Sunday, January 30, 2011

Book 17: I Don't

I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage by Susan Squire

I feel kind of bad saying this, but I was a bit disappointed by this book. The author writes in a humorous fashion, gives a nice overview of the ways people's views of marriage changed over the years, but she concludes in the 16th century with Martin Luther. In some ways, it is really less of a history, and more a series of snapshots of famous and influential people's opinions. This is unfortunate, because Squire mentions that she spent 13 years working on this book, and while looking through her bibliography, I noticed quite a few interesting sources - she had a lot of information, but I wish more of it had been included in the book. I was also surprised to note that she didn't include Marilyn Yalom's A History of the Wife as one of her sources. I'm not sure if it was due to the fact that I've already read that, but I don't necessarily feel like this book presented that much new information.

In some cases, the information she presented focused more on men's views of women without really discussing these effects on marriages too much. One chapter that was particularly guilty of this was when she talked about the Malleus Maleficarum, "The Witches' Hammer," which was the infamous guide used to find witches from the late 15th century onward. It basically tells men that women are evil and to beware, but I felt like something else was needed to really tie it into the rest of the book a bit more (in her defense, I was slightly jetlagged while reading this, so I may have just missed that part), especially since this wasn't exactly new information to 15th century men.

Having recently read Guns, Germs and Steel, I felt she described how people settled down and started developing agriculture a bit simplistically, but that really isn't the point of the book. After that she begins with looking at gender roles in the Bible with Adam and Eve, and how the creation story will be used time and time again to justify women's position as inferior to men. At this point in time, the basic point of marriage is to "be fruitful and multiply" - she also analyzes the text and shows how Eve has been portrayed as an evil temptress though the text doesn't say anything about her tricking Adam despite popular belief (I guess we can partially blame that on Milton as well as centuries of sermons). The book was strongest in this part where she was analyzing the text and how its interpretations would later justify the dominance of men over women in all life and particularly marriage. She then moves on to the Greeks, who had a very divided system - there were wives for reproduction, courtesans of a sort for sex, prostitutes for other types of sex, and then men for plautonic love and intellectual conversation since women obviously couldn't fill this role.

Comparatively, Roman wives have more rights, but both Greek and Roman writing shows plenty of misogyny, and when people rediscover these texts during the Renaissance, they also rediscover justifications for looking down on women. From this point forward, the book shifts to the Christian perspective, and with this, there is also a shift in the reasons for marriage: it stops being about reproduction per se, and starts being about lust control, leading to such common sayings as "it is better to marry than to burn." Over a millenia, the men of the Church, some of whom have never had sex, become more obsessed with sex and with regulating sex. For example, Paul thought it was best to not have sex, but if someone was going to have sex, they should do it in marriage. He didn't really elaborate too much. As the years go on, priests, monks and churchmen would limit the types of positions that were appropriate, the times of day, and finally declare that sex should only be for reproductive purposes. Of course, some beliefs from back than were nice to hear about, such as the belief that women had to orgasm for conception to occur.

Another topic she discusses throughout are the ideas of the ideal wife, and how some men would illustrate these examples to women. Squire also mentions that most men liked to marry younger women because they believed they would be easier to control and mold into proper wives. However, this came with its own risks because the literature of the time demonstrates that many men were afraid of being made a fool or a cuckold. Chaucer, for example, used his stories to poke fun at old men married to lusty young wives.

Eventually, however, the idea of love is introduced. At first, it isn't within marriage, but as part of the chivalric tradition, there are finally stories about men and women dying for each other in honorable ways. Previously, most of the stories concerned men dying for other men, such as in the Greek traditions. With this introduction of love and sex, it opens the door for this to later be incorporated into ideas of marriage, and it is Martin Luther that partially does this. Additionally, she argues that the plague made people more willing to question the church so his timing was perfect. His wife is his helper in the traditional manner, but he doesn't try and dictate people's sex lives, and writes of a loving partnership, which Squire argues is the beginning of modern love and marriage even if there some hick ups after.

As I said, it's a great overview, though in some cases I think it can be deceiving because the book starts out in chronological order, but then the last few chapters tend to be more by themes since many of the things she discussed and addressed happened around the same time. And while Luther may have been the start of modern day marriage, it didn't just happen that quickly. I definitely would have liked to read about what happened after Luther, and up to today even. Additionally, it was Western-centric, so it only addressed the history of marriage in Europe. I wonder how much of the current book was the author's vision and how much was an editor telling her to cut it down. I guess my one other problem with the book had more to do with expectations: since she used the word contrarian in the title, I think I was expecting more of a polemic, such as Laura Kipnis's Against Love, but I don't feel like anything she argued was necessarily that extreme or contrarian. Still, as a quick overview with some humor, it is good. It is just necessary to look elsewhere for more something more in depth.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Book 16: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

While I was on leave, I drank quite a bit of tea, and I think this novel may be partially to blame. The novel begins when Major Pettigrew finds out that his brother has died, and while he is processing this news, his town's shopkeeper drops by to pick up the newspaper money. As a result, Jasmina Ali sees the always proper major in a slightly disoriented state, and she volunteers to help him out as necessary, including a ride to the funeral. The major soon realizes just how forward he looks to seeing her, and having discussions with her, and a friendship slowly develops over tea and Kipling. They have both lost their spouses in the past, and get along easily but their different backgrounds provide some difficulties. Ali is Pakistani, and while she is accepted in the community, there is a certain type of racism and cultural insensitivity displayed towards her in the community. For example, when the golf club's committee of women decides to do an Indian theme (or actually Mughal), they start throwing in all types of stereotypes, and want to ask her. The major, who spent part of his childhood in India, attempts to explain just how off they are. While Ali graciously assists, the evening ends up being disastrous.

Additionally, Ali's nephew has come to assist with the shop, and he is also acting as a bit of baby-sitter. Simonson deals with the cultural differences and complications with a light touch that seems realistic rather than heavy-handed. The major has his own generational problems: he doesn't understand his young son, Roger, at all. Roger is very materialistic and focused on money while his father is more concerned with tradition. I can't say I ever liked Roger, but even with the novel being mostly from the major's perspective, none of the characters seem completely two-dimensional. One of the major parts of the narrative concerns Major Pettigrew's father's rifles. When he died, each of his sons inherited one, and as far as the major was concerned, they were to be reunited at either brother's death. However, his brother made no mention of this in his will, and since the set is worth 100,000 pounds this is obviously a point of contention. Roger is purely interested in selling them and making a quick buck, while for his father, they are a family heirloom.

