Books Archive

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review - Dracula

I wasn't particularly impressed with this book, but it is a classic. Although there were vampire legends going back to prehistoric times, and vampire stories and novels that pre-dated this one, Bram Stoker's Dracula is the book that gave rise to the modern vampire genre and cemented many of the features now associated with vampires, though later film and stage adaptations have modified the image a bit.

The story starts off with a young British solicitor, Jonathon Harker, traveling to Transylvania to help provide legal support to Count Dracula in an international real estate transaction. Specifically, the Count is looking to buy property in England. It doesn't take Harker long to realize that Dracula is not merely a rich nobleman, but by then Harker has been imprisoned in Dracula's castle. The Count does complete his purchase of property in England and relocates there. Once mysterious goings on begin happening in England, it's up to a group of men led by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing to stop Dracula before he can become fully entrenched in his new locale and cause untold suffering.

The book was written in what Wikipedia tells me is an epistolary format. In other words, it was written "as a series of letters, diary entries, ships' log entries, and so forth." Personally, I'm not a huge fan of that type of writing. At times, it can feel contrived, when the author has to include details that wouldn't normally be included in the type of document supposedly being quoted. For example, the description of Dr. Van Helsing from Mina Harker's journal seems much more specific and detailed than something that someone would actually write in a journal.

a man of medium weight, strongly built, with his shoulders set back over a broad, deep chest and a neck well balanced on the trunk as the head is on the neck. The poise of the head strikes me at once as indicative of thought and power. The head is noble, well-sized, broad, and large behind the ears. The face, clean-shaven, shows a hard, square chin, a large resolute, mobile mouth, a good-sized nose, rather straight, but with quick, sensitive nostrils, that seem to broaden as the big bushy brows come down and the mouth tightens. The forehead is broad and fine, rising at first almost straight and then sloping back above two bumps or ridges wide apart, such a forehead that the reddish hair cannot possibly tumble over it, but falls naturally back and to the sides. Big, dark blue eyes are set widely apart, and are quick and tender or stern with the man's moods.

But even with those portions aside, these types of epistolary stories to me just seem distracting and don't flow as well as stories told by a more traditional narrator.

The story also contained an irritating characterization of a scientist that has by now become the stereotype in movies and TV - despite the overwhelming evidence that something strange is going on, the scientist is skeptical of a supernatural explanation simply because scientists dismiss the supernatural out of hand. I'm not the only one who noticed the digs at science. Here's an excerpt from The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History by Richard Daniel Lehan. I suppose that this is just part of my general problem with Romanticism being a backlash against the Enlightenment.

Warning: Excerpt contains slight spoilers

Dracula's savagery takes on pagan intensity; it is restrained only by religious devices like the crucifix and garlic leaves (connected with the divinity of Christ). Stoker seems to be suggesting, as Richard Wasson has pointed out, that technological progress has cut humanity off from dark knowledge, making civilization increasingly unaware of and hence vulnerable to demonic powers (Wasson, 24-25). As the novel moves toward its conclusion and the death of Dracula, Seward becomes more open-minded and more aware of a balance between the power of cult forces and science, recognizing the limits of the latter. He has seen how vulnerable modern institutions are when viewed through the prism of cult primitivism.

I could go on listing my annoyances with this novel, but instead I'll just link to the Dracula page on TVTropes.org, which lists quite a few of the bad plot devices and tropes used in the story. One of my favorite tropes from that page is something they call the "Idiot Ball", described elsewhere on the site as:

This is generally not a compliment on the writing because the person carrying the idiot ball is often acting out of character, misunderstanding something that could be cleared up by asking a single reasonable question or performing a simple problem-solving action, but that he isn't doing solely because the writers don't want him to. It's almost as if the character is being willfully stupid or obtuse rather than that being the character's natural default character.

I won't include an example here of someone from Dracula carrying the idiot ball because I don't want to spoil the plot for people who haven't yet read the book, but the TV Tropes page gives a good example.

The book wasn't horrible, but I certainly didn't think it was great or worthy of its reputation, either. I suppose it's worth reading because of the influence it's had, but don't expect a masterpiece.


Update 2013-03-06 - Added the Idiot Ball example from TV Tropes, to give an example of what to expect on that page.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Books, A Year in Review - 2012, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia Commons It's taken me a little longer than normal, but here is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year (or more precisely, from October 2011 through October 2012). Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

As has become my custom, I'll use this space to list my favorite books from the year. While there were several good ones, three stood out in particular. The first was The Night Circus, which created a truly magical setting in all senses of the word. The other two were Out Came the Sun: One Family's Triumph over a Rare Genetic Syndrome and Stealth Fighter: A Year in the Life of an F-117 Pilot. I'm probably a little biased in that I personally know the writers of both of those books, but they were very interesting.

