Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book 22/63: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

When a book becomes the second best-selling Spanish book ever (behind only Don Quixote), you gotta think it's doing something right. Colombian author Marquez won a Nobel Prize for Literature. (Or he may have gotten the Nobel Prize for Literature while he was still talking about one day becoming a great author, I'm not entirely sure)


Anyway, I'm about 60 pages into the book, and it's very funny. The book's cover tells me pretty much nothing about the content, thanks again to the classification stickers/decals of the Houston Public Library. (Wait, that sounds familiar!) The praise on the back is quite high, and a friend recently mentioned this book to me, saying it was one of the best-written things she'd ever read. She told me I needed to read it, which was a little creepy, because just an hour earlier I'd submitted the hold request at HPL.

It's a long book, so you may not see anything from me on this blog for awhile. However, I'm pretty proud of my recent book-a-week pace, so we'll see what I can do. Should be a great read, anyway. Those are my initial thoughts: it should be a great read.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Twenty (One) Down Awards

Another ten books crossed of the list (which I'm almost certain will be 80 before I'm finished, but what the hey? Why not?), which means it's time for another awards ceremony! Yay!

Also, apparently I had two #12s, so I've actually read 21 books. So I guess this is actually the 21-down awards. My bad. So I guess we'll have 11 award this time, and only 9 next time.

Remember, here at PCC, everybody's a winner of something or other.

Here's a list of our second group of nominees:

#11: Walking on Water by Madeline L'Engle
#12: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
#13: The Stand by Stephen King
#14: Woyzeck by Georg Buchner
#15: Powers: The 25 Coolest Dead Superheroes of All Time by Brian Michael Bendis
#16: Through Painted Deserts by Donald Miller
#17: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
#18: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis
#19: Evil: A Primer by William Hart
#20: Olympos by Dan Simmons
#21: White Oleander by Janet Finch

And now, for the winners!

The "Most Buffy the Vampire Slayer References" award goes to:
Evil: A Primer
Congratulations, Mr. Hart. Because nothing lends credence to your intellectual dissertation like a few well-placed Buffy throwbacks.

The "Best Use of Woodland Creatures as Characters" award goes to:
The Secret Garden
When she wasn't describing flowers or reminding us that fresh air was, in fact, making Mary and Colin stronger, or talking about the Magic, that Great Good that exists in all things, Burnett was creating some delightfully simple characters. One of the more memorable contributions to the story was the almost-human thoughts and reaction of the robin as it befriended old Ben Weatherstaff, helped Mary find the secret garden, and protect its mate and its nest. Good, innocent, fun stuff.

The "Always One Step Ahead" award goes to
Walking on Water
In her book of reflections on faith and art, Madeline L'Engle further proves that she was ahead of her time, reflecting on issues that have become prominent troubles in Christian art (and Christianity in general) twenty or thirty years before the issues became widespread and considered "relevant." (I wonder what L'Engle would think of The Message, for example?)

The "Who Chopped Down My Cherry Tree" award goes to
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
I can not tell a lie. This was a fantastic book.

The "With a Name Like That, It's Got To" award goes to
Say it! Woyzeck! Now say it with a funny voice. Woyzeck! Woyzeck! Woyzeck! It's a fun word to say! Oh, it's a pretty good play, too, especially from a country that isn't steeped in a particularly rich theatre tradition.

The "Top 5" award goes to
High Fidelity
Makes me wish I was well-versed enough in--well, anything--to be able to rattle off top-five lists with my friends in casual conversations. If I'd known anything about what they were debating, I probably would have enjoyed this book at last twice as much as I did. Either way, the top-five thing was a cool device, and it made for a cool theme.

The "Most Laborious and Rewarding Read" award goes to
The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition
That's a lot of pages. And there's a lot of meat in them. And of the 1300 or so pages, I'd probably only have given back, oh, 110 or so of them. Just an awesome, awesome book.

The "Both Least and Most Effective Use of a Title Within the Narrative" award goes to
White Oleander
The first few chapters seemed to talk about oleanders on every other page. Yes, I get it. Oleander. Like the title. Thank you. However, once the story really got moving, we stopped making blatant oleander references in every chapter, and when it finally tied in again at the end of the story, I found it profoundly poignant and a bit stirring.

