Andrea Blythe (blythe025) wrote,
Andrea Blythe
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Books Completed in December, Part II

1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (audio book), by Robert M. Pirsig
2. Dune, by Frank Herbert
3. The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis
4. The Diamond of Darkhold: The Fourth Book of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau
5. The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories, by Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff
6. Krik? Krak!, by Edwidge Danticat
7. Nova, by Samuel R. Delany
8. Coping with Color-Blindness, by Odeda Rosenthal and Robert H. Phillips
9. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, by Michael Chabon
10. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
11. The Whistling Toilets, by Randy Powell

REVIEWS:

1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (audio book), by Robert M. Pirsig
This book is three, no, four things — a story of a man and son on a motorcycle trip across America, the man's exploration of his own past self, a discussion of motorcycle maintenance, and a philosophical discourse. It's a strange book, because I've seen it sold as fiction, but it's really presented as fictionalized memoir. And though the author asserts this fictionalization and the books non-relation to zen discourse at the beginning, he also asserts that everything presented in this book is true. After a while, I stopped caring about where truth and fiction began and ended and just enjoyed the story.

The motorcycle road trip is really secondary, more of a way for the author to string together pieces of the puzzle of his past while examining the philosophical discourse of classical versus romantic thinking and or Quality, which he explains to be the nature of reality, the place/time where subject and object meet. The discourse and theory is complex, so breaking it up with descriptions of the road trip also allow the reader a mental break and time to process all that's been said. and the descriptions of motorcycle maintenance provide good analogies for the philosophy he's trying to share.

Really, this book only works with all these pieces working together. It's this interaction of physical journey combined with inward journey that makes the novel/memoir something more, something that people cling to, something that provides "answers" for life and how it should be lived, if you want to read into it that way — and you have to read into it to see such "answers" because the author leaves things ambiguous. He doesn't pretend to be a messiah. He imparts views on the nature of the world and then leaves it to the reader to do with them what they will.

It was a fascinating read, one that makes me want to explore a hard copy version (because I listened to it on audio), so that I can absorb some of what he wrote in a new way. His philosophy has a solidity to it (unlike some spiritual discussion that tends to be more flighty like clouds aloft, drifting and insubstantial), because it's backed on a study of science and the scientific method, as well as a historical understanding of classic philosophers. It's definitely something to get you thinking and talking and looking at the world a little bit differently.

As a side note, the version of this book I was presented was an anniversary edition, released ten years after it's first publication. It included an afterward by the author that pretty much kicked me in the gut and left me breathless and crying. Do you need to read this afterward to enjoy the book? No, and frankly, the ending is much more positive without it. But it does add more layers to the ongoing story of the author's life, which in my opinion, is worth reading.


2. Dune, by Frank Herbert
One day during my high school years, I went over to my friend's house to hang out and stay the night. My friend went to talk with her parents, so I opened up Dune to read a few pages while I was waiting. At which point I dissolved into world of deserts and sandworms and spice and Fremen and prophecies and intrigue. I barely looked up from my book, except to eat and sleep (which I suppose didn't make me a very good friend), but my buddy forgave me (which made her a great one).

I've kind of been obsessed with Dune ever since. Not so much with the sequels (though I have read Dune Messiah), but with the original story and its adaptation first into the David Lynch movie and later into the fantastic SciFi Channel mini-series, both of which I have watched many times.

Reading the book again now, fifteen years since the first time I've read it, I'm pleased to say it's held up wonderfully. It is still so damn good.

True, my understanding of gender politics has changed and it's a little bit odd that the Bene Gesserit, a group of powerful women, spend a significant amount of their time trying to breed into creation a man who can do things they cannot. It doesn't really bother me on a significant level, but I can't help but notice it from a new point of views, as with a handful of other such things.

That said, there are so many things that I love about this book, which is full of emotional subtleties that must necessarily get lost in the visual medium of film. I love that it is full of many kinds of strong women, who do not define themselves solely by men. I love the intricate universe Herbert has created and the layers of religion and politics that back the intrigues and lies and espionage of many of the characters. I love Paul, how he is swept along by a fate he both embraces and tries to fight, and fears the future that he hurtles toward and is always trying to stop the coming jihad with every step.

I also really love how Herbert handles Princess Irulan, a character who appears in the main thread of the story only once, in the last few pages. And yet, despite this small, brief entry, she is made significant through the quotes of her writings on the events after the fact. It's just such a clever way to bring a figure into the reader's consciousness and make her important before revealing her as the end to the conflict between the houses. I also love how these quotes expand and explore the world even further and give you a chorus-style prediction of the end of the story, the reader thus taking part in predicting the future (our own prescience) the characters themselves are not yet aware of.

The list of things I love goes on. It's really a fantastic book with lots of layers. I'm looking forward to also rereading Dune Messiah and then reading Children of Dune (the only two books that still have Paul as a main character). Though I don't know if I read more of the series than that, since it's these characters who appear in the first Dune that remain the ones I love.


