Month: January 2011

2011 Book #8: The Satanic Verses

2000-1.jpegWell, I finished it. I guess all it took was my public realization that I might not finish it to get me reading again. Note that I wrote that post yesterday and still had about halfway to go. I’ve done a good bit of reading over the past couple days.

The Satanic Verses is a long, hard read. Very long, very hard. My main problem with it is the plot is overly convoluted: I’m not quite sure about what exactly happened, and while I’d like to read it again to put it together, I know I won’t. I won’t be running back to Rushdie anytime soon, either. It’s not really what I expected, kind of like One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn’t. And the two novels have more in common: they’re both examples of magical realism, though Marquez‘s novel is much more convincing. And, in general, better.

If you want a thorough rundown of the plot of The Satanic Verses, I’ll direct you to Wikipedia because I couldn’t do it without writing much more than the short blog post I’ve planned. Rushdie’s novel consists of two-and-a-half storylines involving Bollywood actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, a plane crash, one turning into a goat, and one developing paranoid schizophrenia and possibly being, at some point, the Archangel Gabriel. And that’s only one of the plotlines. It ends up really confusing.

It’s not that it’s a bad novel: it’s just not as good as some people say it is. I have a feeling that a lot of people with strong opinions about it haven’t read it. I can totally see why Khomeini issued a fatwa to kill Rushdie: The Satanic Verses is fabulously blasphemous.

In Rushdie’s defense, the language is nice – even beautiful in some places. Here’s my favorite part:

The landscape of his poetry was still the desert, the shifting dunes with the plumes of white sand blowing from their peaks. Soft mountains, uncompleted journeys, the impermanence of tents. How did one map a country that blew into a new form every day?

And that’s about all I have to say about it. I didn’t really like it, though I didn’t hate it either. I might reread it someday and get more out of it: I have a feeling that if I did read it again, I’d like it more. Maybe an abridged version would suit me better, though.

An update!

So it’s been over a week, and I still haven’t finished The Satanic Verses. I’m having a really hard time getting through it, and I’ve seriously considered making it the base of my Fail Pile for this year. The funny thing is that I really like it – it reminds me of One Hundred Years of Solitude, my new Favorite Novel. I just can’t really get into it. I’ve decided that I’m going to power through it, though, and I’m giving myself a whole week to finish it because I’m so far ahead in my 50. I’m halfway through it now, so if I read about 37 pages a day for the next 7, I’ll be done. I think I can handle that.

2011-01-29 10:44:32 -0600-0.jpgWhat have I been doing, you ask? Well, I’ve been studying for the GRE, which helps immensely with my Thesis Monster procrastination. I’ve been working on the verbal and math sections a few hours a day for the past few days. I’ll talk more about what I’m doing with it later, but it involves moving out of Shreveport and not getting a PhD, both of which make me very happy.

I’ll be doing some pretty hardcore studying. Though I don’t think I need a particularly good GRE score this time around, I don’t want to embarrass myself, either. I’ve somehow forgotten all but the simplest math, and I’m horrible at analogies, so I have to work on those. I’ve accumulated a stack of GRE books, and I’m slowly working through them. I’ll probably take the test in late February.

Within a week, then, a post about The Satanic Verses should appear on this blog. If I can’t finish by next Saturday, into the Fail Pile it goes.

2011 Book #7: Oryx and Crake

oryx_and_crake.jpegI really enjoyed Oryx and Crake . It’s a dystopian, post-apocalyptic-type novel about one of the few men left on Earth. He calls himself Snowman, and the plot bounces back and forth between him and the man he used to be, before the catastrophe, Jimmy. This part is set in the near-future, where everything is genetically spliced together – food, animals, medicine, etc. Jimmy and Crake had been good friends since they were kids. Crake was really intelligent. They grew up, and Crake worked on what he claimed would cure all of the problems caused by humanity. Then Things Happen. Snowman survives with Crake’s humanish creations, called Crakers, who think Crake is a god and Snowman is almost one. Then there’s Oryx, who might or might not have been sold as a slave into the sex industry when she was a child and who is revered as a near-god, too.

I tend to like dystopian novels. I read Atwood‘s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, when I was fifteen or so, and I liked it so much I even remember some of it. I’ve noted before that I rarely remember what books are about after a few years. I think 1984 was the first dystopian novel I ever read: my high school freshman English teacher assigned it, and I actually finished reading it. Another feat.

I bought Oryx and Crake in 2003 when it was first published. I tried reading it but lost interest after the first chapter or so. I don’t know why: this time, I had a hard time putting it down. I ordered The Year of the Flood, the events of which are contemporaneous to Oryx and Crake, from Amazon, but I think I’ll save that for later.

