Category Archives: Book Reviews

Us

“It is this intuitive grasp of the irrational side of

totalitarianism–human sacrifice, cruelty as an end in itself,

the worship of a Leader who is credited with divine

attributes–that makes Zamyatin’s book superior to Huxley’s.

It is easy to see why the book was refused publication. The

following conversation (I abridge it slightly) between D-503 and

I-330 would have been quite enough to set the blue pencils

working:

“Do you realise that what you are suggesting is

revolution?”

“Of course, it’s revolution. Why not?”

“Because there can’t be a revolution. Our revolution was

the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.”

“My dear, you’re a mathematician: tell me, which is the

last number?”

“But that’s absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can’t be a

last one.”

“Then why do you talk about the last revolution?””

– from George Orwell’s review of ‘We’ by E.I. Zamyatin


“They are waiting for me below… do you want these minutes,

which are our last?” I-330

“How can I explain what this ancient, ridiculous, miraculous

rite does to me, when her lips touch mine? What formula could

express this whirlwind that clears my soul of everything except

her? Yes, my soul, yes…laugh if you want to.” D-503

Interesting. Really.

http://www.shmoop.com/we/

Good stuff. Thank you shmoop!

A small excerpt re: ‘We’ –

“George Orwell actively cited it as influencing his novel ‘1984’, and even chided Huxley for not doing the same.”

– On ‘We’…and right on. Orwell was at least authentic in the Jarmuschian sense. And he was a hell of a lot more talented, but that’s neither here nor there.

I give it a solid 6.9.

Christgau’s Consumer Guide: Albums Of The ’90s (2000)

I don’t like the change in format, which strikes me as lazy.

I also don’t like the further long-windedness, which strikes me as showboating.

It’s more love/hate than the previous two volumes, with entries that I could read over and over for eternity nestled amongst those that never cease to bore me.

But there’s too much good stuff for this not to be a good read.

Grade: B

Christgau’s Record Guide: The ’80s (1990)

Slightly inferior to the ’70s guide, IMPO, because he has more of a tendency to get long-winded here and some of his material just isn’t quite up to snuff.

But moments of brilliance are scattered throughout, and this is also pretty much a must-read for anyone interested in criticism; music especially.

Grade: A-

Rock Albums Of The ’70s: A Critical Guide (1990)

Material originally published in 1981, but my version for review purposes was 1990.  I’d recognize that cover anywhere.

Here, as always, Robert Christgau states his opinions as facts and moves easily between fiercely positive and fiercely negative – with a vast rainbow of variations between the two.

He also writes better than most novelists.  He can laud beauty as well as he can rip trash, and he can make at least one person’s answer to “What do you wanna be when you grow up?” become “I wanna be a rock critic!”.

In general, it IS far easier to destroy than to create.  But Christgau’s reviews are often creations in themselves – tiny little blurbs of inspired yet seemingly offhand wonderfulness, even when they lay waste to more time-consuming “creative” efforts.

Some of the time I think he doesn’t have the slightest fcken idea what he’s talking about, but it’s telling that my reaction then is irritation instead of boredom.

He’ll teach you some useful words and phrases, he’ll piss you off, and (most importantly) he’ll make you grin devilishly at the perfect choice of words and phrasing that tears down X; which you knew was total sh1t all along but never could fully explain why.

Til now.

Grade: A

The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1983)

Having read this version, the 1979 edition, and the 1992 ‘Album Guide’ from cover to cover (literally) more than once I can say with educated, informed certainty (well, as far as subjectivity
goes) that this is the superior version.

As for the 2004 edition, it either was too boring to remember or I gave up hope after reading 92’s reviews.

Of course, in terms of music reviews, this book – and indeed all printed review guides – is irrelevant; made so by the internet and the “age of information”.

But to me, it holds more than a nostalgic charm.  I don’t even care about MANY of the musicians/groups reviewed, but the reviews themselves are often, to me, works of art in themselves.  They are written, much like R. Christgau’s printed guides, with REAL feeling; very subjective and very opinionated. 

Why is that better than a completely objective approach?  Because an “objective” approach to music is sterile.  It is clean, logical, unemotional…everything that most music is NOT.

Music is about feeling, and so is this.  Something that many people need to be reminded of.

Superior to the ’79 version because it’s more expansive and references changes in reviews from 79-83.

Superior to the ’92 version because it has spirit, spark.  You know…soul.

As I’ve said to/about more than one entity, if you want a camp follower’s A+++ for every recording, best to get a camp follower to write it…not a critic.  And if you want a sterile, objective “analysis”…you have my pity. 

And, to paraphrase R. Christgau: Why are you reading this blog?

