Saturday, April 30, 2011

Monthly Update - April 2011

I'm trying to get back to writing one post per book. This is a baby step in that direction. And according to the ground-breaking work of Dr. Leo Marvin, baby steps are very, very important.

The Iliad, by Homer (translated by Rodney Merrill)

If I'm hoping to say something novel about Homer, I'm probably a few generations too late. The book is what it is, and nothing I can say about it is going to change that, or convince the author to write differently in the future. It was interesting to read this book while reading Hugh Nibley's There Were Jaredites, which is all about the coincidence of epic literature throughout ancient societies.

What I can talk about is Merrill's translation, although I haven't read very many other translations of The Iliad for comparative purposes (I read selections from The Iliad in a Norton anthology in college 12 years ago.) But Merrill wrote a long introduction where he defends his choice of imposing a poetic meter, and I think it went well. I'm sure the effort was like the construction of a freeway bypass: an unbelievable amount of work that I barely noticed after the fact.

For some reason, this edition has some low ratings on Good Reads, but his edition of The Odyssey, which is a companion volume, has good ratings. I'm probably going to read The Odyssey later this year, and I suspect I'll read Merrill's translation for continuity.

Rating: five and a half out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Grk and the Pelotti Gang, by Joshua Doder

My kids enjoyed A Dog Called Grk, so we have moved on to the rest of the books in the series. This one was set in Brazil. My daughter was upset that her favorite character, Natasha Rafiffi, was an after-thought in this book. All the action centered on Tim and Grk. It was helpful that I had just read an article on Jose Mourinho, so I knew the proper way to pronounce the Portuguese name "Jose." Also, there were no murdered parents in this one, which is a big improvement over the last one. Not an unenjoyable book to read aloud, and my kids are eager to hear the next one.

Rating: six out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Abel's Island, by William Steig

Last year I read Steig's Dominic to my kids, and they absolutely hated it. I mean, even more than I hated Bubble and Squeak hated it. I, however, really enjoyed it. Rarely does a book make me want to read the Cliffs Notes to make sure I'm not missing anything, but Dominic made me wish there were Cliffs Notes for it.

Given how much they hated Dominic, I probably shouldn't have read Abel's Island to them, but I'm a firm believer that a dad should do things merely to bug his kids. It helps them build character, right? Character and a resentment of their dad, I guess.

Well, I've got good news: the kids liked this one. My son liked the planning Abel had to put into his different ideas for how to leave the island. My daughter liked that there were no roving gangs of toughs (which was how Dominic began, and was a large part of why she hated that book). I liked that this book also had deeper meaning, and didn't ignore the fact that Abel had to "defecate." (My son said, "Wait, does that mean he pooped?")

Rating: six and a half out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, by Mil Millington

This is a book I liked a lot more towards the end than I liked towards the beginning, but I still can't bring myself around to saying I liked it as a whole. It's hard to like and it's hard to not like.

Firstly, the "mapcap zaniness" was not so much funny as disturbing. I know it's supposed to be over-the-top funny, like a Punch and Judy show, but there's a reason no one goes to Punch and Judy shows anymore. Reading the "hilarious" arguments between Pel and his girlfriend Ursula reminded me of reading about the mother from Bubble and Squeak; the mother's psychological abuse was too real for a children's book. It wasn't the ha-ha kind of abuse you get from Roald Dahl adult characters, it was the holy-crap kind of abuse you get from Mommy Dearest. Millington's scenes of domestic turmoil made me want to turn away, not read more. A spot-on description of a badly dysfunctional relationship is not funny. It is sad.

Secondly, I felt the book was too autobiographical. A British man with a German girlfriend and two children writes a book about a British man with a German girlfriend and two children. This contributed greatly to my inability to enjoy the Punch and Judy aspect: what if at the end of every performance, the puppeteer came out and said, "This show was based on the true story of a man feeding his baby to an alligator"? I'm aware of the advice to "write what you know," but I think maybe that can be interpreted a little more loosely.

