Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book 17/60: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph Ellis

Non-fiction alert!

Ooh, Pulitzer-winning non-fiction alert!

I am sad to admit that this is the second time I've checked this book out of the library. The first time, I didn't get through it, despite re-checking it. Twice.

It's a really good book. I enjoy reading it. It's just not a fast read, and I haven't developed the ability to read slow-readers quickly. I've also been slacking in the reading discipline lately, for various reasons. The book is about the most famous of our nation's founding fathers: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, and Adams. Specifically, it looks at six of the moments that really defined what this new experiment in republican government was going to look like for the next hundred-or-so years.

I like history, and Ellis does a fantastic job of giving you the story of these conflicts and not merely the information. As I mentioned earlier, the book won a Pulitzer for non-fiction (2001), and the History Channel did a special based on it, so clearly this is quality writing.

I just sincerely hope I can get through the not-even-three-hundred pages before I have to turn it in again! How embarrassing!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Closing Thoughts: The Secret Garden

Pages: 278
Pages so far: 5681
Books read: 16
Pages/book: 355.06

I have no idea why it took me so long to finish this book.

Oh wait, I know exactly why. It's kind of a boring book.

Which is odd, because I love the story and the characters, as I've always enjoyed the films and (most of) the plays/musicals I've seen that have been adapted from the book. As I finally read the narrative for myself, however, I was a little bit let down.

I need to reiterate that it really, really is a nice story. I can see how it's become a children's classic, but I can also see why it wasn't very popular when it was first published. The narrative style is awfully repetitive, and the author sort of belabors her point a little more than necessary. And I think the point is awesome, that the act of loving positively transforms a person, and that love has healing power, and all of those wonderful truths. Furthermore, I love the three-way juxtaposition of new life in the garden against new life in Mary against new life in Colin, and how they're all touched physically as they begin to heal and grow spiritually/emotionally. Good stuff.

And in case you miss it, the book tells you that it's happening in virtually every chapter.

"Mary was changing. The fresh air had done her good, and her muscles grew stronger as the formerly sickly-looking girl was getting fatter. She was also kinder than she had been. She was, for the first time, becoming healthy."

That's not actually in the book. Wait, maybe it is, but you get a generic paragraph (or two or three) that looks a lot like that about eight or twelve times in the book. Two chapters later, it'll be something like, "Mary realized she was changing to even a greater degree than she had been changing two chapter ago. Her muscles, once scrawny, then progressively less scrawny, were now even more progressively less scrawny, and she laughed a good bit more than she had even laughed when she last realized she had been laughing more than she had been laughing when..um...India...the fresh air was good for her!"

Et cetera.

Okay. I'm being a littler over-the-top on the snark here (not my fault; my other blog is shut down for a whole nother month!), but I stand by my point. How many times do I need to be told that fresh air and laughter were making the snotty girl and the snobby boy into better people?

Then there's all the stuff about Magic, and how the Magic is in all good things, and how love is part of the Magic, and so is growing, and beauty, etc. Then Dickon's mom shows up and says everybody prays and sings and gives thanks to the Magic, they just call it different names. Okay, obviously, this is spiritual bunk, but I won't nitpick on this issue. I wouldn't have even brought it up had the book not devoted so many of the later pages to this concept of the Magic, that which some of us call God and some of us call nature and some of us just call Magic. (They even sing the Doxology at one point, and Dickon's mom tells them they were singing to the Magic just then) When Robbie reads this book, I won't have a problem with it, and I'll use this point as a discussion starter. That said, I can understand why some folks are uneasy with the way that's handled.

Finally, the last chapter reads almost like a thesis. In case you hadn't been following anything that had happened in the prior 250 pages, here's a recap explaining all the good things that happened, and how they taught the children to be loving cousins, and how the whole manor was changed because of it. It's really long and unnecessary, as I think the kids reading the book have probably figured it all out before that point, and it would have been nice to get to the father traveling Europe, because I sure as heck wanted to know how he got home at that point.

And he comes home. And it's a really touching, beautiful ending. And then the book seems to end mid-paragraph. I thought at first my copy was missing a page. Of course, that's a really minor quibble.

