Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus" by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I tried to read this book when I was a little kid but it just didn't work out. I can't remember what the problem was--looking back, I thought I must have found it kind of boring--all I could remember was somebody stumbling over the snowy tundra towards a village, which now, having actually read it, I see was not quite right; and now I wonder if my problem wasn't the fact that this book contains a pretty advanced vocabulary which was probably difficult for me to contend with at that age. I mean, I even learned some new words from reading this book as an adult! The only example I can remember is "tyro" (which means novice) but I got the dictionary out several times while reading this book.

This book is nothing like the movie scenes everyone pictures. There is no hunchback, there is no lightning strike, there is no maniacal scream of "IT'S ALIVE!!!" In fact, the book dwells more on the formation of the monster's body than its coming alive (the length of perhaps a chapter as compared to one paragraph) but of course none of that is very cinematic in the book, so it's not surprising that the movie doesn't adhere very closely to the book in that respect. Another reason the lightning strike wouldn't have been mentioned in the book is because, as Victor Frankenstein explains, he doesn't want to give away the secret of reanimation and have someone else duplicate his horrible experiment. (Of course this is also a useful device to keep the author from having to think up a plausible method of reanimation). By the way, I think the only Frankenstein movie I've actually watched is Young Frankenstein (snort), but I have ordered the 1931 original (and the sequel!) on netflix.

Another big surprise to me was the fact that Frankenstein's monster turned out to be highly intelligent and quite eloquent! I always assumed that the monster couldn't do much more than lurch around with his arms out in front of him, moaning and groaning. I guess this is what he was like when he first came to life, but I never knew that Frankenstein bestowed intelligence and self-awareness on his monster as well as life. And speaking of when he first came to life, I found it interesting that the monster's description of being assailed by his senses sounds like what it must be like for a newborn baby--which is basically what he was, in all but form.

When Frankenstein's monster first opened his mouth to speak it required a huge shift in perspective for me in relation to my knowledge of this story. It was like the first time I got glasses, when I'd had no idea I needed them. Unfortunately at this point, when the monster tells his story, the momentum of the book slows quite a bit. I had been expecting more nail-biting, heart-pounding action throughout the book, especially based on the back cover which claimed the book "has never been equalled for its masterful manipulation of the elements of horror and suspense." (I must disagree and say that Edgar Allan Poe is far superior with both horror and suspense in multiple stories!) You get some tension in the first third and some in the last third but not so much in the middle. In fact, the monster's story almost reads more like a fairy tale, although in a sort of Through the Looking Glass way, like it's inside out or backwards. If you imagine the story from the point of view of the small family in the cottage (chores mysteriously completed for them à la "The Shoemaker and the Elves") you'll understand what I mean. Although it is rather creepy when you add the element that they are continually spied on without their knowledge.

I lost respect for Victor Frankenstein when he didn't come forward in defense of Justine and instead allowed the innocent girl to be executed for a crime he knew she didn't commit. Of course Frankenstein explained that this was because he was afraid his story would not be believed and he would be locked up in the looney bin, but I say an honorable man would have tried anyway. As it was, I really felt no pity for his despair and remorse.

About halfway through the book I started to think about how interesting it would be if the creator-monster relationship was revealed to be a Jekyll-Hyde thing and it was actually a split personality within Victor Frankenstein rather than two separate beings. I was pretty sure that wasn't the case (and it wasn't), but that would have made for a pretty good story. I like it when a book is a little less straightforward and has a few unforeseen twists and turns.

One more interesting thing I never knew: Victor Frankenstein created his monster in Ingolstadt, Germany. My sister used to live near there! I wonder why this never came up as one of Ingolstadt's claims to fame.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Amsterdam" by Ian McEwan

I was so excited to find this book at my local library, which in the past I have frequently found to be sadly lacking. This wasn't one of the Ian McEwan books I was looking for, but only because I didn't know about it.

