Monday, October 27, 2008

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison

1970; 160 pages. Genre : Modern Literature. Awards : Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993; The Bluest Eye was selected for Oprah's book club in 2000. Overall Rating : B.
11-year-old Pecola Breedlove has been taught that she is ugly. Rejected by both parents; abused by white folks and black, and by friends and strangers; her fervent wish is for God to give her blue eyes so she can be beautiful.
What's To Like...
The book is a masterful effort, which is all the more surprising since this is Toni Morrison's debut novel. The formatting is unique - each chapter starts with a happy little "See Dick and Jane" snippet, which stands in stark contrast to the bleakness in Pecola's daily world.
The overlying theme of the book is people and circumstances allying to make a person believe that he/she is ugly. Being black in Pecola's world (Lorain, Ohio in 1941) is not beautiful, and if you were born that way, it was ingrained in you to marry someone mulatto, or at least lighter-complexioned than you. Frizzy hair and/or a wide nose was ugly, and your beauty was defined by how much you conformed to the standard of the white world. The brainwashing process started at an early age for girls - when they were given a white-skinned doll to play with.
Be Forwarned...
This is a coarse, gritty book, devoid of hope and without a happy ending. There is child-abuse, pedophilia, and rape. The only "shades" of character in the various people in the book is in the degree of hatefulness and uncaring they have. I have to question whether life for anyone, even for a black child in the 1940's, was as bad as Morrison paints it. I certainly hope not.
An Excerpt that sets the tone...
Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs - all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. "Here," they said, "this is beautiful, and if you are on this day 'worthy' you may have it."
On The Matter of Censorship...
A while back, a high school teacher in Bakersfield, California assigned The Bluest Eye to be read by a 12th-grade student. The topics apparently shocked the kid, who showed the book to his parents, and a brouhaha ensued. You can read details about it here.
Now, I am completely against book-banning, which was what the parents sought. However, I question the judgment of the teacher here in making it required reading for a teenage kid. Is parental-rape is suitable subject at that age? I for one would have found this book shocking and revolting when I was 17, and I would have resented any teacher telling me to read it. In the end, the school district voided the assignment, but refused to remove The Bluest Eye from the school library's shelves. It's nice to see that every once in a while, the authorities get it right.
The Bluest Eye (Oprah's Book Club)
By: Toni Morrison
Amazon Price: $14.00

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Watchmen by Alan Moore

The Watchmen is a 12 issue comic book put into one volume that I read at my boyfriends request. It has excerpts of a fictional book as well in its pages. The book chronicles a strange time in the 1980's. The animation is actually very good and the plot is interesting. The characters were fascinating especially one called Rorschach a vigilante whose mask looks like a Rorschach ink blot. There is actually a lot of adult content in this book and some nudity. It keeps pace with the times with worries about nuclear war and the soviet union communists. There was a movie going to be made about these comics however because of fights between creator and the movie industry the production has been stopped. The book is interesting though and worth reading.
By: Alan Moore
Amazon Price: $19.99

The Devil's Labyrinth by John Saul

Anyone who finds books about bizarre Catholic Schools gone wrong this is a book for you. John Saul, keeping with his specialty, writes about teenage children stuck in a boarding school. Strange exorcisms and demons abounds in this interesting thriller. Of course if you don't like reading about teenagers in strange situations then this isn't for you at all. Saul seems to always center his novels around some sort of deranged adult and a teenager or group of teenagers. Being that I was raised Catholic,thankfully I'm over that now, I found the book both scary and interesting in many ways. Unfortunately there is the typical cliff hanger ending that is strange. Over all any book by Saul is usually good.
The Devil's Labyrinth: A Novel
By: John Saul
Amazon Price: $7.99

A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire

This third volume of the Wicked series left me feeling frustrated and flat. I love the works of Gregory Maguire and how he makes classic fairy tales and stories warped and complex. Unfortunately the Wicked series seems to keep going and going with no end in sight. In three books he hasn't even came close to completing the cycle of characters and plots. We are still searching for lost children and lost loves at the end of this installment. The stories of Elphaba, Lirr, and the Cowardly Lion Sir Brrr haven't even halfway completed. A lot of people don't like this series because they are very political books. Gregory Maguire tried to make the story of Oz and its inhabitants more realistic by making it political and in a way tawdry. While I normally like that kind of thing the politics get in the way more often than not. The whole series are worth reading just for the purpose of a different view of the Wicked Witch Elphaba, and for those musical buffs the book is COMPLETELY different than the fun loving musical Wicked. The books on a whole are very dark and compelling.
A Lion Among Men (The Wicked Years, Book 3)
By: Gregory Maguire
Amazon Price: $26.95

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer

The final and most amazing Twilight book. The character development finally complete there is even a tiny bit of romance and sexuality involved. I cried, I laughed and I went aw a lot. Oddly enough I couldn't wait to get to the end to see what happened but hated to see it at the same time. I am completely happy with the ending and love the fact that the characters ended up how I wanted them to, something that usually doesn't happen for me.
Breaking Dawn (The Twilight Saga, Book 4)
By: Stephenie Meyer
Amazon Price: $22.99

Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

Jacob Jacob Jacob. The third installment of the Twilight saga is full of this interesting character. Oddly enough when I was reading this book my boyfriends teenage daughter did nothing but talk about how much she hates Jacob, she went as far as to buy a Team Edward T-Shirt. Of course I don't agree with her but I will let everyone else decide what they want. I cant really reveal a lot because it would spoil it and I just cant do that.
Eclipse (The Twilight Saga, Book 3)
By: Stephenie Meyer
Amazon Price: $19.99

New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

Book two of the Twilight saga. I refuse to be a spoiler but lets just say that the characters don't lose their interest for me and if anything keep developing more and more. These novels now incorporate Native American lore and the Werewolf legend with the vampire myth. Two of my favorite types of beasts.
New Moon (The Twilight Saga, Book 2)
By: Stephenie Meyer
Amazon Price: $10.99

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Book one of an amazing "teen" vampire saga. It's been a long time since I've read a book that captured my attention like this one has. The way Stephanie creates the world of vampires living among us is just fascinating and articulate. I feel in love with the characters instantly although I was apt to have more than a few moments of having to remind myself the characters are mostly teenagers and not adults. I tend to get annoyed with some typical teenage behaviors hehe. But I wont spoil the books for anyone just a wonderful read in general it took me 10 hrs to read the entire book.
Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1)
By: Stephenie Meyer
Amazon Price: $19.99

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Wheel of Darkness - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

2007; 385 pages. Genre : Thriller. Overall Rating : B.
Someone has stolen the Agozyen {"Darkness"} from a remote Tibetian lamasary. NBD, except that it has the power (indeed it has the destiny) to annihilate mankind from the face of the earth so that the world can begin anew. That's a bummer for us humans.
FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast and his ward, Constance Greene, need to track down the thief and recover the purloined power object. They end up on a luxury liner, where things go amok when they realize that the "darkness" has already been unleashed.
What's To Like...
The plot is action-packed and fast-paced. There are several unexpected twists, including the "Hero vs. Ultimate Evil" confrontation. The plot is a bit formulaic (a bunch of terrified people trapped in a confined space, with a monster rampaging about), but it is convincingly done. There is even some Holmesian logic involved, as Pendergast has to somehow quickly and deductively narrow the suspect-list down from the 2700 passengers on board.
The negatives are few and mere trifles. There's a certain bumblingness (I doubt that's a real word) about the monks. The monster isn't all that scary. Then there's a small incident that piques one of my literary peeves. To wit...
Just once I'd like to see...
The commander of the ship, Commodore Cutter, is a real butthead. That's fine. A "Caine Mutiny" situation develops, and he is subsequently relieved of his leadership role. Later on, for reasons I won't give due to spoiler concerns, it is expedient that the crew again avail themselves of his services. They find him sulking in his quarters, and with gritted teeth, offer him his job back.
Alas, Commodore Cutter has no redeeming qualities. He spurns the offer, leaving the crew to a seemingly hopeless fate. My peeve is this - how come 99% of the characters in Action/Thriller/Alt-History stories have to be either black or white? Just once I'd like to see some "grayness". It would've been nice here to see Commodore Cutter accept their offer and contribute to the resolving of the issue, albeit without stealing the spotlight from our intrepid hero. If nothing else, it would've added a bit of complexity to him.
But I digress. The Wheel of Darkness is a worthwhile thriller; keeping me on the edge of my seat and turning the pages as the situation became more and more dire. This was my second Preston & Child book {"Relic" was the first} , and it is obvious that they make a good team for writing contemporary novels in this genre. I'm sure I'll be reading more of the series.
The Wheel of Darkness
By: Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child
Amazon Price: $7.99

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Elementary, Mrs. Hudson by Sydney Hosier

I love Sherlock Holmes. I cut my teeth on reading his detective stories. Arthur Conan Doyle is solely responsible for me getting into mysteries. When I saw the book, Elementary, Mrs. Hudson I decided it might be worth it to read it. That was years ago. I finally took down the book and read it, again. Shows the impression the first reading gave me. I didn't realize I had read the book until passages kept looking way too familiar. Oh, well. So I reread it, but I don't think it changed my opinion of it.

Mrs. Hudson is called upon by her old friend, Mrs. Violet Warner. Actually, Mrs. Warner calls Mrs. Hudson in hopes Sherlock Holmes will attend to the case. Alas, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson are on holiday in Africa for two weeks and can't be reached at the moment. Mrs. Hudson decides to take his place and goes out to the St. Clair place. There, Mrs. Hudson encounters a distraught Violet who claims Lady St. Clair was murdered, but everyone else claims it was natural causes. Violet doesn't buy it for one minute and has Mrs. Hudson looking into things. After sleeping on it and waking up to find another body of an unknown girl, the police and Mrs. Hudson think something's afoot. Sure enough, there's plenty afoot and Mrs. Hudson and Mrs. Warner decide to team together and search it out, which they do, thus solving the cases.

I don't know what kind of rubbed me the wrong way about this book nor do I feel like exerting my energy in finding out the answer. I might pick up this series again or not; time will tell.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Capable of Murder by Brian Kavanagh

Typically, I really enjoy the English cozy. I nice country side with a dash of murder and mayhem. But this story tended to be a little, uh, dry. It also had an element in the story I'm not particularly fond of, which I'll explain later.

