Tag: ranked

“President James Buchanan” by Philip S. Klein

President james buchanan

President James Buchanan

Author: Philip S. Klein

Published:  1962

Much like Martin Van Buren or Millard Fillmore, Buchanan was a politician through and through, although his ambitions are more clearly defined due to the strategies he used being a conscious reflection of those winning recipes by his predecessors. Ben Perley Poore stated of Buchanan that “never did a wily politician more industriously plot and plan to secure a nomination than Mr. Buchanan did, in his still hunt for the Presidency. Speaking of Martin Van Buren, Buchanan took aim at the highest office in the land from every election from Martin Van Buren to when he ultimately won.

With that lengthy of a political career, one would expect that Buchanan would be attached to all sorts of interesting and important moments in government, but that was actually not the case. Philip Klein writes on page 142:

In this remarkable galaxy of American politicians, Buchanan always stood on the periphery. He never, in all his legislative career, had his name attached to an important bill or became the focal point of public interest in a debate…He quietly exerted a great deal of influence on important legislation, but his steady craftsmanship attracted little public attention.

How did such a man become president? Precisely because of Buchanan’s nature, as well as some fortunate timing on his part, he managed to avoid being caught in a position that made him unacceptable to the new Republican North or the Democrat South. Klein continues to write on page 248 that Buchanan “could not help wondering about the freak fate which had kept him out of Congress during each of the four most violent sectional controversies of the century: The Missouri Compromise, The Nullification Struggle, The 1950 Compromise, and now the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. If he should become president he feared he should not escape the next outburst.” History now ranks Buchanan among the worst presidents as his great fear was certainly realized in the most violent way possible.

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

Born into – Buchanan’s father was an Irish immigrant, who bought some land from a public sale after earning some money working for a family member. He ended up becoming a successful farmer and store owner, but nothing particularly prolific compared to many of the other presidential families. James had several sisters, but was also the oldest (surviving) child, whose few brothers were much younger (14 years or more). For his parents humble beginning he scores well here, but being the oldest son was also a ticket to success compared to others. 4/5

Pre-President – George Washington was family hero to the Buchanan’s that that they may have even met in the late 1700’s (when James was 3 or 4), so it’s no surprise that Buchanan ended up being a permanent presidential aspirant. Not a lot is known about his younger years that is distinctive of any many of that era. Buchanan went to Dickinson College to learn pre-law; he was expelled for bad behavior, but was also eventually reinstated. Despite that, it was obvious that Buchanan was disliked by Dickinson faculty for his attitude throughout this time. Although he made his share of enemies in politics, this appears to have been a particularly rowdy period for him as later on he was mainly described as having an accountant’s personality, keeping track of everything paid and everything owed, including keeping books indicating where he stood with everybody.

Buchanan’s first foray into politics was becoming a State Assembly man after being nominated by a friend. The first speech that Buchanan gave convinced people he was a Democrat; Buchanan over-corrected so much that his 2nd speech was so anti-democrat it created lifetime enemies (Note, Buchanan was a Federalist at this time; the family did idolize Washington). For income Buchanan ran a successful law practice, so much so that Buchanan appears to have been one of the wealthier former presidents upon retirement. Once Buchanan was elected to Congress as a Federalist, he was appreciated by his constituents who then reelected him twice more (which had never happened to somebody from his district previously).

Once in Congress Buchanan again made his mark with a speech, this time defending Calhoun on overspending on the war budget, making a formidable ally while doing so. As with every politician alive from the early to mid 1800’s, the election of John Quincy Adams shook up Buchanan’s world. Buchanan played an important role by being the congressman to directly ask Andrew Jackson about promises in his cabinet, as well as alluding to what rumors he had heard. The fallout was Buchanan eventually switched parties from Federalist to Jackson Democrat, even though Jackson never trusted him completely afterwards.

