Thursday, January 29, 2009

Category 1, Book 1: Award Winners - The Well of Lost Plots

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde
999 Challenge Category: Award Winners

If you haven't read the other books in the Thursday Next series, this contains ***spoilers*** for the first two books.

Hiding out from the Goliath Corporation in the Well of Lost Plots, Thursday has entered the Character Exchange Program in a never-will-be-published mystery featuring Jack Spratt. She's replacing a character named Mary who has primarily served as a prop so other characters can explain what's going on to the readers. Aornis is still dangerously able to make Thursday forget her eradicated husband, Landon, and Miss Haversham is prepping Thursday to take the test to enter Jurisfiction.

Most of the events that The Well of Lost Plots is concerned with takes place in the Book World. We find out more about the history and politics going on in Jurisfiction, and nothing really moves forward on the Outside. The footnoterphone is back, complete with junkfootnotes. This one was more fanciful than the first two, and didn't hold up as well for me. Still, an enjoyable read. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Category 3, Book 2: Books about books - Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
999 Challenge Category: Books about Books/Reading/Writing

Anne Lamott, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, distills the advice she gives to her creative writing students. Using her two cornerstones of writing -- short assignments and "shitty first drafts" -- a lot of humor, personal stories, and memorable metaphors, this is unlike any writing how-to book I've ever read.

In all honesty, I included "writing" in this category to read one book in particular that now fits in a different category. I haven't written in years partly because I never seemed to be able to finish what I started and partly because I read so many really good books that I figured I couldn't write that well so never mind. But Bird by Bird makes me want to write again. Ms. Lamott doesn't beat you over the head with "you must write every day" (though she suggests writing at least 300 words a day, even if you only write about how much you don't want to write) or give you a formula for how to be a Writer. She doesn't making writing sound easy, but she did make it sound doable, even necessary. I haven't taken up writing again yet, but I may well consider it. 5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Category 5, Book 2: Audiobooks - Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
999 Challenge Category: Audiobooks (or Nonfiction)

Bill Bryson was one my favorite new authors from 2008, so I've been meaning to read more of his books. I was inspired by this review to move up this title in my 999 Challenge.

Not too much is known about Shakespeare beyond the basic facts of his life: where he was born, when he was baptized, when and to whom he was married, that he wrote several plays (and acted in them, too), when he died. What is not known is so very enticing: what happened in those years leading up to his arrival on the playwright scene in London? Which play was written first? How large was his vocabulary?

Bryson explores what (and how) we know what we do about Shakespeare, as well as what we do not. You gain an appreciation for the immense scholarship that has gone into trying to find out anything about people from this time period, and get a sense that even what we do know is a pretty incredible amount of information for its time. The audio version read by the author is excellent for getting a sense of his dry sense of humor, seen at its best when discussing the various far-reaching theories about Shakespeare and his plays. A short but excellent biography. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Category 8, Book 1: YA/Children's - Rodrick Rules

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney
999 Challenge Category: YA/Children's

***minor spoilers***

In the sequel to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Greg Heffley has a new journal to write about his troubles with older brother Rodrick. Rodrick has a band that Greg can't stand, picks on Greg, and -- worst of all -- Greg can't do anything about it because Rodrick might let slip the really embarrassing thing that happened over the summer.

Rodrick Rules is complete with stick drawings and just as humorous as the first book. The characters aren't always nice to each other, but are true to life. Some of the issues parents may have include Rodrick's high school party where he locks Greg in the basement, and Greg's treatment of his classmates. It's a quick read, and I recommend it for those in middle school and older. I'm looking forward to reading the next installment. 5 stars.

Cross posted at the 999 Challenge.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Category 9, Book 1: Lost Book Club - Bad Twin

Bad Twin by Gary Troup
999 Challenge Category: Lost Book Club

Paul Artisan is a private detective in California, where the cases he receives are mostly petty disputes and insurance fraud. But when Cliff Widmore appears and asks him to find his twin, Artisan knows this case won't be like the others he's had before. He's not sure who to trust or which is really the "bad" twin. The book itself is the "manuscript" that Hurley and Sawyer read in Season 2 of Lost, written by author "Gary Troup" who died in the plane crash. Other connections include the Hanso Foundation (located on floor 42 of the Widmore Building), repetition of the numbers, and a comment about the Paik's business.

Bad Twin is one of those rare books that I finished thinking, "I could've written better than that." Granted, it had a compelling story and characters, but the writing was full of misplaced adjectives and jarring similes. For example:
The sloop--a good size, maybe forty feet, a third of a million dollars' worth of fiberglass and teak with the name Escape Hatch etched into the transom--was lifted in a giant wooden cradle in the hanger-like shed of Hap's Marina; there was something rude and almost obscene about the sight of the boat's raised, bare bottom, its stiff keel stabbing downward like the penis of an excited whale (53).

