31 January 2010

Book World Banter

We here at the VPO-MM household are Sunday-only subscribers to the Washington Post, and this may become a regular feature if Book World keeps having some interesting books. That's hardly a guarantee though, as the paper has absolutely eviscerated the Book World section and made it a shell of its former self. Now, we only get 3-5 books reviewed in the average week. So, if you see a week missing, it's because there wasn't anything great that week. Anyhow, since it's a feature, it gets a logo.

Catching my eye in this weeks Book World is The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior by Paul Strathern (link goes to review). The book apparently aims to tell of the intersection in 16th-Century Italy of Niccolò Machiavelli, the man who inspired The Prince, and possible drag-queen Leonardo da Vinci. Cesare Borgia, the man whose winner-take-all ways inspired Machiavelli's treatise, hired da Vinci in his quest to unite Italy in a new Roman empire. In addition to being a famous artist, da Vinci was a renowned engineer, and Borgia used his talents to wage more efficient war. As reviewer Steven Levingston notes:
Da Vinci contributed his considerable gifts to strengthening the duke's fortresses (curved walls reduced the impact of cannonballs), drawing maps (with the use of his invention, the hodometer, to measure precise distances) and building ad hoc bridges for the duke's army to cross rivers.
After he saw the ruthless duke in action, da Vinci quit his position and was never the same again. Machiavelli was able to observe, mostly from afar, as a diplomat from Florence, and grew to admire Borgia's grasp of power. While he certainly couldn't condone the duke, Machiavelli realized that politics didn't work in the realm of the theoretical and devised his book on governing based on the explicitly real concept that ruthlessness was a phenomenal way of maintaining power. 

Levingston gave the book a fantastic review, and it's been added to my Goodreads list. It seems like it might be in the same vein as Evening in the Palace of Reason, a book about the short meeting between Frederick the Great and J.S. Bach, another book I wish to read. Both detail meetings that certainly didn't define any of the primary actors lives, yet serve as a window through which we may better understand their biography and the society of the time. An interesting method of writing history, to be sure.

28 January 2010

The Iliad: Finally reading it

The Iliad is one of those books that make me ask, "How have I not read this?" If you take a look at my Goodreads list, there are quite a few of those (Pride and Prejudice, Fahrenheit 451, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc.). I've got a problem with guilt-reading that exasperates Victoria: I will often read books just because I think I should read them, not because I think I will enjoy them.

And that's partially how I came to The Iliad. It had been something I wanted to read for quite a while, just because I felt like I ought to. And then, the same uncle and aunt who told me to read The Pickwick Papers recommended this and The Odyssey. So I asked for the Robert Fagles translations for Christmas, and got them. I'm not sure why I wanted Fagles other than the fact that I like the covers, but I'm glad I chose his versions. I've not finished the book yet, but I've got some midway thoughts after this short intermission.

Achilles for the ladies

I'm only about half of the way through, but even after only a little bit, I think the book is astonishingly good. I remember having to read parts of it in High School (and probably eschewing that responsibility) and hating it. I think the possibility of rhyming couplets completely turned me off. Well, good news! The Fagle's translation doesn't rhyme! Thank the undying gods.

The thing which most surprises me about it all is how incredibly graphic the violence is. I often feel like I'm reading a screenplay for a Tarrentino film. It's not necessarily a bad thing, as it is great at illustrating the horror of war, it was just unexpected. One passage I just read the other night mention someone having their head and arms cut off and rolling away like a log. Eeesh.

I'll be sure to check in with a review after I'm done. As an addendum (I started writing this five days ago), I've started reading one of the aforementioned "should read" books on my metro rides to and from UMD. I'll have a review of the mystery book coming up as well, and it's sure to be positive!

24 January 2010

(Kind of) New Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Book

Well this book is going on my to-read list. A new translation of an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn book that I hadn't heard of just got a rave review in today's Washington Post. The novel, In the First Circle, tells the tale of prisoners in a Soviet work camp and of atomic espionage in the heart of the Cold War. 

I was amazed by Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I read it in High School, and I have a copy of The Gulag Archipelago that I've been meaning to read for ages. But this may come first after reading what the Post had to say. Just a note to take a look for it.

23 January 2010

A New Look

I figured that since I was helping Victoria out with her new look today, I might as well change mine too. (Go ahead, make the obligatory "Well, if you don't ever post you might as well do something" joke.) I like the new swanky look, though to be honest I wonder if the left side is a bit too narrow. Let me know what you think in the comments.

As for other things, be on the lookout for a post or two about The Iliad, as that's what I'm currently reading. After that, who knows? Maybe some more stuff on the Kindle, though in the real book world I still have Superfreakonomics, Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, The Odyssey, and Adorno on Music to read. Plus, I want to pick up (or get from the library, or whatever) a copy of Game Change, the political book du jour. So be on the lookout for some of that.

18 January 2010

Review: Battle for America 2008

I've been looking for a good inside-story sort of book about the 2008 presidential election for a while now. When the Washington Post reviewed The Battle for America: The Story of an Extraordinary Election, I was intrigued enough to place a copy on hold at the library. The book wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but it wasn't bad either.

I was hoping that this book would provide a ton of insider information that you couldn't get elsewhere. And in a way, it did. There are interviews with countless staff members on each of the major campaigns all the way up to the candidates themselves. But interviews alone don't cut it. The book is a phenomenal overview of the election for someone who wasn't there. Balz and Johnson have a knack for strong narrative, and the broad strokes that the book sometimes takes are great for what they are.

