Thursday, August 27, 2009

Book 5/60: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I have to admit that I've been looking forward to this one. (The anticipation of its awesomeness led me to place it directly after The Road in case the previous novel was as much of a downer as I was warned it would be) There were roughly eight million Neil Gaiman recommendations on my list (okay, like four or five), making Gaiman easily the most-recommended author on the list. I've heard from several friends over the past few years that Gaiman is the greatest writer in the history of the written word. This book is Mr. G's first solo novel, and I was told that this was the place to start when examining Gaiman's cannon, and thus here we are. (Though technically, I've already read one work of his--Stardust--so I'm not really starting here, but it's close)

Old friends Christopher Moore (author of #2) and Stephen King (#57) love Gaiman and Neverwhere, as do a lot of other authors noted for their creativity and fantasy. The back flap can barely contain all the praises and still fit a decent-sized picture of the author.

You have hype to live up to, Mr. G.

Stats: 337 pages
Published by Avon Books, New York, 1996
Awards: None, though it has been translated into Polish, Portuguese, Czech, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, Bulgarian, Dutch, Serbian, Brasillian Portuguese, Romanian, Finnish, Latvian, Hungarian, Chinese, Danish, and comic book.

No Oprah book club, though.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Closing Thoughts: The Road

# of pages: 287
Pages read so far: 1,543

The lender of Cormac McCarthy's The Road told me it was supposed to be one of the most depressing books ever written. Through the first half of the book, I agreed. At times, it was so depressing that my mind started to reject it as ridiculous (much like someone who meet Pollyanna in real life would wonder whether the girl was for real or not). Everything that happened in the story was just sad. Not a make-you-cry sort of sad, but more of a "dang. That really sucks" sort of sad. The novel is incredibly dreary; a man and his son (around eight years old) are traveling on foot together down a road (used to be an interstate highway) in a world in which everything is dead. (You never find out what happened. Probably Global Warming) No plants, no animals, and almost no people. Cities are completely empty, rotting corpses everywhere. A stranger you meet on the road may very well want to kill you for your belongings and the meat on your bones. The man and the boy (you never get their names) journey ever southward, trying to survive a cold winter on a planet that now bares a permanent layer of ash.

Really, there's not a lot of potential for happy thoughts in this sort of story.

However, as I got into it further, I realized that it wasn't depressing, not really. Depressing literature leaves me feeling like crap when I read it. The Road didn't. I won't say it was uplifting by any stretch of the imagination, but it was definitely engaging. The language was simple; the majority of the book was structured like the post I wrote yesterday. Short paragraphs, no chapters, no apostrophes or quotation marks, few descriptive words. Very plain. Very little life. No real structure to the story. Like the man and the boy, it just sort of rambles along toward its end. And while it does have an ending, this story is not about the end. It's not really about the mystery of the beginning, either. It's about the journey and the relationship between the father and the son. The language is accessible and readable. McCarthy doesn't waste words. He doesn't try to creep you out with any of the excessively gory details of the world around the travelers. Rather, he lets the hopelessness of the situation speak for itself. And it's a very engaging read for that.

It's very interesting to read the snippets of reviews inside the cover of the book. Unanimous acclaim based on incredibly diverse takes on the narrative. One reviewer finds it ultimately hopeful. One finds it terrifying and depressing. One calls is personal while another lauds its alienation. Yet another comments on its portrayal of "the miracle of goodness." Me? I saw very little miracle of goodness. Also very little to make me hopeful afterward. It didn't depress me, though. I liked these characters. I related to them both. I found myself appreciating a story well-told more than worrying about whether it should be depressing me or inspiring me.

I'd recommend reading this book in as few sittings as possible. I read it in about two days, and I think I would have had trouble getting into it if I kept checking out and back in. There's some disturbing imagery as well. (How many of these books on my list are going to involve cutting up babies??) However, it was nice to read something that wasn't graphic or gratuitous in language, gore, or sex. (Not that sex would have fit in this story anywhere)

So there you have it. I liked the book. I dunno that it was brilliant of a masterpiece, but it did win a Pulitzer so most likely it is ;-) What it is for certain is a well-told story that causes you to pause, think, and reflect as you read it. If you're not afraid to injest some troubling scenes and despairing narrative, this is a good, quick read to pick up.

Oh, and here's the trailer for the movie.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

You, too, can write like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"!

