Saturday, September 29, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

The Harry Potter books are extremely plot-driven. While Rowling’s writing is not bad, it is fairly utilitarian. That being said, her generally straightforward prose allows for some of the smoothest (and enjoyable) reading I have ever experienced. But ease of reading is only one of my criteria for determining how much I like a book. For example, Lolita was just a little over 300 pages, but took me nearly three weeks to finish. The writing was dense, with complex allusions and clever turns of phrase. On the other hand, I read The Goblet of Fire (700 some odd pages) in one day. I liked Goblet, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Lolita.

So, I was somewhat surprised when Rowling’s writing caught my attention on more than one occasion in The Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final chapter in the Potter saga. There were many instances where I thought Rowling showed a depth that she had not previously exhibited.

There was a good deal of exposition that had to be done in order for this book to make sense. After all, Rowling had a lot of loose ends to tie up. I don’t want to ruin the series for anyone by giving away too many plot points. I will say that I thought the epilogue was generally unnecessary. Some of what was established in the epilogue would no doubt have already been imagined by the readers. But I liked the book, and the series—The Order of the Phoenix is clearly the worst of the books. That’s all I’ll say. So, if you have any desire to read these books you should do so now, before some moron spoils the series for you by telling you how things end.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Below is an honest-to-god real-life post on my Children's Lit class' Huckleberry Finn message board. The context: In order to escape his abusive father, Huck waits until he leaves their cabin, kills a pig and spills the blood all over, and then drags a heavy sack of rocks to the river in order to give the impression that he has been murdered and dumped in the water. Then he runs away.

Does anyone find the part of the book in "I fool Pap and get way," completely disturbing!!?? As a person reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time, I was completely in shock when I became aware of this gruesome plan. I hate to dwell on the repeated violence in these novels so much, but I wonder how we can consider books with such vulgarity "classics." Moreover, the fact that we categorize this book as a children's novel is also appalling. In my opinion, I (let alone children), shouldn't be exposed to things like "I fetched the pig in, and took him back nearly to the table and hacked into his throat with the ax, and laid him down on the ground to bleed." Couldn't Twain have simply said that he used the pig to fake his death? Was all of this detail necessary? Or, is it needed to show Huck's cleverness? Personally, I believe that Twain should have listened to his wife on this one and edited this graphic animal abuse part out.

Oh. my. god. I can't even begin to comprehend what goes on in this girl's mind. Huck Finn is a book that contains around thirteen corpses, including children, and some are fairly gruesome. And this girl is worried about the pig? Talk about missing the point. The sad thing is, when I went to recitation to talk about this book today, this probably wasn't the stupidest thing that anyone said. I hope nobody from that class reads this.

On a more substantive level, this girl unwittingly stumbles into an interesting question: Is Huck Finn children's literature? It certainly comes out of a genre of boy adventure tales that would appeal to young males, and was marketed that way. Moreover, it is the sequel to a book in Tom Sawyer that in many ways epitomized that genre and lacks many of the darker and more complex themes of Huck Finn. This fascinates me--imagine if after Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret Judy Blume wrote a book in which Margaret's best friend was forced to deal with the brutality of death and human cruelty while pondering the complex ethics of American race relations. If Tom Sawyer is a children's book, Huck Finn is what happens to children's books who are abused and grow up to be serial murderers.

This is the fourth time I've read Huck Finn. If you ask me, it's the greatest book ever produced in this country--its plot is perfectly constructed, its two main characters, Huck and N-Word Jim, are two of the most convincing and sympathetic characters in all of modern English fiction, and at its heart it deals with something quintessentially American: the post-Civil War struggle of America to deal with the abject shame of slavery and incorporate freed blacks into society. Its status as one of the most banned books in American history only increases its importance: It was first banned from the Concord Public Library in 1885--thanks to a push from none other than Louisa May Alcott--for concerns not very different from those above (though Alcott was more concerned about the deaths of, you know, people>), and today the prevalence of the n-word makes it a popular target.

This is wholesale ridiculousness, because outside of maybe Uncle Tom's Cabin there is no greater affirmation of the humanity of the black man in 19th century literature than this novel. When Huck and Jim move down the Mississippi on their raft, it is almost as if they inhabit a "Green World" in which the standards of society no longer apply and barriers are removed. Consequently, after a struggle with his own conscience, Huck comes to realize what we already know about Jim: He is intelligent, loyal, loving, and paternalistic. In a book in which every adult seems to be cruel (Pap, the Duke and Dauphin) or foolish (The Grangerfords, Shepherdsons, and Phelps), the one true noble character is Jim, who cares so strongly for Huck.

