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Friday, December 31, 2010

A Global Resolution: The International Book Challenge

As we move into a new year, many book clubs and individuals are taking various reading challenges that will run to the end of 2011 (I wrote about one of these in my last post). Since I am often a bandwagon-jumper, I decided to come up with a challenge of my own. It wasn't all that difficult, given that I have a fondness for books in translation, revere foreign authors, and hope to someday live in Barcelona.

Thus, my reading challenge for 2011 is The International Book Challenge. It's fairly self-explanatory, but here are a few guidelines ("rules" sounds too strict; reading should be fun):

  • The goal is to read books by as many "foreign" authors as possible. For the purposes of this challenge, foreign means not born in your country.
  • Reading the work in translation is perfectly acceptable; some of you are able to read multiple languages, but most of us are not.
  • Try to step out of your comfort zone. If you've never read a Korean or Somali novelist, ask your local bookseller to suggest a good one; you might be pleasantly surprised.

Here are the achievement levels, based on number of countries "visited" in 2011:

  • Homebody: 0-2 countries visited
  • Budget Traveller: 3-6 countries visited
  • Frequent Flier: 7-9 countries visited
  • Marco Polo: 10 or more countries visited

If you don't think 10 is an achievable number, consider the following partial list of novelists and their country of birth that are "foreign" to me:

  1. Roberto Bolano - Chile
  2. Umberto Ecco - Italy
  3. Carlos Fuentes - Mexico
  4. Amos Oz - Israel
  5. Geraldine Brooks - Australia
  6. Antonio Munoz Molina - Spain
  7. Mikkel Birkegaard - Denmark
  8. Paulo Coelho - Brazil
  9. Henning Mankell - Sweden
  10. Mario Vargas Llosa - Peru

Keep in mind that the list above doesn't mention even one of the "classics:" Alexandre Dumas (France), Anton Chekhov (Russia), Jane Austen (England), or James Joyce (Ireland), to name just a few. So the problem won't be finding enough authors, but rather paring the list down to a manageable number.

While there are no prizes for successfully completing this challenge, I can assure you that as a reader you will gain great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. I may even post a list of the Marco Polo-level folks in a 2011 year end blog, if you send me your names.

Happy New Year, and happy reading.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Big Resolution: The 2011 Chunkster Challenge

The start of each new year always brings new resolutions, challenges, and goals; the most common resolutions involve dieting, exercising, or some other painful pursuit. This year, why not set an enjoyable goal in addition to those unpleasant ones? And what's more enjoyable than reading a really big book?

Registration is now open for the 2011 Chunkster Challenge (click the link for the sign-up page). This challenge is, simply put, all about reading fat books (or thick, chunky, stout...whatever word you prefer). The Challenge runs from February 1, 2011 through January 31, 2012. These are the guidelines:

What is a Chunkster:

  • A Chunkster is 450 pages or more of ADULT fiction or nonfiction ... A Chunkster should be a challenge.

A Few Rules: 
  • No Audio books allowed
  • No e-Books allowed
  • No Short Stories and Essay collections
  • No need to list your books ahead of time

Levels of Participation:
  1. The Chubby Chunkster - this option is for the reader who wants to dabble in large tomes, but really doesn't want to commit to much more than that. four Chunksters is all you need to finish this challenge.
  2. The Plump Primer - this option is for the slightly heavier reader who wants to commit to six Chunksters over the next twelve months.
  3. Do These Books Make my Butt Look Big? - this option is for the reader who can't resist bigger and bigger books and wants to commit to six Chunksters from the following categories: 2 books which are between 450 - 550 pages in length; 2 books which are 551 - 750 pages in length; 2 books which are GREATER than 750 pages in length.
  4. Mor-book-ly Obese - This is for the truly out of control chunkster. For this level of challenge you must commit to eight or more Chunksters, of which three must be 750 pages or more. You know you want to.....go on and give in to your cravings.
For a list of some of the books that fit this challenge, see the book suggestions page.

I know the rules say there is no need to list your books ahead of time, but if I don't there will be no accountability, so here are the ones I plan to finish during the challenge:

1. Ulysses (maybe doing it as part of a challenge will help me actually finish the thing)
2. Drood
3. Wolf Hall
4. The Secret History
5. Queen Margot
6. A Conspiracy of Paper
7. Gone With the Wind
8. Middlemarch
9. The Library of Shadows

Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas

A Christmas video...great song, great band.


