Saturday, February 28, 2009

the professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the oxford english dictionary by simon winchester

it is known as one of the greatest literary achievements in the history of english letters. the creation of the began in 1857, took seventy years to complete, drew from tens of thousands of brilliant minds, and organized the sprawling language into 44,825 precise definitions. but hidden within the rituals of its creation is a fascination and mysterious story -- a story of two remarkable men whose strange twenty-year relationship lies at the core of this historic undertaking. 

professor james murray, an astonishingly learned former schoolmaster and bank clerk, was the distinguished editor of the OED project. dr. william chester minor, an american surgeon from new haven, connecticut, who as had served in the civil war, was one of thousands of contributors who submitted illustrative quotations of words to be used in the dictionary. but minor was no ordinary contributor. he was remarkably prolific, sending thousands of neat, handwritten quotations from his home in the small village of crowthorne, fifty miles from oxford. on numerous occasions murray invited minor to visit oxford and celebrate his work, but murray's offer was regularly -- and mysteriously -- refused.

thus the two men, for two decards, maintained a close relationship through correspondence. finally, in 1896, after minor has sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled murray set out to visit him. it was then that murray finally learned the truth about minor -- that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, minor was also a murderer, clinically insane 00 and locked up in broadmoor, england's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics.

the professor and the madman is a an extraordinary tale of madness and genius, and the incredible obsessions of two men at the heart of the oxford english dictionary and literary history. with riveting insight and detail, simon winchester crafts a fascinating glimpse into one man's tortured mind and his contribution to another man's magnificent dictionary.

i have this one ambition in life. it's perhaps very tiny, and one i am not sure i'll fulfill. i want to own the complete oxford english dictionary. in print. i don't really know why since it's much more practical to utilize it online. and it's quite costly to purchase all twenty-two volumes. and let's not even discuss shelf space. still, it's an aspiration -- however pie in the sky. so you can imagine my intrigue and excitement over your book.

your book has more excellent qualities than it does shortcomings. your writing is accessible and engaging. the story full of rich details and clearly well researched. your characters as close as one can to inside the minds of the crazy and scholarly (and dead) men. it's a great subject and you had a lot of material to work with. hats off to you for condensing it down.

i will say that it was a bit more brutal at times than i expected. i was quite started by some of the turn-of-events. you know which i mean! (how ever were you able to write those pages?!) and while that is not your fault . . . i will say that i was also not wholly surprised by the plot. why? because it's basically spelled out for me on the back cover. i give you credit for not using that space for just reviews and praise, with no mention of synopsis (a pet peeve of mine), but did you, or your editor, have to give so much plot away? talk to galt niederhoffer. or her editor. she'll have some tips for keeping the mystery to the flap copy. it's all about the art of seducing a reader. 

my other disappointment is that i kind of wanted to know more about the actual creating of the OED itself. perhaps this wasn't that book and i was mistaken to think so . . . but this was so much about murray and/or minor. which was fascinating but at times, i could also forget about the dictionary. the actual making and compiling of it didn't come across nearly as complicated as i would think it to be. it could be that the making of it was so dry and boring no one but a true obsessed fan of the OED would care to read it.

overall, you've got a nice book here. for the true freaks of the OED it might be a little disappointing but it's worth the read. and to normal readers, well . . . they might not find themselves disappointed.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

the magic toyshop by angela carter

a startling tale of the redemptive power of physical and emotional love

one night melanie walks though the garden in her mother's wedding dress. the next morning her world is shattered. forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to long to live with her relatives she has never met: aunt margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile finn, who kisses melanie in the ruins of the pleasure gardens. and brooding uncle philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets her creates in his toyshop. this classic gothic novel established angela carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative works.

where to begin? i want to gush. to rant. to rave. you are brilliant. hands down one of my favorite storytellers ever. the bloody chamber -- a fantastic and terrifying collection of stories. and the magic toyshop was an amazing novel. i hung onto your every word. i would have followed your characters anywhere just to stay with them. your quiet and strange plot was captivating. and the twist at the end -- i didn't see it coming! you subvert everything and blow my mind. it was pretty amazing.

i want the fifteen-year-old version of myself to be friends with melanie. i lust for finn's attentions. i am in rapture of aunt margaret's beauty. i struck by uncle philip's clever toys and bizarre rage. i find myself softening in francie's presence. i am indifferent to john and victoria, but that's okay; i'm supposed to be.

