Category: Books 2011 (page 2 of 6)

2011 Book #41: The Book of Sand

Several years ago, I dated a guy whose mother so often said that Kevin Costner was originally cast in Patrick Swayze’s role in Ghost, that her sons came up with a gesture to express it more succinctly: they would simply touch their index fingers to their foreheads. I need to come up with similar gesture for my usual excuse of waiting too long after I’ve read a book to write about it. Or I could just abide by my general rule of posting about the book I’ve just read before I begin the next, though that idea doesn’t seem to be working for me too well. So maybe I’ll raise my hands above my head and cough.

Anyway. About a week ago, I finished The Book of Sand, my second Borges collection. This time it was all fiction, which was a plus, though, in general, I enjoyed Labyrinths much more. I felt challenged and entranced throughout the short stories in Labyrinths, but I found myself a bit bored with The Book of Sand.

The only story I really like in this collection is “The Book of Sand,” which is about an infinite book. A bible salesman appears at the protagonist’s door, offering to sell him a book with no beginning or end. As you turn to the back of the book, more and more pages appear, and the same thing happens when you try to find the front. Pages also continually change in the middle.  The protagonist (who calls himself Jorge Luis Borges) buys the book, becomes obsessed with it, and realizes that it’s a curse, so he does his best to get rid of it.

There are a couple more good stories, like “The Mirror and the Mask” and “The Disk,” but I didn’t see any comparable to one like “The Library of Babel” in Labyrinths, which just might be one of my favorite stories ever.

I still love Borges, of course, but I hope that most of his work (that I haven’t read) is more like Labyrinths than The Book of Sand, though I guess they’re both the same type of thing. One of the blurbs on the back of the book compared it to Labyrinths, but it’s certainly not as good.

2011 Book #40: The Devil All the Time

The-Devil-All-The-Time_211.jpegI really need to be better about posting quickly after I finish a novel. Unless it falls into the Best Novel Ever category, I forget what I wanted to say before I write anything down. Once I hit this year’s quota, I might take a break from the writing part. Or not. We’ll see.

I decided to read The Devil All the Time because it sounded similar to stories and novels by Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, at least in substance. I’m generally pretty bad at reading pop fiction, a category into which this novel definitely fits, though I didn’t have a hard time getting through this one. I think it’s a story that could easily have come from either O’Connor or McCarthy – and it’s certainly as gruesome.

The Devil All the Time is about various damaged people in terrible situations trying to survive. One is a young boy whose mother is dying of cancer. His father wants his mother to live so badly that he builds an alter in the woods behind his house and sacrifices animals (and one person), hanging them onto homemade crosses. Then there’s the couple who drives across the country picking up young male hitchhikers, raping and killing them. The storylines eventually converge.

I enjoyed this novel more than I thought I would. It’s better-written than I’d expect it to be, though I’d never heard of Donald Ray Pollock before, so I guess I didn’t know what to expect. The plot is well thought-out, and the style is good. Pollock wrote another novel that, I think, is somehow related to this one, called Knockemstiff (the name of a town that reminds me of a certain author who wrote a series of novels set in another town with a stupid name, though Knockemstiff really exists), and I think I might be interested enough to read it. We shall see.

2011 Book #39: The Hero and the Crown

The Hero and the Crown is Palmer‘s favorite kid-book, which is why I read it. I read The Blue Sword first because there was some confusion which of the two is actually his favorite. Here’s why: both were written by Robin McKinley, whowrote The Blue Sword first, but The Hero and the Crown is its prequel. I’m glad, though, that I (kind of) read them in the wrong order because The Hero and the Crown is so much better. I really, really enjoyed it.

This one’s about Aerin, daughter of the king of Damar. She’s a bit of an outsider because her mother was a commoner from the (evilish) North, and lots of the citizens consider her mother, now dead, a “witchwoman,” and think some sort of evil rubbed off on Aerin. Tor, a cousin, is slated to become king, and he is in love with Aerin, who keeps getting into trouble. She befriends and rehabilitates her father’s lame warhorse and investigates an ancient ointment that protects the wearer from fire, then runs off to fight dragons (which are about the size of dogs but much more dangerous). Her father is having problems with the Northerners, and while he goes off to battle, she kills the last of the giant dragons, Maur, and is seriously injured. As she lays in bed dying, she dreams about a silver lake and a blond-haired man who says he can help her. She musters her strength and makes it to the lake, where she meets Luthe, who saves her but also makes her “not quite mortal,” and once she is well, she travels to fight her uncle in a tall black tower. Then more stuff happens.

