Month: February 2011

2011 Book #16: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is short, and I guess that’s my only real complaint. It’s similar, in a lot of ways, to One Hundred Years of Solitude, minus the vast epicness, which is my favorite thing about that novel. I’m not saying that means I didn’t like this one.

It’s a novel(la?) spiraling around Santiago Nasar, who is killed by two brothers defending their sister’s honor. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the circumstances and how everyone in town knew exactly what was going to happen but did nothing to prevent it for various reasons. Angela Vicario, just married hours before, is returned to her parents’ home after her new husband discovs that she’s not a virgi. When asked, she says Santiago Nasar took her virginity, so her brothers want to kill him. Marquez is never clear about whether he actually did or not.

Again, it’s short, though I don’t see how a novel like this could be very long, and if it was, it would be tiring. I miss the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude, though I know every Marquez novel can’t rehash that one. He did mention a couple characters from it, though, for all I know, they could be actual historical figures. I know exactly zero about Colombian history. I do know that I’m looking forward to reading more Marquez. I’m spacing him out, though, like Murakami, especially since he’s quit writing.

2011 Book #15: Mockingjay

Mockingjay.jpegI think I’ve said all I want to about the Hunger Games trilogy. Mockingjay was just like the other two, but this time, instead of ending with a cliffhanger, it just ended. Think about the end of Harry Potter, the summing up several years in the future, but badly. In Harry Potter, I think such an ending was a good choice and provided closure at the end of an absorbing series that many kids had grown up with. Sticking an ending like that on a series like the Hunger Games was kind of pointless and dumb. Just sayin’.

All three books were quick reads, and they were entertaining enough. Mockingjay is my least favorite because, by this point, the reader knows exactly what is going to happen. It’s entirely predictable. Collins even includes another trip to the Hunger Games – of sorts. The format is exactly the same as the other two, and so is the style. I got bored pretty quickly, and I’m glad I’ve gotten these books out of my system. That said, I did enjoy them well enough.

2011 Book #14: Disgrace

disgrace-coetzee.jpegJ.M. Coetzee has been following me around. I hadn’t heard of him until relatively recently, and then his name started popping up everywhere. Book-related everywheres, anyway. So when I happened to pick up Disgrace and read the blurb, I decided to give it a try, recalling how much I’ve liked South African lit in the past. And it was good. At the very least, it was a nice break from the intensity of books like The Hunger Games and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

Disgrace is about different kinds of disgrace and how people deal with it and try to move on. David Lurie (who reminds me of Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being), a Romantic poetry professor, has an affair with the student and gets in trouble. He refuses to cooperate with the university committee dealing with his case, and he is dismissed. He goes to visit his daughter, who lives on a farm in the country, a very unsafe place in recently post-Apartheid South Africa. One day, as she and David return home from a walk, they are robbed, and she is raped by three people. She refuses to report the rape and deals with it by herself, her own form of disgrace. David deals with it, too. There are, of course, a few subplots, one of which involves a veterinary clinic with the basic purpose of euthanizing dogs from which David learns to deal with his own disgrace.

Oprah should be all over this one. As I said, it reeks of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I didn’t like, though it’s not so preachy. Coetzee has his Kundera moments in which he philosophizes a bit excessively, but at least he keeps it in the mind of the protagonist rather than doing the moralizing himself.

My favorite part of the novel, and what will keep me reading Coetzee, is the prose style. It’s beautiful. It also makes for easy reading: I think I started Disgrace this time yesterday.

2011 Book #13: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

508-1.jpegI liked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? much more than I thought I would, though I don’t have too much to say about it. It’s about the difference (or lack of) between real humans and animals and electronic, man-made androids and animals. It’s a really interesting read: I couldn’t put it down. This morning, I had at least half of it left to read. I went to Starbucks (as usual) planning to do some GRE work along with the reading, but I simply couldn’t stop. I read through the rest of the novel in two or three hours. This is one of those books that I’ll remember more like a movie than a book, though I’ll probably barely remember that I read it at all in a couple years.

