Saturday, March 31, 2007

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

I saw the movie version of this book before I read it, and I must say that it's one of the rare cases where the movie is more enjoyable. Clint Eastwood's Midnight is full of atmosphere and mystery; Berendt's book only approximates those two qualities.

The story is mostly about Savannah, the quaint coastal Georgia city. You could go so far as to call it a character of the book; its peculiar citizens and strange ways are the driving force behind the novel and the movie. But whereas in Eastwood's movie you can feel the strangeness, the book reads too much like a brochure: How quirky is Savannah? Why, here's some dry, lengthy historical background to show you. It's not unenjoyable, but the characters in this book too often talk like travel brochures, spitting out dates and events as if they've committed them to memory. Even the more colorful characters like the transvestite Lady Chablis (who is a real person and plays herself in the movie) are too flat to really live up to their billing.

Berendt's book is technically non-fiction, and split into two parts: the first half recounts the local characters he meets and the second is an in depth account of the four murder trials of Jim Williams, a local millionaire and art dealer who is accused of shooting and killing his 21-year old male lover. The first part is too much Discovery Channel, the second too much Court TV.

In the end the book is caught between being fiction and being non-fiction. We know that Berendt has invented events from whole cloth; though he writes himself as a significant figure in Williams' life from before the shooting, we know that he didn't arrive in Savannah until after the trial had begun. By nature the plot must be fictionalized to the point of no longer being non-fiction, but the writing is so dry and lacking in the "atmosphere" of Savannah that it makes for poor fiction.

Just see the movie; it has John Cusack.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter is a child wizard. He is special because, although his parents were killed by the evil Lord Voldemorte, he somehow managed to survive. He attends a school for young wizards called Hogwarts, is always getting caught up in all types of mischief, and still finds time to save the world, usually due to a) his friends b) a dues ex machina or c) both.

This oversimplified capsule of Harry Potter might make it sound like I don't like the series, and that's not true. I didn't pick up Order of the Phoenix because I liked the title; no, I've read the other four Potter books and decided I'd read the last two so I could read book seven when it comes out, thus avoiding having the book spoiled by Yahoo which will no doubt run a headline announcing the book's final twist days after its release. And so, I did. Also, I was in Salisbury, North Carolina without a car.

Order of the Phoenix is too long. The first 200 pages could have been condensed to 50 pages or less without losing anything vital. As a result, I was nearly halfway through the book (which clocks in at a hefty 850ish pages) before I really got involved. The second half was some of the more intense writing of the series, but it doesn't change the fact that the first half is 75% filler.

Much like Song of Susannah, anyone reading the Harry Potter series will no doubt read Phoenix, and if you enjoyed the rest of the series, you'll probably enjoy about half of this book. And, that's all, at least until I finish War and Peace. Cheers.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

I love this book. I'd say that it's tied with Watership Down for the best book I've read so far this year.

You may be familiar with the story from the movie: R.P. McMurphy, a gregarious and "cagey" rascal, gets himself transferred to a sanitarium to escape a relatively short prison sentence. At the sanitarium, his outgoing personality clashes with that of Miss Ratched, the sadistic and fascist head nurse who runs the place with an iron fist. In the movie, McMurphy is the main character; the book is narrated by Chief Bromden, a massive Native American who pretends to be deaf and dumb, hanging out with the "Chronic," unfixable patients instead of the "Acute" fixable ones. Reportedly Kesey refused to see the movie because it wasn't narrated by Bromden, and one can see why: Bromden is pretty central to the book. He believes that a shadowy force called "The Combine" is slowly mechanizing all human beings, causing them to conform and think the same way. When the Combine can't mechanize someone, they go to the sanitarium, where more drastic measures are taken.

