Ten books Challenge

A facebook friend of mine challenged me to list the ten books I have read that have stayed with me.  At first I was thinking that meant my favorite books but that is different from “stayed with me.” Books that have stayed with me are books that changed my reading habits or my likes or dislikes. First, I would like to start with my favorite books.

1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This book was the first book I received in a series from Easton Press of the 100 Greatest Books Ever Written. I wanted to acquire a library of classics at that time, and this preselected series seemed like a good way to start. I had read Moby Dick in high school English class and I was probably too young or immature to appreciate it. It is an American book and everything about it is American from the mixture of people coming to work the whalers to the Bible banging minister preaching down on the docks. I really understood how the whale and Ahab were symbolically one and the obsession to kill the whale was his inner turmoil to suppress his animalistic dark side. I also enjoyed reading about the whale biology and the aside chapters that were thrown in. I “got it” this time.

2. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. This is the original story that the movie, Heart of Darkness was based on. It also has a lot of psychological symbology in it although I did not like the book for that reason. The gist of it is it shows civilization’s inhumanity and Nature as evil and dark. What I like about it is the excellent writing style. Conrad was born in Poland and was taught several languages as a child but not English. He ended up in England and was working aboard a ship that had an English crew. He learned English quickly in order to pass a proficiency test in seamanship in order to get better pay. He was about 20 when he sailed on that ship and wrote Heart of Darkness when he was 30. His descriptions of the landscape and waterways are like looking at a painting they are so beautiful.It is amazing that someone who learned English as a second language could write so well.

3. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. I enjoyed reading this book and others as a kid and enjoyed them all over again when I read them to my kids.

4. Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling. I enjoyed this book and others by Kipling when I was a kid, reading during the summer.

5. Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Tolstoy. I enjoyed a good story, historical fiction and good writing style. This was one of the first books that was ever written as a novel as we know them today. War and Peace is famous for being famously long, but I enjoyed it. It has a lot of battle scenes in it and a first, I was going to skip them and pick up the story when it moved on. That would have been a huge loss to me because it was amazing how Tolstoy would describe the battles against Napoleon’s forces as they were fought in those days. No one had a good map of the terrain, lots of people could not read, and there were no phones. The commander would tell a battalion of soldiers to show up at a certain place on a certain day, and sometimes chunks of the army would get lost or get the date wrong and not know there was a battle raging somewhere. There was a good scene that I remember on a bridge where the citizens were leaving and crossing the bridge and the army was trying to get across the bridge as well and the attacking army taking over the rear. It was pandemonium that was well described and made the reader “see” the battles and the chaos of War.

6. Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Really anything by him because I love the humor of his writing and the good storytelling. He seems to break all the rules and put together a great book. It is also interesting to read the controversial book that got a fatwa put on him by a Mullah for being blasphemous. I really didn’t appreciate how some people could take offense to a very funny story, but some people have no sense of humor when it comes to religion. I am always puzzled by this but there you are. If you are interested in an autobiographical story of what his life was like under the fatwa, read Joseph Anton. It was really ridiculous what he went through.

7. Harry Potter books are on this list as a “dislike” because of a realization I had after reading them. This series made me understand that what I like in a book is good style and expertise in a writer as well as the tale. The storyline can only get you so far. I really like the story of Harry Potter and the imaginary world of Hogsworth. But the writing just was not great. An example of an A+ for spinning a great yarn but a strong B on the writing. I never finished the books since they read more and more like a comic book of dialog to me.

8. Robin Hobb books. Really good world-crafting and imagination plus good writing in the fantasy genre.

9. Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Connan Doyle. The first of the type of book we now know of as crime novels or detective novels. He set the stage for many many authors to write mysteries like this and I enjoy them all.

10 Agatha Christie books. I enjoyed these as a kid and enjoyed trying to figure out “who-dun-it.” I particularly enjoy the “closed room” mystery story type. This is a situation where an event like a snow storm or something strands a small group of characters in a place where no one can get in or out. Then the crime occurs and we have to guess who the perpetrator is because they are locked in. A recent popular book used this device in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

So, that is my list of 10 books that have stayed with me. There are so many more that didn’t make the list though. I will sneak in a few more under the category of current favorites. The Book Thief for excellent use of the narrator and the style of stating what you are about to read and tantalizing us to read on. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Vergese for excellent use of suspense and super-skill at changing scenes while leaving the reader hanging. Historical Fiction by Bernard Cornwell because they are a pleasure. Anything by Michael Chabon because he writes well and is funny. Phillip Roth period novels because I keep thinking he is going to win a Nobel Prize someday but he keeps getting more and more out-of-date. Well, that is enough for now. I hope the kids enjoy reading my list. Mom.


Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas 3.5/5

I just keep reading and reading strange books. This book is about a girl writing a book. It is about a basic story of girl loses boy; gets new boy. It is so well done, though it does not read as a formula story. Scarlett Thomas uses all her experiences teaching writing workshops in real life to embellish a very interesting fictional persona. The basic story is, I suspect, autobiographical on some level. She tells about reading and reviewing all these pseudoscience books for a newspaper piece and all the interesting parallels in real life as in the books. I really like this book very well; really liked it higher than my rating for it would be. I rated it as I think the average reader would rate it. I really enjoyed the British slang, the descriptions of the meals, the sessions she has with her drunken literary friends, etc. It was a really endearing and cute book. I bet all the people who have attended Thomas’ real-life workshops on novel writing will enjoy her style too. There is a lot of internal dialogue and emotional angst. A good read.

Book Review: “The Cure” 0/5*

I do not know why I wasted my time reading this dumb book by Robin Cook. I guess giving it a 0/5 stars is a bit overdone but I am surprised this was even published. I give myself 0/5 for persevering and finishing it. The plot was formulaic, the characters were cliché and the end of the book was clearly an afterthought to wrap up the story in a hurry.

I have enjoyed some early titles by Robin Cook like “Coma” and “Contagion” but this one is really dumb. The story starts by confusing the reader with insane Japanese names that I had to write down to keep straight. You probably think I am bad with names, and that is sort of true. Here are some examples of the names thrown at the reader in the first few chapters:
Hisayuki Ishii
Susumu Nomura
Yoshiaki Eto
Hideki Shimoda
Carlo Paparo
Brennan Monagham
Louie Barbera
Yamaguchi gummi
Saburu Fukuda
Hiroshi Fukazawa
Tokutaro Kudo
Satoshi Machita
Mitsuhiro Narumi
Hisayuki Ishii
Kenichi Fujiwara

There are more; you get the idea. Note to authors: if you have a lot of characters, make them simple names, starting with different letters of the alphabet so your readers can tell them apart. For example, do not have John, James, Jim, and Jerry as your character names. There are other letters out there. And cool it with the foreign names, too. Those names are probably common names in Japan, but I AM NOT JAPANESE. Sheesh.

To sum up my review of this book, it should only be read on a beach, wearing sunglasses, while drunk. Then you will enjoy it. In Japan.

Book Review: Packing for Mars 5/5*

Mary Roach’s new book is a nonfiction work about what we have to consider if we send humans into space. She writes with a very witty turn of phrase that is cute and entertaining. She starts out by going through Nasa thinking out loud about how inconvenient the human payload can be. Humans can only live in a narrow range of temperatures, humidity, gas ratio in the space capsule etc. making the human being extraordinarily difficult to work with. She has the sense of humour of an 8th grader which is hilarious and irreverent when dealing with a humorless government agency. She answers all the questions we have always wondered about but were too polite to ask. Topics like eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, having sex, living in space and other controversial but fascinating areas are covered or rather uncovered as the case may be.

My only problem with the book was on my end. I read this book on my Kindle. Kindles are great but she uses many footnotes throughout the text. On a Kindle you have to hover your cursor to jump to the footnotes which are all clustered at the back of the book at about 99%. Then you cannot go back to where you left off reading in the middle of the book because Kindle thinks you have now read 99% of the book. I found some of the funniest parts to be in the footnotes. I ended up writing down the location number, clicking through to the footnotes, and entering in the location to regain my place.

Except for my footnotes problem I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot. It is not too technical for non-science folks and funny enough to keep your interest. I would rate it a “must read”.

Book Review: The Help 4/5*

If you are ever lucky enough to get a book published, it must be good enough to grab an editor’s attention. I find first published books by an author are invariably excellent. The Help by Kathryn Stockett proves the rule. This is the first book by the author, written loosely about her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi. The book is about a book being written. The protagonist is Skeeter, a young lady, educated at a fine southern University, looking for a job in journalism. She is living in a time and place that has severe black/white rules for separation and behavior. She is both a member of Jackson’s Junior League and someone who can see that the status quo must be left behind as the era of civil rights begins in the Deep South. She starts a secret book of interviews of African-American women who serve the Junior League women as maids and more. She explores the ways these women begin to become more than The Help as they run the homes, raise the children and feed the families they serve.