I'm not sure why (maybe because the title of this book and the setting of the beginning of The Amnesiac are one and the same?) but for about the first half of this book my mind kept trying to tell me it was authored by Sam Taylor rather than McEwan. Or maybe it's because it is set in the present instead of the past. Or maybe because the length of this novel is more similar to The Amnesiac than Atonement. Anyway, once I was sufficiently sucked in by the story I gave up comparisions.

It bears noting that all major characters in this book are obscenely narcissistic and slightly insane. Brazen narcissism and slight insanity may be more common than I realize, but I think it was a little overdone in this novel. At least in real life people tend to hide these flaws better. But even though I found the novel somewhat unrealistic in this aspect, this was not a major failing when taking the entire novel into account. It was well written, and a very interesting glimpse into the psyches of a few privileged and elite Brits. Who knows, maybe among the Masters of the Universe such narcissistic insanity really is the norm.

I absolutely loved the way McEwan introduced the fact that Vernon Halliday was no longer the editor of The Judge. You read an account of the next staff meeting, not even really noticing that the editor isn't mentioned by name. It isn't until the very end of the passage, when you know the editor is speaking and you read "Frank said" rather than "Vernon said," that you realize what has happened. It's a sudden, eye-opening revelation. First you have to go back and re-read the passage in light of the new information. Then you realize that Frank's aspirations were higher than you were led to believe. It never really comes right out and says so, but I bet Frank is the one who leaked the incriminating photos to the Garmonys. Then you have to go back to the previous chapter and see that George Lane is the one who came up with the way for The Judge to lay all the blame on Halliday while itself emerging relatively unscathed. (Because maybe the first time you read that part you mistakenly assumed that Lane was speaking up in support of Halliday). Then you wonder if it's possible that this was all part of Lane's plan--that he had the foresight to not only assure Garmony's political demise, but that he could also take down Halliday on the way. No matter how premeditated the results were on Lane's part, it is clear that he was vastly underestimated when Vernon and Clive saw him as weak. Oh, the convoluted intrigue!

Though the idea of the "mutual homicide" at the end was somewhat maudlin, and I saw it coming from the moment Clive boarded the airplane with 10 grand in his carryon, it definitely added suspense and increased the tempo to, if not a frantic pace, then at least to an enjoyable level of tension. I almost expected George Lane to kill off his last remaining rival when they arrived in Amsterdam, but it's good that he didn't; that would have stretched my suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. It was hard enough to make the leap from Clive and Vernon both being hurt and desiring revenge to plotting each other's murder, though I managed it.

I don't understand the reference on the back cover saying this book is "a comic novel". Maybe I misunderstand the definition of that phrase, but to me, this means the novel is supposed to be amusing. I didn't notice any funny parts in this book--not even any parts where it appeared that the author attempted humor and failed--not even if I extend the definition to include comedy so dark that it's darker than an underground cavern when your flashlight batteries die. I do, however, agree with another part of the same sentence calling the novel "a sharp contemporary morality tale." It was very interesting to see each of several characters denouncing another for their lack of principles, thinking they themselves were taking the high moral ground, while completely failing to meet commonly accepted standards in another area of their life.

Good book. Glad I didn't buy it, but nice to know my local library has at least a few obscure and perhaps flawed but still brilliant gems.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned But Probably Didn't" by Judy Jones & William Wilson

I saw this book in a catalog called "Acorn". It is kind of like the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, from which I remember Doc Williams reading excerpts to us in English my senior year of high school (or was that my junior year? it all kind of runs together now), except that it is in a much more readable format rather than being organized alphabetically like an encyclopedia (or, dare I say, a dictionary). It covers a good number of topics (from government to literature to economics with lots in between) and kind of hits the high spots of what anyone *should* retain from a good liberal arts education. I read the "Art History" section first and am poised to delve into "Philosophy" next. So far, one of the things I love about this book is how it is rather cross-referential, bringing in examples from other disciplines in order to explain the subject at hand.