One of the central ideas of the book is that sanity is a false idea promoted by society to remove undesirable elements. This may seem silly, but the patients in this sanitarium, all based on people Kesey knew when he worked in a similar facility, include a "latent homosexual" and a stutterer whose only problem is that his mother has kept in an eternal childhood. The latter character, Billy Bibbitt, becomes the best example of Nurse Ratched's cruelty: as a friend of Billy's mother, she is able to control him utterly by insinuating that every time he tries to stand up for himself that she'll tell his mother about his insubordination.

The whole thing is told in spooky, surreal prose. The Chief repeatedly suggests that not everything in the book is real--and of course everything can't be, because there are some very odd depictions of life in the sanitarium that seem like they're taken from Dali paintings--but the presence of McMurphy, who is a racist and a sexist and a jerk but stands up for the patients against the tyranny of Nurse Ratched, brings a growing clarity that helps the Chief finally become a speaking member of the sanitarium's "society." This is one of those books that manages to be beautiful and horrible at the same time, and I love it.

Now I just have to see the movie.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Spoiler alert! If you've seen the movie then you already know.

I really like the movie Fight Club. I'm not one of those guys who talks about it all the time, or incessantly quotes from it...but I like it. For that reason, I wanted to read the book.

I had never read anything by Palahniuk, and had heard that his writing style was unusual. It is. He writes in this odd form of first-person present tense, which gave Fight Club a feeling of immediacy. Palahniuk also involves the reader in the action of the book. He switches between, "I wake up in Seattle" to "You wake up in Portland." His unusual writing style does take a little getting used to.

The split personality was the big reveal at the end of the movie, but this was not the case with the book. It felt as though Palahniuk wanted readers to slowly realize that the two main characters are actually the same person. Granted, I may think this only because I was already aware of this plot point when I started the book.

Fight Club was an extremely quick read. While I enjoyed the book, I don't know that I would like to read other works by Palahniuk, simply because of his style. But I still have to read 40 more books, so who knows.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Holy Moses is this book long. I never knew that Douglas Adams wrote five books in the series, or that he started writing them at all in response to the popularity that the original radio show received. All five are organized pretty poorly, and Adams is quick to admit this in his introduction, pointing out which books contradict which other books and how often. The first one ends completely abruptly, and should have been merged with the second one, and the plots of the last three are so weak that I don't think he should have written them at all. Clearly they just rode in on the coattails of the first two, which, in turn, rode on the coattails of the radio show.

Adams is a good writer; he's witty and creative and can write a good story, as long as it doesn't run longer than about 50 pages. All of the books follow Arthur Dent, a kind of awkward antihero who's forced into circumstances that lead to his rescuing the earth, galaxy, or universe many times. Too many times. Adams' original plan was to write a series of short stories in which the earth is invariably destroyed at the end of each; it seems, from reading this book(s), that this would have suited his abilities better. The story becomes very episodic after the first book (in the first book, even), and characters turn into empty stereotypes of themselves just as quickly. Odd as it might seem, it gets a little tedious reading, once again, about some new, loopy plot to blot out the whole of existence.

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is meant to be a satire of just about everything; he pokes fun at everything humans have ever done, partly by trivializing the Earth to something that needs to be demolished to build a hyperspace expressway. This book was fun to read, in bits and pieces, but it goes on for too long and runs out of steam fairly soon after it starts. I had always hesitated to read this book because I was worried that it was just a nerdy cult classic, full of inside jokes to print on T-shirts and sell at Hot Topic. But, then again, what did I expect from a British, science fiction, comedy novel?

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Well, I finally completed the dystopian trilogy. I borrowed 1984 from my brother three or four years ago; two summers ago I read Fahrenheit 451; and I closed the cover of Brave New World not 10 minutes ago. Although all three of these novels dealt with roughly the same topic, they were quite different. The worlds of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 were police states, where people were forced to conform with the threat of violence. With Brave New World, Huxley depicts a society in which people are intoxicated into a state of conformity.

