Eragon, by Christopher Paolini

I finally got around to reading this one, and I mostly read it because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. This book and its sequel have been almost constantly on hold at my local public library since they were published.

As I read Paolini's Eragon, I was surprised at how well he wrote. His dialogue is very Tolkienesque and often stilted, but his plotting is very impressive. His worldbuilding is outstanding. The world of Eragon is incredibly detailed and learning more about Eragon's world was part of what pulled me in.

That said, this book is very, very derivative. I can see a lot of Tolkien. I can even see some of the old epic literature that I read in my English Literature and Classical Literature classes. Some of the passages in Eragon sounded almost identical to passages that I read of Beowulf and The Iliad. (Check out that Wikipedia link to Beowulf to see a reproduction of the first page of a very old version of the poem. Cool!) Plus, it has a ton of fantasy tropes in it. There's the journeying about from place to place, the wise elder who won't tell you more than is absolutely necessary, the Evil Empire, the untrained boy how is destined to bring down said empire, elves, dwarves, dragons, orcs (basically), etc., etc.

In spite of all that, though, I got hooked and read the book in two days. Tcha.


If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino, Part I

I've been reading this book for about a week now. (I kept getting interrupted by other books like Hannibal Rising and Eragon.) But I am enjoying If on a Winter's Night a Traveler; it's one of the more unusually constructed books I've read. I've never before read a book that employs so much of the second person perspective. It's a little disorienting at first, but it's a very enjoyable way of getting sucked into a book.

The plot, such as it is, is very complex. But if I had to say what this book is about, it would say that it's about reading. It's about the experience of reading and it's about why people read. What is very interesting to me is the way that Calvino shows the differences between reading for fun and reading as an academic exercise. Having done both, I found it interesting to see it from this books perspective. The person who reads for fun, in IOAWNAT, just wants to be sucked into a story. They want to be entertained. They want to be transported. Academics, as shown in this novel, tear the story apart. They want to see how it works. Calvino also pokes fun at how some academics try to put things into the novel that the author probably didn't intend. (This is kind of what I liked about studying literature as a major. You could get away with a lot as long as you could create a sufficiently strong argument to support it.)

More about IOAWNAT later. Just for fun, here is the Book-a-Minute condensed version of IOAWNAT.

Hannibal Rising, by Thomas Harris

Man, was I looking forward to Hannibal Rising. I really enjoyed both Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. I'm not sure what it is about this monster, but he fascinates me.

After I finished this book, I find myself agreeing more and more with what Janet Maslin wrote about the book in her December 8th review. Hannibal Lecter, I think, is a better character when he is an enigma. I think part of what draws people to him is the fact that he that he just doesn't fit the mold of any baddie we've ever seen in a book. He is an absolutely ruthless killer--and yet, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal were written in such a way that you could see why he did what he did. Plus, because we didn't know about his past, we couldn't reduce him to a pathology. (Maslin mentions this idea, and I think Hannibal himself brought it up in one of the earlier books. I need to go reread them.) We couldn't see him as an abused child. He was just an extremely erudite monster.

If you're interested in a plot synopsis, here's an excellent one from the Guardian's Digested Read. Funny and informative. :)

The Prestige, by Christopher Priest

I think that the reason I didn't like this book as much as I liked the movie was because the movie was pretty different than the original book. The film of The Prestige really emphasizes the action and the suspense of The Prestige the book. I actually really liked the movie--it was dark, it was imaginative, original, and a lot of fun to watch. But the action in the book just didn't pop as much, even though the magic tricks described there were more spectacular. It's not that I went into this book expecting to find a more in-depth version of the movie, but I wished the book had at least lived up to what's written on the back cover.

What I did like about the book, though, was the way that Priest chose to tell the story. It's told from, by my last count, five different people (two of whom are pretending to be the same person). Since this book is really about perception, it was a masterful touch.

I find that perception is a fascinating concept--probably because I got my literature degree a couple of decades into the Postmodernist era. But it's interesting to realize that reality, which seems so concrete, is really a product of our perception of events. In The Prestige, a character named Alfred Bordon returns again and again to the idea that most of the magic he does is really just a matter of altering the audience's perception of what he's doing. And the rivalry between Borden and the illusionist Angier is a product of how they each percieve the other's actions. If the characters had taken more time to try and see things from the other's viewpoint, the rivalry wouldn't have been as disastrous. But then, there probably wouldn't have been a plot either.

In the end though, I think I actually prefer the movie. It was a much leaner telling of the story. The book, I felt, got bogged down because it was trying to do too many things at once.


Yeah, pretty much true

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Dead Souls, Part III

Earlier this afternoon, I finished reading my first Russian novel. Hurrah! I made it! Granted, it was hardly more than a novella, but I still feel proud of my accomplishment. It was a near thing. I started reading The Prestige Monday night and I've had a hard time putting that one down. (More on The Prestige later.)

So, now that I've read Dead Souls, I presumable know what it's about, right? Well, I have to say that there really wasn't much plot. Protagonist enters town, charms inhabitants, buys or is gifted with the ownership rights to deceased serfs, things go pear-shaped, and the protagonist leaves town while the narrator waxes rhapsodical about Russia. And according to the Wikipedia article on this book, it's an unfinished novel--so who knows how long this sucker was going to go on.

I really think that this book is more a study of characters and a gentle satire. Gogol seems have a lot more fun creating odd characters for the purpose of poling fun at the Russian aristocracy than he does telling a story. What I learned from Gogol's perspective of that group was that many of them were extremely social creatures who were inordinately fond of gossip, not especially intelligent or possessed of much common sense, and were really quite fickle. Like I said before, no one comes off well in this book, not even the protagonist.

The Wikipedia article cited above, and the notes in the edition of Dead Souls that I had, also mention that this isn't a traditional novel. It's really more of a poem that's written in prose. And I could really see this by the end of the book when the narrator appears to totally lose control and starts describing the Russian country side as Chichikov, the "hero," flees town. The narrator goes on, at length, about his strange relationship with Russia. It's full of poor people, there's not much to recommend it (according to the narrator), and yet he loves the country. It's got its hooks into him and is not letting go. Maybe that's what this whole story is about. The world is full of imperfect, often mean, poor, or silly people, and yet, we enjoy being in it. (Though, it was a bit of a struggle, that last chapter and a half.)

What I really enjoyed about the book was the funny little comments that peppered the story, the little lines that made me smirk or chuckle as I read them. It was almost like reading Wilde, though the funnies didn't come as often, and Gogol has a sharper and weirder sense of humor.


Dead Souls, Part II

Wierdly, the longer I continue my work towards my MLS, the more I realize that most concepts they we think are new to this century are actually not so new. The Ptolemies, understanding that knowledge is power, held a monopoly on scholarship at the Library of Alexandria. Alexander Pope felt the frustrations of being a successful author by being hounded by his fans and budding writers who wanted his opinions. Laurence Sterne wrote a postmodernist novel that was published in parts between 1759 and 1769.

