Monthly Archives: August 2011

Murakami Rocks My Socks

I am still reading Haruki Murakami’s Wild Sheep Chase, and it is an excellent novel. This is my first foray into Murakami’s work, and I specifically chose one of his first novels for that reason.

Without even delving into the plot yet, I must praise Murakami’s writing and style. It truly is exquisite. In some ways, it reminds me strongly of Hemingway’s work (circa Garden of Eden) in its spareness and intrigue. Murakami writes both about and around things in a way that tantalizes the reader. For example, he writes about the overwhelming beauty of one character’s ears, but never describes them directly. Instead, he describes the reaction they elicit from all those who see them. This way, the reader can shape their own mental image of the amazing ears, and Murakami does not drive the point into the ground by over-emphasizing it.

Later, he employs a similar method regarding a shadowy character of great power. Characters discuss the man and his background, but never once name him. The reader feels their fear in a palpable way; few people wield enough power to be known by reputation alone, remaining nameless and faceless to the masses.

This is not to say that Murakami does not employ descriptors. He strikes a balance between setting an immaculate scene and leaving enough to the readers’ imagination to keep them utterly engaged. I am just getting into the main action of the novel, and it is getting addicting. I may have to stop reading it at night, or I’ll never get any sleep. The review will be up as soon as I finish the book!

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Review: How to Travel with a Salmon

I have FINALLY finished How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays by Umberto Eco. I have to say, Eco is a great writer. The Name of the Rose and The Island of the Day Before are some of my favorite novels by him; the former held me absolutely spellbound the first time I read it, even though I was really too young to completely comprehend all of it. (Sidenote: I read it when I was 12. It made much more sense and I liked it even more when I read it again at age 20.)

This collection of short stories is amusing, but not quite on the same level as Eco’s longer works. I mentioned in a previous post that this was a “candy book” and I stand by that original assessment. Have a little at a time, and it’s delicious and satisfying. Have too much, and it starts to get old. This is a bit of a new experience for me. I tend to be a literature glutton, stuffing myself until I tear through a book and have no capacity to rouse myself from the depths of my sofa. This, however, was the perfect before-bed book. I would lay down with How to Travel with a Salmon, read one or two essays, and then put it aside to go to sleep. This is quite a different mode of operation than the occasions on which I mean to read one chapter of a novel and find myself still reading at 3:00 in the morning (I’m looking at you, Dennis Lehane).

The essays in this collection are funny, but not hilarious. My mental comparison was to think of Bill Bryson on a calm day. Eco is a more sedate humor, but still very enjoyable. The titular essay may be the funniest in the book. Eco tried to stash a fresh salmon in a hotel refrigerator, and found himself being charged outrageous prices for alcohol and snacks that he removed from the fridge to make room for the fish. His descriptions of arguing with immovable hotel staff are something that many frazzled travelers can relate to.

Some of my other favorites were “How to Eat In-Flight”, “How to Use the Coffepot from Hell”, “How to Justify a Private Library” (big surprise), and “How to Recognize a Porn Movie”. The essays cover a wide array of topics, though the author himself is ever-present in all of his bemused, befuddled glory. Eco is witty and at times keenly satirical; other moments were slightly slower and more reminiscent of an older relative telling you a story that they’ve told you a dozen times before.

This was a fun, light, read – though reading more than two or three stories in a row tended to make the writing begin to blend together. Eco’s work here is definitely smile-inducing, a far cry from his darker and more philosophical novels. Still, I recommend it. Give yourself permission to read this book lazily, and enjoy!

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I Am Currently Reading About Sheep, Revenge, and Travel Mishaps

I seem mildly incapable of reading just one book at a time. There are exceptions of course – for example, vacations. Especially beach vacations. I then happily devote myself to serial monogamy with whatever books I managed to stuff into my bag without tipping the scale past the dreaded 50-pound mark.

For the moment, however, I am living in literary sin. I am still meandering through Umberto Eco’s How To Travel With a Salmon. I have also begun two new novels: Haruki Murakami’s Wild Sheep Chase, and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. They are all over the spectrum in terms of both genre and writing styles. They are also quite literally all over the map. Eco is Italian, Murakami is Japanese, and Dumas is French. Dumas is also long deceased, but that’s beside the point.

I think this is the only way to manage reading multiple books at a time, really. For me, at least, books that are too similar start to blend together if I attempt to read them concurrently. With novels as disparate as these three are, on the other hand, there is absolutely no danger of confusion. I am enjoying them all immensely, especially The Count of Monte Cristo. The major action of the plot has just kicked off, and I’m very excited to see how the adventure unfolds.

