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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

All the King's Men

In 2016, the New York Times commemorated the 70th anniversary of All the King's Men and described it as "by wide consensus...America’s essential political novel".  The book tells the story of the rise and governorship of Willie Stark, who transforms, mostly by accident, from a naive country lawyer to the "Boss", in charge of a corrupt political machine.  It is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a failed historian turned reporter who abandons that career to become Stark's right-hand man (basically a Doug Stamper, for those who get the reference).  


Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing is not a traditional novel.  The author makes this clear upfront by informing the reader that the "frame" of the book is a 60,000 word short story which could stand on its own.  This story is broken into several parts with selections from the protagonist's notebooks in between.  These notebook entries make up the majority of the book.  The run the gamut from newspaper clippings to stories about her life and her friends.  As with most mechanisms employed by authors to be different, as opposed to just telling their story in a traditional but compelling way, I was skeptical.  While I definitely found certain parts of the notebooks tedious, I enjoyed the book overall.

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Monday, August 13, 2018

3 Years of Reading

Today marks my completion of three years of doing at least one half hour of reading per day. In the past year, I have read 36 more books comprising 18,358 pages. This brings my total for the three years to 96 books totaling 50,401 pages. I have also finally managed to catch up on my backlog of reviews.

My year three books were:

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson (544 pages)
Darkwalker on Moonshae - Douglas Niles (380 pages)
The Heart is A Lonely Hunter - Carson Mccullers (356 pages)
Black Wizards - Douglas Niles (347 pages)
John Adams - David McCullough (752 pages)
Gravity’s Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon (760 pages)
Darkwell - Douglas Niles (345 pages)
What If - Randall Munroe (314 pages)
The Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller (318 pages)
The Way of Kings - Brandon Sanderson (1,008 pages)
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin - Erik Larson (448 pages)
Middlemarch - George Eliot (736 pages)
Words of Radiance - Brandon Sanderson (1,088 pages)
Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (832 pages)
Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston (219 pages)
Oathbringer (and Edgedancer) - Brandon Sanderson (1,484 pages)
The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple - Jeff Guinn (544 pages)
The Naked and the Dead - Norman Mailer (731 pages)
Canticle - R. A. Salvitore (384 pages)
Wright Brothers - David McCullough (336 pages)
To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf (248 pages)
In Sylvan Shadows - R. A. Salvitore (320 pages)
The Queen - Sally Bedell Smith (721 pages)
The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand (720 pages)
Night Masks - R. A. Salvitore (368 pages)
The Checklist Manifesto - Atul Gawande (240 pages)
A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess (192 pages)
The Fallen Fortress - R. A. Salvitore (368 pages)
Night Trilogy - Elie Wiesel (350 pages)
Finnegans Wake - James Joyce (656 pages)
The Chaos Curse - R. A. Salvitore (384 pages)
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim - David Sedaris (257 pages)
A Passage to India - E. M. Forster (368 pages)
Foundation - Isaac Asimov (296 pages)
The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill (304 pages)
The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing (640 pages)

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Great Escape

In The Great Escape, Paul Brickhill  details the time spent by him and other Allied air force officers being held by German forces during World War II.  Given the subject matter, it is surprisingly light hearted and comedic.  Having read Unbroken, which tells the story of an American POW in Japan, I was bracing myself for some grim reading.  It does get dark, but it's a fairly small portion of the book.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Passage to India

A  Passage to India is a novel by E. M. Forster that largely focuses on the tensions that existed between English and Indians living during the British Raj in the 1920s.  I mainly found the book depressing.  That shouldn't be surprising in a book that is mainly portraying an oppressed people having to deal politely with the representatives of their oppressors while often being treated as less than human.  When you add in allegations of sexual assault that certainly doesn't help.  It surprised me, although it probably shouldn't have, that many of the reviews when it came out were critical of how close the relationships were between the English and Indian characters.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Finnegans Wake

While it may have seemed difficult reading at the time, A Clockwork Orange was a model of clarity next to my second (and sadly not my last) James Joyce novel, Finnegans Wake.  Its often described as one of the most difficult works in the English language.  I believe that is intended as an accolade, though it's difficult for me to see it as such.  I might also contest the describing it as a work in the English language.  Before I go further, I'd like to be clear: I get that this book isn't designed to be enjoyed by simply reading through it as one would any other novel, if it's meant to be enjoyed at all.  It's supposed to be difficult and confusing.  I believe the intention is that there is a reward for having spent a hundred or more hours dutifully studying the text and available commentaries to pierce its veil.  This book is included on three of the eleven lists I combined to create my list of classic books, so clearly some people have found that reward.  Personally, I can't imagine it justifying that effort when I could easily spend the same amount of time reading War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, just in case I need something that's a challenge to read, A Clockwork Orange and Infinite Jest, including commentaries for both.

