I hadn't heard of this book until recently, when it made a surprise appearance on The Guardian's Best 100 English Novels list. It's an early spy novel...moreI hadn't heard of this book until recently, when it made a surprise appearance on The Guardian's Best 100 English Novels list. It's an early spy novel, written in 1915 and set just before WWI, and a smashing and brisk read. It was written by a John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, and I did not make that up. Baron Tweedsmuir.
Baron Tweedsmuir, at your service sirrah
It cites Kipling and Conrad as influences, appropriately, and there's some mention of Holmes as well, but its primary influence is clearly Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. There's a scene involving hiding and sweltering on top of a dovecote that's a direct play on a similar one in Kidnapped, but above all they share Scottishness, which manifests itself in a love of running about on moors and in a general unawareness of the existence of women. There are zero women in this book. Seriously, you never even pass one on the sidewalk.
And very little happens in The 39 Steps that doesn't have to do with them. Buchan's hero, Richard Hannay, is a master of disguise: his transformation into a road worker at one point is wonderfully detailed. His Moriartyesque nemesis is even better, which leads to a denouement that isn't really believable but gets the job done.
This is more of a novella than a novel, and - arguably aside from some semi-interesting talk about the philosophy of disguising oneself - it's not very deep. It's a nonstop thrill ride, is what it is. But it's a hell of a good time.
You know what else is a good time is just saying Baron Tweedsmuir. Hello, Baron Tweedsmuir. We meet again, Baron Tweedsmuir.
Prisoner of Zenda is a little slip of a book: its influence is heavier than its pages. Filmed numerous times, including (as El pointed out) once when...morePrisoner of Zenda is a little slip of a book: its influence is heavier than its pages. Filmed numerous times, including (as El pointed out) once when it was called Dave and had Kevin Kline in it.
And it was the major influence on Nabokov's Pale Fire, which basically amounts to an extended trippy metafictional cover of the same story. (Here's more on the similarities, if you need convincing.)
The story: what, you haven't seen Dave? What's your problem, that movie is awesome. Fine: the king is incapacitated and a normal guy who happens to look just like him is convinced to stand in for him. And then there's some buckling of swashes, and this terrific villain, Rupert Hentzau, who very nearly runs off with the story. (You can see Hope itching to switch to him, and in fact he wrote a sequel called Rupert of Hentzau that I wouldn't be against reading myself.)
It's a great plot, executed well and leanly; this might not be the world's heaviest book, but you could certainly do a lot worse with your weekend.(less)
Wonder Woman Unbound feels like category three to me, and not one of the better examples. (And in fact I just confirmed that this was his Masters thesis. Nailed it!)
I picked it up because Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston, is a super interesting dude. The polyamorous inventor of the polygraph test and a respected psychologist, he believed that we would live in a utopia as soon as we accepted that women should be in charge of the world. He created Wonder Woman specifically in order to sneak this idea into the minds of children, and also in order to indulge his massive bondage fetish.
Yes, in case you didn't know: those early Wonder Woman comics were basically just everyone - male and female, Wonder Woman and her hopelessly incompetent male love interest - getting tied up all the time. Hanley does a nice job of making graphs showing how, like, people get tied up in all comics, but Wonder Woman had like twenty times more of it. You know that golden lasso of hers? And the bracelets? Yeah.
Wonder Woman vs. the next most bondage-y comic book
So the book does cover all this fairly well. A little less biographical information on Marston than I was hoping for, but...better than just reading his Wikipedia entry, anyway.
Unfortunately that's only the first third or so; the rest of the book covers Wonder Woman after the Martson era, and since frankly Wonder Woman has always been a deeply lame superhero, this was less interesting to me. I hung on for a while, but gave up once I realized he was spending an entire chapter academically ripping off the website Superman Is A Dick.
Bottom line: I just told you everything you need to know about William Marston, plus introduced you to a website you're going to blow the next 20 minutes giggling at, so you can skip this book.(less)
According to my buddy Ron, "Original Sin is the best novel containing a murder mystery between Brothers Karamazov and Infinite Jest." I so appreciate...moreAccording to my buddy Ron, "Original Sin is the best novel containing a murder mystery between Brothers Karamazov and Infinite Jest." I so appreciate good hyperbole.
