Monday, August 27, 2007

The Topical Obsession

NPR has a fascinating interview with Paul Watson, the photographer who took the Pulitzer Prize winning image of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. My friend Kathleen sent me the link to the audio earlier today and I was completely enraptured in what I heard.

Ever since High School, I've had an historical obsession with the Battle of Mogadishu which has led to a need to read everything in print about the incident. This intellectual desire has also led me to read a lot about the media coverage and political atmosphere surrounding genocide, namely Rwanda.

Hearing Paul Watson discuss his personal experience with these incidents (and others) was absolutely fascinating and, in some ways, highly disturbing. Watson is highly articulate and brutally honest about how he was mentally, emotionally, and physically effected by seeing senseless death every day. The interviewer, Terry Gross, covers many of the aspects of Watson's life and work. From the interview, I get the feeling that this man has not only led and unique life but is an extraordinary person.

Watson has authored a book, Where War Lives, that is now at the top of my TBR list.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Book 47: Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce

TITLE: Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
AUTHOR: Stanley Weintraub
STARTED: August 19, 2007
FINISHED: August 21, 2007
PAGES: 206
GENRE: Military

FIRST SENTENCE: Three myths would arise during the early months of the Great War.

SUMMARY: [From] At Christmas time in 1914, blood enemies emerged from their trenches in Flanders Field in Belgium, shook hands, and wished each other a merry Christmas. In his newest book, Weintraub (A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War) draws on letters, diaries, and a variety of other source material to tell the inspiring story of the spontaneous Christmas Truce of World War I, when enemy troops laid down their arms, exchanged gifts, and reveled in their shared humanity. The desperate longing for peace, which Weintraub captures through the words of the soldiers themselves, underscores the poignancy of the ending of the truce, when outraged commanders ordered newly made friends to kill one another.

REASON FOR READING: I saw the film "Joyeux Noel" and was intrigued by the real life incidents on which it was based.

THOUGHTS: This book was a bit scattered and loose in its structure, but was interesting in content nonetheless. Weintraub takes a very academic approach to his material, going so far as to not translate some foreign language passages. While that made the material rather dense, the instances of personal narratives and stories brought the book down to a more accessible level.

The prose, while not overly thick on the academic language, can be a bit difficult to slip into. Weintraub seems to take a very distanced approach to his material. The stories and examples he chooses to include seem passive. The subject matter of this book could have really connected with the reader, but Weintraub's writing puts space between the reader and the history. It was rather annoying - I wanted to get to know these soldiers, but Weintraub merely tossed their stories in before jumping to another example. I think Weintraub's narrative could have benefited greatly if he chose one section of trench to focus on. The way he jumps around, clumping groups together only by actions (i.e. sharing songs, burying the dead, playing soccer), can be very discombobulating.

What this book needed was a decent edit and rewrite. Silent Night has all the makings of a great book, but it reads like a first draft instead of a polished, final manuscript.

MISCELLANEOUS: I think I need to read more about World War I.

RATING: 5/10 [Meh.]

Book 46: The Sword & The Sheath

TITLE: The Sword & The Sheath
AUTHOR: Bonnie Vanak
STARTED: August 17, 2007
FINISHED: August 19, 2007
PAGES: 342
GENRE: Romance

FIRST SENTENCE: He could not make her cry.

SUMMARY: [From] Fatima was one of her tribe's best fighters, but only a man could become a Khamsin Warrior of the Wind. Fatima knew she could be an effective Guardian of the Ages for Tarik, the son of the current sheikh, but tradition also ruled that the job be held by a man. Assuming that she was doomed to live as her tribe demanded, Fatima is, instead, unexpectedly given the chance to prove her worth as a fighter and a guardian for Tarik. But Fatima quickly discovers her biggest challenge will be convincing Tarik, who believes that being his lover is the only role for Fatima, that she can be both a warrior and a woman.

REASON FOR READING: I've the other books in this series.

THOUGHTS: Dear god, woman. If you ram (*snicker) home the meaning of your title one more time I might scream. I get it. Stop. Now. Seriously. I GET WHAT IT MEANS!

This was not Vanak's best. In fact, I think it might be the worst book I have read from her yet. It was just an okay read until I was about 30 pages from the end. Then it took a turn for the loathsome. Vanak just went overboard with the purple prose and meaning of her title. I hate it when author's treat me like I'm stupid. It doesn't take a genius or lover of Catullus to understand what a sheath and a sword can do together.


Aside from that, the plot was scattered, the writing trite and phoned in, and the characters lacked the all important chemistry.

