Books - August 2015

This August 2015 I took a break from work and spent about 6 days enjoying some R&R down the North Carolina shore with my family. I managed to get through some of the books that were waiting for a long time for me to get to them, as well as try some new authors.

Read

  • The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke

    I forgot where I read about how the short story "The Sentinel" was the inspiration for "2001: A Space Odyssey", but being that I have always considered the latter a great book and movie, I managed to grab a copy of the anthology "The Sentinel" just so that I could read the short story by the same name and see what else Arthur C. Clarke "had to offer." Interestingly enough (to me), most if not all the other short stories included in this collection could easily be published today and still feel just as futuristic as they probably were back when they were first published! This was yet another one of the books that I read by the beach this Summer and though it didn't blow me away, it was still a very relaxing read.

  • A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

    This last June I got from my family for my birthday "John Carter of Mars" containing the complete series and I was just itching for a good opportunity to start reading it. That chance came up this week as I started reading some of Melville's short stories and found that I needed a bit of a "break". First off, I have never read Edgar Rice Burroughs before but I do have a copy of "Tarzan of the Apes" also awaiting for a chance, so I had an idea about what to expect from his style. Sure enough, reading "A Princess of Mars" felt like a taking a trip down memory's lane, back when it was easy to tell who the good and the bad guys were, and there was always a damsel in distress somewhere waiting to be rescued. I have to confess that it took me a few chapters to get re-acclimated with this style, but once I got into it, it was easy reading, which is exactly what I was looking for any how.

    John Carter, the main character, shows all the expected, cliché virtues one would expect from a "hero" but one thing that bothered me a bit was the language he used to describe those who were different from him (which was mostly everyone in the story, since they were all Martians) and the way he treated them. It felt a bit abusive and even a but racist? I don't know if someone could get away with writing in the same style today, but then again I remembered that back then people were not as politically correct as we are today... or maybe I was reading too much into it? Anyhow, it was a fun read and I think I will try to add the next 4 books of the series in the coming months so that I can hopefully get a better opinion formed about the author.

  • Vidas Secas by Graciliano Ramos

    My first time reading Graciliano Ramos but I knew about this book from other folks who read it growing up for school. This is the story about how Fabiano, Vitoria, their two small children, "baleia" (whale) the dog and a parrot find themselves fighting for their lives (the parrot is not so lucky and quickly becomes dinner before the end of the first chapter) as they wonder one of the most desolate and arid regions of Brazil, in search for a job and a chance for survival. The characters are presented one by one, as the author allows us a glimpse of their lives and most inner thoughts (or lack of) as if seen from their own eyes. Their lack of communication skills (they mostly understand each other through grunts and gestures), poverty (all Vitoria wants is a bed that doesn't have a wood slat with a big knot in the middle which forces her to sleep sideways and in a fetal position) and failed ambitions as well as how fragile and dependent on the weather (no rain means no water for the farm animals and therefore no job security for Fabiano) their lives are reminded me a lot of "The Grapes of Wrath."

    This book is a window into what it was like to be poor in the Northeastern region of Brazil at the turn of last century and I wonder how much of it may still be true nowadays?

  • Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

    Another great book by the master! I read this book while enjoying a much needed vacation with my family, and I couldn't have chosen a better book. Though the plot itself may look a bit too simple at a glance to interest anyone who is not familiar with Steinbeck, he more than makes up for it by providing a nice list of colorful characters, places (a whorehouse named "Bear Flag Restaurant" and "The Palace Flophouse" where Mac and possibly leader of a small group of vagrants) and events that take place along "cannery row", a street lined with shabby stores that mostly cater to those who work and earn their living from the many sardine canneries in the area.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about each one of the characters and how Stenibeck, masterfully as always, brings them all together in a party to end all parties! I was often reminded of another one of his books, "Tortilla Flat", which I also strongly recommend.