In this book, Belinda Lawrence receives a letter from her Great Aunt, who's name escapes me at the moment, it might be Jane, so I'll call her Jane from now on. Aunt Jane invites Belinda to visit because the aunt has a great secret to tell to Belinda. Only when Belinda arrives, she finds Aunt Jane took a tumble down the stairs. The police are quick to rule the death accidental, even though Aunt Jane had been living downstairs for the past few months due to her arthritis. Belinda insist something's off (wouldn't have a story if she didn't), but no one listens to her (typical). She finds out her aunt wasn't well-liked and that the aunt willed her house, property and 80,000 pounds (don't know what this is in American dollars). Belinda meets quite a cast of characters. There are her neighbors, Rosemary and her brother, Justin (I think), odious book owner, her lawyer, an antiques dealer, and the realtor, Marc. It seems they all had motive to murder Aunt Jane. Not only was she cantankerous, but she also had a secret. Then one day, Belinda arrives at home to find Rosemary dead in her kitchen. Belinda eventually discovers the secret and finds out who murdered Aunt Jane and Rosemary.

The ending actually had a twist, but the story line just sucked the interest out of me and I no longer cared who did it. I don't know why the book did that to me. Perhaps I wasn't in the mood or perhaps it was the element I'm so utterly not fond of. I do like to read mysteries which tend to revolve around a specific item, such as needlework, baking/cooking, books, etc. So it doesn't bother me when I see a lot of reference to authors, different types of needlework, or people discussing baking or cooking tips. This book revolved around gardens, except the main character wasn't an avid gardener, in fact, I don't really know how she felt about gardens and I don't know if she knew a pansy from a tulip. However, everyone around knew and obsessed over gardens, especially an obsession over this one gardener, Lancelot Brown. Justin is scary how much he loves gardens and his sister (I still wonder about their relationship). The lawyer sinks money into his garden. Everyone keeps talking about gardens. I was caught off guard about the gardens, because sometimes the blurb about the book mentions what it deals with. The murders take a backseat to *gasp* gardens. Of course, I admire nice gardens, but this book drove me over the edge. It wasn't just one person or a small group, everyone had a vested interest in this one particular garden. It hit without warning and turned me off. Of course, another off-putting point might have been Belinda herself, at times she seemed so devoid of emotion that I found it hard to connect with her. Perhaps it was because of the male author writing females the way he thinks they think and act. It usually doesn't bother me, but when they write some things over-the-top, I get a little miffed. I don't think I'll pick up this series anytime soon.
Capable of Murder
By: Brian Kavanagh
Amazon Price: $12.50

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Da Vinci Decoded, by Michael J Gelb

I do not often wander into the self-help section of the library - I don't think they've yet written "Not Being a Jerk for Dummies", so I figure I'm a hopeless case. I wouldn't have read this book, except I got it for free, and it was a surprise, and I love surprises - I signed up for a class at work, and will apparently be meeting this author (over a teleconference call mind you) and they sent me a copy of his book - not signed or anything, you know, just a copy. Plus, I do like Da Vinci, and he really does seem like the sort of fellow for one to learn spiritual principles from, especially for the addled techologist type, like me. Otherwise, it's one I'd walk past at the library. It just feels like I really should qualify this review, it's like certain communicable diseases, or programming in BASIC - it's somethign you just don't admit in polite company, and certainly something you don't elucidate on.

That being said, I do not revile this book from the bottom of my heart. The author obviously did some serious thinking before he started writing, and seems to have a a wide, if eclectic base of experience on which to base his ideas. I guess that's the whole problem, for me - I really could have found this book enlightening, and I didn't.

The premise of the book is that Da Vinci, as the quintessential Renaissance Man, must of had some unique qualitites - mental, spiritual and physical - that gave him the power to know pretty much everything there was to know about everything in the world. A rather broad, but certainly reasonable premise. The book, additionally, makes the ambitious, but rather inspiring supposition that someone who so effectively combined the thinker and the feeler, the scientist and the artist, can be best understood in a study that is both intellectual and intuitive. Equal credence is given to scientific skepticism and spiritual significance. Carl Jung is frequently evoked. It held some great promise.

And then, it totally let me down. I love intuition, I do, and I love intellect, really. But, the beauty of Da Vinci is that he could live within the boundaries of both - he could walk what the Buddhists call the Middle Path. This mean accepting strictures as the basis for gaining power. I suppose most people if I talked about my feelings from the book would say that I wanted him to be less intuitive, that I wanted him to substantiate my claims - not so. Actually, when he delved into reason, he did... okay. Intuition was a sham, usually it was an excuse to not have to think, or felt that way. The farther we got in the book, the lazier the writing felt, and the lazier it got, the more it felt like when I was in seventh grade and tried to write essays that 'sounded important' - lots of feeling and no emotion. Substanceless. Intuition does not neccesarily have concreteness, but it has substance, it has to FEEL real, like I would believe it. I felt unconvinced by this book, even embarrased. Even things I DO believe (for instance, the abstract idea of a universal subconcious) felt embarrasing in this book.

