Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #159 - Magician

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Magician by Raymond E. Feist. The book can be found on the BBC Book List.



After having read a few of the more historical fiction novels, I was in the mood for a fantasy novel. Looking through my list I found Magician, which even though it was a rather long book (at over 800 pages), it seemed like it would be a fun read. The book itself is set on the world of Midkemia in an age that resembles our Medieval time period mixed with the world of Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings vibe actually struck a little too strongly. There is a land of elves, who are all very long lived, dwarfs, who live under mountains, goblins, wizards, and even a dragon on a pile of gold. It was so jarring at times that it seemed that Feist took the premise and characters of Lord of the Rings, placed them in a jar, shook them up, and spilled them onto the page for his set dressing. This was all disturbed when a race of aliens comes in through a rift in space. They begin to attack Midkemia, prompting a war that encompasses nearly the entire novel. I don't know if this rift in space was so different from the Lord of the Rings vibe that was set up but it felt off. I had a hard time reconciling this alien world with the medieval one already set up, and it took me a very long time through the story to feel like they belonged together. Looking at the characters in the book, there are many who appear throughout most of the story, however the primary character is Pug, a magician's apprentice. The story ends up taking place over more than a decade causing us to witness Pug go from apprentice to a full-fledged magician. It was Pug's interactions with both worlds on either side of the rift that made this novel enjoyable. While it took me a while to get into many of the other characters, I picked up on Pug the quickest. It was Pug's journey that made me care about the other characters and it was once he comes into his own that I really started to enjoy the book. Since the book was so long it felt like a slow crawl at times to get through, even though it is a fairly easy read and rather quick, but the Lord of the Rings aspects kept pulling me out of the story. It took until about 3/4's of the way through the book until I became fully enraptured and really started to plow through it. Even though I had a slow start to the book I am excited now to continue the series through the large number of sequels that have since been published. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #158 - The Periodic Table

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. The book can be found on the Observer and My Book Lists.



Starting out this book was an enigma for me. I initially assumed it had something to do with the formation of the Periodic Table. Then upon reading a general book description I was immediately expecting an autobiographical account of a Holocaust survivor similar to Elie Wiesel's Night. This was nothing of the sort. I think Levi best sums up the book in his own words towards the end of the book:
"...I was in search of events, mine and those of others ... to see if I could convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavor of our trade (as chemists).... I was more interested in the stories of the solitary chemistry, unarmed and on foot ... who confronted matter without aids, with their brains and hands, reason and imagination." 
That is in essence what the book was about. It was a series of stories, some of them assumed to be autobiographical, and some of them clearly not, all within a framing story of a different element. Each chapter was laid out with the title of that element and the story that followed had something to do with it. Levi was a Holocaust survivor, however his trials during his time in the camps were largely left out of the book. He mentions them as being memoir-ed in other works of his so they were skipped over here. It was like a series of bedtime stories, with a thread that worked it's way through the whole book. More often than not, I hate short stories. But this book didn't work in that way. It worked as a narrative. His various other stories, outside of his autobiography, added heart and soul and a realness to the book by sometimes being a bit fantastical in themselves. The book was surprisingly funny and upbeat, despite the dire circumstances at times, but it was also moving and sentimental. You don't find out much about Levi's personal life, except in relation to the elemental story he is telling at the particular moment. The best part of the book had to be the Chromium chapter, which was surprising and hilarious, and a pretty much self contained story within the greater narrative. Overall, I would say this was a fantastic, engrossing read. The only weak part was the first chapter which felt like a drudge to get through with all of Levi's relatives ever listed out, who never reappeared in the story at all. But once you get past that part the rest was smooth sailing.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #157 - Brave New World

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  This book can be found on the BBC, Observerand My Book Lists.



