Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes


So much work (and very early hours) is getting in the way of blogging yet again. And getting in the way of reading, though I have put forth a conscious effort to get some books done. If you follow my Good Reads, you know that I am on a pretty hardcore Chuck Palahniuk kick at the moment. I’m on my third of his books right now, and though I know I should transition back into the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die books, I think I’m just excited that I’m responding to an author again. Those entries are coming – but I’m going to try to lump all three together so it gives a better idea of how I worked through them.

Today’s book, however, is about as far from Palahniuk as you can get. It’s a book of short stories that has been in the ether for as long as I can remember, and has been part of the American consciousness for about a century. And yet, I had never read any of the stories, and I thought it was about time I fixed that.

With that in mind, Book 22 of Project 84 is:


Adventures of Sherlock
Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Now, to clarify, I do have some experience with Sherlock Holmes. I saw the Robert Downey Jr. movies, I tried a few episodes of Elementary, and I’ve seen all of Sherlock, because who can say no to Benedict Cumberbatch? If you haven’t seen that show…you should. It’s amazing, and available on Netflix, so you really don’t have any excuse.

But the shows and movies are much different from the books, so my knowledge of Sherlock Holmes was pretty much limited to what was in the ether. I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or another on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it didn’t seem all that appealing to me. But it turns out I was very wrong, because these stories were quite entertaining.

I’m not bothering with a real plot summary. Chances are that you, like I, have already heard enough about Sherlock Holmes to know what to expect. Basically, the book is a collection of short stories about master detective Sherlock Holmes. The narrator is John Watson, a doctor involved with Holmes who joins him on his mystery-solving escapades. Watson serves as a sidekick to Holmes, and, as a literary device, he’s the excuse for expositional dialogue – a reason for Sherlock to narrate what should be internal.

The “Donna Moss”, if you will, of this universe.

It took me a while to complete this book. I started it at the beginning of May, and just finished it a couple weeks ago. But I don’t think the extended time frame was indicative of how compelling the stories were, just the fact that the book is split up into short, easily-consumed segments, and it’s fairly easy to put the book down after you complete one story.

But I did make it through, and I was shocked by, for lack of a better word, how fun this book was to read. Since The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1892, I expected the writing to be dry. I knew the stories were good – I’d experienced enough of them in other formats to understand that the narrative was strong – but I didn’t know what to expect from the format and writing style.

I think the humor is also part of what made this book so interesting to me. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is funny. There were jokes that made me laugh out loud, which was unexpected. Like I said, I thought the book would be dry, so the humor came as a surprise, and allowed me to respond more readily to a book from over 100 years ago.

If you’re also one of the people who managed to miss this book over the course of your lifetime, I would definitely recommend The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It’s entertaining, it’s funny, and – as of a few days ago – it’s in the public domain, so it should be cheap if not completely free with an ereader. You can read it a story at a time and not get lost, so it’s a great book for people that don’t have hours to sit around and read.

***
That was a short one, but it’s hard to figure out what to say about a book with which most people already have some personal experience. If you get nothing else from this post, just know that I enjoyed it, thought it was funny, and I recommend it. 10 word review ;)

I’m still working on the pile of completed books on my desk. So you should expect a few more coming up, as I add more Palahniuk to the pile. I also plan to add some good summer reading books so that I can enjoy myself, and I can better recommend what you should read, and what you should avoid this summer. Because, if you’re like me, summer is all about reading.

Next Review: Invisible by Paul Auster (Expected Posting Date: Friday, June 20th)



**The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain**

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints


I’m pushing through once more, trying to stay positive about the project. I’ll be honest, it’s harder than I would like right now to read and post, and it’s making me nervous that I’m not going to get to where I want to go. I’m appreciating my promotion at work and my new gig…but I’m busy, and stressed, and between that and trying to stay dedicated to nutrition and exercise, it’s hard to find the time for anything else.

But I found the time for this entry, so I’ll pat myself on the back for that. Two entries in two days is a major win for me, and I’m hoping that realizing I can be semi-prolific while still busy with all those other things will push me over the edge toward progress.

With that in mind, the 21st book of Project 84 is:


A Guide to Recognizing
Your Saints

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints: A Memoir
by Dito Montiel

This book had been on my shelf forever, and I couldn’t remember what had possessed me to purchase it in the first place. Then I saw Channing Tatum on the cover, and it became a bit more clear ;). When I bought it, I had planned to read this book and then see the movie…but I did neither. So I figured I could at least get step one completed.

