Friday, December 16, 2011

Watership Down

Title: Watership Down
Author: Richard Adams
List: #42 on BBC Top 100, #79 on Modern Library Readers’ Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? YES!!

Watership Down is a book about rabbits. “A book about rabbits?!” you may exclaim, “And why are you so adamant that it is worth reading?” Because it is completely unexpected and utterly amazing. Leaving aside the fact that it is about rabbits, the story is about a hero who risks everything for his convictions, faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles with bravery and cunning, and puts his own life at risk multiple times for the sake of his friends and followers. The hero doesn’t believe in leaving anyone behind and, most of the time, listens to the advice of even the littlest voices. Richard Adams’ storytelling makes you root for the hero and his followers and it is difficult not to keep reading chapter after chapter.

Integral to this adventurous tale is the fact that it is about rabbits. The magnificent hero of this story is not a human, but a rabbit leading his followers across the countryside to found a new rabbit warren. Richard Adams has perfectly captured the movements, spirit, and fears of rabbits. The tale is full of passages describing the rabbits’ progress as a short run, followed by a couple of hops, followed by sitting up and smelling around for predators, followed by freezing in place or running away in fear. If you’ve ever seen any wild rabbits in person or on film, you realize that Adams’ words perfectly describe rabbit behavior and progress and you can perfectly imagine the ragged bunch of rabbits crossing a field. Their fears are rabbit fears, their dreams are rabbit dreams, and their behavior is, unquestionably, rabbit behavior. Added to this is Adams’ charming description of rabbit language and folklore. Adams introduces readers to a bit of rabbit vocabulary and describes how, to pass the time, the rabbits tell stories about a rabbit trickster folk hero and his interactions with a god-figure and a grim reaper equivalent. Several of these stories are included in the book and are brilliantly told by one of the rabbits.

In every way, Watership Down is a fantastic adventure story that becomes even more charming because of the rabbit civilization Adams created. Although the novel was written for children, it is a story adults should not miss, so it may be best read aloud as a bedtime story!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Bostonians

Title: The Bostonians
Author: Henry James
List: #87 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Maybe.

I did not particularly enjoy this novel. And as I work my way through my massive list, I am finding that for the most part I really enjoy the novels on the BBC list, but less so the novels on the Modern Library and Radcliffe lists. Then again, maybe it is just the novels on those lists that I haven’t read yet that I don’t like very much, because the Radcliffe list does include books I have really enjoyed, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlotte’s Web, Winnie-the-Pooh, Gone With the Wind, Schindler’s List, and Lord of the Rings, to pick out just a few of my favorites. So perhaps I am just in a novel-choosing slump.

As for The Bostonians, I don’t think I’ve read a Henry James novel before, so I’m not sure if this novel is reflective of James’ style. What I did not enjoy about his style in this book were the massive paragraphs describing (rather boring) conversations between the characters instead of actually transcribing their dialogue. When James did relate actual dialogues, I found the book much more enjoyable.

Perhaps part of the problem is that this book is rather political. Two of the main characters, Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant, are very active in the feminist movement and James describes their ideas and mission in quite some detail. He also describes the opposition to their cause felt by the other main character, Basil Ransom. It is difficult to tell where James’ personal views lie. At the beginning of the novel he satirizes the feminist platform quite effectively, but as Basil Ransom gains influence over Verena Tarrant, James appears more sympathetic to the feminist cause.

I think it bears keeping in mind that this is not a modern novel, but was first published as a serial in 1885-86. The novel appears to be set a decade or so earlier, as Basil Ransom is a relatively young Civil War veteran from Mississippi. Clearly, the attitude towards feminism at that time was not the same as it is today, and it is perhaps this late 19th century setting that made James give his characters options that were only black and white.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Basil Ransom, a staunch conservative, falls in love with Verena Tarrant, a beautiful young woman and gifted public speaker. At the same time, Olive Chancellor discovers Verena and seeks to develop Verena’s speaking ability to advance the cause of women’s rights. Both Basil and Olive see Verena’s future in terms of black and white. Olive apparently believes that for Verena to promote the feminist cause, she must pledge to remain unmarried. (It is also possible, but not explicitly stated, that Olive may be in love with Verena herself and be opposed to the possibility of Verena marrying on that ground.) Basil, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in women’s rights and doesn’t believe Verena’s gift should be exploited in public exhibitions. Rather, he feels that she must use her charm only at home in the parlor—a parlor shared with him, of course. Poor Verena, meanwhile, is torn in both directions, and neither of her friends offers her the option to do both: marry and advance the feminist cause through public speaking.

It may be our modern times that make me think this third option is an obvious one, but the lack of that option for Verena in the novel really irritated me (as did the fact that Verena wasn't a strong enough character to come up with that option herself!). This irritation was not on a policy level because I feel it is important to think of the political climate in which the novel was released, but more because by presenting the options as black and white, James causes all of his characters, but particularly Verena, to suffer severe pain and anguish. Maybe that was necessary for the story James wanted to convey, particularly because it is supposed to be a satire, but apparently this satire was lost on me, leaving only the annoyance and irritation.

And from this you may believe that I only enjoy novels with happy endings. But I swear that’s not true! Just look at the previously mentioned Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird as two examples. Anyway, I didn’t enjoy The Bostonians. Somehow it didn’t engage me and I really just wanted to get to the end and finish it already. And with that, I’ll leave reading this book up to you. I see no reason to rush out and read it, but I guess it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Artemis Fowl

Title: Artemis Fowl
Author: Eoin Colfer
List: #59 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? For an adult, not really.

