29 May 2009

35. The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is one of those books I was supposed to read and never did. I really never had any interest in reading this one until recently. I had a preconceived idea of what it was about and did not think I would enjoy it very much. I had heard over and over how people loved this book. I figured they were saying that because they were "supposed" to love it.
What did I learn? My thoughts about what this book was were totally wrong. it was nothing like I imagined. I completely understand why people love this book. I am also kicking myself for not reading it 30 years ago when I was supposed to. I wonder what else I missed out on.
The Great Gatsby is actually a love story. A story about people who love each other anyway. Gatsby sure did go a long way for the girl he loves.
Some things I found interesting:
1. The part where Gatsby, Tom, Daisy, Jordan and Nick are in a hotel in New York when Tom and Gatsby decide to discuss who loves whom and all that stuff. I could picture this scene in my mind. It was the 20's. Men were supposed to be sophisticated and in control. I could picture these two men having this conversation about Daisy (while she is sitting there) and trying to stay in control. Trying not to be the one to get angry or show emotion. If they did that then it would be like conceding defeat. Why get emotional if you are in the right? That is how I saw that scene. These guys should have been punching the snot out of each other. Tom, being the big sports guy, should have in my opinion. Why didn't he? I think it is because he is actually a coward. We know he is prone to violence because he broke Myrtle's nose just for saying Daisy's name.
2.I liked Daisy for a while, and then I despised her. I think she is a gold digging bitch who deserves to have a crappy life with a man that does not really love her.
3. What was with this place that was all gray with mounds of ashes? The Valley of Ashes I think it was called. Where did these ashes come from? Some kind of industrial complex I would imagine. Maybe I missed something, but I am not sure where the ashes came from. I know they would come in train cars of some kind, but from where.
The ashes actually made me think of some giant black mountains in the sand pits where I grew up. By the way, I grew up on Long Island, the place this book was set in. That helped my enjoyment level rise a little. Anyway, the sand pits had these giant mounds of black stuff that we would climb on. I never knew what the stuff was or where it came from. Perhaps it was ash.
4. I knew Long Island in the 70's and 80's. I learned to drive there. I know how far New York City was from where these folks lived, and I just can't imagine they would drive "to town" as often as they did. This was set in the mid 1920's. The roads had to be ridiculous back then.
5. Jordan Baker. She was my favorite character. I don't know why. She was a liar. She was straight up using people to have some fun and be the "cool" girl. Still, I think she was far less fake than Tom, Daisy or Gatsby.
6. There seemed to be many lines in society within the book. It was deeper than just rich and poor. Gatsby and Tom were both rich, but not really equal. What was the difference? Tom was old money rich. Gatsby was new money. Could that be it? Gatsby was not part of the good old boy network? He lived in West Egg which, despite being exactly the same as East Egg, was considered inferior to East Egg. I guess rich is not necessarily all that was happening within the rich society.
7. There is a part in the book where Nick says "But I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires..." I have those brakes. I knew what he meant. Usually those brakes are very very good to have. Sometimes I wish I was able to release the brakes a lot more than I do. Sometimes I wish I had no stinking brakes at all. That one line made me think a lot.
SAT Word Alert (It's been a while since I have done this)
prodigality: wasteful extravagance in spending
contralto: the lowest female voice or voice part, intermediate between soprano and tenor
echolalia: the often pathological repetition of what is said by other people as if echoing them
meretricious: based on pretense, deception, or insincerity
redolent: having a pleasant odor; fragrant
Fitzgerald also used the word "somnambulatory". I know what that means. :-)
This was a GREAT book. One of the best I have ever read. It should be read by everyone. I am still surprised at how much I liked it and how wrong I was with my idea of what the book was about.

