Monday, December 10, 2012

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (part 4)

I'm still worming my way through Substitute Harmony, so that must mean it's time for another filler post terribly interesting look at my non-pony literary habits.  As before, I've grabbed all the books I'm reading, piled them up next to the computer, and have written a little bit about each one.  Consider it a candid snapshot into what I read when I'm not reading ponyfiction, from highbrow to mainstream to guilty pleasure (though mostly from the middle group, this week).  Below the break, as always.

*A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

What it is: The title sums it up quite nicely.  Starting from the birth of the universe, Bryson offers a a concise and accessible, but never pandering, look at how the present day came to be.  As the author puts it, this is the story of "how we went from being nothing at all to being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since."

How I'm liking it so far: I've read many of the author's other stories, and he is justifiably renowned for his ability to spin a fascinating and enjoyable narrative out of subjects that are all too often presented in a dry or otherwise disappointing manner.  My favorite story of his is actually A Walk in the Woods, a travelogue/history of the Appalachian Trail, but I don't think I've ever read anything by him that left me disappointed.  About halfway through, A Short History is proving to be no exception.

Recommendation:  I would have no trouble recommending any of Bryson's stories to the average reader; he has a rare gift for combining readability with remarkable depth.  This title will especially appeal to those interested in learning more about biology, geology, astronomy, and how the universe works in general.

Guantanamo: A Novel, by Dorothea Dieckmann

What it is: The story of a half-Indian, half-German man who finds himself in Afghanistan at the wrong time, and is sent to the eponymous detention facility.

How I'm liking it so far: Honestly, I'm not particularly enjoying it.  It's hard to tell if the problem is the translation (from German) or the story itself, but what could be a vivid story about the psychological effects of unjust imprisonment instead feels stilted and disjointed mess.  Maybe I simply haven't been reading it in the right frame of mind, but I don't expect I'll finish this.

Recommendation: Fans of prison studies in fiction (or fans of modern Russian fiction--the two sometimes seem almost interchangeable) may want to give this a look.  For my part, I'm afraid I found it rather dull.

Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher

What it is: The thirteenth story in Butcher's extremely popular series starring Harry Dresden, a professional wizard living in modern-day Chicago.

How I'm liking it so far: This is a re-read, while I wait for my turn with the library's copy of Cold Days (the just-released fourteenth book).  I like Ghost Stories better than the three or four books that preceded it (which I liked themselves, don't get me wrong), though I do still miss the lower stakes of the series' earlier entries.

Recommendation: I don't recommend starting here, obviously.  But go read Storm Front, the first Dresden book, if you're interested in getting into the best modern paranormal series of which I'm aware. 

Goren Settles the Bridge Arguments, by Charles Goren

What it is: Charles Goren was one of the foremost bridge (the card game) experts of the 20th century.  This book consists of about 150 bidding arguments which players sent to him, often with significant wagers attached or as part of an effort to stave off violence, and his responses.  Bridge players can get pretty intense.

How I'm liking it so far: I like it a lot.  The examples and Goren's solutions are presented concisely, yet just enough of the background on the actual players is given to make each question feel like its own little story, rather than a mere problem to be solved.  Of course, the book assumes that you already know how to play bridge--this isn't an expert-level treatise, but neither is it a how-to manual.

Recommendation: The fact that each problem can be digested in a couple of minutes makes this ideal reading for times when one expects to be frequently interrupted, and it's both clear and insightful.  That said, it's obviously only worth reading if you know at least the basics of the game.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

What it is: Seriously?

How I'm liking it so far: I doubt it will surprise any of the regulars here to hear that I like The Hobbit quite a bit.  This is probably the two-dozenth time or more that I've read it.  As you may have guessed, the reason for my latest foray through the tale is because of the upcoming Peter Jackson movie.  I'm going to go to the midnight showing even though I'm absolutely terrified of how they're going to mangle it (and they will mangle it, because I'm impossible to please when it comes to adaptions of books which I love.  I've learned to accept that about myself), and I want to make darn sure that before I go, I have my vision of Bilbo, Beorn, Smaug, and the rest all firmly locked in place.  The last thing I want to do is give up my interpretation of the main character's appearance and voice for a visual of Martin Freeman with prosthetic feet.

