August 19, 2006

Book 28: The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells

This review here might be a bit shaky, since it's been a while since I read the book and even then I was lying on a beautifully sun-soaked Myrtle Beach strand of sand, but I took notes and I will try my best. I'm going to assume that most of you are familiar with the basic plot of the novel, too. I think this is one book whose allure is not quite in how it ends, but in how it gets there.

What I found most striking about this book was the formal tone. This is so different than the last book I read, which was a very emotional and personal account (being composed mostly of letters, after all). It's rather dry and scientific, and though it's a personal account it retains an air of strict narration, the detached language of the omniscient narrator. There is only one occasion of note where the narrator becomes human, and even then he comes across as rather harsh and uncaring. The book is really more of a news account than a novel.

Along those lines, it bears mentioning that the novel shines in the science aspects, while lacking in the strictly literary ones. There aren't any fleshed out characters to speak of; even the narrator remains aloof, remarkable only for his stoic air and wonderful powers of detached observation. The characters that do share the spotlight only come in momentarily and are viewed with a certain condescension, leading me to believe that our narrator is of the upper class. It's interesting that in such a tragedy as a murderous alien invasion bourgeois class consciousness still shines through in olde Britain.

What's even stranger, though, is that the narrator seems to take the side of the Martians through most of the book. The Martians come across as a superior life form, treating humans as most humans treat animals (the exception, I suppose, would be vegans). Now that I think of it, that may have something to do with the much-touted correlation to imperialism. Strangely enough, my quasi-socialist, history-minded brain didn't pick up on a lot of imperialist vibes, though the final demise of the tripods did strike a chord. Interestingly enough, it made me think more of Columbus than of Stanley, but that's just me.

Overall, I'd say this book is worth a quick weekend read. It's an interesting vision of alien invasion that manages to put human affairs in perspective in more than one new way. It's heavy on the descriptive side and isn't too emotionally engaging. A strange blend of scientific description and a dash of storytelling ability make this book a good addition to a shelf of classics.

Grade: A-

August 15, 2006

Book 27: The Historian

The Historian
Elizabeth Kostova

I think that the first thing I should say about this book is that it is absolutely nothing like I expected. Having read it, I can't say exactly what it is I expected, but this isn't it. That is not to say that the book isn't good, however; think of it more as a disclaimer on the head of this review. Anyway, on to the meat.

The plot and premise of this book are remarkable. I'm amazed that a first-time author was able to weave such an intricate story. While there are parts of this six-hundred page monster that begin to drag, most everything seems necessary (or at least tangentially related) to the plot. If anything, the book isn't long enough, as it leaves some loose ends. Conveniently, this is also my first (and most major) gripe. Because the scope of the novel is so large, there are many details that get lost along the way, especially considering that it would be nearly impossible to finish this behemoth in a single sitting. There were many times that I had to check myself and refresh my memory regarding a trite detail that suddenly appears a hundred pages after it is introduced.

The winding nature of the plot and its narration exacerbate this effect and produce more than a bit of confusion on the part of the reader. The plot travels through three different time periods, each with its own narrator, and that doesn't include specific scholastic articles excerpted, or letters. While the print itself reflects this well (certain things are in italics, others in quotes), it is sometimes hard for the reader to see the whole picture clearly. In fact, I think I would need some serious Cliff's Notes to wrap my mind around the plot entirely. I kind of wonder what all I missed.

Setting these pseudo-professorial comments aside, however, I really enjoyed the book. Except for a few periods in the middle where I found myself bogged down, the plot really moves well without over-employing drastic chapter endings. They do appear (something like, "We looked down at the face to see that it was none other than...!"), but Kostova manages to end most chapters in a way that makes the reader want to read on without the cheap gimmicks. This, and the radical yet gripping plot line (vampires, Dracula, zombies!), makes the book quite addictive, and I must say that I enjoyed coming back to it each day.

The writing itself, the descriptions and such, flows smoothly and is consistently entertaining and fresh. Despite some problems inherent in a book whose locations and characters vary so widely, the package is very neatly wrapped. It's outlandish claims are tempered by a cool dose of reality, adding enough believability to keep the characters real and the novel entertaining. And to top it all off, the last sentence is rather magnificent. I have a feeling this book will haunt me for a while, and if you're up to the challenge I'd highly recommend it for some late-summer cramming.