26 May 2009

34. The Camel Club

The Camel Club - David Baldacci
This book took me back to my favorite genre, the political/military/spy thriller. I have heard of this author through recommendations by a few friends, but I never picked up one of his books. I finally did.
I enjoyed this book right from the start. It has some very interesting characters. I felt like I got to know them a little better than I do with most other books. I understood them, their actions, and why they said some things they said. I do not think there was onetime where I thought "why did that person do that?"
The plot of this book was very detailed, and also very ambitious. I am actually a bit surprised that the whole story fit into 600 pages and still had the detail it contained. Maybe the end was rushed, but it was really just the aftermath of the adventures of "The Camel Club" anyway. Aftermath being the one second left on the countdown to launching the nuclear missiles and the dismissals and resignations of presidential cabinet members. None of that was what this story was about, but the ends needed to be sewn up.
One thing that did bug me a little was the actions of the Secretary of Defense. This was not a major player in the story, but it seemed to me that this part was not based in reality. The words and actions of this person in cabinet meetings made it seem like the military was hoping for a total nuclear holocaust in the middle east. That is hog-wash. Nobody that felt that way would ever be put into a position where they had influence over the decision. I thought that was pretty much Hollywood cheese, but the rest kicked buttocks!
I will read more by David Baldacci. I have another of his books, "Divine Justice", on the shelf. I will get to it before the end of 2009.
In case you care, The Camel Club, is a group of four guys that the Secret Service considers conspiracy theory types. One lives part time in a tent in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. They know these guys and consider them harmless. The Secret Service guys visit the park and play chess with them. LOL When you are talking about folks living on the fringes of society like that, well, you can get some very interesting individuals...and this book has plenty of those.

22 May 2009

33. Collected Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

A Collection Of Stories - Edgar Allan Poe

I had never really read any of Edgar Allan Poe's work except for "The Raven". I do not recall actually reading anything else. All I knew is that he wrote dark stuff and that Vincent Price played in movies based on his stories. I remember the movies from when I was a kid. The Pit and the Pendulum stands out for some reason.

This book contained about a dozen stories that Poe wrote. Murders In The Rue Morgue, The Pit and The Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell Tale Heart, and others. I read them, but I can't say that i enjoyed them.

Poe used a lot of words. Reading his stories was laborious. I felt like I was working so hard to read it that I could not just enjoy the story. They were OK stories.

Maybe (or maybe not) I will try it again in a decade or so and see if it is better next time, but I will probably have something else to read.

I guess I prefer his poetry to his stories. Nevermore....

Note to self...try to blog the day you finish the book, like this time, rather than procrastinating. ;-)

21 May 2009

32. Mother Night

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

This book was first published in 1961. I had heard of the author, but never this title. I picked it up because of the author's name. I bought it because the cover (shown above) looked provocative. I got interested in reading it because of a blurb from the Chicago Tribune. It said "Vonnegut makes fun of sex, to be sure, and governments, of course, and materialism, absolutely!-and war, and peace, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Communists and the Nazis, and motherhood and sin." That blurb made me pick this one out of the stack as my next read. I am glad it was there.

This novel is about an American man who is living in Germany prior to and during WWII. He marries a German woman. He is a successful writer of plays. When WW II breaks out he becomes a Nazi propagandist over the radio while working as an American agent.

The book is written like the main character is the one doing the writing. He is writing his memoirs while sitting in an Israeli jail awaiting a war crimes trial many years after the war. The book is written in a way that makes it appear to be fact, a recollection of actual historical events from a real man's past. I really liked that. It gave the story a bit of a kick for me. Many of the events and people in the book are real (Goebels, Eichman, Hitler, etc) as were the events. Using this technique blurred the lines between what was real and what was fictional.
(I looked it up. It is called metafiction.)

The book was an excellent read. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the characters. The plot twisted in ways I did not expect. This happened probably four or five times in the book. Usually I am pretty good at having a general idea of where the story will go next. Vonnegut screwed that all up for me. He took me in directions I did not expect on many occasions. Maybe that is why I liked this book so much.

