Monday, December 29, 2008

Finally, Happy News for Book Lovers!

I love Wonder Books, I've been to their store in Frederick when I was younger and more recently ordered from them off Amazon. Yay used books!

Monday, December 22, 2008

51. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I was captivated the first time I heard the title, and knew I had to read it. There is unfortunately little mention of Potato Peel Pie, but the characters of the Guernsey Literary Society are well-drawn and amusing. The book is a series of letters between a London-based author, Juliet Ashton, and the members of the aforementioned Guernsey Island society. The events take place in 1946, and recall the events of World War II, particularly the German occupation of the British Channel Islands.

The place was unique enough that much of the historical information was new to me, despite my somewhat extensive knowledge of the time period. The book does not shirk, rather, it embraces, difficult material, but the focus is more on the characters and present events, so that it does not induce the heavy depression most Holocaust and World War II tomes aim at. This is an excellent book for all ages, it might be a bit incomprehensible to a four-year-old (one of the main characters is four), but most people over should be able to read (or be read to) and enjoy.

The plot lines are simplistic, but there are an appropriate number of twists to keep plot junkies interested. The real jewels are the characters, from "more beautiful at sixty than she could have been at twenty" Amelia Maugery, to mischievous Kit, enthusiastic potion-concocting Isola, stoic Eben, and quiet Charles Lamb fan and pig farmer, Dawsey Adams, there is rarely a dull moment. It may not be your deepest read in the year to come, but you won't regret it!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Even the Creator Gets Repetitive

50. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

All Kurt Vonnegut's books are the same. That is a blatant lie, and you should disagree with me. But his style, the sense of humor, the actual characters or at least the type of characters are the same, and the settings often are as well. There are always coincidences, rudely drawn pictures, and nothing makes any sense (just like real life).

Breakfast of Champions at least delves into Vonnegut's most recurring character, Kilgore Trout. The best parts of the book, in my opinion, are the plots of Trout's stories. Like Vonnegut, Trout is a science fiction writer whose writing demonstrates the chaos of the universe. His books and short stories are illustrated with unrelated pornographic pictures and sold only in pornography shops.

I was told that this book was difficult to understand, that there was confusing switching back and forth between narration. It was no more difficult than any other Vonnegut novel, in that regard. In fact, I think I find his stories so easy to get through because of that organization. It leaves less time to be bored and builds anticipation.

The one conceit that made this book a little different is Vonnegut's insertion of himself as a character, as the Creator of Kilgore Trout and his entire literary universe. Of course I have always loved the idea of Author as Creator, and by extension, Man as Creator. Kilgore Trout's answer to an anonymous scribbling in a bathroom, "What is the purpose of life?," is "To be the eyes and conscience of the fool."

No matter what your religious persuasion or lack thereof, it is hard to disagree with that!

This book is certainly worth reading, it's quick, it has some fantastic one-liners and even better ideas. Unfortunately, it just seems that Vonnegut will never again have the magic for me that he once did. Finally, I remember thinking to myself when I first read Cat's Cradle, finally, an author who really understands the world. It's unfortunate his understanding never changed.

On a completely separate note, I MADE IT TO 50!!!!!

I do plan to keep going and see how many more I can read before Jan 1st.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Will Edit Later

48. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

The first Gothic novel allegedly came to Walpole in a nightmare. That sort of surreal, look-over-your-shoulder feeling permeates this hundred-pager. It's set in the fictional kingdom of Otranto, where an ancient curse is about to overthrow the third-generation usurping ruler Manfred.

Walpole writes in his second preface (in the first he claims to be merely the translator of some Crusade-era Italian), that he wished to make his characters "think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions (8)." While the speech is the high-flown type that would be expected of a romance, I do think Walpole largely achieved this goal. While the coincidences and adventures are amazing, the characters seem like people I know. Manfred's submissive wife Hippolita behaves out of loving and motherly motivations, even though in a way modern women might decry. Their daughter Matilda is the shy, dreamy little girl down the street. The princess Isabella is the good-natured, good-principled type with an appropriate dash of spice. Even the hero Theodore is not uber-manly or flat.

Castle of Otranto will take you through a maze with an uneasy feeling, leaving you flushed but satisfied. It's an old little gem, especially when you reflect that it was the first of its kind in a style that inspired the Brontes, and influenced Austen and Dickens.

49. The Famished Road by Ben Okri

I've spent a lot of time agonizing over what to say about this book. In the end, I think I enjoyed it, but I was definitely ambiguous at parts. The reason I didn't love it so much was the "indeterminacy" of meaning throughout. A lot of contradictory symbolism and metaphors are used and there are a lot of fanciful episodes that do not seem to be metaphoric. Okri is beyond anything I have ever encountered before, I would not quite classify this as stream-of-consciousness or magical realism, though it has elements of both.

The Famished Road is told from the point of view of Azaro, a boy growing up in a poor Nigerian compound. Azaro is a spirit child, one who has vowed to return to the spirit world as often as possible, and die unborn, premature, or early in childhood in the world of the living. The spirit child is an old Yoruba myth, and such children are feared and hated. Azaro, for this once, defies his friends and decides to stay. His life is filled with spirit visions and his friends in the other world constantly connive to bring him back to them.

Azaro's parents are both very full, interesting characters. His father works as a load lifter, but aspires to be a boxer. His mother hawks goods. Unlike everyone else around them, his parents risk beatings and censure in order to support "the Party of the Poor" against "the Party of the Rich."

The Famished Road is a legend often referred to in the book, of a road that gobbles up travelers. The road goes on and on forever, from the world of the living to the world of the spirits and everywhere between.

Aside from these very basic plot devices, the reader has to fashion all of the meaning. The only direction Okri points in is that there is none, but I think he was counting on his readers to defy him. Read it and decide for yourself.

One more to go!