The BBC Top 100 list is notable for the variety of books it includes. There are classics, recent novels, fiction written for adults, and juvenile fiction. When the BBC solicited nominations for its list, Artemis Fowl had only been out for two years. Since then, it has grown into a series of seven books, with the eighth and final book coming in 2012. The series is a children’s fantasy series, and each book ranges from about 250-400 smallish pages, with pretty large type. Based on that, the series really seems geared towards children not yet used to reading very much. However, the author describes Artemis Fowl as “Die Hard with fairies,” and indeed the action scenes and Gnommish* swearing seem to make the novel more appropriate for older children. The simplicity of the writing thus does not seem geared to the potentially somewhat older audience.

These characteristics are in stark contrast to other children’s fantasy novels that made it on the BBC list, including the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Both of those series are also clearly for children, but are easily read and enjoyed by adults without feeling like a children’s book. Not that there is anything wrong with a children’s book feeling like a children’s book. That seems perfectly natural, but I don’t think that such an obvious children’s book really belongs on the BBC Top 100 list next to classics like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. To be fair, there are other children’s books on the list, like the books by Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson, that may be more appropriate companions to Artemis Fowl. It has been many years since I read Roald Dahl’s children’s books, so I can’t remember how childish they are. However, I do remember loving them and that my parents really enjoyed them, I still think they are wonderful and praise them whenever I get the chance, and I hope they will be read to or by my own future children. As for Jacqueline Wilson’s books, I have yet to read any of those so I will reserve judgment.

Even if I set aside the overt childishness of the Artemis Fowl books, I still think they are not that fantastic. The basic premise of the first book is that Artemis Fowl II, a twelve-year-old genius and criminal mastermind, wants to replenish his family’s wealth by cheating the fairies out of some of their gold. (Mind you, the Fowls are still wealthy—the “problem” is that they went from being billionaires to being millionaires.) With the help of his bodyguard, Artemis kidnaps a fairy who happens to be an officer in the fairy police force and demands a ransom payment. Mayhem in the form of rescue attempts and double crossing ensues.

So, yes, Artemis Fowl is an adventure story. And yes, it holds your attention. But… besides the use of fairies and fairy technology, it isn’t very creative. Every predictable moment from every action movie you’ve ever seen is in the first book (and the second for that matter). I don’t think the book made me think or taught me anything new, and I’m not sure that would be any different for a child. That said, it isn’t horrible. And there would be absolutely nothing wrong with a child reading this book because, after all, the most important thing, to me anyway, would be to instill the love of reading in a child. And if this book helps, then any future child of mine will be more than welcome to read it. As for me, I won’t be recommending this to any Harry Potter fans or other adult readers, and now that I’ve read the first two because I borrowed them at the same time from library, I won’t be reading the other six unless (and until) some future child of mine decides to read them.

*Gnommish is the language spoken by the fairies.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Zuleika Dobson

Title: Zuleika Dobson
Author: Max Beerbohm
List: #59 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Not really.

The full title of this novel is Zuleika Dobson, or, an Oxford love story. Except that it’s not. Or rather, it is one of the oddest and most demented love stories I have ever come across. The premise, which becomes rapidly evident so that I do not feel bad about revealing it, is that Zuleika Dobson is a woman with whom men fall in love on sight, to the point of killing themselves for her. And Zuleika is vain and egocentric enough to want people to die for her and to encourage them to die for her.

In this weird twist on reality, a proud and emotionally detached young Duke concludes that the only way to make Zuleika love him, or perhaps more accurately, to make her appreciate his love for her, is to commit suicide. He comes to this conclusion after Zuleika, who briefly loved him because he appeared to be immune to her charms, rejects him after realizing that he has fallen in love with her just like everyone else. Unfortunately, this all takes place in Oxford, a town full of young men—young men who are easily influenced by both Zuleika’s magnetism and the Duke’s resolve. And from that brief description, I am sure you can guess the inevitable conclusion to which this novel steadily progresses.

Now, an awful story is not necessarily enough to make me condemn a book. And, to be honest, when I finished reading this novel, I felt speechless, not knowing whether to encourage or discourage future readers. The writing is excellent. The author has a humorous tone throughout and a calm defeatist attitude towards the inevitable end. He switches perspective effectively, at times revealing the thoughts and actions of the Duke and Zuleika, at times describing the behavior of ghosts and the thoughts of statues, and at other times almost engaging in a conversation with the reader. However, for all that, I don’t think I can recommend it. As I’ve said before, there are so many other books out there that are better able to challenge, move, and inspire me that when I come across a book like this one, I can pretty comfortably recommend that you give it a pass.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Power of One

Title: The Power of One
Author: Bryce Courtenay
List: #183 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Definitely.

This novel is magnificent. There really is no other way to say it. Anything I write will not come close to describing how absolutely beautiful, fantastic, and uplifting this novel is.

My heart melted from the very first chapters where the author painstakingly described the plight of poor little 5-year-old Peekay trying to blend in as the only English boy at a Boer boarding school in late 1930s South Africa. Peekay starts at the school the year war is declared in Europe, and he bears the brunt of the older boys’ approval of Hitler and hate of the English. Peekay’s anguish is tangible and I wanted nothing more than to wrap this little boy in my arms to make him feel better.

