Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Once again, Harry deals with being the so-called "Chosen One" during his sixth year at Hogwarts. Dumbledore is finally giving him personal lessons, so as to prepare him for fulfilling his prophecy with You-Know-Who, but per usual, Dumbledore is keeping more secrets than revealing truths. Meanwhile, Harry has found an old potions book that is helping to earn him top marks in his NEWT-level Potions class, but at what price? Although the plot certainly is eventful, in true Harry Potter fashion, it is probably the least so of the series. It includes a lot more history of Voldemort/Riddle and theory on how to defeat him -- the basis of Dumbledore's lessons with Harry. Tensions in the school rise as reports of Voldemort's evildoing across the country turn up, ultimately ending in a DeathEater-Order battle on school grounds.

Let us step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure...

This installment is pretty good -- emotional, adventurous, exciting, etc, etc. This one is also crucial to understanding the plot of the seventh book, as it's really kind of a set-up for the end. If you want to know who is good/bad/dead/alive this time, you'll have to read it yourself, which I highly recommend. I'm glad I decided to read this one before setting on the seventh... they're really closely connected and I didn't remember much of the sixth.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

Let Adolf Hitler transport you to a far-future Earth, where only FERIC JAGGAR and his mighty weapon, the Steel Commander, stand between the remnants of true humanity and annihilation at the hands of the totally evil Dominators and the mindless mutant hordes they completely control.

I decided to read this book based on the description, which is the kind of self-referential stuff I enjoy: Instead of becoming dictator of Germany in the 1930's, Hitler immigrates to the United States and becomes a science fiction author. His last work is called The Lord of the Swastika--which is actually what you're reading; the rest is all setup to introduce the false author. The story itself is of Feric Jaggar, a genetically pure "Trueman" intent on freeing his native country of Heldon from the scourge of hideous unpure mutants and especially the evil, mind-manipulating Dominators who are based in the faroff country of Zind.

The point is that the book Hitler would write--a narcissistic, sexually aggressive and racist fasco-fantasy where genetically pure people destroy thinly veiled mutants--resembles much of the science fiction literature that characterized the middle part of the century. By substituting Hitler as the author of the book, Spinrad means not for us to think about Hitler per se, but what we appreciate in fiction and what it says about us.

That's all well and good, but the fact is that Hitler is a terrible writer. Now, I realize, that is somewhat of the point, but that doesn't make Lord of the Swastika, or The Iron Dream, as it's published in real life, any better. It's still full of clodded, awkward writing and nauseating battle fantasies. What concept, no matter how clever, necessitates a full-length book that is necessarily awful? It's enjoyable in a superficial way, I suppose, but not in the way literature ought to be.

I did enjoy, however, the afterword by the fictional Harold Whipple of NYU, which points out the phallic symbolism of the book and relates it to the circumstances of the times, in which the Greater Soviet Union controls all of Eurasia and the United States yearns for a brave leader like Feric Jaggar, which Whipple says accounts for the book's popularity. The best part: "Of wider significance is the book's popularity and the adoption of the swastika motif and colors created in it among as diverse a spectrum of social groups and organizations as the Christian Anti-Communist League, various 'outlaw motorcycle gangs,' and the American Knights of the Bushido."

How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer

I borrowed this book from Nathan and read it a few months ago (I'm still behind on writing reviews for all the books I've read this year). Read his review. He summed up my feelings about the book. His argument about why the US is so antagonistic towards soccer made a lot of sense. It explains why David Beckham's tenure at the L.A. Galaxy may attract the People Magazine crowd, but not the die hard, flag bearing, NASCAR watching American sports fan to the world's sport. The story about the Iranian women's struggle for equality was insightful, too. My favorite however, was Foer's explanation as to why Barcelona is, hands-down, the best soccer team in the world.

This "unlikely theory of globalization" is a quick, entertaining read even if you don't much like soccer. Go Barca!

Superstud by Paul Fieg

I read Superstud during the same car trip in which I read Notes From the Underground. That was a huge mistake. Paul Fieg's experiences with the fairer sex had so much in common with Notes' existential angst that I occasionally forgot which book I was reading. Superstud was funnier though.

