Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Louder Than Words by Jenny McCarthy

I admit that I was skeptical when I read my first Jenny McCarthy book, Mother Warriors. Somehow her illustrious career (Singled Out, WWE, and movies like The Stupids, BASEketball and Scary Movie 3) didn't instill in me the confidence that she would be able to write well. I had heard that her pregnancy humor book Belly Laughs was crude but funny.

Now having read both Mother Warriors and Louder than Words, I can say that these books far exceeded my low expectations. Were they Pulitzer Prize-worthy? No. Did I sometimes cringe at McCarthy's salty humor and language? Yes. But overall, what came out of these books was the idea of a mom, not the persona McCarthy has created for herself, who was fighting for her kid and trying everything possible to make him better.

I picked up Mother Warriors first (back in 2008, which is why I am not counting it on my list) and read it cover to cover in about a day. The writing isn't spectacular but the stories of parents dealing with their childrens' autism diagnoses in different ways is touching. Louder Than Words was McCarthy's first book about autism, and was written two years after her son Evan was diagnosed. It is primarily a story of Jenny's prolonged battle to try as many different and possibly effective treatments as possible for Evan, from traditional behavioral therapies to chelation and GFCF diets. Jenny feels vindicated when Evan starts to improve, even as she is making tremendous personal sacrifices to provide for him. Evan's diagnosis eventually contributes to the collapse of Jenny's marriage to Evan's dad.

Jenny's book provides an interesting look at one side of the autism "debate" over whether non-traditional therapies work and whether vaccines harm children. McCarthy is very much in the camp that belives in both those things, along with some pediatricians (known collectively as the Defeat Autism Now! doctors). The other side of the autism coin is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the AMA, the CDC and even some non-profits like Autism Speaks, and says that autism is primarily gentic and cannot be cured. Children who receive applied behavioral therapy can improve greatly but cannot be cured.

All in all Louder Than Words is a great personal story and good reading. Parents of children with autism who are interested in DAN! doctors and non-traditional therapies might benefit more from reading Mother Warriors, whose back chapters list an impressive collection of resources.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.

The way I liked best was letting go a poisonous spider in his bed. It would bite him and he'd be dead and swollen up and I would shudder to find him so. Of course I would call the rescue squad and tell them to come quick something's the matter with my daddy. When they come in the hosue I'm all in a state of shock and just don't know how to act what with two colored boys heaving my dead daddy onto a roller cot. I just stand in the door and look like I'm shaking all over.

This book was just over 100 pages long, which is the primary reason I read it last weekend. After spending 4,567 days (seemingly) reading The Monster of Florence, I was ready for a wham-bam-thank you ma'am kind of book. And it was on my shelf and I told myself I had to read all the books I own before I buy books again (only 78...102...something... to go!)

This book had a lot of promising reviews. One journalist compared Ellen to Holden Caulfield. I don't know about that. Ellen is 11, and Holden wanted to get with Sally. Ellen is self-sufficient and basically raises herself for a while, and Holden got kicked out of school. Ellen is desperately poor and Holden likes to tom-cat around New York City talking to prostitutes. If Ellen met a prostitute, she'd never get bullied into paying more than $5. Especially if all they did was talk.

Gibbons' story begins with the passage above. Ellen's drunkard of a father bullies her mother, who dies early in the book from stress and a preexisting heart condition. Ellen is perfectly content to live in her house, shopping and cooking for herself, until her father starts to hit her and his drunken friends start to notice her young body. When teachers notice her bruises and the truth comes out, Ellen embarks on a journey to belong somewhere permanently. After noticing a mismatched family at church that other members refer to as "the foster family" Ellen decides that is the one for her. She starts signing her papers "Ellen Foster" thinking that "the foster family" is "the Foster family."

Okay so full disclosure: I'm very tired and kind of drunk and there's a game on TV. This short, disjointed review is due in large part to those factors. Good night and good luck.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

These were history's gifts to my family--and if the resources of that grocer, the fruits of those riots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would now life a lofe of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill?

This is the first book I've ever read by Gladwell, although I'm pretty sure he's something of a big deal in the literary scene these days. I bet Oprah is a fan. Outliers started out a little dangerous for my tastes. The impression I got from the first chapter was that people are successful because they're lucky and their circumstances facilitate their rise to the top. Now me, I'm a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps type of guy. I was pretty irritated by the first couple of pages. Subsequent chapters make it clear that Gladwell actually thinks (and statistics show) that success comes from those who are lucky enough to find themselves in a situation where great success is possible and then work harder than everybody else in that same fortunate circumstance.

My only real complaint about Outliers is that it didn't seem to have any clear direction. I get that Gladwell is trying to explain all these statistical outliers, but he kinda just bounces all over the place and only ties the different sections together very loosely.

I don't have too much to say about Outliers besides that I think its interesting enough, well-written enough, and short enough that there really isn't any excuse not to read it. Oh, I'll say that Gladwell's explanation for why Asians are so much better at math than me (and my like) was very cool. And surprisingly not racist. Check it out.

Highlights: Explaining how Koreans are really good at math but really bad at not crashing airplanes
Lowlights: Making me feel like I could never play professional hockey not matter how hard I tried.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The best thing - in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing - about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom. He didn't worry that the man was going to get hurt, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.

As soon as I saw heard that Neil Gaiman had written a book called American Gods, I knew I had to read it. I'm not a particularly rabid Gaiman fan. In fact, aside from this novel the only work of his I'd read was the sinister short story "Snow, Glass, Apples" (which I highly recommend, you can find it online and read it in about 15 minutes). But I really like Gaiman's writing style and I'm obsessed with all things mythology. American Gods did not disappoint.

The story follows Shadow, a man recently released from prison after three years of incarceration. Shadow is released a day early after being informed of the death of his wife. On his way home back to Indiana, Shadow meets Wednesday, a man that would throw Shadow headfirst into a battle between the Gods of old and the Gods of new. When I say 'the Gods of New,' I mean modern society's deities. Our worship of the internet, of fast food, of highways, of television, etc. Essentially, American Gods is a story about America, a land of immigrants. Immigrants who brought with them tales and legends of Leprechauns and Ifrits. American Gods asks the question: "If every time a new people came to the New Land they brought their pantheon of Gods with them, what would happen to those relocated deities in a time and a place without faith?"

