The Neverending Story

By Michael Ende

My copy of The Neverending Story is getting a bit worse for wear. The dust jacket has long since been lost, and the lettering and imprinted design on the rust-colored cover are barely visible. The binding has stiffened and the pages are becoming brittle. None of which is terribly surprising, considering that I've had it for twenty-four years, and have read it at least a dozen times.

Like a lot of people of my generation, my introduction to The Neverending Story came via the 1984 film, which immediately became a favorite and went on to become a staple film in my young life. My mom bought a copy of the book a couple of years later--initially it was for her, but it's been mine ever since I saw it lying on a windowsill where she'd left it. Like The Lord of the Rings, it grabbed a hold of me from the first and I've been returning to it ever since.

I love this book. I love the feeling of nostalgia I get when I read it, remembering all the nights I stayed up late as a kid to finish just one more chapter. I love that even having read it so many times, it never feels stale to me. I love that at 31 it still gives me the same rush of adventure and imagination and wonder that it did when I was 7. I love the way it invites you to tell your own stories.

What struck me the most as I was reading it this time is that I can't wait for Jason to be old enough for me to read this with him. As I turned the pages, I imagined the look on his face when he hears about Uyulala, the Southern Oracle, or Bastian's adventure with Grograman, the Many-Colored Death. I even thought about what sort of voices and accents to try with each of the characters. My only worry is that he might learn to read early enough that by the time he's mature enough for this story he'd rather read it on his own than have me read it to him. I know what I was like at 7, and in so many ways he seems to be on the same track I was when I was his age.

But we'll leave that problem for when or if it comes. For now, I'll just savor the anticipation. Because if he really is like me, then Jason is absolutely going to flip for this book.

Started: 9/9/2010 | Finished: 9/11/2010

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By Elie Wiesel

Our copy of Night has been sitting on our nightstand for a long time. Juliette bought it in 2006, shortly after Oprah put it on her book list. I appropriated it a few months later, intending to read it quickly. Somehow, though, I just couldn't bring myself to read such a heavy story--I must have picked it up ten times over the past few years, only to quit after the first page. Last week I finally found myself with literally nothing else left in the house to read, so with an effort of will, I forced myself through it.

It's not that I have a problem with Holocaust stories, exactly. I read The Diary of Anne Frank in school, like everybody, and I went to see Schindler's List and Life Is Beautiful in the theater, and was moved by both. I'd even go so far as to say that I feel a certain responsibility to read books like this--the war and the Holocaust weren't so long ago, but they are far enough in the past now that they no longer feel immediate or real to many people. I think it's important that books like Night exist and are read, because what happened to the European Jews under the Nazi regime was a crime the magnitude of which should never be forgotten and must never be repeated.

But, responsibility or no, I just couldn't look forward to the prospect of experiencing such a story. It's just too much to bear, even just reading it. Admitting that makes me feel shallow and self-centered; if I am, then so be it.

Now, having finished the book and had some time to reflect on it, I can say that my fears were borne out--reading Night, with its brutally sparse and honest writing, was a harrowing, deeply disturbing experience, not least because I've been feeling my own mortality more keenly the past few years than I ever did when I was younger. And honestly I can't say what, if anything, I gained from the experience. Am I shocked and horrified, outraged at the ordeal the Jews went through? Of course. But then, I already was. In just the same way, after having read Night, I feel an immense respect and sympathy (if that's the right word) for the survivors of the Holocaust and their families, but I already felt that before I'd even heard of the book.

Nevertheless, I do feel like it was important for me to read this book and I feel I've done something worthwhile by having done so. It's not an experience I care to repeat, but that I had it at all feels meaningful.

Started: 9/7/2010 | Finished: 9/8/2010

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The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

About two years ago, I solicited some book recommendations from the forum community here at Sakeriver, and a few people enthusiastically offered The Name of the Wind as a good choice. That was the first I'd ever heard of the book, not surprising since it was author Patrick Rothfuss' first novel. I put it on my list, but held off because it was the first book in an incomplete series and I generally hate having to wait to finish a series. I was burned by Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, and in no hurry to repeat the experience.

