Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

I have started three different reviews for this book in the last hour, and ended up scrapping each one of them. I can't figure out what I want to say about this book. More importantly I can't figure out how to say much about the book without giving away key plot points.

The Man Who Was Thursday follows detective Gabriel Syme, part of a special corps that tracks anarchists in London, as he gets deeper and deeper into a sinister plot to kill a foreign dignitary. Crap, I am really having trouble with this.

I give up. I really enjoyed this book, although I think some of it was over my head. For a much better synopsis, check out Christopher's review of Thursday.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Absurdistan is the story of Misha Vainberg, the American-educated 325-lb. son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. His father has murdered a businessman in Oklahoma, an act which prevents Misha from obtaining a visa and leaving the country to return to America and be with his ghetto girlfriend Rouenna. After his father's murder, he is offered a solution: travel to the obscure former Soviet republic of Absurdistan and obtain a Belgian passport from a corrupt official there. While there, Misha gets accidentally tangled up in the conflict between the two ethnic groups in Absurdistan, the Sevo and the Svani, their main difference being whether Christ's footrest, the bottom crossbar on the Slavonic cross should be tilted to the left or right. In particular, he falls in love with a girl who turns out to be the daughter of the leader of the Sevo minority forces, and becomes a part of their circle, only to find out that he's been deceived about the nature of the conflict.

This is a good book, but not as good as it could have been, I think, or good as I expected it to be (Absurdistan was the final competitor to The Road in The Morning News' 2006 Tournament of Books), though it has many virtues. It's quite funny and clever in parts, and part of its charm is the way it satirizes the modern mixing of different cultures--Misha, for instance, considers hip hop to be the voice of his generation. But in many ways it's muddled, and its plot, once it gets off the ground, doesn't quite fit together.

Two observations: 1.) I would put good money on the notion that Shteyngart has read Martin Amis' Money, which I finished just a week or so ago, because as a character Misha bears a lot of similarities to John Self, the rich and fat protagonist of that novel. Similarly to Amis, Shteyngart also writes himself into the novel, but as Jerry Shteynfarb, the duplicitous professor for whom Rouenna leaves Misha. Amis did it with more subtlety, though, like most of this book, which lack's Money's fine sense of detail and structure. 2.) There is much to ponder, I think, about the way Shteyngart ends his book on September 10th, 2001, as Misha seems just about to leave Absurdistan once and for all. What's the purpose of this? To suggest that Misha may be stuck in Absurdistan for just a little longer? To suggest that the world Shteyngart depicts is one that stopped existing on September 11th? For the most part, Shteyngart lets the fact pass without mentioning its significance, and while I couldn't fault the rest of this book for having too little subtlety, it would be nice to understand this choice a little better.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson

I'm hopping on the fifty books boat a little late, but I have read a few books since the new year, and I'll go ahead and count them. First up, Treasure Island.

I know, I know, the book was written for children. The author says so much on the first page, but that doesn't make it any less of a book. It may be the original, and perhaps the best, swashbuckling soirée ever staged. I just don't know why I've never read it before.

Because the Muppets and Wishbone have both dramatized the book, everyone clearly already knows the plot. But just in case you were one of those kids (who grew up without TV) here it is: little Jim Hawkins suddenly finds himself owner of a treasure map and soon after sets out across the Atlantic in search of Skeleton Island. His pirate infested vessel is secretly headed by Long John Silver in the guise of ship's cook. But seriously Jim, he's got a peg leg. You should have seen that one coming.

So there's the set up. The Cap'n is looking for some booty to fund his south Florida retirement, and half a dozen honest men are trapped on an island with him. Action ensues.

It's hard not to get hooked by the story, and with pirates taking the theaters by storm, I think it's time for another look at the original. The third installment of Pirates of the Caribbean was a little disappointing, and now that I think about it, it was probably because I read Treasure Island about a week beforehand.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien

Part the next of "Books that everyone else read in high school but me": the Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien.

Brief synopsis: The first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Fellowship of the Ring follows Frodo as he embarks on a quest to destroy the ring left to him by his uncle Bilbo (of The Hobbit fame), which as it turns out is the tool of an evil overlord named Sauron who is regathering his strength to take over Middle-Earth. Along the way he takes Aragorn, heir to the scattered kingdoms of Men, envious Boromir, Legolas the Elf, Gimli the dwarf, Gandalf the wizard, and a Sam, Merry, and Pippin, a trio of hobbits. Barrow-wights, ring wraiths, orcs, lake monsters, wolves, and snowstorms do their best to stop them, etc.

There's no doubt that this trilogy is one of the most beloved works ever written, and it's easy to see why: Tolkien's Middle-Earth is such an amazing invention that I think it really speaks to the imagination and wonder of almost every one who reads it. Even now, when fantasy books filled with Orcs and Elves and Dwarves and crap are basically a dime-a-dozen, none seems so impressive and endearing as this one, and why should they? No other genre owes so much to one book.

