Friday, January 30, 2009

Austenland by Shannon Hale

I started out enjoying this book and at first I was getting into it but in the end I think my expectations going into this book were pretty high. I felt a bit of disappointment.
Originally, I did like the premise of book starting with a three week stay at a role-playing resort in England called Austenland, a complete immersion into Austen's world for obsessed fanatics such as Jane.
Actually, I really liked Jane's Aunt Carolyn as a character, (who bequest the above gift to Jane in her will). As fleeting as Aunt Carolyn's character was, I found her amusing. Just the fact that Aunt Carolyn was so open to speak about how she led this wild lifestyle and then in the eleventh hour, so to speak, she found out that she really loved the man next to her after all. I couldn't help but wonder if Aunt Carolyn had ever stayed at Austenland. How else would she have known about it?
Jane accepts the trip, I couldn't believe she even doubted going for even a minute and she heads to Austenland to live as Miss Jane Erstwhile, circa 1816. Here is where things get interesting and I don't believe Jane ever fixed her Darcy fanatic problems instead she runs away with Martin for TV basketball and root beer. This is where I couldn't relate, if I was in Austenland, I think I would want to be there. I could have the other things when I got back in three weeks. It was only for three weeks! Stay in 1816, I mean, Jane what are you thinking? Ok, so maybe I just didn't like Martin or I was suspicious of him but that's what I was wondering.
Then Jane's former boyfriends became too fantastical for me or maybe a weird collection of failed fantasies. She needs to be in real relationships that have some nurturing time first. Ah well...what do I know? Of course, I haven't read very much "chick-lit" so perhaps that's why I was getting so frustrated or maybe it was for the valid reasons, Amanda, has already so eloquently stated.
So, Jane leaves, finally, Austenland and she's followed by two men that she didn't really seem to have real feelings for or hadn't really been able to get to know them for all of the diversions that had been taken. She walks away and then one follows her again, really? Then making out on a plane instead of a real conversation to really turn her head around and find true love. That's not very believable either to me.
But of course, it isn't meant to be real. I understand this and I just don't think that this book resonated with me this time. Perhaps, one of Shannon Hale's other YA books will be better for me to read next time.
Lastly, I didn't think the whole Colin Firth theme was as huge in the book as I was anticipating which was fine with me. I don't mind Firth, as an actor, but my version of the perfect Mr. Darcy has yet to don the stage.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

Sheer curiosity drove me to finish this book. That and the fact that I had really wanted to take part in the YA book discussion at the library but, alas, I wasn't able to go because I became sick instead.
Anyway, I'm not from the world as the main character, Deanna, knew it. My whole existence was completely different from this book. So, for me this book was more fiction than realistic fiction as it was termed to be. I couldn't relate with Deanna or even some of the characters in her life. It felt weird to me that I felt sorry for her parents instead of for her. I had wished Deanna hadn't misunderstood them and I hoped that they were actually worried for her even though it always felt like they weren't or that they never cared. I felt sorry for the teenage parents, Darren and Stacy, and their little girl, April, too. I never could tell what I really thought about Tommy, the guy whom Deanna was caught red-handed with by her father, and he had been her brother's best friend and he kept showing up in her life - that was completely confusing for me. I really don't think I liked him but he did seem to change a bit toward the end - was it good or bad?
I could relate to Deanna's friend, Lee and I remember trying to have similar real conversations with friends in high school that Lee tried to have with Deanna, out of curiosity about sex and they ended up just as badly too. Those friendships never quite recovered either like they do in the book and I hadn't ever considered the guilt that the other person had been feeling until it was illustrated in the book. I feel sad about that now.
I did like the character, Michael, but not because of Deanna's descriptions of him but because of how nice he always tried to be to her. I would've like to have known more about him.
Throughout this book, I was hoping for some more "hopeful moments" but those didn't show up until about pg. 172 which now I consider was how it was most likely meant to be and perhaps the point of the book. There were scenes in the book that I don't care to ever remember and I didn't like how it made me feel.
This book seemed to be paced fairly well for this type, I think. Incidentally, this book helped me understand one of David Cook's new songs better called Declaration though. Cool.
Overall, I didn't care for this book and I wouldn't recommend it. If I did, I would have to tell them that it is not a clean read.
I do understand that a lot of people have liked this book and there a lot of great reviews all over the internet. I have nothing against this book or the author but it just wasn't for me. I think this author has a lot of potential and I do happen to know that her other book is called Sweethearts, and maybe it is good. After all, it did make the American Library Association list of Best Books for Young Adults.

War of the Worlds Radio Play 1938 Edition by H.G. Wells, Featuring Orson Welles

While I was attempting to read War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells for Classic Book Group, I came across this War of the Worlds 1938 Edition of the Radio Play featuring Orson Welles. I decided listening to it was my best shot at making any progress with this book. So I bought this illustrated edition of War of the Worlds for $5.00 on a bargain table that claimed on its cover "An excellent guide to all things War of the Worlds" but I was mostly interested in listening to the radio play which accompanied the book.
So, I decided to listen to it while I was mopping my floor. Well, it could've been that I was so excited to make some sense out of the book or that I was delirious from mopping my floor but I was completely swept away for this single hour and entertained.
First the Announcer and then you hear the great voice of Orson Welles: "We now know that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own..." Then after this brief introduction, different radio announcer's come on and off keeping you up to date with the latest news, reports and interviews from around the country about the alien invasions and continues switching it up like that for the entire radio play.
A couple of times my children asked me what I was listening to and if it was real, which I thought was amusing, but that's what caught me thinking of how some people in 1938 could consider that this might be real. It is most likely true that there was not as much paranoia as reported but there was enough that they had to have press conferences the very next day about the impact the radio play had on the general public at that time. After all, it was aired on the eve of Halloween and it does have a creepy vibe to it. Orson Welles, himself said "We expected a lunatic fringe, but we didn't know it would go all across the country."
For me, it was an eventful way to spend an hour and sure made my mopping job a little easier too. I would recommend to others to spend an hour of their time to listen to the radio play. I think it entertains better and faster than the book.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Echo Park - Michael Connelly


2006; 427 pages. Genre : Murder-Mystery. Overall Rating : B+.
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In 1993, Marie Gesto disappeared. Her car was found in an abandoned garage, her clothing on the front seat, neatly folded. For thirteen years, it has been Detective Harry Bosch's cold case. Now a psycho killer has come forward and confessed to the abduction and murder, even offering to lead the police to the body, in exchange for escaping the death penalty. So why does Harry feel like someone's blowing smoke across his eyes?
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What's To Like...
In some mysteries, the perp is obvious after 20 pages. In others, it's as if the author just picks the bad guy at random at the end of the book. Echo Park finds the perfect balance. There are plenty of twists to keep you guessing, and Connelly goes easy with the lurid gore.
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Echo Park is set in the greater Los Angeles area, where I lived for three summers, so it was neat to read about familiar environs. Finally, anyone who names his protagonist Hieronymus Bosch is kewl in my book.
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There are some weaknesses. While Harry and the baddies are well-done, most of the rest of the good guys are a bit 2-D. Harry's partner is little more than the token gay girl, whose main role apparently is to take a couple bullets so Harry can stress out over catching her assailant.
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This is my first Harry Bosch book. It started off great and quickly pulled me in. There are those who say it isn't the best in the series. If so, I may have to read a couple more of these.

