12.30.2005

Orwell for Congress

I caught this story a day or two ago on Librarian in Black's blog. It seems that someone at the Oakland Tribune is so pissesd off by President Bush's high-handed and Nixonesque ways that, in an op-ed piece that ran December 23 in the Oakland Tribune, they asked for old copies of George Orwell's 1984 to be donated to the paper. When they collect enough, they're going to send a copy to every member of Congress, the President, members of the Bush administration.

Here's hoping that they learn that the road to 1984 is paved with things like the PATRIOT Act and Bush's secret domestic spying.

12.24.2005

Dies the Fire, by S. M. Stirling, Part I

I'm about half way through Dies the Fire now, and I am feeling divided as to whether or not this is a good book. There's some serious negatives, and one serious positive. I am enjoying this book, but the negatives may just ruin the whole experience for me yet.

So, the negatives. First, you have to accept the premise of the story. In the world of this book, several fundamental laws of nature are altered. Electricity is gone. Explosives don't work. And combustion engines are out, too. I could have accepted the electricity thing (EMP or something), but the rest just doesn't make sense. What could make gunpowder stop exploding or stop gasoline from burning? Second, there are serious time issues here. There aren't any dates in the book for the most part, so it's hard to keep track of how long things are taking to do. But it seems to me that things (like starvation rates, animal and plant life recovery, collapse of civilization, food running out) are happening way faster than I would have expected. It could be that I think things are moving faster than Stirling intended them to. Or it could be that Stirling is ignoring the element of time in order to make his plot race along. Third, the Wiccans are bugging the crap out of me. They're like Ueber-Wiccans. And, honestly, it's just the language that's driving me up the wall. The religion itself (the ceremonies and such) haven't made much of an appearance. But if I read the words "Blessed be" much more, I may just have to wing this book across the room and then skip to the sections without witches.

But, there is a huge positive. The premise is interesting enough, and the plot is interesting enough, that I find myself thinking about this book when my neurons have a spare moment. I think about what my family and I might do if something like this happened to our world. I even dreamed about that senario last night. This only happens when I read books that just fascinate me.

There are a lot of negatives in the minus column. But the postives may outweigh them for now.

But if Juniper says "Blessed be" one more time....Gah!

12.22.2005

The Difference Engine, Part III

I don't often read books by two authors, because I've found that it's very hard to blend the two writers' styles so that you can't tell where one leaves off and the other begins. For most of The Difference Engine, the book is done in a straightforward, rationalist style. Then, towards the end, I started seeing surreal, stream-of-conscious elements start to creep in. Normally, I don't mind a book that has a slippery narrative style--in fact, I like it in some books. But when you try to do both in a book, it just doesn't work. When I encountered those elements of surreality, my only thought was, "Whaaa?" There may be few rules in fiction, but there are some rules of style that you can't violate without ruining the effect of your book.

The other thing that bothered me about this book was the ending. Just when I got my hopes up about finally getting to find out what all was going on, the book ends so abruptly that it makes me wonder if the authors just ran out of steam.

This book had a lot of promise--I really liked the premise--but I'm afraid that it just didn't live up to that promise.

12.15.2005

The Difference Engine, Part II

What I said earlier about the iteration format is holding true so far. With each "iteration" it's getting clearer what this book is about. In addition to the iterations, this book is also told in three parts, each with a different character having the point of view. However, this is not a first person book--it's more like the narrator picked a character to follow around and narrate their action.

The first section was the most cryptic. Sybil Gerard is the focal point for that section and she appears to be just a pawn who gets carried away with the action. The second section is more illuminating and its focal character is a paleontologist named Edward Mallory. Mallory is a pawn to some extent in that he gets swept along in the action, too. But Mallory gets more of the puzzle pieces to the mystery than Sybil did. The last section, the second I just started a few minutes ago, has Laurence Oliphant as its main character. I have high hopes for getting information out of this character because in the second third of the book in particular, Oliphant seems to be a a character who is more in the cloak-and-dagger end of things than out of it. Hopefully, Oliphant's third will tie up loose ends--especially what happened to the McGuffin in the gap between the first and second thirds of the book.

What I liked most about the Mallory section of The Difference Engine is that the socialists finally showed up. I was waiting for them. Before the Manhattan Communards (can you belive the idea of New York City turning itself into a commune? Brilliant!) showed up, the only political factions in this world's Britain were the meritocracy of the Radical Industrialists and the Luddites--who were mostly defunct anyway. But out of left field, here come the American Communists. :)

Before they showed up, I felt their lack. What is an industrialized world without socialists? In our reality, Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto was published in 1848--not too many years after the Industrial Revolution started to (excuse the pun) really gear up. After all, the lower classes will only put up with so much before they start to talk about revolution.

I'm a little afraid to say more about what happens to the socialists in this scenario, for fear of ruining the book for anyone who wants to read it after reading what I've written about it. I think that the only safe comment that I can make is, "Huh, that didn't go as far as I thought/hoped it would go."

12.11.2005

The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Part I

This isn't my first encounter with steampunk and alternate history, but so far The Difference Engine is one of the most interesting. I'm still trying to get a grip on what's really going on, but I'm starting to understand more and more of the technology that the people are using and the plot itself.

What I really like about alternate history fiction is the way that authors in the genre can create some event that's large enough to knock history off its rails and start going down another divergent path. I really enjoy seeing how things might have been if x had happened instead of why--I've liked it since I first picked up an alternative history with S.M. Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers. I waver between two ideas about history. The first idea is that history is fluid. Chance makes things happen. The other idea is that everything happens for a reason (and I usually think this when things are going well for me), and that fate or destiny somehow makes things happen. So when I get to see alternate histories play out in fiction, I really get to see authors speculate about how our history would have played out.

Another thing that I like about The Difference Engine is the way that the authors wrote this book in iterations rather than chapters. I really feel that the history and the plot are getting clearer with each chapter. Gibson and Sterling don't spend much time (if any) explaining things, so you have to pick up a lot just from context. If you're a reader who dislikes books that rely to heavily on expository characters or paragraphs of prose, this book is perfect for you.

