Thursday, February 26, 2009

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

I wanted to dislike this book. No particular reason why - I guess just all the hype. Plus I had heard the rags to riches story of the author: she had a memorable dream, she sat down and wrote, three years later she has four published books in the saga and a Hollywood movie with lots of bohunk stars to her credit. It couldn't be *that* good, could it? I have picked it up a dozen times at the store and put it back down. But, when I found a trade paperback copy for $5.99 I was willing to buy it. My copy in hand I discovered that Twilight has been recognized "One of the best books of the decade... so far." Really? Why?

I picked up the book for my train ride on Tuesday morning. I read for 20+ minutes both train rides, read at bedtime that evening, and then finished the book on Wednesday. My point is that the book is a very quick read. The 500 or so pages were not hard to get through, which probably suggests part of the book's popularity. The writing style is not deep, which makes it a very good young adult novel. But, the key to this book's popularity is the plot.

1. Vampire
2. Vampire + young girl = love affair.
3. Vampire and young girl can't touch or do anything adulterous = ideal young adult story
Romance, vampires, and innocent love - what else does a book need to be a best seller? Apparently not much.

Don't get me wrong, I did like Twilight. I willingly sat last night and read the last 200 pages. The story is definitely engaging. Meyer has set up an intriguing story line and empathetic characters. The descriptions of Edward would make anyone want to fall in love with him - a chiseled beautiful male specimen whose skin shines like diamonds in the sunlight? Bella is a fun heroine - not perfect but cute and likable. Plus, Meyer has put a unique-enough twist on all of the diverse vampire legends to not make it a complete rip-off of either Anne Rice or the Buffy series. The interactions between Bella and Edward in the first half of the book are romantic in the true romance sense of the word.

The second half of the book? Meh. It was a bit too cliched for me. I liked the friendships that developed but felt that the bad vampires was an overdone touch to give the love affair a plot to revolve around.

The final consensus: I mentioned to my college students today that I had finished reading Twilight. After all, it was watching them devour the books over the past two months that finally convinced me to start reading. I told them I liked it but didn't think I would pick up the sequels. Their comment: Good choice. The rest are really not worth it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

The 1960s must have been a really trippy decade. We've all seen the movies, we've heard about the hippie movement, we know the names Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. But I think I have found the quintessential example of 1960s free-love, anti-establishment, anti-religion which should be required reading for anyone interested in the philosophy of the era.

Why is it that science fiction rarely makes the circuit of "good" fiction in high school classes? There are a very few classics that do make the cut, but somehow science fiction is not respected as a useful literary genre with which to learn more about the times in which it was written. And yet science fiction is the most apt social commentary that exists. Good science fiction writers take tangible, concrete contemporary issues and place them in a futuristic scenario in which they can manipulate, comment on, and otherwise screw with the stories.

Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the best examples of this type of writing that I have ever read. It is an amazing book. As I was reading it I had to come back and check when it was published, how popular it was at the time, and what kind of reception Robert Heinlein received for his book. I could not believe that I had never heard more about this novel when it played so specifically into the criticisms of society in the 1960s. One review that I read suggested that the hippies of the era actually used the ideas in Heinlein's book to create some of the free love "nests" of the era. Why hadn't I ever heard that before?

The basic premise of the story is that a human who was raised on Mars is returned to earth. He has changed due to his interactions with the Martians and has skills which a normal human does not have. Through the course of the book, the character, Valentine Michael Smith, develops his abilities and uses them to try and make a better world, one person at a time. The people who surround Smith are critical of the world in which they live and a lot of the book is monologued commentary on human society. The father figure, Jubal Harshaw, acts as a voice box - I would assume - for Heinlein. So much of what he said was a direct criticism of American consumerism, egotism, and powerful institutions.

A few warnings, the book can be slow. I read the 350 page version published in the 1960s. In the 80s the book was re-released with additional content pushing the total page count over 500 pages. I had a hard time keeping my interest in the middle of the book as it was. I don't think I would have wanted an additional 150 pages. And, if you are protective of organized religion or uncomfortable reading about liberal sexual relations, don't read this book. Most of the commentary is focused on the ridiculousness of religious ideology. And Smith's response is to create an open, loving society in which sex is used as a means of growing closer. I didn't find either aspect offensive, but that might say more about me than about this book.

In the end, I think that Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the most interesting historical commentaries I have ever read. In school we all read 1984 or Animal Farm, both of which are great books. But they are dated now that communism has fallen apart. Heinlein's concerns and criticisms are less dated. Much of what concerned him almost 50 years ago remain relevant today.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

BBC's "The Big Read"

Like many other Facebook users, I took the bait and made a note for the "What does the BBC know?" meme. The instructions stated: "Apparently the BBC believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here. How do your reading habits stack up?". When I read it I wondered about the utter randomness of the books on the list. It includes "Complete Works of Shakespeare" and then separately has "Hamlet." I could not reconoiter a rhyme or a reason for the books on the list. So I began googling and discovered that it seems to be impossible to track down this list Someone created it on a whim.