Monday, January 26, 2009

To America - Personal Reflections of an Historian


Due to the events of the past week, I've been feeling very patriotic, and wanted to read something distinctly... American. I found historian Stephen Ambrose's last publication "To America - Personal Reflections of an Historian" to be just such a book. Written right before he died in 2002, this short synopsis is a look back over event's and guiding principles he thinks have been key to the success of our country. A history teacher's final lecture on everything from Jefferson, Grant, and Nixon to racism and women's rights.

But, Stephen Ambrose was mainly attracted to military history. According to him, "the key events in American history were military. Winning the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, or World War II were the turning points in our history."

Surprisingly, I found his thoughts on the subject very interesting. For me, a person who has a hard time coming to grips with the war in Iraq, his brief synopsis of how and why America became a military and moral leader became more clear. This country has been forged with the sweat and blood of it's military, its citizens and its leaders.

I can't help but wonder what Stephen Ambrose would've thought of Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq war, electing a black president of the United States. We will never know. A true teacher, an exceptional guide to the past has been lost. What a shame. 3 Stars

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Diamond Cat by Marian Babson

It was a dark and stormy night. Honest, it was. Bettina Bilby awakens in the middle of the worst storm in quite sometime by a noise. At first, nothing appears out of order, except her mother and the four cats she's boarding. The next morning, the mother decides it's her or the cats and lets the cats out. They immediately pounce on a dead pigeon. Bettina takes away their treat and discovers a carrying bag full of diamonds. What follows after is a not-so-humorous comedy of errors: several men are trying to find the pigeon, the cat eats one of the diamonds, several strange visitors asking strange questions, one neighbor is acting strange, a man ends up dead on the neighbor's porch, the neighbor ends up attacked, who later dies, Bettina's mother dies as a result of that shock, and the end isn't entirely wrapped up nice and neat, but it is somewhat believable and the reader gets the feeling that things will come out alright in the end.

After reading a couple of Babson's books, I was expecting more humor, but didn't find it. True to her style, the cats provide plenty of entertainment. There's Adolf (cover picture), who lives up to his tyrannical namesake; (Poor) Pasha who misses his Mommy, craves attention, and cod-liver-oil; Bluebell who's affable and just wants to go home; Enza who follows in the footsteps of Bluebell. This is a quick read and would probably work good during a long weekend, preferably one that's stormy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Twice Upon A Time


1999; 309 pages. Edited by Denise Little. Genre : Anthology; Fantasy. Overall Rating : D.
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"Everyone knows that fairy tales, no matter how dark, will always come through with 'happily ever after' resolutions, but are those endings happy for everyone involved? What about the witch, the wolf, the giant, and the other so-called villains who make their homes in the Enchanted Forest?"
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So goes the prologue to 18 short stories, all fairy tale-themed, and all with a "twist" to them, including several that see how many different FT's they can bring into a single story. Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Prince Charming, and the Seven Dwarves. They're all here and more.
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The Best...
How I Came To Marry A Herpetologist. Opening line : "When I first spoke in toads and snakes, I hated them and tried to kill them." For every word she speaks, out pops an amphibian or a reptile. A clever concept.
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Leg Up. A take-0ff of the Tin Soldier tale. Done in Terry Pratchett style, but of course, not quite as good as the Discworld dynamo himself. Still, a nice story, with two endings.
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One Fairy Tale, Hard-Boiled. Rumplestiltskin done in "Detective Sam Spade" fashion. He searches for the melfeasant gnome, and runs into a bunch of other famous fairy-tale peeps along the way.
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A "D"?! How could you give this a "D"?!
For starters, there's a couple of quite unnecessary cuss words. Given that this is a book of fairy-tales, one can expect young readers to pick it up. The F-word is uncalled for. Then there are the twists themselves. Perhaps being forced to warp a known FT is too confining. For instance, if you set out to re-write Hansel & Gretel, there aren't a lot of options available, other than turning the kids into brats or villains.
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However, my main criticism is reserved for the editor herself. Of the 18 stories, three of them are a re-telling of Jack And The Beanstalk, all with the same twist. Jack's the bad guy, and the giant's the victim. Obvious the first time; royally irksome the third time. Is it too much to ask for 18 different take-offs?
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How important is the editor of an anthology?
I can't recommend this book. I have nothing against Fantasy Anthologies. See here and here for two well-done ones. Notice that Martin Greenberg was involved in both of those. I now have a greater appreciation for the impact he has on a quality compilation.
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Twice Upon A Time seemed to me to be an amateurish effort. Very few of the stories reached out and grabbed me. I never heard of any of the writers. A lot of their "experience" seems to be collaborations. I wonder if this is a rite-of-passage for authors just breaking into the professional field. For one of them (Ms. Lupita Shepard), her submission here was her first published work. I'm sure that was exciting for her, but I kinda get the feeling she happens to be a personal friend of Denise Little.
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Bottom line - there are much better anthologies out there than Twice Upon A Time. For now, I think I'll stick with Martin Greenberg ones.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

I finished the third book in the Harry Potter series again last week.

As we get further into the series, we find how meager Harry's upbringing with his unsupportive aunt and uncle has been. We already know Harry has lost his own parents tragically when he was just an infant. Harry asks for support from his friends at Hogwarts, the Weasley children and their wonderful parents, his friend Hermione, and a few generous teachers at the school. And as it turns out, the titled Prisoner is Harry's godfather, Sirius, and he becomes a support person for Harry as well.

There are only a few people Harry can ask who know what happened to his parents on the fateful day they were killed by Voldemort after being given up by their Secret Keeper, and we all, including Harry, find out the real story in this book. And, as usual, the real story is suppressed, the bad guy gets away again, and Harry and Voldemort both survive to fight another battle in the next installment.

Apart from this truth about his parents, Harry does not ask for much more. He is a fearless Quidditch player, taking great risk to win a match to catch the Snitch as the Gryffindor team's Seeker. He will go to great lengths to help his friends, risking his life and his own freedom for his friends and the other students at Hogwarts, always sneaking out of the dormitory after lights out, magicking a perfect silver Stag to fight off the dementors, and even fighting Voldemort or his supporters, all expert Dark Wizards, himself.

In my re-reading of The Prisoner of Azkaban I was struck by the amount of courage Harry shows throughout the series, how quickly he learns difficult magic, and his unquestioning ability to simply do the right thing even when it is really difficult. In this book, he and Hermione come up with a brilliant plan to save two lives with the help of Hermione's time turner.