To my surprise, these books are extremely readable: there are very few descriptive or expository passages, and a fair amount of suspense (I had imagined that much of the more suspenseful action moments of the movie were beefed up by Peter Jackson, but in fact most are quite faithful to the book). I suppose I ought to have known that a book appreciated by so many would be easy to read, though. However, some of the story seemed a little stale to me--probably, unfortunately, because I had seen the movie, which does quite well by the book. There were a few sections omitted by the movie, most notably the series of events involving Tom Bombadil, master of the wood. But the omitted sections are no grave loss, really.

What's really exceptional about Tolkien's works is the sheer volume of mythology he provides. Outside of the narratives provided here, Tolkien's construction of Middle-Earth (and Arda, the name for the entire world at this point in "prehistory") is a finely-tuned tome of myth, legend, history, invented geography and language--it's simply the most detailed and intensive universe created by any writer ever. As a result, even at the times when the book drags on a bit--lots of storytelling, and poems and the like--it's just an amazing thing to behold.

I think I will finish the series, since this book turned out to be less imposing than its 400+ pages, but I think I'll read another book before I take up the next volume, and something else before the final book as well.

Twenty-Five Bookers

Since Alyson's personal goal is also 25 books, I've changed the format of the front page to include a separate sidebar for our "Twenty-Five Bookers." Good times.

It's a boy!

Exciting news, Fifty Bookers. I would like to formally introduce to you the newest member of The Fifty Books Project family: Kelly Wilkinson. Weighing in at about 150 pounds, I guess, and probably about 5'10", Kelly enjoys sunsets, freshly baked cookies and hobo fights to the death. Hopefully, like the rest of us, he'll learn to judge a review based not on its content, but rather on the number of comments it receives. And hopefully, unlike myself, he'll learn how to keep all of his reviews from showing up double-spaced and extra long.

Let's all give Kelly a warm Fifty Books Project welcome, and, soon enough, we'll all know him well enough to make fun of him on the comments section of his posts.

Good luck, Kelly, and Godspeed.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

I think this is the newest book I've ever read. He published it this May, and the cover is the main reason that I absolutely had to have it. This is the first in a series of reviews I'm doing called "my birthday presents."

This is the second of Chabon's books I've read, so my expectations were set pretty high. Unfortunately, it's hard to measure up to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Basically the premise for this book is an actual Senate proposal from the 1940s that, should the Jews lose Israel in WWII, the USA would give them a piece of Alaska. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Jews from Israel, Germany, Poland, the Ukraine, and other parts of Europe have all migrated to the newly created Sitka District of Alaska. Chabon never actually goes says how the war ended, or what the political situation is in Europe now, he just lets readers guess at that, I suppose. It's set in the early 21st century, and the District is about to be revoked, meaning that the last of the world's Jews will have nowhere to go in two months from the novel's opening. The story follows Sitka District Detective Meyer Landsman, who is one of my new favorite characters (Chabon also wrote another of my favorites, Joe Kavalier). He's basically an embellished stereotype: the washed-up, renegade cop who doesn't play by the rules. But Chabon manages to make him a lot more human than that; he's easy to sympathize with. Landsman sets about solving a murder that shows up in the dingy hotel he's been living in, which turns out to be a case much bigger than he originally thought.

Landsman notices how quiet it is on Verbov Island, in the snow, inside a stone barn, with dark coming on, as the profane week and the world that profaned it prepare to be plunged into the flame of two matched candles.

"That's right," Zimbalist says at last. "Mendel Shpilman. The only son. He had a twin brother who was born dead. Later, that was interpreted as a sign."

The whole book is wildly imaginative, full of Yiddish puns that I really didn't understand (if you know why a Shoyfer should be a name for a cell phone, please tell me), and a few that I did (a restaurant named "Hands of Esau"). It was a great tribute to 1940s noir, with everyone in porkpie hats, smoking like chimneys and solving crimes involving Russian mobsters. The dark and gritty noir feel meshed strangely well with the Yiddish puns and snappy dialogue. Unfortunately, at times, the gimmick got in the way of the story. Having such a far-fetched setting has to be incredibly hard to pull of (David Mitchell managed it with Cloud Atlas unbelievably well). The book lost steam towards the middle, landing in an uncomfortable zone where it was too realistic to be surreal, but too far-fetched to feel believable. It picked back up at the end, and was a great, unique read. I'm still a Chabon fan.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

This is when I consider the series to turn dark. This is the first book in which a character with whom the readers are familiar dies. The Triwizard Tournament is held at Hogwarts during Harry's fourth year, and visitors from two other wizarding schools are invited to stay at the castle for the year to compete in the Tournament. Although Harry isn't old enough to compete, his name is produced from the Goblet of Fire, and he must compete, as this represents a binding magical contract. Obviously someone has put Harry's name in the goblet to try to bring harm to him, as the Tournament is highly dangerous and people who don't have enough magical training could die while completing the three tasks. After a year of Harry surviving Tournament tasks, fights with friends, and girl troubles at the Yule Ball, he competes in the third and final task. But someone has rigged the game, and as Harry completes the last task for the win, he is magically transported to a graveyard, where Lord Voldemort is resurrected. After being tortured for a couple dozen pages, Harry manages to escape the Dark Lord and get back to the Hogwarts castle. In the end, only Dumbledore and a few of Harry's friends believe his story of Voldemort's return. The Ministry of Magic refuses to believe him, thus setting up the premise of book #5.

