Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book 49: Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I was seriously dreading this novel and it took me quite awhile to finish it (by my standards). Having said that, I "enjoyed" it more than the last time I read it which was several years ago though I still wouldn't say I found it to be a pleasurable reading experience. Since this is a classic and the Pajiba Book Club selection for February, I am not going to worry too much about any spoilers (I don't think I'm going to blurt out the very end, either, but you never know).

The novel begins with an introduction by a fictional character, telling the reader that what was to follow was the journal of a man that had died in prison. All the names and locations had been changed and obscured enough to prevent identification of the people concerned. Humbert Humbert begins by describing his early life and his interest in young girls, or "nymphets," attempting to rationalize it with his unfulfilled, lost love at thirteen years old. Eventually, he left Europe, moved to the States and ended up as a boarder to Charlotte Haze and her daughter, Dolores or Dolly or as Humbert calls her, Lo, Lola, Lolita.

I've read a few different reactions to this novel, and I know some have found it humorous, others have felt conflicted because they feel sympathy for Humbert, and others mention the language. I kept myself at a distance from the character the entire time I was reading so I never felt sympathy and often found myself arguing with him (gee, you were in love with a thirteen year old when you were that age and it defined who you'd like from then on - that happens to others, too, but that means they look for similar traits in other people such as blond, tall, whatever - not 13 year olds - for the rest of their lives!). And I hate to admit this, but many times when I hear about how beautiful the writing is in a certain novel, I often don't get it. I will find passages I like but for the most part, I am more likely to feel bored. I realize that makes me sound incredibly superficial and pedestrian. It was a similar case with Lolita. I could appreciate the language in some places (especially when he describes Lolita as a tennis player) and other times just wanted it to move forward.

I preferred the first half of the novel to the second half, and this may well be due to the subject matter. In Part I, Humbert is obsessing about a 12 year old girl and he is in his late thirties at this point. He tells the reader all about his attraction to young girls and his past life but he doesn't actually do anything until the very end (yes, there are moments where he sneaks kisses and embraces her inappropriately before that but it's still mainly in his head). In Part II, he has her, and he tells of his life on the road with Lolita and then his act as her father once they are settled in a town. Not only does he steal her childhood with his abuse, he then decides to be a "good" father that enforces all kinds of rules, mainly to prevent her meeting someone else or ruining his perfect set-up (overly simplified, yes, I know).

The thing is, though, and this may really depend on one's attitude already going into the novel but I don't feel like Nabokov wants us to sympathize with his protagonist or feel sorry for him. He sets Humbert up as an unreliable narrator by alluding to his previous breakdowns (and he definitely becomes paranoid in Part II) but also by telling us that the guy is into little girls. Pedophiles, rapists, etc. can rationalize their actions pretty damn well, and just because they can eloquently explain or excuse themselves does not mean that they are not doing wrong or completely misreading the situation. Do I really doubt Humbert when he says Lolita seemed to have a crush on him when he first became her mother's boarder? Absolutely not. When I was that age, I was starting to develop crushes on all kinds of older movie stars, such as Brad Pitt (I'm going to avoid mentioning certain boy bands because they were closer to my age and I'm discussing a 40 year old here - also, it's kind of embarrassing). Does that mean if Brad Pitt had shown up on my doorstep he would have had any right to take advantage of that? Hell no. So while I am more than willing to believe that Lolita was at that age where she might have been experimenting with how to get male attention and even flirting with Humbert, him acting on it is completely reprehensible.

And that's the thing that bugs me most about this novel - it isn't the actual storyline, it isn't any of the characters, it isn't Nabokov because as I said, I don't think he wants us to like Humbert, it's society's reaction to this. When people hear Lolita, they think little girl that SEDUCED a grown man. To quote Vanity Fair on the back of my version of the novel, "the only convincing love story of our century." Seriously? Seriously? Even Humbert, the main character, begins to realize just how much he hurt Lolita by the end and that he stole her childhood: "that had not something within her been broken by me" (232) - what more do you need to realize that this story may be about obsession but it's not a love story! One of the participants had no free will.