Recommendation: Yeah, The Hobbit comes pretty highly recommended from me.  But for God's sake, if you plan to see the movie and haven't yet read the book, do so now.  It's virtually always better to consume the original before the adaptation, in any pair of mediums, and I doubt that this is going to be an exception.


  1. I always have hated these posts. Not because they're bad, but because I sadly have so little to contribute. I have so little time these days that it's hard to fit any reading in. Especially the kind of reading that's tolerated on this blog.

    That being said, I have been on a bit of a Warhammer 40k kick lately. (Yes, I like WH40K. Shut up.) Maybe it's because a store just recently opened up in my town that sells the miniatures, but I've started digging up some of my old books and reading them again. I even finally started looking into the Horus Heresy books I picked up when my local Borders closed, and yeah, they're not too bad.

    But the series I've been trying hardest to catch up with is Ciaphas Cain. I just finished re-reading through the first six books (which is all I own at this point), and I still enjoy them more than just about anything else in the universe. If I had to pick one thing I liked, though, it would be how the series uses the Literary Agent Hypothesis trope. The whole series is the memoirs of Cain, compiled and edited by a major supporting character. She fills in the gaps Cain leaves with passages from other in-universe material, and adds footnotes that both explain things a bit more clearly and give her own view on Cain. And then she has to dig up the autobiography of another supporting character, which is filled with the most purple prose imaginable and is always introduced with a formal apology to any Inquisitor unfortunate enough to have to read it. The whole series is full of dark comedy, and just has fun with how hopelessly ridiculous and insane the entire 40k universe is.

    As for the books you mentioned, I read The Hobbit again last year, and actually still enjoy it more than I do the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (And yes, I am looking forward to the movie.) I should also check out Bryson's book as well. That Guantanamo one...yeah, I really can't see that one working unless the author was really good, and it seems this one wasn't.

    Hope I contributed something this time.

    1. I love the Ciaphas Caine series. It's a deeply intelligent twist on the usual concept of an anti-hero. the author has such a wonderfully precise understanding of his character that his motivations feel solid, regardless of whether he's working out where his next beverage comes from, or how to cross a continent full of orks.

      I've tried other stuff, and while there are a few Dan Abnett books that worked for me, none of the other 40K stuff seems to work for me. I got five books into the Horus Heresy before I gave up--lots of very dry happenings that don't enthral unless you're a frothing fanboy. I can manage it for some Blood Angels' stuff, but eve nmy love for them has been marred by the last decade's rather dull interpretation of them.

    2. Mental note: give yourself an hour to wake up before you try and string words together. Sheesh.

    3. I can't speak to the 40k novels, but what's this about "the kind of reading that's tolerated on this blog?" I've got Veronica Roth's Divergent on my reading list, and that's YA fiction; I've read almost a dozen books from the Star Wars AU, and those are, well, Star Wars novels; I once read a book of Dave Barry articles unironically, for goodness sake! Point is, it's not like you have to only read "big kid books" to be taken seriously. Or at least, it shouldn't be.

      That's why I thought it would be fun to just list the books I'm currently reading the first time I did this, instead of cherry-picking recommendations. I've seen "what are you reading" threads many times, on my voyages through the internets, and the ones that aren't full of pop lit are invariably filled with Kant, Tolstoy, and any other "respectable" name you can dream up. I'm not saying people on the internet are lying (heaven forbid), but at the very least, I suspect they're selectively leaving out the less "literary" titles in their reading piles.

      Anyway, point is this: you go right ahead and like your 40k novels.

  2. "[B]est modern paranormal series of which I'm aware." -Chris

    This needs to be on the back of every Dresden Files book.

    I'm so glad you brought up this series, because I couldn't have stated it any better myself. I keep saying that I want to find other urban fantasy series, but I have yet to actually try doing that, partly because DF fills that hole nicely, but mostly just for not having the time to do it. I'm going to start in on Cold Days today, as a matter of fact.