The ending was a bit crazy compared to the relative calm of the rest of the novel, but it wasn't distracting enough to take away from the rest of the novel. I would definitely recommend this novel, and plan to read more by this author. I just liked her characters, and the way she incorporates old, traditional England with the evolving world, and how it affects the people in small towns. I liked that as much as the major cared about tradition, honor and family, he was also willing to take a chance, overlooked things his neighbors didn't, and tried to be a good person, even if he made mistakes and was fallible.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book 15: The Lost

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

Due to his love for his grandfather and interest in the family's history, Daniel Mendelsohn became the family historian early in his life. Part of the reason for this fascination was his grandfather's brother, Shmiel, who was "killed by the Nazis," and whom Mendelsohn bore a resemblance to as a child. However, since everyone in the family but Shmiel had already left their hometown prior to the Occupation, no one really knew what had happened to him, his wife and his four daughters. This book describes Mendelsohn's search for answers, and how he slowly realized that less important perhaps than finding out how they had died, was finding out how they had lived - who had these six people been?

Early in the book, Mendelsohn describes his love of Greek and Roman classics, and how he was much less interested in the Torah. He believes this has much to do with the stories' set-ups: the classics would go off on tangents and give background, such as Homer explaining the warriors' backgrounds before they would face each other, while the Torah was much more straightforward and linear. He believes this is because the first way reminded him of how his grandfather, the storyteller, would tell a story. This book follows that structure. Mendelsohn goes off on quite a few tangents to provide background only to return to his earlier point much later. However, having been given this earlier explanation relatively early in the book, it didn't bother me. The book really reads very much like someone telling a story, remembering things as he goes, and tying them in, repeating certain facts and phrases throughout for emphasis (sometimes unnecessarily).

Just like Mendelsohn didn't receive a clear, immediate answer regarding Shmiel, Ester and their daughters, the reader doesn't get the answer in the beginning. While Mendelsohn hints at points that he received further information later, or gives a sentence or two of it, the reader goes through Mendelsohn's journey of discovery with him. Based on what different eye-witnesses and survivors report to Mendelsohn, his conception of what had happened to his long lost cousins change, and sometimes they change repeatedly.

As he traces his roots, he realizes the resources he had had at his disposal at a child without actually being aware of it. Eventually he him makes contact with the survivors of Bolechow, his family's home town, through the Israeli branch of his family and these people help give him answers and lead him to others that may have more answers, both about his family and what their life may have been like, before the Occupation and as the Nazis took control. This leads him to places like Sydney, Copenhagen, and Israel. Their stories not only give some light on what happened (or may have happened) to his relatives, but also put other family stories and legends in a new perspective.

Some answers were much easier to find than others - Ruchele, the third daughter's fate, was the most clear, and there were no surprises later in the story. However, of the other five, some answers were never very clear, and others changed, such as who got transported to Belzec, who was hidden etc. Mendelsohn had to accept that he couldn't find all the answers but he still ended up with much more information than the family had originally. I know personally, there was one thing in particular I was wondering, and I'm sure Mendelsohn may have had a similar question in addition to many others.

I mostly enjoyed the book. As I said, Mendelsohn quite often went of on tangents, so for someone interested in the Holocaust, this book may meander a bit much. Even I thought that towards the end, he could have wrapped it up a bit more tightly or quickly, and maybe cut a few pages. I enjoyed the interviews with the survivors although some of them were only hinted at since the subjects only told them if they would not be put in the book. My one other complaint is that he doesn't have a list of sources or bibliography in the back. While he generally mentions books he read in the text, in some cases he mentions only the author but not the title, and there is no bibliography at the end. Since this is a memoir/family history and not a history book, I understand why there isn't an index and a bibliography but I would have liked one nonetheless, especially since I occasionally forgot who some of the many people he knew, interviewed, and referenced were.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book 14: The Titan's Curse

At the beginning of this novel, Annabeth, Percy and Thalia, Zeus's recently reawakened daughter, visit a boarding school after Grover alerts them that he has found two siblings, both halfbloods, there. Unfortunately, a monster has already found them as well, and Annabeth is kidnapped in the ensuing skirmish. Artemis and her Hunters happen to be in the area, and come to aid the demigods, but too late to help Annabeth. However, the monster mentioned some other looming threats, and Artemis decides to investigate them after accepting Bianca, one of the two new halfbloods, as one of her Hunters.

Given the danger, Artemis leaves her Hunters at Camp Half-Blood, but Artemis is soon captured, and based on the Oracle's prophecy, five heroes are chosen to go on a quest to save her. Originally, this includes three Hunters (Zoe, Artemis's lieutenant; Bianca; and one other) as well as Thalia and Grover. However, one Hunter is out of commission before the quest even starts so Percy secretly follows them so he can help save Annabeth.

This novel revisits many of the monsters and challenges that Hercules faced, and Percy also learns a bit more about the nature of Greek heroes from some of the immortals. The prophecy continues to loom, especially since Thalia's sixteenth birthday is less than a month away, and whatever the prophecy foresees was supposed to occur when the next halfblood child of one of the top three (Zeus, Poseidon, Hades) reached 16.

The series is definitely very fun, especially watching the young demigods explore their powers. However, I don't remember the heroes of ancient Greece being quite so powerful - obviously, they tended to be smarter and stronger than the average human, but were the heroes of mythology able to affect the elements in the same way as in these novels? Percy as the son of Poseidon, for example, can speak to horses, control water and breathe underwater, while Thalia can call up lightning, and not just in a "the elements are nice to them due to their parentage" way, but they actually manipulate their surroundings. It definitely makes the novels more entertaining so I don't have an issue with this, I'm just genuinely curious, and don't feel like googling it right now. Oh, my one other comment regarding these novels is that it's surprising to me how often Percy still comes across beings he doesn't recognize - he remembers some of the Greek myths but considering how his summers go, you'd think he would spend every waking minute of his off time reading up on obscure creatures of Greek mythology. Of course, it also gives the readers more motivation to read the original myths to find out exactly what happened.

Book 13: Interred With Their Bones

Interred with Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell

It seems like the actual murderer tends to be rather easy to guess in murder mysteries, perhaps because being a novel, it is obvious that it is going to be one of the characters already introduced. Still, every once in a while they are well-written, and in those cases, it tends to be the story and motivation that are the most interesting part (and the characters when they are very well done), not just the ending. I picked this up due to the Shakespeare angle, and it had a staff recommendation attached to it.

The novel actually reads very much like The DaVinci Code, except in this case, the story concerns Shakespeare and not DaVinci. This isn't even a bad thing - The DaVinci Code on its own was a very entertaining thriller that just got way too hyped up and seemed to develop a type of cult around it. For some reason, people don't seem to be nearly as interested in Shakespeare as Jesus and DaVinci because I'd never heard of this before. Overall, I would even say it is better written than The DaVinci Code, although it has its flaws. For my tastes, there were just a few too many murders - I would have been happy with just a literary mystery that was started with a murder, and I could have done without the trail of bodies that accumulated in the novel (all the bodies were staged in a way to recall Shakespeare's plays which was a nice touch on the part of the murderer - one person is obviously a homage to Hamlet's father, another is Ophelia, there is a reference to Julius Caesar and his assassination etc.).