Humor books are difficult to review, so I'll just say that Superstud is quite funny and sometimes quite poignant, not unlike Paul Fieg's crowning accomplishment, Freaks and Geeks. It's a collection of essays connected only by the fact that they a) happened to the same person and b) are told her in chronological order. From the world's worst not-a-date to an REO Speedwagon concert to Michigan's mostly blatantly racist girlfriend, all the stories are funny and strangely relatable. I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Fieg's other book, Kick Me, but it's still worth the read if you're into that sort of thing.

Notes From the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes From the Underground represents my second excursion into Dostoevsky, after reading The Brothers Karamazov last year. Notes was more or less beach reading for me, since I read most of it on a beach in North Carolina while fighting off killer stingrays and trying to keep my dog from attacking copperheads.

Notes focuses on an unnamed protagonist who narrates the book. It's divided into two sections, the first of which is a mostly plotless character study and the second of which is the story proper. I n first part, we learn the the narrator dislikes his jobs and tries to make things as difficult as possible for his customers. Or maybe he doesn't. The protagonist's indecision about how he really feels is an ongoing theme of the first half of the book, where virtually every statement that he makes is then deconstructed, deciphered, reconstructed, and then questioned further. He convinces himself that he desires pain and loneliness, that laziness is a virtue if it is practiced intentionally, and that there is a deeper need in him that he doesn't fully understand. All of this is run through with a self-loathing born of his inability to relate properly to the world and ideologies around him. Sound confusing and a little pretentious? It is, but it's only about 40 pages long and is pretty interesting despite that.

Possible spoilers below.

Part two is really the main part of the book. It's about twice as long as part one, and it contains a plot, or, better said, three loosely connected vignettes demonstrating the practical results of the philosophy in part one. The first two vignettes are tragically comical. In the first, he buys a new coat for the express purpose of wearing it while bumping into a man who doesn't even know he exists, thinking that a nicer manner of dress will add some significance to the collision. In the second, he invites himself along to the birthday party of a man he despises, and spends most of the party pacing by himself and making snide remarks about whatever topics arise. The third story is tragic, as he meets a young prostitute and alternately loves and hates her until finally driving her away, thus cementing, I guess, his misanthropic tendencies.

if I had to draw a comparison, Notes has a lot in common with something like Catcher in the Rye. The narrator has served as a type for many misanthropic protagonists throughout literature, and it's interesting to see the parallels. Besides that, it's a pretty good story, but not exactly light reading. And, that is all.

Oh, I like this cover a lot better than the cover of my copy.

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and Andrew Miller

So, does this book win the title for having the longest title?

If you enjoy Saturday Night Live, reading about television shows from the 70's, or just insider perspectives of the entertainment world, this is a good book. Following the progression (or regression) of SNL from it's start in the 70's clear through the early 2000's, it's unlikely that such a comprehensive book has ever been written about the show.

The book is split up into major sections, mostly by decade, and, aside from some brief historical information provided by the authors, the entirety Live From New York is made up of snippets from interviews with the cast members, crew, and hosts over the past 30 years. It's pretty impressive in its scope. Virtually every SNL alum is represented, with the notable exception of Eddie Murphy who was evidently too busy filming Pluto Nash 2 to spend 10 minutes talking about the show that made him famous.

The book as a whole is pretty good guilty pleasure reading, and the best bits are when the cast talks about the best and worst hosts. Best include people like John Goodman, Steve Martin, and Alec Baldwin, and the worst include Ben Stiller (who refused to host if he couldn't host the first non-Guliani post-9/11 episode, and Steven Seagal, who spent most of his time sexually harassing the crew and thought a skit about a psychologist who drugs and rapes his patients would be hilarious.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

Well, I read this book about a week before Kelly posted it, and seeing as it's a colection of essays, his review sums them up pretty well. I agree with him on pretty much every point, including that 'Six to Eight Black Men' is the funniest essay in the book. A close runner up is 'Blood Work,' wherein Sedaris the housecleaner is mistaken for Sedaris, the erotic housecleaner. Hilarity, of course, ensues.