Grade: A-

August 7, 2006

Book 26: The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada
Lauren Weisberger

Yes, I read this book. No, I am not ashamed. Yes, I made the decision fully on my own. Anyway, on to the show, eh? Considering that this book definitely falls within the not-so-subtle category of "chick lit", I was pretty impressed with its literary qualities. Though it does of course have its flaws, as all books must, it is highly enjoyable.

The biggest dealbreaker for me is the way that time and characters tend to fade out unexpectedly and without warning, resurfacing only when the reader is bludgeoned with a catch-up phrase. Four months disappear about two-thirds of the way through the novel, not to mention the newborn nephew (who conveniently resurfaced just as I stopped to wonder where he was) who mysteriously disappears after being introduced at length. He does indeed appear later, but only as a caveat. In similar fashion, two major storylines are left quite unfinished by the end of the novel, and seeing as they both have to deal with boys, I'm quite surprised. The least a chick lit novel can do is wrap up the boy situation, right?

The glue that holds this novel together, however, is the voice of the narrator. I'm in love with the narrator, who seems to have my attitude about most things (except my abhorrence of campy dialogue), though I hope I would never sell myself out to the fashion industry in any respect. The prose, however, is brilliantly sarcastic (if only it were allowed to speak for itself!) and I fell in love with the main character immediately. She has spunk and a great sense of humor. The way she finally manages to get herself fired is pure genius. If only I had stopped reading the book there, before all of the ends managed to stay loose and fractured and before the campy shared hatred took hold.

With regards to the movie, it was definitely casted well. It was also nice to be able to see fashions barely described in the novel. One thing they definitely improved was the ending, which just doesn't fly in the book. Not only does a vast amount of time expire, only to be accounted for far too late, but the book lapses into utter and absolute cliché. I almost think I would be better off with an ending at the dreadful mistake, rather than still wondering what happens to the narrator after she tries to explain. For chick lit, though, this is definitely a good pick.

Grade: B

August 2, 2006

Book 25: A Life of Her Own

A Life of Her Own
Emile Carles

This is the last of Diane's book recommendations. This is a unique piece, an autobiography of a French mountain woman who was born right at the turn of the century. Her life spanned some of the most radical changes the world had ever seen, and her place in France provided a front-row seat to events such as the two world wars. The autobiography at large, however, lacks a focus and a sense of purpose. It finds both within the last two chapters, but this is too late to make the book.

This is not to say that the book isn't interesting. It is a fascinating portrait of French peasant life and some of the changes it underwent throughout the eventful 20th century. Madame Carles is not shy about adressing the changes that she feels still need to take place. Though one is not always sure why she feels the way she does, her voice is always strong and clear in its assertions. I just hoped for a bit more insight on events that made her change her mind. For example, she claims that a single man opened her eyes to the views of anarchists and pacifists that changed her forever, but she never goes into sufficient detail. She leaves it at that, assuming that the reader knows ahead of time exactly what she is talking about.

This kind of jarring discontinuity happens throughout the book, which is in dire need of a semblance of a plot line. I can deal with weird chronology, especially in an autobiography, but there are parts of this book that skipped around with no apparent logic. This only served to confuse me as to what she could possibly be referring to. The book is also quite repetitive in some of its wry observations, which obviously lose their mettle after repetition.

Despite its literary flaws, though, the content of the book can be very eye-opening and interesting at times. Madame Carles sketches a very cynical but very real portrait of the villages of the French Alps and their people. Her love for them shows through and she rarely comes across as patronizing; she truly cares about her people and genuinely wants them to open her eyes. Her career as a teacher also justifies this viewpoint. She looks at the valley as a place caught in time, resistant to change but slowly awakening. Her lack of attention to World War II illustrates how isolated a valley could indeed be even in the midst of such a wide conflict. While the war affected her life, she doesn't overly moralize, simply restating her pacifist beliefs.

The only times the book becomes overbearing are when Madame Carles emphasizes her ideas. When she is just describing events, they tend to speak for themselves wonderfully, conveyed in gripping detail and lively, personal narrative. When she begins to preach, however, I zone out completely and the work becomes slightly annoying. All in all, though, this was an intriguing and different book, a unique view on the world from an exceptional woman that was well worth reading.

Grade: B