The Sot-Weed Factor, a Review

The Sot-Weed Factor (The Anchor Literary Library) The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a virtuoso performance. John Barth is a born storyteller, and The Sot-Weed Factor makes full use of his talents. There are tales within tales, here, and they’re all told with a seductive sense of humor.

The story follows a woefully innocent (you could say naive) young poet on his travels from the Old Country to the New. He meets a vast number of characters on his journey, many of whom seek to take advantage of his innocence (or take his life). His companion on his journey is a political agent (spy) who is deeply involved with the affairs of the Maryland government and its enemies. The scope of this novel, as you can see, is astonishing.

Many professional critics make note of how Barth satirizes the historical novel, here, but satire implies a target: something that must be taken down. I think, rather, that Barth is just winking at the historical novel. He knows how these novels work; he knows their cliches. So he incorporates those elements and transcends them so that they no-longer seem cliche or “played out.”

The Sot-Weed Factor is not serious literature. It’s fun. If you come to it looking for a great story and a good number of laughs and head-shakes, you’ll enjoy it.

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The Stand – A Review

The Stand (Expanded Edition) The Stand by Stephen King

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Great book. King knows how to write a very good yarn: his characters are well-defined, sympathetic, and believable.

He also knows how to draw you into the story, into the world. He provides enough detail, but not too much. And he’s never boring. At least not here.

The Stand looks at what might happen after a terrible plague, but it’s not cold and cynical. King believes in things beyond what we can see first hand, things beyond what we can determine scientifically. He understands that some people believe things very strongly, that some people are agnostic, and that some people are full of doubt, and his characters portray that.

My only complaint about King is that he’s all story. There’s nothing deeper. No style. But every once in a while, that’s all I want: just a really good story.

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The Soul of a New Machine

The Soul of a New Machine The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is a classic. If you’re interested in the history of the computer business, you’ll really enjoy it.

Kidder follows a team of engineers at Data General as they design, build, and debug a new machine for the company. At the time (late 1970s), the biggest deal in computer tech was the mini computer. This was the stepping stone from the large IBM-style mainframes to the Apple and IBM personal computers that came after.

The book profiles Tom West and several members of his team as they compete against not only other computer manufacturers, like DEC and IBM, but also against another team within Data General to build a 32-bit “supermini.” It makes for a very compelling story.

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Rabbit Redux

Rabbit Redux Rabbit Redux by John Updike

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Updike can be hard to read. You have to commit. But if you commit, you won’t regret. The plot of this book, like Rabbit Run, simmers slowly and builds organically to a very satisfying conclusion, and along the way, you get to experience whatever decade Rabbit’s experiencing.

In this case, that’s the Sixties, during the civil rights upheaval. I marveled at the tangle Rabbit gets himself into and delighted in his handling of it (Rabbit tends to just go with the flow of whatever happens in his life).

This is a great book. I highly recommend it.

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My Kindle–A Review

I’ve had my Kindle 2 for a few weeks, so I thought it was time to do a preliminary review.

I forced myself to wait for the Kindle 2 to come out because I knew there were a lot of complaints about the first version, mainly regarding it’s crappy design.

And I’m really glad I waited, because this version is beautifully designed. It’s about the size of a very short trade paperback book. It’s pleasantly heavy for it’s size, giving it a substantial feel that you want with a piece of expensive electronics. It feels and looks well made. The back is stainless steel, and the front is made of white plastic that’s like a delicious candy coating. You kind of want to lick it.

The screen is a nice size, and it’s really easy to read off of. You get used to it very quickly. You may have seen some criticisms of the button placement on the Kindle 1, but they’ve fixed that on the Kindle 2. No accidental page turns. It becomes just as natural as turning a physical page after using it for a while.

The interface is also pretty easy to use. I’ve only had a problem with it once, and I’ll get to that in a minute. Navigation through your content options is straightforward. Navigation through a linear book is simple. I also find it quite easy to move around through the Kindle edition of the New York Times.

The only problem I’ve encountered so far is with using the Kindle to read something that’s not linear, like a cookbook. I downloaded the Cooks Illustrated How to Cook Library and tried to follow a recipe from it one night but found it to be a serious pain in the ass to click back and forth through the five pages taken up by the recipe and the variation I was using.

But for the things I really wanted it to be able to do—read books and read the newspaper—it’s perfect. I still like to read old-fashioned books, but I don’t think I’ll want to buy a physical newspaper ever again.

There’s more to mention—the Kindle store, the savings on the New York Times subscription (50 percent!), “throwaway” books vs. books you want to keep forever, the (thankfully) suckass web browser—but I’ll save those for a future post.

“Twilight,” a Guest Review

My sister sent me the following e-mail review of Twilight, the phenomenally popular first novel in the series by Stephenie Meyer:

Twilight is a book about what to say to your girlfriend when you want to feel powerful. Presuming she’s already weak, you’ll have the upper hand even more than you already did in just a few simple steps.

