Friday, March 26, 2010


I plowed through Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping basically in one sitting. My review is here; the many adoring comments make me really excited to still have her Pulitzer-winner, Gilead, on my list. I actually went and got a copy out from the library to bump it up.

And onto Gaps housekeeping, I'm currently working my way through (three chapters a week) the devilish history of the Crusades called God's War. I put this on my list because many years ago I bought it for $35, so I need to read it so I don't feel stupid about having bought it. But it is 800 pages of very dense history. My big plan, when I finish, is to write here on this blog a summary of the WHOLE of the Crusades so that no one else will have to read the whole book. (Great plan, right...?)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review-North of Beautiful By Justina Chen Headley

I heard lots of good reviews about this book, but I only felt it was ok. Terra has a port wine stain that covers her cheek. She feels that she needs to keep a lean figure in order for people to think she is pretty. Terra does not feel good about herself. Despite creating art, she doesn't consider herself an artist. She devalues herself and lets others do the same until she meets Jacob who sees passed her cool facade and challenges her to be herself. Terra spent so much time whining that I really didn't like her til the last 50 pages. I liked Jacob but I didn't think he was developed enough. I hated Terra's father but you were supposed to (who likes the Dad who picks on his wife and children?). If the scene in the orphanage hadn't happened I probably wouldn't have liked this book. That part made the book worth reading. I really hoped this book had been more than it was.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Relativity: The Special and General Theory

Earlier this week, I finished what is probably the "heaviest" titled on my Fill in the Gaps list, Einstien's Relativity: The Special and General Theory. I expected it to be really hard, but it wasn't so bad. I've written a little bit of my reflections, rather than a review, over at my main blog.

By way of a very brief review, I have to say that Einstein does an amazing job of taking what could be dense, difficult stuff and making it accessible. I don't mean you don't have to think to get it, but he writes in such a way to direct the thinking so that you can keep up with what he's saying. It's not all that tough, when done this way. I am not, by any means, well versed in physics, but this book is very easy to get into, and very easy to follow, if you pay attention. What an amazing writer — on top of being brilliant in his own field!

I won't say a lot more about the content, as it is pretty familiar to everyone today anyway. But as far as reading material, I will say that Relativity is something I would recommend anyone pick up if you are looking for something outside of your normal reading topics. It's engaging and challenging, but not difficult. The examples are clear, and are sustained throughout the book to help provide a continuity as things get more and more challenging. I chose to read with a printed copy in front of me while listening to an audio book (downloaded for free from Librivox), and that was a nice way to attack this book, I thought.

Einstein is clearly one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, and reading this volume is a good way to get a feel for what made him such a prominent figure during his day and all the days since.


"The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame

Mole, Water Rat, Badger, and the mischievous Toad live a quiet life on the banks of the River Thames with the rest of their animal friends. But Toad tends to get into trouble, and his passion for cars eventually results in his being caught and kept a helpless prisoner in the remotest dungeon of the best-guarded castle in all the land. Dressed as a washerwoman—and with some help from his friends—Toad manages to escape the castle and begins his journey home to Toad Hall.

MY THOUGHTS: This is a great book for all those little minds. They can see all the wonderful animals and the places they live. The illustrations are beautifully done and very colorful. Little minds can imagine where Mr. Mole, Mr. Rat, Mr. Toad and all the animals live an play. This would be a great book to read to your little ones.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Matthew, Book Review, *Anatole France, *The Gods Will Have Blood

I am still managing to not be dead, which I assume means the surgery went well and I can now get back to writing about the books I've read without first boring everyone with the minutiae of my health problems. But enough of that -- on with the show.

By 1921, the year Anatole France was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Germany and France had been locked in mutual enmity for three centuries or more1. During the awards ceremony, France found himself standing on stage next to German chemist Walther Nernst, and, well, I'll let finish the story:
After Anatole France had received his Prize from the hands of the King, there occurred an incident which left a strong impression on all present. When the venerable had gone up to the rostrum again, he turned to Professor Walther Nernst, Prize winner in Chemistry, and exchanged a long and cordial handshake with him. The Frenchman, the «last classic», and the German, the great scientist and representative of intellectual sobriety, the citizens of two countries which had for a long time been enemies, were united in a handshake - a profoundly symbolic gesture. The audience applauded, feeling that the two nations, which for years had fought against one another, had just met in reconciliation. (source)
This was not new territory for France -- the very backbone of his writing style is his ability to contrast (and sometimes even reconcile) opposites in interesting, insightful ways. In The Gods Will Have Blood, which is set during the Reign of Terror that marked the final blood-frenzied days of the French Revolution, this style manifests itself in several ways, the simplest of which are oxymoronic descriptions like "fanatic patience" and "reasoned dogmatism." The novel also spends a great deal of time contrasting the life-and-death seriousness of the Revolutionary Tribunals and deadly political infighting amongst powerful intellectuals with the largely unaffected daily lives of the French commoners. But the best two examples of this style of opposites in The Gods Will Have Blood are its two main characters, the aging ex-nobleman and epicurean Maurice Brotteaux and the opinionated, highly principled young painter Evariste Gamelin.