Buchanan was still reelected even though he switched parties, although the shuffling among politicians resulted in his branch of the party (called by the author the Amalgamation group) losing ground in political appointments. While Buchanan thought he was in line for a treasury or even Vice Presidency spot, he ended up being appointed as Minister to Russia (a spot the author says was reserved for sending dangerous politicians). Buchanan held this spot for two years, and thought it appears he was liked he also didn’t accomplish anything of note there. When he returned, he was able to be inserted into a Senator spot after all the shakeouts from party conflicts opened one up, even though he wouldn’t have won at an election (per the author).

Once there, yet another speech made others take note of him, this time defending George M. Dallas’s position during the National bank controversy, once again creating an ally and positioning himself to get notoriety while not defining Buchanan’s individual politics. He became the chairman of Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, where he got the nickname “10 cent Jimmy” by Whigs based on speech he made about ten cents a day being a sufficient working wage, a nickname that stuck with his detractors afterward. Once note of interest, Buchanan was on the receiving end of the first telegraph from Samuel Morse, which indicated Polk’s surprise Democrat nomination.

Once Dark Horse Polk was elected President, he named Buchanan Secretary of State, but before it was finalized the two acknowledged the possibility Buchanan would seek the nomination the following term but would step down from office if that happened. As Secretary of State, Buchanan picked Nicholas Trist for negotiating a treaty with Mexico; Trist ended up being disaster in the eyes of administration, a man who didn’t follow directions and continued representing the country after Polk wanted him recalled. Polk never trusted Buchanan throughout his presidency, according to Polk’s journals.

Buchanan was “retired” during the Taylor/Fillmore administrations, during which time he bought a big farm and helped take care of orphaned or poor relatives. His reentry to politics was as London Ambassador for the Pierce administration, where dealt with issues of British presence in Caribbean in violation of Clayton/Bulwer Treaty, though he didn’t have any success in resolving. He also got roped into America’s attempt to purchase Cuba; none of those present for these “negotiations” came away looking great due to a mixup of language (the famous use of the word “detach” discussed in my Pierce review) and personalities (Boulle was detested by Spanish).

Following Pierce’s term, the new and strong Republican party (with candidate Fremont) threatened to jail Pierce and others that disagreed with them on handling of Kansas matter if they won. (Between Andrew Jackson’s biography and Pierce/Buchanan, I think I’ve seen every crazy thing from the Trump Administration represented in one of these biographies.) Against this contested political setting, Buchanan was the election by carrying his home state and much of south. It was apparent at that point that the Democratic Party was the only party that was not entirely regional at that point. 2/5

Presidential Career – Buchanan filled his cabinet by trying to represent various states and not ideologies. As a result he was not in touch with the extreme views of the political climate directly prior to the Civil war. Lewis Cass was made the Secretary of State, but mainly an honorary title at that point due to his age. Howell Cobb was the main voice in the Cabinet, a Georgia man against secession as late as 1860.

Buchanan’s goals in taking office were to preserve the Union and quiet the anti-slavery element (which he considered the greatest threat to the Union). History has not been kind to his term in office, as many historians list Buchanan as the worst president. Having just read Franklin Pierce’s biographies, it’s tough to say who was worse. In addition to Buchanan’s views of preserving slavery as an institution, he also had a near million dollar embezzlement scandal involving members of cabinet.

Buchanan was already out of touch with his country when he was elected. In particular he was naïve about the possible outcomes in Kansas, always assuming it would be a free state and that only real issue was making sure it went Democrat. As with Pierce, Kansas became the key issues of his presidency, as Buchanan supported the original vote that settlers made toward government despite allegations that it had been fixed by the pro slavery faction. Buchanan’s decision to favor those that did vote rather than those that stayed at home seems to have been based on his preference for the law than for sentiments as to what he wanted to have happen.

His veto of the Homestead act is defended by author, but apparently not by rest of historians. Per Klein the act was something that would benefit northerners only at expense of mostly southerners and was against all of Buchanan’s already established convictions. Klein also argues that the act was written in such a way that authors were wanting it vetoed by Buchanan so that that they could ridicule him over it and pump up a Republican candidate instead.

