Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Reading Dump - July

I'm midway through my 2013 Goodreads Reading Challenge and I'm enjoying the accountability of it. What I read goes up on the list and another title is conveniently ticked off from my to-read list.

In addition to this, I'd like to tackle some big honking books that are festering on my to-read shelf. To qualify as a big honking book, it usually needs to be in the neighborhood of 500 pages or more. Scary. 

- Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
- The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Hundred Dresses: Good read aloud for upper elementary. Beautiful accompanying artwork and a meaningful moral at the end, not a bad choice for the discerning classroom teacher.

The Metamorphosis: Kafka's most famous novella is a breeze to get through and is appreciable on multiple layers. On the surface, it's a quirky story about a man who loses his job and ability to support his family because he turned into a bug overnight. It's got enough pretentiousness to be over-analyzed and interpreted as the greatest thing since Shakespeare and also has enough surface level content to be cannon fodder for high school students. A complete package that has reason to stand the test of time.

Reading it for the first time as an adult, I merely enjoyed it for its preposterousness, respect it for its indelibly creative mark it has surely left, and moved on due to its brevity. It's good, not great. Well worth reading.

Little Prince: Another treasure that should have been from my childhood that wasn't. Between the simple, dreamlike illustrations and the gorgeous prose, it's no wonder why this is still such a celebrated story.

A note about English translations: the 1943 Woods translation is what most people are familiar with. The 2000 Howard translation is the one that is currently in print. I recently read both books aloud to my 4th graders and can comment on how both books fared.

The 1943 "classic" Wood's translation is more prosaic and takes liberties with the language. It's less direct and more poetic. Take your time with it. The 2000 "updated" Howard edition is cleaner, better organized but missing some of the elegance. Thankfully it's replaced with a noticeably smoother pace and tone. In no way does it detract from the original meaning or intention.

I read the "classic" 1943 version first and then the "updated" 2000 version right afterwards. I taught both books. I can say that after reading aloud both books, I prefer the 2000 "updated" version. But that's just me. Most children will also prefer the newer version as it's a bit easier to read but both are good translations. For nostalgia's sake, if you remember the "classic" version, try to find a used copy somewhere. Otherwise, this new, "updated" version is unobtrusively clean and sports some beautifully touched up illustrations.

Also, for those familiar with "the sheep test", you might be surprised to find out that several of my student's Korean translations failed "the sheep test" while other editions passed. Interesting.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The book was better than the movie

I'm starting to see a pattern: most times when I read a book, if there's a movie adaptation, as soon as I finish the reading, I watch the film. I usually end up hating the movie, and in turn, lose interest in the book; even if I enjoyed the book on its own. It's almost as if I'm tainted by the movie. Here's some random thoughts:

Terrible Movie Adaptations
The Road (2009)
All of the setting, characters, and plot are here with none of the bleakness of the book. Hollywood-approved dystopia is unconvincing.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
A shameful farce. The film can't hold a candle to the book.

Flatland (2007)
Two movies came out that year both adapted by the same book; both missed their targets. The book's narrative is truly unfit for film.

Blindness (2008)
Everything from the book is here on film sans the charm. They left all of that out. A good attempt, sure, but you simply can't make a motion picture version of a story that involves everyone being blind. It's fundamentally against the medium.

Hellbound Heart (1987)
Hey man, it was the 80s. And it was horror. What did you possibly expect?

The Time Machine (2002)
I'm surprised that no one has got this one right yet.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
The movie attempts so hard to capture what the book effortlessly achieves: full and total adherence to fear and hopelessness. Casting was all wrong, too.

Hunger Games (2012)
I love Jennifer Lawrence like the next man, but the book is leaps and bounds above the movie. Avoid the film at all costs. Read the books. They are more than half-bad; they're actually a lot of fun.

Excellent Movie Adaptions:
The Watchmen (2009)
My favorite comic book movie.

