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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

childhood'sIn June I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  It was excellent; clearly a precursor to the 2001: A Space Odyssey script.

Some stray thoughts as I was reading:

“There were too many brilliant amateurs, and the changed economic conditions had made the old system obsolete.”  ch. 10.  After superior alien saviors come to Earth and create a paradise, humanity uses its free time to get awesome at everything, thus the changed economy.  Are we seeing something similar now with blog reporting and YouTube videos?  I think we are.

I love prescient science fiction predictions, but Clarke says that humanity’s vastly increased leisure has the dystopian result of us starting to watch TV for up to…wait for it…3 hours a day!  This was written in the 50′s.  Isn’t that cute?

“In this galaxy of ours,” murmured Karellen, “there are eighty-seven thousand million suns.  Even that figure gives only a faint idea of the immensity of space.  In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the desserts of the world.”  ch. 14.  This is why I love good sci-fi.  It intelligently inculcates a healthy, humble reverence for the universe.

It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time.  In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.  ch. 19.  Alas, Clarke’s generation never could have imagined that civilization would voluntarily extinguish itself through epidemic demographic decline, and would celebrate it all the way to the collective nursing home.  Like his naive TV watching warning, reality turned out far scarier than he prophesied.  It’s always sad when tragic speculation turns out to be, if anything, too optimistic.

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9781619698154_p0_v2_s260x420I spent most of January listening to the audio book version of Tom Wolfe’s newest novel, Back to Blood, during my commute to and from work.  It was 22 hours of pure joy.

Wolfe is our modern Mark Twain, our finest satirist and journalistic chronicler of our society as it really is.  As such, it’s only fitting that my comments here take the form of an interview with myself:

Q: What did you think of the narration by Lou Diamond Phillips?

A: Amazing.  I’ll never be able to read this book without hearing his voice now.  It was perfect.  Not only did he have to do characters of both genders and all ages, but several ethnicities, and even speaking fragments of four other languages!  If there’s some kind of industry award for audio book performance, he should get the highest honor.  Listening to him work was bliss from beginning to end.

Q: Didn’t all the sex scenes bother you?  Didn’t you think they were poorly written?

A: Wolfe catches a lot of flak for these two almost contradictory criticisms, but I think they work together.   (more…)

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benedictionWhen Dan Brown’s sequel to The Da Vinci Code was about to come out, I put it on hold at my library.  I was something like 800th on a waiting list that kept growing.

I’ve been on the waiting list for Kent Haruf’s upcoming book for a while now, and the release is less than two weeks away.

I’m number 4 out of 5.

Haruf deserves to be more popular.  I’ve read two of his earlier novels, Plainsong and Eventide, and deeply loved both, especially Plainsong, which is one of my favorite books.

Think of Haruf as Cormac McCarthy, but without the stark violence.  His tone is just as detached, just as washed-out as McCarthy’s, but where McCarthy wants us to ruminate on the condition of a fallen world, Haruf actively wants us to rebuild our broken communities.  His work always left me with a soft hope for the decency of most people, and the summary I’ve read for his new book, Benediction, brings it all back.

I really look forward to this.  I hope you do, too.

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2012 was by far the worst year of my adult life for total number of books read: I only finished 17 books the whole year; my next worst year was 2001, when I finished 19.  Clearly, I need to tackle my problem with distraction.

Or, in terms of quality over quantity, it wasn’t bad at all: I gave five books a perfect ten for enjoyment; my worst year for that was 2008, which only had 2 perfect tens.

Below is the list, with dates finished, my 1-10 score for much I liked reading it, and either a brief comment or link to my review.

 

1. Comstock Lode, Louis L’amour (1/18, Western)–7.  Good, but no different from others of his I’ve read.

2. Cloak, James Goff (2/7, fantasy, young adult)–8.

3.  Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (4/6, literature)–10.  I can’t believe I never finished my review of this!  I made some notes: I jotted down my two favorite quotes:

“I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

I also wrote down that I loved her usage of Numbers 6:24-26.

