Month: November 2013

2013 Book #53: Jacob’s Room

jacobsroomI should probably preface this post by noting that Virginia Woolf is one of my Very Favorite Authors. I’m a huge fan. But 50 pages into Jacob’s Room, I was bored to tears. I even read a few reviews on Goodreads to help figure out if the story would ever start. The answer is no.

That’s the thing with Jacob’s Room: there’s really not much of a story. It’s generally about the life of a young man named Jacob, but it’s mostly told by people around him, and even then, he’s only on the fringes. It starts when he’s a child, his father has died, and his mother finds him irritating. And so on. There’s not really a plot.

What I did figure out from the Goodreads reviews (and our old friend Wikipedia) is that this is Woolf’s third novel, and it’s experimental. Not that that’s a bad thing: The Autumn of the Patriarch is most certainly experimental, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s fantastic. And wouldn’t you call The Sound and the Fury experimental, with its weirdo stream-of-consciousness-I-can-only-half-understand going on for the first quarter of the book? Experimental is interesting! Except when there’s so much experimenting that the story is totally forgotten. It’s kind of in the style of To The Lighthouse, which is fantastic, but minus the story. It’s nothing like Orlando, which I read fairly recently.

And that’s all I really have to say about Jacob’s Room. I didn’t like it because it was so boring. The language is especially beautiful, though, so if you’re willing to trade story for style, by all means, jump in. I’ll stick with all of the other Woolf novels I’ve read and loved – you know, the ones with plots.

2013 Book #52: Wizard and Glass

wizardandglassWizard and Glass took me a long time to read. I’m not even sure when I started it, but I’m sure it was well over a year ago. I lost interest about halfway through and put it back on the shelf.

It’s the fourth book in Stephen King‘s Dark Tower series, which is still growing on me. I really liked The Gunslinger, thought The Drawing of the Three was silly at times, and loved The Waste Lands, which ended with the cliffhangeriest cliffhanger ever. But I’ve already complained about that.

Wizard and Glass picks up after The Waste Lands, on board the Crazy Train, in the middle of a game of riddles. The ka-tet (surprise!) survives, landing in Captain Trips land, the setting of The Stand (which I want to read but is currently on my tl;dr list). Some familiar characters appear later, and there are fun little connections to that world. But that’s not the bulk of the novel: They’re traveling east from Kansas City, past what’s called a thinny, toward a big castle dome, when Roland tells a story. A very loooooooong story, explaining his past and how he ended up where he is, with Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy, walking down an interstate highway in modern-day Kansas. Again, it’s a long story, say, eighty percent of this eight-hundred-page novel. King returns to the western theme that, I thought, made The Gunslinger so good.

And that story is good – it’s just that I think King could have been a little more…economical with his words. He spends time explaining things that would be better spent getting to the end. It’s longer than it needs to be. (As opposed to A Song of Ice and Fire, which needs to be as long as it is because so much happens.) And the point-of-view is weird, too: Since it’s Roland telling the story, you might expect first-person narrative with quotes around it. But no! It’s like a novel-within-a-novel, written in third person with occasional odd shifts, like when we get a bit of what’s in the head of a mentally delayed character (is that p-c?). King made some interesting choices, is all I’ll say.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Wizard and Glass despite its length and my disagreement with some of King’s choices. Even though I’d left half of it unread for more than a year, I didn’t have a hard time getting back into the story, which is pretty good since I tend to forget books quickly (hence, this blog!). I won’t say anything else about the story except that, again, parts of it were silly (Oz?), and King wisely chooses not to end this one with a super duper cliffhanger, though I’m foaming at the mouth to read Wolves of the Calla, the fifth in this series of seven. I’m putting it off for a while, though, because if I keep up with The Dark Tower, I’ll find myself dreaming about it, and that’s the last thing I want to dream about.

So I’m back on The Dark Tower bandwagon. I’d heard that there’s a movie in the works with Javier Bardem playing Roland, but Wikipedia claims that it’s Russell Crowe now. I dislike that change, but we’ll see if it ever happens in the first place. I’ll go ahead and put my money on the books’ superiority.

2013 Book #51: The Circle

circleI seriously considered not even writing about this one since I’ve hit my goal of fifty for the year. I also (though not seriously) considered never touching the internet again, ever. The Circle is scary!

With the exception of a couple of Nonrequired Reading introductions, I’m pretty sure this is my first brush with Dave Eggers. I pass by Zeitoun on the library shelves every now and then, and I’ve even picked it up a few times, but I haven’t read it because it’s been eight years, and I still don’t want to deal with Katrina. But that’s neither here nor there.

The Circle is similar to 1984, but with social media. Don’t get me wrong: in subject, not in quality. Though I enjoyed reading The Circle, it’s not a fantastic book, though it’s fun and terrifying at the same time.

