Sunday, October 25, 2009

Book 11/60: Walking on Water (Also, where you been???)

All righty, so the reason there haven't been any updates on this thing in the past twenty or so days is that, sadly, I haven't really been reading anything in that period of time. The workload at work exploded, and I came home most evenings too exhausted to do anything past spending time with my family. Thus, recreational reading fell by the wayside.

I did start to read a book on the list, and it was good, but it was also not exactly a "quick read" and between that and my fatigue I wasn't able to get through it before it was due back at the library. Embarrassing. Fortunately, it was a non-fiction book, so I think I'll be able to pick it up later without being lost. I was at a good stopping point.

Now, I expect reading to be fairly sparse in the near future as well, due to November being National Novel Writing Month. I was a NaNoWRiMo winner last year, my first serious attempt at it, and I'm giving it a go again, so most of my free time from November 1st through 50,000 words is going to be spent writing, not reading.

That said, November 1st is still a week away, and although I've got a full and busy week ahead, I'm going to pick up this little book and see if I can't get through it fairly quickly.

The book is Walking on Water, and it's Madeleine L'engle's reflections on the relationship between her faith and her art. If you recognize L'engle's name, it's most likely as the author of the young-adult sci-fi classic A Wrinkle in Time (which, interestingly enough, was intended to be a heavily non-Christian work and is now considered by many to be one of the finest examples of Christian sci-fi/fantasy. Even L'engle laughs about this now).

My wife's read this book and loves it, so hopefully she hasn't already read all of the good parts to me ;-)

P.S. I'm having trouble locating this book at the moment, so I'll have to give you the page # breakdown etc upon its completion.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Ten Down Awards--The first ten

It feels like I've hit a milestone of some sort. Ten books I'd probably never have picked up on my own are now behind me, with fifty more to go. I think I'll end every tenth book with an award-type reflection on the previous ten. Everyone wins an award. It's like little-league basketball!

First, the nominees:
#1: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
#2: Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore
#3: Ilium by Dan Simmons
#4: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
#6: Boy by Roald Dahl
#7: Flatland by Edwin A. Abbot
#8: The Cestus Deception by Steven Barnes
#9: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
#10: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Now, the winners!

The Most Surprisingly Enjoyable Read Award goes to:
The Road
I was almost annoyed at my friend Dave for recommending this one. All I knew going in was that The Road was reputed to be one of the most depressing books ever written in the English language. I went in with this expectation, and sure enough, I found the narrative to be uncompromisingly dreary. As I delved further into the relationship between the man and the boy, however, I found myself more touched by their love and need for one another than I was appalled by their situation. Even knowing that it couldn't possibly end well, I wanted to pull for them. I started finding bright spots in their episodic journey toward the coast. It's hard to explain how this dreary world became an enjoyable read, but it did, and I was surprised, and I'm glad I read it.

The Most Recommendable Book Award goes to:
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
I think just about everybody could take something out of this book. It's a bit of a downer, but I think there's a lot of strong character and relationship to explore and enjoy. The people in Hunter are real to the point that we've all known one or two of those people at some point in our lives. We all enjoy reading something we can relate to, and I think this was a very relateable tale.

The "Yeah, That's Gonna Work..." Award goes to:
Seriously? A novella about about two-dimensional shapes? An entire chapter about the dangers of having one-dimensional women in a world of two-dimensional men? Geometric theory as social commentary? It's incredible that someone thought it would be a good idea. More incredible is the fact that it works.

The "Would Make The Best Movie" Award goes to:
Water for Elephants
The story, the characters, the settings, the events, virtually everything about this story screams, "Cinema! Cinema! Make me into an awesome movie!" I believe the movie rights have been sold, but I haven't found anything on pre-production starting. It'll be a winner. Guarantee. Like Free Willy for grown-ups. Okay, maybe not.

The Best Use of Villains and Shady Characters Award goes to:
I love villains. I think they can be some of the greatest characters to write and to read, and Gaiman's cadre of villains and/or shady characters are what made this story work for me. I was a bit annoyed with the protagonist and the leading lady, but the Hunter, the Marquis, and the fantastic Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar (along with their mysterious employer) totally made this book worth reading. The final confrontational scene is an absolute page-turner.

The "Well That Explains a Lot" Award goes to:
Roald Dahl's autobiographical recounting of his childhood reveals tons of insight into where his famous children's stories came from. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, they all unmistakably have their roots in Dahl's own experiences with schools and schoolmasters. Also, a somewhat heartbreaking account of why Dahl considers himself an agnostic.

The Most Disappointed That the Book was Over Award goes to:
This would also win the "most likely to read again" award, but I'm only giving out one award per book. It was almost four in the morning, and it really didn't seem fair. The sequel, Olympos, is certainly going to be one of the first five items on the next reading list.