I thought the idea of foreign Gods wandering around America trying to make lives for themselves after losing all their worshippers was a brilliant idea. I often wonder what it's like for a country like Egypt, where thousands of years ago polytheism ruled the land but now the Bast's and the Osiris's have fallen from worship to become tall tales like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill.

I really enjoyed this book from start to finish. Gaiman introduces Gods from all different regions in interesting, often appropriate fashions. Shiva as a prostitute, Anubis as a mortician, Loki as a con-man. The dialogue is clever and sharp. It's a very trippy plot, bouncing back and forth between POVs and timelines, dealing with deaths and resurrections and reincarnations. Gaiman manages to keep things on an even keel, however, and the conclusion is more or less satisfying in tying up the two dozen or so loose ends created in the narrative. I should mention also that there's a really well done murder mystery subplot set in the all-too-peaceful town of Silver Lake, Michigan. A small girl disappears and Shadow is asked to help in the search. That's about all I can say without giving too much away, but its a really interesting subplot with a satisfying ending.

Like I said, I'm a mythology nut, so this book was almost tailor-made for me. I'll still recommend it to anyone who'll listen though because its a well put together story with interesting characters and a memorable plot.

Highlights: Odin, Mad Sweeney, the Silver Lake subplot, murder by vaginal mastication
Lowlights: No Greek/Roman gods, a little too much Deus Ex Machina... But I suppose that makes sense all things considered.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ironweed by William Kennedy

That scab was the first man Francis Phelan ever killed. His name was Harold Allen and he was a single man from Worcester, Massachussetts, a member of the IOOF, of Scotch-Irish stock, twenty-nine years old, two years of college, veteran of the Spanish-American War who had seen no combat, an itinerant house painter who found work in Albany as a strikebreaker and who was now sitting across the aisle of the bus from Francis, dressed in a long black coat and a motorman's cap.

Why did you kill me? was the question Harold Allen's eyes put to Francis.

is a prime example of the letdown of strong memories; some books you think of very highly at one point in your life only to find upon re-reading them that, though still good, they don't live up to the way you remember them.

Francis Phelan is an ex-ballplayer, an ex-father, and an ex-husband, but he is currently a bum. He has returned to the Albany his youth with his bum ladyfriend Helen, to do bum things like taking small jobs and drinking and sleeping in old ruined cars and drinking. This is the time of the Great Depression, and Phelan's condition is unexceptional; he lives in a subterranean bum culture where he knows everyone and is known by everyone. Francis has no illusions about the cause of his poverty: He is his own downfall. But he is also the downfall of others, and on this pair of days in Albany--Halloween and All Saints' Day--he finds himself being followed by those whose death he has caused in his life. None of these murders is indefensible--the killing of the scab was (mostly) unintentional; another bum he killed when attacked; a horse thief he simply failed to pull onto a moving train-car before he was shot in the back. And yet they are attached to Francis in death nonetheless.

The most significant of these is his son Gerald, whom he dropped as an infant, a crime for which Francis has not forgiven himself and which caused him to leave home. Gerald does not follow Francis around, but they "meet" in the beginning of the book, when Francis visits the graveyard:

In his grave, a cruciformed circle, Gerald watched the advent of his father and considered what action might be appropriate to their meeting. Should he absolve the man of all guilt, not for the dropping, for that was accidental, but for the abandonment of the family, for craven flight when the steadfast virtues were called for? Gerald's grave trembled with superb possibility. Denied speech in life, having died with only monosyllabic goos and gaahs in his vocabulary, Gerald possessed the gift of tongues in death...

Gerald, through an act of silent will, imposed on his father the pressing obligation to perform his final acts of expiation for abandoning the family. You will not know, the child silently said, what these acts are until you have performed them all. And after you performed them you will not understand that they were expiatory any more than you have understood all the other expiation that has kept you in such prolonged humiliation. Then, when these final acts are complete, you will stop trying to die because of me.

Perhaps Francis sees his life as a slow death, inching aimlessly toward the grave that others keep falling into. But perhaps it is through the bum's life--the sickness, the hunger, the decreptitude--that Francis is unconsciously repaying the immensity of his sins. Late in the book Francis revisits the house of his estranged wife, and looks on as the collected souls he has killed build a set of bleachers in the yard. Though Francis' steps toward rehabilitation are small and they seem to come without premeditation, we are invited to see them as a grand finale in which wrongs finally become righted. There is a strong undercurrent of Catholicism in Ironweed, and this is a particularly Catholic idea: To be of a bum is to wear a hairshirt for decades; forty years of saying "hail-mary."

Bits like the ones I quoted above keep the novel interesting, but they are ponderous and Ironweed never seems to come up for air. Even in Francis' rehabilitation the sense of loss is crushing, and Kennedy's slow, genealogically detailed style makes it sometimes a difficult slog. One exception is a long chapter in which we follow Helen, who has left Francis to fend for himself, as she does what bums do all day: wander and scrounge for food. Without the troop of the dead following the narrative, it becomes lighter and more fluid, and perhaps Helen is just more genuinely likeable than Francis. And I think perhaps the conceit of the dead physically following a man around is too doggedly literal; Kennedy shows Francis his ghosts to remind him that they are there, but they are given awfully little to do and too often seem untethered to present events.

Thinking back on the book now, after having put it down for about a week, perhaps my initial thoughts were unfair: Ironweed has a lot to think about, probably more for me now than it did in high school. And yet, I don't think I'll be picking it up a third time.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

"Tell me about this Monster of Florence."
"You've never heard of him?"
"Isn't the story famous in America?"
"It's completely unknown."
"That surprises me. It seems...an almost American story. And your own FBI was involved - that group Thomas Harris made so famous, the Behavioral Science Unit. I saw Thomas Harris at one of the trials, taking notes on a yellow legal pad. They say he based Hannibal Lecter on the Monster of Florence."
Now I was really interested. "Tell me the story."

The Monster of Florence, co-written by Douglas Preston, an American crime writer, and Mario Spezi, an Italian journalist, sounds intriguing from the very first page. And for the first third of the book, it mostly is. The book is written from the first-person perspective of Preston, and in the first part of the book, he focuses on Spezi's experience with the case. Mario Spezi has been researching and writing out the Florentine serial killer since the "first" killing in the 1970s.

