Wednesday, May 04, 2005

On the bookshelf

Ok, ok, I know you've been clamoring for another edition of "What's Joel reading?" so here you go. These are the non-school books I've read in the last two months or so.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
  • This is a super-fast read (I read it the night before and on the airplane to Kansas when I went home, and finished it right away). It's the story of a young man named Christopher who stumbles across a dead dog in the middle of the night and decides that he's going to find out who killed it. Here's the thing, though. Christopher, who narrates the book, is autistic. Now I don't know a ton about autism, but I do know it influences social interaction and communication skills. So the book is written very simply, and Christopher's reactions to other people ("The policeman took hold of my arm and lifted me onto my feet. I didn't like him touching me like this. And this is when I hit him.") are both funny and sad. Haddon does a neat trick, because the reader can probably figure out the source of the mystery before Christopher does, yet is also compelled to keep reading. I, for one, became frustrated with Christopher and his inability to understand and communicate, but at the same time that's part of dealing with autism, which the author makes the reader feel and understand. It's well-written and enjoyable, and a quick little read that I recommend.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • This book, on the other hand, is definitely not a super fast read. How to describe it? It's a mystery, at heart, set in a Franciscan monestary in 1327. Eco is a difficult writer, and one who's well-versed in literary criticism and has several complex theories of novel writing. As such, this book at times oscillates between weighty philosophical tome and enjoyable little mystery. I'll admit right out that I didn't understand it all. Not only do I not speak Latin, German, or any of the other languages peppered throughout even an English translation of the text, but I also have at best a shaky grasp of medieval theology and philosophy, and at times Eco spends pages and pages explaining fourteenth century Catholic religious doctrines and the debates surrounding them. At times, I felt like I was just slogging through the text, though to some extent learning those older teachings is fascinating in its own right. But don't let that difficulty dissuade you from reading this book, because there's also an exciting and enjoyable story going through here, and though I think Eco has over-burdened the book with meaningless details, I also think he does a nice job painting a vivid and living world. The story is narrated by Adso, a young novice who is assisting William of Baskerville on a diplomatic mission to the monastary. When bodies start piling up--all surrounding a mysterious and secretive library--things take an unexpected turn. I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but be warned that it may take some work to get through it.
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
  • Here is another book definitely not for the faint of heart, though for entirely different reasons. When the book opens Frey is on an airplane with no clue where he's going. He's missing his four front teeth and has a hole in his cheek. He's covered in vomit, blood, and other disgusting substances. At 23, he'd already been an alcoholic and crackhead for several years, getting wasted and blacking out daily for about as long as he can remember. So this book is the true story of Frey's stay at a rehab clinic in Minnesota as he battles with his addictions. At time this is painful and brutal to read. When Frey has to get oral surgery (including two root canals) without any anesthesia, I thought I was going to lose it. When he talks about his anger and depression, well, I got depressed. But this is compelling writing. This is a guy who hates what he does to himself but doesn't know how to stop until he finally decides he must either quit or die. And if that sounds like an easy choice, it's not. The writing here is compelling and engaging--another book I had a hard time putting down. But be warned that Frey doesn't hide anything, and sometimes the details of his life or his friends' lives can be really disturbing and disgusting. Yet I feel better for reading this book. You can't help but root for the guy and want to take control of your own life the same way he tries to do so. This is good stuff.
Well, that's all for now. I just made another Barnes and Noble trip, so I've got a few more boks to work on (Edward Conlon's Blue Blood, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces are in the queue right now, though I think I'll get to them in reverse order). Summer is nice because I can read whatever I want as much as I want, so hopefully I won't get too distracted by Xbox and the Internet. How about you? Read anything good lately that you'd recommend? This is what comments are for!

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