Thursday, April 29, 2010

Delightful, intelligent, insightful, etc. etc. etc.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
David Eagleman

It's always a pleasure to find that glowing blurbs get it right. Too often in my experience, a surfeit of praise indicates a turd. Not this time. Sum lives up to its praise -- and then some.

Sum is a collection of forty short (some only a page) tales that investigate "entirely new frameworks" (to quote the author in an interview) of the afterlife. You won't find people just hanging out on clouds: instead, you might relive all your experiences of the same type at once (that means sitting on the toilet for five months); you might find yourself with a disappointed God; you might even find yourself with the aliens who created humanity as an experiment. Would you like it if heaven were populated by only those people you knew in life? Perhaps -- perhaps not.

Eagleman's prose is so simple, yet so lovely, he makes it seem like anyone can write like he does. The stories are short, powerful, and intelligent, and I would bet it's nearly impossible to find a reader who didn't like this book.

If you'd like a sample, three excerpts are available online. Click here to read "Expectations," just one of the forty scenarios in which you just might find yourself.

In a nutshell: Why didn't I think of this? Oh, because I'm not that smart. Or that intelligent. Damn you, Eagleman.

Bibliolatry Scale: 6 out of 6 stars

FTCBS: alll miiiiine

Monday, April 26, 2010

Promising but painful

Black Hills
Dan Simmons


Yes, it's true. It may have taken me months, but I have finally finished Black Hills. I finished last night during a marathon skim-fest that allowed me to cover nearly 150 pages.

First, let me be clear: I LOVE Dan Simmons. Sure, we've had our ups and downs, but I think our relationship is on fairly solid ground.

That's why I was so disappointed to slog through Black Hills. The premise sounded promising: young Paha Sapa, a ten-year-old Sioux, is present at Little Big Horn and touches General Custer as he's dying. The ghost of Custer takes up residence within him and haunts him for the rest of his life. Years later, Paha Sapa finds himself at the construction of Mount Rushmore, and he feels it's his duty to bring the stone giants down.

See, you'd think that would be interesting, right? A ghost, living in you? Haunting you from within?

Well, don't be fooled.

Right: That's me (aren't I skinny?) while reading this book.

Ironically, during one point in the novel, Paha Sapa tries to read Henry James' Ambassadors, but "He simply can not get through it ... The story itself seems so insignificant, so overblown, so petty and obscure..." REALLY?!?!? Am I the only one who finds this totally ironic?!?

That's not to say Black Hills is an insignificant story -- but overblown? Impossible to get through? ABSOLUTELY.

In a nutshell: A great book that needs a fearless editor. As it stands, a bit painful. I still got love for Simmons, though.

Bibliolatry Scale: 2 out of 6 stars

FTCBS: I received a review copy from the publisher. Thanks, even though I wasn't so much a fan of this one.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Classics Circuit: Alexandre Dumas

The Black Tulip
Alexandre Dumas

I must admit, I was a little daunted by Dumas. I chose The Black Tulip solely based on its length (it's the shortest of his novels), and when I read the book was about growing flowers, I didn't get my hopes up.

The novel begins as two prominent Dutchmen are unjustly executed, the victims of political intrigue. Their deaths, graphic and unsettling, are the first indication of the rollercoaster that is The Black Tulip.

We move from this violent scene to the quiet suburbs, to Cornelius Van Baerle, a rich man who loves nothing but tulips. Van Baerle is seeking to create the elusive "Black Tulip," which many believe is impossible.

Unfortunately for Corn, his neighbor Boxtel hates him. HATES. There's teeth gnashing and all. Boxtel is also in love with tulips, so of course he is envious of Corn's success with the ladies tulips.

Jeez. TWO men in love with tulips?

my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard

So Boxtel sets out to destroy Corn, and then MORE political intrigue happens and then before you know it Corn's in love with NOT ONLY tulips but now also Rosa, the daughter of his jailer. Escándalo!

Oh, and did I mention that the person to first create the Black Tulip will receive a Very Large Sum as a prize? The race to grow the tulip is on! Now throw in a few dazzling fight scenes and some hysterical dialogue, and you've got The Black Tulip.

This short novel was such fun to read. As I got wrapped up in the story, I even began to read a few chapters online while I was at work. The pacing is fast, and I often couldn't wait to read more. Many thanks to the Classics Circuit for the Dumas tour -- I'm not sure I ever would have read this without the tour, and that would have been a shame indeed!

In a nutshell: Fun, funny, and fantastical - a pleasant surprise!

Bibliolatry Scale: 5 out of 6 stars

FTCBS: Personal copy; also online

Monday, April 19, 2010

Required Reading: The Sparrow

The Sparrow
Mary Doria Russell

Oh, The Sparrow. Where do I even begin?

