. I guess there’s a sequel to this book that takes place much later, hopefully it’s an improvement on The Talisman.

2-star

“Invincible, Vol. 23: Full House” by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker

Invincible 23

Invincible, Vol. 23: Full House

Writer:  Robert Kirkman

Artist: Cory Walker

Published:  2017

Invincible, Vol. 23: Full House is a solid installment in the continuing adventures of Mark Grayson and company, however it unfortunately suffers by comparison as it follows up one of the best installments in the series, Reboot? **Spoilers follow for events that have happened leading up to this volume** The cliffhanger ending of Reboot? had Mark returning to his wife and daughter after what seemed a few weeks for him but was five years for the rest of the universe. Full House picks up with Mark finding out what his family did without him, the state of the war against Thragg and how Robot’s reign as ruler of the Earth is going.

The bulk of the page count is spent with Eve, as Mark must accept and understand the situation she was in on an alien world, not knowing if he would ever return for so long. Mark and Eve always have one of the more rational relationships in comics, and the big revelations here provide some drama but also never really threaten the status quo of Invincible’s two most important heroes. Perhaps more important to the rest of the comic universe are Nolan’s (Omni-Man) acceptance of Robot back on earth, and Oliver’s direct line of communication with Thragg. The fact that the two other Viltrumite Graysons are both in some degree of cahoots with Mark’s greatest enemies foreshadows a conflict that will draw Mark (and Eve, and Terra) back into the fight against their wishes to take time as a family and detach.

Some other fun tidbits from this volume: Allen the Alien shows off his healing capabilities which rival or surpass those of the Viltrumites; Brit, The Immortal and a few other early Invincible characters make (brief) appearances; and an abandoned storyline of Mark’s violent sexual encounter with a female Viltrumite resurfaces with some fun implications for the future. (One of the fun things about reviewing comics is the sheer craziness involved in doing plot recaps.)

While Reboot? nailed every note and provided fantastic twists and character development for Mark, Full House suffers by returning to the status quo despite an opportunity to shake things up by jumping five years ahead. Even the most shocking moments in this volume were negligible on their impact for the overarching series by the conclusion of the sixth issue (Allen’s storyline, Eve’s revelation, Oliver’s communication). The huge cast of characters Kirkman has developed for this series is great for long term storytelling but if it suffers a drawback it’s that certain characters seem to exist only to be killed and that was the feeling I had (instead of grief) at the loss of one recurring character at the conclusion of this volume. With the announcement that this series is ending, I’m predicting this to become more of a rapid fire occurrence in the world of Invincible as Thragg rarely makes an appearance without killing somebody. Hopefully Kirkman will avoid using the Deus Ex Atom Eve superpowers again though as it is in danger of taking away from the usually high stakes in the series.

Typically the easiest fault to point at Invincible is that it’s not new reader friendly, and I’ll concede that’s an issue for this series. However as the title heads to its conclusion I appreciate that it does reward long term readers with plenty of plots that will only make sense to those that have read it all. The entire series is in print from Image Comics as TPB’s, so there’s no excuse for not just starting at Volume 1 for those looking to try it out (seriously, why would you begin something at Vol. 23?). While I prefer the volumes that are entirely Ryan Ottley’s art, Cory Walker’s art in this volume is still very good and does not draw attention to the change in art styles except for on three or four pages scattered throughout (not bad at 6 issues of 22 pages each). Full House was not one of my favorite chapters in the Invincible universe but it did nothing to take away from what is shaping up to be one of the best complete comic series I’ve ever read. Let’s just hope Kirkman can stick the landing.

3-star

The Start Here to Fifty Amazing Authors Reading Challenge

A few years back, my wife and I used to get on Kickstarter.com every week and try to look at every project on the website.  We’d open up our favorites into separate windows, then watch the videos to weed out the ones that weren’t as interesting as their titles.  From there we’d look at the reward tiers and further knock out the ones that were too expensive or didn’t offer a benefit we were excited about (except for on a few occasions, like when we supported a traveling RV that rescued cats and trained them to do tricks).  Then for a few years we would be surprised in the mail every now and then with packages featuring our rewards, such as movies that had our names in the credits, first albums by new bands, board games or tickets to an independent musical in Chicago.

Now that we have kids, we don’t have as much time in our day to surf the web for an hour at night, but we still get plenty of enjoyment out of plenty of our rewards (and are even getting rewards every now and then from creators who took a few years longer than expected to deliver).  Two of the items that gave me the most long term fun were the “Start Here” books, put out by Book Riot.  The premise of the books was to introduce the reader to twenty five different authors in each book.  This was done by an expert on that author, who would recommend 3 or more works by the author, and explained what the reader should start with and why.  Reading the books took about forty five minutes each (they’re kind of like printed blog posts) but the idea of them gave me about a year of enjoyment as we decided to add the first recommendation for each author to our “books we’re looking for list” and try to track them all down and read them.

The hunt for the books themselves was a blast, as it gave us an excuse to revisit all of the book stores in our city and look for authors and titles that we’d never looked for before.  After we exhausted those stores, we incorporated the search into a road trip vacation we had planned and continued through the Midwest and up through Minnesota.  When it was all said and done, we found 49 of the 50 books by the end of our trip and finally had to buy the last one on Amazon.  At that point I started reading the books, two at a time, adding another book from the list each time I finished one.  Normally I’d get burned out doing a reading challenge non-stop like that but with this challenge, it featured different genres, authors, styles and lengths that made it a fairly pleasant experience.  (This group of authors features horror, western, comics, poetry, non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction.)  The other really great thing about this collection is that the authors were selected to showcase diversity, which means that instead of getting 15 white dudes from the early 1900’s, there are women, people of color, different nationalities and eras all present.

All that said, I thought it would be fun to make a post ranking the books on how well I enjoyed them/how well they introduced me to the authors.  I found that the books fell into four groups:

  1. Books I didn’t enjoy, and would not seek out more by the author
  2. Books that seemed like poor recommendations for first books but I would try more by the author
  3. Book I was glad to have read, but was on the fence about reading more by the author
  4. Books that were excellent recommendations, where I can find more?