Gamelin is a fiercely passionate man who throws himself into everything -- conversations about fine art, defenses of the Revolutionary government's actions, his love affair with Elodie Blaise, etc. -- with equal force. His uncompromising approach to life is by turns admirable and disquieting; it's hard not to admire his resolve and strength of will, but when he is appointed to the Revolutionary Tribunal those same qualities lead him to order the executions of hundreds of his countrymen on the scantest of evidence.

Brotteaux, who lives in the same cramped building as Gamelin, is an unapologetic hedonist who insists that the pursuit of pleasure and beauty is paramount in life. In most authors' hands, a character with beliefs like his would invariably turn out to be a drunken, bug-eyed lech who double-entendres his way through every conversation. Instead, we are introduced to a good, gentle man who finds beauty and pleasure in the simplest of things, an atheist who willingly shelters a priest being hunted by the Revolutionary police, and a thinker who freely expresses his beliefs and ideals while all around him he sees others rounded up and executed for saying far less.

In the introduction included with my copy of the novel, translator Frederick Davies asserts that "Anatole France is one of the very few authors who have successfully portrayed both a very good man and a very wicked man in the same novel." I remember feeling skeptical of that comment at the time2, but after reading the novel I have to say that I agree. I'm also going to have to hunt down a few of Anatole France's other novels.

1The exact timeframe depends on whether one dates the origin of the animosity between the two nations to the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) or to some earlier conflict. If you really wanted to stretch things, an argument could be made for French-German revanchism originating in the Treaty of Verdun which split up the Carolingian Empire in the mid-9th Century. Some folks really know how to hold a grudge.

2I've found that when it comes to praise, introductions tend to err on the side of the sort of effusiveness that would embarrass the most obsequious of yes-men -- doubly so when they're written by translators. Hell, just look at this passage from the translator's note in my copy of The Magic Mountain:
But of the author of The Magic Mountain it can be said in a special sense that he has looked into the seeds of Time. It was indispensable that we should read his book; intolerable that English readers should be barred from a work whose spirit, whatever its vehicle, is universal.
It's enough to make you stick a finger down your throat.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Review-The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I choose to read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo because I liked the name. I didn't really know it was about. I don't read reviews so I was surprised when I discovered that it was a crime novel. I usually don't read crime novels but I gave it a try anyway. It took me about 200 pages to actually get interested in the book. Then I was hooked. I really liked Lisbeth and Mikael. Both character were so interesting. I'm not sure I've "met" characters like that before. There is graphic violence and graphic sex. But it's important to the story so it didn't bother me. I could put the book down once I got engrossed in the story.  I'll definitely be reading the next two books.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Little Brother Review

If you put George Orwell's 1984 in a blender with the movie Hackers, and threw in a little terrorism to start things off on the wrong foot, Little Brother might come out the other end. But lighter.

I wanted more from the book. 1984 frightened me, Little Brother didn't. Because the antagonist was the Department of Homeland Security, the conflict felt too far removed from the main character, Marcus, and never seemed like an immediate threat. Potential for discovery of Marcus' creation of the XNet existed, but never even developed as a legitimate threat.

Despite that, I enjoyed the read. I'd give it three stars out of five.

Little Brother is available free from several sources under a creative commons license. If you desire, you can take the book and rework it in any manner you please, as long as you don't sell the resulting project.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review-The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Wow, I can see why this is a National Bestseller. Everything I read about this book was true. The Help was funny, thrilling, and touching. The Help follows the story of women (white & black) as the civil rights movement begins. I've read some history on that time but nothing like this book. Each time I had a chance to read I hated putting down the book. Stockett did a real good job drawing me in and making want to stay. Great story line, interesting characters make The Help one of the best I've read this year so far.