The eventual election of Lincoln led to South Carolina seceding, as Klein spends as much time on the last few months of his presidency as on the entire rest of the term. Per Klein, the congressional atmosphere in this time was purely obstructionist with no movement to accomplish anything productive. Coupled with Buchanan’s ideology of balance of powers and not usurping the roles of Congress, that led Buchanan’s chief “accomplishment” being keeping the Union from imploding.

After the secession, Buchanan struggled with the legality of the concept and had research done on what authority states had and what authority the federal government had to police this new movement. Buchanan did everything he could to not set off hostilities, including allowing a sitting cabinet member to travel to discuss his state seceding, not reinforcing South Carolina forts, and blaming the impending conflict on Lincoln and the radical Republicans. As he left office, he had neither reinforced or abandoned Fort Sumter, with his main goal being for nothing to happen while he was in office. 1/5

Vice President –. John Breckinridge was a surprise nomination as vice president, and like many from that era was not mentioned again for much of the book. 2/5

First Lady – Much has been speculated about Buchanan’s sexuality. As America’s only bachelor president, some historians have “determined” that he was in fact gay. After reading this book I would guess that to be correct, but there’s not enough information to prove or refute it. His lack of a love life was certainly interesting. His only engagement was to a very wealthy woman; she accused him of only being with her for her money and then dumped him when he came to the area she lived and didn’t visit her first. She then died mysteriously later the same day.

Also mentioned were a fling/crush with an 18 year old girl when he was about 50; Buchanan wrote her a poem about why it couldn’t work out between the two of them. Finally an attractive widow went to the White House to marry Buchanan, even ending up staying there for awhile, but ended up leaving later in Buchanan’s term unsuccessful in her bid. All the comments about their relationship were by her prior to her even meeting him.

Buchanan’s closest relationship was with Howell Cobb, who Buchanan revered as a man and a friend and would spend time with nearly every day they were in office together. 0/5

Post Presidency –Buchanan’s post-presidency was spent in retirement, with a focus on justifying his own term. This included commissioning multiple biographies about himself, none of which were ever completed (the first biography of Buchanan wasn’t released until after his death. The political climate was not one that favored praising Buchanan during the Civil War, and even his allies suggested he put his mission on the back burner which Buchanan mostly did. The one exception was in some letter writing with Winfield Scott as the two blamed each other for some handling of the South Carolina issue. 1/5

Book itself –I prefer a biography that is objective regarding its subject than one that is written from an obvious point of bias. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel that Klein was as unsure of his opinions of Buchanan as any biographer I’ve read. I’m sure it’s difficult to learn everything about a man and his justifications for his actions and still judge him critically, but I think Klein could have done a better job of doing so. The research here was obviously fantastic however, and I didn’t come away with questions about Buchanan’s actions. 3/5

3-star

“Sharpe’s Honor” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Honor

Sharpe’s Honor: Book Sixteen of the Richard Sharpe Series

Richard Sharpe and the Vitoria Campaign, February to June 1813

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Published:  1985

Coming off my favorite installment to date in the excellent Sharpe’s Enemy, any book that followed was bound to feel like a let down. That was certainly the case with Sharpe’s Honor, the sixteenth chronological book in the Richard Sharpe series, but overall this was still a book I enjoyed. I think the worst aspects of this book came from a new theory I have that Bernard Cornwell comes up with clever words to attach to Sharpe’s name for book titles, and then writes the book trying to shoehorn as many allusions to that word as possible throughout the book.

Taking place in the closing months of the Spanish conflict between Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars, Major Richard Sharpe is the target of a plot by the French intelligence officer Pierre Ducos. The Whore of Gold, Richard’s object of lust from prior books, Helene is the mechanism for the plot who sets everything in motion by sending a letter to her husband accusing Sharpe of making a drunken attempt at raping her. Helene’s husband then challenges Richard Sharpe’s, ahem, honor by challenging Sharpe to a duel. When Helene’s husband ends up dying, Sharpe ends up exiled on a secret mission that involves deadly Spanish partisans, breaking into a nunnery, prison escapes and wagons full of riches beyond imagination.

