Monthly Archives: February 2011

30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Three

Day 23 – Most annoying character ever
Horatio Hornblower, from C. S. Forester’s novels. I started off on the Hornblower kick with the BBC/A&E series from the late 90s, a beautifully filmed and well cast set of stories that were not really based very strictly on the books at all. When I started reading the books, though, I discovered that I wasn’t put off by the differences between them and the movies as much as I was put off by Hornblower himself. He’s self-absorbed and a little dense. He worries to much. He obsesses over “the loneliness of command” and vascillates between treating his only real friend, Lieutenant William Bush, as a trusted companion or as a useless hanger-on. (And then when Bush dies, in Lord Hornblower, without leaving behind a body, Hornblower contemplates building a pyramid of skulls in his memory. I don’t even.) The only book I still read is Lieutenant Hornblower, because that’s the one from Bush’s point of view. Horatio Hornblower is definitely one of those people who is better from the outside of his head than from the inside.

I do reccomend the TV series, though, particularly the second season, Mutiny and Retribution. Great stuff.

A close runner-up for the title is Tony Hill, from Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid. In the television adaptation, Wire in the Blood, Tony’s a rather appealing absentminded-professor type. In the books you get his internal thought process, in which he feels entirely too sorry for himself while worrying about whether or not he’s going to turn into a serial killer one day. If only, Tony. If only.

One Corpse Too Many, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, God Is Not One, The Hobbit

Ellis Peters, One Corpse Too Many
This is one of those books that I’m sure is a very different experience reading for the first time unspoiled, because it’s the first appearance of Hugh! Hugh Beringar, sheriff’s deputy, is Cadfael’s best friend for most of the series (and is played delightfully by Sean Pertwee in the first few TV adaptations), and watching Cadfael trying to decide whether or not to trust him is great fun when you know he’s entirely trustworthy. Hugh and Cadfael have a glorious battle of wits – mostly involving sneaking around the countryside – and at the end they become fast friends. I loved every minute of it. Oh yeah, and there was a murder or something too, I dunno.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
So the story goes that Jones was in the hospital, and working on the Encyclopedia of Fantasy at the same time, and she said, “I swear, all these books are so similar I could write the travel guide for the world they’re set in.” So she did. I was actually surprised to find that at least half of the clichés in the book were not straight out of Lord of the Rings. But still, after twenty-six years of a fondness for epic fantasy novels, there was not a damn one I was not familiar with. (Why in god’s name would you cook STEW on the road, anyway?)

Stephen Prothero, God is Not One
The sequel to his Religious Literacy which I read and reviewed here not too long ago, in God is Not One Prothero offers a brief introduction to eight of the world’s most influential religions. He calls them “the world’s rival religions,” which I’m not too fond of — I don’t think Daoism, for instance, is particularly the rival of anything — but I liked the book very much overall. He treats, in a self-defined order of importance, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religions, Judaism, and Daoism, with a short section on atheism in the back. The insight that I found particularly helpful, and one I thought supported Prothero’s position that the major religions are really very different from one another, was the way he described what each religion sees as the central human problem and the solution to that problem. Looking at it this way, you can really see a difference between, say, Christianity (which sees the problem as sin and salvation the solution) and Islam (where the problem is pride and the solution submission to God’s will) in a way that you can’t when looking only at history and practice. Also, he talks about Yoruba religions, including the facets of it still based in Africa and the Catholic syncretism in the Americas, and that’s just awesome.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
So in October I started reading The Lord of the Rings out loud to my roommate, who’d never read it before. We’d finished Fellowship and started on Two Towers — got just about to where the second movie starts, actually — when a couple of our friends came up to visit and we told them about it, and it came out that the roomie had never read The Hobbit. Friends were suitably appalled, and I protested that I didn’t know, what kind of a crazy person has never read The Hobbit, and the upshot is, we started trading round the paperback, alternating reading chapters aloud all afternoon. We got through about half of the book that day, and just the other day I finally finished it. You know, I always forget how much I like Balin. He’s a decent fellow, for a dwarf. And although I was leery of it when I first heard the casting news, I cannot wait to see Richard Armitage playing Thorin Oakenshield.

