Book Review: A Monk Swimming, by Malachy McCourt

Grade: C+

Dear Malachy,

You are not Frank. So stop it.

All the best,
Mike Kneeland

PS “Your” book was good enough to elicit a C+, but only because as I was reading it, I could not get your brother’s voice out of my head. Even in the parts distinctly about you.


Book Review: A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif

Grade: C-

I probably would have enjoyed this book a lot more had I not just finished re-reading Catch-22. While the plot is entirely original superficially, there are several other aspects that are too similar to Heller’s novel for me to appreciate on their own merit, like the underlying symbolic and plot patterns, not to mention the fact that the main character is in an airforce and that all of the officers above him are absurdly maniacal and of questionable moral fiber (hilarious in Catch-22, souringly unoriginal here).

While I do think this is a good example of a first novel, I must also point out that it is…a good example of a first novel: the prose is fresh and crisp at times, the superficial situations are original, but all of the main ideas (and everything else between the covers) is old news.

I am sure I will eventually come to enjoy Mohammed Hanif as an author as he strengthens his writing style and becomes more unique and original, so I will most likely try re-reading Mangoes later on down the line. Hopefully when that time comes, the taste in my mouth will not be nearly as sour as it is now.

Book Review: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

Grade: A+

A “new classic” that puts an hilarious postmodern spin on war. Published in the era of gung-ho GI-Joe John Wayne war movies, Catch-22 showcases the utter absurdity of war and, relentlessly, the hierarchy of the armed forces. Not that this book diminishes those serving in the armed forces–by any means–but merely points out how ridiculous the whole “business” of war is.

The titular Catch-22? The main character, a pilot named Yossarian, wants to leave the air force, but he can’t because his colonel keeps upping the number of flights required for honorable discharge. The only other way to be discharged is to be declared insane. But if Yossarian shows that he is insane (or pretends to be), but does not say anything, the superiors won’t declare him insane. On the other hand, if he does say something, that is proof enough that he is not, in fact, insane, so he can’t get out that way, either. Hence, the Catch-22.

Some parts of this novel will leave you rolling on the floor with laughter while others are so poignant that they’ll stick with you. Highly recommended if you were never required to read it in high school or college, and then still recommended anyway–sometimes books are infinitely more enjoyable when they don’t have the “required reading” label attached to them.

Book Review: The Secret History of the World, by Mark Booth

Grade: F

By gum, do I love a good conspiracy theory. I simply devoured all of those stories surrounding the Illuminati and the Knights Templar and Christ’s ostensible lineage when Dan Brown went a step beyond the scholars a few years back and broke them out into mainstream thought. Thus, I picked up Mark Booth’s book, The Secret History of the World, thinking, “Zounds! More conspiracy theories!” Unfortunately, I finished the book thinking, “Whatever, man.”

There are two main problems with this book: first of all, despite the fact Mr. Booth purports in the preface that his ideas will be new and shocking to the general public since they were [allegedly] given to him by someone within one of the “secret societies” mentioned in the subtitle, the ideas are shockingly unoriginal. Mr. Booth’s work is just a hashed expose on the Freemasons and other such groups that explains (for the 4,000,000,000th time) how they have been secretly setting history in motion for centuries upon centuries and control the major powers-that-be…I mean come on! Even The Simpsons acknowledged that, and I believe the episode I’m thinking of first appeared way back in the mid-1990s!

The other main problem with this book is that Mr. Booth does not cite one of his sources in his text. Sure, he includes a pretty lengthy “bibliography” (essentially just a glorified reading list of the other 4,000,000,000 places where you can read Mr. Booth’s “shocking” ideas), but there are no real sources anywhere, no real indication that he actually conducted any research of any kind. In fact, for all we know, he only read Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Code before writing his book. And Dan Brown can churn out an infinitely better yarn (and I don’t even count Dan Brown as being much original–that should give you some indication of just how unoriginal The Secret History of the World is). Had he just given some indication–even the smallest amount–of any kind of research, I would at least be able to count this book as being well-researched and could honestly say that Mr. Booth is capable of getting you to learn something new.

Instead, he comes off seeming something like the Kitty Kelley of the history world.