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Night Trilogy

A much more depressing book recommended to me by my friend Daniel is Night by Elie Wiesel.  Night is hard to classify.  It is, at base, an artistic portrayal of the time Wiesel spent in German concentration camps toward the end of the Second World War.  It's not quite memoir or autobiography, but it certainly isn't at the other end of the spectrum in the historical fiction category.  The author called it a deposition.  Regardless of what you call it, it's powerful.  It begins with the Jews being expelled to ghettos but largely living in denial, much like the rest of the world, about the danger and horrors that the Nazis have in store.  You then follow him and his father as they are moved to concentration camps and subjected to the horrors within.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

A Clockwork Orange

I generally don't watch movies based on books that I'm planning to read but A Clockwork Orange slipped through while I was making my way through AFI's 100 Greatest Films.  It was actually probably for the best.  I think the movie made it much easier for me to comprehend what was happening as I read the book.  Anthony Burgess's novel uses a made up slang with literally hundreds of words largely based on the Russian language.  It can be difficult to comprehend what is happening, especially because the narrator uses a somewhat forced and awkward formality.

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Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Checklist Manifesto

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande was the first of sixteen non-fiction books that my friend Daniel was good enough to recommend.  In addition to being an author, Gawande is a medical doctor and public health researcher.  The Checklist Manifesto recounts his attempts working with the World Health Organization to decrease the number of preventable deaths and complications incurred during surgery.  He makes a fairly compelling argument that basic checklists, thoughtfully crafted and diligently followed, can make a significant difference in the mortality rate and need for follow up care.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Fountainhead

I remember reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged at the height of my libertarian fervor.  I never thought it was that good, but it's been about a decade, so my memory probably isn't perfect.  From what I remember, the book posits a black and white view of the world where you have the productive people, who are uniformly attractive hardworking geniuses, and everyone else, who are ugly viscous people who just want to destroy the productive people.  Underscoring all of that is an utterly inhuman story of romance where people are immediately in love with the most productive person of the opposite gender they meet but completely understanding of that love not being returned because there's a more productive option.  The productive people are also completely aware of and in agreement on their relative ranking.  Now I've read The Fountainhead, where the people are slightly less black and white but the relationships are somehow remarkably less healthy.

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Friday, June 29, 2018

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch

My sister made me start watching The Crown, but I certainly kept watching of my own accord.  So it seemed a natural next step to read Sally Bedell Smith's Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch.  Published in 2012 to coincide with the Queen's diamond jubilee celebrating 60 years on the throne, Smith's book tries to take the reader behind the public, stoic face of the queen and show that underneath the facade there is a woman who cares deeply about her family and has a dry wit.  I found the book generally very interesting and worth reading.  It's not as tantalizing as the television show, probably because the author doesn't feel free to present speculation on private moments as fact (I'm looking at you Devil in the White City).  The closest it ever really gets to that is mentioning scenes from the movie The Queen and commenting on whether they are likely to be accurate.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

To the Lighthouse

The title of Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse" is not misleading.  The first chapter is mainly people arguing, speculating, and otherwise discussing making a trip to the lighthouse.  Then there's a montage of time passing.  Finally, in the last chapter, you have the big payoff where some people actually go to the lighthouse.  From a very superficial perspective the story is simplistic to the point of being boring but, as compared to much of my list, refreshingly straightforward.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Wright Brothers

I imagine that everyone has heard that old Edison quote:  "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."  It borders on the cliché.  But I don't think I've ever seen as practical and interesting an illustration of the concept until I read The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.  This is the third book I've read by McCullough, and I've enjoyed all three of them.  I don't think I had realized that, no matter what popular opinion was, the world was largely on the cusp of flight.  People were trying to solve the problem the world over.  Had anyone bothered to survey the contenders, it seems unlikely they would have put their money on the Wright Brothers.  There were players with almost unlimited government funding, much larger teams, and numerous publications to their names.  Somehow, despite all of that, the Wright brothers came out on top, due to an almost unbelievable combination of hard work, single mindedness, scientific rigor and ingenuity, business sense, and courage (or foolishness, depending on how you look at it).  I won't bother going into too much detail, but I do recommend the book to anyone who enjoys historical biographies.  It's a pretty quick read.