This novel isn’t my first Philip K. Dick experience. I tried reading The Man in the High Castle a few years ago, but I got bored not far into it, and I quit. He’s the kind of novelist I should like more than I do. It took me quite a while to get into Electric Sheep, and I’m wondering if I would have liked The Man in the High Castle if I’d been a bit more patient. But patience isn’t my strong suit.

A side note: I think I’m becoming more fond of reading books on my Kindle than reading the real thing. More on that later.

2011 Book #12: Catching Fire

cf.jpegOkay, I was wrong. I said I probably wouldn’t bother reading Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games. In my defense, Borges made my brain hurt, and I needed some serious leisure reading. This one certainly qualifies.

If you haven’t read these books and think you might like to, you should probably stop here. My guess is that if you’re reading this blog, this series probably isn’t on your list.

So. In The Hunger Games, Katniss won, but the dictator interpreted the way she did it as an act of rebellion, and so did the twelve districts, so uprisings began. (To catch up on the first book, read this post or check out the Wikipedia summary, which, I’m sure, is better than my halfhearted attempt.) The dictator and the Capitol start treating the residents of the districts even worse, and Katniss has become a symbol of the rebellion. The next Hunger Games are coming up, and they’re the seventy-fifth. Every twenty-fifth Hunger Games is called the Quarter Quell and is especially nasty. This time the districts are forced to choose their tributes among previous victors, and Katniss and Peeta, the tributes from The Hunger Games, are thrust into the arena again. And we get to read about another year of Hunger Games. Then, things happen, and Katniss is rescued (the Capitol got Peeta, but I’m assuming he’s probably not dead), and she learns about the rebellion that’s been going on during the Games. The End.

Catching Fire is basically a repeat of The Hunger Games. It has the same general structure, the same general characters, and basically the same ending. The style didn’t bother me as much this time, but I’m not sure if it’s because it got better or because I realized I’m reading for the plot, so the style is good enough if I can stand it.

I think that Collins‘s choice of writing these novels in the first person is a misstep. Sure, it adds immediacy (they’re also in present tense), but we know, from the outset, especially since there are sequels, that Katniss has to win or, at least, survive. That idea bothered me more in Catching Fire because it’s so repetitious.

It’s also ridiculously predictable for other reasons. Besides the first-person POV, Collins is over-the-top with clues about what’s really going on, even for a book aimed at seventh graders (Wait. Why am I reading this again?).

Despite its flaws, though, I enjoyed it. It’s the kind of book I needed after Borges, and I know I’m kidding myself if I don’t think I’ll read the third one. I even have Mockingjay on my Kindle. The plot is good enough to hold my attention, and, hey, it only took me a couple days to read. I haven’t decided whether to read the next one immediately or to put a few books in between. I’m kind of in the mood for another crack at Garcia Marquez.

2011 Book #11: Labyrinths

Borges makes my brain hurt. Labyrinths was a really difficult read. It reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino, especially Invisible Cities. Evidently, Calvino was heavily influenced by Borges. Labyrinths is a collection of short stories, essays, and parables. I really enjoyed some of the short stories, but lots of the lost me because I don’t remember enough about philosophy or what philosopher said what. At a certain point in several stories, I had to turn my brain off and go with it Tao-style. That said, I even liked some of those.

My favorite story is “The Immortal,” which is about a man’s journey to find The City of Immortals. He enters their city, which has been abandoned and is like a massive labyrinth. He discovers them after he leaves lying, waif-like outside its walls. They have stopped talking because there’s nothing left to talk about, but he eventually gets one of them to start, and it turns out he’s Homer. “The Immortal” is one of the longer stories, and after the plot extinguishes itself, it becomes more like a philosophical essay. I really enjoyed it. I also liked “The House of Asterion” and “The Library of Babel.” I’d been told that “Emma Zunz” is best, and, while it’s probably the most easily accessible in the collection, I found it unrewarding. Enough for the short stories.

