Tag: Book

“The Running Man” by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Running Man

The Running Man

Author:  Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)

Published:  1982

I read this book as part of a larger book collecting the first four books published with Richard Bachman as the credited author. Through those four books, King published two books about men snapping and doing violent things (Rage and Roadwork) and two dystopian future books that revolve around contests where the losers are killed if they stop moving (The Long Walk and The Running Man). I hated the two books about men snapping and really enjoyed The Long WalkThe Running Man was certainly closer in quality to The Long Walk but reading it second I couldn’t help but feel that the whole book had a very familiar quality to it.

For fans of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (1987), reading the book version is an entirely different story with very few similarities. I found that to be a plus as the story was very unpredictable and I was always guessing about how the book would progress. Gone are the gladiator figures with high tech weapons and costumes, gone is the superhero physique of Arnold, gone even is the arena that the game takes place in. In the original King work, the concept was very different. A man is given a several hour head start and needs to stay alive for 30 days. He can go anywhere and do anything to stay safe, but he must mail in two tapes a day to the games people (which requires him going to a mailbox or post office). Although there are some professionals hunting him, they are normal guys like Ben Richards (the protagonist). The super high rated television program that is the basis for this contest edits the tapes that the people send in, and motivates people to report where the runner is in exchange for cash rewards.

As in the film, the show is a symbol of the oppressive government that lies to the rest of the populace, and the runners are made out to be terrible criminals when they are not actually criminals. Beyond that there is also a bad guy named Killian, and there’s another runner playing at the same time who is not given much story time. Overall I preferred the film version, though whether that’s because I saw it first or because this book reminded me of a less interesting version of The Long Walk I can’t say for sure. There are a few plot points that also didn’t work entirely well for me but they require some major spoilers to discuss.

**Major Spoilers follow**

Richards is basically the ultimate Running Man contestant, per the people that run the games. They decide this after he’s succeeded for 8 days. OK, so nobody’s ever made it for 8 days before and this is some exciting show people watch every night? Also, the show would basically be a news program as the videos runners send in are often devoid of any words or action. It’s not like there’s even a lot of people to interview, as typically the ones who blows Richards cover are taken and interrogated right afterward. The entire thing kind of fell apart for me at that point in terms of a credible future society. At least with The Long Walk there was the possible thrill of an ESPN sports like broadcast for the action. Also, if the games people knew Richards was bluffing as soon as he got on the plane, it seemed very stupid to allow Richards to have additional leverage by allowing the plane to take off rather than making their proposal with the plane still on the ground. (I also find it interesting that Rage is a book that has been pulled from distribution due to its controversial subject matter, while Richards final solution, something very reminiscent of certain tragic events from 2001, hasn’t led to the same controversies.)

**End of Spoilers**

King utilizes a countdown device to title the chapters, beginning at 100 and working his way down to zero. Upon finishing the book I’m not sure why this device was used, and even the choices for where to end certain chapters felt random. The book lacks any interesting supporting characters, as nobody sticks around for more than a few pages to assist Richards; even those that do assist him usually do so with little explanation for why they risk themselves. Despite its faults however, The Running Manworks on some levels because it is pure plot and reads at a brisk pace. Out of the 100 chapters, 98 of them are rooted in desperation or action, with only two short dream chapters that felt slightly out of place with the rest. As a quick read it’s fine, but I also understand why it’s not a book that people mention when discussing King’s best work.

3-star

“Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel Review

Clan of Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear

Author:  Jean M. Auel

Published:  1980

My fascination with this book is somewhat random. Growing up, this was a popular enough book that I’d see it for sale at numerous used book stores, and always kept it in the back of my mind that I would read it someday. No particular reason why besides a title that implied there’d be some people that had some involvement with bears. I never bought it as a kid though, who knows why when I picked up so many other books that have sat on my shelves for years and either been read or are still waiting for the long payoff. When my wife was looking for a book about a primitive culture I looked this one up (really never even knowing what it was about for sure until then) and got a copy for both of us. While she’s reading the excellent Crime and Punishment I thought I’d zip through this one before she got to it. That’s a long buildup before ever discussing this book, but I’m wanting to be honest in discussing my thoughts as I read this.

First, I’m giving this book five stars. I give a lot of books I enjoy five stars, but they’re generally books I enjoyed and lived up to what I was hoping for, or took a series that was good and made it better. This was one of those rare books that made me wish I’d be a bit pickier with my five star ratings as I enjoyed this book a lot more than many other books I’ve given five stars to. I’d say it’s on par with Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub for the best book I’ve read in the past few years.

However, I could see how this book would not be for everyone. Auel has a writing style here that I LOVED. It was very simple to follow, heavily based on advancing the narrative. However, Auel also has a habit for interjecting a modern reader’s sensibility into the story, discussing things like advanced medical science, or biology of the neanderthal brain. I could see how some readers will be taken out of the story by this, but I appreciated the interjections as a good narrator explaining the inner goings of the characters and the society they inhabit. The group of neanderthal (Clan) people also have some abilities that are rooted in fantasy, but the book tries to stay as grounded as possible in reality. While that mixture of modern science with fantasy abilities all taking place in a historical fiction type of narrative is unlike anything I’ve read, Auel (for this book at least) managed to bring it all together in an exemplary manner.

Clan of the Cave Bear features a small cast of about 20 characters, of which five are significantly developed and about another five are treated as important but also fairly static (along with the other ten or so characters). Ayla is the protagonist, a Cro-Magnon girl who gets adopted by the neanderthal tribe. Iza is the medicine woman who adopts her, Creb is the shaman type character for the clan, Brun is the tribe leader and Broud is his son and in line to be the next leader. I found myself loving four of these characters and hating the fifth, which I expect will be the same reaction for most who read this book.

I can see by the average Goodreads scores, that most people find the quality of this series to be of diminishing returns as it advances. I’m tempted to forego reading more of the series and just enjoying what a great book this is on its own. However, I already know I’ll be tracking down at least the next book as this one ends on enough of an open ending that I’d like to see what happens to the characters that are still alive from the group above, as well as the offspring of those characters.