And, apparently, Nikolai Gogol was doing stunning work breaking the "fourth wall." Other writers of the period did this, by directly addressing the reader, but in every chapter of Dead Souls, Gogol directly addresses the reader and/or draws the reader's attention to the fact that he, the narrator, is actively composing the novel. Here's an example from page 154 of 1996 Yale edition:
The ladies of the town of N--- were...no, I simply can't do it, I really do feel a certain timidity. The most remarkable thing about the ladies of the town of N--- was...Why, it's actually odd, my quill absolutely refuses to rise, just as if it were loaded with lead or something.
It almost feels like you're in the room with him as he writes this novel. And this book was published in 1842, long before postmodernism got going or plays got experimental. And you certainly don't see this kind of writing, the "Dear reader" writing, much anymore. (It's kind of strange that I like this kind of playing around with literature, and I don't much care for Mark Danielewski's experiments. (See previous post.))

I've encountered a lot of narrators, and only a few of them stand out in my mind as attempting to draw the reader into the story as much. The other that sticks out is the narrator of Gulliver's Travels, a snarky narrator who like to point out Gulliver's cluelessness or his Eurocentrism.

Dubious New Books

Mark Z. Danielewski and Thomas Pynchon have new books out. I don't know how I feel about these authors. I've never read Pynchon, but I understand that his books are spectacularly dense. I read the review in Time magazine, and it looks like this new book is no exception. I did attempt to read Danielewski's House of Leaves, and only made it about halfway through before I gave up.

While I appreciate that Danielewski took the suggestions and ideas of his readers into account, books like these make me wonder if it matters that you're a brilliant writer if most people can't understand your work and the ones that do understand it only understand it after long study.

It's kind of a classic, unsolvable struggle, the way I see it. On the one hand, writers should write the books they want to write. But on the other hand, you have to please the readers.


Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol, Part I

I'm starting to think that Dead Souls is the first Russian novel that I've read all the way through. I am approaching the half way point, and I'm still enjoying myself. I picked up Dead Souls for a couple of reasons. First, since I bailed out on Nanowrimo, I felt like I ought to do something literary this month. Second, I've heard parts of the story, and I want to know the rest of it.

I have to say, though, I really like the way Gogol writes. He's sort of a cross between Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding, I think. On the one hand, he's pretty misanthropic. None of the characters comes off very well, and they all seem to have serious flaws. You wouldn't want to deal with any of them. But on the other hand, the descriptions and situations in this book are pretty funny. In that way, Gogol's a bit like Fielding--but the comedy isn't as broad. Gogol has a lot of really funny turns of phrase, especially in the character descriptions. I didn't expect to laugh so much at something that was written more than 150 years ago by a Russian. Not that I have anything agaisnt Russians, it's just that they tend to depress the hell out of me.

My only concern about the book is the translation. The translators, don't get me wrong, have done a really good job. I understand what's going on, but I can see some use of slang that I think is modern. I don't know any Russian, and I don't know enough about Russian culture to know what the slang would have sounded like at the time. What I'm worried about is if the translator's voice is drowning out Gogol. Which is unfortunate, because I do like how the man writes. I have read other translated works were I don't pick up on the fact that it's translated, like The Shadow of the Wind. I didn't "hear" any narrators I shouldn't have. That might be kind of difficult to understand. With the translation of Dead Souls that I'm reading, there are times when I don't think it's Gogol that's writing. But with Shadow, it sounded like Ruiz-Zafón all the way through. And, given that this book was published 1842, some of the translation makes the characters sound anachronistic--there are modern turns of phrase that stick out in a bad way.

I am trying to finish a chapter a day. So I should be done with this book by mid-week next week. More Dead Souls later, then.

I don't feel so bad about reading Terry Pratchett anymore

...thanks to this post.


Snake Agent, by Liz Williams

Over the last week, I've been reading (very slowly) Snake Agent by Liz Williams. (And the slowness is really only due to my business this month, otherwise, I think I would have zipped through this book already and be at the point of regretting that its over and that I now have to go and track down the rest of the series). So far, my thought is "Why haven't I heard of this author before now?" She's wonderful. This is one of the most imaginative books I've read in a long time.

Like John Burdett's books, Liz Williams book basically takes a genre that developed in the West and put it in Asia. In this book, the genre is contemporary fantasy--with some horror, science fiction, and mystery thrown in. And, like Burdett's Jitpleecheep, I get a totally different perspective on these kinds of stories because of the narrator.

In Snake Agent, Inspector Chan is a detective who handles supernatural cases. So far so good, but then we learn that he has a demon for a wife, he's on the outs with his patron goddess, Kuan Yin, and Hell is up to something more sinister than usual. And, he's got a demon hunter from Beijing after his wife. I am totally hooked. I'm not done with this yet, but there are so many loose plot threads that I am very interested to see how this all turns out.

What I think I like best about this book is how much detail Williams put into the worlds the characters inhabit. I don't know what kind of research the author put into this, and if it accurately shows an Asian idea of Hell and the afterlife. But I am fascinated by how this version of Hell differs from the Western version of it. I know that other authors have probably played with the idea that Hell is a bureaucracy, but Williams really runs with it.

The only problem I have with this book is that, for the longest time I couldn't figure out if it was the first book in the series. I hate picking up a book in the middle of a series, for various reasons. As far as I could tell, this was the first book, but the characters kept referring to events that might have happened in a previous book. Rrr. It took me about half of the book to decide that this really is the first volume. But apart from that, I am really enjoying this. It's fast-paced; the plot is complicated and wonderfully involving.

So now, it looks like I'm going to have to find the rest of the series.


I belong in a library

...because I am constantly amused by classification systems. Seriously. How can you not enjoy something that can put something written by Robert Boyle on the same shelf as a biography of John Dee? (Library of Congress Classification does this at one of my libraries.) I've also seen books about death shelved right above books about fast food (Dewey Decimal Classification) and, in one very small library, Danielle Steel right next to John Steinbeck (alphabetical).

If someday you're in a library and you hear someone chuckling in the stacks, it might be me laughing at the weird juxtapositions of books on the shelves.


The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

I didn't think that I would like this book all that much when I first picked it up. Literary fiction and I haven't always gotten along in the past. But then, I kind of thought that about The Shadow of the Wind when I first read that one, but I loved that book and I keep recommending it to people.

Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale, though, was so engaging that I ended up reading it in two days. The Thirteenth Tale is, I think, unique in fiction today because you don't really get out-and-out Gothic fiction any more. And by Gothic fiction, I mean those depraved stories that you got around the same time that Romanticism was taking off. (I always kind of wondered about why those two literary movements coincided when I was a young lit major. How could a country produce someone like William Wordsworth at roughly the same time that it produces people like Matthew Lewis? Weird) Anyway, this book is about as bizzare as those first Gothic novels and the plots are about as disturbing, too.

One of the reasons I first picked this book up was because the New York Times book reviews said it was similar to The Shadow of the Wind, and about books with a mystery on top. But it's not really about books so much as it is about storytelling, truth and lies. I hate to say much more about this book because when I try to think of a way to describe the plot I can only come up with sentences that involve truth being stranger than fiction and the ability of some people to reinvent themselves. And that sound a little dull, but I have to let you know that this book is damned interesting. It's not an especially moving book, and it may not even be particularly believable when you pick apart the plot, but this book is fascinating.


Quote of the Day

While helping a man renew a book over the phone:

Him: I just wanted to make sure of when it was due. I didn't want the Gestapo to come after me.

Me: We're a small library, sir. We don't have a Gestapo.

First Snow of the Season

Snow falling on spruces

The snow started to come down at about 10:00 this morning and hasn't stopped yet. And, unlike most first snows, this one looks like it's going to stick around for a while.

Another view of the snow. It caught use before we could bring in all the lawn stuff from the summer.

My mom's lawn tschotschke's under snow


In the Merde for Love, by Stephen Clarke

In the Merde for Love, the sequel to A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke, I hate to say, is not as much fun as its predecessor. And I was really looking forward to it.

Both books center on the experiences of Paul West, a Brit who moves to France for a job. The best parts of both books involve Paul's trying to learn how to function in France and it's alien culture. The absolute best parts involve his trying to deal with the French bureaucracy, which often sounds like something out of Brazil.

In the Merde for Love, though, has moved away from all this somewhat, to focus on Paul's love life and his new English-style tea room in Paris. While there are some great moments in this book, it still felt like kind of a slog and not nearly as much fun as it could have been.

Fun with declensions


While working during a kind of busy period at the public library when we couldn't get much done, a co-worker and I amused ourselves by making grammar jokes. By way of background, Co-worker was looking at the Wikipedia article on declension (she's trying to learn Croatian, of all languages), and we found a ton of cases we had never heard of. So we started making up definitions for them. Here's some of the best ones:

Ergative: case in which the noun is most comfortable
Absolutive: used by dictators, tyrants, and autocrats
Pergative: used by mythical horses
Temporal: only works for the time being
Elative: used when you're really happy
Excessive: ...actually, this is funny on its own

I have to stop looking at that page, because I could go on forever making declension jokes. Sick, isn't it? :)


Russell and Holmes Novels, part II

Just an update on my progress through Laurie R. King's Holmes and Russell series. So far, I have made up through books four and five, The Moor, and O Jerusalem. One of the things that really struck me during this read through was how integral the setting seemed to the story. I know that the setting is rarely just a background, a place for the characters to act out the plot, but honestly, for many books, the setting is just that. However, in these two books, I was constantly made aware of the setting.

The Moor takes place primarily in Dartmoor, in Devon. And O Jerusalem takes place in Palestine. As I was reading these books, it struck me how hard it must be for a writer to describe a setting without bogging down the story. Writing about place (good writing about a place) must be a little like drawing, you have to use minimal lines that suggest the setting; you have to rely, somewhat, on your readers to do the rest of the work. When I read, it often seems like I have a little movie running in my head. A few well-chosen sentences can cause my mind's eye to see whole streets and shops and forests and so on.

Since what really draws me into a book is the plot and the characters, I don't usually notice the setting unless it's really important or it's described very poorly or very well. In these two books I have to say, King did a great job and I felt like I was right there with the characters, freezing my ass off on Dartmoor and sweating in the underground tunnels in Jerusalem.


Misheard Book Titles

A patron came in to pick up an interlibrary loan. When I asked her what the book was, so that I could find it on the shelf, I could have sworn she said the book was called "The Squirrels of the Ancients."

Holmes and Russell Series, by Laurie R. King

I can't imagine the guts it would take for an author to use another writer's character, especially a character as iconic as, say, Sherlock Holmes, for several reasons. First, you have to worry about pissing off fans of the original character. Second, you might have to negotiate copyright issues. And third, you have to do something with the character to make it your own, and make it new. Yowza. If you want to see where this idea goes right, I recommend that you pick up this series. (If you want to see where, in my opinion, this idea goes dreadfully wrong, try picking up the "sequels" to Pride and Prejudice. Some of them, I understand from the plot synopses, look down right pornographic.)

Over the weekend, I've zipped through the first three books in Laurie R. King's Holmes and Russell series: The Beekeeper's Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and A Letter of Mary. I just started a sentence that descriped the plot, and I found that I couldn't right one without it sounding silly or uninteresting. Okay, let's try that again. In the first book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, a young orphan, Mary Russell, stumbles across Sherlock Holmes in his retirement. Over the course of that book, Russell becomes Holmes' apprentice and then partner.

I think what I like about these books is that, through King, I get to see Holmes through the eyes of an intellectual equal. I have never liked books, such as the original Holmes stories or the Hercule Poirot novels, in which the main character has someone thick to act as their foil. Plus, I never liked that those stories usually involved a sentence to the effect of, "Ah, but Hastings/Watson/etc., if you had known this bit of information that I have known about for fifty of more pages, you would already know who committed the crime." Mysteries, for me, are a chance to flex my brain muscles. Some people do crosswords, I try to beat the detective to the punch.


Three Days to Never. Addenda.

This morning I remembered the other thing I was going to say about Three Days to Never. One of the things about this book that really rocked my socks off was the way that Powers played with history. In this book, history is not exactly fluid, but it's not static other. There's really an aspect of the multiverse here, in that multiple time lines can exist concurrently and can be manipulated even after they've officially "happened." In a way, how Powers had his characters use time travel to change their own pasts really reminded me of the movie The Butterfly Effect, but in a much less melodramatic way.


Three Days to Never, by Tim Powers

I think karma and/or poetic justice has just slapped me upside the head. I don't think I've blogged about Tim Powers before, although there may be a review somewhere on my old Web site about one or two of his books, but the thing that strikes me every time is how little he actually explains what's going on in his books. And this, after I write about Mistborn and complain about too much explanation. Tcha.

This book isn't nearly as over my head as some of his other books (Declare, Last Call, The Anubis Gate, etc.), but there's still an awful lot going on in this book. There's time travel, Einstein, quantum mechanics, psychics, astral projection, Charlie Chaplin...In this book, I think Powers has unbent a little and used his story to explain what's really going on, especially towards the end. Or, it could be that reading Dante's Equation and some of the other works of fiction that borrow from the world of physics has prepared me a little bit for this.

