There's no better way to ruin the enjoyment of a good book than to be forced to read it. Unfortunately, many high school and junior high kids are comp...moreThere's no better way to ruin the enjoyment of a good book than to be forced to read it. Unfortunately, many high school and junior high kids are compelled to read books that they would probably enjoy if they chose to read them on their own. To Kill a Mockingbird has, of course, been on school curricula for years, and I was made to read it once back in, I believe, tenth grade. Yet, despite my being forced to read this book, I remember that I quite enjoyed it, so I decided to give it another go as an adult. And, you know, it's still excellent.
What a simple, yet delightful book this is. There are so many excellent characters, well-drawn and distinct - if you can read this book and not want to make friends with someone like Atticus Finch, well, there may be no hope for you. The story is intimate, but never feels boring or as though it's not going anywhere. It doesn't really have much of a happy ending, either, yet it's easy to feel hopeful about these characters and their future.
My own sister stirred up a bit of a controversy a few years ago when she stated that she didn't believe this was really worthy of all the hype and praise it's received - not necessarily that it's bad, just that it's not really one of the very best works of fiction ever written. I'm not going to say that I agree or disagree with her - I simply haven't read enough of the so-called best fiction in the world to state my opinion with any authority. And really, it doesn't need me to weigh in on it to secure its place in the literary pantheon of classics. But I will say that I really loved the book, again, and that's good enough.(less)
What a marvelous, beautiful, tragic story this is. "Flowers for Algernon" is a worthy entrant on the list of science-fiction novels with true literary...moreWhat a marvelous, beautiful, tragic story this is. "Flowers for Algernon" is a worthy entrant on the list of science-fiction novels with true literary merit.
The story is simple. Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped thirty-two-year-old, is given an opportunity to undergo an experimental surgery that will grant him the intelligence of an ordinary adult, and then some. The beauty comes as we follow Charlie through his awakening into a world the rest of us take for granted. The book is composed entirely of Charlie's written progress reports, and as the operation's effects begin to take hold, we see his vocabulary, spelling, sentence structure, etc. improve accordingly.
Of course, the tragedy is that now Charlie is able to remember all of the most horrible events and memories from his young life, and his slowly-dawning realization of his horrible mother and his mistreatment at the hands of people he had thought were his friends is really heartbreaking and, unfortunately, all too believable. It's a story of someone whose greatest wish comes true, only to discover that it's not what he really wanted after all.
Reading this book reminded me of an experience I had a few years ago. One of my colleagues was leaving his job and moving back north to get a job closer to his adult children. He had one child still living at home - his 20-year-old son with Down's Syndrome. I was asked to help the family pack up and get the house ready to sell. As we packed things in boxes, repainted walls, patched holes, etc., the son became eager to help. His parents had been trying to keep him occupied away from us, but it became clear that he just wanted to help out with everyone else. I gave him a paintbrush and showed him how to paint the walls that needed painting, and he dove right in and worked hard all afternoon. I still remember how impressed I was with this guy, and how badly he just wanted to contribute. He had a terrific work ethic, and, though it was difficult for him, he concentrated and did a fine job and turned out to be a real help that day.
That experience was a very humbling reminder to me that a person's character lies in what he or she does on a day-to-day basis. We're forever building our reputations and our legacies in each act we do, no matter how closely we think people are watching us. Just as Charlie Gordon was a complete, valid human being before his surgery, this young man was eager to prove his quality to his family and to prove that he had something to offer.
There's so much in this short book that is worthy of praise. It infuriates me that schools and libraries have banned or edited Flowers for Algernon. Just as Charlie becomes infuriated once he learns how he had been so infantilized all his life, censorious busybodies seek to infantilize school-age kids by cutting out the more "adult" portions of this book or taking it off school shelves altogether. It's ironic enough that a high-school student could easily write an essay about it for English class.
If you haven't read it recently, go pick Flowers for Algernon up and read it again.(less)
I got this to say. You're acting like a crowd of kids.
This was my first time reading Lord of the Flies. Obviously it's a classic and a staple of high...moreI got this to say. You're acting like a crowd of kids.
This was my first time reading Lord of the Flies. Obviously it's a classic and a staple of high school English classes everywhere, but somehow I have waited until now to pick it up and read it.
And the book is so firmly ingrained in American popular culture that I think it's impossible to determine today exactly how it must have felt to read it for the first time upon its publication in 1954. "The Simpsons" has parodied it, "Lost" owes this book (and others) its entire existence, and I even discovered a planet inspired by the book in "Mass Effect 2" yesterday. Postapocalyptic fiction like "Lucifer's Hammer" or "The Road" also follows many of the same tropes introduced by "Lord of the Flies." It's safe to say that most people today know the general story of the book, even if they've never read it.