With any book series that are this lengthy, I appreciate when there is a deviation from one book to another that is memorable or changes the series. While Sharpe’s Honor lacks the major character deaths or military promotions of other books, it does affect the overall series in three manners. **Slight Spoilers Follow** First, Patrick Harper ends up married and has a baby on the way. Unlike Sharpe’s earlier marriage, it seems at least possible that these characters will travel with the army beyond this book. Second, Sharpe loses his longest tenured possession, one that connects him to the most powerful man in his world, but gets it replaced with something much more extravagant. **End of Spoilers** Finally and most importantly, this book ends the Spanish conflict and it looks like French soil is on the horizon. The Sharpe books thus far have spent extensive time in India, before hopping around to places like Denmark and Portugal, but it feels like we’ve been in Spain the longest and the change of scenery should help add some excitement in the next chapter.

The best scene in this book is probably Sharpe’s excursion into a Spanish nunnery. While the prison scene featured some of the most violent and destructive descriptions to be found in a Sharpe book, the mysterious solution provided for Sharpe felt far too convenient in the timing of and execution of it all to really register as believable. The nunnery relied instead on a quick decision by Sharpe to shift the blame away from himself that was both very funny and very clever. Since Sharpe is basically a superhero at this point, anything that shifts the story away from him outfighting his opponent stands out by comparison.

Besides the less than thrilling prison escape (which again, was preceded by an amazingly brutal action sequence), this book also loses some points by relying on three villains that all pale when compared to either of the two villains from the previous book. Pierre Ducos seems to be Sharpe’s long term villain at this point, which is unfortunate as the best Sharpe villains have been those that try to best him at his own game on the battlefield. Ducos is closer to Father Hacha (the Inquisitor) and El Matarife (the sadist Spanish partisan), the villains that Sharpe must overcome in this book, as all three have no real loyalty or qualms about killing innocents to stop Sharpe. While I’m still loving this series, and even enjoyed Sharpe’s Honor, I’ve got it ranked as the 9th best in the first 17, which puts it in the bottom half in terms of quality

4-star

“Night Terrors” by Alice Henderson Review

Night Terrors

Night Terrors (A Stake Your Destiny Buffy Book)

Author: Alice Henderson

Published:  2005

Maybe I’m biased because I made it through this book to a happy ending on my first try, but this was my favorite of the Stake Your Destiny Buffy books. I wrote in my review forKeep Me In Mind that “the entire thing reads like a long dream sequence (I hate dream sequences).” Night Terrorsactually featured a lengthy dream sequence so now I’m reevaluating my stance on the topic. I think the problem with Keep Me In Mind was that the entire book felt like a training drill with zero stakes (sorry, bad pun… how about consequences) for the reader. In Night Terrors I was making what I felt was the best choice each time but I constantly felt like I was leading Buffy to her death as the plot got weirder and wackier.

The plot of Night Terrors is that people around Sunnydale are getting sleepy, and feeling paralyzed in their sleep but feeling as though they are awake. It starts off affecting Buffy but spreads to others like Angel and her classmates. As Buffy feels like something is sitting on top of her, and that she’s not alone in her room, she lies paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. Once the feeling has passed, we’re given the choice of going to find Angel, going out on a patrol, or studying for a test that day that we’ve so far neglected. The choice is simple enough, but right away the book at least gave options that felt either more authentic to how Buffy would behave in the tv series or that an average reader would consider in her place (the previous Stake Your Destiny books have seemed addicted to offering a day spent with Cordelia right out of the gate).