5-star

The Start Here to Fifty Amazing Authors Reading Challenge

A few years back, my wife and I used to get on Kickstarter.com every week and try to look at every project on the website.  We’d open up our favorites into separate windows, then watch the videos to weed out the ones that weren’t as interesting as their titles.  From there we’d look at the reward tiers and further knock out the ones that were too expensive or didn’t offer a benefit we were excited about (except for on a few occasions, like when we supported a traveling RV that rescued cats and trained them to do tricks).  Then for a few years we would be surprised in the mail every now and then with packages featuring our rewards, such as movies that had our names in the credits, first albums by new bands, board games or tickets to an independent musical in Chicago.

Now that we have kids, we don’t have as much time in our day to surf the web for an hour at night, but we still get plenty of enjoyment out of plenty of our rewards (and are even getting rewards every now and then from creators who took a few years longer than expected to deliver).  Two of the items that gave me the most long term fun were the “Start Here” books, put out by Book Riot.  The premise of the books was to introduce the reader to twenty five different authors in each book.  This was done by an expert on that author, who would recommend 3 or more works by the author, and explained what the reader should start with and why.  Reading the books took about forty five minutes each (they’re kind of like printed blog posts) but the idea of them gave me about a year of enjoyment as we decided to add the first recommendation for each author to our “books we’re looking for list” and try to track them all down and read them.

The hunt for the books themselves was a blast, as it gave us an excuse to revisit all of the book stores in our city and look for authors and titles that we’d never looked for before.  After we exhausted those stores, we incorporated the search into a road trip vacation we had planned and continued through the Midwest and up through Minnesota.  When it was all said and done, we found 49 of the 50 books by the end of our trip and finally had to buy the last one on Amazon.  At that point I started reading the books, two at a time, adding another book from the list each time I finished one.  Normally I’d get burned out doing a reading challenge non-stop like that but with this challenge, it featured different genres, authors, styles and lengths that made it a fairly pleasant experience.  (This group of authors features horror, western, comics, poetry, non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction.)  The other really great thing about this collection is that the authors were selected to showcase diversity, which means that instead of getting 15 white dudes from the early 1900’s, there are women, people of color, different nationalities and eras all present.

All that said, I thought it would be fun to make a post ranking the books on how well I enjoyed them/how well they introduced me to the authors.  I found that the books fell into four groups:

  1. Books I didn’t enjoy, and would not seek out more by the author
  2. Books that seemed like poor recommendations for first books but I would try more by the author
  3. Book I was glad to have read, but was on the fence about reading more by the author
  4. Books that were excellent recommendations, where I can find more?

With that outline, here’s how I’d rank the Start Here author recommendations from worst to best:

Books I didn’t enjoy, and would not seek out more by the author

Eros the bittersweet

  1. Eros the Bittersweet

Author:  Anne Carson

Published:  1986

This was the only book I could not find at a book store and had to resort to ordering online.  Part of why I couldn’t find it was because I’m not sure how I’d categorize this book.  Is it non-fiction?  Philosophy?  Literature?  I would put it on the “sludge to get through” shelf, as reading chapter after chapter of this book reminded me of padding my page count for dissertations in grad school.  Carson attempts to define love as seen by the ancients, and somehow the writing (flowery and well done as can be) made the execution even more boring than the concept sounded.  I see a lot of glowing reviews for this online, but this book felt more like homework than anything else I’ve ever read for personal enjoyment.

A room with a view

  1.   A Room with a View

Author:  E.M. Forester

Published:  1908Sense and Sensibility

  1. Sense and Sensibility

Author: Jane Austen

Published:  1811

These two books shared a similar problem in that the plots and settings of the book were not of interest to this reader.  I understand not everybody enjoys westerns, or superheroes, or books about poverty in Monterey, and usually that’s considered acceptable.  Please forgive me for not enjoying these stories about choosing social responsibility over love and the importance of keeping up appearances starring well to do families set one hundred years apart.  Part of the problem is that the stakes don’t ever feel high enough because the conflicts are all created by the characters’ own personality flaws.  Even introducing murder into the mix is not enough to change the core conflict of who one should marry.  For those that enjoy this era and plot, more power to you.  I have no intention of returning any time soon.

Under the Bright Lights

  1. Under the Bright Lights

Author:  Daniel Woodrell

Published:  1986

This murder mystery set in the bayou was as memorable as that six word description.  Compared to other works in the crime genre this was forgettable to below average, with its location the only unique factor.  However the location alone does not provide for anything unique or interesting enough on its own to recommend reading.  The character names sounded amateurish (Jewell Cobb and Rene Shade) and the story left plenty unresolved as it is only book one of a trilogy.  The result is a forgettable, unremarkable book.

The Bear

  1.    The Bear

Author:  William Faulkner

Published:  1942

The short story “The Bear” is part of a collection of stories, but reading it on its own doesn’t seem to require any knowledge of the other related stories.  I actually enjoyed the plot of this story, as a group tries to catch a deadly bear with some persistent dogs.  The result is a lot of death and carnage that could have been an interesting end point for the story.  The problem with it is the language used to get there was overly verbose and the story keeps going well after the excitement to tell a story of inheritance and family secrets that was not particularly interesting.  The actual ending felt like an author trying to be clever more than end a story satisfactorily.  I’m glad I read this story because I’d always lumped Faulkner together with Steinbeck and Hemingway based on the eras  and subject matters, however now that I’ve read all three I don’t see an urge to read more of him as I do the other two.

Books that seemed like poor recommendations for first books but I would try more by the author

A supposedly fun thing 

  1.    A Supposedly Fun Think I’ll Never Do Again

Author:  David Foster Wallace

Published:  1997

I’ll make this point again in this article, but across the board it seemed like a wasted opportunity to start out various fiction writers by reading their non-fiction essays.  I understand that the non-fiction can give a basis for who the writer is and where they’re coming from, but in most cases a well written novel or short story can provide even better information like can this person tell an interesting story?  In this collection of essays, some of the topics are hyper specific and dragged on for much longer than necessary (an outdoor sale and a tennis match stood out in my mind as the worst).  I’ll frequently read long form articles on Grantland or its successor the Ringer that can tell an interesting story in a thirty minute read about basically anything, but aside from the title essay each of these failed to do so.  The intelligence behind the writing was apparent however, so I would not rule out trying Foster’s fiction writing.

