Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cat's Cradle

Title: Cat’s Cradle
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
List: #66 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Maybe.

Cat’s Cradle is a very pessimistic book. It does not have a clean, happy ending that solves all problems. Rather, the story builds and builds towards a very destructive conclusion. Even the pseudo-religion that permeates the book is not one of hope in the face of chaos. Instead, it offers mainly cynicism and even its founder states that all its principles are lies.

And yet, Cat’s Cradle was not a bad book to read. It flowed quickly through the very short (about two pages each) chapters and told a compelling story of the fictional co-creator of the atom bomb and his disregard for the effect of his inventions on anyone else. It also offered a good criticism of the arms race and the desire to get more and more destructive weapons without considering the consequences.

But for all that, I still found Cat’s Cradle pretty weird. And I don’t really think it is a must read. But it was okay. So maybe it is worth reading.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Wyrd Sisters

Title: Wyrd Sisters
Author: Terry Pratchett
List: #135 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Yes.

I think I have become a Terry Pratchett convert. I did not enjoy the first book of the Discworld series, The Colour of Magic, because I thought it had no plot. I enjoyed the next one I read, Mort, much more. And now, I can heartily recommend Wyrd Sisters. The book is goofy, light, and amusing. It is a great quick read that also doesn’t make you feel like you’re losing brain cells. In fact, Pratchett’s twisted logic makes you think just enough that your brain is slightly stimulated while still enjoying the light, airy read. And of course the humor makes the read quite worthwhile as well.

As for the plot, goodness, I barely know where to start. But again, and I think this is why I enjoyed this one and Mort more than The Colour of Magic, there is actually a plot. So the plot. Well, we’ve got a murdered king who turns into a ghost. The new king, and murderer, is going crazy with guilt (and helped along the way by the murdered king’s whisperings). The murdered king’s son is rescued by witches and given to a family of actors. The witches plot to restore order to the kingdom. And intertwined with all of this is the Fool. And hilarity ensues. Enjoy!

Also, because I talked about this in my Mort post, Wyrd Sisters is part of a third Discworld story arc, the “Witches” story arc. Again, it works very well as a standalone novel, but I’m curious to see how other novels in this story arc might build off the events in Wyrd Sisters.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
List: #23 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

The most remarkable thing about this novel is the intense imagery that Zora Neale Hurston evokes with her use of language. Seemingly without effort, she paints a scene in a way you would not have thought possible but in a way that describes the emotions, like love, or the events, like a hurricane, perfectly. She also draws the reader into the scene by blending the dialect spoken by the characters with the standard English of the narrator. Although I originally found the dialogue difficult to read because I am used to reading very quickly, once I became accustomed to the rhythm of the dialogue I almost felt like I was sitting on the porch listening in on the conservation.

And that conversation told the story of how a woman found herself and learned to follow her heart. It is quite the feminist story. At first, the woman follows the advice of her grandmother, then her husband, then her second husband without taking the action her own heart demands. But in the end, she learns to do what is important to her and what is necessary for her own soul to thrive.

I am not sure I would have found this book on my own, so I am very glad it was included on one of the lists and I recommend reading it if you want something a bit different.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In Cold Blood

Title: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
List: #53 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading: Not really.

In Cold Blood is a bit of an interesting choice for inclusion on Radcliffe Publishing Course’s list of Top 100 20th Century Novels because it is definitely not a novel. Instead, it is a “true crime” non-fiction celebrated as the first of the true crime genre. Perhaps Radcliffe included the book on its list because of criticism that Truman Capote altered facts and dialogue and added scenes to suit his story. I have no information on how widespread or accurate that criticism is, I only know that Capote cited extensively to written and oral materials. So extensively, in fact, that he included pages and pages of excerpts from those materials. And while it was nice to see primary sources, it definitely broke up the story, especially when the excerpts went into irrelevant details. This was particularly jarring when the excerpts dealt with people only peripherally related to the story.

Perhaps I did not appreciate In Cold Blood as much as some readers who read it when it was first published did because I have become used to a higher standard of non-fiction writing. I have read many excellent non-fiction books that also make extensive use of primary sources. The difference is that those books make sure everything is related to the main story and do not include pages upon pages of excerpts. Instead, they use only the most pertinent sections or use the information in those sources to tell the story and form dialogue.

The story described in In Cold Blood is an interesting one. And Capote did an excellent job gathering background information on the murderers in an attempt to explain why they might have committed the atrocious act of killing four innocent people in rural Kansas. But I think Capote could have done a better job putting his information together in the book. I also think interested parties could get the same information from shorter articles on the internet without sacrificing any potential depth added by Capote. And so, unfortunately, I do not think this book is worth reading.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bleak House

Title: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
List: #79 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

After enjoying Oliver Twist so much, I was really looking forward to reading Bleak House. Unfortunately, I was almost ready to give up after reading the first two chapters. In these chapters, Charles Dickens employs an unidentified third-person narrator who tells the story in flowery, wordy language. He goes into too much detail and does not do much to convince the reader that the story is worth an investment of time. Instead, he sets up the boring setting of the English Court of Chancery where cases never end and the smallest legal maneuver takes years and costs excessive amounts of money. Now, this setting of the scene is necessary for the rest of the book, but does not do much to foretell the exciting story that develops over the next 65 chapters. (And keep in mind that this criticism of the boring legal setting is coming from an attorney!)

