Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief / Rick Riordan
New York : Disney Hyperion Books, 2006
Originally published: 2005
Percy Jackson & the Olympians, bk. 1
375 p.

Percy Jackson is about to be kicked out of boarding school... again. And that's the least of his troubles. Lately, mythological monsters and the gods of Mount Olympus seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Percy's Greek mythology textbook and into his life. And worse, he's angered a few of them. Zeus's master lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is the prime suspect.

My good friend Ryan expressed an in interest in seeing the first Percy Jackson movie this weekend, so like a good book-to-movie conversion enthusiast, I devoted part of my snow day yesterday to reading the first novel, The Lightning Thief. It's both good and bad, but... well there's really no excuse for the bad.

To begin, a summary: A boy with a mean guardian finds out he has powers for which evil dudes want him dead, so he goes to a special training facility to hone said powers where the kids are sorted into groups wherein the members have similar personalities and one group is unpleasant, ugly, and mean. There he finds out he is the Chosen One, sort of. Then he befriends a really smart girl and an awkward boy who doesn't believe in himself, and they face insurmountable odds to retrieve a powerful artifact from the embodiment of evil, and in the end they find out that a supreme bad guy that is supposed to be gone is gathering followers and planning on returning. Everybody cheers for the boy and his friends at the end.

That said, THIS IS NOT A HARRY POTTER KNOCK OFF! It was written in 1994. It's just really unfortunately similar in so many ways beyond the bounds of the typical "every story borrows from every other" rules. But honestly: pure coincidence.

Anyway, I love Greek mythology, and Riordan did a lot right and had some great ideas here. Unfortunately, it was really poorly executed. Riordan is no fancy writer. Neither was Rowling, to be fair, but she had some sense of language and narrative elegance. I don't believe that Percy is a child, mostly because Riordan is trying SO HARD to make him sound like one. And that's the main problem I have with this book: he's trying too hard.

A lot of the creatures and gods (who have shallow, caricatured personalities based on their "domains") feel thrown in, like he wanted to get as much in there to show us how creative he was. It makes the book feel episodic, which is fine, but all this "then he met Medusa", "then he met the stretching giant", "now he's in a children's casino for 4 days" didn't tie into the main thread. At the end, the book implied that the monsters were attacking him because of the evil bad dude and their quest, but I don't buy it.

The casino episode was especially bad. The trio wanders into a building where they are given free reign of a gorgeous hotel/arcade/casino for children. Some sort of spell is put on them where they eat and play games and suddenly Percy finds out a kid has been there since 1977 and thinks only 2 weeks have gone by, so he snaps out of the reverie. Then he snaps Annabeth out of it by saying the word "spiders", which she is afraid of. Then they leave without incident and 4 days have passed. No explanation, no consequences. The scene, which had no dramatic tension, served only to advance the plot 4 days. See, Riordan set an arbitrary 10-day deadline for the kids to finish the quest, and then when he realized that it doesn't take 10 days to get from New York to LA, so he did that.

But parts of the book were pretty ok. The overall plot still has a lot of potential, but he really needs to not play around so much with the gimmicky "modernized mythology" crap. Get the narrative down and the story right, and you won't have to make reference to playing Hillary Duff on a pan flute to get a cheap giggle.

I hear the next books get better, and this can make a great set of movies, so I'm on board with the franchise. I'm also glad that this is one of those books that "gets kids reading", but honestly, is it really a victory to "get kids reading" if what they're reading has the same low standards of quality as the television shows everyone claims are rotting their brains? Substandard literature is NOT a gateway drug to good literature.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wondrous Word Wednesday: Snow Day Edition

Hosted by Bermuda Onion, the point of this meme is to share all the new words you came across this week. Yay!


SNOW DAY! I don't have to work! I know I shouldn't rejoice when houses of knowledge are shut down, but I've had a lovely, lazy day so far, and people can get their learn on tomorrow. Anyway...

To begin, from Story of O by Pauline Réage:

gynaeceum -- in ancient Greek and Roman houses, the section of rooms set apart for women

Jacqueline was her professional name, a name chosen to forget her real name, and with it this sordid but tender gynaeceum, and to se herself up in the French sun, in a solid world where there are men who do marry you and not disappear...