My only problem: although the book is loaded with great information, I'm afraid I'm not retaining much of it this time around, either... maybe it will take several readings. It's funny; this "incomplete education" concept makes me think of a quote I read in the most recent Reader's Digest: "Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten." (B.F. Skinner). Throughout my life I have been given ample opportunities to learn, but sadly (and with much embarrassment) I must admit that my resultant education seems rather skimpy. That's nothing but my own fault. I really want to actually remember a lot of the information I read in this book, and if reading it through more than once is what it takes, I'll do it. But at 678 fact-packed pages, just one reading is probably going to take me a year and a day.

Note that when I purchased the book, to me the title meant that my education was incomplete and this book would bring me closer to completing it. However, in the foreword I see that the authors intended the title to refer to the fact that the book holds the information which will give you but an incomplete education. As they say (and I paraphrase somewhat): first of all, what exactly would a "complete" education consist of? And if such a thing were possible, would you really want it? To know it all? And to quote: "No gaps to fill, no new territory to explore, nothing left to learn, education over?" Even when they put it that way... I don't know, knowing it all sounds pretty cool.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant

After I finally finished reading the Bourne book, I started The Birth of Venus. This is one of the books I picked up during my most recent Books-A-Million shopping spree. I don't believe I'd heard of the book or its author before; it merely caught my eye, especially because this one was part of a buy-two-get-one-free offer going on at the time. Funny thing is, a month later this same book caught my eye at Sam's, and I entertained the idea of buying it until I remembered I already had.

Another thing that interested me in this book was its historical setting in Florence during the Italian Renaissance, just as the fundamentalist monk Savonarola is rising to power. I had the good fortune to make my first (and hopefully not my last) trip to Florence just this year, and in fact I recall the plaque in the middle of the Piazza della Signoria which marked the place where Savonarola was burned at the stake in the year 1498.

Preconceived notions about the book: The back mentions a young painter who is affiliated with the main character's family in Florence. This tidbit, together with the book's title, made me wonder if perhaps that young painter would turn out to be Botticelli, who painted "The Birth of Venus" you see below. That painting is still on display at the Uffizi gallery in Florence, and--hoping this will not sound like bragging, although I'm afraid it will, but things like this are just too exciting to me to not mention it--I got to see this painting in person during my trip. Of course there are other paintings with the same title, but in my mind this one is the most famous. Anyhow, I found out fairly quickly that I was wrong about the painter's identity. Botticelli is mentioned a few times in the book, as is the painting below, along with some other work he did to go with Dante's Divine Comedy, but the artist in this book was definitely not Botticelli. In fact, he is actually never named; he is always and solely referred to as "the painter."

I normally do not favor reading historical fiction for two reasons. First, history tends to bore me (there, I've admitted it). Second, except in cases where I already know the facts (which isn't often), I never know for sure which parts are history and which parts are fiction. But I was eager to read this book since I already know a little bit about the history of that time in Florence (which might well be called that city's "heyday"), and because I foresaw that I would frequently be given the opportunity to picture the setting perfectly in my mind since I've actually seen it in real life! In this respect I was not disappointed. The majority of the novel takes place indoors, but there were plenty of scenes out in the city that took me back to the façades of the beautiful old buildings in my memory.

Several times in this book I found myself wondering, Now what did they mean by that? I wish I had marked these parts down because now I can only remember two of them, and I would really like to reread those parts now that I've finished the book and see if they make more sense now. Here is the first one I remember: At one point, Alessandra's mother insults her by comparing her to a young woman in a painting who is "engaged in such earnest conversation with the young man. I wonder how well her talk of philosophy is keeping his mind on higher things." I guess this means that, rather than sharpening a young man's mind with philosophical talk, a young woman should either A) try to keep his mind on her, which makes sense for that era of coquetry, or B) try to keep his mind on God, which is what I would assume "higher things" to mean; this second explanation also fits the time frame, but I don't see how talk of philosophy would obscure thoughts of God.