With that outline, here’s how I’d rank the Start Here author recommendations from worst to best:

Books I didn’t enjoy, and would not seek out more by the author

Eros the bittersweet

  1. Eros the Bittersweet

Author:  Anne Carson

Published:  1986

This was the only book I could not find at a book store and had to resort to ordering online.  Part of why I couldn’t find it was because I’m not sure how I’d categorize this book.  Is it non-fiction?  Philosophy?  Literature?  I would put it on the “sludge to get through” shelf, as reading chapter after chapter of this book reminded me of padding my page count for dissertations in grad school.  Carson attempts to define love as seen by the ancients, and somehow the writing (flowery and well done as can be) made the execution even more boring than the concept sounded.  I see a lot of glowing reviews for this online, but this book felt more like homework than anything else I’ve ever read for personal enjoyment.

A room with a view

  1.   A Room with a View

Author:  E.M. Forester

Published:  1908Sense and Sensibility

  1. Sense and Sensibility

Author: Jane Austen

Published:  1811

These two books shared a similar problem in that the plots and settings of the book were not of interest to this reader.  I understand not everybody enjoys westerns, or superheroes, or books about poverty in Monterey, and usually that’s considered acceptable.  Please forgive me for not enjoying these stories about choosing social responsibility over love and the importance of keeping up appearances starring well to do families set one hundred years apart.  Part of the problem is that the stakes don’t ever feel high enough because the conflicts are all created by the characters’ own personality flaws.  Even introducing murder into the mix is not enough to change the core conflict of who one should marry.  For those that enjoy this era and plot, more power to you.  I have no intention of returning any time soon.

Under the Bright Lights

  1. Under the Bright Lights

Author:  Daniel Woodrell

Published:  1986

This murder mystery set in the bayou was as memorable as that six word description.  Compared to other works in the crime genre this was forgettable to below average, with its location the only unique factor.  However the location alone does not provide for anything unique or interesting enough on its own to recommend reading.  The character names sounded amateurish (Jewell Cobb and Rene Shade) and the story left plenty unresolved as it is only book one of a trilogy.  The result is a forgettable, unremarkable book.

The Bear

  1.    The Bear

Author:  William Faulkner

Published:  1942

The short story “The Bear” is part of a collection of stories, but reading it on its own doesn’t seem to require any knowledge of the other related stories.  I actually enjoyed the plot of this story, as a group tries to catch a deadly bear with some persistent dogs.  The result is a lot of death and carnage that could have been an interesting end point for the story.  The problem with it is the language used to get there was overly verbose and the story keeps going well after the excitement to tell a story of inheritance and family secrets that was not particularly interesting.  The actual ending felt like an author trying to be clever more than end a story satisfactorily.  I’m glad I read this story because I’d always lumped Faulkner together with Steinbeck and Hemingway based on the eras  and subject matters, however now that I’ve read all three I don’t see an urge to read more of him as I do the other two.

Books that seemed like poor recommendations for first books but I would try more by the author

A supposedly fun thing 

  1.    A Supposedly Fun Think I’ll Never Do Again

Author:  David Foster Wallace

Published:  1997

I’ll make this point again in this article, but across the board it seemed like a wasted opportunity to start out various fiction writers by reading their non-fiction essays.  I understand that the non-fiction can give a basis for who the writer is and where they’re coming from, but in most cases a well written novel or short story can provide even better information like can this person tell an interesting story?  In this collection of essays, some of the topics are hyper specific and dragged on for much longer than necessary (an outdoor sale and a tennis match stood out in my mind as the worst).  I’ll frequently read long form articles on Grantland or its successor the Ringer that can tell an interesting story in a thirty minute read about basically anything, but aside from the title essay each of these failed to do so.  The intelligence behind the writing was apparent however, so I would not rule out trying Foster’s fiction writing.

It

  1.    It

Author:  Stephen King

Published:  1987

Even before reading this book, I had read numerous other Stephen King books.  Along with The Stand, It is possibly King’s best known work.  As a starting point however, It is a terrible place to start as it features one of the worst endings and revelations in any King book and without a doubt treats its female lead character worse than any other main character in a King book.  I enjoy King’s writing and love a lot of this book, but for a good starting point try Pet Sematary or Salem’s Lot.

A room of one's own

  1.    A Room of One’s Own

Author:  Virginia Woolf

Published:  1929

Take all of the same comments from my David Foster Wallace essay here, but this one places higher for a few reasons.  First, it was better written.  Second, Woolf uses a fictional narrator/narrative make her point which is more unusual and again added to my enjoyment.  Finally, instead of being hit and miss on the topics, this contained one specific topic and stayed on point.  While it felt more educational than Wallace’s, it avoided the extreme tedium of Wallace’s least interesting essays.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

  1.   Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Author:  Salman Rushdie

Published:  1990

This lengthy allegory is a fantasy story about different individuals vying for leadership of a kingdom and the power of stories and words.  For my taste, this book failed from the get go by trying to tell a story in a children’s book manner but addressing political issues that only an adult would pick up on.  When done correctly this can lead to a masterwork (cough Animal Farm cough) but here Rushdie tells a meandering story that will not keep a kid’s interest and jumps around so much in who he’s targeting that even adults will feel lost.  The ambition of what he was trying was interesting enough to leave me open to reading more by him.

Oliver Twist

  1.   Oliver Twist

Author:  Charles Dickens

Published:  1839

Dickens isn’t for everybody, so I appreciate the idea of picking a shorter work of his for new readers to try and see if they enjoy him.  The problem with this selection is Oliver Twist is not a great book.  Dickens relies on unbelievable coincidences throughout to both create and escape conflict, never in a satisfying manner.  While asking somebody to jump right into a masterpiece tome like David Copperfield would probably not be the right choice either, but a compromise like Great Expectations would probably be a better introduction to this intimidating author.

The Raven

  1.    The Raven

Author:  Edgar Allen Poe

Published:  1845

Edgar Allen Poe has so many wonderful short stories that I think a more appropriate introduction to him would be one of them than this brief (but excellent) poem.  My own recommendations would be The Cask of Amontillado, The Masque of the Red Death or The Tell-Tale Heart.  In my experience anybody can enjoy a short story but some people will never appreciate poetry.  If you are going with one chance to hook somebody, go for the broad appeal.

