Friday, April 29, 2011

Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye by Brad Warner

RATING: 5/5

Another sparkling down-to-earth book about Zen from Brad Warner. I've given it five stars for being the first Buddhism book I've read in a very long time that made something in me go "whoosh" for a moment of understanding. Of something having to do with self and consciousness. Thank you, Brad. Now I will attempt to forget about that experience and go on with life.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

Rating 4/5

A beautifully written book, with amazing character portraits. It made me think hard about love - what it is, and what its place can be in a life, etc. Part of me can't find anything honorable in Florentino Aziza's love, because it was based on a non-relationship and therefore more likely to be defined as an obsession. But another part of me thinks maybe there are people out there who might live their best life in such a single-minded way. I'm obviously not one of those people, and I struggled to take Aziza seriously. Slowly but surely the author won me over, and I wasn't even unhappy with the ending like I thought I would be. The only flaw I found in my experience of this book was that I didn't really connect with or like any of the characters. While they were described meticulously and fascinating, I didn't care very much about them, and I read for the sheer pleasure of the prose rather than to find out what happened to them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Rating: 2/5

[Previous 1 star review: I listened to this on audio book, read by my favourite Jane Austen narrator, but that wasn't enough to hold me until the end. Sick and twisted characters, child abuse and neglect, darkness. I couldn't stand it. Perhaps I'll go back and read it one day - with the foreknowledge of how morbid it is, I might be able to discover why so many people love it.]

Now that I have read the paper version, I'm giving this book another star. I can appreciate the writing and story-telling and will admit it was engaging. But I still don't get it. All the characters in the main story, with the exception of Nelly, seem to me incredible idiots. Where else can you find an entire cast of people so wholly irrational and blind? Everybody in this story is completely misguided about their own self-interest, to the point where it's ridiculous.

Much has been said about the ferocity of Heathcliff's so-called 'love' for Cathy, but in my opinion a passion that poisons everyone in the vicinity, rather than inspiring kindness and a desire for self-improvement is not love at all. I've never been a fan of revenge scenarios, and I'm incapable of admiring or even believing a character whose entire being is bent on it to the ruin of everyone including himself.

I don't hate this book. The writing is great and the story is engrossing. I just think it's over-the-top and not worthy of praise for being "insightful" about "the terrible truths about men and women", as is written on the back of my copy. I've never known anyone who behaves to the brutal degree of these characters, except for the mentally ill.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Rating 4/5

I was a bit ambivalent about this book. On the one hand, it's a great story with an original narrative. On the other, it was sometimes hard to follow and there were a few instances where I found the events/behaviours of people a little difficult to believe. I've read several books describing captivity, but I believe this is the only one that was fictional. I think the author mostly did a good job of portraying the minute psychological effects - of both mother and child - of long-term imprisonment. I think a parent reading this book may have a different and or stronger reaction to the subject matter than I did. As a story, it was interesting, engaging and unique.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Rating 3/5

Hmm. I have mixed feelings about this book. I think the original french version, or even a different translation than the one I read, may have made for a different experience. As it was, I regularly found myself drifting completely away and not bothering to go back and read the passages I'd been unknowingly skimming. I picked up a lot of hints that, in french, the writing might have been a lot more compelling. This English translation was quite tiresome in places.

Madame Bovary is the kind of character written to be both sympathetic and dislike-able. I've read a couple of other books with characters like her - Middlemarch, Portrait of a Lady - and found them more enjoyable than this one, because those stories had more depth and were able to create more sympathy.

This book definitely had its moments, and there was a decent section in the middle that mostly kept my attention from wandering. I "get" why it's a classic, so I appreciate it, but I didn't enjoy all of it. I'm as ambivalent about the book as a whole as I am about its protagonist, though not for the same reasons. I am, however, glad I read it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Outlander, #6) by Diana Gabaldon

Rating 3/5

On its own merits, this book probably deserves only two stars, but I'm a fan of Jamie and Claire so I gave it an extra one. This series seems to become more and more plotless as it progresses. Ostensibly it's about the prelude to the American Revolution, but really it's just a chroncle of life on Fraser's Ridge. If we didn't already know and love the Frasers, that wouldn't count for much. Abductions, deaths, marriages, infidelities, pregnancies, gossip, mishaps...it's the same old same old. These things happen one after another after like a series of side-plots. Which would be fine if there was actually a main plot running concurrently, but there isn't. Things just happen briefly and then we move into the next random episode.

The mark of a good story is that everything described contributes to plot and character development. In this book, very little seems necessary, and some scenes that might be actual opportunities for character development are skipped over entirely. I don't think any of these characters have grown or changed at all over the entire series. It's a good thing, then, that Jamie and Claire are so endearing to begin with.

If you classify these books as being in the "romance" genre, then I can see why they might seem like the cream of the crop. I tend to think of them as historical fiction, a genre with a much higher literary standard (in my opinion). Just because your books contain more words on average than any other series in history doesn't make you a better writer. In fact, the length of these books makes them a tedious undertaking. You expect a book this long to have an epic storyline, but it barely has one at all. So why did I bother to read it? Well, it's because after spending so much time with this cast of characters, they've become like family and it's comforting to come back to them. And also because with each new book in the series I keep hoping Gabaldon will manage to recreate the magic of the original Outlander. She hasn't quite done it since Voyager, but when it comes to books, I'm an optimist.