Books, November 2010

*** Josh Lieb – I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President
*** Stefan Fatsis – A Few Seconds of Panic
*** Carlos Ruiz Zafón – The Shadow of the Wind

First, i want to present my research and practice to the public. This product is not to be used by children under the age of 8 months due to the risk of anaphylaxis and a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. A large international study has been published suggesting that use of alendronate for patients with metastatic bone disease does not increase risk of fracture in the absence of disease progression.

Its use has now been largely supplanted by newer and much. A headache was reported by a relative who said that he had a similar headache. It usually works faster than other drugs if used in a proper dosage.

Class President was pretty fun, The main character’s evilness is well played out, and I like the gradual reveal of the depths of his villainy. I was, however, a little disappointed with the ending (no spoilers!). The Fatsis book was also pretty good, at least if you’re interested in Football. I found a lot of the details and the personal relationships interesting, though I thought the book was just a little too long. The Zafon book was one of those, what do you call it, literary mystery-thriller type things. You know, mysterious goings-on surrounding books and writing. It was pretty good, nothing earth-shattering, but an entertaining time, basically a sort of well-written literary gothic-romance. And of course Barcelona makes a great setting.

Books, October 2010

** William Gibson – Spook Country
** Jonathon Swift – Gulliver’s Travels

Thinking about Spook Country and Pattern Recognition, I kind of got them mixed up into one story that somehow involved Cayce Pollard and the footage and a mysterious shipping container but, oh yeah, I read Spook Country in October and that’s where the shipping container came from. The shipping container mystery sure was pretty interesting until we actually found out that it was zzzzzzzzzz. Whatsername, Hollis, was an okay character, but like Cayce she seemed sort of cool and shiny and not very connected with the reader at all. I don’t feel like I know them or anyone else in these books. And in terms of interesting moments and general reading pleasure, this one fell short of Pattern Recognition. I’ll still keep reading Gibson, but it’s been a while since the arrival of a new Gibson book was an “omg must have” moment.

I will probably get attacked for this (or would if anyone read my blog), but I found Gulliver’s Travels, on my first rereading since high school, to be pretty boring and flat. I know that Swift is supposed to be a master of satire (and yes, the eating babies thing is still funny), but the satire and social insight stuff supposedly found in this book is lame in the extreme. Oh, people are self important however big or small they are! People disagree over silly things and will kill over them! Were these observations shocking even when Swift made them? Some of Swift’s imagining of how Gulliver would interact with people so large or so small (sorry, I got bored by the end of the Brobdingnag section and skipped the rest) was fun to read.

Books, September 2010

** F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
*** Robert E. Howard – Three Conan stories (The Scarlet Citadel, The Pool Of The Black One, The Tower Of The Elephant)
** Jules Verne – 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
*** Fritz Leiber – The Best Of Fritz Leiber
*** Fritz Leiber – Swords and Deviltry
*** William Gibson – Pattern Recognition
** Oscar Wilde – The Picture Of Dorian Gray

September was the month I finally started to explore ebooks. I tried the Kindle and Aldiko apps on my phone, reading a variety of free stuff (Fitzgerald, Verne, Howard), and then I ended up getting a Kindle for my birthday (thanks, Mom and Dad!). The phone app is usable for short amounts of time. I like the Kindle pretty well, though it’s a little awkward if you get bored with a book and want to skim. Also, I think my tolerance for boring stuff is lower in ebook format (and even lower in the phone app) — I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed 20,000 Leagues more on paper (or even on the Kindle, which I hadn’t gotten yet).

I was curious to read Benjamin Button; I didn’t actually see the movie, but I wanted to read the story behind it. There’s not much to this short story aside from its strange premise and some good jokes. The movie must have had to make up basically an entirely new story to give the audience something to get interested in. The story was fine, but more of a one-off joke or thought experiment than anything emotionally involving.

I’ve been wanting to reread some good, old fantasy stuff lately, and both Howard’s Conan and Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were on the list. I found several Conan stories free on Aldiko and enjoyed reading them. They’re entertaining reads and written in a lively way, but a little too dependent on the ol’ telling rather than showing. Howard does a lot of what I think of as the Lovecraft move: he tells you something is unspeakable, indescribable, evil, perverse, etc., rather than explaining it in such a way that it makes your skin truly crawl. Still, for all that, there’s a lot of good description and action going on; I’d like to read more Conan and more of Howard’s other writing.