Starship Troopers (1997)
The film's so good possibly because it's almost nothing like the book. Both are good on their own.

The Running Man (1987)
Same as Starship Troopers but with even more camp. Actually the book is one of my favorites.

The Outsiders (1983)
A faithful adaptation. They did it man. They did it for Johnny.

IT (1990)

Movies that I'm saving till after I read the book:
Cloud Atlas (2012)
The Stand (1994)

Movies that make me not want to read the book:
The Shining (1980)
Not impressed with Kubrick's work here.

World War Z (2013)
The Oatmeal sums it up well.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Reading Dump - June

Nothing wowed me this month. First world problems, it seems.

- Black Flower by Kim Young-ha
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus by Barbara Park
- Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Black Flower: I'm not articulate enough to point out what precisely what is missing from this book. I can say that you will not find any one else more interested in this particular time in history. Late 1800s/early 1900s Korean history is kind of my thing, so it's not as lack of content or interest. It's just that something tangible is missing that would have made this a great novel. Kim Young-ha is an accomplished writer and someone whose work I actively seek out. Having said that, this was my least favorite of his works.
Part of what doesn't work are the lazy info dumps that make this painfully confused book practically cry from its pages "I'm historical fiction. See?". Also, lopsided story arches favor some characters and snub others deserving of a full treatment. Awkwardly and inconsistently inserted historical context feels more like Wikipedia copy-and-pastes instead of meaningful background flourishes.

Scathing as it may sound, the subject material is intriguing. There is surely no other book based on the true story of 1,000 Koreans sold to Mexico prior to the formal annexation of Korea by Japan. Their story is exceedingly worthy of being told, but as the author mentions in the epilogue, source material is scarce and unreliable at best. Frankly speaking, there were more pressing events to be talked about at the time. After all, Korea as it was known was disappearing from the planet by a stronger, invading force. The fascinating but unfortunate fate of a random ship full of emigrants got placed on the back burner. Kim does the people justice by exhibiting their tale but fumbles in the execution.

I contend that with a more critical editor, this book could have been great. Really. But as it stands in its diamond in the rough form, I can barely call it recommendable. No one wanted to love this book more than me, so please go easy on the attacks. I liked the book but I'm biased because of the niche historical context; the casual reader will likely not be as accepting.

HHGTTG: Don't panic, scifi gods, but I was not blown away by this. I merely liked it.
It starts off amazingly witty, maintains a strong and curious mix of humor and science fiction, and then takes a slow but steep hill down Pretentiously Silly Jut To Be Silly Boulevard. Call me crazy but good writing doesn't have to be zany for the sake of being zany. Thankfully, the book's other merits keep it a light-ish read that entertains.

Douglas Adams' revered classic deserves to be passed around and loved as much as it still is, but like a full bodied red wine, I appreciate it for what it is but I'll stick to moscato, thanks (what of it?). To stick with drinking metaphors, it isn't my cup of tea but I can see why it is for so many. There have been numerous inspirations and clones that followed (my favorite being the Space Quest PC series) and this book is the granddaddy of them all; you just might not like his style of humor, is all.

It also helps not to see the 2005 film adaptation shortly after finishing the book. I should have steered clear, really. Please avoid the movie. Stick with this memorable book, but don't panic if it doesn't blow your socks off.

Junie B Jones: no judgments. I liked it.

Junie B. is a bad kid and she's got no problem with that. Reading the book as an adult is even more gratifying. She's a great character that is transparently sweet on the inside but outwardly out of control. "sassy" and "feisty" come to mind.

I have a daughter just like her.

Number the Stars: I'll echo the sentiments from others who have read this book wondering if it is a safe approach to teach children about the Nazis. Yes and no; yes, it's safe, but no, it does not say a whole lot about what the Nazis did other than occupy Denmark and harass a little girl occasionally.