4.  Mozart: His Life and Music, Jeremy Siepmann (4/14, biography)–9.  Innovative biography mixed life story with music appreciation to the benefit of both.

5.  Maphead, Ken Jennings (5/11, memoir, humor)–9.

(more…)

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Elric_of_MelniboneThe Elric saga is a masterpiece of dark fantasy, a sword and sorcery epic that aches in existential angst, more indebted to Lovecraft than to Tolkien.

The first volume in the cycle, Elric of Melniboné, introduces us to the melancholy emperor Elric, a skeletal albino whose keen mind makes him a poor fit for the ancient kingdom of superhuman savages he rules.

We follow him on a quest to thwart a usurpation of his throne and rescue a blood-relative damsel in distress (an influence on George R.R. Martin, perhaps), while growing in power so much that an expanding epic is practically demanded by the denouement.

Even more audacious than the stark story itself is the pervasively dour prose, an exercise in contorted anguish, a French philosopher scribbling in the gloom after watching Reservoir Dogs:

And Elric stepped into a shadow and found himself in a world of shadows.  He turned, but the shadow through which he had entered now faded and was gone.  Old Aubec’s sword was in Elric’s hand, the black helm and the black armour were upon his body and only these were familiar, for the land was dark and gloomy as if contained in a vast cave whose walls, though invisible, were oppressive and tangible.  And Elric regretted the hysteria, the weariness of brain, which had given him the impulse to obey his patron demon Arioch and plunge through the Shade Gate.  But regret was useless now, so he forgot it.

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Last month I found this issue of The New York Review of Books (courtesy of my awesome department chair), featuring an article by hipster wunderkind Michael Chabon about the year he spent reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

While not exactly a gloss, it is a piece where Chabon creates a clever framework for viewing the text.  To wit:

Other than its simple unreadability (indeed its apparent hostility to being read), the principal knock against the Wake—what Seamus Deane in his introduction to the Penguin edition calls “the gravamen of the charge against Joyce”—is that, in Deane’s paraphrase, Joyce “surrendered the ‘ordinary’ world, the world as represented in the great tradition of the realistic novel, for a world of capricious fantasy and inexhaustible word-play.” Eliot, Pound, Stanislaus Joyce, Frank Budgen, and other early champions of Ulysses found disappointment in this apparent surrender, and the truth is that, for all the real, nutritious, and hard-won pleasure that can be wrested from the Wake—as from a bucket of lobsters, by a determined reader with a pick and a cracker—anyone who has first loved or admired Ulysses must, as Joyce himself anticipated, find disappointment in Finnegans Wake.

Seventeen years of tireless labor by a mind blessed with a profound understanding of human vanity, with unparalleled gifts of sensory perception and the figuration thereof, and with one of the greatest prose styles in the English language produced a work that all too often, and for long stretches, can remind the reader (when not recalling Yertle the Turtle) of the Spike-Milligan- meets-Edward-Lear prose tossed off by the Writing Beatle in five minutes between tokes and takes of “Norwegian Wood.” But to find disappointment in the Wake’s, and Joyce’s, supposed turn away from approved modernist procedure, derived from Flaubert, which subjects shifting states of consciousness to the same rigorous accounting as the bibelots furnishing a provincial lady’s sitting room, is to miss the point.

I also appreciate that he compares the Wake to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.  I did the same thing in my article on the Wake several years ago.  =)

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I’ve been wanting to read Robert Beverly Hale’s Drawing Lessons From the Great Masters for years.  As I finally did, I jotted down a few notes: underlined items are an immediate “to-do” list.

Watteau’s “Nine Studies of Heads,” just one of many drawings I loved in the book.

 

* see things as cubes, spheres, cylinders, eggs

* contour lines add depth, purpose

* lines separate angular planes where they meet

* heaviness of lines indicates darkness, light

* practice drawing blankets over furniture

(more…)

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For years, I’ve wanted to read Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, the beginning of his famous lectures on physics at MIT.  It looked like such a great review of the high school science I didn’t pay attention to at the time, and I’d heard so much about what a great teacher Feynman was.