Wow, this is a long book. I'd forgotton how long these get toward the end of the series. It's so long that the movie really couldn't possibly include everything unless they made a 5-hour movie. There were many plot developments and a few sub-plotlines that were completely left out, so it was exciting to read again since I couldn't remember everything.

Once again, one of my favorite parts of this series is following the characters as they grow. Rowling seems to think that in their fourth year (when Harry is 14 years old), the students of Hogwarts must have matured enough to think about the opposite sex. This allows for a few comedic scenes where Harry and Ron worry about asking a girl to the Yule Ball, and a few painfully embarrassing scenes (at least for those of us who remember middle school) where feelings between Hermione and Ron are suggested but ignored. Rowling also seems to think that at this age, the students are mature enough to handle more Dark things. Harry's friend/competitor, Cedric, dies, and Lord Voldemort returns. The scene where Voldemort tortures Harry with the Cruciatus Curse (an Unforgivable Curse that causes intense pain in the recipient's entire body) is pretty disturbing. I wouldn't want my little sister reading that before bedtime.

The series is written in the third person, but limited to Harry's point of view. As is usual in the case of books vs movies, the book does a better job of describing how terrible the experience of coming face-to-face with Voldemort is and all the emotional issues Harry has, mostly just because Rowling has the advantage of peering into Harry's thoughts. I've already started onto the fifth book, which picks up a few weeks after Harry leaves Hogwarts, and Rowling describes his issues from such a traumatizing experience and how he has regular nightmares about it. Harry's life gets pretty dark from here on out.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Jesus Machine by Dan Gilgoff

The full title of this books is The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War. The title sums up the book quite nicely. I had this professor who referred to titles as contracts with the reader. Well, Dan Gilgoff's book would pass this stupid little test.

Gilgoff is not concerned with what can be done to combat the increase of the political power of Evangelicals, as I thought he would be. Instead, he just describes how the Evangelical movement has changed in the last forty years. While the book is ostensibly about James Dobson and Focus on the Family, Gilgoff is careful to place both Dobson and Focus in the proper context. He charts the rise of the Christian Right, beginning with Moral Majority, and then Christian Coalition, and then what is commonly referred to as the New Right, of which he sees Dobson as the unofficial leader.

Gilgoff asserts that Dobson filled the void left as the political influence of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson declined, and that what makes Dobson's rise to political prominence so interesting is that Focus on the Family was intended to be apolitical. But, in 2004 Dobson actively campaigned for Republican candidates whose values aligned with his. According to Gilgoff, Dobson's increased involvement in politics is what sealed the 2004 election for Bush.

I was surprised at the understanding that Gilgoff had of conservative Christians. Later I found out that he minored in religion at George Washington University, and regularly writes about the intersection of politics and religion for US News & World Report. He writes well, and had a clear understanding of his subject matter. More importantly, Gilgoff was able to show how influential the Christian Right has become in the political arena.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Children of Men by PD James

Alfonso Cuaron's film Children of Men, a loose adaptation of this novel, is a great piece of art: smartly written, perfectly acted, and very suspenseful. I hadn't heard of the novel before the release of the film, so I was hoping that by reading it some of the few plot holes of the movie might be explained better in the book. Not so, though--not only is the film so loosely adapted from the novel that it fails to help explain anything, by my measurement the book fails to measure up to the film.

Here's a short synopsis for those who haven't seen the film: In the near future, all of humanity has become infertile and there have been no children born for twenty-five years, and the world is coming to grips with humanity's upcoming extinction. Theo Faron, an Oxford professor of English, is approached by a would-be revolutionary group to help them gain an audience with his cousin, the Warden (Dictator) of England. Also, one of the revolutionaries is pregnant (though in the film it is a young black girl, in the novel it is the character played in the film by Julianne Moore, with whom Faron also falls in love).

Unlike the film, which has the gritty feeling of being just a short time in the future, the novel has a strange, backward-looking Victorian feel, in both style and subject. That would be all well and good if the whole thing were written from the first person perspective of the main character, Theo, whose background is in Victorian literature, but only half of the book is written as a diary; the other half as a straightforward narrative. And yet, the styles are regrettably identical. The first half of the book is numbingly slow, focusing mostly on Theo's loneliness and regret as he looks back on his own life and toward the extinction of the human race; the second half is a clumsily constructed suspense story in which Theo helps the revolutionaries escape, but where to and why are never clear (the film has this problem too, a little bit, but it's more crippling in the novel). The novel lacks also the best part of the film, the final chapter in which Theo has to help the pregnant character get to a boat off the shore of the vicious Isle of Man penal colony, during which time her baby is born. The love story between Theo and pregnant Julian (in the film, Theo and Julian are ex-husband and -wife) makes no sense, and all of the characters other than Theo are pretty thinly constructed.

