Saturday, June 27, 2009

"The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I think it's season 2 in LOST where John Locke hands "Henry Gale", who we later come to know as Ben, a copy of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamzov as a way to pass the time. Since that moment, I've been intensely interested in reading the book, especially sinced I skipped reading it even though it was assigned in one of my college classes. It's huge, 770 pages, printed small. Who can blame me?

After some fishing around wikipedia, I've found that The Brothers Karamazov has attracted some pretty famous fans, including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud (Freud was practically drooling over the overt Oedipal storylines). So it would seem that the book, though long, is quite worth it.

I'm going to put myself out there and separate for a minute from the likes of Einstein and Freud, and the LOST writers who choose to include the book in the show for some reason (I'll mention what I think about that in a sec), and, gasp, say that I didn't particularly enjoy this book. It was long, meandering, full of religious rants and philosophical raves. In the end, I found about 200 pages of it really interesting, and I don't think I'd be hardpressed to sit through the other 500+ again, unless I was keen on some sort of torture. And I think the only reason it's in the show is that it echoes both Locke's and Ben's feelings of anger and hatred towards their respective fathers.

The book, if you care, is an intricate story that I'm too lazy to lay out in detail here. There are a couple of twisted love triangles, a family's very strained relationship, and three (or four, if you include the scary Smerdyakov) sons who all in some way want to kill their father. At the core of the book is the murder of the father and subsequent trial of his son, Dmitri Karamazov. I won't say whether he's guilty or not, so as not to spoil the surprise for you, but if you read it, this might well be the only thing that keeps you going. It was for me...

Themes abound in this novel, but how could they not. It's 700+ pages! Among the several philosophical inquiries into religion, ethics, and sacrifice, I think one or two discussions would have sufficed. Still, maybe this is a critique of someone who can't appreciate a long, sprawling novel, something with intricacies and details and sprawling discussion. So be it. I want my MTV.

The Karamazovs seem to be a microcosm of the world. It's fun to see them ruin themselves and strike back for salvation, but not if you like your time. There are so many cool covers for this one, too bad what's in between isn't enough to keep that interest going.

Friday, May 08, 2009

by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers is Malcolm Gladwell's third book, and it's clear that his unique perspective, great writing, and ability to search outside the box has served him well. Gladwell is what I think of as a sociological writer. He looks for connections between behavior and society, and how they interact. In Tipping Point, that connection was the interaction of people spread ideas or diseases and how small things turn into huge wildfires. In Blinking Point, my least favorite of Gladwell's books (which I still liked considering), Gladwell explores the power of first instincts, and how usually we're right on but fail to listen to ourselves.

All told, Gladwell takes ordinary things and finds fascinating explanations. Then he follows that up with intriguing examples. Outliers is no different. Here, Gladwell investigates success. More specifically, he wants to get at those who are enormously successful: the founder of the internet, The Beatles, Bill Gates, hockey players, and so on. The fact that he can correlate their successes into sociological cues is amazing in itself, but he takes it one step further. Gladwell's goal isn't just to find why these people are successful, he wants to make the idea of their road to success easier to attain for many more people. Confused? That's because he explains it way better than I do.

Basically, Gladwell takes the usual success story: rags to riches, or self-made, or whatever independent hard work success story you can come up with, and adds to it. He doesn't deny the hard work these incredible individuals had to go through. However, he does add that it wasn't all them. It was a combination of the time they were born, the family they grew up in, the resources available to them, and the amount of practice they were able to bring in. And, oh, also important is the culture they came from.

It's really interesting stuff, and Gladwell handles it well. I personally have a hard time reading books that make cases on statistics, and that is my only gripe with pieces of Gladwell's argument. I worry sometimes that he's such a great writer that he's able to bend his resources to support his argument. But no matter, even if he is, I agree with him. Success is more than just us. I'd be nothing without my wife, my family, excellent access to books and knowledge, my upbringing, the fact that my college got Avid Editing systems the year I started (so I had plenty of time to hoard a bay), and a big helping of old fashioned luck. Right place, right time. Good mantra to have, I think.

Read the book. It's good. The cover is simple, too. Also good.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Book of Lost Things
by John Connolly

This book was great!

I had been wanting to read The Book of Lost Things for a while, but it definitely came on my radar after a friend sent it to me to read. Even still, I let it sit on my shelf for months, and only recently had a chance to savor it. Mmmm, mmmm.

David is a young boy who loses his mother. He's sad and traumatized, trying to come to grips with the death, why it happened, and how to make sense of it in a world filled with violence and cruelty (the novel's set in London against the backdrop of World War II). On top of that, David's father develops a relationship with a nurse at his mother's hospital and they move to her big house in the country where they are to start their new family life together. David's Dad and stepmom are pregnant too, and he starts to feel more isolated and like a relic of a past life than part of his father's life.