Brave New World can be pictured as the original dystopian-future novel. Written in 1931, Brave New World envisions a world 600 years in the future where the principles of Henry Ford, of the Model T fame, have been taken to the extreme with human beings being produced on assembly lines and natural birth almost all but eliminated. It is definitely a unique view on the future I had not anticipated. Having seen many dystopian movies and read other dystopian novels this was interesting to go back and look at what the future looked like from a 1930's perspective. The "advanced" technology is exactly as you would envision 1930's "advanced" technology to be, kind of steam-punkish, not the technology of today. And it is less technologically advanced as more biologically advanced. In this future they have perfected making a society were nobody wants more in their station of life, by making sure people manufactured for their particular station. This means that many people are dumbed-down to feel better in more menial tasks and some are allowed to excel beyond these menial tasks. The story shows us how a kid who grew up in the "savage lands", a reservation exempt from this "utopia", would feel in such a land and how this utopia. Although referred to by the derogatory term of "Savage", I believe Huxley's point was to portray him as one of us thrust into this "utopia" of sorts and how we would feel in such a world. I would say my only major gripes with the novel was his depiction of women, who were essentially relegated to being sex-hungry, mindless, pieces of meat added as something for the main character to "deal" with, not as characters in their own right. But other than that the story was intriguing, wholly engrossing, and flowed nicely. I breezed through the novel much quicker than I was ever anticipating. I would definitely place this on my recommend list.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #156 - Leaves of Grass

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. This book can be found on the Norwegian Book List.



I jumped into Leaves of Grass expecting Thoreau, because I love Thoreau. But alas, I have discovered Whitman seems to be more akin to Emerson, at least in my opinion. Since there are so many versions of Leaves of Grass, I chose to read a reprinting of the original 1855 edition, not the numerous updated and expanded editions that Whitman came out with afterwards. I had high hopes for the book because I do enjoy reading poetry but Leaves of Grass started off on a sour note for me. The preface to the story was practically nonsensical. I made the mistake of attempting to start the book while being very tired, however nothing made any sense and I put it down. I waited to start the book another day and I was able to understand more of it, but the story didn't follow what I was expecting from a book entitled "Leaves of Grass". The preface was about America, and poets, and how great poets are, and it was weird. Turns out Whitman had a bit of an ego. Finally, we delve into the actual poetry and I found snippets of lines that I loved, like this stanza:
"Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,You must travel it for yourself."
But overall the poem seemed like a massive list of things Whitman has seen. He lists various occupations, and various types of faces, and different types of people he has seen, and it's all a bit much without any real story to go along with it. I appreciate his views on the world, about how he felt men and women were equal (as far as I could tell) even in the 1800's. I liked when he had story threads sprinkled here and there in the poem but it wasn't enough to maintain my attention. When I read stories that become a bit hard to follow, I tend to mentally wander and I had to go back multiple times throughout this to gather what was being said. I would say that this was a poem that one needs to read multiple times to fully comprehend, however I don't think I could go back and do that again.


Monday, August 5, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #155 - Scoop

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Scoop by Evelyn Waugh. This book can be found on the Observer Book List.



Scoop was not what I was expecting, however I was pleasantly surprised. The story is set up like a 1930's/1940's comedy movie with several people having the same last name getting all shuffled together in different circumstances. The main part of the story dealt with a naturalist/country bumpkin being employed as a war correspondent in the fictional country of Ishmaelia. The country was embroiled in unrest, and had been plagued by an influx of reporters. The story, though was surprisingly funny. I laughed out loud at several points in the story and in general greatly enjoyed it. My only issue with the story was the racism that seemed to be spread throughout the story. It definitely felt like a period piece including the racism of the time, but I had hoped for more. The country of  Ishmaelia was located somewhere within northern Africa and felt like a caricature of an African country instead of a legitimate location. Even though I enjoyed the book, it didn't really feel like a "great work of literature". It felt like pulp fiction that one reads and then forgets about. Overall, I would say that the story was enjoyable but forgettable.  

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #154 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling. This book can be found on the BBC and My Book Lists.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the fourth and final Harry Potter book on my 100 greatest book lists. Up until this point, all of the Harry Potter books have been on the BBC Book list, which was chosen by a UK popularity vote in 2003. This also tells you why some of the other Harry Potter books did not make the cut, since they were not published by that point. Looking at the BBC Book List, the first 21 books have been ranked according to popularity with only one book per author appearing in the top 21. That is the reason books 22, 23, and 24 are all Harry Potter with this book taking the prize at number 5. So, by popular vote, book 4 was chosen as the best of the first four books of the series and I whole heartily agree with them.