My second remembered point of confusion was answered quickly. When Alessandra mourns the fact that her daughter would grow up both without her father and her blood grandfather, I began to flip back to try to find out if her father had died and I had missed it. But as I read on I realized soon enough that this meant Alessandra had figured out the father she'd grown up with was not her father by blood. I can't understand why I didn't pick up on this right away, since I had already suspected Plautilla and Tomaso were not her full brother and sister (I wasn't sure about Luca). Plautilla and Tomaso were so nice-looking but dim-witted, while Alessandra wasn't much to look at but was a very intelligent girl. (The reason I wasn't sure about Luca was because the poor guy was both dim-witted and ugly).

As far as the remainder of the book, I enjoyed reading about the passion for art held by several of the main characters (Alessandra, the painter, and Christoforo), which reminded me of books like Girl With a Pearl Earring, or My Name is Asher Lev. I was intrigued by the secrets for which I sought answers: How and why did the old nun end up with the awesome serpent tattoo all over her torso? Why did she fake the tumor that was supposed to have caused her death? The story was given an extra shiver with the brutal murders that ran through the plot like a bloody thread (it turned out that the killings were committed by one of Savonarola's followers, Father Brunetto Datto... an example of a case where I can't tell fact from fiction in a historical novel, but I googled him and found nothing, so I assume that part of the story was a fabrication). And, although much forshadowing hinted at the fact that Alessandro's marriage to Christoforo would not be a perfect one, I never guessed the cause for their sorrows until it was spelled out for me.

This is not a very cinematic book and I don't think it would translate well to screen, but I find it funny to note that in spite of this I continually pictured Christoforo as played by Gary Oldman, similar to his role as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies (though never as disheveled and frantic as he was just after his release from Azkaban).

I enjoyed this book and found it very well-written, but now that I've read it I feel like I would have been just as happy borrowing it from the library as owning it. It's not like The Monsters of Templeton which I disliked so much that I donated it to the library because I knew I'd never want to read it again, but it's definitely not like The Amnesiac or The Time Traveler's Wife which I loved and will certainly read again someday.

"Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Deception" by Eric Van Lustbader

Reading this book was annoying. I mean, it was an entertaining read with lots of thrills, surprises and excitement, but there were so many important minor characters that I had trouble keeping track of them.
The body count was so high that by the end it was hard to remember who was still alive and who was dead. I just finished reading this book this morning, and already I have trouble recalling...who was Tarkanian? I'm pretty sure he was one of the two Russians sent to get Arkadin... but then what happened to him? And who was Tracy Atherton, and what exactly was her mission, again? Maslov and Yevsen blur together in my mind (and wasn't there a third Russian mob boss I confused with those two? Or was there?) Who were Frederick Willard, Steve Stephenson, and Peter Marks? If I remembered more from the original Bourne novels would I have had an easier time keeping track of these former Treadstone employees and various government, Typhon (what was that again?) and Black River employees? In the past I have taken notes on certain books if I found I had trouble keeping track of characters (like with The Joy Luck Club and War and Peace which, by the way, I need to finish reading), but in a book that otherwise requires no thought I hated to put so much effort into reading it.

I don't even know what the title refers to. Being a spy novel, of course the entire thing was full of deception upon deception, and there really isn't one that stands out. Was it Jason Bourne's faked death that only three other people knew the truth about? Was it Tracy Atherton's mission and the identity of the person(s) who hired her? Was it Willard's hidden goal to start Treadstone up again, which was only revealed in the final chapters? Was it Arkadin's double-crossing of everyone involved in order to be the one to take control of the Iranian oilfields? Was it the fact that Black River shot down the airplane and blamed it on Iran since an Iranian missile was used?