  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

    I never read "Neverwhere" the first time it was published in the late 1990s and had zero knowledge about its plot, so I had the advantage of reading this "for the first time" while sipping drinks by the North Carolina coast :) This story has a bit of everything: angels, demons, wild beasts, hunters, warriors, talking mice and a common Londoner named Richard Mayhew, who find himself the unwilling rescuer and then adventure partner of Door (yes, that is her name), the remaining member of a family from Neverwhere. To go back to his old life, he must help Door escape from two demoniacal assassins and find out the truth about the murder of her family. Entertaining and, in my humble opinion, another good example of why Neil Gaiman deserves a spot amongst the best sci-fi writers ever.

  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

    It was with a bit of trepidation that I started this book, being that there was a lot of hype about it and the assumptions I had made from this hype and what the 'Zen' part of its title implied. My concern being that I didn't want to set myself for disappointment if the book didn't live up to the (very) high expectations I had. I must say, this book is very dense and it was not an easy read... for me at least. Intermingled with the story of the father-son duo traveling through several states on their way West, there are many inner monologues where we learn A LOT about ancient philosophy and how the relentless pursuit of understanding Quality and Truth by the father affected his life and those around him. I had to make a point of finding a quiet place AND a quiet time to read this book just in order to keep up with it.

    I think that to categorize this book and give it a "grade" without the benefit of having enough time to thoroughly "digest" it is a nearly impossible task to achieve, but the one thing I can say is that I feel that I learned a lot more about philosophy than I thought I was able to, mostly because of the way ideas and terms were described by the author. I also enjoyed how the relationship between father and son was developed and how it all came together in the end, by which time I was reading as fast as I could, barely able to contain my curiosity!

    Is "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" for the 'faint of heart'? Probably not. I think that the analogy where wines get better with age is applicable here, where you, the reader, is the 'wine' and you must be at a later time in your life to truly be able to grasp what this book is all about. I may be giving it another go later on just to see what other things I may find, once I give myself enough time to (hopefully) grow wiser and have more 'miles' to show for. :)

  • The Lottery: And Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

    There were two main reasons why I decided to read this book: 1) I read "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" this month and was moderately interested in Shirley Jackson's style, and 2) I heard about the story "The Lottery" from my wife, which only helped peak my curiosity. So I borrowed the book from the public library and went straight to "The Lottery", which happens to be the very last story in the book. This story gave me, once again, a good taste for her ability to describe places, characters, and what may seem at fist a very mundane scene and... WHAMMO, hit you with a plot twist that catches you unaware and gasping for air. "This book should be a thrilling roller-coaster ride," I thought.

    Well, to be honest I felt that "The Lottery" was by far the darkest of the whole lot. The rest of the other stories, for the most part, were very well thought out, organized and with a plot twist in the end, but the surprises were of a different type: they leave you wondering if you missed something and the questions "what just happened here?" and "huh???" were frequently uttered by yours truly as I read the entire book. Most stories do show a hint of weirdness and sometimes the creepiness is very subtle... but just when you think you know where you're headed and you find yourself bracing for the end, she blindfolds you, spins you around 10 times and leaves you in a totally different place, time and with a strange taste in your mouth.

    You may think that after all this I would now proclaim that I would never touch one of her stories... but to be honest, I find that I'm even more interested to learn about this author and this style of hers.

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

    This was my first Shirley Jackson book and I was a bit confused about her style and if this was perhaps a precursor to what we now call Young Fiction? I think what really threw me off a bit was the 'child-like' language used between Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood and Constance, the two sisters who are the main protagonists in this story, and how it contrasted with the plot itself. Since this book was published in the early 1960s and touches on the topic of human persecution usually experienced when people find you to be "different than the norm", the dialogues between "Merricat" and the other characters made it all sound like she was a younger girl than she really was (she's supposed to be 18-years-old if I'm not mistaken). There's also a string touch of what I am going to loosely call "weird fiction", as for instance when she keeps talking to her pet cat as if it were a real person capable of not only understanding her but also making intelligent comments and replies that only she could hear. Or how, despite all the weird things going around them and how they live completely isolated from everyone, everyone in the Blackwood household goes on about their day as if everything was normal.

    Anyhow, I think what really captivated me about this book (and made me go back for more later on) was, funny enough, this mix of dark and weird and I think I also got my first glimpse at the way most of Shirley Jackson's stories end, hanging you out there and wondering "WTF?" :)


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