Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

As Trish said in her review, this book isn't easy to write about. Heck, I'm tempted to just say, hey, if you want to know about this book, go read Trish's review, but I'm going to try and stick it out and write about it anyway.

The only reason I read this is frankly because I confused it with Fahrenheit 451, which I wanted to read. Oh, and it was also on sale on Audible and I'm a sucker for a sale. Anyway, I was a little surprised to suddenly find I was reading about WWII and not about book burning, but knowing that this is one of those "must read" books, I stuck with it. The first two or three hours of the book I found quite intriguing. The writing style is simplistic, but the composition is quite clever, so easy to understand on the surface, but confusing and complicated below.

The first difficulty is overcoming the non-linear plot. The story bounces around from place to place and time to time and it can be quite difficult to keep up with it. The shifts are also not always very pronounced, and that adds to the confusion. Once I got to grips with all of the shifting, I realized how clever the book really is. Not only are the circular arguments - all logical enough in bits and pieces, but maddeningly insane as a whole - thought provoking, but the constant time shifts are really well knit together. Heller must have either had a very good plan or was a fantastic strategist, because otherwise the book would have fallen apart. Just when you thought something was over and you’d heard the last of it, the scene pops up again from another perspective, giving you more insight into the situation as a whole. This would be a good book to read two or three times and then discuss in a group. There are so many different facets that it’s difficult to get to grips with them after just one reading.

Now, did I like the book? I’m afraid not. After the first few hours, the repetitiveness of the arguments and constant return to situations already described annoyed me greatly. It seemed to me that Heller beat his themes to death when I was ready to move on to something new. It made me feel like I was going about as insane as some of the characters were and couldn’t wait for the book to finish. The style also reminded me of Catcher in the Rye, which I didn’t care for either. That said, I think that had I read Catch-22 when I was younger, I would have liked it better. The contemplation of such conundrums and analysis of inner turmoil appealed more to me then than it does not. I might just be too old and too lazy for both of these books.

Friday, 24 July 2009

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

This is the first book I’ve ever read by Virginia Woolf, so I was unsure what to expect. To the Lighthouse centres around the Ramsay family and their summer home on an island with a lighthouse just off of it. The lighthouse is a thing of wonder for their son James, who dearly wants to go visit it, but is thwarted by his father’s negative reaction and by the weather. The second focal point of the novel is Mrs. Ramsay who is one of those goodhearted but ethereal women who are loved by all for one reason or the other. All of the other characters seem to vie for her love in one way or the other and the conflict of selfish love rears its head in several instances, especially between father and son.

There isn’t actually much of a plot to the book as its intention was to focus on the inner thoughts of the characters and their reaction to small events in the beginning and larger events later on, all of which are only mentioned in a casual manner and only serve to give direction to the thoughts of Woolf’s characters. Because they are so secondary, they seem to swirl around in the story almost unrealistically instead of being the solid, important events they really are. Even the lighthouse is more of a symbol than of a reality, even though it is an unmistakeable landmark which draws the attention of everyone near it.

It’s easy to think that it would be difficult to continue reading a book with so little plot and so much introspection, but the characters give enough away to keep the story coherent, even though they are focusing on themselves. It’s interesting to see the way their thoughts develop in reaction to the other characters as they interact with each other. Not only do they reveal the beauty of humans, but also their innate selfishness and their bent to protect themselves from becoming weighed down by others, for example when Lilly knows she should be sympathetic to Mr. Ramsay, yet cannot bring herself to show him any kindness at all, but strives to protect herself from being backed into a corner by his overwhelming misery. Woolf shows her mastery of writing by intertwining the romanticism of the age with the realism of human nature without overdoing either side. They seem balanced in this book and it seems natural that they are.