This refers to how the character grew up in a small apartment with her mother, aunt, and grandmother. It's not a brothel or anything, though I suppose the term could still apply.

The next one is from Philip Roth's short novella, The Breast.

adipose tissue -- basically, fat tissue

...I experienced myself as speaking to others like one buried within, and very nearly strangulated by, his own adipose tissue...

Fun fact from Wikipedia: "Adipose tissue is derived from lipoblasts!" Exclamation mine.

Ok and to finish up, these are from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett.

valetudinarian -- a weak or sickly person, especially one morbidly concerned with his or her health

Its communication with the Baths,is through the yard of an inn, where the poor trembling valetudinarian is carried in a chair, betwixt the heels of a double row of horses...

That was neat... not all what I expected that word to mean.

encomium -- a Latin word deriving from the Classical Greek ἐγκώμιον (encomion) meaning the praise of a person or thing

In the course of coffeehouse conversation, I had often heard very extraordinary enconiums passed on the performances of Mr T--, a gentleman residing in this place, who paints landscapes for his amusement.

lububrations -- that which is composed by night; that which is produced by meditation in retirement; hence (loosely) any literary composition

[N]ay, they do not even scruple to arrogate themselves the merit of some of his performances, and have been known to sell their own lucubrations as the produce of his brain.

That's it! See ya next week!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Teaser Tuesdays -- The Lightning Thief

Teaser Tuesday time again, hosted by MizB. How it works is you grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. No spoilers, obviously.

I'm taking a break from everything else to read Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief real quick before the movie comes out. It's pretty ok so far, I guess.

I realized I hadn't eaten anything unhealthy since I'd arrived at Half-Blood Hill, where we lived on grapes, bread, cheese, and extra-lean-cut nymph-prepared barbeque. This boy needed a double cheeseburger.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Breast

The Breast

The Breast / Philip Roth
New York : Vintage International, 1994
Originally published: 1972
89 p.

Like a latter-day Gregor Samsa, Professor David Kepesh wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed. But where Kafka's protagonist turned into a giant beetle, the narrator of Philip Roth's richly conceived fantasy has become a 155-pound female breast. What follows is a deliriously funny yet touching exploration of the full implications of Kepesh's metamorphosis—a daring, heretical book that brings us face to face with the intrinsic strangeness of sex and subjectivity.

Ok, so truthfully, I bought this book because I'm 5. But I've wanted to read Philip Roth for a while, and I thought it'd be a fun thing to read in an afternoon. Turns out it was!

I read and reviewed The Metamorphosis this morning, and this book is open about its similarity. The main character is an English professor who turns into a giant breast. But unlike Kafka's protagonist, who deals with his family's various reactions, David Kepesh winds up in a hospital with a sympathetic doctor, and a father and girlfriend who visit regularly. This novella is instead about his own mental state: dealing with insatiable sexual arousal, convincing himself that he is insane rather than actually a breast, and then seeing it as the ultimate art piece, all the while maintaining his sense of identity.

The book is amusing and clever, but not life-changing. I do enjoy Roth's style, though, (not to mention the fact that these Vintage International editions are rather attractive) so I'm definitely pumped to start exploring him soon, beginning with The Human Stain.

The Metamorphosis


The Metamorphosis / Franz Kafka
Die Verwandlung. English
New York : Bantam Books, 1972
Originally published: 1915
Translated by Stanley Corngold
xxii, 201 p.

I read this book real quick this morning (I took the day off work) because a few days ago, I bought a couple Philip Roth novels to try the guy out. I grabbed The Human Stain because a librarian friend of mine is hosting a book group discussion on it next month, but I also grabbed The Breast because it was so short. Since The Breast has a similar plot to Kafka's novella, I thought it best that I actually read the thing like I neglected to do in high school. So I dug out my battered old mass market copy previously owned by "Vutti" and put off my shower for an hour.

So everyone knows the basics of the story: "When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin." Or whatever translated variant you've heard. The rest is about his family's reaction and what they have to go through while he's alive in this state.

