Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

October 26, 2014

dead souls Plot summary (from the publisher): Since its publication in 1842, Dead Souls has been celebrated as a supremely realistic portrait of provincial Russian life and as a splendidly exaggerated tale; as a paean to the Russian spirit and as a remorseless satire of imperial Russian venality, vulgarity, and pomp. As Gogol’s wily antihero, Chichikov, combs the back country wheeling and dealing for “dead souls”–deceased serfs who still represent money to anyone sharp enough to trade in them–we are introduced to a Dickensian cast of peasants, landowners, and conniving petty officials, few of whom can resist the seductive illogic of Chichikov’s proposition.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Many parts of this book were funny. The description above includes the word “Dickensian,” and I think that’s pretty apt. Some of the scenes, characters, and encounters did indeed remind me of Dickens–which is a good thing.
  • I liked that many of Chichikov’s trading partners were so skeptical about entering into a bargain with him. Even when it was clear they were getting the better end of the deal, their greed and suspicion wouldn’t let them believe that it could be so. They then became so intent on considering all the angles (what could Chichikov possibly want with the names of dead serfs??) that many of them ended up getting nothing at all. Such a true-to-life depiction of human behavior!
  • On one level, can’t this book be read as a pre-cursor to the Wall Street disasters? After all, here you have a guy wanting to mortgage/make money from something that exists only on paper. Isn’t creating “commodities” out of thin air what Wall Street does best now?!

Disliked:

  • The first part of the book captured my attention right away, but the second part was a bit more difficult to get through. It wasn’t nearly as interesting, original, or charming as the first.
  • I thought the reveal about what Chichikov intended to do with the dead souls was a bit anticlimactic. I was having so much fun conjecturing to myself about his plans that I was disappointed to learn that it was just another get-rich-quick scheme.

Rating:

I’ve been reading a lot of Russian lit this year, but this is the first Gogol I’ve encountered. If Dead Souls is representative of his work, then I can already say that I like his humor and style. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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NY Times Bestsellers 101920

October 19, 2014

Here are the current NY Times bestsellers in a handful of the more popular categories.

Combined Print & E-Book Fiction:
GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn
DEADLINE, by John Sandford
THE BEST OF ME, by Nicholas Sparks
BURN, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge
PARIS MATCH, by Stuart Woods

Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction:
KILLING PATTON, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL, by Lena Dunham
THE INNOVATORS, by Walter Isaacson
BEING MORTAL, by Atul Gawande
STOP THE COMING CIVIL WAR, by Michael Savage

Hardcover Fiction:
DEADLINE, by John Sandford
BURN, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge
EDGE OF ETERNITY, by Ken Follett
LILA, by Marilynne Robinson
SOMEWHERE SAFE WITH SOMEBODY GOOD, by Jan Karon

Hardcover Nonfiction:
KILLING PATTON, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL, by Lena Dunham
BEING MORTAL, by Atul Gawande
THE INNOVATORS, by Walter Isaacson
STOP THE COMING CIVIL WAR, by Michael Savage

Paperback Trade Fiction:
GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn
THE ALCHEMIST, by Paulo Coelho
DARK PLACES, by Gillian Flynn
SHARP OBJECTS, by Gillian Flynn
ORPHAN TRAIN, by Christina Baker Kline

Paperback Mass-Market Fiction:
GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn
THE BEST OF ME, by Nicholas Sparks
OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon
CROSS MY HEART, by James Patterson
SYCAMORE ROW, by John Grisham

Paperback Nonfiction:
UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT, by Daniel James Brown
WILD, by Cheryl Strayed
AMERICAN SNIPER, by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
THE HOT ZONE, by Richard Preston

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Pre-Christmas Sales

October 18, 2014

I swear, the holiday shopping season is getting longer and longer every year! Before, retailers were pushing it if they put up any Christmas-related stuff the day after Halloween. Now, it seems acceptable to start mentioning sales and so forth at any time in October. Every time I go to the mall or check out a website, I see signs or get notices about what’s on sale already or what will be on sale very soon. Most of the time it’s good information, but it also causes some anxiety because it reminds me of how much money I haven’t been saving for gifts!