But I think what I really like about Powers comes down to two things. One, he is absolutely fabulous about blending fact and fiction. It makes it hard to tell what really happened and what didn't--especially when your book involved time travel and alternate histories--but it makes for a very involving story and a smooth read. The other thing that I like about Powers books, and this one in particular, is the way that he pulled in other works of fiction. The Tempest plays a really big role in this one. The only other author I've read who's managed to do this (though he took it to a whole other level) is Dan Simmons who blended The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Tempest with science fiction and created Ilium and Olympos.

Tim Powers is an acquired taste, I'll admit, but he is well worth it. I've never found anyone who writes quite like he does. I never know what to expect when I hear he has a new book out.

Small Announcement

I have been recently invited to post at Library Vixens, which was created by a friend and co-worker of mine. In order to have something worthwhile to post over there, I'm thinking that most of my library-related posts are now going to appear on that blog.

But I think I'll keep the funny ones here, like my Louisa May Alcott story.


Quote of the Day

Me: Love means never having to say, "Sorry I almost shoved an Anzac biscuit up your nose."

During a family visit to Idaho Falls, we had lunch at a restaurant called Aussie Eats. Good food, and the desserts--which I haven't gotten to yet--look amazing. As we paid for our meal, our waitress gave us some free Anzac biscuits. Yum!


Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson

I'd been looking forward to another book from Brandon Sanderson since I read Elantris, and this summer, Mistborn: The Final Empire came out. Sanderson is one of the few genuinely fantasy authors I read any more. If you read a lot of fantasy, you'll probably agree that a lot of it is all the same--a set of easily recognizable archetypes for characters journey to and fro in a world that looks an awful lot like medieval Europe, with magic and/or creatures from a beastiary thrown in, with a plot that seems to come from a standard play book. Because of the conventions that govern what fantasy is, it's hard to find original fantasy.

The originality factor is what made me love both Elantris and Mistborn. Sanderson obviously puts a lot of thought into the construction of his novels and his writing style delivers ripping stories. (I have one minor criticism about writing style, though, which I'll get to later.) In this book, Sanderson delivered an intriguing and new style of magic, a very formidable set of villains and henchmen, a fully realized society, history, and culture, a very charismatic duo of heroes, and a plot that--though I knew roughly were it would end up--that kept me wondering how the protagonists were going to pull it all off.

One thing about this book that I really liked was the way that Sanderson handled gender in this book. In fantasy novels, there are a limited set of female characters--the damsel in distress, Amazons, evil sorceresses, etc. But in Mistborn, Sanderson gives us Vin, a character who visible grows during the novel from a frightened abuse-victim to a powerful Allomancer (the name for someone who practices the magic system in this book) who helps to finish the work that her mentor started. Vin's story was amazingly fresh and believable, and I look forward to seeing more of her in the next books.

Oh, and a short word about Kelsier, the other protagonist. I really wish there were more characters like him in fantasy. He was a lot of fun to watch.

The only criticism I have about Sanderson's writing style is that often, when he was describing how the magic system worked, there was too much telling and not enough showing. In a few sections, it felt like I was getting a mini-seminar on Allomancy, the magic system. I know there was a lot to cover, given that this system is unique in fantasy, and you can't bring prior knowledge to bear, and that telling is really the most efficient way to cover the necessary background. But it did slow things down. Hopefully, the future books will have more showing, given that we readers have the basics down now.

That said, I am really glad there are going to be two more books in this series--there is a lot more I want to know about this world. (And, in the mean time, I have Warbreaker to keep me busy.)

World War Z, by Max Brooks

I finished this book last night, around 1:40 in the morning. This one was a very fast read, given that I worked yesterday and was in class for a couple of hours and I only started reading it Tuesday afternoon when it came out.

World War Z, by Max Brooks, is a follow up to his fantastic book, The Zombie Survival Guide, which was all it's title promised. Really, if there were zombies, the Guide would be perfect.

Essentially, this book is a collection of interviews with the survivors of a global zombie attack that wipes out most of humanity. This book follows that outbreak from it's origins (as far as they can figure), through to the end of the Zombie War--though people are still finding zombies on the ocean floor and frozen in the extreme northern and southern parts of the world.

This book was a lot of fun. I had my nose in this book every chance I got, just to find out how people survived. I even found myself thinking some of the same thoughts I had when I read the guide, about zombie-proofing my house: how can I board up the doors and windows, how long would it take to get rid of the stairs, should we run for it instead of staying, &etc.

In retrospect, I am amazed at how much thought Brooks put into this book. On top of all the zombie action, this book has a lot of social and political commentary about our society and it seems like Brooks knew exactly were we would fracture. I daresay that some of this commentary--which gets pretty anti-Bush, anti-corporate, anti-celebrity and material culture, and so on--may be hard to take for people who on the other end of the political spectrum from me. And even for me, some of the comments made by the survivors stung.

The Lost Cosmonaut, by Daniel Kalder

I have mixed feelings about reading The Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist, by Daniel Kalder. There were a lot of things I liked. I really enjoyed that I got to tag along on Kalder's trips to places that, according to a New York Times review I read when the book first came out, even Russians haven't heard of. This is why I read travel books in the first place. This book also had the added benefit of some philosophy about places we have never heard of. For example, there's this bit on page 24 of the trade paperback version, where Kalder talks about discovering the cultural figures of these places:
The existence of these invisible geniuses disturbs me. We take no notice of their music, their books, their causes, or their history, altough they are and it is European. But it's unknown, a whole other Europe, a shadow Europe, that does not exist for us...I know people are reguarly tortured and murdered for causes I've never heard of. So the existence of ghost canons and traditions shouldn't really disturb me at all. But it does. I shiver when I think about them. They are a mystery, an existential riddle I cannot solve.
It's a little trite to say that this book really made me think. But it did. There are so few books that I read that I really think expand my consciousness and make me think about all the other billions of people on the planet and what their lives are like.

Kalder also has a really odd sense of humor that appeals to me. One of my favorite bits is this one, where Kalder's friends have gone off to visit a Kalmykian Buddhist temple: "I preferred to sit on a bench and observe the emptiness. That, and not Buddhism, was what I had come for" (111). I am sure this little funny was entirely deliberate, but I like those moments in a book when the reader and the person who wrote the book--as opposed to the narrator persona--get to share a laugh.

But I get mixed feelings about this book around the beginning of the second half. After a while, the author really struck me as kind of a putz. And you know how hard it is to enjoy a trip with someone you don't like? Who doesn't enjoy the same things you do? It felt like this after a while. I stuck with it, hoping that Kalder (or the version of him in the book) would stop being so snide and world-weary. That didn't happen, unfortunately.

