Sunday, August 25, 2013

Completed: 1Q84

Dear Jenny,

Whew! Finally closing in on it with July's book (And it's only August!)

True confession: I ended up listening to this one mostly via aBook because I knew I was never going to make the time to sit down and finish slogging through it. I am not a fan of this book, which is ironic because I may own more versions of it than any other book in my library. Wonder how? Let's break it down...
  1. Our first reference to reading this book together (via Subtext) was back in March 2012. Subtext required that the book be a Google Book, so I bought that version. I then discovered (as I was *boarding a flight*) that Google Books cannot be read offline (Is that still true?! Did I miss something and just failed to understand how to download the damned thing?!) so...
  2. I impulse-bought the Kindle version to read on the long flight. Didn't make it through it that time (of course) so...
  3. When I went to start it again for this TBR, I realized I could get a discount on the aBook because I had bought the Kindle eBook (which is actually kind of cool -- it tracks where you are, regardless of media, and picks up where you left off!) So I was able to listen to this during the day and read it in bed at night. Still... it's a 47 hour long aBook. I spent a *lot* of time with this book. 
This book is also notable because it is the first author re-visit I have done since we started the TBR in 2011. That year, I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, also by Murakami. My "review" was totally lame, except that ... I loved that book, and it shows in that write-up. I probably should have just quit then. You know, while I was ahead. Because this book? Not so much with the love.

And now... for my "review" of 1Q84. Which I may or may not (but actually totally do) refer to as "Boobs and Pubes" in my head.

The Good:
At the heart of it, it's a good story. It's a love story -- it's a little bit wacky, but overall, it's a good story about two kids who meet briefly in childhood and then spend of the rest of their lives trying to find one another again, each in their own way. There are some twists and turns along the way (including an alternate universe... interesting! Good!) and that -- the heart of this story, I really did like. However...

The Bad:
This book was originally released as three separate installments, and you can tell -- it could have used a serious re-edit once it was published as a single volume. There is a lot of re-visiting previous ground (which is great when you haven't read the preceding book in awhile, but not so great when you're reading it all in one go) and, in general, the story could just stand to be tightened up. So that was problematic. But... able to be handled. However. There was also...

The Ugly:
Boobs and Pubes. UGH! Why there was so much reference to breasts and pubic hair in this book, I have no frigging idea. It was a g-d obsession. Quick little searchy-search here finds...
  • Breasts: 77 results 
  • Nipples: 21 results 
  • Pubic hair: 21 results 
That is one boob mention per 9 pages and a pube reference every 44 pages. That's... A LOT.

There was hardly a mention of our heroine without a reference to the fact that she had small breasts and that one was slightly larger than the other. Jenny, I finished this book weeks ago and I still retain this information ... in my mind. You know how my mind is a sieve when it comes to books... and yet this I retain. Ugh!

Here is a small sampling of notes I made in this book:
"More unnecesary boob talk" on page 373. (At that point, I still had no idea how bad this was going to get!) 
"W.T.F." In response to this quote: "It was like her pubic hair was a part of her thinking process." [692] (Seriously. W. T. Everloving. F.) 
"Come ON." In response to the main female character (Aomame) reflecting on her two closest friends' deaths: "It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts -- breasts that had vanished without a trace." [916] 
I just... don't... I can't. It's just... weird. And such a bummer -- the story is interesting and bizarre and great on its own. But all of this gratuitous boob and pube talk left a bad taste in my mouth.

In the end, I would not recommend this book, but I stand by my love for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Don't waste your time with 1Q84 -- awkward to say the title out loud and super awkward to read, in any form.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Completed: The Professor and the Madman

Dear Jenny,

I read this book in June, so I'm still catching up here. I love the subtitle of this book: "A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary." Kind of a big tease, isn't it? And yet... that is, in fact, what this book is about. (Side note -- as I was writing this, you published this writeup, also talking about crazy subtitles in non-fiction books. Heh.)

One notable part of this book is that I found it one of the most "readable" works of non-fiction I have ever read. It made me wonder about what makes a book/story more readable (or less). I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that I enjoyed this book.

Of course, only two months later, I can barely remember it (le sigh) -- let's see what the synopsis says on the back of the book:
Masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary -- and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane.

