books, reading, and blogging

There was a time when I considered myself a blogger. I would occasionally write a review of the book I had just read. It was satisfying in its own simple way. Then I entered into a MA in Literature program at UC Irvine. While I didn’t stop reading for the program (I was reading 30 books+ each summer) I did experience a little bit of readers fatigue once summer ended.

And now that I only have the thesis left I’m restraining myself so that I will focus on getting the paper done, instead of attacking the growing pile of books waiting for me (I am desperate to get back to Westeros). Despite my best reasons for not reading many books right now, I have to mention the incredible book I recently finished. Here is my review:

Death is a surprisingly good narrator. He is wry, sardonic, and, well, even likeable. Author Markus Zusak not only crafts an engaging plot, but he expertly makes a usually terrifying subject – death- a thoughtful narrator. And of course, given the subject of war, Death is an accomplished participant. The Book Thief is well deserving of its bestseller status, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Now, I’m not really one for World War II books. I wonder how it is possible that that genre hasn’t been exhausted yet. Had I known that The Book Thief was a World War II book, I probably would have passed on it; and in so doing, I would have passed on an extraordinary story.

Fortunately for me, I’m too lazy to bother reading the summary found on the back covers of books, so I had no idea what I was getting when I picked it up.

Zusak’s story is about a young girl who is given up for adoption after her baby brother dies. The first time that Death encounters the young girl, Liesel, is when he picks up the soul of her baby brother. During his quick visit, he notices something remarkable about Liesel and he has the fortune (or misfortune as it may be) to see her time and time again. And as Death follows her life, he graciously tells us all about her.

Liesel is a German girl growing up in Nazi Germany. She is a sweet character and readers will easily fall in love with her. This was a bit shocking to me, because I’ve never read a sympathetic story about Germans during World War II. I did appreciate this though, because not all Germans hated Jews. Not all Germans wanted to kill Jews. In fact, some Germans risked their own lives and families to protect Jews. Liesel’s family did. Liesel’s adopted mother and father are such great characters. Her father is as loving and sweet as Liesel, and her mother is harsh on the outside but a total softy inside.

While much of this story is simply about Liesel and her friends being kids, playing soccer, fighting with each other, and competing to be the best, their innocent lives cannon remain untouched by war. Slowly, the war creeps into their everyday lives and eventually disrupts everything they know.

As I’ve already said, I loved this story, and my efforts here can’t do it justice. You really do need to read this story. And I’d recommend you read it soon. The movie version is coming out soon, and while it looks really good, we all know that books are better.

20131128-150210.jpg My only concern with the movie is that the wonderful narrative voice will be sacrificed for traditional movie storytelling.

Cadence of a lullaby

Gail Tsukiyama’s words are simple.  Her story is simple.  But her words are poetic.  Her story is beautiful.

a hundred flowersTsukiyama’s A Hundred Flowers tells of the Chineese communist crackdown on intellectuals in the late 1950′s.  The story revolves around Kai Ying, a devoted mother, wife, and daughter-in-law.  In the first few pages Kai Ying’s husband, Sheng, is torn from his family and sent to a labor camp for his letter criticizing the Communist Party.  From that moment, Kai Ying must endure the hardships of uncertainty, silence, and single parenthood.  Kai Ying is resilient and strong.  She perseveres.  Unfortunately, in her perseverance, she uncovers painful secrets.

The story line is straightforward, but filled with poignant moments that draw the characters close to your heart.  And there is a sub-plot, gently and expertly weaved in, that nearly made me cry each time it became the focus.

Tsukiyama’s soft tone  takes on the cadence of a lullaby.  The great hope and deep love in this story will wrap you up in a warm, comfortable blanket.

Epicureans and Pirates: a surprisingly enjoyable combination

I almost didn’t make it through Eli Brown’s new novel Cinnamon and Gunpowder. But I persevered and ended up falling for this pirate tale of abduction, tyranny, love, and of course, food.

cinnamon and gunpowderThe year is 1819, and the protagonist Owen Wedgwood is enjoying the safe and comfortable life as the personal chef for a shipping magnate, when one night his employer is brutally murdered by the ruthless pirate Mad Hannah Mabbot, who then takes poor Owen prisoner.

Owen secretly records his story in the journal he hides away in his small quarters aboard Mabbot’s ship.  He writes that his only option, if he values his life, is to cook a delicious meal for Mabbot once a week.  His resources are scant afloat on the ocean, and his inclination to oblige is equally small.  But oblige he does.  And in his more honest moments, he confesses that the challenge of creating delicacies against such adverse conditions is refreshing.  His love for food translates into mouth watering descriptions.  Placed against the salty, and barren backdrop of the wide ocean, Owen’s recipes become as much a salve to the reader as his meals do for Mad Mabbot.

