Posts

Review: Ella Minnow Pea

16201So a friend of ours gave Barb a copy of this book, Ella Minnow Pea, which we have both just gotten around to reading.

It’s a really good book.  Here’s the basic idea.  This group of people lives on an island devoted to the man who created the pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” something I used to type every day in TYPING class, when, you know, we took TYPING as a class.

That was the 9th grade.  Teacher was Mrs. Lemmerbrock.

Anyway, the whole island worships this guy and they have a sign up that has the phrase on it, except one day the “z” falls down and the island’s leaders decide to outlaw any use of the letter, which seems minor but is a big deal…it causes the entire library to close, for example.  The penalties are stiff–first, a public reprimand, second time a public flogging or stocking, and third time is permanent banishment.

It is a novel of letters, which makes it fun because you get to see the residents attempt to correspond, first without using a Z and then without other letters as the sign continues to fall apart.

It’s just a clever book.  It can be read on many different levels.  In looking around online, a lot of people have chosen to read it as a dystopian novel about authoritarian societies, which is fine, but this is no Handmaid’s Tale.

I preferred to read it another way:  as hilarious.  It is just very funny, especially as people are down to writing with 14 letters or something.  The characters are good as well and reveal themselves in how they respond to the ridiculous edicts of the leaders of the island.

It is also a writing feat of the first order.  First, of course, all of the letters conform to “the law” as it might stand at any given time.  This is a writing challenge that gets more difficult as it goes along.  Second, there is a plot where the people are trying to come up with shorter pangram than the original one, and he comes up with a bunch, which is also no small feat.

So, if you like language and laughter, I’d recommend the book.  It’s 100% farce and pure hilarity.

BJ’s year in review…

OK, so a reading year in review, following up on Barb’s review.  I actually wasn’t too keen on this topic, but then when I looked back at the books I read, I discovered little nuggets of unexpected pleasure when thinking back on the books of 2018.  Let me recount them.

karamFirst, our big-impossible-reading-project was Brothers Karamazov.  It was the best of the 3 books we have done so far.  It is a compelling book that can be read on so many different levels but still works as a straight story.  Its characters and story are still relevant today.  I honestly think anyone could read this book.

We didn’t blog about going to see Hamilton in November, but that certainly falls onto the literary scale.  Especially since I was one of those nerds that read the Chernow biography about the time that Lin-Manuel Miranda did.  The show was great.  Hard to believe you can exceed expectations that are as high as the ones we took in the door. It was a lifetime memory.  It also links into this year’s reading because grantone of the books I got for Christmas last year was the Chernow biography of US Grant, which was, of course, very good.  Grant is a great character because he is so multi-faceted.  Also, it shed excellent perspective on the Grant Presidency, which usually is labeled as “corrupt” and then skipped over.  Lastly, the book also doubles as an education of the times he lived in.horse

I read two award-winning books.  The first was A Horse Walks Into a Bar, which won the Man Booker.  Books that win that award can be dicey–I’m sure they have high literary quality but they are often allergic to readability.  This book was really good.  It was presented in anless original way and gradually revealed the pain that often is behind humor.  I also read Less, which won the Pulitzer Prize.  It was deserving as well.  A great story and a great character about life in the twilight.

I also read a couple books that probably don’t go down as literary but were fantastic red sparrowreading experiences.  Red Sparrow is a smart spy thriller, along the lines of The Americans.  The challenge is to not make the characters be cliches–you don’t need “The Russian Guy.”  Also, Putin is a character.  The other CAA bookone was Powerhouse by James Andrew Miller.  I’m a big fan of Miller’s oral histories and also a closet Hollywood-people-behaving-badly junkie, and this history of CAA was difficult to put down.

When I look back on the books I read, I see a couple of my rankings that don’t seem to stand the test of time.  One is Ohio, which I gave 5 stars but maybe was a 4 in retrospect.  Or maybe I’m influenced by later ratings from other readers.  And then there was Who is Rich, which I gave 3 stars but remember more fondly now.

I did do a reading challenge.  With the Brothers Karamazov, I tamped down the goal to 12 but I actually read 18.  Goal for this year is 20, plus Ulysses, #4 in the series.

Barb’s Year in Review

booksale-champagneIt’s that time of year when people make lists and look back on the year that was. I’d like to say this will be different, but who am I kidding. As we wind down 2018 here are some of my thoughts on the year that was….in book related terms.