Now, what I loved, and what I loved about this book as a child:

The intricacy of the secret between the children is handled really, really well. They are actually quite clever in their plotting and planning, and the reader gets to feel like a co-conspirator with the three kids and the cranky old gardener. You really want them to manage to keep it a secret under Mr. Craven comes home, and you want to see the reactions on the faces of all of the maids and servants almost as much as Mary and Colin want to. A huge part of why I think this book has become such a beloved classic is that kids love tales of clever children outwitting grown-ups. Kids also love secrets. I think adults love secrets, too, which is why we still do surprise parties and why everyone gets so excited about wedding engagements. Secrets are awesome, romantic, and exhilarating, and the secret-keeping portions of this story are compelling. The characters all have a sort of mystical quality about them, yet they remain relateable and accessible because we really want to believe these sort of people exist. The handling of the moor as a setting is solid, and it gives a sort of fantasy element to the story that allows us to buy some of the more far-fetched people and situations we're going to encounter.

Really, it's a good story. I like it. It's a story of love. It's a story of family. It's a story of change and redemption.

Unfortunately for this reader, it's also a story of repeating itself. A lot.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Closing Thoughts: Through Painted Deserts

Pages: 256
Pages so far: 5403
Books so far: 15
Avg pages/book: 360.2

First: this book marks the quarter-way point in the list. Whoo!

Second: I've gone from working on five books back down to one! Huzzah!


I think I mentioned this in my initial thoughts, but when I was a kid I read A Walk Across America, a book about a disillusioned young man, college-aged, who took up a challenge to walk across the country and discover what was really out there. (This was in the Cold War years, I don't remember exactly when) Along the way, he met quite a few friends, lost a dog, found peace in God through Jesus Christ, and met his wife. And that was before he hit the halfway point (which was roughly where the book ended)

Miller's book is really pretty similar. Unlike his other books, it doesn't try to give you great theological significance in each chapter; as Miller says at the end of his Acknowledgements: "I wanted to take a break from the deep theological stuff and just take you on an old journey I took once and introduce you to some wonderful people." And write run-on sentences. ;-) So first and foremost, this is a road trip book, and while it's not necessarily a great road trip book, it has some really nice moments.

The rambling, wandering feel to the book made it difficult for me to get in to. However, the rambling, wandering feel to the book was kind of the point of the whole thing, so I think that's just a matter of taste. The primary through-line of the narrative is the story of a fairly shallow 21-year-old from Houston (hey!) realizing that life is much bigger than he is and that God is good. Twenty-one-year-old Miller struggles with a lot of the same questions young Christians struggle with, and as the later chapters of the book unfold it's neat to see how God patiently unfolds Himself to Miller. What makes it work, in this case, is that the book is not a work of fiction, but a testimony. I've always enjoyed testimonies, moreso than I generally enjoy road trip books.

In my mind, the book starts kind of weak, picks up right around the time they leave the Grand Canyon, briefly loses its way again, and then ends strong both spiritually and storytelling-wise. I think, if I had discovered this book seven or eight years ago, it would probably be one of my favorites to this day. As it is, I had some trouble getting in to it at times, but it was definitely one of those books you have to smile at when you put it down at the end.

Side note, only somewhat connected to the book itself: I always read the author acknowledgments these days. Interesting how the author starts out thanking people individually for specific tasks, and then eventually there's always just a paragraph or two of names with no description, as if they realized how much space this is going to take if they thank everyone specifically. Still, I read each name knowing that, while they were as foreign to me as characters in a novel I've never read, each one represented an identity, a friendship, a history, and a series of memories. And I realized how greatly I hope to one day read one o' them acknowledgment pages and know every single face associated with every name on the printed page. That would/will be awesome.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Closing Thoughts: Powers: The 25 Coolest Dead Superheroes of All Time

Pages: 200
Pages so far: 5147
Pages/book: 367.64

I tried to get the first collection in the Powers series and thought I had, but the library's online catalog was less than accurate, so instead I got Volume 12, which collects Powers #25-30 and Powers Annual 2008. So, fairly new. Fortunately, the "Previously in Powers" page at the front of the book does a great job of getting you caught up, so I was able to figure out what was going on, and I never felt particularly lost (save for a really long section of the book about cavemen. No clue what that was about)

Anyway, to review: Powers is a comic book by popular comics writer Brian Michael Bendis. This is kind of his grittier indie-esq project (as opposed to his mainstream work with Marvel). The concept is simple and intriguing: a couple of detectives who investigate superpower-related homicides. And the story for this particular book wasn't too bad, either, with one partner trying to find his on-the-lam former associate, who's been infected with something called the Powers Virus. The virus is passed from person to person and infects the victim with lightning-based super powers before eventually killing them. Add to the mix there's at least one killer targeting people with the Powers Virus, mostly young women, and the killers' victims basically disappear, and no trace is ever found.