12.04.2005

Conspiracy Theory

I know the formula is once is chance, twice is coincidence, and three times is conspiracy, but I know I could dig up a third example if necessary. So what's the conspiracy? Well, let me back this up a little. When you read as much I do, you start to see little fads among writers. Sometimes you'll notice that they're all using a certain word all of a sudden or the same plot twists turn up in a couple of different books. In the case of the trend I've been noticing recently, I'm starting to get irritated by how many times I'm seeing it and the way this plot point is being used.

In two of the last three books I've read, it seems that major parts of the plot come from Islamic fundamentalist attempts to destroy Israel and/or the entire world of infidels--they don't seem to care who they take out. In Olympos, the whole action was spawned by a plot like this. And there was a second foiled attempt on top of that. In Ted Dekker's Black, which I couldn't finish in spite of it's promising premise, I saw the beginnings of a plot when one of the baddies revealed himself to be an Islamic fundamentalist.

Now, I like a good plot. And if either of these had been handled well, I probably wouldn't be so bothered by it. But what I don't like is that this type of plot catalyst is turning into a kind of insta-plot device. There's very little development of either the plotter or the intended victims. The only originality is probably in describing how they're going to do it. Also, in both of these books, there weren't any positive examples of Islam to contrast it with. In my mind, the best plot books are the ones that throw in a lot of gray area for you to deal with, that make you realize the Islam is a caring, beautiful religion and that Jews are not always victims in need of rescue. I mean, do you remember what they did to Black September? Not to say that those guys didn't deserve what they got; neither of these two opponents are in the wrong, but they're not in the right either.

I've got a bad feeling that we're not going to see the end of this plot plot for a very long time.

11.30.2005

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Ffforde

I am a big fan of this author, after reading the Thursday Nexts books. But I was reluctant to pick this one up. I wasn't sure if it was going to be as surreal and fun as the Next books. So I had my brother read it first. He thought it was funny enough to read bits aloud to me so I decided to give the book a shot, too.

The Big Over Easy is, above all I think, a parody of British, cozy mysteries with the detective who makes incredible (in both senses of the word) deductions. The plot is so twisted and bizarre that I'm not going to go into it, but the mystery involves the murder of Humpty Dumpty, a verruca of terrifying proportions, a goose that lays gold eggs, and a host of characters from the Thursday Next books, nursery rhymes, and one Greek Titan.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has a weird sense of humor and knows a lot of cultural trivia. You won't get the full effect unless you know your nursery rhymes and British culture.

11.23.2005

Olympos, Part IV

That took much longer than I thought it would. Usually the longest it ever takes me to read a novel of any size is two weeks--three if it was written before 1900 or so. The reason it probably took this long was because I had so much other stuff going on, particularly my NaNo project. I've been writing during the time I normally read. It's thrown me all out of whack.

But, at last, I am done!

So, I've already mentioned that this book is pretty wild, plot wise. It incorporates Shakespeare, Homer, science fiction, and so on. I was hooked all the way through (as much as I could be given my time constraints). I enjoyed the sheer originality of it all.

The only problem I have, and I notice this the closer I got to the end as all the plot threads started to wind up, was with how convenient things got. People showed up just when they were needed. People got saved right in the nick of time mostly through luck or a really convenient set of circumstances. The closer I got to the end, the more frequently I found my self thinking, "Wow, these people have amazing luck."

But for all the coincidences, I really enjoyed this duology and would recommend it to anyone who likes metafiction or science fiction.

11.16.2005

Olympos, Part III

(Holy crap, has it really taken me three weeks to get this far? Gah!)

I am a little more than halfway through this book and questions I've had since the beginning are starting to be answered. Well, sort of, one of the characters has literally come up with a "Theory of Everything" that sounds plausible--at least in the universe of this novel. I finally have a pretty good idea why Prospero, Caliban, Setebos, the Greek Gods and heroes, and now Miranda are running around. I know what the bad guy is up to (though I don't have a clue how they're going to stop him).

Interesting reading this last week. The language got a little hairy though when it started talking about nano-enhanced DNA and quantum teleportation and multiple universes. I could follow the physics in Timeline* all right, but I had to reread some of this stuff just to figure out what they were talking about.

I've decided that there are two kinds of characters in this book, the ones who have a clue and ones who exist to have stuff done to them by the ones who have a clue and to be explained to. It gets a little irritating after a while, but this book is still so damn intriguing.

*P.S. They didn't use fire arrows in the Middle Ages. That's a Hollywood anachronism. Looks good on camera, though.

11.07.2005

Olympos, Part II

The other day I came across a very interesting scene in Olympos. Hockenberry goes to talk to Odysseus, to apologize for tricking him and basically kidnapping him. Odysseus, though, is rather drunk and is in the mood to talk and get maudlin. Among the things they talk about that I found really interesting, if only for the contrast, was the way they talk about war.

These two characters have such different experiences of war. Odysseus is from a culture that invented aristeia, the glory gained in single-combat with an enemy. Hockenberry is ostensibly from the twentieth century and had a father who fought on Okinawa during the middle of World War II--for him, war is mechanized, dehumanized, soul-killing, horrifying. For him, there is no glory in war, just killing.

So I wonder, what made that change happen? Was it the technology that made it possible to kill thousands in minutes? Was it the culture that started to realize that jingoism is horseshit, that it's never over by Christmas, and that war is not glorious? Did these two things effect change in each other?

Given what I've read about World War I, the war were old tactics and strategies faced new technology, I tend to think that it's the technology. Guns and bombs can turn anyone into a warrior, whether they are suited to it or not. No one had fought that way before, so no one was prepared for it. I don't WWI was the first war where there was shell shock--but it was the first time we started hearing about large numbers of cases. And this certainly wasn't the first time men were forced to march into artillery (remember Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" about the "battle" of Balakava in the Crimea?), but during WWI, it was almost a weekly occurance. Look at what people started writing after WWI--people like Sigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and other poets wrote about the war.

There is a subtitle on First World War.com: the war to end all wars. It didn't do that certainly, but it did change the way that people go to war now.

Interesting how a not-so-light conversation between to men drinking Medean wine can send you into such dark thoughts.