Is Huck Finn children's literature? Certainly today it is still read by children--though I know that many parents instead steer their child for Tom Sawyer as it lacks the controversy--and certainly it is steeped in the genre expectations of children's literature. But I think what is wonderful about Huck Finn is that it can be read by persons of any age or race and still be affecting; it simply is a book that transcends those kind of labels.

I know that Brent hasn't read Huck Finn, which strikes me as weird. I tried not to give away too much in case there's anyone else who hasn't read it--because if you haven't, it should be the next book you read. Really.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

JOEY: Ah, now Rach, these ah, these little women.


JOEY: How little are they? I mean, are they like scary little?

The above quote is from an episode of
Friends. I liked that episode more than I liked Little Women, which for the most part is pretty boring.

Little Women is about four sisters, Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, who live with their mother while their father is away fighting the civil war. It follows the trajectory of their lives from prepubescence to adulthood, ending ultimately in three marriages and one death (I'm not going to tell you which one. Though you could watch Friends and find out).

There's a lot I like about Little Women--especially the character of impudent, tomboyish Jo, who according to general consensus is a direct analog to Alcott herself, right down to her struggles over whether to write popular and lucrative potboilers (as Alcott herself did under assumed names) or genuine and heartfelt, but less profitable, books. The overall arc of the book is nicely put together, and does what few books do well in following an ensemble cast of characters whose personalities develop and evolve over time without losing sight of any of them.

But that arc also means this children's book has to be five hundred freaking pages long, and it's just not that interesting. The first part is especially grating, in which the young sisters are forever getting valuable life lessons from "Marmee" about hard work, proper thinking, and sisterly love. Gradually, the mimetic overcomes the didactic, but it takes a long freaking time.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Marukami

Well, this book was strange.

It follows a man, whose name I can't remember because it's Japanese, through several months of his life, during which his marriage disintegrates, he meets a young girl who is obsessed with death, he loses his cat, he has psychic sex with a girl who fluctuates between constant pain and complete numbness, he develops the ability to suck bad things out of people's heads, and he learns that his brother in law has the ability to go inside women and split them in half... or something.

This book was really confusing.

There's a section where a man is tied down and skinned alive by a man named, appropriately, Boris the Manskinner. We learn this from an old army veteran whose past seems to parallel the life of our hero. We also learn that Boris eventually took over the prison camp in which he was originally interned, and that he cannot be killed.

So, this was sort of an odd twist.

Our hero spends several days in the bottom of a well, until the walls of the well turn into Jell-O and he pushes through them to some spirit hotel where he somehow kills his brother in law. You might expect that everything would tie together at some point, but that doesn't really happen.

This book was pretty good, if you can believe that.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale, the first of the Bond novels, when he was 52 years old. At that time, Fleming had retired from the British Navy, and was living at his estate, Goldeneye, in Jamaica. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book. Many of the movies have a campy, comic-book feel to them—Xray glasses, jetpacks, villains with weird powers/ailments, etc.—and I was wondering how much of this came from the books and how much of it was simply created for the movies.

The character that Fleming created is dark and rather cold (props to Timothy Dalton). The Bond that we know from the movies is nothing if not a male chauvinist, and he is the same in the books. I’ll give you an example. Bond has just found out that he must work with a woman on his assignment, and this is his response: “He sighed. Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around. One had to look out for them and take care of them.” But at other points in the novel, Bond’s feelings about women are borderline misogynistic. Perhaps the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) example of this comes toward the end of the book. “And now [Bond] knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.” Double O, no he didn’t! It is the word “sweet” that makes this sentence so creepily offensive. Without it, the statement would be a little weird, but not nearly as cringe inducing as it is in its current form.

One could make the argument that Fleming simply created a character that is misogynistic, which in no way implies that Fleming condones this kind of thinking. After all, Nabokov created Humbert Humbert; Salinger created Holden Caufield. As I see it, the difference is that Fleming consciously constructed a smooth, debonair, character—one that would be idolized and prized for his coolness. Bonds misogynistic tendencies are not presented as a character fault, but simply as another part of his persona, just like his black hair, crisp suits, and luck as a gambler.

