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All reviews - Movies (25) - Books (38)

[Book] The Moviegoer

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 02:22 (A review of The Moviegoer)

/spoilers/ I can't believe I read most of this book in one sitting, and it's not because it was so good I couldn't put it down. Rather, I couldn't wait to get it over and done with. The Moviegoer is another 25-cents used book I picked up at the library book sale last year. I didn't realize it when I got it but apparently it was considered one of the great American novels by some book list or the other. Well, it didn't impress me that much. First of all, it is a book about existentialism, which in itself is depressing enough. Secondly, the setting is in New Orleans and the American south, which is not that interesting to me. Then the plot. I think this blurb from the back cover of the book says it all:

For years I have had no friends. I spend my entire time working, making money, going to movies and seeking the company of women ...

So begins the story of Binx Bolling, hero of the MOVIEGOER ...

Ultimate, Binx breaks out of his own shell by having to face the far more desperate problmes of his beautiful cousin, Kate Cutrer ... In the end, when Kate hits bottom, only Binx can save her ...

Cheesy enough? It doesn't tell the whole story though. Rather than a romance, the book is mostly about this guy's "search" for life's meaning. The main character's emotional detachment from reality is true to the existentialist literature where the man character is always the stranger in his environment and in his own life. This characteristic of Bonx Bolling really makes him an irritating character to me, however. He whines and "searches' but never tries to change anything. Equally annoying is the writer's style of writing. He writes stuff like this:

She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a perons lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

It sounds deep but it doesn't really mean that much. The main character describes everyone else as being "dead" from "everydayness" but he is the person who has no anchor in life. He has no depth and that's why he's looking for something other than what he has. In the end, he accepts his ordinariness, and I guess that's the whole point of the book. However, I can't get over how whining and unlikable the main character is, and the other characters aren't that interesting either. Kate, the "beautiful cousin" is a weakly developed character, who doesn't really transform by the end the book. The only difference is that she finds someone, that is, Binx, to take care of her by marrying him. How nice. There are other themes of religion, duty and such, but I didn't really care to read into them too carefully because the story was just so goddamn boring. The writing is not to my taste, and I can't really relate to what the author is trying to say in this book, and honestly, I think others have said it better than Walker Percy, whose existential angst appears rather superficial and juvenile.

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[Book] Story of Philosophy

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 02:20 (A review of The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World's Greatest Philosophers)

I believe that the time give to refutation in philosophy is usually time lost. Of the many attacks directed by the many thinkers against each other, what now remains? Nothing, or assuredly very little. That which counts and endures is the modicum of positive truth which each contributes. The true statement is of itself able to displace the erroneous idea, and becomes, without our having taken he trouble of refuting anyone, the best of refutations. - Henri Bergson, The Story of Philosophy

I finally finished this book, which I started out reading in June. Besides the fact that it is a length book, my reading was interrupted by school and the release of Half-Blood Prince. It was, however, well worth the time and effort. The Story of Philosophy is surprisingly well-written and engaging for its subject matter. I expected this book to be somehow dry, perhaps akin to a textbook, but the author Will Durant's prose was a pleasure to read. He has such a way with words that he transforms potentially dry biographies of the philosophers and their theories into lively stories and a clear picture of their ideas. The breadth and depth of the author's knowledge not only of philosophy but also of general history and literature shine through the pages, and although sometimes I had difficulties understanding some of his more obscure references, I do not fault him for writing at a level befitting his brilliance. More than the good writing, the book really does offer a comprehensive look at the major thinkers and thoughts of western philosophy up to early 20th-century. It is informative yet entertaining at the same time as the book reads more like a story than an anthology. Durant's summary of the philosophical theories are very readable even for the layman. He makes the most complicated ideas easy to understand, and most importantly, he connects the dots for the reader and presents a broad picture of how western philosophy has progressed and evolved. The only flaws of the book is that it's a bit outdated (it was written in 1953) and that sometimes it's hard to tell apart the writer's own opinions from the original ideas of the philosophers he was writing about. However, this is a perfect book for anyone, especially beginners, who is interested in philosophy. It might not be complete since it cannot cover all important philosophers, but the writer does a good job covering all the "canon" philosophers whom every student of philosophy would definitely have to read as they make up the foundation of western thoughts. All in all, a great book, and I only spent like 1 dollar on it (I bought it used at the library book sale). That IS a bargain.