i can see why so many authors have tried to recreate the style of your prose, the imaginative depths to your worlds, the heart behind your characters. it seems so simple and obvious when reading your books, but it's a trick of the light. you've poured so much into your novels. shirley jackson, while arriving on the scene first and truly wonderful in her own right, has nothing on you. and lemony snicket -- oh what a foolish writer he appears now. he spends thirteen snarky and twisted novels trying to do what you've done from your first sentence. he is the poor man's version of you, but let's not judge him in this letter. we can't really compare the two of you. different audience, different forum. but still. i want more. i wish i hadn't finished it. i could have stayed with melanie for another two hundred pages. easily. 

i wish you were still with us. i really do. i will cry the day i run out of new titles by you to read. this isn't a long letter because i don't want to give anything away. but the magic toyshop will go on my list of absolute favorite reads. right up near the top.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Monday, February 23, 2009

the romantics by gail niederhoffer

laura and lila were once as close as could be -- college roommates at the center of a tight-knit group of friends.  but the friendship has wilted a bit. now six years after college, the friends -- and the boyfriend they share -- have reunited for lila's weddng at her family's seaside estate in maine.

laura is reserved, single, an the only jew in the group, while the bride, lila, is a WASPy, moneyed golden girl, and the groom, tom, a swim-team star from a working class catholic background, is a perfect paradox of confidence and confusion. as the wedding draws near and the wine flows faster, the disappointments and desires of the reuniting friends come quickly to the surface. a drunken game on the estate's dock goes awry when the revealers are pulled out to sea by the current. when they swim back to shore, they are short one -- the groom. the search throws the group's shifting allegiances into relief and results in new betrayals as well as confessions.

with lila's picture-perfect maine summer house as the backdrop, laura not only sees her friends old friends in new light but reassesses herself as well: is she the only one of the group destined to be unmarried in her thirties? was it always this obvious that she was the only jew in a pride of WASPs? struggling with the traditionally thankless role of maid of honor -- not to mention contending with lila's formidable mother, augusta -- laura also realizes she can't stop thinking about her complicated, long, and intense relationship with the groom. but isn't that relationship in the past?

a wry observer of cultural and social mores, galt niederhoffer creates a pitch-perfect group of characters and a winning novel about friendship, class, and love.

dear galt niederhoffer,

i loved, LOVED, a taxonomy of barnacles. loved it. if wes anderson wrote a book, that would have been it. your debut was spectacular. thank you for such a lovely, charming, and hilarious book. it's a book that i am sure i'll read again and again. 

but here i am, utterly devastated by your sophomore novel. it's weak and spinless and trite. did you even try? or did you just think since your first book was so awesome you didn't actually have to put any effort into this one? oh, and i don't know who wrote that flap copy, but i could skipped reading your sad little novel and known everything that happened. have you heard of mystery? why give away the goods for free in the flap? and if your description of the novel extends on the back flap, then you know it is too long. too long! (if your editor wrote this, them my apologizes. please pass along my criticisms.) i was so broken-hearted reading this book. but i had optimism that it would get better. i was wrong. so wrong.

your characters are one dimensional, stereotypical, and loathsome. they are racists and elitists and smug. for no reason. even laura. she is ashamed of her culture and her religion. it's horrifying. and the swapping of romantic partners isn't sweet because the friends are mixed up and confused. it's repulsing and incestuous. and tom -- who wants to date him anyway? he's the least likely romantic lead in any book i've ever read. i can't imagine two women wanting him. and lila refuses to settle in life, so what is she doing here? i don't buy the flimsy motive that marrying tom is a safe rebellion for her. she doesn't love him and he doesn't worship her. if lila is going to settle in love, she strikes me as the type of girl who will settle for the man head over heels in love and adoration with her. and lila. oh good god please. could she have, even just once, said something honest? or spoke her mind to at least lila. and without promptly apologizing two seconds later. apparently not. 

the plot is obvious. it's contrived. and you have brought nothing original to the table in this story. in fact, i'm pretty sure you stole this story directly from a yale co-ed's summer weekend. there is nothing pushing the story along. the tension and suspense is forced and limp. you overwrite, over-describe, and over-extend everything. it's like you think your readers are morons. not everything has to be spelled out for us. learn the reveal details over the story. don't hand it to us in the first chapter.  we're not idiots. we can make the commitment to stick with a book for almost 300 pages. you underestimate the reader and that's insulting.

what happened to you? i had bigger hopes for the romantics and you disappoint on so many levels. if i wanted to be painfully submerged in vain, obnoxious characters and a weary, recycled story like this one i would have hopped a train to the upper east side. i could have at least had an over-priced cup of coffee with my view of pretension. 

i expect to be blown away with whatever your next novel is. otherwise, this might be it for us.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader


Friday, February 20, 2009

blood meridian, or the evening redness in the west by cormac mccarthy

"the fulfilled renown of moby-dick and of as i lay dying is augmented by blood meridian, since cormac mccarthy is the worthy discipline both of melville readers and faulkner," writes esteemed literary scholar harold bloom in his introduction to the modern library edition. "i venture that no other living american novelist, not even pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable."

cormac mccarthy's masterwork, blood meridian, chronicles the brutal world of the texas-mexico borderlands in the mid-nineteenth century. its wounded hero, the teenage kid, must confront the extraordinary violence of the glanton gang, a murderous cadre on an offical mission to scalp indians. loosely based on the fact, the novel represents a genius vision of the historical west, one so fiercely realized that since its initial publication in 1985 the canon of american literature has welcome blood meridian to its shelf.

intense. horrifying. bloody. painful. these are some very basic words that come to my stunned mind when i try to articulate your blood meridian. you are one hardcore man. this photo of you scares me. you look so angry, like you've been slighted by everyone or you hate the world. or maybe yourself. if the few books of yours that i have read are any indication to your personal view of humanity, you're ready to toss us to the monster and start all over again. expunge the world and try anew. maybe next time humanity will live up to your expectations.

at the risk of your anger, i have to ask about your writing style because confuses me. no, wait! hear me out. i spent so much time trying to figure out your system for grammar. at first, it seems you hate apostrophes. but then i realized you only hate them for contractions. you use them for possessives. and sometimes you don't capitalize proper nouns, like "indians" or "spanish." it was this distracting puzzle to the grammar geek in me. it's acceptable to cast off the rules of grammar, as long as one knows the rules of grammar. then one can break them. like james joyce. i am not saying that you are ignorantly breaking rules, i just couldn't figure out the logic or reason behind it. and it seems to be part of your style because it's the same in this 1985 book as in the your later titles. it's consistent, but i don't understand it. please, explain it. i need to know! it's driving me a little nuts here.

on the other hand, your writing itself literally puts fear in me. and shame. it is dense and tight. it sharply contrasts the wide open landscapes your characters inhabit. it's startling and sometimes hard to read. but it has moments where it hit me that it was completely worth it to persevere. i had to put it down and take breaks, but the novel would sit there, beckoning me back. 

and, oh god. you have created one of the most intimidating and breathtaking and larger-than-life characters in modern fiction i may have ever encounter. judge holden, he is a character that will haunt me forever. his strange version of morals, while seeming completely devoid of all morals and logic, is so twisted it's impressive. i have no idea what his motivation is, but i feel it's something higher than $100 a scalp. he is ruthless, without humility, and demanding. how the kid survived so long by his ageless side is beyond me. 

over the course of reading your book, i had nightmares. for a period of three days i woke, thankful that i was not a character in blood meridian. then my existence would be defined by pain, torture, suffering, blood, stress, and hardship. one terror after the next. your descriptions of murder, scalping, beatings, everyday life -- it's all told with a detached perspective and that makes it so much more sickening. because this style of writing is frank, matter-of-fact, and exactly in line with how your characters think and behave. they have no problem with the killings they've been hired to do. or the killing they feel they must to do survive. i shuddered repeatedly while reading this. only after turning enough pages did i realize that slowly you had made me numb to the violence. and then i was even more afraid. i felt myself becoming as cold and unfeeling as your characters. 

the scenes you've painted of men, life, history, and the south west are arresting. they stick in my head even now that the novel has been safely returned to the new york public library. your depiction of america is morbid, but if readers can handle it, then i recommend this one. if readers don't quite have the stomach for it, then perhaps try the road. another of your works which i favor over blood meridian

still . . . you are an american writer to be proud of. 

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

ender's game by orson scott card

once again, earth is under attack. alien "buggers" are poised for a final assault. the survival of the human species depends on a military genius who can defeat the buggers.

but who?

ender wiggins. brilliant. ruthless. cunning. a tactical and strategic master. and a child.

recruited for military training by the world government, ender's childhood ends the moment he enters his new home: battle school. among the elite recruits ender proves himself to be a genius among geniuses. in simulated war games he excels. but is the pressure and loneliness taking its toll on ender? simulations are one thing. how will ender perform in real combat conditions? after all battle school is just a game.


i didn't want to like ender's game. i really didn't. not for any other reason than i don't agree with some of your personal opinions on some issues. personal opinions you've made publicly known. repeatedly. but that brings up the question: is it okay for me to dismiss an author or book based on who s/he is in everyday life? i suppose i don't really believe that i have to hold the same views as you. we don't have to agree on everything or anything at all, but i think i need to be able to respect your view and where you're coming from. so i suppose it doesn't really matter, except i know that sometimes i let it matter. i guess that makes it my problem alone. and i am one mere reader.