Mystery and Manner

  1. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Author:  Flannery O’Connor

Published:  1969

Completing the David Foster Wallace/Virginia Woolf example of ignoring fiction for non-fiction, I rate O’Connor’s book here as the best of the three.  Even for those with no ambition to write anything, there was a lot of interesting material in this book.  It was also an easy read, that felt less like scholarship than either of the other non-fiction works.  More than anything it made me want to read O’Connor’s actual fiction work, however I still have no idea if I would enjoy it or not, so for me it’s not a great recommendation as a starting point.

Eye-in-the-sky-04

  1.   Eye in the Sky

Author:  Philip K. Dick

Published:  1957

I love 1950’s science fiction, particularly the young adult stuff of that era that had the joy and wonder of later media like “Forbidden Planet” or “Star Trek.”  I was excited to read this book by Philip K. Dick expecting that sort of fun, but was instead stuck with a book that focuses more on sociological issues in a very dated manner.  Here, different characters are sucked into various realities created by the minds of others in the group.  The book is written in a very “Red Scare” era, which unfortunately doesn’t successfully carry the paranoia from that era to today’s readers.  Even worse, Dick’s writing of female characters is particularly offensive, with all of them being shrill, and illogical.  I haven’t read a ton of Dick’s work, but I’d recommend A Scanner Darkly to a new reader before recommending this one.

Glad I read it, not sure if I’d read more

Look at Me

  1.    Look at Me

Author:  Jennifer Egan

Published:  2001

A fashion model is in a car accident, resulting in her face being reconstructed before she returns to the world that does not recognize her (no it’s not the plot of Invisible Monsters, though it’s close).  There’s also some subplots about mysterious strangers and possible connections to her childhood that give the book a Murakami or David Lynch vibe.  All of that sounds awesome, so why is this book ranked so low?  For me, all of the cool parts did not gel into a cohesive whole.  What started off interesting ended up reading like too many balls in the air for an overly neat conclusion that felt out of place with the book that preceded it.

Black Swan Green

  1.   Black Swan Green

David Mitchell

Published:  2006

Here is an obviously semi-autobiographical story about a young boy dealing with a stammer over the course of one year of his life in 1980’s England.  Much like Nick Hornby, Mitchell does a nice job of creating a personality in the narrator of the book and using humor to make painful scenes more bearable.  Bonus points for the unique setting which taught me about the Falkland Islands conflict and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, but for a coming of age but nothing in the story made it stand out among the genre.

the.bluest.eye.cover

  1.   The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison

Published:  1970

A devastating story about a child taken in by another family after her father rapes her twice, leaving pregnant, then abandons her family.  Although that is the literal plot of the book, the broader focus in the book is the same young girl’s view of beauty and how it doesn’t include her.  In particular, she yearns for the blue eyes that she sees appreciated in the world around her.  When I initially reviewed this book I mentioned how another book that I had read before it had similar elements but better executed.  My chief issue on this one was the switching narrators did not lead to as smooth of a reading experience.

Memories of my Melancholy Whores

  1.   Memories of my Melancholy Whores

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Published:  2004

Well, after discussing patricidal rape, let’s move on to something more cheerful.  Here’s a book about a ninety year old who hires a poor fourteen year old girl to take her virginity.  There’s no getting around the description, but truthfully this is a book that is much more innocent than it sounds from the description.  While the main character has frequently hired prostitutes in the past, this is a story of  his falling in love with the idea of the young girl, watching her sleep, and feeling younger as a result without ever molesting or consummating that desire.  (Who are we kidding, it’s still creepy as all get out.)  The writing is wonderful though, but I suspect many people (myself included) will still be caught up on lechery to ever become fully invested in the book.

Gilded Six Bits

  1.   The Gilded Six Bits*

Zora Neale Hurston

Published:  1933

Unlike non-fiction essays, I was very satisfied by the inclusion of short stories as ways to try out some of these authors.  In this brief story of a poor black couple who are given temptation in the form of a new rich black man in town, every word advanced the story or added to the atmosphere of the story.  Despite a terrible choice by one of the main characters, both leads felt like real people who were capable of making mistakes or offering forgiveness.  From here on down on the list, I enjoyed each of these entries.  So it’s mostly a ranking of how interested I am in seeking out additional writings by the author.

*By the time I got to Ms. Hurston I was sick of reading essays, so I skipped past the first recommendation (which I had found and bought) and moved on to the following short story recommendation.

All the Pretty Horse

  1.    All the Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy

Published:  1992

For modern writers (those still active and writing) there’s probably no name more revered than Cormac McCarthy.  I’m ashamed to admit until doing this challenge I’d never read any of his work, so I was looking forward to reading this book.  The story is about John and Lacey riding to Mexico, getting work and getting into trouble.  The trouble involves landing in a Mexican prison, murder and horse thievery, all related to falling in love with the wrong woman.  The story was interesting and the conflict was tense.  Unfortunately, McCarthy chose to write in a style that eliminated traditional punctuation, such that reading it required the reader to puzzle out what was being said and what was being narrated.  That’s a classic case of an author being too smart for his own good, which has me reluctant to read more by him.

Someone Like You

  1.    Someone Like You

Author:  Roald Dahl

Published:  1953

Rather than one short story, here is an entire collection of short stories by Roald Dahl.  I had read and loved his children’s books when I was growing up, but had never read his writings for adults.  Perhaps not surprisingly, they are fairly similar with very eccentric characters, British charm and a serious affinity for food.  The stories that stuck out to me were the lady that murdered her husband (I feel like this one was remade into a tv show) and a machine that wrote stories (replacing authors).  Compared to reading one short story, reading a whole collection can give you a sample of the author’s style but it also makes them start to run together and makes it easier to forget individual entries.

On Beauty

  1.   On Beauty

Author:  Zadie Smith

Published:  2005

British or American, black or white, liberal or conservative, wealthy or poor.  Each label is present and at issue in this story of a husband and wife going through marital problems, and their three children seeking to find their own identity.  There was a lot going on in this book, but Smith did a nice job of keeping the plot moving and advancing each character along their own arc.  I enjoyed this book, but also felt that there were a few too many coincidences to keep bringing the cast together for key moments which always takes me out of the story as a reader.

