Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl


I don't read a ton of mysteries, but the literary snob in me was attracted to The Dante Club. It's not because I'm a huge Dante fan -- read Blake in college instead -- but rather the presence of a few American literati.

The story takes place following the Civil War, in Boston, mostly near Harvard University. The literary scholars, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell were all real Dante aficionados, and J.T. Fields was the real publisher. They've come together, forming the Dante Club, to translate Dante's Inferno into English for the first time.

What's surprising is how resistant the Harvard leadership is to their project. They don't feel the Italian authors are worth learning, that this translation is a waste of time, and it may even have a detrimental impact on American culture. This puts immediate strain on the Dante Club since most of its members have a Harvard connection.

All of this part of the story is real. Then, the (fictional) murders start. Each one is very unique and specific, and suddenly the Dante Club realizes they're imitating the gruesome punishments from the Inferno. This correlation compels the club to use their knowledge to help unravel the mystery of the murders. Naming the murderer Lucifer, they must work fast to figure out who they are and what their motivation is before another death occurs.

Working against the clock, and some local detectives, it's a rush investigation that requires ingenuity and determination, making the mystery thrilling to follow.

This is an exciting and passionate book both in how the characters approach solving the murders and in their desire to translate Dante. Both are massive undertakings, and the juxtaposition of the two is so great to read. This is a very good, very smart, and very unexpected book. I really liked it!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Highfire by Eoin Colfer


Don't think that just because this book is written by the same author as Artemis Fowl, or that this book is about a dragon, that it's a kid's book. It's not. There's too many bloody body parts, explosions, and talk of balls for that. But, it is a book about a dragon, and it's so much fun to read.

Vern, aka Lord Highfire, may be the last dragon alive. To ensure his survival, he's holed up in a Louisiana bayou where he can avoid detection and binge-watch as much Netflix as he wants. Did I also mention his love of vodka? 

Vern has the ultimate chill shack, but he's pretty much alone. He might even be a little depressed. Either way, he's totally unprepared when his world goes pear-shaped.

When Vern's uniquely-gifted familiar needs a break, the one thing happens that Vern swore never would -- he's relying on an actual human for help. Teenaged Squib works hard for Mr. Vern, only putting his foot in his mouth about once per visit. They're not a stereotypical odd couple, but they definitely don't hit it off right away. Squib also comes with this own baggage, which complicates things quickly. Squib is the sole witness to the local, dirty constable getting into some serious law breaking. Being suspected by the crooked cop doesn't make you the safest choice to work, in secret, with a dragon.

The relationship between Vern and Squib grows. The devotion they feel toward each other eventually saves them when rouge Constable Hooke discovers them. Hooke doesn't want a dragon interfering with this criminal activities along the bayou. He'll stop at nothing to win. It's a ruthless and bloody battle for survival, tinged with crocs and fire, explosions and bullets. It's amazing how resilient both humans and dragons can be. It's also intense and fun to see them go at each other.

I really did enjoy this book. I needed something light and fantastical, but Colfer does an amazing job of keeping things rooted in reality. He took a crime story and inserted a dragon rather than going the other way around. You could almost picture Vern, walking about only a little taller than a human, in cargo shorts and a Flashdance t-shirt, trying to keep his wings neatly folded for discretion. Each character is clearly painted and styled in a way that propels the story forward and keeps you interested as a reader. This is a great, light book.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

March by Geraldine Brooks

Second book club book #12

I have to start this review by saying this is a very well-written book. I loved how fully developed all the characters were as well as the turns the story took. We see iconic characters with flaws, and that's often what makes them more interesting. Maybe, what I don't like, which I'll get into, is purely circumstantial to the time period. Maybe the things that bug me about these versions of the Marches were inevitable based on the setting. Who's to say.

I will tell you that I wanted to love this story like I love Little Women. I wanted to feel on equal footing with this portion of the March family's story as I did when Alcott wrote about them.

I didn't.

There was something about March I couldn't get passed to like him. We meet him after he's been deployed as a chaplain in the Civil War. Through his letters home, and his reveries, we learn about his youth, how he starts out in the world, and his eventual meeting of Marmee. Surrounded by the Concord elite like Emerson and Thoreau, March's life begins rather well. One bad investments sends him into poverty and the situation the family is in throughout Little Women. March then volunteers to go into the war. He's too old to really be a soldier, but he wants to go to be there for the boys. His experiences while in the service eventually become his torment.

Meanwhile, we also get to see a more youthful version of Marmee. Her determined devotion to what's right, her nose for injustice, and her hot temper are on full display. It's this last trait that March strives to get under control after they marry, and it's all around awkward. She doesn't strike me as a character willing to be controlled, and March doesn't seem like the kind of guy to lean so strongly into convention. But, he does, and it's weird. 

Additionally, there's Grace. She's the only other prominent character throughout the book. She's a domestic slave, raised within the home of a wealthy Southerner. March comes into contact with her multiple times in the story. She always seems to know more than everyone else, to push situations to the right outcome. She's the reality of the time period, but it was almost too convenient to wrap all that up within a single person.

Characters aside, this book touches on the horror of slavery and the Civil War beautifully. By making it small, focusing on one person in one spot, emotions feel heightened. The reader feels connected. The pain is more clearly felt. It was powerful, and I loved that aspect of the story. This was such a tragic period in history for so many reasons, and Little Women always glossed over it since that story took place away from the war. Giving the March family this added dimension was good.

I'm honestly on the fence about this book. I did like parts of it, but its downfall might have been that it used familiar characters, making it harder to appreciate for what it was. I do recommend this book, but for those who love Alcott, take it with a grain of salt. It's a different Marmee and an uncomfortable Mr. March.


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life by Ali Wong

Authenticity, bravery, and a willingness to just put it all out there. These are tips a comedian could really take to heart. Turns out, they're also what Ali Wong hopes her daughters will learn from reading the series of letters in this book. I have faith they'll get it, eventually.

I'm a fan of Ali Wong. Her stand-up specials (on Netflix) are great. Watching them during the pandemic gave me an opportunity to laugh when those moments were hard to find. A little too transparent for some, I personally think that discomfort is good to feel. She talks about what she wants to talk about. I believe it's her way of getting to the real truths of life. These letters are no different. I'm sure her daughters will one day yell, "TMI!!!!," as they read this book, but then, they'll nod, laugh, and feel thankful their mom had some sage wisdom waiting.

I also admire all that this book gets into. The letters embrace her Asian heritage rather than attempting to Americanize her life. She also doesn't shy away from showing "us" our shortcomings in how we talk to female comedians or celebrity moms. You don't refer to a male comedian as a "male comedian," and yet she came up having her gender constantly be a part of her professional title. You don't often ask fathers what it's like juggling parenthood and a career, but how quick are people to toss that question out to a mom? Ali has your number. Watch out if she turns you into fresh material.

This book observed so many things I didn't notice I'd seen too. It helped explain them with the kind of grave honestly and brutal detail that resonates. It was an enjoyable and personal read culminating in the most wonderful letter written by Ali's husband. To see her story from her perspective, and then his, deeply illustrated what a loving relationship can be. I hope that inspires Ali's girls (and the readers) most of all.