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Native Son by Richard Wright

October 17, 2014

native-son Plot summary (from the publisher): Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I thought it was interesting that Wright didn’t make Bigger some innocent kid who had been wrongly framed. Bigger was a cold-blooded murderer (if not of Mary, then certainly of Bessie), yet the reader is still asked to see that it wasn’t his fault. I personally wasn’t swayed by the argument, but I nevertheless found this facet of the story intriguing.
  • I was fascinated at how quickly Bigger’s crime escalated. First he was just kissing Mary and thinking of maybe taking advantage of her in that drunken state. Next thing you know, he’s smothering her, then burning her body in the furnace, and then chopping her freakin’ head off. He went from indiscretion to crazy in like 10 seconds flat!
  • The prosecutor’s closing statement was so over-the-top with epithets as to be funny. The guy called Bigger every name in the book, things like “black cur,” “savage ape,” etc. and even referred to “jungle law.” I get what Wright was trying to do with that speech, but come on…I laughed.

Disliked:

  • The body disposal didn’t make much sense. Wouldn’t someone in the house have smelled something strange? Burning a human body presumably doesn’t emit the same innocuous odors as burning a piece of wood. And speaking of wood, just how was the handle of the axe still intact after being in the furnace while the body was pretty much reduced to ashes?
  • Max’s speech to the jury trying to justify Bigger’s misdeeds was way too long and preachy. He did make a few valid points (one being that subjecting Bigger to “justice” implies and equality that was never there), but I skimmed/tuned out a lot of it.

Rating:

I actually enjoyed Native Son by Richard Wright quite a bit. The story clipped along at a good pace (at least until the trial), and Bigger was an interesting enough protagonist to keep me invested in his plight. I did have some quibbles with the book, but overall I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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Butchers Hill by Laura Lippman

October 12, 2014

butchers hill Plot summary (from the publisher): Tess Monaghan has finally made the move and hung out her shingle as a p.i.-for-hire, complete with an office in Butchers Hill. Maybe it’s not the best address in Baltimore, but you gotta start somewhere, and Tess’s greyhound Esskay has no trouble taking marathon naps anywhere there’s a roof. Then in walks Luther Beale, the notorious vigilante who five years ago shot a boy for vandalizing his car. Just out of prison, he says he wants to make reparations to the kids who witnessed his crime, so he needs Tess to find them. But once she starts snooping, the witnesses start dying. Is the “Butcher of Butchers Hill” at it again? Like it or not, Tess is embroiled in a case that encompasses the powers that-be, a heartless system that has destroyed the lives of children, and a nasty trail of money and lies leading all the way back to Butchers Hill.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Most of the focus in this book remained on the cases rather than Tess’s personal/family life. There was minimal Aunt Kitty (thankfully) and no man in the mix. This was all perfectly fine by me.
  • I liked the Jackie Weir character and the strained friendship she and Tess developed over the course of the novel. I hope their “family” connection (Jackie had a daughter with Tess’s grandfather) gives Jackie a reason to turn up again in future installments in this series.
  • It’s good — albeit rather hard to believe — that Tess is out doing the PI thing on her own. I definitely wouldn’t enjoy these books as much if she were always in Tyner’s shadow.
  • Good to see Dorie (the tech whiz) involved with helping Tess. She’s an important connection to have, seeing as she can track info down faster than a bride looking for a Charleston SC dj for her spring wedding!

Disliked:

  • The “mysteries” here weren’t very mysterious or suspenseful. Tess’s first two cases basically involved finding missing people, which wasn’t very exciting. She doesn’t need to be hot on the heels of a serial killer in each installment, but cases with a bit more action and/or cleverer motives would be nice.
  • The Willa Mott character, with her crazy, out-of-control rants aimed towards Jackie, was way over the top. I really could have done without her.
  • I quickly tired of reading all about Jackie’s wealth, as symbolized by her Mont Blanc pen, Lexus, and willingness to pull out her checkbook at the drop of a hat. Okay, okay — she’s a self-made woman. We get it already!

Rating:

Butchers Hill, the third book in the Tess Monaghan series, was pretty much what I expected. I know by now that when I pick up one of these books I’m going to get a quick, breezy, somewhat entertaining read with a decent plot and lots of Baltimore flavor. That’s good enough for a rating of 3 stars out of 5.