This isn't a bad book, but I was really disappointed in it after seeing the film. I wonder if part of that has to do with having seen the film first, since the few films I've felt were better than the novels they were based on--namely, High Fidelity and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil--I saw before I read the novel, too. Who knows how much of an effect that has.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Perfect Enemies by John Gallagher and Chris Bull

I came across this book while doing research for a paper I was writing about the gay rights movement in Cincinnati. One of the chapters, entitled "Brushfires: Antigay outbreaks in Cincinnati, Georgia, and Texas," was particularly helpful. I hung onto the book, planning on reading the rest of it, lost it, and began accruing late fees from the UC library. Sweet. I found the book last night and figured I might as well finish it before returning it.

Written by two newspaper journalist, Perfect Enemies details the political battle over gay rights in the 1990s. While it is clear that the authors know more about those advocating for gay rights than they do about their conservative Christian opponents, both sides are presented and treated rather even-handedly.

The book is comprised of eight chapters, each of which started out as a newspaper article. Each chapter highlights a specific battle over gay rights: Colorado's Amendment 2, gays in the military, the 1992 presidential campaign, Cincinnati's anti-discrimination ordinance, etc. I found the book incredibly interesting.

What's that you say? This book's not pretentious enough for you? Well did I mention that the main character's name is Self, that it is really just one long poem, or that it was translated from the original Mandarin Chinese by a blind monk?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Money by Martin Amis

As I walked home through streets the colour of oyster and carbon the air suddenly shivered and shook its coat, like a wet dog, like the surface of worried water. I paused--we all did--and lifted my face to the sky, as a slave or animal might lift its face, fearing punishment but risking it anyway... 'Okay. Show me something,' I said, and wiped my face with my hand. Up in the clear distance basked a hollow pink cloud, a rosy cusp fastened by tendrils at either end, like a vertical eye, a vertical mouth. In its core lay a creaturely essence, meticulous, feminine... Wait... the rose, the mouth, the glint. Come on, if that is what it looked like then that is what it looked like. I am probably not alone in supposing that I am shaped by how I see things. And that cloud up there certainly looked like a pussy to me.

I feel like I haven't been plugging away at this like I should, what with my new job and all, but I see the rest of you have been carrying on nicely reading childrens' books and stuff about railroads that probably isn't even interesting to the people who write it.

Money is the story of John Self, a commercial director and a man who is admittedly "addicted to the twentieth century." He drinks, he devours fast food, he patronizes porno parlours like he has nowhere else to go. He's not an artless figure--in fact, he's just been given the opportunity by a producer named Fielding Goodney to direct a motion picture of Self's own invention, called Bad Money or Good Money. Self spends, consumes, and then spends and consumes some more, satisfying his own urges while trying to wrangle a script from a writer who hates him and four movie stars who all have their own ideas about where the movie should go. In the meantime, he has to deal with his probably unfaithful girlfriend, Selina, and a man who calls himself Frank who's been calling him on the telephone and threatening him, and seems to know everything that he does. Other than Self, the main victim of this satire is commercialism and consumerism, and one of the best recurring patterns is the names that the author gives to various products: you can go to a fast food restaurant called Blastfurters, for example, and get an American Way; the cars they drive are called things like Fiasco and Autocrat.

This book is hilarious, obscene, and moving, no small feat. I recently read an article that lamented how serious our literature has become, and Money was the example they used: a brilliant dark comedy that was overlooked for most major awards, but stands as a paragon of what comedy can achieve. Certainly, the man had a point; as a comedy Money does what a serious book could not: make Self into a sympathetic character. Disgusting as he is, when Self's world begins to collapse--the result of a scheme that the author leaves cleverly hidden until the very end--it's impossible not to feel for him. We want Self to overcome the vices of sex and money that control him, and when his efforts fail his humiliation is very convincing.

Interestingly, the author, Martin Amis, writes himself into the book as the man whom Self asks to rewrite the script when the original turns out to be a disastrous. This is pretty risky; how do you present yourself in your own book without seeming vain? But somehow Amis pulls it off--in part because Self has a lot of contempt for the Martin of the novel.

Anyway, this book is pretty good. Four stars. Two thumbs up. Recommended.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is such a strange man. Pinball, 1973 was published in 1985, about 20 years before Kafka on the Shore, and you can really get a sense of him fleshing out his writing style. After I read it I learned that it’s the second of “the Rat trilogy,” his first three books plus a fourth added some years later (I am aware, as I’m sure he is too, that four books are too many for a trilogy). Unfortunately, the first two books are out of print in English (apparently he refuses to allow them to be published outside of Japan, which is a real shame), but you can download a PDF file of Pinball, 1973 in English here. The only copy of his first book is $2,400 on, if anyone’s looking to buy me presents.

Pinball, 1973 works pretty well as a stand-alone work, in my opinion. It’s just as confusing as Kafka on the Shore, but with fewer elements. In a nutshell: the main character, unnamed, works as an independent translator and lives alone until he wakes up one day to find twin girls asleep on either side of him. One day, almost as an epiphany, he develops an obsession with one certain pinball machine, an old favorite of an acquaintance of his, the Rat. The Rat’s separate storyline is told in alternating chapters throughout; he moves to his own apartment for university, drops out after three years, and befriends a bartender named J until he decides it’s time to move on. I assume that the next book deals with what happens next, but, knowing Murakami, there’s really no way to tell without reading it. It could just as easily be about ice cream cones.