The first two parts of the book are good. They're odd and funny, and I learned a lot about parts of the world that I would never have heard of otherwise. But the last two parts of the book, well, I still learned things, but I didn't enjoy it near as much.


Souls in the Great Machine, by Sean McMullen, Part I

I don't know why, perhaps it's the impending release of World War Z by Max Brooks, but I find myself interested in post-Apocalyptic literature and zombie movies lately. Something about the idea of surviving a catastrophe that wipes out most of humanity and then rebuilding society fascinates me. And I don't mean fascinate in a good or bad way. Rather, I'm fascinated by human ingenuity and the endless ways in which human society can defend and organize itself. So, the next time you're feeling guilty about watching 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead (like I did this weekend) or about reading most of S.M. Stirling's works, remind yourself that you're being a kind of sociologist. :)

One of the books I'm in the middle of right now is Sean McMullen's Souls in the Great Machine, a book set in Australia about one thousand years after the present. Humanity has survived some ill-fated attempts to combat global warming and managed to create new cultures. What interested me about this book is the prominence of librarians in this book. Being a librarian-in-training myself, I get a kick out of the idea of librarians who fight duels with flint- and matchlock pistols and earn ranks with the word "dragon" in them. (Maybe if they taught dueling in library school, we would have more students. But then again, maybe not. :) ).

On a more serious note, another fascinating aspect of this novel is the way that humanity has recreated technology. Rather than using coal, steam or electrical power, technology is powered by human beings. The train system functions in a Flintstones/paddle boat way and the massive mainframe computer in the central library is made up of human components rather than circuitry or even vacuum tubes.

Aside from these points though, I've found it easy to be distracted from this book by other things. Namely, I've been distracted by The Lost Cosmonaut, a book I recommended to my public library and that has finally arrived and been checked out to my hot little hands. The characters in Souls are interesting, but there are rather too many of them for me to really bond with them, and there's so much going on and so much not explained that, again, I'm having a hard time sticking with it. I will stick with it though, as I've gotten half way through the book and I would be annoyed with myself for getting that far and then giving up.


For the benefit of several readers

Just for you Jenny, As complete a list of books I've read in the past year (I've probably forgotten some):
  1. Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde (Blogged)
  2. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte (Blogged)
  3. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens (Blogged)
  4. The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin (Blogged)
  5. Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin
  6. The Turkish Gambit, by Boris Akunin
  7. The Zombie Suvival Guide, by Max Brooks (Blogged)
  8. A Breath of Snow and Ashes, by Diana Gabaldon (Blogged)
  9. Olympos, by Dan Simmons
  10. Ilium, by Dan Simmons
  11. The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan (Blogged)
  12. The Outlandish Companion, by Diana Gabaldon
  13. Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson (Blogged)
  14. Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
  15. Thud!, by Terry Pratchett
  16. The Truth, by Terry Pratchett (Blogged)
  17. Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks (Blogged)
  18. The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde (Blogged)
  19. Dies the Fire, by S.M. Stirling (Blogged)
  20. The Protector's War, by S.M. Stirling (Blogged)
  21. The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (Blogged)
  22. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach (Blogged)
  23. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis (Blogged)
  24. A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore
  25. The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant (Blogged)
  26. A Writer at War, by Vasily Grossman (Blogged)
  27. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski (Blogged, but not completed)
  28. The Hanged Man's Song, by John Sanford
  29. One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich
  30. Two for the Dough, by Janet Evanovich
  31. Three to Get Deadly, by Janet Evanovich
  32. Four to Score, by Janet Evanovich
  33. High Five, by Janet Evanovich
  34. Hot Six, by Janet Evanovich
  35. Seven Up, by Janet Evanovich
  36. Hard Eight, by Janet Evanovich
  37. To the Nines, by Janet Evanovich
  38. Ten Big Ones, by Janet Evanovich
  39. Eleven on Top, by Janet Evanovich
  40. Twelve Sharp, by Janet Evanovich
  41. The Egyptologist, by Arthur Philips
  42. The Thrall's Tale, by Judith Lindbergh
  43. Dante's Equation, by Jane Jensen
  44. The Black Angel, by John Connolly
  45. Definately Dead, by Charlaine Harris
  46. Break No Bones, by Kathy Reichs
  47. Bad Men, by John Connolly
  48. Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison
  49. Fistful of Charms, by Kim Harrison
  50. Any Which Way But Dead, by Kim Harrison
  51. The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, by Kim Harrison
  52. Distraction, by Bruce Sterling (Blogged)
  53. The Last Cato, by Mathilde Asensi (Blogged)
  54. The Misanthrope, by Moliere (Blogged)
  55. V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore
  56. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vol. 1, by Alan Moore, et al.
  57. Y: The Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan, et al.
  58. First two volumes of the Sandman series, by Neil Gaiman, et al.
  59. Lamb: The Gospel of Christ According to His Childhood Friend, Biff, by Christopher Moore (Blogged)
  60. A Canticle for Liebovitz, by Walter Miller (Blogged)
  61. In Your Dreams, by Tom Holt (Blogged)
  62. Earth, Air, Fire, and Custard, by Tom Holt (Blogged)
  63. Faust Among Equals, by Tom Holt (Blogged)
  64. Flying Dutch, by Tom Holt (Blogged)
  65. Fledgling, by Octavia Butler (Blogged)
  66. Shelters of Stone, by Jean Auel (Blogged)
  67. The Hard Way, by Lee Child
  68. The Cold Moon, by Jeffrey Deaver
  69. Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl
  70. Kushiel's Dart, by Jacqueline Carey
  71. Kushiel's Chosen, by Jacqueline Carey
  72. Kushiel's Avatar, by Jacqueline Carey
  73. Kushiel's Scion, by Jacqueline Carey
  74. Danse Macabre, by Laurell K. Hamilton
  75. The Messenger, by Daniel Silva (Blogged)
  76. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood (Blogged)
This list is in no particular order. Textbooks have been omitted, because I didn't read them for fun.

Also, I'm currently reading Souls in the Great Machine, by Sean McMullen--but mostly for the dueling librarians. But I will post more about that on Sunday, probably.


Happy Birthday, Summer Reading Project!

...Actually, this blog's birthday was yesterday, but I forgot. (Sorry, SRP.) This blog is now one year old! I should probably do a retrospective of some kind, like a tally of all the books I've read, but I know that there were a lot of books (mostly brain-candy) that didn't get mentioned on this blog.

At any rate, I have managed to keep this blog going for one year, in spite of having two jobs and attending graduate school at three-quarter time and living with my sister's small children.

Happy Birthday, blog!


The Handmaid's Handout

I've put together a handout for The Handmaid's Tale that I intend to pass out when people come to pick up their copies of the book. It's designed to get people thinking about the novel, and we may or may not discuss these things in the course of the evening. Thoughts? Comments?