Fortunately for little Peekay, he does not have to return to another year of boarding school. Instead, his grandfather has sold the family farm and moved across country, and Peekay will rejoin his mother and grandfather after a two-day solo train trip. This train trip changes Peekay’s life, and the author touchingly describes how a kind-hearted train guard and boxer takes Peekay under his wing, feeds him, makes sure he gets new shoes that fit, and introduces him to boxing and the dream of becoming Welterweight Champion of the World.

The lesson the train guard teaches Peekay, “First with your head, then with your heart,” as well as the introduction to boxing, shape Peekay’s future and the rest of the novel. However, this is not a novel about boxing. Instead, it is a novel about finding an individual place in the world, developing self-awareness and self-confidence, and standing up for one’s beliefs.

It is also a novel about valuing everyone, regardless of background or skin color. After his rough introduction to Boer culture and language at his first boarding school, Peekay develops a fluency in Afrikaans, thereby forging bonds across South Africa’s two white cultures. His later command of the language of boxing serves a similar purpose. Peekay also has a deep appreciation for black culture and language. He learned Zulu at the breast of his Zulu wet nurse and nanny, and picked up two other native languages from other household servants. He never hesitates to communicate with each individual in his or her own language, and, most importantly, he never looks down on anyone for his or her ethnicity. Instead, Peekay treats everyone with kindness and respect and seeks to help those he feels deserve more. In this way, his reputation among “The People” as a spiritual chief is born and he feels their support and presence throughout his life.

Through a powerful command of tone and language, the author conveys a love of South Africa and its people, and creates a strong bond between the reader and Peekay. Peekay meets a wide variety of interesting and rich characters that influence him, teach him, and help him rise to his full potential. Most notable among these is Doc, a professor of music and cactus enthusiast and expert, who really challenges Peekay to excel, and who, despite a wide disparity in age, becomes Peekay’s best friend and mentor.

Reading this novel was like diving into Peekay’s world, seeing what he was seeing, and feeling what he was feeling. It was one of those novels where I wanted there to be a sequel because I didn’t want it to end, but where a sequel might have ruined the majesty of the work. In my opinion, this novel should be much higher on the BBC’s list and is a must read for everyone. I cannot wait until I have time to immerse myself in another Bryce Courtenay novel.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Three Musketeers

Title: The Three Musketeers
Author: Alexandre Dumas
List: Fake Facebook BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes!!

This book is another example of why the fake Facebook list of the BBC Top 100 is not all bad. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, which makes the BBC list at #44, this is an excellent adventure story slightly based on historical fact. Of course, the story is also very much in the news right now with the release of the new movie, which, based purely on the cast list, might actually be more faithful to the novel than other movies, but don’t hold me to that.

Anyway, who doesn’t know the story of D’Artagnan and the three musketeers? There have been so many movies based on the book or the characters that I feel it would be a rare person who does not have a mental picture of the musketeers and their “one for all and all for one” motto. I have definitely seen several musketeer movies, but I don’t think I was fully aware of all the intricacies of Dumas’ original novel. I don’t want to go into those intricacies now, but I will say that all the interwoven plotting of the principal characters makes for an exciting and fast-paced read.

Which brings me to my next point. I know someone who also read this book recently and had never before read a Dumas. This person was expecting a dry, dark, period piece that would be difficult to get through and was pleasantly surprised by the energy of The Three Musketeers. So much so that this person is now reading The Man in the Iron Mask and will, eventually, follow that up with The Count of Monte Cristo. Now, I had read The Count of Monte Cristo years ago, albeit an abridged version, and had enjoyed it as a fantastic, intriguing novel, which meant that I was not at all surprised to find The Three Musketeers so interesting. It is also not surprising that many chapters end on cliffhangers, because like many novels of the time, The Three Musketeers was originally serialized so Dumas had to make sure to keep drawing in readers week after week. Anyway, for anyone else who has fears about this being a dry novel only enlivened on film, put those fears aside because you will speed through most of this book.

You may have noticed that slight caveat, most. I will admit that there are slow parts, especially in the beginning where there is a lot of description. And perhaps this, in addition to the considerable length, is why there are abridged versions. But don’t give up and just start on an abridged version. This truly is a marvelous story, the slow parts aren’t that numerous, and I really think there is something to the theory that a story should be enjoyed as the author intended it… except that I definitely couldn’t wait to read the next chapter!!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Title:  Where Angels Fear to Tread
Author:  E. M. Forster
List:  #98 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels.
Worth reading?  Not really.

The title, Where Angels Fear to Tread, comes from Alexander Pope's phrase, "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread." The title is apt, as this is a novel full of bad choices and failed attempts to influence those choices.

It all starts with Lilia Herriton, who has been under the thumb of her late husband’s mother and siblings until she has the opportunity to take a trip to Italy with a neighbor, Miss Abbott. There she falls in love with Italy and an Italian and makes a choice of which the Herritons disapprove. However, the Herritons are too late to change Lilia’s rapidly made up mind. Lilia later regrets her choice and comes to an unhappy end. This leads Miss Abbot to influence the Herritons to adopt Lilia’s Italian baby. The Herritons only comply with Miss Abbott’s suggestions for the sake of appearances, and the bungling pursuit of the adoption by Miss Abbott and the Herritons leads to another tragic ending.

The most redeeming part of the novel is the way it portrays Italy and Italians as exuding an irresistible charm. That charm is readily felt in the descriptions of the country and its inhabitants, but only when the focus is not on the main characters. I suppose the novel is okay, but there are many novels on my list that are much more memorable than this one.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Title: Birdsong
Author:  Sebastian Faulks
List:  #13 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading?  Maybe.

