Wednesday, August 31, 2011

40. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind had been recommended to me with exceptionally high praise. I looked forward to it, but I also feared that my expectations were raised too high.

They were-and they weren't. The Name of the Wind is no Lord of the Rings. It is no Harry Potter. It has entirely its own magic, or should I say sympathy?

Kvothe (prounounced like "quothe," now isn't that just lovely to say?) is our protagonist, our orphan underdog hero. Rothfuss opens the book with a silent inn, "a silence of three parts," in a small provincial town apparently on the edge of a large, dark crisis involving demonic forces. There is more than there seems to the quiet innkeeper "Kote" and when he encounters the traveling scribe Chronicler, he is convinced to tell our main character's story, his story.

I have not read much epic fantasy told in the first person, so Rothfuss gets originality points here. His chapters are short and well-organized. His language is clean and precise. I often complain about this Hemingway-esque language in science fiction and fantasy books, but Rothfuss elevates it to an art form. He does it right. He says what he means to say, carefully, evocatively and briefly. I will admit that is more than can be said for Tolkien, though I'm fond of his syntactical structure myself. He repeats descriptions of characters and I was exasperated with the word "maudlin" by the end, in the same way that Martin's books made me sick of the word "craven." But, with Rothfuss, I felt his repetitions were deliberate and in keeping with his storytelling schtick, a touch of Greek epic if you will.

One thing I found especially brilliant is Kvothe's upbringing among a troupe of entertainers. His parents are actors and musicians and he grows up on stage. I have never met with a better way to introduce a reader to a new world. There is no extensive exposition, but no slow confusing build-up either, all the necessary information about the cultural values and myths of "The Four Corners of Civilization" is contained in songs and play dialogues that are related in the beginning. Of course, there is a sense that there is more to learn and by the end of the book we have still not learned all that is referred to. A perfect set-up for a trilogy. But this book stands on its own as well, there are a series of smaller and bigger quests and resolutions. The small cast of characters is easy to keep track of and while minor characters are not as fully developed as I'd like, they are more than stick figures.

We observe Kvothe's formative years, he must lose his parents and end up living rough on city streets for a while, where have I heard that one before? Oh yeah, and then he gets into the school for wizards. Except, in Kvothe's world, "arcanists" don't perform magic, they perform "sympathy," making bindings between objects to light candles, for example. And of course, the more advanced students can learn "naming," which is what Kvothe really wants, how to call the name of the wind and bend it to his will. Rothfuss plays on a lot of familiar themes on the power of words and the danger of power. Then there is the Girl, Denna or Dianne or Deanna, the wild, enigmatic love of Kvothe's life. The knight's got to have his lady.

I would absolutely recommend The Name of the Wind to fans of fantasy and I will certainly be reading the rest of the trilogy. I'm even going to go ahead and call this Fantasy Literature, because it is a little different and I feel like it shows a very serious artistic effort and besides being entertaining, it...lives.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mailbox Monday

I have acquired a couple of books in the past two weeks, both at independent bookstores, I am proud to say, which makes me feel a little less guilty about giving into temptation. The first I bought at Busboys & Poets in D.C. It was my first time there and I will definitely be going back. While the restaurant is larger than the bookstore (and boasts plenty of vegetarian and environmentally sustainable options), the selection is quite specialized and charming. I noticed almost no recent bestsellers, instead the largest sections were on Poetry and Food Politics, with plenty of History, Social Justice, and a Literature section with focus on more obscure and international writers. I picked up an interesting-looking novel by Nigerian author Ngugl wa Thiong’o.

Wizard of the Crow takes place in a fictional African country under a dystopian dictatorship. From glancing through it, I can tell that it has elements of magical realism and intrusive narration that I will love.

I picked up The Name of the Wind at Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston, where I've spent many happy hours of my life and will hopefully spend more. I've had The Name of the Wind recommended to me quite a few times lately. I'm actually finished reading and my review should be up soon.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Question: What are five books from your "to be read" stack. What makes you select a book for your “to be read” stack?

My Answer:

I feel like I have more books on the TBR pile right now than I have in a long time. Partly, this is because it was recently my birthday and partly it's because I've recently been indulging in book-buying much more than I should because it's one of the few things that makes me feel better in the midst of a current personal crisis.

So, five books...American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen, Elizabeth I by Margaret George, Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares, and Reading Women by Stephanie Staal.

These days, my TBR pile grows largely from reviews on other book blogs, but also from newspaper reviews, recommendations from friends and colleagues, and plain old browsing. In the future, I may start taking LibraryThing recommendations into account and at least once I did order a book just from browsing on Bookmooch.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Addictive Mishmash of Horror

38. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

39. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

I've been obsessively reading these sequels to A Game of Thrones, but after looking back at that review, I have to say my comments overall are rather similar.