I found the essays much easier to read and surprisingly interesting. Borges is a fan of Don Quixote, so he mentions it several times, and one of the essays is about it. “The Wall and the Books” is my favorite, but I’ve already written about that one. Many of the essays are about time and whether it exists or not. Five years ago, I’d have been excited about them, but I’m over it. I’ve read that kind of theory before. (If you want to read a novel about theories of time, read Alan Lightman‘s Einstein’s Dreams, which is fantastic.) I don’t really have much to say about the essays because I kind of sped through them.

The parables are my favorite part of Labyrinths. They’re very short, but they also made me think. Borges discusses the same ideas in the parables as he does in the rest of the book, but the parables are much more accessible, which is probably why I liked them so much. Here’s the first one:

Inferno, 1, 32

From the twilight of day till the twilight of evening, a leopard, in the last years of the thirteenth century, would see some wooden planks, some vertical iron bars, men and women who changed, a wall and perhaps a stone gutter filled with dry leaves. He did not know, could not know, that he longed for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing things to pieces and the wind carrying the scent of a deer, but something suffocated and rebelled within him and God spoke to him in a dream: “You live and will die in this prison so that a man I know of may see you a certain number of times and not forget you and place your figure and symbol in a poem which has its precise place in the scheme of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you will have given a word to the poem.” God, in the dream, illumined the animal’s brutishness and the animal understood these reasons and accepted his destiny, but, when he awoke, there was in him only an obscure resignation, a valorous ignorance, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of a beast. Years later, Dante was dying in Ravenna, as unjustified and as lonely as any other man. In a dream, God declared to him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that, upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of men.

If you’re going to read any of Labyrinths, check out the parables. They’re beautiful and undeniably brilliant.

I’d never read any Borges until now. I’d heard his name associated with Calvino and Lightman, so I figured I’d probably like it. Labyrinths was a harder read than I’d expected, and I had a hard time getting through it, but it was immensely rewarding. Borges is like T.S. Eliot and Yeats in that he draws the whole of history into a very short form, and I can see how he’s a poet at heart.

Borges was also a librarian.

The Wall and the Books

Borges‘s Labyrinths is not an easy read, and I’m having a hard time finishing it. That said, the end is in sight: I’m about three-quarters into it. It’s a collection of short stories, essays, and parables. I haven’t hit the parables yet as they’re at the end, but the essays are much easier to read than the stories are. The stories make my brain hurt, though I find some of them immensely enjoyable. If nothing else, they’re rewarding. I’ll have more to say about this later, after I’ve finished the book, and forgive me if I repeat some of what I just said. Here, I’ve reprinted one of the shorter essays in its entirety because I think it’s worth reading. It’s about the first emperor of China and his crusade to build the Great Wall and to extinguish history before himself. Borges discusses his possible motives, which I think are interesting. Why would someone from a country with such a great history (even then) want to erase all of it? I wonder whether Ray Bradbury, before he wrote Fahrenheit 451, knew anything about it.

The Wall and the Books

He, whose long wall the wand’ring Tartar bounds. . .

Dunciad, II, 76

I read, some days past, that the man who ordered the erection of the almost infinite wall of China was that first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed that all books prior to him be burned. That these two vast operations — the five to six hundred leagues of stone opposing the barbarians, the rigorous abolition of history, that is, of the past — should originate in one person and be in some way his attributes inexplicably satisfied and, at the same time, disturbed me. To investigate the reasons for that emotion is the purpose of this note.

Historically speaking, there is no mystery in the two measures. A contemporary of the wars of Hannibal, Shih Huang Ti, king of Tsin, brought the Six Kingdoms under his rule and abolished the feudal system; he erected the wall, because walls were defenses; he burned the books, because his opposition invoked them to praise the emperors of olden times. Burning books and erecting fortifications is a common task of princes; the only thing singular in Shih Huang Ti was the scale on which he operated. Such is suggested by certain Sinologists, but I feel that the facts I have related are something more than an exaggeration or hyperbole of trivial dispositions. Walling in an orchard or a garden is ordinary, but not walling in an empire. Nor is it banal to pretend that the most traditional of races renounce the memory of its past, mythical or real. The Chinese had three thousand years of chronology (and during those years, the Yellow Emperor and Chuang Tsu and Confucius and Lao Tzu) when Shih Huang Ti ordered that history begin with him.