Anyone else with an opinion about whether it's okay to jump in at #9 of this series?(less)
This was my third Robert Louis Stevenson book, and they've all been five star reads for me. That makes him one of the most consistent authors I know o...moreThis was my third Robert Louis Stevenson book, and they've all been five star reads for me. That makes him one of the most consistent authors I know of.
Kidnapped recently showed up on the Guardian's list of the 100 best English novels, and I guess I might have put Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde there instead; I still feel like its a deeper book. But the Guardian chose this instead, mostly because of its Scottishness. It's a gripping adventure book first and foremost - dude gets kidnapped, headed for a life of slavery in the good old US of A, and then there's shipwrecks and fightin' and fleein' and it's all great fun - but it's also about the character of Scotland.
My Penguin edition seemed to think that justified tons of boring footnotes about historical details, none of which I understood because they assumed I had some degree of starting familiarity. Everything I know about Scottish history I learned from watching Braveheart fifty times, and pretty much all I got from that is that English people are dicks.
And that's really enough for this book, too. It was written in 1886, and takes place in 1751. Our narrator David Balfour, a "tendentious prig" according to the only fun sentence in the intro, is a Lowlander; his buddy Allan Breck, who was a real dude, is a Highlander. The events in the book - the killing of that one guy and its fallout - were real events, fairly depicted. I went and looked into all that history and crap and here's what I can tell you: skip the footnotes and trust Stevenson's narrative, because he's telling you all you need to know. The footnotes make it seem like there's a larger picture that you're not getting and should be getting - like there's something you're missing - but that's really not the case.(less)
Alexandre Dumas' dad was a Revolutionary War hero general who once held a bridge by himself against a whole squad of bad guys with a friggin' sword an...moreAlexandre Dumas' dad was a Revolutionary War hero general who once held a bridge by himself against a whole squad of bad guys with a friggin' sword and took the Alps basically singlehanded and then languished as a POW for years and died a pauper and was written out of history because Napoleon is an asshole, and also he was a black guy, and this is all pretty awesome.
Terrific book, handling not only Dumas' actual story but a fair amount of history along the way, from the French Revolution to the beginnings of Napoleon's whole...thing.
It's hard to love the favorite YA books of a different generation. This came out after my time, because I am old, and I wasn't even aware of it until...moreIt's hard to love the favorite YA books of a different generation. This came out after my time, because I am old, and I wasn't even aware of it until recently. So now I gotta read this book, which is for like 12-year-olds, as a 40-year-old man, and it's just okay for me. Because I'm not 12. If you read it as a young person then you have a visceral love for it, maybe, but you can't fake your way into that feeling.
That said, it works for what it's doing. It's got some pretty heavy thoughts for a young person and it's not afraid to be dark, which I always appreciate. Young people crave dark stuff, and they're way more able to handle it than adults tend to think they are. Lowry's heart seems to be in the right place. I've seen this compared to Fahrenheit 451, and on a surface level I totally get it - but at the core, I feel like Fahrenheit 451 is a reactive, conservative book, and this isn't. (Full disclosure: I hate Fahrenheit 451.)
But it's not very subtle, is it?
And I feel like the ending is rushed. The first three quarters or so, Lowry's doing some fairly interesting world-building: she does a nice job of showing us how on the surface this might look like a utopia, but here's one thing after another that undermines it until we realize we're actually in a nightmare. But things move very quickly in the last quarter, and I got sortof a "Fuck it, you get the idea" sense from it.(less)
Not bad, really, for what it is, which is fairly smutty. Nutting is pulling sortof a reverse Lolita here, or at least the first third or so of Lolita:...moreNot bad, really, for what it is, which is fairly smutty. Nutting is pulling sortof a reverse Lolita here, or at least the first third or so of Lolita: her teacher shares Humbert's straightforward amorality, and there's a plot development at one point that's clearly a nod to Lolita - (view spoiler)[where the kid's dad discovers what's going on and immediately (and conveniently) dies. (hide spoiler)] So part of what she's saying is, "If I flip the genders, do you feel differently?" And the answer is yes, because no man is without his hot-for-teacher fantasy.
She does stack the deck a little by making the teacher super hot, too, which is a little bit cheating.