If used in the curriculum, this could serve as a good supplementary story that holds up fair enough on its own but lacks a lot of the history that makes this time period so important to talk about in the first place. If its a thematic unit you're planning, then this might fit the bill. On its own, it's insufficient.

On the writing front, Lowry is not as remarkable like she was in The Giver but she's good. Not great, but certainly not bad. A quick enough read for upper elementary with some important background nuances that deserve clarity

Friday, May 31, 2013

Reading Dump - May

Woah. This was a long month, apparently.

How They Were Found by Matt Bell
Dancing on Fly Ash: One Hundred Word Stories by Matt Bell and Josh Maday
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
One Bloody Thing After Another by Joey Comeau
In The Tunnel by Takamichi Okubo
I Have The Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-ha
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
High Rise by J.G. Ballard

Matt Bell, you brilliant bastard. If he's not already your favorite new writer, you might want to fix that. The genre-defying author of Cataclysm Baby has done the world a favor by combining all of his best, previously published short stories into a single collection. Not a complaint can be said about the whole bunch. Every story bleeds originality and leaves an indelible mark on the reader that borders between child-like wonder and green-eyed jealousy. For me, Bell's prose is simply inspiring. This collection demands to be read. Stop reading this review, whip out your checkbook and give Mr. Bell whatever he needs to continue pumping out solid gold. Seriously.

Dancing on Fly Ash: One Hundred Word Stories: sixty one hundred word micro stories. Not as good as I had hoped but no real complaints. Some cheap shots mixed in with micro gems. A small, mixed bag.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: For any adult trying to analyze and interpret this book, try to remember that this book is about a middle school boy. Kids younger than that are reading and loving it. It's got a Calvin and Hobbs kind of appeal to it; for those adults that do get it, you'll see funny parts of yourself that you forgot. For kids that get it, most of them are perceptive enough to pick up on the subjective narrative of the protagonist. The illustrations are delightfully charming. It's the total package for kids. Nothing too heavy, too judgmental, too preachy, too inappropriate. Just a fun little read.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid a delight well deserving of its popularity. Just make sure you don't go into thinking you're going to read Hemingway.

One Bloody Thing After Another: Umm, what did I just read? I'm not sure if I'm morally allowed to say that I liked this story. I loved it, actually. Comeau does so much in such a small space. It's all just so endearing and painful. Sweet in all the wrong places but above all, disturbing. I'm really failing to come up with appropriate adjectives here.

I'll just leave my initial reaction here: this is a supremely f***ed up book.

What I can say without swearing is that once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down. Joey Comeau first caught my attention with Overqualified and he has done it again. Well done, you sick bastard.

In The Tunnel: An unremarkable short story. Seemed like a decent premise but ends up feeling like a first draft for a mediocre novel. Bland action, insufficient staging of setting, and predictable characters not worth caring about make this a disappointment.

I Have The Right to Destroy Myself: Harsh, carnal, but beautifully composed. Kim indelibly tiptoes around some murky waters and although he doesn't stay around very long, the reader is allowed a glimpse into these unpleasant and self-destructive lives. An interesting novella that holds up well.

The Lathe of Heaven: I love it when classic science fiction holds up to fresh eyes forty years after the fact. This is my first LeGuin novel and I'm thoroughly impressed. There were countless avenues she could have taken the "dreams become reality" concept. The Lathe of Heaven is masterfully written, smartly paced, and still every bit as relevant.

High Rise: A lot has been said about J.G. Ballard and his misanthropic view on humanity. High Rise doesn't suffer because its got a bleak outlook on life; it suffers because it's so painfully transparent. There's not much subtlety in Ballard's prose. From apparent self-descriptive character names to rushed plot development, Ballard wastes no time in displaying his distrust for people.

My inner cynic is gratified with the premise. I, too, live in a monstrosity of an apartment complex in downtown Seoul; a concrete jungle of high rises packed to the brim with nettling social classes reticently judgmental based on floor numbers and quantity of children. I mention this because I wanted to like this book. I have reason to be personally connected to the plight of a high rise gone haywire, attacking itself.