The Handmaid's Tale, Part III

I finally got some answers to my big question: How did all this happen? About a third of the way from the end of the book, Offred described the series of events that lead to the founding of the Republic of Gilead. After a catastrophe in Washington--which was most likely planned and executed by some future members of the Republic--the Constitution gets suspended and over the period of several months, civil rights are taken away. Women have even more rights taken away. Offred describes losing her job, then finding out that she can no longer access her own bank account. And I found myself having some of the same thoughts I have when I read books about Jewish people in Europe in the 1930s. I kept mentally yelling at the women to "Get out! Get out now while you still have the chance!"

I also figured out what was happening with the pollution situation. The Republic has turned the hot spots into gulags, where undesirables work until they die of poisoning and/or radiation sickness.

You might be a fantasy novelist if...

I may have blogged this before, but it's so funny that it deserves a second mention. Created, I think, by the same people who do the Book-A-Minute reviews, this an exam for anyone writing a fantasy novel. If you've read a lot of fantasy, you'll probably alternate between laughing and saying, "That is so true!"


The Handmaid's Tale, Part II

A couple of sentences I read today from this book disturbed me--more than usual anyway. On page 164 of my trade paperback edition, Offred (the narrator) talks about being able to shop at the fishmonger's for a change. She says:
Loaves and Fishes is hardly every open. Why bother openning when there's nothing to sell? The sea fisheries were defunct several years ago; the few fish they have now are from fish farms, and taste muddy. The news says the coastal areas are being "rested." Sole, I remember, and haddock, swordfish, scallops, tun; lobsters, stuffed and baked, salmon, pink and fat, grilled in steaks. Could they be extinct, like the whales?
In this book there are frequent mentions of what had happened to the world right before the revolution, if that's what you can call it. In particular, this books is peppered with references to severe pollution. And it doesn't seem like the Republic of Gilead is really doing anything to help heal the environment apart from leaving the worst places alone. Kind of strange, given that this society has regulated just about everything else about people's lives and behaviors.


The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, Part I

It's been a long time since I've read The Handmaid's Tale, and I had forgotten what a fascinating and disturbing read it was. I've been reading it for only three days now, and I am already past the halfway point.

What's really striking me about this book on this read through is the idea of complicity, especially as it pertains to political systems. Systems like the one that exists in The Handmaid's Tale (Wikipedia article) couldn't exist, I don't think, if so many of the participants didn't just go along with things. They way Atwood described this system, it sounds to me like a huge reaction against the politics and culture of "the time before"--the narrator's words for the way life was before whatever catastrophe it was that spawned the Republic of Gilead.

Frankly, I find it all horrifying, the way that this society has swung so far in the opposite direction of "the time before." And probably the really scary thing is that I can see this sort of thing happening in our own American society and politcal system. Think about it, almost every time the Democrats and the Left get ahead, they are followed by a Conservative and Right period. Kennedy and Johnson, then Nixon to Bush the First, then Clinton, and now Bush the Younger. And every time, it seems like the reactionary swing goes further Right or Left.

End of rant. Sorry.

Another thing that's really striking me about this book on this read through is how Atwood has personified the struggle over a woman's right to choose and control over her on body in the Handmaids. As a reaction to years of abortions and declining birth rates, reproduction and sexuality have become frighteningly regulated. The Handmaids, as the narrator frequently describes them, are "walking wombs" and so on.

The reason I am re-reading this book is because I am planning on leading a discussion about it at the end of September for Banned Books Week at my local public library. As you can no doubt see, I am going to have a lot to talk about.


Technology Used to Recover Lost Text

A cool story that ran in the online version of Wired the other day. The story describes the use of X-ray technology to recover a couple of treatises by Archimedes that had been lost since the Middle Ages.

The Messenger, part II

Pacing. When a writer does it well, you may not even notice. But when something it wrong with the pacing, you can tell. Either the story drags by or it sprints by so fast you might have to re-read passages to figure out what the hell just happened.

In the case of The Messenger, I felt a little of both. The novel started out at a good pace, with the plot just humming along. But around the middle, I felt like I was starting to get bogged down as the characters set up and executed their operation. As I got further and further into the book, I kept waiting for things to start to pick up like they usually do in thrillers. And, as usually happens with a book that takes too long to set up, the ending felt like Silva rushed it to make all the loose ends come together. Good book, but I couldn't help but wonder why Silva would take such care to set up the main plot and then have the ending feel like an "Oh-shit-I-have-to-get-this-to-my-editor-tomorrow-where-did-all-that-time-go" ending.

Overall, this was a really good book that could have been better if the pace had been more even and the ending drawn out a little more.


The Messenger, by Daniel Silva, part I

The Messenger is the latest installment of Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series, now six books long, about an art restorer who is also a counterterrorism agent and assassin for the State of Israel. I love this series, because its always about more than just danger and thrills like many espionage novels. Above all things, I think, these books are about the history of Jews and Israel. Books one, five and now six have been about the increasingly violent and seemingly eternal fighting between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Middle East. Books two through four were about, as Silva describes in the author's note of A Death in Vienna, the "unfinished business of the Holocaust" (p. 397 in the hardback version).

So far, I am really enjoying The Messenger and am on tenterhooks about what's going to happen next. However, I am also hearing a lot of the recent political discussion about Iraq and Israel coming out of the various characters' mouths. This makes it hard to enjoy the book just for the sake of its plot and characters, but I also think this book does a great job of showing all this sides of these debates. No doubt some critics, professional and otherwise, will take issue with this, and say that Silva sacrificed a great book to get these agendas across.

I think he did, too, at least a little bit. But I think that these issues are so important for the world we live in now that we need to stay informed anyway we can. And fiction has always been a great vehicle for political commentary. (Jonathan Swift, anyone?)

I am also impressed at Swift's ability to write about things that are so relevant now, when surely he must have had to finish this book many, many months ago. His last book, Prince of Fire, suffered a little when the world changed just after Silva wrote it. (I have a short review I wrote last year that talks about this in more detail.) It's an unavoidable problem for books, that they often become out of date as soon as they're published.


First Folio Update

The copy of the First Folio that was autioned at Sotheby's yesterday fetched 2.8 million pounds (approximately $5.2 American). More here.


Updates and News

Cripes, it's been almost a month since I've updated this blog. (Well, apart from the new icon that I put in the profile the other day.) My only excuse is that most of my free time has been given over to working on a presentation, a paper, and a research project that involves another paper and presentation. On the plus side, I will get my projects done--and done well--with time to spare. The bad news is that I don't have time for much else.

