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The Lords of Discipline: A Novel
The Lords of Discipline: A Novel
by Pat Conroy
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.70
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Story; Irritating Dialog, June 16, 2014
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I’ve apparently gone about reading Pat Conroy all backward, having started with The Death of Santini and now filling in with his earlier work.

In Death of Santini, Conroy provides an autobiographical recap to his earlier work through the prism of dealing with his father’s (The Great Santini) death. Having read this recap, I can now read his earlier “fiction” stories in a different light, recognizing them for their autobiographical underpinnings.

I must confess to a strong dislike for the dialog of the author’s character, Will McClean. In fact, it has the same, relentless, never ending, over the top, smarmy sarcasm as displayed by the author himself in The Death of Santini. A little goes a very long way, and 500 pages of it goes way too far. If this is in fact the way the author actually converses, I can come to two conclusions; he doesn’t have any friends, and he must be pretty tough, otherwise he would have taken innumerable butt whippings over the years (apparently he did, at the hands of his father. Now I know why). It is distracting and counterproductive to enjoyment of what would otherwise be an enjoyable and beautifully written expose of 1960s The Citadel.

The underlying story is fascinating, especially given its quasi-autobiographical nature. The plot twists are well conceived and executed. This would be a five star reading experience were it not for the irritating dialog.

The City & The City (Random House Reader's Circle)
The City & The City (Random House Reader's Circle)
by China Miéville
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.11
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Noir Urban Fantasy; Not For Everyone, June 9, 2014
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This noir fantasy has been described as a mixture of Raymond Chandler and Philip Dick with a little Franz Kafka. I’ve never read Kafka, but this work certainly has aspects that are reminiscent of Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere) and I can wholeheartedly endorse the allusion to Raymond Chandler, who the author cites as an inspiration.

The setting is a dirty, economically depressed Eastern European city (Beszel), near the present day. The twist is that the city possesses something of a doppelganger (Ul Qoma), that literally shares its physical footprint. The commonly occupied areas are referred to as cross-hatched and in them, inhabitants actually come into contact with each other. They are very careful not to interact and take great pains not to acknowledge or even look directly at each other. Any type of unauthorized interaction is strictly forbidden and referred to as “breaching”. Some type of supernatural force, Breach, enforces the segregation of the two cities. Controlled access between the two cities is allowed and enforced by a bilateral commission of sorts.

The story’s narrator is a police detective in the city of Beszel. His investigation of a murder leads him to a shadowy underworld of political dissidents, some ultranationalist and some working toward the ultimate unification of the two cities. The investigation requires him to “travel” to Ul Qoma in order to cooperate in the investigation with his contemporaries in that city.

This is a highly original story that requires thought by the reader as well as imagination to picture the intricacies involved in such a highly unusual situation. And just when you start to become comfortable with the landscape, the author actually throws a third contemporaneous city at you, Orcini.

It is a happy coincidence that immediately prior to reading this novel, I read Paul French’s North Korea: State of Paranoia. Certainly there are very strong commonalities in the relationship between the two cities in this work and the economic and political forces at play in both the Koreas and pre-unification Germany, as well as present day interaction between the Christian and Muslim worlds, though the author strongly denies any allegory.

This novel is certainly not for everyone, but it worked for me.

Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver's Travels
by Jonathan Swift
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.00
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Timeless Work of Biting Satire, June 6, 2014
This review is from: Gulliver's Travels (Paperback)
The author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, was born in the 17th century and penned this, his most famous work, in the early 18th century. It is a magnificent piece of satire and has stood the test of time, perhaps better than any novel of its kind.

Through Gulliver’s travels to Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa and the land of the Houyhnhnms (intelligent horses) and Yahoos (dumb and brutish humanoids), Swift is able to hold up many of the institutions of his day, such as our system of government, laws, religion, armed conflict, medicine and education to ridicule, as Lemuel Gulliver seeks to explain them to his various hosts, to their horror and disbelief.

