A-schaef’s #CBR4 Review #06: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Buy this book. Read it. It’s short, it’s not tough to read, and it is absolutely god damn magnificent. I don’t think I’ve loved a book this much since the first time I read Never Let Me Go. It’s just beautiful, and absolutely deserving of the Man Booker Prize it was awarded.

The Sense of an Ending follows Tony Webster. In school, he and his two friends eventually adopt a new student named Adrian into their group. They grow up and they all ship out to different universities. Tony dates a pretty girl named Veronica, they all eventually lose touch with each other. Much later in his life, Tony finds all of these memories drudged up again in a strange encounter with his past.

Tony Webster is one of the most interesting narrators I can remember reading. He is unreliable, but not because he means to lie to the reader. The book is about the ways that memory can be ignored and shaped over the years, and we see his memories take shape and mature into what we can assume actually happened. He also has a desire to understand every moment, and it comes through sometimes when he’s successful. These occasional reminders of the pathos behind his actions force us to see it when he doesn’t point it out.

The supporting characters are few in this book. Almost all of the story happens between an integral 7 or 8 people, and we don’t learn a great deal about any of them. As an alternative to great exposition, these characters come through with a great vividness that works instead. It’s not that they’re shallow archetypes, they just make a swift and indelible mark and then, just as easily, leave the story. It makes for an interesting break from first-person narrators who have uncanny understanding of people’s lives. Tony doesn’t know the complete history of these people any more than you know every event of somebody you know.

All in all, this is a stunningly good book. If you have even the slightest interest in stories of this style, you would be doing yourself a great disservice by not reading it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A-Schaef’s #CBR4 Review #05: After Magritte by Tom Stoppard

I picked this up right after I typed my review for Juliet, Naked, partly because it was a very thin volume. 45 minutes later, I had finished it, but I am still a little bit confused as to what this play was about. I mean, there is an insane detective named Inspector Foot, and some wonderful dialogue sprung up from his name that almost reminded me of Arrested Development. Foot is investigating the home of Harris and Thelma, because he believes they have done something horrible to a member of a minstrel show’s company. I honestly can’t describe the rest of it.

There must be some key to understanding the goings-on in this book. If there’s no little piece of information that I’m missing, I’m afraid I’m just insane. Because the absolute nonsense is almost all I can remember. The house only has one lightbulb, for reasons unexplained, Harris forgets that his mother is not actually Thelma’s mother, and so on. I can only imagine that watching it in person would at least add a kind of visual art to everything onstage. At an already very slim 38 pages of text, this was at least three quarters stage directions. There was so much movement and chaos in this show that it must be gorgeous on stage. It has to be, because I don’t understand why else Tom Stoppard would depart from the usual majesty of his work to write this.

All complaints about complete and utter chaos aside, this is a Stoppard play, and the dialogue will always be a step up from the norm. Characters will spout beautiful poetry that makes perfect sense out of their mouths, and the complexities of the English language will always get some attention when a play on words causes confusion. My favourite line in the play is the aforementioned play on Foot, when Harris says “Is there something wrong with your foot, Foot? Inspector, foot?” Stoppard has always treated the language like a playground, and the results are no less effective here than in his better known works.

I honestly don’t know if I can recommend this book or not. I guess if you’re really interested in imagining the whole thing unfold, it would be worth reading. If you’re approaching it for the dense and beautiful comedy Stoppard is known for, just go re-read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It’s certainly still my favourite Stoppard. But The Coast of Utopia is on the bookshelf, waiting to be read later this year. So we’ll see what happens.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A-Schaef’s #CBR4 Review #04: Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

I am a great fan of Nick Hornby. I once told a girlfriend that reading High Fidelity would give her all the secrets to the way I think. I really find myself in Hornby’s insecure, culturally-aware, reasonably pretentious protagonists. I think a lot of people feel the same way. To me, that’s one of the magical things about his writing. He can tell a story about a middle-aged woman in coastal England who is dying to have a baby and meets a bygone rock star that her ex-boyfriend obsessed over and I can still find myself in her words with no trouble.

The prose in Juliet is some of the nicest I’ve read in a long time. I say nice because he doesn’t go into long, poetic phrases like Oscar Wilde, but it’s perfectly suited to the story being told. It’s very casual in its wording, yet will dip into the deeper meanings of the things going on almost seamlessly. The book loses a lot of the goodwill when it tries to take advantage of its modern setting and uses an internet message board format, but it’d not distracting enough that I would lose my affinity for the rest of the story.

The characters in this book feel so familiar right away that there is really very little time spent in idle exposition. We meet the characters and immediately see them as the people they’ve known all their lives see them. Even a character who is purposefully wrapped in mystery for most of the story comes into it feeling like an old boot or some other worn-out cliche for familiarity. They just enter the story, scars and all, and we get to see them grow, knowing everything about who they already are.

My one major gripe here is that the man does not know how to end a novel. Even High Fidelity, which would rate in my top 5 favourite books of all time, had an ending that left me unsatisfied and frustrated. Juliet‘s ending isn’t even just frustrating. It barely ends. The last words of the book are a punchline at the expense of one of the main characters. It seems disrespectful to the character, and to the reader who has developed a love for the characters in the story.

I would still recommend the book, even though I was frustrated by it. Just don’t come crying to me when you don’t like the ending.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A-schaef’s #CBR4 Review #03: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I once developed a theory that I still hold as true: anybody who has not seen The Princess Bride is probably a broken, empty shell of a human being, but they’re just not aware of that fact yet. That movie is simply one of the most easy to love things ever put to film. Knowledge of my love for it is quite well known among my loved ones, and it led to me receiving the book as a present this year. I am telling you this because it is literally impossible for me to review this as an independent piece. The movie is so ingrained in all of my pop culture awareness that I can not ignore its existence, and it’s not so completely awful for me to compare them if we consider that William Goldman also wrote the screenplay for the film.