The subject matter can be dark at times. Definitely not politically correct (Nazis never were). Anti-semitism, racism, sexism, and more. They all run rampant throughout this book. If that stuff offends easily then this book is probably not one you will enjoy. I am not easily offended. In fact, I was never offended. That part of history was real. Why not write about it? It is what it is.

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
This is the moral of the story, or one of them, as stated by the author in the introduction. I did not understand what he meant until reading the book. Howard W. Campbell, the protagonist, was an American, was working as a talk radio broadcaster within Germany and spewed Nazi propaganda to motivate the Germans. He was actually an American spy sending messages to America within the propaganda. The problem with that is that the CIA (or whoever recruited him) never could admit he was their agent...so the world only knew Howard W. Campbell as the Nazi propagandist. They never knew he was actually doing that work FOR the Allies. They never knew he was helping America by passing information over the airwaves. They never knew Howard W. Campbell... they only knew what he was pretending to be...and therefore; that is exactly what he was.

I really liked this book. For the third time in a row, I must rate this one as recommended.

20 May 2009

Kurt Vonnegut

Monday started reading "Mother Night" by Kurt Vonnegut. I started by reading the introduction, also written by Vonnegut in 1966. I was shocked to read what was written there. Not only does this man have a pretty good way with words, but something was revealed to me that I found very interesting.

Months ago I read "Slaughterhouse Five". I had never read it before, knew I should have, and did. It was a very good book. It is about an American WWII POW who was sent to a work camp in Dresden. He works at a factory that makes prenatal vitamin elixir. He is housed in the basement of a slaughterhouse. As the story unfolds he witnesses the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces. It was an excellent book.

Then I read the introduction to "Mother Night". Here it what he wrote...

"This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is; We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
My personal experience with Nazi monkey business was limited. There were some vile and lively native American Fascists in my home town of Indianapolis during the thirties, and somebody slipped me a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, I remember, which was supposed to be the Jews' secret plan for taking over the world. And i remember some laughs about my aunt, too, who married a German German, and who had to write to Indianapolis for proofs that she had no Jewish blood. The Indianapolis mayor knew her from high school and dancing school, so he had fun putting ribbons and official seals all over the documents the Germans required, which made them look like eighteenth-century peace treaties.
After a while the war came, and I was in it, and I was captured, so I got to see a little of Germany from the inside while the war was still going on. I was a private, a battalion scout, and, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, I had to work for my keep, which was good, not bad. I didn't have to stay in prison all the time, somewhere out in the countryside. I got to go to a city, which was Dresden, and to see the people and the things they did.
There were about a hundred of us in our particular work group, and we were put out as contract labor to a factory that was making a vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. It tasted like thin honey laced with hickory smoke. It was good. I wish I had some right now. And the city was lovely, highly ornamented, like Paris, and untouched by war. It was supposedly and "open" city, not to be attacked since there were no troop concentrations or war industries there.
But high explosives were dropped on Dresden by American and British planes on the night of February 13, 1945, just about twenty-one years ago, as I now write. There were no particular targets for the bombs. The hope was that they would create a lot of kindling and drive firemen underground.
And then hundreds of thousands of tiny incendiaries were scatted over the kindling, like seeds on freshly turned loam. More bombs were dropped to keep firemen in their holes, and all the little fires grew, joined to one another, became one apocalyptic flame. Hey presto: fire storm. It was the largest massacre in European history, by the way. And so what?
We didn't get to see the fire storm. We were in a cool meat-locker under a slaughterhouse with our six guards and ranks and ranks of dressed cadavers of cattle, pigs, horses and sheep. We heard the bombs walking around up there. Now and then there would be a gentle shower of calcimine. If we had gone above to take a look, we would have been turned into artifacts characteristic of fire storms: seeming pieces of charred firewood two or three feet long- ridiculously small human beings, or jumbo fried grasshoppers, if you will.
The malt syrup factory was gone. Everything was gone but the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men. So we were put to work as corpse miners, breaking into shelters, bringing bodies out. And I got to see many German types of all ages as death had found them, usually with valuables in their laps. Sometimes relatives would come to watch us dig. They were interesting, too.
So much for the Nazis and me.
If I'd been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes.
There's another clear moral to this tale, now that I think about it: When you're dead you're dead.
And yet another moral occurs to me now: Make love when you can. It's good for you.
Iowa City, 1966"