Swift’s razor sharp wit and entertaining method of satire is as effective today as it was when written, when it must have been an absolute sensation. While it can be an effective teaching tool, and many view it as simply a children’s book, much of the work would be far too sophisticated for young children, and I can testify that as a well-read 53 year old, I found it highly entertaining and enlightening.

North Korea: State of Paranoia (Asian Arguments)
North Korea: State of Paranoia (Asian Arguments)
by Paul French
Edition: Paperback
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dense; Not for the Casual Reader, June 2, 2014
I received this book as a galley proofs edition from the publisher in exchange for this review.

The country of North Korea is a fascinating political and economic case study. Any author or analyst taking on the job is faced with the daunting task of accumulating information and data of reasonable reliability and/or accuracy. The author here has done an admirable job of researching and marshaling the information at his disposal. In my opinion, however, he does a poor job of organizing and presenting facts.

While he largely progresses in a linear time frame, parts of the book are organized by topic. The time frame thus becomes confusing as the author moves backward and forward through time within the same chapters, leaving me at times confused. The chapter dealing with the Korean economy is relatively dense and quite frankly, largely over my head. I’m pretty sure I could have grasped most of the theory had I been inclined to grind over it and perhaps consult other references, but that was not why I purchased the book. Some graduate level economists might enjoy and appreciate this substantial section of the book, but I suspect the author’s target audience in this regard is quite small.

I enjoyed and appreciated much more the political discussion and historical perspective provided in the latter sections of the work. I was curious, however, why the discussion of almost every topic cut off abruptly during the first George W. Bush term. There is one short chapter at the end of the book which mentions the accession of Kim Jong-un, but my guess is that the book was written in 2004-2005, dusted off, brought cursorily up to date, and published recently. Barack Obama was mentioned a grand total of once within the body of the work. A book published in 2014, dealing with North Korea, should have more current information than what is contained in this book.

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.34
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Short and Slow to Develop, May 23, 2014
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This review is from: Lavinia (Paperback)
In Vergil’s Aeneid, the Trojan War hero Aeneas wanders the Mediterranean after destruction of Troy, ultimately landing upon the west coast of Italy, where he marries the daughter of a local king and founds what would later become Rome. The king’s daughter was named Lavinia and in this novel, the author creates a life for Lavinia and the people of her kingdom.

This is a short work, written in very florid prose. The author paints almost a dream-like, ethereal aura around Lavinia, as she converses with the ghost of Vergil and even posits her role as a fictional being. The first half of the book is VERY slow, however the pace quickens upon the arrival of the Trojan hero.

Do not purchase this novel based upon any affinity you may have with the author or her writings. I very much enjoy her science fiction offerings (her fantasy, not so much), but there is nothing in this book that would cause you to suspect that it was written by Ursula LeGuin. Can’t recommend.

by Mary Shelley
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.69
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Issues More Absurd than the Creation of an Eight Foot Tall Monster, May 21, 2014
This review is from: Frankenstein (Paperback)
Any literate individual is familiar with this famous work by Mary Shelley, however, those that have not read it will be surprised by how much the book differs from the theatrical and cinema adaptations. Of course, it is a 19th century work, and as such is written in a style that may be strange to modern readers. Having read Dickens and Dracula (of a similar genre), I was in no way put off by the style, but had one overriding problem with the work: It is irredeemably silly.

Some may think it strange that anyone could raise an issue of believability in a story involving a monster constructed of discarded body parts, but that is essentially my problem with the novel. Dracula has a similarly implausible underlying theme, however I didn’t “roll my eyes” while reading it, whereas Frankenstein had some real moments of absurdity. When the existence of an eight foot tall “monster” is not the most unlikely event in a novel, you might have some problems.

Which of these events is most unlikely? WARNING, SOME SPOILERS.

1. A man constructs and enlivens an eight foot tall being. In the audio book upon which this review is based, there was no explanation of how this was done. Simply, “I set about creating my being and soon accomplished the task.” Really, no explanation whatsoever? And even if he scavenged body parts from morgues and cemeteries, where do you come across torsos and limbs of sufficient length to end up with an eight foot tall being? It reminds me of the Steve Martin skit “How to make a million dollars and never pay taxes”. First, make a million dollars. At least the movie addresses this deficiency.

