Sunday, January 31, 2010

(Book #4) Ian Fleming - Live and Let Die

Next up in the year long Read-a-Thon was a timeless masterpiece called 'Live and Let Die', by Ian Fleming. I must clarify, this is not based on the Wings song by the same name, this is the second novel in a series of spy stories following some British guy named "James Bond". Perhaps you've heard of him.

Having only read a couple of these novels so far, I must warn that I may be making some untrue generalizations, but for the moment, I'll go by what I know from those that I have read. I read the first one, 'Casino Royale', last year when I was stuck on jury duty for a day and so I decided to continue on with the series. Live and Let Die followed Bond as he was pitted against his first real "Supervillain" and started to introduce some of the more elaborate methods of destruction that the movies are so keen on reflecting. what I found most interesting in all of that though was the way the story elaborated on the 'why' behind some of those plot points. Why would someone devise some sort of complicated sequence of events in order to kill someone? Why do we consider the villain Evil, while the protagonist is Good?

It has been quite a while since I have seen the movie adaptation of this book, if you can even call it that, as while many of the characters were the same, the plot seemed a bit different. Rather than being a story about an enormous drug ring, it was about a gold smuggling operation that funded none other than the Soviets (per usual). The other big difference was that the movie's memorable voodoo baddie, Baron Samedi, was only present by image and reference only. It is always difficult at first to read a book from which a movie was created, for the very reason that once is constantly visualizing THOSE characters and comparing to THAT story rather than simply going along with the one you are reading. Luckily I hadn't remembered much of the movie to distract me from the novel which, again, was rather entertaining.

One other thing I should mention is that the book, having been written in the mid 50's certainly showed its age with a lot of phrases and terms for various black people throughout the book. The other thing was a lot of talking in Ebonics by most of the black characters, there being a lot in the book. Now I wasn't really uncomfortable by this, as it was mostly a device used to enunciate a particular dialect of speaking, but I couldn’t help but be aware of it all as I read. Referring to a someone as a negro instead of a man in EVERY sentence of a paragraph got to be a little much. But then again, maybe that's how a well-to-do British white guy would have been thinking about it. I was somewhat vindicated in the end by the villain himself making that very point about the demeaning language. I guess Mr. Fleming was conscious of it in the end after all.

Overall, though, I would say it was a good read and that I'll probably continue to pick up the 007 Novels and read about the wacky adventures of Bond, James Bond if I were in need of a more subtle action story with a hint of mid-century cheese.

Until next week...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

(Book #3) John Hodgman - More Information Than You Require

For the third week of this little experiment, I decided to change gears once again in the style of book. Having started with Fiction, followed by Philosophy, the next logical step is an almanac of "truthy" factoids, lists and mad ramblings. This week I read 'More Information than You Require' by John Hodgman, formerly a professional literary agent and currently a minor television celebrity ("PC" from the Mac commercials) as he is so want to tell us many times throughout the book. It is not so much a sequel as it is a continuation of his first book 'The Areas of My Expertise', another volume of fake real trivia, or as he likes to call it "complete world knowledge". When I initially picked up the book, I was briefly intimidated by the amount of pages. I immediately wondered if I could make it through nearly 600 pages of madness such as this. Thankfully, I realized that this volume started on page 234 and was a perfectly smooth transition, aside from all those worthless¹ copyright and title pages, from the first volume

The content and manner of writing is what makes this such a tough book to categorize, but a fun book to read. There were many times when I found myself literally laughing out loud (LLOL) to some of the ridiculously nonsensical statements, obscure references and witty blurbs that Hodgman wrote. If I had to place this book anywhere on my shelves, it would likely initially get nestled in the comedy section next to the John Stewart and Stephen Colbert books, but would likely travel around to various other shelves when it felt it was being improperly categorized. Yes, in fact², the book is sentient and has feelings.

In the introduction of his last volume, Hodgman tells the reader that there is no right way to read the book, because the content is so varied. In this second book of complete world knowledge, there are two strains of information running parallel throughout. The first being a more well-informed string of facts³ on a wide range of topics such as Molemen, Presidents (and if they were actually women or had a hook for a hand), how to tell the future using a pig's spleen, and how to become a famous minor television celebrity. The second string of facts were a day by day calendar of all sorts of interesting things that happened on that particular day in history. All 366 days were represented and each page had a respective day. Thankfully these dates were all in order, and I did not have to jump around throughout the book to get the full effect of all these facts. I would surely still be reading if this were the case.

All in all, this was a whimsical read that was entertaining every time I picked it up and certainly lived up to its title, offering the reader more information than they required. Unless, of course, they required a list of 700 noteworthy Molemen, in which case they got just what they bargained for.

1. They were not actually worthless, as Hodgman wrote much information and fake copyright information to frame the book and information contained therein.

