I have a problem with books when the nicest thing people can think of to say about them is, "It is based on a true story," or, "At least it was well r...moreI have a problem with books when the nicest thing people can think of to say about them is, "It is based on a true story," or, "At least it was well researched." It is the same as saying a woman "has a great personality" or a man is "super sweet". In the case of fiction, as with these backwards insults to humans, the "based on a true story" and "well researched" labels actually mean that the books are ugly or stupid. That is not to say I am against true stories or research, but if it's the nicest thing you can say about a novel I'm probably not going to want to read it. When, while reading Water for Elephants, I found myself sighing and thinking, "At least it's obviously well researched, and I bet some of this really happened," I knew Sara Gruen and I had a problem.
Perhaps it is the fact that the characters of this book are completely un-like the author that makes every conversation and event in this story ring false. The dust jacket on this book tells me that Sara Gruen is in her early- to mid-thirties and lives in an environmental community north of Chicago. The central character of Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski, is a man who appears in the story as both a twenty-one year old and a ninety-something year old. He is a vet, who joins a circus in the 1930s, during the depression, and gets to go on some nasty adventures that involve a lot of vomit, blood, and erections. I have often in the past had problems with books written by men and told from a female character's point of view, but I don't remember ever being so distracted by the reverse as I was in this book. Jacob, both young and old, is constantly getting flustered, turning away to hide his emotion, getting cornered by other men who desperately want to know how he feels about his love interest, and voicing the emotional highs and lows of the animals he cares for. I am basically in favor of the human- and animal-rights message that I eventually thought might be the point of this book. However, when Jacob would describe how all of the animals and people liked him better than everyone else, it just made him come off like a pipsqueak rather than bringing home the point that humane treatment brings positive results.
It is, frankly, beyond me why Ms. Gruen chose to write this book from a male perspective. The only conclusion I can come up with is that she thought it was the best way, in some kind of perverse, Annie Proulx thought pattern to make the descriptions, and specifically everything relating to sex, moderately unpleasant. Mission accomplished.
My advice, if you plan to read this book, is to read it with the voice of Dr. Archibald from Veggie Tales - a sort of silly, mid-Atlantic whine: ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfxBRc... ). I found this much more enjoyable toward the end. These are a few sample sentences from the book to use for practicing the voice before you start the book: "Those were the salad days, the halcyon years!" and "And then I laugh, because it's all so ridiculous and so gorgeous and it's all I can do to not melt into a fit of giggles." I don't know if the writing is supposed to be funny and odd in a Jack Handy way, but I sense that it's not, and that makes me think "some of this is probably based on a true story . . . and at least it seems well researched."(less)
Did you ever wish that Boogie Nights was a book set in the time of the fall of the Aztec empire? No? Well, don't tell Gary Jennings that because I'm p...moreDid you ever wish that Boogie Nights was a book set in the time of the fall of the Aztec empire? No? Well, don't tell Gary Jennings that because I'm pretty sure it would hurt his feelings. It's not really something I would have thought you'd need to be specific about, but kids are so "creative" these days. This story isn't about Marky Mark’s penis or Montezuma's penis, either, because you might find that too predictable. It's about the penis of this other dude who is able to "visit" with exotic tribes and still make it back in time for the major happenings of Spanish conquest. I find it apropos to quote the GR summary of the book to give you a basic outline of what you might expect to find "under the covers" of this novel. This was obviously written by someone who decided not to actually read the book, but wanted to guess what it was about (quotes added for emphasis):
Here is the "extraordinary" story of the last and "greatest" native civilization of North America, at the "height" of its "magnificent" (sic). It is a story told in the words of one of the most "robust" and memorable characters in modern fiction. His name is Mixtil--Dark Cloud. "Rising" above his lowly station, Mixtil distinguishes himself as a scribe and later a "warrior." He earns a fortune as a traveling merchant, "exploring" every part of what the Aztecs called The One World--the far lands of mountains, jungles, deserts, seacoasts.
(*wink, wink, nudge, nudge*) I like the extended euphemisms. I didn’t realize before that the Aztecs referred to the female anatomy as The One World. So much is lost in translation.
The best thing about this book was the woman who gave it to me. I was working in this law office with four lawyers (all male) and four assistants (all female). I had just moved into a new house, and a woman I knew decided to throw me this "house-warming shower," which was a pretty painful experience for me but well-meaning of her. The game she came up with (like ya do for a "shower") was that everyone had to give me a book I would hate. This stressed out all the attendees (those who were actually my friends) because many of them are friends with me only because of books, so they felt like they had to bring a book I would actually love. It turned into a situation where all these women (men aren't allowed to come to showers, don't you know?) were bringing me their favorite books in the entire world, leaving me obligated to read them.