We should all have that kind of courage, that kind of desire to do something to make life easier for another living being, and that satisfaction Harry gets from surviving another day to fight another fight in the neverending struggle between good and evil.*

*Incidentally, Harry also gets a lot of satisfaction from eating Bertie Bott's Every Flavor jelly beans. I would like to try them too, but I would stay away from the ones that taste like ear wax.

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

Well, let's get the easy stuff out of the way. So the book is really well-written, no question. Portrait, written in 1916, was ranked by Modern Library as the third best novel of the 20th century, in fact (notably, novel number one is Ulysses, the next on my list of Joyce to read, so apparently, Modern Library likes the Joyce...). I won't get into an argument about the specific rightness or wrongness of the list (Amanda would root hard for numbers 4, 6, and 7 for instance), but I will say, the book certainly belongs on the list, and high up on the list. It's a beautiful, fascinating novel, and I'm sure I could read it 17 more times, and still have missed most of it. Huzzah for Master Joyce. My praise for the king would add little value so I won't spend much time on it.

So, that being said...

I've heard here and there in reviews of various books, their being described as compassionate. It's one of those words that (honestly) I think reviewers throw in when a novel tickles them because it sounds grand and big and compelling (see here, here, or here). Kind of like when a book is described as 'a triumph'. It's the sort of word that probably meant something the first time it was said. I've never really understood what it meant.

I take that back, now that I think of it, I've read compassionate books. I know I have. It's the sort of book, where you feel like the author has real compassion for the character. And I don't want to demean that kind of novel, it is a beautiful thing. Gaskell, even if she was somewhat blind, seemed to feel a real compassion for the people in her book's world, in North and South, for instance. It feels good to read this kind of book, because you feel a love for someone you didn't understand before, and because this new love for others makes you love the author, too. It's the sort of novel that gently shows you a way to be better. I'm grateful for that, because I know I need to be better, a great deal better.

Portrait is not that kind of book, but compassionate is just the word for it nonetheless, because this book has compassion not for it's characters, with whom it is mercifully honest, but with the reader itself.

When I reviewed Dubliners, I talked about something that I see now as the embryo of this book:
I loved the characters, I desperately wanted to help them, only it wasn't like normal, the sort of feeling I have towards myself, it was the feeling you feel towards your children, or your close friends, the sort of maddening, intense feeling you have towards a real person who has an ideal self that they just seem to refuse to be.
Well, in Dubliners, it's like you're in the world of the book, but forced to be yourself, estranged from the people around you. In Portrait, he so effectively decimates the character of the narrator, that the 3rd person narrative is at once the narrative of the reader and the narrative of the character. It's hard to explain. When I read a book normally, it is as if I become the main character. When I read this book, it is as if the main character became me. Instead of me melting away, Stephen Dedalus (the protagonist) melted away, and I was left reading a book about myself. Of course, I didn't go through a period of my life, as Mr. Dedalus did, where I started to frequent prostitutes, or feel I wanted to be a Catholic priest. But that's just it, the experience of the book is so intimate and the author is so absent, that I was left with a direct investment into the action of the story. The actions around his life were irrelevant, because the experience of being Stephen Dedalus was the experience of being human - particularly of being human, highly imperfect, and possessed of the universal desire to do something that means something.

Stephen never really existed in the novel, only I did, and as a result, there is a terrible feeling of being at danger, the entire book, that the book has pried you open, and left you at it's own mercies. And there comes the beautiful part: the book tells you all your imperfections, it shows you the depths of the worst of you, it is not shy, or tactful, or gentle, but it loves you anyway. It was beautiful to read a book that has a hero who never manages to be a hero, but who feels like one anyway, a book that finds beautiful things in the humdrum tragic accident that is who we all are. You know, when you are reading the book, that it knows your secret, that it knows that your life is a wasted opportunity, a chance for greatness, that's devolved through stupidity, ennui, or sheer bad chance into merely goodnes, or even less at times. The book knows that you have failed - it doesn't tell you so, it just knows it - it know you've failed because everyone fails. But, it knows how to make a story out of who you are, instead of who you should have been:
--You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake,and perhaps as long as eternity too.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cooking up Murder by Miranda Bliss

Reading this was like having half a pint of Turtle Pecan frozen yogurt in the house when I'm craving Rocky Road ice cream but I'm too lazy to go to the store to pick up Rocky Road and the only reason I have Turtle Pecan is because my husband wanted it and picked it up and that's all that's in the house. I pick at the Turtle Pecan (not my favorite because I don't like pecans) and every once in a while, I bite into a pecan. Why not just throw it out and buy the Rocky Road? I don't know, I guess because I'm obsessive compulsive and lazy. Now, I look at the empty container, have a stomach ache and wonder why did I do it? This was the way I felt when I finished this book.

Annie is recently divorced and wallowing, her bestest friend, Eve, has decided what Annie needs to do to break from this slump: take cooking lessons. Only problem is, Annie can't cook and feels the lessons will be a waste of time. Still Eve persists and the next day, Annie finds herself under the spell of the handsome culinary Scotsman, Jim. If only that magic transferred to her cooking skills. Another thing which spoils the class is a guy, Drago, dying in the parking lot, he was poisoned and not by Annie's cooking. Apparently, someone had it in for the guy and slipped him some poisonous foxglove. Unfortunately, Annie's sleuthing skill closely follow her cooking skills, but she's so wrapped up in the adventure she doesn't listen to her instincts and decides to find out who killed Drago.

Why did I continue to read this book? I guess it's like my analogy with the Turtle Pecan, I kept eating, telling myself the last pecan was the last pecan in the pint when I'd bite into another one. Bad analogy for a bad book. I guess I shouldn't be too hard on the book (though there are many points that merit it). The writing would be okay, then edge under my skin. The author tried hard not to "talk" to the reader, but every now and then, "you" would slip into the pages. Then the writer committed another one of my pet peeves (I wonder what it could be). Every now and then it would pop it (like this). If it had just been the once or twice, I might not have minded (every chapter was pushing it and in longer and longer pieces). sigh I think the ending is what did it. The sleuth got everything wrong, but managed to be in the right place at the wrong time to get all the pieces together and the final nail in this coffin bent going in making it hard for me to cross the suspension bridge of disbelief on this one. If I had written this story, I'd probably be kicked out of the writing group. I know I said I'd give mysteries a break, but it's akin to a sailor saying he's not going to sail then looks at the waves and takes off. I should've stayed on dry land a little while longer.

The Book Thief


By Markus Zusak
I rarely give a book my highest rating. A place on my 5 star shelf. But the likes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights may now have a new companion in The Book Thief. This ingenious, groundbreaking young adult fiction almost fits in a class of books unto itself. A book that breaks you apart with each page until you somehow end up whole on the last one. A book that brought tears to my eyes more than once, but never felt sorry for itself. A book that took forever to read.