On top of this, David suffers frequent blackouts, and books murmur to him at times. He loves to read, and only retreats further into books after his mother's death because it reminds him of her. He finds solace in the stories. And one night, through a crack in the stone garden wall, he enters another world, one filled with horror and gore, but also hopes of goodness. As David journeys through this world he confronts his mother's death, grapples with accepting his new family, and grows up. It is a terrifying, gory, and downright fantastic coming of age story.

Connolly has a deep respect for fairy tales, and uses them consistently here to forward his story. It's both what make the book unique and irresistible. I have not heard of him before this one, but he's on my list now. I will read more.

I recommend this book highly. It's got everything, and the cover is really cool, which usually means that the book will be good. Right?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Shakespeare: The World As Stage
by Bill Bryson

Alright Bryson, strike two. I was so excited to read A Walk in the Woods, about Bryson's attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, and found it amazing, until he stopped walking halfway through the book. Then I was wowed and lost my socks over A Short History of Nearly Everything which made me so excited to get Shakespeare, because it's history and Shakespeare, so it can't be boring.

Swing and a miss.

The mantra of this book is: "There's not a lot we do know about Shakespeare." And the other mantra is: "And London at this time was going through the nth cycle of the plague, so it had this implication and that implication and sleep, sleep."

So, there's not a lot we do know about Shakespeare, but rest assured, every fact and statistic are brought up by Bryson. How many times he uses which word, how many known signatures there are of his name, and even twice he discusses how the bust above his grave was cleaned off and later repainted, leaving us with little idea of what Shakespeare actually looked like. Most of the book is spent (other than talking about the plague) bringing up what others have written about Shakespeare and then dispelling it as false with these words: but probably not.

I'm glad it was so short. It was a tough one to get through. You've got one more chance Bryson. Use it well...

The Chronicles of Narnia
by C. S. Lewis

I love to geek out. If you're looking for a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings books, I'm your man. Harry Potter? Loved it. So I feel like it was only natural for me to gravitate towards The Chronicles of Narnia books. I mean C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were buddies and met to discuss issues with their writing. And I was very satisfied. Not only were the books quick reads, but they were fantastic stories that ignited my imagination in a way a book hasn't done since Harry Potter.

I decided to blog all seven books together, mostly out of laziness, but also because I felt it would be easier to write about as a series than individual books. First off, the books can be read in several different orders. The two I know about are: 1) Chronologically by events that happen in Narnia, from conception to the end of that world, and 2) By publication date. I read them, as a recommendation (a friend who, given his interest, I wholly trust), in publication date order. Though we jump around in Narnia time, the story follows chronological time of all the visitors to Narnia (children in London), and we get to work our imaginative muscles a bit more, fitting all the pieces together, jumping back and forth between worlds.

Collectively, the Chronicles follow the journeys of three groups of kids into Narnia (minus The Horse and His Boy, a stand-alone Narnia story with no travel between worlds), each time being sent or called into Narnia to save the land from peril. They meet talking animals and witches and river-gods and talking trees, fauns, minotaurs, and the like in this amazing world. There's not a lot I'd like to say about the books other than that I thoroughly enjoyed them, and look forward to one day sharing them with a younger audience.

C. S. Lewis' influence by Christianity in the stories is directly evident but not so overpowering that you feel like you're reading the Bible. Aslan, the talking lion, is the creator and deliverer of Narnia, and that has obvious implications, but I think far more important and interesting, for all faiths, is the moral code the stories follow (especially for children). Only the purest of heart succeed in Narnia, with kindness and respect for all things.

Here's the order I liked the books in, and the order I read them in:
6 - The Magician's Nephew - Two children find a portal between the worlds, set free an evil queen, and witness the creation of Narnia by Aslan. Obvious LOST connections here, and the story was riveting on its own. I thoroughly enjoyed.
5 - The Horse and His Boy - A tale about a boy who doesn't know his heritage that winds up warning Narnia about the threat of invasion from the neighboring, dangerous Calormen. A talking horse sets him on his journey and accompanies him, and they meet a strange man in the land between Narnia and Calor.
3 - The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - Straight adventure story here. Lucy and Edmund return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace, and embark on an adventure to the end of the world. Among other things, Eustace turns into a dragon and learns a lot from it.
2 - Prince Caspian - The four children return to Narnia hundreds of years later Narnia-time to help save the land once again from Men gone awry. This one is still resonant today.
1 - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - The classic. Lucy, Edmund, Peter, and Susan travel through a wardrobe in a Professor's house to the magical land of Narnia and save it from the White Witches eternal winter, with Aslan's help, of course.
4 - The Silver Chair - Eustace and his friend Polly embark on a quest to save Caspian's son from the enchantment of a beatiful witch who wants to regain control of Narnia and intends to use the young Caspian to do just that.
7 - The Last Battle - This one started to get too hokey on me until the last twenty pages or so, when religion became philosophy and the story became beatiful. An ending really can save a book.

