Thursday, January 27, 2011

EAST OF EDEN read-along

Hi Everybody!

So recently many of us mentioned interest in an EAST OF EDEN read-along starting in February. Hope everyone who wants feels invited to join.

Here's a guideline schedule, which I've created operating under the previously agreed assumption that most people can manage to read about 80 pages a week (on a good week). Please feel free to read ahead or fall behind; these are just to help.

Tuesday, February 1: Kick-off! (Perhaps a meditation on Nobel Prize-winner John Steinbeck and our previous associations/experiences with him?)
Tuesday, February 8: pages 1-80
Tuesday, February 15: pages 81-160
Tuesday, February 22: pages 161-240
Tuesday, March 1: pages 241-320
Tuesday, March 8: pages 321-400
Tuesday, March 15: pages 401-480, and perhaps a pre-St Paddy's Day and/or pagan shindig (just thinking out loud here; don't you guys feel like we'll need a mid-book reward?)
Tuesday, March 22: pages 480-540
Tuesday, March 29: pages 540-end, fabulous catharsis of relief and accomplishment

I got my copy of the book last week, and am looking forward to a group read! I haven't done one since 2009, with a very helpful and fun (for me, at least) Gravity's Rainbow read-along. So thanks, everybody who has already spurred me along. I appreciate it! I hope you're excited too.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Finally another down

One of my favourite films is 'Empire of the Sun' so when I entered this challenge, I made sure to include the book on my list. Based on J.G. Ballard's own childhood, this novel tells the story of a boy's life in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. A story of war, starvation and survival.

I found it hard to rate this book and even harder to review it. I found this book an uncomfortable read, not in a 'it made me want to blind myself' but more in a 'got under your skin and stays with you' sort of way. So I suppose I could call it 'profound'. There is no doubt that this book is a mesmorising read, and once I hit my stride, I read the book in a night. It's a strange mixture of autobiography and fiction, which makes you wonder where Jim starts and Ballard begins (thankfully my edition had an essay by Ballard summing up his experience which gives you further insight).

Because of my love for the film, it's hard for me not to compare and contrast. The book is definitely much darker and deeper than the film. Through the language, Ballard portrays subtle nuances about situations and hidden depths to characters (minor oneces especially) which could never translate to screen. We're more connected to the world and to Jim with the book. Jim's hunger, hallucinations and desperation to survive in the cruel world of Shanghai and the camps resonate more, with the language of the book reflecting his state of being.

Yet, although in some aspects I felt closer to the world of Jim via the book, I found the book didn't resonate or have the impact that I felt the film had for me. Perhaps Jim's numbness translated more via the text, but I felt no emotionally connection to the people in Jim's world like I did with the film. In the book, there is just a sort of desperation which in the end isn't as nicely or touchingly resolved/relieved like in the film. There is no happy reunion with his parents only this: "Jim had wanted to explain to his parents everything that he and the doctor had done together, but his mother and father had been through their own war. For all their affection for him, they seemed older and far away".

Ballard is an exceptional writer and the book in itself is excellent, if only for the impact it has on you as a reader. It won't touch the heart like the film does, but certainly this book will resonate with you.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Goodreads Description:
The story takes the form of a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior "tempter" named Wormwood, so as to advise him on methods of securing the damnation of a British man, known only as "the Patient".

Screwtape holds an administrative post in the bureaucracy ("Lowerarchy") of Hell, and acts as a mentor to Wormwood, the inexperienced tempter. In the body of the thirty-one letters which make up the book, Screwtape gives Wormwood detailed advice on various methods of undermining faith and promoting sin in the Patient, interspersed with observations on human nature and Christian doctrine. Wormwood and Screwtape live in a peculiarly morally reversed world, where individual benefit and greed are seen as the greatest good, and neither demon is capable of comprehending or acknowledging true human virtue when he sees it.

My Thoughts:
I have heard of this book for years, but just have never taken the time to read it. So glad that I put it on my list of books to read because it was a great one.  The letters are written during WWII when Britain is dealing with the fear of bombs from Germany. Screwtape mentions this in various letters and how it will affect the "Patient" for their benefit or for the "Enemy's" benefit.  Even though the setting is historical, the content will always be current.  What I liked the most is that it is so deep with gut wrenching quotes that make you stop and think about your own life.   (Okay, maybe I don't always like to look at the "yuck" in my life. But, evaluating isn't a bad thing.)
This is definitely a book that I want to read again.

