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2011 Book # 43: The Mysterious Benedict Society

I generally like kids' novels - Harry Potter, for instance, or The Hunger Games, or The Golden Compass, or The Blue Sword, etc, etc, etc. I think it's because I can usually identify with the characters, and an adult having written them probably helps. That said, The Mysterious Benedict Society didn't work for me. It might be aimed at a younger crowd than I'm used to, though these kids are 11 and 12, and Harry Potter started out at that age. I was also somewhere around 18 at that point - certainly nowhere near 30.

The Mysterious Benedict Society is about four kids, all of them basically orphans, who see an add in the newspaper offering adventures to kids who can pass a test. They're the only for who pass, and they're taken to a large house and, eventually, told what's going on: There's a Bad Guy who is sending out subliminal messages saying that he is awesome and that they should do whatever he says. He runs a school on an island just out of town, and they're supposed to infiltrate it and discover his secrets. Well, they do both, then, in a heroic move, they decide to stay and try to destroy him. Things continue to happen. The end.

Again, I'm not a fan. It almost seems like Trenton Lee Stewart started writing a novel for a slightly older age group, then, mid-novel, decided he should aim a bit younger. I liked the beginning well enough. Stewart's style is okay, though the characters are a bit flat, and there aren't any particularly slow points. I found myself thinking too many times through the novel that the kids were being dumb and taking risks that even kids wouldn't take. They seemed to be acting even younger than they were, which really irritated me. And then there are some stupid twists that made me roll my eyes. For instance (spoiler!): one of the kids is really short and pouty, though she turns out necessary. She's probably as smart of the rest of them, but she has a really bad attitude. We find out why at the end of the novel: she's a precocious two-year-old. Urrrrgh. Then, there are the life issues brought up in the beginning and then tied up way too simply at the end. Like (another spoiler!) one of the kids has a ridiculous photographic memory, and his parents take advantage of him, signing him up for game shows and amassing piles of money. He runs away, and his parents get tons of donations to help find him, which they spend on themselves. The kid seems a bit bitter, as he should be. At the end of the novel, though, when all the kids are being adopted (meh), his parents show up all apologetic, and all, saying they decided they missed him and went into debt looking for him. Instead of being angry like any normal kid would do, this particularly smart kid is perfectly happy to be reunited with his parents, and things go on as if nothing had ever happened. Yeah, right. I was annoyed.

So I guess I've just found a novel aimed at too young an audience with which I can identify, though the top of the book's cover claims that it was at the top of the New York Times' bestseller list, and I don't know how it could do that without a bunch of adult readers. It's also a series: the Mysterious Benedict Society has quite a few adventures on the bookshelves. I won't be checking those out anytime soon.
 

2011 Book #44: 1Q84

1Q84 finally made it into English. I'd been waiting to read this novel since the Japanese version was announced a couple of years ago. I even pre-ordered it on my Kindle (who wants to lug around a thousand-page hardback?) and got it at midnight on October 25th, the very second it was released. And I dove right in.

1Q84 is being called Murakami's magnum opus, but it's pretty run-of-the-mill for him. It's just really long. In typical Murakami style, the point of view snaps back and forth between two people, Aomame and Tengo, both of whom are around 30 and live in Tokyo. The novel begins with Aomame riding in a cab, in a hurry to make an appointment. There's a huge traffic jam, though, and she gets out of the cab in the middle of the expressway and exits down a hidden flight of stairs used for earthquakes and the like. Then things get weird. Tengo, meanwhile, gets drafted to rewrite a seventeen-year-old's novella called Air Chrysalis, the release of which angers a religious movement and some only partially explained magical beings called the Little People.

The name, of course, is a reference to 1984, and that's the year in which the novel is set. Once Aomame discovers she's in some sort of alternate reality, she names it 1Q84, where the Q stands for Question since she doesn't yet know what's going on.

This novel is really complicated, as I guess any thousand-page novel should be. It took me almost exactly a month to read, which, considering how busy I've been lately, isn't too shabby. In fact, if you count Lord of the Rings as three books (which I don't), I'm pretty sure it's the longest novel I've ever read. And I didn't get bored: something interesting is always happening. As with most other Murakami novels (I've read all of them), I wish some of the supernatural elements came with more thorough explanations. The translation is good - both of the usual translators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, worked on this one, so I didn't have a problem with the style. I don't think it needed to be quite as long as it is, though I really enjoyed every minute of reading it.

As I was reading 1Q84, I was sure it would become my favorite Murakami novel yet, but, a few days out, I'm not sure that's the case: I think The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore might still be at the top of my list.

 

2011 Book #46: Midnight's Children

I'm not quite sure what to say about Midnight's Children except that it's fantastic. Really. If you haven't read it, head over to your local library and pick it up right now. Disregard your Christmas planning, ignore the hurt faces of your family, and hole yourself up for a week, book in one hand, cup of coffee in the other. You won't regret it. Children are resilient: a few years of therapy, and they'll learn that some things are more important than having parents at Christmas.

I'm kidding, of course. Kind of.

