Monday, January 31, 2011

Life and Death

Read two books over the last week with very different takes on both death and life.  An unusual pairing, these two.  I think I was going for contrast, and I certainly got it.  Back when I was a kid in high school making mix tapes every month or so, I'd usually try to follow up two slow, pretty, contemplative songs with something that started shockingly loud.  For some reason, the fact that the contrast was violently abrupt made the whole thing work, to my ear. 

It would seem my reading sensitivities don't necessarily function the same way.

by Marilynne Robinson
247 pages
Picador publshing, 1st paperback edition (2006)
Originally published 2004
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fictions (2005)
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (2005)

Is that a circle of national book critics?  Or is the award itself a circle? 

I first read this book something like four years ago.  I remember it was early in Kim's first pregnancy, because I was reading it while waiting with her for the doctor once and I read her the part about baptizing the kittens.  (That's a fantastic passage, by the way)  Interesting to read it again as a father with a young child (and another on the way, of course) since it's written from the perspective of a father with a young child.  Granted, Reverend Ames is much older than I am, and he's dying, so it's not like we have similar circumstances at all.  Still, there were several portions of the book that spoke much more loudly this time through. 

Gilead is a journal (or just a really long letter) written by the protagonist, 76-year-old Reverend John Ames, to his six-year-old son.  Ames and the boy's mother met late in his life, and she's quite a bit younger than he is, thus the young child with the old father.  Ames knows he's not much longer for the world, so he writes this love letter to the boy he knows he'll never get to see grow up. 

It's really just a beautiful book.  I can't find another word that fits any better.  It's well written, it's entertaining, it's thoughtful, it's uplifting, it's honest, and it has definite personality.  I'm fairly surprised that it won a Pulitzer because it's also a very Christian book.  Long passages relate to past sermons Ames has preached, scriptures he's meditated on, or theological discussions he's had over the course of his life.  The believer and the cynic are both represented fairly, and the book honestly deals with the reality that some questions have no easy answers.  Ames is a man who struggles with a lot of the things that many of us struggle with.  His faith and his family are foremost on every page. 

Now, because the book is structured like the somewhat-rambling memoirs of a kindly elderly gentlemen, I can see how it might lose some readers.  Flashbacks are mingled with current events with life lessons and anecdotes about the young boy and his cat.  If you can handle that, however, this is a book I'd recommend to just about anybody. 

A Long Way Down
by Nick Hornby
352 pages
Riverhead Hardcover, 2005

I don't think Nick Hornby and I are going to get along.  This is the second of his books that I've read  (High Fidelity being the other) and I just haven't really gotten into either of them.  Long Way Down is a very dark comedy that centers around four miserable folks who meet on New Years Eve at the top of a building where each intended to commit suicide.  They all get sort of weirded out, though, and decide not to do it just yet.  They continue to meet and compare notes on their wretched lives throughout the next three months as they become some sort of twisted support group where nobody really likes one another all that much. 

As in High Fidelity, my biggest issue with this book was the characters themselves.  These people were just pathetic, which I know was the point.  They were self-centered and immature and, for most of the book, incapable of really changing.  So while it made for some interesting episodes over the course of these 352 pages, it rarely felt like the story was going anywhere. 

The language is strong, of course, as the characters themselves admit, and there's a lot of crudity to go around, so a lot of the folks I know wouldn't be able to stomach this book based on those factors alone.  The writing style is very sharp, however, and each of the characters has a strong voice (the book is constantly switching perspective from the four).  I'm not saying the book is bad, because it's not.  It really just isn't my cup of tea.  If you're looking for much of a rewarding story, you're likely to be disappointed.  Which, again, is one of the book's points: there's no such thing as a nice and tidy ending.  Must be one of Nick Hornby's "things." 

That, and pathetic people as protagonists. 

Ooh, alliteration!

Anyway, apparently Johnny Depp loved loved loved this novel, so there's that. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Addendum to the last post

After visiting the men's restroom at Guido's pizza joint last night, I now have a fairly good idea of what a fetid goatish smell might be.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rings and Relics

I decided to wait until I'd finished two books before writing this update because, well, I liked the post title "Rings and Relics."

The Hobbit, or There And Back Again
by J. R. R. Tolkien
This edition published by Ballantine Books in 1981
Also the Mass-Market Paperback edition, if anyone cares.
304 pages
Originally published in 1937


Apparently Bilbo lied in the original edition, so in 1951 the whole story finally came out.  See, in the original version of the story, Bilbo and Gollum had a friendly riddle contest to decide who would own the magic ring that made its wearer invisible.  Then, Tolkien decided it was actually the One Ring he would use as the centerpiece of his Lord of the Rings masterpiece, so he went back and revised the scene to make it one of the creepiest things you'll ever read in a children's story.  Fun fact, no?