**Slight Spoilers follow**

I flipped around when I was finished and saw other happy endings possible for the reader, and since it’s difficult to review this book without giving away the track I followed, reader beware. I started off patrolling before ending up heading toward the gym at Principal Snyder’s direction. Before I got there I decided to check on a crying student. After I learned more from the Scoobies, I decided to sleep and confront the Night Terror right away (my thinking being that staying up would just lead to a later confrontation with a tired and weakened slayer). After entering the dream world, I tried to locate Willow to communicate with the other spirits. When that was a dead end, I decided to Trust Ned, the man from Planet X who worked with the Lava people and build a dreamcatcher to catch the Night Terror.

For those following along, yeah that took a turn well away from anything in the series. I can only say that the alternative options presented to me seemed like tricks by the enemy, and that my path resulted in a happy ending. Spending about one third of this story in an anything goes dream world actually felt more like an episode of the tv series than one would thing just from reading that recap. In particular, it felt like the season four finale where Willow, Buffy, and Xander are encountering the First Slayer in their sleep.

**End of spoilers**

Besides feeling like a fun episode of the series and rewarding my obviously excellent choices based on years of watching the show and reading the books and comics, Night Terrorsalso benefitted by not having the ultra predictable page numbering problem present in some of the other Stake Your Destiny books. I jumped into the last 200 pages fairly early and often my two choices were close enough in page numbering to not give away which way the book was steering me. Although I wouldn’t put this book up there withDune or East of Eden, I’ve now read all of the Stake Your Destiny books and this was the only one that I didn’t come away from with grievances, and I actually had a really fun time reading it. That earns a perfect score from this reader.

3-star

“Reborn” by F. Paul Wilson Review

Reborn

Reborn

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Published:  1990

The Adversary Cycle:  Book Four by Publication, Book Two Chronologically

For those into how books fit into larger overall universes,Reborn is the fourth book in F. Paul Wilson’s the adversary cycle, but the second book chronologically, which means it takes place after The Keep but before the entire Repairman Jack series and somewhere during the Secret History line of books (this takes place in the 1960’s if that helps). Throughout this whole series of books Wilson has done his version of ghost stories, science fiction, and even vampires. Here is Wilson’s Rosemary’s Baby story, so much so that the characters even mention it on a few different occasions.

The story goes that a married couple discover that a wealthy man who has just died may be the secret father of the husband. This revelation leads them to search through his journals for the identity of the man’s mother and any other information they can find to give him answers about his parents. Along the way there are connections to secret World War II science experiments, a possible vigilante with a crow bar, and an order of religious individuals dedicated to stopping the anti-Christ. There is also an appearance from at least one character from the first Adversary Cycle bookThe Keep .

Mentioning Rosemary’s Baby and the anti-Christ crusaders will give you a pretty good idea of how the plot of this book progresses, but it’s impossible to discuss without getting into that facet. I admire Wilson for attempting to tell an interesting story about the return of a formidable villain in his world, but the nature of the plot feels derivative to that iconic work. The greater problem however is that the entire book is populated by people making horrible decisions.

The two main characters are meant to be sympathetic, but both of them willingly turn a blind eye to horrific acts willingly. Similarly, the heroic character provided by Wilson in the form of a Jesuit Priest always remains reactive to the plot (the most heroic thing he does in the entire book is not have sex with a woman who wants him to). The series’ recurring heroic character does nothing in this book to influence the tragic turn of events.

Even within the logic of the book, it’s difficult to figure out what you (the reader) want to have happen. There is a force that benefits when people suffer or cause emotional harm. Does that mean that the sex between two consenting adults will be good or bad for that force (the book decides that action will aid the evil force). Or if a woman tries to perform an unwanted abortion on a trusting relative (here the book says that will harm the evil force). The result for me was a rather unpleasant reading experience where I knew a bad outcome was going to happen the entire time and every choice along the way is just drawing out the inevitable tragedy.

So far the Adversary Cycle has suffered compared to the Repairman Jack Series as it has lacked the moral center of Jack (a man whose own particular morals are certainly not in line with the general public). I’m still planning on reading the two remaining books before I finish up both series withNightworld but my hopes for finding another great series of books is slowly dwindling.