20,000 Leagues was pretty good but required heavy skimming. I believe I read this and some other Verne when I was young, but didn’t remember much in detail. There was a lot of zoology and other nature detail that I wasn’t that interested in, and a lot of attempted scientific explanations that were not unreasonable at the time but seem kind of silly now. Nothing against Verne per se, but I would have preferred a little more adventure storytelling and a little less scientific (or pseudo-scientific) detail. I suspect I’d have a similar reaction to a lot of his other books, though I will probably try some more, since they’re free on the Kindle.

Fritz Leiber is really good. I enjoyed his “Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser” books as a kid (handed down from my father, who loves them too) but hadn’t read anything else of his. All of the short stories I read in these two volumes were pretty good; my only complaint is I’d like more novels, since I often find the short story form a little lacking. I want something involved that I can sink my teeth into.

Pattern Recognition was pretty good. It was a little silly and one of those author-wish-fulfillment (“omg how cool is my main character, right?”) type things. For all that, I kind of enjoyed Cayce’s weird phobias and talents, and the way a community people grew up around the mysterious footage. The resolution wasn’t particularly satisfying or interesting though. An enjoyable read, but I’ve already forgotten most of it (as I did after the first time I read it) except for a few nice details.

You know, the modern image of Oscar Wilde is a guy going around spouting off witticisms (e.g. this) which is pretty much what I pictured. What I didn’t realize is pretty much all of those Wildean witticisms (okay, a lot of them anyway) are from the first couple chapters of Dorian Gray. I mean, I read it in high school, but who remembers that stuff? Dorian Gray was pretty good, if a bit melodramatic. You will get tired very quickly of some of the more emotional characters and their interminably yip-yap. But hey witticisms, corruption, sex, drugs, and scandal, am I right?

Bye-bye Books

I purged a bunch of stuff off the shelves. Of course, not everything I got rid of is something I didn’t like — I just figure it can remain part of my virtual library without having to take up real space. And of course, some of the stuff I got rid of I’ve already forgotten and hope to never think about again. Here are a few that stay in the virtual library.

*** Walter Gropius – The New Architecture and the Bauhaus. I took a modern architecture class in college, for which this was one of the textbooks. I love modern architecture, both the good and the bad, both the successes and the magnificent failures, and I love the Bauhaus. I kept this so long mostly as a reminder of that.
*** Julian Barnes – Talking it Over. This was the book that taught me terms like “crepuscular” and “rebarbatively quotidian”. It’s also one of the first “unreliable narrator” books I remember really noticing and appreciating. Its Rashomon-like structure makes for some very funny bits. I may even want to reread this one again someday (though I somehow never connected that much with other of his books), but had gotten kind of tired of it.
** Milorad Pavic – Dictionary of the Khazars. One of the few books that survived the wax and wane of my interest in experimental fiction. I read a lot of gimmicky books for a while there, and this was one of the few in which I thought the gimmick (story told in a series of encyclopedia entries in multiple conflicting encyclopedias, and the user must do his own cross-referencing) had something to it. Though as often happens, the decent gimmick was somewhat wasted on a story that wasn’t itself that compelling (see e.g. Timecode).
*** Roald Dahl – My Uncle Oswald. I love Roald Dahl, but Uncle Oswald isn’t really one of his better inventions.
*** Dorris Dorrie – Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing. I really liked this book sometime in the 90s (and the lovely Edward Gorey cover on my edition), but I just didn’t think I’d want to read it again.
Leo Marks – Between Silk and Cyanide. Already reviewed.
Charles Yu – Third Class Superhero. Already reviewed.
Patrick Neate – City of Tiny Lights. Already reviewed.
Patrick Suskind – Perfume
Jeffrey Steingarten – The Man Who Ate Everything
Georges Perec – Life A User’s Manual. I mostly enjoyed this. It was left behind by an ex-girlfriend.

Books, July 2010

** Matt Ruff – Sewer, Gas, and Electric
*** Michael Moorcock – Elric (the original six novels)
*** Wendy Pini – Law and Chaos
*** Jim Thompson – The Grifters

I really enjoyed Sewer, Gas, and Electric the first time around. This time it just felt like someone trying too hard to throw a bunch of “funny” stuff into one book in order to create the best-sounding back-cover blurb. Giant killer sharks in the NYC sewers! A shark named after a beer!!! Etc! It was an okay time, but eh.

Michael Moorcock is not a bad writer. Or so I’m told — I don’t feel like I can judge very well, since I read most of his stuff when I was much younger and perhaps not a great judge of writing quality. However, the Elric books are really not that well written. There’s a lot of the cardinal sin of telling rather than showing — we’re often told things are evil or unnatural or whatever, and we have to take it on trust. It’s all fairly trashy — and yet, I pretty much sped through the entire six-book series (six thin, lightweight books, I admit) at full speed, compelled to see the whole thing through. So he’s got something going for him. Anyway, Elric is a lovable hero, the tortured emo anti-hero, doomed to kill those he loves and agonize about it to the uncaring gods. Plus, he looks cool.