While I won't rule Vanak out for future reads - this one was definitely more of a trial and than triumph.

MISCELLANEOUS: Who designs these covers?

RATING: 3/10 [Poor, Lost Interest]

Book 45: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

TITLE: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
AUTHOR: Ken Kesey
STARTED: August 10, 2007
FINISHED: August 17, 2007
PAGES: 311
GENRE: Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: They're out there.

SUMMARY: [From] Ken Kesey's story of life in a state mental hospital is a classic of American literature.

REASON FOR READING: It won the "What literary classic should I have read in high school" poll

THOUGHTS: For a book I was expecting to have to plod through, this was not that bad. There were definitely moments where I was bored, but they were easily forgotten once McMurphy entered the scene. I really don't have much to say about this novel aside from the fact that I can see why it has become a classic.

Also, I like how the entire thing could be read as an allegory. I found myself making some parallels between the story of good v. evil and the current political climate.

It's not something I would ever pick up again, but it was interesting.

MISCELLANEOUS: I can totally see why Jack Nicholson was chosen to play McMurphy in the movie.

RATING: 6/10 [Good]

Got Books?

Riiiiiiiiight. We all know what my library loving heart thinks of this recent survey. Still, I'm a bit aghast at the numbers.

One in four people did not read a book last year. (While that statistic should not shock me it does. I also wonder how it ties in with illiteracy rates and public education.)

What really gets me is the this: The average number of books read in a year is only four. FOUR! I know I'm one of those few voracious readers out there, but come one! Four books in a year. That's it!?!? I would think that you would actually have to try to read that little.

Come on people. Pick up a book. Any book. Stop trying to impress your friends by reading Dostoevsky. (No one buys into that facade anyway.) Just pick up a book and read. It's not hard - in fact, it can be rather enjoyable and entertaining. You just have to find the right genre. If you're having trouble finding something, walk up to your local librarian. It's their job to do reader's advisory.

Trust me, if you ask a librarian "Can you give me a book suggestion?" you've just made their day.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Printed Screen

I should have written this entry ages ago but I just have not been in the mood to blog. I'm still not in the mood to blog. Then again, if I don't sit down and write this entry now, it may never see the light of day.

Several weeks ago, some friends and I embarked on a double feature of movies that just happened to related to books. The first movie we saw was "Becoming Jane." I should probably preface by saying that I am addicted to all things romantic. I didn't matter how much this movie could have screwed up fact (and boy did it), I would love it anyway. The film did not disappoint.

I'll be the first to admit that this film took reality and, for the most part, threw it out the window. "Becoming Jane" Austenified Austen. It was fantabulous. From a completely structural standpoint, the movie was beautifully shot and wonderfully scored. The actors had passion and chemistry that simply leaped off the screen - that goes for the Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, and the entire supporting cast. While I did find myself longing for the ever talented Ioan Gruffudd to play Tom Lefroy, McAvoy did a superb job. Hathaway also did a fantastic job or not only nailing the British accent (at least for an American audience) but also making Jane someone you could admire as both person and author. The secondary characters (namely Maggie Smith and James Cromwell) brought a lot of zest and talent to the screen.

As far as the story goes, it definitely helped that I went into this film not expecting it to be true-to-life. I was expecting the romance novel-esque tale of a part of Austen's life. Happily, I got what I was expecting. There were a couple of scenes between Jane and Tom that had me asking, "Is it warm in here?" The story relies entirely on devices ripped straight out of Austen's novels. It lends the story the idea that Austen wrote what she knew. Whether or not this is actually true, it worked quite well for the books. Then again, if you haven't read the novels (and I've only read Pride & Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility - go see the sidebar) a lot will go over your head. I'm wondering how much I missed because I only read two of Austen's works. It's a good things I have plans to read more... and buy the movie.

I saw only one downside to the film, it made Austen seem like she needed a muse, as if she could not come up with her great novels on her own. Boo to that. Then again, if I had the handsome James McAvoy as my muse, I might be inspired in a few ways as well.

The second movie we saw was The Bourne Ultimatum. I've only read The Bourne Identity and there was really no connection (aside from name and general plot ideas) between the book and the movie. While I have not read the third book, I would expect the same. Part of me hopes that they make a fourth movie, but they could also ends the series here and I would be just as happy.

There was fantastic parallelism between the first and third movies. The hair dying scene... yowza! And bless the writers from staying away from the so-easy-to-slip-into-romance plot between Julia Stiles and Damon. Despite my love of romance, that would have killed the movie. I'm glad the stuck with the one man on a mission theme.