At this point, I'm trying to figure out why I haven't read this before. I've ranted several times about colleges not assigning long books anymore, so I won't rehash that here. But everyone should read this novel. It's about everything: history, family, love, good, evil, etc, etc. Just like One Hundred Years of Solitude, which, I'm sure, is why I liked it so very, very much.

That's not to say it's easy reading: Rushdie isn't easy. I had a helluva time with Satanic Verses, but that one was worth it, too. Midnight's Children, though, is my favorite of Rushdie's so far. I picked up a couple of his other novels when I was in Houston, and I'll read them soon. After the Christmas Crunch is over. But I'll talk about that later.

Midnight's Children is about the children born at midnight on India's first day of independence from the British and how they, specifically Saleem Sinai, fit into and affect that history. It's an autobiography from Saleem's point of view, beginning before he was born with an account of his grandfather's life, and then his parents', and then his own.

I had a hard time reading it at the beginning: as I've said, Rushdie isn't easy, and his syntax takes a bit of getting used to. But you read and you read, and then you can't stop reading. A year or two ago, a friend of mine was reading it, and he excitedly told me that it's a challenge until you hit a certain page (which I will not divulge as he refused to remind me), and then BAM. You're in it for the ride, and you can't give up on it because you know it'll be worth it in the end.

The closest analog that I've read is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which gives you a sense of a sweeping history, like all things are encapsulated somewhere in the novel. There's also the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. Rushdie creates a whole world around you, and you can't help but be a part of it, swept up in the chaos of Indian independence and what follows. And the end! The end! But I won't go there.

Seriously. If you've never tried Rushdie and you hadn't planned to because of what you'd heard about his books (So many rumors! He's not at all what I expected!) or the man himself. I remember hearing about what happened after he published The Satanic Verses when I was too little to understand what was going on, and now I can see how both of these novels are incredibly controversial - but that's all the more reason to read them. He knew there'd be a scandal (seems like a petty word to use in that case), and he did it anyway. The result is incredibly moving - and, quite often, funny. I had no idea until I puffed up my chest and said, "Hey. Today, I'm gonna tackle Rushdie." I haven't looked back.
 

2011 Book #47: Slaughterhouse-Five

 I first read Slaughterhouse-Five many years ago. So long ago, in fact, that I have no idea when it was. I might have been in high school, or I might have been in college. I only remembered a vague outline involving Dresden and time travel - and that I really didn't like it. Not one bit. The funny thing is that I'm a huge fan of Vonnegut. I've read most of his novels, and this is the only one I didn't like. Something must be wrong.

So, several years later, I decided to give it a second chance. That chance happened a couple of days ago because it's almost the end of the year, and I'd only read 46 books. This is the Christmas Crunch, and I need short books. Slaughterhouse-Five definitely fits into that category.

It's about a young (then old, then young again, etc, etc) man who has just joined the army and ends up a POW in Dresden just before the fire bombing decimates the city. Except (the first words of the novel-within-the-novel) "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." He travels back and forth to different points in his life - and death. Including an alien abduction that makes him understand life, death, and time differently.

I liked it better this time, though I'm still a bit ambivalent. It's okay. It's certainly not my favorite Vonnegut novel. I think I've fallen into a long novel morass, coming off of Midnight's Children, 1Q84, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Long novels give authors opportunities to fill in gaps left in stories. Vonnegut wasn't one to write a long novel, of course, and he wasn't one to write particularly intense ones, either. My favorites are The Sirens of Titan and Cat's Cradle, both of which are pretty funny. Slaughterhouse-Five is funny in its own way, too, and poignant. I guess I just didn't spend enough time reading it to internalize it. Maybe that's what happened when I read it before.

So it goes.
 

2011 Book #48: The Sense of an Ending

The Christmas Crunch continues, in which I readandreadandread to reach my fifty-book goal before the year is out. Which means I'm limited to short novels for the moment. At a lean 163 pages, The Sense of an Ending definitely qualifies. It's actually been on my to-read pile since it came out earlier this year. I ended up with a copy because it was on the library's newly catalogued list, and I clicked the hold link before anyone else.

 It's about Tony, a sixtyish-year-old man looking back over his life, especially focusing on the     relationship he had with his friends in his school days and early adulthood. He starts when they were in high school, discussing philosophy and literature. A kid their age named Robson gets his girlfriend pregnant and then kills himself, and the topic of his suicide floats throughout the novel. The friends finish school and slowly go their separate ways. A couple years later, Tony is in the US when his parents call him back home to England because his friend Adrian committed suicide. He and Adrian hadn't seen each other for quite a while after Adrian dated Veronica shortly after she broke up with Tony. Forty years later, Veronica's mother dies and, in her will, leaves Adrian's diary to Tony, but Veronica has it and doesn't want to give it up. Then things get complicated, etc, etc.

I'm kind of ambivalent about this one. I generally liked it, and I think it's very well-written, but it's also sappy and preachy like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I really didn't like. That said, I definitely think it's worth a read. Just be patient toward the middle as it gets a bit boring and repetitive. Later, though, it gets good again. The Sense of an Ending isn't exactly a relaxing read for a lazy Sunday morning, so read it (preferably in one sitting) when you have some time to decompress afterward.
 


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