I’m not sure that finishing this book pushed me to see the movie.

The book is a memoir (and I do love memoirs) in the form of short stories. Because of the format, the narrative is a bit choppy. The short stories go back and forth between present day, childhood flashbacks, adolescent flashbacks, young adulthood...but it’s ultimately the story of Dito, a writer and musician, who grew up in Queens.

During his childhood, Dito was involved with a pretty rough crowd. We learn the stories of many of them – most notably Antonio, another boy from the neighborhood, a sort of older brother to Dito. During a street fight, Antonio kills someone, and his story seems to guide much of Dito’s life. As he grows up up, Dito becomes involved with a semi-successful band – Gutterboy – who receive a giant advance of a million dollars, and are, subsequently, dropped from their label after an unsuccessful debut.

Dito guides us through his life experiences – from modeling in New York, to writing with Alan Ginsburg, to aimlessly wandering around California with a girlfriend who fell from his life.

The book is…poetic. But I’m not sure that makes it good, persay. There were stories in this book that I found so compelling I couldn’t put the book down. And there were others I found almost absurdist and strange, and hard to wrap my head around.

I think the main problem with this book – and this may have been more my problem than that of the author – was that I found it tough to relate to Dito’s life experiences. Obviously, with memoirs, I’m usually reading about events that I didn’t experience. But I didn’t need to go to jail to feel Piper’s plight in Orange is the New Black. I didn’t need to “lose my mind” to identify with Susannah in Brain on Fire. I was able to put myself in their shoes, I was able to identify with them because I could imagine how I would react in a situation like that. I could feel for what they were going through.

With Dito’s stories, I had issues relating. It wasn’t that I’ve never been in the situations he experienced, it’s that I never would be in those situations. I wouldn’t put myself there. The things that he recalled as exciting, I saw as reckless and, for lack of a better word, stupid. The things that he seemed to accept as fact, I saw as absurd.

There’s a point early in the book where he talks about Antonio’s manslaughter charge, and he says this about his sentencing:
“Caught, a disgrace, and erased from everyone’s thoughts for the very same crime that every single one of us was guilty of. I couldn’t understand it.” – page 15
I think that passage is really telling about why I found it so hard to identify to this book. I haven’t been there, I wouldn’t be there. I would never have been guilty of beating a guy to death, no matter what happened. Even if put in that situation where a close friend did such a thing, that would not be how I rationalized it. I do feel for Antonio – he lived a tough life, he was raised tough, and he got into trouble because of it – but he did something for which he should be punished, and it isn’t something that everyone experiences.

Ultimately, I think Dito is a great writer. There’s one story where he talks about “perfect moments” that almost brought me to tears. But, much like Was, I don’t think great writing is enough. Memoirs – no matter how well-written – only work if I am able to identify with the subject. Try as I might, I just couldn’t put myself in Dito’s shoes.

I’m not sure if I would recommend this book. The truth is, I didn’t enjoy it, but that may have been more of my own problem than the problem of the book itself. I think there would be (and are, I’ve seen them!) people who would enjoy this book, so if it sounds appealing to you – give it a try! It’s a quick read, even if you don’t respond to it.

***

For some reason, this was one of the easiest entries I’ve written so far. Maybe I just knew exactly how I felt about this book, so it wasn’t hard to articulate, but this one seemed to fly out of my fingers. Here’s to more of them being that easy!

Like I said in the last entry, expect a barrage of posts coming within the next few weeks as I try to catch up. I’m sure there will be a lull again, so if you decide you want to wait to read some of these, I wouldn’t blame you. But 21 posts are written, I’ve read 28 books, and I’m close to being finished with a few more. I know I can do this.

Next Review: Invisible by Paul Auster (Expected Posting Date: Friday, June 6th)




**All quotes and annotations refer to this version of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, published by Da Capo Press in 2003**

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Cat's Cradle

As I alluded to in my last blog post, I had a minor setback on my 84-book journey. Last week, my hard drive completely crashed on my computer and I lost everything on it. Since I’m very, very smart…I also didn’t back anything up. As a result, I lost my reading schedule, all my in-progress blog posts, and all the notes I’ve taken on the books I already finished (including this post, that’s 8 books).

