Saturday, October 18, 2014

cathing fire

I've been pounding through the first book of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy--Inferno--which is a newer translation, complete with end notes for every canto; pretty dense. So I took a break in the middle of it to read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. Its been a while since I read the first book but I didn't discover the books until after the movie was announced. A bunch of books were sold after that, and after the buzz blew over, my library had a load of copies in the book sale. I should have picked up one of each at that point because when I was looking for copies after I read the first one, there was a waiting list and then I forgot about it until the next movie was announced. I'll have to keep my eye out for the third one.

This second installment is definitely the middle book; it extends the storyline, deepens the backstories, fills in some of the questions from the first book, and then leaves you hanging for the third book. That's not a bad thing, but I guess it would be nice for this story to stand on its own the way the first one did. This one does come to a close, sort of, but its a cliffhanger.

This is prime young adult science fiction, its got angst, action, teen love, dystopian future, class warfare, and like a lot of recent YA SciFi, death. At least the constant threat of it for the main characters, and lots of blood and death of those around them to remind them of how bad it is. Collins certainly understands the genre, and just like the librarian who originally recommended this to me said, its a fast read. I burned through this is 3 or 4 days. that's quick for me

Dante is good, and I'm even reading a little of the old Italian version. But man, are the end notes dry. Fascinating and informative, sure, but... [yawn.]

This one is not as up close and personal with the death of children. It seems like that may have been a little harsh for some folks in the first book. Collins has found an interesting way to calm that down, and to also pull back from it so its not so immediate to the reader. I'll keep my eyes out for the third book at the library. Maybe I'll get it before the third movie comes out.



Monday, October 6, 2014

simplicissimus

Simplicissimus is a 15th century German novel that is often called the first bestseller. Personally, I'm not so sure that's even possible. The book that came before this one that sold the most copies would be the previous bestseller, even if the copies sold amounted to 12. Perhaps what is meant by this is that this is the first book that sold in large quantities, very quickly. That, I can understand.

This book is funny, baudy, crude, and very entertaining. It's written in first person, so Simplicius gets to tell his own story, and because he's so vulgar the first person allows the author to separate himself from this character, and because Simplicius is so simple, he can get away with much more than any polite member of society would be allowed, simply because he doesn't know any better. Quite a trick. It may also help explain why this book became so popular; well heeled folks could laugh at it because the protagonist is so simple. And make no mistake, given the literacy profile of the population  in the 15th century, it's definitely the upper classes who are buying and reading this book.

Simplicius Simplicissimus follows the life story of this young man from his ignorant peasant upbringing through his various trials in all the walks of life, driven by the engine of the ongoing 30 Years War. As this simple boy is tossed by the war raging around him, each place he falls places him in a different situation, which then allows the author to commentate on each of these stations from the point of view of a simple young man who is surprised by almost everything he sees, thus allowing him to point out what he sees at the outrages that swirl around us without our focusing on them.

The author is listed on the title page as Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, but it seems that he is known as Hans rather than Johann, in English, I also saw one reference to Jacob vs. Jakob. While we're at it, the original title in German is "Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch." In English, that's translated as The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus.

The translation is marvelous and I think it his work that allows this story to resonate so powerfully today. The ideas themselves deserve credit however, and observations made then could in many cases by made much the same today. Human nature is indeed immutable. Mike Mitchell did this translation in 1999. Mitchell is described in the frontmatter as "one of Dedalus's editorial directors as is responsible for the Dedalus translation programme."

Who knew 1668 was so much fun in Germany! Read this book!


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

magician's land

Quentin, you old dog!

Quentin Coldwater and the gang--well, some of them--are back for Lev Grossman's third and final book* in the Fillory Trillory. yeah, I made that up Brakebills has only a supporting role is this book, much like the second. We pick up Quentin's story a little while after the end of the second book. Quentin is beginning to heal, deal and un-feel some of the damage done to him, and as always, damage he has done to himself. Both physically and emotionally.

Quentin gets his feels on more deeply and complexly than his archetypes, Harry Potter and  Peter Pevensie. Everyone knows who King Peter is, right?  What makes Grossman's characters so much more compelling is that they DON'T fit the standard fantasy story mold. Grossman's characters, settings and personal interactions are just as fun, magical, and fantastic as Lewis's or Rowling's, but they are more real, adult and complicated like Tolkien's. I think that's because Grossman's audience is not kids, or even young adults, I think he's writing for adults.

Its been a little while since the second book came out and I found that I remembered the first book very well, but I had forgot a lot of the details in the second book. So I went back and read both of those after I finished this one. If I had more time, I might have put this one down and re-read them first, but my daughter was waiting for me to finish, and she was headed back to school.