It

  1.    It

Author:  Stephen King

Published:  1987

Even before reading this book, I had read numerous other Stephen King books.  Along with The Stand, It is possibly King’s best known work.  As a starting point however, It is a terrible place to start as it features one of the worst endings and revelations in any King book and without a doubt treats its female lead character worse than any other main character in a King book.  I enjoy King’s writing and love a lot of this book, but for a good starting point try Pet Sematary or Salem’s Lot.

A room of one's own

  1.    A Room of One’s Own

Author:  Virginia Woolf

Published:  1929

Take all of the same comments from my David Foster Wallace essay here, but this one places higher for a few reasons.  First, it was better written.  Second, Woolf uses a fictional narrator/narrative make her point which is more unusual and again added to my enjoyment.  Finally, instead of being hit and miss on the topics, this contained one specific topic and stayed on point.  While it felt more educational than Wallace’s, it avoided the extreme tedium of Wallace’s least interesting essays.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

  1.   Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Author:  Salman Rushdie

Published:  1990

This lengthy allegory is a fantasy story about different individuals vying for leadership of a kingdom and the power of stories and words.  For my taste, this book failed from the get go by trying to tell a story in a children’s book manner but addressing political issues that only an adult would pick up on.  When done correctly this can lead to a masterwork (cough Animal Farm cough) but here Rushdie tells a meandering story that will not keep a kid’s interest and jumps around so much in who he’s targeting that even adults will feel lost.  The ambition of what he was trying was interesting enough to leave me open to reading more by him.

Oliver Twist

  1.   Oliver Twist

Author:  Charles Dickens

Published:  1839

Dickens isn’t for everybody, so I appreciate the idea of picking a shorter work of his for new readers to try and see if they enjoy him.  The problem with this selection is Oliver Twist is not a great book.  Dickens relies on unbelievable coincidences throughout to both create and escape conflict, never in a satisfying manner.  While asking somebody to jump right into a masterpiece tome like David Copperfield would probably not be the right choice either, but a compromise like Great Expectations would probably be a better introduction to this intimidating author.

The Raven

  1.    The Raven

Author:  Edgar Allen Poe

Published:  1845

Edgar Allen Poe has so many wonderful short stories that I think a more appropriate introduction to him would be one of them than this brief (but excellent) poem.  My own recommendations would be The Cask of Amontillado, The Masque of the Red Death or The Tell-Tale Heart.  In my experience anybody can enjoy a short story but some people will never appreciate poetry.  If you are going with one chance to hook somebody, go for the broad appeal.

Mystery and Manner

  1. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Author:  Flannery O’Connor

Published:  1969

Completing the David Foster Wallace/Virginia Woolf example of ignoring fiction for non-fiction, I rate O’Connor’s book here as the best of the three.  Even for those with no ambition to write anything, there was a lot of interesting material in this book.  It was also an easy read, that felt less like scholarship than either of the other non-fiction works.  More than anything it made me want to read O’Connor’s actual fiction work, however I still have no idea if I would enjoy it or not, so for me it’s not a great recommendation as a starting point.

Eye-in-the-sky-04

  1.   Eye in the Sky

Author:  Philip K. Dick

Published:  1957

I love 1950’s science fiction, particularly the young adult stuff of that era that had the joy and wonder of later media like “Forbidden Planet” or “Star Trek.”  I was excited to read this book by Philip K. Dick expecting that sort of fun, but was instead stuck with a book that focuses more on sociological issues in a very dated manner.  Here, different characters are sucked into various realities created by the minds of others in the group.  The book is written in a very “Red Scare” era, which unfortunately doesn’t successfully carry the paranoia from that era to today’s readers.  Even worse, Dick’s writing of female characters is particularly offensive, with all of them being shrill, and illogical.  I haven’t read a ton of Dick’s work, but I’d recommend A Scanner Darkly to a new reader before recommending this one.

Glad I read it, not sure if I’d read more

Look at Me

  1.    Look at Me

Author:  Jennifer Egan

Published:  2001

A fashion model is in a car accident, resulting in her face being reconstructed before she returns to the world that does not recognize her (no it’s not the plot of Invisible Monsters, though it’s close).  There’s also some subplots about mysterious strangers and possible connections to her childhood that give the book a Murakami or David Lynch vibe.  All of that sounds awesome, so why is this book ranked so low?  For me, all of the cool parts did not gel into a cohesive whole.  What started off interesting ended up reading like too many balls in the air for an overly neat conclusion that felt out of place with the book that preceded it.

Black Swan Green

  1.   Black Swan Green

David Mitchell

Published:  2006

Here is an obviously semi-autobiographical story about a young boy dealing with a stammer over the course of one year of his life in 1980’s England.  Much like Nick Hornby, Mitchell does a nice job of creating a personality in the narrator of the book and using humor to make painful scenes more bearable.  Bonus points for the unique setting which taught me about the Falkland Islands conflict and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, but for a coming of age but nothing in the story made it stand out among the genre.

the.bluest.eye.cover

  1.   The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison

Published:  1970

A devastating story about a child taken in by another family after her father rapes her twice, leaving pregnant, then abandons her family.  Although that is the literal plot of the book, the broader focus in the book is the same young girl’s view of beauty and how it doesn’t include her.  In particular, she yearns for the blue eyes that she sees appreciated in the world around her.  When I initially reviewed this book I mentioned how another book that I had read before it had similar elements but better executed.  My chief issue on this one was the switching narrators did not lead to as smooth of a reading experience.

Memories of my Melancholy Whores

  1.   Memories of my Melancholy Whores

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Published:  2004

Well, after discussing patricidal rape, let’s move on to something more cheerful.  Here’s a book about a ninety year old who hires a poor fourteen year old girl to take her virginity.  There’s no getting around the description, but truthfully this is a book that is much more innocent than it sounds from the description.  While the main character has frequently hired prostitutes in the past, this is a story of  his falling in love with the idea of the young girl, watching her sleep, and feeling younger as a result without ever molesting or consummating that desire.  (Who are we kidding, it’s still creepy as all get out.)  The writing is wonderful though, but I suspect many people (myself included) will still be caught up on lechery to ever become fully invested in the book.

Gilded Six Bits

  1.   The Gilded Six Bits*

Zora Neale Hurston

Published:  1933

Unlike non-fiction essays, I was very satisfied by the inclusion of short stories as ways to try out some of these authors.  In this brief story of a poor black couple who are given temptation in the form of a new rich black man in town, every word advanced the story or added to the atmosphere of the story.  Despite a terrible choice by one of the main characters, both leads felt like real people who were capable of making mistakes or offering forgiveness.  From here on down on the list, I enjoyed each of these entries.  So it’s mostly a ranking of how interested I am in seeking out additional writings by the author.

*By the time I got to Ms. Hurston I was sick of reading essays, so I skipped past the first recommendation (which I had found and bought) and moved on to the following short story recommendation.

All the Pretty Horse

  1.    All the Pretty Horses

Cormac McCarthy

Published:  1992

For modern writers (those still active and writing) there’s probably no name more revered than Cormac McCarthy.  I’m ashamed to admit until doing this challenge I’d never read any of his work, so I was looking forward to reading this book.  The story is about John and Lacey riding to Mexico, getting work and getting into trouble.  The trouble involves landing in a Mexican prison, murder and horse thievery, all related to falling in love with the wrong woman.  The story was interesting and the conflict was tense.  Unfortunately, McCarthy chose to write in a style that eliminated traditional punctuation, such that reading it required the reader to puzzle out what was being said and what was being narrated.  That’s a classic case of an author being too smart for his own good, which has me reluctant to read more by him.

Someone Like You

  1.    Someone Like You

Author:  Roald Dahl

Published:  1953

Rather than one short story, here is an entire collection of short stories by Roald Dahl.  I had read and loved his children’s books when I was growing up, but had never read his writings for adults.  Perhaps not surprisingly, they are fairly similar with very eccentric characters, British charm and a serious affinity for food.  The stories that stuck out to me were the lady that murdered her husband (I feel like this one was remade into a tv show) and a machine that wrote stories (replacing authors).  Compared to reading one short story, reading a whole collection can give you a sample of the author’s style but it also makes them start to run together and makes it easier to forget individual entries.

On Beauty

  1.   On Beauty

Author:  Zadie Smith

Published:  2005

British or American, black or white, liberal or conservative, wealthy or poor.  Each label is present and at issue in this story of a husband and wife going through marital problems, and their three children seeking to find their own identity.  There was a lot going on in this book, but Smith did a nice job of keeping the plot moving and advancing each character along their own arc.  I enjoyed this book, but also felt that there were a few too many coincidences to keep bringing the cast together for key moments which always takes me out of the story as a reader.

Perdido Street Station

  1.    Perdido Street Station

Author:  China Mieville

Published: 2000

This book was also breaking new ground for me in terms of the hybrid of fantasy and steampunk elements over the course of a lengthy novel.  The world building was impressively done, with entire races with their own beliefs and personalities fully formed.  Similarly to On Beauty, the end resulted in too many coincidences taking place to bring all of the lingering plot threads together but for memorable characters this was one of the best books I read.

The Fault in Our Stars

  1.   The Fault in Our Stars

Author:  John Green

Published:  2012

I managed to get this one read before the movie came out and everybody knew what it was about.  (I never read the backs of books before starting.)  For those unaware, two very sick kids fall in love with each other and take a trip to Europe.  There is plenty to like here, with snappy dialogue and a story that makes sense without relying on cheap tricks.  For my taste, it was an OK read, but a bit more saccharine than I normally prefer.

Hey Nostradamus

  1.   Hey Nostradamus

Author:  Douglas Coupland

Published:  1988

Some topics are difficult to tell a story about, no matter how good the writer (see entry #34 on this list) and school shootings is one of them.  Stephen King’s worst book is exhibit A on that account.  Coupland does something admirable by making the book about the victims and not the shooters.  This includes a very powerful opening section from the perspective of one of the deceased.  Less successful is a follow up chapter where one of the survivors has to deal with both irresponsible media and overly religious parents.  The book continues down the rabbit hole with other characters touched by the survivors and less involved with the shooting.  It’s in these later sections that the book lost its focus for me but overall it worked more than it did not.

Sag Harbor

  1.    Sag Harbor

Author:  Colson Whitehead

Published:  2009

Similarly to Black Swan Green, Sag Harbor is a coming of age story that reads as semi-autobiographical by the author.  Here boys come to their summer home to reinvigorate their friendship with those they only see when school’s out.  Here the setting is a town that is becoming gentrified, where the split is primarily between white wealthy vacationers and black working class families that have owned property for years.  Overall this was a book with nothing wrong with it but no urgency to make it particularly memorable.

The Assistant

  1.   The Assistant

Author:  Bernard Malamud

Published:  1957

We’re halfway through the fifty books recommended and I can say I was a fan of each of this books from this point forward.  The Assistant tells the story of a grocer who is in danger of going out of business, then is robbed and beaten.  Shortly afterward, a stranger comes to the store offering to work for free (and who is revealed to the reader to be one of the robbers).  The book takes several unexpected turns and does a great job of not having good and evil characters, providing motivations for plenty of people to do bad things.

Martian Chronicles

  1.   The Martian Chronicles

Author:  Ray Bradbury

Published:  1950

Earlier I mentioned being a fan of 1950’s science fiction, this Bradbury book being a better example of the strengths of the genre during that time than the Philip K. Dick book The Eye in the Sky.  Here Bradbury utilizes an usual structure of short stories linked by the overall theme and divided by near-extinction events.  The structure allows for parallels to be drawn between humans and Martians, and for certain things to appear cyclical in the lives of both species.  The one drawback is a lack of character development with this structure, but still a fascinating and important work in the genre.

Handmaid's Tale

  1.    The Handmaid’s Tale

Author:  Margaret Atwood

Published:  1985

This book is in the news a lot now both because of a highly regarded adaptation on television as well as it’s purported timeliness in lieu of the current presidential administration.  I’ll steer clear of the political aspects of our country and say that I very much enjoyed this book.  Atwood creates a society ruled by white men, with women and minorities either removed or subjugated to very specific roles.  The flashback narrative style did not always work for me, but The Haindmaid’s Tale featured great characters, atmosphere and conflict.