Hope everyone has a great holiday. Back to the book reviews after Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Great Christmas Movie: The Godfather


In an earlier post on books adapted to film, I wrote that The Godfather may be the only example where the film is clearly as good or better than what was also an outstanding novel. With Christmas a week away, it is worth noting that The Godfather is also a fine Christmas book/movie. Everyone includes Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life (along with a few newer additions like Scrooged and Elf) on their best holiday films list. But the one that no one seems to include is not only a fine holiday film, but one of the best ever made in any genre.

At first glance, The Godfather may not seem like a typical Christmas classic, what with the Mafia and murders and such, but a closer look reveals that it touches on most of the things that we supposedly care about during this festive time of year, and what we want in our holiday films and books:

1. A Christmas setting. At least part of the film, and in fact one of the most pivotal parts, occurs during the Christmas holidays: the scene early in the film where Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) is shot by rival gangsters. At roughly the same time, consigliere Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall) is kidnapped by men from the same crime family that shot the Don, and what is he doing? He's Christmas shopping. Before being released he is taken to a diner near a lot selling Christmas trees. It couldn't be more holiday-friendly if the Grinch walked into the scene with Tiny Tim on his back.

2. Christmas is one of the only times of the year that many people go to church. One of the final scenes in the film show the baptism of the nephew of Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino). The scene shows an entire Catholic baptism ritual, in both Latin and English. It doesn't get much more church-like than that, even with the assassination of the heads of the five New York crime Families intercut throughout the baptism.

3. The holidays are about family. We constantly hear about how the holidays are a time for family, and our Christmas films must mirror that. Well, there has never been a film more centered on family than The Godfather. Everything these characters do is done in the name of family, usually to the exclusion of any outsiders. At one point, Michael Corleone warns his brother Fredo (played by John Cazale): "Fredo, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever takes sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever." That ranks right up there with "God bless us, everyone" in the Pantheon of holiday sentiments.

So when you sit down this Christmas season to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman, don't forget The Godfather. It's a holiday offer you can't refuse.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Captain Alatriste: A Review

Acclaimed Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte is probably most well known for his bestselling novel The Club Dumas (and the ill-advised film version starring Johnny Depp). However, he is also the author of a wonderful series set in 17th century Spain, the first installment of which is titled Captain Alatriste. If you thought the swashbuckling novel died with Alexandre Dumas, think again.

In many ways, Captain Alatriste is almost a Spanish version of The Three Musketeers, combining real history with fictional adventure in a way that both entertains and informs. As with the Dumas classic (and all good historical fiction), true events are often bent to fit the flow of the story, but who really cares? You're not studying for an exam on the Golden Age of Spain; you're escaping the modern world to roam the streets of 1620s Madrid, sword in hand.

Perez-Reverte is a very skilled writer, and his words bring Madrid of 400 years ago to life on every page. In 300 pages he gives us ominous masked figures, Italian assassins, rogue priests, the Inquisition, a war in Flanders, painters, poets, and royalty, and the coolest swordsman this side of Aramis (or was it Porthos?).

The plot conforms to the traditional swashbuckling adventure tale: the famous but down on his luck soldier Captain Diego Alatriste is hired by three mysterious (yet obviously important) men to murder two Englishmen who have traveled to Madrid. When Alatriste and his fellow brigand (the aforementioned Italian assassin) encounter the pair, Alatriste is so impressed by the fact that his opponent asks that his friend be spared (while asking no quarter for himself), he stops the Italian from killing the other Englishman and then leads the pair to safety. This good deed earns Alatriste both gratitude and enmity from some surprising people, and how he navigates his way through the maze of alliances keeps the pages turning.

The pace of the story is handled expertly; there are breaks in the action at just the right points, and the action returns before the narrative has a chance to become tedious. Alatriste is a flawed hero, but he is a hero nonetheless, a man who holds to his standards of loyalty and honor in a time when allegiances shifted with the wind. And the fight scenes are so realistic you can almost hear the clash of steel on steel.

Captain Alatriste sold more than one million copies in Spain alone, and it has become an international bestseller as well; the five installments that follow it have also been hugely successful worldwide. So if you enjoy adventure tales along the lines of The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, you will certainly not be disappointed by Captain Alatriste.

Now into the fray...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Gift Ideas for Your Favorite Book Collector

As everyone knows, books make a great Christmas gift: they're portable, don't require 12 AAA batteries, and you don't have to stay up all night putting them together. There is no limit to the choices you have, either. From coffee table books to a favorite athlete's biography to the history of the Boer War, there's something for every taste and interest.