The book opens on Mae Holland’s first day working at the Circle, an social media company hybrid. Think Facebook + Twitter + Square/Paypal + Instagram + Yelp + Foursquare + every other one I can’t think of right now. It has a sprawling campus in California, like Google’s or Apple’s, but better. It’s also a cult that might even trump Apple. Employees “voluntarily” allow their entire lives to be broadcast on social media. At first, they’re just supposed to check in, post photos, and comment on others’ feeds – like we do now. But the “transparency” requirements get out of control. Early on, a Steve Jobs-type CEO introduces SeeChange, a cheap, tiny video camera with an incredible battery that can be mounted everywhere, is almost invisible, and will record and broadcast automatically for two years without intervention. People post them everywhere. Mae, daring to take some time alone, gets caught doing something she shouldn’t, is made to feel guilty, and agrees to go entirely “transparent,” wearing a camera around her neck all of the time. Politicians do too, and eventually more and more people go transparent, making private moments impossible. Mae ends up in two interesting relationships, and must make a choice between them: one fits in with the goals of The Circle, and the other understands the implications and wants to prevent what is happening.

Sounds kind of like 1984, eh? The Circle even adopts similar slogans:


And that’s kind of what The Circle is: a social media update to 1984. Whether Eggers does it successfully is up for debate. Mae “drinks the Kool-Aid” very early on and seems far too eager to share anything and everything. She doesn’t really question what they’re doing. And *spoiler alert*, when she’s given one final opportunity to prevent this global loss of privacy and a totalitarian takeover by an omnipresent corporation, even after she knows the implications, she chooses not to step in.

Sure, Winston gives in, too, but he’s tortured. Mae is not. At the beginning, it seems like she’s so afraid of being fired and not keeping one of the most enviable jobs in the world that she goes along with anything. By the end, though, there’s no excuse. The only time she even seems to question it is at the very beginning, after they’ve uploaded the contents of her personal laptop to the cloud, and she wants to “say goodbye” before she lets them throw it away. After that, it’s Kool-Aid all the way. I find that unconvincing. No one is that dumb; no job is that important.

So. I enjoyed reading The Circle to the point at which it became frustrating. I expected Mae to struggle with something, but she agrees to everything without questioning it. By the end, she’s so brainwashed that she makes a stupid decision with far-reaching implications for all of humanity: Mae sucks.

This novel also invaded my dreams. I’ve stopped reading several books because they’ve done that, and I’m sure you can imagine that a dream about The Circle might not be the most pleasant. After the first night of that, I sped through the rest of the book, just to be done with it.

And it’s terrifying, mostly because it’s so realistic, more so than 1984, given that 1984 is behind us and technology has advanced so much. It’s not even about over-sharing: all of the information Mae voluntarily puts online is innocent, but her photos from Portugal, for instance, and her favorite restaurants and dishes combine to form a profile that’s far too exact. I’ve never been an over-sharer, though I am all over the internet because it’s been around for a long time, and I’m an early adopter. Even if I did decide to go offline, no amount of deleting will really get rid of any of it. It’ll always exist somewhere, on someone’s hard drive. With automatic updates, it’s only getting worse: advertisers not only know where I like to eat, but thanks to Fitbit, they know how many steps I take in a day. Little stuff adds up.

Which doesn’t mean that I’m pulling away from the internet. As I said, it wouldn’t do any good, anyway. I think The Circle will arrive here sooner or later, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. I just hope it doesn’t happen in my lifetime.

2013 Book #50(!): Zealot

zealotLike you and everyone you know, I heard about Reza Aslan and his book, Zealot, via that awful Fox News interview. The crazy right-wing automatic hatred of everyone with a name from a certain region baffles me. This woman hadn’t even read the book!

But I’m not here to talk about that interview, and I’m certainly not here to discuss my religious or political views, as neither topic makes for polite conversation.

I’d never read a historical account of Jesus’s life, and I thought that Zealot might be a good place to start. The small bit of information I did glean from the few non-nutzo, biased reviews is that Aslan doesn’t present anything new, beyond what scholars generally have to say on the subject. That’s a good thing, as I didn’t know what they had to say in the first place.

I guess I should note that I was brought up conservative Southern Baptist (with a little Catholicism thrown in), and beyond a general bitter rejection of most of what they said, I never had much of an interest in Christian history. Once I hit an age where I could begin to think for myself, I decided that the Bible isn’t supposed to be literally true, but I never bothered investigating. Sure, I have a degree in philosophy, but when I studied religion, I always found the East more interesting. So that’s where I’m coming from.

The most interesting thing, to me, about this book was how Aslan explained the difference between Jesus the historical figure and Jesus the Christ. There’s no disputing that Jesus existed, and Aslan doesn’t discuss whether he is, in fact, divine. The point here is that Jesus was a Jewish religious and political activist and that the books of the New Testament were written long after his death for a Roman audience, not a Jewish one. That’s why Pontius Pilate supposedly washed his hands of Jesus’s execution (which Aslan disputes): if the Romans were to adopt this religion, they couldn’t be directly responsible for his death. Judaism had to become a separate religion, or Christianity would remain only a sect, and Gentiles wouldn’t want to adopt it.

Aslan also discusses the motivations of the various New Testament authors and how Paul became more influential than Jesus’s brother, James, for instance, would want. Paul presented his argument to a Roman audience rather than a Jewish one like the others, and what he said became the norm.