Once in a while I'm compelled to read one book or another that I hear is super shocking and lurid or whatever, and this is one of those times. I always feel a little queasy afterwards, and I often sortof regret it, and then like a year later I find myself compelled to do it again. But, yeah, this wasn't a bad book.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The Three Musketeers lacks the weight of Count of Monte Cristo; that book is, I think, deeper than it's given credit for. This book is not. So all it...moreThe Three Musketeers lacks the weight of Count of Monte Cristo; that book is, I think, deeper than it's given credit for. This book is not. So all it can aspire to is to be one of the most entertaining books you'll ever read, and that it is.
There's a scene right near the beginning where our hero meets, and manages to schedule duels with, all three Musketeers in a row. He's forced to apologize to them when they all come together, since only one will be able to have the pleasure of killing him. It's about as much fun as you can reasonably be expected to have reading a book.
And that's before the plot even gets going! Soon you will be whirled off into a surprisingly deep web of intrigue and mayhem. Poison-filled rings, forged letters, betrayals, secrets, prostitutes, and at the center of it all, the unmatched Milady, the best femme fatale since Lady Macbeth. There is no villain in Count of Monte Cristo, or in anything else, on the level of Milady
So now I've read two books by Dumas, and why isn't he my favorite author? Are the rest of his 5000 books this good? If they're even half as good...why do we read anything else?
Translation: the consensus gold standard is Richard Pevear - yes, of Pevear & Volokhonsky - and it does read very nicely. (Also, check out that awesome cover.) My one complaint is that it's footnoted all to hell; every character who pops up for one line gets a full explanation, like, "This may be based on this minor character from history who you don't care about, although that person was ten years old at the time, but he went on to become Viscomte of some bullshit or other." Almost none of it is interesting or important. It's like having a history nerd standing behind you all the time. Still, though, I hear too many other translations mist over the sex, of which there is plenty, and we wouldn't want that.(less)
Good lord, am I having trouble nailing down the upcoming fancy new Hemingway Library Edition of this book. That's the one I want, anyway. Not this one...moreGood lord, am I having trouble nailing down the upcoming fancy new Hemingway Library Edition of this book. That's the one I want, anyway. Not this one.(less)
I read this book several times as a teenager, because it had sex scenes. I may still have a thing for short-haired women in high-collared jumpsuits. (...moreI read this book several times as a teenager, because it had sex scenes. I may still have a thing for short-haired women in high-collared jumpsuits. (May. I don't actually know, since that doesn't exist.)
So I dug it back then, even though I realized at the time that it had both storytelling and philosophical problems, and I'm leaving my five-star nostalgia review of a different edition up. But now I'm 40, and this book is terrible.
It has zero plot, first of all. Just no plot at all. It's, like, here's a superspy and she has a bunch of sex, and that's it. Which you can see why that appealed to 13-year-old me, but at this point, y'know, I've been a superspy for years now and I'm kindof over the casual sex. (See, 13-year-old me? Dreams come true!)
Heinlein was some sort of libertarian Ayn Rand fan, so you know how that goes. (It goes stupidly.) People like to say his politics were "complicated," which is what you say when you're trying to defend someone who's an idiot. He was militaristic, pro-free love, fascistish, anti-racism. He was one of those dudes who thinks he's a feminist because he's figured out what women should hurry up and act like.
But anyway, let's talk about the elephant in the room. The rape elephant. It opens with a gang rape, during which our heroine's superspy training allows her to relax and enjoy parts of it, while commenting on each assailant's sexual prowess. Wow, you just got really mad! You seem incensed! What? She's a superspy. It's not like Heinlein is claiming that all women should relax and enjoy being gang raped. Just this one in this book that he imagined and then wrote down and had published. And it's all okay anyway; want a spoiler? (view spoiler)[She ends up marrying the most sexually proficient of her rapists. (hide spoiler)] So...see?
So listen, Heinlein is a shitty writer with shitty ideas. If you're thirteen and you want some smut, drop me a comment and I'll suggest some books for you. You can do better than this.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I don't know if this is a much, much better book than The Magicians was or maybe I was just in a much better mood when I read it, but I was super impr...moreI don't know if this is a much, much better book than The Magicians was or maybe I was just in a much better mood when I read it, but I was super impressed with this. Just hella entertained. The story of Julia, who fucks up her entrance test to Hogwarts (or whatever they're calling it, I forget) and manages to teach herself magic anyway by hooking up with an underground network of wannabe douchebags, is terrifically entertaining. Grossman is still basically writing dirty fanfic mashups here, but it's very good.