After that, I didn't read the descriptions to closely, but even then the story structure was somewhat unbelievable until it finally came down to the last four pages of Paul Artisan explaining, "Oh, I talked to ---, so now I can tell you exactly what's been happening." Not recommended. 2 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Category 4, Book 3: Nonfiction - Levels of the Game

Levels of the Game by John McPhee
999 Challenge Category: Nonfiction

In 1968, the U.S. Open Championship was first opened to amateur players. They weren't expected to do very well against the players on the pro tour, but both Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner made it to the semifinals. This is the story of that game. McPhee starts right off with the first serve, moving cinematically for a close shot of several points, then backing out to focus on the perspective of someone in the player's box or watching the match on television, or maybe taking a panoramic shot of the background of one of the players and how they started playing tennis, and moving in again for a closeup of a game or two.

I chose this read because in an interview recently the author of The Best Game Ever, Mark Bowden, said that it was a model for his writing in his book about the 1958 Championship football game. I also found it excellent preparation for the Australian Open. Levels of the Game, published in 1969, is a little dated in the description of the "modern" game of tennis, and by comments made by some of the players, like "he plays like that because he's white" or "because he's black", or he has a "Latin temperament". McPhee was definitely at his best describing moments in the match, a tense point, a solid ace, and the reaction of players and fans. A worthwhile read that left a smile on my face in the end. 4.5 stars.

Cross posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 2, Book 1: New-to- me authors - Elinor Lipman

The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman
Category: New-to-me Authors

In the 1960s, Natalie Marx and her family are looking into various hotels and cottages around Lake Devine, where they're going to be vacationing. Most get back to them with rates and accommodations, but one in particular, the Inn at Lake Devine, suggests that Gentiles would feel more comfortable in this lodging. Natalie becomes somewhat fascinated with the establishment that would flout laws (she sent the proprietor a copy of the Civil Rights Act), and finagles her way into a visit.

This is hardly even the start of the story, but the plot is much more delightfully fun when you don't know what's coming. Natalie is the narrator as well as the main character, and she's a fun person to be "in the head" of. All the characters were great: I never had the sense that any of the secondary characters were cookie cutter or background, all of them felt very real. Also, it was a somewhat "local" New England story, so it was fun recognizing a surprisingly large number of locations mentioned in the tale. Though racism is a main theme throughout, it's dealt with both seriousness and humor and isn't a heavy story. I'm definitely going to be looking to read more by this author. 4.5 stars.

Thanks to LibraryThing members detailmuse and bonniebooks for recommending this as my first book by Elinor Lipman!

Cross posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 4, Book 2: Nonfiction - Things I've Been Silent About

Things I've Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi
999 Challenge Category: Nonfiction

This is the second book I've read by this author, who also wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran. Though both books are nonfiction about her life in Iran, Things I've Been Silent About is much broader in scope than the first. This book focuses much more on Azar Nafisi's personal life, particularly her relationship with her parents. Written in roughly chronological order from before her parents were married through the early 2000s, the narrative covers many years in Iran and the U.S. with some historical and political events, particularly as they related to the author directly. For those memories that seem particularly poignant, she lapses into the present tense taking the reader into the moment with her. Her memoirs are often sad, but beautifully written.

Here is a sample of her writing, from the prologue when she discusses the meaning of the title: "There are so many different forms of silence: the silence that tyrannical states force on their citizens, stealing their memories, rewriting their histories, and imposing on them a state-sanctioned identity. Or the silence of witnesses who choose to ignore or not speak the truth, and of victims who at times become complicit in the crimes committed against them. Then there are the silences we indulge in about ourselves, our personal mythologies, the stories we impose upon our real lives" (xxi). This book speaks of all these types of silences. Highly recommended. 4.5 stars.

Cross posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 3, Book 1: Books about books - 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall (2006 edition)
999 Challenge Category: Books about Books/Reading/Writing

In his introduction, Peter Boxall writes about the difficulty of compiling such a finite list. As many books as it contains, it covers hundreds of years of fiction (and some nonfiction) writing, and could hardly cover all books you ought to read, ever. Of course, any such finite list could not possibly encompass all of the "great books" one could read, and the introduction makes clear that the compilers are aware of that impossibility. The chosen titles are organized chronologically by publication date. Each summary begins with the author's birth and death dates, the date of publication, and the publisher. Depending on the book and author, we are also told other information, such as the author's real name or an award the book won. Then, one of the 100 contributors summarizes and offers a bit of literary criticism in approximately 300 words.

Of the completed offering, the editor writes, "this book reflects a set of priorities that are shared by today's readers, a certain understanding of where the novel comes from, a particular kind of passion for reading" (9). This was an interesting way to read the list, as I kept reflecting on what each choice had to say about the world we live in now and the worldview of the contributors. Though I haven't read many on the list (56), and don't really want to read many more (approx. 71), I found it interesting reading all the same because of what it says about today's interpretation of "where the novel comes from, [and] a particular kind of passion for reading" (9). Especially in the largest section - the 20th century - many of the choices seem to question authority, religion, government, or push the boundaries of fiction itself. The editor also hesitates to say that this book should be read as any type of "canon"; in fact, many newer titles (approximately 100 pages of 949 cover the 1990s alone) are included. One thing I found extremely frustrating was the spoilers - many of the summaries summarized to the end of the book. So if you are planning on reading all the 1001 books, I recommend that you use the book mainly for reference and don't read the summary until after, so you don't get any spoilers for those titles you're not familiar with. 4 stars.