I don't want to demean Mr. Gelb as a person, I think, perhaps, that he believes, more or less what he's saying. I felt like, just maybe, he wanted to write a spiritual manifesto, but had to fit it into a pop-psych opportunistic-because-Da-Vinci-Code-is-huge-right-now schedule, and just took the lazy way out, not trusting himself enough to write somethign that could be great without the benefit of Dan Brown's sales boost. Anyway, bleagh. Yeah. I promise not to say this to him, if I meet him. Unless he asks.
Da Vinci Decoded: Discovering the Spiritual Secrets of Leonardo's Seven Principles
By: Michael J. Gelb
Amazon Price: $10.00

Friday, October 17, 2008

Playing For Pizza - John Grisham

306 pages; 2007. Genre : Fiction. Awards : #1 New York Times Bestseller. Overall Rating : C.
Rick Dockery is a bench-warming 3rd-string quarterback on the Cleveland Browns, until Fate and injuries-to-others deal him a disastrous performance in a playoff game. He is figuratively run out of town, and ends up playing the next season for the Parma Panthers in an Italian Football League. There he learns some of life's lessons about loyalty, friendship, and dedication, and also gains an appreciation for the culture of a foreign country.
What's To Like...
It's an easy, pleasant read. It screams to be made into one of those Sunday night Hallmark Special made-for-TV movies. It's got a smidgen of romance for female readers, and lots of football for male readers.
Replaying for Reheated Pizza...
Although the book has a logical climax (the league's Super Bowl), Grisham leaves a number of important loose ends dangling. I presume this is deliberate, and that we'll be seeing a sequel to this in a year or two.
Reading this book, I couldn't help but think that Grisham wanted to vacation in Italy, and decided to charge it to the publishers as "research". His descriptions of Italian churches, countryside, and cities all sound like they were taken from a tourbook. If you're a Grisham fan (and I'm not), you'll probably find P4P a disappointment. There are no legal themes, no complexities, and no deviations from a predictable plot. It is safe to say this made it to #1 on the NYT bestselling list by virtue of the author's name.
Nevertheless, this is a decent book if you're looking for some "Hallmark movie" relaxation, so we'll give it a "C". But you can be sure that the next book I read will have killing and mayhem in it.
Playing for Pizza
By: John Grisham
Amazon Price: $7.99

Thursday, October 16, 2008

For Whom Death Tolls by Kate Kingsbury

Back to Sitting Marsh and the crime-solving lady of the manor, Lady Elizabeth. Lady Elizabeth is managing as best she can with the war and occasional murder. This time, an American GI, Kenny Morris, has been killed. What’s worse is Sam Cutter, Polly’s sweetie, has been accused of the crime. Earl Monroe has asked Elizabeth to look into the matter. She can’t say no to his steel blue eyes (I’m getting a vision of Paul Newman here - RIP). She agrees to check into the matter, especially because Polly is distressed her boyfriend’s locked up.

While dealing with the puppies, organizing a cricket match, finding out who’s dealing with black market goods, cleaning the chimneys, handling a tour of her manor, and dodging American investigators, Lady Elizabeth solves the riddle to all her problems, except for where Major Earl Monroe is concerned.

I really enjoy my “visits” to Sitting Marsh. I feel like I’m watching a PBS show of a British show, such as Are You Being Served or something similar. Kingsbury is such a good writer I zip through her books. It’s a good break and I’m always surprised when I finish her book because I always feel like I finished her books when I just start them. She has the right balance of humor, mystery, and romance to satisfy me. Kudos to Kingsbury and I look forward to her next book as I do a Murder, She Wrote episode or Mary Stewart book.
For Whom Death Tolls
By: Kate Kingsbury
Amazon Price: $5.99

Misspelled edited by Julie E.Czerneda

This book contains seventeen stories which is more like smorgasbord of writing. It’s a little taste of different writers so I don’t have to suffer through a whole book if I don’t like the author or the story. I liked quite a few of the stories and there were some which offer me hope of getting published in the fantasy genre. The stories primarily deal with spells gone wrong or right depending on the viewpoint of the speller or spellee. Sometimes it comes out okay, but sometimes the results are not all it’s cracked up to be.

One of the stories I really liked was one by Kristine Smith (I had to because we almost share the same name, the first name being slightly different). Her story, “8 rms, full bsmt,” dealt with a demon in the house and the main character being the cleaner. Kind of reminiscent of What’s a Ghoul to Do? except the main character uses spells and not reason to deal with unwanted house guests. This one also has a touch of romance in it which made it even more enjoyable. I’m a sucker for romance. I like a story with a touch of romance, not full blown sex scenes, but a hint of love doesn’t hurt. There were other stories that were cute and enjoyable. “The Demon in the Cupboard” was a cute story by Nathan Azinger about a husband who accidentally conjures a demon by using his witch wife’s spices and has to hide the wreaking obsessed demon (it is his job description) during dinner. There was also “Chafing the Bogey Man” by Kristen Britain about a professional golfer who uses a spell to help his game, but doesn’t realize sudden death is exactly that. To the golfer’s defense, he couldn’t read the Gaelic fine print.