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The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

October 4, 2014

wings of dove Henry James drew on the memory of a beloved cousin who died young to create one of the three central characters, Milly Theale, an heiress with a short time to live and a passion for experiencing life to its fullest. To the creation of the other two, Merton Densher and the magnificent, predatory Kate Croy, who conspire in an act of deceit and betrayal, he brought a lifetime’s distilled wisdom about the frailty of the human soul when it is trapped in the depths of need and desire. And he brought to the drama that unites these three characters, in the drawing rooms of London and on the storm-lit piazzas of Venice, a starkness and classical purity almost unprecedented in his work.

Under its brilliant, coruscating surfaces, beyond the scrim of its marvelous rhetorical and psychological devices, The Wings of the Dove offers an unfettered vision of our civilization and its discontents. It represents a culmination of James’s art and, as such, of the art of the novel itself.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked

  • Merton Densher wasn’t a likable character overall, but I’m glad that in the end he did develop feelings for Milly and was able to see Kate for what she really was. He walked away from the money, which has to count for something.
  • Okay, while freely admitting that Kate Croy was a diabolical schemer who deserved to rot in hell for taking advantage of a dying “friend,” I can’t help but think her the most interesting character in the book. She had a goal (to get money), and was willing to sacrifice everything (including the man she loved) in order to achieve it.

Disliked:

  • Man, this was a long — and long-winded — book! I am no stranger to lengthy tomes (hello, Infinite Jest), but I can only appreciate them when something is actually happening. With Wings of the Dove, it seemed that very little “action” took place. It was like 20 pages of what was going on in the characters’ heads as they paced around an empty room waiting to talk to someone. Ugh.
  • There was so much vagueness in the language that I found myself having to reread several passages to make sure I understood what was going on. I realize part of this is just a function of the time James was living in and the subject he was writing about, but still… it was quite tedious to have to try to decipher every little action — particularly since what was significant then doesn’t mean a whole lot now.

Rating:

I am by no means a Henry James expert (or even fan), and can’t tell the difference between “early James” and “late James”. Nevertheless, I can tell you what I like and don’t like, and unfortunately, most of The Wings of the Dove falls into the latter category. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life by Arnold Schwarzenegger

September 22, 2014

total recall Summary (from the publisher): His story is unique, and uniquely entertaining, and he tells it brilliantly in these pages.

He was born in a year of famine, in a small Austrian town, the son of an austere police chief. He dreamed of moving to America to become a bodybuilding champion and a movie star.

By the age of twenty-one, he was living in Los Angeles and had been crowned Mr. Universe.

Within five years, he had learned English and become the greatest bodybuilder in the world.

Within ten years, he had earned his college degree and was a millionaire from his business enterprises in real estate, landscaping, and bodybuilding. He was also the winner of a Golden Globe Award for his debut as a dramatic actor in Stay Hungry.

Within twenty years, he was the world’s biggest movie star, the husband of Maria Shriver, and an emerging Republican leader who was part of the Kennedy family.

Thirty-six years after coming to America, the man once known by fellow body­builders as the Austrian Oak was elected governor of California, the seventh largest economy in the world.

He led the state through a budget crisis, natural disasters, and political turmoil, working across party lines for a better environment, election reforms, and bipartisan solutions.

With Maria Shriver, he raised four fantastic children. In the wake of a scandal he brought upon himself, he tried to keep his family together.

Until now, he has never told the full story of his life, in his own voice.

Here is Arnold, with total recall.

Reaction:

I’ve never considered myself an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan, despite the fact that I’ve seen most of his movies–and in theaters at that, not just on my 72 inch television. At the same time, I’ve never hated him or found him annoying or anything like that. I was just kind of neutral about him and didn’t give his life much thought. So it was kind of a surprise that I’d end up reading his autobiography.

Okay, I started this book because it was on a friend’s Good Reads list, and I wanted to have something to talk to her about. But I quickly found myself fascinated by Arnold’s classic tale of fulfilling the American dream. Here he was, an Austrian immigrant who game to the U.S. with nothing but the desire to succeed, and he ended up becoming a self-made millionaire, international movie star, and governor of California. Regardless of what you think of the man personally, you have to admit that’s all pretty damn impressive.