For me, it was a lonely season. Whenever I got home and took off my clothes, I felt as if any second my bones would burst through my skin. Like some unknown force inside me had taken a wrong turn somewhere, and was leading me off in some strange direction to another world.

More than anything, this book deals with being alone, from all angles. One character seems to distance himself from those around him in order to protect them from some karmic part of himself that he can’t control, in some weird way. The other just can’t seem to open himself up enough, or even know himself well enough, to connect with the people who care about him. The writing is pretty simple, or else it comes off that way after translation, but I’ve come to know it as his style. A lot of the passages are very moving, and most of the book is strangely comforting and familiar, in a way. You really want to be where his characters find themselves. I still can’t say that I completely understand Murakami, but I definitely like his work. Here’s hoping he breaks down and publishes this and his first book in the US soon.

EDIT: Very bad news, sports fans. It looks like someone forced the website to remove the file with the full text of the book. If you want it, let me know and I'll email it to you.

EDIT (again): And now it's back.

The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White

When I was a kid, this was one of my favorite books. However, I am not sure that I ever actually read it. I think my mom read it to me and my brother and sister. She had this really funny habit of falling asleep while she was reading. Her eyes would be closed, but she would still be saying things, things that usually made very little sense. We always loved it when this happened, and tried not to laugh too loudly, which would cause her to wake up.

In short, the book is about Louis, a trumpeter swan that is born mute. Befriended by a boy named Sam, the swan learns how to read and write, and eventually learns how to play the trumpet to compensate for his inability to make the appropriate swan noises. Louis's trumpet-playing abilities take him to many different places, and make him famous.

White does a great job of mixing in the absurd with the ordinary. The people in the story are initially taken aback by a swan that can read, write, and play a trumpet, but they quickly become okay with it. In one part of the book Sam's dad asks his son if he has heard from his friend Louis recently. Sam replies that Louis has not written him in a while. And the father seems to be alright with the fact that his son has just told him that a bird has not written him in a while.

White's love for animals and nature really comes through in this book, as it does in Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. I loved this book as a kid, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it as a budding pseudo-adult.

Friday, June 15, 2007

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I really enjoy taking reading recommendations from people. If you ask a friend to suggest a book for you to read, and they actually give it some thought, chances are the book will tell you something about your friend. To the Lighthouse is another in a long list of books that have been recommended to me in the last couple of months.

Let me start by saying this was not a particularly easy book to read. Many times I would decide to put the book down and go to bed, then realize that I had only read eight or nine pages. I think the best word to describe it is dense. Much of this stems from Woolf writing style. It is very stream-of-consciousness. She moves abruptly from one character to the next--often without warning--leaving it up to the reader to determine who she is writing about.

The book is split up into three parts. The first, and the longest, takes place at the summer beach house of an aristocratic British family. Throughout this section, Woolf supplies her readers with glimpses into the minds of her characters, of which there are many. Mr. Ramsay is a professor of philosophy, and brought some of his brighter student with him to the beach house. There is Lily Briscoe, and a young painter who is enraptured with the Ramsay family. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay also have a number of children.

The second part of the book is cold, almost sterile. Woolf describes the now empty, nearly abandoned house, without sneaking a peak into the mind of anyone, save the maid. A few years have passed since the first section (I am not referring to the rate at which I was reading.) and many changes have come. That is all I will say.

For the final section we are back in the minds of the primary characters. Much of the time, we see the world from the perspective of Lily Briscoe. She doesn't seem to realize that the reason she is never satisfied with what she paints while at the house is because she is trying to capture the essence of the Ramsay family.

The book is really much better than this review makes it sound. Simply describing what takes place does the book injustice, since the plot is really minimal to the work. What made To the Lighthouse so enjoyable was Virginia Woolf's writing and insight into the human psyche. As a friend, I recommend that you read this.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

I'll make this short. I don't have a lot to say about this book, and I am a little behind...both in posting reviews and reading books.

I really thought I would enjoy this book more. I didn't really dislike it, more that I was simply disappointed. Part of the problem was that it is truly children's literature. I was expecting something a little less juvenile. The book really dragged for the first 100 pages. I nearly stopped reading it, but I usually finish a book if I start it. It got much better. The issue was that I didn't find Tolkien's prose all that good, so the slower parts of The Hobbit were just boring.

I am hoping that the LOTR books are better. People have told me that The Hobbit is much more of a kid's book than the LOTR books. I still plan on reading them, but my expectations have been lowered.

Check out Christopher's review of The Hobbit.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

1984 by George Orwell

You probably already know the premise of 1984, easily George Orwell’s most famous book. A friend told me that it was disappointing, so I hesitated in reading it, but am glad to report that I disagree with that friend, and am thus considering revoking their status as such.