2-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

Rank the Author: Bret Easton Ellis

Making his debut at age 21 with the dark and twisted “Less Than Zero,” Bret Easton Ellis is one of the few authors to achieve both celebrity level fame and vitriol in equal levels throughout his career.  For many, his stories are written simply to shock and titillate from a misogynistic viewpoint.  For others he is the master of populating the page with terrible human beings that draw the reader into their sordid affairs.  As part of the literary brat pack (with Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney), Ellis is also often linked to Generation Xers and his more contemporary works have suffered comparatively by most critical measures.

 When deciding how to read Ellis’s bibliography, part of the fun is in the use of shared characters and settings mainly by reference.  Much like Stephen King and his small towns in Maine, characters in Ellis’s work often know about events from other books or interact with characters from Ellis’s (and even other authors) earlier novels.  For that reason, a fun way to read his works is chronological order, starting with Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, Glamorama, and Imperial Bedrooms.  The Informers and Lunar Park don’t take place in the same reality as those books, so if you are going this route I would read The Informers first and end things with Lunar Park.  If you are not interested in diving into the entirety of Ellis’s catalog, here’s how I would rank his books overall, from worst to best:

 Glamorama

7.  Glamorama

Release Date: 1998

 I would describe the plot of this book as Zoolander in the style of Guy Ritchie.  Models being used as killers with numerous identity deceptions and possible double identities… even trying to recall the plot is a recipe for a headache.  The biggest problems with the book are that the beginning takes a long time to get to the plot of the book, that plot is completely outlandish, and then Ellis never seems to be willing to wrap it up.  Even hardcore fans of the author seem to agree that at 500 pages the story meanders.  Recurring metaphors don’t really work either as they are drowned out by lengthy descriptions of drug use and ménage a trios.  My only enjoyment in reading it was the numerous ties it had to other Ellis works, none of which were worth the time spent getting through this disappointing book.

the informers

6 . The Informers

Release Date: 1994

 The only other book by Brett Easton Ellis that I would describe as skippable, even for fans of his writing style.  The Informers is a collection of short stories that are seemingly unconnected (though not totally) that often withholds the name of the narrator of the stories making the actual connections more troubling to put together than they are worth.  With another set of characters that might not have been an issue, but because so many of these characters are wealthy bi-sexual males I had trouble distinguishing between them for much of the individual stories.  However, unlike Glamorama, Ellis keeps things moving at an exciting pace and several of the scenes were particularly memorable.

less than zero

5.  Less than Zero

Release Date: 1985

 I was born a year before this book came out, so by the time I got around to reading it I’d already read several books done in the same style (and even several other Bret Easton Ellis books).  The story of a handful of the most shallow characters in literature, it’s iconic and preposterous at the same time.  Clay is on vacation from college and tries to reconnect with his best friend (Julian) and his girlfriend (Blair).  The drug use in this novel is so frequent, the plot could be described as three friends deal with varying level of drug problems in the 1980’s.  The problem is that reducing it to that misses the broader picture that Ellis portrays.  Reading this book is like opening a time capsule and immersing yourself in the contents.  The detachment that the characters express have the effect of numbing you to the tragic outcomes they face, which makes the read feel more real and unique than a similar story would as told by anybody else.  Unfortunately, that can make it a difficult read for many and an unpleasant one at other times for all.  Still, this is well worth checking out and making up your own mind.  (Also, more than any other book of Ellis, the film adaptation of this is awful.  If you’ve seen it, don’t let that sour you on reading this.)