That about sums it up. I did mark a few pages, so let's flip through it and see what notes Past Kelly has left for Present Kelly...

Oh, yeah! Every chapter begins with a word and a definition from the OED that pertains so that topic. There were a lot of fun ones, my favorite being:  Sesquipedalian -- a very long and polysyllabic word. Also: "A person or thing that is a foot and a half in height or length." [75] Ha! Next time I need to say something is 18 inches long, I may need to say that it's "sesquipedalian." (Thereby also using a sesquipedalian word -- so meta!)

The perspective of what the world was like before we had the first complete dictionary is absolutely fascinating to me. You know what a research junkie I am -- imagining this world is like trying to think about a time when we believed the world to be flat -- whaaa---? Check it:
Shakespeare was not even able to perform a function that we consider today as perfectly normal and ordinary a function as reading itself. He could not, as the saying goes, "look something up." Indeed the very phrase -- when it is used in the sense of "searching for something in a dictionary or encyclopaedia or other book of reference" -- simply did not exist." [80]
I often struggle to remember what the world was like before in Internet, but the idea of a world with no dictionary?! Oh, I need to sit down. Where are the smelling salts?

In fact, perhaps that is part of why this book was so interesting to me -- I have long been in love with the dictionary. In 1987, Random House released its expanded 2nd edition of the "Unabridged Dictionary" (OMG! Like the one at the library!) It was the only thing I asked for for Christmas that year. My grandfather bought it for me and I still have it. In fact, here's the inscription:
(Hilarious that he wrote "Granpaw" here -- surprisingly, he was a goofball!)

I was going to take a photo of the dictionary itself, but I'll do one better... here is a photograph [of a photograph] that I took in 1996 that I still carry around in my wallet, 17 years later (!!) It's Kaesea, sitting on my dictionary:

Ignore the glowing eyes -- check those darling white paws! And that SUPER fluffy tail! 
Someone saw this photo once and said, "Wow - small cat!" I said, "Nope. Big book." (Kaesea was probably about 11 pounds when this photo was taken.) Heh.

(BTW, I keep a very clean wallet --  this photo is the only frivolous item in there. So you know -- My cat and my dictionary: a couple of true loves.) (Note the Chronicles of Narnia also making an appearance there, as well as this book that you bought me years ago that did, I must report, eventually get replaced by the Internet.)

I still love that dictionary, although it's more sentimental than practical at this point. If I'm looking up words, I'm using some sort of eDictionary. But pre-Internet?! This thing got a ton of use... in fact, it's pretty ratty now but I can't see ever getting rid of it (it's been with me in 4 different states!) I used to want a full-on library stand for it, but never had the room... maybe I should look into that again now that we've got a big house... hrm.

But I digress.

Back on this whole The Pre-dictionary World mind-blowing concept. I underlined this passage: "The English language was spoken and written -- but at the time of Shakespeare it was not defined, not fixed." [83] Again -- where are my smelling salts? This is just too lawless for me to even imagine.

Of course, when it came to laying down the law, plenty of people had to pipe up and take it to extremes, right? Here we go: "[Jonathan] Swift was the fiercest advocate of all. He wrote to the earl of Oxford to express his outrage that words like bamboozle, uppish, and -- of all things -- couldn't were appearing in print." [91] So here's someone who wanted not only rules to govern the usage of words, but to also outlaw words he deemed "unacceptable." Which was not at all the goal of the OED -- it was simply to document all of the words in use, regardless of how they felt about them.
And so the thinking of great literary men went -- if longitude was important, if the defining of color, length, mass, and sound was vital -- why was the same import not given to the national tongue. As one pamphleteer wailed, appropriately: "We have neither Grammar nor Dictionary, neither Chart nor Compass, to guide us through the wide sea of Words." [92]
This book gets into the nitty-gritty of how words were researched, documented, and, in the end, actually defined. And I ate it up. When I started writing this post, I thought, "Wait... what happened in this book?" Now that I'm flipping through and looking at my notes, I remember it all -- and part of the reason that I cannot remember this book is that I burned through it. I guess part of it is the writer's style, but, based on the above photos, it's also probably about my extreme interest in dictionaries.