In a nutshell: Oceania, formerly the British Isles and the Americas, is an absurdly controlled and oppressed country where even thinking the wrong thing is punishable by torture and death. Its citizens are constantly monitored down to the minutest detail, to the point that even an involuntary twitch of the eyelids, or momentary betrayal of a disapproving expression, can result in arrest, forced labor, and, again, torture and death. Winston Smith, the book’s protagonist, works for the paradoxically named Ministry of Truth, and his job is to constantly correct certain ‘misprints’ in government issued documents, so that the government always manages to exceed their production estimates, or predict the outcome of the next war, or so that a disappeared person has never existed in any recorded form.

Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed -- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.

I was most impressed by the palpable sense of real fear that the book generates. The whole plot seems to balance on the edge of a knife; Winston, a dissenter, can’t help but express his opposition to the government, but does so at extreme risk. 1984 is frighteningly believable, almost a thought experiment on human nature and power. It’s surprisingly and depressingly pessimistic about our capacity to resist oppression, always choosing self-preservation over liberty, or justice for one’s fellows. Occasionally, it was eerily reminiscent of the little that I know about the situation in North Korea. Obviously, the year 1984 has come and gone without the world dividing itself into three totalitarian countries, but that doesn’t make the book any less powerful. There will always be those people hungry enough for power that they’d kill not only their enemies but their countrymen by the thousands to get it. Unfortunately, I can’t say anything about how it ends without giving it away. It’s a powerful, poignant book, and I’d recommend reading it.

You can access the full text online, for free, here.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Railroad and the City by Carl W. Condit

Apparently there isn't a single picture of this book on the internet. It makes sense. It is relatively dry, technical reading about Cincinnati railroads. The only reason that I read this book was so that I could write a final paper for my History of Cincinnati class.

Condit charts the rise of railroads in southwest Ohio, ending with the construction of Union Terminal -- the largest semicircular, half-dome structure in the world. I found it interesting that Union Terminal was the first time that Cincinnati constructed a train station as part of an overall city plan, namely the 1925 Master Plan. Prior to this, stations had simply been built by the railroad companies wherever it made economic sense to do so.

Trained as an engineer and a historian, Condit is able to provide the reader with some nice descriptions of the numerous railroad stations that were scattered across the city of Cincinnati before to the unification of the city's rail lines. I enjoyed the old pictures, but I would guess that the average person would find them somewhat boring.

As far as academic books go, this wasn't all that bad. However, I would have to be drunk to recommend it to anyone.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Pale Fire by Vladmir Nabokov

It is entirely possible that I am not literate enough to fully appreciate Nabokov's Pale Fire. After all the entire book is writen in the format of a commentary on a 999-line poem called, appropriately, Pale Fire. It's split into three sections, with the first 60 pages containing the complete text of the poem, the middle 200 or so containing commentary on various obscure lines, and the final section comprising a bibliography. Of course, there are some twists. First, the entire thing is fiction. The poem, the commentary, the bibliography, all just framing devices to tell the story of Zembla, the home country of commentator (and friend of the poet John Shade, author of Pale Fire, the poem) Dennis Kinbote. Confused? Titillated? Having a hard time believing a book like this could actually be interesting and understandable to someone who knows nothing about literary criticism?

Well, Pale Fire was not the easiest book I've ever read, but it wasn't as difficult and pedantic as its summary would make it sound. The poem Pale Fire, which opens the book, is actually quite good as a standalone poem, and, afer reading it, it's difficult not to be a bit curious what the commentary will reveal about it. However, anyone actually seeking insight on the poetry will be disappointed, since most of Kinbote's commentary takes the form of taking a line from the poem, making a tenuous connection to John Shade's life, and then using the line (or, sometimes, even an isolated word) to tell the story he wants to tell. Namely, the story of Charles Xavier, Zemblan king, and his life, rule, and eventual exile from the fictional country of Zembla.

The most interesting aspect of he book is that it never really entirely answers many of the questions it raises. From reading Kinbote's commentary, it's possible to pick up clues and put together a rough draft of what may have happened, but, in conjunction with that, Kinbote's own confessions of the reactions of others to his friendship with Shade (particularly Shade's wife) are revealing: virtually everyone thinks he's crazy, and it's difficult to tell if even his romanticized friendship with Shade himself is being told in the truest possible light. The entire novel is like a puzzle box, with each bit of commentary shifting other bits side-to-side until a vague pattern begins emerging.

Lest I make it sound like a plotless bore, Pale Fire is quite funny at points, both because of Kinbote's eccentric narration and because of the book's satire of literary criticism in general. The final third of the book is quite plot heavy, such as it could be in its format, and is really pretty exciting. Still, the book works best if you enjoy reading books as intellectual exercises in addition to just pure entertainment. I'm going to read it again someday. Maybe after I've read 30 more books, I'll be smart enough to understand it all.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Those Who Blink by William Mills

I read this book at random--literally. In the library, Alyson closed her eyes and picked this book out. Admittedly, we did this a couple of times until we found something that wasn't poetry or short stories, but hey, it's still pretty random.