This past year was our first full-year of having this blog. So that’s a thing, right? There is probably another post that I can write about what I’ve learned – good and bad – about the blogging process. It’s been fun to have somewhere to write about books. Also, it’s been a cool thing for us as a couple to have something to talk about – other than football and who is going to clean the bathroom.

It was a big year for me in non-book related things – moving and settling into a new city (well, actually country). I had a lot of downtime after I moved, so I was able to plow through many books. That was a pretty good way to spend some time. As a result I managed to read 52 books without breaking a sweat.

As for the ‘top’ books out of that 52 – here is what I’ve got:

american marriageAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones was a standout for me. It was a great book – both in storytelling and the subject matter being heartbreaking and topical. For me, it was cool to get to review it before it was published, have it be an Oprah’s book pick and be a very popular book (it made former President Obama’s read list).

firesLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng was just a superb book. It was engrossing and so well written. I literally can’t say enough about that one. I am always skeptical about books that get rave reviews but this one stood up to the hype. Also, she is from Ohio – my new home state. So yay Ohio!

16201Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn was a quirky and cool read. I haven’t reviewed it yet (stay tuned) but it was a reading hi-light for me, for sure.

KaramazovAnd then there were the Karamazov Brothers – our 2018 reading project.This was a surprise to both of us that we enjoyed it as much as we did.

Overall, I was, and am grateful that I am able to read and enjoy as many books as I do. And equally grateful that I can share my thoughts and reviews. Here is to a great 2019 filled with love, laughter and books! Cheers!

shutterstock_88747861-copy

99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret

9780374906047Finished my first non-Brothers Karamazov book.  It was the highly acclaimed Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.  Like a lot of people, I was intrigued by this book from watching the crown, where Margaret sort of steals the show.

Side note:  many of the people in this book would have felt comfortable around Pyotr Karamazov and the Windsors might rival the Karamazovs in dysfunction.

It’s gotten a ton of positive recognition.  It made the NY Times 100 notable book list, NPR, and several others.

I enjoyed it fine.  I ended up giving it 3-stars…but I enjoyed it.  One thing I recognized from reading the book is that while those of us here in the US we’ve come to bemoan the rise of our TMZ-infused celebrity culture, that kind of thing has been going on a long time in Britain, with the Royals occupying the stage.

So, there’s a bunch of different references to British tittering scandal culture that kind of went over my head, which probably impacted the enjoyment of the book.  Beyond that, I just wasn’t raised with the “you’d never do that in front of a royal” stuff that you might if you were raised in Britain.

For example, after meeting a bunch of Americans, the Queen was asked how it went.  She said, drolly, “I’ve shaken a lot of hands.”  Apparently, you’re not supposed to touch her.

It was a very good book for titillating detail of how a woman–who was not raised to be in the line to the throne–made her way through life as a second fiddle.  It’s classic younger sibling birth order stuff put into a blender.  In many ways, she was a train wreck…heavy drinking and smoking and reckless behavior and callous treatment of people…it was a pretty bumpy ride.

The book’s real accomplishment is taking someone who was always defined by those things, and giving you a little understanding of the loneliness of that particular life.  I know, they are first world problems and people have had to deal with a lot worse, but if you’re going to take the time to decide she was a mean bitch you can at least try to see how anybody else might have ended up that way in the same situation.  You should see some truly kind things she did.  And if you’re going to live vicariously through the royal family, you should do it through a real lens and not a Disney cartoon.

Last interesting point.  In Britain, the book was titled “Ma’am Darling:  Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.”  Isn’t that interesting?  I suspect that people here wouldn’t really grasp what that was referring to, but I always think it is interesting when the titles of books are different for relatively narrow slices of readership.

Brothers Karamazov: Thoughts

big_1409082380_1382454022_imageThe most surprising thing about this book is that I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. It is extremely readable and understandable. And, even more surprising, it’s funny. Ok, I mean parts are funny – it’s not like it’s a comedic book.

I think that one of the masterful things about art when done well is that there is depth to it. On the surface it might seem simple, but it has layers of complexity to it – if you choose to look at it that way. That’s what Dostoevsky does masterfully with this novel. On the surface it’s a story about a family and the relationship with the brothers and their father. You can read it that way and actually enjoy it. The thing that great artists do, and what Dostoyevsky is masterful at is people and how they work. He gets at the heart of how and why people operate as they do. You don’t feel like you are reading about people from 1890’s Russia – you could be reading about a family from any time or any place. The things he unearths are universal. It’s what makes Shakespeare classic, unveiling these universal truths about human beings.