It appears that McKinley has taken care of some of her style issues that made The Blue Sword seem sooooo long. The Hero and the Crown flew by, and I found myself wishing there was more. There’s a scene about three-quarters through the book in which Aerin is climbing up an amazingly long flight of stairs, but we only find out later that it’s taken her thousands of years. McKinley made it seem like a couple hours. But there was less awkward language, and it was an easier, more pleasant read. I wish she’d write more in this series.

2011 Book #38: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I’m not sure I should count this one. The size of The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a bit daunting until you look inside. It’s 533 thick (as in good-quality) pages. I was expecting it to take a while. But no. Near the end of the book, the author, Brian Selznik, mentions that it’s only around 26,000 words, which is roughly half the length of The Great Gatsby, which is about the shortest a novel can be and still be called a novel. Below 50k, it’s a novella. So The Invention of Hugo Cabret is, word-wise, a short novella.

But the words are only part of it. It’s filled with beautiful pencil drawings – and even some photographs. It’s a beautiful mix of the traditional and graphic novel, and I loved every minute of it, though I wish it was a lot longer.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is about a young boy, Hugo, who lives in a train station in Paris. His father died, so he moved there with his uncle, but his uncle disappeared. Hugo is left all alone to perform his uncle’s job of keeping all the clocks in the station wound and running correctly. Before his father, who was also a clock-maker, died, he had been working to repair an automaton he’d found, the origin of which no one seemed to know.

Hugo is determined to fix the automaton because he thinks it has a message for him: it’s sitting at a desk, pen in hand, ready to start writing. He gets the parts for it by stealing from the toymaker in a stall nearby. Eventually, he gets caught, and things get interesting.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s different. Martin Scorsese is directing a movie based on the novel, which I’d imagine would work out very well.

2011 Book #37: Cosmopolis

cosmopolis_uk_first.jpegI don’t even wanna talk about this one.

I hadn’t read a DeLillo novel in quite a while – we’re faaaar away from the glory days of the DeLillo Binge. While I was working on the Thesis Monster (which I still have to finish), I read most of his novels and realized that he’s just writing the same novel over and over with different characters and settings. Once I saw that, I lost all interest in DeLillo and all interest in the Thesis Monster. Which is why I haven’t worked on it in a while.

Here’s the plot of every DeLillo novel I’ve read (except, maybe, of Underworld, which I didn’t finish): A guy (always a guy: DeLillo writes Man Novels) experiences some sort of postmodern angst related in some way to the media. He runs away from his life or otherwise destroys it. Sometimes he attempts to return and is unsuccessful in reintegrating himself.

There. I’ve just told you the plot of Cosmopolis. And Americana, Great Jones Street, Mao II (the three novels included in the Thesis Monster), Libra, White Noise, Point Omega, Falling Man, and all the others I’ve read. That’s right: all of them.

Really, Don DeLillo? I thought you were better than that. Or at least a bit more creative.

I still say I’ll finish the Thesis Monster, and now I have a wee bit of incentive. Next August, I want to start Librarian School, which means another master’s. Which also means I need to finish the one I’m “currently” working on. I only need thirty more pages, and I have until early April to do it. I need to get my shizz together.

2011 Book #36: Everything that Rises Must Converge

9780374504649.jpegIt took me a long time to read Everything that Rises Must Converge, but that’s not because I didn’t like it. Now that I have a job, I’ve been reading a lot less. I get up, go to work, come home, and watch bad TV. I’ve only been reading during my (very short) break at work and just before I go to bed. I’m glad I’ve gotten ahead in my quota. Also, it’s too damn hot around here to read. The high today was 109. I know I said last winter that I’d rather it be 100 degrees outside than fifty, but 109 is just ridiculous. I’m working with window units here.