I’ll stop there, but this stuff is so interesting! Again, Aslan doesn’t make any claims as to the divinity of Jesus or try to disprove the doctrines of Christianity: he just presents it in a historical context that you don’t generally hear from the church. At least I didn’t. Whether or not Jesus was the literal son of God, he was an intriguing figure, and Zealot is a well-written, relatively short entry into New Testament history.

If you haven’t seen that interview, by the way, it’s worth your time:

I guess I’m ending the year on a contentious note. Here’s to 50!


2013 Book #49: Dance Dance Dance

dancedancedanceWell, that went quickly. Four books in, what, two weeks? Lots of Haruki MurakamiHear the Wind SingPinball, 1973, and A Wild Sheep Chase were his first three novels. Then, he wrote Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Norwegian Wood before returning to his first series-of-sorts with the novel I just read, Dance Dance Dance. Keep in mind that I’ve read every one of Murakami’s novels published in English. If I was any good at learning other languages, I’d like to learn to read Japanese specifically for his books. (Maybe a goal for 2014?) I love this man.

As I’ve said before, Hard-Boiled Wonderland was the first Murakami novel I ever read. I remember trolling through the fiction shelves at the Urbana Free Library and picking it up off of an end display because I liked the title and the cover. It was a big book, longer than I usually read at the time, but I was intrigued. I loved that book.

After that, I’m pretty sure, came A Wild Sheep Chase. I read these around 2006, way before I started this blog. I didn’t like it as much, but I was still fascinated by Murakami – I’m pretty sure he was my first entry into magical realism. I didn’t discover Gabriel Garcia Marquez until years later – One Hundred Years of Solitude was my first book of 2011, in fact. I’d never encountered such an interesting blend of fantasy and reality, where fantasy was there but kind of on the fringes.

It’s interesting to see Murakami’s progression from his first book to Dance Dance Dance and beyond. A Wild Sheep Chase seems to be the first book full of traits that easily could help me to identify Murakami from a pile of other authors, like a needle in a haystack. There are the telltale markers like a concentration of cats and wells – and an infatuation with American culture, especially music. The fantasy part usually takes place in another world, of sorts, but crosses over to this one in distinct areas.

That’s what happens in Dance Dance Dance. The (still) unnamed narrator searches for Kiki, his previously unnamed girlfriend who disappeared near the end of A Wild Sheep Chase. He returns to the Dolphin Hotel, where they stayed and met the Sheep Professor, who was the key to finding the special sheep and the Rat in Hokkaido in the previous novel. It’s been razed and rebuilt, and it’s entirely different: it’s huge and modern, with a professional staff. The worn-out, old, dusty Dolphin Hotel is gone. Except sometimes, when the narrator (or his new girlfriend), happen upon a secret space, where the hallway is pitch black except for one room, where the Sheep Man (not the Sheep Professor) keeps watch over the sheep research and holds the narrator’s consciousness together, like a knot. That’s the separate world, more like that of Hard-Boiled Wonderland than A Wild Sheep Chase. The narrator gets a vague understanding of what’s going on, then searches for a way to tie all of it together. Lots of other characters become involved, including the thirteen-year-old daughter of a famous photographer and a bestselling novelist/travel writer suspiciously named Hiraku Makimura. It’s quite a story.

I think the original Japanese covers best illustrate the nature of this book:


So. Where does it fit in with the previous three in this “series”? After rereading all of them, I understand the “Rat Trilogy” label, as the Rat is mentioned all of once in Dance Dance Dance, and only in passing. But the same unnamed man narrates all four – it’s really his story. We see him in college, out in the world for his first time, and when he’s in his mid-thirties. He grows up in these novels in a lot of ways. So should we call it The Unnamed Narrator Tetralogy? I don’t know. I’m sticking to the Rat series here because I’ve already tagged the posts. I’m not sure what to do with it. Really, you don’t need to have read A Wild Sheep Chase to enjoy Dance Dance Dance, though I think I understood more having read it. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 definitely aren’t necessary.

Of these four, Dance Dance Dance is my favorite, and I’ll argue that it’s the best. I can definitely see the progression from A Wild Sheep Chase to Hard-Boiled Wonderland – and how the extremes of the latter might have made him retreat to the more-“normal” Norwegian WoodDance Dance Dance seems more of a middle ground (though he doesn’t stay here: Kafka on the Shore and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are more like Hard-Boiled Wonderland).

So, there you go. I’ve reread the Rat series, as I’ll call it. I’m glad I liked A Wild Sheep Chase more this time around, and I’m glad I wrote about each novel as I read it so maybe they won’t run together in my head. If you haven’t read Murakami, by all means, jump in. Norwegian Wood if you don’t want to go too far from reality or Hard-Boiled Wonderland if you do. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or 1Q84 if you’re in for a mammoth read. I think Murakami is one of the very best authors out there who’s still alive and writing.

Bonus: Here’s the version of Hard-Boiled Wonderland I was talking about earlier. I noticed that my header image includes that edition, so I snapped a photo:

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