It took decades to write the OED and the process by which it happened (tons of people researching, filling out scraps of paper, organizing those scraps, etc.) (All done via the postal service!) was absolutely fascinating to me. The titillating subtitle of this book refers to the state of mind of one of the biggest contributors and that story was somewhat interesting, but it wasn't what I really found engrossing about this book -- it was the dictionary stuff that really got me.

So, there ya go: Read about what interests you. (Um... duh, Kelly.)


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Completed: The Secret Garden

Dear Jenny,

Yes, I am woefully behind in these write ups -- I finished this book in May and now it's July August! (yeah... I started this post last month). But, you know... better late than never? Also -- I have kept up with my reading -- just not the writing. So get ready for a bunch of posts coming your way!

I must admit that my initial attraction to this book was the awesome cover...


Can you see that? It's photographed embroidery by an artist named Jillian Tamaki. Her dress is all French knots -- it's really lovely. It's also embossed, so the embroidery has a sort of 3D effect, which is extra cool. The series is called Penguin Threads and there are currently six titles available.

I especially love that the back of the embroidery is used inside of the covers, giving it the effect that the cover is actually embroidered:

Oh, yeah. And the pages all had deckle edges, so reading this book was a super tactile experience. Now that I've raved about the look and feel of this thing, shall I get to the content?

Basically: it's sweet. It's a children's book and I get why kids love it and why it's a classic. Have you read it? It's about a young orphaned girl named Mary who is a spoiled brat, basically due to neglect. When her parents die, she goes to live with her uncle who is also pretty neglectful (Yeah, yeah -- Invisible Parent trope. I didn't say it was terribly creative!) Left to her own devices, she befriends a servant's brother (Dickon) and discovers her uncle's son/her cousin (Colin) locked away in a room in the mansion.

Her uncle's wife (her aunt, I guess, although they never refer to her that way) had died some years before and when she died, her prized garden was locked away. Hence, the "secret garden." Along with Colin (this kid's story: they thought he was sick as a baby, so they kept him bedridden. Once he was bedridden, he got [and stayed] sick... kind of a vicious circle) and their pal Dickon, they go on a mission to find the garden and, once they do, they revitalize it. In the process, she becomes a better person and Colin experiences a complete turnaround in health and it all culminates in a happy ending where he surprises his father with his new-found vitality, as well as the beauty and health of the garden. And everyone is thrilled that Mary is also a good person now. Whee.

It's all very predictable -- it's a kids' book, after all -- but I think it holds up well over time (it was written in 1911). One theme I can get behind for kids (and adults) is what one might call "the power of positive thinking." Colin is "sick" because he has been deemed sick all of his life, but once he decides to get well, he focuses very hard on it and, with lots of exercise and Dickon's and Mary's support, he is able to gain strength and vitality. Of course, if a person is truly sick, this isn't going to work, but for those among us who create our own misery (or let another's misery drag us down), it's a good little inspirational message: dust yourself off and get workin'!

I was actually a little surprised by how strong some of those messages were in the book (the healthfulness of outdoor activity, the "mind over matter" will of Colin to get well, etc.) and made a (slightly minor) mistake by looking it up -- turns out it's all based on Christian Science, which Frances Hodgson Burnett was a big proponent of... But I say: Eh.  Kind of like finding out that The Chronicles of Narnia were a big fat Christian allegory (I was a little more aware with this book, being an adult when I read it). Still a good story with a decent message and I'm sticking with that.

I don't really have all that much more to say about it. It wasn't too complex, but I enjoyed it. And, you know... I really liked that cover. ;)


Completed: Hellhound on His Trail


This was a great, entertaining read. It starts just a few weeks before King's assassination, with Eric Galt escaping from prison. Who is Eric Galt? you may be wondering. It was the alias used by James Earl Ray as he prepared to kill King. The book uses whichever alias the killer went by in real time, and only reveals the name James Earl Ray once the FBI uncovers it. At first, that was sort of annoying, but he uses so many aliases that it actually begins to make sense.

The book goes back and forth between the movements of King and his assassin, with occasional forays into the actions of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and other politicians and investigators. But the whole is tightly focused on King and Ray and the events leading up to the assassination at the Lorraine Hotel.