However, there is a BBC list of 100 books which exists. It is called "The Big Read" and according to the BBC:

In April 2003 the BBC's Big Read began the search for the nation's best-loved novel, and we asked you to nominate your favourite books.

Here is the real BBC list. Like the Facebook meme I have included

X for the books that I have read
/ for books that I started but did not finish
* for books that I would like to read
@ for books that I strongly disliked

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien /
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen X
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman X
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams X
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling X
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee X
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne X
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell X
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis X
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë X
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller /
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë X
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier X
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger X
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens X
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott X
19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres *
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell X
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling X
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling X
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling X
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien /
26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot /
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving X
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett X
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl X
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen X
39. Dune, Frank Herbert X
40. Emma, Jane Austen X
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery X
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams /
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald X@
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell X
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher

51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King X
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy /
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth X
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer X
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden X
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens X
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman X
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding X
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt *
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins X
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar X
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley X
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel X
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett X
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

I have never heard of Jacqueline Wilson, but she must be popular in Britain.
I have read 39 books on this list.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Anne of Green Gables & Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery

Somehow I made it to adulthood without ever reading L. M. Montgomery's infamous Anne of Green Gable series. I did watch the fabulous miniseries back in the day and enjoyed it thoroughly. Remembering the innocent plot, I bought all seven books when I thought I might have a daughter. No daughter, but the books sitting in my basement, I finally decided to pick up the first book. I liked it well enough that I immediately read the second one.

So much current fiction is emotionally loaded in an attempt to force the reader into a particular emotional catharsis having read the book. I find this frustrating as I prefer to choose my emotional tantrums myself. I knew I needed a break from this type of fiction which is in part why I picked up a book that was written 100 years ago. In addition, too much modern fiction feels the need to prove it's modernness by creating asocial, atypical families. Hmm... so I guess Anne of Green Gables family is likewise atypical, but it would definitely not qualify as modern dysfunctional.

What can I say, I fell in love. It's hard not to. There's a reason this series is still being published one hundred years later. The characters are innocent and lovable. The stories are light and amusing but still engaging. I read this book with pure joy and was happy to pick up the immediate sequel and stay engaged in the world for another week. By that time I was ready for a jump back to modern-day reality but I will definitely return to the world of Green Gables soon.

I did read this debating about its appropriateness as a chapter book for my sons. Although there are features that make this a "girl's" book, I think it would be appropriate and interesting for a young boy too. Anne's adventures reek of universal childhood curiosity. There is not an overwhelming focus on girly topics that would bore most boys. Montgomery does use flowery language, usually at the beginning of each chapter, which might highjack a nightly reading in order to define some of her terms. But that would be manageable. Montgomery originally wrote this series as a monthly episodic publication. Each chapter contains a complete short story. For this reason, the book would be ideal nightly reading.

In the first two novels Anne grows from age 11 to 17. Anne appears on Prince Edward Island as a young orphan. She is adopted by the brother and sister team of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Matthew is quiet but loving. Marilla is much more outspoken and stricter. Anne has an uncanny ability to get into scrapes and difficulties, most of which are humorous and bring her to no immediate harm. In the second novel, Anne has returned to Green Gables as a sixteen year old high school graduate to teach at the local primary school. Again, she meets local characters and gets herself involved in social antics. It's hard to not walk away from these stories with a smile. They're engaging and make us remember a much more innocent world.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

I recently posted on the best books of the 20th Century. There is no doubt that The Demolished Man deserves to be added to the list. It is an amazing piece of science fiction that has survived time better than a lot of books written in the past ten or twenty years. I cannot give this book high enough praise.

A few years ago my husband handed me The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. Over the years I have continued to remember individual scenes in that story. They were unique and realistically futuristic. So when my husband handed me another book by Bester I was happy to start reading.

Alfred Bester is NOT a well known name among many science fiction readers. He does not have the memorability of Philip Dick or Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury. Yet, he should. I would suggest that he is one of the best classic science fiction authors around. The Demolished Man won the first Hugo Award after its publication in book form in 1953. Bester's books remain fresh and intriguing over 50 years later.

The Demolished Man is the story of a murder and the police attempt to track the murderer. The book fits exactly into the world of pulp fiction that was being written by plenty of authors in the 1950s. But what makes Bester's novel original is the use of ESP "Peepers" police to track the murderer. The story floats back and forth between Ben Reich, the murderer, and Prefect Powell, the detective.

Bester gives just enough detail to make the story compelling and keep it moving. But, he does not fall into the trap of giving so much detail to overly-date the book. He introduces a computer to help solve the crime - it is a bit unrealistic I suppose - but he keeps it generic enough that a reader today isn't laughing outright and how far off the author was 50 years ago.

Bester clinches the book in the final few pages. Again, he doesn't lay out the details, but he hints just enough to really force the reader to read again and go back and reevaluate the whole story.
If you're a Science Fiction fan, like classic sci fi, and have never read Alfred Bester, go out and buy his books now! They're worth it.