Double Update

Schindler's Ark - Thomas Keneally

I never knew until now that this book was only called Schindler's List in America, but that's besides the point. It's very similar to In Cold Blood in terms of narrative non-fiction. I really enjoyed it, although at times I found it difficult keeping track of who's who. Oskar Schindler really was a morally ambiguous character, but whatever his reasons were for saving Jews were at first, by the end he really worked hard to protect them and what he achieved was pretty incredible.

Lord of the Flies - William Golding

If I was writing this when I finished this book, a couple of days ago, I would have said that I didn't like it. But after a couple of days with that book stewing in the back of my mind, I appreciate it a whole lot more. There are parts of that book that are completely terrifying, and I just felt so sorry for Piggy. The only thing that bothered me was the obvious metaphors belting me over the head.

Has anyone read either of these?

PS - I've worked out my next list: my 100 favourites of all time!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

new year, new update!!

Hi, fellow Gaps friends!

So here entereth the 3rd year of the Gaps project for some of us. (Well, sort of--we started in April, but January 1 seems like a nice milestone to observe.)

I'm so impressed with myself that I've stuck with a project this long, and I know I owe a big chunk of my commitment to the fact that there's a community of people helping keep me motivated. So thanks, guys :)

Based on the 75-book, 5-year goal, my hope was to average 15 books a year. And we're on track! I've finished a total of 34 books, although I confess a larger percentage of heavy reading was done in the first year than was done in the second.

Does anyone else fantasize about making a second Gaps list?
Part of my distraction from Gaps in 2010 was my (re)new(ed) interest in the scifi/fantasy genre, and a vague commitment to reading a lot of groundbreakers/classics in that genre. If I get more Gaps reading done, I might even make an sff auxiliary Gaps list. But not until I decide if it's reasonable.

(Any opinions? Emily, I know you did something similar a while ago...)

Actually, I think one phenomenon of the Gaps list is to want to make a second list almost immediately after embarking on reading the first--a number of my friends have had this happen to them. I'm interested if anyone else has had this "problem."

2011 Goals
My first book of 2011 was Jane Austen's Persuasion, which I reviewed here. I've also taken the step of downloading all the remaining public domain (ie free) books on my list onto my Kindle, so maybe I can make a dent in a couple of them without lugging around any of the real fatsos--a girl wants to avoid carpal tunnel if possible (these include Moby Dick, David Copperfield, House of Mirth, Moll Flanders). Other books I am eager to prioritize, based on feedback from friends, include: The French Lieutenant's Woman, White Teeth, Bad Behavior, and Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Read-alongs, anyone?
I have some above-mentioned fatsos, which I always get through better with read-alongs. So if anyone is interested in a read-along on any of the following, let me know!

Moby Dick
Infinite Jest
Wind-Up Bird Chronicles
House of Mirth
David Copperfield
Atlas Shrugged
The Second Sex
The Adventures of Augie March
Finnigan's Wake
or Ulysses (kinda dreading them both)
The Brothers Karamozov
War & Peace
East of Eden
The Golden Notebook

So--where does 2011 find you? Are you on track for your own goals? Of the other people who started in mid-2009, I wonder how many people are still with us?

I'd love to hear from anyone!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

First, a sidenote: When I was in Barcelona in 2006 I went to check out the Sagrada Familia Basilica. Fun fact: it was designed by Antony Gaudi, began construction in 1882 and has an anticipated completion date of 2026.

I only bring that up because I can kind of understand Ken Follet's obsession with cathedrals. I mean, I was at Sagrada Familia for maybe an hour five years ago and I can still remember those facts. If you haven't read the book, it's set in England in the 12th century, and is basically a story about the building of a cathedral. And lets face it, building a cathedral is no ordinary task. The book is full of detail about how to build a cathedral, should you feel the urge.

The Pillars of the Earth is an entertaining read without being amazing. I was suprised to see how divided people are about it on Goodreads. It seems to be a book you either love or hate, which makes me in the minority, because I have absolutely no strong feelings about it either way. Yes the characters were pretty generic, and I was getting a bit tired by about the 800 page mark (it's an epic tale), but I still enjoyed it.

On a completely unrelated topic, I also read The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and I'm annoyed for two reasons: it turns out it wasn't on my list, AND I didn't like it at all. If you've read it can you please explain what the attraction to this story is because I just do not get it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees

If you can handle language and a little teenage hanky-panky in the backseat of a borrowed car, Coert Voorhees' YA novel The Brothers Torres is an excellent read. To me, an excellent book is one that has well-developed characters, an intriguing plot, and great writing. Voorhees gets top marks in each of these catagories.