Shih Huang Ti had banished his mother for being a libertine; in his stern justice the orthodox saw nothing but an impiety; Shih Huang Ti, perhaps, wanted to obliterate the canonical books because they accused him; Shih Huang Ti, perhaps, tried to abolish the entire past in order to abolish one single memory: his mother’s infamy. (Not in an unlike manner did a king of Judea have all male children killed in order to kill one.) This conjecture is worthy of attention, but tells us nothing about the wall, the second part of the myth. Shih Huang Ti, according to the historians, forbade that death be mentioned and sought the elixir of immortality and secluded himself in a figurative palace containing as many rooms as there are days in the year; these facts suggest that the wall in space and the fire in time were magic barriers designed to halt death. All things long to persist in their being, Baruch Spinoza has written; perhaps the Emperor and his sorcerers believed that immortality is intrinsic and that decay cannot enter a closed orb. Perhaps the Emperor tried to recreate the beginning of time and called himself The First, so as to be really first, and called himself Huang Ti, so as to be in some way Huang Ti, the legendary emperor who invented writing and the compass. The latter, according to the Book of Rites, gave things their true name; in a parallel fashion, Shih Huang Ti boasted, in inscriptions which endure, that all things in his reign would have the name which was proper to them. He dreamt of founding an immortal dynasty; he ordered that his heirs be called Second Emperor, Third Emperor, Fourth Emperor, and so on to infinity. . . I have spoken of a magical purpose; it would also be fitting to suppose that erecting the wall and burning the books were not simultaneous acts. This (depending on the order we select) would give us the image of a king who began by destroying and then resigned himself to preserving, or that of a disillusioned king who destroyed what he had previously defended. Both conjectures are dramatic, but they lack, as far as I know, any basis in history. Herbert Allen Giles tells that those who hid books were branded with a red-hot iron and sentenced to labor until the day of their death on the construction of the outrageous wall. This information favors or tolerates another interpretation. Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

The tenacious wall which at this moment, and at all moments, casts its system of shadows over lands I shall never see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of nations to burn its past; it is plausible that this idea moves us in itself, aside from the conjectures it allows. (Its virtue may lie in the opposition of constructing and destroying on an enormous scale.) Generalizing from the preceding case, we could infer that all forms have their virtue in themselves and not in any conjectural “content.” This would concord with the thesis of Benedetto Croce; already Pater in 1877 had affirmed that all arts aspire to the state of music, which is pure form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

2011 Book #10: Popular Hits of the Showa Era

511z6On6yrL.jpegI really liked Popular Hits of the Showa Era. It’s short and a very quick read, and that’s exactly what I was looking for. It’s also fast-paced and seemed more like a long short-story than a book. Murakami doesn’t waste time with in-depth descriptions but still gives the reader enough information to enter the world of the book.

It’s about two groups of six. One is six guys in their late twenties who are bored and numb in a very postmodern way. The other is a group of unmarried women in their late thirties called Oba-sans. They all enjoy karaoke, and the guys have made up a party ritual of sorts in which they determine who dresses up and sings through games of rock-paper-scissors, and whoever loses drives them to a secluded part of the beach where they videotape performances. The parties get progressively weirder and creepier. One day, one of them randomly (and violently) kills one of the Oba-sans. The Oba-sans figure out who he is and kill him (also violently). Then there’s an all-out war between the two groups with increasingly sophisticated weapons. The last battle-of-sorts is really interesting, but I won’t ruin the novel for you.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is really, really violent and gory. It’s what I’d expect from Ryu Murakami after Coin Locker Babies, the only novel of his I’ve read. And I’m not sure I even finished it. Actually, that’s not true. I read In the Miso Soup , but I don’t remember anything about it. That was my introduction to him. Popular Hits is as light a read as a book about murder can be. I think, though, that I won’t remember anything about it a year from now because it seems forgettable. Not that it’s bad: it’s just not that great, either. I gave it four stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed the process of reading it, but I don’t have much to say about it. It’s certainly not a “deep” book, and I think I might have liked it so much because that’s exactly the kind of book I needed to read.