Casino Royale was very much plot driven, but there was more character development than I expected there to be. As for the relation between the book and the movie, Le Chiffre does torture Bond in the same way that the character did in the movie, but he does not cry blood from one eye. Bond is cold and exhibits none of the witticisms so characteristic of his silver-screen counterpart. The charming, charismatic Bond, and the over-the-top villains appear to be creations of the Broccoli brothers.

Casino Royale is different enough from the Bond films, that being a fan of the movies will have little bearing on whether you will like this book. It was a very easy read. After finishing it I had no strong desire to continue the series. Although, I may read another at some point to see how Fleming develops his James Bond character.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

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

After The Order of the Phoenix, I was hoping that the next Harry Potter book would be better…much better. The Half-Blood Prince did exactly what Phoenix did not: start off with a bang and maintain that energy throughout. The book opens with the Minister of Magic meeting with the Prime Minister—the Muggle Minister, if you will. This was a great way to begin the book. Rowling is able to quickly let readers know that Voldemort has been wreaking havoc on the non-magic world—as well as the wizarding world—and she is able to do so in an interesting way.

As Harry and company return to Hogwarts, things have changed. The threat that Voldemort poses is much more immediate. The students are constantly getting news of people that have ‘disappeared’, some of them relatives of Hogwarts students. And there is fear that despite all of its defenses, Hogwarts may not be impervious to attacks by Voldemort and his Death Eaters.

In potions class, Harry gets a used textbook with notes, shortcuts, and spells scribbled in the margins by its previous owner, the Half-Blood Prince. (Ladies and gentlemen, we have a title.) These spells appear to be of the prince’s own creation, and some of them involve darker magic than Harry is used to.

With the help of Dumbledore, Harry begins to find out pertinent information about Voldemort’s past. Horcruxes, y’all! Horcruxes. I am glad that I don’t have to wait for a year to read the next one.

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

The contents of this book were originally presented as a multiple-part radio series. C. S. Lewis, who served in World War I and was an air raid warden during World War II, was asked to give a series of broadcasts on Christian faith. These broadcasts came during the blitzkreig, when Great Britain was attacked on almost a nightly basis by German bombers. Incidentally, the blitz played a pivotal part in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

In the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis states, “The reader should be warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two Christian denominations.” This sentence tells the reader a lot about the book. It also describes why I liked Mere Christianity as much as I did.

Having grown up in a thoroughly conservative Christian environment, I am painfully aware of the misplaced importance that many Christians put on issues that have almost no bearing on what it means to be a Christian. Lewis is not concerned with the differences between denominations. His topic is much larger in scope. His goal is to answer questions, such as “What is Christianity?”, and “What are the major tenets of the religion?”. In other words, “What must one believe to be a Christian?”. I find this infinitely more interesting than squabbles over the importance of prayer or the debate over works and faith. Many of the questions that Lewis poses are questions that I have asked at some point.

Lewis approaches his topic logically, employing illuminating, and often witty, illustrations. He begins with the universe, arguing that Christianity provides answers to the many questions posed by the universe. Each successive chapter flows logically from the previous one. Of course, Lewis ends up concluding that Christianity is the salve to the aches and pains of the world. But he does not do so by being flippantly dismissive of other religious beliefs. In fact he says, “If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through.”

Lewis tells his reader that he is writing from the perspective of a layman, emphasizing that Mere Christianity is a collection of what he has come to know about Christianity. But he does not place undue importance on what he has to say. At one point he tells his readers, “If this chapter has not meant anything to you, or you have not found it helpful, drop it. Do not give it another thought.” I find this kind of candor refreshing.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Carlton recommended this book to me, and prefaced it by saying that it was probably on of his top five books of all time. That's a lot of pressure when you're staring a new book, but, while I don't think Owen Meany will be making my top 5 anytime soon, it was a very funny, entertaining book.

The basic story (which I'm sure Carlton summarized in his earlier review), revolves around the narrator, John, a rather spineless, uncharismatic kid who, throughout the course of the novel, seems to derive most of his identity from his association with Owen Meany, a strange, short kid with a “ruined voice” and an unshakable faith in the mysterious ways of God.

The book opens with John confessing that he believes in God today because of Owen Meany, and the remainder of the book shows why this is so. It's made up of seven sections (which I hesitate to call chapters because of their length) which are told in chronological order. The book follows John and Owen from elementary school through their late teens.

