Review of Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’

I have just finished reading Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’. I love his vocabulary, the use of words, and the images he evokes. It is soaring languages in places, but it is also a dirty, squalid book, reveling in pornography and filth. I remember a university professor describing Ben Johnson as documenting a pub crawl across England. In ‘Tropic of Cancer’, Miller documents a slither through the whorehouses and the cheap side of the arrondissements of Paris. He likes to use the ‘C’ word, and the ‘N’ word, for their shock value. But it gets old, and soon I have an image of a three-year-old who realizes saying ‘Fuck’ will get him all kinds of attention. I would say there is some adolescent qualities to Cancer, but Miller was forty-three when it was published. But it is a version of a Peter Pan story, or at least an American Peter character, refusing to grow up.
At two-thirds through the book, I was still trying to discern a story or a character arc. I don’t think the main character, Miller, grows at all.
It is interesting to read Anais Nin’s ‘Henry and June’, to get a different perspective on some of the same time period. Nin clearly calls out the need for emotion connectivity.
Other reviewers have labeled Miller amoral. George Orwell said ‘and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses’.
And a modern reader will pause over his treatment of women. They are the C word to Miller, not much more. Or Madona’s to be worshipped. Mona and Tania, who I understand are his wife June and Anais Nin, are idolized, but not presented as full genuine characters.
Miller observes, but never connects. There are no relationships beyond drinking buddies. It is funny that I have read Miller critique DH Lawrence as too intellectual, but Miller’s prose is all in the head or the groin, there is no connection to the heart. They copulate, but they don’t know passion or love.

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December 6, 2021
Review of Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’
ISBN-10 0-8021-3178-6

Book review of ‘Finding the Mother Tree’

‘Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest’, by Suzanne Simard
ISBN 9780735237759

This is a well-written book. I liked the opening, a simple declaration: ‘For generations, my family has made its living cutting down trees’. I can imagine Green Party environmentalists and tree huggers recoiling in horror. So Dr. Simard comes clean on her background and level sets. That gives the book a middle-of-the-road reasonableness that makes it accessible. I read this as a North Vancouver City library book club selection and feared it was another Naomi Klein Social Justice Warrior kook tome. It is not.
It is written as a mystery. Why are these young seedlings not growing and thriving? That mystery pulls the reader into the book.
I have a writing quote by Kurt Vonnegut I like: ‘Find a subject you care about and which in your heart you feel others should care about. It is the genuine caring… which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.’ Dr. Simard cares.
I did a year of University science before lateraling to night school and an English major, so I do have a basic science background. Even so, I did struggle with this book at points. The biological terms for species, the Latin ‘mycorrhizas’ and ‘mycorrhiza’ , understanding how the different fungi look and functions boggled me a bit. I would have liked a short tutorial to come up to speed. I almost quit reading, but persevered, and am glad I did. I encourage all readers to do the same.
Simard shares personal history and experiences is a way that is gentle yet honest. Writers are admonished to be honest, as it results in the best writing.
So caring and honesty. Two home runs in one book. Highly recommended.

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Review of ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
ISBN 978-0-593-28610-4
Published 2020

This is a well-written book. I enjoy reading fiction that feels professional and polished. Well thought out, planned and executed. The hard work is nice to see and I admire good writing.
It covers some tough social issues; Family and siblings, Abandonment, Domestic violence, Racism and trauma, Gender and sexuality, poverty, mental illness. Which is good, and not so good. I felt the book was a vehicle to transport these subjects, rather than a novel exploring characters. But it was not preachy. I am still on the fence as to how well it works. This review is my way to work that out.
It covers a long sweep of history, from 1954 to 1986. And the narrative is not in chronological order, so a reader has to be on his toes. Even chapters had some jumps back and forth in time. And there are a number of characters to track as well, which required some effort. A few of times I wasn’t sure who’s POV I was in.
I think my only real knock on the book was ‘Who’s story is this?’ I started assuming Stella and Desiree, but we don’t get as close to either as I would like. Regular readers of my reviews know I love close third person. I want to experience with the characters, I want to know their thoughts and feelings and motivations. But they kept the reader a little distant from them, which is a flaw. And then they drop back and the stories of Jude and Kennedy come forward, bringing in Reese. But there continues to be a distance. I never felt like I really knew any of these characters. The author doesn’t let us get close enough.
There are a couple of coincidences to make the story work, but they didn’t totally jar me out. If anything, I saw the retirement cocktail party coming. But that was trivial.
A few things stretched my belief. Stella becoming a mathematics prof so late in life. How long Jude kept her knowledge from her mother didn’t seem realistic, and they did not explore any motivations for keeping it a secret. Again, this might have been a chance to get closer. A missed opportunity.
This was a good book, and I will probably seek out her earlier novel ‘The Mothers’.

