Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wrap Up

Cannonball II officially kicks off tomorrow, and I'm now completely caught up on reviews for the books I've read in the past few weeks. I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to finish Antony and Cleopatra in time, but I did, fortunately.

Since this now wraps up Cannonball I for me (I kept reviewing and tracking them because even though I reached 100 and the official end date had passed, I figured my year had started later, so why not), here is the complete list of what I've read this past year, Jan 09-Oct 09, with links to the reviews.

119. Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough
118. Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
117. The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov
116. The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin
115. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
114. The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov
113. The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
112. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
111. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
110. The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
109. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
108. Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov
107. Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane
106. Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by Lizzie Skurnick
105. Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane
104. The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
103. Sacred by Dennis Lehane
102. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
101. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
100. Firestarter by Stephen King
99. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
98. Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
97. First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood by Thrity Umrigar
96. All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown
95. Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
94. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
93. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee
92. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
91. Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane
90. The 25th Hour by David Benioff
89. Julie and Julia by Julie Powell
88. Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
87. Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield
86. The Women by T.C. Boyle
85. Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov
84. If Today Be Sweet by Thrity Umrigar
83. A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer
82. The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
81. The Savage Garden by Mark Mills
80. From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris
79. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
78. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
77. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
76. The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
75. The Children of Men by P.D. James
74. Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
73. Paula by Isabel Allende
72. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
71. Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain
70. A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane
69. City of Thieves by David Benioff
68. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
67. Away by Amy Bloom
66. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
65. Carrie by Stephen King
64. Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
63. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
62. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
61. The Body Project by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
60. Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar
59. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
58. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
57. Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende
56. The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
55. The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundaresan
54. Affinity by Sarah Waters
53. Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
52. The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
51. The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende
50. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
49. Shakespeare's Philosophy by Colin McGinn
48. Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue
47. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
46. Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
45. Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
44. Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min
43. She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan
42. A Death in Vienna by Frank Tallis
41. City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin
40. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
39. The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman
38. Little Children by Tom Perrotta
37. Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
36. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
35. The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery
34. Fledgling by Octavia Butler
33. With Violets by Elizabeth Robards
32. Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
31. Song Yet Sung by James McBride
30. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
29. Children of God by Mary Doria Russell
28. All Together Dead by Charlaine Harris
27. Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris
26. Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris
25. Peony in Love by Lisa See
24. Who By Fire by Diana Speichler
23. Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
22. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
21. Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
20. Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris
19. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
18. The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich
17. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
16. Club Dead by Charlaine Harris
15. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
14. Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti
13. Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
12. The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle
11. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
10. The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani
9. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
8. A Thread of Grace by Maria Doria Russell
7. Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris
6. Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
5. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
4. The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
3. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
2. The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve
1. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Book 119: Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough

I started reading this series my freshmen year of high school. This should be the last one - especially since I originally thought the one before this, where Caesar dies, was the last one. While Caesar's death definitely was the end of a certain era in Roman history, I think it probably was good to include this part of history in the series as well since it isn't until Marcus Antonius is dead that Octavian really is the undisputed ruler of Rome, and becomes Augustus and the first Roman emperor.

The novels is in this series tend to be long - I remember the first one I read, I enjoyed immensely, but I also skimmed through all the letters because those got kind of dull and long. Fortunately there aren't too many letters in this one. Of course everyone knows the basic jist of the story, but McCullough does a good job of adding in the details, exploring how the propaganda may have worked and mentioning all the minor characters. Seriously, when reading these, it sometimes seems like everybody in Rome has the same name almost or they all have the same three names in different orders. It could easily get confusing in other hands.

So basically, McCullough definitely has the history part down. Therefore, how much someone enjoys the story basically has a lot to do with her portrayal of her characters - if you are sympathetic say to Cleopatra and Anthony (and who wouldn't be - epic love story), then you might not be too happy with the way things go. Especially Cleopatra. McCullough definitely has her moments where she treats all her characters with sympathy and is understanding of their weaknesses, but Cleopatra is probably portrayed in the least favorable light. Octavian, on the other hand, she is obviously very fond of - I guess I can see why, he brought reform and peace to Rome after decades of war, both civil and expansionist. It was actually kind of nice to see things from his perspective for once (one of the other novels I read on this subject was The Memoirs of Cleopatra - guess who is kind of an evil monster) but I still wish Cleopatra hadn't come off as quite such a villain.

Maybe it's just me, but while of course I know of Augustus as a historical figure, he usually seems so much less interesting than Caesar or Anthony or Cleopatra. I think it's just between Caesar's dramatic murder and then the whole Anthony and Cleopatra story (as well as the suicide by snake), it's hard to compete when it comes to taking over the popular imagination. Peaceful reigns aren't exciting to portray in movies although they are good for the people experiencing them.

Book 118: Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

I'm not sure why I got this novel exactly - I'm sure it was recommended by Amazon since I have read a few World War II and Holocaust novels, but this tends to be more as seen from the German side rather than through the eyes of their victims. It is probably a little harder to write from that perspective, especially when trying to make sympathetic characters because there is always that issue of "even if they didn't directly participate in the Holocaust, they were complicit by allowing it to happen or benefited from Hitler's regime in some way."