Anyway, I don't know what you say about this book.  I mean, it's The Hobbit.  It's a whimsical fantasy adventure tale that introduces readers to the genius of J. R. R. Tolkien.  (Because one R. was not enough!)  The author loves his characters and his style is (generally) one of whimsy and fondness for both story and reader, and that always makes for an enjoyable read.

I wish I had finished the book before we started rehearsals on the play, however.  It became difficult to read this book quickly during my free time when I was spending so much of my workday with the same story.  Never mix business and pleasure, I guess.  The parts I most thoroughly enjoyed were the portions that had been cut out or significantly altered from the play: the Wargs, the slaughter of the talking spiders, the merry songs of both the dwarves and the elves, the reception at Lake-town, the extended stay at Beorn's, and of course, everything that happened after the dragon was slain.  (Though "talking to birds" seemed to come out of nowhere, but whatever)

Man, Bard is way cooler in the book than he is in the play.  I recently bought The Silmarilion and will probably work my way through the rest of Tolkien's more mainstream middle-earth works this year.  But I have to know: did he ever write out Bard's story?  'Cause it seems like there was an awful lot of potential for awesome in there.


by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
468 pages
A Tom Doherty Associates Book, 1995
Also a New York Times Bestseller
I was reading the Special Edition paperback (4.99 US, 6.99 Canada!)

This is one of those books that a friend kept hyping to me until he finally just put it in my hands one day.  I told him I probably wouldn't get to it for awhile, and he said that was fine.  So I finally got to it.  Given that two of the three quotes on the back of the book compared it to Jurassic Park, I figured it was probably the sort of book I would go for.  Plus, when I first saw the cover art from a slight distance, my first comment was, "Cool!  Is that a monkey with a gun?"  (From a distance, it does kind of look like that)  It wasn't a monkey with a gun, but still, the hype was officially there.

Relic is a sciencey murder mystery that turns into a horror/monster story about being trapped in a museum with what may or may not be a supernatural beast from a long-lost African heathen tribe.  The language is pretty heavy, so if you can't handle that you wouldn't want to pick this book up.  The gore is also pretty intense.  It takes about eighty or so pages into the book before you start getting to several chapters in a row that don't end with people brutally murdered by a mysterious killer lurking in the shadows.  That said, it took me about a hundred or so pages to really get in to the story.  I guess it's because there were a lot of characters to introduce, and I felt the "mystery" element was a little oversold early on.  Once I got into the story, though, it became a good roller-coaster bio-thriller that made for some good recreational reading.  There was a lot of evolutionary biological jibber-jabber, but it was done it such a way that it was pretty easy to follow and the concept behind the mystery was a good take/twist on this sort of monster story.  There were a couple of characters I really liked and a few I thought were pretty bland, so that balanced out.

This was far, far better than the Douglas Preston novel I read last year.  It also provided what I thought was a solid twist ending in the epilogue (stay after the credits, kids), so I may pick up its sequel if I'm looking for a good page-turner or some "popcorn reading" over the summer again.

Incidentally, this book inspired a 1997 horror movie called The Relic.  According to Wikipedia, it was received fairly well.  According to the two people I know who saw it (including the guy who gave me this book), it was horrible.  (I believe "We don't talk about that" was the response given when I asked my Relic-loving friend about the film)

Ah!  One last comment in the form of a question: What exactly is a fetid goat-smell?  Every time the creature came near, there was either an overpowering fetid stench or a goatish smell.  It was always described in one of those two ways.  I find it odd that goats have such a distinctive smell that, when any two New Yorkers suddenly caught a whiff of it, they'd both think, "That's definitely a goatish smell!"  


Changing gears completely now: I'm re-reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.  I got it for Christmas in 2009 and haven't gotten around to re-reading it.  I first read this book four years ago, early during Kim's first pregnancy.  Curious to see if/how it affects me differently now.  I do remember loving it, however.  And it'll be a nice change of pace from Trollocs, Darkfriends, Goblins, Giant Spiders, and Museum Beasts.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Saturday update: Happy New Year edition

I finished The Dragon Reborn just under the wire to include it in my 2010 reading list.  Score one for me.  

The Dragon Rebornby Robert Jordan 
Tor Fantasy Books 
594 pages

You can pretty much read what I wrote about the first couple books.  These are wonderful books, and writing about them is getting redundant. Plus, I'm distracted right now.  If you've read them, though, and would like to have a geekish chat, feel free to give me a call. 

I will have to wait a bit before tackling book 4.  I may just have to buy it, too, because I'm not convinced I can finish it before it'd be due back to the library.  'Cause it's long.