Perdido Street Station

  1.    Perdido Street Station

Author:  China Mieville

Published: 2000

This book was also breaking new ground for me in terms of the hybrid of fantasy and steampunk elements over the course of a lengthy novel.  The world building was impressively done, with entire races with their own beliefs and personalities fully formed.  Similarly to On Beauty, the end resulted in too many coincidences taking place to bring all of the lingering plot threads together but for memorable characters this was one of the best books I read.

The Fault in Our Stars

  1.   The Fault in Our Stars

Author:  John Green

Published:  2012

I managed to get this one read before the movie came out and everybody knew what it was about.  (I never read the backs of books before starting.)  For those unaware, two very sick kids fall in love with each other and take a trip to Europe.  There is plenty to like here, with snappy dialogue and a story that makes sense without relying on cheap tricks.  For my taste, it was an OK read, but a bit more saccharine than I normally prefer.

Hey Nostradamus

  1.   Hey Nostradamus

Author:  Douglas Coupland

Published:  1988

Some topics are difficult to tell a story about, no matter how good the writer (see entry #34 on this list) and school shootings is one of them.  Stephen King’s worst book is exhibit A on that account.  Coupland does something admirable by making the book about the victims and not the shooters.  This includes a very powerful opening section from the perspective of one of the deceased.  Less successful is a follow up chapter where one of the survivors has to deal with both irresponsible media and overly religious parents.  The book continues down the rabbit hole with other characters touched by the survivors and less involved with the shooting.  It’s in these later sections that the book lost its focus for me but overall it worked more than it did not.

Sag Harbor

  1.    Sag Harbor

Author:  Colson Whitehead

Published:  2009

Similarly to Black Swan Green, Sag Harbor is a coming of age story that reads as semi-autobiographical by the author.  Here boys come to their summer home to reinvigorate their friendship with those they only see when school’s out.  Here the setting is a town that is becoming gentrified, where the split is primarily between white wealthy vacationers and black working class families that have owned property for years.  Overall this was a book with nothing wrong with it but no urgency to make it particularly memorable.

The Assistant

  1.   The Assistant

Author:  Bernard Malamud

Published:  1957

We’re halfway through the fifty books recommended and I can say I was a fan of each of this books from this point forward.  The Assistant tells the story of a grocer who is in danger of going out of business, then is robbed and beaten.  Shortly afterward, a stranger comes to the store offering to work for free (and who is revealed to the reader to be one of the robbers).  The book takes several unexpected turns and does a great job of not having good and evil characters, providing motivations for plenty of people to do bad things.

Martian Chronicles

  1.   The Martian Chronicles

Author:  Ray Bradbury

Published:  1950

Earlier I mentioned being a fan of 1950’s science fiction, this Bradbury book being a better example of the strengths of the genre during that time than the Philip K. Dick book The Eye in the Sky.  Here Bradbury utilizes an usual structure of short stories linked by the overall theme and divided by near-extinction events.  The structure allows for parallels to be drawn between humans and Martians, and for certain things to appear cyclical in the lives of both species.  The one drawback is a lack of character development with this structure, but still a fascinating and important work in the genre.

Handmaid's Tale

  1.    The Handmaid’s Tale

Author:  Margaret Atwood

Published:  1985

This book is in the news a lot now both because of a highly regarded adaptation on television as well as it’s purported timeliness in lieu of the current presidential administration.  I’ll steer clear of the political aspects of our country and say that I very much enjoyed this book.  Atwood creates a society ruled by white men, with women and minorities either removed or subjugated to very specific roles.  The flashback narrative style did not always work for me, but The Haindmaid’s Tale featured great characters, atmosphere and conflict.

All My Sons.jpg

  1.    All My Sons

Author:  Arthur Miller

Published:  1947

Enough Rope

  1.    Enough Rope

Author:  Dorothy Parker

Published:  1926

One of the cool things about this challenge was the range of items included.  I don’t think I’ve sat down and read a play since The Crucible in school (also this author), so it was fun to do so again with All My Sons.  As for poetry, besides the stuff we read to my son at night I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to read poetry for fun.  I’m happy to report I greatly enjoyed both of these works, despite my reservations about the format.  I actually enjoyed All My Sons more, with an interesting story of a family caught up in the possibility that of its members may have knowingly produced defective materials for army aircraft during the war.  I’ll give Parker’s Enough Rope the edge here though, because I’m still not a fan of reading poetry but hers was as enjoyable as any I’ve read.  Parker’s style doesn’t rely on heavy metaphors or abstract style, instead utilizing clever rhymes and relatable situations.

The reason these two books are not in the next section however, is even though I enjoyed them both I don’t see myself reading more plays or poetry as a result.  For me, a play is like a screenplay: it’s meant to be performed by actors and brought to life.  I’d prefer to watch the finished product.  Poetry has the same problem as a short story collection, where even if I enjoy it I feel like I don’t retain it afterwards.  It’s a fleeting enjoyment at best (for this reader).  Because Parker wrote outside of the poetry genre, she again gets the edge here as somebody I’d be more likely to try in the future.

Dancer

  1.   Dancer

Collum McCann

Published:  2003

I am ranking these titles in retrospect, relying on my original reviews (if I wrote one) or my Goodreads star ratings.  On my initial read, I didn’t enjoy Dancer as much as The Handmaid’s Tale or even Black Swan Green but it has stuck with me much more than either of those books.  At the time, I really hadn’t read anything like it in terms of a fictional biography of a real person (I’ve since added to this genre with the excellent Doc).  The switching narrators and perspectives in this book did not work for me, but the storyline of a Russian ballet dancer defecting to the west who behaved terribly to others and having it primarily based on fact was interesting enough to help the book hold up in my mind years after reading it.

Books that were excellent recommendations, where I can find more?

A Farewell to Arms

  1. A Farewell to Arms*

Author:  Ernest Hemingway

Published:  1929

As mentioned earlier, I had not read any Hemingway prior to this challenge and was looking forward to discovering him and Faulker and seeing how they compared to Steinbeck.  For similarities, I’ll say that all three authors enjoy a good gut punch and a sad ending.  Hemingway’s use of language is much less superfluous than Faulkner’s and has a very distinct voice.  I enjoyed this book (even with all the tragedy it contains) but it doesn’t rank higher for a few reasons.  This challenge also featured a Steinbeck book, as well as another war book, both of those being among the best I read and making this novel suffer by comparison.

