January Reads

One of my favorite writers (and one of my favorite people overall), Holly Woodcock, began blogging monthly reviews of her reading list last year.  I fell in love with this idea and I found myself excited to read each one of her reviews.  Although I wasn’t interested in reading all of the books on her list, I loved being exposed to what was out there and hearing thoughtful feedback from a person I trusted.  It was like being in a book club without having to make any commitment (something that has been a problem for me in the past).  In an effort to force myself to write something at least once a month, and maybe share some great books with my friends, I’ve decided that, throughout 2012, I will review the books that I read each month.  And so, here are my January reads:

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

I started this book at the end of December and finished it the first week of January.  To be honest, I was fully expecting to hate this book.  It had so much hype, so many people talking about how great it was, that I was prepared to feel supremely disappointed (see Water for Elephants).  When people saw me reading the book they would make a point to touch my arm and, in the voice reserved for condolences after the death of a family member, would mutter, “Isn’t it…beautiful?”  Through the first half, I was slightly interested, but it definitely wasn’t wowing me; I wondered what it was that made people so geared up about this book.  At around the half-way point, my feelings changed, and I became engrossed.  I read the second half of the book in about a day.

It is impossible to give a synopsis of the plot, as the story is rather non-linear and stretches over many years, but it really is a beautiful story.  Verghese instills his characters and scenes with a certain magical quality (reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez) that makes the entire tale seem epic and mythical.  Some of the graphic medical descriptions might make you squirm (I had regular moments of putting the book down to pace), but this is definitely not a book to miss.

People to Whom I Would Recommend this Book: Anyone with a soul

People to Whom I Would Not Recommend this Book:  Lawyers and Dodger fans (see above)

A Feast For Crows: A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4 by George R. R. Martin

As someone who grew up reading a lot of fantasy books, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I had not heard of this author or this series until stumbling upon the epic HBO show “A Game of Thrones.”  As soon as the first season ended, I ran out and bought the books.  After finishing this fourth installment, I can easily say this is the best fantasy series I have ever read.  The best description I can give of the series is that it is like “The Sopranos” set in the world of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

In the first book, Martin takes the clichés of Arthurian legend and turns them on their heads.  Symbols such as white knights, wolves and golden lions become the antithesis of their past fairy tale roles.  By middle of the second book, Martin begins to deconstruct the world that he has created.  As perspectives shift throughout the story, you learn motives and alternative truths that change your opinion of many characters.  A villain in one book becomes the hero of another (only to become a villain or a victim in a later book). Much like “The Sopranos,” there is no existence good, evil, black or white, only varying shades of gray.  There are no truly innocent or righteous characters; each is flawed in some way, making them more relatable to real people.

Perhaps my favorite element of Martin’s writing is the unpredictability of how his story unfolds.  When I read most books, authors can create in me a sense of anxiety from the suspense; however,  somewhere inside myself, I am positive that everything will work itself out.  Through every page, I know that good will beat evil, the “good guy” will win, and everything will be OK in the end.  This is not true in the world of Westeros.  Martin kills off “good guys” and “bad guys” without a second thought and, with the way that he has muddied the definitions of “good” and “win,” I’m left with no idea of how the stories will end.

So anyway, I’ve given my spiel.  How is this book, you ask, Mr. Imaginary Person Who Gives a Crap What I Think About Books?  Funny you should ask.  I had heard murmurs before reading this book that Martin had, following in the steps of many fantasy writers, begun to drag his feet in an effort to draw out the series and make more money.  I can see why people would feel this way, but I’m not sure that I agree.  I admit that, given the flurried tenacity of the first three books, this book seems very slow.  I do also feel that, at times, Martin is slightly indulgent in his introduction of and attention to peripheral characters (of which this book hasplenty).  As a whole, the fourth book does not seem  to focus on developing the story as much as developing the world in which it takes place.   If, as a reader, you are racing toward the finish line, this book will be a great disappointment.  However, if you want a great story, full of detail and history, this book is a jackpot.

And so, with all that being said, here is my thought on Book Four: I was slightly disappointed in the lack of plot progression; however, I feel that this is probably the most well-written book of the series.  Not only has he hit a peak in his actual writing style, but Martin’s creation of accent characters adds color and reality to the fantasy world that he has created.  Through the constant themes of travel and storytelling used within this story, Martin generates a Canterbury Tales-like feeling, as if the writing style itself has finally meshed with the Medieval setting of the story.  This tale-telling theme even affects how the story unfolds.  In past books, the action happens before your eyes, making you feel like you are there.  In AFFC, however, the majority of the plot progression is heard second-hand.  We learn of deaths and other important events through gossip, conversations and court reports.  As the reader, you feel like you are traveling the various parts of the fictional land, hearing a story from the myriad faces of the “everyman.”

