Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Take a Chance: Pnin

Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

1: Staff Member’s Choice: Go to a bookstore or library that has a “Staff Picks” section. Read one of the picks from that section.

I did the last option first and the first option last! I had to cheat a bit on this one; the bookstore in my city doesn't have a Staff Picks section, but the library has a couple of troughs in the front with fiction and non-fiction. It's not exactly a Staff Picks section, but it's all I've got. I found Pnin in the fiction trough.

Pnin is not exactly a novel, nor is it quite a collection of short stories. The stories were originally published serially in The New Yorker, and written as a sort of antidote to the difficult work of writing Lolita. Professor Pnin is comical, hapless, confused, and noble. Like many ex-patriate Russians of his generation, he mourns a Russia that is completely gone, and he spends years searching for a place he can feel at home. Once he seems to reach his goal, it looks as though it will all be taken away; Pnin is a comical and tragic character.

The narrator is a bit mysterious and unreliable, and it's interesting to piece together the clues about him. There is plenty here to analyze if desired, though the book is short. I like reading Nabokov's style, but had not picked anything up in a long time; maybe I should read more of him soon.

The copy I read had a boring Everyman cover, so I picked the cover I like best for the image here. And I'm including this excellent paperback cover, notable for its blatantly misleading implication that this is going to be a sexy book. I love finding lurid paperback covers for classic literature.

This officially finishes the Take a Chance Challenge for me! Woo! But I'm tempted by one of the other options in #10, so I might do that too.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Feminist Challenge: The Woman Warrior

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston

This was a really famous and somewhat controversial book when I read it in college. I'm glad I got the chance to read it again now and absorb it better. The Woman Warrior is a collection of sort-of-personal-memoir, sort-of-fictional pieces with the common theme of a Chinese-American immigrant (or children of immigrants) experience, especially for women, with a lot of folk belief, imagination, and insanity thrown in.

It's a very readable book with lots to think about, and would make a good book club selection. I also just like the look of Maxine Hong Kingston, and think she would be an interesting person to see in real life.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Week 35: The Fatal Conceit

The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, by F. A. Hayek

This is one of Hayek's last books; in it, he tries to refute the philosophical underpinnings of socialism (more what we would call communism, really). Hayek wishes to prove that socialism is based on a "fatal conceit:" the false premise that a group of people can gather enough information to plan an economic system that will work better than the unplanned, spontaneous economic activities of an entire population. (Note that he is using the term 'fatal conceit' to mean an idea that doesn't work, not a condition of arrogance.) In other words, a million ordinary people, making decisions just for themselves, will accidentally produce an economy that works better than one the 100 smartest people in the whole world can plan, because the million people know more.

Hayek always writes very abstractly and densely. So if you want to read the material without having to struggle with Hayek himself, you might like to read The Rational Optimist, which I reviewed a few months ago. It covers pretty much the same material, but it's much easier to read even though it's about four times as long. But Hayek does address certain problems of language, which I found very interesting, and he has a short final chapter on the benefits of religion (entirely from a practical standpoint; he was an agnostic himself).

I'm glad I read the book, but it sure was difficult to get through.

Week 35: The Hourglass Door

The Hourglass Door, by Lisa Mangum

Abby enters her senior year of high school hoping for some changes. She has a nice (but dull) boyfriend and plans to go to the state college with her friends, but secretly she's hoping to get into a liberal arts college on the other side of the country. Then Dante, an Italian exchange student, shows up at school and Abby finds herself drawn into a mystery that transcends time!

OK, so the story is really pretty good and well-written. There are distinct shades of Twilight, only with time travel instead of vampires and werewolves, but they aren't overpowering and there isn't so much of a love triangle. And Abby certainly has more personality than Bella does--even though she has the same problem of being inexplicably 'special.' Also, Mangum calls on Dante's Inferno instead of Wuthering Heights, which I think wins some points for originality.

This is a YA title, the first in a trilogy (of course) published by Shadow Mountain, which usually prints religious fiction. The Hourglass Door is not, however, a religious story--it could easily be published for the general market, and I would be happy to see that happen. It's as good as any YA book out there (though not at the level of Plain Kate), and I certainly liked it better than Twilight; I plan to read the rest of the trilogy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Take a Chance: Plain Kate

Plain Kate, by Erin Bow

3: Blogger’s Choice: Find a “Best Books Read” post from a favorite blogger. Read a book from their list.

I looked at Bookshelves of Doom's best books of 2010 list and chose Plain Kate.

I have to say, this is the best YA book I've read in a long time. The writing is just wonderful, the story is great, the characters are real--it's much better than your average YA title.

It's something of a fairy tale, with a Slavic feel to it. I don't want to go into the whole complicated story, because I wouldn't do it justice. Just trust me here.

10/5/11: Plain Kate just won the Canadian Children’s Literature Award! Now you have another reason to read it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Week 34: Surprised by Oxford

Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir, by Carolyn Weber

You can instantly tell from the title's invocation of C. S. Lewis that this is going to be a memoir about the author's conversion to Christianity while at Oxford. And--it's really good. I enjoyed it a lot and I think most of my friends would too. If there were more copies around, I'd use it as a book club selection.