They stumbled along. It was dark and they were cold, but there was no place to stop. The man put his hand on the boy's head. The boy didnt react. He was barely awake.
I'm hungry.
I know.
Can we stop?
We can't stop yet.
I really want to stop.
We can't stop yet. It's too out in the open here. I'm sorry. Soon.
Are the bad guys close?
I don't know.
I'm really scared.
It's okay.
He put one arm around the boy's shoulders.
It's okay, he said.
The boy grabbed the man's hand. The man noticed he'd dropped his toy truck in the ashy snow somewhere along the way. He wondered if the boy had realized it was gone. He could barely make out some trees a few hundred feet away. They went toward the trees.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Book 4/60: The Road by Cormac McCarthy


So the recommender for this book tells me it's supposed to be one of the most depressing things ever written.

Huzzah! It'll feel like I'm reading academically again! ;-)

The Road is the story of a father and his young son (Six? Seven? I don't know yet) traveling along, appropriately enough, a road, trying to stay alive in a world that is dead. No signs of life anywhere. Plant life all dead, cities full of rotting human corpses, no bugs, no animals. Dead. Perpetual gray in the sky. And winter is coming.

The Road is another Oprah book club selection, and Entertainment Weekly named it THE best book of the past 25 years. Oh yeah, it also won the 2007 Pulitzer for Literature. Viggo Mortensen is starring in the movie, supposedly out this October.

As for McCarthy himself, he's in his third marriage (the first two he divorced) and was described as a "gregarious loner" by the New York Times in a rare interview. He doesn't appear to like writers, and he doesn't think stories that do not deal with life and death directly should be considered literature. His last novel before The Road was something called No Country for Old Men; I wonder if that'll ever catch on.

All righty. Award-winning secluded writer who dislikes writers and has trouble with relationships writes depressing story about the end of the world. Time to dig in!

287 pages
Published by Vintage International, a division of Random House
Copyright 2006
Awards: 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction

Closing Thoughts: Ilium

# of pages: 576
Pages read so far: 1,256

I'm fairly proud of myself for getting through this one. Not that it was bad, because it wasn't, but because it was big, wordy, and pretty far outside my realm of reading experience. I know 576 pages isn't necessarily a lot, but these were big pages, little words, and lots of sciencey stuff--both real scientific theory and elaborate technobabble. In other words, this was a novel that took effort for met to barrel through, and the result is a wildly imaginative narrative that throws together Homer's Illiad, Shakespeare's Tempest, and alien robots, among other things. While that sounds like a recipe for fanfiction disaster, it actually plays out as a sci-fi epic that makes the original Illiad pale in scope.

Simmons is a very good writer. There were times when I felt like "being a great writer" was getting in the way of his storytelling, and that's generally a turn-off of mine. (For example, and entire chapter describing the alien physics that allow a ship to take off from Jupiter's atmosphere and land safely on Mars by using completely fictional units of measurement and electronic equipment takes great skill, but I'm perfectly happy just saying "They took off." That, however, is completely a matter of personal taste, and not something that can be held against the writer) I was perfectly able to overlook these instances, though, because Simmons did a fantastic job of setting up so much intrigue all throughout the story, which is remarkable considering the reader thinks they already know how this one should end if they've ever taken a western civilizations class (thanks, OBU!).

It took me awhile to get into the story because the majority of the book jumps between three completely separate storylines, none of which seem in the least bit connected. (In fact, this book never did actually all of them into the fold, but they set things up for that to happen in the second book, Olympos, so I was okay with it) Of the three plots, I only found one even remotely interesting for the first hundred pages or so--and remember, big pages, little words. So I was afraid that I'd be struggling with this book the whole way through. Once I got about a hundred pages in, though, things really began to pick up on all fronts, the bland-er characters started to take shape and develop, the adventure factor was cranked up a few hundred decibels, and life got more interesting. (Which, it turns out, was kind of the point of at least one of the stories, so I can completely understand why Simmons constructed this part of the story the way he had. I still sorta wished he'd gotten into about 20 pages sooner, though)

Bottom line: here is a great, epic tale, and a successful modern attempt to capture the spirit of the Greek poetry. From the starting-lineup-ish rundowns of who is fighting in what battle to the distinctive attention given to each detail of every individual death, the novel echoes of Homer without sounding pretentious for the most part. I'm impressed. (Side note: there were a LOT of typos in this book. A guy's or place's name is spelled with an O here, a U there, then an O again; or, one of my favorites, at one point the word "scuttled" was spelled with three "t's" instead of two. Doesn't somebody get paid to catch those things??)