The novel begins when Kate, the narrator, receives a visit from her former mentor, Roz (Rosalind Howard), a tenured Shakespeare professor at Harvard, who tells her that she has found something, gives her a box as a gift, and arranges to meet her later. Kate was a Shakespearean PhD student but decided to leave academia to pursue a career as a director, and she is currently directing Hamlet at the Globe - quite the feat for an American woman under 30 as she explains. However, Roz misses the meeting, and there is a fire at the Globe, where Kate finds Roz's body. This leads Kate to open the box, and she soon is on a trail to discover whatever it was that Roz had found. Evidence leads her to believe it may be a manuscript of Cardenio, one of Shakespeare's lost plays.

In some cases, it seemed like the author had so many things she wanted to discuss that the novel was a bit cluttered, and there were a few trails that seemed to be slightly misleading, or at least they were rather long ways of getting to the answer. The novel also addresses the debate regarding Shakespeare's identity, and some of the candidates that have been offered as alternates to the actor from Stratford. Carrell includes scenes with the dark lady and the blond youth of Shakespeare's sonnets but doesn't clearly identify them. Much like in The DaVinci Code, the protagonist finds herself racing from one place to another in search of clues, often doubling back between the States and England. It was mostly an entertaining read though I had my doubts at the beginning. Although Carrell doesn't neatly wrap up all the answers, the murder mystery is neatly, though unoriginally, solved.  Basically, good enough entertainment for an afternoon but altogether forgettable.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Book 12: Of Bees and Mist

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan

I picked this up based on a staff recommendation display at BookPeople (every other independent bookstore I have ever been in was very small so they couldn't compete with Barnes and Noble for me; between this store and the Alamo Drafthouse, I almost want to move to Texas), and wasn't sure what to expect exactly. The back cover describes it as the story of three generations of women, while the Amazon blurb calls it the story of two families. While these aren't exactly inaccurate, it is really the story of Meridia. Meridia's parents, Ravenna and Gabriel, are so angry with each other that Meridia is rather neglected throughout her childhood. Her father is distant, her mother forgetful, and it isn't until she is sixteen, when she meets Daniel, that she feels loved. The two marry and move in with Daniel's family. At first Meridia is enchanted with his family who appear to be the opposite of her own: loving, caring and attentive. However, as time goes on, Meridia is curious about certain things in the house, and realizes how controlling, manipulative and deceitful Eva, her mother-in-law, is. This leads to an ongoing battle of wills between the women, and Ravenna becomes very helpful to her daughter as she becomes slightly less involved in her own world.

Daniel goes back forth between supporting his wife and believing his mother. I also quite enjoyed Daniel's sisters, and their evolving relationships with their mother and Meridia. One thing that makes this novel stand out from being simply a family drama is the use of magic realism. The coldness that creeps into Ravenna and Gabriel's marriage manifests itself as a physical coldness inside the house which is also surrounded by an impenetrable mist. Eva's constant bickering at her family and husband to bend them to her will is represented by the swarming of bees.

The novel isn't set in any particular time period or town though it seems very turn of the century pre-World War I. While magical things occur, the mists, bees and other things simply symbolized people's feeling and emotions, so I don't think it should be too much of a turn off to people that aren't into magic - in this case, the magical events don't necessarily have to be taken literally, and it's not as if any of the characters actually attempt to cast spells. The characters were wonderfully portrayed and this is probably one of my favorite reads so far this year, and I feel like I've been quite lucky so far with selecting books I enjoy over the past few weeks.

Book 11: The Fall

The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

This wasn't a bad book but it definitely felt like a place holder. Picking up after the events of The Strain, Manhattan is about to be completely run over by vampires. Unfortunately, I didn't care for the characters very much this time around. Abraham, the old vampire hunter, reveals even more of his backstory, and Vasiliy Fet, the exterminator, starts a blog. Additionally, the novel reveals the fate of the young Mexican gangster who was captured by the Ancients, the other old vampires that are at odds with "the Master." All this wasn't too bad, though so many of the characters read like stereotypes. Mostly, I just was very annoyed with Eph. Yes, the world around him is falling apart but could he be less emo about it? I also disliked that the only female character of any importance in this series is now relegated to girlfriend, and caregiver of Zac (well, only important female other than Zac's vampire mother, Kelly). Seriously? Eph is busy feeling sorry for himself, so why not make him the caregiver? I mean, really?

Overall, the novel deals with the continuing spread of the vampire virus, and the group's hopelessness. The sun didn't kill the Master as they'd hoped, and now they are at a loss. However, it turns out that even with all the chaos, a certain cursed and almost mythological book regarding vampires is about to be auctioned off and it may contain the answers they need - if only they had a few million dollars at their disposal. The whole world is now under threat though news is sketchy; for example, flights similar to the one that started The Strain have shown up in other cities, filled with inexplicably dead passengers.

Overall, there were definitely some interesting ideas expressed but for most part that is lost due to the novel's focus on characters like Eph. I know when The Strain appeared, there was some excitement because it was mixing up the current vampire trend, and somewhat more original, but nothing about this novel was very original . . . the characters were mostly cliche, and not very engaging.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book 10: The Little Book

The Little Book by Selden Edward

I loved the first half of this book. It was just perfect. The last half had a few flaws but overall, I would still recommend the novel. The novel begins with the hero walking down Ringstrasse of 1897 Vienna, Austria. He doesn't remember how he got there, nor does he spend too much time wondering about the "when." Wheeler Burden from 1988 America quickly realizes that he needs to find some new clothes to blend in, though, and steals them from a traveler at a hotel.

The novel doesn't spend too much of the next few hundred pages trying to explain the idea of time travel. Instead it goes back and forth between Wheeler's time in Vienna, a subject he has only recently published a book on, and his childhood. The first half is both time travel story and a Bildungsroman. While it was fun seeing Wheeler meet various famous personalities in turn of the century Vienna, I quite enjoyed the stories about his eccentric and unique youth. Additionally, there is also quite a bit of story from the perspective of Wheezie Putnam, a young Bostonian woman traveling in Vienna and writing articles under a male pseudonymn. Vienna is an incredibly cultured and incredibly conflicted city at this time - the youth want a revolution, the mayor is one of the first to use anti-semitism as a campaign message in the way he does, psychoanalysis is being born in Freud's office, and World War I is just around the corner. It is a fascinating time. In fact, books have been written about the time, and the phrase fin-de-siecle is most associated with this time period (though most strongly with Paris, not Vienna). While Edward does a great job of bringing this period of history to life, the novel is strongest when it is focusing on its characters' stories.