Grade: A

The Soulforge (1985)

Interesting Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type book written by Terry Phillips.  You don’t have to know anything about Dragonlance (the original six, not the piles of cheap cr@p that followed) to enjoy it, but it helps.

It’s a little different than the Fighting Fantasy Gamebook series, but if you liked that setup you’ll probably like this.

Very well written for a book of this kind, by the man behind the character of Raistlin.  Preferable to any other source for this “info”, because it was written by the character’s creator when the character was still fresh in his mind; not someone else years later.

Ranks alongside the FF ‘Essential’ group.

The Satanic Bible (1969)

When a hack rips off extremely intelligent (admittedly, whether you agree with them or not) people, the results are usually pedestrian but not completely without merit, because the sources are so difficult to completely dumb down.

Think Silverchair trying to do their best Pearl Jam…you can’t really blame them, and they try AWFUL hard…but…

Grade: D

The A List – Books

Hagakure: A+
Nineteen Eighty-Four: A+
The Running Man: A
The Legend Of Huma: A
Rock Albums Of The ’70s: A Critical Guide: A
The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1983): A
Christgau’s Record Guide: The ’80s: A-
White Gold Wielder: A-

Last Updated: 5/26/14

White Gold Wielder (1983)

Prior to and after reading this book, I read several other books by Stephen R. Donaldson.  The ones that I read AFTER this, I read because I hoped he could recapture what he finally achieved here.  The ones I read PRIOR TO this, I read because while they were a bit pedestrian, unnecessarily (and uninterestingly) convoluted and just plain mediocre, there was SOMETHING there, or so I thought…every once in a while, Donaldson would evoke an image or stir an emotion that made me STOP wanting to put it down.  Then it’d go away, and I’d wait patiently for the next time…which meant long periods of drudgery rewarded only sporadically.  Still, it was enough to keep me reading the entirety of ‘The Wounded Land’ and ‘The One Tree’, neither of which are worth re-reading…the brief summary at the beginning of this book is quite enough to get you “caught up”.

So I don’t know if I was more astonished or vindicated when this book started off better than either of the previous two, climbed incrementally until around the middle, and then climbed exponentially near the end.  It’s a one-hit wonder…it’s pretty good in the first half and brilliant after that.  And I have absolutely no idea where it came from.  It was as if, just briefly, he was fully possessed by fervent inspiration, driving home emotions (some rewarding, some painful) with irresistible force that changed my attitude from “almost wanting to put it down” to literally being equal parts awed and terrified by the immense power of his writing; not wanting it to end because it was so amazing, not wanting to READ the end because it could be so potentially gut-wrenching, wondering WHY I suddenly cared SO MUCH about the two main characters.  It still puzzles me today…and I still can’t think of portions of it without feeling actual physical pain/sadness.

Usually I enjoy re-reading books that I like.  In very rare cases, I prefer not to, because they affect me so greatly (in some way) that it takes me a while to literally get over the feelings they induce.

I don’t think I’ll ever read anything by Stephen Donaldson ever again, “re” or otherwise, but this is the only one that places in that category for reasons of “Self-Preservation”, and not boredom.

Inspirational Quote: “Nom”

Grade: A-

Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks – Worthy Of Note

Book 1 – The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Book 3 – The Forest of Doom
Book 5 – City of Thieves
Book 7 – Island of the Lizard King
Book 11 – Talisman of Death
Book 13 – Freeway Fighter
Book 16 – Seas of Blood
Book 17 – Appointment With F.E.A.R.
Book 25 – Beneath Nightmare Castle
Book 36 – Armies of Death
Book 38 – Vault of the Vampire
Book 50 – Return to Firetop Mountain
Book 58 – Revenge of the Vampire

Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks – The Essentials

Book 2 – The Citadel of Chaos
Book 6 – Deathtrap Dungeon
Book 10 – House of Hades (House of Hell)
Book 20 – Sword of the Samurai
Book 21 – Trial of Champions
Book 24 – Creature of Havoc

Above all else, Steve Jackson’s entire “Sorcery!” series (except the spell book), which contains superior writing, superior artwork, and a thoroughly linked story.

Book 1 – The Shamutanti Hills
Book 2 – Khare – Cityport of Traps
Book 3 – The Seven Serpents
Book 4 – The Crown of Kings

Fighting Fantasy Overview

You see kids, in the old days people played RPGs on tables with dice, or on a large cleared-off section of floor with dice and lots of snacks that seem good at the time but are regrettable on the drive home.

Failing this, we had to resort to drastic measures.  One of these was supplied by Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, which were simplistic enough for children, yet complex enough for young adults who needed a RPG fix. 