lunar park

4.  Lunar Park

Release Date: 2005

 The Charlie Kauffman entry of the Ellis catalog, Ellis inserts himself into the story and goes down the rabbit hole.  Narrated by Ellis, the famous author of Less than Zero and other books, Ellis juggles personal issues (with exes, drugs and family) while possibly confronting a supernatural one (a killer identifying himself as Patrick Bateman, the lead character of Ellis’s American Psycho).    Reading Lunar Park is greatly enhanced by reading American Psycho beforehand.  Everything about this book works just right, combining what the reader knows or expect to know about the author with how characters would respond to these freak occurrences.  I should say, everything worked just right until the ending which spiraled a bit out of control.  With a fictionalized book about a real person I don’t know what sort of ending would have satisfactorily resolved the mystery and horror of this book, but lackluster ending aside I found this to be highly enjoyable.

 imperial bedrooms

3.  Imperial Bedrooms

Release Date: 2010

 This choice will be controversial.  Taking place 25 years after Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms follows Clay returning to Los Angeles to cast a film.  Much like Lunar Park, there is ambiguity in terms of how much is truth and how much is fiction, with the truth at issue concerning the events in Less Than Zero and their depictions in a popular book and movie.  Delving into dark territory of rape, murder and snuff films, the book takes away all the sentimentality that seems to surround Less Than Zero and reminds the reader of the amoral characters at its center.  For that reason I preferred it to its predecessor, as Ellis seemed upfront about the subject matter he was tackling.  I get that for many readers, this book cheapens Less than Zero or feels like a cash in by Ellis.  While I enjoyed LTZ, I don’t hold it in such high regard that revisiting it bothered me.  When I compare the two novels, I enjoyed this one much more, hence the ranking.

rules of attraction

2.  The Rules of Attraction

Release Date: 1987

 If you have never read Bret Easton Ellis and are looking for a book that encapsulates all his strengths and oddities, look no further and start reading here.  I’m surprised that Ellis hasn’t returned to the shifting perspectives he utilizes in this book in later writings because it’s perfectly executed and provides a very memorable reading experience.  Mainly told through the perspective of three students, Paul a bisexual man who formerly dated Lauren but is now extremely attracted to Sean.  The characters often interact and will recount the same events in previous chapters from vastly different perspective to the point that one or all must be lying about what took place.  Also mixed in are fantastic chapters by other narrators including the world’s fastest trip to Europe and a very moving suicide.  (Less successful is another section of the book entirely in French.)  Along with my number one pick, this book features frequent laughs and disgusting moments intertwined.

 american psycho

1.  American Psycho

Release Date: 1991

 Although I’d recommend The Rules of Attraction to new Ellis readers, I prefer American Psycho as his best work.  However, for many the graphic nature of the writing and the extensive time spent discussing designer name brands and band discographies will immediately turn them off.  While almost every character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel is detached and amoral, taking a deep dive into the mind of a (possible) serial killer during 1980’s corporate America could also be a lot to ask of a new reader unaccustomed to Ellis’s style.  In addition to that, American Psycho (and Ellis in general) also are often accused of being misogynist.  For my perspective, I would agree that Patrick Bateman is very misogynist.  However, he’s also a sociopathic, materialistic psychopathic sadist and the book is just telling a story from his perspective.

 Those are the criticisms with the book.  They don’t mention how perfectly Ellis straddles the line between satire of an entire lifestyle and realistic conversations that take place in that place.  The result is a book filled with very funny moments drawn from the absurdity of that contrast.  Much like the excellent film that was adapted from it, American Psycho is very dark humor.  Scenes of Bateman being normal and fitting in with a crowd are followed nonchalantly by statements about him eating handfuls of sand on the beach following a party.  A coworker getting reservations at a new restaurant is an existential crisis.  The unreliable narrator is used to great effect as entries vary in length and relevance to what is occurring in his life.  Much like Ellis’s writing style, American Psycho is certainly not for everybody.  However, many other it is without a doubt Ellis’s best work.

Rank the Series: John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom Books

John Updike’s Rabbit series is unusual in the literary world for several reasons.  For starters, it’s a series of books that doesn’t involve any supernatural, magical or militaristic elements.  It’s also very adult material, with probably as much time spent on sexual acts as anything I’ve read (including the awful “50 Shades of Grey”) but described more realistically than you would find in an erotica novel.  Most impressively, the series was written over 41 years and takes place in real time with the characters and current events aging with the author (and readers who originally picked up the series).  The series is to literature what “Savage Dragon” is to comic books or “Boyhood” is to film, an achievement and testament to its creator merely for existing.