Book Review: The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

The Once and Future King

Grade: A

For the most part, this novel–well, collection of novels, in truth–is simply a work of genius. Many great lines (too many to quote from memory just now, but suffice to say they were all ravenously devoured by the jaded peacenik that is me), many wondrous adventures, many touching moments, and many, many pages.

I was disappointed to learn that the Wizard’s Duel between Merlyn and “Mad, Mad” Madame Mim was cut out of this version of TOaFK (I heart acronyms, just about as much as I heart anachronisms, which are delightfully peppered throughout the novel, particularly the earlier segments, mostly appearing because of the clever characterization that has Merlyn living “backwards in time,” meaning he is growing younger as Arthur grows older). For some reason, someone (T.H. White? Editors? I know not…I’m too tired to Google it right now) decided Mim doesn’t fit in the story, so they cut her out. Oh well, at least she lives on in the Disney movie, which is good but in retrospect doesn’t really do the novel The Sword in the Stone justice at all, since the book is very much an anti-war treatise and the movie is, well, a Disney movie.

Also, I was disappointed to find that the later segments of TOaFK tend to drag and do not usually retain the pace of the earlier segments and therefore require a much longer attention span, something I don’t usually like to pull out for summer reading. But still, as long-winded as the latter sections can be, they are still chock-full of typical T.H. White insights and anti-war sentiment, both of which I heartily cherish. Most moving in particular is Arthur’s obligatory death scene (or dying scene actually, as he doesn’t actually die “on camera”), which I wasn’t expecting to be so emotional. But it makes sense, I guess, that after you’ve stuck with a character for so many pages, from childhood through late adulthood, through trials and tribulations, through adultery and deceit, that you develop an emotional attachment to him or her.

Perhaps that is what I liked best about the novel, actually: getting to see a colorful illustration of the life and death (or dying) of a character so deeply embedded in Western culture and traditions that practically everyone in Europe and the U.S. knows who he is, a character who I, at least, have known and loved my entire life.

I heard it through the grapevine that they’re trying to make a film adaptation–a new and supposedly complete film adaptation, that is–of TOaFK. I only hope that they keep in the anti-war sentiment and hilarious anachronisms and avoid the “bibbiddy-bobbeddy-boo”-ness that can so easily be put into–and consequently water down and belabor–an adaptation like this. The best film adaptations stick to the heart of the original story, and if Hollywood can do that with TOaFK, then oh, what a heart this adaptation will have.

Book Review: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Grade: A+

Occasionally, you will read a novel that offers you new ideas about what a novel can actually do, how point of view and voice can be used differently but powerfully, and how characters can be developed to such an extent that they seem more human than those we come into contact with each day. This seems to be the case with Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel, The Book Thief. I first read it on a recommendation from a librarian friend, and now find myself talking about it at great length to anyone who will listen (if you listen closely, you can hear my students start to groan…until they start reading it, that is). With any luck, I’ll get it on my reading list at the school I teach at by next year. It’s that kind of good.

The novel centers around the experiences of a young girl in World War II-era Germany. Contrary to my initial prediction, the girl, Liesel, is not Jewish but instead the orphaned daughter of two communist parents who were ostensibly murdered when finally caught by the Nazis. In any event, they never appear, which becomes painfully obvious during one particularly heartwrenching episode. Liesel spends most of the novel in the home of two poor but well-meaning foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who are patriotic enough not to be arrested, but dissenting enough that Hans has been refused admission to the Nazi party. Thus, through Liesel and the Hubermanns, we get a point of view of Nazi Germany to which we’re not readily accustomed: not of the depraved and defiled victims of the Holocaust, nor of the gung-ho fundamentalist “Heil-Hiterl!”ing-every-five-seconds Nazis; but instead of those we rarely if ever hear from, those caught in the uncomfortable and inescapable middle.

Oh, and the narrator.