The "Just Because You're a Comic Book, That Doesn't Mean I Have to Like You" award goes to
Powers: The 25 Coolest Dead Superheroes of All Time
Hm..I think this award title is pretty self-explanatory.
Side note: I also read Planet Hulk during this time, but I've decided not to count graphic novels unless they were specifically recommended to me, like Powers was.

The "Hey, I've Been There" award goes to
Through Painted Deserts
No, really. I've been to a lot of the places in the first 2/3 of the book, since Paul and Don started in Houston and then traced the route my family and I used to take to drive to California in the summers when I was a kid. Definite nostalgic kick.

The "Spider-Man 3" award goes to:
Wow. How many storylines/antagonists/monsters/wars can you possibly cram into seven hundred pages??? According to Dan Simmons: eight trillion.


Also, now that I'm twenty books in I'm going to keep a running top-ten style list. Only, I'm only going to do five for now, and I'll add two every time we have an awards ceremony. So, here are my top five books through the first twenty(one) stops on this journey:

#5 - Walking on Water by Madeline L'Engle

#4 - Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

#3 - Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis

#2 - Ilium by Dan Simmons

#1 - The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition by Stephen King

Thanks for reading!

Closing Thoughts: White Oleander

Pages: 391
Total pages: 7,203
Books: 20
Pages/book: 360.15

Okay, everybody sing with me:

OOOOOOOOOOOLEANDER, where the foster parents are all jerks,
Sleep with your step-dad, he's not that bad,
And corrupt law systems that don't work!

OOOOOOOOOOOLEANDER, every night she stares up at the sky,
Everyone's a skank, so who's to thank?
It's her mom who murdered some jerk-guy!


This was actually a pretty good book. Depressing, but good. I actually think it would be a good book for pretty much any mature male who is married and/or almost married to read, because it's a really good look into the female psyche. What makes the character of Astrid so heartbreaking to me is that she's not deranged or predisposed to depression; she's a fairly normal girl forced into a pretty crappy life who makes some awful choices. Her choices, however, are almost always motivated because some need in her heart isn't being met--in a general sense, it's the need to be loved, but there are some specifics within that generality that I think a lot of men don't understand are really crucial to almost all women.

Why only recommended reading for mature, married, and/or almost married? Well, a lot of these needs are expressed in the act of lovemaking, and I've never felt a graphic depiction of that event nor the psychological/emotional effects it has on a woman during the act is generally a necessary or healthy experience for most guys outside a marriage relationship.

So there's that.

Anyway, the story is, for the most part, a downer. There aren't a lot of characters who are really likable. Everybody is deeply flawed (which is realistic, of course, but is it really that hard to find one person who isn't constantly acting selfishly or wallowing in self-pity?), and Astrid's situation goes from bad to worse to tolerable to worse to even worse to apathetic to bad cetera.

The plot is pretty simple: 12-year-old Astrid lives lone with her poet mother, a soldier in the crusade against the oppressive nature of "a man's world." Surprisingly, her mother falls madly in love with a musician, and when he cheats on her, her evil side shows, and she starts stalking him, and eventually she poisons him and goes to jail. The entirety of Astrid's teenage years sends her bouncing from foster home to foster home, where she makes all kinds of poor choices and ruins some lives, helps a few, has her own world shattered time and time again, and ultimately comes to hate her mother.

That's not the ending, of course. I actually really liked the ending. I believed it. I was satisfied. And no, Astrid doesn't die.

While Janet Fitch's view of humanity seems more than a trifle distressing, I really admired her use of words. She painted some great, vivid pictures. Images that were lyrical, poetic, without being pretentious. It was a beauty within a downward spiral into continually worsening circumstances. Beauty was a central theme in the book, and the narrative voice was often beautiful, even if the protagonist didn't see herself or the world as beautiful.

On the whole, While Oleander was not mind-blowing, nor would I call it a "must-read," but I enjoyed it, and even if I disagree with some of what I saw, I think there's a lot of truth to be gleaned from its pages as well.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Book 20/63: White Oleander by Janet Finch

Another "walked into the library, didn't want to leave with just a comic book" selection. This on a friend's recommendation, though, so hopefully it turns out better than Evil: A Primer did.