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[Book] A Merchant of Venice

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 02:17 (A review of The Merchant of Venice (Signet Classics))

Definitely one of my favourite Shakespeare's plays. I don't see this play as anti-Semitic. Despite being the villain in the play, Shylock, the Jew is more than just a caricature of the Jewish people. In fact, I find Shylock to be one of the most sympathetic anti-heroes in Shakespeare's plays, and anyone who sees him as only a simplistic villain needs to re-read the play, which is anything but simple at all.

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[Book] God?: A Debate ...

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 02:16 (A review of God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist (Point/Counterpoint))

Read this book for my Philosophy of Religion course. I will try not to judge the book by the course, which was arguably the most boring course I've ever taken, and that is including all the maths and science courses I had to suffer through in high school.

As far as the subject matter goes, I would probably never have picked this book up myself. My interests in Christianity or religion in general do not go beyond some slight intellectual curiosity. I never thought religion should have anything to do with philosophy, and the course did not change my mind. The book itself, stemmed from the public debate by the two academic philosopher Craig and Sinnott-Armstrong, offers some insights into the nature of the philosophy of religion discipline, which focuses mainly on the essence of God (however one defines it) and the question of God's existence. However, since the debate in the book is entirely about the existence of a Christian God, I found the subject matter too limiting to interest me a great deal. Not being a Christian, and more importantly, being an agnostic myself, the whole question about the existence of God isn't as fascinating to me as it might be to some. The book, in the end, only convinced me that it is indeed fruitless to try to philosophize about Christianity. The dogmatic nature of traditional Christian doctrines do not lend it self favourably to philosophy or reason, and the contradictory nature of religion makes theology mostly an exercise of hair-splitting. Craig, the Christian debater of the book, spouts scientific facts and theories in support of his design argument, but no matter how learned he is on the subject of science, he did not succeed in convincing me that God's existence can be proven by science. In fact, that part of the book really bored me. I'm a firm believer that science and religion are two complete separate matters and should remain thus, and to use science as an argument for the validity of Christianity is just simply ridiculous in my opinion. Craig's arguments might have some validity, and he is, no doubt, a really good debater, probably better than his opponent Sinnott-Armstrong, but his Christian bias undermines most of what he has to say.

Besides the fact that the subject matter doesn't interest me, the book is a bit too plainly written for my taste. I understand that most of the book originates from an oral debate, and by its nature, the writing would be less than polished. However, anyone who is seriously interested in the philosophical questions of religion would not benefit much from this debate, which is often too general to offer any significant insights. The plainness of language thus reflects the plainness of thoughts, which in turn makes the book seem rather superficial. To be fair, the book does cover some interesting topics, but while reading it, I couldn't help but think that there must be way better books out there of the same subject matter. Both Craig and Sinnott-Armstrong just didn't impress me much, neither did the book.

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[Book] The James Joyce Murder

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 02:11 (A review of The James Joyce Murder (A Kate Fansler Mystery))

/Spoilers/ Picked this book up from one of those 25-cent bins in front the used-book store. The title grabbed my attention for it appealed to my English Major geekiness. The fact that it only cost me 25 cents didn't hurt either. As it turned out though, it wasn't even worth that much, and the only reason I finished the book was because, well, I needed something to read in the bathroom.

The first page of the novel holds some potential (as it mentions not just Joyce but Austen!), but that potential dissipates pretty quickly as the reader is treated to a not-so-mysterious-or-interesting plotline, irrelevant and pretentious strings of literary references and boring and unlikable characters. The story is vaguely about a lost James Joyce manuscript that no reader would care about and the murder of some nosy housewife that the reader would care even less . Seriously, not even the characters in the novel care about the person who gets killed; in fact, they come really close to saying she deserves it. It makes the entire book pretty pointless because NO ONE cares why she is dead. What makes the book even more pointless is the fact that the main character, Kate what's-her-name, doesn't even get to solve the crime. All she does is spouting off obscure literary mumble jumbos that have no relevance to the story and only serve to show off how well-immersed the writer is in English literature. Blah.