I learned a valuable lesson in backing up – but also in completing these posts in a more timely fashion. I keep saying “I’m going to post more”, but I actually mean it this time. It will keep me on point to get to 84 (and 42 by the end of the month), and it will also keep this blog active, which I’m beginning to recognize is just as necessary as actively reading.

With that in mind, book 20 (!!) of Project 84 is:


Cat’s Cradle

Cat’s Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut

Yeah, that’s right, I’ve never read Cat’s Cradle. Considering the classic books I hadn’t read until recently (Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five), I feel like there’s a specific period that I just didn’t cover in my studies or in my personal reading. I did read Breakfast of Champions years ago, but I believe that was for pleasure reading in high school – you know, back when I did pleasure reading.

So I’d never read Cat’s Cradle, but I remembered liking the little bit of Vonnegut I had read, so I thought I would give it a try. And I am very glad I did.

First, the plot…as it were. Anyone who has read this book knows that trying to break down the plot may be a futile effort, but I figure I can at least give it a try. Cat’s Cradle begins as the story of the narrator, John, seeking out various notable people to write a book about what they were doing when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. His interviews lead him to the family of Felix Hoenikker, a physicist who was part of the team that created the atomic bomb.

In his interviews with the family, he discovers that Felix also created a substance known as “Ice Nine”, which has the ability to freeze any water it comes into contact with. The substance is powerful – and has the capacity to, potentially, “freeze the earth”. John follows two of the Hoenikker children to the island of San Lorenzo, where he is introduced to the third child, the love of his life, and a strange religion known as “Bokonism”.

Part of me doesn’t want to reveal the rest of the plot as not to spoil the book, but the other part just doesn’t want to waste time and energy on that which is not integral to appreciating the novel. Cat’s Cradle isn’t about the plot. Yes, the plot exists, but it’s merely a container for the greater points that Vonnegut is making. Points about religion, society, war, violence, politics.

When I finished reading Cat’s Cradle, I called my father, who I know had read it in the past, and the first words out of my mouth were, “What the hell is Cat’s Cradle about?” I didn’t get it. I didn’t get what Vonnegut was trying to say, how I was supposed to interpret what I just read. Was it an allegory? Was it satire? Was it a failed attempt at a character-driven narrative? I had to take a step back to really recognize the novel for what it was, and appreciate what Vonnegut was trying to do.

It’s not important what Cat’s Cradle is about. What’s important is what it means.

Bokonism isn’t meant to be a realistic plot device. It’s a symbol. It represents all religion. It represents what is important about religion, and the positive aspects of what religion is. Ice Nine isn’t meant to be a realistic chemical weapon – it’s meant to demonstrate that what is most deadly in the world isn’t that which makes the most noise. It is the silent, small, slow killers that prove to be the most deadly. Those are what will, ultimately, lead to our destruction, if you follow that point to its logical conclusion.

In other words – to quote T.S. Eliot:

“This is the way the world ends…not with a bang but a whimper.”

I hate that I lost all of my notes on this book. Not only because I know I had so much more to say, but because I wrote down all sorts of passages that I wanted to break down. But, really, I think it might have been a good thing that I lost my literary interpretations. Because I don’t know that what made me respond to Cat’s Cradle was Vonnegut’s literary prowess. Instead, the appealing, captivating part of this book was the way it made me feel. And the way it made me think.

It’s not news that Vonnegut is an amazing writer. His use of language, word play, and symbolism is second to none, and the way he spins a tale is compelling even when you don’t know what’s going on. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I shouldn’t have been relieved that I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help myself.

Clearly, I would recommend Cat’s Cradle. I’m sure so many of you read it in class, or on your own years ago, but if you haven’t, you should pick it up. I’m now very excited for when I get to read Slaughterhouse Five later in the project, and I’m beginning to wonder why I didn’t read more Vonnegut sooner.

***

Another post, and a positive one at that! 20 books down on Project 84, and I’m enjoying the process again. I love sharing what I’ve been reading, and I hope you all enjoy reading it. And, believe it or not, my next entry is already completed – so you will have another review tomorrow to enjoy.