I finished this book weeks ago, and yet I have not been able to put metaphorical pen to paper, until now. The interim has been filled with ceaseless pondering, The Sparrow continuing to occupy my mind even as I read several other novels.

Even now, scenes and characters from the novel still wander the halls of my mind, poking in at inopportune moments. When you consider that this is MDR's first novel, my envy is complete. Damn you, woman.

Before beginning with the obligatory summary, I must first state, as others have before me, that, although The Sparrow is classified as science-fiction, you should ignore this label if sci-fi ain't your bag. Although it may feature elements of sci-fi, this is literary fiction all the way.

Okay, on with the obligatory: The Sparrow follows two different timelines; we begin in 2059, when Emilio Sandoz, the lone survivor of an expedition to a faraway planet called Rakhat, returns to earth. Immediately an inquest is opened to discover the fates of the other explorers, but Sandoz is far too traumatized to offer up his secrets.

Before we can get too far, however, we are returned to 2019, as humanity first discovers life exists on Rakhat. While scanning the skies for extraterrestrial radio transmissions, beautiful, hymn-like singing can be heard. Because such music is nearly identical to our own songs of worship, many wonder if Rakhat can offer proof for the existence of God.

Quicker than you can shake a finger (or maybe not, if you happen to be Sandoz), eight intrepid explorers are off to meet the inhabitants of Rakhat. What they encounter is beyond all imagination and prompts them to question the meaning of faith, existence, and humanity. As an agnostic (something I dislike about myself, thanks to Yann Martel), I found this book very powerful; believers and non-believers alike cannot help but be affected by this novel.

In a nutshell: This crap review falls quite short of the power that is The Sparrow; simply put, you MUST read this book.

Oh, and Brad Pitt is set to play Emilio Sandoz? BLASPHEMY!

Oh, and, and -- many thanks to Heather for bringing this book to my attention!

Bibliolatry Scale: 6 out of 6 stars

FTCBS: Personal copy, woot woot

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ambivalating all over the place

Beatrice and Virgil
Yann Martel

Well, it's been roughly two weeks since I finished Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel's newest novel, and to say I'm perplexed is an understatement. Did I like the book? Hate it? Ambivalate it? Hopefully writing this review will help me solve the mystery.

To begin, a brief overview: Beatrice and Virgil is Martel's way of discussing the Holocaust without *actually* discussing the Holocaust. He argues that of all the great atrocities of the world, only the Holocaust has avoided greater attention in fiction, and once those who have lived through it pass away, we are in danger of forgetting -- unless we tell stories about it. To this end, he has written Beatrice and Virgil, a "story" about the Holocaust that uses animals to represent those who suffered.

Okay, so animals as allegorical figures? Check. Conversational, intimate style? Check. Shocking, gut-wrenching ending? Check. Sounds a lot like Life of Pi, eh? Then why am I so ambivalent?

To start, one must know that Beatrice and Virgil is no Life of Pi. Pi remains one of my favorite novels and has for me a mystical quality that Beatrice and Virgil simply lacks. So, perhaps BAV suffers simply for not being Pi. In that case, Martel was doomed before I even picked up the damn thing, which isn't exactly fair.

But even apart from the obligatory Pi comparisons, Beatrice and Virgil has its problems. In my opinion, using animals as an allegory for the Holocaust was somewhat weak, the Beckettian absurdism unnecessary; worse, some parts were underdeveloped, and some parts OVERdeveloped.

That's not to say I didn't like Beatrice and Virgil: it was a short read, as I read it in a few hours and was relatively moved by the experience. The novel made me think, and I enjoyed Martel's narrative voice even if this work was flawed.

Ultimately, even if some elements were a bit weak, Martel achieves what he sets out to do: he reminds us of the atrocities of the Holocaust (even if the reminder only underscores the fact that the animals' suffering in no way compares to that of those who suffered under the Nazis), and he uses fiction as a means of telling the truth.

In a nutshell: I still don't know. It was...okay-ish?

Bibliolatry Scale: 3.5 out of 6 stars

FTCBS: I was lucky to receive a review copy from the publisher, and, even though I didn't LOVE it...Thanks!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Not even Stains could save this one

The Knife of Never Letting Go
Patrick Ness

As part of my on-going effort to avoid another reading funk, I've surrounded myself with "quick reads" to keep me moving. Based on the many reviews I've read of The Knife of Never Letting Go, I figured this combination of dystopia, thriller, and bildungsroman was guaranteed to excite.

The narrator of The Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd Hewitt, lives in Prentisstown, where the thoughts of men and animals are heard by everyone. This Noise, as it's called, makes life nearly unbearable, as true privacy and peace are impossible to find. The novel opens as Todd and his dog, Manchee, find something they've never found before: silence. Soon, Todd's running for his life and yadda yadda yadda. So, did The Knife of Never Letting Go live up to the hype?