All right, I have to admit I was pretty disappointed with the book on the whole. The story wasn't bad, and I do like the concept, but the book is really just raunchy. And I understand that you're going for the gritty crime-scene, street-level feel with this project, and sure, I can appreciate that, but come on. You've got every character in the book dropping F's and C's and GD's just for the heck of it. Obviously, if you look back on my reading list thus far, you'll discover I've really got no qualms with rough language when it fits the story of the character, but in Powers it felt like Bendis simply had no imagination and wanted to throw those words in wherever he could for the purpose of saying, "Look at me! I'm being edgy! We're cussing!" It felt juvenile and really detracted from the effectiveness of the language and the story.

My second problem was with the artwork. I liked the coloration, and I liked the textures, and I liked the angular, geometric emphasis throughout the book. Furthermore, I appreciate comic book artistic style of idealized human body shape. It's almost classical Greek in theory, and it's not meant to be realistic but fantasy, so I don't usually have a problem with it. However, the art in this book was, on occasion, practically pornographic. And not "just" in the club scene, so it can't really be argued that it's an integral part of the story. More often then not, it was completely unnecessary and, again, distracting from the story and the high caliber of the artwork.

So I hate to sound like a conservative curmudgeon, but it felt like the book lacked any semblance of good taste, and a great idea with a decent story gets lost in the process.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Closing Thoughts: Woyzeck

# of pages: 31
Pages read so far: 4,947
Books read so far: 13
Avg # of pages/book: 380.54

Told ya this one would bring my average way back down ;-)

A very quick read, Woyzeck is a play by German playwright Georg Buchner. The most interesting thing (to me) about this play is Buchner didn't actually finish it before he died (he apparently died about a week before he'd planned to have it done) and he didn't leave a detailed outline for how it was all supposed to go together, so editors and translators have been piecing this script together as they think Buchner intended from four drafts and some notes since 1837. While one draft appeared to be his "final" draft, it left out large parts that were in other earlier versions of the play. Buchner apparently intended to re-insert these other scenes into this latest draft before sending it off to print, but I suppose we'll never know for sure.

That said, there are actually many different versions of this play and, while they'll all tell the same basic stories, some include scenes that others do not, and some have scenes in different places from others.

Make sense? Good.

This version was the one translated by Victor Price.

Anyway, the play is good. It's one of those stories about the dehumanizing affects of this and that on the middle class. ("This," in this case, being doctors, and "that" being the military) The play is actually based on a true story of a soldier/wigmaker whose lover cheats on him (shoulda married her, buddy), and then he kills her in a jealous rage. The man's then arrested, tried, and beheaded publicly. This version of that story (or at least, this version of this version of this story) ends before the arrest, with Woyzeck wading deeper and deeper into a lake to try to scrub the blood from his skin. (Shades of "Out, damned spot!") It's a pretty cool ending, actually.

And that's pretty much Woyzeck. There's not a lot to it story-wise or dialogue-wise, but it's a good, dark "middle-class tragedy" script. Seems like the sort of script you could do a lot of different things with, and it's been adapted into operas, movies, plays, and puppet shows in the hundred-and-seventy years since it originally came out, so that's got to say something.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Closing Thoughts: The Stand

# of pages: 1,141
Pages read so far: 4,916
# of books read so far: 12
Avg pages/book: 409.67

Bwuahaha! This book got my average pages over 400! (The next will bring it way the heck back down, though)