Cross's characterization is unconvincing and trite. but the so-called mystery is an even bigger joke. The murder doesn't happen until half-way through the book, and there is little to nothing suspense as, again, no one cares. In fact, I'm just gonna say who's done it - the culprit is, wait for it... the accused! Wow .. I'd never have guessed it. BORING. Not only 2/3 of the book has absolutely nothing to do with the mystery, if you can call it that, but there is also some weird subplot about this guy's chastity (wtf?), and what's up with all the patronizing talks about country life? The writer might as well come out and say she hates all those rural yahoos. What a snob. The verdict? Don't waste your 25 cents.

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[Book] Foundation

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 02:09 (A review of Foundation)

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent"

The first novel in the Foundation trilogy, this sci-fi classic came highly recommended to me by Robyn. I gave it a try, and it didn't disappoint, but nor did it awe me either. The writing is enjoyable, well-balanced between being sophisticated and easy to read. The idea is interesting as the whole trilogy is based on the science of "psychohistory," a science that makes it possible to map out the course of the future. The story begins when a brilliant psychistorian Hari Seldon predicts the doom of the Galactic Empire which then rules the Galaxy. To save the humanity (so to speak), Seldon manoeuvres the government into establishing a settlement called the Foundation for him and his followers on a planet at the edge of the Galaxy. This Foundation is to be the starting point of a second empire as well as the focus of the entire novel. As the story progresses, Seldon's predictions come to fruition one by one in the form of crises, and a pattern of history starts to emerge.

The novel, as it spans over many decades, has several different main characters through different stages of the crises, but the most important character of all is not any individual character but the overarching science of psychohistory. This is the reason why the book falls short of great for me. The characters are sympathetic and likable, but they are eventually all pawns in this great chess game of pyschohistory played by the chess master Seldon. He is basically a figure of God, but instead of divine intervention or fate, he uses science to determine the path of the Foundation and the people who live in it. The story is then less than appealing because, with every page, it becomes more obvious that every crisis will be solved and the second empire will eventually be established (though not yet at the end of the first book) according to Seldon's master plan. There is little suspense since Seldon is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-present (even when he is no longer around as a living human being), and whatever crisis rises, so will rise a charismatic leader who will do 'what is right' and fulfill the Seldon prophecy. It's just a bit too convenient for me, as a reader, to buy it completely. However, I do like how Asimov uses the patterns in human history to write about a sci-fi story in the future. Although I'd like the writer to have come up with a more than vague explanation of psychohistory, it is nonetheless an interesting notion to base a story on. I just hope not everything goes according to "The Plan" because I just don't know how interesting a story can be if nothing dramatic or surprising ever happens. I'm still interested enough, however, to read the next novel in the series after reading the first. Hope it only gets better.

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[Book] The Sun Also Rises

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 02:05 (A review of The Sun Also Rises)

Set in post-WWI, The Sun Also Rises is the story of post-war expatriates who wander through places as they wander through an existence without meaning and purpose. The novel centres around the character Jake Barnes, who has been rendered impotent (both literally and metaphorically) by his participation in the war. He lives in Paris working as a journalist and fills his day with work and night with drinking and clubbing. Through his eyes, the reader sees the general and overall impotence of his generation - "the lost generation" - of people who go about life seeking pleasure and alcohol to numb an existence without any purpose and spiritual depth.

Hemingway's language is simple and the narrative is intentionally superficial. The first person narrative of Jake never touches on the deeper meaning of things simply because he's incapable to or unwilling to go beyond the surface. The most emotional Jake is described is when he cries at night:

I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden I started to cry. Then after a while it was better and I lay in bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and down the street, and then I went to sleep.

Even in his most vulnerable, Jake is incapable of feeling the depth of his misery. Every character in the book is constantly drunk, which they call it being "tight" or "blind." Alcohol therefore acts as a sort of anaesthetic that helps the characters go on with their lives and be jovial and carefree while they indulge themselves in the physical pleasures of life. The vivid description of night life in Paris and Bullfighting in Spain masks the inherent spiritual emptiness of the individual participants and of their relationships with each other. When the fiesta's over and the morning comes, however, there is a brief moment of sobriety that soon will disappear again as the characters plunge right back to the drinks and the superficiality of human interaction.