Of all of Sedaris' books I've read (which is everything but Me Talk Pretty One Day), this one was the funniest and most consisent. So if you like David Sedaris, read it. If you don't, read something else.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Ragtime by EL Doctorow

The plot of Ragtime is not easy to define but I'll try: The time is the first decade of the 20th century. The main characters are two families living in the greater New York area, a middle-class Protestant family (Father, Mother, Son, Mother's Younger Brother) in the suburb of New Rochelle, and a poor Jewish family (Tateh, Mameh, and Little Girl, yes, these are their only freaking names). Other characters include Sarah, the black girl who comes to live with the Protestant family with her child for some reason, her lover the ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, and various real people from this time, including Houdini, Freud, Emma Goldman, and J.P. Morgan. Several real stories are woven throughout the narrative, all of which connect in some tangential way to the tales of these two families which don't come together properly until the book's end.

The plot's pretty impressive in its complexity, but the style almost drove me crazy. Perhaps in an imitation of the musical manner of ragtime, the whole thing is written in short, choppy sentences and includes no direct dialogue. This, when combined with the nameless characters, creates a feeling of distance that made it difficult to really care about what happens. If you ever wonder why English teachers tell you to "show, and not tell," this is why: endless repetitions of phrasing like "Father felt this way" or "Father felt that way," no matter how poetic, is super-boring.

To be honest, for the first two sections of this book, I was bored out of my mind. It picks up quite a bit in the second half, which skips around less and deals mostly with the story of Coalhouse Walker, the book's single interesting character: Coalhouse is somewhat of an oddity as a black man who dresses nicely and owns a Model T, and for this he is picked out for harassment by the local Fire Chief, who stops his car outside the fire station and tells him that he's driving on a toll road. Coalhouse is too proud to pay off the Fire Chief, so he leaves the car, which has been barricaded, and tries to find a policeman, but when he comes back without help he finds that the car has been vandalized and defecated in. Coalhouse wants to sue, or press charges, but can't seem to find anyone to represent him. Sarah, in a moment of foolishness, tries to get the attention of the Vice President (who she thinks is the President) to solve the problem on a campaign stop nearby, but after the assassination of McKinley the secret service is anxious and violently stops her from approaching him, and she dies. Enraged, Coalhouse goes on a terroristic rampage, blowing up the fire station and causing general mayhem for months, demanding that his car be restored and the Fire Chief turned over to his justice.

So, that's pretty cool. But the rest of this book is weighed down by really irritating prose and boring shit. In its clear attempt to be "The Great American Novel," Ragtime often comes off like a dry history lesson and not like a compelling work of fiction.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden

I find that The Last King of Scotland makes me wonder again about the relationship between books and their film adaptations. The Last King of Scotland, while a good book, is still vastly inferior to the film version, for many reasons, perhaps not the least of which is the fact that I saw the film before reading the book--though I think that part of the pattern lies in the fact that great films are more likely to inspire people to read the books on which they are based. After all, The Shipping News is an amazing book and one of my favorites, but who would want to read it after seeing the dull Kevin Spacey-Julianne Moore turd they made out of it?

Anyway, The Last King of Scotland is the almost entirely fictitious story of Nicholas Garrigan, a Scottish doctor who travels to Uganda on the eve of Idi Amin's successful coup to work for its National Ministry of Health, and through sheer accident (Amin is involved in a car-cow collision near the bush town where Garrigan practices) becomes Amin's personal physician. But Amin, it turns out, is a psychopath, and Garrigan is unwittingly drawn into his closest circle and finds himself unable to extricate himself from an increasingly violent Uganda. The title, The Last King of Scotland, refers to Amin's real-life idiosyncrasy of styling himself "The Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular," and his affinity for the Scots as an "oppressed people."

The film wisely noted that Amin is the most interesting character in this story; though it is about Garrigan, it's Amin's colorful insanity that really makes the story worthwhile. The relationship between Garrigan and Amin is the focus of the film, but the book is burdened by its opening third, which describes Garrigan's experience as a doctor in the bushland, and its final chapters, in which Garrigan inadvertantly finds himself among a Tanzanian company invading Uganda. For someone whose presence overshadows the entire novel, Amin is present very little. The rest of the characters are largely insignificant.