I would say the best part of this book is that it proves the old axiom that Truth is Stranger than Fiction. The story itself is almost unbelievable in it's twists and turns and near escapes. The way the FBI figured out that Galt was the main suspect is an example of meticulous detective work---and all without technology! We are so used to seeing the way police investigate on TV,  but the hours and hours of manpower that went into this investigation were truly astounding. FBI agents combed through thousands of fingerprint cards and passport photos by hand! Where's the CSI team when you need them?

The book reads like a novel is someways, and clearly the author heavily researched the topic. The lists of what items Galt had in his bag, or of the whereabouts of all the different players is specific and fascinating. This was a quick, fast paced read. Even though I knew the big picture, I found the meticulous attention to detail to be completely compelling.

I have only a few quibbles with this book. One, and this is a little silly, I guess, but it really needed a section of photos. At one point, the author describes how a famous photograph was taken only moments after the assassination. King was shot on the balcony outside his hotel room in Memphis. Although no one saw the shooter, many of them ran towards King to help him. One of King's friends had grabbed a camera. Minutes later, the police arrived and "At first, many in King's entourage thought the police were attacking them--that the [hotel] was under siege. Then the cops yelled, 'Where'd the shot come from? Where'd the shot come from?' Young, Abernathy, and the others standing over King raised their arms and pointed up slightly to the they did so, Joe Louw snapped..a photograph suffused with palpable urgency and thinning hope" (173). I mean, I've seen this photo before, but I had to pause and look it up on the internet at this point. Perhaps there was some copyright issues preventing its use? Another time, they describe how the original Wanted Poster had a picture with closed eyes, and so an artist had to draw them in. This is difficult to imagine without seeing it!

The author makes a wise decision to stick to the facts and not try to imagine what people might have been thinking of feeling. When he quotes someone, it was from another source, an article or biography, etc. However, this did leave me feeling a bit confused as to motive. I know what Ray is doing, but I don't know why. Apparently, the guy was a born con man and liar, so everything he said later conflicted with other parts of his story. But in the heat of the manhunt, it left me feeling that the biggest part of the story was missing.

It doesn't help that Ray was such a complete and total nut job. There's proof given of his extensive racism, for example he called King Martin Lucifer Coon, or his love of Governor George Wallace (famous for saying "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!); however, Ray's eventual goal after killing King is to take refuge in Rhodesia. I mean, what kind of idiot that hates all black people want to go to AFRICA? I mean, really? As it turns out, they had no extradition to the US and a virulent white supremacist in charge. This was back when Europeans ruled the Continent. That, and Ray figured he could get hired as a mercenary so he could kill as many black people as he wanted. What a prince.

Eventually, after about two months on the lam, they caught Ray in London, trying to make his way to Brussels. The book comes to a quick end, summarizing only briefly the trial and ending with a second successful escape from jail in 1977, although this time they quickly caught him. By the way, another example of Ray's mental instability is that he continues to deny that he is James Earl Ray, insisting they call him by his alias. However, he then asks his lawyer to call his brother, saying, "Oh, he lives in Chicago. His name is Jerry Ray" (377). He eluded the biggest manhunt in history for two months, so he's clearly clever, but also a bit crazy. But then again, I guess you'd have to know, to be an assassin.

As I finish here, can we discuss why almost all non-fiction books have these super long subtitles? The actual title of this one is Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin. Interestingly, the paperback got retitled to Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in History. Come on, is that really better? Who's in charge of this? But, I actually think the second title is more accurate, because if I have any quibble with this book, I'd say that it fails to make the case for stalking. Given the lack of internal motive, the book is much more about the manhunt and what happens after than it is about the events before.

Finally, I guess the way I feel right now is a little...I don't know...wrong..about reading this. The focus is much more on Ray than on King. It makes me want to read more about King and the positive things he did with his life over the focus on his killer. In fact, one of the most interesting things in the book is the response of King's allies, friends, and family. Their focus in not on the one person who pulled the trigger, but rather their conviction that it was American society that made such a killer possible. The FBI could catch Ray, but does catching that one man really fix America's problems?
 In fact, when one of King's children asked his mother, "Should I hate the man that killed my father?" Coretta Scott King answered, "No, darling, your daddy wouldn't want you to do that."