3. The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis
An alien lands in Kentucky from Anthea with half a dozen gold rings in his pocket and a plan. His body is trial, his bones birdlike. He is fragile, but approaches a lawyer with dozens of patentable inventions that will very quickly make him very rich.

This book presents a science fiction in a simple straightforward way. The clean prose reveals more about the loneliness of ordinary life than the strangeness of this alien in humanities midst. What is strange seems so ordinary and what we accept as ordinary seems so strange. It's a lovely exploration of an alien among us, so real it almost becomes a metaphor for our own alienation in the world. Both beautiful and sad.

I haven't seen the movie starring David Bowie yet, but I'm interested. It's such a quiet story that I'm curious how it's handled on film.

4. The Diamond of Darkhold: The Fourth Book of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau
I loved The City of Ember, which presented a unique spin on a post-apocalyptic world. That love got me through the next two books in the series, both of which didn't captivate me nearly to the degree of the first. So, it's taken me a while to come around to reading The Diamond of Darkhold, the fourth and final book of the series.

Life is a challenge in the city of Sparks, and though everyone is mostly getting a long, dangers abound, from natural disasters to everyday accidents. A chance discovery of a book from a roam inspires Doon and Lina to take a chance in returning to Ember in the hopes they can make the lives of the people in their village easier.

These are short book, geared for younger audiences, which make them easy reads. I enjoyed The Diamond of Darkhold quite a bit, still not as much as book one, but the return to Ember was much more to my taste. This was a fun adventure and a satisfying conclusion to the series.


5. The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories, by Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff
Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff comprise the Merry Sisters of Fate. As a group they have each been posting a short story a week to an online blog. Some of those stories have been selected to be included in this book. On the whole, there is not one story I dislike in the entire book — most of them were good and some were so fantastic they gave me chills. Here are a few of my favorites from each of the authors.

Tessa Gratton:
— "Puddles" is an eerie story that takes a normal everyday object and makes it terrifying.
— In "Ash-Tree Spell to Break Your Heart", Melea has built (with rose petal lips and a butterfly heart) to destroy a rival magician, but falls in love with him instead. Apparently there are three other stories on the Merry Sisters of Fate website that include Melea as a side character, so I'm going to have to go find and read them.
— "Thomas All" about a human kidnapped by deadly fairies is a story I would love to see turned into a novel.

Maggie Stievater:
— "The Last Day of Spring" reveals a species of creatures called papillions that are born, live, and die in a matter of only a few days.
— "Philosopher's Flight" is about an alchemists assistant that comes to an unsettling discovery as he sets to testing his master's new flying machine.
— "Heart-Shaped Box" presents a bleak post-apocalyptic story that resonates with love.

Brenna Yovanoff:
— "Girls Raised by Wolves" gave me chills. It has no magic, but presents two unique and complete characters and the cruelties of teenage girls in rather a short space.
— "The Bone Tender" reveals the double edged sword of magic via the interaction between one boy who has a habit of breaking bones and another boy who can heal them.
— "Blue as God" is an unsettling retelling of the Bluebeard myth (which I'm a sucker for) set at a Hollywood party.

One of the other fantastic things about this book is how it's been published in large format, leaving it with wide margins, where the authors have written hand scrawled notes, representing their thoughts on their own and each other's works. It's so much fun to read their comments and thoughts and the little back and forth banter between the authors. I loved this book, and plan to buy it to have on my shelf.

As soon as I finished this book, I went to the library to find books by Tessa and Brenna to read (I've already read Maggie's Shiver), since I loved their stories so much. I'm looking forward to reading Tessa's Blood Magic and Brenna's The Replacement as soon as I'm done with my current challenge.


6. Krik? Krak!, by Edwidge Danticat
I read Krik? Krak! in high school, and it formed my love for Danticat and lead me to read half a dozen of her books. Unfortunately, rereading these stories now, I don't love them quite as much as I did then. They are still great stories, though most of them are rather bleak. Several of the stories present aspects of hope in dire situations. I don't know exactly how to explain it, but I don't resonate as much with these stories as I once did. So, my rating has dropped a bit.


7. Nova, by Samuel R. Delany
Captain Lorq von Ray is an Ahab style character, obsessed with obtaining a massive amount of Illyrion, a rare element that is most needed for space travel. To this end, he assembles a crew of misfits and they all go up against a rival corporation headed by Prince and Ruby Red.

The most exciting element of this book for me was the flashback that revealed how Captain von Ray came to be who he is, but the rest was rather dull for me. A lot of it championed isn't-this-neat science and intellectual ramblings rather than character development or fun adventure. I did kind of like how it ended, which was an isn't-it-neat ending. But over all this wasn't a favorite for me.


8. Coping with Color-Blindness, by Odeda Rosenthal and Robert H. Phillips
My Family (in varying states of confusion and mockery): "Why the hell are you reading a book about color-blindness?"
Me: "I'm writing a book about a main character who is color blind. It's research."
My Brother: "Well, that should be easy. You know, fairly black and white."
*rim shot*

I must admit that I skimmed through the portions of this book that didn't directly apply to my color-blind character. I was not as interested, for example, in how a person becomes color blind, because there are already reasons for my character to be so. Though, I was interested to learn that color-blindness is not solely passed through genetics, but can be an acquired trait (Rosenthal began to research the subject when her husband began to develop color confusion from taking pharmaceuticals).