I guess I really didn't talk about the novel itself too much - overall, it's still not one of those books I would want to reread over and over again, and while I felt bad for Lolita, I didn't think a single character was very likable. Of course it doesn't help that everything was portrayed through Humbert's eyes, and he is a rather pretentious and cynical human. There were a lot of things going on in the novel that I couldn't relate to, and just seemed kind of out there, such as Rita - I didn't see much point in her existence in the novel. I'm sure it will lead to some interesting discussion tomorrow. Of course as it turns out, I'm not going to have access to a computer for the first half of the day so I hope I don't miss out on too much of it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book 48: White Night

White Night by Jim Butcher

While I really enjoy this series, I don't like reviewing them that much because I feel like I'm getting rather repetitive - fun series, spoilers for rest of novels, temptations of dark power, keep getting better etc. So now that I have those comments out of the way, I'll do a quick summary of the plot and move on from there. Sorry, I really don't get too deep on these but at this point it's all very cumulative.

This is the ninth book in the series, and Harry's tutoring Molly, Michael's daughter, on how to control her power. While she may still decide not to be wizard, she has enough power that she needs to learn about because otherwise she could do great harm. Murphy has been demoted to sergeant due to her actions in the previous novel, and she calls Harry in on a slightly odd suicide. Dresden quickly finds a magical connection, and thus the investigation begins. It turns out Harry has stumbled upon a serial killer that has been killing minor talents in the local magical community (they don't have enough power to qualify for the Council but they have more than the average human). However, no one wants to talk to Harry, and once he finally tracks down someone that will, he realizes why: the women have been seen with men in gray cloaks. Also, a few women have recently disappeared and there are security pictures of them with a tall man that looks slightly like Harry in the blurred pictures. Not only is someone trying to pose as a Warden in order to create distrust in the magical community, but a tall man that has a resemblance to Harry naturally leads to Thomas.

There is much more to the case, naturally, and once Thomas and the White Court are involved, it is only natural to expect manipulation and double and triple crossing. Elaine, Harry's ex-girlfriend from way back, makes an appearance in the novel, her first since Summer Knight. Additionally, Marcone plays a role, of course, and while Harry is rather snippy to the guy and acts like a jackass, I really like Marcone, the local crime boss. Must be back from my "I love The Godfather and I want to be a mob boss" days. I was 12. And yet, I don't play Mafia Wars on Facebook . . .

Basically those are the major plot points, and unless I want to start sounding like a broken record or simply copy and paste from my last Dresden Files review, I figure I should probably just stop it here.

Book 47: Lamb

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

After A Dirty Job, this Moore novel sounded the most interesting to me as far as the concept, and also appeared to be the most popular with Pajiba readers. While I enjoyed this one as well, and found it rather amusing, I think I slightly preferred A Dirty Job.

Due to the upcoming 2000 year anniversary of the birth of Jesus, one of the angels is given the task of raising Levi, known as Biff, from the dead, and having him write his version of the Gospels to tell people the real story and to explain what happened between the birth and the death, since a large period of Jesus's life (or Joshua as he is known in the novel) is skipped in the Bible.

Locked up in a hotel room with a rather clueless angel who quickly becomes addicted to daytime television, Biff recounts his life as Joshua's sidekick and best friend, their relationship with Mary of Magdalene (or Maggie), and his journeys. Overall, I felt the novel was strongest in the first section as it went over their childhood. In order to determine what he needs to do and how to do it, Joshua goes on a quest with Biff at his side to find the three wise men and ask them for guidance. This leads him to a sorcerer in what is currently Afghanistan, a Buddhist monastery and India. The section with the sorcerer kind of dragged for me, but the other two sections were entertaining. Moore's humor and style definitely makes use of stereotypes on occasion (something I noted during A Dirty Job as well) as can be seen in the section with the Buddhist monks.