A year later, I still hadn't gotten around to picking up The Name of the Wind, but it came up again at the forum. Interestingly, one person said that he didn't think people needed to wait on the second book to come out before starting this first installment. "Even if it never comes out," he said, "[The Name of the Wind] is well worth reading." I still put off buying it, though, for another six months, at which point I was flush with Christmas gift cards and in a hurry to buy a whole stack of books.

Nine months after that it was still sitting on my nightstand, a victim of my inabiity to start an unfinished series while I still had any other books in the house left unread. But, finally, last week I picked it up off my nightstand and started in on it. Three days later--including one night staying up until 3 AM reading--I was done.

I wish I hadn't read it.

Not because it was bad, mind you. No, I wish I hadn't read it because it was probably the best new fantasy novel I've read in years, and it absolutely kills me that the second book won't even be out in hardcover until at least March. Possibly even longer--it's already been delayed several times over the past couple of years.

The Name of the Wind is the tale of Kvothe Kingkiller, a legendary adventurer in the world of the story who, at the book's outset, is living as an innkeeper in a small, rural town, having apparently faked his own death some time before. He's eventually tracked down by a famous writer, who convinces Kvothe to tell his life story. Warning the writer that the tale will take three days to tell properly, Kvothe launches into it, beginning with his youth in a family of travelling minstrels. As the story progresses, he tells of his time as an orphaned street urchin in the huge city of Tarbean, finally making his way to the famed University, where he studies to learn, among other things, the power of the name of the wind.

On a certain level, The Name of the Wind isn't anything new when it comes to fantasy. After all, the boy of humble origins who rises to become a giant in the world is a pretty standard genre trope. What makes this book great is how skillfully it's all executed. Kvothe's time at the University is reminiscent of Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea or perhaps Harry Potter at Hogwarts, but feels derivative of neither. And the layers of story within story not only work brilliantly to give us background without heavy exposition and to bring the characters to life, but also gives us a glimpse of an ending before we've even begun. It reminds me of the effect that the beginning of Gabriel García Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude, and I daresay that what Rothfuss has done here rivals a masterpiece like 100 Years, but with the clean, easy language and approachability that genre fiction really does best.

I hate that I have to wait months still for the next book, and probably years for the third. I even hate Rothfuss a little for making me love this book so much. Life will go on, of course, but it's going to be hard to find another book in any genre that won't suffer in comparison to this one.

Started: 9/2/2010 | Finished: 9/5/2010

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The Grapes of Wrath

By John Steinbeck

Considering that Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and that The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most studied pieces of American literature, you'd think I'd have long since read it. Maybe even more than once. I never took any specific courses in American lit, though, and in my personal reading I just never got around to it. Until just now, that is.

The first thing I was struck with--as I am always struck by Steinbeck's stories--was how deeply concerned with land the man was. Every one of his stories I can recall reading has begun with a description of a place. But "description of a place" doesn't really do it justice, because for Steinbeck, the places where his stories occur are characters unto themselves, and his descriptions are like songs, full of life. I sometimes wonder if a modern author could get away with openings like this, nearly devoid of action or hooks. I suspect they could, if they were writers of the same caliber as Steinbeck.

That's a big if, of course. And sometimes I wonder whether people really appreciate how skilled the man was. He's obviously hailed as a great and important writer, and his stories are read in classrooms from elementary school through university. But how many people actually look at his work for what it is?

Take a book like The Grapes of Wrath for example. It's a fairly simple story, told in straightforward language that makes it quite easy to read. Structurally speaking, there's nothing particularly surprising about the plot--the descriptions of the conditions that the migrant workers had to endure must surely have been shocking to readers of the day, but even at that, an attentive reader would have been able to guess the course of the narrative well before the last page. The morality is clear, even strident. The scenes border on the melodramatic.

All that apparent simplicity belies the subtlety and skill in Steinbeck's writing, though. Take another look, and you see themes developed and woven into the structure of the story, adding depth if you care to find it. And, of course, the characters themselves are so richly realized that you can't help but feel like part of the Joad family, yourself. And something about the way the book cuts back and forth between scenes and descriptive interludes brings it all home in a profound way, even though each individual portion might seem to be beating the reader over the head with message and melodrama. It's a masterpiece.

