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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Books I Read: September - December 2011

Wow, it's been a while since I did one of these, I almost forgot about them. The reason was that I hadn't read enough books to necessitate a post. And you can blame this sucker:


The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

I started this in August and didn't finish until December. That's unusual for me. If I buckle down, I can read a book in a week, average. But this mother fucker is 750,000 words, 1,000 pages long. More on that in a second. This book continues the adventures of Kvothe, the redheaded magic-user who can do no wrong, but somehow still seems to. Half of the book continues his life at the University, learning about magic, trying to get a date with Denna, and earning the ire of Draco Malfoy Ambrose Jakis. Most of this half is spent on a complicated caper to rescue Denna's ring from Ambrose, uniting all the minor characters into Kvothe's Eleven.

The second concerns the land of Severen, where Kvothe is attempting to earn patronage of an almost-king. I thought this part was more interesting, maybe because it didn't take place at the same setting where half the previous book was set (it seems like Kvothe spends all his time in school, but spins his wheels). Part of that time is spent trying to save the almost-king from being poisoned (and trying to prove he's trustworthy), then he's sent on a mercenary mission to stop some trail bandits. Then he meets a sex fairy. Then he goes to free-love ninja school.

I'm not good at summarizing things.

I think it's a good book. I think it's the best thing I read this period. Kvothe is as irascible as ever, and you love to root for him and his cleverness, but when he screws up or loses his temper, you think "yeah, I'd probably do that too." The magic never intrudes into the scenario or makes it deus ex. There's a lot more adventure this time. Maybe because Kvothe is growing up. I love a good epic fantasy, and it's rare to find one that focuses solely on one character, instead of several groups like Song of Ice and Fire or Lord of the Rings. But it's just so damn long.

I don't care how good the book is -- and this book is good -- but at a certain point, even if it's the greatest book in the world, it needs to end. And like the last book, it sort of drops off with no real conclusion or climax, except that it's satisfying to know that Kvothe is now in a more stable area in life. Like the first book, the story meanders. Kvothe's central goal rarely gets touched on or developed as he talks with his friends or meets new people or learns new things. Rothfuss has a lot of wrapping to do in the third book. Thank god it's already a planned trilogy and not an unending series.


1984 by George Orwell

This novel helped me discover/realize something about myself: I really have no interest in politics whatsoever. I'm not even talking about today's American current event politics with campaigning and conservatives and old white guys. I have a few hot button issues I care about (education, contraception) and the rest I don't give a fuck about. But 1984 has nothing to do about that. It focuses on a bigger picture with talking heads, you vs. me, economics, and big vs. small government. And I really just don't care.

Politics seems petty to me. It reminds me of Einstein's quote: "Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater." Meaning that the scope of how laws are made, what they affect, and budget/economic restraints are so far beyond my comprehension and power that they hover into the realm of magic. But you didn't come here to hear about politics, you came to hear about the book.

I guess the problem is that all the great elements of this book have been stripped out, snipped & groomed, and applied into other creative works. This book reads like a catalog of ideas that were used in "The Matrix", "Lord of the Flies", "Blade Runner", "Dark City", even "Alien". I bet anyone watching the reality show "Big Brother" (is that still on? Like on an actual channel?) has no idea where the term came from.

So there's nothing in the book that's new or hasn't been improved on. It's full of ideas, but weak on story. There's a whole chapter that's mostly an excerpt from the anti-government manifesto that rebels are reading. It's pages and pages of political discourse, but little characterization and little plot.

Why is it every time I try and read something classic I'm disappointed. Dune was a slog. I've never been able to finish The Great Gatsby after two attempts. It reminds me of The Cinema Snob reviewing "The Tree of Life" (a pretentious bit of Terrence Malick film-making with no plot and implausible characters) when they talk about movies vs. films. Movies have to have a plot. Films are just art with a message. 1984 feels like art. It's trying to shove a message and sacrifices plot & characters to do that (and I've been guilty of that -- Black Hole Son was too preachy to reach an agent). Why else would there be pages and pages dedicated to speeches?


The Longest Trip Home: A Memoir by Josh Grogan

Dear Mr. Grogan,

We regret to inform you that your life simply is not interesting enough to necessitate a memoir. Your story is basically about white people problems insignificant family issues known only to the privileged and ungracious. Your Catholic parents never did anything to you. You committed crimes and got away with it because of your family's stature in the community. And your friends did not.

You had no real conflicts, the worst being your feeble attempt at growing a marijuana plant. Meanwhile, other children are being beaten, jumped into gangs, and raped (re: Precious). Please forward your book onto someone who's life is so much more amazing then yours that he or she will sympathize with your plight, because we cannot provide any at this time.