That said, it's not a book I can readily recommend to most of my friends. The story, characters, and writing are all great, but the content of the book make it something I would not want just anybody to read. First is, obviously, the language, which is to be expected in a war novel, especially in this day in age. As I've stated before, language no longer phases me, but I know some people are still bothered by it, and if you're one of those people, this book may not be for you. Second, there is a LOT of sexual content in this book. Which, again, is what comes with a Greek epic story. There's a lot of sex. Most of the conflict in Greek stories seems to originate out of sexual situations. The Trojan War begins because one guy steals and sleeps with another guy's wife. It's going to be there. But it is EVERYWHERE in Ilium, and not just in the Greek storyline. Naked bodies and parts of naked bodies are described somewhat gratuitously, to the point that I could see it being border-line pornographic to those who already struggle with that sort of temptation. Plus, there are times when nude or nearly-nude descriptions are not really necessary (the thermal-suits, the callibani), but are used anyway. If you're bothered be pseudo-erotic descriptions, or if you know they're just not good for you to read, this is a book you're better off skipping. And finally, it's bloody. Oh, boy, is it bloody. For the third time, that's a necessary part of this story and of its Greek origins, but that doesn't mean everybody can stomach it. People--not just soldiers--die in ghastly detail. I'll just say that if you can't handle a man dragging another (living) man's intestines out of his guts or a vivid description of babies getting chopped up, so read something else.

Wow! That felt like the longest disclaimer EVER! I'ma skip the synopsis, since it's hard to do without spoiling things anyway, and just jump straight to some spoilerish highlights below:


--I loved the banter between Mahnmut and Orphu. I was becoming concerned that it was going to be primarily spurious by the time we got to the end, and one could make an argument that it ultimately was, but I think it did a great job of keeping us grounded in a world of literature, so that when certain elements--especially Calliban, Prospero, etc--became part of the narrative, they didn't seem out of place.

--Simmons is a jerk for leaving us with that ending. The Greek and Trojan armies are united and storming Olympos with an army of alien robot infantry, the humans on earth are freed from their terrible comfort (and ultimate slavery) at the possible price of freeing the monsters that were secretly feeding on them, aaaaaand to be continued. Jerk.

--I liked the growth we got in the human characters (the ones in Harman's story). At times I didn't quite follow their motivations for doing certain things, but as a guy who's tried to write a novel I can totally appreciate that sometimes, somebody had to do something out of character to keep things moving forward.

--One of the best lines I've ever read: "These deus ex machinas have a way of sneaking up on us literary types." Orphu to Mahnmut

--It is absolutely insane that this entire book is just set-up to the actual ware between man and gods. My initial thought upon finishing (a 3:30 this morning) was "I have to go put a hold request for the next book!!!" I think that's what you're going for when you write something like this. However, I think I'll go ahead and get through my list first. Olympos will be at or near the top of my NEXT reading list, though!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Confession #1

I have a confession to make.

I'm not terribly far long in Ilium. I started to read, and at first I have to admit that I had trouble getting into it. There are three different storylines with entirely different characters and locales (and, for all you know at the beginning, time periods). One of these storylines I found very interesting; one I found rather sleazy and monotonous, and one I absolutely hated. (Keep in mind, this is all very early in the book, but still, two of the three were just not hooking me) One night I read a decent way into a chapter of storyline #2 (sleazy) and put the book down for the night. It just wasn't happening for me, and I was afraid this was going to be a very, VERY long read.

I have to admit, I didn't pick it up again for a couple of days, partially because I was lazy, and partially because I was tired and was afraid of being put to sleep.

Finally, two days ago, I pick the book up and read a couple pages, and two and a half pages from where I left off.......

*very minor spoilers*


*very minor spoilers over*

Holy crap! I would never have stopped if I had known that was going to happen so soon!

Needless to say, the story has picked up dramatically from that point, and we've had epic battles, internal organs spilling, gods plotting to kill other gods, and all kinds of goodies!

The lesson here, kids, is never give up on a book; you never know. You may be two and a half pages away from

*same very minor spoiler*


*very minor spoiler rehash over*
*post over, too*

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Book 3/60: Ilium by Dan Simmons

The number "60" is a lot more daunting today than it was last night for some reason...