Plus, I was browsing the shelf looking for something good to read, and one of the comments on the back of the cover opens with, "This is what you're after when you're browsing the shelves for something good to read." Can't get much clearer than that.

According to the inside sleeve of the book, it's "Tough, irrepressible, funny, and warm," but the friend who recommended it said she didn't remember it being funny. "White Oleander is an unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, burgeoning sexuality, the redemptive powers of art, and the unstoppable force of the emergent self."

So, it's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

I kid.

Noteworthy: this book was an Oprah Book Club selection in 1999 and a movie in 2002. For what it's worth, my one foray into Oprah's book club has turned out pretty well, so that's encouraging. Also: the movie had Rene Zellweger in it.

Initial thoughts: This will be a girly book, but a good girly book. ;-)

Honestly, though, look back on the nineteen books I've read, only five have been written by women. Olympos was unabashedly masculine, so this'll be a fresh perspective on the world.

Published by Little, Brown, and Company, 1999
390 pages
Oprah Book Club (1999)

Closing Thoughts: Olympos

Pages: 691
Pages so far: 6,812
Avg pages/book: 358.53

Ah, thus concludes Dan Simmons' Illium/Olympos duology. I kept getting the titles jumbled in my head, partially due to my lack of sleep this week, partially due to the complex and often confusing nature of this story, and partially due to the fact that my mind's a little screwy anyway. The new jumbled title for this novel ended up being "Opium."

Which ended up being fairly accurate, as there were times when it felt like one might find portions of the story more palatable with some mind-altering substance. ;-)

I liked this book. I didn't like it nearly as much as I liked Ilium, but I still liked it. I managed to read it in less than a week (while reading that lousy Evil book concurrently on Monday through Wednesday), which is quite a feat for me, especially given the length of book and number of words Simmons could cram onto each page. The story was still engaging, it just felt a little jumbled toward the middle.

(The rest of this review will involve some minor spoilers for Ilium, but I don't think I'm going to be ruining anything major)

The first book follows three main narratives throughout the novel, and they really don't weave together until the very end of the book, which is really just a major cliffhanger and set up for this book. Simmons is able to juggle the three stories pretty well without really alienating any of them for too long, and while there was some pretty crazy crap happening, it was still digestible because the chaos was only breaking on three fronts.

At one point in Olympos, the story breaks into seven separate branches which occasionally appear to be headed toward some kind of uniting element only to veer off in their own crazy directions yet again. It's still manageable, but the choppy style kind of took some of the fun out of the mystery for me and made it harder for me to stay engaged in any particular storyline for awhile. Again, it never really lost me, per se, but at times it just felt like the story was getting more complicated than was really necessary.

Other complaint, and I'm noticing a trend here at WAR: a sex scene rarely needs to go on for three pages. I. Get. It. Understandably, Greek epics feature a lot of rough sex. But this story added it where it wasn't needed, and took it places it didn't need to go when it was needed.

Skip the following paragraph if you don't want examples:

Example one: Hera entices Zeus to make love to her--as the gods do--and she toys with him first, doing things to him while making him confess that he wants her more than any of his former lovers. Individually. All of them. Three pages of this scene. Gross and unnecessary. Example two: a woman has been sleeping in a state similar to cryogenisis, completely nude, of course, and the only way to wake her is for our (married) hero to...make love to the lifeless woman in front of him. Gross and unnecessary.

And there was more. Add the really course language and the graphic portrayals of killing and maiming with primitive weapons (again, Greek epic, it comes with the package), and this book is not for the faint of heart. I'd give is a -3 out of 5 for family friendliness.

As I said, I liked Ilium better. I think it was more focused and more plausible, and because things weren't so scattered, I found the characters more interesting and empathetic in Ilium. That said, this is still an incredibly imaginative story that plays in the sandbox of Greek mythology with Shakespearean overtones and robotic warriors from outer space. If you can skim some laboriously long passages of prose, technobabble, and gods gone wild, it's a fun read, and obviously a bit of a page-turner, seeing as how I finished it so quickly.

