Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Capsule Reviews"

Sorry, book blog. 

I've actually been doing pretty well the past two months.  I've been averaging a book per week, and that includes another mammoth edition of the Wheel of Time (can't believe I'm not even HALFWAY through this series!  I marvel at its sheer length).  If I tried to stop and do a full review of everything I've read, I would probably never catch up.  So I'll give quickie Capsule Reviews instead and try to do better in keeping up in the future.

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis (324 pages)

"This shame had nothing to do with He or She.  It's the being mortal--being, how shall I say it? ...insufficient.  Don't you think a dream would feel shy if it were seen walking about in the waking world?"

When you think C. S. Lewis and fiction, you think Narnia, and then probably Screwtape, and then maybe the space trilogy.  You rarely hear anybody talk about Till We Have Faces, and after reading it I have to wonder why.  Admittedly, the story itself is nothing special, particularly the middle portion of the book, which feels a little forced.  However, the prose in this book is absolutely gorgeous.  My respect for Lewis as a prose writer shot through the roof as I pored over the words on these pages.  Because it's Lewis, you know you're going to get some appetizing theological issues to think about, but what makes it so interesting in this case is that the story is tied to Greek myth (particularly, the lesser-known myth of Cupid and Psyche) told from the perspective of one of the supporting characters.  For a while, I was even wondering if this story had been written before Lewis became a Christian.  (As it turns out, his original idea for the story did come in his atheistic days)  Lewis does what no modern Christian writer I've seen does: writes the nonbelieving character sympathetically.  And that's, to me, what makes the first and final thirds of this book so powerful.  While I can see why it's not considered a Lewis classic, I'm still a bit surprised that I've never heard any of the folks in my circle talking about it, because it is a very interesting addition to the Lewis canon and, again, a beautifully, beautifully written book.

Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God's Will by Kevin DeYoung (128 pages)

The conventional approach to the will of God -- where God's will is like a corn maze with only one way out and lots of dead ends, or like a bull's-eye with the center of God's will in the middle and second best everywhere else, or like a Magic 8-Ball that we are supposed to shake around until some generic answer floats to the top--is not helpful. It is not good for our decision making.  It is not good for our sanctification.  And sometimes it is frankly dishonoring to Christ.

That quote pretty much sums up the book better than I could.  Kevin DeYoung has a short, easy-to-read, challenging examination of the popular notion that God's will is something that one must carefully divine before making any decision.  I finished this book in a day.  It's great for discussion, so read it with a friend.  It tells you pretty flatly that you're probably overreacting about something that is currently going on in your life.  It tells you straight away that a lot of people find this particular message unsatisfying.  Yet it's supported with some very sound logical and theological thought.  I'd recommend it to pretty much anybody freaking out about any life choices, whether they be in the past, the present, or the future. 

Trust: New Avengers Volume 7 by Brian Michael Bendis (graphic novel)
Oh, um...and I read this comic book.  It was okay.  Not much happened other than setup for the Secret Invasion storyline.  Oh, and Spider-Man rescues a baby. 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (529)

"She just don't see em.  The lines.  Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly."
Aibileen takes a long sip of her tea.  Finally, I look at her. "What you so quiet for?  I know you got a opinion bout all this."
"You gone accuse me a philosophizing."
"Go ahead," I say.  "I ain't afraid a no philosopy."
"It ain't true."
"Say what?"
"You talking about something that don't exist."

The first of this year's Best Picture Nominated Books.  I know some folks who have discounted this book (and the movie based upon it) because it's another story about black women in the Deep South.  Or because it was on Oprah's Book List.  Well, those folks are missing out.  I loved this book.  I loved (and, when appropriate, hated) the characters.  The book is written from the perspective of three different women, two black housemaids and one white newspaper columnist.  Each section is written in that character's voice, too, and while it's a bit tricky to get your mind comfortable with Aibileen's dialect at the beginning, I think it ultimately lends a lot of power to her story.  The "villain" of the story goes on my list of most despised literary characters.  And yet she remains perfectly believable.  One of the most appropriate comments I read on this book was that it was like a To Kill a Mockingbird for this day in age, and I can see that.  It really brings to life the difficulty of that time period without making everyone a hate-spitting demonic Klansman.  The heroic characters have faults, and (most of) the bigoted employers have redeeming values.  There's a lot of wrestling for power and lots of struggling to overcome societal norms.  It's a surprisingly down-to-earth and relateable take on this particular conflict.  I found myself really invested emotionally in the highs and the lows of the tale. 