The Fail Pile gets its first book: This Side of Paradise

This-Side-of-Paradise-Oxford.jpegI jumped into This Side of Paradise right out of The Hunger Games, and I liked it at first. Then it got tedious. It reminds me of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but without a cohesive plot. It’s a series of little vignettes about a kid who grows up and goes to college with the precursors of characters in The Great Gatsby. And it’s really, really boring. It’s Fitzgerald, though, so the writing is stellar, but 60 pages in, there still wasn’t enough of a plot to keep me interested. So I’m moving on. I’m not sure if my problem right now is that I just didn’t like the book or that I’m a bit burnt out on reading, but we’ll soon see. Next up is Mr. Spaceman, which comes highly recommended by a librarian friend of mine.

2011 Book #9: The Hunger Games

hunger games.jpegWell, The Hunger Games is certainly a quick read. It’s the first kids’ book I’ve read in a while, and I liked it well enough. Suzanne Collins isn’t an especially good writer – it’s purely pop fiction like Dan Brown and all those other authors I usually can’t bring myself to read. That said, I was entertained, which I guess, is the point of novels like this.

The Hunger Games is a dystopian novel set in an Oceania of the United States. There was a war between the capitol and thirteen districts after a rebellion, and the capitol won. Each year, to punish the districts, two kids between twelve and eighteen are chosen to compete in the Hunger Games. They’re put into an arena and forced to survive in the wilderness as they kill each other off. The one who kills all the others wins. The two main characters, Katniss and Peeta, both from District 12, survive and fight and all that. It’s violent and gory at times. It ends ambiguously, halfway making me want to pick up the trilogy’s second book immediately to find out what happens.

But I won’t because it’s really not that good of a novel. And I hate novels that end with cliffhangers. I think that one reason I liked the Harry Potter series is that Rowling provides a relatively neat ending – except in the sixth book, and I remember being frustrated because the seventh was a year away. I think Philip Pullman tidies things up a bit more at the ends of the His Dark Materials books, too. And Ursula LeGuin with the Earthsea trilogy. The City of Ember series is a little better about it than The Hunger Games. I consider Lord of the Rings to be one giant novel, so the same standard doesn’t apply. I like what Terry Pratchett does with his Discworld novels: each is on its own, but there are enough recurring characters and places that it’s still a series. But that’s neither here nor there.

I knew The Hunger Games wouldn’t be particularly good early on. Or, at least, not particularly well-written. I tend to judge writing style by how authors describe their characters. If it’s a crappy novel, it might go something like this:

I knew my brother would turn into a panther before he did. As I drove to the remote crossroads community of Hotshot, my brother watched the sunset in silence. Jason was dressed in old clothes, and he had a plastic Wal-Mart bag containing a few things he might need – toothbrush, clean underwear. He hunched inside his bulky camo jacket, looking straight ahead. His face was tense with the need to control his fear and his excitement.

File:Dead as a Doornail.jpegIn case you’re wondering, that’s the opening paragraph of Charlaine Harris‘s Dead as a Doornail , one of the books in her Sookie Stackhouse novels and of True Blood fame. I got through maybe ten pages of it and decided I’d be incapable of reading it. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by like-minded friends, and we passed it around, reading random passages aloud. A good time was had by all.

Anyway, good authors tend to do things a little differently. Being a good English major, I should root around and find an example, but being lazy, I’m not going to. Think about Faulkner – or even Rowling: would you ever see a description like that? Of course not. I didn’t have to wait long, though, for Collins to disappoint:

I watch as Gale pulls out his knife and slices the bread. He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin; we even have the same grey eyes. But we’re not related, at least not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way. That’s why my mother and Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place.

Urgh. I will give Collins credit here: her writing gets a bit better as the novel progresses, and I can’t think of another instance when I was that irritated. Descriptions like that make me think of bad romance novels – of which I’ve only read half of two because the writing is so horrid.

To sum things up: The Hunger Games isn’t a terrible novel, though it’s not that good, either. The plot is interesting, but the style is mediocre at best. I might pick up the others, or I might not. I’d put my money on the latter.

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