Month: June 2013

2013 Book #26: Beautiful Ruins

beautifulruinsI have, at times, been guilty of reading a book just because I liked its cover, and Beautiful Ruins is one of them. I saw it in Barnes and Noble, and it looked interesting enough. Once I saw some decent reviews, I figured I’d get to it. After Stoner, I needed some light reading, and Beautiful Ruins fit the bill, though it’s not really my kind of book.

It’s about three main characters (and a host of others): Pasquale, an Italian who owns a small hotel in a tiny, obscure village; Dee, an actress/drama teacher; and Michael Deane, a Hollywood movie producer. Pasquale’s dream is to have Americans flock to his little hotel (only one American, a sometimes-author, shows up once a year) when Dee appears, bringing the drama of Hollywood with her. That’s 1962 – but the novel pops back and forth between then and now and several places in between. It also involves others, including Richard Burton and his (fictional) illegitimate kid. Things, of course, Happen.

Beautiful Ruins is an okay book. I enjoyed it well enough. It’s not bad. But I don’t have much to say about it, either. It’s certainly a lighter read than Stoner. As I said earlier, it’s not my kind of book – it’s under the literary heading, and I guess it is, but it’s somewhere between good fiction and pop fiction. Everything is tied up to nicely at the end, and Jess Walter seems to emulate Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being-type feel-good crap. I hate that book.

Anyway, Beautiful Ruins isn’t a bad novel, though I won’t be seeking out anything else Jess Walter writes because it’s the sort of beach-read, pretty-ending type of book, and my interest is almost zero.

2013 Book #24: A Clash of Kings

clashofkingsI finished A Clash of Kings a lot faster than I thought I would. I checked out the e-book from the library and was trying to figure out what to do after my two-week loan expired when I discovered I was almost through the book. Which means that I had a much easier time getting through this one than I did A Game of Thrones. And A Clash of Kings is longer. I also liked it more – maybe my prior involvement with the characters made me more invested this time around. It’s certainly not “good literature,” but I enjoyed it enough that I’ll catch up with the rest of them in short order.

I hadn’t intended to read A Clash of Kings so soon, but when the penultimate third-season episode came on, it was everywhere. There was a huge uproar. As I think I’ve said before, I have no interest in watching the TV show simply because I don’t like TV that I have to pay attention to, so reading the books are my best bet.

I’m not going to summarize this one. It continues where A Game of Thrones left off, and it’s too complicated and has too many characters. So that’s that.

From what I hear, the TV show follows the books, so there’s no reason to get into both. If you’ve read the first book, you’ve probably already read this one, and I’m the one who’s behind. If you’re a TV-watcher, I’m behind, too, because the third season just ended, which from what I assume covers the third book.

To which I will get shortly because I’m intrigued.

I’d also like to note that although A Song of Ice and Fire is not “good literature,” there is some good writing. Here’s Tyrion in the heat of battle:

The battle fever. He had never thought to experience it himself, though Jaime had told him of it often enough. How time seemed to blur and slow and even stop, how the past and the future vanished until there was nothing but the instant, how fear fled, and thought fled, and even your body. “You don’t feel your wounds then, or the ache in your back from the weight of the armor, or the sweat running down into your eyes. You stop feeling, you stop thinking, you stop being you, there is only the fight, the foe, this man and then the next and the next and the next, and you know they are afraid and tired but you’re not, you’re alive, and death is all around you but their swords move so slowly, you can dance through them laughing.” Battle fever. I am half a man and drunk with slaughter, let them kill me if they can!

And that’s not spoiling anything because by this point, I’m sure you know that these are novels about war, and there’s no way you can’t have heard about them by now. Believe me, I tried.

2013 Book #25: Stoner

Stoner-coverStoner is, quite possibly, the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s another one that’s been on my radar for a while, following me around, even. I had a feeling I would like it – I just didn’t realize how much. Whatever I do say, though, will in no way do it justice. I should also add a caveat: it’s also one of the most staunchly literary novels I’ve ever read, so that might be unappealing to some. I should also say that you should read the book before going forward because I can’t talk about Stoner without spoilers, and this review is rife with them. You’ve been warned.