2. Unsubstantiated.

3. Many of these facts were often riddled with footnotes and side tracks (just like this!)of additional information that was vital for a well informed reading of the various topics, OR a reference to other passages within the two volumes of complete world knowledge.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

(Book #2) Jose Ortega y Gasset - What Is Philosophy

As I went into the second week of this endeavor I felt it would be good to change the tone a bit and jump into something heavier than a fiction novel. I chose a book called "What Is Philosophy", by a Spanish philosopher named Jose Ortega y Gasset. Now, I have taken a few humanities, theory and philosophy courses through my education, and never did I come across this guy or this writing, which was recommended to us in my very first Architecture Design class eleven years ago. Since that time it has been on my bookshelf, unread and likely unopened. Having far too many unread books and too little shelf space, the time seemed right to pick this one up.

The title of the book seemed passive enough, and assuming that it would be an "Introduction to Philosophy" or a "Philosophy for Beginners", I was proven naive. After a few pages I was forced to pick up a pencil so that I may underline and highlight passages and jot notes in the margins. The book jumped headlong into some of the meaty roots of philosophy, of questioning and doubt and the process of philosophizing as a serious and worthy enterprise. Ortega posits that science attributes too much value and worth to sensory observations and seemed to be even hostile towards the notions of Physics, or at least in the wide "imperialistic" acceptance of these ideas, but assigned value to some of the methodical scientific processes in the investigation and pursuit of truth.

The book was adapted from a series of lectures and indeed read that way. Ortega seemed to seldom touch on many specific ideas that are discussed in philosophy and focused more on the act of philosophizing. Sure, he touched on many of the all-encompassing ideas, but intentionally danced around many of the literal ideas. He tried to circle around his points and slowly draw closer to his deductions, but in this became somewhat repetitive. Responding to the question of "What is Philosophy?" is like reading about philosophy itself. One sentence sometimes must be read multiple times in order to really understand what the sentence is saying. Each word in this sentence carries with it volumes of background grappling with a particular notion and poses its own set of unique questions. A loaded question in turn generates a loaded answer which must be dissected in a peeling-away of its layers like that of an onion. Much of this book was addressing those very 'layers' by taking side tracks on notions such as 'knowledge', 'doubt' and 'problems' in an effort to better enunciate a fully charged and weighted response to that very question.

Throughout the text I felt myself disagreeing with some of what Ortega had to say and wondering that If I had read this book 11 years ago without having a prior experience to many of these ideas, would I have bought into it more? Certainly the content is debased somewhat by its age, originally being presented in the 1930's, though the more broader strokes are still valid. I think it would have fit into my worldview more then when I had more positive feelings towards religion thank I do now. Overall, I did come away with a few morsels which I found interesting and as a whole it was still worth reading, as tedious as it got at times. It was also certainly worth the exercise in getting back into the mindset of reading philosophy which often requires more time and a deeper level of processing during the actual act of reading as opposed to simply reflecting back at the end of a text.

Friday, January 8, 2010

(Book #1) Stephen King - The Stand

For the first book in my "52 Books in 52 Weeks" resolution, I finished The Stand, by Stephen King. Some people might be thinking "How is it possible that he read an entire 1142 page tome in a week?". Well, I didn't. I have been grinding away at this behemoth for about 2 months and jammed through the last 200+ pages this week. So, while I didn't read the entire book this year, I did "finish" it this year, and thus... didn't cheat. That being said, and since this is my first week, I will keep the review somewhat casual.

First off, I must disclose that for a long time I considered King a paperback-rack kind of writer, right up there with Tom Clancy or Nora Roberts (Okay, maybe not that bad). I had tried reading a couple of his books when I was a teenager (IT and The Dead Zone) and couldn't get past the first chapter or two. I did, however, eventually pick up the first two books of his Dark Tower series and finished those. Even then, King's writing style didn't really appeal to me, the prose being too dry and lacking a certain meatiness. Strangely enough, his forewords about his process and the art of writing were totally compelling, so at the very least I always respected him as a writer. After some hesitation, I decided to pick up the grand-daddy of them all and give it another go...

Without giving away too much of the plot, I will just say that The Stand is about The Apocalypse, occurring in the 1990's. It comes in the form of a "super"flu, which is apt given the current Swine Flu scare. The book doesn't waste much time getting right down to it, and after a few chapters, bodies start to pile up. The story has an insane amount of detail, telling back story after back story, and yet mostly remaining relevant to the overall arc of the story. Now, I never saw the miniseries (most notably starring Gary Sinese) which aired a while ago, but a lot of people seem to remember the TV show over the book. My wife always said that the mini-series was great and the book got too tedious and she eventually gave up. I will admit that there were some slow parts, particularly a daunting 75 page chapter about a fellow named Trashcan Man, and I could completely understand if someone couldn't finish, but overall the story moved along at a good clip for me.

The book, though, was really not so much about the story as it was about the characters and their development (or collapse) through the horrendous events. We can guess who our protagonists and antagonists will be and eventually the characters all fall into their lots and we see them struggle with the world around them, but mostly with themselves. We see a lot of Good vs. Evil, but also a lot about the human condition. It was obvious that King was trying to stay away from caricatures and tie in as much reality as possible, and I think because of that I came away respecting his writing a little more. He's still not my favorite author, but he is a Writer nonetheless and this was definitely a worthy read.