Some of it is pretty silly, like how all he thinks about the morning this happens is how he has to get to work. I understand clinging to your last vestiges of normalcy to keep from going insane, but dude, you can't even roll over. And the family's (relatively) calm reaction is a bit unreal, but so it tuning into a bug, so ok.

I found the most interesting character in this to be not Gregor, but his sister Grete, who is the only non-bug character who undergoes a transformation. Gregor also changes, becoming increasingly resentful of his family's inability to accept that he's still in there. The parents do about what you'd expect, so what really made this story stand out and take its place in history, I think, were the siblings.

Anyway all of you already read this in high school probably so ok bye.

Story of O

Story of O

Story of O / Pauline Réage
Histoire d'O. English
New York : Ballantine Books, 1973
Originally published: 1954
Translated by Sabine d'Estrée
Preface by Jean Paulhan
xxxvi, 199 p.

Story of O is one of those novels you have to read properly to really appreciate. If you just dive into this twisted, masochistic novel of sex and submission without any background, you may find it puzzling and a bit empty. The author, actually named Anne Declos, wrote the novel as a love-letter to her lover, Jean, who enjoyed the work of the Marquis de Sade and thought no woman could write like that. Declos, took up the challenge and proved to her lover that even though she wasn't the type who could fulfill this fantasy of his, she could certainly understand it.

And so Story of O is the story of complete submission of the main character, O, to her lover René. It opens as she is being sent to a place called Roissy, where she will be whipped, abused, and subjected to the sexual whims of a group of men to whom she is not permitted to speak or even make eye-contact. This is all by way of training her for her role. After Roissy, René uses her as he will and shares her with Sir Stephen, who will send her to a dominatrix for further training, piercing, and branding her with his initials.

The book is limited in the amount of back story it provides. We never really understand why the male characters are the way they are; it takes place mostly in O's head, and even here the reader is left constantly at a loss for why she repeatedly gives her consent to be treated as she is. Being loved, the desire to be desired, making her lover happy, it all is explained, but it never totally adds up. And on some level, I don't think it's supposed to. Her reasons for doing things seem to be exactly what her masters would want to hear. That's why the context of the book is so important.

And I liked the ending. Some people seem to complain about it because it is abrupt and seemingly unfinished. There are two little paragraphs after the story that say, essentially, "In a final chapter, this happened. In an alternate ending, this happened." I'm not sure why she did it that way, but I chose to sort of ignore them. The previous scene ends the book just like I'd want it to.

So it's an interesting book. I wouldn't call it entertaining, nor would I call it especially erotic, but it's definitely something to think about. And thankfully much better than those insufferable Anne Rice novels.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment / Fyodor Dostoevsky
Prestuplenie i nakazanie. English
New York : Vintage Classics, 1993
Originally published: 1866
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
xx, 564 p.

It is a murder story, told from a murderer's point of view, that implicates even the most innocent reader in its enormities. It is a cat-and-mouse game between a tormented young killer and a cheerfully implacable detective. It is a preternaturally acute investigation of the forces that impel a man toward sin, suffering, and grace.

This book is good. I like it. So I got annoyed when I would tell people I read it, and they'd say, "The Brothers Karamazov is better." Fine! Maybe it's better! I don't know! I do know how important it is for you to have an opinion on something like Dostoevsky and also how important it is that the opinion be somewhat contrary to mine yet totally in line with the status quo, but for these ten seconds right now, as someone who has not read The Brothers Karamazov, can I like this book without anybody trying to undermine it!?!

Ok, I've been carrying that around for a long time. Now I'm over it.

Anyway, this book is big and scary to write about because a lot of smart people have smart opinions on it, and I'm afraid one of them will link to my blog so the rest of them can laugh at me. So I'm going to keep this brief, especially because I read it 3 months ago.

Basically, Raskolnikov (our ichiban) has a lot of ideas about what makes right right and that maybe certain people are better than others and get to do horrible things if they know better than other people how it will ultimately benefit the world. (I said basically. I'm trying to simplify here.) In short, the man is both intelligent and unhinged (a bad combination), and he decides that instead of asking financial help of his mother and sister's fiance, that he'll just kill and rob the mean old bitch next door because she's a bad person anyway.