But this book just couldn't close the deal. Transparent author objectives and repetition prevented High Rise from being little more than homework. It ceased to become enjoyable a quarter of the way in.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reading Dump - April

Warm weather, you have been missed. Thank you for making reading so much more enjoyable.

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Sputnik Sweetheart  by haruki Murakami
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez

You know what blows my mind more than the book's unique concept? The fact that it was originally published in 1985 and doesn't feel a day outdated. Well, okay, there is a Duran Duran reference. But otherwise, there's none of the cringe-worthy science fiction tropes that make you roll your eyes back in disgust. This story is all balls and it will mess with your head. It is every bit as extraordinary and captivating as you have heard.

The only gripe I have is the pretentious literary name dropping that Murakami is so fond of endowing on his characters. One might be led to think all of Japan's middle class actively reads Balzac and discusses William Gibson's ideas on encrypted cranial data storage. Come on Haruki, let the working man enjoy a Michael Bay film instead of Dostoevsky.

Otherwise, it's a novel with extremely few flaws. Between alternating narrators, indelible characters, heaps of suspense, and sprinklings of heavy but believable sci-fi elements tossed in for good measure, there's not much to dislike. The author has a knack for witty dialogue, poetic depictions of setting, and pushing the plot forward in a reasonable pace while still allowing the reader stop every once and a while to take in his surroundings. It's a beautiful book, plain and simple.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:Don't hate me, please. I read it for the first time as a middle-aged old father of two. I've never seen the films, either. I therefore don't have the nostalgic wonder attached to it as I should. It's a finely tuned, well constructed children's story that I was mildly entertained by. Dahl's books are read the world over and I can certainly see why, but I get the feeling that I'm not the target audience.

Sputnike Sweetheart: I'm obviously not the first to notice Murakami's pattern of character development. Here's my attempt:
1) Protagonist: common working class guy likes whiskey, jazz/classical music, and European literature.
2) female love interest: younger, quirky, out of his league
3) sanctity of marriage? what's that?
4) personality disorder of choice: dissociation
5) cats

For Sputnik Sweetheart, the overt sexuality implied by the cover is a bit misleading; there's way more romance/shameless sex in South of the Border, West of the Sun. There is a questionable abundance of infidelity in this unrequited love story, so don't fret dirty birdy.

Murakami is skilled at what he does, but so far I've only seen the one-trick pony routine done three times. It's a great routine, don't get me wrong, but that the formula is growing thin. Sputnik Sweetheart is my third Haruki Murakami novel and so far my least favorite. It's not enough to make me avoid him altogether, but enough to ask for some distance.

Flatland: This is a strange one. A square tells the reader about life in Flatland, a two dimensional world where women are straight lines, circles are priests and all social life is based on the number of sides each polygon has. Together we visit a dimension below (Lineland) and one above (Spaceland).

It's the most fun you can have with geometry, for sure. The premise and style hold up amazingly well for being published in 1884. The novella wrestles with theology, heterodoxy, and spacial reasoning. It's an amazement that it was published when it was, but as it stands, it's a solid science (slash mathematics) fiction story.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores: I urge you not to be turned off by this tiny gem's vulgar title. Don't let the dirty-old-man premise scare you away from the brilliance that this book holds inside. The prose is brusque but painfully touching. The characters are deplorable but compassionate. The morose setting is captivating in its droll acceptance of debauchery.

The book's length is noticeably short but not a page is wasted. You will be hard pressed to find a more beautiful way to write about such an execrable situation. Marquez was in his late 70s when he wrote this story. It's almost sinful that more people haven't read this.

I say with full confidence that Memories of My Melancholy Whores is a perfect novella in almost every way possible.