Rowling has moved beyond the issues that plagued the first two books and worked this book into a fantastical masterpiece that will survive long into the future. The plot is riveting and the pace of the book is remarkably easy to flow through. The language used helps it to stay in the "teen lit" category but that just means that more people can enjoy it, it is not a knock to the content. The pattern of the novels was also mixed up a bit for this one, where the quidditch matches which were used as the background events helping to propel the finale of the story forward were discarded for an overarching Olympics type event. This tournament resulted in some real stakes for the characters where not everyone was left unscathed. It made the books very suspenseful and very difficult to put down. To top it off I had not seen this movie for several years, perhaps not even since it came out, so the overall plot and the surprise twist at the end completely caught me off guard. Needless to say I loved it and this is by far my favorite of the Harry Potter novels.


Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #153 - One Hundred Years of Solitude

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This book can be found on the NorwegianObserverBBCand My Book Lists.



I found myself constantly comparing One Hundred Years of Solitude to Marquez's other work on the list that I read almost 12 years ago, Love in the Time of Cholera. You can definitely get a feeling for Marquez's style between the two books. I have to say though, that between the two, Love in the Time of Cholera was a much easier book to get in to, but One Hundred Years of Solitude was the more impactful. To sum it up One Hundred Years of Solitude was fascinating, horrifying, hilarious, depressing, intriguing, and by the end, I couldn't put it down. The story is about a fictional South American town named Macondo that was founded by the couple José Arcadio Buend
ía and Úrsula Buendía. Within the story we follow the development of the Buendía family, and despite how large or small the town gets, eventually turning into a thriving metropolis, we never really feel that because of the focus on this family. However, the family mirrors the effects of the town; as the town grows, so does the family, as the town shrinks, so does the family. One of the first things we learn about the family though is that there are issues with the family, specifically incest, which comes up again and again, which is one of those things that is rather horrifying in the story. The story, though, is about cycles, and how everything changes, yet everything stays the same. 

One of the hardest parts of the story to get through was the names of the characters. The story was written where time kind of bounced all over. Even the first sentence of the book begins with an illusion to what would happen halfway through the narrative. But the names of the characters were all either identical or very, very similar, making keeping track of who was who extremely difficult at times. By the end I still couldn't remember who was who's daughter/grandmother/aunt. But it works in the context of the story. The Buendía family is constantly making the same mistakes, constantly rehashing the same issues, through several generations, and by renaming their kids after either the patriarch José Arcadio or Aureliano (I believe there was at least 22 Aurelianos mentioned by the end of the story), it got to be rather confusing. This was not an easy book to read because of that. I could only read about 20 pages a night because I kept having to go back and rereading to figure out who was who as time slowly marched on through the story, bouncing back and forth as it went. The chapter breaks generally covered a different person within the generations as they progressed through life as well. So by the time I got to the end of the story, I immediately wanted to jump back to the beginning to see how it all tied together. This is a definite reread story, to catch all the hints about later parts of the story in the earlier sections. It is a story about time, where time doesn't seem to be happening. It is a fascinating tale and a definite one on my must read list, but it is work to get through, if you want to get everything out of it.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #152 - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. This book can be found on the Observer Book List.


I went into The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie knowing absolutely nothing about the book or the author. All I knew was that it was fairly short at 125 pages. So I dived headfirst over a camping trip and was able to finish it over the weekend. The book takes place during the Great Depression at a women's school where one of the teachers, a Miss Jean Brodie, has a rather unique method of education. She likes to tell stories about her past and use them to influence a select set of girls within her class of middle school age girls. Miss Brodie keeps telling the girls that she is in the "prime" of her life (hence the title) and that she is fully able to mold the girls into proper adults. The story is interestingly laid out, with the narration of the story bouncing around each of the "Brodie set" (the girls she is influencing), both in the story "present" as well as in their future, long after school is over. But the narration also dances around the girls heads, like if they are having daydreams, it flows with part of the story. It's a story that I could get behind ... in theory. However there were several factors of the story that irked me. The author repeated herself on many points, many, many times. She would say the same thing about the girls repeatedly. And while I can see that as a useful tool so that the reader could distinguish between the girls, it got old very quickly. The story is not that long that you need to repeat the same part 5, 6, or 7 times. Also the main girl, Sandy, I rather hated. I feel like she was written so the reader didn't like her, but it makes for a tiresome book when you don't like the main character at all. The molding of the girls was rather interesting, though. I liked how the story evolved in that sense, how the girls changed throughout the story due to Miss Brodie's influence, and how that influence could be seen as a helpful or harmful thing. While reading the story it also felt like the part about it being set in the 1930's was not at all relevant to the plot, but it winds up being a major factor in the end of the story. An interesting story indeed. So overall, I'd say that this book was good in concept but left me with a bad taste in my mouth in execution.  