Having finished the Elric books off, I decided to dig out Law and Chaos, Wendy Pini’s book of drawings from her never-realized animated Elric movie. I’ve had that book about as long as my Elric books (and going back to when I read ElfQuest and may even have admitted to reading it in public), and so her images are inseparable from Moorcock’s words in my head. It’s probably been 20 years since I even looked much at that book, and many of the scenes were still perfectly familiar. The art isn’t great — it’s a little too elfish/fey for Elric perhaps (not surprising from a very young-at-the-time artist who would go on to create ElfQuest) and it certainly doesn’t shy away from the emo aspect of Elric (again, not surprising), but it’s mostly a good fit for Moorcock’s character, and anyone who likes Elric would probably appreciate it.

The Grifters was good stuff, makes me want to read more Jim Thompson.

Books, August 2010

*** Denise Mina – Deception
*** Willa Cather – Death Comes for the Archbishop

Deception is a sort of thriller/mystery, with a sometimes unlikeable and pathetic narrator, Lachlan. His wife has been convicted of murder, and as he tries to find evidence to exonerate her, he instead learns more and more about the deceptions that underlay his marriage. In the end, the book is more a psychological portrait, of Lachlan and of the relationship of these two people. I found it interesting for its story and characters, but also to the extent that anyone who’s been in a relationship can identify somewhat with what goes wrong in this one. Anyway, this was my first Denise Mina book, and though it’s apparently nontypical, I’m looking forward to reading more.

I don’t feel like I really “got” Death Comes for the Archbishop. It was good, and I found the character of Latour fairly interesting, but on the whole I didn’t find the book that compelling. I felt like there was a certain amount of distance maintained between the reader and the characters, partly because large portions of their lives were sort of skipped over. For example, for much of the book Latour wants to build a cathedral, and it seems like it may become part of his big life’s work, a major focus of the book. But then the book skips ahead a bit, the cathedral is casually mentioned as having been completed, and that’s the last we hear. I also kept wondering why Willa Cather wanted to tell the story of this guy and what I the reader was supposed to get out of it. Of course, sometimes one wants to tell the story of an ordinary person, but in most books I think there’s some core character trait or story that the author feels compelled to draw out and present to readers. In this book I kept wondering — why does Cather care, and why should I?

Books, June 2010

**** Philip K. Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
** Arthur C. Clarke – 2001: A Space Odyssey
*** Dashiell Hammett – The Glass Key

The similarities between “Do Androids Dream…” and “Bladerunner” are enough to recognize one as an adaptation of the other, but otherwise they are so different as to make the comparison meaningless, I think. Androids is a good book; Bladerunner is a good movie. But even though the basics of the story are the same, the details are so different and the overall emphasis is so different that it seems meaningless to consider them together and ask, for example, which one is better. I’ll leave it at that.

On the other hand, I was under the impression that 2001 was adapted from the book, but it turns out, I guess, to be the other way around, or at least that they were developed together. The book therefore follows the movie pretty closely, but elaborates on some things that are easy to do in books but not in movies (i.e. the inner thoughts of pre-homo-sapiens apes). It made for an interesting read, and made some aspects of the story clearer and more explicit, but I’m not sure it added much to the story overall. For example, in the movie I think it’s unclear how much affect the monolith actually has on human evolution; I’d always interpreted it as giving a nudge. In the book, however, the thing basically creates the human race, rather than giving a nudge. The entire mythos that involves the hyper-intelligent race of pan-dimensional beings or whatever is a little too explicit and leaves humanity with not enough self-development to be very satisfying. A bit of mystery was better.

I had thought I’d read every Dashiell Hammett, and I’ve actually owned The Glass Key for a while. But either I never got around to reading it, or I did and then forgot it entirely, because it did not ring a bell. I think I’d never read it, but it’s not impossible I just forgot, because I didn’t find it that memorable as Hammett stories go. But then, I think the continental op is his best stuff, and most of the rest pales in comparison.

Books, May 2010

*** Shan Sa – The Girl who Played Go
**** David Wingrove – The Broken Wheel
*** David Wingrove – The White Mountain
** Charlotte Bronte – Shirley

The girl who played go is set in China, during the Japanese conquests of the 1930s. It provides a good view into life in that place and time. I didn’t feel that it so much followed a clear story as much as established a mood/emotion or took a snapshot of a time and some people — it was almost more poetic than novelistic in its overall impression. I enjoyed it, though didn’t get as into the details of the story as when I read Shan Sa’s “Empress” in April.