All of that aside, this is a good book. It’s not as perfect as I perceive the movie to be, however, and that irked away at me for all the time I spent reading it. The real magic of these characters is how they managed to be so good-natured and funny in the face of what happens to them. I get the feeling that this is what Goldman was aiming for, but couldn’t give them the necessary context in prose to show what he was trying to. For example, there is a classic scene where Inigo and Vizzini lean over the cliff and Vizzini shouts “inconceivable!” to be matched with Inigo’s almost halfwitted “you keep on using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.” It’s one of my favourite moments in the whole movie, and the exact line happens in the book, but instead of the dry, joking delivery, Inigo turns to Vizzini and screams it in his face. It’s an off-putting moment, and one that confused me a lot.

I will try to stop my whining here and admit that the book did a few things even better than the movie. For example, we get backstories for the band of criminals. We learn about Inigo’s father and we relate more with his goal of avenging him. We receive a heartbreaking backstory for Fezzik, who was my favourite character by miles in the book. The whole mythology of the world is created seamlessly and from the viewpoint of a wonderfully whimsical omnipotent being. It makes the read very immersive and very fun.

This book is probably even better than I’m giving it credit for. I have no choice but to compare it with the movie in my mind, and the minor inferiorities it has are too obnoxious for me to ignore. But it’s a very enjoyable read nonetheless, and I imagine it would be stunningly good if you are still a broken, empty shell of a human who hasn’t seen the movie.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A-Schaef’s #CBR4 Review #02: Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams

Another Tennessee Williams play, which I actually opened immediately after putting down Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. This play is shorter and simpler, about a very moral-centered, almost uptight southern woman named Alma and a doctor with far looser morals named John. The two fall in love, but find themselves kept apart by different worldviews.

John quickly became my favourite character of the two, if only because I found him more relatable. The monologues written for him were absolutely stunning though, and I found myself tempted to skip through scenes until I found him back in the play. I resisted, but I’m still not sure it was entirely the right decision. The level of emotional maturity that Williams gave this character makes him wonderfully tragic. Tom is mature enough to understand the wrong decisions he is making, but lacks the self-control to stop making them. It gives his character several levels of emotion and longing, and always keeps him interesting.

Alma was a lost opportunity for Williams, especially considering she is the main protagonist of the play. She is introduced with an anecdote where people discuss how she is “putting on airs”, and is too affected to seem regular. Her dialogue is all very over the top, and it becomes very quickly apparent where people got these ideas about her. While I must concede that it does give her character some quirkiness, it takes away from the opportunity to have more subtle speech come out of her. She sticks out from the rest of the characters like a sore thumb, and comes out like a caricature of what could have been a great character.

All in all, Tennessee Williams did still write it, and it comes with a certain standard of quality from that alone. I found John to be my favourite character in all of the Williams I have experienced. He is not as complex or unique as Cat On A Hot Tin Roof‘s Big Daddy or Streetcar‘s Stanley Kowalski, but he is very human, and subtly tragic. This is not by any means a world-changing play, and those outside of the theatre sphere may have never heard of it, but it’s a good read with some very interesting characters and ideas.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A-Schaef’s #CBR4 Review #01: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Reviewing a classic like this is never easy. There is nothing that I can say that hasn’t been said, and there are people who know this play far better than I do, and their knowledge will bite my face off. I can’t do anything about this, so I’m just going to say what I thought and take the judgment later. I also need to confess that the two Williams plays I’m reviewing here are my first experiences with him outside of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Lovers of the play will be glad to know that I loved it as well. I thought the plot was enchantingly simple while staying very emotionally complex, and I loved how vivid and human every character was. My major issue with the play is one that probably only makes sense from the perspective of an 18-year-old university student in Canada who could never really understand what things were like in the South all those decades ago, and that is the naming. The character names came through to me like a parody of a southern movie, with names like Gooper (nicknamed “brother man”) and Big Daddy. Maybe it’s because Tennessee Williams created the whole stereotype, but it was jarring to see names that seem so comical, regardless of how beautifully written the characters were.

God damn, they were beautiful though. The thing that struck me about Williams’ writing was how perfectly every line of dialogue fit the character. I know that the goal of a playwright is to make the dialogue believable, but I’ve rarely seen it done as seamlessly as Williams does here. The characters each take on their own speech patterns and mannerisms, and they all come through completely naturally, especially in the case of Brick and Big Mama. There was not a single word in this play that didn’t make sense to me, not even when Brick pulls out the word “mendacity” to sound intelligent. The dialogue absolutely blew me away.

The other amazing thing about the play is how naturally the relationships between each character form. For every significant relationship, there is a clear moment that establishes the parameters of it, and every one could easily flow by unnoticed, they’re that subtle and simple.

I could go on for a long time about the merits of this absolutely beautiful play, but I won’t be doing it as eloquently as more well-read people could, and I’ll feel like I’m babbling. So take this review as my strongest recommendation. This play makes me consider Williams as a playwright on an even plane with Eugene O’Neill, and my friends know that I can best be described as an O’Neill devotee. Just read this play. Please.

You’re welcome.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cannonball Read IV!


I’m going to try to not fail this year. It’s a lofty goal. I got a solid head start though, cause a family trip from two days ago to yesterday involved 18 hours in the car with people I don’t much like to talk to, so I got a lot of reading done. Namely, two plays and two novels. One of the novels had been read before, so I won’t review it cause I’ll feel like a cheater. But expect some lovely reviews up here on January 1st, and I have had my nose stuck into Juliet, Naked for the past few hours, so that should be up pretty soon as well. Well, I will say to my fellow cannonballers, happy early new year and happy reading!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment