Monday, June 29, 2009

The 5-Minute Iliad - Greg Nagan

2000; 221 pages. Full Title : The 5-Minute Iliad and other Instant Classics. Great Books for the Short Attention Span. Genre : Literary Spoof. Overall Rating : B.
    Would you like to read the classics, but have neither the time nor the attention span? Do you want to impress others by doling out some literary ponderings ("Didn't Mrs. Dashwood have her hands full bringing up three such precocious girls in Jane Austen's 'Sense & Sensibility'?"), without actually having to trudge through the whole book? Do you think The Iliad would be much easier to read if Homer had put some humor in it? If so, then The 5-Minute Iliad is for you. 15 shining examples of Western Literature Classics, each distilled down to 10-15 pages, each easily read in 5-minutes or less.
.The List...
The Iliad - Homer
The Divine Comedy, Part 1, The Inferno - Dante
Paradise Lost - John Milton
Sense & Sensibility - Jane Austen
A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
Crime & Punishment - Feodor Dostoyevsky
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
Dracula - Bram Stoker
The Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka
Ulysses - James Joyce
1984 - George Orwell
The Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger
The Old Man & The Sea - Ernest Hemingway
On The Road - Jack Kerouac
.What's To Like...
    There is a lot of satiric wit, but Nagan also makes an effort to write each entry in the style of the original. On The Road is a single, 12-page, run-on sentence. The Old Man & The Sea nicely captures the fisherman's rambling monologue to the fish, as his boat is pulled out to sea. And of course, nothing compares to the limerick style used by Dante when he wrote The Inferno.

   .Nagan also prefaces each selection with a page or so about the author and the times in which the book was written. These are especially tongue-in-cheekish. And as a bonus there's a 5-minute section detailing everything worth knowing about Western Civilization from Gilgamesh to the present.
.A couple caveats. This is not a book for the kiddies. There are a few cuss words, and some "sexual situations". But you'd expect this since the list includes works by Salinger and Kerouac.

   .Also, it helps if you are at least familiar with the classic; even better if you've read it. The only ones I've read on the list are 1984 and Metamorphosis. I've seen the movie The Old Man & The Sea, and I think I read The Iliad in high school. Those are the ones I liked the most. I'm familiar with most of the others, except for The Picture of Dorian Gray and Sense & Sensibility. Those are the two I got the least out of, cuz I couldn't tell what was actually from the story, and what was spoof.

"I will never write such wordy trash again." (Count Leo Tolstoy, on War & Peace)
    I give The 5-Minute Iliad a "B", only because I don't know if any spoof merits an "A". For you young'uns, the humor here reminds me of Dave Barry's columns. For you geezers, it's very close to the "It All Started With..." series from the 60's by Richard Armour. Sadly, Greg Nagan appears to be a one-hit wonder. This is his only book that Amazon carries, and he doesn't even rate a Wikipedia entry. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Talking Man - Terry Bisson

1986; 192 pages. Genre : Science Fantasy. Overall Rating : B-.
Talking Man is a wizard. But he is also a dreamer. Along with his soulmate, Dgene, they dreamed this universe into existence. Then Talking Man fell in love with his creation. So he hid in it, and lived in a small housetrailer in the hills of Kentucky with his 16-year-old daughter, Crystal. But the cosmos hath no fury like a Soulmate spurned, and Dgene is out to un-make the dream.
What's To Like...
Bisson is a different sort of Sci-Fi writer. His forte lies in creating fabulous, vivid worlds. The back-cover blurbs describe this one thusly :
"The geography shimmers and melts, catfish as big as boats are pulled from the Mississippi, the moon crumbles into luminous rings and refugees from burning cities choke the highways." (snip) "Kentucky back roads, junkyards, fast food and magic..."
Crystal and a boy named Williams find themselves driving a borrowed Mustang from Kentucky to New Mexico to the North Pole in order to help Talking Man keep his dream (and their world) alive. However, like one of my recurring dreams, the "real" is shifting almost constantly. Whole states disappear, the Mississippi River now runs through a Grand Canyon-like channel, the US-Canadian border is heavily mined, and the names of cigarette and candy brands keep changing.
Bisson is kind of the antithesis of Tolkien. He presents his universes as is and without ever addressing the whys. Denver burns, but we never find out what caused this. An owl figurine is an artifact of monumental importance, but the reason is never detailed. Tolkien would obsess over the causes of such things; Bisson ignores them.
"There are two ways to tell a wizard. One is by the blue light that plays around his tires when he is heading north on a wet pavement under the northern lights, his headlights pointed toward the top of the world that so many talk about but so few have actually seen."The other is by his singing."
I give Talking Man a B-. It's an engaging story, but in the end I was left with too many unanswered questions. For a change, I wouldn't've minded another 100 pages added to the book, in order to delve into the reasons for everything.
Oh look! My good friend Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde's series hopped into this book, and brought me back a photo of the aforementioned "Catfish as big as boats". Thanks, Thursday!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Something Rotten - Jasper Fforde

2004; 383 pages. But read the 'Credits' page too. Book #4 in the Thursday Next series. Genre : Alternate Timeline. Overall Rating : A+.

   .Set two years after the previous book, Thursday returns to the "real" world with her toddler son, Friday, in tow; so that she can concentrate on getting her husband uneradicated.
    Fforde once again interweaves a dizzying number of plots. Yorrick Kaine is chancellor of England and working hard to become its absolute dictator. An assassin is trying to kill Thursday. There's a professional croquet game that has to be won against overwhelming odds, and a Shakespeare-clone to locate so that the Bard's plays can be untangled. A wave of anti-Danishism is sweeping the country, and Goliath Corp. has inexplicably switched to "Faith-Based Corporate Management". Then there's the small matter of saving the world from Armageddon.

.What's To Like...
    Everything. The plot's fast-paced and the writing is witty. Mycroft Next is back. Pickwick the dodo is raising her son. Otto von Bismarck is wooing Thursday's mom; and Hamlet and Emma Hamilton (who?) behave similarly, after an initial bout of mamihlapinatapai (what?). Fforde has Friday Next speaking in Lorem Ipsum (eh?), which is a nice touch. The penultimate duel between Yorrick and the Cheshire Cat is outstanding.

  .Finally, there's the ultimate ending to this 4-book series itself. (*) Clever, unexpected, and touching. Something Rotten could serve as a textbook example of how to perfectly wrap up a series. What more can you ask for?

You're gushing. Isn't there anything wrong with Something Rotten?
    I went out to and read their reviews. The only negatives seem to be from folks who hated the voice on the audio-book or hadn't read the first three books. So the worst I can say is that you really should read these books in their proper order.

   .I give Something Rotten an A+ cuz I can't find anything to even quibble about. The book, and the series, will appeal to just about everyone, and it is even suitable for the kiddies.

(*) : Yeah, I know there is a fifth Thursday Next book out - "First Among Sequels". But in looking at it (it's on my TBR shelf), it takes place 14 years after Something Rotten, and is probably the start of another series of Thursday Next adventures. Here's hoping that's what's happening.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin

1996; 807 pages. Book One of the series "A Song of Ice and Fire". Genre : Epic Fantasy. Awards : Locus Award - 1997; World Fantasy Award - 1997; Hugo Award (Best Novella) - 1997; Nebula Award 1997. It kicked Fantasy Award butt that year. Overall Rating : A-..

    A Game Of Thrones gives a wink and a nod to Tolkien and Robert Jordan, then blazes a new path with a gritty, dark approach to Epic Fantasy. GRRM intertwines three complex storylines here.
.The main one involves the island/continent/kingdom of Westeros, where an uneasy peace exists until the king dies, leading almost overnight to a bitter civil war between at least five powerful Houses.

.The secondary plot follows the Dothraki, a Hun-like force marauding in a land across the narrow sea to the east, where exiled princes plot their revenge and eggs of long-gone dragons still survive. Thirdly, in the north of Westeros, the undermanned Night's Watch attempts to maintain a wall of ice and keep out an assortment of "others", "wildlings", and undead.

.What's To Like...
    If you're tired of black-&-white, two-dimensional characters that never evolve, then AGOT is for you. The heroes have faults; some of their children are brats; and the villains have redeeming qualities. In this cold, dark setting where sometimes even main chatacters die too soon, some much-enjoyed wit is surprisingly supplied by one of the bad guys. GRRM uses a Point-of-View narration, with the reader seeing the world through the eyes of one of eight different characters. This is especially effective when Tyrion (the wit) is showcased. The prevailing "House Stark is good; House Lannister is bad" duality is shown to be a simplification of a much more complex, "gray" affair.