Huxley's future is more believable than the future created by either Orwell or Bradbury. This edition of Brave New World includes a letter written by Huxley to Wells, shortly after the publication of 1984. Huxley praises the book, but notes that the violent coercion that takes place in 1984 will ultimately give way to a more subtle form. Brave New World's ubiquitous somma that puts those who take it into a coma-like state of bliss strikes me as a more practical method of control than brute force.

While none of these books offers a completely accurate reflection of modern society, they come eerily close at many points. Huxley is not concerned with making specific predictions, but the world that he describes has many parallels to the present.

Note: P.S. is an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. They produce great editions of classic works. The supplementary materials are informative and insightful. Even the binding if better than most books, allowing the book to actually remain open while you read it, instead of constantly flipping shut. Look for great P.S. books at your local bookseller!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Song of Susannah by Stephen King

Last year, I plowed through the first five books of Stephen King's longest work, the Dark Tower. Books 1-4 were pretty well written and relatively short for King, who is nearly as notorious for his brick-like tomes as his best-selling status. Book five, Wolves of Calla, was nearly 1000 pages, and, although it tied King's Dark Tower to some of his earlier works, it was a bit too large for the story it had to tell.

Enter Song of Susannah, book six in the series. It's the second shortest at about 550 pages, fitting, since it has the least amount of story to tell. The basic plot of the Dark Tower is that Roland the last gunslinger, Susannah and Eddie Dean, and a child, Jake, are questing toward the Dark Tower. Of the four main characters, Susannah is by far the least interesting, and since roughly half of Song of Susannah is focused on her and her conversations with her multiple personalities, it suffers. Wolves of the Calla was 900 pages, but it read easier than the 550 that comprise Song.

The most imnteresting aspect of the book is (spoiler warning) that King writes himself into the story. The character of Stephen King is the one from the 70s, complete with crippling addictions to drugs and alcohol. I thought the concept of an author writing himself into a book was interesting enough, but even more interesting is that King presents himself as just another pawn of the Tower. Lots of fans hated this aspect of the series, by it was by far the most interesting thing in Song. Here's to hoping The Dark Tower is a better conclusion than Song of Susannah was a segue.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

I lied earlier; Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go was only a Booker Prize finalist. Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is a Booker Prize winner, though.

It tells the story of Nick Guest, a homosexual man taken in as a lodger by the family of his university friend Toby, whose father was recently elected as an MP in the Tory landslide that accompanied Margaret Thatcher's rise to power. That's pretty much what this book is about: being gay in Britain in the 1980's. Nick is forced to pursue his affairs in secret, though the entire family is basically aware he's gay. In the final section of the book, Nick's sexuality becomes tangled up in connection with an insider trading scandal that threatens the job of the MP Gerald .

That last section is actually quite heartbreaking, as Nick deals with unpleasantly becoming the center of attention and becoming a persona non grata in the household (his surname Guest is a thinly disguised metaphor), while having to endure with the long demise of his former lover due to AIDs. However, that's only about 100 pages out of a 450 page book, the bulk of which are really quite dull. Nick is a rather shallow character who has a lot to say about Henry James and Rachmaninov and what have you, but he lacks such depth that he's a very difficult character to like. The first 350 pages of this book is little more than fancy parties, social hobnobbing, summering in France, and the occasional line of cocaine--you can read pages and pages without ever being convinced that anything has actually happened.

Maybe that's the point: until AIDs and scandal put his lifestyle under the harsh social spotlight, Nick's obsessions are quite trivial. I can understand the metaphorical purpose of being lulled into a false sense of security in the dizzying word of the socialite to only have the rug pulled out under Nick, but that really doesn't excuse this book from being excruciatingly dull.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods is the second of Bill Bryson’s books that I’ve read (the first was Notes from a Small Island), and I think I can now safely call myself a fan of his work. He’s principally a travel writer, but it would be impossible to classify his work so simply. Bill Bryson is a regular renaissance man, and his wide-ranging intelligence shows in his work. A Walk in the Woods is about the eight month long hike that he took along the roughly 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail in 1996. Bryson’s account of his so-called ‘walk through the woods’ would’ve been enough to keep this book at the top of the NY Times bestseller list for so many months, but he rounded out his story with a fairly interesting history of conservation, hiking, the Appalachians and mountain ecology, to name a few.