All in all, this is a better book than High Fidelity or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or Children of Men, all of which are nearly made irrelevant by their film adaptations. In this case, at least, it forms a good companion to the film, though not quite measuring up to it. Case in point: the film has a scene where James McAvoy is pierced by hooks through his nipples.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

This might be the best book I've read all year. Kids can read it, sure. I probably would have loved it when I was little, but I think I would have missed out on all the undertones that Kipling pours into every story.

First you should know that Rudyard Kipling was born and raised in India, studied in England and lived his married life in Vermont. He sounds like a pretty rugged guy, maybe on par with Bear Grylls. So he knows what he's talking about when it comes to lions and elephants and the rest of the bunch.

Secondly, I have to say that Mowgli is a bad ass. I mean he hangs out with wolves all day and then kills Shere Kahn with his bare hands. Hardcore. I want to be him.

There's more to The Jungle Books than action. These are stories about a deep-rooted disenchantment with the modern world. In one story, "Letting in the Jungle," Mowgli becomes upset with a small Indian village that's been encroaching on the forest, so with the help of Hathi the elephant, they topple every building in the town. There's sticking it to the man for ya. Mowgli 1, Urban Sprawl 0. This theme pops up in almost every story.

Kipling also creates an order within Jungle life. It's a natural order, not one fabricated with plastic by men in ties. In the jungle hierarchy, humans are pretty far down - again, dissatisfaction with modern living - but Mowgli spans the gap. He's more than just an action adventure star. He's the model citizen, that which we should emulate.

There are some other jewels here other than the Mowgli stories. "Rikki Tikki Tavi" is excellent. If you never read this when you were little, it's not too late. If you did read it, I think it merits a second look.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Warning: this review contains some mild spoilers.

I am by no means a fast reader, but even so this book took me much longer to read than it should have. I don't know exactly why this was the case. It wasn't like I was slogging through it. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Most people know the basic story of this book because they have seen the film, which is a pretty good adaptation. The basic story is that a ne'er-do-well convict gets himself admitted to a psychiatric hospital, seemingly to get out of work duty. McMurphy is obviously different than the rest of the men on the floor, who are split in to two groups: the acutes and the chronics. The acutes are men that the hospital is trying to rehabilitate. They are generally functional human beings with a few "defects". The chronics are those that will no doubt live out the rest of their days on the ward. They are considered beyond help. What makes the book especially interesting -- and sets it apart from the movie -- is that the story is told from the perspective of one of the chronics, Chief Bromden, a Native American whose hulking size belies his diminutive personality. At the beginning of the book Bromden tells the reader:
"I been silent so long now it's gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen."
This sets the story up quite nicely, for what follows is truly a mixture of reality and the slightly-skewed reality that Bromden sees around him, as he recounts the battle that ensues between McMurphy and the Big Nurse, Ms. Ratched.

It has been a while since I have seen the movie, but what I remember of it syncs up rather well with the book. I don't think anyone other than Nicholson could have played Randle Patrick McMurphy the right way. The character was perfect for him. However, the humor was already there in the character. The macho posturing, the quick wit, and the overall demeanor of McMurphy were carefully-crafted creations of Kesey (how's that for alliteration). Other than the Nicholson-McMurphy connection, the film was not instrumental in the mental pictures that I created while reading the book. Kesey writes well and his sparse, yet somehow still vivid, descriptions trumped the film in my mind's eye. One night as Bromden is telling McMurphy about his dad, he says:
"And the last I see him he's blind in the cedars from drinking and every time I see him put the bottle to his mouth he don't suck out of it, it sucks out of him until he's shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs don't know him, and we had to cart him out of the cedars, in a pickup, to a place in Portland, to die."
While on a trip outside of the hospital, Bromden describes the landscape around him: "Out along the dim six-o'clock street, I saw leafless trees standing, striking the sidewalk there like wooden lightning, concrete split apart where they hit, all in a fenced-in ring."

The writing is excellent, and the characters are full of life. There is good reason that this book is considered a classic.


Check out Christopher's review of this book.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

Jews and sex. Sex and Jews. Sexy Jews. Jewy Sex.