Anna, the main character, is the eighteen year old daughter of a well-to-do family in the part of Poland that was once German, and then not, and then basically helped serve as an excuse for Hitler to invade. Being of German blood, obviously, the Nazi occupation didn't hurt them and in fact benefitted them. For example, when the novel begins, it is towards the end of the war, and Anna's family has seven prisoners of war under their care to help them with the harvest. After the harvest, all but one are sent back - a young Scottish man named Callum who is in a "secret" relationship with Anna.

However, the novel mainly portrays Anna's family's flight from their home as the Soviet Army drives the Germans further and further west. Along with many others, they form as stream of refugees heading westward. Anna's father and twin brother leave her, her mother, little brother and Callum behind at the beginning of their travels to help make one last stand against the Russians for their home. While Callum does offer some male protection, the family also has to keep him hidden in their wagons because a) any male of his age would be suspicious and possibly shot as a deserter, and b) as a POW, he is probably even more likely to get shot if they run into any German authorities. Of course, Anna's family has Callum along not just for protection but also as an assurance for the future: with his word, if they make it far enough west, they might be accepted by the Allies more easily.

Even this late in the game, the Germans still have faith in Hitler - according to this novel at least, they hoped that the Germans would make an alliance with the US and the UK to fight against the Soviets, the "real" enemy. Bohjalian introduces a few characters to show the different reactions people had and how deeply Hitler's propaganda had worked. Obviously he doesn't want to completely villify the family whose journey he is describing, and shows that in some ways, due to their isolation in the country, some of the incredibly anti-Semitic rhetoric hadn't reached them quite as much. Still, there is also an idea that they chose not to know. Anna's parents had Jewish friends that they offered to help and shelter, but the friends left anyway due to the neighbors. Despite this, Anna's mother was still a staunch supporter of Hitler, possibly blaming things on his officers but also just probably not thinking about it too much because that would invariably lead to questions.

While on the move, the family meets Manfred who appears to be part of the Wehrmacht. In reality, his name is Uri, and he is a Jew from Schweinfurt (my grandmother lived there!) who has been surviving the past two years by donning various military uniforms until people grow suspicious or he kills SS members, thus needing a new role.

In addition to these characters, the novel also has sections told from the perspective of Cecile, a young French woman from a rich family who has been in a work camp. It describes her life in the camp as well the march she is forced to go on and some of the atrocities that take place under the guards.

There is naturally a lot of loss and death in the novel, and it shows Anna and her mother finally recognizing and seeing the crimes that Germany has committed and is now being punished for. While many of the other Germans talk about how horrible and violent the invading Russians are and how it shows how incredibly uncultured and barbarian they are, Anna's mother starts to wonder about what they, the Germans had done to deserve this, and states something along the lines of "we must have done something horrible for them to be so angry." Callum who as a POW is of course an ally with the Soviets still doesn't support all their actions, and believes that if America and Britain were in charge on this side, things wouldn't be quite as brutal because those nations are so much more civilized, which is of course easy to say but the Germans were nowhere near as violent in the countries in the West as on the Eastern front. It is therefore hard to compare reactions. Also, I would say the battles in the Pacific theater might attest otherwise.

Book 117: The Robots of Dawn

The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov

Asimov wrote the third of his robot mysteries after a long gap. It is obvious that as this point he had decided to incorporate his two series into one since he even throws the word psychohistory out there. While I kind of like how Stephen King links many of his books to The Dark Tower series, I find it rather obnoxious in Asimov. I dislike how in linking the two series, Asimov went from having two rather interesting visions of the future to suddenly having a god-like, all-knowing figure working in the background to preserve humanity (I guess maybe it's not so much the linking that bugs me as the force behind all the actions and greater events and movements of human history).

The other problem is that I think it made this novel rather boring. Baley goes to Aurora to investigate the "death" of a robot, one of only two that look completely human, such as his partner R. Daneel Olivaw. While it wouldn't be tried as a murder or anything, this purposeful destruction of this robot would definitely ruin the suspect's political career. Since he is in favor of Earth beginning a colonization program again, of course, Baley doesn't want this to happen. Baley has to somehow prove that the man suspected didn't destroy the robot and that either someone else did it, or it was just a random computer glitch that caused it to shut down. Of course the suspect is the best roboticist in the galaxy and says that there is no one else that could possibly have the intelligence or understanding to cause something like this.

The outcome of this case will determine the future. Many Aurorans feel that if anyone should colonize it should be they with their greater life expectancies and quality of life. However, they want to use humaniform robots to colonize so all they would have to do is show up on the planet after all the hard work has been done. The only problem I had with all this is that I didn't feel like Asimov gave a very good reason for why the Aurorans or any of the Spacer planets would feel the need to colonize other planets - it's not like everyone didn't already have everything they could possibly want, and furthermore, while they were limited to a certain amount of children, they didn't seem to care - they don't even raise them themselves - in fact since colonization would require a greater population it almost seems like it would be more of an annoyance than anything.