The back of my copy of the book described the novel as intensely romantic.  Even though there was also mention of the main character going to war, I thought I was starting a love story.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The book does actually start out as an “intensely romantic” love story.  There are almost romance novel worthy (or, really, not being one to read romance novels, what I expect are romance novel worthy) scenes describing the illicit relationship of the main character, Stephen, with his host’s wife.  After the first section of the book, however, all romance departs as we are plunged into the grimy, depressing, and hopeless trenches of the First World War.  The previous romance is barely alluded to; instead, we are swept up in the futile existence of British troops manning the trenches, digging tunnels for mines, and being blown up my enemy shells.

To the author’s credit, these descriptions are so vivid that it is possible to imagine what war meant for the soldiers on the front lines.  And most heartbreakingly, it is possible to imagine the enormous waste of human lives due to command ineptitude at the Battle of the Somme as wave after wave of young men slowly marched across no man’s land to their inevitable demise.  In that respect, the novel is not pretty.  It is not romantic.  It is intensely realistic.  And that, perhaps, is what makes the novel worth reading.  Because, as a character living fifty years later in the 1970s points out, even then we had already forgotten the wretchedness of trench warfare and the unspeakable horror the soldiers endured on a daily basis.

And so, Birdsong is not intensely romantic.  There is romance at the beginning and the end, but it seems disjointed and almost indecent.  Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters welcomes death because after what he has seen, he can’t imagine going back to his wife and resuming a normal life.  In a way, after reading the trench sequences, I thought the same thing:  after all that death and destruction, how can the author describe, and how can I imagine, happiness and romance again?  Maybe the point is that we have to go on living, have to keep hoping, and have to create our own opportunities for happiness.  Whatever the moral is, this book is not a romance.  It is a war story through and through.  And as a war story, for people who want to know what soldiers actually experienced, it may be worth the read.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The God of Small Things

Title: The God of Small Things
Author:  Arundhati Roy
List:  #85 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading?  Yes.

The God of Small Things is a book about what happens to a set of “two egg” twins, Estha and Rahel, after the death of their cousin, Sophie Mol.  It is also a story about what happened before.  Sophie Mol’s funeral takes place in the first few pages, but it is not until the end that we fully learn the circumstances surrounding her death and its aftermath.  Instead, a sense of foreboding permeates the novel as Roy slowly reveals snippets of the story while describing a set of damaged twins twenty-four years later.

The story alternates between two time periods:  the twins at seven and the twins at thirty-one.  At seven, the twins are inseparable, thinking of themselves as unit.  At thirty-one, they have been separated for twenty-four years and Estha rarely speaks, while Rahel feels hollow inside.  There is a sense that this is due to the twins’ lingering guilt and grief, but the extent of those feelings is not apparent until the final pages.

The most striking part of this novel is the author’s use of language.  Roy does not feel bound by the constraints of grammar, but molds language to serve her needs.  In doing so, she eloquently conveys the tumultuous thoughts running through the children’s heads, and, indeed, at times reading the novel is like reading Estha’s and Rahel’s thoughts.  Roy uses the language to reveal their private games and ideas, and their feelings in various circumstances, like when they get in trouble.  For example, when the twins’ mother scolds them, Roy capitalizes and splits up words to show how Estha and Rahel interpret that scolding.  A statement that their mother will discuss their behavior with them later becomes “Lay. Ter.” in the children’s minds, emphasizing how they dread that conversation and recognize their mother’s displeasure.

Towards the end of the novel, Roy also describes how in Malayalam, the native language for the part of southern India where the twins reside, the end of one word blends with the next.  This explains why Estha and Rahel think of the owl that lives in their family’s pickling plant as “a nowl.”  Again, these word games help us connect to the children and understand how they see the world.

The novel is worth reading for the language alone, but Roy’s method of storytelling also makes for a unique reading experience.  While reading this book, I definitely did not feel like the story was one that had been told many times before, and because I felt so connected to the characters’ thoughts, I could not wait to find out exactly what happened to turn two innocent seven year olds into two damaged thirty-one year olds.  I would definitely recommend picking up this book for an interesting read, especially if you are looking for something different.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Title: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Author:  Patrick Süskind
List:  #71 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading?  Yes.

Perfume is a journey of the senses.  To fully appreciate this novel, you need your nose and a sense of smell as much as your eyes and an imagination.  Patrick Süskind's rich descriptions of scents, smells, odors, and stenches create a living scent record of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's world, and without the ability to conjure up the smells in your imagination, you lose much of the richness of the novel.

The main character is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man born in the dirtiest, smelliest part of Paris to a woman who intended to kill him as soon as he was born.  Instead, Grenouille’s mother is executed for his intended murder and the murder of several previous siblings, and Grenouille becomes a ward of the church.  However, he does not find a loving home.  Instead, he is passed on from wet nurse to wet nurse, who all feel there is something unnatural about him because, in smelly eighteenth century France, this baby has absolutely no odor.  Eventually he is placed with a woman who has no sense of smell and he grows up slightly shunned but adequately nourished.

Grenouille’s lack of personal odor is not his only unique characteristic: Grenouille has a fantastic sense of smell.  He can distinguish odors from great distances and can pick out the various components and their quantities from a blended scent.  In fact, Grenouille needs no light to journey in the dark—his nose tells him where everything is and how to find his way.  In his early years, Grenouille enjoys nothing more than to follow his nose to locate the source of a new odor.  As he grows up, he decides that his talents would be best employed as a perfumer, and he dreams of creating a scent that will make everyone adore him.