I really enjoyed this book. The love/hate relationships between the Southern ladies and The Help was done very well. This book is recommended.

Book Review: Think of a Number 4.5/5 *

New book by John Verdon

I have a theory about first books. The theory is that there is a lot of competition to get your book published, as a new author. If anyone ever actually gets his book published, his first book is usually a great one. My theory holds true with

    Think of a Number: A Novel

by John Verdon. I fully expect this to make a great screenplay too; it could be very commercial.

The story starts in bucolic upstate NY where our protagonist has recently moved. He and his wife have retired to the country after his active career catching bad guys as a NY city homicide detective. Oh yes, and one more thing, he specialized in serial killers.

Guess what? Some serial murders start happening and he is pulled back into the fascination of cracking the case once again. The murderer sends a letter that says some odd poetry and then, tells the recipient to “Think of a number.” When the person has a number in mind, he is directed to open a little enclosed envelope where the victim, amazingly, sees the number he has just thought of. This psychological thriller is just excellent at clearly building the situation and suspense. I won’t spoil it for you, of course, but it is a very good story.

I hope this new author has more books for us in the years to come. I thought his plot was well-developed and the characters believable. Well done but don’t read this one in the dark!

Book Review: Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 5/5*

I loved this trilogy. It is a police thriller with compelling character development. It tells a story that is great, makes excellent fodder for screenplays and will be in the movie theaters before you know it. At its core it is a great yarn told by a skillful storyteller. It is best read in series, one after the other with parts one and two of the trilogy, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Girl who Played with Fire. This third book of the trilogy is a tour de force conclusion that was well done and compelling. The only problem I had with it is the storyline is quite complex and at times I felt I had to play catch-up with my list of characters in hand to tell what person the author was talking about. I kind of feel it was my failing not his but other readers may find it unclear.

The series begins with Lisbeth Salander, the perhaps semi-autistic computer hacker genius who is profoundly disrespected by everyone. The first book gives us some semblance of her character and it is chilling. With no people skills but lot of technical skills, she navigates through life as best as she can. She ends up in this book giving all the bad guys their comeuppance and then some. It strikes a chord with readers as something they would like to have the guts to do. If you ever fantasize about round house kicking your boss in the teeth you will enjoy this series. One warning though, I found it necessary to read this book with a list of characters nearby. There are probably 50 names in the book. (This is also a Swedish book and the names are a little hard, not like Bob or Jane.) If you are not into writing things down, it is OK to read it and just have a foggy idea of who is talking because you will remember the main characters. That is the only criticism I have as I truly enjoyed these three books. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Girl Who Played with Fire 4/5*

This second book of the trilogy continues the story of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The same characters continue Steig Larsson’s great police thriller with more plot twists and amazing storytelling. The main purpose of this book is to build your acquaintance with all the characters started in the first book and developing the plot for the third and final book. I dinged down the ratings on this one since it is the middle sister and isn’t quite as good as the first one and not as compelling as the last.

I read this book on my Kindle and used my portfolio’s notepad to keep track of the characters. I feel a little like I’m trying to keep up with this author’s character list and had to write down the principle ones. Good job, Larsson, I’m a fan.

Page From a Tennessee Journal 5*/5*

Page from a Tennessee Journal by Francine Thomas Howard was one of the best books I have read lately. At first I was thinking I was not going to like it. It is about African-American sharecroppers in 1915 (or so) cotton farms of TN. The life was more or less worse than slavery. The sharecroppers were subjected to grueling conditions and environments. The families were abused by the white property owners at will. It was sad, but the author showed both sides of the equation and how the characters thought and felt.

Although the whole story was about a dysfunctional situation, the motives and histories were so clearly explained, you could almost understand how the culture evolved to that point.

Book Review: The Dark Tide 2/5 *

The Dark Tide by Andrew Gross takes place in modern-day USA.  A hedge fund manager is mixed up with a mysterious conspiracy involving disappearance of millions of dollars into offshore accounts.  It is kind of cool story about how these financial types ripped off some customers and virtually disappeared with the money.  There is a heart of gold cop and a jilted wife, for those readers who must have a romance, too.   I thought the story was pretty good  but the writing was not great.  Much of the writing was conversation, so it was a little like reading a screenplay.  I would put this in the beach read category.  Pretty easy to follow and reads fast.

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