That’s right, I read it, and it’s a book about how girls are clumsy, stupid, irrational, emotional, witless, and cannot be explained. Even silly by vampire standards. I had a hard time reading the beginning, but I plugged along for the sake of pop culture – and then came the L word. That’s right – he’s about 100 years-old technically, trapped inside the most beautiful teenage body ever, and she truly IS a teenager. And they fall in LOVE. Sweet, pathetic, dry-humping love. Oh God forgive me for wasting the time I wasted on this book. Forgive all the teenage girls who are swooning over their boyfriends who push them around “for love” and “safety.”

Deceptively Delicious, or, Chicken and Rice Balls

There are lots of books that will tell you how to feed your kid(s) healthy meals. The one we use most often, and most successfully, is Jessica Seinfeld’s (yes, that Jessica Seinfeld) Deceptively Delicious.

Basically, the idea is to sneak veggies into tasty foods so the little ones don’t know what hit ’em. There is a good deal of pureeing involved.

And here’s the thing: it works. Getting Sean to eat straight veg is a hit or miss proposition, but if you steam and puree frozen cauliflower, carrot, and broccoli and mix it with tomato sauce and give it to him with pasta, or hidden inside a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s a hit.

We’ve had good luck with her recipes for French toast (dredged in squash or sweet potato puree), applesauce muffins (with carrot), mac and cheese (with cauliflower), sloppy joes (with squash and carrots), and, of course, chicken and rice balls (with sweet potato and spinach).

Now, the trick is to get creative. She calls for margarine in her recipes, but we use butter. Her mac and cheese recipe is really small, so we make a Betty Crocker batch and add the cauliflower puree to it.

The great thing about the book is that it arms you with the tools to play with other recipes. For example, Danielle has turned banana bread into banana-carrot-apple bread (BCAB, in our house). On top of that, she substitutes half the flower with whole wheat flower. It’s a quick bread you can have for breakfast and not feel bad about. There’s another version called SQUIB: squash bread.

So check out the book and get creative

A Bibliophile Matures

We recently visited our local Barnes & Noble on a dreary day with every intention of stimulating the economy. Not long ago, we could spend $50-75 on a trip to the bookstore with barely an “aren’t-we-bad-yes-we-are” grin on our faces.

But on that particular visit, we walked out empty handed. I couldn’t justify a single purchase. None of the new fiction looked interesting, and our shelves runneth over with classics we have yet to read.

Which, of course, is the other problem. I did a very rough count this afternoon and determined that we have a library of—conservatively—a thousand volumes, plenty of which are unread. With a move to Virginia looming in about a year, it’s time to start thinking about paring that number down some, at least to the point that all the books actually fit on the shelves. Right now we have errant stacks on every available flat surface.

In addition to the dearth of interesting new fiction, and the overwhelming number of books already in the house, there is the fact of the public library just a few blocks away. When obtaining any book in the entire Rhode Island Public Library system is as easy as going to their website, searching for the book, clicking “Request,” and picking it up at the local branch, it makes one wonder why he should ever buy another book ever again.


The Unfinished

The New Yorker has a masterful piece on David Foster Wallace and his attempts to write the followup to Infinite Jest. He called the book The Pale King, and Little, Brown is going to publish it in 2010, even though it’s incomplete.

D.T. Max’s piece—The Unfinished—answers a lot of questions about Wallace’s final year, covering some of the same territory as David Lipsky’s piece in Rolling Stone, but it also offers new insights and details, especially with regard to the new book, and Wallace’s difficulties with it.

An excerpt—Wiggle Room—appears in the same issue. This will have to suffice until the rest of it comes out next year.

I don’t even know if it really matters that it’s unfinished. DFW had a tendency to leave his work unresolved, anyway. You take what he gives you. And he gave more than most.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I made sure to give myself some time between seeing the film version and reading the book (I always prefer to see the movie first; novels always add to the story and usually improve upon it). I’m glad I waited. The two versions are similar in many ways, but the characters are different: regular white guy in the book v. hyper-intelligent black guy in the movie. The nature of the vampires is different: classic conception of the vampire v. zombie-like, demythologized superfreaks. The setting is different: suburban L.A. v. Manhattan. So, OK, maybe they’re not similar beyond the basic premise.

Anyway, the book was more satisfying with its take on the “science” of vampirism, and the ending was more honest and creative. (The movie ended the way you think the book is going to end but doesn’t.)

What the movie does surprisingly well (and this is a testament to Will Smith as an actor) is capture the arc of emotions Neville experiences in his horrific situation. The book takes you there, too, but reading it makes Smith’s performance all the more impressive.

Well. I didn’t expect to be reviewing the film here, as well, but there you go.

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