Hey, if you've already read this, wanna talk about the ending? Specifically That One Scene? (view spoiler)[That was exceedingly nasty, huh? But I'm not mad at the book. I get why it was there - Grossman wanted to get it across that they were like Hellraiser-level out of their depth. Part of Grossman's thing is that he likes to take fantasy tropes and say "okay but seriously, what would this be like in the real world?" The answer is usually pretty grim - learning hand positions is a serious chore, and later on you get your hands bitten off - and this is consistent with that thing. I was okay with it. What did you think? (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is a dumb book with a dumb gun fetish and a dumb predictable plot. It's about dumb people who do dumb stuff. Acceptable young adult reading, I gu...moreThis is a dumb book with a dumb gun fetish and a dumb predictable plot. It's about dumb people who do dumb stuff. Acceptable young adult reading, I guess.(less)
"To talk nonsense in one's own way is almost better than to talk a truth that's someone else's."
Reading Dostoevsky is like hearing an alien try to des...more"To talk nonsense in one's own way is almost better than to talk a truth that's someone else's."
Reading Dostoevsky is like hearing an alien try to describe human behavior. He seems mystified and a little grossed out by us. His characters are exaggerated, constantly roaring and spitting at each other. It can make you wonder if you're reading a bad translation. It's not the translation, though. It's Dostoevsky.
The early scene of the crime itself is as gripping a scene as you'll ever read. There are several more that equal it, as Raskolnikov struggles to evade both worldly and moral law. Crime and Punishment has been called a detective story, and it is that, but even more than that it's a horror story. It's about the horror of being Raskolnikov.
Dostoevsky is willing to dive as deep into the muck of the human brain as anyone ever has been, and it's a visceral experience. This is a thriller, a page turner, and a much better read than Brothers Karamazov, just in terms of sheer interest, but both books leave you feeling distinctly grimy. I find them upsetting.
But as batshit as Dostoevsky's style and method are, his underlying message is basically conventional. He's deeply religious, and the plot of this book is simple. Crime; punishment; and finally, (view spoiler)[redemption through Christ. (hide spoiler)] It's a bit disappointing, really; there's a bit of an Emperor's clothes feel to it. "That's it?" I think. "After all this madness, that's all you were trying to say?"
Raskolnikov spends most of the book wrestling with his crime, but how often do you recognize the thoughts he's having? For me, it's not very often. And I can't really connect the dots between the murder and (view spoiler)[the redemption; that last chapter in the epilogue feels jarring to me. (hide spoiler)] In the end, I'm not sure Dostoevsky actually understands people very well at all.
Translation by McDuff for Penguin I read Pevear & Volokhonsky's Brothers Karamazov, and switched translators this time around just to make sure it wasn't P&V who were making everyone sound like lunatics. That's confirmed. McDuff's is quite good - just as good as P&V's as far as I'm concerned.
At this point it's almost possible to read the entire Russian canon as translated by the same team of Pevear & Volokhonsky. They're terrific, but still: that seems dangerous, or at least odd. I feel like it's a good idea to get a mix of translators whenever possible. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Richard Dawkin's 1976 classic game changer The Selfish Gene contains information I still didn't know, almost 40 years later. His basic idea is that th...moreRichard Dawkin's 1976 classic game changer The Selfish Gene contains information I still didn't know, almost 40 years later. His basic idea is that the essential unit of life is the gene; our bodies are just big fleshy protection robots for the gene. Dawkins says I'm a tool. Right? High five!
And you might be like "Okay, so who cares?" What difference does that make, right? Well, first of all I'm gonna go have some pie because fuck you, genes, you're not the boss of me. Woohoo! Other than that, no, no difference, carry on. It makes a difference to scientists, because when you look at it this way all kinds of behaviors make more sense, or make sense in a different way. Dawkins' particular focus is on behaviors we call "altruistic", like when an antelope warns his herd about an approaching lion. Dawkins would like to go through every altruistic behavior he can think of, which is a lot, and show you why it's actually not at all altruistic.
(The antelope is an easy one: he warns the herd by jumping up and down, which doubles as a sign to the lion that he is super bouncy and the lion should go chase someone less bouncy.)