Bryson has an amazing mind, and his books range over every possible aspect of their subject: history, economics, social effects, ecology, and so on. One thing about Bill Bryson and his work comes to mind before anything else, however: he’s absolutely hilarious. I’m talking laugh out loud, giggle in public funny. I can’t remember how many times I’d start chuckling to myself involuntarily, on the bus, in the back of class, wherever I was. Sometimes I’d read the same line two or three times and just keep laughing.

The most plausible explanation was that any [mountain] lions out there—if [mountain] lions they were—were released pets, bought in haste and later regretted. It would be just my luck, of course, to be savaged by an animal with a flea collar and a medical history. I imagined lying on my back, being extravagantly ravaged, inclining my head slightly to read a dangling silver tag that said: “My name is Mr. Bojangles. If found please call Tanya and Vinny at 924-4667.”

So many of the jokes seem to sneak themselves into the last line of a relatively dry section on botany, or some such thing, which is what makes them work so well. His writing seemed to make me laugh more the further I read into the book; it was as if getting to know his style lets you in on the subtleties and unexpected nature of some of his jokes (perfectly placed in some scholarly section that’s drifting dangerously close to boring). He’s unbelievably intelligent, but he loves to make fun of himself, which is one of the things (besides his wit) that I like best about him. He paints himself as a grinning, bumbling fool, which couldn’t be further from the truth, and loves to recount tales of him whimpering in his tent at the sound of a cracked stick outside. And the best part of reading anything by Bryson is that he’s so good at letting you get to know his characters (namely, himself and a hiking friend) that their slapstick antics get funnier as you learn their personalities better. Reading this book, you might be led to think that Bryson waits for the worst possible situation to strike so that he can write about it and we can laugh about it. I think he just has a great ability to tell stories, and an incredible skill with the English language. Even if you don’t care to learn anything interesting about the Appalachian Trail and its mountains (which, I assure you, you will), you should read this book for its abundance of hearty, smart laughs (as well as chuckles, giggles and big, stupid grins). As with the last of his books I read, I was disappointed to see it end, but he wrapped it up completely perfectly.

(If hiking isn’t your thing, but a road trip around England and Scotland sounds fun, you should read instead Notes from a Small Island, which is easily just as funny and clever as A Walk in the Woods)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I am struck by the similarities between Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and the last book I finished, The Island of Dr. Moreau: both are science fiction novels about the capability of science to give man control over nature and over himself. The Moreau figure of this book is Crake, a genius who believes that he can create a new human race from scratch that has been biologically manufactured to have none of the previous race's faults.

Only time will tell if Oryx and Crake fails to stand the test of time (quite possibly it won't, given the rate of technological change we're experiencing today), but it has quite a bit to say about our world: The main character, Jimmy, lives in a world of enclosed "compounds" where troupes of scientists and other employees live closed off from the "pleeblands," the unpredictable and dangerous areas of the world that haven't been hermetically sealed. There are two plotlines, divided by a world catasatrophe that isn't explained until the end of the book: In one, Jimmy is an average kid growing up in the compounds; Crake is his only friend. In the other, Jimmy is now known as Snowman, a shriveled and miserable Omega man figure who watches over a strange race who dwell on the beach, the only other "humans" left in the world. We later find out that these are the creations of Crake, who has designed both the destruction of the old human race and the generation of the new.