Had I read this book for the first time when I was 20, I would have fallen in love with it and it would have become one of my most favourite works I’m sure. Its introspectiveness and disregard for momentous occasions would have really appealed to me. Being slightly older now, I feel as if I’ve passed through the phase. Still, the language used is undisputedly beautiful and pulls the reader in. It’s a pleasure to read just for the richness of the language even if one isn’t as interested in the particular style or subject of the writing. One thing I should add is that because most of it is so beautiful, several of the points Woolf makes, especially about the treatment and standing of women in society, are all the more poignant for the sudden switch to a slightly harsher tone when Woolfe glosses upon the subject. She uses fewer words and never states anything outright, but the point is made beautifully all the same. For this and for her general mastery of language, To the Lighthouse gets a five out of five. This should be a standard read in school, which is when I wish I had read it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Shadow, a large man with a good heart, is summoned to the prison warden a few days prior to his release, only to be told that they are letting him out early because his wife died in an accident. On his way home, he is offered a job by a man called Wednesday, which he, at first, refuses. Shadow has sworn never to do anything illegal again in his life and Wednesday’s offer sounds a bit too dodgy. After having buried his wife and realizing that his life is now quite empty, he rethinks his decision and takes the job. Wednesday is an old god; a god brought over to America by previous generations and still exists because a few people still believe in him. He knows a fight between the old gods and the new American gods (of IT, Media, Technology and the like) is coming and so he hires Shadow to drive him around so that he can persuade all of the old Gods to join his fight.

Shadow is lead on a journey which is at times bizarre and unseemly. The lines between reality and what he has hitherto thought of as fiction are blurred quite a lot. His life also gets a whole lot more complicated when a special coin, the wrong coin, is given to him by a worn out leprechaun. Shadow puts the coin on his wife’s grave with rather odd consequences.

After having read Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book, which were both really good reads, I was quite looking forward to reading American Gods and was thrilled when a friend gave it to me for my birthday. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this one as much. It seemed to me to be neither here nor there, neither fantasy nor reality nor horror. It also seemed rather dry, dusty and depressing to me and I was glad to have finally finished the book. That’s not to say that it’s not a good book. After all, I don’t care for a lot of things that other people rave about, but it wasn’t my kind of book and I prefer Gaiman’s more fantastic and fun works. Having said that, there are some quite interesting subjects for discussion in the books, like old vs. new, the New American Way of Life, conspiracies and the perception of spirit worlds. If you like fantasy and American Literature, you might like this one quite a bit more than I did. However, for me, it gets a three out of five.

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens wrote some very good stories in his time, but I have to admit that this particular work isn't going to make it onto my favourites list. The Pickwick Papers is basically a collection of short stories involving the same characters, Gentlemen all belonging to The Pickwick Club, which tell the tale of their humorous travels and trials around England.

Mr. Pickwick is a like-able fellow who starts up a club with his name and then starts off on adventures of his own with a couple of the club members. As the stories continue, characters come and go and come again, which can be slightly confusing with time. The stories themselves are amusing for the most part. Dickens is obviously taking the micky out of life in England at the time. The Law, social customs and courtship all feature heavily and are all made fun of in their turn. As I was reading (or listening as the case was), I couldn't help but think that they would have been hugely entertaining for people living in the day. However, I'm fairly certain there were many little hints a references I missed simply because I don't know enough about the era. Even though this obviously isn't Dickens' fault, it did detract from my enjoyment of the book.

This all makes it rather hard to rate The Pickwick Papers. I think for anyone who has a better grasp of history and the mid to late 19th century, this would be a great read. Alas, since I don't, it only rates a 3 out of 5 for me personally. Worth a read, but it's not something I'll read again any time soon. I prefer the novels with more cohesive, direct stories.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Yay! and Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Hilarie from Never Not Reading has honored me by nominating me for the Kreative Blogger award! Thanks Hilarie!

Rules for accepting the Kreative Blogger Award require me to list seven of my favorite things, and nominate seven other fabulous blogs.

