Thursday, December 16, 2010

The New York Times Book Review Best of 2010: Non-Fiction

Continuing from my last post, here are the New York Times Book Review selection s for the best non-fiction books of 2010

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

by Jennifer Homans

While I can't say I'm a huge fan of ballet, I am a fan of the arts in general.  I mostly like the music that has been written for ballets but this could be a fascinating read. 

Cleopatra: A life

by Stacy Schiff

This also sounds interesting.  Biography is a genre I don't usually read, but I could always make an exception.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
By Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Here's a different kind of biography, one about a disease.  It sounds pretty comprehensive and it's a subject I don't know much about even though I have had family members who have had cancer.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, ­Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
By Stephen Sondheim.

I know he's really famous and talented, but I'm just not all that interested.  Can I just watch Sweeney Todd again instead?

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson.

Here's another book whose subject I know nothing about.  Could be informative.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The New York Times Book Review Best of 2010: Fiction

Every year around this time, I look forward to seeing what books were selected by the New York Times Book Review as the best of the year.  I've read several books in the past that made the list and enjoyed all of them.  A few examples are the novels A Mercy by Toni Morrison and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl and the non-fiction books The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross and The Bounty by Caroline Alexander.  I'm not sying I completely agree with the opinions of the NYTBR panel, but it is a good source for finding books to read.  Here are my thoughs on this year's selections for fiction. 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This is the book that everyone was talking about this year.   I read the opening of Franzen's earlier book The Corrections and liked it.  I'm definitely curious about Freedom

The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie

I am not familiar with this author. 

Room by Emma Donoghue

The premise of this one is intriguing.  The story concerns a 5-year old boy and his mother who are trapped in a single room.  The story is narrated by the boy.  It's hard to imagine how an entire novel can be sustaiined by the narrative voice of a child but apparently it works. 

Selected Stories by William Trevor

Like the Beattie book, I am not familiar with this author. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I really enjoyed Egan's previous book The Keep so I'm looking forward to this one.  It has an unusual narrative technique; it seems like a collection of short stories but it is really part of one big story.  One of the stories is told through a Power Point presentation. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

After reading a new book...

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” 

I’ve read this quote from C. S. Lewis before but came across it earlier this year when I checked out the book Invitation to the Classics from the library.  This book, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness exhorts Christians to read and explore the classics of literature.  The book opens with three outstanding essays on the value of reading the classics and the Lewis quote appears in one of them.  (I returned the book so I don’t know exactly which essay it was.) 

I realized that I couldn’t remember the last classic I’d read.  (I tried to read The Brothers Karamazov a while back, but didn’t finish it.)  I then decided to make up a list of books recommended by Cowan and Guinness and read them.  I may not read one old book to every new book, or even every three books as Lewis suggested, but hopefully I’ll become more familiar with the great works of the past. 

The first one I read was Madame Bovary.  I’ll have more to say on that in a future post, but for now I’ll say it is one of the best novels I have ever read.  I’m glad I accepted the invitation. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

I’ve always been a sucker for time travel stories, whether it’s movies like Back to the Future or the novels and stories of Connie Willis.  When I heard that Rebecca Stead’s Newberry Award winning children’s novel When You Reach Me dealt with time travel, I was curious. 

The book is set in late 1970s New York City.  Sixth-grader Miranda and her single mother live in a small apartment and dream of a better life.  Things start to look good when Miranda’s mom learns she will become a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid.  The preparations for the game show are the backdrop for the main story about Miranda and her friends. 

Miranda’s favorite book is the classic time travel story A Wrinkle in Time.  She reads it over and over and soon finds herself involved in what might be time travel.  One day, Miranda receives a mysterious note that tells her, “I am coming to save your friend’s life and also my own.”   In order to do this, Miranda needs to do certain things to assist the writer.  As proof, the writer provides information about the future that no one could possibly know. 

Despite the fantastic element of the novel,  the real point is how Miranda deals with the relationships she has with several fellow sixth graders.  There are misunderstandings that eventually are resolved.  And of course, we also find out who wrote the notes. 

The novel is well paced and plotted and the writing is simple, but not simplistic.  As an adult reader, I found the characters well drawn, both the children and adults.  For Christian readers, there’s nothing too offensive except for a sub-plot about the boyfriend of Miranda’s mother who wants to move in before he gets married.  The positive messages in the novel are rather simple, mostly the benefits of close friendships with members of the same and opposite sex.  There is an element of self-sacrifice that is important to the story, but surprisingly is not given much discussion, or at least as much as it deserves. 

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Mercy book review

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

OK, I was going to try and write book reviews as soon as I finished a book but that hasn’t happened. Oh well, what do you do? I finished this book a few weeks ago, so hopefully I get the details right.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a “literary” novel so I decided to look for something that both fit that description and was short. I don’t have as much time to read these days, so I didn’t want to get into something really long even though I love long books that you can really get into if they’re well written.

I had seen many good reviews of A Mercy and my library had a copy available so I checked it out. I’ve never read anything by Toni Morrison. If I have my facts straight, she’s the only living American writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her latest book is set in North America in the late 17th century before slavery became an institution. In this colonial time, both white and black persons could become slaves or indentured servants. Morrison explores themes of racism and bigotry, not just towards blacks, but towards women and Native Americans. There’s nothing new here about those themes, but it is extremely well written. The basic plot is about a Dutch man who runs a farm in colonial America and acquires a sixteen year old black girl as a slave when her mother offers to give her daughter up rather than be taken herself. The girl lives on the farm with the man’s European mail-order bride, a Native American woman and some indentured hired hands. What happens to the girl forms the crux of the story, which is told through various points-of-view and not in a straight-forward linear fashion.