Finally, for the first time in these books, I feel there are some concepts relatable to everyday life.  That grayness that symbolizes the lack of a black or white suddenly feels like it could be a commentary on our own world.  I’m in no way suggesting that Martin is using these books to express any political belief, I just personally feel that this book made me see some similarities to our real-life issues (I could not read Septon Maribald’s description of a “broken man” without thinking of our own veteran soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder).

To make a long story really long, I love these books and I would recommend them to anyone, whatever types of books you usually read.  They definitely go beyond the usual scope of fantasy novels. Also, whether you read the books or not, I also highly recommend checking out the HBO series (Season Two starts April 1st).  They add in a lot more sex to the show than there is in the first book (that’s how HBO do), but they do an uncanny job of telling the story without cutting too much out.

Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk

By the author of Fight Club, Snuff is by far one of the most unique books I have ever read.  It tells the story of Cassie Wright, an aged porn star who attempts to revitalize her career by breaking a dubious world record: having sex with 600 men in one sitting(?).  The book jumps between being hilarious (the fictional porn titles are amazing) and terribly depressing, and includes Palahniuk’s usual twists and surprises.  Though it is constantly crude, and has a light and silly feel to it, it actually unfolds into a very good book.  It is a hilarious, abominable Frankenstein that is created from equal parts Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Sartre’s No Exit, and Daisy’s Big Trouble in Little Vagina.  If you aren’t easily offended, and you enjoy a good black comedy, you will probably like this book.  That being said, I wouldn’t recommend passing it on to your mother when you’re done.

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Since I am a self-proclaimed geek, I have no problem admitting that I loved the Harry Potter books. When they were done, I did not get lured into reading any of the Twilight series; however, with so much hype around The Hunger Games trilogy, I couldn’t resist checking it out.  I was pretty disappointed.  Through the first two books (I’m currently about half-way through the third one), I have found them to basically be regurgitated sci-fi stories of old, written for a new generation of teenagers.  The first two books tell the story of a repressed dystopian society (see every single science fiction story ever told), where people (kids) are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of others (see The Running Man, Rollerball, Gamer, Death Sport and hundreds of other science fiction stories).

My biggest problem with the books so far is that, as an adult reading a teen-fiction novel, there has never been one second of reading these books where I can forget the fact that I am an adult reading a teen-fiction novel.  Where the Harry Potter books and The Hobbit are good enough to draw me in and make me forget my own life, these books constantly made me feel like I was reading a something from Justin Bieber’s book club.  Here are my two biggest complaints:

1)      The writing itself is awful.  Every single sentence focuses only on furthering the plot without ever offering any descriptions or details that might give depth to the setting or story.  (x = Noun + Verb – any adjectives/adverbs/descriptive words.  In this equation x = really bad story telling)

2)      I can’t stand the fact that the entire story is told in first-person, present tense.  You remember the part in the movie Elf where Buddy’s long-lost father mistakes him for a singing telegram and asks him to sing a song?  Not knowing what to sing, Buddy begins awkwardly describing everything that is happening right at that very moment to the hint of a tune.  That is how the entire narration of these books felt (Now I am running through the woods.  Now I hear a noise, so I raise my bow.  Now I think there is someone in the tree, etc.).

If you are looking for fast-paced brain candy that will keep you mildly entertained for a couple days, these books will serve that purpose.  However, if you are looking for a well-written science fiction series that will offer depth (and might even make you think), here are a couple that I highly recommend:

*The Ender Trilogy by Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind)

        *The Lilith’s Brood Series by Octavia E Butler (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago)

Bossypants by Tina Fey

If you want an unbiased opinion on this book, you’ll have to look elsewhere, as I am shamelessly in love with Tina Fey.  The book is hilarious and surprisingly astute at times.  It keeps you entertained with the behind the scenes stories of “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” while offering random nuggets of wisdom.  I recommend getting the audio book for this one: hearing Tina read the jokes herself made them all the more funny.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

Although this book was not as laugh-out-loud funny as Tina Fey’s book, Steve Martin offers a much more traditional memoir.  Rather than filling the pages with whimsy and humor, Martin digs into the joys and pains that fame has brought him, revealing some of the personal struggles and public adversity that he faced while breaking into the stand-up comedy scene.  It is elegantly and honestly written and, I believe, any fan of Steve Martin will enjoy reading it.  As a Disneyland geek, I especially liked learning how much of a part Disneyland played in his early success as an entertainer.


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