But I feel like what they are isn't enough. After an in-depth look at Iowa and New Hampshire for the Democratic primaries, Super Tuesday is wrapped up in just a few pages. From what I remember, that was the tensest time of the entire campaign. Hillary and Obama had split the four early states, so it was do-or-die in Super Tuesday. I'd love to have read more about the operations of both campaigns as they scrambled to get the necessary delegates.

And the other part of the campaign that lacks depth is the coverage of the Republican side of things. I closely followed the Democratic primaries, probably to the detriment of my knowledge in the Republican world. But I feel like a vast majority of people reading this book (if you're a Republican, why would you want to rehash a staggering loss?) are in the same boat. Sure, McCain had things wrapped up pretty quickly, but does that mean that the Democratic primaries should get literally three times more space in the book than the Republican counterparts?

Balz and Johnson also had the annoying habit of assuming a bit too much knowledge. In the final chapter, they wrote this:

The S&P index of the leading five hundred stocks had fallen more than at any time since 1937, with every sector taking double-digit hits...

What in the world does "double-digit hits" mean? Are we talking in terms of percentages (and percentage of what?)? Is it in terms of dollars (a $75 hit doesn't sound too bad to me)? Is it in terms of public opinion? The metric of the S&P 500 itself? I can't tell, and too often Balz and Johnson leave loose ends like this.

That said, the book is a superb broad narrative of the election. A great reminder of how things played out in the larger sense. Maybe I just need to pick up a copy of A Long Time Coming by the staff at Newsweek. Every election cycle they send reporters with the campaigns under the promise that whatever they collect will not be written until after the election. Maybe in that book I can find more of the nitty-gritty for which I was looking.

13 January 2010

Review: The Pickwick Papers

At Thanksgiving dinner, I mentioned to my Uncle and Aunt that I was planning on reading War and Peace over my winter break. Much to my surprise, the two of them hated the book, and thus the idea. So, thoroughly rebuffed, I asked what they would recommend. I got The Iliad and The Odyssey (yes, it's practically criminal that I haven't read them before, but I have new copies that I got for Christmas, and that will be remedied soon). But then they said "read The Pickwick Papers."

Now it was my turn to act disgusted at a book. "Nope. I hate Dickens," I told them. My Aunt persisted, and told me this was like no other novel Dickens ever wrote. The line that sold it for me was, "It's like Dickens was on uppers when he wrote it." How could I say no to that? You'll find the review after the break.

After finishing the mammoth book (875 pages in the edition I had before switching over to the Kindle), I'm glad they convinced me. It's a sprawling novel, definitely in the picaresque tradition, and at times it drags. That said, it has some of the best characters I've ever come across in literature. Mr. Pickwick is the esteemed leader of a club named for him, and the novel chronicles his journeys through England over about a year and a half.

But the character that I liked most was also my biggest shock. When the back cover noted that there was a character with a cockney accent, I knew I would hate him. Nothing is more annoying to me than when an author writes an accent and leaves me to parse through it (See: Dracula). So imagine my shock when Sam Weller became my favorite character in the book. His accent is written out, but easy to understand. That's all I ask for. Take note, authors, if you're going to write an accent, use Sam Weller as your model.

The other reason I was shocked to find I liked Sam was because he reminded me so much of one of my least favorite literary figures: Sancho Panza. Both sidekicks to wandering heros, both love to spout aphorisms, and both figure themselves to be witty. The difference is that Dickens pulls this off. He is actually raucously funny throughout the novel, and I found myself laughing out loud a few times.

Now, all of this is not to say the novel had no faults. At times, it tended to ramble too much. Dickens kept a fairly tight reign, and you could tell that even he understood his characters were often too prosaic, as in this example describing Mr. Snodgrass revealing his love:
...it afforded him an opportunity of acknowledging, before their mutual friends, that he loved Mr. Wardle's daughter deeply and sincerely; that he was proud to avow that the feeling was mutual; and that if thousands of miles were placed between them, or oceans rolled their waters, he could never for an instant forget those happy days, when first - et cetera, et cetera.
This was one of the points I laughed out loud. You can almost hear Dickens yelling at his narrator: "GET ON WITH IT!!"

This book really is fantastic. I do need to learn that picaresque novels (this, Don Quixote, etc) tend to annoy me at times, so I should try having some secondary reading material on hand. But if you haven't read it, go out and get a copy (or grab a public domain version online) and give it a look.

03 January 2010

Kindle! and Blogging this Year

So I'm pretty pumped after getting a new Kindle 2 for Christmas. I've been toying around with it, and discovered a way to get Project Gutenberg books on the Kindle almost effortlessly. I've been reading the real book of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, so I found a free public domain copy for the Kindle. Thus far, it's an enjoyable experience, though it will certainly take some getting used to. That said, now that I can get a load of public domain books both instantly and for free, expect to see me reading more classics this year.

And what else can you expect this year? I'll be trying to blog more regularly. Let's see if I can't be half as productive as Victoria. I'll try to do more regular reviews, and maybe see if I can't get outside of just doing that. As a note, I'm going to be writing my thesis this semester so that may slow things down. Theoretically, though, the bulk of that work should be done by mid-March (eek!).

Finally, you ought to go check out Ennui and Ivory, a new blog by friend of the blog Paul Campbell. It could be fairly interesting, if he keeps it up, as he's an excellent writer with a deft hand at pith.

That's it for now, but I'll be checking in later this week!