Anyway, on to Ilium. (You'll notice Ilium is not the third book on my list; however, I'm getting a lot of these on hold requests from the library, so you sort of have to read them as they're available) Ilium won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2004. (The winners of the Locus Awards get a certificate. Dang. I gotta win me some Locus Awards) It was also nominated for Hugo Award that same year. I don't know if that's more prestigious or less, but Starship Troopers won a Hugo Award in 1960. (Maybe Starship Troopers goes on the next reading list?)

If you don't know who Dan Simmons is (and I didn't), the back of this book has words of praise from Dean Koontz, the Denver Post, and Stephen King, who says, "I am in awe of Dan Simmons." Well, I'm sold.

Then again, Stephen King also seemed to like Jerry B. Jenkins, so...(Maybe some non-Left Behind Jenkins gets on the next reading list?)

As for the story of Ilium, it appears to be the Illiad in the future. In space. Mingled with some Shakespeare. Really, I don't know what else you need to know about this book.

Nevertheless, here's the opening, the invoking of the muse, if you will:


Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus' son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you're at it, O Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur-ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede.

Oh, and sing of me, O Muse, poor born-again-against-his-will Hockenberry--poor dead Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., Hockenbush to his friends, to friends long since turned to dust on a world long since left behind. Sing of my rage, yes, of my rage, O Muse, small and insignificant though that rage my be when measured against the anger of the immortal gods, or when compared to the wrath of the god-killer, Achilles.

On second thought, O Muse, sing of nothing to me. I know you. I have been bound and servant to you, O Muse, you incomparable bitch. And I do not trust you, O Muse. Not one little bit."


570 pages (576 if you count the Dramatis Personae)
Published 2003, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Revised reading list

Due to several factors, the list has been expanded to 60 books. The revised list is as follows:

#1: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
#2: Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore
#3: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#4: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
#5: Through Painted Deserts by Don Miller
#6 Fool's Gold by Doug Tjaden
#7: Illium by Dan Simmons
#8: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
#9: Walking on Water by Madeline L'Engle
#10: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
#11: Boy by Roald Dahl
#12: The Cestus Deception by Steven Barnes
#13: Flatland by Edwin A. Abbot
#14: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Jacob Ellis
#15: Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
#16: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
#17: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#18: Prophet by Frank Peretti
#19: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
#20: Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema
#21: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
#22: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
#23: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
#24: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
#25: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie
#26: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
#27: Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Sallinger
#28: Powers by Brian Michael Bendis
#29: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
#30: Woyzeck by Georg Buchner
#31: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
#32: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and Davild Oliver Relin
#33: Lamb by Christopher Moore
#34: The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God by John Eldridge and Brent Curtis
#35: Dune by Frank Herbert
#36: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
#37: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
#38: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
#39: Wistrix Donn by Peter DeVries
#40: A Midsummer Night's Dream by Neil Gaiman
#41: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
#42: I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle
#43: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
#44: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
#45: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
#46: The Crystal Shard by R. A. Salvatore
#47: Red by Ted Dekker
#48: The Ranger's Apprentice: The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
#49: Boy's Life by Robert McCammon
#50: Persuasion by Jane Austen
#51: Eragon by Christopher Paolini
#52: You Don't Have to Be Blind to See by Jim Storail
#53: Cotillion by Georgette Heyer
#54: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
#55: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers
#56: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Brooks
#57: The Stand by Steven King
#58: Captain Hook: The Adventures of a Notorious Youth by JV Hart
#59: The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm by Nancy Farmer
#60: All Over But the Shoutin by Rick Bragg

Closing Thoughts: Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings

Pages: 321.
Pages read to date: 680

Fluke was recommended to me by a friend who stated that Christopher Moore has one of the most creative imaginations she's ever seen. I concur that this book is an incredibly creative story, a type of science fiction that starts with science rather than just saying, "They're in space. And there's robots." (None of this story takes place in space, that's just an example of some of the sort of thing that gets classified as science fiction, but it seems to me if there's no science anywhere in the story it may fit better into fantasy, robots or no. But I digress. I may write more on this later) The book dealt extensively with the ocean and with marine life, and as a young man who spent a lot of his early life wanting to be a marine biologist, I found it awakened some of that 12-year-old manatee nerd that's still deep down in there somewhere.