Grenouille eventually becomes an apprentice to a perfumer, learning the techniques of the trade and creating countless exotic scents that make the perfumer famous.  Grenouille’s most cherished scent, however, is not one of the wonderful perfumes he creates, but the personal odor of a young red-headed virgin just entering puberty.  It is that odor that turns Grenouille into a murderer, and his life becomes devoted to learning all the techniques for extracting scent from all sorts of objects so that he will be able to create his perfect scent.

Grenouille's unfortunate upbringing and passion for odors seem ideal for making him a sympathetic character.  However, something about him made me feel as unsympathetic towards him as the Parisians who shun him for his unnatural odorlessness.  On the other hand, seeing what steps he takes to capture scents is fascinating, as is his ability to absorb knowledge as his skill soars above that of his teachers.  Süskind ends this remarkable book in an unexpected but satisfying way, as the ultimate scent is finally born with a surprising and unanticipated effect on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

O Pioneers!

Title: O Pioneers!
Author:  Willa Cather
List:  #83 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading?  Yes.

I remember reading My Ántonia by Willa Cather years ago, for a high school English class.  I can’t really remember the book or what I thought about it, but for some reason I always think of it with distaste.  Consequently, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading O Pioneers!, but because it was short and available online, I decided to give it a try.  And now I really need to reread My Ántonia because I think that for years I may have been dismissing a gem.

O Pioneers! is an enchanting account of a Swedish immigrant pioneer family struggling to make a living on the Nebraska plains.  Recognizing good sense and business talent in his oldest child, a daughter named Alexandra, a father instructs his sons to follow Alexandra’s counsel in running the land and, above all, to keep the land.  Alexandra is an intelligent, independent woman whose risk-taking and innovation causes the family to prosper.  However, her willingness to break with convention is not favored in the rigid Swedish immigrant community, and her two oldest brothers grow resentful of her independence and her desire to give their younger brother opportunities, like college, that the three older children never had.

Willa Cather manages to bring the prairie alive, and, briefly, conveys their beauty and a love of the land.  Even though the novel is only around 130 pages (depending on the version), it is long enough to make a reader sympathize with the struggles of the characters and sense their lost loves and dreams before they fully realize the losses themselves.  Some themes could be explored in more detail, but the novel is a joy to read and its brevity may be, in part, what makes it so sweet.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Title: Dune (the complete series)
Author:  Frank Herbert
List:  #39 on BBC Top 100, #14 on Modern Library Reader’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading?  Yes.

Technically, the lists refer only to Dune, the novel that started the Dune saga.  Frank Herbert added five other novels to the tale, and his son continued in his footsteps with prequels, sequels, and interquels.  This post will only discuss Frank Herbert’s six Dune novels.

Dune, the first novel, is a classic work of science fiction.  It manages to effortlessly convey a future where humans have created an interstellar empire with planetary fiefdoms controlled by noble houses.  Interplanetary travel is provided by the Spacing Guild, whose Navigators rely on “the spice,” or “mélange,” to pilot ships instantaneously from planet to planet.  Mélange is found only on the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune, and is also crucial for the survival of the powerful matriarchal order of the Bene Gesserit, whose members get advanced physical and mental abilities from the spice as well as through special training and conditioning.  After going through a ritual called the “spice agony,” Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers have the ability to access the ego and memories of all their female ancestors.  The Bene Gesserit also have a secret, elaborate, and meticulously recorded breeding program that for millennia has had one goal: to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, a male equivalent of a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother.  The Kwisatz Haderach would be able to access male and female “other memory” as well as be able to bridge space and time.

At the beginning of the novel, Duke Leto Atreides has been granted the fief of Arrakis and he and his family are preparing to relocate to the spice planet.  The Duke’s concubine, the Lady Jessica, is a Bene Gesserit who, in accordance with the aims of the breeding program, is ordered to produce a daughter.  This daughter would then be bred to someone else to produce the Kwisatz Haderach.  Instead, Lady Jessica gives in to Duke Leto’s desire for a male heir, and they have a son, Paul.  The Atreides do not survive long on Arrakis before their rivals attack, which forces Jessica and Paul to flee into the desert to join forces with Dune’s local population, the Fremen.  Here, it becomes evident that Paul is the Bene Gesserit’s Kwisatz Haderach, born one generation early, and his choices and the choices of his children shape the future, as detailed in the next five books.

I started reading the Dune saga almost two and a half years ago, and only just finished the final book, which takes place around five thousand years after Dune.  Usually when I read a series the author has already completed, I find myself picking up the next book instantly because I cannot wait to see what happens next.  With the Dune series, I often felt so exhausted after finishing one book that I waited months before picking up the next one.  It is not that the books aren’t exciting or that I wasn’t interested in learning what happened next, but somehow getting through each Dune book took an immense amount of effort, and each book seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to finish.  Perhaps this was because the books are packed with dialogue and philosophical discussions, but, for the most part, not many actions scenes.  This may seem like I don’t recommend reading the books, but I do.  I really do.  Especially the first one.

Not only does Dune reveal a universe in the far distant future, it offers a different take on that universe than most other science fiction novels.  Instead of the classic model where computers and artificial intelligence control daily existence, Frank Herbert created a world in an era after humans decided to destroy all computers and artificial intelligences.  Humans had to adapt and rely on themselves to perform the functions that we are already accustomed to leaving to computers.  For example, the Spacing Guild specialized in mathematics, and special training gives some humans the ability to calculate and logically reason better than any computer could.