So, I worked with this one woman, who in many ways was an average, comfortable mom type. In a lot of other ways, she reminded me of a character from the Addams Family, though. She had this white streak in her black hair, which was cut into a mullet. She also had this way of shuffling around the office that was pretty unique. You know how lego people walk by moving their whole bodies? It was kind of like that. Also, she had the Addams Family theme song as her ring tone. I never asked her about it, but I figured she made a lot of style choices based on that show. Also, she had a speech disorder where she replaced her the 'r' sound with the 'w' sound. When I first met her, I honestly thought she had an accent. At one point the other assistants and I were out to lunch, and I asked her, "So, where are you from?" She replied, "California." Anyway, she couldn’t attend the house-warming shower but gave me this book at work, saying, "This is my favorite book in the entire world, and I haven’t been able to find another copy, so I’m giving you my copy." No pressure, right?
It turns out that unfortunately this book is not out of print, though I did return her copy to her when I was finished reading it, just, you know, to make sure she didn’t miss it.
While I think Boogie Nights is a great movie, there are some other times and places to which I feel it might not translate well. So that we’re not relying on assumptions anymore, I’ll state explicitly the places that I can think of where it would, imao, be a drag: pioneer days, Middle Earth, the Vatican, jungles (too obvious), the Soviet Union, the suffrage movement or second-wave feminism, the Civil War, any journey by land (Oregon trail, Lewis & Clark, Marco Polo - come on, people, there are kids reading these books!), or a bio pic about a someone leading or ministering to the disenfranchised (Martin Luther King, Jr.; Gandhi; Mother Teresa – not appropriate). I’m leaving a lot of options open, still, if you’d like to re-make Boogie Nights. For example, space would totally work, as would reality TV and other entertainment genres (music, game shows, theater, etc.). Bill Clinton, likewise, has absolutely set us up for a political re-make. See? I’m not being stingy, just proactive.
On the other hand, if you’d like to hear a fictional Aztec talk for almost 800 pages about his penis, then this is the book for you.(less)
I had this professor in college who assigned Frankenstein, so I thought I'd read it for the third time because maybe that time Frankenstein's whining...moreI had this professor in college who assigned Frankenstein, so I thought I'd read it for the third time because maybe that time Frankenstein's whining wouldn't kill me. The professor was kind of an abomination in a lot of ways, but not the worst professor ever. Anyway, I'll never forget going to class for the lecture on the book. The professor was lecturing in this caught-you-with-your-hand-in-the-cookie-jar voice and said, "Frankenstein's monster was a vewy, vewy baaaaad monster!" So, that's what I knew from college about the structure and influence of the novel. Everything else I learned on goodreads.
Mary Shelley is the Elizabeth Gilbert of the 19th century. Yes, horrifying, but for the right reasons? And don't try to tell me those Shelley and Gilbert weren't writing horror. That's just silly.(less)
I’m a huge fan of propaganda, but I think I may not be a fan of fan fic. I was going into this with the hope that it would be fun, extreme, Latin prop...moreI’m a huge fan of propaganda, but I think I may not be a fan of fan fic. I was going into this with the hope that it would be fun, extreme, Latin propaganda, but The Aeneid is really more Trojan War fan fic, IMO. It’s the Phantom Menace to The Iliad’s Empire Strikes Back. It is seriously lame. I think Akira Kurosawa could have made a pretty decent movie of it because he likes to have people frenzy. There’s a lot of frenzying here. The dudes are all chest pound, blooooood, and the chicks are all hair pull, frenzy, waaaaaail. And Aeneas is such a dweeb about the name-dropping. Like, “Oh, did I mention that Venus is my mom? Oh, did I tell you how freaking hot I am? Yeah, I was totally there when Odysseus scammed the Cyclops.” Give me a freaking break. Did you scam the Cyclops? No. Get over yourself.