All My Sons.jpg

  1.    All My Sons

Author:  Arthur Miller

Published:  1947

Enough Rope

  1.    Enough Rope

Author:  Dorothy Parker

Published:  1926

One of the cool things about this challenge was the range of items included.  I don’t think I’ve sat down and read a play since The Crucible in school (also this author), so it was fun to do so again with All My Sons.  As for poetry, besides the stuff we read to my son at night I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to read poetry for fun.  I’m happy to report I greatly enjoyed both of these works, despite my reservations about the format.  I actually enjoyed All My Sons more, with an interesting story of a family caught up in the possibility that of its members may have knowingly produced defective materials for army aircraft during the war.  I’ll give Parker’s Enough Rope the edge here though, because I’m still not a fan of reading poetry but hers was as enjoyable as any I’ve read.  Parker’s style doesn’t rely on heavy metaphors or abstract style, instead utilizing clever rhymes and relatable situations.

The reason these two books are not in the next section however, is even though I enjoyed them both I don’t see myself reading more plays or poetry as a result.  For me, a play is like a screenplay: it’s meant to be performed by actors and brought to life.  I’d prefer to watch the finished product.  Poetry has the same problem as a short story collection, where even if I enjoy it I feel like I don’t retain it afterwards.  It’s a fleeting enjoyment at best (for this reader).  Because Parker wrote outside of the poetry genre, she again gets the edge here as somebody I’d be more likely to try in the future.

Dancer

  1.   Dancer

Collum McCann

Published:  2003

I am ranking these titles in retrospect, relying on my original reviews (if I wrote one) or my Goodreads star ratings.  On my initial read, I didn’t enjoy Dancer as much as The Handmaid’s Tale or even Black Swan Green but it has stuck with me much more than either of those books.  At the time, I really hadn’t read anything like it in terms of a fictional biography of a real person (I’ve since added to this genre with the excellent Doc).  The switching narrators and perspectives in this book did not work for me, but the storyline of a Russian ballet dancer defecting to the west who behaved terribly to others and having it primarily based on fact was interesting enough to help the book hold up in my mind years after reading it.

Books that were excellent recommendations, where I can find more?

A Farewell to Arms

  1. A Farewell to Arms*

Author:  Ernest Hemingway

Published:  1929

As mentioned earlier, I had not read any Hemingway prior to this challenge and was looking forward to discovering him and Faulker and seeing how they compared to Steinbeck.  For similarities, I’ll say that all three authors enjoy a good gut punch and a sad ending.  Hemingway’s use of language is much less superfluous than Faulkner’s and has a very distinct voice.  I enjoyed this book (even with all the tragedy it contains) but it doesn’t rank higher for a few reasons.  This challenge also featured a Steinbeck book, as well as another war book, both of those being among the best I read and making this novel suffer by comparison.

*The first recommendation by the writer was a few different short stories, so I cheated a bit here and read the book recommended #2 instead.

Goodbye Columbus

  1. Goodbye, Columbus

Author:  Philip Roth

Published:  1959

I mentioned Cormac McCarthy’s reputation earlier; Roth is certainly one of the few names that could be compared to his for prestige.  Unlike McCarthy, I’d read some of Roth’s works before and been OK with them, though without a desire to try more.  The actual story here is about two people falling in love, with both getting developed as characters that felt real.  Much like Sag Harbor or On Beauty, the book also strongly deals with identity and assimilation, in this instance focusing on Jewish people.

Benito Cereno

  1. Benito Cereno

Author:  Herman Mellville

Published:  1856

This was the third Melville book I’ve read, following Moby Dick and Billy Budd.  I greatly enjoyed both of those, so it’s not a surprise that I enjoyed this one as well.  Melville’s style utilizes about 8x as many words as another author to tell the same story, but he is a master of creating suspense.  This story about a slave revolt on a ship is also a better starting point than either of the other two books I’ve read by Melville, so kudos to the expert who picked this one for new readers to see if Melville is up their alley.

A Wizard of Earth Sea

  1. A Wizard of Earth Sea

Author:  Ursula K. Le Guin

Published:  1968

There were several coming of age books in this challenge, but none of the others featured shadow monsters or schools for wizards.  In A Wizard of Earth Sea, Le Guin escapes some of the trappings of the fantasy genre by not having a typical evil villain (the main conflict is internal) and by having a person of color as the protagonist.  Everything is also well executed, but if there’s a problem with this book it’s that since its publication the genre has recycled so many of the ideas that reading it for the first time now the story is a bit predictable.

Smoke and Mirrors

  1. Smoke and Mirrors

Author:  Neil Gaiman

Published:  1998

Lone Ranger and Tonto

  1. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven

Author:  Sherman Alexie

Published:  1993

Lives of Girls and Women

  1. Lives of Girls and Women*

Author:  Alice Munro

Published:  1971

Here are three collections of short stories by three very different authors and I loved each of them.  My favorite individual stories were probably in Gaiman’s book (“The Goldfish Pond” being the best) which had a great variety of topics, styles, and settings as the stories were unrelated.  Alexie’s book takes it a step closer to a novel as characters recur throughout his collection, the settings may change but the book retains a similar theme of revealing the modern Native American existence.  Munro’s book is so close to a novel I’m tempted to call it one, as each chapter is a short story focusing on the same main character and recurring friends and family.  Each chapter tells a complete story on its own but reading the book as a whole provides for added character development.

*The recommendation for Ms. Munro was just one story from this collection, but I went ahead and read the whole book.

Caves of Steel

  1. Caves of Steel

Author:  Isaac Asimov

Published:  1954

1950’s science fiction, take three!  I’d read plenty of Asimov prior to this book, so I was not surprised to enjoy Caves of Steel as a fun, brisk adventure with some mystery thrown in.  The first book in the Robot series is a great place to start, as it is a quick read and early on establishes the rules and ethics of Asimov’s science fiction universe.  Much like Heinlein, Asimov will throw speeches out from different characters to illuminate the readers on his own view for various issues.  Of all the science fiction books I read as part of this, Caves of Steel was my favorite.

Speech Sounds

  1. Speech Sounds

Author:  Octavia Butler

Published: 1984

While Caves of Steel was my favorite science fiction book I read, the best story was Speech Sounds by Octavia Butler.  Something has happened to the human race, and mankind can no longer read, write or understand like we once could.  People still travel through the day living echoes of their former lives, with violence common as people are unable to explain themselves to one another.  I had no idea this story came out in the 1980’s, as I read it in a collection of stories that was just published in the last few years.  At only 13 pages it is a powerful story that I imagine will hold up as well thirty more years from now as it does today.