Dune also champions environmentalism.  It explores the idea of a planet as a complex living ecosystem functioning as a whole.  The Fremen on Dune recognize that if they want to change their planet from a desert planet to a verdant one, they must alter the entire ecology of the planet.  They also realize that they must balance their desire for water and greenery with the needs of the great sandworms, which are critical to spice production and which cannot survive in or near water.  Frank Herbert also extensively details the adaptation of life to Dune’s arid conditions.  In addition to the sandworms that require arid conditions, Dune boasts kangaroo mice that have learned to live with limited water.  The Fremen too have developed methods of sealing their residences and their bodies to conserve water, and they even reclaim water from the dead.

Frank Herbert has created a fascinating world full of intrigue, philosophy, and mysticism.  He explores politics, empire building, and the advent of new religions.  Try the first one, and if it appeals to you, go on to the second.  The other four are not quite as good, but still worth the read if the world of Dune intrigues you.  For my part, I think I’ll eventually read the two sequels co-written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson.  I’m not sure if I’ll go so far as to explore the prequels and interquels though…

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons

Title: The Magnificent Ambersons
Author: Booth Tarkington
List: #100 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

Magnificent indeed are the Ambersons, living as the ruling elite in a small, but burgeoning, Midwest town at the turn of the 20th century.  Social life revolves around the Ambersons, as does the gossip, and the Ambersons set the bar with their sense of fashion and their lavish parties.  The wealth and power of the Ambersons culminates in the patriarch’s only grandchild, George Amberson Minafer.  George grows up spoiled, arrogant, convinced that he owns not only the town, but also the world, and completely indifferent to the concerns and feelings of those around him.  He has no idea that others frown upon his behavior, but even if he did, he would not care because he believes everyone should respect him and conform to his worldview.

George is also unconscious of a world changing around him.  He believes his family will always be powerful and rich and sees no reason why his, or anyone else’s, behavior should change with the times.  Although he attends college, he does not intend to enter a profession because he prefers “being” something rather than “doing” something.  Secure in his reliance on his grandfather’s wealth to support him, he fully intends on living life as a “gentleman.”

While home from college for the holidays, George meets and falls in love with Lucy Morgan, the beautiful and sensible daughter of an automobile inventor and manufacturer.  Unbeknownst to George, Lucy’s father and George’s mother have a long history extending to before the marriage of George’s parents.  George has no confidence in Mr. Morgan’s business, believes automobiles are just a fad, and treats Mr. Morgan quite shamefully.  Most tellingly, he ignores Mr. Morgan’s prediction that the development of automobiles, trolleys, and faster transportation will turn the small town into a larger and larger city that will change everything George takes for granted.

The novel elegantly describes the transformation industry brought to towns across America and the supplanting of old family money by new wealth derived from innovation and industry.  The novel’s descriptions of George’s arrogance are written in a tongue-in-cheek manner so that you can almost hear the author’s suppressed laughter in descriptions of George’s actions and attitude.  Towards the end of the novel, however, the mood becomes more serious as George’s world turns upside down.  Even though, like many of the people George interacts with, readers may despise his lack of feeling and arrogance, it is almost impossible not to like him, and, at the end, not to sympathize with his anguish.

I would recommend reading The Magnificent Ambersons.  It is a short, light, amusing read, but also a quite poignant read in its conclusion.  Besides the amusing writing and the author’s skill in telling the tale, I can think of another reason it may have been placed on the Modern Library Board’s list:  It perfectly describes the effects of technological and industrial changes on American culture and morals at the start of the 20th century and reminds us that these types of changes continue to affect our lives and relationships today.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Pillars of the Earth

Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
List: #33 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

Last week, I finally finished The Pillars of the Earth and I can definitely see why it made the BBC Top 100 list. It is a moving, enthralling, and satisfying read.

The story takes place in 12th century England, mostly during the period of anarchy following the death of King Henry in 1135. The author gradually introduces readers to a variety of key characters and their hopes, dreams, and weaknesses. The different story lines unite when a central figure, Prior Philip, starts building a cathedral. Prior Philip is a brilliant young monk who believes he can make a difference in the world and improve the situation and standing of the priory of Kingsbridge. Prior Philip is extraordinarily fair minded and capable of amazing feats of forgiveness, but very strict in all religious matters. Importantly, he is not afraid to take a strong stand for causes he believes in.

Prior Philip meets the other important characters at different stages throughout the first part of the novel and draws the heroes to Kingsbridge, while inciting the hatred of two powerful individuals. One of the heroes is Tom Builder, a mason and master builder whose dream in life is to design and build a cathedral. Unfortunately, when we first meet Tom, he loses his job through no fault of his own and is forced to wander from town to town in search of work with his pregnant wife, teenage son, and young daughter in tow. The family almost dies of starvation in the winter, and Tom’s wife dies shortly after giving birth to a son.

Shortly after Tom’s wife’s death, Tom’s family joins forces with Ellen, a fiercely independent and self-sufficient woman, and her son Jack. Ellen and Jack have lived in the woods as outlaws since before Jack’s birth 11 or 12 years before, but when Ellen falls in love with Tom and decides Jack needs some socialization, the outlaws join Tom’s family on their quest for work. They finally end up in Kingsbridge, and after the old cathedral burns down, Tom convinces Prior Philip and the other monks that he is the one to design and build the new cathedral.