Stories that didn’t strike a cord with me where “Cybermancer” about an internet witch who accidentally pulls her sister into another realm and has to rescue her. I felt the story was rather dated and tried to marry the internet and witchcraft, unsuccessfully, I thought. The main character burned spells written in code onto a disc, but because of a corrupted file, a literal worm, the disc is corrupted and the spell goes awry. There was too much angst and the story tried to magical without any magic except for the part where the main character consults a witch on how to help her sister. The story, “A Spell of Quality” by Kate Paulk was too bogged down by details and too busy trying to simulate an office environment. “The Mysterious Case of Spell Zero” by Rob St Martin tried to mix English charm with witchcraft, but it seemed a little dry and disjointed.

Many of the stories I enjoyed, some I didn’t care for, but I got to taste all items on the menu which is why I like anthologies. They’re a nice break and a good way to “test read” authors.
Amazon Price: $7.99

Key Lime Pie Murder by Joanne Fluke

This is the ninth book in the Hannah Swenson series and I think the strain is showing on Fluke. I have enjoyed the series so far, but this one focused more on the fairyland of Lake Eden then it actually did on the murder mystery. Because this is the ninth book, I guess I can allow for this detour. I’ve already invested a lot of time and emotion into the books so I’m hooked.

In this book, the rodeo has come to town and Lake Eden is celebrating by holding a fair. Hannah has been asked to be a judge for the baking contest because one of the judges is in the hospital. Hannah reluctantly agrees. Willa Sunquist is also on the panel, but not for long. Actually, she makes it longer in this book than a lot of Fluke’s victims, page 132 to be exact. But the real mystery plaguing Hannah is what’s going on with her cat, Moishe. He’s not been acting himself lately, sticking to the window like glue and not eating, even his favorite treats. Hannah’s beside herself on his strange behavior, even taking him to the vet for a checkup. The problem with that mystery is it’s easily solved, at least for the reader. But I’m going to be cruel and not mention why he’s behaving strangely *bwa-ha-ha-ha*

During rooting for her sisters and nieces in the various pageants (beauty, mother-daughter look-alike, and cutest baby), trying to decide which man to marry (Norman or Mike), resisting joining the 21st century, and trying to figure out her mother’s latest project, Hannah sets out to solve the murder. She does eventually solve the murderer which really doesn’t come as a surprise.

The main focus seems to be on who Hannah will decide to marry: Norman or Mike. I personally think she’ll pick Norman mainly because the Fluke has picked Norman and has thus skewed the reader’s choice by making Norman more accessible and desirable, thus more favorable. Norman is building their dream house they designed for a contest in a previous book. Mike is sometimes viewed as an egotistical, macho man who makes Hannah’s heart flutter like a hummingbird on coffee (Hannah’s drink of choice). Norman is stable and thoughtful while Mike is the dreamboat. Mike is the fantasy, Norman is the stability.

I enjoy the series despite the fact that the mystery is becoming diluted through the recipes. It still smells like success and I really need to try a recipe of Hannah (Fluke) recipes.
Key Lime Pie Murder (Hannah Swensen Mystery With Recipes) (Hannah Swensen Mystery With Recipes)
By: Joanne Fluke
Amazon Price: $6.99

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Galileo - Bertolt Brecht

1966; 150 pages {8-41 : Introduction; 42-129 is the play itself; 133-150 : "Writing The Truth - Five Difficulties", an essay by Bertolt Brecht}. Genre : Dramatic Play. Overall Rating : C+ (the play rates a "B"; the rest rates a "D").
The book's plot centers around Galileo's invention (or more accurately, his plagiarism) of the telescope, and the impact this had on himself and on various institutions.
What's To Like...
Brecht gives a very even-handed presentation of Galileo-the-scientist, and Science-the profession. Being a chemist, it was interesting to me to see these two topics in such a light. In the play, there are a wide variety of responses to the introduction of the telescope.
For Galileo, it starts out as simply a money-maker. He is told about the Dutch already producing small telescopes, and he duplicates the design and sells it to the city of Venice as if it were his own idea. Later, he uses it to observe the moon and planets, and discovers that Aristotle was wrong - the earth revolves around the sun; not vice versa.
The city officials are only concerned with its marketabiity. It is seen as an amusement at best, or else a device for Peeping Toms. The government sees it as a military breakthrough - they will now be able to spot enemy fleets hours before those fleets see them. The church couldn't care one way or the other, unless it contradicts Scripture, and their interpretation thereof. The latter of course leads to a sharp conflict between the Astronomer and Rome.
What's Not To Like...
In a word, the Introduction, written by one Eric Bentley, sucks. Here's his first sentence :
"Brecht was all wrong about the seventeenth centruy in general and about Galileo Galilei in particular."
Wow! That really makes you want to read the book, eh? Bentley then spends 40 more boring pages, using Miltonesque verbiage, telling you why he's miffed at Brecht. In the end, it boils down to this : Brecht's Galileo isn't noble enough for Bentley. This one is a plagiarist, naive, and when it comes to facing the Inquisition's "methods", quite the coward.
Sorry, Eric. In Galileo, Brecht is exploring the inevitable tension between dogmatism and the search for truth. It's not meant to be historically accurate, any more than, say, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Get over it.
Oh, and the epilogic essay by Brecht is boring too.
A word or two about Bertolt Brecht...
Brecht (1898-1956) was born in Germany and was a lifelong Marxist and outspoken anti-Fascist. The latter appellation became hazardous to his health as Hitler came to power in the 1930's. So he chose to emigrate, but Hitler kept invading countries, necessitating multiple moves by Brecht. He went from Germany to Denmark, then to Sweden, then to Finland, and then to the USA. Here, as a self-proclaimed Marxist, he ended up being a target of the House of Un-American Activities. So his final move was (back) to East Germany. All because of his beliefs. Which is quite sad. Freedom-of-thought is ever the bane of dogma.
But I digress. I enjoyed Galileo, and even read it twice. Partly to better grasp the themes of the book, and partly cuz it was only 80 pages long. If you believe the Pope is infallible, or that Seeking After Truth is as noble an endeavor as you can have (and I fall into that latter category), then this book will challenge your beliefs.
By: Bertolt Brecht
Amazon Price: $7.95