11.03.2005

Olympos, by Dan Simmons, Part I

One of the things I love about this series is the way that Simmons does metafiction in such an original way. Ostensibly, this novel is science fiction--there are robots, quantum technology, space travel, genetic manipulation, nanotechnology and so on. But a number of the characters are from The Iliad and from The Tempest. And the thing is, it makes sense once you get used to it.

Olympos is the sequel to Ilium, which set the stage for what's happening in this book. In Olympos, we find the Achaeans, the Trojans, and the robots squaring off against people who theink they're the Greek gods. We still don't know why these gods are there, but it's related to something that's going on between Prospero, Ariel, Sycorax, Setebos and Caliban.

This series is an absolutely amazing read. And it's so well done! If you're interested in metafiction, I really recommend these books.

As if I didn't have enough things to do already...

I just caved and signed up for nanowrimo. I have a paper due for class this month, a book to read for another class, plus working and trying to get in free time. Why did I sign up? I think it's because I really wanted to just write something and finish it for a change. That and the peer-pressure. :)

10.30.2005

Gah!

This afternoon I spent $50 on two books--two! I may have to get a third job to support my reading habit. Tcha.

I bought Olympos, by Dan Simmons, the sequel to Ilium, which was very odd but that I enjoyed very much once I got my bearings.

I also got The Shroud of the Thwacker, by Chris Elliot. It was too weird to pass up.

10.26.2005

The Joy Luck Club, Part II

Though I really enjoy reading The Joy Luck Club, I always come out of it feeling somewhat disappointed. The whole book is about mothers and daughers understanding each other and reconciling and learning about each other. Ying-ying teaches her daughter Lena to be a tiger instead of just taking what other people give her. Lindo and Waverly learn that no every comment is meant to wound. An-mei tries to teach her daughter Rose to fight for things instead of just letting them go.

But the fourth mother-daughter pairing, Suyuan and Jing-mei, you never get a reconciliation because Tan used Suyuan's death as a catalyst for the plot. While Jing-mei learns to understand what motivated her mother, we never get that moment of reconciliation. It's just too late for them. Because of this, the book feels unbalanced and a little incomplete to me.

Still, this is a really well written book. If you cry during stories about families, this one will make you cry.

***

I noticed this when I was reading The Book Standard this morning. Ann Coulter must be stopped!

10.24.2005

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, Part I

I know that I said I was going to read A Long, Long Way, but it just didn't grab me. I made it all they way through the first chapter and went, "Eh." But the idea of that book sound interesting enough that I might go back it sometime.

So, now I'm reading The Joy Luck Club, one my favorites that I haven't read in a long time. What I've always liked about Amy Tan is way that she can make Chinese and Chinese-American culture come to life. She can recreate the naunces of the language and the everyday philosophy of China. It's incredible. I've never seen anyone that can analyze their own culture in such a way that things get explained without a lot of expository prose that bogs the story down.

Whenever I encounter a book where the characters are from a completely different culture from me--every Amy Tan book I've read, John Burdett's books about Detective Sonchay Jitpleecheep, or Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart--I find myself reexamining my position on cultural relativism. In the main, I think that all cultures (with a few exceptions) are equally good. If they work, they're good; if they don't, they need to get replaced with something that works. But some of the ideas in Chinese culture that get portrayed here (like daughters-in-law being servants to their inlaws, teaching girls to "swallow sorrow," etc.) disturb me. But on the otherhand, listening to pop psychology and such makes me think that everyone needs to learn to swallow a little sorrow and stop whinging about their lives and go and change the things they don't like.

I always come back to the same position, though. Any culture that isn't your own is going to seem weird. You often don't understand how people in other cultures think. And people in other cultures probably think the same thing about us. With some exceptions, I think that all cultures and cultural practices are equally valid ways to live.

But I do like books that make me reexamine my ideas about things. I think it keeps them fresh. And it keeps my on my toes, so that if cultural relativism comes up in conversations (and I work in academia, so this sort of thing happens to me more than most), I can succintly argue my position.

10.23.2005

A Library Thing

Because I often pick books to read depending on what kind of moon I'm in or what I happen to be interested in at the moment, I often wish that I could search my books by topic rather than stand in my room for twenty minutes scanning the shelves.

I read an article by one of the authors of Bookslut that appeared in The Book Standard about this web site called, LibraryThing.com. The site is like really easy individualized book cataloging. You can search for titles and in tags that you assign your books. All you really have to do is the tags and type in the titles, and then pull information from Amazon or the Library of Congress to full in the rest of the information. Plus, it's all stored online, so you don't have to go home to access your collection. If you have the right sort of mind, it's a lot of fun.

10.20.2005

Progress Report

I was going to read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. (Honest.) I read an article in the Guardian on Tuesday that really sparked my interest. It mentioned slap stick, typographical jokes, postmodernist narration devices...Sounded like my kind of book. I even got through the first few chapters, but I think I've decided that it's just too weird. The narration is too jerky--the man can't even complete a sentence, which is saying something for an age known for it's elegant (if long) sentence structure. No matter how much fun the Guardian said it would be, I think this book goes back on the Books to Read Before I Die List, with War and Peace.

Right now I'm reading through The Outlandish Companion by Diana Gabaldon. For fans of her series, this is great reading.

The next book I plan to read is A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry. This book was shortlisted for this year's Booker, though it didn't win. We'll see if my theory that whatever books the critics like I hate holds true. :) One person who read it told me that it was a beautiful book--which usually means nothing much happens--but we'll see how it is.

This usually happens when I read a really good book. I have a hard time finding something just as good to follow it up. I sometimes have to go back to old favorites like Good Omens or Coyote Blue and work my way back up.

10.16.2005

Elantris Addenda

Many times, readers are left with thoughts about why authors did the things they did. But we are often left wondering, but not in the case of Elantris. On Brandon Sanderson's web site, he's posted "annotations," short discussions of each chapter that explain his story structure, the characters, and all sorts of things.

Note: you can chose to see the spoiler or read the annotations without spoiler text.

Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

I was actually kind of refreshing to read an epic fantast that wasn't The First Book in the Chronicles of insert name of country, hero or object. On the other hand, Elantris was so good that I want there to be more books in the series. Natch.

Elantris is a very political book. There is magic, and there are cults, creatures, princesses, etc. But most of this book centers around one country's attempt to rebuild itself after the collapse of a power structure that had existed for centuries. Plus, a neighboring country with imperialist tendencies is looking to add Arelon to its territory. While this main plot is going on, there is a second plot almost as important--the search for why the old order, based on magic, failed.

Unlike a lot of fantasy I read, Elantris was so original that I couldn't figure out the answers to anything. The characters were so devious and well thought out that they surprised me by the things they thought of. I only managed to stay a little ahead of them (only some of the time, to be honest) because I had the benefits of a third person omnipotent narrator talking me through.
This book is a fun, addictive read. I was up until 1:00 last night reading and I finished it this morning before I did my reading for class. Its about 400 pages long, but I finished the book in about eight hours of reading.

10.14.2005

Justifying God's Ways to Movie Goers, Part II

An explanation for Hollywood's decision to turn Paradise Lost into a movie, in epic fashion.

Tee hee hee.

10.12.2005

Justifying God's Ways to Movie Goers

This should be interesting. According to a story in the Guardian, there is talk afoot to turn Milton's wonderful but challenging poem Paradise Lost into a movie. There's even a screen play. My first thought was, are you kidding me? How are you going to turn ten books of beautiful verse into an approximately two hour movie.

For example:
What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert th' Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men. (Book I, l. 22-26)
Plus, this is, afterall, a pretty bold poem. There's a sympathic Satan, for Go-- (Can I say for God's sake if I'm talking about Satan?) for someone's sake them. If I remember right, Adam and Eve get it on in the first few books. (Forgive me, it's been a while.) 'Course, Satan does turn into an ugly, toad-like thing after a few books. But that's all kind of hard to by if you've read through Milton's description of Hell and Pandaemonium.

10.11.2005

I am such a bibliophile...

I went down to our Special Collections department this morning, as part of some library tours I was doing for visiting high school students. In the second group, we got to spend about ten minutes down there. I love Special Collections, because I absolutely adore old books.

I got to see a 1584 edition of some sermons by John Calvin.

I got to see a very old (they don't know how old) Buddhism manuscript that wasn't in codex form.

And, I got a particular thrill of out this one, because I just got done reading one of his books, I got to see our somewhat spotty collection of All the Year Round. And, wearing cotten gloves, I got to flip through All the Year Round. I found, in the first volume A Tale of Two Cities, and in a later volume, part of Great Expectations. Fun!...in a geeky kind of way. :)

Also, as if to confirm by bibliophilic nature, I went and bought about $70 worth of books at the local Waldenbooks. I got the new Robert Jordan, Knife of Dreams, the new Terry Pratchett, Thud! (I got a signed copy of that one), and I got a book by Brandon Sanderson, Elantris.

10.08.2005

The Truth, Part II

The Truth is one of my favorite Discworld because it centers on an issue that I am always interested in debating with people: the public good.

The public good in this case is the right of the public to be informed, about their government, about the powers that be, whatever. As advocated by William de Worde, the public has the right to know what's going on--even if they're more interested in reading about elf abductions and Lancre women giving birth to snakes than they are about the Patrician's case.

Because the media is a new form of information in Ankh-Morpork, people don't really know who it's responsible to. William says he's responsible to the Truth. But the people who he quotes aren't at all comfortable about that. The running joke is William writing down what people say to annoy them and having them reply, "Is he allowed to do that?"

William often gets questioned by the Patrician and Commander Vimes of the Watch about the nature of information and the real consequences of an informed public. After all, if you tell the people the government is committing heinous crimes, they might riot; they might revolt. The truth, in theory, shall set you free. But I rather like the misprint in The Truth, "The Truth shall make ye fret."

My take on all this is, telling the public everything may be overkill, it may cause a lot of problems, but it beats the alternative. Once you start selecting what the people can and cannot know, the government and other organizations may not be held as accountable as they are. After all, someone has to know that a crime has been committed before something can be done about it. Also, there's that thorny issue of who gets to decide? Given what I know about human nature, the person who gets to decide what people can know will probably decide to hide whatever makes them look bad and will spread the stuff that makes them look good.

So, funny book, deep issues.

10.07.2005

The Truth, by Terry Pratchett, Part I

To paraphrase Browning, how do I love Terry Pratchett, let me count the ways...

What I love about him the most is that he is endlessly creative and funny. He's the only person I know who can satirize entire industries and organiztions and concepts like Hollywood, politics, and war. He can transplate our culture to the Discworld and entertain his readers and educate them at the same time.

The Truth takes on newspapers and their effect on society. It takes on tabloids; it takes on the media and the need for the public to be informed. And, there's Pulp Fiction jokes. In The Truth William de Worde tracks down the truth behind the Patrician's inexplicable attack on his secretary.

But the mystery bit is really just something to move the story along. Tacked on to it are funny episodes where The Ankh-Morpork Times staff try to figure out what they're really doing, how to make colored pictures using imps and a vampire iconographer, how to deal with the Guild of Engravers who are out to put The Times out of business.

So, why am I following up books about the 1665 plague and the American Revolution with Pratchett? I find that, when I read a really good book, it's hard to find something to follow it up with. So I tend to fall back on old favorites.

10.04.2005

A Breath of Snow and Ashes, Part II

I finished A Breath of Snow and Ashes last night.

I really love these books. They're so full of plot, great characters, humor, fun philosophical points (see part I for a quick discussion of this). They're like mini-serieses, really. I think I read on Gabaldon's site (see link at the right) or maybe in an interview, that she writes the chapters like individual episodes. And you can really see that in the books. But some how she manages to keep a plot arc going across the top of it all to hold it together.

I've talked to other people who've read the book, and we all agree that Gabaldon's characters, after a while, become like real people to you--especially Jamie and Claire. Books like that, I think, are among the greats. Even if the critics don't think so.

