My Year in Books: 2011, Part 3
PARANORMALITY — Richard Wiseman has written a book which, as a companion piece to Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, should be considered the primer for skeptical thought. Where Sagan’s book focuses on the social and personal value of skepticism, and how skeptical thought is important for finding the truth about the universe around us, Wiseman’s book focuses on the idiosyncrasies of human psychology and human perception which are the reason such skeptical inquiry is so important. Written with wit and flair, this ought to be required reading. [Kindle Edition]
THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE — A fun and funny, occasionally slightly raunchy coming-of-age-in-the-rural-South novel. Well-written, witty, with great characters. It takes a sudden sharp turn into magical reality near the end, and just as sharply comes back out of it, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the book for me. Not a must-read or anything, but an enjoyable diversion from heavy literature or sci-fi/fantasy. [Kindle Edition]
KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL — Anthony Bourdain’s memoir of his rock-n-roll days as a chef, and the life’s journey of appreciating and enjoying food that would later lead him to eat a rattlesnake’s heart and a wild boar’s lower colon (on separate occasions) in the name of culinary adventure. I like Bourdain’s show No Reservations and I like him as a writer, and his exploits were fun to read about, as well as the peeks behind the curtain at what really goes on in some restaurant kitchens. [Kindle Edition]
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING — As I said yesterday, I’d read The Hobbit many times growing up, or more precisely I had it read to me by my father as a serialized bedtime story. It wasn’t the only book we read this way, but it is one of the only ones I can recall — Alice in Wonderland being the other — probably because those are the ones we both enjoyed enough to revisit repeatedly.
Once, and only once, we attempted to move on to The Fellowship of the Ring. As I recall, we got only about halfway through the Prologue (which is comprised of a discourse of the origin and lineages of Hobbits, the different kinds of pipe-weed grown in the Shire, the political organization of the Shire, and a synopsis of The Hobbit) before aborting the mission.
I had been reticent to move into the trilogy at all, since I knew from a friend of mine who had read it that my beloved Bilbo was relegated to a side character, in favor of some upstart punk called Frodo. And then when I was willing to give it a shot, instead of a story — The Hobbit hits the ground running — I got a social studies lecture. I just wasn’t having it.
Some years later, when the film version loomed on the horizon, I took a deep breath and waded back in. I found it incredibly difficult to read, over-descriptive and dull, and had to struggle to finish it in time for the film while feeling like I’d only absorbed half of it.
But that was ten years ago(!), and with talk of a HOBBIT film finally underway, I figured it was time to revisit the books.
Doubtlessly thanks to a decade-long familiarity with said films, not to mention being a decade older, reading Fellowship this time around was a breeze. While certainly less lighthearted and quick-paced (one might be tempted to say superficial, but not disparagingly) than Hobbit, it’s much better, more nuanced and entertaining prose than I remembered. I discovered I had indeed failed to absorb, or failed to remember, a good half of the book, particularly some of the subtle ways in which it deviates from the film. For the most part, I think the film made very smart choices in the course of the adaptation — in what to alter or elide — but there are certainly scenes I would have loved to see onscreen.
No, not Tom Bombadil. Fuck that guy. [Kindle Edition]
SLEIGHTS OF MIND — A scientific investigation of the way magicians use the quirks and foibles of the our brains work (including a number of the same ones addressed in Paranormality) to trick us. Magicians have known certain methods to be effective for centuries, but this book represents what may be the first time we understand — with more than just anecdotal data — why. It’s accessible, fairly well-written, and for someone with an interest in magic and science it was a pretty cool read. It does, necessarily, reveal the secrets methods of a number of illusions, but if you’re the kind who doesn’t like to be spoiled, they kindly rope off the secrets so you know which paragraphs to skip over. [Kindle Edition]
MY WORK IS NOT YET DONE† — I picked this up because it was three bucks at Borders’ Sadface Super Sale over the summer, and I liked the pull-quote on the back cover: “I wanted to do things to Richard that would make the sun grow cold with horror.” For the story of a corporate schlub returned from the dead to exact revenge on the coworkers he hated, that kind of pulpy melodramatic prose struck me as being juuuust right.
The story was okay. He exacts his vengeance in amusingly horrific ways, but the story — really a short novella — introduces a lot of concepts that it never bothers to explain or pay off, and it seems like it’s making a concerted effort to be pulpy rather than just letting it flow. Unsatisfying overall. I did finish the titular story, but it made up only the first third or so of the book, followed by two other stories I wasn’t inclined to read. Insert witticism about work indeed remaining undone. [Kindle Edition]
250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING — A legitimately useful collection of writing advice marred by the author’s decision to be “edgy” and immature in delivering it. Look, I don’t mind vulgarity, as I’m sure my completely uncalled-for attack on Tom Bombadil demonstrated. But there’s a difference between not being afraid to be vulgar, and being positively fixated on doing so. Your mileage may vary, but in my view, not every piece of writing advice needs a dildo-related metaphor. It feels affected and, besides making it a hard book for me to recommend due to its potential to offend unnecessarily, after the first 50 Things or so, it just gets obnoxious. [Kindle Only]
THE UNSINKABLE WALKER BEAN — This one’s a graphic novel I picked up at Comic-Con because the eponymous Walker, striking an epic pose on the cover, looked amusingly like me. Only after doing so did I flip through and discover he spends almost the entire book crying like a goddamn sissy-boy. Flip to almost any page and he’s got tears streaming down his face, no matter what else he may be doing. Serves me right for forgetting the axiom about books and covers.
The story itself is entertainingly odd, with a magic skull that can tell the future and colossal sea-witches in pursuit of it, but the artwork is occasionally so muddy it becomes incoherent, and the story also just kind of flails around, although there are some legitimately strong moments. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to pick up a copy, though.
THE TWO TOWERS / THE RETURN OF THE KING — I had the benefit in 2001 of reading both these books after having seen FELLOWSHIP theatrically, which for whatever reason made my experience much more smooth and pleasant, much as my re-visit of Fellowship would be earlier in the year. As with Fellowship, I enjoyed re-discovering the source material and how it differed from the adaptation.
I think the one objection I have with the film — and I remember having it in 2002, as well — is the change in Faramir’s character. It’s a significant point in the novel that Faramir is not tempted by the Ring in the way Boromir was, but in the film he’s made as weak as anyone else. For a hardcore fan, that’s probably almost as bad as the way TITANIC portrays that one boatswain killing himself out of shame and horror when the actual man never did any such thing. Of course, the boatswain was a real guy and Faramir never was, but all being fanboys and girls here we know how we can get. I’m significantly less annoyed by the Elves arriving at Helm’s Deep. [Kindle Edition / Kindle Edition]