The theme of this book is Grogan growing up in an traditionalist Catholic family. Then becoming a hippie and rejecting those things (for which he receives no consequences, except sad faces). Then becoming an adult, and finding a happy medium. Nothing happens, and when things should be coming to a head, we are disappointed. There's nothing at stake, just a lot of passive-aggressiveness. I think Grogan needed something to follow up Marley & Me and had nothing. So he wrote everything else that happened in life that wasn't in Marley & Me.


The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

One for book club. I'm not sure what to think of this one. It's a non-fiction book about one of the first Puritan separatist settlements in New England, mostly focusing on William Bradford, the semi-leader of the colony.

It's told with a witty narrative, sharp and easy to understand. It's made for a modern audience, but my question is, who in this modern audience would be interested in this subject matter? It pretty much goes through the history of the colony, focusing on the why and who. It begins with the departure from England and ends with the death of Bradford. There's no real thesis or point to prove, so I'm wondering why try and make a narrative out of this? The story just isn't that compelling.


Lucy by Laurence Gonzales

Lucy is a transparent novel. You know just what it will be about just looking at the cover. Some primatologist created a girl with human and monkey DNA (and somehow did this in current day with only one man). Said primatologist is dead and now the girl must integrate into the real world. Like Tarzan, but more believable (and, at the same time, less).

At first, I thought it was going to be a YA novel, and maybe it should have been. I would have been much happier reading the YA version of this -- where she struggles to reconcile her dual parentage, her "superpowers", and all the other problems teenagers have. But sadly, the novel only focuses a little on that.

Much too much of the book is spent on the characters discovering what the audience knew on page one. Then they spend a great deal of time on covering Lucy's "secret", which is rendered moot when they decide to "come out of the closet". There's an outpouring of support, which quickly gives away to not-support, as "they" need to decide if she's human or not. This prompts faceless g-men kidnap her and do experiments, since she has super-strength and naturewalk.

It's all very cliche, with a lot of plot holes and unimagined archetypes. Plus there's a lot of characterization that goes nowhere. There's a romance between the foster mother and a doctor that goes nowhere. There's lesbian kissing between Lucy and her best friend that nothing comes of. There's a cute boy on the wrestling team with her that goes nowhere. There's impactful characterization that comes in the last five pages of the book, when it can no longer have relevance. And as you'd expect from something involving apes and the jungle, there's the heavy-handed message that we all need to get back in touch with nature, hug a tree, too much technology, embrace the earth, blah blah blah.

And there's deus ex sprinkled liberally throughout. They miraculously are able to take her, a fourteen-year-old girl with no known parents and sketchy citizenship papers that are out of date, out of the Congo and back to the U.S. The doctor friend miraculously destroys medical evidence -- which I believe is a felony -- with no consequence. They make friends with a woman who is miraculously rich and willing to give them all the money in the world they need. It's a rough novel, with many flaws. Entirely skippable.


Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

A re-read, because I wanted some classic Crichton in my life. And dinosaurs. When I was littler, I read this book in a single day, which was a great accomplishment for me -- I was 11 at the time (I have small goals). And, come on, it was heavy -- genetic engineering, supercomputers, DNA, fractal mathematics, paleontology. Lot to get my head around.

It's nice to come back to some old favorites every once in a while. I'd been reading some popular works, some ancient "classics" and some real dogs lately, so it was nice to read a book that I consider "mine".


Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

I feel like I just didn't get this book. I should -- it's about superheroes, and their inner lives, like Watchmen in prose. But something about it didn't work for me.

I guess the problem is that the entire thing is back story. It's almost entirely written in past perfect. It's like everything already happened and we're just seeing the aftereffects. There are few actual events that happen until halfway through the novel. There's a lot of "thinking/observing" where we're in the character's mind, and the characterization is glossed over -- characters have bulimia, divorces, and none of this is explored. I feel like if you separated the narrative from the dialogue, you'd have two totally different stories.

And yet despite these flaws, I still felt compelled to read it. Maybe because it's a "behind-the-scenes" of Silver Age comic books (the ones that were super ridiculous like creating a race of tiny lizard-men or alien boys cause a ruckus). When Lex Luthor escapes prison, where does he go? What does he do while he rebuilds? What do superhero teams do when they're not fighting crime? How do they recruit? How do newbies get accepted? How do they react when one of their own "dies"?

It's the background brought to the foreground, and maybe that's where I find it falling flat. It's a novel in inverse, and that's atypical -- it's not action-oriented. But like I said, maybe I'm looking at it in the wrong way. And someone else will enjoy it more than me.
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