Zusak manages (ingeniously, I should add) to blend first- and third-person omniscient narrators by making his Death (with a capital “D,” as in the Grim Reaper), an intriguing if not entirely surprising choice given the novel’s setting. Through Death, we not only get Liesel’s thoughts, feelings, and actions ( as well as those of the others who come into the tale on occasion) but also his own: we get to see just how much he hates his job and yet simultaneously sees the necessity of it; we see how he reacts when he comes to collect his quarry (positively tear inducing, as in a sequence near the beginning when he describes what it was like to have to collect the small, limp, and sickly body of Liesel’s younger brother); and we get to know some of his curious personality traits (would you ever think that Death would be obsessed with–of all things!–colors?). Zusak’s choice of narrator is at once utterly risky and entirely genious–after all, we could have been stuck with a morose and altogether boring narrator. Instead, we have a perfectly round character who seamlessly melds the first- and third-person point of view.

Novelists can have a nasty tendency to develop one or two main characters and leave the rest flat and uninteresting (case in point: essentially anything by the Clive Cussler’s and Jackie Collins’ of the contemporary scene–they fail to realize that people, not just plot, are interesting; unfortunately, many readers these days fail to realize this too). Zusak seems to suppress this urge however and manages to give us an entire cast of characters–including primary, secondary, and even tertiary characters–who are all very round and therefore very interesting. Take, for instance, the hunched-over old man named Pfiffikus, who at first seems to just be a cranky, foul-mouthed old codger but who we eventually find to be genuinely proud of his heritage. Then there is the Mayor’s wide, who appears at first to be a paper-thin cutout of a character until we learn the reason for her projected flatness of character. And we could also discuss Tommy Mueller, a boy from the Hubermann’s street who had so many ear infections (and operations on these ear infections) as a younger child that he has since been left with scars and an ever-present twitch.

Think that’s a lot of information about a few characters? Here’s the kicker: Pfiffikus, the Mayor’s wife, and Tommy Mueller are not even main characters! But they were developed believably and interestingly enough so it seems they are, or should be.

This does not by any means imply that the main characters are boring stereotypes: they, too, are strikingly believable, and when the novel is finished, you genuinely feel as though they are people you know (or knew) from your own experiences. That is one of the most glorious aspects of this novel and–when it topples over its devastating denouement–one of the most tragic.

I have gone to great pains in this review to avoid giving away too much of the plot because seeing what unfolds for these people you feel you know is another of the novel’s glorious aspects. However, the plot is perhaps the weakest link in the novel’s chain. The book is by no means predictable, but the only really eye-opening and fist-slamming-on-the-table event comes at the novel’s aforementioned denouement. The rest of the plot does seem to drag a bit in places, but I suppose this comes naturally in the balance when you have such juicy and unforgettable characterization. Actually, that the plot is as good as it is with fantastic characterization like we are presented with is something of a miracle.

In the year to come, this novel will rest on top of professors’ shelves and “Best” lists alongside the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses, and Great Expectations. Certainly, you will be hard pressed to find a novel of this caliber much of anywhere on the current scene. Do yourself a favor: eschew The Book Thief‘s “YA” label and read it like the classic novel is already stands out as.

Play Review: Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot

Grade: A

As a pretentious senior in high school, I thought I would be uber-sheik and take a girl I had a crush on to a play, Waiting for Godot, which I had read in the Comedy, Wit, and Satire English elective that I took the previous year with my favorite high school English teacher, Dr. Stone. How I got the tickets is inconsequential (okay, okay: my dad won them from the radio; my uber-sheik persona just took a big hit), but suffice to say, my crush and I were the youngest members in the crowd. Fortunately for me, my crush was also somewhat pretentious (though not nearly as much as myself), so the evening was not an entire bust.

About fifteen minutes into the show, my memory finally overpowered my hormones and I remembered what Waiting for Godot actually is: a philosophical piece, more for discussion afterwards than for immediate enjoyment. I silently berated myself; after all, how could I possibly make a move during Wait for Godot? I mean…it was WAITING FOR GODOT, for crying out loud! There is not one female role in the entire play, and the closest thing to a romantic relationship we get is between the two lead male characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who bicker, joke, hug, and so on as though they are a married couple. Oh well, no romance for me that evening, but at the very least, I retained my decidedly cool, uber-sheik persona.

Well, I guess “cool” is a subjective term.

In any event, in the years since my botched date, I have come to sincerely appreciate Godot. The play is almost literally about nothing (ahead of Seinfeld by more than a few decades) as it depicts the two men mentioned earlier just sitting (or standing, or dancing, etc.) around as they wait for a man named Godot (who, incidentally, never arrives). Other characters arrive from time to time, but that’s about it for the main action. So how has this been interpreted so many different ways?