Friday, April 26, 2013

My Clippings p.2

More new words for someone that should know them better.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Reading Dump - March

Thank you, March. You brought me a new job, warmer weather, and good books.

- South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
- Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
- The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
- The Plagiarist by Hugh Howey

South of the Border: What we have here is unremarkable erotica pressed neatly between a sandwich of plot holes and unconvincing character development. Although the main character is unlikable in almost every way imaginable, he is keenly relatable to two key demographics: teenage boys and men in their late thirties; as both are prone to irrational sexual proclivities.

Since I'm rapidly approaching the later demographic, I reluctantly found myself nodding in agreement to not a few of Hajime's plights. I still think if he were my buddy, though, I'd have already punched him in the balls on at least three occasions. He's a whiny, hopeless romantic who doesn't deserve any of the good fortune that he has been given. He's simply a selfish, despicable man who lives a respectable-looking life on the surface. His interactions with those around him only (unrealistically) reinforce his unpleasant sense of entitlement.

Like others who finished the book, I discovered the beauty of the story only after I finished. I can encourage those considering to pick up this lesser-known title from Murakami by saying that you will probably simultaneously hate and moderately like it; that is, if your thing is vicariously living through inappropriate sexual trysts of a boring middle-age man who is both a lousy husband but a passably decent father. If you are in this bizarre category, then this book will modestly fit the bill.

Cat's Cradle: Vonnegut's timeless writing sets the reader for an inadvertent romp through questionable theology, mass destruction, and island dictatorship. What’s not to like? The chapters are bite-sized, the plot is absurdly charming, the characters are plentiful, and the prose is exquisite. Miraculously, even the ending comes full circle in a sardonic kind of way. <i>Cat’s Cradle</i> is satisfyingly predictable Vonnegut prose. It's really no wonder why people like myself are still discovering it relevant and worthwhile fifty years after its initial publication.

Busy, busy, busy.

The Illustrated Man: I’m an oddball, apparently. I stayed with the book till the end but I was overall unimpressed. I pushed myself through it like it was homework, which is a shame, because there are some decent short stories in this collection, but otherwise most of them feel dated.

Most consider Ray Bradbury to be among the classic early sci-writers. Fahrenheit 451 is clearly an amazing piece worthy of its classic status. The Illustrated Man often comes up as a recommended follow-up. I can’t say I see why, though. Most of the writing betrays its age; some even feel laughably antiquated. Also, there’s not so much of an “illustrated” theme so much as a “rocket” theme. So. Many. Rockets. The supposed overarching “tattoo” theme is really found nowhere else but in the introduction.

This collection did almost nothing for me. For instance, the first story, “The Veldt”, which is supposed to be the strongest of the bunch, didn't affect me the way it did for other people. Like most of the stories, I questioned the almost outrageously improbable scientific basis on which the story’s climax is based on. I suppose if I had read it as a kid, I’d be full of nostalgic affection, but as it is I can’t help but see gaping holes in the science. Spoilers: digital lions devouring parents? Rain on Venus? Rockets rockets rockets? Really?

Imagine a withering paperback sci-fi rotting on the shelves begging to be put out of its misery. Once a pioneering gem it be treasured, it now just feels like uninspired pseudo-science hardly worth the pulp it’s printed on. That, unfortunately, is my image of The Illustrated Man. If the first story doesn't do anything for you, put it down and pat yourself on the back for being conscious enough to leave well enough alone.

The Plagiarist: Hugh Howey is doing well for himself. Between his immensely popular Wool series and small nuggets of gold like The Plagiarist, avid readers looking for the next big writer but understandably wary of self-published hacks can rest easy; Hugh Howey knows what the fuck he's doing.

The Plagiarist is situated in that tricky genre valley between speculative fiction and mainstream fiction - the Hollywood-friendly kind that usually finds its way made into a successful film adaptation. At 58 pages, it's confidently short but masterfully written. Succinct and original, easily recommended without reservations.