Thus can Philip Roth's book Portnoy's Complaint be described. In it, Alexander Portnoy, a successful thirty-something civil rights lawyer monologues to his shrink, Dr. Spielvogel, about the travails of his childhood and his many unsuccessful sexual affairs. Portnoy's problem (his "complaint") is that while he has a monstrous and somewhat deviant sexual appetite, his ethics will not let him engage in sexual diversion without much inner struggle. This is connected to his childhood and to his strict Jewish parents, who seem to be a lot like Fran Drescher's mom on The Nanny. When Portnoy isn't thinking about sex (at one point, he masturbates into a cored apple), he's thinking about Jews, and how as a self-described atheist he finds it difficult to relate to his family and surroundings, which are uber-Jewish.

This book is dark, funny, and extremely crude (it uses the word "cunt" more often than any book I have read, or any pornography I have seen), but for all that it's a little disappointing. Portnoy's monologue jumps around so considerably that it lacks any real narrative or forward structure, and it just doesn't have a lot of emotional heft. I have a feeling that this book may be enjoyed more by a Jewish person, but as a goy it left me sort of unimpressed. It certainly didn't leave me feeling that Roth is, as many have described him, the greatest living American author.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Return of the King by JRR Tolkien

The Return of the King was my favorite of the three Lord of the Rings movies, but out of the three books it's probably the most flawed. For one, a lot less happens than in the first and second books (the first particularly is just crazy wizard shit after crazy wizard shit). Most of the book is overshadowed by two big events: the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, in which the forces of Gondor and Rohan beat back the forces of Sauron's Mordor, and Frodo and Sam's final trip into Mordor to destroy the Ring. In retrospect, it's probably good that Peter Jackson was least faithful to this book out of all of them, because the movie is more exciting.

The other problem is that all that is finished by page 200 (out of 300). The final third of the book drags on excessively after most conflict has ended, plowing through funerals, and coronations, and lots of goodbyes and such. The only interesting part of the final third is the Battle of Bywater, in which the four hobbits amass a hobbit army in order to reclaim the Shire from Saruman, who has moved in and taken over since he was expelled from Isengard.

What I did like about this book, though, was the character of Denethor. Too many of Tolkien's characters are wholly good, noble characters--there is no discernible difference in character, for example, between Faramir and Eomer and Theoden and even Aragorn. But Denethor, King of Gondor, is a flawed character and thus more interesting: He is always suspicious of Gandalf, who he thinks wants to take over his kingdom, and then when his son Faramir is gravely wounded in battle, Denethor goes crazy and assumes he's dead and then tries to burn him (and himself) on a funeral pyre. What a nut!

Anyway, I'm both glad I read these books and glad I'm done reading them. Few other books give the same impression of having read something huge and important, but they can be tiring and the storytelling is not always fantastic. Far more interesting than the books themselves is all the stuff that went into their creation, like the languages (you can learn Quenya, or Elvish, today, and it's only one of tons of languages Tolkien created for the book) and the geography and history.

Here is a Middle-Earth map for nerds.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

Hilarious. I liked this even more than Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris' pours his dry, sarcastic sense of humor into every sentence of every story in this collection. He has a knack for storytelling as it is, but it doesn't hurt that his family - featured in most of the stories here - is a couple beers short of a six pack.

In this book, the stories range from childhood adventures to anecdotes from his life in rural France. My personal favorite is "Six to Eight Black Men." I don't know what else to say about this. If you haven't read/heard anything by this author, you need to. This is as good a starting point as any.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Scavenger Hunt by Christopher Pike

Scavenger Hunt is, at its core, a tale about the human condition. As the characters in the novel battle their own demons, we are encouraged to look inside ourselves identify our own, and then to vicariously face them along with our heroes in the book. As Carl slowly drifts away from his never-to-requited feelings for Cessy, Tracie's character arc is a direct counterpoint, following her character as a series of horrific misadventures slowly pull them together. Rick, a promising young child with a disease that is slowly killing him, nevertheless represents the eventual triumph of the human condition, recalling Stephen, the first Christian martyr in his unflinching and hopeful outlook even as * spoiler * his flesh and bones are dissolved in a pool of acid. * end spoiler *

Anyway, I read this book in about an hour and can't remember hardly anything about it. It's great. Seek it out.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane

Kaffir is a derogatory term in South Africa roughly equivalent to... you know. I mean you know, lots of black rappers use it in songs to refer somewhat affectionately to other black people. Shit, here. But that's how Mark Mathabane grew up, as a "Kaffir" Johannesburg's biggest slum, Alexandra. His childhood, clothed in rags and terrorized by constant police raids, sounds more like something out of Elie Wiesel's memoirs than Harriet Tubman's. Maybe I can't make a comparison like that, but either way Apartheid was more appalling than I thought.