So, no big surprise to those of us who know Dawkins in his latest incarnation as The World's Dickishest Atheist:* Dawkins does a lot of party pooping in this book. Did you think you were a nice guy? You are not. Your genes command you to behave nicely on occasion because in the end it will benefit you. (See: the Prisoner's Dilemma; also game theory. Or read this book, which will explain both to you.)
* which is more annoying to religious people, but also annoying to those of us who are atheists but don't feel the need to yell about it all the time
But Dawkins is also just a tremendously engaging writer. He's wildly good at explaining technical concepts clearly to lay idiots like me. And he's funny! This book is fun to read. And it's chock full of the kind of fascinating tidbits that make you turn to your spouse and say "Holy moley, did you know saddleback birds on an island in New Zealand make up new songs that then spread through the population like a Pharrell Williams single?" And she's like "Sounds boring! I'm reading Jezebel, did you know Justin Bieber was racist when he was fourteen?" and then the two of you look at each other like who even are you? And your genes are like who cares, you two should make out.(less)
Scottish author who wrote a proto-spy novel in 1915. Note that 39 steps is a novella, but comes packaged in many editions with Greenmantle, the second...moreScottish author who wrote a proto-spy novel in 1915. Note that 39 steps is a novella, but comes packaged in many editions with Greenmantle, the second in the series.(less)
On July 10, she was secretly dosed with LSD at a party. By July 20, she was using intravenous drugs. By September, she had bought a leather fringed vest...moreOn July 10, she was secretly dosed with LSD at a party. By July 20, she was using intravenous drugs. By September, she had bought a leather fringed vest, and it was too late.
"This was the scene, these were the swingers, and I wanted to be a part of it!"
So it goes in this 1971 classic of hysterical anti-drug malarkey. Within a few months our unnamed heroine has been gang raped on heroin; shortly after that, she's become a "Priestess of Satan" and drugs have literally "took her the homo route." That's a quote. Drugs make you gay, kids.
Go Ask Alice - marketed as a real teen's diary - was actually written by Beatrice Sparks, a Mormon youth therapist who lied about her PhD and wholly invented this story, as well as many other insane fake teen journals about things like Satanism and AIDS. It contains every ludicrous canard trotted out by the direly lame anti-drug crusaders throughout the 70s and 80s, and was required reading for two generations of kids who learned that school was clearly not going to be the right place to learn anything useful about drugs. Secretly LSD-laced candy that makes you freak out, planted by "the grass gang" as revenge for you going square? Why yes, that's here. Teens pushing drugs to nine-year-olds on playgrounds? "Another day, another blowjob"? Acid trips that lead directly to mental institutions? Yep, yep and yep. And did I mention that drugs make you gay?
As a book, it's...hard to judge, really, because it's so distractingly inauthentic. It's sortof entertaining, in a "Oh no she didn't!"' way, and it doesn't outstay its welcome. It's terribly written, but so is Anne Frank's diary; literary quality doesn't really even seem relevant. As a time capsule of the supersquare anti-drug efforts of the 70s and 80s and why they were such an abject failure, it's perfect.
I just wish it had been more specific about where she got that leather fringed vest. It sounds sweet. (less)
I found this book at a stoop sale, next to a copy of Harriet the Spy, which is about as good as omens get. Plus I liked the Quentin Blakeish cover. Th...moreI found this book at a stoop sale, next to a copy of Harriet the Spy, which is about as good as omens get. Plus I liked the Quentin Blakeish cover. This is the debut novel of a local Brooklynite. Emerging talent!
Lafia has a great touch for concrete detail. Characters don't drink wine, they drink Gewürztraminer. They don't see rocks - they see siltstone, mudstone, and shale. There are some very impressive passages. In one virtuoso image, a crying child is compared to a whale being harpooned and slaughtered while sharks tear at it from below. Elsewhere, an author throws a dinner party where the menu represents his new character, which is an idea I can't believe no one else has had yet. I'm waiting for my invite, Lethem.
Four stars instead of five, though, because it's not perfect. There are some typos, which always bug me. There's a bit too much "so" - like, "So strong, so real, and so not good", which gets so annoying after a while. Most of all, I felt like it lost focus in the last act: a subplot involving the tarot came out of nowhere and the philosophy started to take over the plot.
A promising start from an impressive talent, though. I was psyched to find it.(less)