Next Review: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints by Dito Montiel (Estimated Posting Date: Thursday, June 5th)




**All quotes and annotations refer to this version of Cat’s Cradle, published by Dell in 1969**

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Was

So, I’ll go into more detail about what happened in my next post. But, suffice it to say I’m about a month from the halfway point for Project 84, and I’m still very behind. But, like I said in my last entry, this project is still important to me, and I am enjoying the reading and reviewing, so I have no intention of giving this up. And I still have every intention to get to 84. I mentioned this in passing in my last post, but in an attempt to get to 84, I’m focusing on the halfway point of June 30th. If I can get to 42 books by June 30th, I’ll be caught up and on pace to hit 84 – and staying on pace is a big part of this project.

It’s important to note that though I may not be posting as quickly as I want to, I am still reading, which is the much more time consuming part of the goal. If you want an idea of the books I’ve already completed and will be blogging about soon, or you want to see which books I’m currently working on, you can always check out my Good Reads Page. If you have Good Reads, feel free to follow me over there as well to get updates.

But, more importantly, back to the posts!

With that in mind, the 19th book of Project 84 is:


Was

Was
by Geoff Ryman

I’ll be honest (when have I ever been less than honest on this blog? Haha!), this was not my favorite book. It was another one of those books that’s been sitting on my shelf for a long time, and I wanted to move it over to the “read” section of the shelf.

Which is one of the few good things I can say about this book.

OK, it might not have been that bad. But it was very disappointing.

The plot…was confusing. The book switches between several different narratives. The first is the “true” story of Dorothy Gael, a young orphan in Kansas who is sent to live with her aunt and uncle. During a tough childhood, complete with abuse and neglect, she meets a young teacher – Frank Baum – who ends up co-opting her story for a famous novel.

Other narratives include the story of Judy Garland up until she went to Hollywood, the story of an orderly at an old folks home who meets an aging Dorothy, and the story of a young, gay former actor dying of AIDS  who travels to Kansas seeking Wizard of Oz stories. Oh, and one chapter from the POV of a makeup artist working on The Wizard of Oz movie.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

To start with something positive - the writing was, actually, beautiful. There were aspects of this book that were pleasant to read, poetic, interesting. I didn’t have much of an issue getting through the novel, and that can be attributed, in large part, to the writing.

A few examples:
“Time seemed to be leapfrogging over itself. Parts of it were missing. The sides of beef had been laughing so long and so hard they couldn’t stop and one of them was in danger of choking. He made squeaking noises like a mouse. Jonathan felt distant from them, and sour. How did they get so big, so strong? He didn’t want to eat.” – Page 319

“The world was haunted. It needed to be haunted. The Land of Was was cradled in the arms of Now like a child. Was made Now tender. Death made life precious.” – Page 359
Clearly, Ryman has a gift with words. He is able to make the most mundane poetic, and the most sad and depressing into a work of art. But I’m not sure that he’s a great storyteller, which was where the book lost me.

I didn’t follow the story – or stories, as the case may be. There were too many characters, too many interwoven moments. In an attempt to build multiple worlds, Ryman made them too detailed, and the narrative became muddled and hard to follow. Personally, I think he would have been better served choosing 2 or 3 narratives to weave together. But every time a new character was introduced, I had to take a moment to figure out if we had met them before, and where they fit into the story. At a certain point, I wanted to start keeping a list or a flow chart so that I could better understand where the book was going.

Ultimately, I think I do understand what Ryman was attempting. The book is meant to be fanciful. It’s meant to be, as he alludes to in his author’s note at the end of the book, a sort of “fantastical realism”. A love letter to Kansas, and maybe an inditement at the same time. I don’t know that I was supposed to follow every plot point of the story or memorize the characters. The problem is, without that plot and character development, the book falls flat. The writing can only be so good before I’m jonesing to know more, and with this book, I was jonesing to know just about anything about the characters.

If you couldn’t tell, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Maybe there’s something I’m missing – in fact, I think it’s safe to say that I just didn’t get Was, but I think there are many books in the same vein that I would recommend before I got to this one. Perhaps there’s a reason it sat on my shelf for so long.

***
Whew. There we go, another post. I promise that, in my next entry, I’ll go into a bit more detail about what happened to cause this latest break. Suffice it to say, I’m getting there. I’m sitting at my desk right now with 6 finished books on my right, and 2 books with 100 pages to go on my left, so I know that I’m at least working toward that end point.

Thanks for sticking with me as I catch up. You should definitely expect more entries in this next week than I’ve written in a while.

Next Review: Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (Expected Posting Date: Monday, June 2nd)




**All quotes and annotations refer to this version of Was, published by Penguin Books in 1993**