Posts Tagged ‘books’

Book #115: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, somehow, is my first encounter with the Sherlock Holmes books. Obviously I’ve watched Sherlock and some of the Holmes movies, but I’d never gotten around to reading any of the Holmes books.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was surprisingly fun to read. I don’t always enjoy the turn-of-the century writing style, but I liked Watson’s voice and the story was compelling without the writing getting in the way, as sometimes happens to me.

I didn’t have that strong a reaction to this book, however. I really enjoyed it and I want to read more Sherlock Holmes books, but I find that I don’t have that much to say about it.

Read it, if you haven’t somehow. It’s a well-constructed mystery and a great story. It’s a really quick read and moves along at a good pace. It has the right amount of tension and suspense, without feeling drawn-out or over-written. It also doesn’t feel gimmicky or cliche at all – though I suppose that could be because this is one of the originators of all the detective story cliches that have followed.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Cancer Ward

Book #114: The Victim

Saul Bellow’s The Victim was an interesting read.

Bellow is a good writer and I know I’ll look forward to reading some of this other stuff that’s on this list, but The Victim didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Here’s the Goodreads summary of the book:

“Leventhal is a natural victim; a man uncertain of himself, never free from the nagging suspicion that the other guy may be right. So when he meets a down-at-heel stranger in the park one day and finds himself being accused of ruining the man’s life, he half believes it.”

And I don’t really have much to add except …yep. That’s pretty much what happens. Maybe I missed the point of the book or something, but it really was pretty much Leventhal bopping around New York feeling vaguely indignant about stuff that’s happening around (and to) him. He mostly just accepts it and, at times, he starts to feel a little bit upset and makes moves to stand up for himself, but overall he’s generally all too willing to accept the blame others heap on him for things that aren’t his fault.

It feels like The Victim could easily turn into a parody, but at the same time, it just reads like an exploration in apathy.

I really wish I had more to say about this book, but I really don’t. Leventhal would probably be a little upset that I didn’t think the story of his life was more interesting. But then again, he’d realize that he only has himself to blame. He should have done more exciting things!

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Hound of the Baskervilles

Book #113: Everything Is Illuminated

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those books that will punch you in the gut and knock all the air out of you.

It has two main plots. In the first, a young American Jew – Also named Jonathan Safran Foer – goes to Ukraine to find the woman who he thinks may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He’s accompanied by his translator Alex – who butchers English amazingly – and Alex’s grandfather. Together they try to find the village Jonathan’s grandfather fled.

The second plot takes place largely in 1791, in the village of Trachimbrod, known on maps as Sofiowka. Trachimbrod is a largely Jewish shtetl, and it’s filled to the brim with neurotic, quirky people. At the center of the story is Brod, Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, who was found mysteriously by a river one day. From Brod’s strange origins and childhood, the narratives moves through life in the shtetl to Brod’s adulthood an marriage, continues through the years until it reaches Jonathan’s grandfather.

As Jonathan, Alex, and Alex’s grandfather search for the now-nonexistent Trachimbrod, they are drawn closer to a painful, tragic truth and a past that they could never have expected.

When I read Everything Is Illuminated in college, it totally shattered me. I loved everything about it and immediately placed it on my list of top-ten books I’ve ever read. At the time I was really interested in Jews and World War II, and the tragic nature of the book and the fact that it was an interesting spin on the “Jews in World War II” narrative (it’s about Jews, and World War II plays a minor role, but it’s not a Holocaust book) were bound to make me love it.

I’ll be honest – this time around I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. It could be that in the four years since I’ve read the book I’ve built it up in my mind to be this great literary masterpiece or that my interests have shifted a bit, I don’t know. For some reason, for the first third of the book I kept thinking, “I fell in love with this book? Really?” It wasn’t that it was bad. It was still very good, it just wasn’t the earth-shattering read I remembered.

But then I started to get more invested. The plot moved along and things like Alex’s bad English started to feel less gimmicky and I found myself getting sucked in. By the end as we approached the terrible thing my heart was racing and I kept telling myself not to be so invested because I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to be crushed.

But crushed I was.

It’s hard to say where I come down on Everything Is Illuminated. I still loved it. As a whole it had much the same effect on me this time as it did four years ago. But at the same time, I was more aware of some of the flaws and parts that felt gimmicky or didn’t seem necessary. It’s not a perfect book. It’s far from it. But in the end I felt so shattered that I’m inclined to be forgiving of the flaws, because damn, this books makes you feel.

So I still loved it. It’s still a book I’ll readily recommend to anyone who asks. If I see someone reading it or it comes up in conversation, I’ll still say, “Man. That is a good book. It’s one of my favorites.” But is it still in my “Top Ten Books of All Time” list?