This is what happens when you start a series, and then someone else wants to capitalize on your story. It’s the fifth season of The West Wing or the seventh season of The Gilmore Girls or all the Jane Austen / Jane Eyre sequels and prequels. It just doesn’t work. Find your own story! I’m looking at you, Virgil. Not that I’m against people using storylines that someone else has used. That’s almost inevitable (and, of course, Shakespeare is a good argument for being okay with stealing). But, there is a line. I’m not positive where it is. This story crossed it. And then don’t even get me started about Dante. WHY?! Virgil’s got his guys running into Homer’s guys, and then Dante’s running into Virgil? It’s just so presumptuous. I guess, it’s like, go ahead and steal a really wonderful storyline if you have something to add to it. But don’t think that your SUPER LAME storyline is going to suddenly turn wonderful because you drop a character from a good story into it.
And there are some seriously weird details to this story. For example, Venus is this guy’s mom, but she doesn’t raise him to know not to pull a George Costanza in running away from the Greeks? Dude. It just takes a second to wait for your wife, you loser. I mean, I’m no great fan of Venus to begin with, but that’s just weird. It seems like she would have taken a minute to say, "Don't trample people running away from your enemies." Maybe it never occurred to her he'd be so lame.
And then the business with Dido was just annoying. She’s the queen of all the land, has been through hell, wherein her eeeevil brother killed her seemingly pretty awesome husband, and then when Aeneas says to Dido, “btw, it was great sleeping with you, but I have a lot of heads to chop off for no particular reason, so I should prolly get going,” she goes all Kathy Bates in Misery all of a sudden. Except lamer because she’s wailing and self-mutilating instead of taking it out on him. It’s just awkward to watch. Girl needs a sassy gay friend. And none of these people are as cool as they think they are.
And the rest of the book is basically one long chest pound. I guess there’s the part where he goes to Hades, and lo, he knows folk there. I’m kind of bitter about the whole thing because Juno’s so funny and great in The Iliad and such a loser here. Again, Akira Kurosawa probably could have turned it into a pretty decent movie. I don’t really get the frenzying thing, but Kurosawa seemed to have liked it. And, if you like people to run around, chopping limbs off and then whining and blustering for a while, you might really click with this book. What I’m saying, though, is if you haven’t read The Iliad, that’s where it’s at. I recommend, for best results, reading it in a hammock.(less)
**spoiler alert** You know you’ve been in school too long when you write a vampire novel in which Dracula’s ultimate threat is to force his victims to...more**spoiler alert** You know you’ve been in school too long when you write a vampire novel in which Dracula’s ultimate threat is to force his victims to catalog his extensive library of antique books. On the other hand, after finishing The Historian, and its detailed Vlad the Impaler research, I’m willing to consider that threat as akin to impalement. If Kostova’s references to Henry James did not reveal her as an admirer of his, then its sprawling prose, vague plot, and sexually confused characters would have. While imitation of Henry James is not enough in itself to make me wish undeath on an author, it sucked the blood out of this adventure.
Kostova writes The Historian in epistolary form, primarily through letters from a father historian to a daughter (presumably) historian. The greater part of the book, however, focused not on this father-daughter team’s desperate search for family member(s) and Dracula, but on the obscure history of Vlad Tepes, the historical figure who inspired the legend of Dracula, and on the geography of Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey during the Cold War. If the Travel Channel™ was ever looking for someone to host Istanbul on a Budget 1980 or Passport to Monasteries Behind the Iron Curtain, Kostova would be their woman. Whether the history and geography is true or not, the sheer volume of trivia padding this book and the work it had to have taken to put it all together is confounding.
Even with the impressive research, this story is Scooby Doo with no Scooby Snacks. Dracula would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those pesky historians! Dracula and his henchman, the “evil librarian,” don’t plague society or cause panic. Rather, they make appearances in goofy disguises in libraries and cafes to give books and other clues to especially promising young historians, inspiring the recipients to begin insatiable quests to find out more about this Dracula fellow. Then, Dracula inevitably shows up again to slap people around a little, so that the historians will be too afraid to continue their research. Once, after giving a historian a book to start him on his vampire studies, Dracula disguises himself as “a stranger” and buys that historian a drink called, “whimsically, amnesia.” Bet you can’t guess what that does - all that research down the tubes! Stop the mind games, Dracula! Not to be deterred by Dracula’s or the Evil Librarian’s threats, the historians continue to stalk their prey until the reader would pity Dracula (if he weren’t annoying), because he is ultimately only trying to build a book collection and a gang of faithful research assistants.
