Saturday, March 31, 2007
Thursday, March 29, 2007
This oversimplified capsule of Harry Potter might make it sound like I don't like the series, and that's not true. I didn't pick up Order of the Phoenix because I liked the title; no, I've read the other four Potter books and decided I'd read the last two so I could read book seven when it comes out, thus avoiding having the book spoiled by Yahoo which will no doubt run a headline announcing the book's final twist days after its release. And so, I did. Also, I was in Salisbury, North Carolina without a car.
Order of the Phoenix is too long. The first 200 pages could have been condensed to 50 pages or less without losing anything vital. As a result, I was nearly halfway through the book (which clocks in at a hefty 850ish pages) before I really got involved. The second half was some of the more intense writing of the series, but it doesn't change the fact that the first half is 75% filler.
Much like Song of Susannah, anyone reading the Harry Potter series will no doubt read Phoenix, and if you enjoyed the rest of the series, you'll probably enjoy about half of this book. And, that's all, at least until I finish War and Peace. Cheers.
You may be familiar with the story from the movie: R.P. McMurphy, a gregarious and "cagey" rascal, gets himself transferred to a sanitarium to escape a relatively short prison sentence. At the sanitarium, his outgoing personality clashes with that of Miss Ratched, the sadistic and fascist head nurse who runs the place with an iron fist. In the movie, McMurphy is the main character; the book is narrated by Chief Bromden, a massive Native American who pretends to be deaf and dumb, hanging out with the "Chronic," unfixable patients instead of the "Acute" fixable ones. Reportedly Kesey refused to see the movie because it wasn't narrated by Bromden, and one can see why: Bromden is pretty central to the book. He believes that a shadowy force called "The Combine" is slowly mechanizing all human beings, causing them to conform and think the same way. When the Combine can't mechanize someone, they go to the sanitarium, where more drastic measures are taken.
One of the central ideas of the book is that sanity is a false idea promoted by society to remove undesirable elements. This may seem silly, but the patients in this sanitarium, all based on people Kesey knew when he worked in a similar facility, include a "latent homosexual" and a stutterer whose only problem is that his mother has kept in an eternal childhood. The latter character, Billy Bibbitt, becomes the best example of Nurse Ratched's cruelty: as a friend of Billy's mother, she is able to control him utterly by insinuating that every time he tries to stand up for himself that she'll tell his mother about his insubordination.
The whole thing is told in spooky, surreal prose. The Chief repeatedly suggests that not everything in the book is real--and of course everything can't be, because there are some very odd depictions of life in the sanitarium that seem like they're taken from Dali paintings--but the presence of McMurphy, who is a racist and a sexist and a jerk but stands up for the patients against the tyranny of Nurse Ratched, brings a growing clarity that helps the Chief finally become a speaking member of the sanitarium's "society." This is one of those books that manages to be beautiful and horrible at the same time, and I love it.
Now I just have to see the movie.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
I really like the movie Fight Club. I'm not one of those guys who talks about it all the time, or incessantly quotes from it...but I like it. For that reason, I wanted to read the book.
I had never read anything by Palahniuk, and had heard that his writing style was unusual. It is. He writes in this odd form of first-person present tense, which gave Fight Club a feeling of immediacy. Palahniuk also involves the reader in the action of the book. He switches between, "I wake up in Seattle" to "You wake up in Portland." His unusual writing style does take a little getting used to.
The split personality was the big reveal at the end of the movie, but this was not the case with the book. It felt as though Palahniuk wanted readers to slowly realize that the two main characters are actually the same person. Granted, I may think this only because I was already aware of this plot point when I started the book.
Fight Club was an extremely quick read. While I enjoyed the book, I don't know that I would like to read other works by Palahniuk, simply because of his style. But I still have to read 40 more books, so who knows.