As I said the first half of the novel was perfect - Edward would foreshadow his characters' futures just enough to be interesting without being annoying, I loved Wheeler's mother and grandmother, and I was excited to see how everything would be connected. Burden's family has always been fascinated with Freud and his work so it is no surprise that he takes the opportunity to meet the man - after all, it would be hard to mention Vienna without mentioning one of its most famous thinkers of that period. However, while I enjoyed Wheeler and Freud's conversations, I was less than enthused when Edward chose to have Wheeler use psychoanalysis on another character - it seemed a bit contrived to me. While I actually enjoyed the idea of two of his characters together, I felt like the conversation between them in the last half of the novel was unrealistic, and combined with its psychoanalytical flavor, it left a bad taste in my mouth. It also seemed like the characters started repeating themselves a bit in the last half, making comments and telling each other things they had already told each other. It was only a few small comments but I wondered why the author repeated them, whether he'd forgotten he'd already mentioned these things or if he was trying to emphasize them. However, other than those issues (and really, it was mostly the application of Freudian analysis that was an issue), it was a very original and entertaining read. Of course, since my mom is German, there were a few other pieces that were of interest to me - Empress Elizabeth made an appearance (there was a movie trilogy about her made in '50s Germany called Sissy which my grandmother used to watch), and they mention a cafe/bakery that is several centuries old that I visited when I was in Vienna almost two years ago. I don't think "Sissy" is even very famous in the States, but she was orginally from Germany, and due to the mini-series her name is still very well know. Additionally, she was rather popular in Hungary when it was part of Austro-Hungarian Empire - they even still have a bridges or parks named in her honor in Budapest.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book 9: The Story of Forgetting

The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block

After Seth's mother is diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's, the teenager, already a science nerd, becomes obsessed with the brain, reading various books on the subject. As he soon discovers, early on-set Alzheimer's is a relatively recent development, and another scientist doing research on the topic has determined that it goes back at most twelve-thirteen generations. Seth becomes obsessed with finding out his mother's own personal and genetic history, something she had never shared with her husband or son. He tracks down some of the other people with this disease in the Austin area and tries to find the familial link.

Interlaced with Seth's narrative is Abel's story, an old hunchbacked man living near Dallas. Given the subject of the novel, it is not hard to guess the relationship between Seth and Abel. Abel has many regrets regarding his past life, not least of which is the fact that he was in love with his twin brother's wife and had an affair with her. He now lives alone on a piece of land that is all that remains of his family's former holdings, waiting. Eventually he reveals what happened to his brother and Mae, his sister-in-law.

Intermixed throughout are the stories of Isidora, stories that Seth's mother used to tell him and that have been passed on with the family. Additionally, there is slightly more scientific writing tracing the origins of the disease, and its dispersion. It is very fitting that a family plagued with a disease that causes forgetting would create a fairy tale about a land without memory.

In addition to being a story about disease, Alzheimer's and family secrets, it also portrays an old misfit trying to fit in with world, or if not fit in, at least survive in it. Seth also is simply trying to survive high school not by fitting in but by not being noticed. I wasn't quite sure what to expect at first, but when I had finished the novel, I was very glad to have read it. I think I almost enjoyed the history of the disease the most as it introduced various ancestors of Abel. There were also a few lines that were a bit humorous, such as the description of the man in whom the genetic variation first must have appeared: "Given his prolific genetic output, it seems likely that A-496 was either some sort of British nobility or perhaps an extremely popular male prostitute" (53). I'd definitely recommend this. I only stumbled upon this due to a staff recommendation at Bookpeople in Austin, and am glad I did (by the way, I loved that bookstore) since I otherwise probably never would have heard of this.

Book 8: The Sea of Monsters

The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2) by Rick Riordan

This is the second novel in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and begins after Percy receives a message from Grover, a satyr, asking him for help though a dream. Having read a few books in the series now, I've noticed that each one ties in a bit with an ancient hero's quest. For example, this novel contains many references to monsters and creatures that Odysseus faced. That isn't to say that the novels parallel those ancient quests as much as that they draw elements from them. In this case, Percy and his friends are actually on a quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece famous due to Jason (the tree that protects the camp has been poisoned, and the Fleece has healing powers), and since it has ended up on Polyphemeus's island, the Cyclops that Odysseus defeated, it makes sense that Percy and his friends would run into several of the same monsters as Odysseus - they live in the same neighorhood after all. Unfortunately, my memory of Greek mythology is shaky enough so that while I understood the parallels in this and the next two novels, I'm still not sure which story the first novel refers to the most.

Percy once again gets kicked out of school at the beginning, this time with his new friend Tyson, who actually turns out to be his younger Cyclops half-brother. Clarisse of the Ares cabin is granted a quest to search for the Golden Fleece; Percy and Annabeth aren't part of her quest but end up on the same trail in their search for Grover. Percy also discovers more of Luke's plan, due to both his dreams, and random luck. Luke is attempting to reassemble Kronos in a Golden Sarcophagus aboard a cruise ship, and he seems to be making quite a bit of progress.

I enjoyed the novel and am quite enjoying the series. I would say, however, that given the structure of the series this one is probably the one that feels most like filler - the first novel introduces the characters, the later novels in the series begin seriously facing the imminent danger while this one is more in the vein of "danger is rising, but we can't get too far into it." It's just like any season of Buffy or the Harry Potter series - the further you get, the more the episodes/novels focus specifically on the Big Bad rather than having loose tie-ins to the Big Bad or being side quests/side stories.

Book 7: Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

I remember seeing this book when it came out over thirteen years ago, and I finally decided to actually read it recently. In the book, Diamond attempts to determine why certain societies and continents ended up where they did historically. Why was it Europe that conquered the Americas and not vice versa? While the proximate reasons for this are the guns, germs and steel of the title, a more appropriate title for the book may well have been "Food Production, Animal Husbandry and Geography."

For the most part, I quite enjoyed reading the book, though it did get a little bit repetitive in the last half, repeating over and over again advantages and disadvantages different regions had. His main argument is that food production led to societies that allowed for specilialization, which led to more structured societies (from band to tribe to chiefdom to state), and allowed for more technological advances. Due to food production, a certain amount of land would yield many more calories and allow for extra food, which meant that societies could feed people that weren't involved in food production and store food for future use. In a hunter-gatherer society, in comparison, everyone is focused on hunting/gathering. However, farming is quite hard work, and isn't something that would necessarily naturally develop very quickly. It all depended on the land's ability to support or not support a hunter-gatherer life style. However, more importantly, how quickly food production arose depended very much on the local plant life: Australia was still a hunter-gatherer society when the English first landed because none of the local plants were very suitable for domestication. Even now, with current technology, Australia has only yielded one local crop: the macademia nut. America faced similar disadvantages - though they developed agriculture in areas, its crops' calorie contents weren't as high as those of the wheats and barleys from the Fertile Crescent, which also had the advantage of a high protein percentage (additionally, wheat and barley are very similar to their wild ancestors, while corn would have taken quite some time and mutations to develope from its wild relative). It didn't matter how rich the land was if the right crops weren't there.