So...Slaughterhouse-Five" is not total fiction!? He based that story on his own experiences? Damn!

BTW...I like the way Vonnegut writes. He is a very interesting man.

19 May 2009

31. M*A*S*H

M*A*S*H - Richard Hooker

This is the book that inspired the movie that inspired the television show. Some of the characters are the same. Some are totally different. Hawkeye, Trapper John, Col. Blake, Radar, Father Mulcahy, "Hot Lips" Hoolihan, Frank Burns, and many others...though many of them are very different from what was on the screen. Then there are totally "new" characters. Spearchucker Jones, Duke Forrest (the third MAJOR character), Captain Waldowski (The Painless Pole and The Pride of Hamtramck), nurse "Knocko" McCarthy, and so many more I never heard of before.

It only took two days to read this one because I was having so much fun. It is hilarious and serious at the same time. Just like the movie and the television show. The antics made me laugh. The war and the reason these doctors are in Korea to begin with is sad. The pranks and wise-assed comments made me chuckle while knowing that these were coping mechanisms used in a highly stressful situation made me feel for the characters.

The book made me laugh a lot, but also made me feel reflective and melancholy at moments. I guess that is exactly why this story was such a hit in all three types of media.

Read it. It was excellent.

17 May 2009

30. Frankenstein

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley

Awesome! I never read this book because I "saw the movie". Boris Karloff was excellent, but that movie and this book were two completely different stories. I never knew that until I picked it up and started reading.

This book was not about a mad scientist with a huge Gothic castle who stole body parts and created a monster with lightning bolts. It was also not about how the monster went around scaring the crap out of the peasants until they came after him (and the scientist) with torches.

This book was about relationships and responsibility. This book was about the desires of men. This book was about decisions and how they have an effect on the events of our lives. This book was about the inherent traits of man and the instinctual responses we all have.

It was awesome....and it was written by a 19 year old girl and published in 1818. It is Gothic, but missing much of the "Gothic" themes of the day. It is also considered the first novel in the genre of "horror" or "science fiction".

I don't think I need to do any in depth analysis of this book. Like Shakespeare, it has all been said already, I am sure.

I enjoyed it and recommend it to everyone. It is outstanding.

12 May 2009

29. No Way Back

No Way Back - Michael Crow

A Baltimore narcotics officer is suspended and the CIA "recalls" him while he is on vacation. He gets involved in a plot involving North and South Korea, rogue Russian generals, double dealing CIA agents, and many more interesting characters. His job is to protect "the package", which just happens to be a South Korean multi-national businessman.

The story is quick paced. It is exciting. It has all the intrigue and suspense of a good thriller. I liked the author's writing style a lot. It seemed like it was straight to the point. Not a lot of flowery words. It was exact and disciplined. It is exactly the I would think I would deal with the world when I try to place myself into the shoes of an agent.

Was it great? Not really. It was very good though. A little predictable in some areas, but totally caught me off guard in others.

The jacket says Michael Crow is a pseudonym for a writer, who under his real name, has written five well-received literary novels, one of which won the Steven Crane Award for Best First Fiction. He is also a journalist who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for a series on the New York Mafia. I look at the man's picture and he looks very familiar. I have seen the face before...but I can't place it. I feel like I should know this man's real name. So, who is he?