Also, due to reading the Foundation novels, I knew how this debate about colonization would turn out so there wasn't really much of anything riding on the outcome.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book 116: The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite

The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin

There was a lot happening in this novel - the main character Lilly was born right before midnight at the turn of the century, the daughter of a Bavarian baron and his mistress from the cabaret. Orphaned before she is two, Lilly is first adopted and then left at an orphanage when she proves to be too headstrong a child. After she has been there a few years, Hanne Schmidt comes into the orphanage as well and she will be the one constant friend and character in Lilly's life from then on. Hanne is already 12 and has a tough life behind her, so she is much more wise in the ways of the world and men than Lilly who has been rather sheltered, and her cynicism and practicality remain constant throughout the novel.

While Hanne leaves the orphanage and works at a cabaret among other places, Lilly starts as a maid. The novel chronicles Lilly and Hanne's hardships during World War I and the '20s in Germany when inflation was wild. Eventually it sees Lilly break into the movie business, much of this due to a Russian director who discovers her.

Even as Lilly starts to become famous (and there is never any question that she will become famous since the novel refers to her later fame from the very beginning, quoting interviews and articles) the reader cannot enjoy this too much. Alongside Lilly's rise, the novel also chronicles the beginnings of the Nazi party and their increasing influence. In that way, it reminded me of the musical Cabaret, especially considering the setting - 1920s Berlin, entertainment industry. I loved Cabaret because it started out as light hearted musical about extreme decadence that ended with the Nazis shutting down the club and ending the party - it takes a very dark turn. Similarly, the Nazis loom here, threatening whatever happiness Lilly might finally find.

Naturally, there is a tragic love story. Lilly and the Russian director fall in love but the director has made a previous promise he can't break which ends their relationship much too soon. By the time they finally do have a chance to reconnect, it looks as if it might be too late. For some reason, most of my favorite movies have epic, tragic love stories and exactly this is the kind that is always the most aggravating or heartwrenching - the couple that is basically perfect for each other but than ends up wasting so much of their time apart that they only get to be happy for a very short period of time. Those tend to be the ones that get to me most. Maybe it's because I don't want to miss out on things until it's almost too late.

Overall, it was fun and colorful but the ending was definitely a downer.

Book 115: The Nightwatch

The Nightwatch by Sarah Waters

At one point, early on in the novel, Kay tells a friend about her movie watching habits: "Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way - people's pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures" (110). This basically also describes the structure of the novel, and in this case, Waters is completely correct. Told in a linear fashion, this would be an average story about lives intersecting. Given that Waters is the author, it would of course be better than average, but the stories of love and loss are all rather normal. The thing that makes this novel stand out is that it is starts in the middle or at the end, and then flashes back in time maybe two hundred pages later. Of course, I would still be interested in the characters' futures as well but it's life - it's not like you can ever tie it up completely, and in a way, it is rather obvious where their lives are headed, at least temporarily.

As the novel begins, it is 1947 in post-war London. The story centers around four main characters, who are all related in some way. Kay has become a social recluse, something she can afford to do thanks to her priviledged background. Something happened to her during, and she has not quite recovered from it. She lost someone, but who and how remains rather mysterious. Viv works at a matchmaking agency, and is herself involved with a married man. However, there is some kind of connection between her and Kay, leading to the question if she was Kay's lost love, perhaps. Viv works with Helen, who is in a relationship with Julia and terrified that Julia will leave her for someone else. Finally, there is Duncan, Viv's little brother who works at a factory, and was in jail for a few years for a mysterious reason.

When the novel flashes back to 1944, some of these questions are answered, and there were definitely some surprises in the previous connections between these people. Of all the characters, Helen was the least interesting to me, and I think I liked Viv and Kay the most, two very different people and examples of life in World War II London. Finally, in the very last few pages, the novel goes all the way to the beginning in 1941 and shows how the original people met and what set all the events into motion that would still be affecting their lives six years later.

As I said, the thing that really makes this novel stand out is its structure. It's a great read, though, and I love the way Waters gives the reader hints here and there without ever revealing too much but still having it all make complete sense.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Back Home

My plane got into Frankfurt-Hahn last night around midnight, so between getting my luggage and a four hour drive, I didn't get home until about 4:30. I couldn't even really take advantage of driving on the autobahn alone at night since large stretches were under construction, and therefore had rather restricted speed limits, and there were a few patches of fog. And then, of course, I wanted to unpack some to make sure that all my souvenirs had survived the trip (unpack and actually put clothes up - you must be kidding - even today, I only got through getting the dirty clothes washed, and the rest are in a pile in my room; although they are out of the bag - that's actually progress for me).