I mostly enjoyed Prayer. The characters were likable and believable, the plot was interesting, and the religious aspects were all handled very well. My only complaint was that parts of the book, particularly when the older John is speaking, sometimes read like polemics against Ronald Reagan and American foreign policy in general. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, I don't think. After all, an author can write about whatever sentiments he wants, but in context of the entire story, the political asides were a) jarring and b) somewhat dating, since John is supposed to be writing from the present day.

Still, these complaints are fairly minor, and I enjoyed Prayer. I'd like to check out some of Irving's other work, although his books are long enough to make them slightly time prohibitive.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

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

I found most of this book incredibly tedious. While I had trouble putting down the first four Harry Potter books, it was rare that I read more than fifty pages of The Order of the Phoenix at a time. The first half of the book was actually rather boring. An inordinate amount of time was spent on the Order of the Phoenix headquarters, the Black family house, where Sirius was hiding out. Harry et al did a lot of cleaning while at the headquarters. Please, Mrs. Rowling, tell me more.

Some important stuff happened in the first 500 pages of this book, but there is a lot of filler, as well. With the help of a good editor, a lot could have easily been cut from the first of the book. This would have been a welcome improvement considering that the book is nearly 900 pages long.

Further reason for my disliking this book is that Harry Potter is kind of a dick…to everyone. Even after the book starts to pick up. He is still such a pissy little bugger. The last 150 pages of the book are much better, but do little to make up for what came before them. Compared to the previous book, The Goblet of Fire, book five was a let down.

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

This is the second book I've read by Ian McEwan, the first being the excellent Atonement, and frankly, it was a little disappointing. It was about 1/3 the length of Atonement. This, fortunately, meant that it only took a few hours to read.

It's not that Amsterdam is a terrible book, but, as I read in some Amazon review, it's the sort of book that wins prizes. The characters are cold, distant and unlikable. The most likable character in the book is the elusive Molly Vernon, elusive because, at the outset, she's dead, and the book opens on her funeral. The rest of the cast are a trio of uniformly unlikable cads: Julian Garmony, a foreign secretary with ambitions of becoming prime minister, Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor, and Clive Linley, the UK's preeminent composer at the time in which the novel is set.

These three men have a lot in common. All three are self absorbed, were lovers of Molly's at one point, and none of them (with the possible exception of Garmony) have much in the way of redeeming attributes. Of course, likable characters aren't always a necessity for a book to be involving and interesting: witness Lolita's Humbert Humbert, Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caufield, The Great Gatsby's Gatsby. The thing is, in those works, the characters' prickly demeanors worked as part of a larger character study. In Amsterdam, McEwan seems to want to tackle a lot of tough topics, lost love, fear of death, ambition, and jealousy, but his characters are so irredeemable as to strip all poignancy from their dilemmas. Take, for instance, Linley, who (SPOILERS) remorselessly allows a woman to be raped so that he doesn't lose the melody running through his head, or Halliday, who is utterly willing to destroy Garmony's life mostly out of spite and jealousy over a long dead relationship.

There are powerful themes at work here, and Amsterdam's denoument in, well, Amsterdam, is somewhat effective despite my inability to really care what happened to Halliday and Linley. Maybe that was the point, and Amsterdam is more than a fairly shallow tragedy, but aside from taking up an evening, it was mostly disappointing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

If I wanted to, I think I would be justified in calling Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass two books, but I'm so ahead that I think I'll have some mercy on you people and just call it one, since I read them together in a shared volume. Hell, I'm not even reviewing all the Shakespeare plays I'm reading this year--I'm just that nice of a guy.

Anyway, I'd never read either Alice book, but I pretty much got the gist from the movie, which sort of squashes both books together. The books are actually a little trippier than I imagined, since the whole thing is actually a sort of dreamscape (literally in Wonderland), the transitions between scenes and events are often vague. Numerous times Alice ends up somewhere without knowing how she got there, or babies change into pigs, shit like that. Much of it is very creepy, and I wonder exactly why more people don't find it more disturbing--I suspect it is because, like me, few people have actually read it. A woman in my class made the interesting observation that kids who have chaotic childhoods often seem to be disturbed by the novel's absurdism, while children with healthy childhoods do not.