While Biff is seen as the dumb friend, he is also the one that has to protect Joshua because Joshua is occasionally too trusting and not very world-wise. One of the running gags in the novel was that Biff would often come up with advanced scientific theories that now are accepted as truth and be looked at as if he were crazy (such as suggesting evolution and that the world was round). I actually thought that was kind of cute.

Once Joshua and Biff return from their journey, the novel progresses quickly to the final conclusion, and also explains why Biff has been omitted from the Gospels, despite his importance. Overall, it was an entertaining read, and while Moore attempts to make Jesus slightly more human, he also portrays him as always being aware of his position and duty. I definitely thought some of the choices that Moore made were interesting, such as saying that Joshua was not allowed to have sex. I guess one of the reasons I really noticed that one is because it reminded me of Anne Rice's Memnoch the Devil, and how Memnoch related a discussion he had with Jesus/God regarding humans, and that to truly understand being human, it was necessary for God to forget for a moment that he was divine (really, it relates to sex in the novel somehow - I mean it's old-school Anne Rice - doesn't it always relate to sex?). However, Moore's Joshua definitely is interested in sex even if it is forbidden which leads to Biff's various encounters with prostitutes so he can explain it to him.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Book 46: The Third Angel

The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman

I saw this novel on the "buy two, get one free" table at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago, and while it didn't sound like a great novel, I thought it might be entertaining. Between the Dresden Files and a few other books, I feel like I have been reading a lot of testosterone-driven books, and thought it would be nice to read something with a bit more estrogen. The description on the version I picked it up made it sound like slightly literary chick lit: ". . . story that charts the lives of three women in love with the wrong men: Headstrong Madline Heller finds herself hopelessly attracted to her sister's fiance" and then it lists two other women and their issues. Unfortunately, it was not at all what I expected. It wasn't about three or four women that are all friends and bonds through bad dating decisions (I like fluff on occasion). Instead it tried to be something deeper and was just boring.

The story was actually cross-generational, and each woman who is making these bad decisions is removed by quite a few years. Instead they are all connected by the location - a hotel in London. Madeline was the least likable of the three characters, and seemed incredibly whiny. Now, granted, as a woman that is attracted to her sister's fiance, that might be a no brainer, but I actually quite enjoyed Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin, and think it is one of the best pieces of chick lit I've read (unfortunately, none of her follow ups have been able to live up to its promise). There was also a lot of reflecting about their childhood and growing up with their sick mother. It was really just boring.

The second section was a bit more interesting and concerned Frieda Lewis working as a maid in London during the late '60s or early '70s. Also many of the characters that appear in this section end up being familiar from the earlier section so the reader already knows where their lives end up. The final section was told from Lucy's perspective, a young girl that goes to London with her father and new stepmother for her stepmother's sister's wedding to a man she doesn't love.

Instead of being a nice and fun read, I ended up with a novel that was trying to say something deep about love but was really just boring. There were a few sections that I liked but the beginning was so bad that they really weren't enough and were too late to redeem the novel. If I hadn't been on a plane, I don't know if I even would have finished this. Also, while I know the title was The Third Angel, I guess I wasn't expecting Hoffman to discuss it or bring it up the way she does. Her references to "the third angel" also became rather annoying rather quickly.

I've never read anything else by Hoffman though I've heard Practical Magic is interesting. I'd definitely stay away from this one, though. Of course, it might have just been that my expectations were completely different from what actually happened.

Book 45: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

When I saw this at the bookstore, I remembered seeing it on one of those best books of the year lists at one point and decided to give it a shot. However, once I started the novel, I was a little skeptical at first. Among other things, the backcover of the book described the narrator as "young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison" and for some reason I assumed she was between 17 and 22 years old and kind of had an idea of a certain character I was expecting. I completely missed the quote that said she was eleven (that's because I generally just read the description of the novel, and really could care less what random newspaper or magazine quotes say since it's not like they'd be on the novel if they were negative). When I realized a few pages into the novel that the narrator was eleven, I was a little bit worried. Even though the tone of this novel is completely different, I started having flashbacks to Atonement, and I really didn't want to read about a young girl messing everything up or misinterpreting everything and ruining everyone's lives (not that I don't like Atonement, it just wasn't what I was looking for). Fortunately for me, Flavia was not only a reliable narrator but also rather entertaining and intelligent (even if she apparently isn't that big on bathing). At some point while reading, I stopped keeping myself at a distance to avoid my fears, and started simply enjoying the story.