Once again, the series wows with fantastic filming that is fraught with tension and grittiness. The camera is in the action and the viewer goes with it. Normally, hand held camera shots make me woozy and generally leave me annoyed. Not so much with this series - it makes the scenes feel more intense without ever stepping into the arena of overly dramatic.

The cast is flawless. Bringing on David Strathairn was a movie of genius. That guy makes villiany look good.

Also, to really draw the parallel between this movie and books I suggest you keep a close eye on the fight scene between Bourne and the assassin Desh.

Matt Damon is a bad ass.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Book 44: A Girl's Guide to Witchcraft

TITLE: A Girl's Guide to Witchcraft
AUTHOR: Mindy Klasky
STARTED: August 6, 2007
FINISHED: August 9, 2007
PAGES: 426
GENRE: Chick Lit

FIRST SENTENCE: They don't teach witchcraft in library school.

SUMMARY: [From] For good-girl Jane Madison, neither has a shot in hell of coming true -- until the day she finds a hidden room...

Now she's done a bit of experimenting and found a spell that makes her irresistible to men -- even those who have previously ignored her. And another that turns a cat into her witch's familiar (a snarky, critical, self-absorbed man -- pretty much a typical male). Though her impulsive acts of magic have brought a warder (sexy, grouchy, elusive and determined to stop her from using magic) down on her, Jane's not willing to let go of this fantastic new life.

Though she wonders about having things that aren't "real," she's having too much fun to stop. After all, no one ever said being a witch was easy.

REASON FOR READING: Rose told me I would like it because it was about a librarian in D.C. Hmmm, I wonder why she thought I would like it?

THOUGHTS: I should never have written that paper on romance novels (Note: I will probably discuss said paper in a later post). Now, every book I read in the romance and chick lit genres has to meet my increased standards. A Girl's Guide to Witchcraft, at first, failed to meet my new needs, but, by the end, I was having too much fun to actually care.

Klasky makes some fundamental mistakes at the beginning of her book. The whole introduction of Jane and her "conundrum" are far too contrived. The author has forced the story to fit her plot needs instead of allowing it to flow and change for itself. Klasky also falls into the deadly pit of info-dumping and creating glaringly obvious plot points. Once the story is set-up, however, it begins to become a much more fluid read. The writing is less forced and, therefore, so is the plot itself. The further into the book I got, the less I could tell that Klasky was writing a story. The book began to speak for itself.

Another issue I had with the writing and plot was how "dated" and "placed" Klasky makes her story. The book is about a modern librarian in D.C., which is all well and good, but Klasky goes almost too far in trying to create her story location. The book relies far to much on actual names of places in Georgetown without giving further description. If I was not a current resident in D.C., I would find this aspect of the writing to be incredibly confusing to the point of ruining the book. Klasky also mentions many modern brand names and products. Instead of adding to the environment of the story, it felt like product placement. Klasky's story is best when the writing is her own imagination. Otherwise, it feels like Klasky is trying to impress her readers with her knowledge of the D.C. area and pop culture.

As for the characters and story itself, they were rather enjoyable. While Jane shows instances of being the whiny, female lead found in most chick lits these days, that is not the whole of her character. Jane actually has substance. She does not spend her days moping and venting, she sees her problems and tackles them whether the issue is library funding or her new found magical powers. Jane also has relatively realistic reactions to the events in her life. When a certain someone shows up after a lengthy absence, her anger and mistrust is entirely believable.

The secondary characters are written roundly enough to flesh out the story, but still have some room to grow beyond the stereotypes. And part of me wonders if Klasky left things mysterious and vague to have more plotlines in the next book.

I'm intrigued enough to want to read the next book...

MISCELLANEOUS: I want a mojito now. With a little umbrella!

RATING: 6/10 [Good]

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Book 43: God is Not Great

TITLE: god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
AUTHOR: Christopher Hitchens
STARTED: July 27, 2007
FINISHED: August 6, 2007
PAGES: 307
GENRE: Religion

FIRST SENTENCE: If the intended reader of this book should want to go beyond disagreement with its author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I certainly have noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course), then he or she will not just be quarreling with the unknowable and the ineffable creator who - presumably - opted to make me this way.

SUMMARY: [From] Christopher Hitchens' exorcism of religion proves that the Great Contrarian doesn't tiptoe around anybody's altar. True to its unabashedly blasphemous title, God Is Not Great dishes the dirt on all the major religions of the world, accusing them of high crimes including -- but certainly not limited to -- inhuman cruelty, superstition, fabrication, corruption, sexism, racism, and internal contradictions. It is not by accident that as the epigraph of one chapter, Hitchens has chosen Freud's "Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor." Stoking the fires of a hot topic.