Anyway. The only Flannery O’Connor I remember reading before this was ye olde high school and college favorite, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which, I guess, I liked well enough. I’ve never been one for southern lit in general, though I’ve always loved A Confederacy of Dunces, and I’ve grown to like Faulkner a lot. I enjoyed Tom Sawyer, though I don’t have any interest in other Twain.

But O’Connor! She’s fantastic! I have a new favorite short story writer. I’m not sure which of these short stories I like best: they’re all really, really good, and they deserve a second (and third!) reading. I’m sitting here staring at the list of stories, trying to single one out, but I really can’t, so I won’t.

Everything that Rises Must Converge is O’Connor’s last collection. She was still working on it when she died. She only published one other collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, so I might pick that up at the liberry. Where I work.

Speaking of the liberry, I’ve been thinking about writing a series of book reviews for their blog. This post would not be a good example of a review, though I’ve been considering looking into gearing my entries more toward the formal. We’ll see if I can doff my laziness for a bit.

2011 Book #35: Lullaby

lullaby-chuck-palahniuk-hardcover-cover-art.jpegLullaby is the second Chuck Palahniuk novel I’ve attempted and the first I’ve finished. I picked up Haunted a couple of years ago, and, though I remember liking it well enough, I didn’t finish it. It either freaked me out or bored me. I’m not sure which. I read Lullaby because Jacob told me about it, and I thought it sounded interesting. It’s about a feature writer investigating cases of random baby deaths who figures out that lots of the parents had copies of a book called 27 Poems and Rhymes from Around the World. There’s a poem in it, which he calls a culling song, that kills people. And he kills some people, then begins a quest to destroy every copy of the book. He meets a real estate agent who has problems with amusingly haunted houses, who also knows the culling song, and they band together with a young couple in search of the rest of the books. Then Things Happen. (Just wait for the scene involving a cryogenically frozen dead baby. That one’s a kicker.)

I enjoyed most of Lullaby, but at the end it gets a bit preachy. Palahniuk yells at the world, “THIS BOOK IS ABOUT POWER! YOU HAVE NO FREE WILL BECAUSE YOU’RE BEING CONTROLLED BY OTHERS! LIKE THE GOVERNMENT! AND THE MEDIA!” It was a bit much for me. Toward the end of the novel, he can’t stop talking about it. He even throws a “you” in there:

Oyster occupies Helen, the way an army occupies a city. The way Helen occupied Sarge. The way the past, the media, the world, occupy you.

Meh. I made it clear when I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I hate being preached at. It’s like the second half in Sartre‘s Nausea when he’s preaching Existentialism. I get it. Enough already.

A year or two ago, some well-known publication (I don’t, of course, remember which) had a website that said it could tell you to what author’s style your writing is closest. I don’t write much anymore (besides on this blog, of course), so I plugged in a chapter of the novel I’ll never finish. It said my style is similar to Palahniuk’s, and I can see that. And I like his style, so it’s certainly not an insult.

So, in sum, I enjoyed Lullaby except for its preachiness, and I’m open to giving Haunted another try. Palahniuk also wrote Fight Club, and I hear the novel is better than the movie, though that’s usually the case. I’m not even sure I’ve seen the whole movie. I just hope that he doesn’t pound his message into the readers head with his other books. It was almost violent.

2011 Book #34: The Lake

the-lake-banana-yoshimoto.jpegI’m generally a fan of contemporary Japanese fiction. I’ve read and liked a few of Ryu Murakami‘s novels, and Haruki Murakami is one of my very favorite authors. A few years ago, I read Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, and I generally liked that one, too. That said, Yoshimoto’s The Lake is a total waste of time. The only novels I’ve read this year and actively disliked are Things Fall Apart and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The Lake is fluff fiction with some of the latter novel’s annoying-as-hell preachiness. Generally, my rule is that if, 50 pages in, nothing interesting is going on, I can scrap it. This one was so short that I didn’t. I figured something interesting was bound to happen. I was totally wrong.