In the time I have stolen from my projects, I have managed to read the following books (not in order):

1. Twelve Sharp, by Janet Evanovich
2. The Hard Way, by Lee Child
3. The Cold Moon, by Jeffrey Deaver
4. Kushiel's Dart, by Jacqueline Carey
5. Kushiel's Chosen, by Jacqueline Carey
6. Danse Macabre, by Laurell K. Hamilton
7. Kushiel's Scion, by Jacqueline Carey

And, a paltry 25 more pages in War and Peace. Tcha.

Oh, and I have some interesting tidbits of book news. Read them before they move the pages.

--The First Folio went up for auction today. John Mullan at the Guardian wrote this piece about rare book auctions. He's got a knack for those funny turns of phrase that some British writers seem to have. When writing about Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English, he wrote "The agents of Henry VIII were diligent in destroying copies of this heretical publication, ensuring its future market value."

--They held the annual Bulwer-Lytton contest this week. Here's a bit from the Guardian's Culture Vulture about the winner.

To be honest, the sentence submitted by the runner up, Stuart Vaseperu of Scotland, made me laugh more:

"I know what you're thinking, punk," hissed Wordy Harry to his new editor, "you're thinking, 'Did he use six superfluous adjectives or only five?' - and to tell the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement; but being as this is English, the most powerful language in the world, whose subtle nuances will blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel loquacious?' - well do you, punk?"



War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, part I

Yes, really.

I am reading the Mt. Everest of books. No air packs, no sherpas, no Cliff's notes. Why? The only answer I have is that I am reading this book just to see if I can get all the way through this sucker.

Week one progress: 220 pages of 1455 pages. 1235 pages to go.

I finished part one a day or so ago, and am now in part two. Part one seemed like a clip from a Jane Austen novel. Lots of people, lots of parties, and a lot of social maneuvering. Many of the people I've talked to who mentioned having attempted this book said that one of the biggest problems they had was keeping track of the cast. Fortunately, my edition has a dramatis personae of the main families in this book and, so far, I am managing to remember most of the people in this book.

Part two is a lot more interesting. I'm currently following Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Nickolai Rostov as they fight the French. I am not quite sure where we are in the timeline of Napoleon's Russian campaign. Somewhere after Ulm, but before Austerlitz I think. All I know is that we're somewhere at the end of 1805 and have seven more years of war before Napoleon retreats.

This book isn't that bad so far. It's just that there's a lot of it left to go.


Shelters of Stone, by Jean Auel

And now for something completely different...

I'm reading The Shelters of Stone just to find out what happens next. I've read the reviews and, having read about 8/10ths of the book, there really isn't anything that I can recommend about this book apart from the fact that you get the next segment of the Ayla and Jondalar saga. The characters are good, but no one gets to do much. I've read more than 400 pages but we haven't progressed more than a week or so, book time.

Most annoyingly, there seems to be an inordinate amount of recap in the book. Not only do the characters and the narrator recap what happened in the previous novels, but it seems like every time a character does something, they have to explain what they just did to other characters when they meet up again. It completely bogs down the narrative, and there's no point to it. This book would probably been half the size it is if it weren't for characters taking as long to tell each other what they were doing as they did doing it in the first place. And if I have to read another description of what happens when you knock iron pyrite and flint together, I may have to add this book to the short list of books I have hurled across a room in anger.

Jean, you have written great books, what happened while you were writing this one?


In Your Dreams and Earth, Air, Fire, and Custard, by Tom Holt

I have a knack for finding the middle books of a series, but I very rarely manage to find the first book in the series. And I have again managed to start a series with the second book. I thought I found the first book--but no. I picked up the second and third books of the series. Tcha.

Both In Your Dreams and Earth, Air, Fire, and Custard take place in a company that employs wizards, fairies, goblins, and dragon-slaying heroes. And the stories are centered around a character who, while he has magical abilities, is generally clueless and annoyed by all the wierdness around him.

The plots are unbelievable and you can't describe them unless you take the length of a book to do it. But I will say that, especially in Earth, Air, Fire, and Custard, that it sometimes seemed like the plot went totally off the rails and into the deep blue absurd. I could follow it, but it really seemed that the book would have made a lot more sense if I had been imbibing a controlled substance. So, if you're looking for a totally off the wall book, these books are perfect for you. I have rarely seen a more imaginative flight of fancy that didn't collapse under the weight of its own weirdness.


Dead Funny, by Tom Holt

I find it hard to locate books that can make me laugh out loud, or books that have the demented, absurd plots that I enjoy and that actually work. Because I have this problem, I figure that other people have it to. So, while you're waiting for the next Christopher Moore,Terry Pratchett, or Janet Evanovich book to come out, give Tom Holt a try. I've read four of his books so far and there hasn't been a one that hasn't made me almost snort a beverage out of my nose yet. :)

Dead Funny contains two full novels, Flying Dutch and Faust Among Equals. Flying Dutch takes the story of the Flying Dutchman, adds nuclear power, alchemy, insurance, and accounting and creates a delightfully weird book. Faust Among Equals is, if you can believe it, even weirder. Basically, Faust escapes from Hell, hooks back up with Helen of Troy, wreckes hilariously warped revenge on his captors. And it all comes to a close in a themepark in Hell designed by Hieronymous Bosch.

As an added bonus for me, Holt has a very English way of writing that is a joy to read, with wacky metaphors, inventive turns of phrase, and uproariously funny understatements. Fun, fun, fun. Plus, he has a huge list of titles already written, so I don't think I'm going to run out of reading material any time soon.

Here's Holt's web site. Enjoy.


Fledgling, by Octavia Butler

This week I also finished reading my first Octavia Butler book. Now that I've read her, I kind of wonder that it took me so long to read her. I picked up her books after I read her obituary in the New York Times, and the descriptions of the topics she discusses in her books made me want to go out right then and pick up one of her books.

Unfortunately, my local public library didn't carry any of her books. Fledgling was the first title I recommended to the library that came in.

Fledgling, I think, is Ms. Butler's last book. It's a vampire novel, but it does some really interesting things to the myth. First, it disregards most of the vampire myth and starts out fresh. Butler uses the idea of vampires genetically engineering themselves so that they can go out during the day as a platform to talk about racism and what it means to be a part of two different species and races at the same time.

This book doesn't have a lot of the action that most people have come to expect from their contemporary fantasies, but it was wonderful to explore deep themes through the usually frivolous vampire story.


The Last Cato, by Mathilde Asensi, Part I

I don't ordinarily pick up religious thriller novels because they tend to be, with few exceptions, crap. Either they're poory written, or poorly plotted and/or just plain stupid and I can't make myself read them.

The Last Cato, however, was actually rather good. Barring a few translation problems (Alexy, a Russian Orthodox patriarch, becomes Alejo after a couple of pages) and some typos, this book has fewer typographical oddities and typos than some of the books I've read lately. (I have no idea why, but there seem to be a lot more of these in the last five years than there used to be. Editors and proofreaders, please pay attention and read carefully. We all learned in school that, if you make those kind of errors after a while, it makes you look like a moron.)