In painful detail, Paul, the central historian/vampire slayer, as he tells his daughter the story of his search for Dracula, also tells of falling in love with her “mannish” mother, Helen. The consistent descriptions of our heroine as “manly” only hint at Paul’s sexual confusion, which becomes most apparent when he meets his rival, Helen’s ex-boyfriend, a Soviet spy. Paul describes this meeting to his daughter in chapter 38. “’What a pleasure to meet you,’ [ex-boyfriend] said, giving me a smile that illuminated his fine features. He was taller than I, with thick brown hair and the confident posture of a man who loves his own virility – he would have been magnificent on horseback, riding across the plains with herds of sheep, I thought.” Except for the word “virility,” I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of reading that description. If the author of the quote had been a man, I would encourage him to openly write gay characters rather than making his characters marry to hide their sexuality. From the author’s picture on the dust jacket, I see that she is Madame Bovary, so the description fits.
It is true that because of the vagueness of the plot and the epistolary structure, entire chapters and characters could be cut from this book without losing any story. Beyond its rambling descriptions, however, The Historian flounders as a vampire story. Psychological conflict adds complexity to most vampire stories, as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, when Mina, formerly a protagonist, becomes bloodthirsty. Thirst is the most basic human experience, and all vampires started as humans. Theoretically, thirst (or, more broadly, desire) could become evil in anyone; and, therefore, of all monsters we most easily identify with vampires. In The Historian, however, I am left with the impression that if those historians left poor Dracula alone, he would have just kept collecting books. It was ultimately the research and study, not Dracula himself, that took the historians away from their loved ones and almost destroyed them. From where I’m reading, The Historian is solid evidence of what most high school kids could tell you: too much study is both boring and potentially bad for your health.(less)
I need to never run into Scott Westerfeld down a dark alley, or during a Civil War reenactment, or at Charlton Heston's house, or wherever. My deep de...moreI need to never run into Scott Westerfeld down a dark alley, or during a Civil War reenactment, or at Charlton Heston's house, or wherever. My deep desire not to be arrested for murder would have an epic battle with my need to reach for a weapon when I see his stupid face. In all fairness, as you see, I coughed up three stars for this book, so I will clarify that my empty threatening is really directed toward Pretties and Specials (books two and three in this series). I'm posting this review on the link for the first book in the hopes that it will inspire people to put this book on their list of books never to read. If you read this book there is the danger that you may want to continue with the series, but trust me, you really don't.
In listing what I don't like about this series, I'll start with EVERYTHING from the characters to the plot to the worldview that I imagine would inspire a story of this kind of depth and breadth of ambivalence. The premise of Uglies is that in the future when kids reach puberty, they all have mandatory plastic surgery to turn their bodies into a perfect standard of beauty based on human brain reactions to visual stimulus. Unfortunately (and this is a slight spoiler, so my apologies, but it really is an element that is pretty obvious from page one, though not clearly stated until later), when the kids are having the surgeries to make them pretty, the surgeons change their brains, too, to determine their decision-making abilities, capacity for independent thought, and even sense response. Basically, the pretty surgery makes most people stupid, unless the occupation that the government determines for them requires intelligence. So far so good - it's your basic government-takeover dystopia. Yes, kids, if you let the government give you free health care checkups, it's only a small step to the day they start chopping up your brain.
Luckily, said ugly teens (particularly our protagonist, Tally, through her bff, Shay) discover that if they flee to the wilderness, they will be able to live a life of freedom and romance. Oh, what's that? Did I say "romance"? Thanks again Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, et al. Sometimes when characters go out into the wilderness . . . I don't even know. Does the phrase "it's been done" even begin to cover my feelings on that topic? Thus begins the cat-fight between Tally and Shay that is the uniting thread of this entire series. You see, there is a wilderness boy (imagine my surprise), who is quite a catch even though he's "ugly", and there's some jealousy and betrayal and kick-ass hoverboarding. You get the idea.
Let me clarify the problems I have listed so far:
1. Suspicion of the city, using a retreat to the wild as the solution to social ills. It's a tired premise. 2. Cattiness of the female protagonist and portraying the central female character as mostly driven by her current crush and competition with other women. That is a huge pet peeve of mine.
