Monday, November 28, 2005

Artemis Fowl (by Eoin Colfer)

I checked this one out on the recommendation of a fan of the Potter. "If you like Harry Potter, you'll love Artemis Fowl!" she said. It turns out that was a big lie.

I'm absolutely willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to elves and trolls and dwarves and all that stuff. And in fact the world of the fairies is clever and fun, and Holly is a cool character. But to have a twelve-year-old human talking with the vocabulary of Professor Moriarity and the intellect of Stephen Hawking is just ridiculous. I couldn't get past it.

On top of that, our titular anti-hero is a horrid little brat, and it is deeply unsatisfying that someone doesn't smack the teeth out of his head before the book is over. I wanted the Oompa Loompas to show up and exact Wonka-esque torments on him, he would have fit right in. You're supposed to find him precocious and charming and sympathetic, I think, because he loves his mommy. Oh boo hoo. Hitler loved his mommy too, I'm sure.

Thumbs down!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Devil in the White City (by Erik Larson)

This is a non-fiction book about "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America," the Chicago World's Fair. I'm going to Chicago next weekend, so was interested to read some of the city's history, and it is a fascinating one. The story of the architecht and mastermind of the World's Fair is juxtaposed with the story of H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who operated in Chicago at the time.

The research is meticulous and the story is fascinating. The book is a bestseller and was nominated for the National Book Award. But my sense is that the book could have been better written. It's choppy in places, and the link between the murderer and the Fair isn't always as strong as it should be. After a while it feels like two separate stories that just happen to be told in alternating chapters. Plus, there's no indication that the fair had much of an impact on Holmes. Most of his murders (the ones described in some detail, anyway) are the ones that took place before the fair happened.

I was expecting a non-fiction book along the lines of Into Thin Air or Seabiscuit: a fascinating story that I wouldn't be able to put down. But I don't think Devil in the White City was as well written as either of them. This book could have been more of a page-turner, but it sort of fizzled out at the end, and I was left disappointed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

1984 (by George Orwell)

I've certainly read this before, but it must have been a long time ago, because there was much I'd forgotten about. Winston Smith, the Thought Police, Big Brother, and doubleplusungood were all ingrained in my mind. But the middle section of the plot, not so much.

I was hesitant to read it again because it's so relevant to today's world that it depresses me. But I persevered. I can't say it was really fun to read again, what with all the didacticism in book two and all the torture in book three. But it's not a book to forget, so I'm glad I re-read it.

"In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird." (Page 129)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Sister Carrie (by Theodore Dreiser)

I'm reading Devil in the White City, and there's a Sister Carrie reference, so I figured I'd read it. It's less about Chicago (the characters end up in New York) and more about the time and place. There's a lot about capitalism, the whole sex-money power exchange, and a woman trying to assert her independence. Some of the themes are misogynistic but I couldn't help liking the end, since I hated, hated, hated Huntsworth. Or Huntwood. Or whatever his name was. I've forgotten already!

In conclusion, eh. It's on the Modern Library list only, so you know it's a slightly sexist book by a dead white guy, and probably not a must-read. Not a must-read.

"When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small truck, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money." (Page 1)

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Appointment in Samarra (by John O'Hara)

Here's another one of those "thank god for the reading list" books. Appointment in Samarra is wonderful; I can't recommend it enough. It's the American social scene as observed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, crossed with the lean prose style of Hemingway, sprinkled with a little bit of Henry Miller's sexual forthrightness. In many ways the ultimate modern novel.

I ran across this book at the bookstore. I went to go look it up because it was on my reading list (and I believe on the Time Magazine reading list) and I hadn't heard of it. As soon as I read the epigram, which is where the title comes from, by way of W. Somerset Maugham, I was sucked in. I read the first couple of chapters right there, and it became one of those very rare books (these days, anyway) that I would actually buy.

"She let her eyes get tender in a way she had, starting a smile and them seeming to postpone it. She stood in front of him and kissed him. Without taking her mouth away she pulled his tie out of his vest and unbuttoned his vest, and then she let him go. 'Come on !' she said, and lay with her face down on the pillow, shutting out everything else until he was with her. It was the greatest single act of their married life. He knew it, and she knew it. It was the time she did not fail him." (Page 66)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Crying of Lot 49 (by Thomas Pynchon)

I finished the book feeling exactly like Oedipa Maas: with some meaning trembling just at the edge of consciousness. Was that on purpose?

Some beautiful prose in this book, as well as some confusing prose (Pynchon really could help us all out with a few more commas, is all I'm saying). The wordplay is fun to spot, naming the radio station KCUF, as a small example, or the word "lot" turning up so many times as kind of a red herring among many.

Basically what I'm getting at here is that the book defies description. Just go read it!

"A number of frail girls...prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world."

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Sideways (by Rex Pickett)

I had dismissed this book wholesale after flipping through it in a bookstore a couple of years ago, but when I saw it on the library shelf I thought, what the hell. That's the beauty of libraries.

Of course the question is, how does it compare to the movie? The movie took the novel and improved on it, particularly the ending (everything from the wedding on). But the novel isn't crap, either. It's well written for the most part. I just think the filmmakers made some really good choices (like taking out Brad, and the ending, and so forth). My favorite scenes from the movie (Miles and Maya talking about Pinot, Miles drinking the wine in the hamburger joint) aren't in the book at all. So the screenplay is one of those rare adaptations that improves on the source material, and that Oscar was well deserved.

Also the book contains the phrase "I spelunked for her clitoris" and I think that pretty much speaks for itself. Spelunked? Like with a pith helmet and everything?

Kim (by Rudyard Kipling)

Sometimes I read books so you don't have to. Not that Kim is bad, exactly, in spite of the words of my fiance, which were something like "Life's too short to read Kim or Saul Bellow." It's one of those books that I started about eight billion times, since it's available as an etext, but could never get past the first paragraph of. Sort of like Lord Jim now that I think about it.

So is it worth getting past the first paragraph? Not exactly. I enjoyed the character of the lama and his relationship with Kim, but I don't know enough about the Crimean war or even the English rule of India (which I should know about since I studied it extensively in my British Empire class in college) to understand half of what happened. At times I popped into Barnes and Noble to read the annotated version, since Spark Notes doesn't have notes on Kim, more's the pity.

Anyway, it was a little confusing, mildly entertaining, well written at parts, but trust me, you don't have to read it if you don't have to. You know what I mean.

"He did not want to cry—had never felt less like crying in his life—but of a sudden easy, stupid tears trickled down his nose, and with an almost audible click he felt the wheels of his being lock up anew on the world without. Things that rode meaningless on the eyeball an instant before slid into proper proportion. Roads were meant to be walked upon, houses to be lived in, cattle to be driven, fields to be tilled, and men and women to be talked to. They were all real and true—solidly planted upon the feet—perfectly comprehensible—clay of his clay, neither more nor less. He shook himself like a dog with a flea in his ear, and rambled out of the gate." (Chapter 15)