 The idea of this series, following the life and death of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom as detailed over generations, was so interesting to me that the quality of the books almost became secondary.  Having now finished the series, I’m glad I read it all chronologically as each of the five installments was essential in understanding who the characters were and why they reacted to situations as they did.  If you are planning on reading this series, there’s no other order you should read it in than “Rabbit, Run” –>  “Rabbit Redux” –> “Rabbit is Rich” –> “Rabbit at Rest” –> “Rabbit Remembered.”  But that’s not very fun to write about, so here are some thoughts on how enjoyable each of the books in the series is, ranked from worst to best:

 Rabbit redux

5.  Rabbit Redux

Release date:  1971

Chronological Order:  Second

 The two easiest choices in ranking this series are best and worst.  I enjoyed every Rabbit book except for this one that takes all of the social strife of its era and tells the ugliest story in the entire series.  Even in later books the events of “Rabbit Redux” are spoken of in disbelief, with plenty of “do you believe the time Harry had that teen girl and her drug dealer move in with him and then _____ happened?”  In addition to general unpleasantness of the story, the book is also bogged down with racial language of the era that will make many readers uncomfortable. I almost quit reading the series after this one, but after finishing the next three books my dislike for this book is tempered as it became just another crazy memory in the lives of its characters.

 rabbit remembered

4.  Rabbit Remembered

Release Date: 2001

Chronological Order:  Fifth

 This novella is shorter than the rest of the series and also is missing a major focal point from the rest of the series.  Despite that, Updike tells a compelling story about Rabbit’s two surviving children and the people they have grown up to become.  The real world politics and current events that make it into every story resonated the most for me of any book in the series as they were the headlines and pop culture of my youth.  The biggest drawback however is that any ending to this story pales in comparison to the excellent and fitting conclusion to “Rabbit at Rest” in terms of wrapping up the series.

 rabbit

3.  Rabbit is Rich

Release Date:  1981

Chronological Order:  Third

 “Rabbit is Rich” and the second place book on this list are interchangeable in terms of quality.  Here Updike has abandoned the extreme events of “Rabbit Redux” in favor of a much more toned down and relatable storyline.  As Rabbit has finally settled down and reduced the drama in his work and personal life, his son Nelson is now old enough to supply drama enough for both of them.  The ending of this book gets into the most over the top sexual situations in the entire series, so if that’s something that turns you off at the end keep in mind it’s all toned back down after this book.

 Rabbit Run

2.  Rabbit, Run

Release Date: 1960

Chronological Order: First

 A young married man decides to abandon his pregnant wife and young child in favor of the thrill of escape.  I’ll give this book the edge over “Rabbit is Rich” for being the book that established this entire fictional family tree, business and household that have survived so well throughout the series.  Just about everything that happens in the rest of the Rabbit series can be traced to an event in this first book.  At parts heartbreaking and other moments infuriating, Updike does a great job of making unlikable characters interesting and sympathetic.

 rab

1.  Rabbit at Rest

Release Date: 1990

Chronological Order:  Fourth

 The only book in the series I would call a classic on its own, “Rabbit at Rest” is the rare book that delights on every page and even makes you reevaluate earlier books in a more favorable light.  Now a grandparent, Harry’s bad behavior swings more toward curmudgeon and for the first time in the series is even a likable character at times.  However, Harry is also still the same man he’s always been and behaves true to form when given the opportunity.  The family drama provides the most interesting moments in thirty years of history for Harry, Janice and Nelson.  I also can’t speak highly enough about the ending, which provides nostalgia and cyclical storytelling better than just about anything I’ve read.  I loved this book for how it made me reevaluate and love the entire series.