Flavia is the youngest of three daughters, and is also the most eccentric. Her mother died and Flavia doesn't even remember her, while her father is rather distant. They live on a large family estate in England and Flavia takes after a recluse great-uncle who had a chemistry lab built in his wing of the house. One day, a dead bird with a postage stamp is left on their door step and the night ends with a mysterious visit to her father of which Flavia catches a few remarks. The next day, she finds the man in the garden as he whispers his last breath to her.

The police quickly get involved, but Flavia also decides to investigate, using her knowledge of poisons and the local area. While on the case, she occasionally is ahead of the police involved, and other times crosses their paths. During the novel, Flavia also gains a slightly deeper understanding of her father - he is still very much hurt by his wife's death years ago, and his time served in World War II has left a mark upon him. During one scene, he tells Flavia about his childhood and its current involvement in the case, but Flavia realizes quickly that this is less a father-daughter bonding moment, and more of an internal monologue spoken out loud to which she happened to be a witness.

I guessed rather early on who the murderer might be, but I enjoyed the story quite a bit - I used to read a lot of mysteries as a kid, including Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, the Three Investigators and Agatha Christie. As a result, it was nice to read about another precocious adolescent investigator, and I also liked that it focused more on the puzzling out part of the investigation rather than crazy action sequences. And while it was a murder mystery, it was also rather lighthearted.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

One Month Later

I've been back in the States for a little over a month now, and I'm really enjoying it so far. I had the best Valentine's Day I've had in a while today. I went to the gym and ran three miles, and then went to Chipotle's for dinner, and spent about two hours at Barnes and Noble, and also bought some cute new tops at The Limited.

For the most part, many things are just much more convenient in the States, although I think traveling was actually easier in Europe. That's probably just me, though. I think part of it is just that most of the places I want to go in the States are either too cold and snowy right now, or they really wouldn't be fun to visit alone - I mean, Las Vegas and Disney World are definitely for groups. I've never really enjoyed history museums that much (usually if a topic interests me, I would rather read a book which goes in depth than a poster board that is very general and makes everything sound awesome without getting into the moral and ethical conflicts involved). It's a whole other thing to visit some place and realize that at one point this famous historical figure stood here - that's kind of cool, but as much as I enjoy reading about the Civil War, I could care less about visiting the battle sites. Especially in the States, I feel like we sugarcoat our history when it comes to race relations, and the movement west as well as slavery and the Civil Rights. It is not as if the Civil Rights Movement fixed everything though one might get that idea from reading a poster board at museums on occasion. Okay, I definitely went on a bit of a tangent there.

One thing I have noticed about Virginia, and all my friends are commenting on it, too, is that the roads suck. A lot. The pot holes on the interstates here are ridiculously large.

I've met fun new people, I've gone out more in the past few weeks than I did in the last six months in Germany, and I've been able to go to the movies a few more times as well. Granted, I've seen two mediocre horror films in the past month that really could have done so much more with their premise (Daybreakers and The Wolfman), but it's so nice to be able to choose from several movies any given day rather than having to hope that the day you can go see a movie the theater is actually showing something worth seeing.

I can't wait to see where I'm actually going to end up after my school is complete. The branch manager will be here in the next month to talk to us, so hopefully, I'll get a cool unit in a good location - I'm not sure what's more important to me at the moment - location or unit type (honestly, it's a combination of the two - there's no way I would want Polk, but for a FSC, I might even be happy with Bragg - granted, I'm going to have to get really into running if that happens). Of course, somewhere like Ft. Lewis would have both the kind of unit I want and the location I want. I hope I didn't just jinx myself to Louisiana or North Carolina right now.