Our surprisingly ungloomy narrator is serious, tired and in need of a vacation. His story begins in Germany, 1939, during World War II, where Death's been very, very busy. He starts immediately with a description of what to expect, as Death assumes that like himself, no one cares much for surprises.
- A girl
- Some words
- An accordionist
- Some fanatical Germans
- A Jewish fist fighter
- And quite a lot of thievery

Death never minces words. He gets right to the point. He needs distractions to help him cope with his job. One is color in its multitude of shades, like I've never heard described before. They are his vacation "in increments".

"Yes, it was white. It felt as though the whole globe was dressed in snow. Like it has pulled it on, the way you pull on a sweater. Next to the train line, footprints were sunken to their shins. Trees wore blankets of ice. As you might expect, someone had died."

Another distraction is a young 11 year old girl named Liesel. He shares her story with us with very interesting commentary intermingled in between to remind us he's still there, in the background. Sometimes warning us of impending doom, sometimes making simple observations.

"Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew."

"There was once a strange, small man. He decided three important details about his life:
1. He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else.
2. He would make himself a small, strange mustache.
3. He would one day rule the world. ...Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words."

"He was more a black suit than a man. His face was a mustache."

The Book Thief. A rich, complicated novel about the terrible effects of war on ordinary, decent people. People I knew very well by the last page. It was victorious and tragic at the same time. Few authors can pull that off. Zusak does. Very well indeed. It struck a chord with me, and so to that I must add, the Bronte's need to make some room. 5 stars.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gilgamesh

So, I just finished reading Gilgamesh, and I was surprised for two reasons. First, it was so short, and simply written. I was kind of expecting a long dull book with lots of hoo-haw. My experience of ancient literature is mostly bits of the Odyssey - not the best way to start, I think.

More than that, I was surprised how current and relevant the story felt, how really meaningful much of it's message still felt. It is easy to understand the Sumerians using this as scripture, and at the same time haunting, because it's not a message of unvarnished, simple hope. Much like Orpheus and Eurydice, it's a story of loss, the search for eternal life, and loss again. The speech of Utnapishtim (think, Sumerian Noah. Flood and all), was one of the most moving descriptions of the horror of eternal life I've ever read:

I think compassion is our God's pure act
Which burns forever,
And be it in Heaven or in Hell
Doesn't matter for me; because
Hell is the everlasting gift
Of his presence
To the lonely heart who is longing
Amidst perishing phantoms and doesn't care
To find an immortality
If not in the pure loneliness of the Holy One,
This loneliness which He enjoys forever
Inside and outside of His creation.

The complexity of grief is served raw and unapolegitically, in this book, and in the end, the moral is difficult to divine. But the journey, and not the end is what matters. Whether he gets the fruit of immortality or not, in the end, what difference is it? In the end, we all have to live, and whether we have our pain alone or with another, that's what life is. Or mostly what life is:

Gilgamesh said nothing more
To force his sorrow on another.

He looked at the walls,
Awed at the heights
His people had achieved
And for a moment -- just a moment --
All that lay behind him
Passed from view

Beloved - Toni Morrison

1987; 324 pages. Genre : Contemproary American Literature. Awards : Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1988; winner of the NY Times "best work of American fiction in the past 25 years in 2008. Overall Rating : B.
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This Toni Morrison book is based loosely on the story of Margaret Garner, who unrepentingly killed her 2-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than allow her to be forcibly returned to a life of slavery in 1856.
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Beloved is set in 1873, after the Civil War has ended, and superficially centers on the mother-daughter relationship between Sethe and Denver, living at 124 Bluestone in Cincinnati, Ohio. The real theme however, is Toni Morrison dealing with the slavery in her geneaology. You can read Wiki's take on Beloved here. For me, the main motif is the way slavery can dehumanize a person. You can set them free, but the years of being treated as merely a piece of property leave enormous psychological scars. To become fully human, with a focused sense of self-worth, may take generations.
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What's To Like...
This is great literature. The characters in Beloved are three-dimensional, and they all evolve in the course of the story. The question of "how can a mother murder her own child" is fully addressed. And there is a ghost to bring a tinge of the paranormal to the story.
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OTOH, it is a slow read, and a difficult one. Flashbacks and flashforwards interweave with confusing frequency. It helped me to read the Wiki article to sort out who-was-who and what-was-when. The first 60 pages are especially trying, until Beloved shows up. Even then, there is little plot-advancement until the final 50 pages. Finally, there is the typical Morrison bleakness. Mother and murdered-daughter may come to understand each other, but what is left is two utterly dysfunctional lives.
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What does it take to impress the Pulitzer committee?
This is my fourth Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The other three were The Bridge At San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder, 1928); The Grapes Of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1940), and A Confederacy Of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole, 1981). The common thread I see in each book is a unique writing style by the authors. Storylines seem to be of small consequence; what counts is the ability to describe daily life and Americana in a fresh, new way.
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Beloved is not a book to be read in a hurry, nor would I call it enjoyable. Perseverence is needed to get through the first 60 pages. In the end, I found it to be fully worthy of its Pulitzer Prize. But now I need a "cotton-candy book" to put some sunshine back in my reading.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Civil War and Reconstruction - JG Randall and David Donald

Oh, my friends. My dear, dear friends. Let me begin this review with the quiet voice of reason. I think studying American History is a wonderful idea. We can learn a lot from American History. I believe, as well, that our traditional, elementary school black-and-white evaluations of the 'good guys' and 'bad guys' of American History are probably a weakness our country needs to overcome. That being said, Friends: please, NEVER, EVER dress your son (or daughter for that matter) as Robert E. Lee for Halloween. I respect Civil War reenactors, and I do not think that everyone who wears a grey uniform to their Gettysburg club has ethical issues, not at all. Fine hobby. But please. Look at this kid. He's like - ten years old, maybe? Yeah, maybe 10, maybe younger. And he's about to walk around a crowded city street, asking people for candy with the Stars and Bars on his forehead. I'm so, so sorry, kid. I am.

This books was... very thorough. REAL thorough. IT had some fascinating detail, and went deep enough to offer some balance on the issues you always wondered about (which is not to say the authors don't have an agenda to push, they do, and they aren't too shy about it). In answer to Mr. Barca's earlier question about whether the Civil War was caused by States Rights disagreements or Slavery, well, the respected authors maintain the war was caused by the face that all the people with power in the North and South were blind extremists, and the rest of us were dumb enough to elect them. IT was a very discouraging book. I didn't feel any better after I read it, I didn't feel like 'well, the war was painful, but out of this cauldron of sorrow was born the America that was to be'. No, it felt like out of this cauldron was born some halfway aborted attempts at equality, and a whole lot of hatred, corruption, bigotry, and out and out incompetence, that, to be fair, pretty much ruled the nation for the next 50 years or so (I mean, you don't spend a long time thinking about the great historical heroism of Rutherford B Hayes on President's Day).