Monday, March 26, 2007
Adams is a good writer; he's witty and creative and can write a good story, as long as it doesn't run longer than about 50 pages. All of the books follow Arthur Dent, a kind of awkward antihero who's forced into circumstances that lead to his rescuing the earth, galaxy, or universe many times. Too many times. Adams' original plan was to write a series of short stories in which the earth is invariably destroyed at the end of each; it seems, from reading this book(s), that this would have suited his abilities better. The story becomes very episodic after the first book (in the first book, even), and characters turn into empty stereotypes of themselves just as quickly. Odd as it might seem, it gets a little tedious reading, once again, about some new, loopy plot to blot out the whole of existence.
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is meant to be a satire of just about everything; he pokes fun at everything humans have ever done, partly by trivializing the Earth to something that needs to be demolished to build a hyperspace expressway. This book was fun to read, in bits and pieces, but it goes on for too long and runs out of steam fairly soon after it starts. I had always hesitated to read this book because I was worried that it was just a nerdy cult classic, full of inside jokes to print on T-shirts and sell at Hot Topic. But, then again, what did I expect from a British, science fiction, comedy novel?
Huxley's future is more believable than the future created by either Orwell or Bradbury. This edition of Brave New World includes a letter written by Huxley to Wells, shortly after the publication of 1984. Huxley praises the book, but notes that the violent coercion that takes place in 1984 will ultimately give way to a more subtle form. Brave New World's ubiquitous somma that puts those who take it into a coma-like state of bliss strikes me as a more practical method of control than brute force.
While none of these books offers a completely accurate reflection of modern society, they come eerily close at many points. Huxley is not concerned with making specific predictions, but the world that he describes has many parallels to the present.
Note: P.S. is an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. They produce great editions of classic works. The supplementary materials are informative and insightful. Even the binding if better than most books, allowing the book to actually remain open while you read it, instead of constantly flipping shut. Look for great P.S. books at your local bookseller!
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Enter Song of Susannah, book six in the series. It's the second shortest at about 550 pages, fitting, since it has the least amount of story to tell. The basic plot of the Dark Tower is that Roland the last gunslinger, Susannah and Eddie Dean, and a child, Jake, are questing toward the Dark Tower. Of the four main characters, Susannah is by far the least interesting, and since roughly half of Song of Susannah is focused on her and her conversations with her multiple personalities, it suffers. Wolves of the Calla was 900 pages, but it read easier than the 550 that comprise Song.
The most imnteresting aspect of the book is (spoiler warning) that King writes himself into the story. The character of Stephen King is the one from the 70s, complete with crippling addictions to drugs and alcohol. I thought the concept of an author writing himself into a book was interesting enough, but even more interesting is that King presents himself as just another pawn of the Tower. Lots of fans hated this aspect of the series, by it was by far the most interesting thing in Song. Here's to hoping The Dark Tower is a better conclusion than Song of Susannah was a segue.
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
A Walk in the Woods is the second of Bill Bryson’s books that I’ve read (the first was Notes from a Small Island), and I think I can now safely call myself a fan of his work. He’s principally a travel writer, but it would be impossible to classify his work so simply. Bill Bryson is a regular renaissance man, and his wide-ranging intelligence shows in his work. A Walk in the Woods is about the eight month long hike that he took along the roughly 2,100 mile
Bryson has an amazing mind, and his books range over every possible aspect of their subject: history, economics, social effects, ecology, and so on. One thing about Bill Bryson and his work comes to mind before anything else, however: he’s absolutely hilarious. I’m talking laugh out loud, giggle in public funny. I can’t remember how many times I’d start chuckling to myself involuntarily, on the bus, in the back of class, wherever I was. Sometimes I’d read the same line two or three times and just keep laughing.
The most plausible explanation was that any [mountain] lions out there—if [mountain] lions they were—were released pets, bought in haste and later regretted. It would be just my luck, of course, to be savaged by an animal with a flea collar and a medical history. I imagined lying on my back, being extravagantly ravaged, inclining my head slightly to read a dangling silver tag that said: “My name is Mr. Bojangles. If found please call Tanya and Vinny at 924-4667.”