I had to run a few errands today, but didn't get quite as much accomplished as I wanted due to tiredness/distraction. The only thing that saved me really is the fact that day light savings ended in Germany this morning/last night (I didn't even realize it until I noticed that my computer was "off") so I gained an hour there that I didn't expect. Which basically just means I'm going to bed early. Hopefully, I'll get around to making a few blog entries here in the next few days - I have to leave next Sunday for a work related trip so I still have to get all my stuff together for that, put away quite a bit of laundry (it's all clean) and might be working late to catch up for last week and get ahead for next. I still want to blog about Venice, and also have a few books I still need to write about before Cannonball II officially kicks off on 1 November. I'd wanted to get some of the posts written today but that didn't happen so this entry really is just to make me feel like I did something even if it wasn't everything I'd wanted to.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Last Day in Florence

I leave Florence in the morning. After three days here, I have to say I love this city. I like how incredibly close together everything is, making it seem rather small even if it is a large city (a friend of mine loves Edinburgh exactly for that reason - it is a large city and has all the conveniences of a large city without feeling like one).

While I saw quite a few things on Monday, I stumbled upon all the tourists on Tuesday - I guess I should have expected as much from a day that included the Galleria dell' Accademia (and Michelangelo's David) as well the Uffizi with the rather famous Botticelli painting The Birth of Venus. Also, it turns out, the tourists really like the bridge here - it was possibly the most crowded spot I'd found in the entire city, except for the tour group right in front of David.

I went to Palazzo Pitti today, and the Boboli Gardens were amazing - I couldn't believe the views of the cathedrale and the rest of the city scape from there. Naturally, the day I choose to go to the gardens is also the one day so far that it has rained. Oh well. Actually, I kind of wish I'd tried to do this a month earlier - while the weather really is quite great for walking around, it is just a bit too chilly to sit at a cafe in a square while enjoying the city and the scenery. Still, absolutely amazing city. It's been a while since I was this taken with a city - I would almost say maybe Edinburgh or Rome but both of those evoked slightly different feelings (I thoroughly enjoyed both those cities as well, but Rome had a much larger feel to it while Florence maybe feels more personal - or maybe it's just that it is so connected with the Medici and the Renaissance, and it's just amazing to actually be here).

It's definitely been a while since I've felt such a strong urge to buy things from a city. I mean, I bought some souvenirs in Athens but I like Greek inspired art (I go to the archealogical museum in basically every city I visit, and usually archealogical means Greek or Roman, even in cities like Berlin and Vienna), and in fact was completely expecting that - half the things I've bought in London were from a store near the British Museum that specializes in Greek replicas, so really, I was just building on what I already have in my apartment. I don't think I bought a single thing in Rome, and while I picked up some stuff in Istanbul, it really was just because I liked a particular piece of artwork. Here, on the other hand, I've been buying quite a few things that say "Firenze" on them. I guess Scotland is the closest I can think of because celtic knots are so obviously either Scottish or Irish. I can't even imagine how much money I would have spent already if I'd brought a bigger suitcase.

Everyone is attempting to sell artwork on the streets as well. Unfortunately, I like black and white photography of cities, and it doesn't seem like there are that many street vendors that sell that kind of stuff - I've managed to pick some up in London, Paris and Prague but there are quite a few cities that I liked more than Paris where I didn't manage to find any nice prints. Might be a good thing - I haven't even moved into my new apartment yet and I think I might already be out of wall space.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book 114: The Naked Sun

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov

This is the second of the robot mysteries, and in this one, Asimov explores one of the other worlds that are now in the galaxy. In the later Foundation novels, Solaria was the only one of the originally settled planets to still have human life on it, though it has evolved since this novel (in the negative direction one might have assumed from this one).

Baley is called to Solaria to help solve a crime - there is no such thing as crime on Solaria because there are only twenty thousand individuals on the entire planet, none of whom like to have any interaction with each other. Whenever they need to speak, they do so by viewing (basically holograms or very sophisticated webcams). They do not actually see anyone except for their spouses on a very occasional basis and then only to do their duties of adding to the population (which of course is prearranged).

Olivaw ends up being partnered with him again, partially because Aurora, the most powerful of the spacer planets, feels it would be helpful, and also because the other spacer planets are distrustful of Solaria and their way of life, having taken the idea of "individualism" to a new extreme (in comparison, life on Earth is compared to a beehive or compound where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few).

This novel was an improvement upon The Caves of Steel. Once again, it was amusing what people expected and didn't expect from the future - on Solaria, they are able to raise fetuses outside the womb in a laboratory but sex is still necessary to get the woman pregnant - it's just ironic that Asimov thought being able to develop embryos in a lab would be possible before artifical insemination and all that stuff (and I'm sure part of it was just set up for the novel). Of course, there are a few other things where clearly we have progressed beyond the novels - in the first novel, Asimov talks about community book and movie collections since it doesn't make sense for everyone to own their own since this is waste - however, in theory, we already don't need to have any of these things thanks to the internet and things like Kindle (obviously, I prefer my hard copies but it's just one thing were technology has already surpassed the novels - I don't think anyone could have imagined how complicated computers would end up being at this point).

