Thursday, October 09, 2014

Book Review - Death in Venice and Other Tales

This book was assigned for a college course that I ended up dropping but I had already purchased the book. I decided to keep it because the book buyback/refund was ridiculous and because Mann's work is hailed as a quintessential part of German literature as well as insight on the concept of literature as art and of the relation between art and reality/humanity. Now years later, I finally picked the book up and worked through the dozen stories it contains.

From a high level I can say that I found the stories very evocative, descriptive and full of detailed emotion. A common tone that I felt throughout the reading was one not necessarily of despair but of longing...of a desire or yearning for something more. The exact focus varied somewhat from story to story but generally speaking we were usually presented with a protagonist who was an artist of some kind and who is struggling with balancing his passion and desire with the mundane and disappointing real world around him. That tone produced an overarching depressive feel that lingered throughout my entire reading. Even the happy and vibrant moments had a shadow of sadness behind them that I just couldn't escape.

A lot of the depressive nature came from the conflict between the desire and the ability to fulfill on those desires. In most cases, the yearning of the character in question was for something inaccessible or forbidden. Specifically, in the title story the artist/writer is an older man who is having romantic longings towards a younger boy...thus a yearning that is taboo and forbidden on multiple levels. By making these desires more taboo or forbidden, I felt less directly tied to the protagonist but Mann still presented the situation in a way that allowed me to feel the oppressive emotions of the struggle. In other cases the struggle is just one between a desire to create that great artistic masterpiece and the feeling of constantly falling short. It's hard to be an artist and it's easy to be hard on yourself as an artist.

Random review interlude -- A couple of favorite quotes:
"We are only as old as we feel in our hearts and minds."

"Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous - to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd."

I certainly appreciated the artistry of the story and I was impressed by the depth and detail added to the environments, characters and stories of this book. Some of the stories were a bit more engaging to me than others but generally I felt a bit disjointed from the stories and had a hard time really appreciating the various plots. What I probably enjoyed most (beyond some of the beautiful descriptions) were the semi-frequent existential and philosophical moments. Mann puts together some interesting thoughts that sat with me after closing the book. Mostly he left me feeling unsettled and dissatisfied and like I should get out and do something productive and worthwhile. To that extent, I applaud the effort of the book. Otherwise, this is a bit of classical literary artistry that I can appreciate but really don't feel like it was a "must read" or that my life is significantly improved by reading. I didn't hate it but I didn't love it. Overall, it just sort of exists on a menial plane for me.

3 out of 5 stars

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Books Read in 2014

For the past few years (20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal has been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them.  In 2013, I was significantly below my goal.  Oh well.

This year (2014) I plan to improve on my downturn in 2013.  If I hit 50, great, but at the very least, I hope to reach 40 books read in 2014.  I will also try to share all of my reviews here so you can get a feel for what I liked or didn't like.  That said, I generally only pick up a book to read it if I feel like it "speaks to me" in some way, so chances are, most of my reviews will be fairly positive.  Even then, I'm sure I'll come across some stinkers.  :)

If you have any suggestions for books to read or ways I can make my reading goal more exciting, please let me know.

And now, without further ado, here's the list of books I've read so far in 2014:
(I will be updating this post each time a new book is read/reviewed)
  1. The Martian
  2. The Forbidden Stone (The Copernicus Legacy Book 1)
  3. At First Light
  4. The Orphanage of Miracles
  5. The High Druid's Blade
  6. The Conjuring Glass (The Phoenix Girls Book 1)
  7. The Bluest Eye
  8. Frostborn (Thrones and Bones book 1)
  9. Death in Venice and other tales
  10. Shell Game (Kingdom Keepers #5)
  11. Around the World in Eighty Days
  12. Finn
  13. The Rule of Thoughts (Mortality Doctrine #2)
  14. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
And for additional reference, here's a link to my "to be read" list over at Goodreads. This list includes purchased books on my bookshelves (but not read) as well as tons of books that have been recommended to me over the years. As you can see, the list is huge...and never really shrinks since there are always new recommendations coming in. So tell me...what good books have you read lately that I should add to my list? Any that I "MUST" get to ~immediately? :-)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Book Review - Frostborn (Thrones & Bones book 1)

I've always been a fan of boardgames ranging from very thematic and involved games to the more abstract strategy games like Chess. I've also always enjoyed the Norse mythology and viking adventures. So naturally I was intrigued by Frostborn (Thrones & Bones). The quick summary tells of a young boy named Karn who would "rather be playing the board game Thrones and Bones" and of a half frost giantess named Thianna. While the story is set in its own fantasy world, it's based on concepts, ideas and creatures from the Norse mythos. The author invented the board game "Thrones and Bones" for the book but based it on the old Viking game Hnefatafl. The only risk I saw in reading this book was that it was rumored to be the start of a series and I sometimes have a hard time keeping up with a series.

This is a middle grader novel so the prose is simple and the plot is fast paced. This doesn't prevent the author from weaving a rather complex history and creating an elaborate world. The characters, races, mythology and environments are rich and vibrant. The writing is enjoyable and engaging and sure to appeal to young readers while also maintaining enough depth to hold the interest of adult readers.

The book begins with a prologue adventure. The prologue takes place numerous years before the primary plot of the book but the author leaves the reader in the dark as to how the prologue ties in for the first many chapters. I was able to guess at some of the connections but most of the intrigue and mystery is unraveled with just the right balance of clues and revelations to keep the plot surprising and yet teetering on the edge of allowing the reader to guess at the secrets.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review - The Bluest Eye

Someone recommended The Bluest Eye to me shortly after it was released and it somehow fell off my radar. I read Beloved by Toni Morrison about 5 years ago and while I was impressed by the artistic elements of the novel, I wasn't as "moved" but it as I was "supposed to be" and as such I never bothered to seek out more by Morrison. I stumbled on Bluest Eye again recently and decided to give a try. Apparently The Bluest Eye is Morrison's first novel and frankly I enjoyed it more than Beloved.

From a form and method standpoint, Bluest Eye uses alternating narrative styles. It transitions back and forth from the first person narration of a girl named Claudia living through the experiences of the novel and her same voice as an adult with a third person omniscience.. I really enjoyed Claudia's child voice and the way Morrison presented her narrative. As a child narrator, Claudia's youthful view of the world was an interesting contrast to the omniscient adult narrator. The third person served as a good balance for the unreliable narrative from the first person child while the first person narrative helped provide the human and emotional element to the story.

The story also played with the idea of known knowledge and hidden knowledge. In early chapters, Claudia makes reference to elements that happen later in the narrative and have significant impact. She drops these references very matter-of-factly as though we already know all about the events and have already come to our own conclusions. This makes for an intersting suspense to the reader as we try to read between the lines and make sense of the little snippets provided to us. Knowing a little bit of the intended tone and plot of the story, I was able to make some logical inferrences. Not only does Claudia's narration tease the reader with elements but the narrative also plays with time a bit and meanders through the timeline of the story dropping fragments of scenes out of order.

The plot takes place in the ~1930s and revolves around a yound black girl named Pecola who has been taken in as a temporary foster child by Claudia's family. We learn that there was a fire that burned down Pecola's home but it is evident through hints and allusions that there was more to the tragedy than a simple home fire. As the novel progresses, we learn that Pecola's home life was an abusive one both verbally and physically. Her parents constantly fight and Pecola is constantly told that she is absolutely ugly.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review - The Conjuring Glass (Phoenix Girls Book 1)

I was intrigued by The Conjuring Glass as a potential good “middle reader” book for my 10 year old daughter. It sounded like something she might enjoy. It focuses on a 13 year old girl, an orphan named Penny, who is moved to a new little town and discovers a secret magic that she is able to use. At the same time, evidence of some scary mystery starts to unravel around her and Penny needs to muster her courage and what little magic skills she’s learned to try and stop whatever is happening. Even though there is the risk that this could be a Harry Potter clone, it fortunately makes some conscious choices to differentiate itself while still potentially being appealing to Harry Potter readers.

The first thing I noticed as I read this book is that the writing is very simplistic and definitely geared towards younger readers. I’ve seen this categorized as “Young Adult” but the prose is certainly accessible to Middle Graders and the overall tone and depth of the story is more likely to be appreciated by those pre- and early-teens than older readers. Some of the content may be what pushes for the characterization as a “Young Adult” novel. While there was nothing that would be deemed as “mature themes”, there are some ‘intense’ scenes later in the book that could be a little frightening for younger readers. Thus I suspect this is the reason that some groups choose to “shelve” the book as a “Young Adult” novel, knowing that “Middle Grader” could potentially get readers as young as 7 or 8.

Assuming the role of a younger reader, I found myself intrigued by the story and by the character of Penny. She’s a bit of an outsider, not necessarily by choice but willing to adapt to that role. When she does finally make a friend in town, the hesitance and apprehension felt realistic and appropriate. As the girls discover the magic around them it is fun to see their excitement grow and I enjoyed the fun and playful way the girls just enjoyed being themselves and exploring the world around them.