These are books 2 and 3 (of 9, I think) of Wingrove’s “Chung Kuo” series, set in a future where the world has basically become a giant city housing billions of people and Chinese culture has conquered all. I liked these two as much as the first book, and look forward to continuing the series.

Shirley was kind of an odd book. The blurb and first few chapters make you think it is going to focus primarily on the political/economic unrest of the time, when the gradual industrialization of mills in northern England was putting workers out of jobs and stirring up riots and unrest. But then it seems to become a sort of cliche and rather dull love story. But then the title character comes along (halfway through the book?) and suddenly you think it’s going to be very interesting after all. Shirley, though unquestionably feminine personally, has the swagger of a young nobleman, thanks to a father who’d wished for sons and raised her almost as one and to having inherited the estate and title. The relationship that develops in this part of the book between the sweet and innocent Caroline and the dashing Shirley is one of the best I’ve read in a long time, and I was hoping Bronte would go the unconventional route and have them end up together. Of course, I didn’t think they would be avowed lesbians or anything, but given the disappointments of the book’s romantic stories at that point, it was conceivable that they’d settle down together in a way that would have been wonderful. Alas, the conventional had to creep back in and the book ends as many do, with a couple of weddings. The men involved are not at all bad characters, but the love story happy endings seem honestly fairly cobbled together. The Shirley/Caroline ending would have been much better. I almost put the book down in boredom sometime during the early dull romance part of the book, but I can recommend sticking through that part to enjoy the middle and, to a lesser degree, the end. The politics and economics that form the background, as well, were interesting to read about.

Books, April 2010

**** Patrick O’Brian – The Fortune of War
** A. J. Jacobs – The Year of Living Biblically
*** Shan Sa – Empress
*** Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility
*** Georges Simenon – A Man’s Head

These reviews are way overdue by now, so let’s just get it done. Another good O’Brian book, as usual. Of course a good Jane Austen; I love Jane Austen.

The year of living biblically was amusing in some of its details but overall sort of rambling and eventually annoying. One thing that really bothered me is that he waits until about halfway through the book to reveal that he is seriously OCD (like compelled to touch things a certain number of times OCD, not like when people “I’m so OCD” and just mean that they wash their hands regularly), which I mean kind of sheds some light on the whole “following lots and lots of very picky rules” aspect of following the bible for a year. It just felt like cheating to save it for a mid-book reveal. And then I just could not stop thinking about how annoying the whole thing must have been for his wife. Poor woman. Finally, it just feels like he sort of does all this stuff and then at the end, no big breakthrough. He learns a few things, has some laughs, maybe gets a little religion, but in the end it just feels like he did a big stunt, wrote his book, and that’s that.

Empress was a reimagination of the life of China’s Empress Wu, who rose to become empress in the 7th century, told as a personal memoir. In history, she is mostly viewed as a power-mad dictator, willing to do anything to gain and hold power, but here we get her side of the story. The result is a fascinating book, with a compelling central character and lots of interesting detail about life in 7th century China.

I’ve read one or two other Simenon books, but long ago. This one was pretty good, interesting enough to want to read through quickly, though fairly throwaway once I was done. I will probably try some of his other books as well.

Books, March 2010

**** Charles Dickens – Our Mutual Friend
** Dava Sobel – Longitude
**** Patrick O’Brian – Desolation Island

Our Mutual Friend was very good. Interestingly, compared to Bleak House, which we’d just seen in miniseries form (and which I read a long long time ago), this one felt a lot less exaggeratedly comical/tragic. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it realist though — there are still a lot of hidden identities, crazy plot twists, and mad passions. I’ve read only a smattering of Dickens over the years, but watching Bleak House and reading this have definitely decided me to read or reread more of him.

Longitude was kind of disappointing. The story, about the search for a solution to the longitude problem, and the competition between astronomical solutions and clock-based solutions was interesting. The guy who solved it and the watch he built are both fascinating. But Sobel spends way too much time focused on a sort of soap-opera view of things, where it’s all about how so-and-so tried to sabotage his efforts blah blah and gives precious little time to the actual engineering or science involved. I mean, she never really even explains how the amazing clock worked (she sort of states the solution to an engineering problem or two but without explaining why that solves the problem). She includes one picture of the clock with a description of one piece of the mechanism. It was incredibly lame, and what I’d really like to do is read a book about John Harrison and the longitude problem by someone who can understand and express complex scientific and engineering concepts, not someone who just wants to make a soap opera out of it.

Patrick O’Brian, as I always say, is great.