Now that I have, I’m disappointed.  Feynman’s teaching is good, but hardly legendary.  He throws in a few good quips and analogies; clearly, he wants to be accessible, but his presentation still feels typical.  Maybe it was more refreshing at the time.

But half a century after these lectures were given, I can’t recommend them as the introduction they’re meant to be.

In the first chapter, Feynman complains that his illustrations of atomic particles must be restricted to two-dimensional drawings.  So I went on YouTube and found the video below, including the series that follows it (in fact, the whole “Best of Science” channel is excellent—there’s a great source for some basic science intros).

(more…)

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On page 113 of his 2011 book Maphead, Ken Jennings casually mentions that he and Brandon Sanderson were roommates in college.

Woah, woah, woah.  Back the fun bus up.  Did that just say what I think it did?  The guy who won 74 consecutive games of Jeopardy! and the guy who finished writing Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series shared a living space?  Dude, this dorm room is holy ground.  It should be consecrated as a nerd shrine.  All the geek faithful must be required to make a pilgrimage to worship there.

And this isn’t even the best part of Maphead, a book where Jennings channels his childhood love of maps into an exhaustive exploration of all things geographical in our world.

Jennings is just as creative in his field research here as he was in Brainiac, and he has a genuine gift for telling stories.  (more…)

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In a rare turn of events, no Pulitzer for fiction was awarded this year.  That got me to thinking about my own history with that award.  Here are my notes on the last quarter century of Pulitzer winners.

  1. 2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.     Sounds interesting, but I’m not really that excited by it.  Probably won’t read it.
  2. 2010 Tinkers by Paul Harding.     Read it.  Really enjoyed it.  Gave it an 8/10.  Review here.
  3. 2009 Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.     Read it.  Moderately enjoyed it.  Gave it a 7/10.  Review here.
  4. 2008 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.     Not familiar with it.  The title alone is enticing, but is it enough so that I’ll look into it?  Honestly, if it’s not already on the priority list, chances are it won’t claw its way in anytime soon.
  5. 2007 The Road by Cormac McCarthy.     Read it.  Loved it.  Gave it a 10/10.  No review necessary–what could I possibly add?
  6. (more…)

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Disney’s new movie John Carter is based on the first book in a classic series by Edgard Rice Burroughs, who also created Tarzan.  The movie must have at least enough similarity to the book that their official novelization of the film also includes the text of the book, called A Princess of Mars.  I read this book just a few years ago so, in case it helps in anyone’s estimation of the movie or if you like the movie and want to get more, here’s my review from 2008.  A quote:

A Princess of Mars impresses me, first, for the boyish audacity of its plot.  What is it about?  Well, it’s just another bland little story about a Civil War veteran who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he spends years battling giant green monsters using his newly developed superhuman strength so he can save a jaw-droppingly gorgeous princess.  Yeah!  Yes, kids, this largely overlooked treasure is Indiana Jones, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon combined.  No, it’s cooler than that.  I can’t wait to read the other ten volumes in the epic saga of John Carter, (wait for it)… Warlord of Mars!

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I’m reading John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, and what impresses me most (besides how aggressively macho Milton makes every detail—perhaps how Ray Bradbury would write if he were on steroids) is how funny it can often be.  Two scenes in Book 2 will demonstrate:

As the deposed demons discuss what to do about their infernal exile, Moloch (the John Wayne of the underworld) campaigns for another assault on heaven and an open war on God.  The more pragmatic Belial worries that the risks of God’s further wrath outweigh the rewards in that course, and says:

What if the breath that kindl’d those grim fires [ 170 ]

Awak’d should blow them into sevenfold rage

And plunge us in the flames? or from above

Should intermitted vengeance arm again

His red right hand to plague us? what if all

Her stores were open’d, and this Firmament [ 175 ]

Of Hell should spout her Cataracts of Fire,

Impendent horrors, threatning hideous fall

One day upon our heads; while we perhaps

Designing or exhorting glorious warr,

Caught in a fierie Tempest shall be hurl’d [ 180 ]

Each on his rock transfixt, the sport and prey

Of racking whirlwinds, or for ever sunk

Under yon boyling Ocean, wrapt in Chains;

There to converse with everlasting groans,

Unrespited, unpitied, unrepreevd, [ 185 ]

Ages of hopeless end; this would be worse [emphasis added]

That’s great—yes, infinite torture for eternity would be a mite bit worse than exile.  Those last four words strike me as a supreme sort of understatement.