Oryx and Crake really sucked me in – moreso than most novels do. It’s the usual dystopian warning of sorts, but it’s not preachy. I’m not sure of a comparison – maybe a not-so-grim On the Beach. I really like Atwood’s writing style: it’s very easy to read, though I guess I’m comparing it to the two dialecty novels I just finished reading. I’m really looking forward to the sequel.

2011 Book #6: Things Fall Apart

Things Fall ApartI have a history with Things Fall Apart: I was forced to read it when I was a sophomore in high school. I’m actually not entirely sure I read it because I didn’t remember one thing about it – except, of course, that it’s African of some sort. That said, I was less than half my age back then (scary!). I don’t remember whether I liked it or not – I’d imagine I didn’t because assigning this book to fifteen-year-olds is probably a bad idea. They’d hate it because it’s boring as all hell.

And that’s exactly what I think about it now: boring as all hell. It’s a short 200 pages, and nothing interesting really happens. The only part I halfway cared about is when one of the protagonist’s daughters is taken by a prophetess in the middle of the night, but we never find out what comes of it.

Things Fall Apart is essentially a list of a Nigerian tribe’s traditions that are upset in the last third of the novel by the influx of British imperialists and Christianity. We all know who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen. Meh.

Simply put, I don’t think Things Fall Apart is a good novel. It certainly doesn’t have a solid plot: it’s full of holes, and, again, it’s boring as all hell. The language is also too spare, and you have to flip back and forth to a glossary in the back. I didn’t sympathize with any of the characters except maybe the daughter I mentioned above. I just wanted it to be over, which is why I read it so quickly.

After I finished reading the novel, I looked through some reviews on Goodreads and found this one, which just about sums up my opinion:

How To Criticize Things Fall Apart Without Sounding Like A Racist Imperialist:

1. Focus on the plot and how nothing very interesting really happens. Stress that it was only your opinion that nothing interesting happens, so that everyone realizes that you just can’t identify with any of the events described, and this is your fault only.
2. Explain (gently and with examples) that bestowing daddy issues on a flawed protagonist is not a sufficient excuse for all of the character’s flaws, and is a device that has been overused ad naseum.
3. Also explain how the main character is a generic bully, with no unique characteristics that make him interesting to the reader. Crack joke about Achebe stealing Walt Disney’sHow To Create A Villain checklist and pray no one beats you to death for it.
4. Do not criticize the rampant misongyny present in the book. It is part of the culture, and is therefore beyond criticism by you because you are not in a position to understand or comdemn what you have not experienced directly.
5. Do not say that the frequent use of untranslated words and confusing names that were often very similar made the story and characters hard to keep track of at times. Achebe is being forced to write in English, a foreign tongue, because he is a post-colonial writer and the fact that the book is written in English stresses his role as a repressed minority, something that you are incapable of understanding, you racist imperialist!

Urgh. I generally like novels I’m supposed to like – like Jane Eyre , which I read only recently. This is supposed to be a good novel, but it’s not, and I’m not going to pretend it’s any good just because I’m supposed to.

2011 Book #5: Good Morning, Midnight

I’ve been wanting to read Good Morning, Midnight for a long time. Years ago, I randomly picked up another Jean Rhys novel, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (which doesn’t have a Wikipedia page!), and I really liked it. Later, I was assigned Wide Sargasso Sea, which, it turns out, is a sort-of prequel to Jane Eyre, for a modern fiction class. I liked that one too, though at the time I hadn’t read Jane Eyre, and when I finally did, I was kind of disappointed in the fire part.

Anyway, back to the current novel. It’s about the Loneliest Woman on Earth living in Paris, and it’s Very Modernist. The woman, who calls herself Sasha, lives off money from friends and former lovers, as she seems emotionally incapable of any sort of work, though she tries a couple of times. She thinks everyone in Paris dislikes her, thinks something is wrong with her, and she tries her best to be alone and avoid their critical eyes. And, of course, things happen. She goes back to London for a time and falls in love with Enno, who is at times very loving and at others emotionally abusive. She marries him and has a baby who dies shortly after birth. Enno leaves. Sasha becomes more and more depressed, eventually slipping into a sort of drunken madness.

This novel surprised me because of what there wasn’t. Several people told me that it’s really disturbing, and I didn’t find it that way. Nobody ends up dead. What did disturb me, though, was how much I identify with Sasha. Okay, not currently, thank God, but when I was younger. If I had lived alone in 1930s Paris, leaving what friends or family I had behind in England, the same things would have gone through my mind, and my life might have been a lot like hers. After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie is a similar novel, though its protagonist isn’t so terrifically lonely. I guess I just tend to identify with Jean Rhys’s characters, and that’s why I like her so much.