So many of the jokes seem to sneak themselves into the last line of a relatively dry section on botany, or some such thing, which is what makes them work so well. His writing seemed to make me laugh more the further I read into the book; it was as if getting to know his style lets you in on the subtleties and unexpected nature of some of his jokes (perfectly placed in some scholarly section that’s drifting dangerously close to boring). He’s unbelievably intelligent, but he loves to make fun of himself, which is one of the things (besides his wit) that I like best about him. He paints himself as a grinning, bumbling fool, which couldn’t be further from the truth, and loves to recount tales of him whimpering in his tent at the sound of a cracked stick outside. And the best part of reading anything by Bryson is that he’s so good at letting you get to know his characters (namely, himself and a hiking friend) that their slapstick antics get funnier as you learn their personalities better. Reading this book, you might be led to think that Bryson waits for the worst possible situation to strike so that he can write about it and we can laugh about it. I think he just has a great ability to tell stories, and an incredible skill with the English language. Even if you don’t care to learn anything interesting about the Appalachian Trail and its mountains (which, I assure you, you will), you should read this book for its abundance of hearty, smart laughs (as well as chuckles, giggles and big, stupid grins). As with the last of his books I read, I was disappointed to see it end, but he wrapped it up completely perfectly.
(If hiking isn’t your thing, but a road trip around
Monday, March 12, 2007
Only time will tell if Oryx and Crake fails to stand the test of time (quite possibly it won't, given the rate of technological change we're experiencing today), but it has quite a bit to say about our world: The main character, Jimmy, lives in a world of enclosed "compounds" where troupes of scientists and other employees live closed off from the "pleeblands," the unpredictable and dangerous areas of the world that haven't been hermetically sealed. There are two plotlines, divided by a world catasatrophe that isn't explained until the end of the book: In one, Jimmy is an average kid growing up in the compounds; Crake is his only friend. In the other, Jimmy is now known as Snowman, a shriveled and miserable Omega man figure who watches over a strange race who dwell on the beach, the only other "humans" left in the world. We later find out that these are the creations of Crake, who has designed both the destruction of the old human race and the generation of the new.
You can see our world in Atwood's: the way that Jimmy and Crake learn about the world is through the internet, which is their portal to live executions, beheadings, macabre computer games, and child pornography. Through the latter Jimmy first meets a girl named Oryx, an Asian sex-worker who later becomes his lover. I think perhaps one of the most interesting themes in Oryx and Crake is the commodification of life: not so much that it is brought about by rampant commercialism and globalization; those ideas are old, but also by science, which is draining all of the mystery from human life. The "Crakers" live peaceably with each other, but Crake has engineered them without art, without religion, without imagination. Is this a life worth living? Is it even a human life? Oryx and Crake may seem antiquated in twenty years time, but the question of what it means to be human--like in The Island of Dr. Moreau--is one that never grows old.
I love Atwood's style; it rolls so fluidly and no word seems out of place. However, the plot is thin in places, especially when it comes to the character of Oryx, who is in the title but never really seems to be fleshed out like Jimmy/Snowman or Crake. Atwood suggests that part of Crake's decision to wipe out humanity is motivated by jealousy over Jimmy's relationship with Oryx, but she never pauses to explain the connection between these two elements. As a result, the questions that Atwood wants to present us with--to what extent is Crake responding to what he sees as weaknesses in himself, does removing the brain functions that produce lust in the Crakers make them superior creatures--become watered down. But otherwise, I recommend this book highly.
Friday, March 9, 2007
Summarizing Don Quixote is quite difficult, because describing the basic framework of the story doesn't even come close to doing it justice. Often described as the first modern novel, it manages to touch upon literary devices and genres that have only rose to prominence in the last 50 years, not bad for a book completed shortly after the King James Bible. Between the poetry, the interstitial novels, the occasional breaking of the fifth wall (and the indirect insertion of Cervantes himself into Quixote's word), Don Quixote as a literary powerhouse can't be overstated. But, is it any good?