That isn't to imply the book is bad. It's well written - slightly dated sounding now, the edition I had (blacks are called Negroes, and the writing seems to assume they won't be reading the book, for instance). It gives some brave defense of people you normally don't want to like - Jefferson Davis for instance - and people you had no idea even mattered - Charles Francis Adams. The book simply confirmed for me what I've long suspected about historians - a historian, as their knowledge increases, pretty much has to become an ideologue (Howard Zinn, comes to mind), or a grouch. When it comes right down to it, Abraham Lincoln creeped toward despotism, FDR slept around, etc., etc. I'm avoiding reading a biography of Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Albert Schweitzer, just because the Civil War has temporarily destroyed my faith in humanity.

You can all help restore it by pledging never to dress your children as Robert E. Lee for Halloween. Even if he was a pretty interesting guy, and a lot nicer than, say, General Butler for the Union. What jerk, that guy was...

PS - Mr. Barca - my personal opinion is that blaming the Civil War on States Rights is like blaming World War I on Archduke Ferdinand sewing himself into his uniform to make the buttons lay flat.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sam the Cat Detective by Linda Stewart

I knew I was going to love this from the title and the picture. It only got better as I read along. The line that cinched it for me was from Sam himself when he tells Surgary "All books are mysteries till you've finished the last page." Surgary walks into Sam's office because her roommates were robbed. They weren't the only ones and it's up to Sam to piece the puzzle together, especially when Max (the beloved handyman of the complex by cat and human alike) is fired for falling under suspicion of the thefts. It doesn't take Sam long to figure things out (with help from a cast of friends) and put a bold plan of attack in action. It's all in a day's work and a half a pound of lox plus expenses.

This is definitely juvenile (meant for ages 9-12) with an adult twist to it. So what? I freely admit I still watch cartoons. Sure, they're cats and they talk to one another, but not to people. They also know how to operate in the human world. I had to suspend disbelief with cats using the computer, telephone, microwave, and can opener. The relationships between the cats were real enough (and no hanky-panky). The plot was simple enough. The story actually made me laugh out loud with its offbeat one-liners.

Ashes to Ashes by Liliian Stewart Carl

Finally! A new author I can enjoy. I just got rid of five books and three authors. Very disappointing. I thought I was going to get fantasy with undertones of romance instead, I got sleazy sex scenes with wimpy heroines (being touted as independent because they whined a lot) who enjoyed being sexually assaulted. This drivel is being published?! There's hope for me yet! I didn't finish or really even start some of those books. I read the prologue to one and found it blatantly broke several writing rules I've come to depend on as a writer, plus I was bored to tears, in the prologue which really wasn't a prologue because it happened the day before the novel takes place. Scanning ahead and reading some online reviews lead to me to the conclusion the story wasn't going to get any better. Then I flipped through the other books and quickly discovered reading them would be a waste of my time. Then I picked up Ashes to Ashes and my faith in writers and the publishing industry was restored.

In October, Rebecca Reid leaves behind Dover and her fiance, Ray, to catalogue the contents of Dun Iain, built by John Forbes to imitate Castle Craigievar. Unfortunately, he didn't have the Happy Ever After associated with castles. His wife, Elspeth, commits suicide, throwing herself from the window -- or was she pushed? The castle knows and is trying to talk, but there's a communication problem because everyone wants to talk at once. At first, Rebecca tries to remain practical and brush off the notion of ghosts. She's a got a job to do and a dissertation to write, both include looking for the Erskine letters which can clear up some confusion about Mary Stuart's son and heir. Complicating matters is Scottish "charming-when-he-wants-to-be" Dr. Michael Campbell. He's been lent by the British Museum to return some of the artifacts back to the old country per the instructions of James Forbes's will. But does he have his own idea of what is right and proper? Rebecca wonders. The only one who is above suspicion in this little charade is Darnley, the resident cat. He probably knows what's going on, but no one speaks Cat. Too bad, a lot of things would've been cleared up if they did. Among the house workers are Dorothy, the housekeeper, Phil, the handyman, and his son/helper, Steve. Eric, the lawyer handling the will's estate, pops in from time to time to ensure everything is running smooth. He's also a smooth character who fancies Rebecca and the feeling is mutual - so long, Ray. The weeks pass, things disappear, reappear, lights go crazy, a lot of things go bump in the night and day, no one trusts anyone (hey, where's Scully and Mulder when all this is happening?) and the plot thickens like a Scottish fog until the final showdown.

This book was a breath of fresh air. Finally, a book with plot, characters, settings, and passion -- other than getting into someone's pants. The plot had me going. I had figured some of it out, but Carl threw in some curve balls which I actually enjoyed. The proper people got punished, others learned valuable lessons, and the ghosts were laid to rest. The cat was also such a delight. What's a haunted castle without a cat to stir things up, although he does prove himself valuable in more ways than one. There's also a sequel, Dust to Dust, but I think I'll wait. I'm planning on giving mysteries a little bit of a break, almost, and try some fantasy.

Dig Deep for Murder by Kate Kingsbury

I'm positive Sitting Marsh is the British version of Cabot Cove. Bodies keep turning up all over the small village and it's up to Lady Elizabeth to find the killer. Forget World War II, don't move to Sitting Marsh, it's akin to signing a death warrant. But no one listens to the warning bells, in fact, a new worker has moved into the manor (more on that later).

In order to keep spirits soaring, Lady Elizabeth assigns the most recently available plot to Edna, Polly's mother, at Polly's insistence. While they are getting the plot ready, they discover it really is a plot for an unidentified body. When the blood curdling screams have let up, they try to identify the body, though it's a little difficult with his head being smashed in and all that. Where's the CSI team when needed? They identify him as Reggie Stewart, but when they tell his wife, Betty, the tragic news, she seems less than broken up. Meanwhile, Polly and Sam go on a date, where Sam learns Polly lied about her age and they get into an accident. However, I'm tending to get a little miffed with the Polly Hour and will probably gloss over those sections in subsequent books. On the bright side, Lady Elizabeth finally hired a new maid, Sadie Buttons. She's decided the bombings in London are so bad that a potentially haunted manor with a village on a murdering crime spree is better. Who can figure out the youngun's nowadays? Speaking of youngun's, apparently someone's been stealing food and clothes, three little someones to be exact. Sadie proves her worth by capturing the poor creatures, while Lady Elizabeth is up to her neck in suspects and danger. Needless to say, Lady Elizabeth figures everything out and the story wraps up.