Later, they all agree to Satan’s plan to look into this new  project God’s been working on—creating creatures called “humans” and settling them on a place called “Earth”—and see if there’s some way they can stick it to him by messing it up.  (more…)

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I have a secret.  It’s James Gough’s young adult fantasy novel Cloak.  It’s a terrific read and a solid entry in a trending genre but, thanks to Gough being a new author and Cloak being put out by a small press, you’ve never heard of it.  It’s a secret I’d love to have more people in on.

Cloak is one of those stories that’s so simple that its value may go unnoticed at first.  The novel’s main conceit—that many people among us throughout history are secretly human/animal hybrids, hiding the special abilities this gives them—is so clever that one wonders why it’s never been done before.

But of course it has been done before.  What sets Cloak apart is how much Gough delights in exploring a world in depth that has only been dimly illuminated before.  Animal-based fantasy novels often have mad doctors and super powers, but this is the only one I know of which has both.  Cloak is The Island of Dr. Moreau meets the X-Men.

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I’ve started many books which I’ve stopped reading before they were finished–some after only a few chapters, others when I was halfway through–but there has only been one where I read far more than half and then decided that I had wasted enough time on it.  That was Eragon; I only had 50 pages left when I stopped and never looked back.  I quit because at that point, the rest of the book was clear and my hope that it would get better was fully crushed.

I thought I’d bring this up now since the last book in the series has just started dominating the best seller lists, like the fantasy equivalent of another Adam Sandler movie: dishearteningly popular despite total stupidity.

Speaking of movies, in a footnote (see #71)  to his scathing review of the Eragon film, which somehow managed to be even more bland and lifeless than the novel, Eric D. Snider pinpoints the imaginative failure of this story:

Here’s what happens in the movie version of “Eragon.” A petulant young man without parents lives with his uncle on a remote farm. The boy finds an object belonging to the imperial ruler, and the ruler sends soldiers to the farm to retrieve it, killing the uncle in the process. The boy then meets with an old man whom the locals consider crazy, and he explains the boy’s destiny, training him in the ways of an ancient art that is no longer practiced but which was once a powerful means of keeping peace in the world. The old man himself was once a practitioner, and in fact so was the imperial ruler; they were friends, even. But the ruler suffered a great personal loss and turned to the dark side, becoming evil and standing by as nearly everyone who practiced the art was killed. It is now up to the young man to be trained in these ways so he can do battle with the imperial ruler and defeat his evil empire.

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I only read 26 books in 2011, but on the plus side, this year had the highest overall quality of any year yet–by far the most perfect tens.  And in my own defense, some of these were pretty long.  Mostly, this makes me realize how little I’ve blogged about my reading this year–I used to write more reviews.  I’ll try to do better. 

This year I read in entirety some books I’d only picked away at in part before (Bleak House, Zen), and some that have been on my to-do list for years (Flatland, Neverwhere, Speaker).  Before this year, I’d read Shakespeare’s Henry V, so I wanted to read the rest of the Henriad tetralogy–Richard II, and Henry IV, I and II.  Time well spent. 

As with the movies, there was a sharp drop off at the end of August, when school started.  The last four months have really been quite demanding.  Hopefully this Spring semester will be a little easier. 

1. Richard II, William Shakespeare (2/5, drama, literature)–10  As good as any of the tragedies, a study in self-magnified flaws leading to ruin. 

2. Bleak House, Charles Dickens (3/9, literature)–10  A tour de force of detective mystery, atmosphere and style, four dimensional characters, and withering social commentary (every law school student should be required to read chapter 1, at least).  Also, spontaneous human combution.  Seriously.  I’ve wanted to read this since PBS first aired the Masterpiece Theater serial in 2005 which, now that I’ve finally finished reading the book, I really need to see. 

(more…)

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