You can see our world in Atwood's: the way that Jimmy and Crake learn about the world is through the internet, which is their portal to live executions, beheadings, macabre computer games, and child pornography. Through the latter Jimmy first meets a girl named Oryx, an Asian sex-worker who later becomes his lover. I think perhaps one of the most interesting themes in Oryx and Crake is the commodification of life: not so much that it is brought about by rampant commercialism and globalization; those ideas are old, but also by science, which is draining all of the mystery from human life. The "Crakers" live peaceably with each other, but Crake has engineered them without art, without religion, without imagination. Is this a life worth living? Is it even a human life? Oryx and Crake may seem antiquated in twenty years time, but the question of what it means to be human--like in The Island of Dr. Moreau--is one that never grows old.

I love Atwood's style; it rolls so fluidly and no word seems out of place. However, the plot is thin in places, especially when it comes to the character of Oryx, who is in the title but never really seems to be fleshed out like Jimmy/Snowman or Crake. Atwood suggests that part of Crake's decision to wipe out humanity is motivated by jealousy over Jimmy's relationship with Oryx, but she never pauses to explain the connection between these two elements. As a result, the questions that Atwood wants to present us with--to what extent is Crake responding to what he sees as weaknesses in himself, does removing the brain functions that produce lust in the Crakers make them superior creatures--become watered down. But otherwise, I recommend this book highly.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes

Of all the books I've reviewed on here, there are none of them as sweeping as Don Quixote. I began Book I back in June of 2006, and started Book II in January, so it's also been one of the more drawn out reading experiences of my life. That said, it's also been one of the most satisfying.

Summarizing Don Quixote is quite difficult, because describing the basic framework of the story doesn't even come close to doing it justice. Often described as the first modern novel, it manages to touch upon literary devices and genres that have only rose to prominence in the last 50 years, not bad for a book completed shortly after the King James Bible. Between the poetry, the interstitial novels, the occasional breaking of the fifth wall (and the indirect insertion of Cervantes himself into Quixote's word), Don Quixote as a literary powerhouse can't be overstated. But, is it any good?

I found Don Quixote to be an enjoyable read. At some points, particularly in the largely satirical first book, it read just as quickly and easily as any modern novel. In the second book, written not only to complete the story but also to make a statement about deceit, human cruelty, and plagiarism, the novel takes a darker turn, and the jokes played on Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza become so overblown that they inspire sympathy for the once-comic characters. As a result of the weightier second book, it's a bit more difficult to get through, particularly if you tackle it right after the first. I found that once I took some time off and approached book two on its own terms, it was well worth the read.

One last note: if you're considering reading Quixote, I recommend this translation (Edith Grossman). I had started several others previously, and found them amazingly dull.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Edge City by Joel Garreau

Garreau uses the term “Edge City” to describe the suburban communities that developed outside of major metropolitan areas in the last half of the twentieth century. He admits that the moniker is hard to define, noting that it is essentially a judgment call as to where these “cities” begin and where they end. But nonetheless, he makes an attempt to define his term. In the introduction he states that Edge Cities are a “psychological location—a states of mind—even more than a physical place.”

No doubt realizing that this definition would not be adequate for his purposes, Garreau provides another, more complex definition of the term. Edge Cities must have a certain amount of office and retail space. They primarily must be places of employment, must have more jobs than bedrooms, and must be “perceived by the population as one place.” The final qualification is that all of these factors have to be recent—within the last thirty years.

With this second definition, Garreau provides his readers with a fairly specific idea of what constitutes an Edge City. However, throughout the book, this definition changes, parts of it are forgotten or dismissed, and at times it is almost completely thrown out. Garreau needed an amorphous definition, one that he could tweak and adjust to fit various localities, because he is not simply providing a general description of Edge Cities, but using these emerging suburban cities to examine several different issues, such as wealth, power, race, and class.

It is obvious that Garreau approves of Edge Cities, even celebrates them. Too often he describes these suburban enclaves in a way that makes them appear to be fault free—the hope for the future. Although most of these “cities” had few problems and their inhabitants lived relatively good lives, problems existed elsewhere as a direct result of the growth of these places. Garreau either ignores or overlooks these problems throughout Edge City.

Although at times it was a little tedious, ultimately this was an interesting read.