   .In certain ways, AGOT is the polar opposite of Jordan's Wheel Of Time series. There is some magic here, but it takes backseat to political intrigue and a strong sword-arm. And although "here there be dragons, monsters, and undead", for the most part the action involves only humans. That of course could change in subsequent books. Finally prophecy and predestination, so inevitable and immutable in WoT, are unreliable and trivial in AGOT.

.   The cast of characters can be daunting at first, so Martin adds an Appendix that helps you keep track of who is born of, sworn to, or married to whom.

."When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die."
    This is not a book for everyone. At 807 pages, it's not a quick read. It took me more than a week, and that included eight hours on an airplane. It's also not one for the kiddies - there is rape, incest, sexuality, cussing, and blood-and-gore violence in it, all of it graphic.
In the end, I gave A Game Of Thrones an A- because the good points far outweigh the bad. Yet I may or may not continue to read the series. Why?

.Well, AGOT came out in 1996, and as of today, three more books in the projected series of seven have been released. That leaves (at least) three to go. Will we have to wait another 13 years for the conclusion of A Song Of Ice And Fire? I hope not. But George R.R. Martin will be 60 years old this year, and I've already had to deal with Robert Jordan dying before completing his spanning-17-years WoT series. I'm hesitant to commit to another 6,000 pages and waiting more than a decade for a resolution to the story.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Book of the Dead - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

2006; 597 pages. Third book in the "Diogenes" trilogy. Genre : Thriller. Overall Rating : B.

   .Three storylines are intertwined in this finale to the trilogy. Our hero, Aloysius Pendergast (think Sherlock Holmes), finds himself in Solitary in an "escape-proof" prison, accused on three murders, including a senior FBI agent. His evil brother, Diogenes, (think Professor Moriarty), amuses himself by sending the New York Museum of Natural History's stolen diamond collection back to them as ground-up dust, and messing with the head of Aloysius's ward, Constance Greene. And the NYMoNH decides to re-showcase an ancient Egyptian tomb, despite the fact that they mothballed it 70 years earlier because of "the curse".

.What's To Like...
    Preston & Child always write a good thriller. The tension in BOTD rises steadily for the first 400 pages, despite no violence taking place for more than 100 pages. Once again, the reader is left to figure out whether the Mummy's Curse is natural or supernatural; P&C resolve plots in this series via both techniques. Aloysius's prison-escape plan (well, you knew he'd do this) is captivatingly clever.

.Alas, there are some believability issues. After having made his escape (and showing up in public at the NYMoNH), the FBI and NYPD seem to just say, "Oh well", and lose interest in recapturing the triple-murder escapee. Not likely, guys. And Diogenes, who's been running circles around everybody for two books, ultimately gets his comeuppance from a rank amateur. I'll ignore the spur-of-the-moment concocting of tri-nitroglycerine, made from scratch, and using only chemicals conveniently found at the museum.

.Then there's the conclusion itself. The climax of the Mummy's Curse storyline is just a duplicate of what P&C used in the first book in this series, Relic. C'mon guys - enough of the "trapped crowd in the museum" schtick. Last but not least, Diogenes' ultimate demise is both unbelievable and stolen straight from Arthur Conan Doyle's method of disposing of Moriarty. And since there's no body, P&C can always write Diogenes back into the series whenever they run out of fresh ideas for villains.

.Just another manic Mummy...
    But I quibble. The book, and indeed the whole trilogy (Note : These three stories - Brimstone, Dance Of Death, and The Book of The Dead - are not stand-alones. You definitely want to read them in order.) are action-packed page-turners, with interesting characters, lots of twists, good suspense, and a worthy Ultimate Evil. We'll give BOTD a B, only because it runs out of steam with 200 pages to go. This was "A" reading up until then.
.And BTW, P&C's newest release in the Pendergast series, Cemetery Dance, has just been released in hardback. I will most certainly be reading it, albeit waiting until it comes out in paperback or shows up at the used bookstore.