Thirdly, Pel goes out of his way to tell his oldest child that God isn't real, and then goes out of his way to cover for Santa Claus. Maybe it was supposed to be a send-up of parents with misplaced priorities, but it came through as just a parent with misplaced priorities. It bothers me that there are people in the world who really deny God and support Santa. With the too-autobiographical nature of the book, it is unclear if this is the narrator or the author who feels this way. The entire thing sets up a joke much later, but there's a very weak connection. It's like telling someone Schindler's List is a comedy because it will help them understand The Producers, which is funny.

Fourthly, the whole coffee shop setting with his two non-work-related friends bothered me, because I felt everyone wasn't communicating, they were acting for the benefit of the two on-lookers. It was like "Gilmore Girls" dialog: the funny thing to say instead of the thing that actually had meaning.

Okay, now for what I still managed to enjoy about the book. As the book progressed, Pel's arguments with Ursula became less dysfunctional. Maybe I just got acclimated, but elements of them could be enjoyable. Also, Millington is a great comic storyteller. I get the feeling that he'd be a great guy to meet at the party of a mutual friend. He'd regale you all night with outlandish tales from his past. He can write funny description very well, which is a big plus for a humorous novel.

This story just sort of peters out, and we're supposed to be okay with it because we think, “It'll turn out all right, because he's got Ursula.” But can we really think that when we've just spent over 350 pages reading about how he and Ursula want to murder each other (ha-ha murder, though, remember?)?

I feel like Millington came up with a funny premise, wrote it until he grew tired, and ended the book. Which is what John Grisham does sometimes with a thrilling premise, but at least Grisham pulls an ending out of nowhere (“Who was the murderer? Um, this character I'll introduce to you right now.”) Millington didn't even bother to make up an ending. But I can't really be too critical of any novel anyone else has published, because it's more than I've managed to accomplish, isn't it?

Rating: three out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

The Theory of Monetary Institutions, by Lawrence H. White

I'm going to give this book a high rating, because this is exactly the type of thing that interests me, but the normal person shouldn't necessarily take that high rating as a reading recommendation. Monetary theory is definitely not for everyone (and White, my professor, would probably say it's not for me, too). My three-year-old son came over to have me read to him, and I didn't even complete the first sentence before he ran away.

The book starts with theories of the origin of money, then the history of redeemable currency, then theory regarding the current fiat money framework, and then ends with ideas of how competition could be reintroduced in a non-redeemable environment. Like I said, not for everyone, but totally awesome to me.

Rating: seven out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Ion, by Plato

I read this because I had a school assignment that mentioned Ion and I thought, “That's short enough that I don't even have to fake it.” In retrospect, I wish I'd faked it.

Ion is annoying, because Socrates is a jerk. I agree with Adeimantus when he says in Book VI of The Republic, “And, as unskillful daught-players are in the end hemmed into a corner by the skillful, till they cannot make a move, just in the same way your hearers conceive themselves to be at last hemmed in and reduced to silence by this novel kind of draughts, played with words instead of counters. For they are not at all the more convinced that the conclusion to which they are brought is the true one” (487c). Socrates doesn't necessarily have correct ideas, but he spends much more time and energy devising arguments for his ideas. He then picks fights with productive people, who devote less of their concentration on the topic, and he runs circles around them, thereby concluding that his ideas are correct. All that has really been shown is that Socrates has too much time on his hands.

I don't even think Socrates believes half the crap he says. I think he just wants to show he can take any premise and make it sound true. So Ion says he's a better actor in the role of general than a general, and Socrates takes him apart, but if Ion had said the opposite, Socrates would have contradicted that position, too.

It's hard for me to say these things about a conclusion which I support--namely, that actors have mental deficiencies--but there it is nonetheless.

Rating: two out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Tom Brown's Schooldays, by Thomas Hughes

I read P.G. Wodehouse's Tales of St. Austin's, which includes a story where the narrator gives a lengthy review of Tom Brown's Schooldays. I figured I should read the book, seeing how it serves as inspiration for some of Wodehouse's school settings. Since the book is from 1857, and it wasn't written by anyone named Disney, it's now in the public domain, and easy to get for free.

