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ARCHIVE 2013 > Squirrel's 2013 Challenge - 75 Books

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message 1: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 12, 2013 11:01AM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Squirrel Corner

Tentatively 75 books at the moment, will try to aim for more depending on what I end up spending my summer doing.

Most of the books I read are of the "literary fiction", science fiction, fantasy, classics (in both the literary sense and the pertaining-to-classical-civilization sense), and nonfiction (science, history, philosophy) variety. This year I'm aiming for more depth in these genres, as well as genre breadth.

If you have a suggestion based on what I've read/plan to read, feel free to let me know!

List of books read:

1. Hyperion by Dan Simmons, 1/1/2013, *****
2. Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino, 1/2/2013, ****
3. Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, 1/23/2013, ****
4. Medea by Christa Wolf, 1/27/2013, ***
5. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, 2/2/2013, *****
6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, 2/18/2013, *****
7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 2/23/2013, *
8. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, 3/1/2013, *****
9. The Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, 3/3/2013, ****
10. Berlin, Vol. 1: City of Stones by Jason Lutes, 3/3/2013, ****
11. Berlin, Vol. 2: City of Smoke by Jason Lutes, 3/3/2013, *****
12. Swamplandia by Karen Russell, 3/6/2013, ***
13. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, 3/10/2013, *****
14. Haussmann or the Distinction by Paul La Farge, 3/11/2013, ***
15.

Overall progress: 14/75

Click the number of stars I gave each book to jump to the post in this thread containing a mini-review of the book. (Spoilers will be marked.)


message 2: by Squirrel (last edited Dec 31, 2012 05:39AM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments This space previously contained stuff on potential books to read. In the interests of organization, that stuff has now been moved to Squirrel Corner.


message 3: by Squirrel (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1) by Dan Simmons
January 1, 2013
1/75
Hyperion
Dan Simmons

5 stars

It feels weird giving my first book of the year 5 stars. I can be a moderately picky reader.

That said, this book fully deserves to be touted as one of the best science fiction novels ever written, although the novel is really more a hash of multiple genres. The story is told a la futuristic Canterbury Tales. It's within the stories of each of the "pilgrims" that you find a wonderful array of different genres beyond just science fiction. For instance, the priest's tale is a one of subtle horror and has some echoes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The detective's tale reads like a thriller and mystery, with a heavy dose of technology and related philosophical questions interspersed.

The use of the framed story narrative was a very smart choice. Rather than just establishing the background information for each character in their individual tales, Simmons slowly adds on pieces of the overarching plot with each additional tale, all while maintaining the pace of action. Oftentimes, novels that make use of subtlety and slow reveals can drag on. Hyperion never does.

Overall, the universe that Dan Simmons has crafted is well fleshed, his eye for political and societal complexities adept, and his characters are all rendered fully three-dimensional (and often emotionally gut-wrenching). There was only one character of the many who I felt was relatively weakly developed. There was another character whom I greatly disliked for his personality, but even then, his individual tale was still very fascinating and well done.

Simmons also manages to distribute the elements of his novel extremely well, balancing aspects of hard and soft science fiction. There's enough mention of the technical details and theory to satisfy most hard science fiction fans, particularly in the sections involving the Technocore, but also so much of everything else to interest those who don't care as much for in-depth examinations of the technology and science.

Full review: in progress, link to appear when done


message 4: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 12, 2013 11:01AM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino
January 2, 2013
2/75
Marcovaldo or The seasons in the city
Italo Calvino

4 stars

I have two (kind of three) other works by Italo Calvino sitting on my shelf but chose to start with this one, because it's the shortest one and I read it as a transition piece between two denser books. My experience of this book is probably marred by that mindset.

This is definitely something I'll reread in the future, and I can see myself upping the stars I've given it after a reread.

First off, Calvino's prose is beautiful. It's whimsical and then suddenly grounded, and always conjures a rich world and mood, with hints of magical realism.

There's no overarching storyline. You cycle through the seasons with Marcovaldo, with each season having its own tale. Marcovaldo is an impoverished menial laborer whom you track through his various escapades to "lessen his burden and that of those around him" (as the back of the book cover says). All of these ultimately fail in simultaneously hilarious and saddening ways. Calvino explores consequences of industrialism, nuances to family relationships (Marcovaldo's wife and children are featured in most of the stories), the helplessness of the individual (but without the depressing air such ponderings often bear), and the individual's perpetual attempt to find meaning and beauty.