Remember, now, this was the complete, uncut The Stand. The Megastand, if you will. Regular stand = about 600 pages. Megastand = 1141. And here's the thing: I don't see how this could have been nearly as enjoyable of a story with 500 fewer pages. I felt like very little of the book was wasted or superfluous. (Heh...'superflu'ous...) The book was broken up into three different portions: Book I was the story of Captain Trips, the name given to a superflu that basically decimates all human life pretty much everywhere. Thanks, U.S. military! You meet a lot of characters, many of whom will die before you get to Book II, which centers around the idea that most of the country's population are gravitating toward two different settlements, one in Las Vegas and one in Boulder, Colorado. People are being drawn to one place or the other through dreams, and the Las Vegas colony is governed by a supernaturally evil man while the Boulder group is headed up by a 108-year-old black woman trying her best to live out the will of God. Book III, "The Stand," prominently featured the inevitable clash between the Dark Man and Mother Abigail's children (for lack of a better term).

Great, great stuff from Mr. King. Great characters, as always. The story opens a disjointed collection of everyday life-type stories: the teenage girl from New England who's pregnant and doesn't know what to do, the deaf-mute man who turns up in a small town in Arkansas and helps the sheriff track down the thugs who attacked him, the one-hit wonder rock star who reunites with his mother in New York City because he's run out of money and out of friends, the hapless, small-time crook who unwittingly takes the fall for a buddy's killing spree, the east Texas man who gave up all his dreams and ambitions to take care of his family, that sort of thing. These stories are all good, but they're also suddenly and violently interrupted by the lightning-fast spread of the superflu. Following the epidemic, these survivors scramble to find others, to find homes, to find life in a world that's literally covered in death and decay.

It's pretty grim stuff, by the way.

The entire superflu portion of the book, however, is only setting the game board for the true action of the story, and it's very much a blatant light vs. dark, good vs. evil, God vs. Satan kind of story. And it's a pretty awesome light vs. dark, good vs. evil, God vs. Satan story, too. I can't really go into the story itself without REALLY going into it, so I won't do that here, but suffice it to say that I really, really dug the story. And, for the most part, the telling.

Of course, this is King we're talking about, and a lot of his characters are pretty crude, so the language was R-rated and then some, and there was a lot of sex, and there was one sequence between the Trashcan Man and a grown man called The Kid that I really wish I could remove from my memory, so beware, if you're going into this book, you need a pretty thick skin to those things. However, one thing I realized about King from reading this book is that the man truly understands how the forces of evil work. His temptations scenes are flawless. You follow the descent of his evil characters, and you can see how that character goes from being well-meaning Person A or needy Person B to pawn of the devil. Really fantastic writing.

My one qualm with the book (and this may not be the case in the 600-page version, I don't know) was that it felt, at times, like King was trying too hard to make a point. (And this could be considered semi-spoilerish, but I think you're probably fine) I think what we were going for, more or less, is that mankind is inherently sinful, and even with the best of intentions we will always fall back into our old habits. Mother Abigails' Free Zoners attempt to create a sort of utopia, a starting-over place for humanity, and their attempts to create order from chaos eventually breed the same sort of culture that will eventually have the exact same problems that the world had before Captain Trips.

This, actually, I'm fine with. I think it's a very solid (and even scriptural) truth. What confused me was the very last few pages of the book (and this is MAJORLY spoilerish, so tread carefully), where Flagg awakens among a savage tribe in South America, or Africa, he's really not sure where, and the natives come to him with their spears and bow down, and he tells them he's come to help them all: he's come to teach them to be civilized. And it's a powerful statement about how the devil can so easily manipulate our societies and our governments, and how the civilized establishment always leads us to sin and corruption and all, but...it didn't make any sense with the character! At one point in the story, Leo says "The old ways are his ways!" referring to committees and democracy and order and such, but Flagg's own community was not an "old ways" civilization; it was a dictatorship where dissenters were literally crucified. (Again, it was pretty grim, folks) So, while I kind of liked the idea of the "all men fall short of a righteous standard" theme, it suddenly felt like the whole point was, "Western civilization is SATAN! BUWHAHAHAHAAAA!!!" It was kind of melodramatic, and I may be misreading it, but it seemed kind of a weak ending to an otherwise fantastic (and disturbing) book.

Oh, and also (still spoilering), Stu Tom's trek back to Boulder went on for too long. You just nuked the bad guy; pneumonia and trudging through the snow is a tad anticlimactic after a confrontation like that.

But still. Excellent, excellent book. One of my favorites on this list so far.