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30 June 2008 @ 06:36 am
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The plot of Foucault's Pendulum revolves around three friends, Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon, who work for a small publishing company in Milan

As Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon become increasingly obsessed with The Plan, they sometimes forget that it's just a game. Worse still, when adherents of other conspiracy theories learn about The Plan, they take it seriously. Belbo finds himself the target of a very real secret society that believes he possesses the key to the lost treasure of the Knight's Templar

. After reading too many manuscripts about occult conspiracy theories, they decide they can do better, and set to invent their own conspiracy for fun. They call this satirical, intellectual game "The Plan".. - From <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foucault%27s_Pendulum_%28book%29">Wikipedia</a>

My Review:

Umberto Eco will blow you away with this book, even if you have not been able to sink your teeth into any he wrote previously. For writer's, this book is perfect to pick apart. Eco smoothes his prose across your mind poetically and inserts references to everything under the sun, adding at least one extra dimension of chewy goodness to this book that you won't find often in the literature on commercal bookshelves today. This book revolves around the character's motivations and the deepest parts of who they are; Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon lead the lives of realistic people and react according to logic that horror movies and modern adventure novels encourage audience's to skip over or ignore. This is an 'eye-opener' book. It can be read for the sheer entertainment of a conspiracy, adventure, sparkling mystery gem or can be picked apart to improve your own writing style (which I must admit is exactly what I did). This book is one of my ultimate favorites. I read it and was left breathless and ponderous. It has a home on my shelves always.
21 April 2008 @ 05:53 pm
Joan of Arc, Mark Twain, 1896.

"I like Joan of Arc the best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none." - Mark Twain.

Never heard of Mark Twain's Joan of Arc? Not surprising. Critics have hated it for over a hundred years. One reason is because it's so incredibly different from his other books. Fans and critics who loved his comedic works weren't interested in swallowing a serious historical novel. He also got huge criticism from English reviewers, who were indignant at Mark Twain's presentation of Joan's trial. They suggested that he had intentionally villainized English justice in order to heroize Joan, but later scholarly research would show that Mark Twain's version was actually highly accurate.

Twain published Joan of Arc anonymously, because he knew that he (and Joan) would be judged on the basis of his previous works. He was right. I found my copy in a used bookstore, a 1989 reprinting, and it's been one of my favorite books ever since. I recommend it most highly to anyone who's ever loved the story of Joan of Arc, even if--maybe especially if--you've never liked Mark Twain. I don't believe that anyone has written or ever will write a better Joan of Arc.

"Consider this unique and imposing distinction. Since the writing of human history began, Joan of Arc is the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military forces of a nation at the age of seventeen." - Louis Kossuth.
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy, 1976

Excerpt from the back cover: Woman on the Edge of Time is the fascinating story of Connie Ramos, a Chicana woman in her mid-thirties, living in New York and labeled insane, committed to a mental institution. But the truth is that Connie is overwhelmingly sane, heroically sane, and tuned in to the future.

Connie is able to communicate with the year 2137. Two totally different ways of life are competing. One is beautiful--communal, nonsexist, environmentally pure, open to ritual and magic. The other is a horror--totalitarian, exploitive, rigidly technological.

In Connie's struggle to keep the doctors from forcing her into a brain control operation, we find the timeless struggle between beauty and terror, between good and evil... with an astonishing outcome.

My review:
This is a beautiful book. It deals with both utopian and dystopian societies through the lens of the most unlikely narrator--a Chicana woman committed to a mental institution. You can never quite be sure whether or not she's hallucinating everything, or if she really is heroically sane. The future she describes makes you think, makes you hope, makes you wonder. It's a book worth reading over and over again, amazing in so many ways.
30 March 2008 @ 09:29 am
Greetings, my fellow bibliophiles!

Community feedback, please read and respond!Collapse )
30 March 2008 @ 08:54 am
Kushiel's Dart, Jacqueline Carey, 2002

From Google Books:
The land of Terre d'Ange is a place of unsurpassing beauty and grace. It is said that angels found the land and saw it was good...and the ensuing race that rose from the seed of angels and men live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt. Phedre no Delaunay is a young woman who was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. Sold into indentured servitude as a child, her bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with very a special mission...and the first one to recognize who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel's Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. Phedre is trained equally in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, but, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Almost as talented a spy as she is courtesan, Phedre stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very foundations of her homeland. Treachery sets her on her path; love and honor goad her further. And in the doing, it will take her to the edge of despair...and beyond. Hateful friend, loving enemy, beloved assassin; they can all wear the same glittering mask in this world, and Phedre will get but one chance to save all that she holds dear. Set in a world of cunning poets, deadly courtiers, heroic traitors, and a truly Machiavellian villainess, this is a novel of grandeur, luxuriance, sacrifice, betrayal, and deeply laid conspiracies. Not since Dune has there been an epic on the scale of Kushiel's Dart-a massive tale about the violent death of an old age, and the birth of a new.