30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-Two

Day 22 – Favorite non-sexual relationship (including asexual romantic relationships)

Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin, in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I love these boys. Stephen is kind of a jerk, he’s not very good at interpersonal relationships, and he spends most of the time in his head, while Jack is profoundly physical, extremely (almost excessively) friendly, and the kind of gullible that falls for a new scam every time he sets foot on land. And they’re best friends.

They do kind of fill in each others’ weak spaces; Jack (and indeed all the sailors) are continually amazed at how Stephen cannot seem to learn the first thing about ships despite spending half his life on them, while Stephen has the kind of cunning and political savvy that Jack couldn’t care less about. And they are both more than their stereotypes make them out to be; Stephen spends a good deal of time idiotically in love with a woman even more heartless than he is, and Jack is capable of carrying on a conversation about advanced mathematics with a Frenchman.

And they’re best friends. It’s such a simple and profound thing that there’s hardly even any more to say about it. They love each other, and that’s that. There’s a beautiful scene toward the end of the series — I can’t remember which book — where they’re back at Jack’s house for a while, and Stephen can’t sleep, and he hears violin music being played in the garden. Jack and Stephen have played together on ships for years, violin and cello respectively, but Stephen’s hands had been broken once when he had been captured by the French, and they never really healed properly. And listening to Jack play alone, after all those years playing together, Stephen realizes that Jack is a much better player than he had ever realized, and that Jack had been playing down his own skill in order not to put Stephen to shame. It’s such a powerful and bittersweet scene that speaks so much to the connection between these two.

Why is an ebook not like a book?

I found this excellent article on ebooks in my Google Reader feed this morning. Mike Shatzkin argues that part of the reason people don’t like the terms of ebook sales is that you cannot actually sell an ebook – just like you can’t really sell any other digital file. Money is changing hands not for an object but for a license to access digital information, and a licensing contract is inherently different from sales in a number of ways.

As he points out, though, publishers have been doing their best to pretend that ebooks work just like paper books, which is confusing for everyone, booksellers and authors alike. I think this confusion might actually be the source of so much of the kneejerk hatred for the frequent claims that ebooks are going to replace print books. It certainly made my emotional reactions make more sense to me. (I freely admit that I am one of those people who hates the idea of paper books going the way of the dinosaurs.)

I think Shatzkin’s article also helps to explain why this overhwhelming destruction of print books by ebooks isn’t going to be happening any time soon. (Publisher’s Weekly reports, at the end of last year, that ebook sales are only about 10-15% of the publishing market at the moment.) An ebook isn’t just a different format of the print book, in terms of what you pay for; it’s an entirely different beast. The advantage of the paperback novel isn’t just the fabled “book smell,” it’s the first sale doctrine, the secondhand book market, the difference between a purchase and a license. And that is far more substantial than the sentimentality we print-lovers are so often accused of.

A Book of Tongues, The Broken Kingdoms, Atlantic, Misery

Gemma Files, A Book of Tongues
I grabbed this book after just glancing through it at the public library’s new book shelf, and now I’m buying a copy and preordering the sequel. This is awesome, guys. Supernatural Old West, magic-wielding Confederate ex-Reverends, and a heavy dose of Mayan mythology to top it off. Also, gay characters who are a) main characters, b) not demonized (for being gay, anyway), and c) likely to survive to the end of the series and possibly even get a happy ending. Obviously it’s a trilogy and that last one is far from certain, but I’m thrilled at just the possibility right now.

N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms
The sequel to the excellent Hundred Thousand Kingdoms of last year, and you know, I think I liked this one even better. It seems to hang together better; the book feels a little more solid. I’d have to reread the first one to explain exactly why. (Oh the horror! *dramatic hand to forehead*) It seems, interestingly enough, that the main recurring characters in this series are the gods, not the mortals, but the POV characters in both books so far are the mortal women they deal with. I like that a lot, actually.