Friday, June 14, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #151 - Good Omens

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. This book can be found on the BBC and My Book Lists.



Good Omens has been on my radar for a while now, having been a fan of Terry Pratchett ever since first starting his Discworld series. And with the beginning of the Good Omens TV show, I was prompted to pick up the book earlier than I otherwise would have done. Pratchett is a very smart and funny writer. He is able to weave political and social commentary throughout his books in a very humorous and sometimes even subtle way and I love him for it. Gaiman, I had never read before, but I am well acquainted with his work. I know he is very knowledgeable about mythology and religion, so I figured this was going to a very good book, both from hearsay and from the authors' reputations. And I was right. The story is about the birth of the Antichrist and the coming Armageddon that shortly follows. The story follows along with an angel and a demon as they try and figure out what is going on. These are not your stereotypical angel and demon. They are flawed and they are fantastic for it. Not only is the story well written but it is as hilarious as I expected. There wasn't a space of five minutes when I wouldn't laugh out loud. Within the plot we follow around several different groups of people as they all come together eventually in the end, for one reason or another. I would say that my only problem with the story was the ending. The story ended too easily. Many of these groups of people didn't really have anything to do with how the story played out. Like, why were they in the story in the first place if they weren't going to have an impact on the story in the end? They felt wasted and it annoyed me a bit to see them tossed aside like they didn't really matter to the story as a whole. Overall, the story is a definite must read. I can see why it has become a cult classic and I can't wait to see the show because I can picture some of these scenes perfectly laid out for television. Even with the ending being a bit 'meh' for me I can still give it my full recommend. 

Friday, May 31, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #150 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling. This book can be found on the BBC Book List.


 
The third book in this seven book series by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is by far my favorite book in the series so far. Typically I like to watch the movies before I read the books, such as for The Lord of the Rings, because more often than not the books are better than the movies. This allows me to continue my enjoyment of the story going from the movie to the book, instead of being disappointed by a movie after having read the book. For the first two books though, I think my biggest problem with the books was that the movies were so close to the books. This made the books feel like a glorified retelling of the movie (from my perspective). There wasn't much extra in the books to make them feel worthwhile to read. So in those instances, I would have to say I actually enjoyed the first two movies better than I did the books.

However, that all changed with this third book. Rowling has continually improved her ability to write these stories with each book and has produced a story that is a tremendous leap forward from Book 2. Her prose is much richer in context and plot, allowing everything to tie together perfectly. She has managed to fill out the story and the world in which they reside gloriously. There are no longer these random plot points. Now we have story threads hinted at in the beginning of the book, and even throughout the book, that don't come to full fruition until the end of the story. She has improved her ability to tell an intricate story to the point that I can see how these books became world-wide phenomenons. I still have issue with the way she handles the Durselys, but I feel like that plot thread has been getting smaller and smaller and hopefully will one day become nonexistent. Overall, this is my favorite of the series so far and it has me excited to jump right in to Book 4.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #149 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling. This book can be found on the BBC Book List



Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the second book in the Harry Potter series, and like I said after reading the first book, I have recently watched the movie so this one is fresh on my mind. What truly amazes me about the book-to-movie comparison is how much it feels like the book is copying the movie in this way. The makers of the movies were so spot on in many instances that it feels like the book had to have been rewritten to match what was on the movie screen other than vice-versa. It really threw me off for major chunks of the book. But following up on her astounding first novel we come to book number 2. I have found with this book, Rowling fixes many of the missteps she had in the first book. In the first book it seemed many of the plot points were random, or haphazardly thrown together. Here it is much, much more fluid. There aren't major plot items (like the mirror in the first book) that just appear out of nowhere. They have a flow to them. The passage of time also seems like a much more natural thing, spells take weeks, so weeks pass, and other such changes. It's not all perfect. I felt this book dragged a bit more than the first book. It felt much longer, even though they are roughly the same length. The Dursleys still irritate me to no end. I don't entirely even understand that plot point. Why must Harry keep going back to them? Is there nothing else that can be done? And why does everything that happens to them happen in the world of Roald Dahl? Ugh. But I digress. Overall, the writing style has greatly improved over the first book. Rowling is clearly improving herself over the course of these books and I can't wait to see what comes next. The next book will be the last movie I have seen recently, so after that I hopefully can go in fairly fresh. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The 306 Greatest Books #148 - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The next up on my reading of the 306 greatest books is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (also known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone). This book can be found on the BBC Book List