It’s about a college professor at the University of Missouri. His whole life. As I read the book, I described him as unhappy, but that’s not really it. He moves through his life mostly passively, and life happens to him. At a few points, he stands up for himself and changes what might have been. The novel begins with a sort of epigraph, saying that he’s dead and hardly remembered, and then tells the story of his whole life – how he was born to a poor farming family and sent to school for a degree in agriculture, but he ended up with an English PhD and an assistant professorship. John Williams describes the moment literature hit him beautifully. He gets married, has a child, an affair, retires, dies.

This book is about what is important in life, and to Williams, that seems to be love and duty. It’s also about what’s not important: a professor who becomes head of the department has a personal grudge against him and tries to make his life miserable, but by the end, you know it doesn’t matter. I read somewhere, recently, that literary fiction helps one see everything in shades of gray – instead of in black and white – and Stoner is the perfect example of that idea. Everything Stoner does isn’t good, though he lives his life in the best way he can manage, and then he dies quietly. Williams’s description of his death makes me a little less afraid of it.

Again, this is a very literary novel, though that’s not to say it’s hard to read. The language, most of it, anyway, is simple and direct. There is some academic jargon, but that’s what you might expect from a novel about an English professor. And I understand why it’s not mainstream, though I don’t understand why I hadn’t heard of it until recently. I should have known about it in college.

Maybe I like Stoner so much because it’s so relevant to my life. I considered myself an academic for a long time, and now I’ve fallen away for it. I read it here with a sort of nostalgia, from a bit of a distance. Sure, I still have the thesis hanging over my head (And I will finish it! Eventually.), but now I have a husband, a job, and entirely different responsibilities than I had even a couple of years ago. I usually don’t think so much about books after I read them – I usually close them and move on. Stoner won’t let me do that, though.

I should also probably point out that, literary or not, it’s just good writing, easy to read and complex at the same time. It’s worth reading even if you aren’t the academic type, not that I think it would give you a glimpse into it, but because it’s so good and probably hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves precisely because it is so academic.

The copy I read came from the library, but it’s one of the very few books I’ll have to buy just so I can stare at it, flip through the pages, and read it every so often.

(Where’d #24 go, you ask? I did read A Clash of Kings before this one, and I promise I’ll get to that post in a couple of days. But this one is so much more exciting.)

2013 Book #23: Moving Pictures

movingpicturesI don’t have much to say about Moving Pictures. I blazed through it after the recent, evidently spectacular, Game of Thrones episode in which lots of people die. It’s everywhere. So I figured it was time to take the plunge and read A Clash of Kings. But I had just started Moving Pictures

Which is not one of Pratchett‘s best – of the ten Discworld novels I’ve read, it’s definitely not my favorite (Eric takes that one). It’s exactly what you’d expect from a Discworld novel, though: easy, light, fast, funny reading. I read it in four days, I think, because I was in a hurry. And it’s not bad.

This one’s about – you guessed it – moving pictures. A priest-of-sorts accidentally dies without teaching someone what must be done not to have monsters come out of this place called Holy Wood (one of the many Captain Obvious References in this novel). The alchemists figure out how to make trolls draw on film really fast, making silent films, and everyone goes out to Holy Wood to make or be in movies, which play in Ankh-Morpork in various theaters. And there are more and more references to famous movies like Gone with the Wind and such. As usual, things happen.

I hope I’m not getting jaded with Discworld novels – because they are predictable, which isn’t necessarily bad. Pratchett uses the same humor everywhere, and it is funny:

The universe contains any amount of horrible ways to be woken up, such as the noise of the mob breaking down the front door, the scream of fire engines, or the realization that today is the Monday which on Friday night was a comfortably long way off.

A dog’s wet nose is not strictly speaking the worst of the bunch, but it has it’s own peculiar dreadfulness which connoisseurs of the ghastly and dog owners everywhere have come to know and dread. It’s like having a small piece of defrosting liver pressed lovingly against you.

That wasn’t my problem with this novel. I think my main issue is that almost from the beginning, I just wanted to be done with it, so I set percentage goals on my Kindle.

