Monday, August 31, 2015

We Were Liars (by E. Lockhart)

Picked this up at a bookstore and got sucked in. It's a hard one to write about though, since the narrator has amnesia (or does she) after an accident (or was it) and is unreliable (or is she reliable after all). The setting is appealing -- a private island off Martha's Vineyard owned by a Kennedy-esque family. There is a main house and three smaller houses owned by each of three daughters, echoes of King Lear. Rich people behaving badly. And there is a Secret to be Uncovered.

You know I can't resist an unreliable narrator. The ending is earned, and though it's somewhat predictable -- I certainly don't think it's completely predictable. Again, I'm struggling with what to write, since I think the less you know, the better. It's an entertaining YA read, and you probably already know if you'd like it. If you've read it, let's talk spoilers in the comments.


Don Quijote (by Miguel de Cervantes), Volume 1

I've been reading Don Quijote (or Quixote, the more enjoyable spelling because it has an x) for months, and just reached the end of volume one. Did you know it was published in two volumes, published 10 years apart? Did you know Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare's? Did you know this novel -- at least part one -- is a satire? Did you know it has a bunch of metatextual layers that address fiction qua fiction? I knew none of these things!

I knew about Scott Bakula singing songs from the musical on the Quantum Leap soundtrack. I knew about the concept of tilting at windmills. Based on that, I thought it was a noble tale -- did not get that Quixote himself is actually an insane old man, and that Sancho is a fool. So it's much funnier than I was expecting.

There are a lot of stories-within-stories in Quixote, and a lot of discussion about the implausibility of this or that story, and reassurance of the truthfulness of that story and the other story. The structure reminds me of Canterbury Tales -- Quixote runs into people who tell their stories, and we often leave the main storyline to follow the side plots. It means the plot itself doesn't have a lot of forward momentum, but it is interesting nonetheless.

I'm reading the Burton Raffel translation in the Norton Critical Edition, and look forward to delving into the end matter once I'm done. Thanks to Chris, I've also been enjoying the Yale lectures on Quixote. Recommended!

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Martian (by Andy Weir)

I enjoyed the hard sci-fi, survivalist elements of Seveneves so much that I thought I might enjoy The Martian, and I did! Mark Watney is an astronaut (with specialties in botany and mechanical engineering) who is stranded on Mars when a mission goes awry. He has to figure out how to stretch his meager resources and use his science knowledge to survive for four years or so, until the next mission is scheduled to land.

The story is told largely through Watney's mission logs, and he has a great voice. Smart, slightly nerdy, with a slightly juvenile sense of humor. (There's even a "that's what she said" sprinkled in there.) If you've seen the movie trailer, or have ever read a book before, it won't surprise you to know that NASA eventually does figure out he's alive, so we do get some chapters from the point of view of the team on the ground, trying to figure out how they can communicate with and help Mark from many light-years away.

This is a tight novel, focusing not on emotions or interpersonal relationships, but on the specific things Watney does to try and survive. There is some math. For me, it scratched the same itch as Andromeda Strain: the plot hinges on the scientific details, and they are fascinating.

The reviews on this novel are almost overwhelmingly positive on Amazon, and reading the book made me interested in seeing the movie too (although it seems it has been a bit whitewashed -- put Asian people in movies, Hollywood). Thumbs up for a fun read!


Monday, August 17, 2015

Macbeth (by William Shakespeare)

Yes, this was my first time reading Macbeth in its entirety. I know. I know.

This was an interesting experience, since it was a bunch of stuff I wasn't familiar with interpersed with stuff I know very well. Certain famous lines are of course familiar to me. I let students memorize the Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech for extra credit, and of course have it memorized myself.  I teach it, I know what it expresses, and yet I didn't know the couplet that precedes it at all. 

I also know "out, damned spot" and "by the pricking of my thumbs" and the other famous lines, but somehow completely missed Lady Macbeth's soliloquy. Which meant I got to experience it for the first time. Chills, goosebumps, the works. And I've been reading and re-reading and re-re-reading it. So awesome you guys! (And there's also that bit about pulling her nipple out of a baby's mouth and bashing its brains in. Way harsh, Tai.)

I also wasn't exactly familiar with the plot, so I found it almost amusing how quickly it gets murdery. Macbeth talks to the weird sisters for two minutes and then is like, well damn, better go on a murder spree starting right the hell now! Let's get a-murdering! Not exactly a slow build on the motive there, Shakespeare.

Trivia: I was waiting for "Lead on, Macduff!" the whole time, but it turns out it's "Lay on, Macduff."  Like "once more unto the breach," I guess it's commonly misquoted. I also enjoyed reading a bit about the play afterwards. The prophecy about Banquo's descendants on the throne comes across as a dangling plotline, but I learned that King James I, who was Shakespeare's patron at the time, was a descendant of the historical Banquo. This is why Banquo is portrayed as a hero, and possibly why there's a mirror included in the line of spirit kings -- so James could see his own face from his place in the audience.

So the Shakespeare plays I have read: Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Julius Caesar, Henry V, King Lear, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello, Twelfth Night, and now Macbeth. Plays I've seen performed but have not read: Love's Labour's Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Plays I've seen the film version of but have not read: Much Ado About Nothing (both versions) and Taming of the Shrew, if 10 Things I Hate About You counts. Film version I own, and love: the musical Kenneth Branagh version of Love's Labour's Lost. Play I am familiar with insofar as it applies to Pale Fire, but have not read: Timon of Athens. Play I'd like to read next: probably Henry IV or The Winter's Tale, unless you have any better suggestions!


Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Other Typist (by Suzanne Rindell)

This is a psychological thriller with an unreliable female narrator, in the vein of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. I was hooked by the protagonist being a police typist in 1920s New York, and the description of the novel as being Patricia Highsmith meets F. Scott Fitzgerald noir.

I have some criticisms of the novel: it drags a bit in the middle, is too heavy handed with the foreshadowing, there are anachronisms sprinkled throughout, and the final twist leaves some major plot loopholes no matter how you interpret it (there are multiple points of view).

As everyone knows, I'm a sucker for an unreliable narrator, and there's a lot to like about this one. I did find the narrator and the setting compelling. But I keep comparing her to Charles Kinbote, and Rose unfortunately pales in comparison.