If you read and enjoyed Ilium and want to know how the story ends, I'd recommend reading this one, too. I won't say everything necessarily comes to a satisfying conclusion, and there is definitely some serious deus ex machina going on(fitting, though, since this story prominently features both deus and machina), but it does wrap up most of its loose ends and does a good job of telling a pretty original epic in a manner that is entertaining and wildly imaginative.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Closing Thoughts: Evil: A Primer

Pages: 192
Pages so far: 6,121
Pages/book: 340.06

So, this was pretty bad. I mean, I fully acknowledge my biases on this particular subject, but apart from disagreeing with the majority of what William Hart had to say on the subject of evil, I just thought it was a pretty poor book.

Part of me wants to write a fairly scathing critique, because we all know negative criticism is more fun to read than positive, but I'm afraid it would just digress into being petty and biting before I got too far.

Hart's whirlwind tour on the idea of evil and its causes takes twelve quick chapters. The first tries to find a working definition of the term, the last offers some hope for the future and serves as a worthy conclusion, and the ten in the middle each take one idea relating to the origin or practice of evil and expounds on it. The bottom line for each of these chapters seems to be "Question X is not a sufficient definition for evil for Reasons Y and Z." As a result, he attempts to mash together several of the ideas into a nearly-working definition of evil in the last chapter. Splendid.

The logic doesn't quite hold up, however. As is often the problem in this discussion, the defining of one term necessitates a concrete definition of another. In this case, what is "harm," and in which cases can it be considered "extreme"? (To be fair, Hart touches on the fact that these are tricky questions in his book, but he leans heavily on them anyway)

Regardless, this is not a book whose intention is to give a concrete answer to the question of "What is evil?" (which sort of begs the question, why did he bother?) Rather, its intent is to give us a window into the shifting opinions and attitudes toward the nature of evil throughout history. And while Hart pulls out plenty of interesting quotes and sound bites, I never felt like I was getting an accurate depiction of most of the movements and ideals he was presenting. This is primarily because I know he was often grossly misinterpreting many of the biblical passages he cited and his conclusion that the world has essentially moved past the idea of Satan seems to fly in the face of a statistic he cited in the same chapter that the majority of people still believe in the existence of Satan.

Is the dominance of religion evident in Western society? Absolutely. Is that a foregone conclusion that religion is on its way out as a dominant theme in human thought? Hardly.

Do a few quotes from evolutionary psychologists spell certain doom for religious, superstitious, or or other faith-based forms of reasoning? History suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, after the third chapter, Hart strongly suggests that current perceptions of God and Satan be left out of the debate, as his impeccable expostulation has already rendered the concept obsolete.

Incidentally, I am not a firm believer in Satan as the source of evil. He didn't create it, he chose it. But that's a completely different blog for a completely different day, and according to Hart, that's not one of the options anyway.

Just a couple more quick notes, because it's taking almost as long to write this blog as it takes to read the book.

He's not as funny as he thinks he is. It felt like he had a quota of sarcastic comments and/or bizarre pop culture references he had to get in per chapter. As they old saying goes, "Reference Buffy the Vampire Slayer once, shame on you. Reference Buffy the Vampire Slayer twice, shame on...well, you again, actually."

I think Hart really spins quotes and stories to fit his own agenda. I know he does it with the Bible, so I'm pretty sure there's probably spin going on elsewhere. Take, for example, this quote in the chapter about the historical demonization of women: "Next, consider that other foundation stone of Western society, the Old Testament. 'Adam and Eve in the Garden' sounds homey enough, except that this story is a vicious slur against women and no less than a divine certification of all females as evil." O-kay....

While I could see one taking that interpretation (and admit that, through history, some have), I think it's pretty easy, scripturally, to shoot it down. He also argues that Greek mythology always presents the woman as some evil beast while creating strong masculine heroes. Right, because the male gods of Greece were constantly the virtuous ones, and there were no virtuous female characters or races (as there were clearly no villainous men).

Half truths only add up to a half-assed argument. And, more often than not, that's what you're left with in Evil: A Primer.

I could go on, but there are others who'd be far better suited and better equipped to do so. And of course, as anybody could easily and justifiably shoot back, this is just MY opinion.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Policy change, and Books 18/19 out of 62

All right, a couple things:

First, I feel the need to add "Happy Presidents Day!" to my previous post.