I found myself reading it at odd times, picking it up to just read a few more pages while I was waiting for water to boil or the microwave to ding. That's another indication for me that I had my hands on a great book.

I've never been a sophomore boy living in New Mexico, so I can't vouch for authenticity from first-hand experience, but this book felt REAL to me. I don't usually like the use of excessive potty-talk in novels, but I don't think the author could have pulled off an authentic voice without it in this one, to be honest. Main character Frankie had to be a little "bad" because his main objective in life was to prove himself to his wanna-be-gangster older brother. But he's likeable, too. He was a perfect mixture of flawed and adorable. I rooted for him through the entire book.

I was also impressed with Voorhees' minor characters. They were interesting, especially Frankie's glass-eyed friend, Zach. The characters had interesting hobbies, too. Frankie and Zach's friendship was partly built around blowing things up, for instance. I appreciated how original Voorhees was in his development of all his characters. I didn't feel like he relaxed into stereotypes.

And the ending is exactly what you want it to be. Everybody grows. Consequences are real. But it's not a cheeseball ending.

Great book. Two thumbs up for The Brothers Torres.

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Goodreads Description:
Twelve-year-old Meggie learns that her father, who repairs and binds books for a living, can "read" fictional characters to life when one of those characters abducts them and tries to force him into service.

I'll be honest, this was a hard book for me to finish. I just wanted it to end. It just kept going and going and get the point. I felt like the plot never really thickened. That the climax could've come much earlier in the story.  That the character development never got really deep. I didn't connect with a single one. It was just a strange feeling after reading it. So, later I looked at some of the other reviews. My research led to believing it is either a love or a hate it kind of book. There wasn't much in between.  
In light of e-readers, I thought the job of repairing old books was an art that in a few years may just become that. An art.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

This book sat and waited for me for a very long time. It looked good - and that it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007 was an excellent sign - and yet I didn't pick it up. I thought that I knew just what it would hold, just what it would be about before I even read it.

The combined forces of my own Clearing The Decks Project and Orange January made me pick up A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers on New Years Day. And I'm very glad.

Yes, the story, the themes were very much as I had expected, but reading brought them into my heart and into my mind.

"Beijing time 12 clock midnight.
London time 5 clock afternoon.
But I at neither time zone. I on airplane"

Zhuang Xiaoqiao (called “Z” because people find it difficult to pronounce her name) is a 23-year-old Chinese girl sent to the UK to study English. I wondered if I could cope with Z's fractured English, but that didn't worry me for very long at all.

The picture painted of Z is perfect: she is naive, and eager to learn, she is always watching and thinking. I was charmed, and I wanted to follow her, to walk beside her into her new life.

Her impressions and experiences as she found her feet in London were wonderfully observed, and her use of language illuminated the gulf between Chinese and English in a way that was both beautiful and clever.

I was also struck by the bravery of anyone who travels alone to a country with a very different language that they hardly know. A country so different, so far from home. I'm not sure that I could ever be that brave.

A chance meeting and a linguistic misunderstanding result in Z much older man, a failed artist, a drifter. In time she falls in love with him.

That relationship illustrates wider cultural differences. Attitudes to food, travel, sex, openness, privacy ... so many things that go to the very heart of relationships. So many differences, so many things that Z's dictionary just can't explain.

And it's one thing to identify differences, but quite another thing to understand everything that those differences mean and to learn to live with them.

"But why people need privacy? Why privacy is important? In China, every family live together, grandparents, parents, daughter, son and their relatives too. Eat together and share everything, talk about everything. Privacy make people lonely. Privacy make family fallen apart."

All of the other characters, even her lover, were faintly drawn, emphasising how different and how alone Z was. She clung to her lover and there was no room for others. How I wished she would mix with her fellow students, experience a different life, but no.

I still loved her, but at times she infuriated me.

How much was character and how much was culture? I really couldn't say.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers has is flaws: the use of language is sometimes inconsistent, and the story does drag in places.

But it illuminates some wonderful truths as Z navigates through her relationship.

"People always say it's harder to heal a wounded heart than a wounded body. Bullshit. It's exactly the opposite—a wounded body takes much longer to heal. A wounded heart is nothing but ashes of memories. But the body is everything. The body is blood and veins and cells and nerves. A wounded body is when, after leaving a man you’ve lived with for three years, you curl up on your side of the bed as if there’s still somebody beside you. That is a wounded body: a body that feels connected to someone who is no longer there."