The killer had an unusual modus operandi - he would prey upon couples having sex in parked vehicles in the Tuscan countryside. He typically crept up to the window of the car, shot the male to incapacitate (and kill) him and then killed the female. He would then drag his female victims out of the car and mutilate them before leaving the bodies out in the open. The killer would make unusual and calculated cuts on the females. At first he removed their vaginas, and in the later killings, sometimes a breast too. It was speculated that the killer had surgical experience based on the precision of the injuries, as well as a deep-seated hate of the female gender.

Spezi was called to the scene of the first discovered crime in the mid-1970s and became fascinated and horrified by the crime. Later, an earlier killing of the same type was linked to this and the legend of a serial killer stalking Florence was born. The Monster of Florence killed 8 couples during his reign, mostly young unmarried Italian couples living at home who parked on dark country roads for a little privacy on the weekends.

The first third of the book focuses on the killings themselves, the feelings and tensions in Florence during the 10 year reign of the Monster, and Spezi's experiences with the investigations of each killing. As the book moves chronologically into the future however, it loses focus. Rather than remaining a tightly wrapped narrative, Preston starts to incorporate a host of characters, one after another. The four page long "Cast of Characters" at the book's beginning should have warned me that this would happen. The Monster case was the largest and most involved criminal case investigated in Florence up to that time. As more and more investigators, prosecutors and laymen became involved and were introduced by Preston, the book began to plod.

Preston and Spezi devote most of their time in the last half of the book to describing the various trials and generally terrible theories that the Italian criminal justice system can come up with to explain how their arrested suspects could have masterminded or participated in the killings. At the end of the book, when they themselves are accused of obstruction of justice and actually particpating in a coverup of the crimes, it does not give the book the jolt of energy it so desperately needs.

This was a slow read. While I buzzed through the first half of the book in a few days, the second half was painfully dull. The more cockamamie characters Preston and Spezi introduced, the less interested I was in the outcome of the criminal trials.

The Monster of Florence does not have the characteristically tight dramatic writing style of a legal thriller but then neither does it have the necessary excitement of a crime drama. It would be hard to characterize this book as anything other than disappointing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

At dawn, a juggernaut of thunder wheeled over the stony heavens in a spark-throwing tumult. rain fell softly on town cupolas, chuckled from rainspouts, and spoke in strange subterranean tongues, beneath the windows where Jim and Will knew fitful dreams, slipping out of one, trying another for size, but finding all cut from the same dark, mouldered cloth.

In the rustling drumbeat, a second thing occurred:

From the sodden carnival grounds, the carousel suddenly spasmed to life. Its calliope fluted up malodorous steams of music.

I had never read Something Wicked This Way Comes, but I have good memories of reading Ray Bradbury's short stories as a boy, including two other books tangentially related to this one, The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine. Then, a year or so ago, I happened to pick up Fahrenheit 451, which I had never read. It was good, I thought, if a little scattershot. But I was disappointed by one of the appended stories, "The Veldt," which I remembered fondly but upon returning seemed shallow and artless. I figured I had overestimated Bradbury as a teenager, biased by a love of speculative fiction.

For that reason, I was blown away by Something Wicked This Way Comes, which, along with Dandelion Wine, I had always thought of as juvenile fiction--and true, Something Wicked seems like it might appeal to a particularly bright kid, as it embodies a lot of what is at the heart of childhood: a sense of immortality and limitless fantasy, coupled with an ironic desire to be older. But it is also about nostalgia, and the desire of adults to have what they lost by leaving their childhood. Also the prose, while bold and full of strong visual imagery like you expect from YA fiction, has a certain obtuse flair that kids might find hard to follow, but that really makes the book enjoyable for an adult reader.

Macbeth's witches provide the title: "By the pricking of my thumbs / something wicked this way comes." That "something wicked" is a carnival, Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show, populated by a number of freaks: the ancient and mummified fortuneteller called Dust Witch, the human skeleton, the dwarf, and the Illustrated Man, Dark himself, who is covered head-to-toe in tattoos--tattoos which we find represent the souls trapped in bondage by the evil carnival. Cooger and Dark have travelled the world with evil intent for centuries, kept in stasis by a carousel that can age a rider forwards or backwards, depending on the way it is ridden.

Two boys, Jim and Will, discover the carnival's secret and set out to destroy it, in typical fashion. Will is horrified by the carnival, but Jim is seduced by the idea of the carousel. I love Bradbury's descriptions of Jim's character:

Waiting, his eyes were dark as twilight, with shadows under the eyes from the time, his mother said, he had almost died when he was three and still remembered. His hair was dark autumn chestnut and the veins in his temples and brow and in his neck and ticking in his writsts and on the backs of his slender hands, all these were dark blue. He was marbled with dark, was Jim Nightshade, a boy who talked less and smilled less as the years increased.

The trouble with Jim was he looked at the world and could not look away. And when you never look away all your life, by the time you are thirteen you have done twenty years worth of taking in the laundry of the world.

Jim is "marbled with dark." That says it all, doesn't it? Jim's counterpoint is Will's father, Charles Halloway, who works at the local library and longs to recapture the magic of youth. Dark's carousel, of course, provides that opportunity, but at a tremendous cost. A lesser book would present this as a conflict of conscience, where Charles is forced to choose between youth and the safety of his son, but Bradbury is wisely content to present Charles as a man who has no doubts when it comes to helping his son, but aware of his own temptations all the same.

Though Will and Jim are its heroes, some of the most powerful passages in the book come from Charles:

His wife smiled in her sleep.


She's immortal. She has a son.

Your son, too!

But what father ever really believes it? He carries no burden, he feels no pain. What man, like woman, lies down in darkness and gets up with child? The gentle, smiling ones, own the good secret. Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity. They live inside the gift, know power, accept, and need not mention it. Why speak of Time when you are Time, and shape the universal moments, as they pass, into warmth and action? How men envy and often hate these warm clocks, these wives, who know they will live forever. So what do we do? We men turn terrible mean, because we can't hold to the world or ourselves or anything. We are blind to continuity, all breaks down, falls, melts, stops, rots, or runs away. So, since we cannot shape Time, where does that leave men? Sleepless. Staring.