I'm actually thinking about signing up for a 10K because while I'm in a "I hate running" mood at the moment, if I have a goal in mind that I've committed to, it might help me get back into it, and I really should work on my distance and focus on something beyond just two miles. Also, all my new friends appear to be PT studs, so while there's no way I want to be on the same level as them, the peer pressure will probably help me get back into a little bit.

I actually don't even miss German food that much, or more accurately food available in Germany, such as the Italian and Greek restaurants. We went out Thursday night, and one of the other captains was stationed in Bamberg so we were both whining about wanting Doener as our post-drinking food, but other than that, I've been enjoying places like Panera's, Chipotle's and Starbucks too much.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Book 44: Proven Guilty

Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher

I have a bad habit that when I discover a new series or a new author I tend to then read a lot of that person's work in a short period of time. Sometimes this means that the plots and themes start becoming obviously repetitive; other times, it means that after a short period of time, I am once again left clueless as to what to read next. Last year during the Cannonball Read, I had a few times when I couldn't think of anything I was in the mood to read, and would have loved to just read something quick and mindless but I'd already read the Sookie Stackhouse novels in the first few months of it. The Dresden Files seem to be those books for me this time around, but Butcher has written the superior series (I admit, I kind of feel like I'm cheating by having 8 of my 44 books so far be a fantasy/murder-mystery series since they are rather quick reads but the further I get into the series, the more I want to see what's coming next).

The eighth novel in the series begins with the execution of a young sorcerer that used black magic, and this sets the theme for the rest of the novel. Harry's still adjusting to his new role as a Warden for the White Council, especially since he thinks they are often too quick to punish new magicians with death for breaking the Laws, especially when they had no knowledge of the Laws.

One of the senior council members tells Harry to start watching for signs of black magic in Chicago, while another old friend, Ebenezar, asks Harry to look into the politics of the faerie courts, specifically why the faeries have not acted against the vampires for using their territory during the ongoing war. Harry still has not forgiven Ebenezar for an earlier incident but agrees since this is work-related.

Harry's search for black magic ends up involving an almost grown-up Molly Carpenter, daughter of Michael, one of the three Knights of the Cross. She believes something is after her boyfriend, and a local horror film convention both attended is starting to receive visits from real life embodiments from some of the screened films' villains.

As usual, I have no complaints about the novel, and it also nicely progresses and builds on the overall series which of course means there are quite a few things that would be spoilers if I discussed them. There isn't one book in the series I like best really, but the series still seems to keep getting better.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Book 43: Contagious

Contagious by Scott Sigler

This is the sequel to Infected in which America discovered that there were aliens from rather far away who had sent some kind of biological weapon. This biological weapon infected a few people, causing extreme paranoia and was accompanied by blue, triangular growths that would hatch and were created to build a gate of sorts.

So far, there is only one survivor of this affliction, Perry Dawsey, and it may well have driven him insane. However, he also still has a link or connection to these beings and as a result has been instrumental in preventing the gates from opening. He is currently the only reason the United States hasn't been overrun and has been able to stay ahead of the enemy forces.

As it turns out, the hatchlings and the infection are all controlled by a higher level pod that has been releasing them into the environment. While it is completely mechanical, it has been analyzing its success rates, and has made the virus evolve with each new cannister or dose of the infection. This time, it releases two types: one for the hatchlings to continue to build the gates and one for protectors to defend them until they can achieve their mission. And this time, it is contagious.

In order to protect itself for all future outcomes and possibilities, the pod or orbital uses one of the defenders and prepares her to link all the others when it is time - basically, it wants something to be able to take over its duties in case the government discovers and destroys it. This person ends up being a willful and spoiled seven year old girl, who is probably like most seven year old girls but now has incredible power. Obviously, this can't be a good thing.

Some of the characters were a bit one dimensional, especially the new president's advisor, Vanessa but other than that it was definitely a great, fast read. I basically devoured the thing because I wanted to see where it was going. Sigler gives enough background as well that it is not necessary to have read the first one all too recently or possibly at all, but I would definitely recommend picking up the series. They aren't incredibly deep but they are definitely a good way to spend an afternoon or two - also, this novel was definitely perfect for the plane ride I was on.