2. Our “monster”, now created, evidently has the mind of a newborn, a completely clean slate, yet in the course of a year, he can not only speak and read (French I presume), but he can fully appreciate Paradise Lost and the writings of Plutarch. This despite the fact that he had no teacher, no primer and no instruction other than listening to the conversation of a family through the walls of their home. In one year, the “monster” developed quite an impressive vocabulary, along with a firm grounding in philosophy, literature, political science and geography. How much easier and more believable would it have been for the author to have the “monster” retain the knowledge possessed by the donor of his brain? Again, the movie wisely avoids imbuing the creature with such superhuman mental and physical abilities (he is an extraordinary athlete in the book).

3. The “monster”, in addition to being quite the Renaissance Man, is an accomplished traveler as well, moving seamlessly from Germany to Geneva, Switzerland without discovery. You would think an eight foot tall creature might stand out, even when attempting to avoid discovery. And who does he coincidentally run into upon arriving in Switzerland? His creator’s brother. After dispatching the young boy, who does he coincidentally run into, quite a distance from the scene of the crime? His creator’s childhood friend. Wow, that is some internal tracking device that our “monster” possesses.

4. The “monster” cuts a deal with Frankenstein, wherein he promises to relocate to the wilds of South America with his companion. I was curious how the eight foot tall monster and his “bride” expected to make the journey, but after considering all of the above, it came to me; they would swim.

5. Anyone impressed with the “monster’s” ability to travel from Germany to Geneva, would surely be blown away by his ability to travel from Geneva to the Orkney Islands of Scotland, to Ireland and back to Geneva without being noticed. More impressively, after the Orkney Island showdown with Frankenstein, the creature then travels to Perth (on the EAST coast of Scotland), murders the doctor’s friend, transports the body to a beach in Ireland (off the WEST coast of Scotland) for the purpose of framing Frankenstein for the murder, somehow knowing that the doctor would become lost at sea in a small skiff and after hundreds of miles of oceanic wandering, ultimately reach land at the very same beach where the body had been deposited the day before.

6. Having discovered the ability to give life to the lifeless, did it never occur to Frankenstein to reanimate his loved ones as they are murdered by the creature?

These are just a few of the inane plot lines contained in this classic. In truth, the concept of an intelligent, cunning “monster” is intriguing, and were it not for the extreme absurdities repeatedly presented by the author, would have made for an excellent novel. While the cinematic versions of the story eliminate almost all of the above issues (to their credit), they also convert the “monster” into an ignorant, lumbering beast. There would seem to be room for a more faithful cinematic treatment, incorporating the underlying theme of the work without the ridiculous elements cited above.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 19, 2015 3:24 PM PDT

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
by Simon Winchester
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.95
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3.0 out of 5 stars The Event Itself is a Relatively Small Part of the Book., May 19, 2014
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This non-fiction work looks at what was one of the greatest natural disasters in history, the eruption and explosion of the Indian Ocean volcanic island of Krakatoa in 1883. The explosion was heard over 3,000 miles away, generated enormous tsunamis, killed over 35,000 people and altered world weather patterns for several years as the ash ejected into the atmosphere blocked the sun’s rays.

The author takes a comprehensive look at both the region and the geology which explains the event. He begins with Portuguese “discovery” of the Spice Islands and the subsequent capture of the rich trading region by the Dutch in the 17th century. He then moves to geology and the work that resulted in the now accepted (then universally panned) theory of continental drift and plate tectonics. I was not aware that the theory of continental drift was not generally accepted until the mid-1960s.

The volcanic event of 1883 and its ramifications actually only comprises a relatively small part of the book. Some of the reviews cite this disapprovingly, and I understand that much of the pre-eruption and post-eruption information, which is a majority of the book, might not have the same appeal to those solely interested in the event itself. Personally, I enjoyed much of the background and some of the post-eruption coverage, though not necessarily all of the aspects covered by the author.

