August 19, 2007
Stumbled upon an article about the Godfather and America, which I recall reading from Slate but lost track of.
About five years ago, Paul Rahe, the author of the acclaimed Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution, penned an essay, “Don Vito Corleone, Friendship, and the American Regime.” With the possible exception of Paul Cantor’s essay on The Simpsons, it’s the best essay on the significance of a movie or TV show I’ve ever read.
More at the National Review.
Unfortunately, I misremembered the review and sought out “Republics, Ancient and Modern” by Paul Rahe instead. However with this interview in hand I bought a book with Rahe’s essay in it.
The original article also referenced an essay on the Simpsons by Paul Cantor which sounds interesting (see edited version here).
June 1, 2007
Finished reading Solaris in only 3 days. It felt great to speed through a fascinating novel with a strong driving plot and a mystery that’s never fully explained. The book’s protagonist and most of the characters are scientists themselves, and took a logical, Sherlock-Holmes-like approach to the planet’s surface.
I actually watched the movie about a year ago, and kept expecting the book to follow the movie’s plot. I did like the movie, but thought the novel did a good job of leaving certain mysteries unsolved and making the unknowable nature of the planet a main theme of the story.
Lem himself had a great commentary on the movie vs. the book:
[Some critics] speculated that while the producer won’t make a lot of money and there will be no crowd at the box office, the film belongs to the genre of a more ambitious science fiction – since no one got murdered and neither star wars, nor space-werewolfs nor Schwarzenegger’s Terminators were present.
In the US an atmosphere filled with very concrete expectations usually accompanies the release of every new film. I found it interesting that although my book is quite old – almost half a century means a lot in present times – someone wanted to take the risk despite the fact that the plot did not meet the abovementioned expectations. (Along the way he might have gotten scared a bit, but the latter is a pure speculation on my part.)
The full article can be found here.
Lem’s comment on the “deep, concrete ruts of thinking” and “stereotypes of American thinking regarding science fiction” are a good commentary on the dangers of unoriginal sci-fi writing.
May 26, 2007
After skimming a few hundred pages as quickly as possible, I finally finished Leon Uris’ A God in Ruins. It’s one of the rare books that I debated putting down – usually no matter how bad a book is, I keep going to the end rather than leave the story unfinished.
Amazon.com has a bunch of customer reviews that explain what’s wrong with the book, but here’s a few issues I had:
- Handsome good guys, ugly bad guys. Every hero is a square-jawed, cowboy stud and every villain has weaselly eyes, loose morals and a thin moustache. Observe Uris’ description of a villainous senator:
Form-fitting suit, Hoover collar, and the big mustache that small men of the world wear to send a message of their macho. The handshake told Quinn [the hero] that the counsel had not made his way up through hard labor.
Read also this description of a heroine:
Painted-on leather pants, bare midriff, an open blouse knotted under her breasts, glowing lipstick.
Throughout the novel, Uris seems to equate physical beauty with goodness. Naturally every story has good guys and bad guys, but he goes out of his way to describe the gorgeousness of being good and the unattractiveness of being bad.
- Honesty = incredible crudeness. You can tell characters are having a heart-to-heart, soul-baring discussion when they start crudely insulting each other. The process usually goes: 1) casual conversation, 2) horrifyingly crude insults, 3) “I love you, man” make-ups and 4) ultimate truthful statement from the soul. Yes, people let their guard down when being truthful with loved ones, but not everyone swears like a sailor when they want to talk honestly.
- It’s outdated. Several times throughout the novel, the writer refers to the amoral debauchery of Bill and Hillary Clinton, as though Clinton’s affair were the absolute worst scandal the presidency had experienced. In some ways this is just bad timing – the book was published in 1999, and much of our ideas about the presidency and the executive branch have changed since 9/11. It’s also jarring to read of an American where gun control is the absolute worst evil in America, rather than terrorism or invasion of security.
- The writer is out of his depth when talking about the Internet. A major character in the book makes millions off a computer security device called the Growler, which is often described as a “rat’s nest of wires” and nothing else. I understand that the Internet is really just a plot device so that the eeeeeevil Republican president can rise to power, but it seems like the writer should at least have a basic idea of how those tubes get information around the Interweb.
- It’s a bit paranoid (SPOILER ALERT). The climax of the book comes when the Democratic candidate, adopted by Catholics, announces…due dramatic music…his birth parents are actually Jewish. In the novel, this triggers a “Krystallnacht” where Klansmen and Muslims across American begin rioting and destroying Jewish property. Meanwhile, the evil president holds back the National Guard and waits for the rioting to take its toll, so that he can swoop in and act like a hero.
I think the paranoia highlights my main issue with the novel – it just doesn’t ring true. It does not expand my horizons or bring me to a deeper understanding of the presidency, because the characters don’t act believably and the America Uris writes about does not illuminate any larger truth about America or the American people.
A friend of mine got this novel at a used book store for a dollar, but it’s currently selling for a penny on Amazon. Even at that price, I’d recommend skipping it and instead reading Uris’ glorious QB VII. It’s unfortunate that Uris’ career ended with such poor writing, but his many other novels establish his legacy as a great writer.