Arnold divides the book into three sections and spends approximately the same amount of time on each. First, he talks about bodybuilding and how he got into that sport. He described his training regimens, gave credit to his training partners and promoters, and talked about what it was like to compete in the sport’s early days when no one really understood what it was about. Next, Arnold discusses his movie career and his marriage to Maria Shriver, going into pretty good details about the specifics of various shoots, how he got roles, what it was like to e a Republican in the Kennedy clan, etc. And finally, Arnold recounts his time as governor and discusses the biggest challenges he faced as leader of California.

Several things surprised me about this book. For one thing, I had no idea that Arnold was such a shrewd businessman. Even if he never did a movie in his life, he would have been a multimillionaire just from his real estate deals and business acumen. I have to admit that I was one of the people who thought he was all brawn and no brains — a typical Hollywood meathead. But clearly I was wrong about that.

Another thing that surprised me is how goal-oriented he is. According to this book, he always had very specific goals that he wrote out for himself in longhand. He then focused his energies on achieving those goals, whether they be to learn English, own an apartment building, make a million dollars, or keep doubling his ask for each new movie. Although there was no doubt some luck involved in Arnold’s success, he played a very active role in ensuring that the got what he wanted.

I was also pleasantly surprised by Arnold’s aggressiveness in marketing movies. He learned early on that you can’t be afraid or ashamed to sell yourself/your product, and he pretty much lived by that rule. Of particular note was how Arnold was instrumental in changing the marketing strategy for Total Recall. He pushed for the studio to do things the right way, and could very well have turned the film from potential box office flop to $100 million+ blockbuster.

But this is not to say the book was great. The writing was bland at best, and the story got bogged down several times. In fact, I think I skimmed almost the entire section concerning Arnold’s tenure as governor because none of that stuff interested me in the least. Plus, even though Arnold does admit to some failings along the way, he comes off as fairly egotistical overall. Sure, he has reason to be (after all, he is incredibly successful), but still…it’s not a very attractive quality.

And as for the scandal regarding his housekeeper and illegitimate son: he didn’t go nearly far enough in explaining what that was all about. I didn’t expect TMZ-level details, but something more than lame proclamations like “it was stupid,” “I made a mistake,” etc. would have been appreciated.

I also wish we had gotten more insight into Arnold’s home life with Maria and the kids. He barely discussed that at all — which might have been the result of not wishing to further strain his relationships with them by disclosing personal matters. Understandable, but it left me feeling that my picture of Arnold was incomplete.

Rating:

I’ve read my fair share of celebrity bios, and found Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life by Arnold Schwarzenegger to be one of the better ones. Between the stories, the photos, and the mea culpas (as few and far between as they were), I have a whole new appreciation for someone I once dismissed as “just an actor.” I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

September 17, 2014

woman in white Plot summary (from the publisher): “There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments.”

Thus young Walter Hartright first meets the mysterious woman in white in what soon became one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century. Secrets, mistaken identities, surprise revelations, amnesia, locked rooms and locked asylums, and an unorthodox villain made this mystery thriller an instant success when it first appeared in 1860, and it has continued to enthrall readers ever since. From the hero’s foreboding before his arrival at Limmeridge House to the nefarious plot concerning the beautiful Laura, the breathtaking tension of Collins’s narrative created a new literary genre of suspense fiction, which profoundly shaped the course of English popular writing.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • As the description above states, this book launched a whole new genre of fiction. These days, we’re so used to mystery and suspense that The Woman in White comes off as a bit tame. But can you just imagine the popular reception it must have received in Collins’ day? (I’m aware that the critics hated it.) Amazing!
  • I like the technique of using different narrators to give firsthand accounts of important happenings in the novel. This is another Collins trademark that he used to similar effect in The Moonstone. Here, both Walter and Marian’s stories were riveting, while Fosco’s was a bit scary (just because it showed that he had got hold of Marian’s diary).
  • Marian Halcombe was a brilliant character. She was smart, capable, and competent in a time when women weren’t generally considered those things. All would have been lost for Laura without Marian’s counsel and action.
  • Walter and Laura got together in the end. I usually don’t go for the love story angle, but in this case the Walter-Laura romance was kept so far in the background that I didn’t mind rooting for them. I’m glad they got their happy ending, though I knew Collins would have to find some convenient way to get rid of Sir Percival before that could happen.