Simon Winchester, Atlantic
Finally, I have finished this book! This was another ARC I picked up at ALA in June, and I have been trying to get through it for months. It purports to be a history of the Atlantic ocean, but for large portions of the book it seems much more to be an excuse for the author to show off his superior knowledge of history and his extraordinarily exciting life as an investigative journalist. I was somewhat offended to find that the latter sections, while unbelievably pretentious, were also the most interesting parts of the book. Maybe he should have just written a memoir instead.

Stephen King, Misery
When did Stephen King stop being this good? No, really. I picked this up again after reading Learn Writing With Uncle Jim, where Jim MacDonald recommends it as a novel about how to write a book. And not only does it work on that level – spectacularly well, particularly the scene where Annie makes Paul burn his Serious Manuscript – but it’s also frequently tense, disturbing, and downright scary. I haven’t felt that way about any of the newer Stephen King books at all.

On Monsters, The Walking Dead, The New Jim Crow, Monk’s Hood

Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters
I picked this up while I was browsing the mythology section for faerie books. I didn’t find any, but I did find this, a history of the Western conception of monsters and monstrosity. It was interesting, but alas, not as good as I would have liked. I found by the end of the book that I was having to fill in the details of examples he was using from my own knowledge — not that the stories were wrong, per se, just drastically incomplete. This makes me distrust the earlier bits of the book where he was discussing things I didn’t know much about already. At least I acquired a nice long reading list from it.

The Walking Dead volume 5, Robert A. Kirkman
I do not understand the appeal of this series. It’s full of situations that would be traumatizing on their own, but presented as they are, it’s just One Damn Thing After Another. Trauma, melodrama, melodrama, trauma, horror, trauma, melodrama. And I can’t stop reading it. (Book six on hold now!)

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
A book about the dysfunctionality of the American criminal justice system, and how it (mostly based on the War On (Some) Drugs) functions as a social control system that keeps black (and brown) Americans in the position of second-class citizens. Overall I found it was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but having it all in one book, with all the connections drawn, was illuminating. Alexander says she hopes that this will open a dialogue about the problem, rather than being the definitive work on the subject, and I hope that it does, because I don’t see any way of fixing the problem without replacing all our legislators with pod people who believe in rehabilitation over punishment.

Ellis Peters, Monk’s Hood
More Cadfael! (I find Cadfael strangely soothing.) I did not have the redundancy problem with this book that I had with the last one, largely because the ending of Monk’s Hood the TV adaptation is completely different than the ending of Monk’s Hood the novel. For one thing, the novel has much more Welshness. (I should get my sister to read these, she studied abroad in Wales and has become very fond of the place.) Cadfael is also causing me to dig up more histories about twelfth century Britain – did you know about the war between King Stephen and the Empress Maude?

30 Days of Books: Day Twenty-One

Day 21 – Favorite romantic/sexual relationship (including asexual romantic relationships)

Eddi and the Phouka in Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. I’m not usually a fan of romantic relationships, because in order for me to like them, I have to first like the male character, and then like the female character, and then be convinced that they would be even better together. Most writers…don’t even make the second, never mind the third.

But I’ve always loved Eddi and the Phouka, since I first read the book (and reread it, and reread it, and reread it), while I was studying abroad in Ireland. I think maybe it’s because it’s only one of three romances of Eddi’s, and it’s clearly the most stable and potentially longlasting, for all we only see the beginning of it. But it’s the Phouka’s declaration of love that’s always gotten me.

“How do you know it’s love? Maybe you haven’t learned anything after all.”

She expected a joke, an impassioned protest, an airy denial. Instead he looked gravely into her face and replied, “I’ve no surety that it is. I know only the parts of what I feel; I may be misnaming the whole. You dwell in my mind like a household spirit. All that I think is followed with, ‘I shall tell that thought to Eddi.’ Whatever I see or hear is colored by what I imagine you will say of it. What is amusing is twice so, if you have laughed at it. There is a way you have of turning your head, quickly and with a little tilt, that seems more wonderful to me than the practiced movements of dancers. All this, taken together, I’ve come to think of as love, but it may not be.

“It is not a comfortable feeling. But I find that, even so, I would wish the same feeling on you. The possibility that I suffer it alone — that frightens me more than all the host of the Unseelie Court.”

How can you not love that?

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