Straight Man

  1. Straight Man

Author:  Richard Russo

Published:  1997

I enjoy humor in my reading and Russo’s Straight Man delivers plenty of it, even dipping its toes into farce.  Set in the world of higher education, over the top egos and antics provide the narrator the opportunity to make ludicrous decisions at every turn and have blustering friends and colleagues react accordingly.  The cover of the book features a goose, which comes from a scene where the department chair threatens to kill a duck every day until his budget is approved.  It’s that sort of book, and if that sounds funny to you, you’ll enjoy it.

Supreme Story of Year

  1. Supreme

Author:  Alan Moore

Published:  2002

Poetry, short stories, science fiction, essays… sounds like it’s time for some comics.  Neil Gaiman was previously included here, but the expert opted to go with some of his prose work.  With Alan Moore one must start with the comic book as no other writer is as revered in the medium.  Supreme is one of my favorite works of his.  Although to fully appreciate this story it helps to be familiar with the character prior to Moore’s writing him, Story of the Year is an easy enough starting point for new readers to understand.  Here Moore creates his own riff on the Superman archetype, complete with supporting cast and throwback period setting.  The result is one of Moore’s more lighthearted creations that set the stage for what he would later perfect in Tom Strong.

Cannery Row

  1. Cannery Row

Author:  John Steinbeck

Published:  1945

Nick Hornby was writing for the Guardian when he mused “if Charles Dickens is the greatest writer of all time, and David Copperfield is his best book, does that make it the best book of all time?”  As much as I love David Copperfield, I’d agree with Hornby’s outcome that it’s probably not a fair label to put on any book.  I bring it up because for this reader, John Steinbeck is the greatest author of all time, and though I wouldn’t put Cannery Row as his best book (East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent, Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, and In Dubious Battle would edge it out) I had a similar monologue in my mind before placing it 8th on this list.  Completing the Faulkner/Hemingway/Steinbeck comparison, while Hemingway has the most distinctive writing style, Steinbeck has a way with language to make every sentence a delight to read and every book full of memorable characters that stay with you long afterward.  The premise of this book is that a few friends decide to do something nice for another guy in their community, and that’s all Steinbeck needs to work with to create another masterpiece.

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler

  1. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler

Author:  Italo Calvino

Published:  1979

I mentioned Dancer earlier as a book that stayed with me long after reading it.  More than any other book on this list, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler was an unforgettable reading experience.  The book is about a reader trying to read a book called If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.  It alternates between a second person narrator (I’ve never read a book with one of those, except for a Choose Your Own Adventure book) explaining their attempt to read the book and the second is the book being read by the reader (you).  It’s trippy in the best ways that Mulholland Drive or Memento are, and Calvino wisely ends the book before stretching the trick out too far.  Because the experience relies so heavily on a gimmick, I don’t have it higher, and it’s sure to drive some people crazy, but I really enjoyed it.

Cider House Rules

  1. The Cider House Rules

Author:  John Irving

Published:  1985

If you only read one book on abortion this year… just kidding.  I sort of dreaded reading this book.  All I knew about it was the abortion controversy and that it was made into a movie that didn’t look good.  I was surprised to find a life story of a well developed main character and a touching love story all so expertly delivered.  Irving has a fluid writing style that made this book a very quick and enjoyable read despite being rather lengthy.  Along with Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope, I enjoyed this book the most when I was done compared to what I was expecting.

Zeitoun

  1. Zeitoun

Author:  Dave Eggers

Published: 2009

The one area I think could have used more attention from Book Riot was non-fiction full length books.  The bulk of the non-fiction recommendations were short essays, with the only exceptions being this and Flannery O’Connor’s book.  Zeitoun was every bit as exciting and interesting as any fiction writing, with the amazingly true story of a man staying behind in flooded New Orleans and being detained in a government prison with no apparent basis.  Eggers makes the story harrowing and switches the narrative at an opportune time to draw out the suspense.  Unfortunately for Eggers, readers can get on Wikipedia and learn more about the subject of the book, which is why I say “no apparent basis” as this reader suspects he wasn’t quite as cooperative and/or innocent as this book made him appear.

True Grit

  1. True Grit

Author:  Charles Portis

Published:1968

Next up, the lone western in the fifty book challenge.  I love the genre, and this is one of the classics in the genre.  A young girl hires a bounty hunter with “true grit” to catch the men that wronged her daddy, and requires herself to go along with him.  The writing is clever and the dialogue is snappy.  It features three of the best characters to appear in a western.  The biggest drawback to this book is that it’s been remade into two pretty good and faithful film adaptations, so for those of us who have already seen it twice there are few surprises to be had in this book.

Print

  1. Animal Farm

Author:  George Orwell

Published:  1945

This is one of the few books that students are assigned to read that ends up also being well loved (the other one that comes to mind is Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nihm, maybe more anthropomorphic literature needs added to the curriculum).  Animal Farm is even more impressive because it’s a book that becomes more enjoyable the more you learn about World History.  There are few books people can quote when they’re done reading them, but nobody forgets “Four legs good, two legs bad” and the path it takes.

Norwegian Wood

  1. Norwegian Wood

Author:  Haruki Murakami

Published:  1987

Here is a book that had everything I love present: a unique setting (1960’s Tokyo), unpredictable characters, creepy undertones and adult subject matter.  So often I need to switch to young adult, comics or specific genres to get an a story with just two of those things, but right after finishing this I bought a stack of Murakami novels in hopes of finding even more.  Here a man thinks back to his youth, remembering two very different women he loved and the fates of both of them.  Great authors don’t need a complicated plot to tell a deep and memorable story.

The Hunters

  1. The Hunters

Author:  James Salter

Published:  1956

I mentioned back at A Farewell to Arms that it paled compared to another war book I read, and this was that book.  This book focusing on Korean War pilots and their competition to get kills and the mounting pressure to succeed completely blew me away.  Much like with Steinbeck, every page drew me in more with effortless brilliance in the writing.  This was the rare book that I did not want to end, but also think wrapped up in the perfect manner.  My favorite of the fifty books/stories/essays I read, very highly recommended.