The Innocent Man by John Grisham

I may destroy my literary credibility here, but I really enjoy John Grisham. Along with Stephen King, I think he's the cream of the crop of popular authors. If you don't believe me, compare a page from any of his books to pap by Dan Brown or the tedium of Tom Clancy. That said, his last few novels haven't really done much for me, so I was excited to hear that The Innocent Man was going to be a true crime novel.

It's a very interesting read, alternatingly disturbing and infuriating, as one miscarriage of justice after another is carried out. In a way, it brings to mind the whole Duke rape scandal, something that was never far from my mind as I read through the book.

The most interesting aspect to me is that, by the end of the book, most of the principle characters have gotten some semblence of justice, but lives have still been totalled in the process. I'd like to write more, but I've got to go. Good book. If you like true crime, check it out.

Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card

So, after a long hiatus, I'm back with a few updates. First on the docket: Ender's Shadow, Card's parallel novel to the classic Ender's Game. If you've read Ender's Game, you'll know that it follows the path of Ender, an unusually talented child who becomes the human's leader in their war against the invading Buggers. It's quite good, one of the best sci-fi novels I've read, so I was rather interested to see how Ender's Shadow would augment Ender's Game.

The original title of Shadow was Urchin, and it would have been a little more fitting. It's obvious that Ender was included in the title to obviously tie the book to its classic predecessor, but anyone reading Shadow hoping to learn about Ender will be sorely disappointed. In fact, Ender doesn't appear in the first half of the book, and for most of the second half, he's a periphery character. The protagonist in Shadow is Bean, a periphery character in Ender's Game. The first half of the book chronicles his life on the streets of Rotterdam, and how me managed to survive despite being the smallest and weakest. Without giving spoilers, it also sets up characters that I suspect are expanded upon in the later volumes of the series.

The first half of the book is the most interesting, since it gives nothing but new information. The second half is good as well, but if you've read Ender's Game, there's no big reveal, and the ending is already known, so it lacks the suspense of its older brother. Still, Ender's Shadow is a fine book in its own right, and anyone who enjoyed Game should give it a shot.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

More concerning Science Fiction

This pretty much sums up part of the way I feel about science fiction

The 2007 Tournament of Books

Fellow Fifty-bookers! Reading enthusiasts! Internet stalkers! Lend me your ears. Spring is just around the corner, and that can only mean one thing: The Morning News is about to start the 2007 Tournament of Books! The contest begins this Thursday, with elimination-style reviews eventually paring the selection down to one, official, greatest work of fiction of 2006. Reviewers come from all over (Colin Meloy [thanks, Chris] of The Decemberists is one of the reviewers for the first round this year) and each is assigned two books to read, review and choose between.

BUT! That's not all. This year, you, the reader, have the chance to win every damn book they'll be reviewing. They've asked the web's top book-bloggers (our invitation must have been lost in the mail) to predict the outcome of the tournament. You can review their selections on this website, where you'll also find this year's bracket in PDF format. Choose which blogger you think is spot-on, send an email to The Morning News with your selection by 6pm tomorrow night (Wednesday, March 7th), and if both you are chosen randomly to compete and your selected blogger wins the fantasy book tournament, you will receive every one of the 16 brand-spanking new books that have been selected as the best of this past year. I highly recommend it. Plus, the tournament offers plenty of fantastic novels to choose from for your next review.

Good luck, Godspeed, and keep those pages turning Planeteers... er, Fifty-bookers.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

Ah, 100-page books. While Brent is slaving away at Don Quixote and War and Peace, I'm pulling away from the crowd by reading books like The Island of Dr. Moreau. And yes, it is a legitimate book, not a comic book, Nathan, and not a short story, Alyson.