April 29, 2007
I just finished The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers. Still need to digest the massive amount of information, but overall it was a worthwhile read.
The book was a dense 640 pages, full of verbal and mathematical links between genetics, music, emotion, and life overall. There’s a long (too long) stretch in the middle with almost no action – at times the narrator launches into long observations on science and music without advancing the plot at all.Â I found myself counting the pages left to go, just to wonder how long it would be till I could start a new book in earnest.
However, the entire book is about patterns and “codes” like DNA or music scores, so I guess the structure of alternating observation and plot thread matches the overall theme.Â In the last 100 pages or so the characters actually start DOING something, and the larger ideas presented in the book link up with the main narrative, the book builds to a satisfying crescendo and grand finale.
I can also give this book the highest recommendation I can give a book: it changed the way I viewed the world. The book gives insight into the intricacies and beauty of music, especially classical scores like the Goldberg Variations that give the book its name. Right now I don’t have the ear to appreciate such music, but I want to obtain the appropriate thought processes to decode the music’s pattern and signal.
Overall, a satisfying (if sometimes challenging) read.
April 1, 2007
I recently went to the Newburyport Library annual book sale. Two dollars for hardcover and one dollar for paperback – not as good a deal as the Amesbury Library used book shop that’s open year-round, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Browsing through used books was an interesting experience. Dozens of cardboard boxes full of books sit in a room in the rear of the library, and you have to shift boxes from one pile to another to dig for the really good stuff. Attending a used book sale is somewhat like being an archaeologist of publishing history – one box was full of old Cold Mountain hardcovers, not that the Cold Mountain promotion has come and gone and everyone has read the book.
I have so many books on my “to read” list that I wasn’t looking for more, but I was looking to fill my book collection with books I wanted to have, or search for good deals. Unfortunately the quality of used books isn’t always that good, which seems strange to me since i always keep books in relatively good condition.
Selecting a book to purchase gave me some insight into what I look for in a book. My mental checklist for books goes like this:
- Is it paperback? Hardcover and large books are unwieldy, and take up too much space on a shelf. A beautiful hardcover with gold embossed titles is one thing, but most hardcovers are designed pretty cheap as a way for publishers to make more money before the paperbacks come out.
- Is the spine broken or cracking? Too many were.
- If it’s a paperback with a good spine, I pick it out of the box. Is the cover worn? There were at least a dozen copies of The Lovely Bones by Alice Seibold, but all of them had marks on their covers.
- If the cover’s okay, I flip through it. Is there writing or highlights on the inside? I almost never write in a book – I did a bit in college, but only on books I knew I was going to keep forever (like The Moviegoer) by Walker Percy) but like to keep books in pristine condition otherwise. Notes and highlights only take away from the words on the page. If there’s something worth remembering I may dog-ear the page, but even then I’d prefer to just remember the passage and find it later if necessary. Besides, with Amazon’s search inside feature, I only need a few words from memory to find the correct passage.
- So the book’s in pristine condition. Have I read it? If not, I may actually not get it right now – I do want to read The Lovely Bones someday, but I have more than enough books to read till a pristine copy comes along.
- If I have read it, do I own it? I may have read it from a library, and want to add it to my collection. I did find Louise Erdich’s Tracks and The Master Butcher’s Singing Club (both of which I read from the library), in addition to a sequel to Tracks called The Bingo Palace. However, all were hardbacks, and the cover to Tracks was oddly compressed so that the book looked like a parallelogram when you looked at its top.
- If it’s a paperback with a good spine, no writing or highlights, that I want to get, it goes in the bag. And from there to the front desk, where I bought it.
I bought only 6 books that day:
- James Joyce’s Ulysses: A study by Stuart Gilbert – not the classic text, but n explanation. I started Ulysses when it was named as the #1 book in English literature, but gave up when it became too inscrutable. I’m hoping reading the commentary first will give me an entry into the work, just to figure out what the heck is going on.
- Solaris by Stanislaw Lem – Sci-fi book adapted for an underrated movie with George Clooney. Scanning two pages of the cover I could tell it was good science fiction: “Eight times I heard the hum of the electric motors which turned the screws, followed by the hiss of the shock-absorbers.”
- The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester – A popular book a few years back, and one I wanted to read and add to my collection.
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair - This is one of the few books I bought based on its cover – the skinned calf’s head cover in Barnes & Noble caught my eye. This one actually has a different cover, but the story sounds interesting all the same.
- C.S. Lewis – Surprised by Joy – Hadn’t heard of this, but I’m interested to read Lewis’ account of his intellectual conversion to Christianity.
- High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – a nice pop culture break from the more serious or challenging reads I have lined up. Sort of a palate cleanser for my reading habits. Not that the book won’t be thought-provoking, but it’ll probably be more entertaining than a study of Ulysses.
Overall a good selection for this year. At this point I need to finish off a few books before buying new ones – The Gold Bug Variations is my current “official” read, with some Best American Short Stories to break it up.
All in all I’d recommend the Newburyport book sale to other bibliophiles.Â If you’re in the area, I’d keep checking their web site to see when the next one will be.