My hopes that this book might be an undiscovered classic were dashed, however, when I discovered that it in fact sucks. It tells the story of Farley Stokes, a young Korean War vet working at a chemical factory that befriends a shady but charismatic union worker who helps him realize his dream of becoming a cattle rancher. What ensues is page after page of hot cattle ranching action.

The book is written into two sections--"Hot," which describes Farley's newfound fortunes, his budding friendship with the union man Bo Simmons, and his blossoming relationship with a local nurse, and "Cold," which describes his impending mortgage payments (you can mortgage cows--did you know? You can mortgage all kinds of shit), his disillusionment with Simmons, and his failing relationship (she sleeps with Simmons). It's a pretty unnecessary and obvious conceit, but hey, A for effort. What gets a big fat F is Mills' efforts to make any of this business interesting in the least. Stokes is a nothing of a character and Simmons is a broadly written Burt Reynolds type who never quite seems able to justify the big puppy eyes that Farley gives him. The conflict is not all that conflicting and the romance is as well-crafted as your standard romantic movie, which is to say not at all. No one in this book has anything approaching a personality and they never do anything approaching plot.

To its credit, Those Who Blink is easy to read because it's written in very basic and utilitarian prose (you can't be too flowery when describing cattle ranching--it's just not possible). The sections in which Mills tries to be poetic--like when, say, Farley and his lady love first do it--are mind-bogglingly bad. Here is a description of what Farley calls the "inevitable approach shot that would land me in her green":

Suddenly her hand went out to my legs and she began to move it back and forth and finally moved inside my pants.

We undressed each other, and with her strong hands she went over my body, exploring. As we lay down on the rug, she kneaded the muscles in my neck and back, sitting on me.

She turned me over and as she leaned forward, her hair and breasts touched my chest and right then I saw the strangest wildness there, like she was letting go of some control she had. But I was beyond thinking anymore, and as we rode our horse to glory, no bad men were going to catch our gang. I slipped out of town into the darkest night.

Five points to whoever can pick up a girl using the line, "Do you want to ride a horse to glory?" How about, "Hey, let's slip out of town into the darkest night, baby."

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

It's true, I haven't posted anything in over a month now. But, not to worry dear friends, for I have returned, and with a vengeance. Best watch your back, Chris. There's a new sheriff in town.

As it turns out, Bill Bryson writes more than just great travelogues. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a sort of science primer, giving a brief but thorough introduction to almost every field of popular science. He says that he set out to make scientific knowledge accessible to those people (most of us) who were stuck with completely dull, unreadable textbooks in high school and college. He certainly does a great job putting huge, unapproachable concepts and figures in perfectly understandalbe perspective.

It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.

Each section gives a history of a certain branch of the scientific world, as well as a brief summary and explanation of its basic tenets. The book moves as chronologically as is possible, while still maintaining clear divisions for the many different “–ologies.” He starts with the Big Bang, age of the Universe, our place in it, and finishes with the evolution of man and a chapter on massive extinctions that are taking place today. In between the book is packed with an unbelievable amount of information – completely readable information – on geology, paleontology, earth science, climatology, evolution, physics, particle physics, of all things, biology, zoology… I could go on. What struck me most was the unseen politics of the scientific world. There have been some serious words exchanged over whether a type of rock belongs to one geological era or the next and personal attacks of character made over fossil classification. Also, Sir Isaac Newton was apparently a complete nutcase. He’s reported to have stuck a nine inch hatpin in between his eye and the socket, pushing it as far back as it would go until it met resistance, just to see what might happen.

Bryson spent years traveling the globe to meet with the authorities (major and minor) in each of these fields, trying to get as much of a handle on each of their areas of expertise as he could before writing this book. What results is a book that has a bibliography with well over 250 entries, not to mention the informal interviews, which is completely and absolutely accessible by someone with no background in scientific education whatsoever. And all this without losing his unique tone and style; it’s still funny, which is quite a feat when your subject matter includes such topics as mitochondrial DNA genetics, carbon and radioactive dating techniques, and tectonic plate theory. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the book is very dense. It took me weeks to get through it just because there is so much information to absorb – I underlined practically the entire text. But it’s definitely worth the effort. I can’t count how many times I set the book in my lap just to look up and say “wow,” to absolutely no one, or annoyed the hell out of my girlfriend by tapping her on the shoulder and recounting some scientific tidbit that I found fascinating, mostly when she was trying to sleep.

As an environmental studies student who's fascinated by evolution, this is one of my new favorites. I plan to keep it close at hand as a reference from now on. If you don’t care much for any branch of the sciences, this book is probably not for you. If you’d like to get a better understanding of the broad range of scientific information out there, then, by all means, read it.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The third installment of the series finds Harry Potter in great danger. Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban -- the wizard prison that no one has ever escaped from -- and is coming after Harry. Although everyone is very worried about Harry's safety, he's more worried about being confined to the castle and winning the Quidditch Cup; that is, until he learns the truth about why Black went to prison in the first place. To make matters worse, every time Harry crosses a dementor -- the terrible soul-sucking creatures placed around the castle for the school's protection -- he relives his worst memory: his mother screaming as Voldemort murders her.