2011 Book #4: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

I should probably start by saying I’m not a fan of historical fiction. I guess The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an example of historical magical realism, though it’s relatively skimpy on the magical part. It has echoes of Cloud Atlas, my favorite novel last year, though it’s certainly more in the realm of the historical. I was bored through most of it. I read most of the second half today – it’s really long – simply because I didn’t want to be reading it anymore. After The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I was looking for a short, easy read, and this novel certainly doesn’t qualify. That said, I usually avoid historical novels, and for a historical novel, this one isn’t bad, though I found a few problems. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki around the turn of the nineteenth century. The main character is Jacob de Zoet, who is trying to win a bride in the Netherlands by getting enough money in the East. But things happen, and so on, and so on. He falls in love with a Japanese woman named Orito who ends up in a shrine that’s basically a farm for babies born to be consumed by monks who are trying to live forever. I guess that’s the magical realism part. It takes up the middle third of the book and is the only part that really interested me. There’s a multitude of characters from both the East and the West, and their cultures conflict, etc, etc. No one knows who he can trust. And it just goes on and on.

The two storylines – Jacob’s life and Orito’s – are the novel’s main problem: Mitchell doesn’t seem to tie them together well enough. It’s like two novels in one, and the only thing they really have in common is that they include the same characters. I also think the novel is simply too long and that lots of it seems like Mitchell did lots of research and doesn’t want it to go to waste. I was bored, but it kept my interest enough for me to finish it, and since it’s so long, that’s something. As I’m not a fan of historical fiction, I’m not a fan of long books. That said, I’ve been reading lots of long books lately.

So, to the verdict: It’s okay. I didn’t dislike it, though it’s certainly not in my list of favorites. It certainly wasn’t as good as Cloud Atlas, and it’s making me question how much I liked Cloud Atlas in the first place. I’m not sure what I think about reading more Mitchell: I first read him because of the comparisons to Murakami, but they’re not really that similar except for the string of magical realism, which is much more evident (and interesting) in Murakami’s works.

2011 Book #3: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I didn’t like this one. I should qualify that: I didn’t like this one except for the last thirty pages. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel about love and sex. I could only identify with one character and the dog because everyone else was busy sleeping with people who weren’t their spouses. There are only a few types of novels I don’t like: mysteries, novels about people being taken away or imprisoned (I find those incredibly frustrating, and it’s why, as much as I love The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, I couldn’t get through its sequel, Pigs in Heaven), and novels in which the principal plotline focuses on infidelity.

There are five important characters: Tomas, Tereza, Sabina, Franz, and the dog, Karenin. Tomas is married to Tereza, who adores him and is generally faithful, and he likes to have affairs with many women. He has a prolonged affair with Sabina, who, after Tomas dies (I think – the story isn’t exactly linear) has a prolonged affair with Franz, who is also married to someone else. And then there’s Tereza’s dog, who is very nice and doesn’t have sex with anyone, though, in Tereza’s dream, gives birth to two rolls and a bee. Kundera explores the difference between love and sex and how love affects people differently. I wasn’t enthused until the last thirty pages when the dog dies. That made me cry.

I probably should have liked it more. The only other Kundera novel I’ve read is Life is Elsewhere, which I adored, though I don’t really even remember what it’s about. I read it five years ago, or so, so I guess that’s to be expected. The Unbearable Lightness of Being reminds me of the only Paulo Coelho novel I’ve read, Veronika Decides to Die, which annoyed me in its preachiness. A first-person narrator (Kundera himself?) tells the story from the first person: the novel is generally written in third person, but the narrator breaks in often with nonjudgmental ideas about what’s going on. It was like inspirational nonfiction (which annoys the hell out of me) on top of what could have been a good novel – like Kundera was filling in all the spaces the reader should be able to figure out on his own.

2011 Book #2: Franny and Zooey

After spending some time browsing at Barnes & Noble yesterday, I picked up Franny and Zooey and ported it to a chair thinking I’d never read it. I got through the Franny story, about a quarter into the whole thing, decided I’d finish it, and when I looked on Goodreads discovered that I’d already read it and rated it three stars. There’s no date with the rating, but I’m pretty sure it’s been over a year.

The funny thing is that I had no memory of it. As I was reading it at B&N, there were little parts that seemed vaguely familiar, but I didn’t recall any of the plot or the characters. I didn’t even remember that Zooey is Franny’s brother or that they’re Seymour Glass‘s family. (Based on Nine Stories, some of which I read when I was in high school, I romanticized Seymour Glass. Another book I need to reread.)

Which gets me to a general outline of the plot. In the first part, Franny goes out with her boyfriend and they argue about lots of things. She’s all dramatic about a religious book. She gets sick and faints, and the boyfriend is suddenly nicer to her. In the second part, Franny goes home to stay with her brother, Zooey, and her parents. She’s in the middle of a nervous breakdown of sorts, partially over the “Jesus Prayer” in the religious book she’s been carrying around. And then people talk a lot about religion, college, and Franny, and Zooey calls Franny pretending to be another brother, Buddy, and is found out. That’s about it. It’s structured more like a short story than a novel.