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Review of ‘Aria’ by Nazanine Hozar

Aria by Nazanine Hozar c2019
ISBN 9780345811820

Continuing my series of book reviews for writers, today I tackle someone who lives here in the same city, Vancouver.
As I write this, I am debating whether I should slant my reviews in the hopes that my book, when it is finished, will be more likely to get an excellent review in return. That is how I think so many reviews read, and it is wrong. At least for this series, which is supposed to inform both myself and others about the craft of writing, what a writer does well, and what doesn’t work so well is my honest goal. If anyone thinks, sees or senses that hunt for reciprocals in these reviews, please call it out. Because I know literary circles are not that big, I worry about running into someone whom I give a less than glowing review of their work. But as I always coach writers, Be Brave!
I liked this book, and wanted it to be better. I live in North Vancouver and we have a large Persian community . I have heard Tehran is a beautiful city, deep in history, and this book caught some of that.
Hozar may have been trying to do too much in this novel. The sweep of generations, family, loves, rivalries. The history of religion and Persian nationalism, political repression, Muslim misogyny. The meeting of world religions in the crucible of revolutionary Iran. My thought would be to either add material to do justice to all of these themes or to edit out some and have them become background setting. As is, none were fully fleshed out or well presented. I think a lack of confidence in her voice hobbled the author.
My knock on the book was the narrative distance with the characters. Regular readers of my reviews will know I am a huge fan of close third person. I want to immerse into a story and smell, taste, hear, feel and think like the main characters. I want to experience their world and understand their thoughts and actions. That is the attraction of the novel for me, and that is the bar I set for any novel I read and review.
I wasn’t always sure who’s story this was. I defaulted to Aria, but many actions and scenes had nothing to do with her. And the large cast of characters was hard to keep straight.
But reading the scenes with Aria, Hozar flirts more with a distant omniscient narration. This creates a distance that makes it hard to empathizes with her. I didn’t understand her reasoning at times, because I was watching her rather than experiencing with her. When she threw the boiling water on Mrs.Shirazi, I thought less of her. I never understood what she wanted or needed, and I felt a lack of agency on her part to move the story ahead. When her father died, there was nothing. If she was in love with Hamlet, I never felt that. If she was hurt at losing Mitra or understood how hurt Mitra was, the thought never seemed to cross her mind. And pet peeve, her career aspiration was to be an accountant?!
A good first novel. I think she needs an editor to tell her not to be afraid, not to couch or soften her approach. To show the feelings and thoughts of the characters. Be honest, be brave.

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June 27, 2021

Review of Norman Doidge’s ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing’

Norman Doidge ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity’

I previously read Doidge’s ‘The Brain that changes itself’ and was impressed. I suffered a minor Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) in June 2019, and have a personal stake in understanding and using methods to treat mTBI. Understanding neuroplasticity and learning methods to relearn skills has been a primary goal over the last two years. So I came to this book with high hopes. I was disappointed.
I am writing a series of book reviews for writers, and my focus has been fiction and creative writing, but I see problems here that any writer should know.
The biggest fault with this second book is the length. It needs a good edit. Doidge gives long detailed descriptions of patients, their histories, their personal situations, personalities, lack of progress until they engage with him, and then a long narrative on their progress. The first one or two are informative, but there are too many of them. I skimmed these details, looking for the meat of the theory and treatment.
There are impressive gains happening in the fields of understanding the brain, injuries and illnesses, understanding neuroplasticity, and Doidge captures that well. It is a wonderful time to be a researcher or clinician in this field. And I am sure Dr. Doidge enjoys speaking about his work. But as in Hamlet, brevity is the soul of wit. The author needs to make his point and then move on. If he really thinks much of this narrative is needed, footnotes or an appendix would be a better approach. I ended up skimming the last third.
And my final knock on the book was related to a back cover comment, ‘Doidge uses stories to present innovative science with practical real-world applications, and principles that everyone can apply to improve their brain’s performance and health.’ But it wasn’t so. So much of the treatments involves lasers or a PoNS device that the patient puts on their tongue while doing exercises. I felt much of the book was an advertisement to enroll in paid clinical work, at tens of thousands of dollars. I had echoes of Tom Vu saying ‘Take My Seminar’.