My favorite is the season of the poisonous rabbit (one not-so-fair autumn). Marcovaldo and the rabbit are both characters who are acutely very universally human. The juxtaposition of dissapointment/despair and humor/hope here, while also quite characteristic of the other stories in the book, had the greatest impact on me.


message 5: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:26PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments The Fall of Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #2) by Dan Simmons

January 23, 2013
3/75
Fall of Hyperion
Dan Simmons

4 stars

Enjoyed it, but not as much as I did Hyperion. There was some repeated exposition that is probably useful if it's been a few years since the last book came out, but was just boring to me. I also didn't like one of the new characters whose POV was featured a fair amount. Nonetheless, I still liked the book quite a bit. On to Endymion (although maybe a break with something else.)

I felt it was a little unsatisfactory considering the strength of the Hyperion.


message 6: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:28PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Medea by Christa Wolf

January 27, 2013
4/75
Medea
Christa Wolf

3 stars

Cultural assimilation, honoring one's roots, gender relations, the idea of sacrifice for the greater good, love, and all that fun stuff is explored in the backdrop of Jason and Medea's return to ancient Corinth. The book is certainly interesting from a philosophical and classical standpoint, but the execution fell flat for me in comparison to Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays. I'm not entirely sure why.

For people who have read Cassandra: The character of Medea reminds me of who an older Cassandra, the titular character of Wolf's other book, may have been. I believe that Medea was published almost a decade after Cassandra, so Medea seems to be Wolf's attempts to sort out the maturation of ideas she pondered over in Cassandra. Wolf also alternates writing from different characters' point of view every chapter, which allows you to explore how people view Medea, etc., and kind of addresses the arrogance some people detested in Cassandra.

I guess the problem I had with this book is twofold: 1. The standard I compared it to was Cassandra, a book which after having read it, has killed all other retellings of myths for me. 2. I keep defaulting to "interesting" as a descriptor for everything in Medea, as opposed to interesting + thought-provoking + moving as they were in Cassandra.

This probably would have gotten 4 stars from me if I hadn't previously read some of Wolf's other works. (Which says something about how I need to re-evaluate how I approach rating books.)


message 7: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:28PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

February 2, 2013
5/75
The House on Mango Street

Sandra Cisneros

5 stars

The short version of it all: it's a collection of connected two to eight or so page stories of various events from the protagonist's childhood. Cisneros' prose is clear and poetic without being too fluffy (which is what I was afraid of happening from the first few pages). The way she structured the book is also just plain brilliant. The stories are set in chronological order and so you get to revisit the same themes from different points in the narrator's life. The narrator is a precocious child and struggles between seeing things through the petulance of someone her age, and a startling, self-aware clarity. (It should be warned that there are some heavy topics despite the whimsical exterior of the book.) One of the most poignant things I've read.


message 8: by Adriana (new)

Adriana | 3888 comments Ooh! Would love to hear what you thought of The House on Mango Street.


message 9: by Jack (new)

Jack (jack_) Me too! I've been meaning to read that book.


message 10: by Squirrel (last edited Feb 23, 2013 01:42AM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Oh man, I've been so busy lately. It's a really amazing book! I'd definitely recommend it.

The short version of it all: it's a collection of connected two to eight or so page stories of various events from the protagonist's childhood. Cisneros' prose is clear and poetic without being too fluffy (which is what I was afraid of happening from the first few pages). The way she structured the book is also just plain brilliant. The stories are set in chronological order and so you get to revisit the same themes from different points in the narrator's life. The narrator is a precocious child and struggles between seeing things through the petulance of someone her age, and a startling, self-aware clarity. (It should be warned that there are some heavy topics despite the whimsical exterior of the book.) One of the most poignant things I've read.


message 11: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:28PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

February 18, 2013
6/75
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce

5 stars

I'm a bit embarrassed to claim that this is the second time I've read this book. The first time around was quite a while ago, and all the complex issues (national identity, political struggles, religious identity, the idea of whether or not to "serve" society, etc.) pretty much went straight over my head. High school anxieties resonated with Stephen's intellectual anxieties, but that's only one portion of so much more.

The protagonist himself can be a turd at times, especially as he grows older, but is still oddly endearing.

I also really love Joyce's writing style, despite what some people may say about it. The stream-of-consciousness in the style of a little kid's thoughts at the beginning was clever, and the later prose clear when it needed to be clear, densely beautiful when it needed to convey such. (Will quote some favorite lines later.)


message 12: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:28PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

February 23, 2012
7/75
Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury

1 star

I went into this book expecting to enjoy it. Although it was a while back, I liked Something Wicked This Way Comes when I read it. "Dark They Were, and Golden-eyed" has haunted me since I read it 7 years ago. Not to mention that Fahrenheit 451 is supposed to be one of those canonical science fiction works referenced everywhere.