I don’t know…

Either way, read it. It’s beautiful and haunting and it packs a powerful emotional punch.

Rating: *****
Up Next: The Victim

Book #112: Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of those books where the setting is as much a character as the people.

Goodbye to Berlin is a series of semi-connected short stories about Berlin during the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. The narrator, also a British writer named Christopher Isherwood, recounts his experiences living in the city in the lead-up to World War II, complete with the sleazy and not-so-sleazy people who meets and the seedy and not-so-seedy places he lives. From a dank room in a crowded flat with a German family to a room in a rooming house with the quintessential German hausfrau Fräulein Shroeder to the wealthy Jewish family he befriends, Isherwood’s stories offer snapshots into life in a city in decline.

1930s Berlin society is far from perfect, and as it slides closer and closer to war, things continue to go downhill. However, Isherwood’s genuine affection for the people he meets and the city he lives in. Even in decline and with its flaws, Isherwood seems to love Berlin.

At one point he even writes, “It is strange how people seem to belong to places – especially to places where they were not born.”

As someone with nomadic tendencies – I get an itch to move on and try out living in new places and doing new things after about a year – this really resonated with me. I’ve felt deep connections with places I have no business feeling connected to. I’m not from Budapest, Boston, Prague, Chicago, or Salzburg, but in some ways each of these cities has made an impression on me that goes beyond just, “I visited it and I liked it.” Each of them has awakened parts of me I didn’t know were sleeping. Each of them has touched me in places that are hard to reach. I can’t say why, and it’s probably pretentious and presumptuous to say, but somehow I feel a bit like I belong to these places. Or at least I did belong to them, even if it was only for a few days.

Any time I think about these cities, the cities themselves are always part of the narrative. They’re more than just settings or places where certain things happen, they are characters with the ability to influence the events and make impressions on the people who come in contact with them. I’ve been known to call Budapest my boyfriend. I had a short summer fling with Salzburg that left me longing for more. Boston is that interesting person I met on a trip one time and would like to get back in touch with. Prague is that toxic friend you know you should probably get rid of, but you just can’t because she always makes things exciting and when things are good between you, they are so good that you forget the terrible, soul-crushing lows. Chicago is the cool older sister that I always want to hang out with.

Isherwood does an excellent job of turning Berlin into more than just a setting in Goodbye to Berlin. He’s a very good writer, and his descriptions are often perfect. The short stories themselves are interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the characters Isherwood peoples them with.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Everything Is Illuminated

 

11th Decade Roundup!

It’s that time of my reading life again, where I review the last ten books I read, pretend I can remember them all, and then take stock of what happened. It’s also that time of my blogging life where I’m incredibly frustrated because WordPress has eaten three of my blog posts in the last two days. C’mon, guys, get it together.

This was a pretty good batch of books. It was a good mix of books I knew I’d enjoy, books that were just enough of a digression from my usual taste to be a challenge without being annoying, and books that I really liked but never would have read otherwise. It’s pretty much what you’d want in a book grouping.

I started out with What I Loved, which was fine while I was reading it, but very much on the “meh” portion of the scale. It wasn’t awful but I didn’t love it. I’m glad I read it, I suppose, but I doubt I’ll read it again. Another book in the category of, “glad I read it, now let’s move on” was The Girls of Slender Means. It was more enjoyable than I expected it to be, but I’d be surprised if I ever revisited it.

Then there were the books about two very different boys who were actually pretty similar, in some ways. Huck Finn is always a classic, and if you dialed up Huck’s delinquency and sense of adventure and combined it with a bit of crazy, you’d have Francie Brady of The Butcher Boy

Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye was a bit of an emotional read, but it was okay because it was followed by two zany books by Douglas Adams. It’s always fun to revisit Dirk Gently and his friends, and it’s even more fun to try and explain what you’re reading to people who don’t know Douglas Adams.

Finally, I was thoroughly sickened and shocked by Lolitabefore being captivated by some Murakami magic in Kafka on the ShoreI rounded out the bunch with the amazing Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I think Vonnegut is swiftly becoming one of my favorite authors.

My favorite book out the batch was definitely Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut knows how to spin a phrase and play with language at least as well as Douglas Adams does, but there’s something about the way he weaves chaos through order and brings crazy insights into his work that I adore.

The reward for biggest shock goes to Lolita. I went in with bravado thinking that I was prepared and certainly wouldn’t be shocked like all those prudes who are sickened by books about sex. I was wrong.

And the book I liked the least was probably What I Loved. Like I said, it’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s just that it didn’t do anything for me. Not every book can.

Now I’m off to (hopefully) catch up on my post for the next book, House of Leaves, assuming WordPress stops eating my posts.