10.03.2005

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

I finished listening to the audio tape of Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks last night. What a beautiful book. It was excellently written, thoroughly researched, with a great plot and great characters. I laughed; I got weepy. It was great.

I had read reviews of the book before I got all the way through, just to see what other people thought about it. The only thing people didn't like was the ending. I was surprised, but I got curious to see what kind of left turn the book would make at the end.

Having finished the book, I get what people were complaining about. The ending was so unrealistic and unexpected. It didn't fit with the rest of the book. It was interesting, but I just didn't buy that the heroine, Anna Frith, would escape to Oran of all places, where she becomes the apprentice of a surprisingly liberal Muslim doctor. Unbelievable.

10.02.2005

A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon, Part I

I've debated about whether or not I should blog my way through this book. As you can see, I decided to do it. Why? Because I read reviews of the book on Barnesandnoble.com that would tell you most of the plot anway. (Scroll to the bottom of the page.)

This installment of the adventures of Claire, Jamie, et al., finds them in the years right before the American revolution. Because three members of the family are from the 1960s, they know what's going to happen. It's a common thread through this story, the question of: If you know what's going to happen, can you act on things and change them for your benefit? Should you? And can history be changed at all?

Gabaldon's second book in this series, Dragonfly in Amber, asked these questions about the 1747 Jacobite Rebellion. And Claire and Jamie's meddling didn't change history at all. The only thing they might have change may have been things that happened in the historical record anyway. Which leads one to think that, in Claire's universe, time is linear, even if your experience of it isn't. Basically, history meant for her to go back and affect the course of events.

In A Breath of Snow and Ashes, though, the war is the American Revolution. And the big question here is when to switch sides and join the colonists side. There is also a lot of other things happening--murder, mayhem, tarring and feathering, medical emergencies. Basically, the usual in Gabaldon's books. The books have always been very episodic, with story arcs over the top of it all.

So far though, this is a fun book. Maybe not my favorite, but it's up there on the list. I've very interested to see how it all turns out.

9.30.2005

Character Auction

Ran across this article on CNN.com the other day. What a fun idea! Anyway, a group of authors auctioned off the right to have a person, place, or thing named after them in an upcoming book by one of a number of famous writers. Amy Tan, Lemony Snicket, John Grisham, Stephen King and more participated. Proceeds go to "the First Amendment Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting freedom of information, expression and petition."

The only think like this I had seen before was the booknaming contest Janet Evanovich does every year. (The link came out of a site that makes heavy use of frames, so it may not work right.) Anyway, Evanovich asks her readers to send in their suggestions for the title of the next book. In the past, if your suggestion was picked, you got to be a character in the new book.

9.26.2005

Two Books in a Weekend

Since I finished Great Expectations last wednesday, I've finished two more books. Man, is is fun to be back with 20th century authors.

The first book I read is Boris Akunin's The Winter Queen, the first Erast Fandorin novel. It's a fun mystery in a Russia that is a refreshing change from something Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky would have created. Good, original mystery with fun and interesting characters. My only complaint is that the plot is a little twist-happy. I felt like I was going to get whiplash in the last chapters of the book.

The second book I read is Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide, which is exactly what it sounds like. And it's funny--in a completely (un)deadly serious way. This guide is guaranteed to see any B-actress through a zombie flick. Fun reading...or scary if you forget the joke.

9.21.2005

Great Expectations, Part V

I'm not sure if I'm dissapointed or relieved at the ending of Great Expectations. On the one hand, I was kind of expecting a happy ending--with all the loose ends tied up, events explained, and possibly, a marriage. But if I had gotten all those things, I might have been inclined to write the whole book off as conventional and convenient. So it goes.

I did enjoy the last hundred pages or so of the book. I finally got plot! Stuff happened! There were chases, escapes, deaths, fires. Good final act. I was almost sorry to see it end. (But after nearly 600 pages of Pip, I was ready to be done.)

One thing I did like about the ending--though it was a little moralistic--was Pip's redemption. He grew up into a fine person in spite of his expectations. He finally gave credit where it was due and learned to care more about others than about himself. I am also glad that Estella and Havisham got their chances at redemption, too. Estella finally found her heart and Miss Havisham finally realized what she had done to the people around her and tried to make amends.

Overall, I liked Great Expectations. I liked enough to attempt another Dickens some time--probably David Copperfield. But not right away. :)

9.19.2005

Some Favorite Book Funnies

I know that the book world can be pretentious sometimes (okay, a lot of the time--especially when the Booker lists start getting published). So I like book page features that can poke fun at it. Some features I look for reguarly include:

The Digested Read, at the Guardian. This column summarizes popular books in such an entertaining way that expertly skewers their faults and pretentions. I often read this at work and have to stifle my snort of laughter. There's usually a new Digested Read every other week or so.

David Baddiel's column on the London Times Book page. Baddiel has this wonderful, roundabout way of writing that I think only Brits can pull off. Each column is fun and smart. Look for him every other week.

9.18.2005

Great Expectations, Part IV

One of the more interesting themes that has come up in reading Great Expectations is revenge. The way I've been reading this book, there are two big revenges: Havisham's revenge and Magwitch's "revenge." One's a very negative, very nasty revenge scheme and the other is a more positive revenge (if that's possible).

Havisham's revenge is directed at men. And she uses her creation Estella to make men fall in love then then break their hearts. It's worked on Pip. But it has also destroyed Estella. Because of how Havisham reared her, Estella is incapable of love; she can only be cool, calculating, and callous. Because of Compeyson, Havisham has to take some form of revenge against everyone around her. She uses people without remorse and it's had serious psychological repercussions on the people she has had access to since they were children--Estella and Pip.

And then there's Magwitch's revenge on society. He took Pip and has elevated him into a gentlemen, so that he can show the world that he isn't a dangerous ne'er-do-well. It's kind of a positive revenge--but again it uses a child who didn't know they were going to be used.

So the message I see in all this is that adults corrupt children, adults don't care about psychological damage (probably because there was no such concept in 1861). Children are pawns if you use them that way. This is, probably, a theme that Dickens uses in all his books from Oliver Twist to this one. This theme could be trite in another author's hand, but what I like about Dickens is that he can make the children more than unaware, naive little wiafs. In Dickens, the kids are people, too, just smaller and less aware of the world. I think it would be hard to write something like this without turning it into a movie of the week thing.

