Shakespeare Wrote for Monday by Nick Hornby

Shakespeare Wrote for Money is the third collection of the columns Mr. Hornby wrote for Believer magazine about the books he read each month. This is the column that almost got me to subscribe to Believer; a popular author with eclectic reading tastes, writing about the books he’s reading every month–sounds like the perfect thing for every incurable biblioholic to me.

Shakespeare Wrote for Money, the final collection, covers Mr. Hornby’s reading from August 2006 to September 2008 and includes September 2006 when Mr. Hornby read not a single book, due to his obsession with watching the World Cup. It’s nice to know that even a devoted reader takes a month off now and then.

Each entry begins with a list of the books Mr. Hornby read that month along side a list of the books he bought. The lists never match. Book bloggers tend to love lists of books and I freely admit that these added greatly to my own enjoyment of Shakespeare Wrote for Money. (What is it about list of books that we all like so much? Are we really closeted librarians?) The articles/chapters are breezily written and tend to wonder off on whatever tangents Mr. Hornby’s reading suggests, though never in an uninteresting way. One month he reads several books about East Germany’s police force the Stasi and a couple on mental illness, while in another he discovers the world of Young Adult fiction. He claims that his editors, whom he calls the Polyphonic Spree, won’t allow him to write bad reviews so he ends up recommending almost everything he reads. (This does have the side effect of adding titles to ones TBR list. Consider yourself warned.)

Though not as eclectic as I am, since he freely admits his complete lack of interest in fantasy and science fiction, Mr. Hornby reads a wide range of material. His reviews cover non-fiction, some popular, some more serious, and fiction ranging from literature in translation, to graphic novels, to classics, to Young Adult fiction, to best sellers. There is something for almost everyone in Shakespeare Wrote for Money. (Except, of course, people who read only fantasy and science fiction.)

While Mr. Hornby is a successful author, he reads more like an everyman. You won’t find an esoteric critique of literature in these columns, but you will find an honest and open reflection on what one man’s reading experience was like. When something moves him in an embarrassing way, he admits it. When something begins to bore him, he admits that as well. At least, as much as his editors who do not like negative reviews will allow. He does not recommend books that are good for you or that should be read, but books that he enjoyed reading. A useful distinction that makes Shakespeare Wrote for Money a useful and entertaining read.

 

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready Wheny You Are, C.B., back in 2008.  I think Mr. Hornby’s three books have recently been rereleased in a single volume.  Just in time for the holidays.

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The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. begs the question of just how will Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. be remembered. In fact, will he be remembered at all? I found the book to be well in step with his early novels. There is a time travelling man and dog who appear regularly appear on Earth wondering about the house where the man’s disgruntled wife spends her days fighting off tourists and religious fanatics who want to see the space man. There is the richest man in the world who loses his fortune and finds himself on a rocket ship bound for Jupiter. There is an alien from Tralfamador, marooned on Titan, one of Jupiter’s moon’s, waiting through the centuries for the replacement part his rocket needs to arrive. And there is the suicidal Martian invasion of Earth that ends in the creation of a new religion, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.

It’s all in good fun with a dash or two of metaphysics thrown in. Maybe a splash of social criticism here and there for good measure. I enjoyed it, but I also found it very 60’s. I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. most of my life, probably for the last 30 years. Now that I’ve finished this one, I think I’ve read all of his published work, so you can count me as a fan. But I wonder if anyone will be reading him two or three generations from now. If they are, I suspect they’ll be reading Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe a few graduate students will still be reading the rest of his novels, but I’m not sure.

It feels natural to wonder about this regarding Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. since so many of his books, The Sirens of Titan included, deal with the issue of time and the notion that all time exists simultaneously. Everything that will happen has already happened. The time travelling man and dog in The Sirens of Titan are like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, unstuck in time and space. They travel to the future and back, from planet to planet, experiencing it all as happening at once. Billy Pilgrim could choose which parts of his life he could visit. I hope Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. can, too. That seems like a fitting heaven for him, a paradise he might want to visit now and then. Actually, it doesn’t sound that bad to me, either.

I first ran this review back on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. shortly after Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died.  I think it’s still too soon to say how long his legacy will last, but I stand by my comments above. I think the question of how timely vs. timeless his work is is still a legitimate question.  I’m rooting for him.  

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Five Fires by David Wyatt: A Final Review

five firesMy plan was to read Five Fires one chapter a time, the way I did with Kevin Starr’s book California.   While this didn’t exactly give me a legion of new followers, it was a very useful way for me to read the book since it allowed me to really focus on each chapter in more depth as a way to truly learn from reading it.  I’m not just reading up on California history for fun, though it is fun.  My goal here is to become more knowledgeable about the state, especially the gold rush period, in the hopes of one day becoming a local history tour guide.  Part of our retirement plan.

Reading and reviewing one chapter at a time is a good way to retain the information read.

But, it just wasn’t working out with Five Fires.

I enjoyed the book, I think it’s a worthwhile read, but not one that benefits from this chapter by chapter treatment.

Mr. Wyatt explores his topic by looking at the literary artifacts California has produced, rather than pursuing a more traditional historical approach.  The last part of his book looks at movies, namely Chinatown, to study how the use of water has affected California, government reports as a means of looking at the Watts riots and the various videotaped footage of Rodney King and the riots that followed the trials of his attackers.

As an English major who will admit to enjoying critical theory now and then, I loved all of this.  Looking at not just history, but at how it’s artifacts created meaning was fascinating reading.  I’d love to take a one of Mr. Wyatt’s courses.