Book #110: Breakfast of Champions

I’ve loved Kurt Vonnegut for years, even though I’d only read Slaughterhouse-Five. But now I’ve read Breakfast of Champions, and I can say that I love Kurt Vonnegut for something other than Slaughterhouse-Five.

Breakfast of Champions is one of Vonnegut’s later works. He describes it as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. In some ways it feels a bit thrown-together. Things don’t always fit together nicely, often story ideas or concepts are laid out and half-written and left hanging with the words “and so on. . .” Don’t think this is a bad thing, though. Somehow it feels natural that Vonnegut should do this.

Breakfast of Champions is very hard to describe. Two characters drive the novel. One is Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy businessman and entrepreneur in the midwestern Midland City. Dwayne, we learn within the first page or so of the book, comes unhinged and goes crazy after reading a story by the famed science fiction reader Kilgore Trout.

Trout is the other driving force of the novel – he’s been featured in several other Vonnegut novels as well. In Breakfast of Champions we see him old and destitute. He’s written prolifically but has not been recognized, until he gets invited to Midland City to be the keynote speaker at a festival.

If there is a defined plot to Breakfast of Champions, you could say that it’s the events leading up to when Trout and Dwayne meet, and the moment not long after that Dwayne goes crazy and attacks people after Trout’s story makes him think that he is the only human in the world and everyone else is a robot programmed to interact with him.

However, this “plot” is thin and muddied. While the book traces Trout’s journey and hints at Dwayne’s mental state the whole way through, Vonnegut often diverges into summarizing plots of Kilgore Trout stories – this is where most random plot outlines are done and left with “and so on…” or drawing pictures – the book is filled with illustrations – and describing and commenting on the world.

It’s a little bit like if you were reading a twisted and political children’s history book. For example, after mentioning Vietnam, Vonnegut writes, “Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.” He also describes the European settlers as sea pirates:

“1492. The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.

[. . .]

The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.”

Vonnegut often steps out of the narrative to explain things like this. It’s weird, but you like it and it makes you think about the world differently.

Then, of course, Vonnegut inserts himself, as the writer, into the story. He interacts with his characters and Trout eventually becomes suspicious that he’s not like the rest of the people in the world of the novel.

Overall, Breakfast of Champions is beautifully all over the place. At one point Vonnegut writes, “Let others bring order to chaos, I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.” The book is a chaotic, semi-organized hodge-podge of themes and ideas that are loosely held together. I feel like it’s something that only Vonnegut can get away with, because the writing is so good and he’s just Vonnegut. It’s what he does.

Breakfast of Champions is filled with lots of pithy sayings, clever turns of phrase, and poignant passages. The end made me tear up. I enjoyed it.

Rating: *****

Book #109: Kafka On The Shore

I love Haruki Murakami. In fact, my first ever post on this blog was actually about his 1Q84 It’s not on the list, but probably only because my version of the list predates the book.

I like Murakami because his books are really metaphysical and they always take me to this weird headspace where I’m never quite sure what’s real or what’s going on in the book. Reading Murakami can really mess you up for a bit, if you let it.

I read Kafka on the Shore in college. It was my first Murakami, and I loved it. I liked it just as much this time around. Murakami does something where he takes you into a world that could be ours, and it seems like it is ours, but things are just different enough that you wonder if there are so many things we don’t know about in this world.

It’s actually really hard to write about Kafka on the Shore, because there’s a lot going on and so much to think about, but it’s hard to get anywhere without just describing the entire book in detail. Certain books can only really be discussed with other people who have read them. This is one of them.

Kafka on the Shore deals with two separate storylines that converge in the end. The first story is driven by runaway Kafka Tamura, the “world’s toughest 15-year-old.” Kafka runs away from his wealthy father, hoping to escape a horrific prophecy. He winds up at a small library in a small city in Japan, where he’s offered work by the mysterious owner and her assistant.

The second story is driven by an elderly man named Mr. Nakata, who, following a mysterious incident when he was in elementary school, has been left mentally challenged but with a special talent – talking to cats. After a disturbing event, Nakata meets up with a trucker named Hoshino, and they embark on a mysterious journey in search of the entrance stone, which must be closed before reality is affected.

The storylines converge in strange ways as the world becomes stranger and less and less like ours. It rains leeches and fish, ghosts exist and interact with the living, and spirits break free from their bodies. It’s really a book you have to read to appreciate.

It’s also a book that I can’t say more about without giving things away, and I really want people to read it, so I’m not going to.

Kafka on the Shore is beautiful. It’s well-written and metaphysical and metaphorical, with beautiful observations about music, reality, love, and so much more. At the same time, it’s also a page-turner in parts, and as Kafka, Nakata, and Hoshino are drawn closer to the center of things, it gets really hard to stop reading and return to reality.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Breakfast of Champions

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