In any case, Alice is a pretty colorful piece of absurdism. The wordplay is amazing, from the Jabberwocky to little puns like the Mock Turtle--from whom mock turtle soup is made. At its heart, the Alice books are a response to children's literature, which up to this point (mid-19th century) had been dominated by very didactic books about God and righteousness which presented clear morals and encouraged children to become better people through their reading. Alice is a rejection of all that, to the point where it is almost completely stripped of meaning, down to a celebration of absurdism and nonsense. It's not so much a book (or pair of books) about nothing as on nothing, that is, nothing is its chief concern. In that way, I think it very interestingly foreshadowed modernism a genre that didn't appear for another seventy years after this was written.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer was written a couple of decades before the Beat movement really took off, but it has the same sort of style: rambling, extemporaneous, structureless, but also brightly descriptive and philosophical. Indeed, much like On the Road, Tropic of Cancer deals with a real-life period in the life of its author Henry Miller, and its characters are pseudonymed versions of real people. Specifically, it deals with Miller's time as an expatriate in Paris, trying to get by with no money and no job.

Like On the Road, it can be extremely boring: there is no plot to speak of, no beginning, middle, or end, and what passes as action doesn't really serve to entice the reader. Unlike On the Road, the prose can be haunting and gorgeous, and make you forget that the book you're reading is basically going nowhere. Sometimes it's enough to get lost in Miller's style, but most of the time this book is just frustrating. I am especially tired of this kind of book, I think, and would like to read something with a more substantial plot. Maybe a murder mystery.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

I thought this book was super interesting. I liked the ideas it provoked, and I liked the way it made me think. I may write more about it when I have more time.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome was beautiful and sad. It made you want the wrong thing with all your heart and then took it away in a most bizarre fashion right at the creepy end. I'm glad I read it; a very interesting read.

I have found that posting is so much easier if you do it right after reading the book you write about. I had no such luck with this one.

A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein

This is the very sad story of a girl whose family was murdered. She struggles through trying to understand why she was left alive and how to live her life now that her family is gone.

The book is set in Holland. It is a really a tragedy as I would define it, but I suppose the happy ending negates such an opinion. Dorrestein travels through the human psyche in an attempt to explain the human heart. She does a beautiful, if disturbing job of it.

The book is worth the read if you come by it, but not something I would go seek out.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Thud! by Terry Pratchett

There's really no need to go into much detail about this book. It's a Discworld book, he second one I've reviewed this year, and it was funny, entertaining,and fairly well-plotted, although neihter the plot or the satire are handled as well as in some of his other books.

This is probably the worst review since Chihuahuas.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

Since Chris and Alyson have already read and reviewed this book, I'm not going to go in depth about the plot. I'm going to talk about the things I liked in bullet points, and then I'm going to take a nap.

Despite nearly constant profanity, obscenity, and scatalogical references in the first two thirds of the book, VGL still managed a large number of very poignant moments, which I won't enumerate here since I think Carlton is going to read this book.

- The writing itself was really good, although it took some adjusting, partly due to the things metioned in the previous point.

- You have no idea how strange of a book this is until you get to the last third. There's barely even a hint. I think that's a positive.

- This book is funny.

One of the most interesting aspects was the way that Vernon sees the world. Despite using language that would make Scocese blush, he's really nothing more than a naive innocent, caught in the middle of events much bigger than himself, manipulated by everyone around him, and thrust into situations over which he has no control. Somehow, Pierre manages to make Vernon both vulnerable and likeable.

The only downside is that VGL might be a little much for some people. Frank descriptions of sexual abuse and violence, along with making light of school shootings, is probably going to make this a poor choice for grandmothers or children.

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

Since Alyson already spoiled each and every plot point in this book, I don't feel the need to write much, except that it was quite a bit more enjoyable to read than Order of the Phoenix. There was a lot more sex, for one thing.

Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume of The Book of the New Sun, a fantasy/sci-fi quadrilogy that is generally considered to be one of the best. The main character is a former Torturer named Severian who is exiled from his guild after extending mercy unbecoming a torturer to a woman in his care. True, “Extending mercy” basically just means hat he killed her in a slightly less painful way, but torturers are, as you might expect, a bunch of hard cases.

Well, when I first started this book, I was pretty excited about it. The buzz I'd read had been almost all positive, the concept sounded very interesting and full of potential, and the writing itself was fairly appealing... at least when I first started the book.