Another hero is Aliena, the daughter of an earl. When she refuses to marry William Hamleigh, the son of a lord, she incites his wrath and, in a bid for revenge and to support Stephen who seeks to claim the throne after King Henry’s death, William’s family overthrows Aliena’s father. King Stephen grants the Earldom to the Hamleighs, leaving Aliena and her brother Richard almost destitute. Fortunately, Aliena’s father has secreted some money, and, with Prior Philip’s help, Aliena becomes a savvy business woman who uses her proceeds in an effort to help her brother reclaim the Earldom. She bases her business in Kingsbridge, under Prior Philip’s protection.

William Hamleigh never forgives Aliena for refusing him and takes out his wrath on her and people across the country. Once he takes over the Earldom after the death of his father, he also seeks to destroy Prior Philip because, once Kingsbridge begins to prosper with the building of the new cathedral, the town attracts money and people away from William’s nearby earldom. William joins forces with Bishop Waleran, who dislikes Prior Philip and Kingsbridge for his own reasons—mainly because, in an effort to gain money and supplies to build the cathedral, Prior Philip foils Bishop Waleran’s plans to gain the same money for his own purposes.

And so the stage is set for the decades long battle between Bishop Waleran and William Hamleigh on one side, and Prior Philip and Aliena on the other. This sketch of the opening plot encompasses only a fraction of the novel. William Hamleigh’s despicable behavior and Bishop Waleran’s evil schemes create a constant struggle for success in Kingsbridge, affecting the lives of Aliena, Richard, Prior Philip, and Tom Builder and his family. The epic continues as the characters age and the children become adults. The ensuing tale of love, betrayal, and revenge that connects all the characters results in a wonderfully written, sweeping epic that is impossible to put down for long.

Unfortunately, at times I did have to put down the book because I could not continue reading it until I had time to recover from the previous scene. Some of the vivid writing and the author’s ability to draw the reader completely into the story were too much for me. In particular, the author’s descriptions of the atrocities committed by William Hamleigh were horribly vivid, and I wish the author did not go into quite as much detail. However, the author’s skill in writing, and perhaps even his level of detail, very effectively causes readers to despise William and hope for his defeat. Despite my shudders at certain events in the novel, I picked up the book again every time because I simply had to find out if the heroes prevailed over William Hamleigh in the end.

The Pillars of the Earth is moving, fascinating, and brilliant. The characters have a lot of depth and personality, and seem like they could walk, live, off the page. Either that, or draw you into their world so that, if only briefly, you find yourself among the 12th century English craftsmen building a cathedral for the ages.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Winesburg, Ohio

Title: Winesburg, Ohio
Author: Sherwood Anderson
List: #24 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Maybe.

I’m still working my way through Pillars of the Earth, but picked up this short novel as an “in-between” read. Once again, it was book I’d never heard of before, but it seemed like an easy read. And, another bonus, it was free online through Project Gutenberg, an excellent resource for books no longer protected by copyright law.

Winesburg, Ohio is an interesting novel. And when I say interesting, I mean sort of quirky and definitely not your typical read. It could be described as a series of short stories, but is probably more accurately described as a series of vignettes about the inhabitants of a small Ohio town in the era shortly before the industrial revolution. When I started reading, I didn’t think there was any connection between the different vignettes, but after a while I noticed that one character, George Willard, made a recurring appearance. George Willard is a young journalist working at the local paper who is somehow connected to most people in the town. He makes fleeting appearances in several of the stories and is featured in others. It almost seems as if he serves as the keystone of the town because several of the other characters seek him out for company or a quick conversation. At any rate, he seems to know most people of the town, and his central location at the newspaper offices makes him a witness or unknowing bystander to the troubles of some of the other inhabitants. George’s desire to leave Winesburg for the city also serves as the loose plot tying the book together.

But I feel like this description attributes more of a plot to the book than there actually is. Many of the vignettes are wholly independent from the story of George Willard and really seem quite random. They can start with a brief description of a person, then describe an occurrence in the person’s life, then, quite abruptly, end. Most of the time there is no real conclusion to the story and I often felt like I was left hanging with a sad, twisted, and unfinished tale. Although the vignettes were certainly compelling, they were also quite depressing. I am not sure that there were any happy events in the novel, just tales of woe and failed dreams, lives, and, especially, love. Consequently, it isn’t a very upbeat novel and, if you have the same reaction to the tales that I did, you will often be shaking your head in puzzlement at the conclusion of each story.

That said, it isn’t really a bad read either—it just isn’t that good. I may be missing something, but I just don’t see what is so great about this novel that it made one of the lists. And because there are so many other fantastic, moving novels out there, I don’t think there is any reason to rush out and read this one.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Good Omens

Title: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
Authors: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
List: #68 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Most definitely!

Because I decided to start this blog partway through my quest, I think I will go back in time a little bit and “review” some of the books I have read relatively recently. My other reason for doing this is that I’m currently only about a quarter of the way through The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and as that is quite a hefty tome and my weekends are currently devoted to packing for an imminent move, it may take a while before I’m ready to blog about that one. There are so many good books that I’ve read over the last two years, well, that I’ve read since I started reading, that I would love to write about, but I fear they aren’t quite fresh enough in my mind for a coherent post that says more than “this book is amazing” and “you should definitely read it!” And so, I will probably limit myself to books I’ve read within the last couple of months. First up, Good Omens.