Obviously he makes it out. I don't think I'm giving away anything there. If you couldn't figure that out, this book might be a little advanced for you. But the way he gets out was surprising. His self taught English helped, but that wasn't the reason he made it, nor his perfect school record. It was Aurthur Ashe's footsteps that led him to America.

The ending is abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying, but Mathabane's story of growing up flushes out the racial tensions that make the book worth reading. He shows how white Afrikaners feared the natives, how blacks from the city were different than those in the tribal reserves, why some blacks hated other blacks, and pretty much every other dynamic you can think of. If you know nothing about black South Africa this is a perfect starting point.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

"When I said Cathy was a monster, it seemed to me that it was so. Now, I have bent close with a glass over the small print of her and reread the footnotes, and I wonder if it was true. The trouble is that since we cannot not know what she wanted, we will never know whether or not she got it.If ran than running toward something, she ran away from something, we cannot tell whether or not she escaped."

East of Eden is the story of two families in the Salinas Valley, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, and their seemingly inevitable reenactment of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Steinbeck is perhaps best known for the ultra-realism of The Grapes of Wrath, which makes East of Eden, with its grand themes and supernatural allusions, a tough read for some fans (Just check the Amazon reviews for proof). Still, although I loved Grapes and consider that it is probably an objectively better book, East of Eden's mythical scope and archtypical characters drew me in even more.

The first half of the book tells the story of Adam and Charles Trask, and the second tells the story of Cal and Aron, their sons. There's a woman of course, in the form of Cathy Ames, one of the most vile characters (or creatures, as Steinbeck refers to her) in all of literature. Still, even in her, Steinbeck manages to inject the tiniest elements of humanity, although it's just enough to make her cruelty seem even more loathsome.

The theme of the story hinges on a difficult-to-translate word in Gensis 4, where the story of Cain and Abel is found in the Bible, a word that is determined to mean “thou mayest,” and the entire book is about choices. In spite of their circumstances, everyone in East of Eden decides their own fate by the choices they make, whether for good or for evil. It's a point examined again and again, sometimes subtly, as in the main storyline, and sometimes a bit ham-fistedly, as in the monologues by Adam's manservant, the somewhat stereotypical Chinaman Lee. The occasional didacticism is the main downfall of East of Eden, although to me, it just added to the mythical nature of the whole story. And, that's all I have to say about that.

Oh, one more thing. If you've seen the movie, you should be aware that it only covers roughly a third of the book. The part it leaves out would never make it into a PG rated film.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

I remember listening to the song "Westfall" by Okkervil River once in the car with my mother, a song about a teenage boy who murders a pair of girls. My mother's response was, "Ew, who would want to listen to a song about something like that?," and I expect a lot of people unfamiliar with the reputation (or familiar with it) of Lolita have a similar reaction: Who would want to read a book about a child molester, much less one written in the first person? But that, I think, is the magic of Lolita. There is a great movie The Woodsman, in which Kevin Bacon plays a child molester released after his prison term, struggling to survive though the world is unsurprisingly hostile to him. That movie accomplished the difficult task of making the viewer sympathize with a child molester, Lolita goes one step further and asks the reader to empathize with a child molester, to occupy his own frame of mind and try to understand him. It's vile and disgusting to be sure, and not exactly appealing, but satisfying in the fact that it gives the reader a great insight into sin, madness, and evil.

I could say a lot about Lolita, but since we're all going to read it, the only other thing I'll say is that as far as judging the book simply by its prose, Nabokov is one of the best writers I've ever read, I think, and English not even his first (or second) language. It's been said that he's one of the best writers of the 20th Century in both English and Russian, and that's quite impressive.