Those, however, are small, forgivable wrongs compared to the basic disingenuousness of the moral arguments Westerfeld makes. While he on one level criticizes the idea of basing society on a hierarchy of physical looks, the characters repeatedly interact within that hierarchy, calling each other "pretty" and "ugly" at every turn and defining "pretty" people very specifically. Even the repetition of the words "ugly" and "pretty" undercuts any message Westerfeld might have against pigeonholing people. I found myself seeing people in the grocery store and evaluating whether they met the "evolutionary definition" of pretty as according to this series. It's creepy and annoying. Westerfeld can be as showy as he wants about how it is limiting to judge people based on their appearance, but I argue that he is actually encouraging that same shallow judgment if only by instruction and repetition. For example, it's like saying, "kids, don't shoplift, but here's how to shoplift if you ever want to do it. And here's a catchy shoplifting song to sing with your group of friends, who really should have a name. Hey, we could call you guys the 'shoplifting gang'! Don't shoplift, though." What's the real message there? Ultimately, the arguments of the government that requires the pretty surgeries, also, make a lot of sense in the stories. The surgeries solve anorexia, bring world peace, and save the environment. Plastic surgery sounds fun, too, and Westerfeld literally makes no compelling arguments against body alteration. At the same time, I'm left feeling that Westerfeld thinks it is a bad idea, though he is not convincing.
If Westerfeld's discussion of body image wasn't enough of a travesty, the point in this series where this backwards arguing makes me want to wipe him off the face of the planet is when he introduces cutting. By "cutting" I'm not talking about skipping school. If you are not familiar with cutting, it is a form of self-mutilation that has been growing in popularity with teenagers over the past few years (I'm going to go ahead and say it's been growing in popularity since 2006, when the book Specials was published). In Specials, our catty female protagonist and her buddies discover that by slicing up their arms, they experience a particularly satisfying high, and all of their senses are strengthened. Ultimately, they randomly decide that this is a bad idea, but Westerfeld only implies their reasoning for that decision, and again I'm left with the feeling that probably everyone should be a cutter because in the context of the story it's pretty badass. I think that was the point where I started yelling and throwing things around my house.
Unfortunately, some parts of these stories are actually engaging (not seriously engaging, but passably), and for a while I wanted to find out what happened to everyone, even while I wanted to burn the author's house down. The truly unforgivable wrongs are his wolf-in-sheep's-clothing discussions of teen body image and self-mutilation issues. His characters never develop deep self-respect or intelligent motivation for their actions, and even when their decisions seem healthy, Westerfeld makes a better argument for the unhealthy decisions. Now I realize that I didn't even talk about the uber-annoying slang language he develops for the Pretties and Specials. I'll just say that these books are not "bubbly" and leave it at that.(less)
Everything about this book makes me throw up a little bit in my mouth. I say again, "yuck yuck yuck," both to the absurd violence and the shallow emot...moreEverything about this book makes me throw up a little bit in my mouth. I say again, "yuck yuck yuck," both to the absurd violence and the shallow emotion of this story. Every time the plot turned toward something interesting, it was quickly replaced by a turn toward Lame. I get why SO MANY people compared The Hunger Games with this book (which is the reason I picked Battle Royale up in the first place) because of the basic Lord of the Flies, kids-will-be-kids premise. I, however, found Battle Royale nowhere near as disturbing or thought provoking on a personal level as The Hunger Games. The violence is ridiculous, and even from the first chapter the plot is so obvious, even the way various characters will meet their tragic ends is so obvious, that the only conflict it caused for me was whether to give in to my stubbornness about finishing books or just give up after the first hundred pages.
I'm not prepared to defend the violence in The Hunger Games, or comment as to whether I thought it was cheesy or not, but in that book it is not the sole focus of the story. I think the violence is basically boring in both, but in the Hunger Games there is at least less of it, so I have less to be bored with. For me, the value of the Hunger Games is in presenting a model of a girl action hero who is genuinely there as a female perspective and not ultimately an object of male desire like most female characters who are set up as being girl action heroes.
I think that is why the comparison of the two doesn't seem very valuable to me. Battle Royale obviously does more with the violence, so if that is something that is a draw to a reader, that reader will definitely prefer Battle Royale. Hunger Games does more for changing the narrative of female protagonists, so if that is a draw to a reader, as it is to me, that reader might prefer Hunger Games.
The descriptions were very anime, which makes me think that if the writing had been beautiful, or if any of the emotion had seemed deep, I may have liked this book. The end was plot-twist after plot-twist (you thought they were dead?! No! Alive! No, wait, dead. Like that part in Eddie Izzard, Dressed to Kill), and half of the twists gave me hope that they would redeem the story. The other half killed those hopes. My advice is that if you think you feel like reading this book, maybe you actually feel like watching Cowboy Beebop. I don't think you'll regret it.(less)