The Sun Also Rises is a story about alienation and loneliness, and Hemingway conveys effortlessly the general sense of frustration at that time period through its ambivalent and emotionally "blind" characters. It's an easy read language-wise, but the novel is much more than what appears on the surface.

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[Book] The Berlin Stories

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 02:02 (A review of Berlin Stories: Two Novels (New Directions Books))

"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking."

The Berlin Stories consists of two semi-biographical novels first published in 1935 and 1939 respectively. Goodbye to Berlin is a collection of short stories, consisting of the anecdotes from the writer's experiences in Berlin in the early 1930s during Hitler's rise to power. Written in the same time period, The Last of Mr. Norris resembles more like a novel but is still episodic in its storytelling. Although historically relevant in their time and place, Isherwood's stories concern mostly about the individuals he'd met in the city of Berlin and how the political atmosphere has affected them. What makes The Berlin Stories a good read is Isherwood's characters; they are eccentric and lively, not necessarily likable but always memorable. Characters like Arthur Norris and Sally Bowles stay with the reader long after their stories have ended (not necessarily finished since they continue to live on beyond the pages). Isherwood's writing is causal and lively, and he describes his characters with such a force that it's easy to believe they are real, and they might as well have been. An enjoyable read.

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[Book] Nightwood

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 01:56 (A review of Nightwood)

In T. S. Eliot's introduction for Nightwood, he writes that he does not want to suggest "the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content." However, the indication is there (Eliot gives an somewhat ambivalent review) and, for me, first summed up what this book was like. When I put down Nightwood by the end of it, the only feeling I had for this book was simply an emphatic "WTF?" It's the strangest book I've ever read, and it's got the most WTF ending that I've every come across. I was going to call this book a beautifully written piece of bullshit in this review and be done with it. However, after we discussed it in class (I read it for American Lit), I realized I didn't give it enough credit. It is one of those rare cases in which one appreciates the book more after studying it. It's partly due to the writer's use of language and her style of writing. Barnes's writing is hard to swallow at first. Her use of "passive narrative voice" makes it really hard for the reader to get into the story. For example, everything and everyone is passively described and observed in the book, like a tableau. There is no dramatic moments; in fact there is no 'present' moments. Everything is described as if it has happened rather than it is happening. This method creates a distance between the reader and the story, and thus makes it hard to relate to anything in the book. It also doesn't follow a linear storyline that come to a climax and down; instead, it presents a montage of characters and events that string loosely together but never quite connect.

The beginning of the book was enough to awe me with its unique style and stunning language:

What had formed Felix form the date of his birth to his coming to thirty was unknown to the world, for the step of the wandering Jew is in every son. No matter where and when you meet him you feel that he has come form some place - no matter form what place he has come - some country that he as devoured rather than resided in, some secret land that he has been nourished on but cannot inherit, for the Jew seems to be everywhere from nowhere. (7)

Set in Paris in early 1920's, Nightwood is a modernist view of the world in which every one is "the wandering Jew." The Jew represents a generation of expatriates in the post-WWI world in which dislocation of people and dissolution of conventional values have installed doubts and confusion into the lives of individuals. Barnes's characters are the epitomes of ambiguity and ambivalence, and they, as well as her writing, reflect a strange kind of confusion, a mixing-up of reality and fantasy, of delusion and disillusion.

The plot is strange, if there is a plot at all. There is no character development and the narrative focus shifts from person to person. Luckily there are only about 5 main characters in the entire book: Felix, the Jew who is fascinated with history, the lesbians Nora and Jenny, who along with Felix, are obsessed about Robin, and two of the strangest characters I've ever read in literature - O'Connor, the cross-dressing (and gay) doc who goes on soliloquizing whenever he pops up in the book, and Robin, the woman who... well, I don't know who the heck she is. She is the most disturbing character in the book because she is like this spirit floating around without any emotion or even a will. She goes from place to place and person to person as if she is a fallen leave floating along on a river without any sense of direction or desire to settle down. She is the ultimate wanderer. She never speaks or acts (she is always spoken of or acted upon), and yet she is the most prominent presence in the book. She's got people chasing after her, talking about her and trying to keep her to themselves, but they can never obtain her. I have to admit I didn't get this character at all when I was reading the book, and I'm still not too sure what she is about (desire, ideal, fantasy, radical possibility of change?). There is more than one interpretation for this character, which some might argue is what makes her and the book interesting.