9.15.2005

Great Expectations, Part III

I am about half way through Great Expectations and I think I am finally starting to get the hang of this book.

Most of the books I read have a clear, fairly linear plot. I may not always be able to predict the outcome, but I know roughly were things are going to end up. Great Expectations is not like that for a large chuck of the book. I am starting to get an idea of where things are going, but this book mostly seems to be a Hogarthian, or maybe Fielding-esque (whatever the adjectival form is) trip throung 1861 England. The most interesting things are not what happen to Pip, but the character portraits of the odd-balls he meets, such as Mr. Wemmick and the lawyer Jaggers. It's a lot of fun, and it makes a very amusing and refreshing change from the very orderly worlds of the Brontes and Austen.

Some time, I am almost positive that Dickens liked writing these little sketches more than he liked moving the rest of the book forward.

Meanwhile, back in the main plot, Pip is still vascillating between shame and snobbery and regret and gratitude. He still persists in admiring the seriously deranged Miss Havisham--who I was prepared to sympathize with until I realized how vindictive she was. The one thing I like about Pip, apart from his sometimes snarky commentary, is that he is still doing his best to educate himself. If he knows nothing else, he at least knows to take advantage of that opportunity. Otherwise, he seems rather on the road to becoming just another useless member of the gentry.

More next time when, hopefully, something happens.

9.14.2005

The Dilemma of the Historical Novel

I have long been a fan of historical fiction--when it's good. But I know there are problems with it. Today I read an article in Slate that talked about the two big problems with historical fiction.

The first problem mentioned in "Marching Orders," was the problem of when to be accurate and when to just make it up. (It is fiction, after all.) It seems that this problem has been with historical fiction writers for more than 200 years now. J.D. Connor, the author of the article, sums the problem up this way, "If you didn't embellish your material, the result was just history; but if you made things up and didn't tell the reader, you were perpetrating a fraud."

Which is true, I admit. But the lengths some writers go to, as described in this article, I think are just irritating. I don't know about most readers, but I find it annoyed to be constantly thrown out of the narrative. While I read to learn, I also read to escape. It's hard to stay involved when I can't escape into the book.

The second problem Connor identifies is the existential problem of historical fiction, as I call it. It's the problem with the reason people write and read historical fiction. In essence, some people read and write it to escape into another time, to learn what life was like, etc. and some people read and write it to see our own society and issues reflected in another time--either to see how our ancestors might deal with the problem or just to abstract the issue enough to deal with it.

Interesting stuff. I find myself agreeing with positions somewhere in the middle of the extremes. To me, good historical fiction strikes a balance between history and fiction. It is accurate and unanachronistic. But there is enough fiction in it save it from being a textbook. And I think a good author can do this in such a way that we don't see the seams, as it were. As for why we read and write historical fiction, my position is "Can't we do both?"

9.13.2005

Curious George Escapes the Nazis

Saw a really interesting article in The New York Times online version, "How Curious George Escaped the Nazis." Having worked in a library, I saw dozens of Curious George books, but I didn't know the author's story. I always had a vague impression that H.A. Rey came from South American somewhere, or maybe Spain.

Turns out, H.A. and his wife Margaret, were German-born Jews. (Rey used to be Reyersbach.) Anyway, this article talks about a new book about the Reys called The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H. A. Rey and gives a pretty good summary of the Reys' story.

This is right up there with the time I learned the Theodore Geissel (aka Dr. Seuss) used to draw propaganda cartoons during WWII.

9.12.2005

Great Expectations, Part II

It's never a good sign for a book when you start to get irritated with the narrator. For me, a sympathetic narrator is necessary for me to enjoy a book. Otherwise, I find I just don't care about what happens to them or any of the other characters in the book.

I enjoyed Pip for the first hundred pages or so--until he let Estella make him feel ashamed of his "commonness". After that, Pip find him self frequently embarassed by his family, his job as an apprentice blacksmith, and even the way he talks and dresses. Of course I've been embarassed by my family (who hasn't), but I dislike people who are constantly embarassed by them. Eventually, I think, you need to stop thinking that other people's behavior reflects on you. Granted, Pip's family are no picnic, but I've seen worse in my own life.

Still, I have gone far enough into the book that I am still curious to see how it all turns out.

9.11.2005

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, Part I

I haven't posted in the last couple of days because I was waiting to see if I would find Great Expectations interesting enough to keep reading. I had picked up a very old copy (printed in 1942, with reproductions of what I think are the original illustrations) at my public library, but I didn't get around to it until last Thursday.

So, here I am, reading Dickens. I have read A Tale of Two Cities, but that book is a outlier from the rest of Dickens' work--meaning there aren't any orphans, a surplus of silly names, and is only about 300 pages long. I started Great Expectations because I am curious as to what it's all about. My only exposure to it so far is from Jasper Ffforde's books, where Miss Havisham is a character.

One thing I was surprised to find is the humor. It's funny and, moreover, it's snarky. Dickens has a really great way of effortlessly skewering his characters and making the reader chuckle at the same time. I wonder, did families reading this book when it first came out snicker like I did when they read:
Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt kept an evening school in the village; that is to say, she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity, who used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid twopence per week each, for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it. (51)
I think I know how I got the wrong impression of Dickens, though: Oliver Twist. Waifish orphans, cruel adults, musical numbers in the film versions, ugh. It all struck me as very...trite, I guess. I may read the book now, to see if it's as bad as all that, but not any time soon.

Back to GE, I'm enjoying myself so far, even though I don't have a clue where the plot is going. I love the way Dickens recreates how Pip's family and their friends talk. (It's analogous to Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he wrote dialects as they sounded.) Magwitch has been saved--but recaptured. Miss Havisham and her bizarre habits were introduced. And Pip is in the middle of all these adults, trying to grow up.

9.08.2005

Jane Eyre, Part VI

I am done. Yeah!