The advantage of the FFG was that you could “roleplay” BY YOURSELF (Which is a bit of a contradiction…if someone roleplays and noone sees it, do they really say “Huzzah!”???).  But the limited dice-rolling and keeping of statistics, inventory, etc. provided for some aspect of the role-playing tabletop experience.

At a time when your computing options regarding games were EXTREMELY limited, these books served a useful purpose.  At least, when they were fairly well-written.  They could be read multiple times because you “chose” the path that the story took as you read.  To a very limited extent, you were “playing” your character, deciding his (or her) fate. 

Some of the books were very clever indeed, while others (especially after the first 21) were very, very bad.  And no need to worry…unlike the traditional “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, there was plenty of combat and chances to come to an untimely end in FFG’s.  In fact, it was extremely difficult to “win” any of them on the first try, and some were pretty d@mn near impossible.

Useful today mainly as pieces of nostalgia given the state of interactive computer gaming, but not without their charms and still potentially interesting to anyone that doesn’t WANT to be part of a multi-million person online “community”.

-Puppy >.< Yip!

The Running Man (1982)

“An edge-of-your-seat thrill ride”, or some variation thereof, has been used so often that it’s now more useful as a laughable cliche than a true description, much like the 1987 movie ‘The Running Man’.

In this case, it’s completely true.  You don’t read this book chapter by chapter, a few nights a week.  You start reading and you turn the pages at much the same feverish pace as it was written.  That’s how it’s meant to be read, and that’s how it works.  And it works brilliantly.  It’s a bit rough around the edges, sure…but it will leave you either blown away or empty.  If you’re willing to take the chance, go for it…it’s only a book, after all, right?

Inspirational Quote: “The explosion was tremendous, lighting up the night like the wrath of God, and it rained fire twenty blocks away.”

Grade: A

The Legend Of Huma (1988)

A prequel to the then-deserved-hit and now-overbloated-franchise called ‘Dragonlance’, this is the story of (you guessed it, subtlety was never D-Lance’s strength) Huma, a young man who is a Knight of Solamnia (Solamnic Knights are warriors that live by a Code encompassing the “Oath” and the “Measure”, the latter much more complex than the former) and his “adventures”.

Critics of Dragonlance in general have a point: The stories are fairly simple and easy to follow, having nowhere near the grand scope and descriptive power of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.  However, sometimes grand scope and descriptive power can be taken to a bit of an extreme.  Personally, while I admire the skill of Tolkien’s work, after a while reading three pages of description on exactly how a twig broke, its causes and ramifications, etc…does get a bit dull and boring.

So take this for what it is:  An excellent bit of escapist fiction, on par with the few other D-Lance novels written before the idea turned into an assembly-line production and the quality turned from predictable but charming to redundant, absurd, and just plain BAD.

In a way, this is to ‘Lord of the Rings’ what the original ‘Star Wars’ is to the second trilogy:  Much more simplistic, much more predictable, much more humorous, much more FUN, perhaps a little bit cheezy but possessing an undeniable and lasting charm that the latter simply did not (At least, in the case of ‘Star Wars’…Tolkien’s ‘Ring’ series certainly had its own charm, but the grim, boring, state-of-the-art “perfection” of the ‘Star Wars’ prequels did not).

Accepting it for what it is, it is a brilliant piece of work fully undeserving of the scorn heaped (oftentimes rightfully so) on the setting itself.  A story of “Good” versus “Evil” couldn’t be more obviously divided, but how often did you wonder who was “really” the bad guy in ‘Star Wars – A New Hope’?  Knowing Darth Vader represented “Evil” and Luke Skywalker represented “Good” (With Han Solo somewhere in the middle, admittedly) did nothing to lessen the charm of the story.  If anything, it made it more enjoyable as what it was – a wonderfully done bit of escapist (science) fiction.  You didn’t watch it to psycho-analyze the characters and consider the implications of their actions…you watched it to root for Luke and boo whenever Vader came on the screen.  To criticize ‘Huma’ for its simplicity would be to say that ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ was “derivative”.  OF COURSE it was…that was the point.  It was also a great film.

As for the story itself, having vented my frustrations over its outright dismissal, it begins with Huma encountering what would normally be, to him, a very dangerous enemy.  His reaction to the circumstances begin to define his character (Which is fairly one-dimensional, but so was Vader’s, and Skywalker’s) and the story unfolds from there.  No point in detailing everything that happens, that’s the charm of actually reading the book, since it was meant to be read for pleasure, not enlightenment.

If this is coffee-table literature, then it is coffee-table literature at its finest.  There are enough overly and intricately complex worlds out there created by authors desiring to be more and more obscure, as if obscurity and complexity equals quality.  They don’t.  Orwell’s great Novel ‘1984’ was EXTREMELY complex, and brilliant.  His Fairy Story ‘Animal Farm’ was EXTREMELY simplistic, and brilliant.  Take that, elitists.