While I was writing the reviews for this entry, a few of the reviews grew a little longer than I'd anticipated. They're more in depth than is appropriate for this collection and deserve their own blog entries, so I'm pulling them out and replacing them with shorter reviews. Expect to see those full reviews on their own in the coming week or two as I polish them a bit more.

Continue reading "Books, A Year in Review - 2012, Part II" »

Monday, October 22, 2012

Books, A Year in Review - 2012, Part I

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsIt's October, which is the month where I stop and review my reading habits for the past year. I've been doing this a few years, now (see previous reviews for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011). It all started with an article about an AP-Ipsos poll on people's reading habits. Among other things, it pointed out that around 1 in 4 adults in this country hadn't read any books at all in the previous year, and that among those that had, the average number of books read was 6. (Yes, this is the fourth time I've copied that sentence verbatim).

As has become my habit, I'm breaking this up into two entries. In this, the first, I'll reflect on my reading habits (which means it probably won't interest many people), and in the second, I'll give a brief review of each book.

So, here are all the books I read in the last year, sorted by topic (not the order in which I read them).

Children's & Young Adult Fiction

  1. The Capture (Guardians of Ga'hoole, Book 1)
  2. The Journey (Guardians of Ga'hoole, Book 2)
  3. The Rescue (Guardians of Ga'hoole, Book 3)
  4. Dragon Keeper (Book 1)
  5. Garden of the Purple Dragon (Dragon Keeper, Book 2)
  6. Dragon Moon (Dragon Keeper, Book 3)
  7. Kaimira: The Sky Village: Book One
  8. The Hunger Games (Book 1)
  9. Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, Book 2)
  10. Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, Book 3)
  11. Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle)
  12. The Outsiders

Adult Fiction

  1. Anansi Boys
  2. The Night Circus
  3. Dracula

Religion

  1. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
  2. The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
  3. The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus

Non-Fiction

  1. The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True
  2. Stealth Fighter: A Year in the Life of an F-117 Pilot
  3. Out Came the Sun: One Family's Triumph over a Rare Genetic Syndrome
  4. City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction

That makes for 22 books altogether, though I haven't yet finished one of them. That's pretty much in line with my reading habits from previous years. I had 24 in my list last year, but two of those were pretty short (one especially so), a third I never actually finished reading, and a fourth I wrote myself (actually, I could have included that one again this year, as I still read it from time to time).

Once again, my list was heavily tilted towards young adult fiction. This is partly due to having a teenage daughter who recommends books to me, and partly due to the fact that a few young adult series are pretty popular right now.

In a bit of a break from tradition, I didn't read any books specifically devoted to evolution, nor any books by Carl Zimmer. The closest I came to reading about evolution was Richard Dawkins' book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True. But have no fear, I have a few evolution related books on the bookshelf just waiting to be read, along with a book by Carl Zimmer, not to mention a few more of his on my wish list.

I started reading Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. I was planning on doing a similar treatment to what I did for Josh McDowell's More Than a Carpenter, but with all the note taking, I couldn't stay motivated to finish it. I think I'll give it another shot, but without taking so many notes while reading.

I did manage to knock out two more books from this list (Anansi Boys and Dracula).

I also read two books from people I know/have known personally - Stealth Fighter: A Year in the Life of an F-117 Pilot and Out Came the Sun: One Family's Triumph over a Rare Genetic Syndrome. One was written by my neighbor, the other by one of my high school teachers. I may not be the most unbiased reviewer given the circumstances, but I thought they were both very good.

I do find it interesting the way my reading pace can change so much over the course of the year. Some times, I'll read several books a month. Other times, it might take a couple months to finish one book. If I kept my higher rates all year long, I'd probably read more than 30 books a year.

So, I think my reading was fairly well balanced this year, though maybe not quite as well balanced as last year. I still need to devote more time to history and philosophy.

Part II, where I'll post my reviews for each book, is probably still a few weeks out, but stay tuned.


Update 2013-01-21: Part II is finally here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Bible Blogging - Introduction and Picking a Translation

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. To browse all entries in the series, go to the category, Friday Bible Blogging.

BibleWhen I was younger and still a committed Christian, I read the entire Bible. I would say cover to cover, but it was actually two different books. The first was a nice leather bound Good News Translation that I'd received as a Christmas present. A few Christmases later and partway through, I received a new Bible as a Christmas present, this time a New Living Translation sold as a TouchPoint Bible. So I switched. At the time, I still accepted the Bible as the inerrant word of God, which I'm sure colored the way I read it. Now that I no longer think of the Bible as a divinely inspired book, I thought it might be interesting to read it again and see what type of impression it makes on me now.