I love the ending of this book. Jane and Rochester, reunited and married. I'm so glad Jane managed to put St. John off long enough to get up her courage to go back to Thornfield and look for Rochester, even if he might still be married to Bertha.

A couple of things about the end of the book. The first thing is when Jane hears Rochester call her name after another head-to-head with St. John. It's physically impossible, so I have two ideas to explain it. First, it's Jane imagining it. She's under such emotional stress that her subconscious may be trying to get her out of it. What puts the kibosh on this is that Rochester later admits that he called out for her one night at Ferndean, and heard her answer. So, solution number two, it was a kind of magic. Something, Jane thinks Nature (nature personified) wants them to be together, and lets both Jane and Rochester know of each other's longing.

Second thing about the end of the book: I forget where I heard this, but someone once said that Rochester's maiming from the fire is a natural conclusion for a Byronic hero. And Rochester has all the hallmarks of a Byronic hero--moody, dark, has a love of lonely places and a certain disregard for the rules. According to that person, a Byronic hero has to fall.

I kind of agree, but I think this idea puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. I think Rochester's personality had to change before he and Jane could have as significant and as lasting a relationship as they have. Like Jane points out, he would always have been the dominant one, dressing her and decorating her like a doll, parading her around. He would have made her change, and that would have made her unhappy and, eventually I think, angry. But after the fire, Rochester is much humbled, and that makes him able (more likely forced) to set aside and let someone else take charge.

So, that's all for Jane Eyre. It's always a fun read. The next book I might tackle is Dicken's Great Expectations, but I may take a break and read some popular fiction first.

9.07.2005

Jane Eyre, Part V

What is is about clergymen in literature? They never come off well--Revered Dimsdale from The Scarlet Letter, Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, Revered Price from The Poisonwood Bible. None of them a likable. Some are sleezy, others are criminally ambitious, others are divided by their desires and inhibitions, and some are just nuts.

St. John's problem, I think, is that he is torn between what he wants and what he thinks God wants him to do. Plus, he feels guilty about wanting something other than her perception of God's plan. So, he tortures himself and says that that is what he really wanted in the first place. I enjoy the psychological tension. I've always been interested in how religion can have an affect on the mind and the personality. I makes for good books.

But what I don't like about him is how he treats Jane. It's one thing to torture yourself, but expect someone to leave their home and their country and be your self-torture buddy--especially after the things he said to her. At one point St. John tells Jane, "you were formed for labour, not love." Later, when she understandably refuses to marry him, he tells her, "it is not me you deny, but God." Ugh. I can somewhat see St. John's point that they need to marry if they're going to go to India--to avoid the scandal of a thirty-year-old man traveling with a nineteen-year-old--if nothing else. But I don't see how he can push the point after they both made their positions abundantly clear to each other.

The difference I see, with what Jane and St. John do to each other, and what Jane and Rochester did to each other, is that, even though it was violent and mean at times is that Rochester and Jane loved each other, underneath it all. There was caring and respect and love there. With St. John, things were much more cruel, and there was no love between them.

I never liked St. John Rivers.

9.05.2005

Jane Eyre, Part IV

I have always believed that how sympathetic you are to the characters depends a lot on who's perspective you get the story from. And it's very rare that you get to hear both sides of a story in literature. Bertha Mason's story is one of the few exceptions to this.

A year or so ago, I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. In it, you get the story of Rochester and Bertha's courtship and marriage from her perspective. It's very much different from Rochester's poisoned recounting of the story when he tries to explain to Jane why he tried to marry her, even though he was already married to Bertha. In Wide Sargasso Sea, it's Rochester who's the villain. He's a cold, unsympathetic, colonial oppressor and Bertha's a misunderstood free spirit who may or may not be insane.

I could never really buy the premise of Sea, though. And I think it's because I got to hear Rochester's side of the story first. It's rather amazing how having one side of the story can so shape your impressions of a character or a situation. For me, I'm afraid, Bertha will be the mad thing pawned off on a naive Rochester by unscrupulous parents.

The other issue that came up as I read this last section was how fact Jane forgives Rochester's attempted bigamy. I had thought that bigamy was a pretty serious crime, then as now. But, after Jane has a time to mourn, she forgives him unreservedly. I would have been absolutely furious, myself. Perhaps it's just more evidence of how deeply they are in love with each other. Rochester loves her so much he's willing to break social and moral laws to be married to her, and Jane loves him so much that she can forgive him for doing it.

9.04.2005

Jane Eyre, Part III

This is a ways off the beaten path, but are Rochester and Jane in a dominance/submission type relationship?

I know Jane would never have turned into a typical bride to be, but I didn't think she would go that far to keep from turning into Rochester's rags-to-riches project. Let's back up a little. Soon after the night Rochester proposes (one of my favorite sections of the book), he goes into deliriously happy mode. He promises to buy her jewels, dress her in the finest fabrics, &c., &c. Jane protests that he's trying to change her so much that she wouldn't be the Jane he fell in love with. And this makes a lot of sense to me, but what Jane does next really surprises me.

Jane starts to needle Rochester to the point that:
when I appeared before him now, he had no such honeyed terms as "love" and "darling" on his lips: the best words at my service where "provoking puppet," "malicious elf"...For caresses, too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. (260)
And what does Jane think of her plan now? She says:
It was all right; at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender. (260)
I am really starting to be reminded of Secretary.

Jane and Rochester had kind of been playing this game for most of the book. And it's not a traditional d/s relationship (if there is such a thing). But when Rochester calls Jane in the first night after they meet, she needles him. As they fall in love with each other, Rochester purposely hurts her by making her think he's going to marry Blanche Ingram. About the time of their engagement, Jane and Rochester get into an interesting power struggle, where one tries to get in a position of power over the other and vice versus. They negotiate their relationship.

Jane clearly does not want a traditional kind of love. All through their engagement, she struggles to keep things the same as they were before the engagement. She refuses to give up her governess position and even refuses to eat dinner with him. The reason she give Rochester for this is:
For a little while you will perhaps be as you are now--a very little while; and then you will turn cool; and then you will be capricious; and then you will be stern...I suppose your love will effervesce in six months or less. (247)
She's probably right. It's like they need some uncertainty, some illicitness to keep the spark burning. But I wonder that she has to go to such lengths to keep the status quo--which is probably the best thing to keep the relationship going. Jane picks on Rochester more than she used to. One might think that she's pushing him too far, and that he'll think that maybe she isn't the right one for him. But when Jane asks, "Do you, sir, feel calm and happy?" he replies, "Calm?--no: but happy--to the heart's core" (266).