either way, i will admit that i enjoyed ender's game. probably even more because you've written a story that has stood the test of time. i mean, from it's first manifestation in 1977 until 2009 -- wow. there is a lot of sci-fi and fantasy being published these days (and even more written that will never appear on a bookshelf near you -- thank goodness). i've been reading even more of it over the past year, and yet, your novel still stood out to me. it's about children, but it's another novel that i don't think i'd label strictly a children's book. you've brought into play too many themes that will appeal to adults more than kids. there is a lot of moral issues that ender is forced to resolve for himself, for better or worse. and ender's self loathing as he struggles to remain an individual and not caving to what is being forced on him is quite powerful. but, just to keep life from being easy, he also bears the burden of being told he is the only one who can save humankind. and so, he must figure out what his responsibility to saving humanity is. how much of what he is being told is lies. and how much can be sacrificed before the means don't justify the end? hats off to you. that's like the mother of all dilemmas for one character. 

and during it all, you paint an incredibly vivid depiction of ender's world. what the universe is like for him. exactly what the battles are. how life in space is totally different form life on earth in so many ways. the gaming part of it, and ender's friendships at school, are aspects i think younger reader's will appreciate. and the overall story is superub. the pacing, the plot, the tension, the twists -- it's spot-on. 

also, the intense relationships of love, hate, and indifference you've crafted -- impeccable! your entire story is realistic, despite it's sci-fi theme. ender's universe is one full of life's shades of gray. my favorite relationships in the story, in case you're interested, are those among ender, his brother, peter, and his sister, valentine. witnessing their growth and development as characters, individuals, and siblings was beyond the scope of most sibling relationships in books these days. the three of them gave one another such depth and dimension. i was kind of amazed.

so, to my faithful readers out there, i'll tell them to add this to their reading lists if they enjoy sci-fi and want to read one of the contemporary pioneers in bringing sci-fi to the masses. because despite our differences, you've written an exceptional story. 

dutifully yours,
a lone reader 

Monday, February 16, 2009

chains by laurie halse anderson

if an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?

as the revolutionary war begins, thirteen-year-old isabel wages her own fight . . . for freedom. promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, ruth, in a cruel twist of fate become the property of a malicious new york city couple, the locktons, who have no sympathy for the american revolution and even less for ruth and isabel. when isabel meets curzon, a slaves with ties to the patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of british plans for invasion. she is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to ruth, isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.

from acclaimed author laurie halse anderson comes this compelling, impeccably researched novel that shows the lengths we can go to cast off our chains, both physical and spiritual.

i don't want to gush or make you uncomfortable, but i am a huge fan of yours. huge. i greatly admire your ability to create interesting, fresh, and distinctive voices for each new character. and isabel certainly does not disappoint. i fell for her as the pages turned and her story grew. with each encounter, she won me over more and more. and she did it all without even trying. isabel is simply isabel over the course of the novel. she doesn't aim to win or flatter herself, the reader, or the characters around her. i was so pleased that isabel wasn't a stock character, or a stereotypical one. i knew she was defiant, but she doesn't just use her physical voice to demonstrate it. she doesn't fight with her owners or act the part of a martyr. she knows where she fits in her society and that she has been reduced to nothing. not that she ever accepts her place, but she works within it to plot her escape. she keeps her head down, flies under the radar, and utilizes all opportunities to rescue herself and ruth. you've crafted an exceptional heroine.

her only flaw is that along the way, she makes room in her heart to care about others. something she knows she cannot afford to do. but curzon worms in there and their friendship unfolds and grows beautifully. as i embarked on isabel's journey, i tried to harden my own heart against the small acts of kindness from others, just like isabel needs to do. yet i failed as well. but will it be her downfall? unfortunately, i have to wait for the next book, forge , to find out. this upsets me. a lot. as i got toward the end of the novel, i found myself thinking, there aren't enough pages left to wrap this up this tale satisfactorily! i was right. you conclude very few  pieces of the story, but the main thread is left loose. i didn't realize that this wasn't a stand alone title until the last page. and while, on one hand, i am excited for more, i am also disappointed in you. i am tired of the two, three, four book plot from publishers to drag out a story. so often a story cannot be sustained over so many books and it turns watery in the process. (my other pet peeve is when something starts off as a trilogy, but then magically becomes a series so that nothing is ever resolved.) will this be your fate as well? i'm not sure, but i can't understand why you couldn't tell isabel's story in one book. maybe i'll read forge, but then again, maybe i won't. i won't go out of my way to buy it. so, sorry but you won't be getting a royalty from me. if i do read the rest of isabel's story, it'll be because i stumbled across it.