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Host by Stephenie Meyer

The Host: A NovelThe Host was one of the most fast-paced, gripping books I’ve read in a long time. From the moment I started reading the book, the story drew me right in.
The story takes place on Earth after the human race has been largely taken over by a race of alien invaders who are souls living as parasites inside other beings’ bodies. The souls’ main desire is to enjoy life as it happens on the invaded planet, and they completely take over the human life they have invaded. The main character, the Wanderer, is the soul who has taken over the body of a woman named Melanie. She has lived on nine different planets herself, and she has been called as a professor who teaches others about the Souls’ history. She is, therefore, well-aware of the difficulty of living in the human body on Earth: the overwhelming emotions, the excessive violence, sensory overload. The Wanderer’s biggest difficulty is adjusting to the presence of Melanie’s still-vivid mind in the body with her. Melanie shows Wanderer vivid memories of her brother Jamie and Jared, a man she loved, and other members of the family who may still be left as humans, and with that, the Wanderer is drawn in to the search to find them.
The story is largely a love story – some reviews call it a love triangle with only 2 bodies, or even a love quadrangle. Nevertheless, it is romantic and powerful, and the story asks the reader to question what it is that attracts two beings to each other.
I found her description of two of the characters most interesting for they give a glimpse into what it means to love and live as a human. Ian and his twin brother Kyle have opposing personalities in the story. Kyle has lost his love when her body is snatched by the souls, and his anger is violent as he looks to deal out punishment. His twin brother, Ian, is the gentler of the two, and it is his character that I fell in love with myself. The two brothers’ stories tell of the triumph of love over all else, and this is clearly Meyer’s message and her justification for all the sour parts of life as a human.
The Wanderer tells vivid stories about other parallel planets where the alien invaders have settled: the Spiders, the Flowers, the Dolphins, the Bats, the See Weeds: all nicknames derived on Earth for the beings they resemble. I do wish Meyer had told even more story about the invasion, the Origin of the species, and life on the other planets. A review on Amazon says “Readers intrigued by this familiar-yet-alien world will gleefully note that the story's end leaves the door open for a sequel--or another series.” I wholeheartedly agree and hope Stephanie Meyer will write more.
The Host: A Novel
By: Stephenie Meyer
Amazon Price: $25.99

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin

This novel came recommended by Jocelyn. Since we share an interest in George R. R. Martin, she suggested I try it. Overall, it was pretty good, although there were a few places in the story that didn't work for me. I'll be expecting a partial refund on my borrow sometime soon for the disappointing moments.

So what's it about? Basically, you have vampires, a steamboat named the Fevre Dream, an ornery old cuss of a captain named Abner Marsh, and their adventures along the Mississippi River during the late 1800's.

In vampire stories, you always have to wonder why people don't immediately pick up on who the vampires are. They are always described as lean, graceful, pale, with arresting eyes and a tendency to avoid doing things in the daytime. In the book, it is so obvious who the vampires are that it annoys me when the humans don't realize it. At least George R. R. Martin didn't try to hide what they were from the reader like some sort of mystery novel. They are obvious, but at least the author isn't attempting to be subtle and just failing.

Abner Marsh is a very interesting main character. He's a loud, big man with a gruff personality, and his charisma carries this story. He has his share of hard luck, but he's not stupid, and he winds up having a realistic share of both good and bad fortune. One of my favorite aspects of Martin's writing is that he really doesn't favor anyone. He'll get you to love some characters and hate others, but how you feel about them really doesn't effect how life treats them. In his novels, bad seems to happen in healthy doses for everyone, good and evil and in-between. Another great thing is that there are rarely people that are good or evil at all, they all have vices and face difficult situations that test them beyond their capabilities. And he's good at making characters suffer, oh yes, he is!

I think Martin also plays with foreshadowing excellently. You just know throughout the novel that at some point the Fevre Dream is going to race this other famously fast steamboat. It's the captain's dream, and alluded to often. But then, I was so pleasantly surprised when this obvious event never even comes close to taking place. Like, gotcha! Bet you thought all that foreshadowing was for some purpose, like movies do. Instead, all you have is unfulfilled desire, or wasted potential, both provocative feelings that serve instead to draw the reader into the emotions of the novel. Good stuff.