Inspirational Quote: “Est Sularus oth Mithas”

Grade: A

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

George Orwell’s great Novel (as opposed to the “Fairy Story” entitled ‘Animal Farm’) is an intricate, incisive, and terrifying warning against the dangers of blind obedience and the quiet tolerance of unacceptable changes.  It makes absolutely no attempt to moralize, and that’s exactly why it’s so scary…the story is told in a matter-of-fact way that suggests a recital of facts, and nothing more.

That’s not to say that Orwell wasn’t trying to make a point…he most certainly was.  But unlike Aldous Huxley before him and many others after him, he realizes that to inject his own personal feelings into the story explicitly serves only to push the novel towards exactly that which it is objecting to – Propaganda.  The characters are laid out, the rather complicated world is created, and the story unfolds.  It is neither good nor bad…it simply is.  In NOT trying to generate sympathy for his characters or his cause, Orwell succeeds in doing both.

In a similar fashion to ‘Hagakure’, it seems that Orwell is writing in a way that is the limit of what can be understood by most people.  An overly intellectual treatment would serve no more useful purpose, and since the message of non-conformity and freedom of thought/expression/ideas is meant for everyone, it is written for everyone to understand.  You can heed it or you can ignore it…Orwell doesn’t seem to be particularly hopeful it will do any good, and I would tend to agree with him.

Grade: A+

Brave New World (1932)

Two book reviews, two Doors appropriations.  Unfortunately, this time the source in question (Aldous Huxley, ‘The Doors of Perception’) isn’t nearly as interesting as the previous one (Yamamoto Tsunetomo, ‘Hagakure’).

‘Brave New World’ starts out ambitiously enough, suggests an extremely interesting idea, and then takes it absolutely nowhere you don’t expect it to go. 

As with ‘Equilibrium’ (although this isn’t anywhere NEAR as bad) the aspirations far exceed the accomplishment, although ‘Brave New World’ does at least maintain a constant level of moderate interest, a fervent hope that perhaps, eventually, it will regain/fulfill the promise of the opening/hype.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t, and the ending is as much symbolic of my relief of escaping Huxley’s ‘World’ as it is the very real relief of the “Savage”.

The name references are obvious, the progression is obvious, the explanations and counter-arguments are obvious…basically, this has the ambition of ‘1984’ with the verbal and conceptual simplicity of ‘Animal Farm’, only with much less subtlety and charm.

Sadly, any two-paragraph review of the plot is about as interesting as the entire book itself, and wastes far less of your time.  If he did in fact plagiarize this, he didn’t do it very well. 

The kind of “work of art” people sneer at when others have the audacity to label it a “classic”.

Grade: C

Hagakure (1716)

Propelled into the relative mainstream by the 1999 Jim Jarmusch film ‘Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai’, this collection of observations (translated roughly as “Hidden Leaves”) is extremely diverse, focusing on everything from the very mundane basic aspects of everyday life to deep philosophical/spiritual concepts, some of which I still don’t fully understand.  But that’s the point, as (to quote the book) “Those things that are easily understood are rather shallow”.

The book consists of comments recorded between 1709-1716 by Tsuramoto Tashiro as told by the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo.  There is very little linear order to it, as there is no clear progression from “start” to “finish”, but perhaps that’s intentional…it’s clearly not something to be read casually or simply memorized.

There seem to me to be three distinct types of entries: Physical/Mental Instruction, Philosophical Observation, and Historical Recollection…although sometimes two (or all three) intertwine.  I frankly found very little use for some of the memories recorded, not because they weren’t interesting but because, in comparison with the other entries, they had very little to actually think about and/or “use”.

The wisdom displayed in the book is truly profound, which is made that much more impressive because I get the distinct impression that most of it wasn’t MEANT to be profound, simply told in as complex a fashion as Tsunetomo believed most people would be able to actually comprehend.  It can be a bit tedious wading through the recollections…not to say that they’re boring, but they simply have nowhere near the power of the most far-reaching of the observations. 

Knowledge gained too quickly often is lacking in wisdom, and whether intentionally or not, this is certainly a book that (contrary to Tsunetomo’s own advice) must be re-read many times to even begin to fully understand.  Which is a good thing, I think.

When a book can inspire a lyric that is considered profound 251 years later, you know it’s something special.  Watch the movie (‘Ghost Dog’) for a (then)-modern day “interpretation” of ‘Hagakure’, but read the book itself if you want anything near the real, intended experience.

Grade: A

10/4/12: It cannot be explained simply, because it’s not simple.  Read it.  Grade: A+