I wonder what the hell Charlotte Bronte was thinking when she wrote this unorthodox courtship. It might be interesting to pursue this topic further--the s/d dynamics in Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester's relationship. If only they had taught this book when I was in school.

9.02.2005

Jane Eyre, Part II

I am about halfway through chapter 21 now, and I am discovering things that I missed when I first read this book in High School.

First, I had remembered Jane as very prim and proper after her stay in Lowood. I have used the word Quakerish to describe her, because that's a word that's often used to describe her in the book. But as I said in Part I, Jane has a very strong personality underneath her public face. A large part of the chapters between 11 and 21 are Jane's thoughts about restlessness, her fierce love of Mr. Rochester, and her imagination. I used to be surprised that Mr. Rochester could fall in love with Jane, but I'm not surprised by it any more. She is the perfect foil for him.

Second, and I was probably not educated enough to spot this before, but this book is a lot more than a Gothic romance with a loony in the attic or a proto-Dickensian work about an orphan who triumphs. There's a lot of Romanticism here. For one, Rochester and Jane both share a love of wild and lonely places. Rochester and Jane, our protagonists, have strong wills and passions. Rochester in particular is willing to throw off society's rules in pursuit of his goals. Some of the least sympathic characters in this stretch of the novel are the characters who are all artifice and no soul--notably Blanche Ingram. The characters who have my sympathy are the ones who feel mostly deeply--Rochester and Jane.

More fun next time, when I will probably get to the bit where the shit hits the fan.

Orhan Pamuk Charged

I caught this one on author Neil Gaiman's blog this morning.

Orhan Pamuk, a very well reviewed and respected writer from Turkey, has been charged with "public denigrating of Turkish identity". Click here for the whole story. The off-limits topics he discussed were the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman government and the continuing fighting between the Turkish military and Kurds--very real issues that don't get near enough attention.

He may have to serve up to three years in prison for his comments.

Free Orhan Pamuk!

9.01.2005

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Part I.

I am about eleven chapters into Jane Eyre, now. Ordinarily, I am totally sympathetic to Jane, who is much abused by her Aunt Reed, her cousins, and the directory of Lowood Institution. I admire her will and passion in the face of people who want to remold her into a docile creature who takes whatever they choose to give her.

I still admire Jane, but this time through I was more struck by an idea that Jane summarizes as the "doctrine of endurance." Helen Burns, Jane's saintly, tuburcular friend at Lowood introduces this idea when Jane wonders to her why Helen puts up with so much. Essentially, Helen says that there are somethings in life you have to endure--like the dislike of others--in order to achieve your goals. In addition, life is much too short to was it hating people back.

One might argue that this is just another way of saying that people should just accept what others dish out, but I don't think so. Just accepting it is to be beaten down by life and other people. But enduring it, I think, is to rise above it. And, in this book, I really like that Jane can learn to endure and to forgive, but that she always retains the spark of passion that she shows from the very begining. Helen Burns didn't have that spark. But the fact that Jane has it saves this book from being a manual for saintly martyrs. Well, that and what she and Mr. Rochester get up to later in the book. But that's another blog posting.

8.31.2005

Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde

Just finished my re-read of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series last night when I finished Something Rotten.

For some reason, it wasn't as much fun as the first time I read it. I remember that, the first time I read the series, I was chortling every couple of pages at the mayhem the characters would get into. But this time, while I still thought it was funny, I thought that the plots were just too chaotic, with too much going on that didn't really fit into the main thrust of the story. There were too many loose ends to tie up.

I think that, in Fforde's books, the really fun stuff is all the incidental stuff anyway--like the fact that Thursday's son babbles in Lorem Ipsum, and that there are time-traveling police, and all the things that happen in the BookWorld. I'd explain further, but I've found that I get really weird looks when I try to describe Fforde's books. Plus, it would take me as long to explain it as it would for you to just read it.

I will still read whatever Fforde dreams up next in the series. I don't know if I'm going to read The Big Over Easy, though. I've read pretty good things about it, but it sounds a little too silly for me.

8.30.2005

A Walk in the Woods Film?

Just saw at MSNBC.com that Bill Bryson's book, A Walk in the Woods, may become a film. Robert Redford and Paul Newman are in negotiations, believe it or not. Personally, I think one of Bryson's other books, like Neither Here Nor There or In A Sunburned Country might make better movies. But that may be because I'm not terribly interested in walking in the Appalachians.

The Shakespeare Debate Continues

I don't think this debate is ever going to be solved.

For decades scholars and historians have been debating if Shakespeare is really the boy from Avon, or if he's one of about half a dozen other Elizabethan figures. I've seen people make cases for the Earl of Oxford, Bacon and even Christopher Marlowe, who was murdered in the 1590s.

I've always wondered, does lack of information mean that the plays and sonnets must have been written by someone else? Why does this debate exist at all? Why can't Shakespeare just be Shakespeare?

Most of the debate has to do with the fact that historians, literary researchers, and readers find it hard to believe that someone from a backwater, with no record of a formal education, could write plays that span the range of human education and emotion. The Times article I linked to above mentions that Shakespeare, after he moved to London, could have used booksellers' shops as libraries, jotting down story ideas and thoughts as he browsed.

My thought about the lack of information is that Shakespeare lived and died in a time that is pretty far removed from ours. Paper rots or gets burned in fires or is damaged in floods. Books, diaries and letters get lost. We may not have found out much about Shakespeare's life because the evidence is just gone.

Something amusing just occured to me. I've been rereading Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series and in the first book, The Eyre Affair, Fforde uses the Shakespeare debate to create sort of religio-politic factions that actually fire-bomb each other's meeting places. The current debate isn't that violent, but I've seen some discussion board threads get nasty about it.