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June 22, 2021
ISBN 9780670025503

Review of American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
ISBN 978-0-06-205988-8

Continuing my series of book reviews for writers, today I tackle someone who is a favourite of many, Neil Gaiman, and his ‘American Gods’.
I wish I could write this well. The language is wonderful, the descriptions are full and satisfying. The word choices and the depth of research are astounding. History and hard work are on display here.
Reading his own comments on this tenth Anniversary edition of ‘American Gods’, I laughed to read that some people love it and some hate it. I don’t fit neatly into either camp, but can see some faults that bothered me.
Almost every writing course I have taken has spoken about character arcs, having the main character (MC) want something, need something, and finally learn something. I don’t get that in Gaiman’s books. The MC seems to just be along for the ride. Richard in ‘Neverwhere’, the boy/man in ‘The Ocean at the end of the Lane’ and Shadow in ‘American Gods’ are passive observers. We don’t know what they want, and they put no active agency into getting it. As a result I read without much involvement. If the characters don’t have much invested, why should the reader?
The second fault I had was with the story. Spoiler alert. Two groups of Gods are fixing to have an epic battle. The suspense builds. Why they are battling is not clear, and the stakes, beyond their lives, is less clear. These Gods don’t seem to have all that much real power over the society, America, they purportedly rule. And who exactly is prodding on the war is not clear. But then, the war doesn’t happen. Return to status quo. Whoa.
There may be too many characters to keep track of, and while I don’t like the cartoon character naming of people, it does help address the large cast.
I felt this book could of had a bit better editing, but famous authors seem to make editors gun shy. Pity. Shadow hung from a tree dying for nine days, during which thoughts and images and history went through his mind, until I was hoping he would just die. Enough.
And then the worst fault, the magic rebirth. If people cannot die, the stakes are reduced to ‘Who cares’. In ‘NeverWhere’ and ‘American Gods’ people die and then magic wand, come back to life. Because I expected Shadow to come back, I wasn’t worried about him dying. Again, a lack of investment by the reader in the character and the story, which weakens the whole thing.
I was looking for some sort of metaphor of this story to American life, but if it is here I missed it. New Gods versus old Gods I sort of got, but this is a mainly rural book, so the push and pull between city and rural is missing, as is the conflict between left and right, Red and Blue. So many issues like race, poverty, guns, religion, abortion, etc, are ripe for discussion if only metaphorically, and with a title like ‘American Gods’, I think that is what I was expecting. Sadly, no.

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Book reviews for Writers : Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
ISBN 0-380-97363-4