They're all fantastic reads and I highly recommend them all. The covers are cool, but I like the older, vintage covers better than the movie edition. Enjoy

Monday, March 02, 2009

"The Braindead Megaphone"
by George Saunders

There's something about reading a book that's a collection of anything. A book of short stories, to me, feels like speed dating through multiple books. You have to prepare for each story, and it passes so fast but you have to find some meaning, but you don't want to spend too much time on it because there are other stories to be gotten to. The same thing happens with a book of essays, except there's not a lot of preparation that has to be done for an essay. You read it, it means, and you're done. On to the next. But for me, it's worse. With essays, if I don't find them interesting, I lose patience and interest very quickly.

Unfortunately, I think The Braindead Megaphone suffered for my short attention span. And I'll even take the brunt of the blame because this book was really mostly just a break from reading the Chronicles of Narnia series. Still, I did want to read it, and was looking forward to it, so I don't feel bad in the least saying that it was a disappointing read.

I've read other books of essays that I've completely loved. The most recent one that comes to mind is Chabon's Maps and Legends. I found myself totally engrossed in that book, looking forward to each essay and wishing each could go on forever, like I might be able to sit in Chabon's den and have five to eight hour conversations with him about his writing and interests (no, I haven't thought about this before; well, maybe a little).

George Saunders is a very funny guy with an amazing grasp of language, love of stories, and a clever eye for observation. Reading his essays on this basis alone is fun. You laugh. Laughing is good. And yet I got bored. Saunders essays turned from funny soapboxes into rambling rants about various subjects, and left me wishing and racing for the final paragraph. I found more often than not that I desperately wanted out of the current essay because reading it was like listening to the crazy guy on the streetcorner talk about the media.

I rarely learned anything from these essays, and from a book of essays, that's what I'm looking for. Some piece of insight, or some new way of approaching a subject. I just didn't find that here. Most everything I read I've heard about before. There was one essay, though, that caught my attention. The second to last essay in the book, called "Buddha Boy". Very interesting, and I would recommend reading that one because of it's sheer interestingness. Saunders wit combined with this experience makes for a perfect essay, one that informs, entertains, and leaves you feeling better and smarter than you did before you started. I won't summarize, just tease. It's about Saunders trip to write about a boy in Nepal that was meditating uninterrupted for seven months in the middle of a jungle. Some people called him the new Buddha. He wrote the article for GQ, check it out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
by Haruki Murakami

Time and place, this theme recurs a lot with me. And it definitely affected how I viewed this memoir/ode to running by Murakami.

Disclaimer: I've not read any other Murakami. I do mean to, specifically Kafka on the Shore and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but haven't yet. This just grabbed my attention and my wife got it for me for Christmas. Points for her.

Second disclaimer: On my run this past weekend, I aggravated my IT Band, and so I need to take a couple of weeks off to let it heal and get loose so that I can run without a sharp, shooting pain in my knee. I was very disappointed. I started reading this book right after my, I-don't-want-to-call-it-one-but-for-efficiency-purposes-I-will, injury.

Murakami comes off to me as a little arrogant. He thought one day that he wanted to write a novel. So he did. And now he's very successful. He figured, "Hey, I should go running", and so he did, and now he's completed 26 marathons in as many years, with, as he puts it, no injuries. He doesn't stretch because he doesn't need to, and runs six days a week.

I almost threw up, on my bum knee, from all of this.

Truth be told, it was a great book to read. What I take for Murakami's arrogance at times turns in to a life-affirming book with frequent insights into the way life is, into the choices and sacrifices we make, and how to best deal with those choices. He is uber-passionate about running, and it's nice to go along for the ride with someone so gung-ho for working out. Still, at the end of the day, I found myself wishing Murakami had less time, or I had more, because it seems that he is able to live the life and has been able to for some time because he just does.

There's no pity-party here. Murakami talks about why he loves running, why it has worked for him. It's actually alot like reading a blog about running by a famous author. There is relatively little insight into his life, but he goes to some cool places to run and writes about them fantastically.

The cover's cool, I'm glad I read it, if not just for the inspirational quotes my wife wrote on the inside. Maybe I'll give it another go after my IT Band heals, and we'll see how it strikes me then, huh?

Until then, if you do, keep running.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

I love this book. I love this book.

Fan-freaking-tastic, from start to end, I love this book.