Cross posted at the 999 Challenge.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Category 5, Book 1: Audiobooks - Anne's House of Dreams

Anne's House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery, read by Susan O'Malley
Category: Audiobooks

In Anne's House of Dreams, the fifth book in the "Anne" series, newlyweds Anne and Gilbert Blythe move to Four Winds, where Gilbert will take over his uncle's medical practice. In her new home, she meets new people like Captain Jim, the keeper of the lighthouse, Leslie, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, and the unique Miss Cornelia, who entertains all Four Winds' inhabitants with her pronouncements against men and Methodists.

This was a reread for me. Though I already knew what to expect in terms of the story, reading it now as an adult was very different from when I was a young teen. Then, I was rather scandalized by some of Miss Cornelia's ways and Leslie's strongly emotional outbursts. This time around, Miss Cornelia was much funnier and though I couldn't really relate to Leslie's feelings I could understand them a little bit more. Because of this, and the fact that most of the characters are in their 20s and married, I think calling this a "teen" novel is a bit of a misnomer. 4.5 stars.

Cross posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 4, Book 1: Nonfiction - The Last Lecture

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
999 Challenge Category: Nonfiction

When college professor Randy Pausch learned that his cancer had returned and he had only months to live, he decided to live life to the fullest. He and his family moved so his wife could be close to family when he died; he made memories with his children. He had been scheduled to give a lecture, and instead of canceling, he gave a lecture about "living your childhood dreams."

An inspiring tale, The Last Lecture often reminded me of Tuesdays with Morrie, the difference being that this is told in the first-person by the dying man himself as a way for his children to know him. Divided into five larger, thematic sections, there are short vignettes from Randy's childhood, adulthood, family life, work life, and just general experience in which he tells you how he lived his life and imparts wisdom on various subjects such as "how to maximize your time." I laughed, I teared up, and I remembered defining moments in my own life along the way. A quick read that packs a lot of punch. 5 stars.

Cross posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 7, Book 2: Recommendations - The Shack

The Shack by William P. Young
999 Challenge Category: Recommended Reads or New to Me Authors

Mack hasn't been the same ever since his youngest daughter, Missy, was kidnapped during a camping trip he took with three of his children. Her body was never found but the trail ended at a shack in the woods. Now he's received a note asking him to go to this shack, and it's signed "Papa." As this is his wife's favorite name for God, this seems like some sort of cruel joke. But when Mack decides to take the trip, his life will never be the same.

At first I wasn't sure if I liked the book or not. The book is a very emotional, internal read. Not much happens in terms of plot; we're mostly along with Mack during a series of conversations and interactions. Some of the conversations seemed a little transparent and heavy-handed at times, a little bit of God-explains-it-all while Mack listens or reacts. But to my surprise, it resonated for a long time afterward. I would recommend it for those who enjoy inspirational fiction. 4 stars.

Cross posted at the 999 Challenge.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Category 7, Book 1: Recommendations - Lost in a Good Book

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde
999 Challenge Category: Recommendations or Award Winners

This is the second book in the Thursday Next series, which really should be read in order. I'll warn you now not to read this if you haven't read The Eyre Affair, because it will inevitably have spoilers for the first book.

Lost in a Good Book starts soon after the The Eyre Affair ends. Thursday is being inundated with requests for appearances on TV shows (she's even asked to create a workout video) after her adventures in the pages of Jane Eyre. The Goliath Corporation is none too happy with her treatment of Jack Schitt; meanwhile, Cordelia Flakk is chasing Thursday down for more PR appearances, and someone seems intent on killing Thursday by coincidence (decrease in entropy occurs every once in awhile, but I'll let Mycroft explain how that happens).

It's hard to pin down the Thursday Next series by genre. It's sort-of science fiction, because it involves time travel and an alternate universe. It's definitely humor, running the gamut from roll-your-eyes puns (Schitt, his half-brother Schitt-Hawse, and various other character names) and literary references to classics that might go over your head even if you've read the books. But to attempt to pin it down doesn't do it justice - you really just have to be in the mood for zany good fun and literary puns. 5 stars.

Cross-posted at The 999 Challenge.

999 Challenge

I've joined the 999 Challenge on LibraryThing this year. The goal is to read 9 books in 9 different categories in 2009. I'm hoping to read a total of 81 books in the following categories:
  • Award Winners
  • New to Me Authors
  • Books about books, reading, or writing
  • Other Nonfiction
  • Audiobooks
  • Graphic Novels
  • Recommendations
  • YA or Children's
  • From the Lost Book Club
I'll be posting my reviews here, but if you want to see more reviews in many more categories, check out the 999 Challenge Blog.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Further Proof that I am a Word Nerd

I found this fun podcast on words -- the podictionary, which bills itself as "the podcast for word lovers" (via The Book Lady's Blog). It's a short (under 5 minutes) podcast that provides history on common words like "conniption" and "verdant." If you love words like I do, check it out!