The rest of the book is basically the psychological aftermath of the deed, which contrasts his guilt with his ideological verve. Raskolnikov deals with bouts of illness, his self-image, the judgments of others, and the suspicion of the authorities, all of which feed into his torment.

All of Dostoevsky's characters are as pathetic and complex as his main, and their interaction is fascinating and makes an otherwise bleak and gray story feel alive (if not vibrant.) The thing I found most impressive in this book was how all of his characters are different and often completely opposite, yet their worldviews all seem agreeable from their individual perspectives. He can make the reader not just understanding of but sympathetic to both sides of a situation. Even a character like Svidrigailov, who is an abhorrent person, starts making a hell of a lot of sense when you hear things from his point-of-view.

So that was pretty neat. Anyway, this book is good. And as far as I can tell, the translators live up to their reputation, not that I have anything to compare this to. So read it. And try not to kill people.

P.S. I just started experimenting with this Zemanta thing. Tell me if you hate it and I'll stop.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Wondrous Word Wednesday

Hosted by Bermuda Onion, the point of this meme is to share all the new words you came across this week. Yay!


Don't have much to say this week, so I'll just get right to it. These are from 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King.

bohunk -- a rude slang term for someone from Eastern Europe

... there was a faint accent in the words, although they were perfectly spoken. The guy might be a frog or maybe a bohunk.

Ok, so don't use that one.

pyx -- a container in which wafers for the Eucharist are kept

He held a small silver pyx on his lap which contained several pieces of the host.

repple depple -- military slang for a "replacement depot"

He had learned that standing guard at the repple depple in the war.

That one I still don't really get, but I doubt I'd have use for it even if I did. Actually, none of these are words I envision myself saying, y'know, because I'm not Catholic, manly, or racist.

These next few are from Story of O by Pauline Réage, which is pretty racy, but I already know all the words in those parts... (ahem)... so these words here are about fabric and clothing design.

percale -- a closely woven plain-weave fabric often used for bed linens

She tried to stop moaning and to immobilize herself against the wall, whose gleaming percale was cool on her tortured flesh, as day slowly began to break.

gusset -- triangular or square piece of fabric inserted into a seam to add breadth or reduce stress

The bodice was long and stiff, stoutly whale-boned as during the period when wasp waists were in style, with gussets to support the breasts.

(She really likes describing the clothes and decor.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Spring Snow

Spring Snow

Spring Snow / Yukio Mishima
Haru no yuki. English
New York : Vintage International, 1990
Translated by Michael Gallagher
The Sea of Fertility, bk. 1
Originally published: 1968
389 p.

Spring Snow is set in Tokyo in 1912, when the hermetic world of the ancient aristocracy is being breached for the first time by outsiders -- rich provincial families unburdened by tradition, whose money and vitality make them formidable contenders for social and political power.

I read this in November on a plane in about 3 hours. Generally three hours on a plane is a forgotten blip in the grand scheme of a person's life (barring thunderstorm or underwear bomb), but Spring Snow is one of those books that makes the time you spend reading it incredibly memorable.

This is the first book in the Sea of Fertility tetrology, and each one features a character so passionately driven by one thing that it ends up killing him. In Spring Snow, this character is Kiyoaki, and he is driven to death by his love for his childhood companion Satoko. This isn't, however, a gushing love story. It's told with Mishima's characteristic elegance and delicately pieced together with themes of dreams, reincarnation, Buddhism, and family.

The books in this set also paint a portrait of Japan over the first half of the 20th Century, when the country underwent major changes. The first novel takes place around 1912 at the end of the Meiji period. The nobility that holds power through rank and tradition is facing an unpredictable future, and this plays a role in the events of the story.

I'm not loving how this review is turning out, so I'm going to wrap it up... but I really do love this book. I should say that a little bit of knowledge of novels contemporary to this one or a sense of the major points of modern Japanese history is really helpful in enjoying this book, but if you're a fan of the art and history of modern Japan, this is definitely something you need to read.

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