Book 42: The Well of Lost Plots

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

I feel like I have been having problems staying focused in the last week or two, or really getting into any books. I'm not sure if I just keep picking up the wrong books, meaning books that aren't really that good, or if I just keep starting ones that I'm not really in the right mood for at the moment. This one in particular I also was taking to the gym with me because I thought it would make it easier to stay on the elliptical/stairmaster longer but I think it might have made me focus less on the novel.

Anyway, as much as I enjoyed the first of this series, I feel like both the sequels have not been anywhere near as good. This one actually seemed rather boring for the most part. There were definitely some very amusing and clever bits, but it wasn't one of those books that I couldn't put down, or even really looked forward to picking it back up.

The basic story is that Thursday has way too many troubles going on in the outside world so she decides to spend the duration of her pregnancy hiding in Bookworld, and chooses an unpublished novel to reside in. The novel is so bad that it's probably going to be foreclosed soon and the plot points sold off. One of the side stories is Thursday's attempt to help the novel become more interesting, and therefore, publishable.

Meanwhile, she is also learning the ropes as an apprentice at Jurisfiction under Miss Havisham, and going on various missions. The rest of Bookworld is excited about the upcoming Book Awards where Heathcliff is up to win "Most Troubled Romantic Lead" for the 78th year running, and a new version of books is set to be released soon that is supposed to improve the reading experience.

The novel was more than halfway over when mysterious deaths started occurring in the narrative, accidents that seem a little too well-timed. The other major plot point is Thursday's memory loss since an enemy from her last novel left an imprint on her mind, and is now trying to make her forget her husband that has already been eradicated by the Chronoguard in the last novel.

The Aornis Hades plotline was honestly kind of boring and I could have done without. Once again, I didn't feel like there was that much tension in the novel because the big mystery per se doesn't really start happening until much later in the novel, and before that, Fforde focuses on familiarizing Thursday and the readers with Thursday's new surroundings while dropping hints for the things that will play a role later. It is an odd case of too much going on and not enough, if that makes any sense at all.

However, some parts were rather entertaining, especially the Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights stuff (I haven't read Wuthering Heights since high school and didn't enjoy it then either, but I still enjoyed the descriptions) - everybody in the novel hates him and has to attend rage counseling sessions while Heathcliff thinks he has outgrown the novel and wants to move on to bigger and better things. Honestly, I think I would enjoy the novel more if the main character was Miss Havisham and the novel followed her adventures at this point.

Book 41: Dead Beat

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

This is the seventh in The Dresden Files series, and they continue to be entertaining, easy reads with a lot of action. In this one, one of Harry's old enemies blackmails him to assist her in finding the Word of Kemmler, and soon, Harry is involved with the disciples/followers of a now dead evil sorcerer named Kemmler. He apparently wrote a few books, and this specific one would tell its owner how to gain enough power to become like a minor god. All of his followers are more or less fighting each other to get to the book and the power, and they are all necromancers, with the power to raise the dead.

That's the main plot line for this one although there are themes that have continued throughout the series - Harry's power and the temptation of evil; his withdrawal from people (Billy the werewolf shows up a few times), his attraction to Murphy and lack of love life, and life with his new roommate. There are also some developments in the war against the wizards, which connects to a larger story that Butler has hinted at in previous novels. Harry stated before that it seemed odd for so much evil to be occurring at such epic proportions at this time in the second or third novel already since evil sorcerers don't develop on their own (they need some help in training), leading him to suspect that many of these cases might be connected in some way or other; basically that some incredibly powerful force might be behind it all. Now, there is also the idea of a traitor in the mix given one of the necromancers Harry has to battle.

I'm interested to see how the larger picture is going to develop, but also appreciate that Butler can keep each novel as an interesting and isolated story (the reason I mention this has to do with one of the other novels I've recently read). Butler isn't too busy setting up the big story that he forgets to keep the current story going. While hints are dropped here and there, the focus is on the main story line.