Disliked:

  • The end took far too long to play out. Once Sir Percival died in the vestry fire, I just wanted Walter and Marian to be able to prove Laura’s identity and wrap things up. But then that whole showdown with Count Fosco had to take place, with the secret society angle included. I admit that I started skimming by then.
  • Was Anne Catherick’s (the eponymous Woman in White) resemblance to Laura ever definitively explained? It was sort of hinted that they may have been half-sisters because of Laura’s father’s philandering ways, but I don’t think the author came right out and confirmed this. Would have been nice to know for sure.
  • Sir Percival was such an odious character that I had a hard time believing Laura would agree to marry him, the promise to her father notwithstanding. He was more than 20 years older than her and had no money or anything else that could possibly make him a good match (except, perhaps, that ill-gotten title). I know that was a completely different time and such odd matches were probably a lot more common then, but still. Laura was so sweet and innocent and the father wasn’t even around anymore! There’s no way Marian would have let her get married!

Rating:

This seems to be a year for me to revisit a bunch of old literary favorites. I first read The Woman in White in high school and remembered liking it a lot. I’m happy to report that the intervening decades have done little to diminish my enjoyment of the book. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

September 11, 2014

mere christianity Summary (from the publisher): In the classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, the most important writer of the 20th century, explores the common ground upon which all of those of Christian faith stand together. Bringing together Lewis’ legendary broadcast talks during World War Two from his three previous books The Case for Christianity, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality, Mere Christianity provides an unequaled opportunity for believers and nonbelievers alike to hear this powerful apologetic for the Christian faith.

Reaction

I came to this book not because I was interested in how Lewis found God or because I was interested in finding God myself; rather I picked it up because, for the longest time, I had been intrigued by the title. What did “Mere” Christianity mean? I suppose I could have simply found the answer on Google, but in the end, I’m glad I decided to read the whole book.

Lewis quickly establishes that his purpose is to present his idea of what it means to be a nondenominational Christian. This is the “mere” of the title: Christianity boiled down to its most basic tenets and fundamental principles. Thus, Lewis doesn’t give an opinion on the validity of the sacraments, the plausibility of transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Pope, miracles, etc. Instead, he focuses on what he thinks it is to be a Christian. (I almost typed “good Christian” there, but caught myself just in time. Even Lewis himself acknowledged that he was in no position to judge who was a good Christian or a bad one.)

The content of this book was largely taken from a series of lectures given on BBC radio during World War II. Thus, it is very conversational and comprehensible, as opposed to overly erudite and scholarly. It really does feel as though Lewis is just talking to the reader, which is one of the reasons I believe the work is so popular and has held up so well.

Personally, I really enjoyed learning about Christianity through Lewis’s eyes. He made some excellent points (on the surface, at any rate) without being condescending or preachy. I particularly liked how he dealt with the issue of people that don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, yet accept that Christ was a good moral teacher/historical figure. Lewis correctly (in my mind) points out that it’s absurd to think Christ was a good moral teacher because, if he wasn’t actually the Son of God, as he proclaimed over and over again, he would instead be a complete liar or a lunatic — neither of which makes for a model of morality. (This is called Lewis’s trilemma, btw.)

Now I’m not saying that Lewis’s arguments or beliefs would stand up to any kind of strictly logical examination. In fact, I’m sure a number of counterarguments have been published in the last half century or so. All I’m saying is that Lewis speaks to me in a way that other religious writers can’t or don’t, and that I’m far more willing to listen to him on this subject than to almost anyone else.

Rating:

It’s extremely difficult to assign a fair rating to Mere Christianity, but I think it’s sfe to say that if you’re open to a belief in God, you’ll enjoy this book more likely than not. If, on the other hand, you read with the sole intent of trashing or disproving everything Lewis writes, then you’ll probably regard this work as unscholarly and unsound. I belong to the former camp, and therefore give this one 5 stars out of 5.

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Home Audio Systems

September 7, 2014

audio systems Musicians know all about audio systems, right? Well, that’s what I’ve always assumed, at any rate. So when a musician friend recommends a particular speaker system or brand (in this case, virtually anything from Cerwin-Vega) one should listen.

That’s what I keep trying to tell my cousin, but he insists on checking everything out for himself. I’m pretty sure he’ll come back around to Cerwin-Vega, especially after he starts to read full reviews of current products.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll do my part by sending him a book to help set up whatever system he buys.

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