The Constantly Redeemed Award goes to:
Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings
I can't tell you the number of times I was reading this book when I thought, "Okay, now that's just lame," or, "I know where this is going, and it's going to be lame." Funny thing was, just as Moore was on the verge of losing me, he always managed to pull something cool out of his hat to keep me on board. Many of the developments I originally considered lame ended up being among the best parts of the story. Toward the end, I simply surrendered to the insanity and trusted that it would all make sense in the end. More often than not, it did.

The Would Make the Best Video Game Award goes to:
The Cestus Deception
Is there any surprise? Star Wars and video games go together like roast beef and mashed potatoes. Exciting characters and pulse-pounding battles are the hallmark of this franchise, and it carries over into the books. (At least, into this one) Of all the books I read, this was the story I'd be most likely to recommend anybody looking for a "summer blockbuster" of a book. Turn your brain off for awhile, kids, and just enjoy the Jedi.

The Coolest Combination of Geeky Greatness Award goes to:
Seriously. Mixing sci-fi theory with classic fantasy-style creatures, characters, and ballads. And doing so without making it hokey or glaringly inconsistent. Cheers, Anne McCaffrey. Cheers.

Coming up: some historical non-fiction, science fiction, and Christian theory, among other things. See you next time on The Ten Down Awards!

Water for Elephants (Closing Thoughts)

# of pages: 335
Pages read so far: 3,211
Average pages/book: 321.1

Water for Elephants is a great story well-told. It hooked me fairly early on in the narrative and never really disappointed me, which I'm discovering is pretty rare for a longer piece of fiction. It definitely doesn't feel long, however. I'm a fairly slow reader, but I digested the bulk of this book in two days. I know I've got friends who would probably digest it all in one and not miss a bit of the enjoyment. By the end of the story, it's hard to believe only three-and-a-half months have passed in Jacob's life, partially because you've finished the story so quickly and partially because he undergoes such massive changes in that amount of time.

I will say, however, that I struggle to find much that corresponds to the story of the biblical Jacob, which the author claimed to be the "backbone" of this novel. Not that that bothers me, it just seems it was an odd thing to say.

The book opens with Jacob Jankowski as a ninety (or possibly ninety-three)-year-old man in an assisted living facility. I will say that I've always kind of looked forward to old age--not that I'm looking forward to joint pain or daily medication, but I've always thought I'd be an awesome "back in my day" sort of guy. Jacob's reflections on assisted living, however, are heartbreaking and harrowing. I'm now far more apprehensive about the twilight of my years after reading this book! Indeed, the picture that author Sara Gruen paints of Jacob is a dreary one, and as his flashback begins with the unexpected and gruesome death of his parents while he is away at college, I started to wonder when we were going to get to the touching romance I was promised by the comments on the back of the book.

Left with nothing (due to the benevolence of his father, a vet who stopped taking monetary payment when his neighbors could no longer afford to pay it--did I mention it's the Depression?), young Jacob runs away, eventually climbing onto a train on somewhat of a rash impulse. The train belongs to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, one of many traveling circuses of those days. Jacob gets hired on as the show's vet, an act which sets into motion a complex tale of love, loyalty, choices, and consequences. At times, you think it'll be yet another "good-hearted young man falls for beautiful woman who's married to a man she doesn't really love" story, but as the story unfolds more layers of complication arise to the point where the story is highly engaging. By the end of the story, you have the characters you love and those you loathe, but while you find the loathesome characters appalling, you do eventually come to see where they come from, and it takes a great story to let you see the villains sympathetically.

Minor gripes: there are two points, fairly major story points, which require you to simply accept what you're given at face value. A couple of characters make some pretty significant changes in attitude or emotion that, at the time, seem to come sorta out of nowhere. (Worth noting that I think I made peace with both of these instances by the end of the book; besides, I'm a reader who's usually willing to "just go there" in order to enjoy the story) Also, you're introduced to a LOT of secondary characters fairly early in the flashback, most of whom will disappear for the majority of the rest of the book before you've really gotten to know them, yet when the reappear later you're supposed to remember who they were and why they were significant. Didn't really affect the enjoyment of the book for me, though, since most of these characters were more functional than anything.

Major gripe: Okay, I understand that most stories are going to feature sex scenes. I've made peace with that truth. Of the ten books I've read so far, half of them have included sex scenes with varying degrees of detail. But this book was by far TOO MUCH INFORMATION for my taste. I generally find these scenes to be more effective when more is left to the imagination. Suggestion is a more effective means of communication than a blow-by-blow (pun only partially intended) account of every kinky encounter between the drunken Polish kid and the professional prostitute. At one point, this book spends several pages describing a strip show, and I really got the point fairly early on in the account. I know I thought that the sex descriptions in Ilium were bad, but Water for Elephants made Dan Simmons' work look positively PG by comparison.

The book wrestles with issues like prejudice, racism, poverty, business ethics, animal rights, mental illness, and loneliness, without ever actually needing to comment on any of them. It is, at its core, a love story/adventure. More, it's a story of love and friendship that exists in a world permeated by all of the aforementioned afflictions. And that makes for a good read more often than not.