2011年3月29日 星期二

"Magician: Apprentice" by Raymond E. Feist

A while back I read Mr. Feist's "Krondor: the Betrayal." I thought it was a good book, even if the plot elements were largely borrowed from the computer game, and not creditable to the author.

"Magician: Apprentice" is the first book he wrote, and as such is entirely his creation. It was written WAY back, in 1977, when I was three years old.

The novel details the adventures of Pug, the magician's apprentice, and his friend Tomas. Pug and Tomas grow to manhood in the village of Crydee, and after being apprenticed to different masters, they set forth on a series of adventures. These adventures are loosely framed within the Riftwar chronology that the author set out in subsequent books. I read the "Author's Preferred Edition," and details were added to make this novel fit in better with his later novels.

Some of the vocabulary used in this book is silly, but as such is not unusual for the genre. All of the "miscreants" and "knaves" thrown about don't quite mesh with the Modern English used to frame the story. Feist's style of writing comes across as warmed-over Tolkein, without either the richness of Tolkein's language or Tolkein's talent for world-building. Of course comparing just about any fantasy writer to Tolkein is like comparing the ant to the ant-hill, but I think a less archaic vocabulary would have made for a stronger book.

Just the same, the author spins a good tale. I read this one fast, and I never found it boring. The characters are consistent, the plot hums along, and despite questionable uses of the English language it shows a strong sense of craftsmanship throughout. I would give it 7 stars out of 10, and if I have the time I'll probably read one of the many, many sequels.

2011年3月25日 星期五

"The 39 Steps" by James Buchan

I had no idea this was also a book. I've seen Hitchcock's film version several times, and I'd heard of the other film adaptations, but I didn't know this was a book until I discovered a copy in the local bookstore.

The author described this work as being "a shocker," in the vein of other popular novels of his day. He turned to writing relatively late in life, and served the British government in various capacities up until his death. His book also brings to mind Conrad's "The Secret Agent," and H. Rider Haggard's novels. Since both authors are mentioned in this novel, it seems likely that Conrad and Haggard would have also been familiar with this book.

I have never been a big fan of the mystery/suspense genre, primarily because the plots seem so contrived. Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, bores the life out of me, and contemporary suspense writers only seem a little less boring by comparison.

Nevertheless, this is a novel worth reading. At just 103 pages, it's very short, and the plot clips along at a good pace. Even if the protagonist brings to mind the more interesting Allan Quatermain, it is a good read nonetheless. The story revolves around German efforts to spy on England and France, and before you know it the narrator is caught up in an international conspiracy that threatens to shake Western civilization to its very foundations.

One thing I especially liked about this book is that it reveals the narrator's psychology more explicity than most other books in this genre try to do. For this reason, not all of the suspense of the novel is connected to external events, but rather to how the narrator may or may not be interpreting these events correctly.

This novel isn't "classic" by any definition, but it is a good book. I would give it 7 stars out of 10.

2011年3月24日 星期四

"Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys

This is the second or third time I've read a novel in the Norton Critical Edition series. Books in this series are always slightly ridiculous, given that the commentary/background for the novel is always longer than the novel itself. In this instance, a novel of 100 or so pages is accompanied by 150 pages of masturbatory comments by miscellaneous scholars.

Even so, "Wide Sargasso Sea" is an excellent book. It is to some extent a reimagining of the Bertha character in Jane Eyre, set in the Caribbean before she was taken back to England. The novel explores the contrasts between master and slave, black and white, English and Creole, and also between the manners and customs of the colonizer among reluctant colonials.

Antoinette, born into the post-slaverholding society of Barbados, watches her mother descend into madness after their house is burned down by resentful locals. Antoinette is thereafter raised in a convent, and married off to a visiting Englishman. The two feel affection for one another at first, but by the end of the book her husband revolts against the unknowable aspects of his surroundings, and gives into suspicions regarding his new wife.

Jean Rhys, the author, was born in Barbados, and eventually settled in England up until her death. She made portraits with words, and "Wide Sargasso Sea" is without a doubt the best-known of such portraits. It is a painting of a landscape, and a people, that have largely vanished from our world. I highly recommend this book, though it is a bit on the depressing side.

2011年3月22日 星期二

"Aesop's Fables" by Aesop

Aesop lived in Ancient Greece, 500 or more years before Christ. He was supposedly a slave, possibly deformed, and there is anecdotal evidence that he was condemned to death by the Oracle of Delphi. Long after his death, his stories - many of which were not even written by him, and didn't even originate in Greece - were collected into the group of tales we are familiar with today.

