A Personal Matter

by April 16, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Not Recommended

A Personal Matter

There is no doubt in my mind that A Personal Matter is a skilfully executed piece of literature.  And I hated reading it. The main character, Bird, is a 27 year old who dreams of going to Africa.  When his son is born with a brain hernia, he is faced with deciding between surgery for his son (which may or may not allow him to develop normally) and preventing the surgery and allowing the baby to die.

Maybe it's because I'm a young father myself, but the very idea that Bird would even consider allowing his baby to die disgusted me.  Reading this book was a disturbing, and unpleasant experience.  At the same, the mere fact that Oe was able to illicit these feelings in me as strongly as he has shows that he is good at what he does.  Unfortunately, what he did here is create a character so selfish and depraved that I actively hated him while reading.

With all that said, this brings up an interesting question:  do I recommend a book that I hated reading, one full of characters I found offensive and deplorable if it was all intentional?  How do you handle situations like this?  Do you still recommend the book even though you hated it in terms of content, because it's an example of good writing?  Or do you choose from myriad other books that are contain good writing, but are not despicable?  I would certainly never recommend this book outright, but I have to admit, if you want something that deals with difficult problems in a vicious manner this book is perfect for you.

"But it seems that reality compels you to live properly when you live in the real world" (164).

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Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary

by April 7, 2010 in Books, Fantasy, Recommended

Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary

First of all, I apologize for the recent lack of updates.  Between traveling, Easter, and being sick I've been reading a lot, but not writing much.  I have a nice little backlog of finished books, though, so hopefully I'll be able to catch up and post some more over the next few weeks.

Now onto Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary.  I don't actually know what else I can say about the Fablehaven books that I haven't said previously.  They are fun, creative, exciting books that are perfect when you want something that is well executed, but does not requiring extensive emotional investment.

I guess the most important thing I can share with you at this point is as of the 4th (and penultimate) volume in the series, they are still very enjoyable.  I didn't find myself captivated quite as quickly with this book as I have with the first 3, but I ended up there eventually.  So, if you are a fan of fun juvenile fiction that mixes magic and realistically developed characters, give the Fablehaven series a shot.  And if you have been reading the series, send me an email so we can make ...

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The Graveyard Book (audio)

by March 25, 2010 in Audio Books, Books, Fantasy, Recommended

The Graveyard Book (audio)

I have a weird relationship with Neil Gaiman's books.  His stories always fascinate me conceptually, but upon reading them, I'm inevitably underwhelmed.  That isn't to say his books are bad, just not as great as I hope they will be upon reading a plot summary.

The Graveyard Book suffers this same small letdown.  The idea - a young boy, orphaned after the brutal murder of his family, is raised by the ghosts that inhabit a nearby graveyard - is pretty awesome.  The execution, while still very entertaining and enjoyable, is just enough less awesome to be disappointing.  Maybe I expect too much from Gaiman, but if that's the case it's his own fault for having such awesome ideas.

The best part about The Graveyard Book is how it celebrates life through the constant presence of death.  This theme emerges so naturally from the content of the book that it doesn't ever feel cliche or preachy.  Gaiman also ties everything together nicely in the end.  Unfortunately, there are too many parts that drag along the way to make it excellent from beginning to end.

On the whole this a good book and, if you choose to go ...

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

by March 17, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I’ve read a lot of books in the last 2 years (43 – 120 if you include audio books, but who’s counting?), and I’ve enjoyed the vast majority.  Part of this is because I enjoy the very experience of reading, so for most books I can find some aspect of it that I enjoy.

Some books are funny (Areas of My Expertise), some are sad (Firmin), and some are both (I Am a Cat).  Some are weird (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), some fun (Fablehaven, Percy Jackson and the Olympians) and some are, apparently, only for me (Botchan – sorry Nicole).  I’ve enjoyed all of these, and I recommend them for various reasons and to various people.

There are some, however, that are so good that it’s hard to even discuss them.  I love to read, and I enjoy talking about books, but how do you discuss a great book if you aren’t a great writer?  How do I fit into a blog post or database entry the scope, the characters, or the beauty of East of Eden?  How do I explain the moving, subtle, and amazing experience of reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?  Do I give ...

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Dubliners

by March 12, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Dubliners

It is clear from Dubliners why James Joyce is so highly regarded.  The most impressive thing, for me, was his ability to capture so much emotion, so realistically, in so few pages.  Without feeling forced, or cliched, he would perfectly express anger, jealousy, fear, or love.  I also enjoyed how these short stories each had their own unique voice.  It wasn't one narrator telling 15 different tales, but 15 different narrators, each telling their own story in a style perfectly suited for their respective themes, characters, and plot.