I really enjoyed the plot. It delves into religious history without trying to tear down one side or another. Both sides have points for and against them and this book does not bill itself as an expose, which is a nice change from most of the religious thrillers out there. This book was written before The Da Vinci Code came out--so it can't be read as a knock-off of that book.

This book is really original. I've seen Dante used before in fiction, but those always use the Inferno rather than either of the other two thirds of The Divine Comedy. I also really enjoyed the fact that the Knights Templar only made a brief appearance and that there were no Masons, either.

I think that the only thing that I didn't like was the short detour into science fiction that occurred near the end. The way the Staurofilakes (the "bad guys") were portrayed at the end was just a little too far out there into yeah right land. Other than that, this was a really good read.


Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blog

This may be the wittiest and most original parody I've seen on the internet since the Angry Alien web site. A co-worker told me about this one last Thursday, and I've been reading Geoffrey Chaucer's blog since then trying to get caught up. I am so impressed by the modern Geoffrey's ability to sound just like the first one and still be readable to someone who hasn't looked at Middle English in about two years.

When I checked out Chaucer's Rotulus bloggorum, I was surprised to discover that there is apparently a whole community of people who are blogging away in resurrected Middle English.

(Sorry about my vocabulary. I've been having a Pride & Prejudice weekend. I've watched the newest one three times now, and watched the first half of the A&E miniseries last night after it cae from Netflix. If you've watched the newest one at all, doesn't it seem like one of the writers screwed up and channeled a Brontë while writing the script? Honestly, with all that brooding and walking around in the rain all the time, I was surprised that no one caught pneumonia and that Heathcliff didn't show up.)

The Misanthrope, by Moliere

Considering what I've been reading lately, I don't think you would have espected to see Molière here. But I decided to read him for two reasons. 1) I've heard that he's a witty social commentator, and 2) I wanted to see if I still had the brain cells to understand four hundred year old literature.

Turns out, I do. :)

I really enjoyed reading The Misanthrope. Even though I don't know much about seventeenth century court life in France, I think that I understood the social behaviors that Molière was skewering here. The play begins with the main character, Alcestes, explaining to a friend his reasons for giving up the social game of flattery, double-dealing, and outright lying. (These very behaviors get played out later in the play to great effect). Even though this play was about the sort of social actions that make me feel misanthropic, I didn't have any trouble staying interested. Bonus.

I was impressed by some of the modern touches in Molière's dialogue. He has characters interrupting (to great comic effect) and running over one another's words. I can only imagine how funny this would be on stage. Some portions of the script, however, drag. After a while, I don't care how important or amusing or illustrative what one character is saying after they've run on for four or more paragraphs. For me, it's a bit like a musical--very unnatural. I only know one person how speaks in paragraphs and that's because he's been in academia since, I think, infancy.

But I think what I really liked was the ending. I think the standard happy ending--with multiple weddings and a moral or two--would have ruined what Molière was up to throughout the play.

I think I'm going to go on and read Tartuffe as long as I have this collection of Molière I checked out from my library. But I am also reading The Last Cato and, even though I am only a few chapters in, I find that I have a lot to say about it already.


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore

I always seem to end up rereading this book around Easter. This is about the third time I've read the book, and the magic of it never seems to go away. Personally, I think it's the best thing that Moore has ever written.

I've mentioned Moore before. He's one of the few authors I read who can always make me laugh out loud at the madcap weirdness of their books, and who I can reread forever without ever getting bored.

In Lamb, Moore takes on the missing years of Christ's life. Our narrator is Biff, a smartass who takes care of Jesus, or Joshua as he is known here, because Joshua is much to trusting and naive to take care of himself. This book is histerial from beginning to almost the end. The end, I think, is what makes this book really special. At the end of this book, Moore writes such a moving account of the Passion and death of Joshua that I felt deeply touched by this book for weeks after I finished reading it the first time. Even now, after I've read it three times, the ending still moves me.

There's a lot to think about in this book, and the more you read it, the more you realize this. The jokes are still funny, but you really start to see how philosophical this book is. So you get jokes about trying to circumsize Greek statues, but you also get some meditations on the role of sacrifice in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

I adore this book, and it's one of the few books I evangelize for ('scuze the pun). Pick it up if you're ready for an off-the-wall account of Christ's life.


A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter Miller

I'm still trying to catch up with all the books I've read over the last few weeks. So here's a quick note about a book I finished last week, A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter Miller.

Normally, I don't read nuclear holocaust books, but this one had a really interesting take on the idea. Normally, I read plague books. I don't know why I find that more interesting than the Dr. Strangelove end of the world, but I do. (An unrelated funny about Dr. Strangelove.)

Basically, multiple nuclear detonations wipe out most of life on Earth and humanity starts rebuilding itself. The new civilization is basically a rerun of our own medieval period--with monks preserving history, barbarian hordes, warlords carving out empires, and so on. There's even a Renaissance-like period.

I especially liked watching how Catholicism survived. There was a lot of Latin, which threw me for a bit, until I remembered that, at the time this book was written, Vatican II hadn't happened yet, and priests weren't using the vernacular in services yet.

I don't want to ruin the ending by saying what happened, but I really enjoyed the irony of what happened.



I read this on the Guardian's web site earlier this afternoon and I felt I just had to share it.

A copy of the First Folio is going on auction at Sotheby's. Their estimated price tag is 3.5 million pounds (around 6.1 million dollars).

I can feel myself starting to drool at the mere thought.

Distraction, Part II

Don't you just hate it when either 1) the plot of the book you are currently reading goes completely off the rails and says, "Screw you!" to conventional narrative structure, possibly with a rude ethnic gesture, or 2) the characters decide to start acting like they're Ph.D.'s and everything they say evolves into a great debate about the sociopolitical factors of yadda yadda yadda and they all suddenly lack the capacity to speak in anything but pages-long speeches?

Me, too.

I just had both happen to me about half way through Distraction. I stuck with it, just out of curiousity to see where Sterling would go with it. Plus, I was still picking up interesting tidbits of future history. But hell, all that sociology talk wears you down after a while. And Sterling finished the book with a completely different plot that he started with. One the one hand, the guy needs to learn to pack more explication into less dialogue. But on the other hand, he's great because he managed to get me completely in the dark about what was going to happen next. (This is turning into a Tevye-like monologue. Tcha.)

In the end...I enjoyed it, but it's not a great book. I can see where Sterling could have run with his ideas a bit more. Plus, a lot of the dialogue in the second have really needed to be distilled down. If you're going to write a political treatise, fine, but it really bogs down the storyline when you use the characters as your mouthpieces.