Meh.

Again, it’s good. There’s nothing wrong with this novel – my interests just lay elsewhere. That is one problem with Discworld novels, for me at least: they’re usually in-between novels that I read when I don’t know what else to read or when I don’t really want to read anything at all. That can lead to trouble, I guess. On to A Clash of Kings.

2013 Book #22: Lud-in-the-Mist

ludinthemistLud-in-the-Mist had been on my radar for quite a while: it popped up in my Goodreads recommendations all the time. I read the blurb, and it sounded like something I’d like, except that my local library doesn’t have it and I couldn’t find an inexpensive copy. Until Amazon got the Kindle version, and it randomly appeared one day in the Kindle Daily Deals. I was like, whaaaaat? Click. Download. I finished Pretty Monsters and dug in.

I read a lot of fantasy when I’m stressed out. It helps me forget about what’s going on for a while and relax my mind. It takes me somewhere else, I guess. (Though Hemingway‘s For Whom the Bell Tolls did that, too. After I finished reading it, I was stuck in the hills of Spain for hours. Also: why did I start blogging so late? I talk about all these books I’ve read, and there’s no blog post to link them. Ugh.) Right now, the plan is to stick to fantasy for a few books, as Palmer and I are trying to buy a house, which is exactly zero fun.

ANYWAY. Off to Lud.

I’m not sure where this book fits age-wise. It seems to be stuck in teen fiction, but it’s not, really. The main character is a middle-aged mayor – most of the kids run off. Which brings me to the plot. You’ve already got the middle-aged mayor part and the Lud part. It’s a city close to the border of Fairyland, but it’s citizens don’t like fairies and any words associated with them are considered dirty. They don’t like imagination or creativity: they like money and the law. But Fairyland is creeping in by way of fairy fruit, which is smuggled into Lud. Many citizens eat it and go a little crazy or run off to Fairyland. That includes the mayor’s children and lots of the other politicians’, too. And Things Happen.

I really enjoyed this novel, though the fact that it bleeds allegory irritated me a little bit. It’s the Most Obvious Allegory Ever about the importance of imagination and creativity, which, I guess is why it gets put in the teen boat. None of that makes it a bad novel – it’s just a little corny, and corny can be soothing. Which is what I need(ed).

Lud-in-the-Mist is considered a classic. It’s 1920s fantasy before Tolkien and was very influential among fantasy writers, including Neil Gaiman, who loves it. (He has a new novel coming out very soon, by the way.) It’s also the best-known novel Hope Mirrlees wrote. She sounds like an interesting character.

So read the book if you like fantasy. I certainly liked it.

Bonus: Hope Mirrlees wrote the best description of a sunrise I think I’ve ever read. Here it is.

It was not so much a modification of the darkness, as a sigh of relief, a slight relaxing tension, so that one felt, rather than saw, that the night had suddenly lost a shade of its density…ah! yes; there! between these two shoulders of the hills she is bleeding to death.

At first the spot was merely a degree less black than the rest of the sky. The it turned grey, then yellow, then red. And the earth was undergoaing the same transformation. Here and there patches of greyness broke out in the blackness of the grass, and after a few secondsone saw that they were clumps of flowers. Then the greyness became filtered with a delicate sea-green; and next, one realized that the grey-green belonged to the foliage, against which the petals were beginning to show white–and then pink, or yellow, or blue; but a yellow like that of primroses, a blue like that of certain wild periwinkles, colors so elusive that one suspects them to be due to some passing accident of light, and that, were one to pick the flower, it would prove pure white.

Ah, there can be no doubt of it now! The blues and yellows are real and perdurable. Color is steadily flowing through the veins of the earth, and we may take heart, for she will soon be restored to life again. But had we kept one eye on the sky we should have noticed that a star was quenched with every flower that reappeared on earth. And now the valley is again red and gold with vineyards, the hills are clothed with pines, and the Dapple is rosy.

Then a cock crowed, and another answered it, and then another–a ghostly sound, which, surely, did not belong to the smiling, triumphant earth, but rather to one of thise distant dying stars.

Sigh.

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