Seven of My Favorite Things
1. Family
2. Friends
3. My Dogs and cats
4. Reading
5. Knitting
6. Sleeping
7. Chocolate

Seven Amazing Blogs I would like to nominate:
1. Mari at Marireads
2. The Yarnerinas
3. Karoline at Karoline Knits
6. Jeane at Dog Ear Diary
7. Holly at ProseKnitic

I read all of these blogs as often as possible and hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Eat, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

I've probably just violated one of Mrs. Truss' rules (and that apostrophe may be the second violation, but I don't like the look of Truss's and Perdue is telling me Truss' is acceptable) by italicizing the title, but I don't like bolding titles because it looks silly, kind of like you're shouting at someone, ergo the italicization. After all, she does say that we all have our preferences and should use them, so I'm going to. That was the first good thing I got out of this book. My punctuation may not be quite as poor as I thought (although I may be wrong there too...). A lot of my more questionable grammer and punctuation is simply a matter of taste, so yay!

The second good thing is that aside from making me much more aware of punctuation and it's usage, this book cleared up a few things for me, like the usage of semi colons, which have always driven me crazy.

The fact that she's discussing punctuation in a prose form, as opposed to text book form (snore), makes it a lot easier to stick to listening to someone go on a bit about punctuation, the reasons for it and the decline of what is a really useful tool. Her examples make that point. It was quite often fun to study how the meaning of a sentence could be completely altered by adding or removing a comma, as in the book's title.

Although she is a self-professed punctuation stickler, her self-deprecating tone coupled with her admission that some punctuation is down to taste and style and her short histories of punctuation, which demonstrate the changeable nature of languages, prevented the book from reading like a rant from some punctuation stickler with a stick, um, clutched firmly in their hand. I quite enjoyed reading this book and wish more people would, if not because they love punctuation, but simply to increase their awareness of it and how helpful it can be.

Totally unrelated to this, of course, is that I realized work was becoming too demanding for me to concentrate on serious books in my free time, so after finishing Eats, Shoots and Leaves, I "re-read" (audio books) the Twilight series. They're not very well written and there's way too much angsty teenage romance, vampire or no, for my taste, but still somehow a good story (if you don't get it, don't ask, because I can't even explain it to myself, let alone anyone else). It was great not having to concentrate or think for a while. Now I'm back to "the Grind" and am finishing off The Pickwick Papers.

The Spook's Apprentice by Joseph Delany

I can't remember where I happened upon this book. It might have been a recommendation from Amazon when I was looking at something else, but it looked good, sort of Harry Potter genre-ish and I thought I'd give it a try.

As a children's book, it's fantastic. I would have loved this book when I was a child. So much so that I would have had to have the next subito and not whenever. It's the kind of series I would have owned the whole of and read and re-read. I'm not the best judge of age ranges, but I would think somewhere between 10-12 year olds would be the target audience, considering the book is about a 13 year old farm boy who is apprenticed off to a Spook to learn his trade.

Tom is the seventh son of a seventh son and was born to a mysterious mother. She seems to be magical, but nothing is ever said outright. Tom does not necessarily want to become a Spook because of the many downsides to the job. Spooks are men who travel the country helping people get rid of demons, evil witches, boggarts, ghosts, ghasts and all things that go bump in the night. Because of the nature of the work, few people are disposed to speak to Spooks unless the need something from them, so the life is a lonely and hard one. Tom, who grew up in a large family who loved him, is uncertain that he will be able to deal with this life and it isn't long before he decides it's not for him. Unfortunately for Tom, we don't always get what we want in life. His genealogy has decided his fate for him and he must continue whether he wants to or not.

The tale is a good one. Already in the first leg of his journey, Tom learns much. Not only must he study hard, but he must learn on his feet, and quickly too, if he wants to avoid total disaster striking. When a Spook's job goes wrong, it's others who suffer the consequences. Tom learns this rather quickly after choosing to ignore warnings the Spook had given him about the witch trapped in a hold in the garden. Because of Tom, the witch gets free just when the Spook is gone and he has only himself to rely on to save the situation from getting worse.

The book is well written, the story action packed, the characters engaging and the rest of the series promises to be interesting. I plan on finishing it as soon as I can get a hold of the books. All in all, 5 stars if you're under the age of 15 and 4.5 if you're older, but only because it really is a children's book.