The Lake is about a girl whose mother has recently died. She lives alone in a big city in Japan, and she’s lonely. She meets the guy whose window faces her from across the street, and they begin dating. He moves in. She’s not sure what it is, but there’s something wrong with him. He’s damaged in some way. He asks her to go with him to see two of his old friends who live near a lake, and she agrees to go. They arrive at a little cabin occupied by one nice guy and his bedridden sister. The friend puts his hand on his sister’s head, and she speaks through him. Fine. So the couple goes back to the city. Long story short, it turns out that (spoiler!) the boyfriend had been kidnapped and brainwashed by a cult when he was a kid, and he has problems forming relationships. The End.

This book was a total waste of time. I read it quickly simply because I wanted it to be over. The translation is terrible, too. Here’s an actual sentence:

Stacks of incomprehensible books about biochemistry and genetic engineering and so on would be stacked up next to him, their pages marked with Post-its.

Really? Mr. Translator, couldn’t you have tried just a little harder?

I’m glad I didn’t waste too much time on this one. I’ll move on to something more interesting, though I’m not sure what that is, yet. Shouldn’t be hard to find: I do work in a library, after all.

2011 Book #33: O Pioneers!

o_pioneers.jpegI don’t really have much to say about O Pioneers! I generally enjoyed it, but it’s entirely forgettable. When I was in college, I reluctantly read My Antonia, also by Willa Cather, and thoroughly enjoyed it though I expected to hate it. O Pioneers! is the same type of novel – you know, pioneers and things, and I thought I’d like it more than I did.

I only finished reading it yesterday, and I’ve forgotten most of it. It’s about a family of (what?) pioneers, the Bergsons, in the Great Plains, trying to survive and add land to their farm. The father dies and leaves his land to his two sons and one daughter, and they quibble about what happens to it. Then, there’s a Steinbeck-type tragedy (a la Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath), and, as in another Steinbeck trend, Life Goes On. That’s about it. It’s short.

Again, I liked it well enough, but I think O Pioneers! might go into the Wait.-I-Read-That? pile with Franny and Zooey and other novels I’ve totally forgotten I’ve read. If you’re trying to choose between this one and My Antonia, go with the latter. I need to read that one again.

In Cather’s defense, there are lots of DeLillo-ish quotes that make me want to work on the DeLillo Project again and expand it.

The great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.

A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.

We’ve liked the same things and we’ve liked them together, without anybody else knowing.

It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security.

This kind of language is what I like best about O Pioneers!

 Everything is vast and wild and mysterious because you're ten years old and America is wide as all the world and twice as invincible.

2011 Book #32: Sweet Thursday

sweetthursday.jpegI’ve done it again! I waited too long to write this blog post, and I’ve forgotten what I want to talk about. I used to have a rule that after I finished a book, I had to write the blog post before I started a new one, but, at some point, that rule went out the window. Now, I’m two books behind. But I’ve been busy!

My laziness aside, I really loved Sweet Thursday, even more than Cannery Row. In fact, I’m close to knocking Haruki Murakami down a rung and declaring Steinbeck my Favorite Novelist. His language is soooo beautiful, and lots of his stories, especially in these two novels, are lovely in a sentimental sort of way.

For what can a man accomplish that has not been done a million times before? What can he say that he will not find in Lao-Tse or the Bhagavad-gita or the Prophet Isaiah?

Sweet Thursday is a sequel to Cannery Row. This one begins after World War II, and Steinbeck spends a good deal of time talking what happened to the characters in Cannery Row – those who went to war and those who didn’t. Most of the first novel’s characters reappear here, and the focus is similar. You can read about Cannery Row in my earlier post.

In Sweet Thursday, the central plot line is similar to that of its prequel: Mack and the boys are trying to cheer up Doc. This time, instead of throwing parties that inevitably destroy Doc’s lab, they want to find him a wife. All of Cannery Row’s residents are involved, even the new ones. And, as in the earlier novel, Mischief Ensues.

Sweet Thursday is one of the best novels I’ve read in a really long time. Steinbeck captures the setting and time period amazingly well, and all of the characters are well-rounded. The only other Steinbeck novels I’ve read are Travels with Charley, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, which was my favorite before Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. I’ll read East of Eden soon.

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