This story is a swashbuckling ocean adventure where the pirates fight for treasure and kill for fun.  And just as Mabbot draws Owen deeper and deeper into her world, so too, did this book draw me in.  What initially was annoying to me (Owen’s diction), became endearing.  In fact, some of his musings were downright insightful.  My favorite is when he considers the depths of man’s depravity: “God dug no deeper pit that a man’s skull.”  And by the end, I was thoroughly enjoying my time aboard The Flying Rose, with its eclectic gathering of pirates.

This book is one for the beach, which is perfect, since summer is just about here.

Want to be smarter? Knowing The Meaning of Everything will help.

You wouldn’t expect a story about writing a dictionary to be very interesting.  After  all, dictionaries themselves are hardly riveting material.  In fact, do people even read, look at, or own dictionaries any more?  Isn’t Google the wellspring of information?

by Simon WinchesterAs a kid working on homework, when I had a question about a word or the spelling of a word my parents sent me to the dictionary.  I would beg, “please, just help me out.  It will take so much longer to look it up.”  I would manipulate, “you probably don’t really know!”  Or I would ignore the problem altogether and find a synonym, or just plain not do the work.  Now, even though I am fascinated by language, have a thirst for knowledge, and appreciate learning, it is very likely that I will google the definition (yes, I just used google as a verb thereby potentially securing my place in history as one who helped to lay the written foundation to define google as an action-you’ll understand if you read the book) rather than look it up in one of the two dictionaries I have on the shelf.

Since something like looking up the definition of a word has become so simple and so ubiquitous, it is incredibly easy to take for granted the immense undertaking of cataloging every word in the English language.  Have you ever considered what it took to bring all that information together?  I hadn’t.  And that is why I found Simon Winchester’s non-fiction history on the dictionary so impressive.

Winchester is skilled with his words.  His story unfolds with the thrill of a novel.  He clearly presents the key players and critical moments in history that seem to miraculously coalesce so that the behemoth now known as the Oxford English Dictionary could be born.  The suspense and the drama move the story right along; from year to year, decade to decade, a job that seemed to grow increasingly more impossible struggles against the odds.

It is no spoiler to tell you that the many men and women who were necessary to complete the task eventually succeeded-today, the OED is synonymous with dictionary.  Don’t know what a jingoist is?  Check the OED.  Don’t know what oleaginous means?  Check the OED.  See what I mean?  The OED is the go to reference for all things English.

This story is not merely a list of definitions, but rather the experience of gathering and ordering the information used to create the definitions that fill the dictionary.  And it is more diverse and surprising than you can imagine.  Did you know a murderer was an essential participant?  Or that J. R. R. Tolkien helped?  There is also a thrilling short history of how the English language evolved.  The book is filled with incredible facts, and sometimes incredible definitions.  My favorite is this: RETREAT from the Dictionary of Marine: “Retreat is the order in which a French fleet retires before an enemy.  As it is not properly a term of the British marine, any fuller account would be out of place” (236).

I highly recommend this book to anyone.  And though you won’t walk away from it actually knowing the meaning of everything, you will almost certainly have a new-found appreciation for the work that went into writing, editing, and publishing the Oxford English Dictionary.

*I found most of the book to be quite accessible and easy to understand, but there were times when the boundaries of my vocabulary were stretched and I was sent running, not to Google, but to the OED (online).  I’m making myself vulnerable here, don’t laugh at what I don’t know.

xvi: anticyclone- winds spiraling outwards

xx: jingoist-chauvinist, an extreme bellicose nationalist

xx: numistmatist- collector and student of money

xxi: lucifers- a match struck by rubbing it on a rough surface

3: suzerainty- a sovereign or state having some control over another state that is internally autonomous

6: elided- omit a sound or syllable when speaking

10: simulacrum- an image or representation of someone or something; unsatisfactory imitation

19: inchoate- just begun and so not fully formed or developed

84: oleaginous- rich in, covered with, or producint oil; oily or greasy

99: desuetude- a state of disuse

120: interrobang- ?!, a combination question mark and exclamation mark

123: orthoepy- the correct or accepted pronunciation of words

140: Stakhanovite- a worker in the former USSR who was exceptionally hardworking and productive

169: adumbrated- report or represent in outline; indicate faintly; foreshadow or symbolize

211: assiduity- constant or close attention to what one is doing

226: catafalque- a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral

233: gallimaufry- a confused jumble or medley of things

235: forfend- (archaic) avert, keep away, or prevent (something evil or unpleasant)

The Nothern Clemency

I must have read a really good book review about Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency at some point, because my wife gave it to me as a gift.  When I looked quizzically at this unfamiliar book, she said it was on my Amazon wish list.

northern clemencySo when I opened this book for the first time, I truly had no idea what it was about; a very rare experience for me and the way I read.  I so wish I could find that initial review that interested me so much, I want to know what in the world it said, ‘cuz I could find nothing particularly engaging in this novel.  Yet, so much of what the promotional comments on the back cover claimed were true.

New Statesman: “A good old-fashioned story about two families, beginning in 1974 and spanning twenty years…Hensher is at his brilliant best in the details.”