I liked this book; I actually found the first few chapters fairly annoying, but I was thoroughly entertained most of the way through. It was not a great book, but it was a very strong story that pitted likable (or at least like-to-readable) characters in some pretty fantastic circumstances while doing an admirable job of making most of it make sense and not be a bunch of random crap for the sake of writing an off-beat novel. I say "admirable" because I don't think it really succeeded all the time in explaining itself; a few concepts could have used a bit more time to help us see how a certain character makes the jump from Assumption A to Action B, and there are times when the humorously-disturbing background stories don't seem to necessarily correlate to the trait or event they are supposed to be laying the foundation for, but overall there is an awful lot to like in this book, if you can manage past the profuse obscene language at times and the vast quantity of fairly graphic sexual humor.

I guess I would classify this one as "somewhat recommended, with reservations," because the language and sexual content are pretty prevalent. It's what my friend Dave would call a "palate-cleanser." Nothing terribly great nor profound, but a good entertaining storybook.

Best awkward funeral scene I've ever read. Choice.

I hadn't really expected the environmentalist/evolutionary angle the story takes, but then again I should have since it was dealing with whale biologists. I know these are both turn-offs for some folks, but neither bothered me, because they were part of the story, and they weren't brow-beating agendas, and besides, the environmental angle was about not killing whales, and really, who can disagree with that?

Some more spoilerish thoughts after the synopsis:

This story is about marine biologist Nate Quinn, a thrice-divorced humpback whale behaviorologist (not a real word, but a great way to describe what exactly he does). Nate is stationed in Maui, poor guy, where he and his research partner Clay Demodocus have spent the past twenty-five years studying humpback whale songs. Clay's life ambition is not just to understand the how of the song, but the why. Also on the research team: perky, attractive young research assistant Amy, a New Jersey native an faux Rastafarian if-you-can-light-it-you-can-smoke-it surfer named Kona, and the Old Broad, the crazy old lady who lives at the top of the volcano and pays for everything. One day, while Nate and Amy are out snapping pictures of humpback whale tail flukes, Nate sees something rather curious: the words "Bite Me" arranged in dark splotches on the underside of an animal's tail. Nate rushes back to the lab with the photos and hands them off to be developed, but when the film comes back, the Bite Me shot is missing. Furthermore, the lab has been trashed, and things only go downhill from there. A series of sabotages and a bizarre phone message from the Old Broad ("The whale called, he said you need to go out tomorrow and to bring a pastrami and rye with mayo") lead Nate, Clay, and Amy to believe that someone out there has it out for them. Suspicions run high, especially toward rival researchers and secret military operations, but Nate never guessed that the whales themselves were out to get him--that is, until a krill-eating humpback opens its mouth wide and...GULP! Jonah-time.

And then, things get weird.


All right, spoilers ahoy! I will admit that, each time there was a major twist in the plot, my immediate reaction was one of disappointment. When Nate first encounters the whaley boys inside the humpback that swallows him, I remember feeling let down. "Oh, it's just aliens," or something like that. Turned out, I was very wrong, and I actually really thought the truth behind the ships and the whaley boys and the Goo were really creative and good story elements. When Amy dropped the "I am Amelia Earhart" bombshell, I almost closed the book. (That was the only point where I thought, "Okay, now you're just throwing in twists for the heck of it") However, Moore had brought me back from the initial "alien disappointment," so I stuck with it, and it ended up being all right, too.

I will say that I thought the revelation of the Colonel was very good.

What most disappointed me was, once the Colonel got Nate in on his grand plan to kill the Goo, it felt like the story stopped working together as a cohesive unit. Nothing that happened seemed to be terribly related to anything else that was happening. It kept taking you in one direction only to half-heartedly abandon that pursuit and rejoin some other line of thought, already in progress. That's not to say that last hundred pages or so were bad, they just weren't nearly as strong as the rest of the narrative, and I didn't feel they lived up to the standards, either in storytelling or in quality of writing, that the first 2/3 of the book had me expecting. And I was very disappointed in the ending: Amy tells Nate that their happy ending is not possible, and because of the circumstances Moore has crafted, she's right, and Nate knows it, so he leaves her in the Goo. Three chapters later, he comes back for her, and she goes with him, saying they'll still have to come back and visit sometime. Happily ever after. Whaaaaa?? We just established that this wouldn't work! And it fits so perfectly well with the rest of the story! Why did can they...jiggitywha..?

Well, I guess the author just wanted to have a happy ending. And really, who am I to deprive him of that?