Category Archives: 2/5

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I think the first warning about A Discovery of Witches should have been that I heard about it in “Parade”.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with “Parade”; I like to read it on Sundays as much as the next person does.  But it’s not really known for being a reliable source for literary insight.  I read their little blurb about this book, though, and I thought it sounded pretty good.  Then my mother said she was getting it for my cousin for her birthday, and I thought it would be nice for us to have both read the same book around the same time.  Unfortunately, I’m now in the awkward situation of knowing that my cousin’s going to get a book that is not spectacular, to say the least.

A Discovery of Witches starts off with our protagonist, Diana Bishop, establishing that she is a witch, but that she refuses to use her powers.  She’s a researcher, interested in the history of science — in particular, alchemical manuscripts (so, really, she’s interested in the history of pre-science).  She’s an American professor who’s younger than thirty, yet has earned a sabbatical year so she can study at Oxford.

While looking at old alchemical texts, she notices that one is enchanted.  She manages to open it, pretty much ignores what’s inside, and returns it.  After that, all hell breaks loose, and “creatures” (Harkness’ term for daemons, vampires, and witches) come out of the woodwork to threaten Diana in all manners of ways.

But this is all okay, because she quickly runs into Matthew Clairmont, a vampire on a mission to protect her.  Then Harkness spends four hundred pages ruining the premise she set up in the first thirty by making Diana completely dependent on Matthew for her physical safety and personal well-being.  He does everything from guard her from other creatures to making sure she does yoga.  This is extremely irritating.  Don’t create a character that you call strong and brave and then have her be completely clueless as to how she’s supposed to behave without a man to reference.

I will say that Harkness’ writing flows well.  I found it a pleasant read, language-wise, and would love to read something that isn’t so pseudo-feminist and, frankly, insulting to independent, strong women.  I’d love for her to either write something that doesn’t involve a strong romantic theme or, conversely, something that is open about the fact that it’s a romance and embraces the genre.  At least then the work would be honest.  One of the worst things an author can do is lie to the reader within the book’s own text.  I feel disrespected and betrayed, and feel almost that I should give my copy back to my mother so she can return it and recoup her money.

As it stands, however, A Discovery of Witches falls flat for me.  It doesn’t even end satisfactorily; planning on two more books to come, Harkness made this one end in a cliffhanger.  Sadly, this is just another turn-off for me, and I won’t be seeking out Diana and Matthew for another go-around.  Unless my mother buys me the sequel.  Then I’ll be duty-bound to read it, and most likely much more grumpy for the return trip.

Rating: 2/5.

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Filed under 2/5, Book review, Fiction, Mixed

Screw: A Guard’s View of Bridgewater State Hospital by Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan’s Screw is a report on the time he spent as a guard at Bridgewater State Hospital, an institution that was supposed to be a place where those with mental illness to be housed and receive treatment.  Rather than receive the care that the courts or their doctors recommended, however, Ryan asserts that the patients were abused.  Screw is an interesting exploration of the institutional culture of a mental hospital in the 1970s.

Let me start off by saying that the book is fairly simply written.  Chapters are short.  They typically encase one encounter or event.  The book is an easy read; perhaps too easy.  It feels almost flimsy in its written structure.  This shouldn’t be too surprising; the book was published by a company called South End Press.  Its stated opinion on copyright, as found on the copyright page of the book, is:  “Copyrights are required for book production in the United States.  However, in our case, it is a disliked necessity.”  I’m sure this was some sort of comment on the state of publishing rights forty years ago, but what comes across today is a lack of attention to detail; they didn’t care enough to make sure the book was formatted correctly and free of errors.  Perhaps this isn’t a big deal for fiction books, but if you’re accusing people of having initiated and maintained long-term abuse of patients, you might want to make sure the book has no flaws for the accused to point at and say, “Well, you spelled this wrong, and some of the details don’t make sense.  Are you sure you’re right on the rest of what you’re accusing people of?”

Once you get a grasp on and forgive the structure, Ryan gives us small accounts in each chapter.  He explains what brought him there — he volunteered first through school, and then decided to go “under cover” as a guard.  He then gives us the grisly details.  There are not one, but two, men who gouge out their own eyes in response to treatment by guards.  Many patients are beaten up.  The overall doctor of Bridgewater, even though he never sees the patients, fights to keep them in the hospital.  Most of the guards are not decent humans, as is shown over and over again.