I don't know why but the Foundation novels seem much more timeless to me while I feel like these sci-fi mysteries are already showing their age. Maybe it's because these focus so much on Earth while the original Foundation novels had no connection to Earth for the most part (there was one brief mention about archealogy and a origin planet), and seemed to take place in an entirely different galaxy, like Star Wars.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Book 113: The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

This was the first of Asimov's robot murder mysteries with Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. For some reason I kept picturing Baley as Will Smith despite the fact that he was described as a 42 year old white guy (damn you, I, Robot - I didn't even like that movie!).

Since I've read all but Forward the Foundation of the actual Foundation novels, I've become somewhat aware of some of the background in these novels as ancient history. It was kind of nice to see what Asimov was actually referring to when he talked about some of these worlds in the later Foundation novels, and how he believed history had been distorted over time.

As the novel begins, fifty planets in addition to Earth have been colonized, and the cultures on these new planets are vastly different than life on Earth. In fact, the colonies have surpassed Earth's technology and come back to Earth as conquerors of sort, setting up a small colony for diplomatic purposes. The colonials are referred to as spacers, and have much longer life spans than regular Earth folk. A spacer scientist has been killed so Earth sends a representative to investigate the murder - Elijah Baley. Naturally, the spacers don't want him working the case alone so they provide him with a partner to represent their side - Daneel Olivaw, a robot that looks completely human. Unlike the spacer worlds, robots have not become quite as much a part of society on Earth, and in fact, there is a certain amount of fear of them (people fear the robots are taking their jobs as they are edged out - the difference being that there are about 100 million people on the spacer planets vs. 8 billion on Earth alone).

It's interesting reading older science fiction and seeing what people thought would be a problem fifty years ago vs. what has actually happened. Asimov apparentl expected it to take a few hundred/thousand more years for Earth to reach 8 billion in population but it doesn't seem like it will take that long, especially considering that we are now at around 6.7 billion and I still remember when we reached 6 billion.

One complaint I've made about Asimov before is his treatment of gender. I realize that he was writing in the '50s so some sexism is to be expected. However, for me it's a lot easier to accept sexism in a 19th century novel (even if it irritates me sometimes) than it is in his novels. I think the reason is that they are science fiction - it can be easy to forget that they were written in the '50s since they take place in the future while most 19th century novels take place in the 19th century. For example, I think Jessie, Baley's wife, was portrayed in a rather dizzy and hysterical manner. She joined a political movement to be rebelious but Asimov made it sound more like a social club and trivialized her and her actions.

I think overall this novel was weaker than the Foundation series, and the mystery wasn't really that exciting. The thing that made this novel work was the science fiction aspect of it, and discovering what the future held in Asimov's eyes. Additionally, the philosophical debate about the future of the Earth and colonization (of course, after reading the Foundation sequels, it's easy to see who won that debate) was interesting and is built upon in novels in the rest of the series.

Book 112: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I started out liking this novel a lot and while I didn't stop enjoying it, I did feel like maybe it was a bit longer than it needed to be by the end. I think part of the problem is that I expected all the different loose threads in the novel to somehow come together in the end and they didn't except for in the vaguest ways and even then only by conjecture on the part of the reader. And many of these threads were interesting which is why it was so disappointing to me when they ended up not really going anywhere or just hanging loosely in the story.

I have to give it to Murakami, though - he takes a story about an unemployed man in his late twenties/early thirties who is simply lounging around and makes it interesting for six hundred pages (maybe that's why he had to throw in all those loose threads).

I'm kind of half-assing this review but I kind of took a break while reading this novel to read Lehane's The Given Day so I'm sure that affected the way I felt about the novel. I actually liked the writing style quite a lot even if the main character just seemed to kind of float along with all the craziness that was happening in his life at times.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Florence: First Impressions

I got to Florence this afternoon, and so far, I love it. I enjoyed Milan but two days were enough given the prices. Everything so far is incredibly close together in Florence, even closer than in Milan, and it's absolutely amazing. I walked through a market with lots of different leather goods on my way to San Lorenzo, and of course went into the church as well. Unfortunately I couldn't take pictures in there but there was one painting in the church particularly that I couldn't stop staring at. San Lorenzo is attached to the Medici Chapel which contains the tombs of some important Medicis as well as some sculptures designed by Michelangelo. The ceiling in this chapel was amazing, with different biblical scenes. I think I've said this before, but say what you will about Catholicism, at least it inspired some great art.