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Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Naked and the Dead

It was somewhat odd timing that I watched Platoon so soon after reading Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.  Both of these works tried to portray the experience of soldiers in a single platoon on the front lines of a war.  While Platoon focused on the Vietnam War, The Naked and the Dead takes place on a fictional island in the South Pacific during World War II.  It has been described as semi-autobiographical since it largely came from Mailer's service on a reconnaissance platoon.

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Friday, June 1, 2018

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple

I'm probably revealing my ignorance here, but, despite the popular saying, I honestly hadn't realized that there was a cult that committed mass suicide by drinking Kool-Aid.*  The saying "don't drink the Kool-Aid" actually seems to be more popularly used to warn someone away from accepting indoctrination rather than doing something really bad as a result of indoctrination.  Now I know more about the topic than anybody needs to thanks to Jeff Guinn's The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.  While his life and methods have been extensively researched, Jim Jones remains an enigmatic figure.  Guinn, at least, certainly doesn't portray him as the easy to hate two-dimensional villain one would expect from a cult leader responsible for nearly (if not more than) a thousand deaths.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Stormlight Archive

Recently my fantasy books have come from Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series.  I have read the three books that have been published out of the planned ten.  Brandon Sanderson really came to the forefront of the fantasy world when he stepped up to finish the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan died.  I can't speak to his work there, since I could not continue that series when Jordan's later books became unbearably tedious.  Now that I've read his original work, I can say that Sanderson is a great author.  He creates fantastically intricate worlds.  He has the universe developed to such an extent that he has appendices at the end of each of his novels providing meticulous charts laying out various facets that are completely unnecessary to the story.

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Monday, May 21, 2018

Their Eyes Were Watching God

I tend to have difficulty appreciating books that are filled with accents that are portrayed phonetically.  For me, the story often gets buried under the effort to decipher what's being said.  But in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston's beautiful prose makes the story shine through.  Hurston tells a story about Janie Crawford, a woman who was biracial in the 1900s, which, of course,65 wasn't a great time to be the product of an interracial marriage.  Janie spends the book searching for love, but for her this turns out about as well as it did for Romeo and Juliet. More than that, the story is a compassionate, but ultimately fairly bleak, look into the immense difficulties facing both women and minorities at the time, which were compounded for the protagonist.  I can't think of much else to say about this book without spoiling it except to say that I did not see the ending coming.

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Alexander Hamilton

It was pretty inevitable that I would get around to reading the biography of Alexander Hamilton.  While Hamilton has always been a recognizable name, the average American didn't know much about him.  A study conducted in May 2015 found that 71% of the U.S. residents sampled thought that Hamilton was a U.S. President (spoiler: he wasn't) and those responding rated their confidence in this at over 80%.  When writing his book, Ron Chernow could not have had any idea that his book would inspire a musical that would cause Hamilton's popularity to surge as never before.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life

George Eliot's Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life is widely considered to be the greatest British novel.  I can certainly agree with the sentiment.  While the characters often make incredibly stupid or selfish decisions, they are generally very rich and compelling.  The novel portrays a fairly small rural English town through the lens of four separate story lines and has a sprawling cast of characters.  At times, it can be difficult to keep track of them all, but if you can, you will find that they each have a distinct voice.

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

As morbid as it was, I greatly enjoyed The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, so I decided to try another book by Erik Larson that my mom recommended.  My next book was In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.  One thing Larson doesn't excel at is coming up with succinct titles. As you can probably gather from the title, it recounts the experiences of an American family living in Berlin during Hitler's rise to power.  More specifically it's about the family of William Dodd, the incredibly unlikely American ambassador during one of the most crucial periods in the history of US-German relations.  I would highly recommend it.