So, I'm starting a new series - Friday Bible Blogging. I'm going to try to read a couple verses a day, and then every Friday I'll write a short blog entry on my impressions. Don't look for deep theological discussions here. I fear that if I try to get too technical, I'll get bogged down in details and stall out on the project. From my first time reading the Bible, and from my recent reading of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, I know that the Bible can be boring enough. The pressure of writing weekly blog entries should keep me motivated enough to get through the whole thing, but detailed entries might be overwhelming.

I'll note one way I'm going to approach this differently than the first time I read the Bible. Back then, when I believed that the Bible was the divinely inspired word of God, it followed that every word in it must have been important. So when I say I read the whole thing, I mean the whole thing. No skimming over the A begat B begat C... sections. If a person's name was in there, it must have been because God thought that name was important enough to include, so who was I to ignore it? Now, I don't have that kind of devotion, so I admit up front that I'm going to skim through the genealogies and other similarly boring insubstantial sections.

When I read the Bible the first time, I didn't yet appreciate the importance of the translation. Now that I've learned a bit more, I've come to realize that the translation can have a significant effect on the meaning. I've discussed this before on this blog in the entry, Reliance on Bible Translations. It's a pretty complicated issue. Without being able to understand ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, most of us are reliant on translators giving us accurate translations. Unfortunately, not all translations are of the same caliber.

First of all, there's the issue of what to translate to begin with. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that we no longer have any of the original versions of any books of the Bible. In fact, for some books, even if we had a time machine, it would be difficult to pick an original version. For example, just go read the Wikipedia section on the Origins of the Book of Genesis to see how that book developed. And this doesn't even concern the origins of the stories themselves, such as Noah's flood being a variation of the Mesopotamian Flood Myth. For all of the books, there are numerous copies in existence, and none of the copies match exactly. So the translators will have to decide on how to combine all the different copies to come up with a text that most closely resembles the 'original'.

But then, even once a text is agreed upon to translate, there's the question of how to accomplish the translation. Languages are not the same as math. They're imprecise, with ambiguities and nuance, double meanings and puns. And different languages have their own nuances. Anyone who's bilingual has known the difficulty of trying to translate directly from one language to another. Sometimes it's easy enough, but other times it's simply impossible to translate the full meaning of a statement without adding some side explanation*.

And then, unfortunately, there's the motivation of the translators. For something with as much cultural impact as the Bible, people are going to approach it with different preconceptions. And sometimes, people will let those preconceptions cloud their interpretation. A cautionary example is the New International Version (NIV). It was a project of evangelical Christians who had already decided that the Bible was inerrant. The blog entry I linked to above includes an example of that translation changing the meaning of a passage to avoid a contradiction, and it's not the only one. To quote N.T. Wright (source - Wikipedia):

When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses.... Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul's letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said.... [I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.

I should probably mention the King James Version (KJV) specifically, since it is the most famous of all English translations. Unfortunately, it has many problems. There were not as many early manuscripts available at the time it was translated, so it's not a translation of the current best guess of the 'original' versions of all of the books. Some sections were translated incorrectly. And it's written in an archaic form of English that makes it more difficult for the modern reader to understand. So I decided against reading the KJV.

So, what translation should I choose? It seems as if there are even more opinions on this than there are translations themselves, but there does seem to be one translation recommended more than others by serious biblical scholars**, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I've read and respect Bart Ehrman***, and according to the Endorsements section of the NRSV, he has said, "In my opinion, the New Revised Standard Version is without peer as the best available Bible translation, for both readability and accuracy." Here's a page I found, A Discussion of Bible Translations and Biblical Scholarship, written by a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, Mark D. Given, which also highly recommends the NRSV. I looked for a recommendation from Hector Avalos, since I've read and respect him as well. I couldn't find a direct recommendation, but I did find this article written by him, Can Science Prove that Prayer Works?, in which all Bible quotes were from the NRSV, a kind of implicit recommendation. And of course, Bruce Metzger, who was intimately involved in the creation of the NRSV, recommended it.

So, I've decided to read the New Revised Standard Version. Unfortunately, it's not included at BibleGateway.com, an otherwise excellent resource for the various Bible translations, but it is available online for those who want to follow along. I recommend the GodWeb link, which provides links to all of the chapters hosted on oremus.

So how long is this going to take? According to a few sources, there are 1189 chapters in the Protestant version of the Bible, or 1334 in the Catholic version. If I go with the longer version for the sake of completeness, and if I can average 10 chapters per week, that's 133 weeks, or a little over 2 ½ years. I think that's manageable. 10 chapters per week is few enough that I'll still be able to read more enjoyable books during that period, and also few enough that my weekly blog entries won't be overwhelming. It does mean 133 blog entries, so I'm going to make a new category for this series, Friday Bible Blogging.