I will say, however, that the book featured two particular scenes which seemed to be there for shock value alone.  The graphic nature of the incidents in question really added nothing to the story, and that was a disappointment.  Even if the scenes themselves did serve a purpose, the length to which they were taken just to be disturbing seemed, to me, to be in pretty poor taste.  It's not like you don't have enough shock value in a story where folks are being beaten and jailed, etc, due to racism.  Really, though, that was my only complaint.  Overall, a book that I'm surprised I enjoyed as much as I did. 

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (533 pages w/ pictures, 249 w/o)

"As I look out at all of you gathered here, I want to say that I don't see a room full of Parisians in top hats and diamonds and silk dresses.  I don't see bankers and housewives and store clerks.  No.  I address you all tonight as you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, and magicians.  You are the true dreamers."

There were a lot of pictures in this book. 

It's hard for me not to compare this book to the movie because I did see the movie first.  Actually, I saw the movie before I knew it had been based on a book at all.  Large portions of the novel are taken up by full-page sketches, which is kind of a neat way to tell this particular story.  While the movie portrays young Hugo and his friend Isabelle as surprisingly noble and mature for their ages, the book lets them be a bit more more...well, like kids.  They bicker a lot, and they're both stubborn with one another through half the book, and whenever they argue Isabelle pretty much beats him up, which is pretty funny.  At its heard, however, the story is the same, and it's positively charming.  The drawings are likewise pleasant and, as I said before, a neat storytelling device rather than simple illustrations.  Due to lots of drawings and small pages, it's a quick read, a fun YA mystery, and a heartwarming tale. 

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (326)

"Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar.
It's always necessary.
I love you"

Here's an example of a great book that I just didn't care for all that much.  It's good, it's innovative, it's gripping and emotional, but I just couldn't get into it until I was already halfway through.  The story follows a boy who is looking for clues to a message he is convinced his father left for him before his father died in 9/11.  Interspersed with the chapters from the boy's perspectives are a series of letters written from his grandmother (to him) and his grandfather (to his son, the boy's father).  Oskar's grandfather walked out on his wife before his child was born, so he never knew him.  He also had a strange ailment where he gradually lost his power of speech.  Anyway, all three voices are very different in tone, style, and substance.  Several pages were also torn from the grandfather's note bad (which he used to communicate since he couldn't talk, essentially giving the reader half of a long-ago conversation) or Oskar's scrapbook.  It was fascinating to see the way the author used the book itself as visual art (rather than relying solely on the words).  However, it became somewhat of a distraction to me as I was reading.   It was difficult for me to read the grandfather's chapters, as he almost exclusively used commas for punctuation.  Very few periods.  Again, an artistic choice, but one that started hurting my brain. 

Once I was about halfway through the book and I started to see where it was going, I started to really get into it.  But I wasn't really invested from the beginning, so the payoff, while satisfactory, didn't have as much punch as it otherwise would have. 

Again, I recognize that this was just a matter of personal preference.  It's a great book, and it never uses the shock of 9/11 to try to coerce more grief out of the reader than we already feel from the fact that our protagonist is a child who is trying to deal with a lost parent.  I'd actually recommend it to anybody looking for an interesting read.  I just didn't get too into it myself, that's all. 

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (304)

At no point were the lab rats informed of the details of the experiment.  They were praised for their walks, and criticized for swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.  But they weren't ever told that the front office had reduced offense to a science, or thought they had.  They had no idea that their management had reduced them to their essential baseball ingredients and these did not include guts or heart or determination or anything else that ordinary fans, or their mothers, would love them for.  The players were simply aware that some higher power guided their actions.