On the other hand, I felt like the vampires were a bit two-dimensional, and that both they and Abner Marsh occasionally acted in a manner inconsistent with themselves, or the reality of the world they are in. What I mean by this is not that they seem unrealistic by our world's standards - of course they are in this type of novel - but that they don't seem to fit in with the reality of their own background, and that dissatisfies me. I understood why: events had to transpire the way they did or else the plot couldn't have happened like it did. But in two instances I found that characters seemed to be acting in an unrealistic manner. First was when Marsh accepts York's mysterious proposal at the beginning of the novel. Marsh doesn't seem like the type to make rash decisions blindly, yet he does here, and even goes so far as to agree that he will not question any strange things York does. I'm sure that he would really have said no, greed or not, but instead he does so that the plot can happen. The second instance is when York tells Marsh his story, and asks to not be interrupted because blah blah blah, and then an entire chapter is York's story (and a pretty unlikely one it is, for a vampire - I can't recall whether later or not some of it was proven false; York did lie to Marsh a good bit). There's really no way Marsh would have just sat there and listened - he would have done something, or said something, or had some reaction. But instead, it's all related and then he coolly seems like "Hmm. I'll have to think about everything for a while." It had an ethereal quality to it, which drew me out of the story for a while. Awkward.

Still, it's an interesting mix of elements. Wakes up the mind a bit juxtaposing vampires and a riverboat, on a mysterious mission. There is plenty of gritty action, and there are tough characters with the right amount of humanity to seem realistic (most of the time). Martin understands life on the river to a degree where you can tell he must have either researched it or done it for a while. I felt like even if I had hated the story there would have been enough factual information to make the book good as a non-fiction glimpse into life on the Mississippi in the 1860's & 1870's. It's not overdone, but the world is well developed (well, it's ours, in a way, so it should be, but I learned from it - an added bonus)

One last thing, the way I imagine Abner is exactly what George R. R. Martin looks like. A big man with a full beard, I wonder if George was putting himself into the novel a little bit. Seriously, take a look at the author's webpage and see my idea of what Abner Marsh looks like. Well, maybe take off the glasses. But I wonder...
Fevre Dream
By: George R.R. Martin
Amazon Price: $16.00

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett

1989, 355 pages. Genre : Comedic fantasy. Awards : #69 on the BBC's "Big Read" List. Overall Rating : A.
In the city of Ankh-Morpork, a secret society of bumblers figure out how to summon a big, nasty-tempered, fire-breathing dragon. As it turns out, that was the easy part. Much more difficult is how to get rid of the beast once you're done with it. This is a job for Captain Vimes and his Night Watch guards, who unfortunately have the mentality of the Keystone Kops.
What's To Like...
This is part of Pratchett's Discworld series, which is in the same genre as Piers Anthony books, save that, whereas the latter's works feature lots and lots of puns; the former chooses to use lots and lots of groan-inducing metaphors. One quick example (from page 55) :
"He was a small, bandy-legged man, with a certain resemblance to a chimpanzee who never got invited to tea parties."
The plot is good and there are lots of likable characters. The writing is witty and had me laughing out loud. Pratchett's books are a spoof of fantasy novels in general, with each book then also lampooning various smaller topics. Guards! Guards! takes a laugh at things like Secret Societies, Dog-Breeding (here it's Dragon-Breeding), and how to properly build your own dungeon. The book's an easy read, but I found myself going slowly anyway, just to soak up the pervasive humor.
An Introduction to Discworld...
Discworld is your typical fantasy universe (trolls, dwarves, dragons, wizards, etc.). The world is flat and shaped like a disk. The disk is held up by four cosmic elephants, who in turn stand on the back of a great turtle. There are (so far) 36 novels in the Discworld series, and although a lot of characters do go and grow from one novel to the next, you don't need to start with Book #1 to enjoy the series. For instance, Guards! Guards! is the eighth Discworld book, but was personally my first Pratchett encounter, and the storyline flowed just fine.
What is the "Big Read" List?
In 2003, the BBC conducted a survey to determine the 200 most-popular books in the UK. Guards! Guards! came in at #69. Terry Pratchett had 5 books in the top 100, and 15 books in the top 200. You can find the complete list here. FYI, #1 was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. No real surprise there. #2 was Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. That's quite a swing from LOTR.
To close, Terry Pratchett and Discworld were a pleasant discovery for me, and Guards! Guards! was a very nice "light" read. After the darkness of The Bell Jar, it was just what I needed.
Guards! Guards!
By: Terry Pratchett
Amazon Price: $7.99