I love that. That passage alone rehabilitates Bradbury for me, and I think I'm going to have to revisit Dandelion Wine in the near future. All in all, this is one book I am glad that I stole from school.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Beep Your Horn for HIV Prevention by Peace Corps Cameroon

I'll keep this short because I know I'm basically just begging for alms. Some of you already know that I'm a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. I'm working with other volunteers in the West Province on an HIV/AIDS education conference next month. We're targeting motorcycle taxi drivers. Moto drivers are usually young men (20s to early 30s) who make up a sizable portion of the population and have unfettered access to the people of the village/town/city. This mobile population is highly implicated in both the transmission and prevention of HIV, and yet it is often overlooked when it comes to HIV prevention education. Imagine doing a nation-wide college lecture circuit on the dangers of binge drinking... but not inviting any of the frat houses to attend.

Anyway, if you'd like more information about the project or to make a donation (any small amount would be hugely appreciated) then just follow this link to the donation form.

Also if you guys could, in the comments section, mention that you saw this on fiftybooks.blogspot.com so I can properly thank you guys after all the money is in. Thanks again and God bless you all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

"Katniss, it's just hunting. You're the best hunter I know," says Gale.
"It's not just hunting. They're armed. They think."
"So do you. And you've had more practice. Real practice," he says. "You know how to kill."
"Not people," I say.
"How different can it be, really?" says Gale grimly.
The awful thing is that if I can forget they're people, it will be no different at all.

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 of Panem, the dictatorship that rose from the ashes of the United States. The Capitol of Panem is surrounded by 12 districts, which it rules with an iron fist, a "fist" that obliterated the revolutionary District 13. District 12 mines coal, and seems to would no doubt at one time been called Apalachia. As a reminder of its power, the Capitol hold the annual Hunger Games. Two teenagers are chosen from each district to fight to the death in a place referred to as "the arena." The last man or woman standing gets to live out the rest of his or her life in relative luxury. Katniss little sister is chosen during this draft, but Katniss volunteers to go in her stead. The other teenager "reaped" from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, who has a bit of history with Katniss. Of course, this is someone who Katniss must view with a kill-or-be-killed mentality.

This book is equal parts: Running Man, Survivor, and Lord of the Flies, with just a dash of teenage romance. The relationship between Katniss, Peeta, and her "friend" from District 12, Gale fits into the YA fiction model. That is to say, it is not very interesting, nor noteworthy. The action that takes place within the arena, however, is worth mentioning. The book is incredibly violent. Blood is nearly its own character. Children are impaled, stung to death, and eaten alive -- not by other contestants, cannibalism is one of the few no-nos in the Hunger Games.

The novel reads quickly, in large part because there are no flourishes to Collins prose. It is fairly straight forward and to the point. Most of the plot moves rapidly, mimicking the pace of its characters as they attempt to outrun and outsmart each other. The second half slows down a bit, with Katniss trying to nurse Peeta back to health. I am sure that Collins was trying to make a statement about the effects of violence and war on children, but there was not enough psychological development of her characters for this to be effective. There were some minor plot points that I simply had to look over. For example, these "games" were supposedly televised to the entire country of Panem, but at no point does Katniss mention seeing a camera. There were other similar plot devises that while annoying did not have a huge effect on my enjoyment of the book.

For YA fiction, this was pretty good.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is about a seagull named Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It is also full-length feature film, and an accompanying soundtrack by Neil Diamond (no joke). It took me all of 30 minutes to read, and I almost feel bad counting it, but, hey, it looks like a book, it quacks like a book, and I need to catch up.
He was alive, trembling ever so slightly with delight, proud that his fear was under control. Then without ceremony he hugged in his forewings, extended his short, angled wingtips, and plunged directly into the sea. By the time he passed four thousand feet he had reached terminal velocity, the wind was a solid bleating wall of sound against which he could move no faster. He was flying now straight down, at two hundred fourteen miles per hour. He swallowed, knowing that if his wings unfolded at that speed he'd be blown into a million tiny shreds of seagull. But the speed was power, and the speed was joy, and the speed was pure beauty.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull decides that he wants more out of life than eating and fighting for food scraps. He devotes all of his time to mastering the art of flying, so much that he's cast out of The Flock. He spends his entire life perfecting every element of flying just for the joy of it, then dies, only to find that his devotion in life to a higher calling earned him a place in the next world, full of its own challenges to be conquered. Ultimately, he realizes that his true place is helping others out of their trapped mindsets in The Flock, and becomes a sort of seagull messiah, leading other seagulls (like Fletcher Lynd Seagull, Henry Calvin Seagull, and William Martin Seagull) from ignorance into light.

In case you can't tell, this is a seagull-themed self-help book. It has some great sentiments, but they can all really just be boiled down to "be true to yourself." This book bothered me for the same reason that Ishmael bothered me. Daniel Quinn and Richard Bach both came up with a semi-philosophical treatise, and instead of publishing it outright, they drape it in some unnecessary anthropomorphic animal story, which is borderline patronizing. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a more inventive character, and a fuller one, than Ishmael, whose explanation of how he came to be able to communicate telepathically was "I can't recall, but let me tell you about some hunter-gatherers." I think Quinn did it because his premise is completely impractical and impossible and smells a bit like eugenics. Bach probably needed a seagull because his self-help goes from warm and obvious to just plain silly. Here's his plan as told through Jonathan Livingston: do what you love most (yeah), ignore your limitations (got it), pass on to the next world and master teleportation and time travel (wait, what).

I know a lot of people love this book, so if you think I got it wrong you should just take the 20 minutes to read it. Seriously, this thing is the size of a postcard, has two inch margins, huge font, and pictures of seagulls every two pages. Still, hard to hate a book full of pictures of seagulls, lovable scamps.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Dubliners by James Joyce

I first read this back in high school when I was too lazy to appreciate it, or read it. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man two years ago, and it slowly became one of my favorites, resonating with me on a very personal level. But that's the thing about Joyce: only a few passages strike me as beautiful or profound as I'm reading them, I typically only appreciate the book as a whole, in retrospect. He isn't very given to lyricism, but when he does put flourish into his words, it shows, as in this passage from "The Dead".

The horse was whipped up and the cab rattled off along the quay amid a chorus of laughter and adieus.
Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing.
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.