Among these fables are "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Sheperd Boy and the Wolf" (a.k.a. "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"), and many other tales with a lesson behind them. Almost all of them are less than a page long. Almost all of them feature animals.

I can't really say either good or bad about this book. It is just a collection of disconnected stories, many of whose "morals" were lost on me. It's an easy read though, and I finished it in a few hours. The version I read was the Penguin Classics version, though there are many "kid friendly" versions out there.

2011年3月17日 星期四

"1984" by George Orwell

I remember being forced to read "Animal Farm" back in high school. I hated it. I thought it was one of the most labored, pretentious things I had ever read. 18 years later, I cannot say whether or not I would hold the same opinion. Maybe I would find something in the book that escaped me at 18 years of age, or maybe I would find it to be just as dull, uninspired, and annoying as I remember.

Whatever the case may be, I am happy to say that 1984 is a great book. It feels fresh and new, even though it was written 62 years ago. It has a lot to say about our world, our lives, and the way we manage both. It is a book about the future, written long before I was born, but it feels like it was written yesterday.

1984 follows the trials of Winston Smith, as he struggles to survive daily live in Oceania. Oceania in this case does not refer to Australasia, but rather to a future empire composed of the British Isles, the Americas, and the southern tip of Africa. The world of Oceania resembles, in many ways, the Soviet Union during the height of its power. This similarity was probably not intentional. Oceania could be anywhere, and could be around the corner for any country or group of people, given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances.

I can't say much else about the book without giving away much of the story, and discovering this story within the novel is much more fun than reading about it here. I would give this book ten out of ten stars, because it's timeless.

And incidentally, anyone who liked this book will probably also like a book called "The Gulag Archipelago," by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It covers much of the same subject matter, even though it was written about the Soviet Union. Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle" also touches upon similar themes, and both are excellent choices if you have already finished 1984.

2011年3月15日 星期二

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll

A while ago I also read Frank L. Baum's "Wizard of Oz." The "Wizard of Oz" isn't nearly as old as "Alice in Wonderland," having been written almost a century later, but both books are among the most famous works of children's literature out there.

"Alice in Wonderland," written in the mid-1800s, is a clever book, and far outshines the "Wizard of Oz". It is also an easy read, and can be disposed of in an afternoon - if the mood strikes you. I would recommend it to anyone tired of more serious books.

Carroll wrote "Alice in Wonderland" for the sole purpose of entertaining kids, and in this respect the book succeeds brilliantly. It is also much better than the astonishingly bad cinematic adaptation by Tim Burton, though it is on a par with the Disney cartoon.

The Disney cartoon was quite revolutionary for its time, not unlike Lewis Carroll's "Alice" was in his own day.

2011年3月12日 星期六

"2061: Odyssey Three" by Arthur C. Clarke

What I like about Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction is that there's plenty of SCIENCE in it. In this respect, his books stand in stark contrast to much of the genre. All sci-fi authors pepper their stories with scientific terms and theories, but these terms and theories are often non-essential elements in the story they are telling.

In Clarke's ficition, however, his story is predicated upon a scientific understanding of our world and the cosmos, and this understanding could not be separated from the story. In this he was much more of a realist than other authors, many of whose application of scientific prinicples is purely cosmetic, and whose main preoccupation could be encompassed within the term "gadgetry."

"2061: Odyssey Three" is the third of four books in Clarke's Odyssey series. He wrote the first of these books in close partnership with the director Stanley Kubrick, whose "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of the landmark films of the 1960s. Since both Clarke and Kubrick worked so closely on the production of the book and accompanying film, it is hard to say where due credit ought to be given for either work. Many of Clarke's ideas served as the origin points for aspects of the film, and many of Kubrick's ideas and criticisms made their way into the novel.

The sequel to 2001, "2010: Odyssey Two", is more easily attributed to Clarke himself, written as it was long after Kubrick's involvement had ended. This book follows Heywood Floyd, introduced in the first film/movie, as he joins a crew of Russian cosmonauts in a journey to Jupiter's moon, Europa.

In the background of this novel is also the parallel journey of David Bowman, transformed by alien intelligences into the StarChild, as he journeys back to Earth with an important message. The book closes with the discovery of alien lifeforms on Europa, the transformation of Jupiter into Lucifer, another sun, and a warning that humankind is not to interfere with matters on Europa.

By the time 2061 rolls around, mankind has grown used to the fact that there are other, non-human intelligences inhabiting the same solar system. Research continues in the vicinity of Europa, though humans scrupulously observe a no-contact policy with regard to whatever beings might inhabit it.

As you might guess, someone ends up on Europa anyway, in the form of a spaceship crash landing on the new world. "2061: Odyssey Three" details the journey of Heywood Floyd's new ship, the Universe, as it attempts to rescue the crew of the stranded ship. Along the way they almost meet the alien life forms of Europa, but are in the end discouraged from looking any further into the matter.

As a book, I found 2061 much less interesting than its predecessor. The story didn't seem to hold together the way the previous two did, and many of the strands Clarke tried to weave together were just left hanging there, unused. I'm hoping that some of these loose ends are tied up in the final book of this series, "3001: The Final Odyssey."

2011年3月9日 星期三

"Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" by John Cleland

Back in high school a friend handed me a book called "The Hot Wife." This was a porn novel printed back in the 70s. The book follows the exploits of a young newlywed as she seeks sexual fulfillment through men other than her husband.

"Fanny Hill," isn't all that different. The language used might be more flowery, but the characters and situations are largely the same. Fanny begins the story as a young girl from the country, eager to see London in the wake of her parents' death.  In London she is tricked into a period of servitude at the nearest bordello, and after that the book is little more than a catalog of sexual acts.

In Fanny Hill, penises are often referred to as "terrible machines," and vaginas are referred to as "downy clefts" or "seats of pleasure." The book is extremely graphic for something written in the 1700s, but falls short of what you'd find in most works of fiction these days. The sexual acts described are fairly conventional, and the worst that anyone gets is a good whipping. If you made this book into an adult movie it would bore most people.

Still, it's a fascinating glimpse of what passed for transgressive fiction back in the 1700s. Some of the vocabulary used is also genuinely amusing. It's a short book, and not long enough to wear out its welcome, so I'd give it 6 stars out of 10.

2011年3月4日 星期五

"Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo

"Certainly they appeared utterly depraved, corrupt and odious; but it is rare for those who have sunk so low not to be degraded in the process, and there comes a point, moreover, where the unfortunate and the infamous are grouped together, merged in a single, fateful word. They are les miserables - the outcasts, the underdogs. And who is to blame? Is it not the most fallen who have most need of charity?"

I cannot say how faithfully my particular volume was translated from French into English, but I'm sure this book is even better in the original language. Hugo was nothing if not a man who had a way with words, and it is no accident that many of Dickens' books bring Hugo to mind. "A Tale of Two-Cities," for example, was not only adapted from an earlier book by Hugo, but Dickens' style of writing was in many ways an attempt to adapt Hugo's method of storytelling into English.

The story concerns the travails of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who continually runs afoul of the authorities. Along the way he becomes very rich, gets blackmailed, and is even returned to prison on two separate occasions. The book is full of improbabilities - not unlike contemporaneous works by authors such as Dickens or the Brontes, but these improbabilities never detract from Hugo's breadth of characterization or his sense of pace.

Looming in the background is also the French Revolution, and the struggles between rich and poor that set the stage for this momentous chapter in human history. The historic events never overwhelm the characters, and the characters never serve to trivialize the larger events unfolding around them. Hugo was a master of balancing the personal lives of his characters against the historic, cultural, and economic contexts that defined them.

Suspend your disbelief when those coincidences occur, and you will enjoy this book. I can't give this one any less than 10 stars out of 10.

2011年3月2日 星期三

"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller

"Catch-22" is a jokey kind of book about the absurdity of war. It is also one of those books that lie somewhere between "popular fiction" and "the classics." Written in the 1950s, it's not quite old enough to be a classic, but not quite recent enough or best-selling enough to be "popular fiction."

In many ways it reminded me of "Gravity's Rainbow," a much longer, much more cryptic book that explores similar subject matter. Unlike "Gravity's Rainbow," however, "Catch-22" is actually readable. Both books contain horrific accounts of casualties during World War II, both books glance upon the sexual exploits of soldiers during this period, but "Catch-22", in my opinion, narrates these facets of American military history much more effectively.

My only problem with this book is that there are just too many jokes, and too many digressions into the kind of Abbot and Costello, "Who's On First?" exchanges between the protagonist, Yossarian, and his fellow soldiers. Whereas one or two such exchanges would have been quite funny in a less jokey book, in "Catch-22" the sheer number of these dialogues tends to render the "bits" less funny.

This aside, I found the chapters near the end very entertaining. It is in these last chapters that the book truly shines, and the horror and absurdity of war have never been rendered with such exquisite irony.

I'll assign this book 8 stars out of 10. As said above, its a bit too jokey for me, but this book is excellent just the same.