I’m not sure which book on California history I’ll be reading next, but I think I’ll be focusing on the Gold Rush again.  I just bought a copy of The World Rushed In which is a famed first hand account by J.S. Holliday.

I think it will be fun.

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Dakota Ate This Book: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is the winner of the Newbery Medal. I’ve already read several sites praising this choice as a popular one, a book kids will enjoy. The last few previous winners have not sold very well which has been taken as a sign that kids did not like them and therefore they should not have been the winners. I do agree that one sign of excellence in children’s and young adult literature is that children and young adults like it in large numbers, but that should not be the sole criteria nor the over-riding one. Popularity should not determine excellence. Otherwise the Newbery Medal will become about as valuable as a Grammy.

Is The Graveyard Book worthy of The Newbery Medal? I have not been following current YA books closely enough lately to say it was the best one that year.   I have read almost all of the past winners though and many of the past honor books over the years which gives me some basis for an opinion. Of the seven previous winners in this century that I have read so far I’d say The Graveyard Book is better than three of them, about as good as one of them and not as good as three of them. Mr. Gaiman is a very popular author, so The Graveyard Book will probably do very well as far as sales are concerned. This will certainly make some people very happy.

The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens who is raised from toddlerhood by the dead and undead inhabitants of an old graveyard. Nobody’s family is murdered in the opening scenes of the book by a mysterious man called Jack. Bod, as Nobody is called, wanders innocent and unaware away from the scene, down the road and into the graveyard which Jack cannot enter. The ghosts in the graveyard and their guardian, a strange man called Silas who is neither fully dead nor fully alive, agree that they should protect the toddler, keep him in the graveyard where he’ll be safe from Jack who still wants to kill him and raise him as their own.

The rest of the book is the story of how Bod grows up raised by ghosts. There are many amusing and suspenseful scenes in the book. Because he is initially taught history by people who actually lived it, he runs in to some trouble once he begins going to the local school and starts to correct his history teacher’s version of the past. He meets a live girl and together they explore an ancient pre-Roman tomb guarded by Sleers who’ve lain in wait over two thousand years for the return of their master. Outside of the graveyard lurks the menacing Jack, still trying to complete his murderous task, still trying to get into the graveyard and kill Bod.

I found reading The Graveyard Book to be an uneven experience. I was enthralled at times as one should be in a good children’s book, but I also found myself waiting for him to get on with it too. (I have found this to be the case with the other Neil Gaiman books I’ve read, so it could just be me.) The best children’s books, like many of the best adult books, leave the reader in a temporary state of wonder, a satisfied maybe blissful state that can last a few seconds or a few minutes sometimes an afternoon. Recent Newbery Winners like Holes; Bud, Not Buddy; Walk Two Moons; and The Giver all left me in this state. The Graveyard Book did not. I suspect it will satisfy Mr. Gaiman’s fans who are almost legion, and it may very well sell lots of copies, but I’m still waiting for a Newbery winner to be excited about.

 

This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008.  It’s kind of a bit snarky, isn’t it.  I was lukewarm about The Graveyard Book while most people seemed to be head-over-heels in love with it.  To be honest, I’m a bit resentful of these adult authors dipping their quills in children’s and young adult lit.  I think they get away with a lot of lukewarm stuff that children’s authors wouldn’t get away with. 

Dakota, on the other hand, loved The Graveyard Book. It was one of her favorites.  She ate the whole thing up. 

She’s still doing fine, but they way–thirteen weeks after we were told she probably had only eight weeks left. 

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Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny

amberThis book was a lot of fun.

The story opens with an amnesia victim, Corwin, a man on the run.  To escape, he must figure out who he is.  Not a terribly original set-up, even in 1970 when Nine Princes in Amber was written, but it’s a formula that works.  I was hooked from page one, or maybe page three.

Not too far into the novel, Corwin finds out that he is not from this world, but from the real world, where he is the Crown Prince, pushed from his rightful inheritance by a rival brother, one of nine.  Corwin was on the losing side in a struggle for the throne of Amber, when he esaped to Shadow, our world.

This is a very fun idea with lots of potential.  Since Corwin has been hiding out in Shadow, our world, for centuries, he can reference our history, our culture, whenever he encounters something in the world of Amber.  This lets Mr. Zelazny use  the world of 1970 to describe his fantasy world which makes for some very entertaining world building.

Corwin, along with his brothers and sisters, is engaged in a Game of Thrones like struggle for power, one that will probably last the entire ten book cycle.  But Zelazny is no George R.R. Martin, thank God.  I tried one of Martin’s books, made it about 150 pages in before I gave up, frankly bored out of my skull.  People who die of boredom while reading George R.R. Martin should die horrible graphic deaths.  Imagine an illustration by Edward Gorey.

Zelazny stays so closely focused on the plot, on moving things along as quickly as possible, that some readers will find fault with him for it.  Battles, attacks, retreats, counter-attacks can all take place in three or four pages in Nine Princes in Amber.  I prefer this; move quickly through as much of the battle stuff as you can to get to the more interesting personal scenes.   Two characters engaged in a struggle are all you really need to provide enough drama to keep me hooked.

My omnibus edition features the first five novels in The Chronicles of Amber so I’ll be back for more.  The first book wasn’t exactly a cliff-hanger, but I do want to know what happens next.

Plus, I’m just having so much fun.

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