I'm also going to make an index page to provide links to all of the entries in this series, to allow users to jump to reviews of different sections of the Bible.

Stay tuned for my first review entry, starting from the beginning with Genesis, Chapter 1.


*Here's an example of translation issues. One of my favorite corny jokes in Spanish goes like this.

¿Que dijo el agua al pez?

Nada.

The first sentence is easy enough to translate - 'What did the water say to the fish?' But the answer is a double entendre. 'Nada' can mean either 'nothing' or 'swim'. Yes, it's corny, but it illustrates the difficulty in trying to make a simple translation without a little extra explanatory text. This example was only a small note, but even small notes can add up to a big distraction when there are enough of them.

**Of course, most serious Biblical scholars say that the best way to understand the Bible is to learn the ancient languages and read the various ancient manuscripts, and to basically do all the things that Biblical scholars do.

***Which is not to say that I agree with all of Ehrman's positions. His position on the historicity of Jesus doesn't appear to be very well founded. See Richard Carrier's, Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic.

Update 2013-03-22: I was double checking the chapter counts for myself instead of relying on other people's counts, and I found that it gets to be a bit complicated once you get to the Apocrypha. It depends on how you're going to do the tally. For example, take a look at this page on Oremus, Additions to Esther 11. How should that be tallied? For the purpose of this series, since I'm going through chapter by chapter in the Oremus Bible Browser, I figure it makes sense to use their divisions to count chapters. For example, that means the link I just provided would be counted as a single chapter. That means 929 chapters in the standard Old Testament, 203 chapters in the Apocrypha, and 260 chapters in the New Testament, for a total of 1392 chapters. So, it will take me about 2 months longer to complete this project than I'd initially anticipated.

Updated 2012-10-18: Fixed a few typos, corrected a few links, and revised a few sections to make them more clear, but nothing that altered the meaning of any of the sections.

Updated 2013-02-11: Fixed a couple more types that I just noticed.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Kaimira - A Disappointing Way to End a Book

Kaimira Book CoverA few weeks ago, I was up in Maryland visiting my parents. There's a great bookstore up that way called Wonder Book. It's a used bookstore with tons of books at reasonable prices. With my mom's and my passion for books, we almost always manage a trip there every time I visit. This time, a certain book caught my eye, mainly for the cover art, so I grabbed it. The title was Kaimira: The Sky Village: Book One by Monk Ashland (actually Chris Rettstatt) and Nigel Ashland. It was touted as the first in a series of five books. Here's the book description from Amazon:

High over China, the Sky Village, an intricate web of interconnected hot-air balloons, floats above the troubled landscape, where animals battle machines for control. Mei's mother has been kidnapped, and she has been left in this strange place by her father.

Half a world away, thirteen-year-old Rom struggles to survive in the ruins of Las Vegas. When his young sister is taken by a pair of demonic creatures, Rom has no choice but to follow her into a shadowy world below ground. There, he becomes engaged in gladiator-style fighting in an arena where mehanical-beast demons do battle for the entertainment of a chaotic community of gamblers.

Mei and Ron have never met, but they share a common journal, a book that mysteriously allows them to communicate. It also reveals that each of them carries the strange and frightening kaimira gene and that aspects of beast and mek qualities are entwined in their very DNA.

In this thrilling, intricately plotted novel, the first in a five-book series, Mei and Rom must overcome the forces that seek to destroy them and find the courage to balance the powers that lurk within.

It was pretty good. Maybe not the best book I'd ever read, but certainly enjoyable, and far better than some other books that I've read (like a certain series with sparkly vampires). So I was looking forward to reading the rest of the series. Unfortunately, when I got onto Amazon, I couldn't find it. I thought that maybe it just wasn't out yet, so I did a little more searching, and it doesn't look promising.

Chris Rettstatt, who wrote under the pen name of Monk Ashland, has a website, rettstatt.com. He has a blog that was last updated just over a year ago, but that last entry had nothing to do with the Kaimira series. He does have a section devoted to Kaimira, but his last entry for that was from 2010, and most of the entries are from 2008. And in the comments of his last Kaimira entry, a few people asked him specifically about book 2 of Kaimira, and he hasn't responded. It's frustrating because the old stuff looks so promising. He has information about awards it was nominated for (like the Cybils 2008), a possibility of expansion into TV and gaming, a paperback edition being released, an update on the second book, and a mention that he'd turned in the first draft of the second book. The most recent update I could find of Rettstatt was his participation in the 6th annual Digital Kids Conference back in April.

I guess the moral is, before starting on a series, make sure that the series will be completed. If I hear anything about any other Kaimira books being released, I'll update this post.

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