I had several problems with the book:

1. Characterization-- All of the characters practically screamed, "Listen to me, for I am the mouthpiece of this book! The Theme! The Theme!" They were character names stuck to ideas given voice with purple prose. Sometimes some books work because they give priority to concepts over characters, but this one just bashed you over the head with The Theme from every angle imaginable.

2. Writing-- There are definitely some gorgeous sentences in there, but those are drowned out by the overwhelming amount of purple prose. At some point, I found myself skimming paragraphs to get through them. I have a higher-than-average tolerance for indulgent writing (see: my love for Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy), but this far surpassed the realm of indulgent writing. My copy of the book features an introduction by the author wherein he talks about how Fahrenheit 451 was born out of a writing exercise done in 5 days in the basement of a library. I believe him because it sure reads like it.

3. Plot-- The premise is interesting, but I felt that its foundation was weak. It felt like Bradbury had very badly wanted to write about a world in which firemen now burn books instead of putting out fires, and commenting on a world where mass media has destroyed intellectual curiosity. Then he thrust that onto his world and didn't really develop the background of how that happened, or what. The way he has portrayed the decay of society, it would make more sense to me that books will have died out on their own.


message 13: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:28PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

March 1, 2013
8/75
To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf

5 stars

Comments pending


message 14: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:29PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Gardens of the Moon (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, #1) by Steven Erikson

March 3, 2013
9/75
The Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen)

Steven Erikson

4 stars

Comments pending


message 15: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:29PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Berlin, Vol. 1 City of Stones by Jason Lutes

March 3, 2013
10/75
Berlin, Vol. 1: City of Stones

Jason Lutes

4 stars

Comments pending


message 16: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:29PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Berlin, Vol. 2 City of Smoke by Jason Lutes

March 3, 2013
11/75
Berlin, Vol. 2: City of Smoke

Jason Lutes

5 stars

Comments pending


message 17: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 09, 2013 02:29PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

March 6, 2013
12/75
Swamplandia!

Karen Russell

3 stars

Comments pending


message 18: by Squirrel (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Resolution: I will get caught up on mini book reviews very soon.


message 19: by Squirrel (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

March 10, 2013
13/75
The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway

5 stars

Comments pending


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Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Haussmann, or the Distinction A Novel by Paul La Farge

March 11, 2013
14/75
Haussmann, or the Distinction

Paul La Farge

3.5 stars

(Background note: Haussmann was the man responsible for redesigning Paris in the 1860's into a bourgeois paradise, a modernization brought about both to improve standards of living and destroy the narrow streets that French revolutionaries (of which France had plenty in 1789) so loved to make use of in the past (difficult for artillery to pass through, wonderful to guard). This is a pretty cool character and time to read about.)

Era pieces are normally not my thing (something I'm always surprised to rediscover, given how I legitimately love devouring 700+ paged, dense history nonfiction), but I got a copy of this book free (chosen out of a choice of this and two others, The Artist of the Missing A Novel and Luminous Airplanes A Novel) and signed at a subsequent book reading. I initially chose the book because I recognized the titular character as a figure in history and the context in which he lived (my preening ego was very happy). Then I read the book more out of obligation than anything else, because the author was a cool guy and he signed the thing.

This book isn't one of my all-time favorites, but I don't particularly regret the time I spent with it. I feel like the book is a fairly solid 3.5 (but the slightest bit more a 3 than a 4, so maybe a 3.45?). If you love sweeping recreations of long-past settings, you'll love this book. If you love clever humor, you'll enjoy this. If you read books for the heart of the characters only, there are ups and downs. The book takes a lot of time meandering through side-notes and such, but some people really enjoy that.

La Farge is clever and funny. His funny is clever. Take for example this passage on a lamplighter's hobby of peeping on nuns through the window:
Though modest in his other tastes, Jacob has an appetite for three things, innocent enough singly, but which together constitute a vice: for lamps, for curtains, and for nuns. It's best, he thinks, bootnails clicking against the flagstones of the otherwise quiet bridge, if the light is behind the curtain…it combines religion, lust, and flame, the three forces which vie--so thinks Jacob--to consume the world.
His cleverness can be too clever though. His descriptions of his characters are made in a drawling tone chockfull of hyperawareness, sometimes of irony, in their actions/thoughts/personas. I got a very good sense of who the characters are, but didn't really feel a connection to them because I was always viewing them through almost academic lenses, which is enjoyable in its own rights, but not when it's continuous with no reprieve through 370 pages of a novel. Madeleine, one of the main characters, is described thusly:
And Madeleine loved most of all that which was catlike in herself, in other words, that which achieved freedom without struggle and independence without loneliness, and for all that never had to go long without food.
Beautiful prose, but that's always the type of description you get about every character. Probably would have gone over better with me had I read this in a different mood.