This collection of short stories is a perfect example of his work functioning only as a whole. I don't think he meant this as a set of standalone works, but rather a piecemeal portrait of dirty old Dublin: here are its drunks, here its aristocracy, here the lonely scholar. Each character is given a brutally honest once over before the next is introduced, and when all the plights and dramas of various Dubliners are stacked up, you've got a very human, bleeding, shitting city. Its citizens face the same crises as we do. A young boy is confronted with death for the first time, a woman's fear of leaving her country, dreary as it is, costs her a bright future.
Evelyn and A Painful Case stood out when I was reading. But, without contest, The Dead is the crown jewel, appropriately saved for last. Gabriel's inner conflict in The Dead is painfully familiar, as is his slow revelation of the fleeting nature of life, a breathtaking passage that I wanted to reproduce here, but won't for fear of taking away some of its kick. Those three are the only that I'd say could be rightly enjoyed outside the book, but you can't see Joyce's whole, conflicted portrayal of Dublin if you do. He's trying to create an Irish identity without romanticizing his people or his country, and has a hard time of it. He puts so much sorrow and so much of his own wanderlust in his characters, the overriding sense of Dublin is of a city that butts up against sorrow regularly, and covers it up and pushes on.

If you take it on, I highly recommended reading it aloud with a thick Irish accent.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

As an undergrad majoring in history, I took a class called American Ideas. In the class we explored the ideas upon which the United States was established. As you can imagine, much of the class focused on Puritan ideology. But the end of the quarter we had made our way to some of the writings of the Founding Fathers. But even they were heavily influenced by the early colonists. The Puritans were a bizarre and interesting bunch, but no one can doubt the effect that they had on what would ultimately become the United States.

As Vowell points out, most Americans have a passing knowledge of the Puritans because of grade school Thanksgiving Day pageants, The Scarlett Letter, and the witch hunts that took place in Salem. Of course, Vowell rightly argues that this limited exposure paints an inaccurate picture of Puritan society. The Wordy Shipmates is about a specific group of Puritans. As Vowell says, it is about "those Puritans who fall between the cracks of 1620 Plymouth and 1692 Salem." She is referring to the the Puritans of the Massachusetts bay Colony and later those of Rhode Island.

I have always liked Sarah Vowell. The first time I heard of her was years ago on Conan. She was a guest (a last minute fill in, no doubt) and all they talked about was how cool Abraham Lincoln was. At the end of the interview Conan asked her if she had anything to plug, and she replied that she really didn't. So Conan mentioned that she was a regular contributor to NPR's The American Life and was the author several books. I read Take the Canoli a few weeks later. Last year I read Assassination Vacation. I am drawn to the quirky darkness in Vowell's writing. She is also a history nerd, which is cool.

While The Wordy Shipmates has the same slightly-skewed take on American history as Vowell's other works, it lacked any real structure. The book was loosely organized around the aforementioned group of Puritans, focusing heavily on John Winthrop. But this allows for a wide variety of topics: Puritan ideas of justice and punishment, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, etc. Vowells jumps from one topic to the next, making much of the book feel disjointed. This could probably be blamed on the lack of chapters and the headings that usually come with them. I'm not sure what made Vowell choose to structure here book in this way, but I found it a little disorienting. However, this did not stop me from enjoying the book and actually learning quite a few things that I either didn't know who had forgotten about. Overall, The Wordy Shipmates was worth the read.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Nathan started his review of Watchmen by stating that he didn't think he would be able to write a review that did the book justice. I share that sentiment. I should start by saying that I am not really a comic book fan. When I was a kid I read Ducktales and Rescue Rangers comics, but I never made the jump to "grown-up comics" (see 1 Corinthians 13:11).

Over the years, it has come to the attention of some of my friends and acquaintances that I don't really like comics. Somewhere in the course of their trying to convince me that I should read this comic or that comic, Watchmen invariably comes up. I just kind of wrote it off as just another comic -- excuse me...graphic novel -- that comic fans love. Then a couple of years ago, Time named it one of 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present. Watchmen was the only graphic novel to make the list. I started thinking that maybe I should pick it up. I heard that they were making it into a film (the ultimate marker of whether something is worthwhile) and decided that I should read it before I saw the film.

The story, set in 1985 but of an alternate reality (not completely unlike Back to the Future II) follows a group of superheroes as they uncover a sinister plot that affects the stability of the world. So, that doesn't sound all that ground-breaking. Well, there people aren't really superheroes, because all but one of them are just regular people. They are essentially vigilantes, fighting against what they see as societies ills. And there are plenty of societal ills in the Cold War era reality that Moore creates. But these real people have "real people" problems -- more abundant in some than in others. What is it that drove them to a life of fighting crime? What do they see as crime? These masked vigilantes have biases, opinions, and prejudices just like the next guy. So, the question is raised, "Sure the Watchmen are watching us, but who's watching the Watchmen?"

The storyline was rather simply, but it unfolded in patchwork form. The credit really goes to Moore for his ability to weave together storyline and dialogue. Like Nathan, I enjoyed Moore's proclivity to flesh out two storylines as the same time using on line of dialogue. This happened most often during flashback sequences, of which there were many. Moore supplied his readers with a wealth of background information about each of the Watchmen. Much of it was supplied by means of short interstitials between the chapters. These were things that have been mentioned or featured in some way in the graphic portions of the novel. For instance, one of the Watchmen wrote a tell-all after retiring, and the book comes up a number of times in various conversations. So a few of these interstitials were excepts from that memoir, while others were newspaper clippings, or selections from a police file.

The realism of the novel fades as Watchmen comes nears its end. It is slowly usurped by an tone that is over-the-top. The plot that seemed so simple morphs into something that is much larger than the story of a league of crime fighters. As Christopher points out in his review, the novel is chalked full of symbolism and meta-narratives. By the end, the seemingly concrete aspects of the story have given away to something much more abstract. In this respect, it put me in mind of The Man Who Was Thursday. That is to say that I was impressed by Watchmen. It's no Rescue Rangers...but what is?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Secrets of a Fire King by Kim Edwards

A couple of years ago, I read The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Kim Edwards first novel. The book was somber, bordering on depressing, but I really liked it. Edwards did an excellent job of developing her characters throughout the novel. So when I saw that Edwards has published a book of short stories I quickly grabbed it up.