After that I headed over to the market place and the Duomo (I've gathered that duomo is the Italian word for dom or cathedrale). As impressive as the one in Milan was, I much preferred this one, and just couldn't stop taking pictures. Granted, the one in Milan might be nicer on the inside and its pure size is just breathtaking, but when it comes down to it, it is simply a larger version of things I have seen before. The one in Florence on the other hand certainly has a similar design to most churches but it actually has color - on the outside - and is not just a large grey or white building. Also, there were of course lots of ice cream places in Milan but the one day I really wanted ice cream, I couldn't find any (and I refused to go back near the Duomo for price reasons) - I've seen several shops along basically every road here, and have already had a scoop of tiramisu gelato (I couldn't decide if I wanted tiramisu or gelato so that seemed like a good compromise). I'm definitely looking forward to the next few days.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I'm on leave in Italy right now, and have been in Milan for the past two days. I'm taking a train to Florence in the morning. It's very pretty but incredibly expensive. People always say Rome is expensive, but I think Milan is worse. I sat down at a cafe yesterday for Tiramisu and hot chocolate, and ended up paying € 15 for those two things alone. Of course, it depends on the area and it's cheaper near my hotel, but even a few blocks away from my hotel, prices start to skyrocket (this same holds true for internet cafes - the one I found further away was €5 for an hour as opposed to the one I'm at now for €1.60).

I saw a few churches, and the Duomo, of course. DaVinci's Last Supper is sold out until November so I didn't make it there (they only let 25 people in at a time every 15 minutes). I also walked by some of the designer stores but fortunately I planned ahead - I packed a small bag with little extra space and the airline I'm flying only allows one carry on, not the usual purse and a carry on, so I physically can't buy too many things. Given the fact that there are no Starbucks in Italy, I'm rather amused by the many McDonald's here - I literally saw two across the street from each other. There is also one piazza/mall area which has a Prada, a Luis Vuitton, an expensive jewelry shop and a McDonald's in the center. Somehow I didn't think Prada and McDonald's would be in the same establishment.

I've definitely enjoyed all the art museums I've seen here but two of them were expensive (€15 and €10 respectively). The other was inside the Castello Sforzesco, and it was only €3 to see several different museums in the complex. They actually had a very impressive collection, both in the paintings museum and the ancient art museum which Michelangelo's last sculpture, the Rondanini Pieta (I'd never heard of it before). The castle itself was also rather gorgeous.

Anyway, I'm hoping Florence will be a little less pricey, and can't wait to see all the Renaissance related things there.

Book 111: Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

While this was her debut novel, it is the third I've read by Waters. My favorite so far is Fingersmith. The narrator is Nancy Astley of Whitstable who falls for Kitty Butler when Kitty comes to her town as a "masher." Basically, she is a performer who makes her living by performing as a man - apparently, it was quite a popular act at one point in history.

Nancy goes to London with her, first as her dresser, and eventually joins her on stage when Kitty's manager realizes that having a pair of performers would be the thing to distinguish them. Things go well as they become more popular but Kitty is very much in the closet, and fears even being thought of as a lesbian. This makes their relationship very secretive, and eventually Kitty chooses respectability over Nancy.

Nancy is of course devastated, and ends up locking herself away from the world for a while. Eventually, she finds a new occupation until finally stumbling upon the rich lady Diana who turns her into her mistress. Of course this is not the last turn in Nancy's fortunes.

Overall, I was a fun novel but at times I didn't always like Nancy very much. In the beginning, of course, she was very easy to relate to but I disliked the way she completely abandoned her family and broke off all her contact with them. She also displayed quite a bit of selfishness at other points in the novel, and seemed quite jaded and cynical at some points in the novel. Overall, however, I liked her story, and the fact that I disagreed with some of her decisions so strongly was because I was hoping for her to do the smart and right thing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book 110: The Given Day

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

I've always enjoyed historical fiction (might be one of the reason I started out as a history major - of course, that wasn't necessarily a good call considering that I prefer historical fiction to nonfiction). I've also read just about every novel of Lehane's I could get my hands on this past year so obviously, I was going to read The Given Day.

It was very good - my only problem is that I didn't finish it before I left for Athens so that was one more giant book I had to take on the plane with me. Seriously though, I enjoyed it quite a bit. The only plot line I thought was perhaps unnecessary was Danny's interaction with his neighbors/bombers. I'm not saying they made the story weaker or anything but I think it would have been just as strong without that extra level of drama (on the other hand, they did make it easier for Danny's enemies to attack his judgment, so I can see the reason for their existence).

The novel takes place in Boston after World War I. The main character, Danny, is from an Irish-American family, and like his father, he is a cop. Of course, I already knew some vague history from that time. Americans were very afraid of the immigrants and their radical views (Emma Goldman, an anarchist for example, ended up being deported). Danny first ends up trying to infiltrate some different communist groups to find subversives and extremists. However, at the same time that he is attempting to infiltrate groups that preach socialism and worker's rights, he is becoming involved in the Boston Social Club, the policemen's union. There is a certain amount of concern among the higher levels of government but they are mostly attempting to create paranoia in the masses so that the workers will stay in their place. For example, after a factory accident, terrorist extremists are blamed and even after it is proven that the factory was using shoddy techniques and old equipment, the paranoia remains while big business can just keep doing what it was doing. I once read that historical fiction tends to reflect the period during which it was written more than the period it is describing so I can definitely see why this period would appeal to Lehane while also allowing him to make a statement about present day politics.