The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son
by Pat Conroy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.59
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This Family Put the "Dis" in Dysfunctional, May 12, 2014
I saw the movie The Great Santini many years ago, but I’ve never read any of Pat Conroy’s other work. In retrospect, perhaps I would have been better served to have done so prior to reading this largely autobiographical work which looks at Conroy’s incredibly dysfunctional childhood and family. Much of Conroy’s fiction is thinly disguised experiences of the author from the Great Santini to Lords of Discipline to Prince of Tides. Nevertheless, I will likely go on to read these books and perhaps enjoy and appreciate them all the more for having read this non-fiction work first.

Dysfunctional doesn’t begin to fully describe Conroy’s family. From physically abusive family on his Chicago Irish father’s side to backwoods, snake handling crackers on his mother’s side, Conroy and his siblings seem to have gotten the very worst that each side had to offer. If you have seen The Great Santini, you get a taste of what it was like to grow up in the Conroy household. Strangely, while siblings in abusive families many times grow very close in opposition to a shared “enemy”, from all accounts the Conroy children don’t just dislike each other, they HATE each other with the heat of a thousand suns.

According to Conroy, of the seven siblings, five have attempted suicide and one succeeded. The author himself suffers from clinical depression and has had numerous breakdowns throughout his life. However, as is supposed to be the case, time heals all wounds, and while most of the siblings make peace with their reformed, fighter pilot father in the later years of his life, their hatred for each other burns all the brighter.

This is a pretty depressing book, but I would recommend it to anyone that has suffered through family issues (who hasn’t?). If nothing else, it will make your problems seem minor in comparison.

Daisy Miller
Daisy Miller
by Henry James
Edition: Audio CD
Price: $19.95
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unremarkable Period Piece, May 8, 2014
This review is from: Daisy Miller (Audio CD)
For Christmas, I ordered an mp3 player (Library of Classics) that was pre-loaded with 100 works of classic literature in an audio format. Each work is in the public domain and is read by amateurs, so the quality of the presentation is hit or miss. This was the seventh work I’ve completed and, like the first six, the reader did not detract from the experience.

Daisy Miller is the tale of a young American ingénue spending time first in Switzerland, then in Rome with her mother, brother and “courier”. It is told from the point of view of a suitor, American expatriate Frederick Winterbourne. Daisy is a flighty, naïve young lady who enjoys thumbing her nose at cultural convention and societal mores of the era. Winterbourne is at first captivated, but becomes increasingly disturbed as Daisy’s actions become more and more outrageous and she is shunned by polite society.

This is a very short period piece and is perfectly pleasant without being remarkable in any way. It can be easily read in 2-3 hours.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
by Lew Wallace
Edition: MP3 CD
Price: $39.99
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Watch the Movie Instead, May 7, 2014
Virtually anyone reading this book will have seen the movie, which is very faithful to the 19th century novel, penned by a former Union Civil War General named Lew Wallace. Wallace was “disgraced” at the Battle of Shiloh, but went on to serve capably and courageously. Following the war, Wallace pursued a successful political career before penning this work, which is acknowledged as the best selling religiously themed novel in history.

Judah Ben-Hur is born to wealth and privilege as the son of a Jewish merchant in Jerusalem. His stunning fall and subsequent “resurrection” has been likened to that of the author, as has his religious awakening, as Ben-Hur’s path crosses and recrosses that of Jesus of Nazareth.

Written in the late 19th century, much of the dialogue is in the form spoken during the time of Christ (i.e. sayest thou), but is easily understandable and at times quite beautiful. Nevertheless, there are periods in the story (most notably during Ben-Hur’s sojourn in Antioch) that are mind-numbingly boring as the author spends scores of pages in philosophical contemplation and florid description of the people and places that make up the story.

My suggestion: Watch the movie. If you have already done so, I can’t say that reading the book will benefit your appreciation of the story.

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