I zipped through this book. I picked it up and a day or two I was done. I figured it out rather quickly, but I don't think it's because I'm so clever, but because the clues were so obvious. It really is like watching Murder, She Wrote where the big CLUE sign flashes in red when the perpetrator makes the obvious mistake of talking to Mrs. Fletcher and revealing that all important factor in his or her capture. I do like the addition of Sadie Buttons. She seems like a hard-working, no nonsense girl, complete opposite of head-in-the-sky Polly who dreams of being whisked away by Sam and living in beautiful Hollywood mansions with pools in America. As I mentioned before, I think I'll skip those parts from now on.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bloody Mary - J.A. Konrath


2005; 338 pages. Genre : Witty gritty bang bang. Overall Rating : C+.
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This is the second in Konrath's Jacqueline 'Jack' Daniels; series. A pair of detached arms show up at the county morgue. In handcuffs. More exactly, in a pair of Jack Daniels' handcuffs.
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Jack and her Viagra-popping partner search for clues to the victim's identity, and try to keep the latest Chicago serial killer's body-count from going too high. Meanwhile, Jack's mom decides to move in with her, and brings along Jack's ex- for company, which not surprisingly leaves her current beau a bit less than enthralled.
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What's To Like...
This is similar to James Patterson's Alex Cross detective series, but with more wit and snappy dialogue. There's lots of action, and gratuitous gore. Great literature, it ain't. But it's a quick read and keeps your attention. Wikipedia calls this sort of book an airport novel. While the storyline is typical murder-thriller stuff, you at least get to see how Konrath, a male author, handles his female protagonist and her soap-opera-ish life.
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If there's a downside, it's the story's believability. It turns out that Mr. Psycho-killer's been dismembering folks for many years, and getting away with it just fine. Why then does he suddenly feel compelled to leave body parts at the morgue, with purloined police equipment planted on them? Later on, after wiping out half of Chicago's police force, instead of making an easy getaway, he (you guessed it) heads straight for Jack Daniels' home for the epic confrontation. Yeah, that's smart.
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Bottom Line...
Read Bloody Mary for its entertainment value only. There's at least five mixed-drink-titled books in this series, and I'll probably end up reading most of them. It's appparent that they all are going to have a standard serial-slayer plot, with Jack's personal life progressing a bit from one book to the next. I suppose that isn't a very ambitious goal, but Konrath is good at it, and hey, that same template is used by the scriptwriters of Cold Case, one of my favorite TV shows.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Brisingr


By Christopher Paolini
Wow, at almost 800 pages, it took me so loooong to finish this book. Christopher takes his saga VERY seriously. Did I mention seriously? Let me say it again, VERY seriously. A little too serious for my own particular taste, but I'm of the type that found the pronunciation guide on the back pages unhelpful in that, I don't plan on actually speaking the Elvish language outside of the book. And the Acknowledgments...we'll, let's just say the kid has self-esteem to spare. He likes this story, as well he should.

With that being said, Brisingr was...okay. As is typical with a series of books, the first one is generally best with each successive book becoming less original and more of a stretch. For me, I felt this the case here. There are alot of similarities with past works, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc., but he is hardly the first author to borrow ideas and expand them. He's done a pretty good job of creating his own unique world with, at times, yawn-filled, intricate detail.

Brisingr picks up only a few days after Eldest has ended, with the rescue of Eragon's cousin Roran's intended Katrina, from the clutches of the birds-gone-bad, the Ra'zac. In a nutshell, a blooding fight ensues and continues throughout to the end of the book. There's ALOT of men fighting in this one, a hidden pregnancy (woo), more fighting, some one-on-one time with the beautiful elf Arya (ah, but you'll have to read to see what happens, sigh...), some yoda-like moments, a head or two lobbed off, more fighting, and finally, a cleverly named sword.

In truth, I was mildly entertained just enough to finish it. While the series has become a tad over-masculine for my taste, I will probably read the fourth book when it comes out, if it comes out within a decade that is. I'm hoping he can spare us some ibuprofen and keep it to under 500 pages. If wishes were fishes... 3 Stars
**Also, I'm curious if any other women liked it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling


I originally purchased Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in a bookstore in London when I was in medical school. My medical school here in Philadelphia offered a month-long rotation at London's St. Christopher's Hospice working as a nurses' aide, doing all the things nurses' aides typically do.

And so, the first time I read the second Harry Potter book, I was on an overnight ferry travelling from London to Dublin, Ireland for Easter weekend.

I thought I had read CoS once or twice since then, but still, most of the details of the story were unfamiliar on this reading. Suffice it to say that I did remember where the chamber was located, who opened it, and with what instrument, but I won't spoil the details here. I didn't remember the specific events leading up to that or how it played out. I did remember that Harry speaks snake, but that has been a theme throughout the other HP books. Otherwise, much of the details of the book felt unfamiliar to me.

I guess the story somehow paled in comparison to my first trip to Europe in which my friend and I spent a month in London at the hospice helping care for dying patients and another month travelling around the continent to Portugal, Spain, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, and Switzerland. I read the third Harry Potter book on the way back to London from Dublin, so I'm sure that will feel unfamiliar as I read it again as well.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

Neuromancer is the sort of book (at least for me) that gets one thinking. And thinking means babbling. So, my apologies in advance, all.

Neuromancer is most famous, probably, for being he novel that invented the word 'cyberspace', and for doing so in 1984, when the internet was still pretty much a research project. 1984 is a really long time ago, and from a practical standpoint, Gibson was a visionary, in the way he pieced together a world, digitally, plausible enough that it now happens to, in many ways, exist. Good for William Gibson!

Now, let me tell you why I like Neuromancer.

There's three reasons. The first is it's sheer arrogance - I mean that in a good way. Larry Wall, the grandfather programmer of the Perl programming language, and one of the most famous computer programmers ever (I'm probably pretty geeky for knowing the names of famous computer programmers), once said that the most important virtues of the computer programmer are laziness, impatience and hubris. While he has a reputation for the humorous turn of phrase, there was some truth in what he says. The truly stunning stories of technology over the last 30 years have been tales of hubris: Linus Torvalds sitting in some dorm room in Scandinavia thinking 'you know what, I bet I could program Unix all over again', or Steve Jobs... well, pretty much every time the man ever talks. There's a certain blindness that the greatest programmers had, a blindness to their own humanity, a belief in the impossible, coupled with a stubborn resistance to being proven wrong. And what it creates are the vast vistas of technology: imperfect, irritating, idiosyncratic, but stunning. Gibson in this book, written at the age of 36, after living in a Vancouver draft-dodger community, making a living by scouring thrift stores for stuff he could resell, and going to college for an English degree because getting student aid was easier than working, and getting interested in Punk music, in 1977, with no career and having his first kid, his thought was 'you know what? I like sci-fi. I think I'll become a novelist.' And he was not content with just writing a novel with a big new idea, he decided he needed to make up his own new style of sci-fi, and write a novel that was all at the same time a film noir, a philosophical treatise, and the literary equivalent of 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'. In his debut novel. So he did, actually wrote a few short stories, and wrote the novel in 12 months, and proceeded to become the first person to win a Nebula, Hugo, and Philip K Dick award for the same novel (sort of the sci-fi equivalent of winning the Pulitzer and the Nobel). Did it deserve it? Heck, I dunno, I don't know what else was written in 1984. It has scenes where that hubris comes out, where he writes some things that are very teenager (Gibson says the book was an adolescent book). But, at the same time, there's a something that shines out of the idiosyncracies, a total and complete vision that's not only very fun to read, but really powerful in ways, I imagine that the author didn't even expect.