    And I totally agree with you about Bill Bryson as well. Making the mundane interesting (and the interesting even more interesting) is a real gift. His book about Australia is pretty memorable. I've got At Home in my to-read stack.

  3. Man, I really need to reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings sometime, because it has been years (or maybe just the former... I preferred its more casual tone). But then, I was much bigger into CS Lewis's less complicated Narnia books.

    I recently finished This Book is Full of Spiders, the new horror thing by editor David Wong. Like the previous book, John Dies At The End, it's a strange piece of horror-comedy where, instead of the humour cancelling the horror out, they work together to create some truly horrific moments that you still can't help but laugh at. It's gory as all hell, but somehow I didn't mind as much as I usually do.

    I also finished Cory Doctorow's Little Brother recently, about which I have mixed feelings.
    - On the one hand, it's nice to read a book involving computers and hacking by someone who knows a thing or two about that stuff. On the other, the constant Free Software plugs and geek culture references feel masturbatory and get rather grating.
    - On the one hand, the book is preachy and heavy-handed -- hard to avoid when you basically set out to write "1984 but in the present day". On the other hand, personal privacy is an important topic, and it's truly frightening how technology could threaten it.
    - On the one hand, a lot of the book feels like a teenager's hacker fantasies. On the other hand, much of the book's second half deals with the realistic consequences of enacting said fantasies, and the conclusion is fairly believable.
    It's a fairly fun read if you can past the irritating bits, and probably worth it if you're interested enough in hacking and personal privacy in the 21st century.

    And now I'm reading William Goldman's The Princess Bride, which I really ought to have read already. It's very funny.

    1. The Princess Bride is actually one of the very few cases where I liked the movie more than the book. I think the problem was that the book was presented as an abridged tale, which I loath. Every time the narrator would interject to say that he was skipping over some bit of political allegory or exposition, I kept thinking to myself, "Hey, wait a minute! I wanted to read that!" and wishing that I had the complete story instead of the greatest-hits version. Terribly frustrating, even more so because I was quite aware that the "complete" version I found myself pining for didn't exist.

  4. I was re-reading 'The Hobbit' over the summer to lead up to the film, but never got round to finishing it. I really should start up again, since I'll be seeing it with my friends soon enough.

  5. This Bill Bryson guy sounds like my kind of author.

  6. I've actually been itching to re-read The Hobbit lately. Not because of the movie, though. I've been thinking about changes in D&D over the years, and while trying to explain the differences to my brother, it struck me that a good comparison would be that older editions are like The Hobbit while 2E and later are more like Lord of the Rings. Well, except for 4th, which doesn't seem interested in modelling any traditional fantasy genre, but that's neither here nor there

    While I loved The Hobbit, I could never get into the Rings trilogy. I tried reading Fellowship once when I was 13 or 14, but I didn't get far. Tolkien's writing seemed denser, becoming more of a chore to read. Maybe I'll give it another shot one of these days. I didn't care much for the films

  7. Honestly, I'm shocked. I recognised and have read not one, but two of the books in one of these actual books posts. Hobbit and the Short History one.

    Never thought I'd see the day. The last three times we had one of these, I kept feeling like the only guy at the pub who never saw last night's football.

  8. I'm not sure I agree with the sentiment that it's "always better to consume the original before the adaptation." I understand where you're coming from in saying that (and I love the Hobbit too) but the way I see it, an adaptation is necessarily going to be different from the original material - this is simply the reality of moving into a different medium. And there are cases where I prefer the adaptation because it brings something new to the story (for instance, I think the Scott Pilgrim movie does a much better job moving the main narrative along than the comics did, much as I enjoy the comics). I don't think which order you consume the different media should really matter; just accept that there's going to be different interpretations of these characters and that you're going to like some more than others.