What La Farge does exceptionally well is to recreate Paris at the turn of the century. The research that he has put into the novel is highly evident. The things that hinder his characterization lend to a brilliant evocation of nuances to the transformation of a city, both physically and societally. While I couldn't be swept away by his characters, I was swept away by his recreation of a world. He also has penetrating insights into human nature, made in (again) clever observation, that resonated.

I'll be checking out La Farge's other novels at some point. From the samples I've read, the first person of Luminous Airplanes A Novel balances out the detached character analyses and still retains all the good things. (That book's plot may also prove to be more exciting to most people.)


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Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

March 12, 2013
15/75
Magic for Beginners

Kelly Link

5 stars

I came across Kelly Link's work after having read Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and listened to a talk by Russell, wherein she mentioned Kelly Link as a major influence. Due to my adoration for St. Lucy's, I had to check out something by Link. I'm extremely glad I did.

A breakdown of what I loved:

1. Link masterfully uses clean and evocative prose that is difficult to find in writing with hints of fantasy. A lot of authors go the route of using sprawling sentences to create an ethereal quality. Link's prose gets across the same amount of description while maintaining a "realness" (for lack of better wording). Some of my favorite instances:
She fixed her reptilian, watery gaze on him. She had problematical tear ducts. Though she could have had a minor surgical procedure to fix this, she'd chosen not to. It was a tactical advantage, the way it spooked people (75).

She'd had a passion for children with a certain color of red hair. Twins she had never been able to abide (they were the wrong kind of magic), although she'd sometimes attempted to match up sets of children, as though she had been putting together a chess set, and not a family. If you were to say a witch's chess set, instead of a witch's family, there would be some truth in that. Perhaps this is true of other families as well (126).
2. The holistic way in which she tells her stories creates the sense that there's a much larger and stranger world out there than what the characters in a specific story are experiencing. She uses a lot of "asides" in which other events and ideas are alluded to, which does a lot to build the complexity of her world:
In the witch's house the dead are sometimes quite talkative.

But the witch has nothing else to say at this time (129).
3. The horror creeps up on you unexpectedly. The characters all speak with such a candid, matter-of-fact tone that you're drawn into the strange things in their world and nothing feels contrived (like things sometimes feel in short stories with horror-y twists).

4. I can't quite place the genre of Magic for Beginners. There are hints of humor, hints of fantasy, hints of horror, awe-inducing strangeness that seems more and more normal the further you read, and compelling characters with modern, relatable concerns despite their odd situations. Whatever it is, it works.


message 22: by Squirrel (last edited Mar 14, 2013 10:08PM) (new)

Squirrel (squirrelysquirrel) | 53 comments Shakespeare v Lovecraft  by D.R. O'Brien

March 14, 2013
16/75
Shakespeare vs. Lovecraft

D. R. O'Brien

3 stars

(It should be noted that I received a free copy through a Goodreads giveaway.)

The two things that first drew me to the book were (1) the cover, which reminded me of a Diablo character creation screen and (2) the combination of Shakespeare and Lovecraft. I love Shakespeare, I love Lovecraft, and I love horror-comedy as a genre, so this seemed like it would be a fun read. (Plus I was immensely curious as to how Shakespeare and Lovecraft can be mixed.)

The Good:

- It is indeed a lot of fun appreciating the cross-references between Shakespeare and Lovecraft that O'Brien makes. Even while doing this, O'Brien manages to make a story all his own. I especially liked the chapters featuring Richard III and Romeo.

- The dialogue was great. The heart of O'Brien's humor can be found in how he uses it, and he's quite clever. I can imagine this being quite enjoyable written in play form, which is a testament to his homage to Shakespeare. The quotes from Shakespeare's plays are also integrated smoothly into the new storyline and well-chosen.

The Eh:

- The prose is noticeably and distractingly uneven. The first chapter is overdone with adjective overdoses. For example: "A chaotic whirl of waters crashed against the rugged cliff face as ghoulish black clouds of grotesque contour rested and brooded like unwholesome vultures." The sheer quantity of adjectives just makes the sentence clunky. The sentence describes a powerful image, but the power of it is dragged down in clumsy verbosity. There's an extremely high concentration of this in the first chapter, which made me hyperaware of it in subsequent sections, where the problem shows itself on occasion.

Once you get past the first chapter, the prose clears up some. While there are still some instances of cringing, there are also some nice sentences. "There are vocal qualities peculiar to men, and vocal qualities peculiar to beasts; and it is terrible to hear one when the source should yield the other," conveyed a sense of horror that lingers after one has read it.

- There were enough punctuation mark mishaps and typos for me to take note and remember afterwards.


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