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Friday, March 30, 2018

The Tropic of Cancer

A justice of Pennsylvania's Supreme Court once said of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer that it is "not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity."  Personally, I think that makes it sound more interesting than it is.  The book is a hybrid of autobiography and fiction that is nominally focused on the life of a struggling writer in France in the 1920s and 30s.  Much more often, it's about that writer having, thinking about, and pursuing sex.  I am not a fan.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Gravity's Rainbow

There was no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awarded in 1974, despite the fact that the judges for that award unanimously selected Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  Pulitzer's advisory committee decided that it was better if there was no winner.  There was no formal statement, but apparently during deliberations words used to describe the work included "unreadable", "turgid", "overwritten", and "obscene".  Gravity's Rainbow did share the National Book Award and its reputation among critics seems to have only improved over time.  I side with the advisory committee.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

John Adams

John Adams is the second book I've read by David McCullough. It was one of the fastest selling non-fiction books in history and made into a mini-series by HBO.  Like 1776, the other book I've read by this author, John Adams is a highly engaging read that draws the reader in and makes historical figures come alive.

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At the same time, McCullough is a bit too much of a fan and comes across, at times, as an apologist rather than a historian.  Adams was a great diplomat  who was fundamental to the birth of our country and, in many ways, exemplified the values and integrity that are often ascribed to and rarely found among America's founding fathers.  All available evidence indicates that he had an amazing relationship with his wife and integrity in his personal dealings.

Adams was far from perfect in certain areas.  He was an absentee vice president, which was fairly excusable given the nature of the job.  But he continued this trend as president and his administration was ineffective as a result.  He couldn't effectively run the government by correspondence.  He was enormously critical of the intolerance and ego he perceived in others and had a complete blind spot to these qualities in himself.  Adams would nurse grudges based on any slight for years and perceive conspiracies when there was no basis.  To be fair, the conspiracies he believed were basically nothing compared to those his successor perceived everywhere.  It was a fairly common occurrence at the time.

This is an enjoyable book, but you should go in expecting to find some glossing over of Adams less desirable qualities.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

When I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers it didn't strike me as good or bad so much as extremely depressing.  The book is mainly about John Singer, a deaf man who can't speak and lives in a mill town in 1930s Georgia.  It opens with his best and only friend being sent away to an asylum and gives the reader a window into life in a small town in the deep south as Singer struggles to make a new life alone.

While I would certainly say that the depressing tone of the book is its most notable feature, I would still admit that it is quite good.  McCullers makes the downtrodden, lost, scared, and depressed members of this town feel very real.  I have complained in the past about bizarre characters that I found it impossible to relate to.  For some reason the bizarre acts of the characters in this book didn't bother me at all.  Their actions may not be logical, but it's clear that they are coping with their circumstances loneliness in the only way that they can think to.  They're driven by a desperation that has little consideration for reason.

A good read that I'd recommend, but certainly not a happy one.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Sot-Weed Factor

I have been pleasantly surprised by the fact that relatively few of the books that I've read have been so bad that it was painful for me to keep reading.  Unfortunately, I still have had a few of those, and one of them was the Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth.  Like another of my least favorite books, Don Quixote, Barth's novel is a satire.  While Don Quixote was intended as a commentary on orthodoxy, The Sot-Weed Factor intended to make light of the origins of America through the use of licentious and scatological humor.  The full title goes into a little more detail on the subject matter: "The Sot-Weed Factor: Or, a Voyage to Maryland. A Satyr. In which is describ'd, the Laws, Government, Courts and Constitutions of the Country; and also the Buildings, Feats, Frolics, Entertainments and Drunken Humours of the Inhabitants of that Part of America."

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

The latest book I read that I have yet to review is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro.  This book is not for someone looking for a light read.  It's over 1,300 pages, which made me particularly annoyed that it's not available for Kindle.  It's a highly critical biography of Robert Moses, a man I'd never heard of before reading this book.  He was ostensibly nothing more than a particularly ambitious park builder.  In the author's opinion, he single-handedly fundamentally shaped New York City's infrastructure, pretty much always for the worse, by bulldozing every branch of the municipal and state governments and even occasionally dictated to presidents. 

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