Carolyn Weber received a scholarship to study at Oxford for graduate school. She arrived there in the mid-90's as a fairly typical agnostic student somewhat allergic to the world "Christian" (since as we all know, Christians are rigidly judgmental and irrational). But Weber also feels a great lack in her life, and as she gets to know some truly wonderful Christians and reads the Bible, she unwillingly feels the hounds of heaven stalking her.

Weber's story is very much a story of Oxford. She follows the Oxford school year, which is based on the liturgical calendar--finally, I know understand what Hilary term is!--and describes the university and city in loving detail. She does not spend too much time on the most famous Oxford Christian of them all, which is on the whole a good thing. I did find one thing a little annoying; Weber calls one of her spiritual mentors TDH instead of by a name. Since his eventual destiny is obvious from the start, it seems silly to give him initials, but it's not really an obtrusive problem.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book; I did not expect it to be as well-written and interesting as it is. I'll be recommending this title to quite a few people.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher (through Booksneeze) in exchange for an honest review.

Take a Chance: Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes

4: Critic’s Choice: Find a “Best of the Year” list from a magazine, newspaper or professional critic. Read a book from their Top 10 list.

The New York Times Book Review put Age of Wonder on their Top Ten List for 2009. It's a very long book, and suffers from the flaw (common to modern non-fiction) of exhaustiveness.

Otherwise, though, it's a very interesting book that covers an amazing period in scientific development. The late 18th- and early 19th-century era saw great developments in astronomy and chemistry. Botanists and zoologists began to go out around the world on collecting trips. People started to seriously experiment with electricity and chemicals. Everyone was talking about the implications of scientific discoveries; the Romantic poets wrote essays and poems about the new questions people asked. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, which asked all those questions and invented a new genre too.

Holmes uses Joseph Banks as a sort of backbone to all this material. Banks was one of the early botanist collectors and sailed to Tahiti as a young man; then he spent many years as the president of the Royal Society in England. He oversaw and encouraged the scientific developments of the early 19th century.

It's a pretty good book, but awfully long; wonderful if you are really into Romantic history, maybe something you would prefer to skim through if you're not.

Week 34: Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens

Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens, by Brandon Sanderson

The fourth book in the Alcatraz series continues to be extremely silly and a pretty exciting story too. It looks like there will be five books in all, so I'll look forward to the final volume--even though the book covers are pretty darn bad.

This is a great series for kids. If you struggle to find books your 10-year-old boy will be willing to read, give these a try.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

NPR's List of the Top 100 Fantasy/SF Books

NPR just had a big poll about favorite fantasy and SF books, and here are their Top 100, with the ones I've read highlighted for your amusement and edification:

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
6. 1984, by George Orwell
7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
25. The Stand, by Stephen King
26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings
42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
50. Contact, by Carl Sagan
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis

That makes 48 out of 100, but there are quite a few there I should read. However, I'm very disappointed not to see any Diana Wynne Jones. I would have just put Terry Pratchett's entire Discworld series as one entry, and I really cannot see how the Xanth books deserve to be on any list at all (and I did read a lot of them, to my shame). And I would add Kage Baker to the list.

Week 33: Beany Malone

When I was in library school, I did a paper on Christian fiction for the YA market. As part of the paper, I read some Catholic YA fiction, and one was Beany Malone. (It's not actually terribly Catholic except that they go to mass regularly.) Recently I found 3 of the books in the series at my local library, where they will soon be weeded, so I thought I'd read them while I could.

The Beany Malone series was quite popular in the 50's, and features the large and loving Malone family, with Beany (a teenager and the youngest of 4) as the star. Their mother died several years ago, and their father is often gone on business, so the teens often tackle their problems on their own. Beany gets in and out of scrapes, worries about whether the boy she likes will like her back--the usual sort of thing. The author must have had a bit of reluctance to write any romantic slushy stuff, because each book conveniently starts with Beany on the outs with her guy, and ends with them making up, thus neatly avoiding any kissing.

They're still kind of fun to read, but apparently almost completely obscure these days, though they did get reissued for fans several years ago. I was surprised that they didn't show up as free downloads anywhere (as the Patty Fairfield series did), but that will probably happen soon enough.

Week 33: Stuff

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Frost and Steketee try to explain the difficult and complex mental disorder of hoarding. Lots of people collect stuff or live in some degree of mess, but hoarders do it to an extreme and cannot let go of items, no matter how useless. This book focuses entirely on the psychological aspects of the illness: different manifestations (such as animal hoarding or trash-collecting instead of plain hoarding), possible causes, and the difficulties of treatment. It does not address topics such as physical illness caused by hoarding or damage to buildings, that sort of thing.

It's a really interesting book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Excuses, excuses...

Wow, I've been doing really badly lately! My excuse is that I gave two presentations at the state homeschooling conference this last weekend, and I've been so worked up about them that I've been unable to read anything but cozy British mysteries I've read 117 times already. Patricia Wentworth is great for comfort reading. Now that I'm done with that I ought to be able to read something less brain-candy-ful, so watch this space.