This book is about half math (obscure statistics and equations) and half baseball.  If you know me very well, you know that this is the perfect recipe for a book I'm going to enjoy.  I actually wondered how they were going to make a good film out of this, since so much of it was statistics and theory and not necessarily throughline, but the filmmakers made a solid adaptation that was still highly entertaining.  Now, as with all sports nonfiction, the language in this can get pretty bad, so if you're offended by F-bombs then stay away.  Otherwise, if you like intellectually stimulating baseball reading, this is probably the book you're looking for. 

Fun fact: Baseball People hated this book when it came out.  Small wonder why. 

Oh, and a post-script: a big part of manager Billy Beane's theory for putting together and efficient baseball team relies on taking pitches and getting walks while not using risky plays such as stolen bases or sacrifice bunts (there are statistics in the book to back this theory up).  He also considers defense to be a low priority on his position players.  Yet the team that did win the 2002 World Series was the Anaheim Angels, a team whose hallmarks were: base-stealing, positional defense, and well-placed bunting.  Interestingly, Beane's A's have yet to win a Series.  Now, that's not to discredit anything in the book, because I think Beane's plan is intriguing and yes, for a number of years a lot of those Oakland teams won a lot of games, but the book doesn't really point out that, if the bottom line is success, there may be some credibility to traditional baseball thought after all.

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan (703)

The thoughts that had had him staring up into the blackness still ran through his head.  Men would die today.  A great many men, even if everything went perfectly.  Nothing he did now would change it; today would run out according to the Pattern.  But over and over he mulled the decisions he had made since he first entered the Waste.  Could he have done something different, something that would have avoided this day, this place?  Next time, perhaps.  The tasseled length of spear lay atop his sword belt and scabbarded blade besidehis blankets.  There would be a next time, and one beyond that, and beyond again.

Oh man, if I were to write a review of this book I'd probably be writing for another hour. 

It's another Wheel of Time book.  You can check my comments on the previous four and they'd mostly apply to this one.  I liked it more than the last one I read, though I found the climax to be less exciting.  Still, this is an incredibly solid saga, and I'm still all in.  I actually started this book right after I finished Till We Have Faces and came back to it on and off over the past two months, not because it wasn't gripping, but because the other books were due back at the library.  Plus, I wanted to read the Best Picture noms before I saw them when possible.  But Fires is another great chapter to a great story.  There wasn't a single character arc or story arc I didn't like this time around, and that's impressive given the number of arcs you get in one of these beasts.  It clocks in at 702 pages, but trust me, it feels like a lot more than that.  These books are marathons, and I love them.  Even if I do have to take a break between them.  (I won't wait a whole year this time, though)

Holly, feel free to call, and we can discuss in depth :-)

The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan (312)

"Five shall go west to the goddess in chains,
One shall be lost in the land without rain,
The bane of Olympus shows the trail,
Campers and Hunters combined prevail,
The Titan's curse must one withstand,
And one shall perish by a parent's hand."

This is the third entry in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and these books are just fun.  They're not masterpieces, but they are very good.  If you like YA fantasy adventure, and especially if you like monsters, you need to check these books out.  The setting is Greek mythology, and Riordan pulls from every corner of the mythos he can get his hands on.  The characterizations of the gods are usually fun and clever.  The protagonist's voice is usually amusing in that 14-year-old-boy sort of way, and the battles are always well-written.  I'm afraid this series will always be compared with Harry Potter due to the similarities in the posters for the first Percy Jackson movie and the HP franchise, and that's unfair.  HP is obviously the superior series.  But PJ isn't trying to be HP, nor should it.  It's more a series of epic quests for preteens, and it's still pretty dang entertaining throughout. 

Then again, I just really like monsters.  So maybe that's why I dig them. 


Hoorah, all caught up.  About to come to the end of the short-list I had to begin the year.  Maybe I'll go back and hit up my old Reading List after that.  As long as I don't wait until I have more than five books at a time to review.  Cuz this post took forever. Glad the baby took a long nap.