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Review: “Where’s Sylvia?”

I just finished reading a book that I was hoping to have my 8th grade students read as part of their World War II unit in a couple months, and I am annoyed. The book’s full title, “Where’s Sylvia?”: The Story of an American Child Lost in Nazi Germany, sounded so promising. It’s a true story, and the woman who lived it (Sylvia Rebhan) is a friend of my mother. I wanted very badly to like this book. Unfortunately, Sylvia’s fascinating life story is undercut by the extremely poor writing of the author, Linda LaMura McFadden. The apathetic writing style and shockingly poor grasp of conventions nearly kills even the most emotional and gripping moments of the tale. McFadden seems addicted to both commas and quotation marks. There were comma splices left and right in this book, along with commas in sentences that didn’t require them in any way. She also had a penchant for putting words in quotes that don’t need it. For example, in a section in which Sylvia reflects on the bakery her parents ran near a baseball stadium, McFadden writes: “My parents did know that on occasion, “plenty” of Giants fans would walk by their store on their way to the stadium.” I don’t get the quotation or comma overload, but as an avid reader and writer, I do not appreciate them. As an English teacher, I loathe them. If a student turned in a paper that read like this book, they would get it returned with more red ink slashing the pages than a Frank Miller graphic novel.

The writing is really a shame, because it’s an engrossing personal account of one of many civilian lives irrevocably altered by WWII. When considering the toll of the war in Germany, most peoples’ minds jump to Jews, Gypsies, and other “undesirables” (as they were called by Hitler) being massacred. People always remember the immense loss of life on the battlefields, the thousands upon thousands of soldiers that would never return home. It’s easy to forget about the average German, one who had no particular allegiance to Hitler and just wanted to make it through the war alive. These struggling civilians are the focus of Sylvia’s story. As a young New York girl sent to spend a summer with her German relatives in 1939, she has no idea what’s coming. At the beginning of the war, Sylvia’s family tried to smuggle her out of the country and back to the U.S., but the borders were clamped down too tightly.

Hence, Sylvia is forced to endure the war as an “enemy alien” in Germany, rejected by the Axis but bombed by the Allies regardless. Her story is one of resourcefulness and frustration, as the little girl is forced to mature and take on adult responsibilities even before she reaches a double-digit age. She is hidden in a convent under an assumed name for some time, then shuttled between relatives in areas that are only ever temporarily safe. Sylvia and her family endure bombing after bombing, racing to reach safety whenever and wherever they can find it. In one particularly dramatic scene, Sylvia must ride her bicycle through active battlefields, swerving around mines, soldiers’ foxholes, and soldiers themselves.

The book traces roughly eight years total, six of which Sylvia spends separated from her increasingly desperate mother. It truly is an interesting story, and at times even astonishing. It was a quick read, written simply enough — despite the weak conventions of the author. I do not plan of having my students read this book, but I do plan on asking Sylvia to join us in the classroom to tell us her story in her own words. I think it will only improve without McFadden acting as the middleman.

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Review: Brisingr

I have just finished Brisingr, the third novel in the Inheritance series by Christopher Paolini. I strongly like, but did not love, this book. It, like the other books in the series before this, kind of reminds me of the Lord of the Rings series, but the 64 calorie version. Same brand, less great taste. Having said that, it is more appropriate and accessible for young readers than Tolkien’s books.

If you haven’t read it, my review is going to contain spoilers, so you might not want to read on just yet. Unless you don’t mind knowing what comes next. Of course, that brings me to one of my problems with this book: Paolini telegraphs his moves to a surprising degree. But let me begin with a couple of thoughts on Eragon and Eldest, the two books that precede this one.

Eragon was fast-moving, engaging, and fun. We meet young farmboy Eragon as he hunts for meat for his family. Eragon ventures out into a mountain range known as The Spine, an area which the people of his village believed to be filled with evil magic. There, Eragon finds a strange oblong stone that turns out to be a dragon egg. The egg hatches, and the dragon (who will be named Saphira by Eragon) marks Eragon’s hand with a brilliant silver patch that glows with magic. This, of course, sets of a whirlwind adventure in which horrible creatures are sent by the evil emperor to pursue Eragon, forcing him to flee his village with Saphira and an elderly storyteller known as Brom. They face many struggles as they desperately seek a safe haven, even as Brom initiates Eragon into the ways of the Dragon Riders, a group that was nearly extinguished at the hand of the evil emperor. They meet Arya, Murtagh, Durza, Ajihad, and others. Some are friends (maybe) and others are foes (definitely). As I mentioned, this book hooks you. It’s fun, and you consistently want to know where the characters are going or what’s going to happen next. There are battles and magic and elves and dwarves. What’s not to love?