Second, I want to make clear that my intention is still to read through every book on my 60-book reading list. However, I have decided that I'm just going to go ahead and add to the list whenever I want to. Because it's my list. I can do that. It will make the project longer, but the project is still to read everything on my recommended reading list. As I journey down this path others have helped me set, though, I find my appetite for reading changing. Growing. New tastes arising. For the first time, I'm discovering things I want to read on my own. Things I might not have picked up on my own.

And that's good. That was the point, after all.

So when those things come about, I'm just going to add them to the pile. Cause reading is awesome.

The two books I'm currently reading were not part of the original recommended list. They're not replacing anything on the list. They're just taking us from 60 to 62 for the time being. One is a direct result of something I read earlier that I realized I just didn't want to wait another 43 books before I could get to it. The other, I'll explain in a bit.

Here are the next two books on my plate:

Olympos, by Dan Simmons.

Olympos is the follow-up to Ilium, which has possibly been my favorite among the 17 books I've read so far on this journey. If Ilium was sort of the Iliad meets The Tempest in the future in outer space with literature-buff robots, Olympos appears to be what happens when The Iliad goes off-course and an all-out war against the Olympian gods breaks out.

'Nuff said.

The book is 691 pages long and is published by eos books (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers). It didn't win the Locus Award like its predecessor did, but it did make the shortlist in 2006, so that's something!

Evil: A Primer, by William Hart.

This one I'm reading

Okay, actually, the only reason I picked up this book was because I went to the Library to pick up a New Avengers trade paperback I had reserved and I felt a bit silly walking out of the library with nothing but a comic book, so I went to the philosophy/religion section and thought this might be mildly interesting.

The subtitle on this book is "A History of a Bad Idea from Beelzebub to Bin Laden."

I know my biases. I know I'm probably going to disagree with just about everything William Hart says. But what good is life if you only read opinions you agree with, right?

The inside flap says of this book, "More than an explanation of why bad things happen, Evil: A Primer is a tour through the nether regions in search of what we really know."

Short tour. The book is 192 pages, double-spaced.

Here's the author bio: "William Hart is a former longtime newspaper reporter and editor who specialized in the coverage of criminal justice and mental health. He currently works as a public policy research analyst at Arizona State University and lives in Phoenix. This is his first book."

Good on you, William.

204 pages (with index), St. Martin's Press.

Closing Thoughts: Founding Brothers

All right, finally, Founding Brothers.

Pages: 248
Total pages: 5929
Total books: 17
Avg pages/book: 348.765

Average pages at almost 350? Thanks, The Stand!

Founding Brothers is really a fantastic book. I'll easily recommend it to anybody with a passing interest in American history, especially of the Revolutionary generation. Joseph Ellis is a fantastic writer who really takes these historical persons and weaves their story into an engaging read. The progression of themes and ideas was never dry nor boring. The insights to what these men thought, what they believed, how those beliefs shaped their actions, and how their actions effectively shaped over a hundred years of American history were fantastic. I began to see some of these characters--especially those I knew relatively little about, such as James Madison and John Adams--as dynamic individuals, as heroes and villains, as friends, coworkers, and bitter enemies in a way I hadn't taken the time or effort to consider.

It's easy to see why this book was the Pulitzer winner. Non-fiction has always been an area I've shied away from, the image of a dusty old textbooks sitting on a library shelf has always sprung to my mind when I consider the genre as a whole. And to be sure, I struggled through this book, most likely because I've been really, really tired when I've had time to read, and this book requires an intellectual engagement that most things I've read recently have not demanded, but I thoroughly enjoyed every step on this journey, even if it did involve multiple recheckings.

My pace has really slowed down since Christmas. Honestly, it feels like I've become sluggish in a lot of things since 2010 started. Hopefully I'll carry the momentum from getting through this one into the coming months.

Sorry if this is sort of a vague and uninteresting review; I feel kind of unqualified to give a detailed recap of a historical book. I will say the highlight of the book, from my perspective, was the recounting of personal correspondences between these juggernauts of American thought and theory. Letter-writing is truly a lost art form, and these exchanges from the late 18th century may have proved its finest hour. Definitely worth a read if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of the way great minds used to exchange ideas. And, really, it should be a quick read for any serious reader.

I want to thank whoever it was who suggested this book for me. (I think it was old college chum Lee) I do plan to pick up more of Ellis' works in the near future.