The stories in this collection focus on the people at the edge of societies, people living on the fringe: the woman who rents lodgings to Madame Curie, the Korean woman who marries a GI and moves to Pennsylvania, the girl who reluctantly travels with her mother who is a leader in the anti-abortion movement. My favorite stories were the ones that flirted with the supernatural. 'In the Garden' is the story of a young man and woman who routinely drink what they believe to be an elixir of life, a potion that will enable them to cheat death, only to find out that the potion has nearly the exact opposite effect, hastening them towards the day that their bodies cease to work. 'Thirst' is the story of a mermaid who chose to leave her life "unda da sea" so that she could live out her days with a man. They have children and a life together, but her insatiable desire for the sea threatens the world they have constructed. 'The Secrets of a Fire King' was probably my favorite story. It was told from the perspective of Jasper, a 19th century fire eater who travels with a group of performers. In a small rural town -- the arena of choice for the troupe -- he falls in love with a young girl by the name of Jubilee. Her brother is enraptured with Jasper's apparent mastery of fire, and Jasper, in order to spend time with Jubilee, agrees to take him on as an apprentice. It quickly becomes clear that the young man has some issues, and he is none too happy when he finds out Jasper's intentions when it come to Jubilee. The characters are riveting, and the plot is taut and full of religious undertones.

Like Edward P. Jones, Edwards has a knack for developing her characters and stories in such a way that it is easy to forget that they are short stories. On numerous occasions, I have found myself slogging through a novel that is just simply too bloated, unnecessarily long. So it is refreshing to read excellently crafted stories that are around forty pages in length. Alas, brevity is not easy.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan W. Watts

One of my friends wanted me to read this book. He pointed to it as one of the things responsible for a sea change in his religious thinking. It doesn't seem that the book had as profound an effect on me as it did my friend, but had I read it five or six years ago it may well have.

Watts was a British philosopher, who focused on comparative religions. He was a prolific writer, publishing countless books, the first in 1936 when he was only 21 years old. He is best known as an interpreter of Indian and Chinese philosophy for a Western audience. More specifically, he is known as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism. I knew nothing about the man before I started this book, but it was easy to see the influence Eastern thought had on him. Not only does Watts quote from the Buddha and various Eastern philosophers, but his own words are often informed and shaped by this approach to philosophy.

I found it difficult to find the central thesis of the book. The best I can do is: We must live in the moment, for it is the only moment we've got. Watts convincingly argues that looking toward the future for happiness is an endless and unfulfilling cycle, asserting that those who do so fail to live because they are always preparing to live. As he says, to pursue the future is "to pursue a constantly retreating phantom." One of my favorite quotes from the book has at its heart this notion of living fully in the moment: "One of the highest pleasures is to be more or less unconscious of one's own existence , to be absorbed in interesting sights, sounds, places, and people. Conversely, one of the greatest pains is to be self-conscious to feel unabsorbed and cut off from the community and the surrounding world."

While this book was not responsible for a sea change in my thinking, it did reaffirm many of my personal philosophies and beliefs and push them in new directions. It gave words to some of the ideas that have been bouncing around my head and refined my thinking. I have thought quite a lot about the book since I finished it. I even picked it back up a few times to look at some of the portions that I highlighted. I have a feeling The Wisdom of Insecurity will be one of the books that sticks with me for a while.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz

I lay thinking and listening to the bumping of my heart. I remembered that I had not said goodbye to Ushakova. I decided she would not have wanted me to. The hours dragged by. Gradually the hut grew quiet. There was a loud snoring from someone. A man babbled in his sleep. Someone, barely awake, got up and stoked the stove near his bunk.

Smith tapped my shoulder. "Now," he whispered. Gently I shook Kolemenos. "Now, " I repeated.

I don't really know what to say about The Long Walk, it is perhaps one of the most incredible testaments to the strength of human will. I have no qualms calling Rawicz's escape the most epic in the history of incarceration. Seven men bolted from a Russian prison camp in 1941 and journeyed over 4,000 miles, on foot, with a week's worth of food, an axe, and a knife as their only supplies.

4,000 miles south through the Siberian arctic, the unforgiving wasteland of the Gobi desert, and over and through the Himalayas. ON FOOT FOR CHRIST'S SAKE. Just sitting here writing it out blows my mind that anyone survived to put the tale on paper.

That said, The Long Walk as literature is a disappointment. Written by Rawicz himself, apparently with no help from a professional writer, The Long Walk reads like a textbook. A boring one at that. I mean, let's give the guy some credit. He fought for the Polish cavalry in the Great War. He was then accused of espionage for no reason other than the fact that he lived in Eastern Poland under Stalin's regime. After months of imprisonment and a mockery of a trial, he is sentenced to twenty-five years in a Russian work camp. He is then forced to live on an overcrowded train car for a few weeks in transit to the work camp. After all that, he has to walk over a thousand miles through Siberian snowfall with hundreds of other prisoners to arrive at the camp. After a few months of work, he plans his escape and manages the more than four thousand miles, on foot, to India. So what does homie do after finally achieving freedom? He heads back to Poland, enlists in the Air Force, and fights the Nazis in World War 2. How is this guy not considered history's ultimate badass?

I just wish he'd have let someone else tell his story. We learn very little about Rawicz or his companions and as a result, it's hard to look at them as real people instead of just characters in a novel. Rawicz's descriptions of the hardships they endure and the deaths of his friends read like technical manuals. Unless you constantly step back and look at their journey on its unimaginable scale, you never really get the impression that these guys are suffering all that much. I can't help but think how much more popular and acclaimed this book would be if it had been put together by a professional writer.

The end of the story is almost surreal. Characters are killed off in a few sentences and never mentioned again. Rawicz spends a page describing what he was certain was an encounter with abominable snowmen. And then the book ends after the remaining escapees are rescued, with Rawicz describing himself as "suddenly bereft of friends, bereft of everything, as desolate and lonely as a man can be. THE END." Seriously? That's how you end a book about how you conquered the ENTIRE ASIAN CONTINENT by sheer force of will alone? Come on, guy.

Anyway, the book is certainly worth reading because the story itself is mind-blowing in its scale. I just wish it hadn't been autobiographical.