But, the other thing, the thing that makes me love the book, rather than respect it, is the sheer accuracy of it, not in terms of the internet itself, and such (after all, we don't jack into the internet with electrodes on our forehead and what not. At least, not yet), but just the way it feels, in a way, to be a 'hacker'. Most computer characters in novels fall back on one of two ideas - either the hacker as preternaturally talented essence-of-cool, like the Matrix, for instance, or the Hhcker as socially inept slob who lives in a basement and stares at dirty pictures in the breaks. There is, I suppose, some of this in here at well. But what Mr. Gibson Groks effectively is what it MEANS to be a computer person, what the framework is. HAving been working on a big programming project for work this week, it's something that struck me afresh as I was reading. Technology fundamentally alters all creative pursuits, because it focuses on iteration and improvement. No computer program, for the most obvious example, is ever 'done' - there are release versions, but there are always patches, always improvements, always the next version. Creating a program is not creating a work of art, it's creating an ecosystem that has to continue when you're dead (or that just dies itself). This is leaching over, even, into other artwork, and will do so more as time goes on - the ease of editing, for instance, has fundamentally changed writing since the advent of the word processor - there is no impediment to changing a word or a sentence, no resistance to cutting a paragraph in an almost finished work and popping in a new one, because the creation is no longer a physical object - a manuscript - it's an abstraction. It's data. It's easy to change data, it's hard to change a sheaf of manuscript. Whether these changes have been good or bad is certainly debatable, but I think they're very real.

Neuromancer feels that way. The main character, Case, never really 'creates' anything, and the book is not about making something - it's about evolution, change, transformation. Nothing, in the end, belongs to Case (ironically, not even Case himself belongs to Case), because his Art (and the argument is definitely that he's an Artiste) is not a 'work of art', it's woven into the fabric of a world beyond his ability to control or understand : cyberspace as a great, endlessly iterative canvas, with a thousand thousand artists. In a new sense that I'm sure Whitman never thought of, the world is - and has become in our own existence - one where 'the powerful play goes on, and I may contribute a verse'. Case's world (and our own) is an ugly world, a terrible world, a violent and banal world, a world of drugs and pettiness and arrogance and hopeless anonymity, a world where people are really nothing but constructs, where we all voluntary devolve ourselves into bits of data, into statistics and predictable tools of commercial constructs, where we are cogs in a machine whose sentience threatens to make human life obsolete. But it's a beautiful, beautiful world, all the same.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Light Fantastic - Terry Pratchett


1986; 217 Pages. Genre : Camedic Fantasy. Overall Rating : B.
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As noted here, The Light Fantastic is the conclusion to the story started in The Color Of Magic. That fount of all wisdom (Wikipedia), assures me this won't happen again - all other Discworld books are self-contained.
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What's To Like...
There's just one tale here; not four somewhat unconnected ones like in TCOM. Pratchett apparently took some pains to refine his style for the series, and this is an improvement, even though it resulted in a 3-year wait for TLF to be published.
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Once again, there's a lovable cast of characters. Rincewind and Twoflower are center-stage of course, and the sickle-wielding Death and the omnivorous Luggage are back as well. TLF introduces Cohen The Barbarian, who reportedly will show up in a number of subsequent books. He's 87 years old, doddering, with matchstick legs and varicose veins. And in desperate need of dentures. Eat your heart out, Arnold.
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The storyline wraps up nicely, with our inept duo saving the cosmos. As always, there are some deeper, more serious themes interwoven in the Discworld silliness. Here, Pratchett takes on Doomsday Zealots and Blind Religious Fervor. Intelligent Design freaks will probably not like TLF.
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Some Excerpts...
You can find everything in Discworld books - philosophy, romance, and for highbrows like me, gut-groaning puns. We'll close with an excerpt in each category.
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Philosophy (pg. 36-37)
"I said : what is it that a man may call the greatest things in life?"
The warriors leaned closer. This should be worth hearing.
The guest thought long and hard and then said, with deliberation : "Hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper."
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Romance (pg. 81)
"A necromancer!" said Rincewind.
The old woman across the fire shrugged and pulled a pack of greasy cards from some unseen pocket.
Despite the deep frost outside, the atmosphere inside the yurt was like a blacksmith's armpit and the wizard was already sweating heavily. Horse dung made a good fuel, but the Horse People had a lot to learn about air conditioning, starting with what it meant.
Bethan leaned sideways.
"What's neck romance?" she whispered.
"Necromancy. Talking to the dead," he explained.
"Oh," she said, vaguely disappointed.
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Plain Old Punnery (pg. 181)
"Yes, yes," said Bethan, sitting down glumly. ... "Rincewind, all the shops have been smashed open; there was a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments; can you believe that?"
"Yeah," said Rincewind, picking up a knife and testing its blade thoughtfully. "Luters, I expect."
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Even Milton can't write stuff like that. The Light Fantastic is, as usual, highly recommended, but only after first reading The Color Of Magic.

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

I had heard that "Fairest" was basically the re-telling of Snow White by Gail Carson Levine. For me, it took about 65 pages to grasp this enchanted world that Levine created.
What was so unexpected to me was that the main character, Aza, was deemed 'ugly' and thought herself so as well almost to a fault. Aza is young and immature so I was able to look past her hauntingly mundane self-talk of how "ugly" she felt she was. I still struggled to image a type of Snow White being ugly though. Aza has other qualities than just her outside looks like being able to sing with the voice of angel and being kind and helpful to those around her. She is also able to get along with gnomes and even lives among them for time which most people, like the prince Ijori in the book, just cannot tolerate.
My favorite characters in the book ended up being zahM, who is a gnome, Prince Ijori who deserves a 'Klondike bar' for loving Aza just as she was, and I loved to hate Queen Ivi. I love that Levine made the mirror into an interesting character as well.
All of this weaves into this thought-provoking story of beauty very nicely and I liked the way Levine ties up all of the loose ends after all. It was a simple, predictable read yet I found it quite enjoyable. As a friend of mine put it: "This book is simple in words but deep in meaning."
*This book counts toward my 2008 reviews.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dubliners, by James Joyce

One of the things I'd like to do this year is to read the four major works of James Joyce (we'll see how it works out, mind you...). I'm not really sure why. Probably more than a little bravado, I'm sure. But I always felt bad about James Joyce, I'e been kind of unfairly biased - I'm embarrased to say that I read Dubliners once a long time ago, the first half of a chapter of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and nothing else, and the root of my impression of Mr. Joyce comes from (I blush) this line in the Bell Jar where she says she's writing an academic work on Finnegans Wake, and looking up names of obscure Dublin Pubs and such. That just sounded so arrogantly esoteric (Ms Plath being the talented writer that she is managed to make this impression extremely strongly) that I always just sort of made fun of James Joyce without really having the authority to do so. Beyond that, I'm writing a book (yeah don't get excited, going on three years on this one, more if you count the fact that some of it is stolen from old failed book ideas) where a significant number of the chapters are written inside the dreams of two of the characters, and I know this is how the entirety of Finnegans is written - in 'Dreamspeak', Joyce's hodgepodge language for dreams (or so I've heard).