I’m perfectly willing and able to understand that an institution can have such an atmosphere that those who are amoral can take over and call the shots.  I find it difficult to believe that the entire group of people have no consciences and allow these things to happen, but I do have to remember that people had a hard time thinking that the Nazis were killing an entire group of people.  So, yes, possible that a lot of people were doing some horrible things.  My problem, though, is with Ryan himself.  Before he even puts himself in the position of being a guard, he talks to a professor of his about going into Bridgewater posing as a patient.  His professor is not in favor of this, and offers instead that Ryan can work on a survey he’s doing on the inmates, and that he would be an author on the paper that came as a result.  Ryan turns this down, which is fine.  He was arrogant in his reasoning, however — the study is flawed and he basically thought his professor was an idiot for wanting to do it.  This behavior leads me to believe that Ryan wasn’t a quiet observer, but actively baited others in Bridgewater to manipulate them into more aggressive actions.

Screw opened my eyes to how badly we can treat each other when there’s a power differential.  I just wish the observer had been able to be impartial.

Rating: 2/5.

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Cocaine’s Son by Dave Itzkoff

I’m a fan of a good memoir.  David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, mostly because he can write about his family in a way that is both sardonic and tender.  Dave Itzkoff’s aim is not for a memoir written in the style of David Sedaris, but he is aiming squarely for a book that examines family relationships — specifically, the one between father and son.  Unfortunately, the result of that aim, Cocaine’s Son, is a book that bogs the reader down into a depressing relationship for which there never is a satisfying conclusion.

I will say that Itzkoff has a very readable style.  Unlike some other memoirs I’ve read, with authors who have more of an interesting story and less of an ability to put the story on the page, Itzkoff has a great voice.  He’s descriptive — my mind’s eye was able to be more active with this book than it is with most nonfiction.  He also uses different techniques for some chapters, like making one non-linear and another in the form of a play script.  In these ways, Cocaine’s Son was a joy to read.

What wasn’t so wonderful was the content.  At first, it’s interesting to hear about Itzkoff’s father, and his issues with him, and, yes, I realize that the book is supposed to be an exploration of their relationship.  It’s unfortunate that Itzkoff’s portrayal of his father makes it impossible to either identify or sympathize with either man.  Gerald Itzkoff is a man who treats others as if they don’t count.  His behavior makes him unpalatable to me in the highest degree — he’s not a “character”, he’s not “eccentric”.  He’s a kook who has no concept of how his actions impact others.

As to Itzkoff’s portrayal of himself … his issues with his father seem to cloud his entire life.  This is, at first, sad — after all, who wants to see someone live their life solely in response to one other person?  Then, about halfway through, the whole thing gets melodramatic.  Itzkoff sees his father everywhere, and the man is ruining everything!  Then, he’s feeling guilty for being angry at his father.  He’s a bad son.  Then, we’re back to what a jerk his father is.  And then … well, he gets married, and suddenly can see where his father was coming from all along.

Excuse me?  What?  If your father was so bad, how did he become less bad with time?  Did you, perhaps, merely mature to a point where most of us get — where you can accept others for who they are?  Most of us haven’t had parents who did coke, surely, but most of Itzkoff’s father’s behavior wasn’t because of his drug use, since it continued well after he became sober.  My only conclusion is that Itzkoff’s father is like most father’s, only more egocentric.  Most of us manage to come to terms with a self-absorbed parent without writing a self-indulgent memoir.

I looked forward to reading Cocaine’s Son, thinking I was going to get a thoughtful exploration of a childhood spent with an addict parent.  What I got was a well-written yet sadly lacking family story.

Rating: 2/5.

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Filed under 2/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History by Giles Milton

The first thing I have to say about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is that its title is misleading.  Nathaniel Courthope, the gentleman referenced by the title, features him for a very small amount of time.  What the book is about, the struggle between the Dutch and the English to gain and keep control of the Spice Islands, is an interesting topic, but I felt a little let down.  I imagined a more swashbuckling tale than the one that was delivered.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like the story Milton had to tell.  I knew that the spice trade was big, but I never knew how much it fueled naval exploration.  European people really wanted their spices, mainly because they attributed all sorts of magical healing powers to them.  Plus, they’re tasty.