Fortunately, the third chapter starts with a breath of fresh air with a new, first-person narrative. The woman who takes over the story, Esther, is modest, charming, intelligent, and witty. She describes the events in a manner that makes you want to keep reading until you unravel the mystery that surrounds her. Esther’s narrative is interrupted at times by the formerly boring third-person narrator, but, having dispensed with most of the dull details in the first chapter, even those chapters are interesting as they reveal more about the characters and the tangled web woven around them.

As I hinted above, the Chancery Court is an important setting for this novel. Although not much action takes place “in Chancery,” Chancery looms over the lives of the characters. First, a bit of explanation. England’s Court of Chancery was a civil court of equity in England that was formed in the middle of the 14th century and existed until the mid-19th century. It handled cases involving matters such as trusts, land law, the administration of the estates of lunatics, and the guardianship of infants. Because this is a Dickens novel, he was of course trying to deliver a critique of some part of English society. Here, it was a critique of the excessively slow pace, large backlogs, and high costs of Chancery, symbolized by the all-consuming case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which has spent years in Chancery and has possibly consumed the entire amount of the disputed estate in costs.

The characters in the novel are all somehow connected to or parties in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, and while some characters have the wisdom to ignore the progression (or lack thereof) of the case, others become consumed with trying to bring the case to an end in their favor. We also meet other minor characters who have similarly devoted, and lost, their lives to the hopelessness of Chancery.

But while Chancery is certainly an important backdrop to the case, and certainly affects the lives of all the characters either directly or indirectly, the more compelling story is that of Esther. The mystery surrounding her birth and origins propels the story forward and creates the excitement necessary to keep reading. My only criticism of Esther is a complete lack of self-confidence (apparently praised as “modesty” in Dickensian times) that does not allow her to accept people’s love for and praise of her as reflections of her own merits. Fortunately, people keep telling her how wonderful she is rather than neglecting to show their appreciation.

And so we come to the crucial question: Was Bleak House worth reading? Happily, my opinion entirely reversed itself in Chapter Three and I can wholeheartedly say that it is. It is a well-rounded, exciting novel that is perhaps slightly more mature than Oliver Twist and that is worthy of the praise of being called Dickens’s greatest novel.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


Title: Mort
Author: Terry Pratchett
List: #65 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

After I read The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett’s first book in the Discworld series, I wasn’t sure that I would try any of the other thirteen Discworld books on the list. But then I wasn’t sure what to read next, and everything at my local library’s eBook site had a long wait, and Mort became available. So I read it. And, I enjoyed it.

I think the big difference between Mort and The Colour of Magic is that Mort actually has a plot. It tells the story of Mort, a young man who becomes Death’s apprentice. Mort, of course, manages to cause trouble and the story is concerned with fixing Mort’s mess. The existence of a plot makes Terry Pratchett’s apparently characteristically humorous tone work just like it did in Good Omens. And that confirms the hypothesis I made in my The Colour of Magic post that the humorous tone only works with a plot, because without one, the tone just becomes annoying.

Another important thing to note is that Mort appears to be a standalone novel. Technically, it is the fourth book in the Discworld series, but other than the fact that it takes place on Discworld, nothing revealed in The Colour of Magic has any bearing on the events in Mort. (I should also mention that I skipped over books two and three because they didn’t make it on the BBC list.) Now, the reason Mort seems to be a standalone novel could have to do with the fact that, at least according to Wikipedia, the novels can be grouped together into grand story arcs dealing with a set number of characters and events. For example, The Colour of Magic apparently falls in the “Rincewind” story arc and Mort falls into the “Death” story arc. (Rincewind does have a brief cameo in Mort and Death apparently makes at least a brief appearance in almost every Discworld novel.) So, maybe, I will enjoy other books in the “Death” story arc more (assuming they are on the BBC list) because I learned the background of the characters in Mort.

And here I have written way more about a Terry Pratchett novel than I expected I would write back in February after I finished The Colour of Magic. And I have to admit that I am sort of looking forward to reading more Terry Pratchett novels, at least if they fall into the “Death” story arc. I hope I will not be disappointed, but for now, I can say that yes, Mort is worth reading.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

This Side of Paradise

Title: This Side of Paradise
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
List: #91 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel, tells the tale of a young man trying to find his place in the world. The young man, Amory Blaine, has quite a high opinion of himself and is convinced that he will do well in the future. This confidence is both shattered and built back up throughout the novel, and some of his failures are due to his unwillingness to work for what he believes he deserves simply because of who he is and what he looks like. During the course of the novel, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his former plans and tries to discover and understand himself.

The author uses a variety of writing styles and I found that this mix makes for an engagingly written novel. From simple prose, we progress through some of Amory’s poems and letters, view a narrative drama, experience free verse, and end up back in a fictional narrative. Although this blend has the potential to be disorienting, Fitzgerald manages to unite the styles in a cohesive whole that made for an amusing rather than confusing read. And so I think This Side of Paradise is worth reading, particularly if, like me, the only other Fitzgerald book you've read is The Great Gatsby because you were required to read it in high school.