It would seem that a book about a group of schoolchildren who degenerate into violent murderers would be a tough sell, especially in 1954, but of course that is only a small part of what the book is about. The symbolism is dense and rich here, layers upon layers of meaning about civilization, the rule of law, politics and religion, the power of hope, human nature, and on and on. There's so much going on here - particularly in the last 50 pages - that one could write a dissection of the book longer than the book itself. I'll bet several people have.
Honestly, though, for me it was a little bit of a tough read, especially the first half of the book or so. The story takes some time to develop, particularly since I knew where it was going. It felt like Golding was trying to slowly build to an admittedly-shocking climax, but in 2010 we all know the story, so I felt like it took a little too long at times to get where it was going. But, hey, that's my fault, not the book's. The prose is terrific and our narrator comes off as a little detached from the happenings, as though he can't quite believe what he is reporting.
Also, I would have liked a little more background on the world in which the book takes place. A fleeting reference is made to some sort of atomic blast, and it's stated that the world is at war or preparing to go to war. To me, these details are added solely to place the savage behavior of the boys in context, to tell us that the reprehensible behavior of Jack and his cronies is rooted in the "civilized" warfare of society at large. But these details hint at a larger, more frightening conflict that, frankly, interested me. It's not necessary, from a story perspective, for Golding to go into more detail about the larger world at war, but I would be interested in seeing a little more about it.
So, overall, I found this to be a haunting and heavy story about the ugly side of humanity. If its impact has lessened a bit in the half-century or so since it was written, that's a testament to the book's imagery and staying power within our culture. It still has the power to wallop you and leave you shaken.(less)
Hey, this is a great book! I mean, yeah, it's a classic, but it's really a fun, quick read, too. The premise - a contingent of Martians come to Earth...moreHey, this is a great book! I mean, yeah, it's a classic, but it's really a fun, quick read, too. The premise - a contingent of Martians come to Earth and stomp the sugar-coated snot out of England - has been copied and referenced endlessly, but it's still fun to see how Wells envisions this happening.
Two things really struck me about this book: 1) it's well over a hundred years old, but it feels fresh and fairly contemporary, apart from the nineteenth-century setting. This is probably partially due to the fact that, as stated previously, it's been copied so many times - a new movie version was made a couple of years ago - but the story has character archetypes that would be present if aliens invaded today. The disbelieving citizens, the government officials denying the severity of the threat, the rugged individualist, etc. all made the story feel like it could be happening at any time.
2) I love the way that Wells incorporated discussions of contemporary scientific thought into the story. Alien-invader stories from the 50s and 60s always involve nuclear weapons and/or lasers, because they were high-tech and new and scary back then. Well, there were no nukes or lasers in 1898, but there was thermodynamics, so Wells's Martians have a Heat-Ray. The book also touches on evolution, astronomy, and one delusional artilleryman even gives a passionate argument in favor of social Darwinism that sounds eerily like something Adolf Hitler might have argued decades later. (He dies.) The inclusion of actual science makes this story "hard" science fiction, several decades before there was a term for it.
Overall, the story is a great mix of postapocalyptic disaster fiction, horror, and science fiction that has had such an enormous impact on our culture as a whole, it's impossible to measure. Now I'm going to have to watch the original 1953 film, or, if I can get my hands on it, listen to the radio broadcast from the 30s that famously scared a lot of people into thinking it was real.(less)
Is there a novel written in the twentieth century with as much relevance, as much lasting impact, as 1984? Just think of all the terms and concepts fr...moreIs there a novel written in the twentieth century with as much relevance, as much lasting impact, as 1984? Just think of all the terms and concepts from this book that have entered regular usage in our language – doublethink, Big Brother, thought crime, even the term Orwellian.
This was my first time through this classic, and I really enjoyed it. I can only imagine the impact it had on audiences in the forties, when it was published, and even to modern readers it's unfortunately all too easy to find many modern parallels to the totalitarian Oceania government. Obviously big totalitarian governments like that of North Korea are obvious touch points, but I think one can also find 1984 analogies in Britain's surveillance state or Enron's web of lies.
I really liked the details about the Newspeak language, and how the Oceania government was working to dismantle and render obsolete the “oldspeak” English language. What seemed initially to me like a pointless busywork task instead becomes a vital tool in the complete destruction and control of the thoughts and minds of the populace. It really is a scary concept. Many of the book's control methods were obviously insidious, but this one seemed a little more subtle to me.
As shocking and terrifying as 1984 is, it's a book that should be read by everyone, everywhere, to arm the people with the knowledge to fight against encroaching tyranny by recognizing it whenever it appears.(less)
Well, I finally finished The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, after the better part of a year. Generally I read this for about 15 minutes a day b...moreWell, I finally finished The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, after the better part of a year. Generally I read this for about 15 minutes a day before moving on to more fun stuff, so that's why it took me so long.