The Spectator: “Hensher presents the great drama and inexhaustible wonder of ordinary life…”

The Times: “Hensher is a brilliant anatomist of familial tension and marshals his large cast of characters deftly.  He has an impeccable eye for nuances of character and setting.”

It is very clear that the author in question is a skilled writer.  He has mastery of the language and is subtle and nuanced, his sentences are clean and relatable.  Some of his anecdotes are humorous, and reflect life with perfect clarity.

But now let’s examine the other claims of the reviewers; the New Statesman claims this is a “terrific novel”, the Spectator says it is “a page-turner” and the times says The Northern Clemency is “an engrossing and hugely impressive novel.”

Lies!  Gross exaggerations!  Hyperbolic salesmanship at its worst!

Well, maybe that is a little harsh.  But I found this book to be boring.  The characters and story lines that I thought were most interesting were dropped and ignored.  I found The Northern Clemency to be a long-winded family melodrama with no cohesive plot.  The seeds of intrigue planted early in the pages are not cared for, left to wither and die long before you get to the last pages.  Unfortunately, Hensher’s good writing becomes a moot point in his frustratingly uninteresting novel.

*As a side note, it is clearly for an English audience, relying on aspects of modern English history, politics, mining, and daily culture to tell the story.  Since I have no knowledge of any of that, it could be that I was just the very wrong audience for this tale.

Celebrate Lincoln

Looking for a way to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday by actually thinking about the 16th POTUS?  Don’t get me wrong, enjoying the holiday as a day off is a nice perk.  But by reading about this man, and learning a lot at the same time, I will be able to enjoy the BBQ in his honor a little more because it will mean more.  Taking the day for granted is easy.  Forgetting the details of history is a shame.  Exploring history through reading is a refreshing joy, and so I encourage you to spend a little time in Lincoln study by reading The Hour of Peril.

Hour of PerilThe Hour of Peril, by Daniel Stashower, is a non-fiction historical crime thriller.  John Wilkes Booth became famous for assassinating Lincoln, but what this book expertly reports is that there was a serious conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln years earlier.

Despite its historically grounded content, this book reads like a face paced fiction.  As Lincoln speeds across the union to the capitol for his first inauguration, Allan Pinkerton (and his team of undercover sleuths)  is creeping in the shadows ferreting out the plot details and identifying the conspirators.

In fact, the mini-biography of Allan Pinkerton and the story of how his work made him the first and foremost private detective in America is a joy unto itself.  I felt that the rest of the murder plot was a bonus to Pinkerton’s heroics.

My one complaint about this book reveals my lack of knowledge more than anything else.  Essentially, the union of the United States is on the brink of collapse and Lincoln has been elected President.  Before he is even able to take over his new post, the threats of the southern states are so strong that the civil war seems inevitable.  So Lincoln is trying to tenuously hold the nation together, and therefore is willing to expose himself to dangers by traveling openly across the country, reaching out the his fellow Americans.  What t he book doesn’t do is to provide a clear explanation of what states were friendly to the union, and thus to Lincoln, and what states were in favor of succession, and thus a threat to Lincoln. In other words, something as simple as a map delineating the north and south would have been extremely helpful for me.  But since this was truly my first foray into the study of the Civil War, there is so much that I did not know going in that it is hardly fair to hold this book responsible for my ignorance.

In all, I’d liken this book to Devil in the White City and Destiny of the Republic, both excellent historical non-fictions.

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

As previously reported, I’m back to reading books purely for the enjoyment of reading.  After my hiatus, I read A Once Crowded Sky which didn’t help me much.  In fact, I kind of stagnated with that book.

But when I heard that Justin Cronin was releasing his second book in his Passage Trilogy I got all fired up again.  Justifiably so.

the-twelveThe Twelve begins by revisiting the apocalypse that began in The Passage.  The military was experimenting with a virus that turned twelve test subjects into vampires, who, of course, escaped and ravaged humanity.  The second in Cronin’s trilogy was everything I had been waiting for.

It had the suspense and action that I loved about the first book, while maintaining Cronin’s skills as a genre-bender.  This book is a little sci-fi, a little horror (without relying on vampire clichés), a lot apocalyptic & post-apocalyptic,  but it is wholly character driven.  There are chapters that will bring you to the verge of tears.

The Twelve goes back and fills in a little of the history of the United States after the virus outbreak.  The first half of the book follows a few survivors struggling to find safety as they cross through empty cities that once were major metropolises.  Though, it feels just a tad disjointed (i.e. are we going to get back to the heroes we loved in The Passage?) Cronin pulls his story lines together flawlessly.  (And we do get back to the heroes we loved in The Passage!)

This books was the complete reading experience, and I look forward to getting at the third installment as soon as it is released.

Bonus: I got to meet author Justin Cronin in Huntington Beach

Bonus: I got to meet author Justin Cronin in Huntington Beach