I am so pleased that I have read this book at last: I have met a heroine to cherish, and her has touched my heart and my mind far more that I thought it would.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Jellicoe Road was one of those interesting books that doesn't leave you right away. You wake up thinking about it later.

But with that said, I can't wrap my brain around how I truly feel about it.

Great writing. Yes.

Cool setting. Yes.

Confused through most of it. Yes.

Main characters deeply developed. Yes.

Interesting plot. Yes.

Didn't understand who all the secondary characters were or what had happened to them until the very last page. Yes. Literally.

I'm willing to admit my confusion may have been thanks to my own intelligence meter. I probably missed something important or just wasn't sharp enough to catch on. I feel pretty idiotic writing this review because I know most people who have read it adored this book. That's exactly why I stuck with it when after the first few chapters I put it down with the thought, "I am so lost right now it's not even funny."

Still, I can see the beauty in it. And I liked the main character. She was different and interesting.

I gave the book 4-stars on Goodreads and I'd like to read more Melina Marchetta. I was far from hating this book, but I'm not slobbering over it, either. If anyone else has read it, I'd love to hear your opinion.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Shiney's Fill in the Gaps List

1. Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
2. Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe
3. A Separate Peace - John Knowles
4. Princess Diaries - Meg Cabot
5. Cheaters - Eric Jerome Dickey
6. Sense & Sensibility - Jane Austen
7. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
8. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
9. Pride & Prejudice - Jane Austen
10. The Bible - God
11. 1984 - George Orwell
12. Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
13. The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
14. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
15. The Diary of Anne Frank - Otto Frank
16. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
17. The Lord of the Ring Series - J.R.R. Tolkien
18. Ivanhoe - Sir Walter Scott
19. Sherlock Holmes Series - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
20. Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck
21. Little Women Series - Louisa May Alcott
22. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - Washington Irving
23. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
24. A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
25. Romeo & Juliet - William Shakespeare
26. Gossip Girl Series - Cecily Von Ziegesar
27. Moby Dick - Herman Melville
28. The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29. Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
30. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
31. The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
32. The Swiss Family Robinson - Johann David Wyss
33. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
34. The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Victor Hugo
35.Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh
36. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
37. Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
38. Dracula - Bram Stoker
39. Bridget Jones’ Diary - Helen Fielding
40. Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
41. Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
42. Insomnia - Stephen King
43.The Other Side of Midnight - Sidney Sheldon
44. Are You Afraid of the Dark? - Sidney Sheldon
45. Brisingr - Christopher Paolini
46. The Percy Jackson Series - Rick Riordan
47. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants - Ann Brashares
48. The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson Series - Louise Rennison
49. Coldfire Trilogy - C.S. Friedman
50. Dangerous Liaisons - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
51. Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen
52. The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
53. The Phantom of the Opera - Gaston Leroux
54. Marley & Me - John Grogan
55. A Child Called It - David J. Pelzer
56. Men And God - Rex Warner
57. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
58. Gulliver’s Travels - Johnathan Swift
59. The Prince and the Pauper - Mark Twain
60. Julius Caesar - William Shakespeare
61. The Iliad - Homer
62. The Odyssey - Homer
63. A Midsummer’s Night - William Shakespeare
64. Tame of the Shrew - William Shakespeare
65. Knights of the Round Table - Howard Pyle
66. Hamlet - William Shakespeare
67. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
68. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
69. The Headless Horseman - Washington Irving
70. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea - Jules Verne
71. The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
72. The Millennium Trilogy - Stieg Larsson
73. The Tudors Series - Philippa Gregory
74. The Hunger Games Trilogy - Suzanne Collins
75. The Thorn Birds - Collen McCullough
76. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
77. The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh - Alan Alexander Milne
78. The Passage - Justin Cronin
79. Martin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens
80. Peter Pan - J.M. Barrie
81. Dexter Series - Jeff Lindsay
82. Tigerheart - Peter David
83. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
84. Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery
85. House of Night Series - P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast
86. Sword of Truth Series - Terry Goodkind
87. Thursday Next Series - Jasper Fforde
88. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
89. The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver
90. The Vampire Diaries Series - L.J. Smith
91. Under the Dome - Stephen King
92. A Southern Vampire Mystery Series - Charlaine Harris
93. The Vampire Chronicles Series - Anne Rice
94. Artemis Fowl Series - Eoin Colfer
95. A Million Little Pieces - James Frey
96. Gemma Doyle Trilogy - Libba Bray
97. Wicked - Gregory Maguire
98. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister - Gregory Maguire
99. Crank Series - Ellen Hopkins
100. Willow - Julia Hoban