Saturday, June 25, 2011

New Spring/Robert Jordan/378 pp.

I have a confession to make - I didn't read this in the correct order. New Spring is part of Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series; it's a prequel that takes place about 20 years before the events of the first book in the series. New Spring was written originally as a novella, published in an anthology of new works written by several masters of the fantasy genre. The anthology came out between books 8 and 9 of the "Wheel of Time" series; Jordan later expanded the novella into a full novel, which came out between books 10 and 11 of the series.

As I said, the events in New Spring take place about 20 years before the events of the first book in the main series. Moiraine and Siuan, both apprentices to the Aes Sedai, a group of sorceresses, overhear a prophecy of the rebirth of the "Dragon", a hero who will save the world from the "Dark One". Once they become full members of the Aes Sedai, Moiraine and Siuan begin searching for the Dragon, to protect him from the followers of the Dark One. Moiraine also meets up with Lan Mandragoran, a soldier who will become her Warder, a warrior who is bonded to serve her.

It's difficult to talk about the "Wheel of Time" series without explaining such terms as Aes Sedai, Warder, and Dragon. It also made reading this book a little slow going at first. While the book is a prequel to the events of the series, it assumes a familiarity with the world of the series, since it was published after 8 of the series' volumes. But there is a small glossary at the back of the book, and once I began to remember what the new words meant, the book became a lot more enjoyable. I'm a big fan of multi-volume works like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter books, and Christopher Paolini's "Eragon" series. My only concern is when a writer drags things on without ever resolving anything, seemingly just to make a few more bucks off the fans. I've had several friends say they stopped reading the "Wheel of Time" series for just that reason - that it seemed like some volumes in the series weren't really moving the story forward. But I enjoyed this book so much that I think at the least I'll read one or two more volumes in the series to see how things go, before giving up on this story.

Wheel of Time Glossary
Wheel of Time wiki

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Magic Barrel/Bernard Malamud/214 pp.

Another MULSA book sale remainder! This collection of short stories, published in 1958, won the National Book Award the following year. In 1956 Malamud spent a year in Rome working on the manuscript for this collection, and three of the stories are set in Italy as a result - "The Last Mohican", "Behold the Key", and "The Lady of the Lake". In fact, "Behold the Key" seems almost autobiographical in its description of a struggling writer's attempts to find cheap lodging for himself and his family in Rome. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Malamud incorporates his Jewish heritage into much of his work; of the thirteen stories in the compilation, ten deal with the life of New York Jews. Malamud's characters, mostly poor Jewish immigrants, speak in a beautiful mish-mash of fractured English and Yiddish. The subject of the Holocaust comes up often in these stories - the loss of loved ones, and in some cases, guilt at having survived unscathed while others did not. The main character in "The Last Mohican", Fidelman, is accosted by a Jewish refugee who almost demands assistance based solely on the fact that both are Jewish. Even after very poor treatment by the refugee, Fidelman continues to feel an obligation to this survivor of horrors that Fidelman himself avoided through the lucky coincidence of growing up in America.
I enjoyed most of the stories in the collection; if I had one complaint, it was the fact that many of the stories ended without a resolution of the central problem. (Strangely, the story I enjoyed the most, "Behold the Key", is one of these stories that ends too soon.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Room: A novel / Emma Donoghue / 321 p.

I read a summary of this book months ago, and like watching a snake, I was both fascinated and wary. The plot sounded grim and heartbreaking. A little boy lives with his mother in a room that comprises his whole universe, as they are confined there by his mother's kidnapper. That the media have reported on similar kidnapped victims adds a level of poignancy to this story in the sense that it really could happen. 

What saves this book from grimness is the unique point-of-view: Jack's, a five year-old child. Even in this situation, Donoghue captures all the wonder and fun of youth, along with some of the disappointments, as mother and child make the most of their limited world. As an adult, you spot the nuances that the child can not yet process, specifically the toll on the mother from her imprisonment and continued victimization. Moreover, the premise of this situation introduces suspense and tension: will they ever achieve freedom?

Without giving too much of the plot away, the reader isn't left hanging, as in many novels where the crisis is resolved and it abruptly ends. The reader gets to continue the journey through the young narrator's eyes, seeing that resolutions usually contain their share of heartache as well as the anticipated joys. Life is more complex than our simplistic anticipations can imagine.

I felt admiration for the resiliency of the boy and his mother, although a few times they seemed just a little too wise and mature. Yet, they did have their human, fallible side to counterbalance that and make them more appealing as characters. I highly recommend this story, which I checked out from Daniel Boone Public Library.