I think I liked it better this time than when I read it a year or two ago. I can identify with Franny: when I was her age, around 20, I was a lot like her. Franny and Zooey reminds me that life is much more peaceful now that I’ve grown up a bit.

2011 Book #1: One Hundred Years of Solitude

I’ve certainly begun my 52 books with a bang. One Hundred Years of Solitude just might be the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s definitely the most epic. It follows a family and a town from birth to death, through wars and colonialism and personal tragedy. The family line is so complicated, with the vast majority of names involving Jose Arcadio or Aureliano in every generation, that the publisher was kind enough to include a family tree just before the first chapter begins. At one point, one Aureliano begets seventeen more Aurelianos.

It’s also very long and a rather slow read – not to say it’s boring: it held my interest throughout. I should also say that listing it as the first book of the year is somewhat of a cheat because I started reading it at least a couple of weeks ago and only read the second half of it since the first of the year.

The funny thing is that most of the things I’m saying about it seem bad when I think I’ve found a new favorite novel. It beats any Murakami I’ve read hands-down. I read somewhere that Murakami lists Marquez as an influence on his own work, and I can see how: One Hundred Years of Solitude is infused with the same kind of magical realism that Murakami’s is. It’s like the supernatural elements – like flying carpets, benign ghosts, and an ascension into heaven – are fully integrated into reality.

I’m half tempted to gorge myself immediately on the rest of Marquez’s books, but I’m not going to. I’ll spread him out like I did Murakami, stretching his novels into a couple years, at least – and not ruining him for myself like I did DeLillo.

One Hundred Years of Solitude isn’t my first Marquez book, though it’s the first one I’ve finished. Years ago, I tried reading Autumn of the Patriarch, which I didn’t finish because it seemed impossible to read. It’s around three hundred pages, split into eight chapters, and each sentence is almost the length of the whole chapter. I read it for a challenge, and I lost. Reading this one, though, makes me want to give it another try.

2010 Books

I figured that since I’ve decided to keep better (and official) track of the books I’m reading this year, I’d compile a list of the ones I read last year. I’m sticking to fiction.

I’ve been keeping track of the books I’ve read for several years now, since around 2005, because I was really bad at remember whether I’d read books or not. Lots of them kind of faded together. I started with AllConsuming but stopped using it once it stopped getting updated. I used Shelfari for a while, then settled on Goodreads once everyone seemed to be using it. I have most of the books I’ve read in the last few years catalogued there, though I know I’ve missed some – especially in 2010.

Which means the list is probably missing a few. At least I hope it is because it seems rather short, though I really didn’t read much. It’s also not in perfect order.

I’ll use the style of Booklover, one of my favorite tumblogs, in which bold means I really liked it and italics means I really disliked it. If it’s neither of those, it was good enough. I’ll add an additional category, strikethrough, for the few books I tried to read and gave up on.

William Faulkner – Sanctuary
Terry Pratchett – Wyrd Sisters
Terry Pratchett – Pyramids
Don DeLillo – Point Omega
Don DeLillo – Falling Man
Don DeLillo – Mao II
Don DeLillo – Libra
Don DeLillo – Americana
Don DeLillo – End Zone
Don DeLillo – Great Jones Street
Don DeLillo – Ratner’s Star
Don DeLillo – Underworld
John Connolly – The Gates
Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre
Anonymous – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Horace Walpole – The Castle of Otranto
Matthew Lewis – The Monk
Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels
Haruki Murakami – Dance Dance Dance
Cormac McCarthy – Child of God
David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas
Charles Dickens – Great Expectations
Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales

Wow. That is an embarrassingly short list. Note the DeLillo Binge. I read Americana, Mao II, and Great Jones Street twice, and there were several Thesis Monster-related nonfiction books thrown in there. But jeez – my English degree should probably be burnt.

But this year I’ll do better! One book a week is the goal, and with no classes left I’ll probably be pretty bored. And then there’s the mammoth procrastination. Wish me luck.

The best of the bunch, you ask? I’d say Americana, but I’m so turned off to DeLillo right now that I don’t care if I ever see any of it again. So I’ll say Cloud Atlas with Dance Dance Dance as a close second. I’ve now read every book Murakami has published in English with the exception of Underground, a nonfiction book about the Tokyo Gas Attacks, which is sitting on a bookshelf waiting. I completed my collection with a copy of Pinball, 1973 shipped from Japan. I think his new novel, 1Q84 is due out in English sometime this year, so that one’ll be a highlight, I’m sure, though I disliked his last one, After Dark. I’m going on about Murakami because he’s my favorite author. David Mitchell is kind of similar, as is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. All magical realism.

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