Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Hosseini’s followup to The Kite Runner takes us back to Kabul for another closeup look at the Taliban’s evil. This time our narrator is a poor village woman, the bastard daughter of a wealthy merchant. She’s married off young to a creep from Kabul who abuses her and his second wife terribly. Things proceed from here, and we end up with a well written version of “Sleeping With the Enemy in Kabul.”

The prose is good, though not great. (But far better than my Pushtun or Urdu, so really, we should just be saluting Hosseini, and not worry about being too critical on this front.) The plotting is stronger than in the Kite Runner.

I enjoyed learning more about poor benighted Afghanistan and about some of the simple kindnesses and beauty that can help bring color and happiness to even the most unfortunate of lives.

Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell

Continuing my efforts to better understand the economy as a whole, and make up for some of the things I didn’t study during undergrad, I spent a pleasant hour flipping through various books on the economy. This one seemed the most complete and most basic at the same time.

Six months later, I finally finished The Big Book of Economics! At six hundred pages of not-that-dense economic theory for beginners, this one took a while. Certainly not as long as if I’d read a complex book of economic theory for smart people, but still an accomplishment of sorts.

Dr. Sowell of Stanford University is a dedicated scholar of Milton Friedman and similar schools of thought. He’s bright and his style feels approachable without being overly dimmed down.

In twenty-five chapters he covers such topics as Prices & Markets, Industry & Commerce, Work & Pay, Time & Risk, National Economies, International Economies.

The book was informative, and I now feel like I have a much firmer grasp of basic economics. I’d be remiss not to mention a few problems though. First, the book has a particularly right-leaning conservative bent and occasionally gets on a high-horse. Second, the organization is odd, such that section overviews come at the end of the section, with the sections themselves preferring to jump straight into sub-topics without any preamble or indication as to the fascinating twists and turns the subject matter will take.

Patient Zero by Jonathan Mayberry

When the TERRORISTS start creating ZOMBIES to attack the US, you know we’re fucked. Luckily, Detective Joe Ledger is there to save the day with Ju-jitsu, an MP5, and some hand picked members of Echo squad! The results are… perfect for beach reading!

Not sure I really need to say much more about this book. Did I mention TERRORISTS and ZOMBIES on the same plate???

Read it on a beach in Akumal in March while the Professor celebrated her spring break.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This delightful little tale about a boy named Nobody represents the best of what I think Neil Gaiman does well. The idea is fun. (“What if a little boy were raised by the ghosts in a graveyard?”) The prose is easy to read and playful. The story is both light hearted and macabre at the same time. And Gaiman manages to play with some fun tropes without appearing clichéd. (Like Slias the never-called-vampire-vampire, or Gulhiem, the city of the Ghouls.)

Great, short little novella, without much lasting meaning, but with lots of fun imagery.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

So yeah. I read the tween vampire romance thing. I’m not ashamed. Not too ashamed anyway. Think about it the way you would Harry Potter and you’ll feel less guilt about how delicious it can be sometimes.

Twilight is the first in a four novel series Mrs. Meyer wrote over the last four to six years. There is a movie, which I’ve not seen. The novels sold; bigtime.

So I read through them in the first month of this new year, amid the tumult and pomp of presidential transition and towards the springlike week of Valentine’s Day. They were a great candy coated escapist fantasy.

Bella Swan moves to the town of Forks. She’s an odd-girl out, who doesn’t fit in with much of anyone. She’s awkward and charming and horrifically self-absorbed. Then she meets the Cullen family and her world is changed forever. Cause… You guessed it. They drink blood like barflies shoot tequila.

This first novel deals with Bella’s budding relationship with Edward, and her coming to grips with the supernatural elements of the world around her.

It’s short, written at about a sixth grade level.

New Moon by Stephanie Meyer
In the second installment, things continue more or less in the same tempo as they did in Twilight, only with a change of leading man. As the title indicates, the werewolves which were hinted at in the first novel come out to play, and we learn lots more about them. Poor Bella is heartbroken, and cries entirely too much throughout this book. Jake’s loveable demeanor and the ending redeem what is otherwise the weakest entry in the series.

Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer
The tween vampire bit takes a step forward here and we get a healthy tale of teen boys fighting over the girl they both want. Of course, one is a vampire, the other a werewolf, but hey, that’s what you get when you take a trite trope, like using vampirism as a metaphor for budding sexuality. However, the yarn is entertaining, very fast to read, and I almost guarantee you’ll go out to buy the next one right away. Because, while Mrs. Meyer seems as unaware of convention, or the rich canon in which she is writing as one could imagine, she does make you want to know what happens next to Bella, Jacob, Edward, Alice, and the rest.

Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer
Here, in the final installment of the mighty Twilight series, things take a big leap forward. For starters, the book is much longer than the previous three. Second, the writing style and narrative jump about five grade levels ahead. We’ve finally got sex, some seriously gruesome scenes, and so on. One gets the feeling that Mrs. Meyer either had a lot of help here, or that it took her a thousand published pages to get warmed up, and that she’s finally come into her own a bit.

The plot takes a radical right turn pretty early into the novel. There’s a cool final showdown, and things are resolved to my satisfaction at least. The core mechanics of the series are still all here: pain, love, loss, angst about feelings, etc. (So don’t expect literature, just expect a slightly matured and longer version of the previous novels.)

As some reviewers have noted, the fourth book can be considered a bit clumsy (like Bella), because almost everyone gets what they want, and frequently we have to bend through some pretty uncomfortable suspensions of disbelief in order to accept the whys and wherefores of the deal. But everything is nicely wrapped up in a bow by the end, so you get what you came for, I suppose.

I’m comfortable saying that I enjoyed this series. I bought the central tenant, and the special powers that the vampires have make you want to be one. So it’s aspirational, and cheesy, and crunchy like popcorn without offering any real sustenance.
So I've let another season get behind me without updating. Shame on me.

But today I had a fun little conversation about a few books, and remembered that I'd been remiss...

First the personal update, then posts covering January through April 1st. Now, April still seems like three lifetimes ago, but it's late enough tonight, I've got some new demands on my time, and I don't want to do Mrs. Carter and Mr. Rushdie (among others) the discourtesy of hurried posts. So you'll just have to live with a few new books for now!

The Professor and I are still living in the house in South Austin. I'm now a free agent, no longer under the employ of the racecar shop in Vancouver. It's sad to say goodbye to that beautiful city and some of the friends there. But I'm not too sorry to have had to do a lot less travel this spring, and I'll not miss some elements of the job. On to newer and better things!

In other news, the Professor is now officially esquire tambien. So that's cool. The future is otherwise uncertain, and as Terminator reminded us this past weekend, there's no fate but what we make it. So wish us luck with whatever that ends up being.

Now, back to the books!