A Clash of Kings introduces us to a few new point-of-view characters. We have Davos, also known as the Onion Knight, who is sworn to serve Stannis Baratheon, brother to the late King Robert. If the accusations of incest between Robert's wife Cersei Lannister and her twin Jaime are true (and we readers know they are), Stannis is the rightful heir to the throne. This doesn't stop younger and more charming brother Renly Baratheon from claiming the crown nor does it stop Cersei crowning her son Joffrey in the name of his alleged father. With Eddard Stark dead, his son Robb becomes the King in the North, a move that none of the claimants to the Seven Kingdoms like since it removes half their would-be territory.

Of course, we're still rooting for the Starks, but now we get a viewpoint into what's going on with Stannis, and it's scary. Melisandre, a priestess from faraway Ashai, wins the king's ear with the power of her god, R'hllor, the Lord of Light. Previously, we've had the "Seven" gods of the South, more clearly defined in the second book (The Mother, the Father, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Smith, the Crone, and the Stranger) and the nameless old gods of the North the Starks pray to. We've also got a viewpoint into Theon Greyjoy, formerly the Starks' ward, now returned to his father, the onetime Iron King, in hopes of an alliance. The Ironborn have different plans and Theon is driven to the deepest and most unforgivable of betrayals.

Meanwhile, our old friend, and my favorite character, Tyrion the Imp, becomes the King's Hand in his father's name and moves to skilful political and military wrangling that delighted my heart. The second book in the series is better structured, kinder to the characters, and a place where I really came to enjoy them, even the despicable Theon I found amusing.

What I love most about this series is that I find it unpredictable. Especially with fantasy and sci-fi, I can usually predict what's coming next. Not with George R.R. Martin, at least not in the second book. However, A Storm of Swords, while still engrossing, was not nearly as enjoyable for me. I think it's because I've finally caught on to how Martin does things and also because I'm beginning to detect small flaws and inconsistencies, and a number of printer errors in my copy didn't help either. While after the first book, I expected all minor characters to die sooner or later and I wasn't holding out hope for a good deal of the major characters either (one of my predictions is that none of the major characters from the first book will be alive in the last, but we'll see), but now I'm seeing that every move leads toward escalated conflict, to an insensible degree. I understand that is most of why the series is so addictive, because there's always the tension of what will happen next, but I often don't like what happens next (but yes I am having an emotional reaction, which is some success for Martin), and most damningly, characters' actions aren't making sense to me in terms of how they've been characterized. Lord Tywin, father to Cersei, Tyrion, and Jaime, seems especially erratic, as does Jaime, who now emerges as a likeable POV character. I don't get what Stannis' deal is in this book nor the Hound and Arya gets less and less likeable and more and more screwed. I don't like that Tyrion's not in power either and how he gets treated seems very odd and just to mess with the readers.

Probably, the characters' motivations and complications are all very clear to Martin and I was able to make a lot of predictions based on clues earlier. Like, I'm not surprised the Hound turned out to do something good, I know Ser Jorah was reporting on Dany and I kind of suspected that Whitebeard was Barristan Selmy. But. Motivations for certain actions still don't seem clear to the reader and I think it's more a function of trying to add in as much action and gratuitous violence as possible than of showing how complex the characters are. I could be wrong, this could be deeper than I know. The only way to know is to read all of it, though it's not all out yet. Still, I'm taking a break from A Song of Ice and Fire for now while I'm stewing and I'll get back to it later.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

37. Eon by Greg Bear

Eon is a quirky book of epic proportion. On the cover, the Washington Post is quoted, "Eon may be the best constructed hard SF epic yet." While I'm not sure I can agree with Dune in mind, Eon is definitely hard SF that still remains likable, understandable, relatable to us non-math/tech/science people who still enjoy sci fi. In its scope and weirdness, it reminded me of Neuromancer, a book I tried to read a year and a half or so ago, but it was just too immersed in its own strange reality for me to get into.

Like many SF writers, Bear uses short, direct, and sometimes clunky sentences to describe his characters and his world. Few of the characters are fully fleshed out, even the main characters seemed stock-ish to me. Brilliant young woman, hardened administrator, disaffected Russian, etc. However, what makes this book crackle is the plot and the ideas behind it. Bear's imagined futuristic human society is also fascinating and creative.