I found Don Quixote to be an enjoyable read. At some points, particularly in the largely satirical first book, it read just as quickly and easily as any modern novel. In the second book, written not only to complete the story but also to make a statement about deceit, human cruelty, and plagiarism, the novel takes a darker turn, and the jokes played on Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza become so overblown that they inspire sympathy for the once-comic characters. As a result of the weightier second book, it's a bit more difficult to get through, particularly if you tackle it right after the first. I found that once I took some time off and approached book two on its own terms, it was well worth the read.
One last note: if you're considering reading Quixote, I recommend this translation (Edith Grossman). I had started several others previously, and found them amazingly dull.
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
No doubt realizing that this definition would not be adequate for his purposes, Garreau provides another, more complex definition of the term. Edge Cities must have a certain amount of office and retail space. They primarily must be places of employment, must have more jobs than bedrooms, and must be “perceived by the population as one place.” The final qualification is that all of these factors have to be recent—within the last thirty years.
With this second definition, Garreau provides his readers with a fairly specific idea of what constitutes an Edge City. However, throughout the book, this definition changes, parts of it are forgotten or dismissed, and at times it is almost completely thrown out. Garreau needed an amorphous definition, one that he could tweak and adjust to fit various localities, because he is not simply providing a general description of Edge Cities, but using these emerging suburban cities to examine several different issues, such as wealth, power, race, and class.
It is obvious that Garreau approves of Edge Cities, even celebrates them. Too often he describes these suburban enclaves in a way that makes them appear to be fault free—the hope for the future. Although most of these “cities” had few problems and their inhabitants lived relatively good lives, problems existed elsewhere as a direct result of the growth of these places. Garreau either ignores or overlooks these problems throughout Edge City.
Although at times it was a little tedious, ultimately this was an interesting read.
It's a very interesting read, alternatingly disturbing and infuriating, as one miscarriage of justice after another is carried out. In a way, it brings to mind the whole Duke rape scandal, something that was never far from my mind as I read through the book.
The most interesting aspect to me is that, by the end of the book, most of the principle characters have gotten some semblence of justice, but lives have still been totalled in the process. I'd like to write more, but I've got to go. Good book. If you like true crime, check it out.
The original title of Shadow was Urchin, and it would have been a little more fitting. It's obvious that Ender was included in the title to obviously tie the book to its classic predecessor, but anyone reading Shadow hoping to learn about Ender will be sorely disappointed. In fact, Ender doesn't appear in the first half of the book, and for most of the second half, he's a periphery character. The protagonist in Shadow is Bean, a periphery character in Ender's Game. The first half of the book chronicles his life on the streets of Rotterdam, and how me managed to survive despite being the smallest and weakest. Without giving spoilers, it also sets up characters that I suspect are expanded upon in the later volumes of the series.
The first half of the book is the most interesting, since it gives nothing but new information. The second half is good as well, but if you've read Ender's Game, there's no big reveal, and the ending is already known, so it lacks the suspense of its older brother. Still, Ender's Shadow is a fine book in its own right, and anyone who enjoyed Game should give it a shot.
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
BUT! That's not all. This year, you, the reader, have the chance to win every damn book they'll be reviewing. They've asked the web's top book-bloggers (our invitation must have been lost in the mail) to predict the outcome of the tournament. You can review their selections on this website, where you'll also find this year's bracket in PDF format. Choose which blogger you think is spot-on, send an email to The Morning News with your selection by 6pm tomorrow night (Wednesday, March 7th), and if both you are chosen randomly to compete and your selected blogger wins the fantasy book tournament, you will receive every one of the 16 brand-spanking new books that have been selected as the best of this past year. I highly recommend it. Plus, the tournament offers plenty of fantastic novels to choose from for your next review.
Good luck, Godspeed, and keep those pages turning Planeteers... er, Fifty-bookers.