The first section, where we learn about the torturer's guild and Severian's life in there, is pretty cool. Unfortunately, once he gets kicked out, the pace of the book, already pretty slow, grinds nearly to a halt, as Severian has several adventures in which nothing really happens. I'm all for slow books, and I'm all for setup, but between the copius amounts of both, Shadow of the Torturer just wore me down. It doesn't help that the print size in this book is absolutely miniscule.

So anyway, I only read this book, and I'm not I'll finish the series. I'm sure it's great for some people, but not for me. I need more lasers in my sci fi.

Friday, September 7, 2007

RIP Madeleine L'Engle

Buried in the small print of

HARTFORD, Connecticut (AP) -- Author Madeleine L'Engle, whose novel "A Wrinkle in Time" has been enjoyed by generations of schoolchildren and adults since the 1960s, has died, her publicist said Friday. She was 88.


Although L'Engle was often labeled a children's author, she disliked that classification. In a 1993 Associated Press interview, she said she did not write down to children.

"In my dreams, I never have an age," she said. "I never write for any age group in mind. When people do, they tend to be tolerant and condescending and they don't write as well as they can write.

"When you underestimate your audience, you're cutting yourself off from your best work."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Atonement By Ian McEwan

My emotional reaction to and hatred for the main character of this book has made it nearly impossible for me to write a review on it. So, many weeks, maybe months late, here are my thoughts on “Atonement”.

The beginning of the story is like a beautiful painting. You can almost see the people talking and moving in their own worlds, unfortunately those worlds have to collide for their lives to continue. The thoughts and differing perspectives are woven together in a realistic way, identifiable in anyone’s life.

In spite of being tragic, book one reads very well. The flow and pace of the story are consistent. The style is easy and interesting. The following books read like a man on speed. They have an over all frame work that stops only periodically for a disjointed overdevelopment of some random scenario.

Overall I do think it is an interesting story, and maybe even a “good book”, just not one I fully appreciated as I should have.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

This book would no doubt have meant more to me if I had already read some of Vonnegut’s works. I selected A Man Without a County from a number of different books by Vonnegut, with little method to my choosing. The cover caught my eye (my left one to be exact) and then I saw this quote right underneath Vonnegut’s drooping cigarette: “[This] may be as close as Vonnegut ever comes to a memoir.” I like memoirs. I figured I would give this book a shot.

After the first twenty pages I almost gave up. Not for good. I simply thought that it might be better if I were to read some of his novels before I read his final work. But I think it just took a little getting used to. Vonnegut was all over the place. He is talking about the art of joke-telling one paragraph, and socialism the next. The book is really just a hodge-podge of Vonnegut’s thoughts, luckily his thoughts are interesting, insightful, and entertaining, but there is no overall theme to the book, nor to most of the chapters. So in the spirit of this book, the rest of this review is just going to be a disparate collection of quotes form A Man Without a County, which I enjoyed reading after I realized what to expect.

“There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president. This was true even in high school. Only clearly disturbed people ran for class president.”

“If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

“We are on earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

“It is almost always a mistake to mention Abraham Lincoln. He always steals the show.”

“Now then, I have some good news for you and some bad news. The bad news is that the Martians have landed in New York City and are staying at the Waldorf Astoria. The good news is that they only eat homeless men, women, and children of all colors, and they pee gasoline.”

While most of Vonnegut’s ruminations were decidedly pessimistic, there were some points of unadulterated optimism. There was a great couple pages about the simple act of mailing a letter and all the different people that Vonnegut interacted with on his little postal quest. My favorite came in the section devoted to Vonnegut’s relationship with his fans. “Joe, a young man from Pittsburgh, came up to me with one request: ‘Please tell me it will all be okay.’ ‘Welcome to Earth, young man,’ I said. ‘It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, Joe, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of: Goddamn it, Joe, you’ve got to be kind!’” Ah, there is just something calming about humanism in its purest form. I guess I should track down some of Vonnegut’s other works.

Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer by Dorothy Gilman

Mrs. Pollifax is a delightful old lady/spy. Yes, that is a contrdiction in my mind as well, and even more so knowing that she was already sixty when she got the job. Unlikely as it is, that stories of Mrs Pollifax are funny and complex.

In this latest adventure Mrs. Pollifax is the protector of Kadi, the daughter of deceased missionaries to Ubangiba. Kadi was taken from her country after her parents were murdered in their mission station. Now she must return, and to keep their identites secret, the murders are now set on ending Kadi's life.