That is where Eurasia had the advantage: between the Fertile Crescent and China, several wild plants ended up being perfect for domestication. Additionally, these areas had an advantage when it came to large animals that were appropriate for domestication. The Americas and Australia in comparison had no large mammals on their continents at this point with which to start this process; most of the large mammals in Africa are rather impossible to domesticate due to their temper and other dispositions. Not only did animals provide food, help with farming and transportation, but animals were also the origin of many of the "germs" and diseases that would decimate the original inhabitants of Australia and the Americas due to their lack of exposure. Horses of course also were an advantage in warfare as seen with the conquest of the Incan Empire.

His other argument has to do with geography, idea diffusion and isolation. For example, Australia was very isolated, the people that inhabited Australia were isolated from each other due to the continent's deserts, and as a result, they didn't necessarily see what their neighbors were doing and use those ideas. In fact, they even appear to have lost technology such as the bow and arrow. For some reason, one area decided to stop using it, and since they weren't threatened by neighbors with that technology they never picked it back up. The Americas also had a bit of a problem with isolation due to geography: information and ideas simply didn't make it past the deserts/mountains separating Mesoamerica (the Aztecs and Mayans) from southeast North America very quickly, and the Incan Empire was also separated from Mesoamerica. Mayans had a wheel, Incans had llamas (the only large domesticaed animal in the Americas) but they never met and as a result were never put together to create easier transportation. Additionally, since the continent's axis (Diamond considered North and South America as one continent) ran north-south, it also affected the transmission of ideas (this can be seen in Africa as well) and crops. There is a much larger difference in day length, climate etc. from north to south. Plants that grow in one area wouldn't grow south of it due to climate changes, so even if there is an area much further south that would support those plants, they would not have made it past the inhospitable area. By contrast, Eurasia's axis is west-east, and its geographical barriers are not as extreme as in Australia and the Americas so the crops could spread between groups, people could see their neighboring societies' farming and pick up the habit, and they would also be able to gain technology from them. Diamond mentions the importance of writing as well and for the most part, writing styles were the result of idea diffusion and not natural development: only three or four places came up with writing independently; everyone else either simply copied it or heard enough about it to develop it (knowing about something and creating it and creating it from scratch are very different).

While Diamond lays out the geographical advantages that Eurasia was lucky enough to have and makes a convincing argument, this is by no means a perfect book. As I said earlier, it has its moments of repetitiveness. While he makes a good argument for why Europe conquered the Americas instead of vice versa, he waited until the epilogue to address why Europe did this and not China - China after all had developed many technologies long before the Europeans. Some of his statements seemed a bit odd at times since he appeared to be arguing against previously held beliefs that the conquest of America and colonization of other areas had something to do with the quality of the people in those areas. I didn't feel like I had to be convinced of this . . . One other random bit that I just thought was kind of interesting: I recently read Cloud Atlas and one of the stories discusses the Moriori of Chatham Islands and how they were conquered by Maori from another island - Diamond actually spent a page or two discussing this particular example in his book. I wonder if this means Mitchell read Guns, Germs and Steel, or if he came across the Moriori independently during his research.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book 6: The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan

I've been meaning to read this novel since the movie came out. A friend of mine is also a big fan of the series, so her recommendation was yet another reason to finally read it. Unfortunately, my copy ended up in storage when I moved to Georgia along with most of the my things, and I didn't want to buy another copy so I ended up reading the entire novel at Barnes and Noble Saturday afternoon. I used a hardcover copy so I wouldn't crease it or ruin it.

The premise of the novel is rather simple: Percy Jackson, the narrator, is an eleven year old boy that has always been slightly different. He has ADHD, dyslexia, has been kicked out of several schools, and in his newest school he is attacked by his math teacher except that no one else remembers her afterwards. Percy never knew his dad, and he hates his stepfather. When he goes home for the summer, his friend Grover finds him right before he and his mom are attacked by a minotaur. Percy's mom disappears, Percy kills the minotaur and makes it to Camp Halfblood which is both a safe haven and a training camp for other kids like him: the half children of the immortal gods of Olympus. Until his father claims him, he is assigned to Hermes's cabin, the patron of travelers.

However, all is not well in Olympus, and the gods are on the brink of war due to the theft of Zeus's lightning bolt. Percy must go on a quest to recover the lightning bolt, and has only ten days to do so. Annabeth, daughter of Athena, chooses to go with him, and Grover, the satyr, also accompanies him.

Overall, I thought the novel was nicely done, and I enjoyed the ways Riordan imagined the gods in the modern day. Since I think the original Greek myths are interesting enough, I don't necessarily think these books would be a good introduction to Greek mythology but a nice supplement or sequel for children that enjoy them (then again, I also grew up with both the Disney and the Grimm version of fairy tales so I might have no idea of what's actually appropriate for children). In addition to the Greek myths, it is easy to see the influence that Harry Potter has had on the series: Percy has two friends that help him complete the quests, Annabeth and Grover; Annabeth as the daughter of Athena is smarter than any of the guys much like Hermione (considering that Athena was one of the gods that never messed around with humans, I'm curious why Riordan decided to change that aspect of her, other than simply as an excuse to create Annabeth); by the end of the novel, it is clear that there is a greater, darker power behind everything, similar to Voldemort; there is a prophecy from the Oracle, only referred to hear, but it appears to concern Percy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Book 5: You Suck

You Suck: A Love Story by Christopher Moore

As the sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends begins, Tommy is a little miffed with Jody for turning him into a vampire. With Tommy turned, he and Jody have to figure out a new foodsource since he was hers, and they also need a new minion. This leads to the introduction of Abby Normal who also happens to be friends with Lily from A Dirty Job (this isn't the only cross-over between the two novels).

As usual, Moore's characters end up in rather ridiculous situations - Tommy's friends from the grocery store end up blowing all their money on a prostitute in Vegas who has used the Blue Men as an inspiration. Additionally, Jody's creator does not remain quiet for long, and with all these extra characters, havoc quickly ensues. I actually preferred this novel to the previous one - Abby Normal is a ridiculous teenage girl, but I prefer the way that Jody was written - she seemed much less clingy and concerned with relationships, possibly because she was in one. I enjoyed how Abby's role in the novel is the result of Tommy feeling like he, too, could get a minion.

As I've said before, while Moore is entertaining, there are certain things he plays for humor that really are slightly disturbing when given any thought - for example, Jody refers to Tommy's habit of dressing her up as a cheerleader and having sex with her while she's unconscious (often referred to as rape in the real world), and MINOR SPOILER sixteen year old Abby ends up with a Ph.D. student for a boyfriend - yes that's not at all inappropriate END SPOILER. In Tommy's case, the audience is supposed to be laughing at him due to his weird fantasies/teenage libido, but as I said, I could have done without the joke.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Book 4: I Feel Bad About My Neck

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

A friend of mine sent me this for Christmas because she thought it would be a light fun read. It was one of the books I brought on the plane with me, and I picked up when I couldn't get into Three Cups of Tea. I wasn't expecting too much, and the book was good for about two hours of entertainment and distraction. Some of the essays were rather good while others seemed like a short blog update or a throw-away magazine article. If I had actually paid for the book, I would definitely have been disappointed with the brevity of the book at less than 150 pages (it is literally light).