DBRL      MERLIN      Amazon

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Me of Little Faith/Lewis Black/240 pp.

Lewis Black is one of my favorite stand-up comedians. His commentary on everything from politics to religion to our fascination with pseudo-celebrities always makes me laugh out loud, so I thought I would really enjoy this book. I was expecting a well-reasoned, but humorous, book-length essay on what is wrong with (organized) religion today, and how we could go about fixing it; what I got, instead, was a series of short, chapter-length rants about the usual topics associated with religion: televangelists, Mormons, growing up Jewish, child-molesting priests, etc. This is Black's version of the same ground that's been covered by any stand-up comedian that's written a book - Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, probably Tim Allen too (although I've not forced myself to read any of his books yet). Don't get me wrong, there's some funny stuff in here, but it just doesn't compare to his stand-up routine. Worst part of the book? Tacked on, at the end, there's the script of a play about religion that Black and Mark Linn-Baker did during the 1980s. According to Black, it didn't run for very long; after reading the script, I'm not terribly surprised.

Cool list of Lewis Black quotes
list of videos featuring Lewis Black. Much funnier than reading him, imho.

All the Pretty Horses/Cormac McCarthy/302 pp.

I avoided reading this book because I thought it was one of those books on everyone's "YOU-MUST-READ-THIS-RIGHT-NOW" lists (like a certain soon-to-be-retired talk show host's "Book-of-the-month-for-mindless-sheep" club). I tend to avoid books people say I must read, partly out of sheer contrariness to group-think. Also, as a reviewer on says, "the title is all full of wuss." But a good friend had recommended McCarthy's The Road, which I loved, and I know McCarthy also wrote No Country for Old Men, so I gave this book a try as well. Overall, while I didn't like it as much as The Road, it was a very enjoyable read. John Grady Cole is a young man whose family ranch is being sold, so he goes to Mexico to find work (and adventure). In the process he falls in love with the rancher's daughter, gets mistaken for a horse thief, almost gets killed in a Mexican prison, and does a lot of communing with nature. Through this series of events, you see John Grady growing up; he leaves Texas as a boy, running away from home, and returns as a man, ready to find his way in life.


goodreads page on The Road

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much/Allison Hoover Bartlett/274 pp.

My sister recommended this book to me; she hadn't read it, but thought that the title described my book addiction perfectly.
Actually, this book is only tangentially about people like me, seeming hoarders of any book they can get their hands on. Specifically, this book is about John Gilkey, a rare-book thief who stole books from dealers, not in some scheme to re-sell them and make big bucks, but because of a belief that having a large personal library would make him a well-respected member of high society. Bartlett, through interviews with Gilkey, book seller and amateur detective Ken Sanders, and other members of the rare-book world, explores what makes a book "rare", and what causes the obsession some of us have with collecting books. However, this work is mostly about Gilkey, his history of book-stealing, and how he justified his thefts to himself and to others.

A similar book, about stealing maps and prints from rare books. Both are must-reads for rare-book librarians, imho.

Wormwood Forest/Mary Mycio/259 pp.

Approaching the Chernobyl nuclear incident from a naturalist's perspective, Mary Mycio details the effects that the massive amounts of nuclear radiation and fallout have had on the environment of the area, from the villages surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant to Ukraine, Belarus and Russia overall. She details some of the early efforts by the Soviet government to contain the radiation and how the breakup of the Soviet Union has affected clean-up, monitoring and research activities of the three post-Soviet nations. The story is a combination of horrifying details of the effects the disaster had on first-responders' health, as well as the surprisingly positive effect on local flora and fauna of the zone's inhabitants being evacuated indefinitely. Mycio interviews local residents who have sneaked back into the zone, scientists researching the effects of the lingering radiation, and botanists, zoologists and environmentalists observing the recovery efforts of the local plant and animal life. My only complaint is that, while the majority of the book is written on a level understandable by laymen, the author at times goes into excessively detailed descriptions of chemical processes and radiation levels. There is also, apparently, some confusion in scientific circles as to how radiation levels should be reported: some countries report in roentgens, some in becquerels, some in curies, etc. Mycio is forced to spend almost a complete chapter explaining why radiation is reported differently, and how to relate the different radiation units.
My favorite parts of the book, though, are when she describes the amazing ability of nature to recover from such a devastating event. With the exception of government workers and researchers,and a number of illegal squatters, the zones of exclusion are almost completely deserted. In the absence of human population, other species have bounced back, in some cases from near-extinction. In this regard, the book provides a good argument for protecting the earth from overpopulation by humans.

link to list of various radiation units
goodreads entry on this book