The other main character is Luther, a black man from Ohio, who ends up in Boston via Tulsa, and gets a job working as the house servant for Danny's father, Thomas. Many of the Irish that have now joined the ranks of the middle class have black servants as a way to put on airs even though as Luther notes, he doesn't have anything to do. One of Thomas's old friends, Eddie, also emigrated from Ireland but his interactions with Luther shows his extreme prejudices. Despite the fact that he wasn't even born in the States and Luther was, Eddie sees it as his country, and doesn't acknowledge Luther's citizenship. Due to Luther's past, Eddie tries to exploit him and use him to lump the NAACP in with several other terrorist groups.

Since this is historical fiction, it shouldn't exactly be a spoiler that the Boston Police end up striking (obviously, it's probably not a well remembered piece of history). While it seems that their actions didn't go down well in history, Lehane shows them very sympathetically, and illustrates how the men were manipulated and how some politicians used this incident to further their careers. Maybe it's just me, but I couldn't imagine a city rioting simply because the police force was on strike - maybe I'm just too law-abiding or believe too much in discipline, but in this case the results are rather disastrous. Of course, at this period in time there was also a large amount of discontent. I assume the government would also handle things quite differently and thus prevent the opportunity for rioting from even occurring but I might be giving too much credit there.

Since this is Boston, Lehane also has several chapters interspersed through the novel from Babe Ruth's perspective. The novel begins and ends with Ruth traveling through other cities in the States. I thought it was a nice way to talk about other cultural phenonmenons of the time, but also show that some of the same issues were prevalent throughout different areas in society - even the baseball players went on strike early on. While obviously a baseball player can't compare himself to a factory worker, the workers have few rights or powers at this time in history, no matter what the work. I'm not sure if that's ever changed much but at least certain rules were set into place for workers after this period.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book 109: My Sister's Keeper

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

This is the first Picoult novel I've read, and I admit I was pleasantly surprised. After all the Asimov and Lehane I'd been reading lately, I wanted something "girly" and not part of a series. Given that this film has been turned into a Cameron Diaz film, I figured it would be simple, maybe a little preachy but a nice break from murder mysteries. But I actually liked Picoult's style. Did a few things seem a bit contrived - yes (the lawyer with a secret disability who meets his ex because of the case? Really?). Stereotypical? Yes (the delinquent, ignored son). But, overall, I liked the people. As much as some things seemed like stereotypes. they still seemed real.

Given that the movie has recently come out, there's really no reason to get into the plot too much: I think it's safe to say basically everyone has an idea what this is about. Anna decides to sue her parents for medical emancipation after they need a kidney from her to save her older sister with leukemia. Anna has been used in various medical treatments to help her sister, and was in fact conceived to have the same genetic make up in order to help cure Kate. This has made their lives and relationships complicated, and as much as Anna loves Kate, she also wants her own life. There is more to it, and Campbell, her lawyer, keeps digging at Anna to get to her motivations because she often appears to change her mind or like she's not being honest. It finally all comes out in the end.

I've been a bit behind on reviews lately so I can't really remember much else of my reactions. Actually, even after reading it, I don't think I had too much to say: enjoyable, definitely will check another book out by Picoult, and time for the next novel. I'm not super emotional usually so it didn't make me sit around and think too much but as I said, I can be kind of cold and heartless.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Book 108: Prelude to Foundation

Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I've gathered from various places online that Asimov's sequels to the original Foundation trilogy were received less than favorably. I didn't really notice any mention concerning the reaction to the prequels. I definitely understand why people might have gripes about the sequels, but honestly, Prelude irritated me a lot more.

The idea in itself isn't bad - a novel about Hari Seldon, the man that developed psychohistory and the decline of the empire that inspired his theories. However, Seldon was always such as distant figure that it wasn't necessary to have a backstory - he had kind of grown into a benevolent god-figure with the passage of time even if he was once a very gifted scientist that got the ball rolling. After reading this, the great man has become much smaller, and in my opinion, rather irritating and somewhat unlikeable. At one point, one of the other characters tells Hari that he is a good man. Based on what? Only minutes before that statement he had been acting like an asshole.

I get it, he has a big task in front of him but he gets so easily annoyed with people and things when they don't take him seriously enough. At one point, Dors and Seldon are on a part of Trantor that is slightly archaic compared to the rest of the world and while I definitely wouldn't be a big fan of their culture, either, he shows no respect for them at all, even though he is their guest. He doesn't agree with the way women are treated in that society but then bullies one woman around to get his way - as much as you might disagree with a culture, you still can't suddenly expect people to overcome their upbringing within a matter of minutes. Also, this is something that happened with Seldon in the novel but is of course an issue in the larger world as well: Seldon can easily judge the obvious sexism of that society but then ignores his own sexist actions because they are more subtle (he doesn't want to let Dors go into a dangerous situation with him because of her gender - just because he isn't as obviously sexist as the men that won't even let their women speak in public doesn't mean he isn't sexist). And maybe Asimov is focusing on the mathematician background and his sheltered life in the lab but Seldon is very quick to judge other cultures (actually, I think I had a similar complaint about some of Asimov's characters in the sequels).