but my bitterness aside, i do have to rave about is the historical component of your novel. this is clearly a story that took so much on behalf of you and experts to keep accurate and still interesting. i dig historical books and historical fiction when done right. and you've done it right. you've done such a seamless job of weaving isabel's story into american history, it's hard to believe that isabel wasn't real. i am truly impressed by the all the details that went into the story. it's no easy feat to write historical fiction, and to write it well.

you've delivered a pretty outstanding story and it's worth the read, if you think readers don't mind its lack of satisfactory conclusion. you've earned some nominations and won some awards. good for you. i truly mean that. but i'm still mad at you. (or your editor, or your publisher.) to the readers out there, if you have a chance to read chains, it's a pleasant way to pass the hours but only if you're okay waiting until simon & schuster only knows when for the rest of isabel's story.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

Saturday, February 14, 2009

the witch of portobello by paulo coelho

how do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves -- even if we are unsure of who we are?

that is the central question of international bestselling author Paulo Coehlo's profound new work, the witch of portobello. it is the story of a mysterious woman named Athena, told by the many who knew her well -- or hardly at all. like the alchemist, the witch of portobello is the kind of story that will transform the way readers think about love, passion, joy, and sacrifice.

okay, your flap copy offered me a lot. i realize that perhaps you didn't write it, but i still hold you responsible for fulfilling all its promises. (or should i direct this to your english translator, margaret jull costa?)  the truth is, based on this copy, i had no idea what your story was actually about. so here i am, forced to admit that this is one of those books where interest was based solely on attraction. i'm sorry, but it's true. i saw this cover and had to pick it up. and every time i saw the book i had to pick it up. i even took the time to add it to an online wishlist. i meant to move it off the list because as i said, i had no idea what the witch of portobello was about. which means, it really didn't matter if i ever read it.

yet the model on the cover is stunning. and so is her hair. secretly, i want this hair. and so while yours is more the sort of book i would take out of the library, the image was arresting enough every time i saw it that it was never moved off my wishlist. then it was given to me as a holiday gift, so here we are. discussing it. because now i know what your novel is about.

this isn't a terrible story, but i didn't fall into. i love those books that suck me and don't spit me out until the last page. your novel didn't do that. your writing is strong and the use of language is captivating (at least we know the translator did you justice). but if a story doesn't have a interesting plot or characters, then it's kind of a done deal for me.

athena is a fascinating character, and i should say that i think you have done something truly original here. i thought it was brilliant to reveal the main character to the reader through the others in that character's life. you developed a great supporting cast and they all have such distinct voices. each time a new character began his/her story of athena, i knew immediately who it was. i also really enjoyed that you used your cast of characters to tell stories more than once. i felt like i got to know each character more intimately. however, the are two seemingly important characters who are never given a voice. athena's son, viorel, and her unnamed suitor. viorel felt more like a prop than a character and her suitor appears at the start of the story and then disappears until the end. he swoops back in to tie up everything all nice for the reader. i resent him for this. and i think i resent you for this as well. both he and viorel could have provided great insight into athena, in a way the other characters could not. but alas, you do not allow the reader to hear the two most important voices in athena's life. and i have to wonder why. 

as for your overall story itself -- it is a whimsy and fleeting. i wanted more out of the plot, or maybe i just didn't believe it because, despite knowing all these other characters so well, athena was a bit of a mystery to me. she's an enigma and try as they might, the supporting cast can't make me feel connected to athena. over the course of the story, you hold her at a distance from me. i didn't like that. and by the end, i didn't feel i knew her that well. i knew her parents, bosses, landlords, various lovers, etc. quite well. but not athena.

unless that was your point?

however, the way i think about love, passion, joy, and sacrifice wasn't transformed. but i don't regret owning your book because i didn't buy it and it has a pretty cover. sadly though, i will probably never recommend it to anyone.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

me & books

dear readers,

a huge part of my day job is reading, but this forum will not be about that, or the books i read for work. instead, this is where i'll write letters to the authors of the other books i read. old books and new books and nonfiction books and strange books and guilty pleasure books and children's books and fiction books and any books recommended . . . i read them all. some i'll have read before. others i'll never heard of. but i'll plenty to say about them. 

so this is a collection of  letters about an assortment of books. other opinions welcome. and recommendations are encourage. 

dutifully yours,
a fellow reader