There are many kinds of color vision confusion, the most common being red-green confusion and the most rare being full color blindness (seeing only shades of grey), and this color confusion can confound people in all sorts of ways that people with full color vision don't realize, because color coding has become such a standard in our lives.

I can't say this is the most fascinating book I've ever read. It discusses color vision confusion in a general way, giving an overview of how and why it occurs, a history of research on the subject, examples of how it effects people's lives (many are thought slow or stupid because of it), and some suggestions for how to cope with it. I do think that this book is useful as an introductory explanation for people with color blindness who need a way to explain it to others. If you're reading this book, you probably have color-blindness or know somebody with color-blindness (or are a writer in seek of information, like me), so I wouldn't recommend it for a casual reader.

This book did give me a good start on building up a vocabulary (R-G color blind people sometimes see red and green as shades of orange-brown or purple-brown, for example), and a way to try to process and visualize what it might be like. I will still have to do some more research, but this was a good start.


9. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection, by Michael Chabon
When an old once-famous detective meets a young boy and his grey African parrot, it arouses a latent curiousity, which is later amplified by a sudden murder. The old codger is one the case, that is when he isn't otherwise absorbed with his bees.

Though Chabon never once gives the detective's name, it's quickly clear who he is (I'm sure you can guess). I rather love the portrayal of the old man, who though his bones creak and his heart is weak is still electric in his total absorption and analysis of the world.

This main character is back up by a half dozen interesting characters. It was a lot of fun to read and Chabon's writing style is wonderful. The story if the boy and his parrot slowly unfolds chapter by chapter into a final satisfying conclusion.


10. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Bitter-sweet is a pretty good way to describe this collection of stories that explore the humanity, relationships, and loneliness of people. "A Temporary Matter" was a gorgeous tale of the secrets kept and shared between a married couple, while "A Real Durwan" is a short and sad tale about an old women who sweeps the stairs of a building.

"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" is a girl's reflections on a family friend from Pakistan. It's interesting the juxtaposition of her learning about the American Revolution in class, while a real war was threatening in a faraway county, the relation of the concerns of the near compared to the concerns of the far and how they are the same for some.

"Interpreter of Maladies" is an amazing story, one I just now realized I've read before. I didn't properly absorb it then -- so many layers -- and I already feel the desire to read it again, to see what new things I might discover. Gorgeous.

"Sexy" is a melancholy tale of a young woman in an adulterous relationship. I like that though the characters may judge each other, Lahiri as the author doesn't seem to make any judgements herself.

In "Mrs. Sen's", a young boy named Elliot becomes witness to the isolation and loneliness of Mrs. Sen, who takes care of him after school. Very bitter sweet, in fact that's a way to describe most of the stories in this book.

I loved "This Blessed House," which has a newly married couple moving into a house and discovering a menagerie of Christian idols and paraphernalia in various nooks and corners. While the husband hates these things and wishes to throw them out (they are Hindu, after all, not Christian), the wife is fascinated by them and treats the situation as a treasure hunt. The course of these discoveries reveals just how much they are strangers, and the ending is more bitter than sweet.

"The Treatment of Bibi Haldar" and "The Third and Final Continent" were my least favorite stories in the collection, but they were still worthy tales keeping with the same bitter and sweet emotions. It is clear why Jhumpa Lahiri was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this collection. Her writing is beautiful and she has a wonderful way of revealing the multi-layered humanity of people.


11. The Whistling Toilets, by Randy Powell
When underachiever Stan Claxton is recruited to coach his best friend, Ginny, a nationally ranked junior tennis player, through a local tournament, he is also supposed to find out why she has recently fallen into a slump. As he tries to lend his support, he begins to discover new feelings for her and considers sharing his secret of the whistling toilets.

It's a good enough story as far as it goes and I like the dialog for the most part. The Stan and his buddies when they are together talk like guys, and his conversations with Ginny are meandering, often talking around the point the way most conversations do.

The secret of the whistling toilets was left almost to the end, and the whole time I was reading I was wondering if the revelation would turn out to be a disappointment after the long build up. It wasn't any great thing. I think I might have been disappointed had I read this years ago when I first grabbed it, because I woukd have been expecting someting miraculous. Now, I think the discovery worked for what it was.

What really kind of killed it was the final scene in the book, which just sort of socks you in the chest and leaves you hanging. Honestly, one more paragraph, maybe even just an additional sentence would have made the ending stronger and brought things to a more satisfying conclusion. Either that or take out the last scene altogether, because though I like it, it ends things on a sour note. I mean, really, it just goes to show how important an ending is, because this book would have been so much better with just small changes.

My yearlong reading stats are to come.
Tags: books, reviews, writing life
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