The sheer scope of this book is astonishing - Gibbon covers something like 1300 years of Roman history, from the days of Julius Caesar to the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. We learn about the rise of Christianity and Islam, we learn about the barbarian hordes who spent centuries cutting off little pieces of the Empire for themselves, and we see the once-mighty Roman Empire crumble into dust over the years. That Edward Gibbon was able to put this together in the eighteenth century, without modern research tools, the Internet, etc., is truly astonishing, especially considering he was a member of Parliament at the time.
However, this is probably also the book's greatest weakness. The enormous reach of its author also means that, most of the time, I felt like we were just skimming the surface of a particular emperor or time period. Honestly, I felt like I would have gotten more out of the book if I had already had more knowledge of the people and places Gibbon was writing about. Those parts of the history I did already know about, I enjoyed reading more.
Also, this book reads more like an academic text than a real populist history book a la David McCullough, and the prose is a little archaic, but it's certainly readable if you can keep your attention from wandering. Just be warned that this is not a light, breezy summer read - it's heavy-duty, educational, and filled with historical research.(less)
The Time Machine was pretty great. It's a fun adventure story, with just enough social commentary to not wear out its welcome. I liked the touch of pa...moreThe Time Machine was pretty great. It's a fun adventure story, with just enough social commentary to not wear out its welcome. I liked the touch of pathos near the end, when the Time Traveller tours an Earth that's nearly dead under the light of a red giant sun. There's something very sad about that.
It's a short, quick read and a classic, and you can download it for free. Why wouldn't you?(less)
Dracula is one of those classic books I'd never gotten around to reading before. When I was in high school, it was on the curriculum up until I took 1...moreDracula is one of those classic books I'd never gotten around to reading before. When I was in high school, it was on the curriculum up until I took 12th-grade English, at which point it was removed because Goths, or something. This book was a victim of some typically hysterical idiot school board reasoning.
Anyway, so I finally read it, and I thought it was pretty good. It's impressive that the template presented here for what a vampire is and does is still very much ingrained in popular culture today. There are a few times that this fact makes reading Dracula a little bit annoying, such as when a character is found with two fang marks on her neck and all the characters sit around wondering, “what does it mean??”
Stoker does a great job at conveying an atmosphere of suspense above all. There are a couple of grisly scenes in the book, but nearly every page evokes a sense of dread and fear as the characters work to understand, locate, overcome, and finally kill Count Dracula. I would like to be able to know how Dracula felt to a reader in 1897.
I'm glad I finally read this book. And it didn't even make me want to become a Goth, so don't worry, Utah County school board idiots.(less)
I read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time a few years ago, and it quickly became one of my favorite books. It's funny, and somewhat ironic, how the boo...moreI read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time a few years ago, and it quickly became one of my favorite books. It's funny, and somewhat ironic, how the book has the reputation for being about a society in which books have been banned by an overreaching fascist society, when the reasons for the book ban – society has turned its back on the written word – are in fact much more banal and sad.
451 is an undeniable classic, and now I've gotten to what is perhaps Ray Bradbury's next-best-known book: The Martian Chronicles. The first thing to note about this book is that it's less a single, unified novel, and more of a series of short stories that are loosely connected by mankind's travels to, and conquests of, Mars. Some of these stories are very well known - “There Will Come Soft Rains,” for instance, is the story of an advanced house on Earth, run by sophisticated computers, which keeps cooking and cleaning for its occupants for years after nuclear war has decimated all life around it.
Nearly all of these stories are terrific. It's very much a product of Cold War paranoia, with the emphasis on nuclear warfare and questions of trustworthiness that were so typical of science fiction of the time, but Bradbury invests these stories with wonder and invention throughout. The unique structure makes it easy to read the book one story at a time (as I did) and it's impressive that there is a story arc to the collection that's independent of any one story.
I haven't read much Bradbury, but the works of his I've read really illustrate why he was so beloved and mourned upon his death earlier this month. Great stuff.
At right around 200 pages, All the Pretty Horses is a short book, but it took me over two weeks to finish it. Part of that was due to a 500-mile move,...moreAt right around 200 pages, All the Pretty Horses is a short book, but it took me over two weeks to finish it. Part of that was due to a 500-mile move, a house purchase, and mountains of boxes to unpack, but if I'd been more interested in the story I would have finished it more quickly.
This is a book about the American and Mexican west, heavily romanticized and beautifully drawn. McCarthy paints an extremely vivid picture of the landscape, the men and women, and of course the horses of this rugged, harsh part of the world. It's about the people who choose to embrace the land and the lifestyle.
I'd previously read The Road, so I was prepared for McCarthy's unique writing style – minimal punctuation, idiosyncratic misspellings, and run-on sentences everywhere – but I felt that writing style worked better in a post-apocalyptic world, where proper grammar and sentence composition represented a luxury people could no longer afford. Once in a while it became an impediment to understanding for me, although if you go back and recap a few paragraphs it's usually easy to remember who's talking to whom. The writing is great, and very descriptive, but some people might find the syntax to be distracting.
I'd probably recommend this more for people who are interested in cowboys, horses, stories about the west, etc.(less)