I read lots of negative reviews on Amazon and the main reason most people seemed to dislike the novel is because they couldn’t follow it. Some even gave up after the first chapter. While I grant it’s not easy to follow, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I couldn’t understand the first chapter either but I assumed (correctly, I think) that the perplexity of the prose was deliberate and that things would eventually become clear, which they did. Thanks to the obscure writing style there were plenty of “a-ha” moments as elements of the plot were gradually revealed. Many scenes were vividly realized and would make for great movie scenes except that I can’t imagine anyone turning this into a movie. The pleasure in the novel is in the various elements of the plot coming together at different times and seen through the eyes of multiple characters. It wouldn’t work if the story were told in chronological order.

My only complaint is Morrison’s treatment of Christians. She rightly notes that there were differences between Protestants and Catholics at that time, especially since the Protestant Reformation was much closer to the time of this story than it is today, but neither group comes across well. Most of the Christian characters are unnamed and tend to be representative of the group as a whole, (“the Baptists” or “the Presbyterians“). These characters are bigoted and unkind to the main characters in the story. Still, that’s not a huge distraction and overall I really liked A Mercy. I’ll have to read Beloved, Ms. Morrison’s best known work, someday.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Book Review: Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians

Let’s see if this plot sounds familiar. A young boy being raised by people who aren’t his parents is told by someone he’s never met that he possesses extraordinary powers. The man takes the boy away from his home and shows him that there are others just like him with magical powers and that he has a destiny to defeat a powerful group of people who want to control the world. If you guessed Harry Potter, well you’d be right, but I’m talking about Brandon Sanderson’s book Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians, a hilarious send-up of the young-adult fantasy genre.

In this short but entertaining book, the reader is introduced to Alcatraz Smedry who receives a package in the mail on his thirteenth birthday. It’s from his supposedly dead parents who have given him…a bag of sand. Soon a man claiming to be his grandfather shows up and tells him that he has magical powers called Talents and that the world is actually controlled by evil librarians. Alcatraz also meets several of his hitherto unknown relatives who also have special abilities. Instead of what you might expect, Sanderson gives his characters rather unexpected abilities, including the ability to break things, the ability to always be late for everything and the ability to trip and fall down. These talents are put to clever uses as our heroes infiltrate the librarians’ headquarters…the downtown branch of the public library.

Interspersed with the humorous adventures of Alcatraz and his friends are Sanderson’s (through Alcatraz’s narration) funny comments on writing in general and fantasy novels in particular. I liked the part about how authors love it when people stay up too late reading their books because the authors keep ending chapters with cliffhangers. While this book isn’t as fully developed as the other novel I’ve read by him, Elantris, it’s not supposed to be since it’s aimed at younger readers. I had a great time with it and look forward to reading the second volume.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

2008 Academy Award Nominees for Best Animated Short Film

Yesterday I went to the Magnolia theater in Dallas to watch a program of animated short films that are nominated for an Academy Award. I love animation and it’s rare to see short films of this type outside of the ones Pixar releases in front of their movies. In fact, one of the nominees is Presto, the short that was presented with WALL-E. Presto tells the story of a magician and his put-upon rabbit who refuses to be pulled out of a hat until he gets to eat a carrot. The rabbit puts the magician through all sorts of slapstick torture in the style of a Warner Brothers cartoon, kind of like what Bugs Bunny would do to Yosemite Sam. As with all of Pixar’s efforts, Presto is clever and very funny.

The first short of the program is Lavatory Lovestory from Russia. It’s a simple story about a lonely woman who attends a generic public restroom. My mom is living in Europe right now and she wrote about how different the restrooms are over there and even mentioned going to one that had an attendant that you are supposed to give money to when you enter. The animation in Lavatory Lovestory is mostly simple line drawings in black and white with a few splashes of color. The animators got a lot of expression from their characters even with the bare-bones style they used.

Oktapodi came next. Two octopi are in love but one of them is taken away by a chef to be served for dinner. The other octopus goes after his lover in a hilarious CGI adventure that is non-stop fun for all of its three minute running time. Obviously inspired by both Warner Bros. and Pixar cartoons, it was my favorite with lots of sight gags and a frenetic pace.

I initially had a hard time figuring out what was going on in La Maison en Petits Cubes. It’s about an old man whose house is slowly flooding. As he swims to the lower levels of his house, he remembers details of his life, especially memories of his late wife. I found myself quite moved by this surreal story of memory and loss.

This Way Up is a short with a distinctly British sense of black humor. Two serious looking undertakers try to take a casket to a cemetery and things go horribly wrong as all sorts of accidents happen to both the casket and the dead woman inside including a bizarre descent into hell itself. Morbid but hilarious.

After the five nominees, the program continued with several other shorts, which I presume were on the short-list but didn’t receive a nomination. The first was Varmints, a 24-minute short that I’m not sure I can accurately describe. It involves an anthropomorphic animal of indeterminate species who loves nature and being in the outdoors. His world soon turns nightmarish as other creatures drag a giant city into a meadow and the creature finds himself living in this bland, mechanical world. It reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. He hangs on to a plant seedling he rescued before the city arrived and meets a female member of his species. The CGI animation is outstanding with lots of surreal imagery and special effects.

Another fascinating short was Schizein from France. This one is a Twilight Zone type story about a man who is hit by a meteorite and perceives himself to be located exactly 91 centimeters from his actual body. I know, it s hard to describe in words but it works very well in the animation medium. This is one of the few films that has dialogue.

The program was rounded out by a few more shorts, the best of which is one by well-known animator Bill Plympton called Hot Dog about an overeager firehouse dog who tries to help fight a fire with disastrous and hilarious results.