Now, Eldest is unfortunately simply not on the same level as its predecessor. I blame Roran. The narration in this book switches back and forth between Eragon, who is deep in a magical forest learning magic from the elves and continuing his training as a Rider, and Roran, Eragon’s cousin, who is still in their home village of Carvahall and happens to be kind of a prat. Cliff notes on each young man’s story arc in this novel:

Eragon trains with the elves, but knows he has to go back to the Varden to aid them in their uprising against the evil King Galbatorix. He learns magic and sword fighting, but the elves are better than him at everything. Well, duh. They’re elves, he’s human. Not hard to do that math. This makes Eragon angry and sad. Also, he’s working with a debilitating injury from a battle in the previous book. So it’s not too easy for him. However, magical elf-dragons transform him to have the speed and strength of an elf, as well as heal his back. Hooray, it’s back to war we go. Roran, meanwhile, is being a self-righteous ass up in Carvahall. He blames Eragon for his father’s death, never considering that Eragon neither asked for the egg, nor was in the village to save Garrow when the Ra’zac swung by to lay waste to the farm. Roran is in love with Katrina. He obsesses over her, and over asking her to marry him. He asks. She says yes. Her dad gets super pissed, and betrays the townspeople to the Ra’zac because of it. So, who’s the worse cousin? Roran does not seem to get that no matter which of them is pot and kettle, both he and Eragon are firmly black. Anywho, Katrina is kidnapped, and Roran flips his shit. He pleads, coerces, and bullies the townspeople into leaving Carvahall to go south and join the resistance, with the aim of rescuing Katrina as his real goal. He kills people and turns pirate. Roran and Eragon meet back up when they each join the Varden at the Battle of Burning Plains. Roran is still acting jerky, but Eragon has bigger problems. Turns out his buddy Murtagh betrayed him, and OH WAIT – they’re actually brothers, and their father is King Galbatorix’s very evil right-hand man.

This brings us to book three, Brisingr. As I mentioned in a previous post, I like this book better than Eldest but not as much as Eragon. I once again blame Roran, but he shares culpability with Nasuada this time. The narrative is now split between THREE characters. Joyous. Nasuada is the leader of the Varden, so much of the time the novel spends with her is focused on her leadership decisions and battle strategy. Honestly, I skimmed some of her chapters. There is an exciting episode in which she is forced to battle for her authority via a test called the Trial of the Long Knives. Emo wristcutters can relate to this scene. (Sidenote: don’t cut yourself, kids. It’s not cool, and scars are only cool if you’ve got a zany story to go with them.) Nasuada sends Eragon – but not his dragon, who literally shares his soul – to the dwarf kingdom to help oversee their election for the new king since Murtagh killed their previous one. Of course, holding elections for a hereditary position seems odd to me, but then again, I’m not a dwarf. Eragon’s sections are interesting (he gets attacked by ninja dwarves in a scene that gave me unintentionally hilarious mental images), and again, they are well paced and engaging. He helps get his buddy Orik elected king. Saphira is FINALLY let free by Nasuada and comes to meet him in the dwarf kingdom; they then fly back to the elves to continue their training and learn the secret of Galbatorix’s overwhelming power. They learn that dragons have a “heart-of-heart”, which is apparently an enormous jewel they can cough up at will. This heart contains the dragon’s power and consciousness, and the king has many of these hearts that he has bent to his will. I will return to this extremely salient fact momentarily. Eragon also learns that Murtagh was only partially right about his family tree, and that while the two share a mother, Eragon’s father is actually Brom, the storyteller and former Rider who is killed in book one. This makes him quite happy. The third narrative strand, as I mentioned, belongs to Roran. Ick. He literally has three modes: battle, mooning over Katrina, and stoic pride. All irritate me. I know I’m supposed to admire his courage and cunning and feel sorry for him and his expecting bride, but I can’t. He’s ANNOYING. He is almost my least favorite part of this book.