REASON FOR READING: It was on my TBR list and we just happened to get it in at the library.

THOUGHTS: Before I review this book, I'm writing a disclaimer because personal characteristics and experiences of mine have no doubt skewed my reading. First, I work at a (or rather the) Catholic university. Second, I am born, baptized, and confirmed Catholic. Third, despite all of this, I'm a secularist in practice - I have faith in some higher being(s), but I do not believe in organized religion. Fourthly, when you come right down to it, I believe in the strident separation of church and state, I believe religion (not matter what religion) is a personal choice - one that should never be demeaned, even if one disagrees with that person's beliefs as a whole.

Now onto the review! *finger point as if on a quest

Hitchens tackles quite the issue in his book. Religion, in its broadest definition, has been around with us most likely since the dawn of rational man. (<-- That sentence in and of itself is probably enough to write a whole book about.) I'm of two minds about this book. First, I agree with everything Hitchens says. Second, I agree with nothing his says because his argument relies on bully tactics while also employing the same characteristics of religion that he hates so much. This book was a "good" read simply because it caused me to think about the broader implications of how religion and the secular society interact. On that level, this made Hitchens book a spectacular work. In the end, I can't actually say I enjoyed god is not Great because I was to disillusioned with the way Hitchens chose to present his argument.

Substantively, Hitchens make a staggering case that greatly favors his thesis that "Religion poisons everything." It is hard to argue with the evidence he describes and, unlike most books that make the same argument, he actual breaks his argument down to examples that support his case. On the other hand, he does not always bring in the opinion of the other side. The best way to win an argument is to also show why the arguments the other side would make are faulty in either logic or fact. Hitchens does not do this. He just relies on the simple style of "here is the evidence I found, I'm right, you're wrong, I win."

It is this style that kills the reading of the book. Hitchens employs the very tactics he despises so much in religion. Time again he turns his view of secularlism and the non-existence of god into a religion of its own. Towards the end of the book, he states, "To 'choose' dogma and faith over doubt and experiment is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid" (278). He wants to sway people away from religion to the side (or as he would have everyone believe, pure rational) of non-religious life. But, in making that the goal of his book, he becomes his own worst enemy.

To make matters worst, Hitchens stoops to name-calling and mudslinging to make his point. Time and again he demeans those who follow a specific faith or dogma. This is never correct. In one instance, he discusses Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" which is all well and good except he says the movie "is also an exercise in sadomasochistic homoeroticism starring a talentless lead actor who was apparently born in Iceland or Minnesota..." (111). There is absolutely no reason for that sentence or any of the many others like this to appear in the text.

Sadly, without these moments of inane drivel, Hitchens' book could be called remarkable well written. He balances his argument with equal amounts of persuasive argumentation and entertaining narratives or anecdotes. His vocabulary is extensive but well chosen. For the most part, when he's not demeaning those who follow a specific religion, Hitchens' keeps from sounding arrogant or snooty. He is able to incorporate certain personal experiences without sounding like he is naming dropping or bragging.

Hitchens' book is based on the idea that religion is the cause of the most evils in the world. Instead of leaving it at that, he actually ends the book by stating that religion is something to be fought against. On the last page he says, "... it has become necessary to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it" (283). This alone would void his point. When throw in all the other faults, while his substance is quite persuasive, his argument crumbles to dust.

MISCELLANEOUS: A book like this could never be written without bias.

RATING: 6/10 [Good]

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Books are good pillows

I can haz cheezburger? strikes again.

Now wher mintz on pillo?

You said Read This! And I will... in about two weeks

A few months ago, I started a poll in my sidebar that let you determine which book that I should have read in high school I should tackle. And the winner is.... Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest. I'm in the middle of a book right now (God is Not Great) and need to read a book a friend lent me before I start Kesey's work. But, never fear, I shall get to this literary classic soon.

I put up a new poll (go check it out - it's to the right and down... little farther, there ya go... vote... now get back here and finish reading this entry) to replace the old one - I think this may become a permanent feature. My friends and I are seeing "Becoming Jane Austen" tomorrow and I've read a ton of articles about the surge in Austen love; I've been meaning to read more of her work. I'm too lazy to actually choose, so you can do it for me.

Note: I've already read Pride and Prejudice (I'm a girl) and Sense and Sensibility (Alan Rickman you're awesome) so that's why they're not there.