Highlights: The epic story.
Lowlights: The epic failure of the storytelling.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Read Me a Story, Mr. Roboto

Here is an interesting/amusing article about Kindle 2's text-to-speech feature.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

It was, for example, a running joke at the Court that outsiders frequently mistook Souter and Breyer for each other. No one could really understand why this happened, because the two bore little resemblance. One day when Souter was making his usual solo drive from Washington to New Hampshire, he stopped for lunch in Massachusetts. A stranger and his wife came up to him and asked, "Aren't you on the Supreme Court?"
Souter said he was.
"You're Justice Breyer, right?" said the man.
Rather than embarrass the fellow, Souter simply nodded and exchanged pleasantries, until he was asked an unexpected question.
"Justice Breyer, what's the best thing about being on the Supreme Court?"
The justice thought for a while, then said, "Well I'd have to say it's the privilege of serving with David Souter."

In The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, his history of the modern Supreme Court, its justices, and its decisions, Jeffrey Toobin writes a thoroughly enjoyable piece of nonfiction that could just as easily turn up in a book club's monthly selection as in a political science class at Carolina. It actually reminded me of some of the more pleasant books I was assigned to read in my classes. Toobin does what Peter Irons (The Courage of Their Convictions; A People's History of the Supreme Court) did before him: take the seemingly dry subject of the Supreme Court and make it an intriguing and entertaining read. Of course the secret to this is that the Supreme Court's decisions and deciders (yes, I'm going to use that blatant Bushism out of affection for the word, not the former president) are not really a dry subject at all.

Toobin's history starts with in the early 1980s and focuses on the Rehnquist Court. Toobin's decision to narrow his focus to the last three decades of the Court mainly involves his thesis, which is that the Supreme Court has become the forefront of the culture wars, especially during the Bush presidency, and that the unmistakable conservative view that the Court majority now holds is the result of a legal movement dating back to the Reagan presidency. Thus, Toobin is able to neatly bookend his history with the nascent beginnings of the Federalist Society in 1980 and the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito in 2005.

Interspersed along the backdrop of the growing conservative legal movement is the real meat of the book: the biographies and anecdotes relating to the justices and their various roles in deciding the important case of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. I took a constitutional law undergraduate course (where I read Irons' Courage) and was familiar with many of the cases described in the book, such as Bowers v. Hardwick and its companion reversal decision, Lawrence v. Texas and Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania v. Casey. While Irons' and other Supreme Court books tend to focus on the plaintiffs' stories, Toobin's book was so interesting precisely because it focused on the decision-makers themselves. Anecdotes like the one excerpted above humanize the justices and make for good reading to boot.

Along with their personal stories, the book focused on the justices' votes in key decisions like those mentioned above, and at times even detailed the agonizing decsions justices have to make from time to time, such as breaking from a favored political party's view on a case in order to give the most constitutionally sound argument. The evolution of the justices' own views in response to life on the Court, international travel and a changing sense of what the majority of Americans believed was an interesting angle in itself. All the while, I found it reassuring that Toobin kept coming back to his central thesis, the gradual creep of conservatism through the legal and political spheres and its wash over the court in 2006 and 2007 due to Alito and Roberts. Call me boring, but appreciate when a non-fiction book can tangentalize (word?) and still return to a central argument to tie everything together.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm glad Billy recommended it to me. The fact that it's been so long since my last post has no bearing on the readability of this book, but speaks more to the increasing demands on my attention of late. Enjoy this post boys, because the next one I write will be about a Nora Roberts trilogy! Don't hate.

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts--

I am writing to you for my little sister Gracie because something awfull hapened to her and I am afraid to tell mother about it. I am 15 years old and Gracie is 13 and we live in Brooklyn. Gracie is deaf and dumb and biger than me but not very smart on account of being deaf and dumb. She plays on the roof of our house and d ont go to school except to deaf and dumb school twice a week on tuesdays and thursdays. Mother makes her play on the roof because we dont want her to get run over as she aint very smart. Last week a man came on the roof and did something dirty to her. She told me about it and I dont know what to do as I am afraid to tell mother on account of her being lible to beat Gracie up. I am afraid that Gracie is going to have a baby an I listened to her stomack last night for a long time to see if I could hear the baby but I couldn't. If I tell mother she will beat Gracie up awful because I am the only one who loves her and last time when she tore her dress they loked her in the closet for 2 days and if the boys on the blok hear about it they will say dirty things like they did on Peewee Conors sister the time she got caught in the lots. So please what would you do if the same hapened in your family.

Yours truly,
Harold S.

Miss Lonelyhearts receives hundreds of letters like this every week--it's his job to respond to them for his newspaper column. At first, he took the job because it seemed easy and the other newspapermen treated it like a joke, but now he finds that the letters, which detail an amazing panorama of human misery, are haunting him and pushing him to the brink of an existential breakdown. To make matters worse, he is hounded by his editor, Shrike, who torments him with elaborate jokes at the expense of his religiosity and inner turmoil. "The Miss Lonelyhearts," says shrikes, "are the priests of America," but Miss Lonelyhearts is a priest who lacks any answers to the question of why evil exists in the world. Miss Lonelyhearts looks to art, love, sex, and religion to temper his misery, but finds that he cannot escape the horrible emptiness of the letters.

Eventually he receives a long letter from a woman whose husband is a cripple, asking him to meet her in person. The meeting turns out to be a booty call, and later on the situation is complicated when Miss Lonelyhearts receives a similar letter from the woman's crippled husband. When the women tries to force Miss Lonelyhearts to have sex with her again, he beats her up in rage, and the husband returns in anger, bringing the story to a violent end.

West was by trade a film writer, and has only four novels to his name. I had only read The Day of the Locust, which is fantastic, and this is significantly stranger than that--many of Miss Lonelyhearts' experiences are feverish and dreamlike. The world here is grotesque in the same fashion as Tod's painting in Locust, as if what had been contained by the artist's mind in that book has broken loose in this one to infect the universe. Apparently Locust is the most ordinary of West's four books, which include a book that prominent critic Arthur Ross once called "a sneer in the bathroom mirror at Art." Hilarious. Miss Lonelyhearts, however, is a freaky and horrifying little thing, and at less than 60 pages, only a little bit longer than this review.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was born up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For the morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoods of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing was fair and terrible even to the City. (RotK)

So instead of writing three separate blurbs, I've decided to just write one big ass mega-review of the trilogy as a whole. Additionally, I'm going to discuss the three movies in here as well. Those who know me know that I'm a film guy. It's my preferred form of story-telling. I think that, in many ways, it's more difficult to make a great film than a great book. A director doesn't have the luxury or the leeway of a reader's imagination to give form and depth to his creation. Think about it: When you read a story, there's never any cheesy acting or laughable costumes. All the action flows as smoothly as you can imagine it to. Film is not so forgiving. How easy would it have been for the Lord of the Rings films to look like this? So forgive me if I spend as much (if not more) time on the films as I do the books.