Besides the strange characters and stranger monologues, Nightwood is full of rich metaphors and symbols. It's hard to swallow and I know some people would just absolutely hate this kind of writing. I'm not a big fan of pretentious writing that tries to exhaust every symbol under the sun, but Nightwood is more than just "astonishing language" and "a vacuity of content." The writing fits the theme, and it depicts the modernist movement in the early 20th century in an interesting way. Once I realized that the writer wrote the book in such a manner for a specific purpose, I liked it better. Nightwood is a book about the alienation of individuals after the war and their struggle to re-establish a sense of self amid their search for the alternatives in a world where conventions and tradition don't hold up anymore. The new form of writing is supposed to create a new way of thinking about gender roles, religion, history, and most everything else. Nightwood is not perfect, especially when the writer indulges too much in writing sentences that sound nice but mean nothing much. However, I can safely say now that I think it's a book worth reading and studying.

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[Book] Eight Minutes Idle

Posted : 11 years, 8 months ago on 30 December 2007 01:07 (A review of Eight Minutes Idle)

So this is what "lad lit" is like.

Michael Kimmel summerizes the basic plot of guy lit novels in his article "[Link removed - login to see]" as thus:

I may be 30, but I act 15. I am adrift in New York. I'm too clever by half for my own good. I live on puns and snide, sarcastic asides. I don't look too deeply into myself or anyone else — everyone else is boring or a phony anyway. I may be a New Yorker, but I am not in therapy. I have a boring job, for which I am overeducated and underqualified, but I lack the ambition to commit to a serious career. (Usually I have family money.) I hang out with my equally disconnected friends in many of the city's bars. I drink a lot, take recreational drugs, don't care about much except being clever. I recently broke up with my girlfriend, and while I am eager to have sex, which I do often given the zillions of available women in New York, the sex is not especially fulfilling, and emotions rarely enter the picture. I am deeply shallow. And I know it.

Oh, and then something happens. I go on a journey, get inside the media machinery, sort-of fall for a new girl. Or 9/11 happens, but that doesn't really affect me much either. And though I might now mouth some bland platitudes about change, anyone can see that I'm still the same guy I was before. Only different. But not really.

Replacing New York city with an English seaside town, that is a pretty apt description of Eight Minutes Idle, except it is more depressing than light-hearted. The novel is told through the first-person narrative of a call centre employee Dan, who is stuck in a dead boring job but too lazy to try to move on or up. He shares a tiny room with his father until his father is hospitalized, and he eventually moves secretly into his office in order to save money. The book's short description on the back cover makes it seems like the whole novel is about his adventure in trying to live in the office, but it is actually a pretty small part of the novel. The story mainly consists of the male protagonist's observations about his co-workers and the dynamic of a British office. It is also about the art of wasting time. Its title "Eight Minutes Idle" has a double meaning, referring to the time it takes for a person's body to shut down before falling asleep and the time of waiting to take a call in the call centre. Dan's life is basically one of idleness; he does everything just enough to kill time and get by.

Like the other lad lit anti-heroes, Dan is unambitious, emotionally unavailable and inclined to fantasize about his female co-workers. However, he is also hiding a violent past and constantly worried that his co-workers would find out that he is not a normal person or a "good bloke." That's about as deep as the character goes though. What makes Eight Minutes Idle a frustrating book is that the main character is, well, a big baby. Yes, he had a rough childhood. Yes, his past relationship with a woman was pretty fucked up. But stop whining and grow up already! Not that he talks about his feelings that much. Guys don't do that apparently, so instead, we get kinky sex scenes and sexual fantasies. It is also hard to like Dan as he is basically a manipulative liar who uses those around him to keep himself afloat in his no-responsibility lifestyle. How can one sympathizes with a character who wishes to be reincarnated as a mud puppy in his next life? (apparently mud puppies don't grow up or something). While the observations about the office life are interesting to read and Thorne does have a clear writing style that grips you, the story is ultimately unsatisfying. The ending feels rushed and abrupt, and one really wonders why this book has been written in the first place. To kill time, maybe?

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