The biggest problem with the book is that it is from 1857. There's a whole lot of moralizing that doesn't drive the story at all. Even in the first half, which mostly escapes criticism in Wodehouse's treatment. The second half, though, is so needless pretentious it's scandalous. I'd like to read a history of the public schools of the era to see if they really were so full of platonic love, but the boredom I'd have to suffer would be unbearable. I'll stick to Wodehouse for my public school tales.

Rating: three out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity, by High Nibley

This book is a wonderful treatment of the question of Christian authority. The disconnect between the apostles and the Christian Fathers is clearly shown. The office of bishop underwent a change between AD 100 and 350, and Nibley definitively presents the change. This period of apostasy is very interesting to me, and I've read other books on the same topic (Nibley's Mormonism and Early Christianity, Jackson's From Apostasy to Restoration, and Talmage's Great Apostasy, for examples), but this book is probably the best of them, in terms of the extensiveness of the argument in relation to the length of the text.

Rating: seven out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett

I got this book for my daughter at the library, and she started it, but then gave me excuses for why she wasn't finishing it. She does that sometimes, and I don't know if it's because the text is too difficult for her or the material is too scary to read alone. I offered to read it aloud to her and her brother, and she readily accepted.

I liked this book. It was a good mystery for a pre-teen kid. I am dumbfounded by the number of scathing reviews on Good Reads. One said,

This book may very well be the worst book I have ever read in my entire life. Why? Let me break it down for you.

There's a painting. It gets stolen. Lucky for the art museum of Chicago, three fifth graders have a plan to get it back. So if you'd ever read the last three chapters of flat stanely [sic], you have read this entire book.

First of all, I generally hate mystery books anyway, which is most likely a prime factor of my hatred for this book. Secondly, I hate mysteries that involve children, just adding on to my hatred.

The book makes no mystery (no pun intended) of the fact that it's a mystery involving children. And the quixotic shout-out to Flat Stanley, which I've read without feeling this book was derivative of it, is just confusing. Is all art-theft-themed literature a rip-off of Flat Stanley?

My kids liked the book. It got them interested in the life of Vermeer, and the work of Charles Fort. It was suspenseful without being too scary. They are eager to hear the sequels Balliett's written.

Rating: six out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

The White Feather, by P.G. Wodehouse

A great Wodehouse schooldays book. A boy is a coward, bringing dishonor to his house. The house "cuts" him. He undertakes a plan to win honor for the house. Comedy doesn't necessarily ensue like it would in a later Wodehouse novel, but it unfolds alongside the plot. As funny as Blandings and Jeeves books are, there's a certain sense that the plot was serving the comedy. This book is the other way round. As I tend to remember it, there's very little cricket in this book, so the cricket-ignorant reader can rest assured.

Rating: six and a half out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

William Tell Told Again, by P.G. Wodehouse

An unfortunate book. It very much seems like someone said, "Hey, Plum is a funny writer. Let's see what he can do with the story of William Tell. I bet it will be hilarious!"

Well, it's certainly funny, but to what end? Just to read a funny version of William Tell? If you're in the market for this type of thing, look no further, but if you are after something more substantial, this is not your book.

Rating: two and a half out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

A book which made me want to get the Cliffs Notes, yet sadly none exist. The "surprise ending" was fairly easy to see coming, but since the meat of the book is the allegory, it didn't make it any less powerful. A great short book about the interplay of socialism, religion, and capitalism, that will leave you thinking for a long, long time.

Rating: seven out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.

The Mugged Pug, by Darrel and Sally Odgers

I've written before about my son's love for these books. This was another that he thoroughly enjoyed. The mystery was low-key without seeming trivial. My son laughed a lot. Next on our list to read is The Blue Stealer, and I'm going to have him read alternating pages with me.

Rating: six and a half out of seven giant inflatable monkeys.