book review roundup

I’m like 900 books behind on my reviews. This is the catch up post.

The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. I gushed madly about the first book in this series earlier so I don’t need to go on too much about these two. The three books need to be taken together, the whole series is just really great. But the Golden Compass, the first book, is the best of the three. It was good because it focussed tightly on Lyra, the lead character. In these two books the focus broadens into the epic battle the series is all about and the intertwined stories of a whole bunch of characters at once. Its still well done but the overall whole is weaker than the first book. The second book introduces Will, the second lead protagonist, and Lyra shares lead in this book and the third book with him and seems to become less resourceful and individually heroic as a result. I also found the final resolution, the entire climactic point of the series (which I won’t spoil) to be kind of overwrought. But its been a while since I’ve read these books now and so I can find all kinds of things to nitpick: the three books as a whole are still really terrific.

House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewsky. OK. This is a book about a guy who works in a tattoo shop who finds a manuscript, written by a blind dead guy, which is a deep critical analysis of a nonexistent documentary by a famous filmmaker guy, who moved into this house and discovered that it was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside, and then videotaped his and others explorations of the house. Very Bad Things ensued. More and more Bad Things seem to happen to the tattoo guy the more he pieces together the manuscript.

This is a really creepy book. The story weaves between that of the tattoo guy and the video guy and the house. The book is heavily footnoted, and the footnotes occasionally crawl all over the page and sometimes across multiple pages. The text itself shatters the page, displayed sideways and upsidedown and in blocks. Format-wise, its really creative. Plot-wise this book borrows a lot from Blair Witch. The narrative often bogs down in the critical analysis. The central plot — the exploration haunted house — would be a lot scarier if it wasn’t being described third hand by scholars describing the movie of the exploration. The ending is hugely disappointing. But its still a hell of a lot of fun to read as an odd, creative, non-linear experimental kind of novel. Really unique.

Blink, Malcom Gladwell. I really enjoyed the Tipping Point, I love much of Gladwell’s shorter writing, and I was looking forward to this book. But it was only eh. Gladwell tells a really good story but I thought that unlike Tipping Point, in which all the stories coalesced around a well-argued central thesis, this book’s thesis wasn’t as clear. A lot of anecdotes in search of a point (kind of like my blogging).

Eastern Standard Tribe, Cory Doctorow. As much as I adore Cory this is not his best book. It starts out well — there are some good scenes near the beginning but then it goes ppffft. The ideas aren’t well explored and the characters are really thin. I have Cory’s short stories in my pile and his newest book on order so I’m hoping for better. (yes, I’ve read Down and Out and it was great).

Dr. Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke. I got this book out of the library, there were people who had it on hold after I did and thus I had two weeks to read 850 pages and if I was late I would have to return it anyhow. I was in a panic about it and did nothing for two weeks but work and read this book. But then I got totally caught up in it, lost a couple nights sleep, and finished two days ahead of time.

Its kind of funny that I can’t seem to make it through Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson’s eighteenth century historical tome. I find it too long, too wordy, too dense and too detailed. But here is this eighteen century historical tome which is also long, wordy, dense and detailed, and I had no problem with it at all. Maybe it was the fairies.

No, really, it was the fairies. As I mentioned in the gushing for the Pullman books, I like a well-told fantasy novel. In short, this is the sort of book I adore and thus I adored it. It was great fun and I wanted more when it was over. Two things I did not like: the pictures, which were pointless and very bad; and the footnotes, which were mostly pointless and boring. I began to skim them about 300 pages in and do not feel I lost any great effect of the book.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: A Literary Reference (not on amazon). Matthew Bruccoli, Editor. I’m not sure why I’m posting about this one given that I’m probably one of four people on the entire internet who actually cares. The Great Gatsby is my favourite book; I reread it every few years and I find something new about it every time. Its a beautiful little jewel of a book. Plus I relate a lot to Fitzgerald’s story, of the writer who was famous at 25, destroyed by success, and totally washed up ten years later. :/

This particular book is kind of a companion to the novel — it contains all kinds of background information about the novel itself (a lot of the characters were based on real people, which would have been obvious to people reading it in 1926 when it was published, but not so much now), reviews of the book when it came out (most of which were moderate, at best), critical discussion, and my favourite part: letters between Fitzgerald and his editor as the book was being written and revised. Its a really interesting glimpse into the writing process and the emotional state of Fitzgerald as he was working on the book. How writers think when they write is a subject that has always fascinated me.

Getting Things Done, David Allen. I actually read this book a long while ago, before there was such a monster Internet cult about it. And I thought the book had a lot of terrific ideas for getting organized, many of which I incorporated into my own routine. But I can’t say that GTD totally changed my life or that I converted my entire organizational world to the GTD system. But over the years I’ve noticed that the book has grown in popularity and people are going absolutely NUTS over it. So I thought, OK, read it again, maybe I missed something the first time. And I didn’t. The system has a whole lot of good ideas (and I am using more of them this time around). But like a lot of business book there’s a lot of fluff in this book, a lot of verbiage in the beginning and the end that just made me sleepy. If you get curious about GTD I suggest skipping to Part 2 where he describes the system. That’s the good part. And I like 43folders and lifehacker for general-purpose organizational tips.

Right now I have like ten computer books in my pile I’m supposed to read but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Right now I want to read dumb fluffy things.

2 thoughts on “book review roundup

  1. You nailed Eastern Standard Tribe perfectly. It starts of incredibly well, just some brilliant writing, slings a few great ideas at us and then goes exactly nowhere. A frustrating book from a writer who’s too good to be putting out something this weak.

  2. I can’t make it through Quicksilver either. It seems like I should like that book but I just don’t. And so far ditto on Dr Strange & Mr. Norrell. I keep thinking I’ll get past my block but so far not yet.

    Try “Fat White Vampire”…it’s light reading but amusing at least in concept.

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