My review:
I've grown out of fantasy books in general--I can't stand the whiny, Mary-Sue heroines and the plots and dragons all patterned off a misguided worship of Tolkien. Kushiel's Dart isn't that kind of fantasy book. This is one of my all-time favorite books, it swept me up and carried me off, spinning my mind with inspiration. There are no dragons, no elves, and no magic--although the barrier between gods and men is nearly transparent. Carey has created a complete alternate society, where beauty is paramount, sexuality is fluid, and god's greatest commandment is to "Love as Thou Wilt." Our main character is an extremely high-class prostitute, who proceeds to save her country--repeatedly--mostly through sheer stubbornness. The plots are vast, across continents, and if they ever make big-budget movies out of these, I don't know how they'll do it without a trilogy for each book--Carey could easily compete with Tolkien in terms of epic plots through wild and wonderful places.

It's no great commentary on the human condition, but in terms of plot and character, it's in the top rank of fantasy books, and it's one of the very few books I've ever seen that presents a completely bisexual society that is also completely believable. (It's like some sort of mad mix of the golden ages of France and Greece, but where women actually get equal rights. I'm reincarnating in Terre d'Ange when I die.) If you want a fun read with epic plot and great characters, you really can't do better than Kushiel's Dart.

(And if you like it, it's part of a trilogy, followed by Kushiel's Chosen and Kushiel's Avatar, and then there's a whole new trilogy for Phedre's adopted son, Imriel.)
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26 March 2008 @ 08:51 pm
Moab is My Washpot, Stephen Fry, 1999

Book Reviews
"Stephen Fry is one of the great originals... This autobiography of his first twenty years is a pleasure to read, mixing outrageous acts with sensible opinions in bewildering confusion... That so much outward charm, self-awareness and intellect should exist alongside behaviour that threatened to ruin the lives of innocent victims, noble parents and Fry himself, gives the book a tragic grandeur and lifts it to classic status." - Financial Times

"A remarkable, perhaps even unique, exercise in autobiography... that aroma of authenticity that is the point of all great autobiographies; of which this, I rather think, is one." - Evening Standard

"He writes superbly about his family, about his homosexuality, about the agonies of childhood... some of his bursts of simile take the breath away... his most satisfying and appealing book so far." - Observer

About the Author
As well as being the bestselling author of four novels, The Stars' Tennis Balls, Making History, The Hippopotamus, and The Liar, and the first volume of his autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, Fry has played Peter in Peter's Friends, Wilde in the film Wilde, Jeeves in the television series Jeeves & Wooster and (a closely guarded show-business secret, this) Laurie in the television series A Bit of Fry & Laurie.

My Review
My favorite book by one of my favorite people ♥ Stephen Fry is an honest-to-god wizard when it comes to words. It's strange (or perhaps not so strange), but even though I've always preferred fiction to non-fiction, my favorite written work by Fry is this, his autobiography. Maybe it's because so much of his fiction is based on his real life (he himself admits that The Liar is almost entirely lifted from his own life), or maybe it's because life sometimes ends up being more interesting than fiction. Whatever the reason, Moab is My Washpot is a book I cannot recommend enough, even for those (like myself) who steer clear of autobiographies. What are they really besides an excuse for the author to list their credentials, or beg for their readers' sympathy and admiration? The answer is found in this book. Fry has written an autobiography that can touch any and everyone, regardless of whether or not they know his name.

If you need further convincing, read this review, by a far more eloquent reader than yours truly.

It should be noted that I, strictly speaking, did not read this book... I listened to it. But with Stephen Fry narrating, which is the best way to go about it. I've made a complete fool of myself several times by cracking up in public places. The part where he rants about his complete lack of musical talent is particularly funny. Nobody can cuss quite like Stephen Fry XD
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Oranges are Not the Only Fruit Jeanette Winterson, 1985

From the back cover:
Jeanette is a bright and rebellious orphan who is adopted into an evangelical household in the dour, industrial North of England and finds herself embroidering grim religious mottoes and shaking her little tambourine for Jesus. But as this budding missionary comes of age, and comes to terms with her unorthodox sexuality, the peculiar balance of her God-fearing household dissolves. Jeanette's insistence on listening to the truths of her own heart and mind - and on reporting them with wit and passion - makes for an unforgettable chronicle of an eccentric, moving passage into adulthood.