The Magician's Land--the whole trilogy--is about finding your dreams. About making your dreams come true, because, in the end, that's the only way we find them. Quentin Coldwater is normal guy, who works hard, and knows what he can expect from his hard work, but above all, Quentin never quite knows whether or not he's good enough or deserving enough. In this book, I feel like he is finally making headway. Everyone has to grow up, and it seems like Quentin has done that too. And maybe his dreams came true, or maybe they didn't. But if anything is true, I think he's grown up enough to dream new dreams now.

Read this book. Read all of them, and then write me a note and tell me I was right.


* if you ask me, and I know you didn't, Grossman left room for more books if he decides to revisit Quentin and Co. 

... and I know you didn't ask me this either, but the Fillory Trillory one would make good movies, if done right.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

hitchhiker's guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is another book that I've had on my reading list for a long time. If I had know it was as short as it was, or as funny, I might have read it a little sooner. They made a movie a little while ago, but I didn't see it and I got the impression it wasn't well received, but I'm not sure.

The book has that British humor twang to it, that is so funny, but somehow not really identifiable, unless its the sarcasm. The Brits do sarcasm better than anyone. The storyline is big, and it jumps in pretty quickly. The galaxy is filled with inhabited planets and a great way to get around is by hitchhiking. Its not easy, so there is a fair amount of street cred that comes with it. But once you get out there, its not too long before you find that many of the same problems that we have to deal with on earth, are also problems just about everywhere you go.

That's what sets this book apart I think, and some of the other sci fi stories like it, its written in opposition to the two main trends in sci fi: utopian futures and dystopian futures. There aren't a whole lot of sci fi stories that predict a future that's pretty much just like the day-to-day crap we deal with now. But if the expanses of the galaxy are the same where ever you go, why would anyone travel? The answer is simple: the more things stay the same, the more they change. Each of their adventures is wild, screwy, unpredictable, and funny. And the funny, often verges on the ridiculous. Like a lot of British humor.

Read this book. Its funny and relevant now, just as when it was first written.

Then read it again in 20 years.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

princess bride

I've had The Princess Bride on my reading list for a while. I saw the movie years ago, and its was fun, romantic, swashbuckling, and over-the-top in every way. The book is almost the same as the movie, scene for scene, and nearly word for word, as much as I can remember the movie. This isn't a case where a movie was inspired by the book, or vice versa. The only thing that really differed was the narration.

In the movie version, and grandfather reads the story to his grandson when he is sick in bed, as his father or grandfather read to him. There is a similar but much more convoluted narration story in the book, designed to frame the story as true historical fact. I get how that could be fun--its another fairy tale--but in my opinion it was overdone. William Goldman seems to have beat on the factual history aspect so much as to make that also seem absurd.

The fairy tale itself, is just the same, and its a great story full of the traditional fairy tale story bravado, magic, monsters, heroes, fair maidens, and bad guys. This fair tale is tongue in cheek throughout, the author smiles at us even as he tells the story, as if to say, yes, I know isn't it hard to believe.

Goldman does a good job on this, even if he's a little heavy-handed on the history part. He's warmed up the best parts of our favorite stories from childhood, and brought them back to an older crowd; a crowd that the original stories he's celebrating, were probably intended for.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

age of dreaming

Jun Nayakama is a long-ago retired silent movie actor, and when he is approached decades after his last film by an interested reporter, this quiet, private man needs to decide if wants to step out of the shadows and be recognized again for the work he did, and was quite famous for, in his youth. And, if that's even possible.

Nina Revoyr weaves a subtle, personal story of this reserved Japanese-American man, who lives his life in almost direct opposition to his stardom in the early days of Hollywood. Revoyr paints a picture of a man who's life seems to have paused 40 or 50 years in the past, and who is now comfortable with his day-to-day busy work and his anonymity.

The decision whether to grant an interview sparks Nayakama's memories back to his time as a star in early Hollywood, the life he lived, his loves and his losses, and ultimately why he left the business and retired to quiet life in California, rather than returning to Japan. Some of the circumstances of his personal history are pretty mysterious, and Nayakama thinks long and hard about the things in his past that he hoped would never come to light, and had got to the point where he believed they never would.

Revoyr reveals her character slowly and carefully, keeping the interest up until the end. The stories of the heyday of Hollywood are fun to read about and to see them through the eyes of a man that should have been an outsider, but was too talented to stay on the outside, make for an interesting story.