Sunday, March 4, 2007
This book, written in 1896, is one of the earliest examples of science fiction. As all great science fiction, the book's value lies not in the science but the social commentary. With the island's Beast People, who have been indoctrinated by Moreau with "the Law"--Don't walk on all fours, don't eat meat, don't scratch or claw, be human--Wells seems to suggest that we are captives of our own inner natures, as the Beast People cannot help but revert back to their feral ways. Moreau's attempt to "play God" fails utterly, perhaps undermining our concept of control over our own bodies and minds.But it also displays what it one of science fiction's biggest faults, which is that the science dates it extremely. Moreau's methods have nothing to do with "genes" or "DNA," but "vivisection"--a word which seems almost arcane to us in light of modern science fiction, in which Dr. McCoy can fix your broken arm by waving a blinking box over your skin. Moreau teaches his beasts to talk and think, but never once uses the word "conditioning," an idea for which Pavlov didn't win the Nobel Prize until 1904. No modern reader would be fooled into thinking that Moreau could create a human being this way, though many at the turn of the century might, and that's a shame--for all its potential and even though much of it deals with worlds that don't yet exist, it tends to become dated much quicker than other literature.
Saturday, March 3, 2007
As Brent pointed out in his review of this book, the plot is not all that complicated, noting that it could be described as a character study. I also agree with Brent on the subject of Wharton's prose. At times I found it completely arresting. The images that her words conjured up were amazing.
As I was reading the book, I thought numerous times of the Woody Allen film, September. Ethan Frome and September share many of the same themes, such as forbidden love, depression, and complicated relationships. But the strongest connection between the two is the setting. Edith Wharton's vivid descriptions of the fictitious Starkfield, Massachusetts make the town an active character in the story. Often the town, and the weather associated with it, do as much to progress the plot as any of the characters do. In September, the setting is not a town, but a house--a house which Woody Allen has described as the most important character in the film.
Another film that Wharton's novella brought to mind was Lost in Translation. I would find it hard to believe that Sophia Coppola had not read Ethan Frome prior to making the film. Besides the general melancholy feel of the movie, some of the characters are quite similar to those in Wharton's work.
Note: If you have not read Ethan Frome, leave the introduction that accompanies this edition until the end. If you read it before, it will ruin what little twists and turns of plot the story does have.
Friday, March 2, 2007
Thursday, March 1, 2007
The book follows three generations of historians, and is narrated by the youngest (she never gives her name), who tells her father’s story through letters he left to her, who in turn relates the story of his mentor through letters written to him within the letters that he wrote to her. All of this results in an infuriating use of quotation marks that led me to seriously question the need to have one-third of the book told through letters. Said letters also really lose their sense of urgency—the man believed himself to be in serious danger of vampire attack—when their author stops warning his daughter and rushing to recount the steps that he took in tracing the path of Vlad Dracula, and starts to spend nearly full pages describing haircuts, exquisite ottomans (the furniture, of course), and Mediterranean food. This didn’t make the book any less entertaining—in fact, quite the opposite. Kostova’s writing is crisp and intelligent, and her descriptions of European architecture and her novel’s characters are captivating. Her sharp (you probably wouldn’t call it beautiful or colorful) prose fleshes out the plot and lends the novel a dark, brooding feel, right from the first paragraph:
As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorable forward for us with its shadowy claw.
Scenes switch from innocent to grim with one well-placed word from the author. The first half of the book feels so personal that it reads almost like a diary, and was a believable story for so many pages that it was almost easy to forget that it is, after all, a novel; Kostova keeps up this pretense by taking up the perspective of her own, nameless narrator even in her note to the reader and the dedication: For my father, who first told me some of these stories. Does she want the reader to assume that she is her own narrator? That extra element of reality would contribute significantly to the story’s viability as a thriller. After a while though, it started to seem like little twists were written in just for the sake of making the novel a page-turner, and not necessarily to advance the plot. Again, this didn’t make it any less of a great book. I won’t tell you what happens in the end, but I will leave you with this little bit to pique your interest:
Helen was full of these surprises, and I grew to consider them my daily fare, a pleasant addiction I developed to her ability to catch me off guard. But she never startled me more than at that moment in