*The first recommendation by the writer was a few different short stories, so I cheated a bit here and read the book recommended #2 instead.

Goodbye Columbus

  1. Goodbye, Columbus

Author:  Philip Roth

Published:  1959

I mentioned Cormac McCarthy’s reputation earlier; Roth is certainly one of the few names that could be compared to his for prestige.  Unlike McCarthy, I’d read some of Roth’s works before and been OK with them, though without a desire to try more.  The actual story here is about two people falling in love, with both getting developed as characters that felt real.  Much like Sag Harbor or On Beauty, the book also strongly deals with identity and assimilation, in this instance focusing on Jewish people.

Benito Cereno

  1. Benito Cereno

Author:  Herman Mellville

Published:  1856

This was the third Melville book I’ve read, following Moby Dick and Billy Budd.  I greatly enjoyed both of those, so it’s not a surprise that I enjoyed this one as well.  Melville’s style utilizes about 8x as many words as another author to tell the same story, but he is a master of creating suspense.  This story about a slave revolt on a ship is also a better starting point than either of the other two books I’ve read by Melville, so kudos to the expert who picked this one for new readers to see if Melville is up their alley.

A Wizard of Earth Sea

  1. A Wizard of Earth Sea

Author:  Ursula K. Le Guin

Published:  1968

There were several coming of age books in this challenge, but none of the others featured shadow monsters or schools for wizards.  In A Wizard of Earth Sea, Le Guin escapes some of the trappings of the fantasy genre by not having a typical evil villain (the main conflict is internal) and by having a person of color as the protagonist.  Everything is also well executed, but if there’s a problem with this book it’s that since its publication the genre has recycled so many of the ideas that reading it for the first time now the story is a bit predictable.

Smoke and Mirrors

  1. Smoke and Mirrors

Author:  Neil Gaiman

Published:  1998

Lone Ranger and Tonto

  1. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven

Author:  Sherman Alexie

Published:  1993

Lives of Girls and Women

  1. Lives of Girls and Women*

Author:  Alice Munro

Published:  1971

Here are three collections of short stories by three very different authors and I loved each of them.  My favorite individual stories were probably in Gaiman’s book (“The Goldfish Pond” being the best) which had a great variety of topics, styles, and settings as the stories were unrelated.  Alexie’s book takes it a step closer to a novel as characters recur throughout his collection, the settings may change but the book retains a similar theme of revealing the modern Native American existence.  Munro’s book is so close to a novel I’m tempted to call it one, as each chapter is a short story focusing on the same main character and recurring friends and family.  Each chapter tells a complete story on its own but reading the book as a whole provides for added character development.

*The recommendation for Ms. Munro was just one story from this collection, but I went ahead and read the whole book.

Caves of Steel

  1. Caves of Steel

Author:  Isaac Asimov

Published:  1954

1950’s science fiction, take three!  I’d read plenty of Asimov prior to this book, so I was not surprised to enjoy Caves of Steel as a fun, brisk adventure with some mystery thrown in.  The first book in the Robot series is a great place to start, as it is a quick read and early on establishes the rules and ethics of Asimov’s science fiction universe.  Much like Heinlein, Asimov will throw speeches out from different characters to illuminate the readers on his own view for various issues.  Of all the science fiction books I read as part of this, Caves of Steel was my favorite.

Speech Sounds

  1. Speech Sounds

Author:  Octavia Butler

Published: 1984

While Caves of Steel was my favorite science fiction book I read, the best story was Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler.  Something has happened to the human race, and mankind can no longer read, write or understand like we once could.  People still travel through the day living echoes of their former lives, with violence common as people are unable to explain themselves to one another.  I had no idea this story came out in the 1980’s, as I read it in a collection of stories that was just published in the last few years.  At only 13 pages it is a powerful story that I imagine will hold up as well thirty more years from now as it does today.

Straight Man

  1. Straight Man

Author:  Richard Russo

Published:  1997

I enjoy humor in my reading and Russo’s Straight Man delivers plenty of it, even dipping its toes into farce.  Set in the world of higher education, over the top egos and antics provide the narrator the opportunity to make ludicrous decisions at every turn and have blustering friends and colleagues react accordingly.  The cover of the book features a goose, which comes from a scene where the department chair threatens to kill a duck every day until his budget is approved.  It’s that sort of book, and if that sounds funny to you, you’ll enjoy it.

Supreme Story of Year

  1. Supreme

Author:  Alan Moore

Published:  2002

Poetry, short stories, science fiction, essays… sounds like it’s time for some comics.  Neil Gaiman was previously included here, but the expert opted to go with some of his prose work.  With Alan Moore one must start with the comic book as no other writer is as revered in the medium.  Supreme is one of my favorite works of his.  Although to fully appreciate this story it helps to be familiar with the character prior to Moore’s writing him, Story of the Year is an easy enough starting point for new readers to understand.  Here Moore creates his own riff on the Superman archetype, complete with supporting cast and throwback period setting.  The result is one of Moore’s more lighthearted creations that set the stage for what he would later perfect in Tom Strong.

Cannery Row

  1. Cannery Row

Author:  John Steinbeck

Published:  1945

Nick Hornby was writing for the Guardian when he mused “if Charles Dickens is the greatest writer of all time, and David Copperfield is his best book, does that make it the best book of all time?”  As much as I love David Copperfield, I’d agree with Hornby’s outcome that it’s probably not a fair label to put on any book.  I bring it up because for this reader, John Steinbeck is the greatest author of all time, and though I wouldn’t put Cannery Row as his best book (East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent, Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, and In Dubious Battle would edge it out) I had a similar monologue in my mind before placing it 8th on this list.  Completing the Faulkner/Hemingway/Steinbeck comparison, while Hemingway has the most distinctive writing style, Steinbeck has a way with language to make every sentence a delight to read and every book full of memorable characters that stay with you long afterward.  The premise of this book is that a few friends decide to do something nice for another guy in their community, and that’s all Steinbeck needs to work with to create another masterpiece.

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler

  1. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Author:  Italo Calvino

Published:  1979

I mentioned Dancer earlier as a book that stayed with me long after reading it.  More than any other book on this list, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler was an unforgettable reading experience.  The book is about a reader trying to read a book called If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.  It alternates between a second person narrator (I’ve never read a book with one of those, except for a Choose Your Own Adventure book) explaining their attempt to read the book and the second is the book being read by the reader (you).  It’s trippy in the best ways that Mulholland Drive or Memento are, and Calvino wisely ends the book before stretching the trick out too far.  Because the experience relies so heavily on a gimmick, I don’t have it higher, and it’s sure to drive some people crazy, but I really enjoyed it.

Cider House Rules

  1. The Cider House Rules

Author:  John Irving

Published:  1985

If you only read one book on abortion this year… just kidding.  I sort of dreaded reading this book.  All I knew about it was the abortion controversy and that it was made into a movie that didn’t look good.  I was surprised to find a life story of a well developed main character and a touching love story all so expertly delivered.  Irving has a fluid writing style that made this book a very quick and enjoyable read despite being rather lengthy.  Along with Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope, I enjoyed this book the most when I was done compared to what I was expecting.

Zeitoun

  1. Zeitoun

Author:  Dave Eggers

Published: 2009

The one area I think could have used more attention from Book Riot was non-fiction full length books.  The bulk of the non-fiction recommendations were short essays, with the only exceptions being this and Flannery O’Connor’s book.  Zeitoun was every bit as exciting and interesting as any fiction writing, with the amazingly true story of a man staying behind in flooded New Orleans and being detained in a government prison with no apparent basis.  Eggers makes the story harrowing and switches the narrative at an opportune time to draw out the suspense.  Unfortunately for Eggers, readers can get on Wikipedia and learn more about the subject of the book, which is why I say “no apparent basis” as this reader suspects he wasn’t quite as cooperative and/or innocent as this book made him appear.

True Grit

  1. True Grit

Author:  Charles Portis

Published:1968

Next up, the lone western in the fifty book challenge.  I love the genre, and this is one of the classics in the genre.  A young girl hires a bounty hunter with “true grit” to catch the men that wronged her daddy, and requires herself to go along with him.  The writing is clever and the dialogue is snappy.  It features three of the best characters to appear in a western.  The biggest drawback to this book is that it’s been remade into two pretty good and faithful film adaptations, so for those of us who have already seen it twice there are few surprises to be had in this book.

Print

  1. Animal Farm

Author:  George Orwell

Published:  1945

This is one of the few books that students are assigned to read that ends up also being well loved (the other one that comes to mind is Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nihm, maybe more anthropomorphic literature needs added to the curriculum).  Animal Farm is even more impressive because it’s a book that becomes more enjoyable the more you learn about World History.  There are few books people can quote when they’re done reading them, but nobody forgets “Four legs good, two legs bad” and the path it takes.

Norwegian Wood

  1. Norwegian Wood

Author:  Haruki Murakami

Published:  1987

Here is a book that had everything I love present: a unique setting (1960’s Tokyo), unpredictable characters, creepy undertones and adult subject matter.  So often I need to switch to young adult, comics or specific genres to get an a story with just two of those things, but right after finishing this I bought a stack of Murakami novels in hopes of finding even more.  Here a man thinks back to his youth, remembering two very different women he loved and the fates of both of them.  Great authors don’t need a complicated plot to tell a deep and memorable story.

The Hunters

  1. The Hunters

Author:  James Salter

Published:  1956

I mentioned back at A Farewell to Arms that it paled compared to another war book I read, and this was that book.  This book focusing on Korean War pilots and their competition to get kills and the mounting pressure to succeed completely blew me away.  Much like with Steinbeck, every page drew me in more with effortless brilliance in the writing.  This was the rare book that I did not want to end, but also think wrapped up in the perfect manner.  My favorite of the fifty books/stories/essays I read, very highly recommended.

“The Keep” by F. Paul Wilson Review

 

The KeepThe Keep

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Published:  1981

I’ve reached a point in my read through of the Repairman Jack books that the next one I read is the conclusion to the entire series.  I also see that it is the conclusion to something called the Adversary Cycle.  Since it ties into the Repairman Jack books, I’ve decided to go back and read the Adversary Cycle books prior to reading that last installment because why spoil the ending to a whole separate series of books by an author I like that I’d probably end up reading eventually anyways?  Up first in that series is The Keep, the events of which have been obliquely referenced in other Repairman Jack books.

Set during World War II (Pre-American involvement) The Keep is about a structure in the Dinu Pass in Romania that is seemingly abandoned but kept in pristine condition.  The structure becomes relevant when German soldiers take up residence as part of a strategic location in their plan to eventually build a death camp in Romania.  The story is told from five viewpoints:

1)      A German Captain in charge of securing the keep, whose soldiers begin dying violently

2)      A German Nazi S.S. Captain sent to the keep to find out what’s causing the deaths and to stop it

3)      A Jewish man who has studied the keep for years and is brought in by the Nazi Captain to provide answers

4)      The daughter of the Jewish man who is his caretaker and assistant in his studies

5)      A mysterious man who travels to Romania to investigate what’s happening in the keep

Much like with the Richard Sharpe books, I much preferred the section with the non-Nazi Captain to those about the Nazi Captain.  Characters written as evil for evil’s sake in the military tend to be less interesting and more monotonous than competent, more human characters.  One of the best aspects of The Keep is that it provided both aspects in its German soldiers, a deft handling of the political and ethical climate of the era.  The rivalry between the two officers is done very well, and provides much of the early tension before the supernatural elements begin appearing.

This being an F. Paul Wilson book, supernatural elements are a given.  The setting and clues early on point to the culprit being a vampire (Romania, imagery of crosses, fatal wounds to the neck) and with Ghosts and demons having appeared in Repaiman Jack books I didn’t immediately rule that creature of the night out as a suspect.  As more information into the force of evil appears, fans of this series will pick up on additional clues as to who or what is at work.  Certainly anybody who has read the Repairman Jack series will anagram any bad guys name who shows up; if you haven’t read those books then that is not a spoiler.

As a stand alone novel this book works fine, but it is definitely more enjoyable as part of the overall Secret History universe Wilson has established.  Glaeken on his own in this novel is an interesting character, however with his rushed into a few pages of dialogue he reads more like a dream man from a romance novel than the hero of a battle between good and evil.  I prefer having discovered his history as it unfolded over several books in Repairman Jack then how it was quickly disclosed here.