My favorite two essays were the ones were she discusses her love of books. She discusses how certain books just completely draw her in, and how she would get irritated with people at work for asking her questions when she was trying to read The Woman in White (oddly enough, I read Drood after this). The other one I quite liked was where she discusses an apartment she had lived in for quite a long time in New York. I just liked her descriptions of the neighborhood, the community, and the fact that she uses numbers of mochas as a reference for cost.

I was a little less interested in her essay on her purse (probably because I actually like my Coach bag), and the one on maintenance/grooming. Overall, not a bad collection, but it wasn't anything spectacular or something I would have picked up on my own.

Book 3: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

I have felt like I should read Bill Bryson for a while now considering how often I seem to run across his name, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover a copy of this book in a holiday package from a friend of mine.

I don't know how this compares to Bryson's other topics, but I quite enjoyed this book. In some ways, it was a nice review of forgotten knowledge from elementary and middle school, and in other ways it added more details to some of this. In some ways, it is a history of the universe, and in other ways, it is a history of the scientific progress that has allowed us to understand what little we do of the universe. The first section as a result deals with the creation of the galaxy and the universe, and then narrows in on Earth, and what made it suitable for life as we know it. This leads to discussions of physics, the atom, nuclear energy, as well as topics that are easier to grasp such as earthquakes and plate tectonics. There are sections devoted to the oceans, and the creation of life, DNA, fossil records and evolution. Peppered throughout are the names and stories of the men and women that made these discoveries, and how they were received. Some of the stories contain sad rivalries, while other brilliant scientist were ignored and many of their discoveries credited to others (who did in fact make the discoveries but at a much later time).

Through it all, Bryson shows a respect for the wonder that caused the planet to come about while also putting it into perspective - we can't truly know how unique this is given the size of the universe, but it still involved an incredible amount of factors to come together to create the world as we know it. In some ways, it is easy to think that humanity may be the worst thing that has come about on this world, interrupting the cycle of life and death. Countless species have gone extinct over the years, but humans certainly seem to be speeding things up. We may be the only species that is as aware of the wonder that surrounds us while simultaneously taking it for granted and being completely destructive of our surroundings.

Book 2: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I added this to my wishlist after reading a review somewhere last year (I just checked the blog where I thought I'd hear of it, but that wasn't it), but even with the review, I still didn't have a very clear idea of how the novel was going to resolve itself. I knew that novel consisted of six stories that were interrelated in some way, and that started and broke off in the middle, only to resume again later. The stories are ordered chronologically, and all use different genres. The first, for example, is the journal of a notary in 1849/1850 on a sea voyage. This one ends mid-sentence, and is followed by a series of letters written in 1931. Other genres include a thriller set in the '70s, a first person narrative set in the late 20th/early 21st century that reminded me of a modern day version of a Henry Fielding farce, a futuristic story told in an interview format with a clone, and finally, a post-apocalyptic narrative that reads much like an oral telling transcribed.

All the stories somehow reference the previous story with explanations of why they break off they way they did (for example, one story was a manuscript submitted to a publisher, but the publisher only received the first half etc.). My two favorite stories were the epistolary one told by a young crook/musician who writes a friend of his experiences with a famous composer and his involvement with the man's family, and the interview with Somni, a clone worker that became self-aware and published a manifesto with the potential to disrupt the current societal views and norms. Each story was interesting in its own right, but I also hurried to get through some to get back to the other stories. In some cases, the endings were not quite what I wanted or slightly unfulfilling but it all worked very well. For example, the first story took me a while to get into given the style (19th century journal) but I quite enjoyed its ending. While I know many people found the Englishman who ends up in a nursing home rather funny, that was my least favorite of all of them. I also had mixed feelings on the sixth story which was the both the last story and the first one to be concluded simply because it was written in a dialect.
The first story discusses the enslavement and annihilation of an indigenous people in New Zealand/Australia as part of its plot, and while each story has a different focus, they all show some of the darker sides of human society and human nature. By the end (or middle), the narrative is set in a post apocalyptic world after humanity has nearly destroyed itself. Even in the previous futuristic story, humanity is well on the way to self-destruction while also enjoying luxury and comfort to the extreme. Most of the narratives also refer to a cloud atlas or atlas of clouds at some point or another (the musician titles his composition Cloud Atlas Sextet, and as he explains to his friend, the piece is structured in the exact same way as this novel). Another common piece throughout the stories is a birthmark that looks like a comet.

While the structure could have easily turned gimmicky, Mitchell actually did a very good job. I wanted to know what happened with each narrative so it was hard to determine if I wanted a current piece to end so I could get closer to knowing what happened in previous pieces, or if I wanted to stay in the story.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Interlude: Books Read Between the End Of CBR II and the Beginning of CBR III

1. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqist

I still haven't seen the movie but I picked up the novel since I like to read the book first usually. There were quite a few characterst that I disliked, and overall I would put it as an average vampire story, but I can see where this would make a very good film. It might have helped if I hadn't heard enough about the film to know expect some of the twists even if I didn't know exactly what they were going to be.  I thought the relationship between Eli and Oscar was well-done, and liked how it gave him more confidence in his interactions with others.

2. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I quite enjoy things related to the Tudor period, so I was curious to read this novel told from Cromwell's perspective. I quite liked how it portrayed the man, and the politics involved. However, it took me a few chapters to get into Mantel's writing style - it is told in the third person from Cromwell's perspective and it gets confusing at first since Cromwell is generally referred to as he, even when there are five other characters in the scene that could be the "he." It helped quite a bit once I got used to that.  It's always hard to know how to interpret Henry VIII - despite reassurances that he was in fact rather intelligent it is easy to simply see him as a spoiled tyrant.  Mantel shows both these sides of his characters through Cromwell's very perceptive view.

3. Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

I was excited to see that Lehane had written a sequel to his Kenzie/Gennaro series. I don't think it was exactly necessary, and he probably did it more for the fans than because he had a story to tell, but it was still nice to see the characters again. Patrick and Angela have a child now, and Patrick has stayed away from the dangerous cases, but when the girl, Amanda McCready, from Gone, Baby, Gone goes missing again, he gets pulled back into a dangerous world out of guilt. Some of it seemed a bit much, but it was entertaining which was all I wanted.  However, I quite enjoyed The Given Day so I hope Lehane does another historical novel eventually.

4. First Lord's Fury y Jim Butcher

This novel was Jim Butcher's conclusion to the Codex Alera. Tavi has finally come into his powers over furies, and now has to face the vord as they threaten to overtake his kingdom and known civilization as a whole. It was definitely a fitting conclusion for the series, and I am curious to see what else Butcher comes up with (besides the Dresden Files, naturally).

5. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

I picked this up based on a recommendation. Last time I was deployed I really didn't pay that much attention to what was going on around me - I was barely at battalion, stayed at the company level and simply ran the missions to various FOBs. I couldn't have told you where many places were located on a map. However, this deployment, as the battle captain, I receive all the SITREPs for the area, speak to the intel officer on a regular basis, and as a result, I actually recognized many of the places he referred to. Much of what he was discussing still seemed to ring home to an extent. I especially thought the parts about how the Iraqis were saying one thing to the American Soldiers and another thing to the reporters very interesting.  It's amazing to me how sheltered I have been during both my deployments - as a Soldier in the military, I have seen less action, and had fewer interactions with Iraqis than this journalist.  This of course has much to do with my postion in the Army - as a logistics officer, when I'm on the road, I'm simply driving from point A to point B to bring supplies to the combat Soldiers that conduct patrols.  IEDs are always a danger but it's not like we stop our trucks to clear a house - that's not our mission - our mission is to make sure the supplies get where they need to be.  However, I'm definitely not complaining about that.

6. Room by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue has written a few historical novels. For example, Slammerkin was inspired by an old newspaper article about a young servant which led Donoghue to imagine a full and developed life for the character. Room was inspired by more current events, the Fritzl case which involved the Austrian man who kept his daughter and her children locked in a basement for over twenty years. The novel is narrated by Jack, a five year old boy that lives in an 11 foot square with his mother. He has never left Room, and believes that it is reality. Everything he sees on television is imaginary. His mother has chosen to tell him this rather than let him know about everything he has been missing out on. However, shortly after his fifth birthday, she has decided that it is time for them to escape and starts telling him the truth. I thought it was very well done, and believable the way Donahue imagines how someone might survive locked away like this, and how it might affect a young child that has never known anything else.

7. Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore

A friend of mine gave this to me for Christmas. I've read two other Moore novels, and I think I still like A Dirty Job the most. The Emperor appears in this novel as well, and he is one of the few to recognize the presence of vampires in his city. Jodi, the main character, is attacked at night and turned into a vampire. She quickly realizes she needs a minion to do her work during the day, and enlist Tommy Flood for that job. Her creator, however, is an old and bored vampire that toys with their lives for his entertainment purposes. Moore writes entertaining narratives, but I'm not always that happy with the way he portrays women. He is also big on using racial stereotypes and caricatures. Still, it was a fun read, though I preferred the sequel which she also sent me.

Cannonball Read II

Below is the final list of novels read for Cannonball Read II, 01 NOV 09 - 31 OCT 10.

109. The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
108. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
107. Drugs, Sex and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman
106. In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke
105. Princeps' Fury by Jim Butcher
104. Captain's Fury by Jim Butcher
103. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
102. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
101. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
100. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
99. A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch
98. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
97. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
96. Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors by James Reston, Jr.
95. Cursor's Fury by Jim Butcher
94. The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper
93. Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher
92. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
91. World's End by Mark Chadbourn
90. Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
89. The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
88. Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir
87. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
86. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
85. The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
84. Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World by Diana Preston
83. The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
82. Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman
81. Things I've Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter by Azar Nafisi
80. Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris
79. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
78. A Taste of True Blood: A Fangbanger's Guide edited by Leah Wilson
77. Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin
76. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
75. The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin
74. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
73. How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Invented Our World and Everything in It by Arthur Herman
72. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
71. I'm Not Scared by Nicollo Ammaniti
70. Between a Heart and a Rock Place by Pat Benatar
69. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
68. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
67. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
66. Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
65. Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
64. My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands by Chelsea Handler
63. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
62. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
61. Changes by Jim Butcher
60. Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
59. Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
58. Small Favor by Jim Butcher
57. The Likeness by Tana French
56. The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks
55. From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth by Mathew Beresford
54. The Alienist by Caleb Carr
53. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
52. In the Woods by Tana French
51. Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult
50. Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
49. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
48. White Night by Jim Butcher
47. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
46. The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman
45. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
44. Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher
43. Contagious by Scott Sigler
42. The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde
41. Dead Beat by Jim Butcher
40. Blood Rites by Jim Butcher
39. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
38. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
37. The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri
36. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
35. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde
34. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
33. The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent
32. Death Masks by Jim Butcher
31. The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley
30. Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
29. Black Hills by Dan Simmons
28. Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig
27. Grave Peril by Jim Butcher
26. Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
25. A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
24. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
23. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
22. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
21. The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip Jose Farmer
20. Storm Front by Jim Butcher
19. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
18. Angelica by Arthur Philips
17. Push by Sapphire
16. The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
15. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
14. The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi
13. The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert
12. The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark
11. Under the Dome by Stephen King
10. A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
9. Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum
8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
7. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard
6. To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
5. Infected by Scott Sigler
4. The Pact by Jodi Picoult
3. A Breath of Fresh Air by Amulya Malladi
2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
1. Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Book 1: Drood

Drood by Dan Simmons
I know I still owe a few posts to wrap up last year, but I wanted to get started on this year's CBR before I fall completely behind already (nothing like traveling and sitting at airports for days for reading time).

I think I'm done with Dan Simmons, which I realize is a very unfair thing to say since I've heard many positive things about The Terror, which I haven't read. However, the premise of Drood just sounded like it was much more up my alley than a novel about a doomed naval expedition: after all, it's literary - it's about Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins; it didn't actually matter to me that I don't particularly enjoy Dickens and have never read Collins.

And the thing is the novel starts out rather promising. However, there just isn't enough steam in the premise for over 700 pages, at least not the way Simmons wrote it. The novel is narrated by Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, and friend and sometime collaborator of Charles Dickens. In the novel, Collins attempts to explain the last five years of Dickens's life following Dickens's involvement in a train accident. As Collins explains, shortly after the accident, Dickens told him all about it as well as his meeting with a mysterious figure named Drood.

Collins soon finds himself in the middle of an elaborate plot that he doesn't understand involving Drood, Charles Dickens and a former police investigator, Inspector Fields. However, much of the novel also just follows Wilkie's daily life. In the beginning it was amusing to see the interaction between the authors, the petty jealousies, the confusions about whose intellectual property certain collaborative pieces were etc. I even completely understood Wilkie's conflicting emotions regarding his friendship with Dickens - after all, I'm sure we have all bitched about friends one day, and then talked about how awesome they were the next. Unfortunately, the novel was marketed as a suspense novel and Simmons kept throwing in the suspense part of the story which quickly became rather tiresome since it would give just enough to get the reader interested, and then not mention that part of the story again for a hundred pages or so. I believe the issue here was pacing and the length of the novel - I don't mind reading well-written novels about nothing, but for a thriller, the pacing did not work. I found myself not caring about the mystery due to all the side tracking. I would have enjoyed a shorter, well-written thriller, or a long story about the relationship between two authors. However, it seemed like the novel couldn't quite pick what it was, and the ending was rather ludicrous.