“Nevertheless: A Memoir” by Alec Baldwin Review

Nevertheless: A Memoir

Author: Alec Baldwin

Release Date: 2017

NeverthelessWho would want to read a book about a guy that needs to spend two pages detailing all of the people he’s punched since becoming famous? Somebody whose most famous moment in the past twenty years involved leaving a voicemail insulting his young daughter? Somebody whose politics can be so one sided he was caricatured as the villain in Team America: World Police? Sign me up, for starters. In addition to plenty of controversy and poor decisions, Baldwin is also the fascinating Hollywood leading man who famously could not draw an audience. Despite all that, he has appeared in many great films, had a starring role in one of the best TV comedies of all time, hosted Saturday Night Live more than any other person and enjoyed a second career as a successful podcaster. Clearly there is ample substance here to populate an autobiography.

Much like the man writing it, Nevertheless: A Memoir by Alec Baldwin is at times very entertaining and at others frustrating. I suspect your enjoyment of this book will depend on your expectations heading into it. If you are looking for an extensive experience inside the mind of Alec Baldwin spent discussing his famous family, behind the scenes drama on movie sets and his aspirations beyond acting you’ll unfortunately be disappointed. Although there are nuggets of each of those areas, Nevertheless doesn’t spend an extensive amount of time on any of them. If you are hoping for a very well written summary of his life that touches on all of the greatest hits but does not go into great detail on any of them, then this is a very engrossing read and a page turner.

The early headlines coming from this book involve the shade thrown by Baldwin at the producers of a movie that possibly misled him on his co-star being underaged and at Harrison Ford for taking his Jack Ryan franchise away from him. Those two sections combined take up two paragraphs in a 260 page memoir. Comparatively, Baldwin spends extensive time complimenting the many actors, directors, agents and friends he has known throughout his life. It is fitting that Nevertheless’s headlines look to make Baldwin as combative and ignore sections praising the likes of Gary Oldman, Jennifer Jason Leigh or Al Pacino. Even when describing his relationship with Kim Basinger, Baldwin’s harshest words are reserved for the attorneys and judges that he has encountered in his various trips to the court room.

While Baldwin spends an appropriate amount of time discussing 30 Rock, The Hunt for Red October, The Edge and his work in the theater, the vast majority of his filmography receives one sentence or fewer. For me, that was the most disappointing aspect of this book as Baldwin is primarily known for being an actor but glosses over most of his film work. Similarly, Baldwin spends a great deal of time discussing his parents but almost no time at all on his famous siblings (what little is mentioned is when all of the boys were still living at home). The one family member that gets extensive discussion outside of his parents is his daughter Ireland. While I don’t disbelieve anything Baldwin writes regarding his daughter, each passage does read like atonement bordering on pandering to convince the reader that the voicemail controversy was not indicative of their relationship. Baldwin also details his relationship and affection for homosexual males throughout his life which similarly reads as laying the groundwork for his rebuttal toward criticism of his use of the word “faggot” toward a paparazzi (Baldwin also denies saying that word).

Those are my criticisms of the book but I’m giving it four stars. I read this book over a few days but it’s definitely the sort of book you could read through in one sitting. Baldwin writes more like a novelist than an actor, utilizing different tenses and twists in chronology to tell his life story. The language is excellent to the point that I was checking for a ghost writer after completing. My favorite section was actually the flashback through all the people Baldwin had punched which served as a shocking and entertaining switch from the reality Baldwin had presented throughout the rest of the book. While I didn’t learn a lot about his work on his own projects that I didn’t already know, Baldwin is proud to share his knowledge of film history (and classical music) in a way that is likely to educate many readers. Despite obviously writing to counter personal attacks on him as a parent and homophobe, Baldwin also comes away looking very honest at other times, such as discussing his motivations for writing this book and his belief that parents can never love all their children equally.

One gets the sense that Baldwin is just beginning another chapter of his life with three children under three as he approaches sixty years old. For older fans, he is a former leading man but a new generation sees him as a game show host and a late night impressionist.Nevertheless is the second book he has written, but looking at where he is now in life Baldwin has ample life experiences happening to supply a third one. If you are a fan of his work or just find him an interesting public figure, this book will entertain you. If you are looking for more than what you could get in an extended interview with the man, particularly related to his film work and famous siblings you may come away disappointed.

4-star

“Foul Ball: Plus Part II” by Jim Bouton Review

foul-ball

Foul Ball: Plus Part II

Author: Jim Bouton

Release date: 2005

**This review has been updated following the reading of Part Two**

Three books in and I am still a big fan of Jim Bouton’s writing. The retired baseball player’s style foreshadowed the invention of the blog and once again kept me entertained in this page turner about his attempt to get a lease on a local minor league ballpark. The resulting struggle against the local government comes off as a one sided rant by a jilted lover with enough details mixed in that you end up wondering how this is a story you haven’t heard more about.

The highest praise I can give is that upon finishing part one of the book I checked Wikipedia for an update and began trying to track down the updated version of the book for the rest of the story. After tracking it down, I’m glad that I did although Bouton accurately subtitled the Post Script to the book accurately when he wrote “In which what happens next could have been easily predicted by the reader.”

Bouton sold this reader on the rationality of his proposal for the stadium in the first book, but he also threw numerous people in the town of Pittsfield under the bus for their shady dealings with himself and partner Chip Elitzer. One can only imagine how polarizing a figure he must have been in the town following the publication of Part I. As a result, it’s clear from the start that the publication of the book has served as a Catch 22 for our heroic investors. Certainly the publication aided in getting the incumbent politicians replaced with those that would invite Bouton and Elitzer back, but it also simultaneously made both individuals Public Enemy #1 and 1a in the process.

Along with Bouton’s first three baseball biographies, this Bouton series of books beats out about everything I’ve read in the baseball non-fiction genre except the excellent “Veeck As In Wreck.” Highly recommended for fans of 30 for 30.

5-star

“Scrappy Little Nobody” by Anna Kendrick Review

scrappy.jpg

Scrappy Little Nobody

Author: Anna Kendrick

Release Date: November 2016

I’m a pretty huge fan of Anna Kendrick. I think I first saw her in “Up in the Air,” but really loved her in “50/50.” Since then I’ve sat through great films (“End of Watch,” “Rocket Science”), fun films (“Pitch Perfect,” “Mr. Right”), films I never heard of but ended up really liking (“Elsewhere,” “Drinking Buddies”) and even the occasional terrible film (“Rapturepalooza” “Camp”) just based on seeing her in them. I’m also a big fan of her Twitter account, which routinely has excellent comedic value in the 100 character ballpark. Thus it was with great excitement that I picked up her book. How did it turn out?

I’ll start by saying that it seemed like there were really two books here. The majority of the book is written in memoir fashion, beginning at childhood and advancing through her first acting on broadway and into film (the aforementioned “Camp”). This continues up through the “Twilight” movies and covers the highs and lows of her career and personal life. Kendrick spends slightly more time on her dating and living situation than talking about her acting career, so for casual or non-cinefile fans of her work this might make a more entertaining read. For us hardcore Kendrick watchers, we can also enjoy the stories about the low budget movie shot in Indiana where there was more parking reserved for horse buggies than cars (“Elsewhere”) or where she was crushing on a co-star in an improvised cameo (“Digging for Fire”) despite her frequently not mentioning the films by name. (Even the only reference for the best Kendrick movie, “50/50” is a one line story about a woman complimenting her on the funny cancer movie she was in.)

That book ended about 75% of the way through, around the same time that Kendrick gets to “Pitch Perfect” chronologically. At that point, the book reads like a series of essays that Kendrick was writing for a non-memoir book. There’s the chapter on grief, the one on fantasy parties, the one about a near death experience (which even Kendrick jokes at the end is written in a different tense than the rest of the book) and other various topics. I recall when this book was first announced, the idea of it was it was advertised as Kendrick’s take on various topics and after reading the whole book I can’t help but feel like it started as one idea, shifted to another and ended up a combination of both to meet the release date.

There’s your critical analysis, but more likely we’re all reading this book to see if Kendrick’s interview/twitter wit can be captured in prose over 200+ pages and the answer is definitely yes. The humor in this book is mainly self-deprecating, but Kendrick also has plenty of venom saved for various shady people she’s dealt with (or basic-est bitch-iest people, sic). When I read a book by an actor, I kind of hope for something along the lines of the Avclub’s recurring ‘Random Roles” web feature, where the author will share stories from just about every random project they’ve worked on. With the exception of Lance Henriksen’s “Not Bad for a Human” I’ve never actually gotten a book like that but Kendrick’s book still succeeds as a fun, quick read. If you already like Kendrick, you’ll probably like her more after reading this book, and if you don’t like her, odds are you’ll still chuckle a few times and fly through this entertaining read.

4-star

“The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy” by Bill Simmons Review

basketball

The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy

Author: Bill Simmons

Release Date: October 2009

Bill Simmons is an NBA super fan, and he set out to write the definitive Book of Basketball, settling arguments and ranking the top 96 players of all time. How did he do? First, Bill’s credentials: He’s a lifetime NBA season ticket holder, a long time opinion columnist for ESPN, Grantland, and the Ringer, and sometimes host of Any Given Wednesday and The Bill Simmons Podcast. My own credentials? I’m a lifetime Utah Jazz fan, long time NBA League Pass subscriber, and religious reader of any articles by Zach Lowe, Kevin Pelton or John Hollinger. I’m also a big fan of Bill Simmons, so I think I can be fair in evaluating his polarizing styles.

What Simmons got right: this book is written like a 700+ page version of his annual Trade Value column, so if you like his writing you’ll be pleased at the style of his prose. He also wrote some interesting sections on the History of the NBA through 1984 and some of the most honest writing about race in the NBA I’ve ever read. He obviously read a ton of older books about basketball, and has some great anecdotes and opinions from each players contemporaries. More than any other source he uses, the old magazine articles and books provide additional knowledge about NBA greats that I didn’t have prior to reading.

What Simmons got wrong: As much as it pains me to say, after reading 700 page of Simmons thoughts on the NBA, it’s questionable how much Simmons understands the game of basketball. Simmons does a great job of understanding players histories and personalities, but for the actual game of basketball you’d get a much more informed opinion from somebody like Zach Lowe on what makes a player great. Simmons routinely emphasizes one moments from a player’s career to justify calling them clutch or a choker, completely ignores longevity or distance between record holders and the next closest guy, and routinely forgets that the NBA is a team sport and players are stuck on bad teams sometimes. Simmons kind of acknowledges this with Kevin Garnett, but seems to grasp that Garnett was still the same player regardless of whether he ever came to Boston or not.

Simmons ranks Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time. That’s fine with me. He also talks about how two of the Bulls teams were two of the best six teams ever. Also, how nobody was beating MJ those six years. Logically then, the second best player of all time could be playing those six years, and not win a ring. Bill Simmons also puts Bill Walton on a pedestal for his career; Walton only played about 6 fulls seasons. Are you seeing the problems with his logic yet? Basketball is a team sport, and I’m sorry but Robert Horry should not be mentioned in the same sentence with Charles Barkley or Karl Malone. Also, by the same logic, no way Bob Cousy should be ranked so high if Bill Russell was as amazing as Simmons is saying.

So yeah, I got frustrated at times with the double standards for Bill’s guys versus everybody else. The writing was still fun, with plenty of great footnotes tying the situations in the game to popular tv shows, movies and other pop culture (even Ric Flair made two appearances), and I laughed a few times out loud. But as an expert opinion settling debates? Sorry, nothing here I trust to pull out during an argument with another NBA fan.

Random bits:
A particular pet peeve was Simmons basing his opinion on players from the times they’d come to Boston.

In the Nowitzki chapter (written before Mavs won title) he stoops for Dirk because he crosses a ’42 threshhold (points plus assists plus rebounds average for playoffs) and explains how that puts him on elite list that overruns his prior playoff chokes. On the list twice? Karl Malone, who gets dinged for the memorable play with Jordan in 98 finals. Nowitski also gets dinged for never having won a title, which of course he did shortly after the book came out. Again, he was the same player before and after.

Celtics like Dave Cowens, Sam Jones and Bob Cousy were ranked way too high for team accomplishments.

This book had some of the best discussions of race in the sport that I’ve ever read.

Note **I wrote a much longer review for this one, but then my Firefox window closed through some keyboard shortcut I wasn’t aware of and I can’t find a way to recover what I had written.**

3-star