Also, while Asimov might be able to write sci-fi well, romance isn't one of his strengths. The whole Hari - Dors story line just didn't feel very real. The other complaint I had about this novel I can't get into very much without giving major plot points away - unfortunately, because I think that was also one of the more interesting points to discuss because I feel like it took away from the whole series.

So I've discussed the issues I had with this novel, but let me just throw in a quick synopsis: Seldon delivers a lecture on the possibility of psychohistory or predicting the future. However, he also believes that as a science it would be rather impractical and he doesn't have the proper knowledge to make it happen. Still, his speech awakens the interest of a few important figures, the emperor included, and Seldon quickly becomes convinced by a humanitarian to try and develop his theory to its conclusion for the good of humanity. He tries to do this away from the clutches of the emperor and first tries this at a university, but has to change locations a few times because he keeps finding himself in danger (and he is rather good at finding it). Dors, a history professor, comes along with him to help and as they go from location to location, Seldon is confronted with the variety of cultures and life styles on Trantor alone, not to say the universe, making his task seem even greater.

I saw at Pajiba today that there are plans to make a film out of the Foundation trilogy which I just don't really see working due to the changing cast of characters just within the novels. These later books I believe would be a lot easier to adapt into films because they focus on a single cast of characters (each novel does at least), and also have action sequences. In comparison, in the first novel, Terminus had to determine a way to find solutions without resorting to violence due to their limited power in that respective and involved lots of political maneuvering.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Athens - Day One

My flight to Athens was more or less uneventful except for the two obnoxious children seated next to me on the flight. I can understand babies crying on a plane, really, but if the kid is five, is it too much to expect them to be somewhat well behaved, and not turning the plane into a jungle gym, especially if they are seated next to a stranger? Also, a plane isn't a roller coaster so there is no reason to scream during lift off. Just saying.

I had a layover in Zurich and was rather tempted to buy a lot of chocolate - I guess we'll see about that one on my return flight. While I was in Switzerland for two hours, though, I realized that I have never had any interest in visiting the country. I'm not opposed to it, I just don't have strong opinions on it, either way - I guess I'm neutral. I mean I've been to Berlin, I've been to Vienna but have no interest in the other German speaking country in Europe? It might be that when I think of Switzerland I think of mountains mostly, and then banks. Vienna, on the other hand, I really wanted to see but Austria seems to come up a lot more often in history books than Switzerland (plus you've got all the cultural figures - various musicians, Freud, Sissi).

I got into Athens this afternoon so I've only gone to the National Archealogical Museum so far (which was very cool). On my way there, I realized that I had my British Museum bag (okay, not much of a realization, I always have that bag with me). Considering that one of the reasons the British Museum's collection is as impressive as it is has a lot to do with them taking artifacts from other countries, including Greece (they have about half the Parthenon on display), I'm not sure if that was the wisest choice to be flashing around here. Oops. Honestly though, with all the collections of Greek art in all the museums around Europe, I'm surprised there's any still left in Greece - Vienna had the Ephesus (spelling?) which was a collection of artifacts from a city they decided to dig up at some point, and basically every city I go to, I end up looking at Greek and Roman sculpture in a museum (I think that's what half my pictures were of when I went to Paris - don't think I'd ever put any in my house but I love seeing the collections).

Another cool thing about the museum: they had one room devoted to Athena sculptures. Anyone who's read this blog for a while and knows about my tattoo obviously knows of my fondness for that particular Greek goddess. Of course, being in Athens, I'd hope they'd focus on her.

Also, I've noticed some street vendors selling oregano flavored Lays. I'm definitely going to have to try a bag of those before I leave - I love oregano (actually another reason I'm so excited about this weekend - the food and the spices!) - sounds a lot better than ketchup flavored chips.

Anyway, off to figure out the game plan for the rest of the weekend!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Dollhouse + Emmys = We Need More Whedon!

So I've kind of been neglecting my blog these last few weeks. I've been reading some, but I've also been easily distracted by DVDs (doesn't help that I kept getting irritated with a character in one novel, and then another book was good but really needs to start moving along).

I finally got Dollhouse recently and the last half of the season was amazing. The first half focused more on the story of the week kind of stuff while the last half really started building the overall story arch and the conspiracy theories that Whedon is so good at (I still think that given a chance to continue with Firefly, the Guild would have turned out to be much darker and more sinister than at first glance - just look at how the Watchers' Council on Buffy went from being a distant presence to incredibly controlling and patronizing to the descendants of men who had forced these powers upon a young girl). I also really enjoyed the final episode that didn't air on FOX which takes places ten years after the events of the first season. So cool. Plus, I really like Amy Acker. (SPOILER: I loved the fact that her character ended up being a doll and how during the flashbacks towards the end of the season, they showed her in a few different roles rather than the strict, reserved doctor she played most of the season, or the sweet nerd from Angel).

This is a little bit old, but apparently this played during the Emmy's and because there is no such thing as too much Joss Whedon, I'm going to post it: