Thursday, May 31, 2007

Book 28: Billy Budd

TITLE: Billy Budd
AUTHOR: Herman Melville
STARTED: May 27, 2007
FINISHED: May 31, 2007
PAGES: 128
GENRE: Literature

FIRST SENTENCE: In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable seaport would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war's men or merchant sailors in holiday attire, ashore on liberty.

SUMMARY: [From] It is a time of war between nations, but on one ship, a smaller battle is being fought between two men. Jealous of Billy Budd, the "Handsome Sailor, " the envious Master-At-Arms Claggart torments the young man until his false accusations lead to a charge of treason against Billy.

REASON FOR READING: It's a classic that I should have read in high school

THOUGHTS: I read this book telling myself that it was my Melville test run. I have not met a single person who enjoyed Moby Dick - outside of the first line. When I saw Billy Budd at the library, I thought, "Hmm... if I can make it through this short thing, and not hate it, maybe I will give Moby Dick a try." Well, I really disliked this book. I felt that, even with it's short length, there were too many superfluous chapters. Seriously, why did Melville need to bring up Nelson and Trafalgar?

Also, there was no tension in this book, and no real plot. I felt that Melville was just trying to say Billy is awesome but he has sh*t for luck. Melville also seems to be waxing poetic in an area of "Where do we draw the line?" philosophy, but it's just so blah that there's no point for it to be in the book.

I think I said "WTF?" more often with this book than any other; it just did nothing for me. Melville has an extensive vocabulary, that's about it.

MISCELLANEOUS: Umm... if Billy Budd was called "The Handsome Sailor" why is the model on the cover the epitome of 1970s ickiness?

RATING: 3/10 [Poor, Lost Interest]

Book 27: Libraries in the Ancient World

TITLE: Libraries in the Ancient World
AUTHOR: Lionel Casson
STARTED: May 22, 2007
FINISHED: May 29, 2007
PAGES: 177
GENRE: Books about Books

FIRST SENTENCE: [From the Preface] This book is the first full-scale study of libraries in the ancient world.

SUMMARY: [From] Casson chronicles the history of libraries from the storage of clay tablets in the ancient Near East to the Middle Ages. He examines the gathering of collections of writings, the means used to store them, the sponsorship of libraries by emperors and other notables, and the layout of library buildings. The text revolves around the period of the Roman Empire and the city of Rome.

REASON FOR READING: Assigned for my "History of the Book" class

THOUGHTS: The content of this book was great, but the writing style started to annoy me after awhile. Casson has a bad habit of writing his paragraphs like lists: "This happened. And then this. Quick aside. Then this. Then this." It set this rhythm that became rather dull quite quickly. There was no real narrative in the book, it was more a regurgitation of research. I know this book is non-fiction, but I wish it did not read like a fact sheet. The best parts of this book were when Casson gave little stories about the librarians or their benefactors.

I did enjoy how Casson makes note that libraries in the ancient world operated much like libraries today - and showed that they had many of the same problems of modern libraries. Oh library theft, you've always existed.

An interesting read, but one that could have done with a re-write.

MISCELLANEOUS: I'm reminded of the time I made a scroll for a high school history class...

RATING: 6/10 [Good]

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

It's a parody, it's legal

Boy were these people creative.

Despite what some of my coworkers/fellow graduate students say about the class, I will probably end up taking my University's course on copyright law. I would like to go into publishing or publication research one day and I have a feeling knowing about copyright law might be an essential skill. I don't think this cartoon (as entertaining as it is) will be enough background to completely understand the cluster*bad word* that is copyright law.

Book 26: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

TITLE: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
AUTHOR: J.K. Rowling
STARTED: May 17, 2007
FINISHED: May 27, 2007
PAGES: 734
GENRE: Fantasy / Juvenile

FIRST SENTENCE: The villagers of Little Hangleton stilled called it "the Riddle House," even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.

SUMMARY: [From] Fourteen-year-old Harry Potter joins the Weasleys at the Quidditch World Cup, then enters his fourth year at Hogwarts Academy where he is mysteriously entered in an unusual contest that challenges his wizarding skills, friendships and character, amid signs that an old enemy is growing stronger.

REASON FOR READING: I'm still in the re-reading bonanza before book 7 comes out.

THOUGHTS: Gah, I so want to go to Hogwarts.

Goblet of Fire
continues to be my favorite book of the series but I cannot readily articulate why. There's just something about this volume that sucks me in more than the others. The best I can come up with is that in this book Harry is on the cusp of innocent childhood and knowing adulthood. He always felt safe at Hogwarts and, now, he's not so sure. The whole foundation of his belief in the magical, wizarding world is beginning to change.

Rowling continues to wow me with her imagination, but in this book she draws out the emotions of the characters in ways that she never did before. All of the major characters begin to develop in deeper ways, and the connections and histories between the series' actors feels more tangible.

MISCELLANEOUS: Oh what I could do with a wand...

RATING: 8/10 [Terrific]

Friday, May 25, 2007

Seen on the Metro #5

On my morning commute, I espied a man reading a paperback. I didn't catch the title, but I did notice that the book's covers had been completely torn off. The man would read a page and then fold and crease it under the rest of the book.

It was a interesting method of reading, but my bibliophile heart stopped for a second. I could never imagine treating one of my books that way. I don't even dog-ear my book's pages.

The bookmarks, they were invented for a reason.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On Reading Romance

"I became intrigued by your rating system and did some exploring in your archives. Did you realize that of your 9- and 10-of-10 rated books, none are romance novels? Of your 1- and 2-of-10 rated books, nearly all are romance novels? I know I tease you about your affinity for romance novels, but based on your ratings, my teasing has a lot of merit."

My friend Jennifer left that comment to a post I wrote a while back. Ever since then, I've been pondering the idea of "Why I read romance."

Indeed, I do tend to rate romance novels in the the "Meh" area. In fact, I probably spend more time complaining about the problems found in most romance novels than speaking about the enjoyment I find in reading them. Despite the fact that I often disparage the lack of a clear and meaningful plot, character chemistry, and/or character development of these books, I still devour them like a kindergartener eating an ice cream sundae. So why, if I am so frustrated by these books, do I keep on reading this genre?

Over much pondering, I found the answer: I simply like the way they make me feel. After most books, including the more painful ones, I am always left with a residual feeling of pure, unabashed happiness.

It would truly be impossible to articulate to a non-romance reader the feeling of glee and comfort I obtain from these books. There is just something about the age-old story of boy meets girl meets OMG Big Misunderstanding that is just plain addictive. I derive nothing but pleasure out of rooting for the main characters to get together. It drives me nuts when the two leads are kept apart for pages upon pages (I want those characters in the same room either picking a fight or finding creative uses for a billiards table) but that separation makes the pay-off of the classic happy ending all the more pleasing. I actually like the formula of the romance novel because there is nothing more satisfying then two people overcoming all odds to be together.

I may rate these books poorly, but I actually rate most books in the 5/10 [Meh.] area. I have very high requirements for a book to receive an 8, let alone an 9 or 10. Romance novels tend to be stuck in the 5 area because the writing, characters, and plots tend to be more flat than I require for a better grade. That does not mean these books are bad, it just means that they don't meet my (mostly over-elevated) standards for greatness.

That said, most of my higher rated books, particularly the 8/10s (which include a set of romance novels) have strong elements of romance. The romance may not take center stage, but it plays a large and vital role in most of the books.

For me it comes down to the simple fact that these books make me smile. Whether they were horrendous or fabulous, romance novels always leave me happy.

After my self-inventory, I'm now very interested in what reasons individual people read romance novels. Anyone care to share?

Book 25: Beguiled

TITLE: Beguiled
AUTHOR: Shannon Drake
STARTED: May 14, 2007
FINISHED: May 16, 2007
PAGES: 424
GENRE: Romance

FIRST SENTENCE: God, do not save the queen!

SUMMARY: [From] The murder of three antiroyalists drives the plot of Shannon Drake's historical romance set in the late 1800s, and so does an unlikely romance between a gently raised orphan and a very handsome highwayman. An encounter with the notorious highwayman would send most young Victorian women over the edge, but not Ally Grayson. Still, in a single week, she's been waylaid by the highwayman, found out she was engaged to a stranger (one who couldn't bother to show up for the engagement party), and been cursed. So much for the quiet, genteel life. It turns out both the highwayman and her fiancé, Mark Farrow, are on the hunt for the murderer. Ally seems attracted to both men -- until she realizes Mark is the highwayman. He's determined to keep her out of danger; she's determined not to be shut out of the investigation. She has a few theories of her own. Naturally they put her life in jeopardy, as do the family secrets that must never be revealed.

REASON FOR READING: I've enjoyed works by this author before.

THOUGHTS: This has got to be Drake's worst book. I've never really had a problem with her past novels, but this one was just plain bad. Drake spent more time throwing in characters from all her other books than actually writing the plot of this book. There was no chemistry between the characters. And, perhaps the worst part of all, the whole mystery of the novel did not work. It was just there, being a tangent that, in my mind, had no connection to the characters in the least. This book was a jumbled mess.

MISCELLANEOUS: At least I love the covers they slap on Drake's books.

RATING: 2/10 [Awful]

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Book 24: Leonardo's Swans

TITLE: Leonardo's Swans
AUTHOR: Karen Essex
STARTED: May 9, 2007
FINISHED: May 14, 2007
PAGES: 352
GENRE: Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: Isabella spreads her arms like angels' wings over her sister's cold marble form, running her fingers down the exquisitely carved folds of her burial gown and tracing the delicate veins in her hands.

SUMMARY: [From] Sexual and political intrigue drive Essex's intricate novel starring 15th-century Italian sisters Isabella and Beatrice d'Este. Isabella, the elder, more accomplished sister, is engaged to handsome Francesco Gonzaga, a minor aristocrat, while Beatrice is intended for the future duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, who's powerful, unscrupulous and already in possession of a pregnant mistress. It seems, at first, that Isabella will enjoy domesticity with Francesco, while unhappy Beatrice is useful to her husband only as a vehicle for breeding sons-a situation further complicated by Ludovico's infatuation with the more beautiful Isabella. While Isabella encourages her brother-in-law's overtures, she's actually desperate to sit for his resident artist, Leonardo da Vinci.

The sisters' sexual rivalry provides the main fodder for the novel's first half; the less compelling remainder is taken up with the political complexities of Renaissance Italy, as the rulers of France scheme to invade Italy, Francesco schemes against Ludovico, and Ludovico schemes against everyone.

REASON FOR READING: It was on my TBR list and I came across it at the library.

THOUGHTS: The first thing that struck me while reading this book was "I hate it." I really did. For some reason, the tense the author was writing in (third person present) was just plain annoying. It did not "Read" in a smooth and enjoyable manner. Then, the prologue (which was a scene from the future) ended and the tense changed. I thought, "Woohoo!" that was just a one time thing. Nope, I was wrong. Essex changes tenses all. the. time. She uses third person past for flashbacks and third person present for current time. While it makes sense, logically, it's jarring to read and actually made enjoying the book a difficult task. I spent so much time fighting with the grammatically structure that it was hard to follow the story. While the writing, with respect to word choice and description, was quite magical, I had trouble getting past the structure (both in style and plot) of the book.

Essex falls victim to the the problem of too many plots for too few pages. Each of the story lines - sister v. sister, families v. states, sister v. husband and lovers, sisters v. artists (mainly Leonard) - is interesting, but none of them receive the attention they deserve. Each of the plots is strung loosely together with no deeper connection or impact on one another. This novel never dives into the deeper issues that are simmering on the surface. I wish that Essex had picked one plot to dominate the novel instead of giving each equal amounts of superficial attention.

Also, because the writing style is the way it is and Essex never develops a sense of depth, the characters never feel like they are in the story. The characters seem to be passive players who have events happen to and around them, instead of coming across as key actors who themselves cause change. Due to that, the book feels flat. There's no action or passion, even though the setting of warring Italian city-states in the Renaissance is inherently dramatic.

The writing, in an off itself, is quite descriptive and vivid. Physical scenes do come alive on the page, but they are the most active part of the book. Essex makes fantastic word selection, but the prose and the plot never come together to create a whole novel.

MISCELLANEOUS: It was so awkward reading this book on the metro. I have no problem reading romance novels with their "Clutch" covers, but this one bugged me... probably because it was a large hardcover.

RATING: 5/10 [Meh.]

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Book 23: The Hazards of Hunting a Duke

TITLE: The Hazards of Hunting a Duke
AUTHOR: Julia London
STARTED: May 6, 2007
FINISHED: May 8, 2007
PAGES: 384
GENRE: Romance

FIRST SENTENCE: The Marquis of Middleton, who was the sole heir to the powerful Redford duchy, had an air about him, a palpable energy that exuded power and wealth.

SUMMARY: [From] When the young ladies of the Fairchild family learn that their stepfather has absconded with their late mother's fortune, Ava, the eldest, hunts down the notoriously wealthy rakehell Jared Broderick, the Marquis of Middleton and heir to a dukedom. Much to her shock and delight, the marquis sweeps her into a whirlwind romance and proposes marriage. But after their passionate wedding night, Ava discovers Jared has ulterior motives of his own. Not only does he expect her to deliver an heir while he continues to enjoy a rogue's life, but Ava also suspects she is a pawn in her husband's quest for revenge. Marriages of convenience work for some, but for Ava a loveless bond won't do. So she devises a bold plan to confront her husband's demons so that he might be free to choose to give her his heart for the right reason: because she is the only woman he will ever truly desire.

REASON FOR READING: I enjoyed her previous series

THOUGHTS: This one was pretty predictable. I will give London credit that the OMG Big Misunderstanding (he loves me? he loves me not? dammit! I want him to love me) is actually believable. I also give London credit that the characters acted in a realistic manner. Aside from that, this one was nothing special.

MISCELLANEOUS: I am so behind where I was this time last year.

RATING: 5/10 [Meh.]

Monday, May 07, 2007

Book 22: Freddy and Fredericka

TITLE: Freddy and Fredericka
AUTHOR: Mark Helprin
STARTED: April 22, 2007
FINISHED: May 6, 2007
PAGES: 553
GENRE: Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: The wind was luffing over the tablelands of Skye as a storm built up at sea, but its slow passage promised hours more of sunshine and that the lake would stay blue.

SUMMARY: [From] Freddy, the Prince of Wales, is a stiff intellectual, while his beautiful wife, Princess Fredericka, lives for public adoration. To save the monarchy from an all-consuming media circus, these thinly veiled versions of Prince Charles and Princess Diana are sent on a mission; they're kicked out of the palace and literally dropped from a plane into New Jersey. To avoid the limelight while wandering America, they must live as destitute tramps and find themselves tossed into myriad strange situations. But, remarkably, through their hardscrabble existence they find themselves drawn closer together than ever before.

REASON FOR READING: I honestly can't remember now.

THOUGHTS: I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate it (!) when an author goes out of his way to prove that he is witty and intelligent. To me, that smacks of arrogance and ego rather than brains. I spent most of this book waffling on whether or not I actually liked it. On the downside, it was long, slow, and the author was condescending; on the upside, it made me laugh (occasionally) and Helprin did write some particularly thoughtful passages. By the last chapter, however, I just wanted to through the book across the room in protest. Freddy and Fredericka could have been 250 pages shorter - and all the better for it. Those superfluous pages were full of nothing but the writer's own need to prove how much smarter and more droll he is than his reader. While this book has some redeeming qualities, it really is nothing more than a study of the author's fascination with his own inane drivel.

Freddy and Fredericka is a satire on royalty, the media, the American way of life and politics, and the endurance of love. It's too bad that Helprin's story crosses from satire into the absolute absurd. The story and jokes within it feel completely telegraphed. I can actually picture Helprin sitting down and stating, "I will name my character suchandsuch so that I may make this joke. Ha HA! I am good." The book is a long, nonsensical conversation tied loosely together with preposterous situations. The few brilliant moments of narrative insight about life and the characters therein drown in a sea of utter nonsense. If I had to read one more stupid page involving confused dialog about the "Knott" character I was going to scream.

None of the characters or their situations are redeeming. This novel was supposed to be about the growth of characters, instead Freddy and Fredericka come across as one-dimensional idiots. There is no depth to the story and it completely lacks emotion. I'm sorry to say that Helprin, though skilled with vocabulary and possessing a certain skillful turn or phrase, does nothing for me in this book. I feel no connection to the story or the characters. The themes are left wandering in a goo of trite dialog and jokes. Helprin may have had something to say but he's too busy thinking of his own wit that he forgets to make a point.

It took me a little over two weeks to read this book. Two weeks of rolling my eyes and skoffing. I want those two weeks back. Mr. Helprin, a word of advice, if you have to prove your amazing capabilities, you're nothing but an arrogant poser.

MISCELLANEOUS: I finished this during the Queen's visit to the states. Eerie.

RATING: 2/10 [Awful]