I always enjoy reading Mrs. Pollifax. While it is light and amusing reading it is not a children's book. I think Gilman has a style that is more comedic than you find in other mystery novels.

Confessions of an Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey

"If opium-eating be a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess, not yet recorded of any other man, it is no less true, that I have struggled against this fascinating enthralment with a religious zeal, and have, at length, accomplished what I never yet heard attributed to any other man - have untwisted, almost to its final links the accursed chain which fettered me." (from Confessions of an English Opium Eater)

De Quincey's autobiographical account of his opium addiction is his most famous work. De Quincey took opium initially to ease physical pain but eventually increased the dosage enough to become addicted. He did hold to the belief that at the time he began using opium daily, he had no other choice.

The book gives eloquent descriptions of the psychological effects of the drug. The book sounds a lot like the novels of the period where the reason behind his actions seems more important than what he was actually doing, especially toward the end.

It was interesting to read this along with "Over the Underpass". While they were written almost two centuries apart, the story of drug abuse and how it can make a slave of anyone is still that same.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

I think Christie delighted herself a bit to much in the idea for this book. To start with, the conversations overheard at the beginning of the story are so over the top and disjointed you wonder if the author began writing with any idea of how to get where she was headed.

When the reader is eventually let into the story it is without any of the artistic flare Christie readers will admire in her other works. The clues are open and obvious, and the story line follows more "How to solve a mystery." than "What is the conclusion to this puzzle?"

To finish it off the conclusion is most unsatisfactory, much like this one

Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski

I read this amazing book over the weekend. It is called "Over theUnderpass" by Mike Yankoski. Basically Mike, a college student at aChristian College, decided to go out with a pal and live with the homeless for five months.

They wanted to learn what it was to have faith in God when you HAD to rely on Him for truly everything. I guess they were typical folks who COULD rely on God to supply a need, but if it God wasn't working in their time frame they always had parents or friends or their ownpaycheck to fall back on.

When I first read abut the book I had a lot of doubts about the ethics of choosing to be homeless as if it were some sort of adventure whento the people who are homeless it is a horrible reality. It seemed odd to me and sort of disrespectful in a way I guess. Thankfully lots ofpeople felt that way about it and so he made a section specifically about that to put we doubters at ease.

First of all I was impressed with the time he spent praying, studying, planning and getting advice. It wasn't something he went into lightly at all. He started volunteering at shelters and meeting with shelter councilors to get a better idea of the world he was going into and then he started out by entering an addiction recovery program so that he wasn't dropped straight into the street.

The other aspect that changed my mind was that he had objectives, and they are good ones:

1. To better understand the life of the homeless in America, and tosee firsthand how the church is responding to their needs.

2. To encourage other to "live out loud" for Christ in whatever waysGod is asking them to.

3. To learn personally what it means to depend on Christ for dailyphysical needs, and to experience contentment and confidence in Him.

Oh, and the last thing, they didn't lie to anyone. They didn't tell people they were homeless, because in reality they could have given up and gone home. They did have homes. I respected that.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Upcoming Film Adaptations of Books

Atonement (Dec. 7)

This book is great; the cast (Keira Knightley, James McAvoy) and crew (Pride and Prejudice's Joe Wright) should make this a pretty awesome movie.

Beowulf (Nov. 16)

I'm not exactly sure what's going on here; apparently they decided to film this using motion capture animation instead of just using live people with CGI. Which begs the question: why go through all the trouble of animating Angelina Jolie when the character you end up with looks like... Angelina Jolie? She certainly doesn't look like Grendel's mother.

No Country for Old Men (Nov. 9)

Cormac McCarthy + Coen Brothers + Tommy Lee Jones = badass

The Golden Compass (Dec. 7)

Reports are that the movie tones down a lot of the anti-Christian sentiment in the children's book, so we'll see. In either case, I expect it to be controversial.