Harry Potter has been a series that has been sitting in my "to read" pile for over a decade. I waited for all of the movies to come out and then I just didn't have the ambition to tackle a series of that size. Along comes my daughter, who has started reading the series with my wife and so I have been prompted to start it myself. After each book they read, we all watch that movie together. So, before starting this book I have recently watched the first three movies. I don't know if having them fresh in my mind was a good thing but I'm feeling not because for much of this first book I was comparing it to the movie and getting the "well, this isn't that different from the movie, I was hoping for more" type of feeling.

I think my biggest qualm with the book has to be the same qualm I have with the movies, and that is the Dursleys. I don't personally care for that plot, I don't like them as characters, and I feel that part of the story is poorly written. The first two chapters felt like something out of a Roald Dahl playbook, and I'm not a personal fan of his writing style. So after the first two chapters I was not looking forward to much more of this. But I must say, it got much, much better. The pacing throughout the novel seemed very off. The first half of the book was up through Harry getting settled into his first few days of school and then the book takes off, skipping months at a time. I can see how in future books, Rowling would want to expand upon their time in school a bit more, resulting in the books becoming much, much longer. A lot of the scenes within this book also felt rather random, or randomly placed at least. It was like Rowling had all of these plot ideas she wanted to seed into the book but had no really smooth way of introducing them.

Comparing the book to the movie though was a detriment for me. The movie follows the book surprisingly well for about 3/4's of it, and so I was not all that surprised at anything that was happening. I had kept hearing how so many things were different in the books, that it ended up being a bit disappointing for me. But then the differences started shining through. Once the movie takes the slimmed down approach to the book, the book started to come into its own, and I really got a kick out of it. The pacing really picked up in the latter half of the story too. I imagine the latter stories get even better as Rowling figures out her flow through the series and I'm looking forward to seeing how things start to progress. Especially as I get past the movies I have recently seen.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The 100 Greatest Movies - #6: The Wizard of Oz

I am in the process of watching all of the Top 10 Fantasy movies according to AFI and reviewing them for my list (http://www.dinojim.com/Cultural/Movies/10Top10.html#Fantasy).

The current film I just watched is The Wizard of Oz, which is #1


This movie is also on the 100 Greatest Movies list (#6), the 10th Anniversary List (#10), the 100 Greatest Thrillers list (#43), the 100 Most Inspirational Movies (#26), and the 25 Greatest Musicals (#3).




It has been a very long time since I have seen The Wizard of Oz, so we ended up watching it in preparation for my daughter to go see Wicked for the first time. And as a child I did not get the overt symbolism used throughout the movie. How the characters at the beginning of the movie were reincarnated as the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion, not to mention the Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West. The acting was also just so over the top. Nobody seemed to be holding anything back and just letting it all out there. However, that is what makes this movie so charming. It could have faded into the dustbins of history but the overacting by the four main leads are what draws us into the movie and keeps us there. I couldn't keep my eyes off the Scarecrow's walking behavior throughout the movie and the Cowardly Lion's eating up of the scenery. It was absolutely hilarious. I think what really got me was when the Wizard, playing the doorman, starts crying and it obvious he is just having water pour over his face. It's terrific. Judy Garland's Dorothy is equally over the top and without her acting so dramatic it wouldn't have worked with the other three. She was the glue to hold it all together. On top of all that, the colorization design of the movie was spot on, especially given the early days of color in which the movie was made. The color work was loud and glaring in many spots making the colors really pop out at you. It was beautiful. This movie earned it's place in history as one of the greatest ever made and will likely remain there for decades to come.