The plot of this book is likely known to you, either from the awful Marlon Brando/Val Kilmer flick or the countless parodies on The Simpsons and what-have-you. An intellectual named Edward Prendick is shipwrecked and ends up on a ship bound for the Island of Dr. Moreau, where he is kicked off with the Doctor's assistant Montgomery. Prendick remembers Moreau from a high-profile scandal in which Moreau was kicked out of London for mutilating cats in his experiments, and learns he has come to the island to continue with his work: creating people from animals. (Not, as some parodies might have you believe, combining humans and animals.)

This book, written in 1896, is one of the earliest examples of science fiction. As all great science fiction, the book's value lies not in the science but the social commentary. With the island's Beast People, who have been indoctrinated by Moreau with "the Law"--Don't walk on all fours, don't eat meat, don't scratch or claw, be human--Wells seems to suggest that we are captives of our own inner natures, as the Beast People cannot help but revert back to their feral ways. Moreau's attempt to "play God" fails utterly, perhaps undermining our concept of control over our own bodies and minds.

But it also displays what it one of science fiction's biggest faults, which is that the science dates it extremely. Moreau's methods have nothing to do with "genes" or "DNA," but "vivisection"--a word which seems almost arcane to us in light of modern science fiction, in which Dr. McCoy can fix your broken arm by waving a blinking box over your skin. Moreau teaches his beasts to talk and think, but never once uses the word "conditioning," an idea for which Pavlov didn't win the Nobel Prize until 1904. No modern reader would be fooled into thinking that Moreau could create a human being this way, though many at the turn of the century might, and that's a shame--for all its potential and even though much of it deals with worlds that don't yet exist, it tends to become dated much quicker than other literature.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

I normally don't read the back covers of books if I have not already read the work itself. While I didn't read the brief synopsis on the back of Ethan Frome, the one-sentence description at the top caught my eye. "The classic novel of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents set against the austere New England countryside." This is a very good description of Ethan Frome.

As Brent pointed out in his review of this book, the plot is not all that complicated, noting that it could be described as a character study. I also agree with Brent on the subject of Wharton's prose. At times I found it completely arresting. The images that her words conjured up were amazing.

As I was reading the book, I thought numerous times of the Woody Allen film, September. Ethan Frome and September share many of the same themes, such as forbidden love, depression, and complicated relationships. But the strongest connection between the two is the setting. Edith Wharton's vivid descriptions of the fictitious Starkfield, Massachusetts make the town an active character in the story. Often the town, and the weather associated with it, do as much to progress the plot as any of the characters do. In September, the setting is not a town, but a house--a house which Woody Allen has described as the most important character in the film.

Another film that Wharton's novella brought to mind was Lost in Translation. I would find it hard to believe that Sophia Coppola had not read Ethan Frome prior to making the film. Besides the general melancholy feel of the movie, some of the characters are quite similar to those in Wharton's work.

Note: If you have not read Ethan Frome, leave the introduction that accompanies this edition until the end. If you read it before, it will ruin what little twists and turns of plot the story does have.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the Opera is my favorite musical ever, and that's saying a lot, considering how much I love musicals. I saw the Broadway Series South performance a few years ago in Raleigh, I dragged Chris to the movie when it came out, and I immediately bought the DVD when it was released. So I was excited to pick up the book at the library and experience the original. I'll leave out a plot summary for this one, just because I assume most people probably know it.

The Opera ghost really existed. He was not, as was long believed, a creature of the imagination of the artists, the superstition of the managers, or a product of the absurd and impressionable brains of the young ladies of the ballet, their mothers, the box-keepers, the cloak-room attendants or the concierge. Yes, he existed in flesh and blood, although he assumed the complete appearance of a real phantom; that is to say, of a spectral shade.

+ Framing I love that Leroux writes as a historian. He writes as if this really happened, and it's his job to investigate the events of the opera house. It just makes things more interesting and gives a more exciting feel to the story.