About a month ago, I was wandering through the stacks at our local public library and this book caught my eye. I recognized the title from The List, and after reading the book description and some of the review blurbs, I decided this would be my next adventure. I had never heard of this book before and, apparently, that either means that (1) I’ve been living under a rock, (2) I am just not cool enough to be “in the know,” or (3) (and this is the most probable) both. Comments from the authors that were included in the book stated that they love signing copies of this book because every copy looks like it has gone through hell—bindings falling off, bindings missing, water logged, torn, held together with rubber bands, you name it. And every fan explains how much the book means to him or her and to what lengths he or she has gone to take it places, loan it out, get it back, and re-read it over and over again. My copy was much less storied—it was still quite pristine in its hardcover binding. Perhaps people are careful with library books after all? Or maybe the library had just been forced to replace it recently!

Wikipedia can give you a very nice plot summary. I will just go so far as to say the book is about the apocalypse and the coming of the Anti-Christ. But not the apocalypse as you could ever have imagined it. It is hilarious and full of fantastic characters, like the demon and angel who each have, respectively, become less demonic and less angelic since Eve ate the apple, the Satanic nuns who accidentally give the Anti-Christ to the wrong people so that everyone thinks the wrong boy is the Anti-Christ, the witch who is following the very accurate prophecies of her ancestor, and a novice witch hunter.

The book is very well-written and the authors draw you into the story so that it is difficult to put down. And, as I’ve already mentioned, it really is hilarious. So if you’re looking for a pretty easy and amusing read or want to read something incredibly original, this is the book to pick to pick up. I can definitely see why it made the list and why, even though I personally don’t feel the need to read it over and over again, it has become a cult classic.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Once upon a time...

A few years ago, a friend tagged me in a note on Facebook entitled "Book Nerds." It was one of those chain notes, you know the type, where I was supposed to copy the text into my own note and respond to the comments or questions. But unlike the majority of those kinds of notes, this one was quite interesting. It listed 100 books and claimed that the BBC believes most people have read only six of the books listed. Now I was interested, and I dutifully copied the text over in my own note and placed my check marks next to the books I had read. I discovered that thanks to a pretty great English program in high school and a, perhaps, interesting taste in literature as a child and teenager, I had already covered a pretty respectable 49 books. Of course, being a book nerd, my first thought was, “How could I be missing out on these other fantastic books?!”

At the time, I was in the middle of law school and had no time to read anything but casebooks and legal research, but I saved the list and decided that one day I would read all 100 books on the list. Over the next months, multiple versions of this list circulated on the internet and I compiled them all, because, even though they all claimed to be the BBC list of the top 100 books, no list was identical. Finally, in August 2009, after finishing law school and taking the Bar, I decided it was time to tackle my goal. I figured the six weeks I had before starting a job would be perfect for devouring all the fiction I had been craving for the past three years.

By this time my list had grown to over a hundred books, even though I condensed series into one listing. For example, instead of listing out all seven Harry Potter books, I felt it was sufficient to have one listing for the Harry Potter series. I also decided to look up this BBC to list to see what was actually on it.

Apparently, the list originated in April 2003 as part of the BBC’s search for the United Kingdom’s best-loved novel. The “Big Read” asked the public for nominations for the nation’s favorite book, and came out with a list of 200 books ranked by number of votes. Interestingly, the Big Read website does not opine that most people have read only six of the top 100 books, although that "fact" has been widely disseminated by Facebook users and bloggers worldwide. The internet top 100 list also includes books listed in the lower half of the list and even has books nowhere to be found on the BBC’s list. (Out of some faithfulness to the list that started me on my quest, I have not had the heart to delete the internet additions from my master list. Then again, one of those, The Shadow of the Wind, has become one of my all-time favorite books, so that seems like an excellent reason to leave them on.) The UK’s best-loved novel, by the way, is The Lord of the Rings. The official list can be found here, with the top 200 also listed here.

You might think that a list of two hundred novels would be enough to satisfy a fiction starved book worm, even if that book worm has read a good number of those books, but I recently stumbled across three other lists. I have now added the Modern Library Board’s top 100 20th century novels, the Modern Library Readers’ top 100 20th century novels, and Radcliffe Publishing Course’s top 20th century novels to my list. If it weren’t for duplicates and my trick of condensing series into one list entry, I might have a seemingly insurmountable task on my hands! And of course, there are other lists out there, but my bookshelves are groaning and I spend too much time at the library, so I may wait a few years before expanding my list again. Especially because I do occasionally, gasp, go off-list!!

But I have gotten ahead of myself. For the past two years, less a month, I have been working steadily through my list, enjoying the freedom of lunches, metro rides, and weekends. But only the other day did I decide that maybe somebody might be interested in good book recommendations or warnings. Clearly, all the books on this list are beloved by someone, or they wouldn’t be on the lists, but I am going to attempt to give my own frank opinions of the books. Don’t look for any in depth analyses of the authors’ intentions in writing the books or discussions of hidden imagery and meaning (forgive me fabulous high school English teachers!). I intend only to discuss the merits of each book as a good read, an interesting story, or, if I’m feeling poetic, fantastic use of language. Forgive me if I insult your favorite book (but I just cannot like Of Mice and Men) and remember that everything here is only my opinion and nothing more.

Also, as a starting point for this blog, my current list stands at 371 books with 248 more books to discover! (Apparently I have not spent enough time exploring 20th century literature!) My version of the combined list, in alphabetical order by author, is here.