I meant to make this a monthly thing, but I keep going with the bimonthly thing. Maybe next month.
Once again, we shall divide and conquer by genre, starting with the highbrow books.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Can you believe I had never read The Martian Chronicles before? Not even one chronicle had I read of it. I’m afraid I am a late-adopting Ray Bradbury reader. I read that one story of his about Picasso–at least I think that was Ray Bradbury. I’m pretty sure. That was in college, and I always meant to read more Ray Bradbury after that, but, well, you know me. Anyway, I read The Illustrated Man last year–that was awesome, by the way–and I quite enjoyed these Martian Chronicles. I don’t know what else to say except that Ray Bradbury is an awesome writer, which you probably already knew because who else besides me would wait 44 years to read The Martian Chronicles? And if, by some chance, you haven’t read Ray Bradbury yet–say, maybe you’re only eleven years old and just stumbled onto this blog by chance and have read this far only because you are filled with ennui and nothing really matters anymore, so why not read about what some middle-aged housewife is reading–you must go read some Ray Bradbury today. I promise your ennui will be significantly diminished, if not wiped out entirely, like some Martians I know. (NOT A SPOILER.) 5/5 stars
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
This is one of Princess Zurg’s favorite movies–she thinks Howl is hot (you know, for an animated character)–but I have never seen the movie. I’ve been meaning to watch the movie, but when I saw that it was a book, I felt obligated to read the book first because that is how I am. For those of you who have neither read the book nor seen the movie, it’s about this young woman, Sophie, who gets cursed by a witch and turns into an old woman (because that’s the curse), but never one to be kept down, she takes control of her own destiny and sets out to get the curse removed, and that’s how she meets the wizard named Howl–who is legendary for stealing young girls, who are never heard from again, and he lives in a moving castle. That last part is pretty hard to explain. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty wild. Sophie ingratiates herself with Howl’s household and gradually grows attached to Howl himself (in the metaphorical sense–just saying, because you never know with these magical books), and I can see why PZ is attracted to Howl because a) he’s a young, attractive wizard and b) he has Secrets and A Past and is Conflicted and Emotionally Unavailable, and what woman can resist that? This is a delightful fairy tale of a book and pretty weird. You can see why the Japanese would make a movie out of it. 5/5 stars
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Generally speaking, I am not such a fan of epistolary novels. I don’t even like the idea of epistolary novels. But the description of this book said it put the “pissed” in “epistolary,” so naturally that piqued my interest. It is indeed a novel about a middle-aged professor of English who spends an inordinate amount of time writing letters of recommendation for various students and also pretty much anyone else who asks them. He also writes letters of complaint (quelle surprise). He is pissed because he has been disappointed in his professional life–not only as an undervalued English professor, but mainly as a writer–and also in love, but he’s mainly pissed about being frustrated professionally and feeling like no one listens to or cares about him.
I have to say, his story may have hit a little too close to home–which bothered me mainly because this character is kind of a douchebag, and I thought his protégé (on whose behalf he wrote the most letters) was probably a douchebag too, which makes one (i.e. me) wonder, “Am I a douchebag?” How much you enjoy this book will depend on how much you enjoy reading a bunch of sardonic letters. I found them very funny. (The story does get more serious as it goes on.) I also found myself wishing I could see this story from some other character’s point of view–but that’s the problem Professor Douchebag knows all too well: no one writes letters anymore. 3.5/5 stars
Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
I read a very lengthy excerpt from Don Quixote when I was in college. I don’t remember what I thought of it then. Much of college is a blur, to tell you the truth. I can tell you that I always meant to revisit Don Quixote and read the whole thing, but, well, do you know how long the whole thing of Don Quixote is? It’s over 1,000 pages–which oughtn’t to be such a big deal, but not all 1,000 pages are created equal. I quite enjoyed much of Don Quixote, even the parts that seemed pointless. There were times, however, when I felt like this story would just never end. Like, ever. Don Quixote is an old man who’s gone crazy and thinks he’s a knight like in those old tales of knights errant who fight monsters and evil-doers and defend ladies. (If you’ve seen Man of La Mancha, you know the basic premise. If you haven’t seen Man of La Mancha, I recommend it, but only on the stage; the movie is terrible.) So some of the novel is the adventures of Don Quixote, but some of it is just an excuse for Miguel Cervantes to tell an amusing story that has nothing to do with Don Quixote but it may as well go here as anywhere because that is how tales of knight errantry go.
DQ was originally published in two volumes, ten years apart. Some people prefer Part One to Part Two. Some prefer Part Two to Part One. I don’t know which group is bigger, or what the critical or academic consensus is, but for my part, I felt like I had gotten my fill with Part One, and Part Two was like a second helping I didn’t particularly need. It wasn’t that it was inferior in quality. I mean, I couldn’t tell you if it was or not because at a certain point I was just done. It’s like when you eat too much of a good thing–does the food really become less delicious, or do you just not want it anymore? That was Don Quixote for me. I enjoyed the majority of it, and would I say it was worth the effort it took? Yes. But I was also so, so relieved when I was finished. 4/5 stars
A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
This book has the distinction of being the only novel with a Scandinavian setting that I have not found utterly depressing. (I don’t know what it is about those countries, but their books just make me feel empty inside.) Ove is a grumpy old man, recently widowed, whose neighbors are constantly imposing on him. He is not given to warmth. He is, however, a man of principles and integrity, often to the point of being exasperating to those around him. He doesn’t want anything to do with other people, but he keeps getting involved in their lives against his will, and in the process–you can see where this is headed, yes? He forges meaningful relationships! The story is told half in flashback, half in the present. It is funny and heartbreaking and wonderful. (I did think the ending was a little on the neat side–just the tiniest bit, but totally forgivable because the story is so well told, with both humor and restraint.) This is typical Oprah’s Book Club-style fangirling, but I just loved this book. I would give it six out of five stars, but Ove wouldn’t approve. 5/5 stars
The Trial by Franz Kafka
This is another book I had always meant to read and never got around to, despite the fact that people kept making references to it and I always thought, “I should read that so I know what they’re talking about.” Well! Now I know. I have to say, I found it a bit frustrating at one point. It was like reading someone’s really weird dream. I kind of like reading people’s weird dreams. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is like that, and I loved that book. Sometimes, though, dreams can be a little tiresome, and one wonders, “Is this profound, or is the author just trying to be difficult?” I’m not one to give an author a pass on being difficult just because he’s a genius or whatever. So I went back and forth between thinking, “This is cool,” and “This is just effing weird.” It is an unfinished novel, and it reads like an unfinished novel–a bit unrefined. I had to read all of it before I really knew how I felt about it. (Despite being unfinished, it does have an ending.)
Once I’d digested the whole thing, I found it compelling. In case you’ve never read anything about Kafka’s The Trial, it’s about a dude (Josef K.) who wakes up one morning to find he’s been arrested, but he doesn’t know why or what crime he’s supposedly committed, and no one will tell him anything, and no one seems to know who’s in charge, either. SOUND FAMILIAR? (This is what they mean by “Kafkaesque”!) Things only get more confusing from there. The only thing that’s clear is that Josef K. is powerless. Yet he continues to fight in his own defense because, you know, that’s what we humans do. It is a weird, disturbing book, and significantly shorter than Don Quixote (by about 600 pages). 4/5 stars
Thus endeth the highbrow portion of this edition of Mad’s Book Club. Stay tuned for Part Deux, when we discuss the lowbrow portion. (I know you can hardly wait!)