The romance novel analogy is unfortunately not only present in revealing Glaeken’s past, but also in every seen between Magda (the Jewish daughter) and the mystery man.  Wilson struggles with discussing Magda without either bringing up her physical attributes in the eyes of the German soldiers or the stirring pangs in her body for the forbidden touch of this man unlike any she has ever seen before.  I can excuse some of the writing as an attempt at a 1940’s woman who was stifled in her development by being the caretaker for her father, but the vast majority of her characterization was distractingly bad whenever it was the focus.

As the first book in the Adversary Cycle, this did enough to get me interested to read more.  At the end of my copy of the book was a chart outlining the chronological reading order of the rest of the Secret History books, so I’ll probably follow that instead of the Goodreads/Wikipedia recommended order.  There are also several other books listed that go beyond Repairman Jack or the Adversary Cycle, in what I can only assume or Secret History books, so maybe I’ll try those out eventually as well (nothing like being a OCD when it comes to lengthy series).

3-star

“Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union” by Peter A. Wallner Review

Franklin Pierce Martyr

Franklin Pierce: Martyr For the Union

Author:  Peter A. Wallner

Release Date:   2007

From 1860 to 1865, half of America went to war against the other half, and nearly three quarters of a million people died in the process,  In 2017, Donald Trump asked why the Civil War could not have been avoided.  I bring up both of those facts because finishing up the second part of this biography series on Franklin Pierce spends a great deal of time on the eight years leading up to the Civil War, four of which Pierce was in office as president.  Certainly there is plenty to be found here in terms of causes for the Civil War.

In rankings of the best to worst presidents, guys like Pierce, Fillmore, and Buchanan are justifiably ranked near the bottom, however each came into office with issues that presented choices that would anger one half of the country into possible battle.  I mentioned in my Millard Fillmore review that northern presidents of this era came off worse than southern ones in historical retrospect and that continues significantly here.  The reason for that is that each compromise the presidents took to preserve “harmony” was to appease the southern slave states.  Pierce went well beyond Fillmore in his support for the south however, and through fourteen presidents he was by far the worst individual to hold office (though Buchanan looks to be even worse).

Here’s how he scores up on my presidential ratings rubric:

Born into – Pierce’s father was a Revolutionary War soldier who made himself successful farmer afterward and then a tavern owner.  Pierce had several siblings, but was born to his father’s second wife (named Anna Kendrick, who was also referenced in Scrappy Little Nobody which I read while I was reading the first volume of this biography set), who gave birth to Franklin Pierce as the 5th of eight children.  Pierce’s father eventually became sheriff, and used that as a platform to eventually become governor of New Hampshire (while Pierce was in college).  2/5

Pre-President – Pierce was not a great student at first, being last in class after two years at Bowdoin College, before buckling down and finishing 5th out of 17.  Like so many presidents before him, he became a lawyer after college.  His political career began when he was elected to state legislature, becoming the youngest ever speaker of House in New Hampshire.  While in the House, he voted to curtail a number of news papers that had been funded by the government to print laws; in actuality this measure was actually a shrewd manner of eliminating non-Democrat news papers.  Pierce would continue to act with the best interests of the Democrat party ahead of those of the people in his state in country throughout his political career.  Pierce also spent some time in the military during the Mexican American War, which provided no moments of great account for Pierce and possibly some aspersions of cowardice that would follow him around throughout his career.

Pierce followed his state service up with eight years in United States House of Representatives.  While there he did not support Gag Order on discussing slavery, even though he was against abolition.  I mention this because this is pretty much the only time in his political career he did something that was not the prime wishes of the southern democrats.  Like Andrew Jackson, Pierce was involved in a duel that killed another member of the House of Representative, however rather than fighting in it he assisted in finding “a second” for the duel.  Due to his limited role, he managed to escape the wrath of congress afterward unlike the rest of the participants.

Pierce became a Senator next, but retired partially into his only term as he wanted to go back home.  His only real impact as Senator was involvement in vetting claims for Revolutionary War Pensions.  Back in New Hampshire, Pierce focused on directing the path of the state Democrat party.  While there his main political rivalry was with John Hale.  Hale (an idealist, willing to break from party on issues if needed) versus Pierce (follow the party position on all matters) was the most interesting contrast of politicians in the first volume by Wallner.  It was still fairly amazing he emerged as presidential candidate after years as the unofficial leader of Democrat party in New Hampshire, and as a dark horse candidate he even puts famous dark horse Polk to shame.  Essentially it happened by Pierce becaming a compromise pick, everybody’s second choice at Democrat convention.  None of the front runners saw him coming and he secured nomination rather quickly once he was presented as a candidate.  As the candidate, he won in a landslide victory winning all but four states, albeit with a very low voter turnout.  3/5.

Presidential Career –   Pierce’s first acts were all attempted to represent all factions of the Democratic Party in his cabinet.  I thought this was admirable, not quite as much as Washington on Monroe welcoming different party views, but admirable still.  Those that he ended up selecting ended up being the only cabinet (as of the writing of book) to remain the same for entire presidency.  Pierce gave more responsibilities to his attorney general that had previously been done (those had belonged to Secretary of State) and created the modern justice department as a result.  His first crisis/headline involved a man named Koszta who lived in America but was wanted by Hungary for his role in inciting a revolution; Pierce held strong and Hungary eventually relinquished their demand for him.

Pierce’s policy of spreading out appointments and patronage began losing him favor immediately; it cost him support particularly in New York where the “Hard” portion of the party’s appointed leader disregarded Pierce’s instructions and screwed the “Soft” and “Barnburner” democrat portions.  Pierce set precedent by removing the culprit with that as the cause.  Often Pierce’s ideas were good but the execution was poor.  In one instance he sent an individual to finalize the Mexican border with Santa Anna; the problem being the man he sent was also an interested party in a citizen claim affected in that area.  The man of course leveraged his claim into the treaty and insinuated that was Pierce’s wish as well, however Pierce did have that portion removed before submitting it to the Senate for approval.  The Senate (rife with corruption and special interests at the time) reinstated it plus added other private claims.