The readers enter a world on the brink of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. A mysterious asteroid enters Earth's orbit, and NATO organizes a team to investigate. Rumours abound about the wonders found within, but it's all kept top secret, and the Russians are only allowed to participate after four years. Our main characters are the hardened administrator who is charged with the deepest of secrets, Lanier, our young ingenue, Patricia Luisa Vasquez, our Russian dreaming of the stars, Mirsky, and our futuristic new world guide, Olmy. I wouldn't be giving much away if I say that nuclear war does break out and that our heroes, with Olmy's help, will have to contend with the futuristic society somewhere inside the Stone, as they call the asteroid.

This is a novel about the endless possibilities of the universe and the endless varieties of how humanity can divide itself. Bear, instead of going utopian or dystopian, accepts humanity and its divisions and shows how if we truly accept each other, we let each other go our separate ways. I don't know if that message is his definitive answer to the Cold War, but that's what I got from it. Please read Eon if you love SF, and especially if you're a physics geek, I think you'll really get a kick out of it. But if you're not, never fear, it's still an enjoyable ride.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Specious Origins and Opinions

36. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman

I'm back from vacation, where I managed to get a lot of reading done, of which this is the first. Although there are two authors, the book is written in O'Conner's voice and I will refer to her as the author.

This systematic breakdown of contemporary (and primarily American) English usage declares the true history of popular language faux pas in an attempt to establish the legitimacy or illegitimacy of rules such as "No prepositions at the end of a sentence," and "No split infinitives," as well as words like the ever-bastardized "ain't", and the true origins of words and phrases, including how bad bad words really are and why.

Interestingly, O'Conner comes out against some of the best-known "rules" of the English language, both "No prepositions at the end of a sentence" and "No split infinitives" are Latinist add-ons that she claims make no sense for English. O'Conner constantly belittles those poor eighteenth and nineteenth century schmucks like Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, who tried to make English "more like their beloved Latin," in O'Conner's words. She even knocks on British spellings, like "colour" and "centre" and "realise." These, she claims, are Norman French endings or affectations imposed by later Francophiles. While I'm personally fond of the way those spellings look (call me an Anglophile), I do feel it's rare and riveting to see a defense of American English, and she goes so far as to say that the American accent is closer to that of sixteenth century Britons than the accent of Britons today.

The most upsetting myth to be dispelled, for me, was that "marmalade" did not come from "Marie's malade," a concoction made for Mary, Queen of Scots. O'Conner shows that the usage was common much earlier, and that another version of the tale claims the "malade" was for Marie Antoinette! Guess she didn't have marmalade with her cake! (And the "let them eat cake" tale is far older than poor Maria Antonia, as I hope you all know).

O'Conner defends some mispronunciations (even the much-maligned "nucular") and begs her readers to expunge others, like "neesh" for "niche" (it's pronounced "nitch"). While her research on many word myths and origins is commendable and compelling, O'Conner seems to combine an odd blend of prescriptivist and descriptionist language standards. O'Conner's English scorns foreign impositions, particularly French and Latin spellings and pronunciations, but applauds or at least accepts modern changes in meaning and pronunciation, as long as the (American) majority has put it into use. To me, she seems to fight a strange battle, for an American English that clings to Anglo-Saxon roots and selectively incorporates modern slang, but rejects slightly older impurities. An interesting book indeed, but not without its own misconceptions.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Most Annoying Character Ever

Question: Who is the most annoying character ever?

My Answer:

Holden Caulfield is whiny for sure, but he never haunted me like Lee Fiora from Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. Lee is simultaneously the most annoying and the most terrifying character I have ever encountered. She reminds me of all the worst parts of myself, plus things that I never imagined all those quiet girls might be thinking behind my back. Lee is aggressively passive, so compliant and impressionable she makes me want to scream. Her real personality, the one she submerges in her thoughts, is judgmental and outright cruel. It's clear that Lee hates herself, but she projects that hate on everyone around her and her prep school world is a nightmare. The only "good" thing is when she finally gets together with her longtime crush, but that turns out to be the most corrupt, tainted thing of all, as she allows him to take advantage of her body and leave her nothing in return.

By the first time I finished the book, I was sick of Lee and her constant complaints and judgments, but like a trainwreck, I returned. The writing is painfully and honestly real, and what makes her annoying brings her back to mind again and again, as a reminder of who I never want to be.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mailbox Monday

I'm late (by US Eastern Standard Time), but I'm back for Mailbox Monday.

Last week was my birthday. I received the following book in the mail as a gift;

My boyfriend knows the author, and it looks really interesting. I've been meaning to read more about Prague for a while now, since I went there last year.

Much to my surprise, the copy of Atlas Shrugged I thought I had gotten from Bookmooch turned out to be a set of cassette tapes of Atlas Shrugged. Fortunately, I do have a cassette player, but I've never listened to books on tape before, aside from a couple during family car trips. I haven't quite decided what I'm doing with them.

Happy Monday!