+ Rich Characters The characters in this story are crazy. Someone is always doing something crazy or saying something crazy or being crazy in general. There are a few characters in the book that never appear in the play or movie. One -- the Persian -- is a major character and greatly alters the plot line. The rest are minor characters coming and going through the story. Leroux delves far deeper into the personalities of the main characters -- Christine, the Phantom (whose name is Erik in the book), and Raoul. The backgrounds of the characters are explained in more detail, giving the reader insight to why they act as they do. As much as I love musicals, they are frustrating in the fact that they never seem to be able to get everything across -- you're always missing something in the plot or dialogue or character development. None of those things are missing in the book. The ending was phenomenal; we finally found out about Erik's past.

+ A Whole New World Please, no Disney renditions. What I mean is, the opera house creates an entirely separate world for the reader. There is no Paris or even a France. There is simply the Opera house. The labyrinth wrapping the opera and the colorful characters -- like the rat-catcher or the door-closers -- running to and fro creates a special reality that belongs only in the Opera house. Just like the Harry Potter series or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, reading The Phantom of the Opera is like retreating into a whole new world.

+ A Great Story The most important thing for me when I'm reading a book is plot line. I want stuff to happen. I don't care about long descriptions or uneventful narrative. I just want a good story. That's what Phantom is. I guess that's why it's a classic.

Overall: A

Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

When I read books that are particularly gripping or suspenseful, I have a very bad habit (or my eyes do) of jumping to the last line of a chapter before I can stop myself. It can really deflate the suspense, and I find myself having to cover up the last few lines with my hand or a book mark to keep that from happening. Reading Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, sometimes my greedy eyes still managed to get the best of me. This is a well-written, thrilling novel, and if I’d read The Da Vinci Code, I would probably compare it to that. Alas, I have not, but from what I know both novels’ characters spend most of the story traveling across Europe, unearthing secret documents that have been buried, often intentionally hidden, even, under centuries of history to solve an ancient mystery. The only difference is that instead of trying to bring to light Jesus’ marital status, Kostova’s characters are trying to find, and destroy, the vampire Dracula (I admit that this is a big difference). If nothing else, this book strengthened my sense of European geography, which always used to get a bit fuzzy once I got east of Italy. The main characters spend their time chasing Dracula’s past all across Holland, France, Romania and Hungary, to name just a few.

The book follows three generations of historians, and is narrated by the youngest (she never gives her name), who tells her father’s story through letters he left to her, who in turn relates the story of his mentor through letters written to him within the letters that he wrote to her. All of this results in an infuriating use of quotation marks that led me to seriously question the need to have one-third of the book told through letters. Said letters also really lose their sense of urgency—the man believed himself to be in serious danger of vampire attack—when their author stops warning his daughter and rushing to recount the steps that he took in tracing the path of Vlad Dracula, and starts to spend nearly full pages describing haircuts, exquisite ottomans (the furniture, of course), and Mediterranean food. This didn’t make the book any less entertaining—in fact, quite the opposite. Kostova’s writing is crisp and intelligent, and her descriptions of European architecture and her novel’s characters are captivating. Her sharp (you probably wouldn’t call it beautiful or colorful) prose fleshes out the plot and lends the novel a dark, brooding feel, right from the first paragraph:

As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorable forward for us with its shadowy claw.

Scenes switch from innocent to grim with one well-placed word from the author. The first half of the book feels so personal that it reads almost like a diary, and was a believable story for so many pages that it was almost easy to forget that it is, after all, a novel; Kostova keeps up this pretense by taking up the perspective of her own, nameless narrator even in her note to the reader and the dedication: For my father, who first told me some of these stories. Does she want the reader to assume that she is her own narrator? That extra element of reality would contribute significantly to the story’s viability as a thriller. After a while though, it started to seem like little twists were written in just for the sake of making the novel a page-turner, and not necessarily to advance the plot. Again, this didn’t make it any less of a great book. I won’t tell you what happens in the end, but I will leave you with this little bit to pique your interest:

Helen was full of these surprises, and I grew to consider them my daily fare, a pleasant addiction I developed to her ability to catch me off guard. But she never startled me more than at that moment in Istanbul, when she suddenly shot the librarian.