For the serious book collector on your list the choice of gifts is equally wide open, but you'll need to work a little harder. While your 17-year-old nephew may be satisfied with the new autobiography from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, your bibliophile aunt probably won't, even if she did rock out to "Sympathy for the Devil" at Altamont back in '69.

What follows are a few ideas sure to warm the heart of the book collector on your list. Some are truly collectibles, while some are simply books any bibliophile would likely enjoy.One thing worth noting is that for books to be collectible you should always get first printings of first editions, and if they are signed by the author the value only goes up; for these copies check AbeBooks, Biblio, or Alibris.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1 by Mark Twain. This is the first in a planned three-volume set that, following Twain's wishes, was not to be released until 100 years after his death. Unlike a typical biography, this one meanders and rabbit-trails back and forth through the periods of Twain's life, with both humorous and insightful results. A must for any Twain fan.

Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books (3rd Edition) by Ian C. Ellis. This is the one time a later edition is better than an early one. Book Finds is a crash-course on book collecting that is valuable to novices and seasoned collectors alike. It covers everything from how to identify a first edition to grading the condition of a book. It also gives sound advice on both buying and selling and includes a list of what the author believes are the 1000 most collectible books as of the time of the 3rd Edition's release in 2006. The best thing about Book Finds is that it is written in a very readable style, in spite of the technical aspect of some of the information.

Subterranean Press Limited Editions. For the collector who loves the horror or fantasy genres, the specialty publishing house Subterranean Press has high quality signed limited editions of popular titles by well-known authors (from Jim Butcher to Ray Bradbury) at an affordable price. These are not to be confused with true first editions of these titles, but they are highly sought after by collectors nonetheless.

Heart-Shaped Box (signed) by Joe Hill. Unless you've been hibernating for the past couple of years, you know that Joe Hill's real name is Joe Hill King, son of Stephen King, and if his first few releases are any indication, he should have a run of success that will eventually rival his dad's. Signed first editions of Heart-Shaped Box are already selling for $70 at the low end, and when you consider that the average price of Stephen King's first novel Carrie in a signed first edition is $3000 and up, $70 will look like a great investment a few years from now. And just for the record, Heart-Shaped Box is a great read.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee. The San Francisco author who started as a clerk at a San Jose bookstore during his freshman year of college and continued in either book selling or as a publisher's sales rep for the next thirty years gives us a glimpse into the world of the bookseller that few knew existed. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop takes the reader on a fascinating journey from the first papyrus scrolls and the great Library of Alexandria through the e-book and mega-chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble. Mixed throughout this 3000-year odyssey are Buzbee's own journey, his love of books, and some laugh-out-loud moments. By the time you finish the book, you will definitely want to sneak a peek into the back room of your local bookstore, hoping to see some of the things he has seen.

Booked to Die by John Dunning. All of the books in the mystery series featuring Denver cop-turned- rare book dealer Cliff Janeway are wonderful, but the first is still the best. It is a rare combination of murder-mystery and real-world information on books and book collecting. This is one you can give in paperback as a stocking-stuffer if your book-crazy loved one has never read it. But if you want to go the extra mile for a signed first edition, be prepared to pay. The first print run was only 6,500 copies (compared, for example, to the 12 million first run of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), so the book was scarce right out of the gate in 1992. A signed copy will cost anywhere from $700 up to $2500 depending on condition. Feel free to buy two and have Santa bring me one of them.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I will recommend this book until the day I die, and then I'll be buried with a copy. It touches on such diverse topics as forbidden love, the Spanish Civil War, and the innate need we have for books. It layers all of these things on the mystery of why a disfigured man is burning all of the copies of books by Julian Carax, an obscure author whose novel, The Shadow of the Wind, was discovered by main character Daniel Sempere when he was 10 years old. But be sure you have a lot of free time when you start this one; I stayed up all night reading the last 250 pages. Signed first editions can be found for around $200, but this is one book that every collector needs to have, signed or not.

If none of these choices sound quite right for your collector's Christmas stocking, you can always pick up a nice first printing of The Sun Also Rises for around $20,000 or a signed The Great Gatsby for $17,000. It's easily worth the price to (carefully) hold a piece of literary history in your hands. Just don't be upset when you only get socks or mittens in return; Christmas is about giving, after all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Oprah Scares the Dickens Out of Her Book Club

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...and for the millions of readers who religiously follow Oprah Winfrey's book club recommendations, it is now the scariest of times. Her latest selection is not something expected like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom; this time she's gone double retro, picking Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities AND Great Expectations. All across America, readers are breaking out in cold sweats, flashing back to their 10th grade English class.