The taunt about his father rang in Harry's ears as though Black had bellowed it. A boiling hate erupted in Harry's chest, leaving no place for fear. For the first time in his life, he wanted his wand back in his hand, not to defend himself, but to attack--to kill.

Another great Harry Potter adventure... I am enjoying this way too much. This is the first book that the film was a significant departure from. When new director Alfonso Cuaron stepped in, he had never read a Harry Potter book before. For the most part, this one isn't a huge difference. There were just a couple things about the film that bothered me -- namely that in the beginning, Harry is practicing spells in his bedroom. Anyone who read any of the books would realize this is ridiculous -- underage wizards aren't allowed to practice magic during summer holidays, and every time Harry accidentally has, he's been terrified of (and been threatened with) being expelled. He would never practice just for fun.

But anyway, about the book. Once again, I love how Rowling jumps right into Big Issues, even though it's "just a kids' book." The trio learns the typical lesson about Friendship (friends are more important than silly fights), but also Big Lessons about Revenge and Betrayal. That's cool to me.

As much as I love Professor Dumbledore, his character annoys me sometimes. He's supposed to be so smart and all-knowing, and yet he still never seems to be able to help Harry with his troubles until afterwards, when he comes in for the feel-good one-liners. He always contributes the Moral of the Story in the final chapter. And then he's always speaking in riddles. When two lives are on the line and he gives Harry and Hermione instructions for saving them, he doesn't just outright tell them, leaving the kids to figure it out when they're already tight on time. Though I guess with more interference from him, there wouldn't be much of a story.

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

The sky turned to black
Would he ever come back?
They would climb a high dune
They would pray to the moon
But he'd never return
So the sisters would burn
As their eyes searched the land
With their cups full of sand

Tea in the Sahara with you
Tea in the Sahara with you

--"Tea in the Sahara," The Police

The Sheltering Sky
is a novel about strange deserts both real and psychological. In it, a trio of well-to-do but well-traveled Americans, Kit and Port Moresby and their friend George Tunner, take an extended trip to North Africa, which proves to be stranger and more dangerous than they had anticipated. The book is split into three parts: First, a sort of dismal travelogue that follows Port and Kit's failing marriage and Tunner's unwelcome advances on Kit as the three Americans explore the towns of what is probably northern Morocco. The second deals with the married couple, who, tired of Tunner, have sent him on ahead of them, and Port's sudden illness as they travel further south and deeper into the desert.

All this is well and good, and at times can be very beautiful--the authors of the Times 100 Books List point out that this book proves you can write affectively about the desert without being cloyingly poetic--but can also be very tedious. Bowles never sufficiently explains for my taste why the Moresbys decide to spend weeks in North Africa, for example. The dialogue never approaches real, and Bowles has an annoying habit of telling rather than showing, delving into long descriptions of the nuanced relationships between the three figures without real anecdotal evidence. Some of the psychological stuff is fascinating, but it's overused.

It's the third and final section that really stands out, though--and here I shall inject a major SPOILER WARNING--when Port dies ignominiously in a French military camp. Kit, horrified and heartbroken, walks off into the desert until she is discovered by a native named Belqassim who dresses her as a man and takes her as his secret consort, which continues for weeks. Because Belqassim and Kit do not share a common language, this third part is told for the most part without dialogue, and allows the characters to seem more real. The depiction of Kit in the desert, mad and mute, is both terrifying and beautiful, and stands in stark contrast to the well-mannered and somewhat prissy American of the first two sections. In many ways, Kit reminds me of the character of Almasy in The English Patient, who goes to the desert in order to lose himself but finds he cannot. This concept is echoed in the comments of a nurse who ultimately helps Kit return to civilization, referring to Kit's lost luggage: "It's funny... The desert's a big place, but nothing really ever gets lost there." I recommend this book, if only for the final section, and because it will give you a new perspective on that Police song.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Flatlands by Edwin Abbott

So, Liz recommended this book to me after I shared with her my plan to write a fantasy novel based on mathematical concepts. Evidently, I'm not the first person to have this idea (surprise).

Edwin Abbott wrote Flatlands before Einstein formulated his theory of relativity, so the concepts of alternate universes and dimensions beyond the third existed only in very abstract theory. Considering that, it's a fairly impressive book on a purely theoretical level.

The plot of the book, such as it is, mostly takes the form of a travelogue (so listen up, Nathan) of a two-dimensional world. The protagonist, A. Square, gives us a tour of a land where women (who are just lines) are required to sway side to side when they walk, and where judging people by sight is considered a greater virtue than getting to know (or “feeling”) them. Most importantly, it's a world that can't even conceive of a third dimension, and even the suggestion of such is a cause for death.

In the final section of the book, A. Square's world is turned upside down when he is visited by Sphere, a creature from the third dimension who also introduces Square to Pointland, the land of one dimension. The book is a pretty clever satire, and it fits a lot of content into its scant 100 pages. It would probably take less time to read than this review, and would be more rewarding.