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

1971; 200 pages (216 if you include the biographical note). Genre : Autobiographical fiction. (Is that an oxymoron?) Overall Rating : A-
Oh my. 5-squared must be influencing me more than I thought if I'm starting to read stuff by Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar was originally published in early 1963, and is Plath's only novel. It is a thinly-veiled autobiography of her summer internship at Mademoiselle Magazine in 1952, followed by her mental collapse when she returns home.
.What's To Like...
This is a beautifully-written novel, which is a rare treat. We have lots of great story-tellers nowadays (Dan Brown, James Patterson, Steve Berry, etc.); but frankly, they're not good writers. Plath paints stunning images, even when describing mundane things. A couple examples :
"He had a big, wide, white toothpaste-ad smile." Kewlness. Or :
"It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction - every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller, and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and that excitement at about a million miles an hour."
The 200 pages are divided into 20 chapters, and they almost all are exactly 10 pages long. One wonders if Ms. Plath also suffered from OCD.
So what was Sylvia Plath's problem?
Some think she was manic-depressive, but I doubt it. She had no "up" periods. Those who think she was clinically depressed are on the right track. Here's a glimpse (from page 2 of TBJ) into her world, describing her summer in NYC :
"I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn't get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."
In the whole book, I never found Plath to "feel" anything. At one point, she remarks that she hadn't felt happy since she was nine. She supposes she'll fall in love and get married someday, but you can tell she's never going to feel "love". She enters into her first sexual encounter the same way she approaches electro-shock therapy : "Let's get this over with." Indeed, those five words might sum up her entire outlook on life.
Sadly, although I felt like I grasped Plath's mental issues, I can't think of a solution for them. The electro-shock therapy seemed to help, but subsequent events prove this either was an illusion, or was temporary. While "playing the game" of getting well, she discusses various methods for killing oneself with her similarly-afflicted friend, Joan. And when Joan hangs herself in the woods, you still don't get the impression that Plath "feels" anything.
To close, The Bell Jar is a fantastic read, but it is broodingly dark and sad, without an uplifting paragraph anywhere in it. It gave me a great deal of insight into the world of depression, but I still can't say I understand it, nor would I know how to talk someone who's depressed out of suicide. The world was too soon deprived on Sylvia Plath's literary excellence, and 45 years later, we still don't have any answers for her plight. In February 1963, one month after The Bell Jar was first published, Sylvia Plath turned on the gas, and stuck her head into the deepest part of her oven.
The Bell Jar
By: Sylvia Plath
Amazon Price: $16.95

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

After the Dance by Edwidge Danticat

Well, Morrigan yesterday told me 'Dad, you've read too many books about Haiti.' So, I guess I'll have to pick a different topic for my next.

This is my first book by Edwidge Danticat, probably (thanks to Oprah Winfrey, who apparently has featured her books) the most popular Haitian-American writer, today. Altogether, it was a strange experience. I had picked up the book (after reading the jacket notes) with two expectation - that it would be a fairly earthy vicarious experience of the Haitian Carnival experience, and that it would feel like the confessions of an insider. Neither of these things turned out to be true - in fact, the story had a stragne sense of detatchment, throughout, as if it were written by someone who was there, but not quite there, and most of the book - including what I felt were the best sections - had only the slightest relation to Carnival.

After the Dance is less like a story, and more like a collection of essays. Ms Danticat was born in Haiti, and lived in Port-au-Prince until, I believe, she turned 12 - since then she has lived in the United States, more or less, I believe. It shows in her writing, she has some of the distance and wonder of an outside observer - but in many ways, she does write the insider's story, because when she writes about Haiti, she returns to when she was there, not just, often, in her stories, but in her self. She is filled with a spirit of a 12 year old Haitian girl, and somehow retains the subtle balance between wonder, awkwardness, pain and hope that a sensitive, lonely 12 year old might keep.

As a child, Danticat never attended Carnival - she lived with a Baptist minister, and Carnvial is not exactly a pious occaision in the American Protestantism sense of the word. Carnival, as a child, was presented as a terrifying spectacle. I did not really understand why she went back to experience it - because the desire seems very specific. She ggives reasons, but they feel awkward, incomplete. At first I felt like this was a weakness of the book, like she just needed to admit that her editor told her to write a book about carnival, or she wanted to get drunk, or whatever the reason was. But the more I read, the more I respect this vagueness - whether she, as a woman, knew why she was going, she as the narrator, did not. The moments of quiet become the most powerful moments in a book about a noisy thing - the moments in graveyards, or by a desolate, broken steam engine, or in a pine forest.

In many ways, there are three stories, paralleling each other here. The first is the obvious - it is the story of a city preparing for Carnival, a city preparing to be wild, happy, alive, in a world of oppresive sorrowful death. It is a festival where one dances at once with the dead, with demons, and with the old and new slavedrivers of the Haitian world - conquistadors, Papa Doc Duvalier, the American military, AIDS. But in the Carnival of Death, on the cusps of the graveyards, the Haitians dance, and sing, and laugh. This is a parallel to the country itself, a nation that might have been thought of as a historical abortion, as a nation that almost was but never quite managed to be. But, like the Zombie dancers that she talks about, the nation itself continues to plod along, the people survive, and live, and make joy, even as they stand up as examples of living corpses.

The last tale, perhaps she did not intend, but it was the most poignant of all for me, and the one that made the other two more than a mere political fable - in the midst of the story, is a voice of a little child, who left home at 12 years old to go to America, who never quite finished becoming one of her nation, in some way - a death before birth, of a cultural identity. But, even here, like Maman Brigitte in an Oak tree, or the Mary vines in the graveyard she describes, there is the face of life in Death, rebirth in marriage to death, the endless blooming of a thing that never blooms. Ms Danticat somehow manages to be both less than and more than the sum of the world around her, an eternal child, in all the tragedy and hope of eternal childhood - much like Haiti itself.
After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (Crown Journeys)
By: Edwidge Danticat
Amazon Price: $16.95