The most famous act in Pierce’s presidency is the Kansas Nebraska act.  Overturning the Missouri compromise, the act could lead to the first expansion of slavery into the north.  It was supported by Pierce, which contradicted his inaugural statements that he would not agitate the slavery question.  Wallner argues that non-support of the act would have had same effect towards Civil War.  Pierce did not just support the act, he bribed it into existence by promising jobs to 13 House of Representatives members if they changed their vote.  In the mid-terms, twelve of the thirteen were voted out of office as a result and needed them (a theme for the entire Democrat party in the midterms).  Pierce also returned more fugitive slaves than any other president during his four years in office (although the length of his term versus everybody but Polk from this era makes this an unfair statement).  Kansas remained the biggest issue throughout Pierce’s term.  Called “Bleeding Kansas” by the press, pro and anti-slavery groups moved to the territory to try and establish a voting block on the slavery issue, and violence and voter fraud issues were common.  For a time, two separate governments ended up being set up in the territory.

Pierce continued his bribing ways when he authorized $5,000 for use to persuade Canadians for a favorable settlement in a fisheries dispute.  Secretary of State William Marcy was troubled by this as however Pierce did not hesistate.  Once again miscommunications was a problem, as the Canadian ambassador ended up spending tens of thousands more than authorized.  Another instance of this was an ambassador sent to Spain did not understand what was meant by “detaching” Cuba from Spain and failed to present the option that Pierce had intended.

Pierce focused much of his attention on foreign affairs, probably to deflect from his poor handling of issues at home.  The Crimean War was occurring in Europe at the same time, but had little effect for Pierce aside from him authorizing sending three military officers to observe military tactics of multiple European armies.  Pierce focused the most on British involvement in Nicaragua in speeches and inside the office.  This may have had to do with Pierce’s view of the office of presidency, as he vetoed so many bills for internal improvements (which were then overturned by congress) that foreign policy was one of the only areas left for a president to make an impact.  The result for all this intrigue was the Dallas-Clarendon treaty which would have Great Britain exit central America with the exception of Belize.  However after all the time spend on the issue, the treaty was not passed until Pierce was out of office, at which point it was modified so much that Britain rejected it.  Pierce did support the transatlantic cable, one of his positive legacies in addition to building additional Navy ships and modernizing the army prior to exiting office.

Some interesting random notes from during his presidential years.

  • William Atherton (one of Pierce’s best friends and a loyal politician) died unexpectedly and left $8,000 in his will to Pierce. Scholars later found out it was for the care of his secret family and lovechild.  Certainly an oddity for a sitting president to have to deal with.
  • Brigham Young was appointed Territorial governor of Utah and caused problems by showing his power was greater than that of the national government, even colluding with Indians against the army. Pierce made the political move of appointing somebody else to take Young’s place that would end up declining the offer, thus not showing endorsement of Young or polygamy but also not removing him from power in Utah either.
  • Pierce lost the presidential nomination to James Buchanan and never had any momentum in his favor. He is the only president who sought reelection to be denied nomination by his party.

Vice President – Vice president William R. King died very early in office, was never replaced as there was no mechanism for it at that time.  .5/5

First Lady – Jane Appleton was one of the most intriguing first ladies, but not in a good way.  Wallner did not seem to be a fan of her, citing statements that Jane Appleton Pierce’s  only redeeming quality was keeping Pierce sober.  More than anything, she seemed a tragic figure.  Jane and Franklin had three children, one died at three days old, one died at four years old, and the last died at eleven years old.  The last one was particularly sad, as he died when Pierce was on way to Washington with his family via train.  The train crashed, and Pierce’s son Benjamin was thrown.  When Pierce went up to him he thought he was unconscious but discovered the back of Benjamin’s head was missing.  This drove his wife into grieving, and led to a fight 48 hours before inauguration where she told him not to worry about politics.  She also decided not to give him lock of hair from Benjamin to wear at inauguration which she had previously saved.  Jane remained in mourning for entire first year.  In addition to being described as sad  she was also mentioned as controlling, known for criticizing Pierce for his mannerisms (i.e. keeping his hands in his pockets) or for inability to resist alcohol at dinner.  After he death, Pierce made comments to a writer about his wife indicating his favorite thing about his wife that that she needed him to take care of her due to always being ill.  Interestingly enough, Pierce’s friendship with writer Nathaniel Hawthorne seemed more emotional than his relationship with his wife (or siblings).  I’ll give her a decent score here for being memorable, though she stayed out of any roles as a First Lady.  3.5/5.

Post Presidency – Pierce didn’t take any official roles in politics after he left the office of president.   Instead he spent time traveling with his wife across American and Europe.  Pierce’s cabinet stayed loyal to him after office he left office, particularly Jefferson Davis.  Unlike prior presidents that I’ve read about, there was a story of Pierce drinking all night with a friend and spending $30 unaccounted for in area known for gambling and brothels.  It seems like every president that’s been alive four years after their loss has been asked to run again, and Pierce was no exception after the disaster of the Buchanan administration.  Pierce continued to make “pro-National” speeches, chastising abolitionists.  Wallner glosses over his repeated statements that whites and Africans are not equals regardless of how the law characterized them.  This went on throughout the Civil War, as Pierce and other democrats remained critical of Lincoln and abolition until victory in Atlanta assured Lincoln victory.  1.5/5

Book itself –   I enjoyed the second volume of Wallner’s biography better than the first, as it focused more on this fascinating time in American history.  Throughout the two volumes however, there were some things that did not work as well other biographies that I’ve read.  Stories of Pierce as a lawyer were full of hyperbole (there was even a part talking about how everybody would be weeping after his closing arguments were finished).  Wallner also frequently made excuses for Pierce, such as his frequent use of bribes (“it shows how important Pierce felt the issue was”) or using patronage to sway votes (“what president before or after would not have done the same thing?”).  However Wallner also includes some fun critical comments of Pierce such as the critics of his drinking’s nickname for Pierce as the “Hero of many well-fought bottle.”  Possible military cowardice was also mentioned, however like Pierce’s drinking Wallner mainly mentions that the critics said it more than analyzing how much truth there was to it.  Overall as good as can be expected on the subject, but not one of the best biographies I’ve read so far.3/5

3-star