Here is the thing that I appreciated, and I think what makes this readable and enjoyable: he doesn’t ram this stuff down your throat by spending hundreds of pages going on and on and on about a point (I’m looking at you Tolstoy). He weaves these lessons and ideas throughout the story like a thread. You don’t even notice that you are being taught.

I was watching some videos on Dostoyevsky and the Karamazov brothers and one thing that came up, was that Tolstoy is a sociologist and Dostoyveky is a psychologist. Hashtag mind blown.

Here is what surprised me most about this book, I would totally read it again. I think it’s one of the rare books, at least for me, that would get better with every reading. There are so many layers and nooks and crannies to figure out that I think you would definitely get more out of it each time you read it. I now have the answer to the question what book would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island.

 

Brothers Karamazov: Epilogue – tying up loose ends

8202807482_d28fd5ec54_bAs much as I enjoyed the book, I was not looking for a verbose epilogue. And, I should have trusted Dostoyevsky in this regard, since he has been pretty good at pacing up until now.

In the final 25-ish pages we get (most of) the threads of the story tied up.

There is an elaborate plan in place to get Dmitry out of his prison sentence. He is going to escape from the march to Siberia. There is a whole thing where he is going to escape to America, not to live there but to become “American” then return to Russia as an immigrant. This will allow him, and Grushenka to live without the pall of his sentence and his past hanging over him. Good luck with that.

The book also ends on an interesting note. The sick child from earlier in the book has died. And they are going to bury him. Aloysha makes a speech to the young boys about how to live life and not to forget the friends that they have made, and to go and live life to the fullest.

Ah, my children, my dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something noble and true!

This is obviously a message to the reader. Go! Embrace life and (basically) try not to be a jerk. I think that was about the right note to end the book on.

I think it’s going to take me a bit to absorb the book and reflect. Stay tuned for my thoughts.

It was good for me.

russian-drinking-bogatyrs_0So, book challenge #3 has been completed.  The Brothers Karamazov has joined War and Peace and Infinite Jest on the list of conquered unreadable books.  There will be another post answering the seminal question of whether everything you need to know is contained within its pages, as asserted by Kurt Vonnegut.

For now, a few thoughts.

This is the best of the books we have read in this series.  I say this for a couple of reasons.  The most important is that the book is funny.  At times, it is laugh-out-loud funny.  Mostly you hear how dark and depressing Doestovsky is, but his humor is underrated.  That includes broad humor, physical humor, ironic humor, the whole gamut.  He has an eye for the ridiculous.

It is also a book that is relevant to our times.  You can feel perfectly comfortable in its pages with very little transliteration.  Much of the action comes out of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich, the trial at the end is right out of the Seinfeld finale.  The addiction to sensual pleasures and the prevalence of false piety and pseudo-intellectualism come right out of our newspapers.

Lastly, the book can be read on many different levels.  At one level, it is a crime procedural.  It can be also read as farce, tragedy, as a spiritual primer, as a psychological textbook or social commentary.  You can slice this book however you like.

But, one thing can’t be lost.  War and Peace was about history–the role that people played in creating history…and then it was about free will.  The Brothers Karamazov is about psychology.   Why do people do what they do?  How do they become so fucked up?  What is the relationship between everyday human life and true, pure spirituality?

The story is also strong and easier to follow than War and Peace.  The characters are easier to follow, once you break the code of all the Russian nicknames.  The serialized format actually helps a reader by providing shorter sections and occasional summaries, which provide the same conveniences to a modern reader that I suspect they did to a Russian reader in the 1880s.

It’s way better than Infinite Jest.  We’re not even going there.  The books do not belong in the same paragraph.

I honestly would recommend this book to someone looking for a challenging read.  Barb and I have discussed that we might read it again because we suspect it is the kind of book that would reveal many clues and nuance on a second reading when you have a better idea what to expect.

This is a work of true brilliance.  Its understanding of the human condition is unfailing.  Dostoevsky saw the world as it was and, it turns out, still is…and probably always will be.  Because of that–and because it is a pleasure to read–this is a book for any book lover.