I'm reading the trilogy for the first time, but I saw the movies as they were released in theaters. I enjoyed them, but not exceedingly so, and I never watched them again on DVD or on television. I was able to borrow from someone the Extended Edition of the entire trilogy, so it is with those that I compare Tolkien's trilogy. After over 1000 pages of reading and over 11 hours of viewing, I'm ready to discuss the project, and then be done with the lore of Middle-Earth for good. Or, at least, until I share it with my kids one day.

The Fellowship of the Ring: In the first installment, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Tolkien's original story has even more of an epic feel than Jackson's re-imagining of it, if that's possible. We find that the story stretches over decades, not weeks or months as it appears in the film trilogy. The fact that Frodo lived with the burden of the ring for about 17 years before setting out to destroy it makes the difficulties he has in parting with the ring that much more believable.

You can tell right from the beginning that this is a work of unsurpassed ambition. Besides Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series, I've never come across a s with a scope as wide as Tolkien's trilogy. The man must have been a nerd of earth-shattering proportions. The man created vivid histories and lineages that traces back hundreds of years in his appendices. He invented a language, Elvish, of which I am proud to say I don't know a single world. All joking aside, it's one thing to weave a tale of wizards and elves and dragons. It's another to create an entire world, an ancient world with centuries of history, and chronicle the events of that world as if in a historical text. That's what Tolkien accomplished with The Lord of the Rings.

I thought the characterization in the novels was surprisingly weak, although I suppose that happens often in epics. Everyone from Frodo to Aragorn to Gandalf come across as a cardboard archetypes, seemingly devoid of emotion. Upon the wizard's demise, supposedly a great friend to Aragorn and the Halflings and all the rest of the fellowship, none of the characters spare a moment of grief. As much as I think Elijah Wood did an awful job in these films (Almost Nicolas Cage-esque in his overracting), I still think he humanized Frodo better than Tolkien did. That said, the books paint Frodo in a much more heroic light, and I don't think that came through in Wood's petulant performance.

One thing I found missing from the films was the feeling that Middle-Earth was a partitioned world where Men knew little of the magical realms around them. In the books, most of the human characters are amazed upon meeting the Hobbits of the shire, Legolas of the Mirkwood, and Gimli of the Lonely Mountain. In the novels, the world of men is awakening to find a world inhabited by Elves and Wargs and Ents, creatures from which years of isolation have faded from history to legend to myth, to paraphrase Gandalf.

The Two Towers: The second installment in the film-franchise was perhaps the most 'hollywoodized' of the three films. You've got all your classic movie tropes: flashbacks of a love that could not be (Aragorn and Arwen), the character that everyone thinks fell to his death but actually didn't (Perhaps best executed in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and the great battle of epic proportions where a vastly outnumbered host must hold on against insurmountable odds for a finite and declared amount of time (Look for Gandalf on first light of the fifth day or whatever it was). None of these scenes were actually in the books (save Aragorn and Arwen's flashbacks, though those appear in the Appendix) but they do a good job of adding life and interest to what is essentially a story without a beginning or an end. I thought The Two Towers was the only film better than it's literary counterpart.

I have to talk about Gollum here. When I first saw the films in theaters, every second he was on stage was agony for me. After reading the books, I still hate its screen time, but I now appreciate how perfectly Jackson captured Gollum's character, thus making the creature at least slightly bearable. Save that one scene where Gollum and Smeagol have a 5 minute conversation with themselves. That was just obnoxious.

One thing missing from the film that I really enjoyed in the novel was the discord between the forces of Saruman and those of Sauron. In the movies, you get the impression that everything is hunky dorey among the evil allies. In the book you get the sense that they are two distinct forces who have come together for one fell purpose but have not joined without friction.

The Ents were also much more interesting in the books than in the movies. I found them to be Tolkien's most ingenious creation. The tale of the tree warriors, slow to anger but incredibly powerful, was particularly interesting. When you think of how easily roots can destroy all matters of stone over long periods of time, the idea of that strength accelerated is an intriguing one.

It is in the second book that you really see that Sam is the true hero of the trilogy. Sean 'Rudy' Astin did a great job of portraying Master Gamgee, it was really the fault of the screenplay and the director that Sam's character comes across as a little flat and overly accusatory of Gollum. The books make it much clearer that Gollum drives Frodo and Sam to Shelob's lair because of his boundless desire to reacquire the ring rather than Sam's constant mistreatment and Frodo's apparent betrayal, as it is seen in the second film.

Oh, and one of my favorite features of the Extended Editions was the expanded role of Wormtongue AKA Doc Cochran of my much beloved Deadwood.

The Return of the King: I don't have much to say about the film version of RotK, as it was more or less perfect, in the sense that it was just about completely true to the source material and everything from the scenery to the individual performances was top notch. In fact, the final film perfectly exhibits one of the film's primary improvements over the novels. For the final two books, Tolkien split up the narratives of Frodo and Sam's journey to the Cracks of Doom and Aragorn's battles against Sauron's forces. I found myself far more interested in the efforts of Aragorn, Gandalf, Gimi, Legolas, Merry, and Pippin than I did the plodding pace of Frodo's journey. In combining the two timelines and alternating between scenes, Jackson created a more unified storyline and actually made Frodo and Sam's exploits more interesting by breaking them up.

Return of the King actually surprised me greatly at its end. I enjoyed the books as I was reading them, to be sure, but I was taken aback at how attached I found myself to the characters as the story came to a close. The 'Many Partings' of the story's close left me feeling like I was saying goodbye to friends of my own.

Tolkien's Highlights: The Ents, Théoden, Gimli and Legolas' interactions, The Scouring of the Shire
Tolkien's Lowlights: Complete lack of character psychology

Jackson's Highlights:
The battle sequences, the relationships between characters, (again) Gimli and Legolas, the fact that the one-eyed guy from 300 with the awesome voice plays Faramir, the fact that Legolas was a badass even though he was played by Bitchlando Bloom
Jackson's Lowlights: Elijah Wood