A major issue for me has to do with Katrina. She does in fact get rescued by Eragon and Roran after a lengthy imprisonment by the foul Ra’zac. The Ra’zac are known to eat human flesh, but they don’t eat Katrina. Why? They just toss her in a cell and wait for Roran to show up. It’s not like he was demanding proof of life all along; they could have had themselves a Katrina barbeque, and Roran would have still charged their cave, battle hammer held high. Whatever. Fine. I can move past that. However, Katrina’s resiliency really strains my suspension of disbelief. Once they rescue her, she’s more or less alright. I call bullshit HARD on that. I have trouble believing that weight loss and pale skin are all she is leaving that prison cell with. Finally, she is pregnant. “Excuse me?” You might be thinking, “Didn’t she and Roran only sleep together once before she was captured?” Well, I suppose it can and does happen that easily on occasion, so I’ll give that a pass. What I don’t give a pass, though, is that she made it through the stress, torture, and semi-starvation of life under Warden Ra’zac without miscarrying. Maybe Paolini thought that was too dark, or maybe that didn’t occur to him. Perhaps it didn’t occur to him that one particularly picky female reader would have strong opinions on the feasibility of a pregnancy under extreme duress. At any rate, I’m not a fan of that minor story line. Even shifting the theoretical timetables around on the date of her conception, I’m not buying her pregnancy. It feels like another ploy to make me like Roran. Or perhaps are my problems with Katrina rooted in my prejudices against Roran? This could be a tangled thread to unravel, so let’s move on.

I feel I am giving the impression that I didn’t like this book. That is not the case at all; quite the opposite is true. I liked Brisignr, which is part of the reason I’m demanding a higher standard. I can write off crappy books as crappy books. I cannot write off good books that could have easily been great books. My least favorite aspect of an otherwise decent book comes from the predictability. I felt like Paolini had every move mapped out, and I was looking over his shoulder as he traced the path. The most prominent example is (MAJOR SPOILER) the death of Oromis and Glaedr, the only surviving Rider and dragon other than Eragon and Saphira, and their teachers in books two and three. Paolini tells us about the dragons’ heart-of-hearts, which is pretty cool, and explains a LOT. I appreciate this. Then, Eragon must return to the battle. Oromis announces he an Glaedr are joining the war too. Yellow flag goes up. Glaedr announces that he wants to give his heart-of-hearts to Eragon and Saphira. RED FLAG. Seriously, the second I read that, I thought, “Well, that’s the end of them. They’re going to die the second they hit that battlefield.” And lo and behold, I was right on target. Oh, and as a bonus, we get to vicariously experience their horrible anguish as they die, courtesy of Eragon’s possession of Glaedr’s jewel-heart. It was not a fun scene, though it did pack an emotional punch that other sections of the novel lacked.

My ABSOLUTE favorite part of the novel is Eragon’s sword, which unfortunately only shows up near the end of the novel. He forges it with a elf in a neat mind-meld scene, in which her mind controls the movements of his body. The sword is bright blue, to match Saphira, and appears to have flames running along the blade. Eragon dubs it “Brisingr” – “fire” in the ancient language. As soon as he says its name, the sword literally goes up in magical flames. HOW COOL IS THAT? I want a flaming sword pretty badly. It’s an amazingly striking image, and makes Eragon look like a sort of avenging angel in my mind.

So my wishlist now stands at: (1) dragon, preferably purple or green in color, and (1) flaming sword, any color. Also, I’d like to be an elf. If anyone could swing that for me, please let me know.

Anyway, I’ve got a bit of a wait until the fourth book comes out in November. I plan on reading it, and I do genuinely look forward to seeing where the story goes. I just hope Roran stays out of it as much as possible.

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My “To-Read” Shelf

I used to just have a little stack of books on my nightstand, but my purchases seem to outpace my reading. (In my defense, people also tend to give me books as gifts — I didn’t buy ALL of these.) This is my current pile of books… though I’ve got about a dozen more on my Nook and easily two dozen more in mind that I’d like to read as soon as I can get them. So… what should I read next?

 

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Books in Progress

I am currently reading two books: Brisingr, by Christopher Paolini, and How to Travel With a Salmon, by Umberto Eco.

Paolini’s book is the third in his Inheritance series (following Eragon and Eldest). I am close to finishing – I’m on page 688 of 763 – and I’m glad I’m finally getting some answers. I’ll do a full review when I finish, but for the moment I’ll just say that A) I want a dragon REALLY badly courtesy of this series, and B) Brisingr is not quite as good as Eragon but significantly better than Eldest.

Eco’s book is just about as close to directly opposite Paolini’s works as possible. How to Travel With a Salmon is a collection of travel essays in the vein of Bill Bryson, though less outrightly hilarious. Eco is an interesting narrator. He views the world around him with a seemingly bemused and frazzled air, constantly bedeviled by problems like where to store a fresh salmon in a hotel room or how to replace a drivers license in the Byzantine bureaucracy of the Italian DMV.

I am enjoying both books, though Eco’s is an easy “snack read” (pick up for 10 minutes, then drop for several days without feeling guilty or worrying that you might forget something). Reviews will be up as soon as I finish each book, respectively.

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