I need to mark down a brief synopsis of this book in case I ever read another Bourne novel. If it's hard enough to keep track of what's happening in the book I'm reading, imagine how hard it will be to remember the plot of this book when I'm reading the next one. So here goes: In a previous book, Bourne thought he killed his arch-nemesis Arkadin by tossing him off an ocean liner, but Arkadin actually survived. Arkadin poses as Bourne's friend and ally Boris Karpov and meets with US Secretary of Defense Bud Halliday, and the two make a deal to exchange assassinations. Arkadin was to ensure the death of Jason Bourne and Halliday was to assassinate Abdulla Khoury, the head of a terrorist organization called the Eastern Brotherhood. Halliday follows through, leaving a power vacuum which allows Arkadin to take over the Eastern Brotherhood (which had been his reason for the assassination), and Arkadin shoots Bourne who is in Bali with Moira Trevor. However, amazingly and unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Bourne survives the shooting, but Moira Trevor, Willard, and a doctor fake Bourne's death so that he can recover and then figure out who was trying to kill him. Bourne tracks the gun Arkadin used to shoot him to an arms dealer in Spain named Don Fernando Hererra, and meets up with Tracy Atherton on the way there. Tracy is an art dealer who wants to buy a Goya from Hererra; the person who sent her (if I remember right) is Noah Perlis of Black River (the painting was to be payment to Yevsen, whose role I really don't remember), but Arkadin also had her on a side mission to lure Bourne to Khartoum so that Bourne would kill Yevsen. All roads lead to Khartoum, where Perlis and Arkadin have a deal to work together to take control of the Iranian oil fields under cover of a war between Iran and America because Iran purportedly shot down an American jet over Egypt (though the jet was really shot down by Black River, so that Perlis would have an excuse to start a war and take over the oil fields). Arkadin stabs Perlis in the back (figuratively) and takes the oil field over for himself after overpowering and disarming Perlis's forces, but all Arkadin's plans are foiled by Jason Bourne, whose combat helicopter takes out three fourths of Arkadin's forces, which are then finished off by the scorned Perlis. At the end, Arkadin has escaped, Perlis is killed by Bourne, and Halliday retains his position as Secretary of Defense.

I am only left with more questions. Why was it so important to Willard to start Treadstone up again? Apparently he wanted it badly enough that he allowed Bud Halliday to escape unscathed from the entire scandal, even though he had been neck-deep in the entire thing. And who exactly was Holly Marie Moreau, and what was it that she stole for and from Noah Perlis? Was it really the ring Perlis was wearing when Bourne killed him, and if so, what was its significance? And why did Perlis kill Holly if he loved her? All of these Perlis/Holly questions are raised in the last two pages, which is pretty strong evidence that there will be another Bourne novel coming. I'm just not sure I'll be interested enough to read it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger

As well-known and celebrated as this book is, it's hard to believe this was the first time I'd picked it up. How did I never read it before? It's one of those books I was just sure I must have read at some point in my life, but I was wrong.

It is an excellent novel, and the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is written with brilliant characterization. Throughout the book he speaks with a pitiable bravado that seems to be set aside only in his interactions with his younger sister Phoebe. His tone alternates between biting sarcasm and bleak depression. Hud, who read the book just before I did, saw Caulfield as a "little punk who needed a boot up his [rear]", but I disagree. I will admit that he was probably viewed that way by many of the people who were acquainted with him, but he was not the insensitive and self-involved screw-up that his words and actions may have implied.

I wish I knew where I've heard the phrase "a gentleman and a scholar." (This is what Caulfield calls crumby Ackley not long before he decided to get out of Pencey). I'm sure I've heard that phrase before, and I'm sure that wherever I heard it, the inspiration was this book. However, it is interesting to note that Salinger probably got the phrase from the poem by Robert Burns entitled "The Twa Dogs," which contained this line: "His locke'd, letter'd, braw brass-collar, Show'd him the gentleman an'scholar." (No, I'm not enough of a smarty-pants to just know this off the top of my head. I googled it.) The reason I find this so interesting is that the title of this novel comes from another Robert Burns poem called "Comin' Through the Rye."