Added on 20 May 2009....
I forgot to mention hat the editor of this book must have phoned it in. There were numerous times where I found words misspelled. There was one place I recall the word "than" being used where it should have been "then". Things like that bother me, and it did with this book. If you are going to be paid for doing the job, then you should do it better than this book shows.

08 May 2009

28. Prey

Prey - Michael Crichton

An exciting story in typical Michael Crichton fashion...and I think I know what I mean by that this time. I have read a bunch of his books. This one was recommended by a bunch of dudes at work. When I saw it on the shelf at Goodwill, I grabbed it.

It was a very quick read. The story is about a high-tech company that designs nano-bots which are to be used for a new medical imaging system. Well, actually, that was an after thought when they were losing federal funding for the weapons project that they were really working on. :-)
There is a serious amount of scientific stuff as there always is in Crichton's books. Think of the tour part of the Jurassic Park movie before the breakdown. How does it work? Chaos Theory? All that kind of stuff. This time it is centered around the production of nano-robot machines, virus manipulation, evolution, computer programming taken to extremes that I do not know even exist, behavior of biological organisms in swarms/packs/colonies, symbiosis, environmental impact, etc etc etc..... a LOT of scientific stuff.
So much science that the book became very very interesting to me. The story kept on following different theories and tied lots of different reasoning together in larger picture formulas to explain micro level problems.
Then I realized that the science was making the story. The story itself was not the best part of the story at all. in fact, the story itself could have been a 1950's B monster movie (think of Them or The Blob).
Why was this better than those? It is because of the tremendous amount of detail Crichton uses in the scientific parts of the books. It is not just the obligatory Gamma radiation cloud causing problems like in so many other stories. It feels like his "science" could be real. Maybe it is. I don't know.
I thought of his other books. Andromeda Strain, Terminal Man, Jurassic Park, Next. They were the same way. Other than Jurassic Park, these were just OK stories with suspense built in due to some excellent science. Is that bad? No, not really bad. Is it a "formula"? When I think of writing books using a formula I think of Jackie Collins cranking out a zillion books with the same basic story set in different places with different people in different circumstances and the occasional twist. Is that what Crichton has done? Maybe. In some ways I am sure he has. Always science. Always heavily detailed. Always against tremendous odds that seem impossible to overcome. Then again...many people use that same basic premise for books.
It was a good book that I enjoyed. Again, I must qualify that with the fact that I really enjoy the genre. It moves along quickly and kept me wondering what they would do next, though in parts I did not think the actions or words fit with some of the characters very well, but those moments were fleeting.
Check it out.

03 May 2009

27. Head Count

Head Count - Brian Duffy

This book was not bad, but also not very interesting. It never grabbed me. It never made me want to read the next page. It never made me want to know what happened next. I was able to put it down anywhere, even mid paragraph, and pick it up later with the same lack of interest I had before.

It was written in 1991. The year the Soviet Union fell apart. That turmoil caused problems for some. A fictitious East African country for one. A German man who was formerly a Stasi-agent. A Romanian man who was a member of the Protectorate.

The story is about a business man in Spain was exiled from South Africa and has plans to rule this smaller and poorer East African country who hires some of these men as "mercenaries". They are to set things in motion that will topple the fragile government. This same man has already been funding a group of "bandits" that have caused havoc int he countryside. He brings these guys in to break the camels back in the capital city.

Then there are the heroes. A detective in the capital's police department. A police department that has only two men it seems. The detective's childhood friend, who just happens to now be a prominent FBI counter-terrorism agent with connections in the CIA and elsewhere (how convenient).

Oh...the good guys win. Who cares.

This book is supposed to have "black" or "dark" humor with blurbs that say it made them laugh out loud. Laugh? Out loud? Even a chuckle may have been nice. I read nothing that I found even remotely humorous.

How obscure is this book? I can't find a photo of the cover on line anywhere. When I do a Google search, my own blog comes up twice in the top six results. Ugh. I had to scan my own cover to get a photo.

Don't waste your time.