I haven't read another of Chabon's books other than the non-fiction collection of essays Maps and Legends (which I also loved), but now I'm definitely adding a huge amount of his novels to my pile. I have to be honest here. About three or four years ago, I picked up Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay from the library and put it down after the first few pages. I guess I was afraid that a novel about comic books wouldn't be able to hold my attention for the duration of the novel, which (I peeked) was many many pages long. I was afraid of getting bored.

Time and place. I think that should be my motto, because when I picked it up this time I couldn't put it down. It got so bad that I started to wish off sleep and contact with other people just so I could lose myself in the world of Kavalier and Clay. Everything felt so real, and happy, sad, or just being, I wanted to be there, hanging out in 1940s New York with the creators of the best fictional comic book hero I've ever come across: The Escapist.

I don't think I can even do justice to explain the plot. Joe Kavalier escapes from Prague only to find himself trapped in the chains of getting his family out after him, which proves to be a very difficult task given the escalating situation in Germany. Along with Sammy Clay, they begin to create and write several different best-selling comic books, making their bosses rich in the process. And while they make a decent enough living in the process, they aren't able to break free from the tyranny of their jobs and the contracts they've signed. And then there's the beautiful Rosa Saks, who becomes entangled in both Kavalier and Clay's lives in so many ways.

Golems (specifically, their metaphorical relation to the creative process), magic, love, loss, tragedy, adventure. These are only some of the things that stand out as I sit and quickly go over how this novel affected me. Larglely, I was affected by the notion of escaping, and how that plays out in many of the character's lives, in so many ways.

Chabon does so many things with this novel. He entertains, he inspects, he elevates the comic books in the story from something most people view as juvenile to a multi-layered reflection of the main character's lives, worries, and cause of their problems. It's, simply said, just brilliant.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, I only hope that I can put off reading it again long enough to get through some of the other books on my list. It's one of my all-time favorites, and I look forward to enjoying it again.

Friday, January 09, 2009

by Taras Grescoe

I put off reading Bottomfeeder for the better part of a year. My wife heard the author, Taras Grescoe, explain the book in an interview and recommended the book to me. I bought it, but decided I wasn't ready to read it yet because I wasn't ready to give up the seafood I love so much...

And one day, a couple weeks ago, I decided that the time had come. It was now or never. I must learn the woes of the ocean, and live by the code or rot in fish bowels.

I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. I don't have to give up a lot of the seafood I do like. Crabs, calamari, and lobster are still okay to eat, as long as you know where they're coming from, and there are now several other types of fish I can't wait to try (mackerel, oysters, and mullet). I'm also about to rediscover sardines, a fish I remember well from my childhood, eating out of a can filled with delicous mustard sauce (sardines, anchovettas, and a few other small species of fish are actually one of the few sustainable fisheries still existing in this world).

The book itself took some getting used to. With chapters divided by the places Grescoe traveled to to try a local specialty of fish, the book started off feeling like a gastronomic travel guide written by a pessimist. Nearly every major fish stock in most oceans and seas is overfished, and pollution and human contaminants, along with a major rise in fish farms, are contributing to the dwindling stocks of wild fish (that, obviously, are much better for you than their farmed counterparts). The first half of the book, for me, felt like a depressing novel that I didn't want to read anymore. And then, it just got better. Grescoe continued on his journey and visited some places I have a personal attachment to (British Colombia) and researched and ate some seafood I've also always been interested in: shrimp, salmon, cod, tuna, and now, sardines.

I'd recommend reading parts of this book (the chapters on small fish, shrimp, salmon, and the appendix), but by no stretch of the imagination do you need to read the whole thing unless you love reading about food. I love eating food, and like to spend my time doing that rather than delving into the sensations of said wonders...

If you're a seafood eater and you happen upon this post, I must put this out there because not enough people know it: don't eat farmed salmon. Farmed salmon are spreading disease to wild fish stocks and they're terrribly bad for you, filled with antibiotics, carcinogens, and artificial food coloring to make the meat red like their wild counterparts. Also, be wary of the shrimp you eat. If it's imported, it's probably affecting entire villages of people as well as devastating mangrove forests.

Eat sardines. Sardines purchased at Trader Joe's are sustainably fished (I checked). And if you eat tuna, make sure you get the "chunk light" tuna, which is a type of tuna known as skipjack that is not suffering like the bluefin tuna or high in mercury like regular tuna.

And this website's a great one for seafood choices: I've been using it for a while and it really helps one navigate the fish aisle and menu's at restaurants. There are too many restaurants that pay no attention to the state of our oceans, but if we don't wise up soon, all that may be left, according to Grescoe, are Jellyfish salads.

Happy eating of fish!