Unfortunately, no.

Todd annoyed me. Even Manchee, the talking dog, annoyed me -- and I love dogs. However, I soon replaced my original image of Manchee with Stains, the internet's beloved hypnodog, and my love for Manchee soared.

"Poo! Poo!" says Manchee ... over and over (and over)

Alas, that which annoyed me nearly outweighed that which didn't. Todd's voice was uneven and clunky, the plotting was fast-paced but silly in places, and, while I am intrigued by a world where thoughts are public, the overall execution was a bit weak for me.

Or maybe TKoNLG suffered from poor timing. I've just read several EXCELLENT books, one of which I'm still unable to post about, it was that good (and no, it is NOT The Savage Detectives, thank you for asking), so it was inevitable I'd find fault with TKoNLG. That said, TKoNLG was a fast, light read perfect for breaking a funk.

In a nutshell: Flawed but fast-paced, The Knife of Never Letting Go is relentless and and entertaining, to a point.

Bibliolatry Scale: 2 out of 6 stars

FTCBS: Personal copy (shut up)

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Classics Circuit: Emile Zola

Therese Raquin
Emile Zola

Today I'm pleased to welcome Emile Zola as part of the the Classics Circuit!

For my stop on the Classics tour, I've read Therese Raquin, which has been on my TBR list for years. The tour finally gave me the kick in the pants I needed in order to get this thing done.

And now that I've read it, I can't help but wonder...what took me so long? Because, hands down, Therese Raquin was an INSANE read. INSANE! I was shocked by how graphic and disturbing this short novel was, and I can only imagine how Zola's readers reacted when it was first published almost 150 years ago.

In Therese Raquin, Zola is more concerned with temperament than character. So he combines three different "humors" and allows them to go crazy. There's phlegmatic Camille (who is NOT a girl, despite what my brain kept telling me), who is married to Therese, who is choleric and therefore full of energy. As you might think, Camille + Therese = unhappy marriage. And the two, together with Madame Raquin, Camille's maman, pass day after day after day doing THE SAME FRIGGIN THING over and over and over. LE SIGH.

Why, yes, there IS a cat in Therese Raquin, but sadly he is lacking bacon

Therese is resigned to her life of eternal return with only other "living corpses" to keep her company as her life unwinds.

BUT THEN! Entre Laurent. He's a beast! He's a man! He's pure sex on wheels! (Oh, and he's also sanguine, so he's creative and extroverted and if you really want to know more about humors then just go here). So Therese starts making googly eyes at Laurent and then before you know it THEY'RE HAVING SEX ON THE BEDROOM FLOOR.

Add lots of animal imagery, some plotting, more sex and what the back of my edition describes as "a crime that will haunt them forever" and you have the book in a nutshell.

Again, I was stunned by the graphic nature of Therese Raquin, and I was pleasantly surprised by the fast-paced nature of the plot. While I hated every single one of the characters (with the exception of Madame Raquin, the feisty little minx), I was still able to enjoy the novel -- surely a testament to Monsieur Zola. So thanks again to the the Classics Circuit for giving me reason to get my rear in gear.

In a nutshell: The melodrama! The gruesomeness! The cat! (Vraiment, Laurent?) Therese Raquin is fast enough to be read in a day, yet powerful enough to last a lifetime. (Possibly. It's only been a few days.)

Bibliolatry Scale: 4.5 out of 6 stars

FTCBS: Personal copy over here.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Savage Readalong: Week 4

Ok. I've finally finished Week 4 of the Savage readalong, and I must admit: I skimmed the shit outta this mothereffer.


Again, I must say, were it not for this readalong, I'd have given up long ago. As it is, I'm a week behind. I just couldn't do it last week. I guess I knew what was in store for me.

What was in store for me was an interminable stretch of random accounts of people who barely even knew these two fools. One account lasts 16 pages, yet hardly mentions Lima or Belano. So, yes, I skimmed.

For now, I'm just struggling to get through this behemoth. I'll try to make sense of it later; maybe I can understand what Bolano is driving at after I've finished.


How about you, fellow Savages? Are you experiencing similar difficulties? Are you also forcing yourself to plow through, regardless of the fact you're deriving little to no pleasure from the experience? Or is it just me?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

RR10: March

Yet another month gone by; let's see how my reading resolution is coming along.

Don't expect much, though: I spent much of March in a reading funk and falling behind on my Savage Readalong (expect a post on Week 4 soon).


Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak
DuMaurier, Daphne. Don't Look Now: Selected Stories
Gregory, Daryl. The Devil's Alphabet
Heyer, Georgette. Footsteps in the Dark

RESOLUTION TITLES = 0 (still 8/80)



TOTAL READ IN 2010 = 17