Sure, everyone says they've read Dickens. In reality, most people only know him through the various film versions of A Christmas Carol and the Cliff Notes of Oliver Twist that helped them squeak by with a C in English Lit 101. My advice to those who are hesitant to take this challenge: stop worrying and just do it. Rather than having a feeling of dread, we should all applaud this choice of two of Dickens' finest novels.

Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers who ever lived, and although some of the language and customs in his books can be hard to follow at times, his humor, social commentary, and amazing characters are all timeless. Dickens was also the first true entertainment superstar; his novels were serialized in newspapers and magazines, causing circulation to skyrocket by their presence alone, and then still sold in huge quantities when later bound in book form. People lined up outside his publisher's office waiting for the latest installment of his most current novel, and thousands on both sides of the Atlantic attended the readings he gave from his books. That's right...people paid to listen to him read.

So while I often don't agree with Oprah's picks (the Eckhart Tolle period was particularly tragic), this time I believe she hit a home run. And if, as has been the case with her other picks, millions of people end up reading Charles Dickens because of her recommendation, lovers of great literature everywhere owe the lady a debt of gratitude.

Dickens for the holidays...truly the best of times.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Historian: A Review

W. Somerset Maugham opened his classic novel The Razor's Edge with the line "I have never begun a novel with more misgiving," and that sentiment certainly applied to me as I began reading Elizabeth's Kostova's novel The Historian. Having now finished her mammoth debut novel, the feeling really hasn't gone away.

The premise of the novel had grabbed me from the first time I read the publisher's blurb: a search across Europe, spanning three generations, in an effort to discover if Vlad Dracula, the historical 15th century impaler, might somehow still be alive. The market has been flooded with vampire books over the past several years (particularly in the Young Adult market), but a really good Dracula novel is always entertaining, and that was my hope for The Historian. Well, it was good...and it also wasn't.

As noted above, Kostova started with a really good premise. Stories with exotic locales, danger, and tried-and-true villains are typically a good way to spend a rainy afternoon. She also has a particular talent for historical detail; I came away from this book feeling like I was ready for a final exam on 15th century Eastern European history. And the clues that the main characters find along the way do a commendable job of moving the plot forward.

However, it is very difficult to care about these characters, given their two-dimensional limitations. Where Kostova excels as a historian (which is where her background apparently lies) she fails at creating characters we can relate to and empathize with. In addition, the dialog fails except when relating historical events, and to make matters worse, the book is nearly 650 pages long; it would have been better at half that length.

The biggest problem with this particular "Dracula" novel, however, is a complete lack of both Dracula and any type of suspense. At no point in the book was I even mildly alarmed, let alone actually scared, and a Dracula that's not scary is like chicken-fried steak without gravy: it may look like the real thing, but it's not.

I normally write reviews of books I think readers will enjoy. In this case I felt compelled to warn readers not to spend 650 pages worth of their valuable time on a book that is simply not worth it. If you want Dracula (or vampires in general), you're better off sticking with Bram Stoker's Dracula. Sometimes the original is still the best.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Best Villain Poll and the Hawk vs Ranger Result


About 10 days ago I wrote a post about the debate I've encountered as to which literary sidekick is cooler/tougher/sexier: Hawk from Robert Parker's Spenser series or Ranger from Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books (I also threw in Sherlock Holmes' partner just for fun). The results are in:

Hawk: 47%
Ranger: 38%
Dr. Watson: 16%

I think the best thing to come out of this experiment has to be the number of readers who had never heard of Hawk or Spenser or read any of Robert Parker's novel's, but are now interested in doing so. I also got a few complaints because I did not include Robert Crais' character Joe Pike.

Now for the next poll (posted to right side of the page). Having considered cool/tough/sexy good guys, perhaps it's time now to consider villains, but not simply bad guys (there are lots of those), but genius bad guys. I have selected the first three that came to mind: Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis), Diogenes Pendergast (from the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child novels), and Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter.

Much like the way I chose Hawk over Ranger, I asked myself a simple question: if I could choose only one criminal mastermind to help me corner the market on all things evil, who would I want? Oddly enough, it's the character about whom the least is written: Moriarty. After all, Sherlock Holmes did call him the Napoleon of Crime.

And as with Hawk and the Spenser books, if you've never read any of the Preston/Child novels, you're definitely missing out.

May the best...I mean worst...man win.