Love in the Time of Cholera (Nov. 16)

I can't seem to find a trailer for this, but here's a video about the making of the movie. The book is a very popular romantic novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The Spiderwick Chronicles (Feb. 29)

This is based on a children's book in which ordinary children encounter an extroardinary magical world. So, basically, every children's book ever. I will be watching this solely to see if there is a sex scene between Andrew McCarthy and Mary Louise Parker.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

I have not read much by Steinbeck. I read Of Mice and Men three or four years ago, and I am fairly certain that I was assigned The Grapes of Wrath in high school, although I am not certain that I actually read it. The cover of this book caught my eye, before I noticed anything else. It was a painting of a man approaching a large gnarled tree, which stood at the top of a hill. (The picture to the left is the only one on the official Penguin Classics website. I was unable to find the correct cover.) Seeing that it was written by Steinbeck, but not recognizing the title, I flipped the book over and read the first sentence of the summary on the back. It read, “Ancient pagan beliefs, the great Greek epics, and the Bible all inform this extraordinary novel, which occupied Steinbeck for more than five difficult years.” After reading this, I had to read the book.

That one sentence summarizes To a God Unknown very well. Set in the early 20th century, it is a story of four brothers who move from Vermont to California to homestead the land. Joseph Wayne is not the oldest, but he is the leader of the brothers since their father gave him his blessing before he died. Joseph becomes convinced that the spirit of his father inhabits a large tree on his farm. He secretly communes with the tree, talking to it, seeking advice, and even offering sacrifices.

Amongst his brothers and their wives, opinions about Joseph vary. Thomas puts up with it, seemingly amused. Rama, the wife of the oldest brother, reveres Joseph. She tells Joseph’s new wife, “I do not know whether there are men born outside humanity, or whether some men are so human as to make other seem unreal. Perhaps a godling lives on earth now and then. Joseph has strength beyond vision of shattering, he has the calm of mountains, and his emotion is as wild and fierce and sharp as the lightning and just as reasonless as far as I can see or know. I tell you this man is not a man, unless he is all men.” Later the priest of a nearby town mirrors her thinking. As Joseph leaves, the priest thinks, “Thank God this man has no message. Thank God he has no will to be remembered, to be believed in, else there might be a new Christ here in the West.” However others feel about Joseph, Burton, a staunch Christian, thinks that his brother is practicing a kind of devil worship. He fears that he is allowing evil to take root in their land, and voices his disapproval to Joseph on a number of occasions.

Whether as a result of Joseph's actions or not, the Wayne family does prosper. Their crops are bountiful, their livestock reproduce at an alarming rate, and there is never any want for wild game on their property. But it is not long before the ground begins to dry up and the animals begin to die and leave the land. Joseph is certain that he knows what brought on this change, and he knows what he must do.

All throughout To a God Unknown, Steinbeck alludes to and borrows from Greek mythology and a wide range of religious traditions. In so doing, Steinbeck creates a mystical tale of his own, adding to his mythology of California.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Kiss Your Bookshelves Goodbye

I bought each of you a Bibliochaise for Christmas.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

The Secret of NIMH was one of those formative animated movies for me when I was a kid. My brother and I loved it, probably because it was one of the more violent films that we had seen up to that point. The final scene has the two main groups of rats battling each other, some get stabbed, some get crushed, and in the end there is some pretty sweet magic. I had no idea that it was based on a book, until the other day when I was in the children's section of Joseph-Beth, looking for The Wednesday Wars. I bought both of the books, decidedly more excited about Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Mrs. Frisby is a widowed field mouse with four children. Every year they move out of their home in the garden, escaping the farmer’s plow. With the time to move approaching, Timothy, Mrs. Frisby’s youngest, gets very sick. She is afraid that moving him with be too much. At the behest of Jeremy, a crow that she rescued from the farmer’s cat, Mrs. Frisby goes to visit the old owl that lives in the woods, who tells her to ask the rats for help. These are no ordinary rats. Something is very different about them. As she works with them to solve her problem, Mrs. Frisby finds out that their past and hers are much more connected than she could ever have imagined.

I was interested to see how the magic at the end of the movie would be explained in the book, since often things make a little more sense in book form than they do as a movie (The Shining anyone?). However, O’Brien’s book has no magic in it whatsoever. His is a story that is easily explained, nearly plausible. I realized this about halfway through the book, and I was okay with it. As much as I like The Secret of NIMH, the ending never quite made sense to me. But I was looking forward to the big battle that took place as the rats were trying to move Mrs. Frisby’s house. The battle wasn’t in the book either. Now that was disappointing.

I would have like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH much more if I had never seen The Secret of NIMH, which created certain expectations. The ending of the book was especially lackluster when compared with its cartoon counterpart. All in all, it was a good book, but I couldn't help but compare it with one of the greatest movies of all time. And in that comparison, it falls a little short.