Continuing my series of book reviews for writers, I had to confess to a writing buddy recently that I had never read a Neil Gaiman book. How was that possible? He is everywhere and acclaimed and, well, everywhere. I suppose I have just too many books to read, and nobody has ever said to me ‘You need to read this book!’ So, I did a quick Google search and came up with 5 or 6 suggestions. ‘Neverwhere’ jumped out as the novel that seems to have launched Gaiman, so I picked that and dove in.
It is fantasy, and I have read little fantasy since high school. I majored in English Literature at UBC and there wasn’t much on the syllabus. My taste still tends toward literary fiction or non-fiction, or books on the writing craft. I hope I don’t have any arrogance towards genre fiction. I don’t think so.
First impression was the ‘Neverwhere’ was a nice easy read. I didn’t have to take notes, like I did with Aislin Hunter’s ‘The World Before Us’, one of my favourites. It starts fresh, simple and down to earth. Slightly sad sack Richard Mayhew out for drinks before leaving Scotland for London. I have visited London a few times so I felt comfortable with the setting. And, at this point, I didn’t know it was a fantasy story. (I try not to read reviews before reading a book or writing a review myself. I like to capture my fresh opinion.)
Richard was a little milquetoast at first. What does he want and what does he need are questions that come to the reader much later. But fortunately we meet Jessica and Door who know exactly what they want. And we meet a couple of outstanding villains in Mr.Coup and Mr.Vandemar. That Door lands at Richard’s feet as a damsel in distress, and that he reacts in a wonderful manly fashion made me laugh. I recently read Jessica Brody’s ‘Save The Cat! Writes a Novel’, and Gaiman follows her advice to a tee by having Richard save Door. How can we not like him?
“Neverwhere’ is a rollicking tale, set in a weird netherworld underneath London Above. The suspension of disbelief works well, as there is enough actual location and English flavour to give it a grounding, much like the first Harry Potter book, published almost the same year.
The characters, beside Richard who is pretty weak for the first half of the book, are vivid, well presented, and invested in the quest. There is no doubt what Door wants and the stakes are high. Life or death, which is great. The story grabs the reader, pulls them forward, where we engage and want to see what will happen next. As David Maas would say, amp it up. Ask myself ‘So what?’ If they fail to work things out, what is lost?’ Here, everything.
Character, setting, story. At this point I am thinking Gaimann is batting a thousand. I immersed into the book and read it in three days. Fun, entertaining.
But. As I finished and set it down, some of the less significant flaws came out. Character names like Door, Hunter, Islington, Old Bailey, Serpentine, and Anaesthesia and labels for types. Almost cartoon names. There is a set-piece feel to the story. And any larger themes are thin. What happens to Door post action is a mystery, and any kind of personal growth comes only to Richard as an afterthought.
But. It is fantasy and if a reader comes to the story expecting that, I would call this book an enormous success. The basic elements of a great read are all here; Character, Setting, Story. Highly recommended.

May 24, 2021

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Book Reviews for Writers : The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Nguyen
ISBN 978-0-8021-2345-9

Sometimes a writer just doesn’t speak to you. ‘The Sympathizer’ is a best-selling, critically acclaimed book, that I had to force myself to continue. My rule of thumb is to read 50 pages of a novel before giving up, but my pride forced me to keep going. I kept hoping it would get better, but it never did.
A wonderful novel is an immersing experience. A reader becomes the main characters, sees, feels, smells and lives the life of those characters. This is what I expect from a great novel.
But ‘The Sympathizer’ has barriers to the reader immersing into the story. It has taken some time and thought to understand what those barriers are.
A writer is rightly guided to show, not tell. But ‘The Sympathizer’ is a story told. It is written as a confession by an unnamed protagonist to a superior called Man. The unknown name creates an instant distance, and then the format furthers it. I realized it was akin to sitting beside someone in a bar and having them tell me the story. The bar reference works as the principal character is a drunk.
A drunk, a murderer, a borderline pedophile. He forms no attachment to people, uses and discards people, considers himself above us mere mortals. Unreliable narrators can be fun, but there is no joy in this guy. I am not sure I laughed even once during the 400 some pages. Spending four or five hours with such a humorless person is a chore.
But then the fatal flaw appears. I have a quote on my blog page by Theodore Sturgeon, the science-fiction writer, ‘It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.’ And what this writer believes is that he is smarter than you, me, everyone. There is a talking down to the reader that is so off-putting.
What does the character want or need? This is a mental exercise. There is no heart, no emotion, and certainly no love. The writer is not honest enough, cannot get close enough to the character to show us, and so the reader cannot experience his pain. At first I thought, who knows what he wants. Then I thought, who cares. And to read a novel where you don’t care, misses the entire point of reading a novel. I would give it a miss.

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Reviews for Writers of ‘The Code Breaker’