Finally, an interesting thought from Nabokov's afterword:

[The publishing companies'] refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and granchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

So, I've been stuck without writing a review for quite a while because I was intimidated by the prospect of reviewing what is quite possibly the most notoriously long novel ever written, War and Peace.

According to Tolstoy, War and Peace isn't actually a novel. I'm not sure exactly what his criteria was, and I can't say that I entirely agree with him. In my estimation, War and Peace is definitely a novel, albiet an epic, sprawling one with a cast that numbers in the hundreds. Supposedly, there are over 200 significant characters in the novel, including Czar Alexander and Napoleon himself. The estimate isn't difficult to believe, considering that, in one of the appendices, all characters with lengthy story arcs are listed, and that list includes over 70. When you lump in the supporting characters, War and Peace probably has more characters in it than this blog has readers.

War and Peace may be the best known book that no one knows anything about. Except for Woody Allen's summation (“I sped read War and peace in 15 minutes. It involves Russia”), I knew nothing about it either. After actually reading it though, it's easy to see why no one knows much about it. Whereas most books can be succintly summarized in a few words, War and Peace defies such capsulization. Boiling a book with no main character, no main plotline, and numerous philosophical digressions down to a paragraph isn't easy, but here goes. War and Peace is about Napoleon's failed attempt to conquer Russia, and how the war affects individuals in the nation, from nobles, to soldiers, to servants. As a description, the above is accurate, but it in no way captures the scope of the novel.

The stories of the characters in the book, from the fickle Natasha to the haughty Prince Andrey to the compassionate but searching Pierre to the meglomaniacal Napoleon, all intertwine in unexpected and sometimes inconsequential ways. Characters will appear in scenes together who do not know each other. Sometimes the actions of one character will affect another one without his knowing. Much like the real world, the lives of the characters are influenced by people they will never even know. Think Short Cuts with a larger cast, and you'll have an idea.

The writing itself surprised me. In a book that's over 1400 pages long, you'd expect that the writing would be padded with page-long descriptions of trees or long-winded statements about the minutae of a meal, but War and Peace never falls into this trap. The writing (and the translation) is sometimes beautifully rendered, but it rarely slips into the sort of self-indulgent tangents that pad out works by authors of modern bricks, like Tom Clancy and Stephen King. Virtually everything serves a purpose, and it makes War and Peace move along at a much faster clip than you'd expect.

All said, it's certainly one of the best novels I've ever read. If I had to make a complaint, it would be that the last 50 pages are Tolstoy's thoughts on the war, and, while they're interesting, they would have been better served as an appendix. After reading 1350 pages about these people, having the last 50 pages talking about military theory is a bit of an anticlimax. Still, it does litle to diminish the power of the book, and it was well worth the time it took to read it.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

So I've been on vacation the last two weeks, or "vacay" as the kids say. I've got four more books under my belt and four more reviews to write. This one's my second--actually, the only other--birthday present (thanks, Kelly).

Good Omens is older than I thought it was at first. I read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, which was published in 2005, and really enjoyed it, but this was a lot different. He wrote the introduction to The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and made it very clear that he's got a thing for Douglas Adams. Reading Good Omens, you can kind of tell. A lot of it feels like it's in the same style. The writing is clever, but the plot feels a little bit haphazard, like all the loose ends were tied together at the last minute, no matter how much of a stretch they needed.

I read somewhere that it was written as a loose parody on the movie The Omen, but, not having seen the movie, I felt like it was more of a spoof on the apocalypse in general. Events are set in motion to usher in the reign of the Antichrist and the great war between Heaven and Hell, but problems keep popping up. What really sets things in motion is that someone (a member of the Chattering Order of Satanic nuns) misplaces the baby Antichrist, who ends up growing into a normal boy with some serious persuasive abilities. The two characters who I thought would be most important actually ended up fading to the background for the most part by about the middle of the book, so it was hard to feel much interest towards them when they popped back up at the end. The demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale, having been on Earth since it began, decide that they kind of like it here, and do what they can do thwart the oncoming end of said planet. A lot of other subplots show up for a few pages, then disappear, then take on more importance towards the end.