    1. I just thought of an even better example of a case where I preferred the adaptation: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Mainly because the resolution in the movie felt so much more satisfying to me than the one in the book. In the book, the final battle between Harry and Voldemort felt so stilted; after Neville stands up to the remaining Death Eaters, the fight moves into the Great Hall, Harry pops out from under the invisibility cloak, he and Voldy exchange a few words while everyone else watches on, and then Harry kills him. Boom, done, everyone happy, celebration immediately commences, even though about half of the cast just died.

      But in the MOVIE... that last battle is really given the emotional weight and epic imagery worthy of the build-up it receives, and it's full of great symbology: Harry and Voldemort battle at the gates of the castle, with Harry standing between Voldy and the castle, the last defender of Hogwarts. Everyone else is occupied while this is going on, and when Harry obliterates Voldy the music that plays is "Lily's Theme," suggesting who really enabled Voldemort's downfall. And they don't immediately start jumping around and celebrating when they win, the mood is more subdued given the horrors they have just experienced.

      Anyway, I apologize for the long rant, but this was a perfect case where the adaptation just did so much more for me than the original. In the case of the other Potter stories I preferred the books (with the possible exception of Prisoner of Azkaban), but Deathly Hallows was a case where I thought the adaptation brought a really fresh perspective to the story.

    2. Your rant makes me want to rant about a few different things about the books and movies and where one did something better than the other. (But I won't because I really wouldn't make a better point that you have here.) Rants aren't always bad, it's when they're emotionally charged that they become volatile. You're just typing lots of words in one place and calling it a rant. On the internet, we have infinite space for words, so rant away.

    3. A friend of mine absolutely refused to read any of the Harry Potter books before watching the movies. She said that for the few where she'd read the book first, it spoiled her enjoyment of the movie, but reading the book after watching the movie only enhanced it. She would be all like, "Oh wow! That's a really cool detail! Too bad it wasn't in the movie." or "Haha, this scene is really cute. I guess they didn't have time to show it." or "Awww... I will be your friend, Luna Lovegood! Don't be sad!" rather than "WHY DID THEY CUT THIS SCENE OUT?!" *rage rage rage* "WHYYY?!" "No! DOBBY did that, not Neville!"

    4. Most of the people I've met who watch film adaptations first tend to hate reading. It bugs me to no end when someone says they're a Harry Potter or Twilight fan when they've only seen the movies and absolutely refuse to read the books. They also tend to hate Chinese food, which I don't get and find the correlation rather odd

      Someone like Sessalisk's friend wouldn't bother me, though. I've done that myself, but that's more with one-shot books that I've never heard of rather than a popular series

      While we're on the topic of Harry Potter, was anyone else annoyed by all the complaints regarding the material cut from Order of the Phoenix? Some of that stuff was revisited in Half-Blood Prince, so it made perfect sense to me that they'd just save it for the latter film

    5. I've always tried to see the movie/adaptation first, when I can, just because I know that more often than not, they have to cut things, and so it's better to go back and see what they left out with a clear vision of how things look than to start with more and get angry because you're handed less. It's not always possible, of course (I do read on my own!), but it's served me well in recent years.

    6. The Half-blood prince is probably the worst movie adaptation I ever saw. Not only they added a long sequence that wasn't in the books and didn't really add anything dramatically or plot-wise, but they also removed stuff that was completely integral to the plot. While the book itself isn't that good, there is always a sense of mistery around who the Half-blood prince was, and there is a lot of character building around Dumbledore. Without these the ending falls very flat, and the scene where Snape tells he is the Prince seems more like an afterthought, instead of the final dramatic beat it should had been.

      At least they redeemed themselves with the two Deathly Hallows Movies. Dividing the book in two movies was a great idea.

      I tend to not rage too much about adaptations, since a movie is a very different medium than a book. I just hate when they change it in a way that removes crucial plot points. Anyone remembers the Golden Compass movie, where they inverted the plot sequence and removed the ending?

  9. Since I didn't see it mentioned yet, strongly agree with you about Bryson. Have you read "The Thunderbolt Kid" yet? Behind A Walk in the Woods it's probably my second favorite.