Side note: There is a movie entitled Chapter 27 (which I have not seen yet) about Mark David Chapman, murderer of John Lennon, who called himself Holden Caulfield and strongly identified with this book. This novel has 26 chapters, so that explains the name of the movie. I also vaguely remember rumors (as does Hud) that a number of other serial killers or famous murderers owned this book, though it would be interesting to note whether a larger proportion of the population of homicidal maniacs owns this book as compared to the proportion of normal people who own it, this being a common and well-known book. It's not as if Caulfield is a killer himself, although he does feel quite alienated from almost everyone, as I expect a homicidal maniac might.

The copy I read was borrowed from our local library (yay, library! You finally had a specific book I was looking for!) but I'm thinking I need to buy my own copy. It's definitely a classic and I will want to read it again sometime.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"The Book of Nonsense" by David Michael Slater

I probably shouldn't even bother to blog about this book because I don't have much to say about it. This is a children's novel whose story is intriguing enough. It was interesting to note that, even though the copy I borrowed from our library was marked "Uncorrected Proof, not for sale," with a disclaimer inside about it being an advance reader copy for review purposes only and subject to change, it was much more well-written than Rhino Ranch which apparently was published in its flawed form with no excuse. I do hope that in the final version they managed to correct the character who was "braking" into a smile.

When I picked up this book I expected "nonsense" to refer to the absurd rather than the meaningless. I was thinking of a poem I remember being transfixed by in my childhood:

One fine day in the middle of the night
Two dead men got up to fight.
A blind man came to see fair play,
A dumb man came to shout hurray.

Or this couplet I remember from a similar poem:

I went upstairs to the cellar
to clean a downstairs room.

So that is the sort of nonsense I expected. As it turned out, the Book of Nonsense mentioned in the title was full of meaningless combinations of letters, not even real words. Not that this really matters, as I still enjoyed the story.

It stood out to me that so many people in this book had weird names. The main characters were twins named Dex and Daphna Wax (can you imagine if your name was Dex Wax?? Sounds like something you use to treat your outdoor furniture); the villain was Asterius Rash; Daphna's two pseudo-friends were Wren and Teal.

As you can see on the cover photo, this book is "volume 1" of a series. (My copy said Words of Power: Book One). Enough questions remained at the end to make it clear that more books would be following. As I said, the story was interesting enough, but not so much that I will be seeking out the sequels.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" by Mark Haddon

This book is unique in that it is narrated by an autistic teenager. He is a savant, with an amazing mathematical ability, but his brilliance in reasoning is matched in degree by his intense difficulty with interpersonal relationships.

The fact that the book started off with chapter 2 instead of chapter 1 stressed me out. I don't know, maybe I'm a little bit OCD. By chapter 19 when Christopher explained that he was numbering his chapters by prime numbers ("because I like prime numbers") not only did this make complete sense, but I felt stupid for not noticing the pattern.

I am not partial to books with little pictures and diagrams in them. At first I was unfavorably reminded of Dave Eggers' You Shall Know Our Velocity, one of the less auspicious and more unfortunate selections of the First Saturday Book Club. But as I continued reading and saw how the diagrams matched Christopher's analytical personality, I found that rather than being a quirky annoyance, they actually added to the story.

By the time Christopher had made his way to London and was briefly living with his mother, I was very invested in the story. I felt so sorry for the father, who had lost everything--first his wife, then Elaine, and now his son. And I could see that Christopher's mom was not the best person for him to live with, but I couldn't see any other option. I was so sure he would not do well on his math A-levels since he was so tired and hungry, and I was mad because I knew he could do very well under the right circumstances.

I was amazed that Haddon pulled off such a hopeful and happy ending. It certainly wasn't perfect, but how perfect can your life be when you're autistic? And I was so thrilled when Christopher received an A grade on his math tests. If he could pull off an A when he felt so tired and hungry that he couldn't even think straight, just imagine what he might be capable of on a Super Good Day.