The Age of Dreaming is set in the mid-sixties, when you couldn't just search for everything you wanted to know about a movie star on the internet, and mainstream publications where just beginning to move away from treating movie stars as royalty. The recollections of the characters take us even further back, to the 20s when Hollywood was young.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

empty ever after

I read this book on vacation, and I'm still playing catch-up. Its been weeks, and I've read a few books since I finished this one, so I'm going to keep it short on this one, and the next few so I can get caught up.

Empty Ever After is another Moe Prager novel in the series by Reed Farrel Coleman, and the third one for me. I wasn't able to find copies of them in order when I was looking but you can get them on Amazon now. Barnes and Noble didn't carry them last year when I was in there, but I did find them in a small, specialty bookstore in Brattleboro, Vermont; Mystery on Main Street.

So a few years has gone by for Moe Prager since the last story I read, and things haven't really improved for the guy. Prager takes it on the chin pretty hard, and while some things seem to go his way, like his cases (eventually), he certainly has his share of hard knocks along the way. Coleman uses this technique to keep Prager grounded, and to enliven his inner monolog, which we're privy to as the now semi-crusty private dick narrates his story and his life.

This one was good, I wish I read them in order.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

stones of florence

I borrowed this book from my office lending library. It looks like the type of thing someone might have read before a trip to Italy, to get a sense of Florence so they would be better informed about where to go, what to do, and to better understand Florence's people. It may also have been assigned reading in a design studio or art history course. However it ended up in our lending library, I will say that Mary McCarthy does seem to have done the research and has certainly traveled to Florence many times in the preparation of this book.

The Stones of Florence is a travel book, and art history book, and a history of Florence rolled into one, but it reads more like a travel journal. McCarthy gives us a sense of what its is like to be there (in the 50s, when this was written) * and weaves in the history behind what she sees, and then ties that history to the city that remains; was built and shaped by it, right down to its people. McCarthy describes the people of Florence as different from other Italians because of their unique history. McCarthy focuses on the Renaissance period as the most formative and walks us through the various political and religious upheavals in the city (or dukedom, before the unification of Italy) and the rush of famous artists who descended on the city, and the architecture which still exudes that uniquely  Florentine attitude.

McCarthy is--surprisingly, I guess--not a big Michelangelo fan (she refers to him as monomaniacal at one point), much preferring Donatello, saying;

"Michelangelo was the last truly public sculptor, and his works, so full of travail and labor, of knotted muscles and strained, suffering forms, are like a public death agony, prolonged and terrible to watch, of the art or craft of stonecutting."

This lady's not fooling around, or pulling any punches. This was fun to read, not least because of the time perspective; I found it really interesting to look at the Renaissance and 'modern' Firenze through the lens of 1956 pop America.


[A closing note: I was on vacation for the last two weeks in July, and I read a bunch of books. Some of these reviews and thoughts may be out of order, and may be slightly vague in my memory now.]


* I read the 1963 paperback version of this books which does NOT include the illustrations of the original 1956 book. I just discovered this (doh!) If you're going to read this, it seems like it would be better with the illustrations.



Friday, August 8, 2014

james deans

Reed Farrel Coleman's books can be hard to find. I talked about that a little when I described how I ran across copies of his books in Vermont in a review of Redemption Street. Unfortunately, the store I found didn't have a copy of all of the Moe Prager novels, so I ended up reading them out of order. I read The James Deans and Empty Ever After in the past few weeks while on vacation. if I think of it, I'll come back here and add a link to the review of the next one once I write it 

Maybe more than other series, it seems like it would be a good idea to read these in order if given the opportunity. They are dependent on one another, but one of the important aspects of the Prager character is his strong ties to the past, so the past comes up a lot in the books, and if you haven't read one of them, then the good news is that Coleman will fill you in a little, as he goes. The bad news is: Coleman will fill you in a little, as he goes. read them out of order and get ready for some subtle spoilers

The James Deans is a mystery inside of another mystery, and guess when one of them takes place. Yeah, in the past. Prager feels like he may just be lucky rather than talented when it comes to his detective work, but if you're successful, why does it matter. The fact that he thinks about it at all is where the interest in these stories lie. The Moe Prager novels are told first person, so while Prager tells his story, he also tells us all of the other things he's thinking as well, but that doesn't slow these stories down at all. In fact, these novels (the ones I have, anyway) are pretty short. The writing is lean and on point.

The James Deans may be more than one mystery inside a mystery, or it may be mystery inside mystery, inside mystery, its hard to tell. its turtles all the way down Coleman knows how to build tension, and surprise into his stories, and he's not afraid to do things that his readers don't expect.