My review:
This one is her first, and my favorite, but really, read any of Jeanette Winterson's books. Sexing the Cherry, Weight and Written on the Body are all amazing. Her style is simple and yet beautiful, embroidering reality with fantasy, until you're not quite sure what to believe. Her only response, when asked, is that she's telling you stories. Listen.
I'm particularly fond of her view of the past: "The past is not sacred. The past is not static. There are a few facts we can rely on - dates, places, people, but the rest is interpretation and imagination. I like that freedom."
Not everyone will fall in love with Jeanette Winterson's style, but it rings true for me, even though I typically dislike contemporary fiction. Give her a try, with my highest recommendation.
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso, 1988

From the back cover:
But how did it all begin? No better answer to that question--which is all questions--exists than in the Greek myths that are retold and refracted to breathtaking effect in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. With vast erudition and irresistible verve, Robert Calasso tells the stories of Zeus and Europa, Theseus and Ariadne, of the birth of Athens and the fall of Troy, tracing them back along the branches of a single myth-bearing tree and rediscovering, as he does so, the origins of desire and strife, virginity and rape, of tragedy and of the "mysteries." Unfolding for us the whole astonishing range of humanity's sometimes joyful, often tormented relation with the gods, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is a real tour de force, a work of spellbinding playfulness, eroticism, and wonder.

My review:
Anyone who likes Greek mythology needs to read this book. Mythology has so many different versions of each story, influenced by each region and twisted by history. It's a real problem for any mythographer, trying to combine all the conflicting versions into one solid story. Robert Calasso does so expertly, and I am boggled that anyone is intelligent enough to combine all those stories and make inferences from their similarities and differences. He spins through all of Greek mythology, in a book that's too poetic to be scholarly and too erudite to be fiction. I also highly appreciated that he didn't gloss over the homosexuality, as so many modern scholars do.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony has some exquisite prose, which makes it a real joy to read, and it makes you think, which is even better. I recommend it most highly to anyone who's ever taken a liking to Greek mythology.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind, 1985

From Wikipedia:
Set in 18th century France, Perfume relates the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, "one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages".

Born lacking a personal odour (a fact other people find disquieting) but endowed with an incomparable sense of smell, he apprentices himself to a perfumer and becomes obsessed with procuring the perfect scent that will make him fully human. In the process, he creates perfumes—presumably based on pheromones—that powerfully manipulate human emotions, murdering 25 girls to take their scent.

My review:
We chiefly experience our world through our visual senses. We read, we watch movies, we walk through the world using primarily our sense of sight to take in information, and most books reflect this. There are so many words to describe what we see, and most books convey what the character saw and said, with a lesser description of what he or she touched or tasted.

The amazing thing about Perfume is that it describes the world primarily in scent. The main character doesn't talk much, and uses his eyes only to see where he's going. I've never seen another book written this way, so that he can describe how a thing smells and depict it just as well--if not better--than another author might describe how a thing looks. The writing alone is amazing.

The story requires just a little bit more suspension of disbelief than the average book, largely because I don't know if I can believe that you can make a perfume from a person, but it's an excellent read. The recent movie did justice to the story, but it was essentially flawed in that it's a visual medium depicting an olfactory experience--you can't see a smell. According to Wikipedia, Stanley Kubrick claimed the book was unfilmable, and I agree. The movie was an admirable effort, but only a hint of what this book truly is.

This book will change the way you smell the world.
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (translated by Lucia Graves), 2001

From the Dust Jacket
Barcelona, 1945 - just after the war, a great world city lies in shadow, nursing its wounds, and a boy named Daniel awakes on his eleventh birthday to find that he can no longer remember his mother’s face. To console his only child, Daniel’s widowed father, an antiquarian book dealer, initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona’s guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel’s father coaxes him to choose a volume from the spiraling labyrinth of shelves, one that, it is said, will have a special meaning for him. And Daniel so loves the novel he selects, The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax’s work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last one in existence. Before Daniel knows it his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love. And before long he realizes that if he doesn’t find out the truth about Julian Carax, he and those closest to him will suffer horribly.

My Review
"Every book has a soul... In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner." -- Daniel's father

Carlos Ruiz Zafón has written four novels, all for children. The Shadow of the Wind is his first "adult" novel, and has proven to be a stunning debut. Originally published in Zafón's native Spanish, the novel was translated by Lucia Graves. Few people consider a translator as having any part of the creative process, but it truly is an art form. Graves seamlessly works in cultural and regional references, as well as Spanish terms, accents and dialogues into the story, all the while staying true to Zafón's narrative style.

The characters in Zafón's story are delightfully varied and each as captivating as the last. There are no clear heroes in the story, for even Daniel (the story's narrator and main protagonist) falls short on several occasions, makes the wrong decision, or -- worst of all -- no decision at all. Zafón's sharp wit and unique sense of humor is a refreshing antidote to the darker moments of the novel, of which there seem to be no end as the story unfolds.

The Shadow of the Wind transcends genre. It is a coming-of age story, a political story, an adventure story, a ghost story, and, of course, a love story. It's an epic, a comedy, a tragedy, a mystery. It is, as Entertainment Weekly so aptly puts it, "a love letter to literature."

A summary of the novel's plot just doesn't cut it. Take away the plot summary, the author biography, and the descriptions of narrative style. Take away everything, and leave just a single sentence -- that will be enough.

This is a book for people who love books.
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