‘The Code Breaker’ by Walter Isaacson
ISBN 978-1-9821-1585-2

I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s ‘The Code Breaker’ yesterday, a book about Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR, gene editing and the life sciences revolution that is happening today. It is a good book, but it could have been a brilliant book.
Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier are two of the most famous scientists in the world right now, and deservedly so. They shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry 2020 and are rock stars. That they are also women leading the science is revolutionary. That aspect is shown, if just.
This book is a tour de force and covers a vast swath of science and scientific history. It reaches back to Nobel prize winners James Watson and Francis Crick for their work on DNA, and the reprehensible treatment of Rosalin Franklin by Watson and Crick. And here Isaacson first injects poor writerly judgment by apologizing for the men.
The book covers the science well. The processes, the organizations and the mustering of resources, the competition between scientists and their teams. But it is weak on the human side.
I don’t know Doudna after reading this book. Her thoughts, feelings, motivations are not shared. Her quirks(and we all have them), her values, her sense of humour. I felt the author liked George Church more and let that feeling show through. Charpentier plays too small a role in the story, and I feel she is an interesting character who could have shone. But Isaacson is poor in presenting people.
I previously read Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs. I started reading that book in awe of what Jobs did, but thinking he was not a nice person or a good man. I left that book with my impression unchanged.
I started reading this book in awe of Doudna, but not knowing much about her personality. I finished the same way.
Isaacson would be well served to read some good fiction with an eye to how the author creates closeness, intimacy even, to great characters. He doesn’t get close to Doudna, so the reader can’t, and it hurts the book.
But he goes further and injects himself into the story. He shows a predisposition to be the moderator, to try to settle contentious issues. He papers over the genuine conflict between Doudna and Feng Zhang, as between Watson, Crick and Franklin. When both Doudna and Zhang are in attendance at future events, do they speak? Is the relationship strained, awkward even? The author is uncomfortable going there, so he doesn’t.
Good writing needs honesty, and I think this author fails on that account. He didn’t want to upset anyone. That gentle vision works in actual life but makes for milquetoast literature. And the book closes by winning a Nobel prize. I expected elation and celebration. Nope. A sad, final missed opportunity.

March 28, 2021, 2021

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Book Review for Writers of ‘Medicine Walk’ by Richard Wagamese

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

I finished reading Richard Wagamese’s ‘Medicine Walk’ yesterday. It is an excellent book, but I found things to criticize, and feel it is not kosher to critique a first nations writer, especially one who has passed away. So I may not post all of my thoughts. But then that might be considered a lie, a pandering, or a sycophantic approach to Canadian literature. I will consider it.
I liked the story. The violence was a little harsh, and this led to my first criticism. The character Eldon drinks, to excess. But the violence almost is set up to give him an excuse. He lost his father to the war. And then he killed his friend Jimmy on the battlefield of Korea. And so he drank. And then he couldn’t take the pressure of being a father, so he drank. And his wife died in childbirth, because he was drinking, so he drank some more. Excuses. Good excuses, but excuses none the less.
The lack of education and the glorifying of it. I wished that Frank had been a little more intelligent, a little more articulate, a little more relate-able. I had trouble empathizing with him. I am a fan of close third person narrative where the reader comes to experience the characters feelings. Frank is the ‘strong silent’ type and doesn’t let the reader close. He was a bit of a cold pill. Sad.
And the scenes where his father described meeting and falling in love with his mother, I felt, were off. The narrator in those parts is not Eldon, it is someone much more erudite, much more articulate and educated and well spoken. I think we should have seen the struggle of Eldon to put those scenes into words. But Wagamese gave Eldon a voice he did not have. It bumped me out of the narrative. As did the explicit sex, I couldn’t see a father talking to his son about sex with his mother that way. I think he should have taken more time to explore the love angle, and less on the sex.
Here I thought a reading of Tolstoy would help the author describe love, as Anna and Vronski’s love was described. But a comparison to ‘Anna Karenina’ might be an unfair one.
For some reason, the descriptions of fishing bothered me. He made it sound too easy to catch trout and lost the sense of authenticity. Putting a baited line in the water and coming back in the morning to fresh trout doesn’t match my experience with trout fishing. But that is a minor quibble.
It is a beautifully written book and the descriptions are wonderful. I could see the forests, the mountains and streams. I did laugh at one spot where Frank looks over the valley and sees a deer, and an eagle, and a bear at the same time. That was so improbable to make me laugh.
And the lack of laughter and fun. Some simple joy. I think the book could use some of that.
The lack of appreciation of education I felt. Why did the old man not encourage Frank in learning and reading? And how did one man run a farm and raise a baby? I found that hard to believe.
So, my review here is veering towards harsh. Should I tone it down? It would not be politically correct in Canada right now. To hell with it, honesty is best, especially for writers learning to write, and that is who I write these critiques for.
March 7, 2021, 2021

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Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

ISBN 978-0-7710-8921-3