All of this becomes even more impressive when we consider Joyce was only 25 when these stories were first published.  If you enjoy short stories, I would definitely recommend this collection.  For the rest of us, though, I think there is still a lot to like about these tales.  Plus, what with them being so short, you don't have to read them all at once and, taken individually, there's no reason not to give each of these stories the mere 10 to 30 minutes that they require.

“He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle ...

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First Line: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

by March 9, 2010 in Books, First Line, Fiction

First Line: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I want to do something a little different with this First Line.  In the last 3, I chose books that I read previously and so in each case I was familiar with where the books were going.  If, however, I'm to take my claim that the first line of a book is important seriously, then I should give serious thought to the first line of a book the first time I read it.  So that's what I'm doing with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  I don't know anything about this book.  I haven't read the back of it, no one has described the plot to me, nothing.  All I know is that it starts with the following:

"What about a teakettle?"

Huh?  Or, in the words of the opening chapter "What the?"  This isn't a lot to go from, but it's not impossible to make a few wild guesses.  To start, it gives me the impression that this is going to be an odd book.  After all, it did just start itself asking if a teakettle is more appropriate.  Than what?  Who knows.  For what?  No clue.  I am looking forward to finding ...

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So why does Harry Potter have a scar?

by March 4, 2010 in Books, Fantasy, Recommended

So why does Harry Potter have a scar?

Note:  the following discussion spoils certain aspects of the entire Harry Potter series.  Please don't keep reading if you don't already know what happens, unless you don't mind having it spoiled.

There is a chapter in How to Read Literature Like a Professor called "Marked for Greatness" that discusses how heroic, important characters are literally marked for greatness.  Several examples are given, but at the end the author asks why does Harry Potter have a scar?  What does this scar represent beyond the fact that Voldemort tried to kill Harry after murdering his parents?  I've thought about this over the last week and I have some ideas I'd like to share.

There is, of course, the obvious meaning evident upon a surface reading - the scar is the physical reminder of Voldemort's failed attempt to murder Harry.  Beyond that, at a slightly deeper level, the mark also reveals the connection between Voldemort and Harry.  We eventually learn that this connection is so strong that Voldemort is literally a part of Harry.

All of this makes sense, and is fairly evident in the text itself.  However, the question of why Harry Potter has a scar is ...

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor

by Feb. 24, 2010 in Books, Nonfiction, Recommended

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

I have been enjoying my time over the past year of writing down what I think about books as I finish them.  It has added a depth to my understanding of books that wasn't there in the past.  Yes, I always enjoyed reading, but I never spent much time meditating on what I read, or digesting it.  Instead, I would read a book, finish it, and immediately move on to the next work.  Now that I don't let myself do that, I'm enjoying reading more than ever.

I've come to realize, though, that I don't have that many things to say about books.  Most of my discussions consist of enjoying a particular plot element, character, structure, tone, or style of the book.  Even when I identify these elements, however, I have a hard time expressing exactly what I like so much about them.  Don't get me wrong - it's good to enjoy these aspects of books.  At the same time, though, I know there is more going on that I'm missing.  But where do I start?  Do I just make things up?

All of these questions lead me to How to Read Literature ...

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First Line: Twilight

by Feb. 20, 2010 in Books, First Line, Fiction, Not Recommended

First Line: Twilight

Just a word of warning - this first line discussion may have a few more spoilers than some of the previous ones.  So if for some reason you have been dying to read Twilight but haven't gotten around to it yet, this post may not be for you.  With that out of the way - on to the first line:

"I'd never given much thought to how I would die - though I'd had reason enough in the last few months - but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this."

When you read this for the first time, without knowing where the story is actually going, there's no denying that this is an attention grabbing opener.  In the first sentence we know that the narrator's life is in danger, death being the only likely outcome, and while the death she is actually facing is unexpected, death itself is not.  What more can you want from a first line?

Oh, I don't know, maybe a first line that is logically consistent with the rest of the book?  Yeah, that would be nice, but unfortunately we don't get that here.  Let's break it ...

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Stranger in a Strange Land

by Feb. 15, 2010 in Books, Not Recommended, Science Fiction

Stranger in a Strange Land

I've had Stranger in a Strange Land on my bookshelf for nearly 5 years now.  I have always wanted to read it, partly because I borrowed it from a friend and knew I should eventually give it back, and partly because it looked interesting.  So what has kept me from actually starting it?  Probably the fact that everyone I've asked about it says the same thing:  "It starts of great, but then it gets really weird."

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy weird.  Weird books are often some of the most fun.  Still, it was enough of a deterrent to keep it from ever moving it to the top of my never empty backlog of books.

So now that I have read it, what's the verdict?  They were exactly right.  Stranger in a Strange Land starts off excellent.  Unfortunately, this great start makes the second half that much harder to read.  There's a reason this book took me so long to read (nearly 3 weeks):  the last half is just a pain to slog through.

The story of Stranger centers around Valentine Michael Smith - a human born on mars and raised by Martians who gets ...

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