Well, you could say it is the lack of action that speaks to us. Or perhaps it’s simply the kooky, wordy dialogue. Or maybe it’s the complex, desperate characterization. Or it could also possibly be its minimalist approach to theater. Or, to be sure, it’s a combination of all these things. Whatever it is, political, social, cultural, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Biblical, and even gay theorists have all written volumes about what Godot means, or if it even means anything at all, or if that even matters one way or the other. I like that about works of literature like this: you can’t pin any “meaning” down in one place (as you ostensibly can with, say, The Chronicles of Narnia). Not only does it keep you, the reader (or audience member) thinking long after the work is over, but it ensures the author some amount of immortality. It’s like James Joyce once said (and incidentally, Joyce employed Beckett as his personal secretary for a time): “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it [Ulysses] will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

A girl I used to work with tried to convince me that “Godot” is pronounced “God-ott.” Despite my rebuttals that Beckett had originally written the play in French–which would mean “Godot” would be pronounced with the French -ot ending as “oh”–she violently proclaimed that it was “God-ott,” which she learned from her favorite theater professor, who had supposedly heard this from Beckett himself while they shared a drink in a bar. Whatever. I guess this just goes to prove my point that just about everything in this play is open to interpretation, whether it’s the overall meaning, or the simple pronunciation of a word.

But still, it’s “God-oh.”

Book Review: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying

Grade: A

At the beginning of my junior year of high school, I found myself in an elective English class called, “Comedy, Wit, and Satire,” which was taught by the venerable Dr. Stone (without a doubt, my inspiration for becoming an English teacher). At the end of my sophomore year, on “step-up day” (where all students, save seniors, take a quick run-through of their courses for the next year), Dr. Stone gave us a set of books to choose from to read over the summer and write a review of. I looked at the set of books, which comprised everything from The Hobbit to Catch-22. I happened to see a book with the picture of an apparently dead woman lying within a tattered old box, her face disclosed through a grimy, cobweb-encrusted window pane. “Well this looks strange,” I thought, and picked it up.

I had no idea what I was in for.

While I was probably too young to appreciate the finer points of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying did introduce me to the dumbfounding world of experimental (or, at least, non-traditional) writing. The novel is told from no fewer than fifteen points of view–including that of the dead Addie Bundren–and makes frequent use of the stream-of-consciousness writing technique, something that only baffled me at the time (it wasn’t until college, upon reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that I truly understood the technique). Still, I was able to discern the basics: the Bundrens honor dead matriarch Addie’s wish to be buried on the other side of Yoknapatawpha County, so they load her (and her casket, of course) into a cart and haul her there. But like all stories with journeys, the importance is not the destination, but the trip itself. Along the way, we learn all the personalities and problems inherent in the Bundren family. I suppose this did teach the 16-year-old Michael Kneeland that novels didn’t have to be about adventures or romance or tragedy, but could simply be about characters. Of course, since then I have come to realize that the “character novel” gives us perhaps the most clear depiction of life as we know it; thanks to Dr. Stone, I was introduced to this idea earlier than most.

Faulkner still seems daunting to most people–despite Oprah’s endorsement–but As I Lay Dying, despite its experimental writing style, is probably among Faulkner’s most accessible novels. It was certainly accessible enough for a pretentious 16-year-old, anyway, and has remained my favorite Faulkner piece.

Book Review: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist

Grade: A

I have always loved a good journey story.

The pattern is quite simple: a hero discovers some motive to leave the comforts of his home, embarks on a journey to satisfy the motive, and then returns home, possibly finding whatever it is he is looking for, though not necessarily. The real reason for the journey is, of course, not the proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow, but instead the journey itself. These stories are all about what the hero learns along the way.