Anyway, so I figured it'd be best, since the four are supposedly quite interrelated, to start at the beginning (plus, taking on Ulysses first is too scary). So I read Dubliners, a collection of his short stories, and the only one of his books, supposedly, that is written in a straightforward style. It's difficult to really give an opinion on the book (ok, well, it's very well written, there's a reason people read these in Short Story classes), partly because so many people, I'm sure, have already given there opinion, but more because it's difficult not to project yourself when you judge it (or at least it is for me). Honestly this was an interesting, new sensation in a well-written book for me - I usually have the opposite issue, of sort of personally dissolving as I read a book, and using the experience of otherness as a coward's escape, sort of, a way to not be, or to be someone who lives so infinitely more beautifully than I do. Joyce doesn't do that. Sometimes, some stories, he does, and these aren't neccesarily badly written ones (the story about the girl who was supposed to run off with her beau, for instance, was beautifully written, and easy to melt into). But many of the others frustratingly resist the efforts of a reader to be within the story. I say frustrating, but it's not neccesarily unrewarding. It was a strange sensation, to see a book that was complete and powerful, but completely alienating. I loved the characters, I desperately wanted to help them, only it wasn't like normal, the sort of feeling I have towards myself, it was the feeling you feel towards your children, or your close friends, the sort of maddening, intense feeling you have towards a real person who has an ideal self that they just seem to refuse to be.

Beyond this, it was interesting to see how present the author was in the book - but again, in a peculiar way. One of Joyce's goals, I'm told, in his later books was to excise himself from the novel as much as possible, to get rid of the ghost character of the author's voice, presenting a version of truth and subtly influencing th reader to a particular conclusion. In this book, you could feel the edges of a man trained to write books in a way they had been written, struggling against that. I cannot imagine trying to write the sort of book Joyce intends to write after growing up on Victorian literature - Jane Eyre is not subtle, for instance, in it's feelings about who is heroic and who is not. You can feel the 'angry revolutionary' in Joyce's writing, struggling against it's bounds, both internal and external,and like all revolutionaries, showing through in a mix of success and failure by way of such a strong attempt at success, sort of the literary equivalent of the heroes of the revolution, sometimes destroying fraternity in their zeal to enforce the unenforceable.

Anyways, a good book, especially for lovers of the Short Story (The Dead, the final story in the collection, is pretty much in the Standard Rep for short stories, I believe, like The Gift of the Magi, or The Tell-Tale Heart, and deservedly so).

Rapunzel's Revenge


By Shannon and Dean Hale
Illustrated by Nathan Hale

"Now with a name like the Devil's Armpit, you'd think it'd be a right jolly place. -We didn't sleep much at night."

My first foray into the land of graphic novels was very entertaining. What's not to like about a red-headed chick with a scorpion tale hair braid and a stinging attitude to match it! Throw in a handsome, mysterious sidekick, an evil stepmother, plants and animals with serious growth issues, and you have a modernized version of the classic fairy tale.

Without giving too much away, many questions I had as a child are answered here. Why was Rapunzel trapped in a tower? Why did her hair grow so freakishly long? Who is that boy that saves her? We all know how the original ended, but in this crisply combed-up version, the only one that does the saving is Rapunzel.

Can't you tell that from the cover art? Does she look like the rescuer or the rescuee? She looks hot! The whole book is beautifully drawn by Nathan Hale. The story itself is a bit long, but I'm not all that used to graphic novels. Shannon Hale is very good at witty, smart dialogue and this book is in league with her others. And anyone who can incorporate a JACKALOPE into the story line deserves some sort of special award in my book. - 3 Stars

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Confederacy Of Dunces


1980; 394 pages. Author : John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969). Genre : Contemporary Lit. Awards : 1981 Pultizer Prize for Fiction (posthumous). Overall Rating : B.
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After JKT committed suicide by running a garden hose from his car's exhaust to its interior, his mother hawked his unpublished manuscript to various writers. It caught the eye of author Walker Percy in 1976, who in turn touted it, whereupon it became a cult classic, then gained a widespread readership after winning the 1981 Pulitzer.
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Characters...
ACOD is a slice of life of a group of lower-class characters in New Orleans in the early 1960's. The central figure is Ignatius J. Reilly, an overweight, overbearing, manipulative, egotistical, lazy, lying 30-year-old, still living with his mother and content to be going nowhere in life.
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There's a host of supporting characters as well, including the dominating, drama-queen mom; a luckless, picked-on detective; a senile octagenarian woman still working at a pants factory; and a talentless wannabe stripper trying to work a cockatoo into her act.
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Plot...
PWP? Simon & Schuster had some early interest in the manuscript, but declined it with the note that it "isn't really about anything". Which is kinda true. There are a bunch of loosely-connected threads meandering through the book that make you wonder what Toole intends to do with them. It reminds me of Vonnegut's Breakfast Of Champions, where the "plot" is simply the (first-person) writer manipulating a couple characters to meet up with him at the end.
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To Like or Not To Like...
Judging from other reviewers, this is a love/hate book. Those who love it claim it is the laugh-out-loud funniest book they ever read. While there are some slapstick elements to it, I can't say it is anything more than mildly amusing. But to each his own.
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Those who hate it claim Ignatius is without any redeeming qualities and are just revolted about having to read 400 pages about his (lack of) exploits. I can see their point.
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I give ACOD a "B" because, despite the multitude of flaws in Ignatius, I couldn't help finding him to be a likeable guy. Ditto for the rest of the people around him. They truly are a Confederacy of Dunces, yet I was unable to work up any antipathy towards them. They may be poor, downtrodden, mean, and petty; but I found myself warming to them anyway. Thank goodness I don't know them in real life.
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Then too, I was impressed with Toole's ability to tie everything together at the end; and in a way that I wasn't expecting. So if you're looking for a book with rock-em/sock-em action, pass by ACOD. Pick this up when you're in the mood for an existential, character-focused look at ordinary Southern life, and see if you end up liking the unlikeable Ignatius.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008 Group Totals

Wow it's been a fabulous year! When I started 5-Squared, I didn't expect it to take off so well! Between the 13 of us, we read/reviewed 248 books in 2008. Of course, some reviews from 2008 might trickle in after this post. I'll continue to update the counts here, both in the total and in your individual total below.

Here's how we did, in alphabetical order. Keep in mind different people started at different times of the year, so goals were different for each.

Amber - 12
Byron - 16
Christina - 27
Jason - 22
Jen - 12
Joc - 2
John - 9
Julie - 16
Marcia - 12
Nikki - 11
Terry - 34
Trixie - 8

It's been such a fun year! I hope you guys are still excited about our group. I look forward to all the 2009 book reviews.

**As a reminder, if you have a 2008 book review that you need to write up in 2009, make a note that it's a 2008 book and I will add it to the appropriate list.