It was a fun read, but I had the same problems with it that I did with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. A lot of it seem kind of haphazard, characters and plots added for no apparent reason, just kind of made the book seem to busy. However, there are two covers you can choose from, so it's got that going for it:

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

This book was recommended to me by my boss, after I described Catcher in the Rye to her. Since she had never read Catcher, I am not sure what made her think that I would like this book. In actuality the two books do not have much in common, except that they are both written like a memoir or diary — essentially the main character is telling you a story about his past. I guess the books do have two things in common: I thoroughly enjoyed both of them, and each author created a character that was completely unforgettable. Moral of the story, my boss was right. That must be why she gets paid the big bucks.

Much like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Owen Meany is forever burned into my brain, maybe even to a greater degree than Caulfield. Although the story is told through the eyes of Johnny Wheelwright, Owen Meany, who is friends with Wheelwright, is truly the main character of the book. He is hilariously funny — intentionally and unintentionally — unbelievably smart, but all the while mysterious. In truth Owen Meany is full of mystery. Why is he less than five feet tall as a senior in high school? Why does his voice always sound as if he is screaming his words? What happened at his Catholic church that caused him to hate them so? What exactly does he know about the future? Maybe more importantly: What does he think he knows about the future?

This is the first book by John Irving that I have read. I have been told by many that it is his best. Irving does an excellent job of creating characters and situations that linger with you long after you have closed the book. (I just closed the book about twelve hours ago, but I thought that phrase sounded nice.) He creates a realistic world, one that seems familiar. But there is something slightly off about this place, namely Owen Meany. I never knew anyone like Owen Meany growing up. I hesitate to say that I wish I did.

This book has instantly become one of my favorites, easily in my top five. I highly recommend it.

Check out Brent’s review of this book.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Here it is, as promised, the second book in the Lord of the Rings series. At the end of the last book we left just as Frodo and Sam decided to spare the other travelers in the company and go to Mordor alone, and so this book is divided in half: the first part deals with Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, and Pippin after Sam and Frodo leave, and the second part deals with Sam and Frodo on the road to Mordor. Merry and Pippin are kidnapped by Orcs and get mixed up with some tree-people called Ents. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas search for the abducted hobbits, meet Gandalf (who has come back to life and is more powerful), and then the whole troop gets involved with the defense of the Hornburg, the fortress of Rohan, against the army of Isengard, which is ruled by the traitor wizard Saruman, and then take Isengard itself with the help of the Ents. As for Sam and Frodo, they meet Gollum who agrees to guide them to Mordor, but is very sneaky, and along the way they meet Faramir, Boromir's nobler brother, and then fight a giant spider. Whew.

I'm not sure what to say about this one--I'd say it's about at the same level as the first one, but the characters are a little more fleshed out. The bits with Gollum are pretty interesting, but the movies are so similar I find that I already know a lot of what's going to happen before it happens. However, I don't remember much about the third movie, so maybe the third book will be new and interesting for me.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

This time around is a special review, per request of Carlton. Because it in its very nature is one giant spoiler, the text is hidden. You can view it by clicking on the title of this post.

Harry Potter
Ron Weasley
Hermione Granger
Headmaster Albus Dumbledore
Professor Minerva McGonagall
Rubeus Hagrid
The Weasley Family (-1)
The Members of the D. A. (-1)
Remus Lupin
Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody
Nymphadora Tonks
Various other members of the Order

Professor Dolores Umbridge
The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, and many of his Ministry supporters (not that they're Dark; it's just that they have a grand time making Hogwarts a terrible place and Harry miserable)
Lord Voldemort
Peter Pettigrew
The growing list of Death Eaters
The Black Family, except Sirius
Percy Weasley
Marietta Edgecombe of the D. A.

Sirius Black

Severus Snape

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Modest Proposal

Here's an idea: Every now and then, we could all read the same book for shits and giggles. Then we could have an open thread to discuss it, like a real book club or some shit. I thought we could all start with Lolita, since a number of Fifty Bookers have expressed desire in reading that. Plus, you know--pedophilia.

What do you think?