Also, I'm not sure if Simmons simply needs a better editor, or if he was just doing a very good job of imitating Collins, since I've never read anything by Collins. Either way, he repeated himself a bit much. I understand this might be part of his whole "unreliable narrator" thing he had going with Collins, who after all was a bit of a drug addict. Unfortunately, the unreliable narrator part was stretched too much - by the end, it wasn't that I didn't know what parts of Collins's story to believe, but that I didn't believe anything he said because he had become too unreliable/didn't really care anymore - I believe he was telling the truth as he saw it, of course. Basically, I think Simmons had a great premise, but than dragged the novel on too much because no one was willing to make him edit the book, and in some ways, he was trying to be too clever with his representations (although based on his descriptions of Collins's books, this could very well be in line with the character).

Monday, January 03, 2011

Tying Up Loose Ends: Cannonball Read II

For some reason, there was a period last April during which I read but didn't really do too many reviews. Additionally, once I got to Iraq, I didn't exactly get around to reviewing all the novels I read. The following are some mini-reviews for books that I read during the CBR II period, but never did full reviews on I'm a bit of a completionist.

Book 102: The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

To be honest, I can't remember this novel all too well - it was definitely a page turner, I enjoyed seeing how all the intrigue fit together, but I also had the final part of the trilogy in my apartment for ages without ever picking it up. "The Bad Thing" was finally resolved though it seemed like it had been built up so much for the one and a half novels that it was actually much tamer than what I'd imagined.

Book 103: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark

I had heard so much about this book that I was nervous I would be the odd one out that didn't like it. It was much more leisurely than I expected. While I thoroughly enjoyed it, it wasn't exactly a page turner per se. By that I simply mean, that it was always pleasant to return to the novel but I wasn't in such a hurry to find out what happened next that I spent all nighters trying to finish it. I also was surprised by how long it took for Jonathan Strange to even appear as a character. While the novel is about magic in England, and presents an alternate history of the world, Clark manages to bring several genres together - it is reminiscent of Jane Austen and her novels of manners that are really about so much more, and Clark certainly has a light touch that makes her characters seem rather absurd on occasion.

Books 104 and 105: Captain's Fury and Princeps' Fury (Books 4&5 of The Codex Alera)

Captain's Fury by Jim Butcher, Princeps' Fury by Jim Butcher

I quite enjoyed these parts of the Codex Alera. Tavi finally discovers the truth behind his parents (i.e. that his aunt is his mother, and he is the heir to the throne), and ends the war between the Alerans and Canim. In fifth book of the series, Tavi travels to Canim with his new allies to help them fight the Vord/see how their country has fared against this threat. While Tavi is there, Alera must fight the Vord in their own land as well with great losses. As usual, Butcher's heroes face impossible circumstances, make strange partners and alliances, and somehow prevail against all odds.

Book 106: In a Perfect World

In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke

I picked this one up after reading this review (this is another one of those novels I finished back in April/May time frame). In a way, it is tells a very similar story - a new stepmother tries to find her place in her new husband's family. However, it gets more complicated due to a plague that leaves Giselle with only her new children, separated from her husband. She grows as a person, and also gains insights into her husband's interactions with women. The plague and separation may have excelerated certain things, but by the end, he is the least important member of the family even if he was the original connection.

Book 107: Drugs, Sex and Cocoa Puffs

Drugs, Sex and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman

As with most essay collections, there were a few in here that were absolutely hilarious, and made the book worth it, and then some filler. The three I still remember were the first one where he discusses Lloyd of Say Anything and how that movie has ruined dating (since I saw Say Anything once but didn't really get the big deal about Llyod, I was amused - I know Llyod has quite a few fans), his essay on playing Sims, and finally, his discussion of soccer vs. Little League philosophies. I'll definitely pick up another one of these when I get around to it, and a friend of mine picked up the collection as well after I told him to check out the Lloyd essay the next time he was at a bookstore.

Book 108: Mockingjay

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

From what I've gathered, reactions to the concluding volume of The Hunger Games trilogy were mixed. Some people, my dad included, felt the first novel of the series was the strongest, and that the final novel had too many scenes that took place too far from the action. While I can understand the frustration of Katniss not being in the middle of the action during the revolution, I feel like it makes sense within the novel and the series. In the whole series, Katniss has found herself being played, and turned into something - a symbol of defiance against the Capitol, the Mockingjay - even during the rebellion, this continues. I definitely disagreed with some of the decisions Katniss made, but for the most part, I enjoyed seeing the political side of a revolution much more than seeing the actual battles. I'm sure everyone has heard about the heartbreaking ending, and it definitely wasn't what I'd been expecting. Both the beginning and the end of the novel demonstrate Katniss in a rather broken state. Absolutely great trilogy, and an example of very well-done young adult fiction.

Book 109: The Vagrants

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

I can't say I enjoyed this novel. I definitely understand why it was acclaimed and won literary prizes, but it was just thoroughly depressing. None of the characters were very likable with the exception of an old married beggar couple. The characters that seem like good people at the beginning have total breakdowns by the end, and I felt such pity for the young country boy whose parents decided to bring him back to the city. This novel takes place after the Cultural Revolution, before Tianmen Square and demonstrates the changing society in China as well as the accompanying confusion. Neighbors, friends and family can't trust each other, and no one quite knows what the future of the country looks like - after all the Cultural Revolution quickly faced backlash, and the novel begins with the execution of a former student leader of the Cultural Revolution. As I said, I understand what the author was trying to say, and given how depressing this novel was, I'd say she succeeded. Still, I don't think I'd recommend this novel to someone casually interested in China and Communism - it's hard to get emotionally invested in many of the characters since they are all so flawed, and really don't seem to be very good people. Even the people that were trying to do the right thing, such as the radio broadcaster, seemed so disconnected from reality and too idealistic for their own good.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year - Things to Come

By the end of the week, I should be back in the States and on leave for two weeks before returning to Iraq to conduct change of command inventories (basically, look at millions of dollars of equipment to make sure it is there before I sign a piece of paper thus making myself liable) and take command of a company. What does this mean to you? Well, it means two weeks of me sitting at places like Panera, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, eating delicious soups and sandwiches, drinking coffee, buying books, and that's right, being online writing posts to look super-important at all those places . . . Some time within the next three weeks, there will be increased productivity at this site, the obligatory end of the year wrap-ups (I didn't completely stop reading, just almost), new reviews for Cannonball Read III which started today, and maybe some discussion of my upcoming trip to Austin. Does Orbitz no longer use American Airlines by the way? The site does not come up with any flights out of my hometown anymore.
After those three weeks, unfortunately, my updating regularity will probably return to current levels but maybe I will find more personal time as company commander - highly doubtful but I will have my own office so I might feel comfortable sneaking a chapter of a book in every once in a while since I won't be quite as worried about someone walking in and saying something.