Paulo Coelho’s short novel, The Alchemist, is a fine example of the journey pattern. Santiago, a young shepherd boy in Andalusia, has a dream one night about a treasure located somewhere near the Pyramids. He consults a gypsy to explain the dream, and is told to follow his dream and go to Egypt. So, he sells his flock and heads south across the Mediterranean to northern Africa. When he arrives, however, a thief steals all his money, and he is forced to work at a crystal shop for about a year, during which time he learns some vital lessons about life from the shopkeeper and the locals. Finally he is able to continue on his journey across the Sahara, where he encounters a series of fantastic adventures and eventually meets the love of his life, Fatima. He finally arrives at the Pyramids, but by the time he gets there, we realize that’s not really the point and ultimately, so does Santiago.

The Alchemist is simple, straightforward, and heartwarming. It does not sink to the level of melodrama, nor does it get lost in the marvelous realm of the fantastic. Instead, Coelho keeps his short little fable right on track, offering endearing insights about life and love along the way.

Book Review: The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient

Grade: A+

When I first experienced this novel, I was a freshman in college. My grades had been poor because the journalism major I had thought I wanted to pursue turned out to just be a series of courses on how to write with hot air and the unnecessary rules that bind that style of writing–it was clear that Hunter S. Thompson had made no impression on the School of Journalism at the University of Maine. I was far too depressed and listless to make any real attempt at passing those journalism courses, and the few English classes I was taking were “core” classes and so crammed lots of Shakespeare down my throat (despite my current infatuation with the Bard, I was then much too restless to appreciate the finer qualities of his plays).

And then, Professor Norris assigned us The English Patient.

I remember thinking within the first few pages of reading how bizarre the novel seemed to be. After all, the tense shifts frequently back and forth from present to past in an apparently random fashion. The setting jumps all over the place, from an abandoned Italian monastery towards the end of World War II to a cartographers’ camp outside of Cairo, and so on. And yet, it was clear to me by the time I finished that, despite the apparent randomness of the technical aspects of the novel, no other novel had ever left such a definite and lucid impression on me. I truly knew the characters, how they thought, how they acted, and how they interacted with one another. The plot, while it seemed difficult to follow at first, was not only understandable by the end but moreover heartrending and tragic. I had no idea that novels could do this, be so disjointed and yet singularly impressive and evocative. Needless to say, my faith in literature was completely renewed after reading The English Patient, and while it is perhaps not the best example of the novel (remember, this was years before I first encountered Ulysses), it nevertheless showed me the infinite possibilities of the narrative form.

Indulge me for a moment to divulge a bit more about the novel itself:

The characters in the novel are among those from literature I will remember and cherish as long as my memory remains intact. There is Hana, the young Canadian nurse who is clearly suffering from PTSD (for many things experienced during the War, including the death of her father, a pilot who was shot down) and is trying to make it right by caring for someone who will remain alive. There is Almasy–the titular patient–who we first encounter as a mysterious burn victim, a man pulled from the wreckage of a crashed plane (as Hana’s father would have been had he survived…), but who we later learn is a much, much more complex character. There is Caravaggio, the Canadian thief (and apparent friend of Hana’s father) and sometime secret agent who is now mysteriously missing both of his thumbs. And there is Kip, the Sikh sapper who has joined the British Army in an attempt to show his loyalty to the British Empire and assimilate himself into it, despite protests from his anti-Imperialist brother.

And these are only the characters we meet in the “present” time of the novel, that is, the end of World War II. I have said nothing of Katharine, around whom Almasy’s stories and memories constantly revolve, or Geoffrey Clifton, Katharine’s husband, who becomes an obvious obstacle for Almasy (though the author, Michael Ondaatje, never allows his narrative to sink to the level of a soap opera). These characters live only in the memory of the novel, and we never see them in the “present.”

The reason we never see them in the present is one of the reasons why the novel’s plot is so heartrending. I will say nothing of what happens, except to say that if you have seen the equally wonderful–but incredibly different–Academy Award-winning film adaptation, you only know half of the story. There is so much more going on in the novel, things that cannot be fully translated to the screen because they are expressed in such a dreamlike and poetic fashion.

Michael Ondaatje is one of the contemporary authors I admire most. He follows the “rules” of novel-writing, but only until they hamper his ideas, at which point he bends them or ignores them altogether. He seamlessly blends poetry and prose and is therefore able to touch emotions that most other novelists completely ignore. Undoubtedly, it is for these reasons that I found The English Patient so refreshing back in the spring of 2001, and why I have since returned to it time and time again.