I love that Milton is telling me a story that I’ve never heard before.  I knew, vaguely, that there are places called England and the Netherlands, and that their peoples were both seafaring and entrepreneurial.  I had no idea that the two nations fought a kind of cold (sometimes hot) war over the spice trade.  I didn’t know that it was for spice that the East India Company was founded.  I didn’t know that the fate of navies are so dependent on good leadership.

I appreciate Milton’s set-up for the story of Courthope, but the book feels lost for the first two hundred or so pages.  I kept thinking that the next chapter had to have Courthope in it, since the book’s named for him.  It’s quite frustrating, as a reader, to be forced into reading about what otherwise might be a quite interesting narrative because there’s a constant expectation for a particular person or event.  The marketing of the book, frankly, ruined a good part of the history Milton wanted to tell.

Giles Milton, the author, also attributes to Courthope the eventual ownership of Manhattan by the British due to the trouble he caused the Dutch by holding onto Run for as long as he did.  If he wanted to make that point, it would have been nice to have the juxtaposition — the lessening of the Dutch control in the Americas as their power grew in the East Indies — put to the forefront.  I think it’s a far-fetched idea, that the British gained New York solely because they traded Run for it; there was an actual battle in Manhattan for the land.  New York: The Novel devotes its first section to the waning power of the Dutch there and the rise of the English, and there were skirmishes.  Run may have been in the formal agreement, but I have serious doubts about whether it was truly a large part of the overall treaty between the two countries.  This, therefore, makes Milton’s claim for Courthope rather flimsy, in my opinion.

Overall, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more had it not advertised itself as the story of one man.  I would have known what I was getting into, and could have experienced it for what it is, and not for what I expected it to be.

Rating:  2/5.

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Towing Jehovah by James Morrow

Towing Jehovah, at first blush, appeared to be a great fit for me for reading material.  God’s dead, a failed oil-tanker captain is charged with moving His body to the Arctic to give Him a proper resting place, and antics ensue.  Unfortunately, Morrow’s telling of this promising story lacks a solid core.  The reader can sift through without finding much that will enlighten or entertain, which disappointed me greatly.

First, though, the positives, for the book does have some.  Morrow’s characters are often entertainingly funny, whether they mean to be or not.  I enjoyed a lot of the individual scenes simply because they are constructed to be awkwardly humorous.

Some of the character development is also pretty good.  Anthony Van Horne, the aforementioned captain, grows throughout the book from a washed-up, beaten-down character to one who is in control of himself and his situation.  This is a gentle process, and it was almost surprising toward the end, when Anthony behaves like one hell of a good ship captain.

Unfortunately, a lot of the other characters are basically empty shells in which Morrow can pour his preconceived notions of how certain people should act.  An atheist feminist, Cassie, is incensed that God exists and was a man.  She arranges for the body to be sunk into the ocean, so that … the world wouldn’t know that God once existed and was a man.

I’ll be honest.  The entire thread in the book that places atheists in an antagonistic position regarding the big dead body in the water is a little confusing.  There is one member of the atheist group who insists that they should study the body, which is summarily dismissed for the much more rational decision to bomb the corpse using World War II reenactment planes.

In fact, besides Anthony (and Cassie, once she’s in a relationship), the only character who appears to be a rational and admirable person is Thomas Ockham, a Jesuit the Church sent along on the voyage.  He’s the voice of reason and basically can’t do wrong.  Don’t misunderstand me — I think that Catholic monks are just as likely as anyone else to behave in an admirable way.  It was just irksome to me that he was the only one who appeared to have no issues with temptation, sin, or to suffer major ill effects from the body of God.

This obviously isn’t true for the rest of the crew, a good portion of which mutiny and go wild, Roman-style, complete with gladiatorial-style brawling.  I seriously doubt that most people’s reactions to a  gigantic dead deity would be to completely rebel against common morality and revel in debauchery.  Maybe that’s just my optimism coming out, but I seriously don’t think that most people think enough about God and His impact on their behavior for His death to alter said behavior too much.

There was one other part of the book that I just couldn’t get my head past.  It’s a personal thing, but, for those of you who have read Stranger in a Strange Land, it’s the same reason I don’t like that book, either.  Well, one of the reasons.

Maybe there’s just something about me and fiction involving boats.  I know that I didn’t particularly like Island in the Sea of Time, and that heavily featured a boat.  It’s probably a good thing, then, that I’ve never even attempted Moby-Dick; I’d probably pan it.  Towing Jehovah had its charming moments.  They just weren’t charming enough.

Rating: 2/5.

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