For me, one of the trickiest parts was in remembering exactly when it was taking place. Given the Joads' humble background and folksy speech, it's easy to picture them as belonging to the age of horse and buggy, possibly even as far back as the Civil War era. Yet Steinbeck wrote the novel in the mid-to-late 1930's, and he set the story contemporaneously. Consider, then, that by the time of the events depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had already been recording for over a decade. Benny Goodman was already the King of Swing. Hitler had already come to power in Germany. James Cagney, Mae West, Clark Gable, Walt Disney, and the Marx Brothers were all already household names. If anything, the abject poverty of the migrants is even more striking in that context.

The Grapes of Wrath was acclaimed a "great work" by the Nobel Prize committee, and has been both praised and damned by critics and readers for over 60 years. You may not have the same reaction to it that I did, but whether you're already familiar with it or whether it's new to you, I'd say that there's enough there to make it worth your while.

Started: 8/18/2010 | Finished: 9/1/2010

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The Warded Man

By Peter V. Brett

Over the past couple of years I've developed a sort of book-sharing friendship with one of my co-workers. I lent him a couple of Neil Gaiman novels, and he lent me The Stone War. It's been working out pretty well for both of us.

I'd recently let him borrow my copy of Cordelia's Honor, and a couple of days later he stopped by my desk.

"Have you read The Warted Man yet?" he asked, a note of excitement in his voice.

"Warted Man?" I repeated. "Nope, don't think so."

"I'll bring it in tomorrow," he said. "I think you'll like it."

Of course, it turned out that I had misheard him, and what he had actually said was Warded, not Warted, which makes for a pretty different mental image. Happily, I hadn't read (or even heard of) that one either, so I put it into the queue.

He was right, I did like it.

In The Warded Man--author Peter Brett's debut novel--humanity struggles for survival in a world where demons called "corelings" rise from the earth every night, destroying everything they come across. The only protection offered comes in the form of wards--magical symbols painted onto homes and city walls that repel the corelings. There is no other way to stay safe, no way to fight back, and when someone is caught outside after sunset--or, worse, when the wards on their home fail--death is swift and terrible.

Against this backdrop, we are introduced to three young characters from three different towns, between whom the narrative skips back and forth. Arlen, a boy whose rage at losing his mother to the corelings while his father cowered in fear drove him to strike out on his own to find a way to fight back against the night. Leesha, a Healer's apprentice who becomes an outcast in her village after her fiancé lies about having slept with her. Rojer, raised by a Jongleur--this world's equivalent of a traveling minstrel--after his village is destroyed by corelings. We follow these three through their youth and into young adulthood as they each uncover hidden talents that may help turn the tide against the corelings.

Because it's the first episode in a series, much of The Warded Man works to establish the backstory of the characters and give you a peek into the world in which they toil. Indeed, about the first two-thirds of the book fall into this category, with things not really picking up until near the end. You'd think that would make the book feel slow and uneventful, but rather than relying on exposition, Brett instead largely focuses on the characters' individual stories, giving us only glimpses at the larger world and its history. The result was a book that was hard for me to put down once I got going.

If I had to make a comparison to other works, the closest I can think of might be Terry Brooks' Shannara series, which also features a fallen world in which dark forces run loose. But Brooks had a tendency to rely pretty heavily on cliché--in fact, the entire first book of that series is blatantly derivative of The Lord of the Rings, and though over the course of the next several books he sort of grew into a more compelling writer, I'm not sure I would really put him in the top tier of epic fantasy authors. Brett, on the other hand, seems fresher in his approach to the genre, and although the novel starts out a little stylistically thin, it continues to develop with the characters--a trick that made me suspect that Brett is a better writer than I had initially guessed--and there's also enough content to pull you in anyway.

The only real negative experience I had with The Warded Man was in not discovering that it was part of a series until I was three-quarters of the way through the book. I hate having to wait for new episodes, so I usually prefer to wait until a series is complete (or at least mostly complete) before starting. Based on the strength of this first volume, though, I think I'll just have to suck it up and wait for the sequels, because it seems like they'll be worth my time.

Started: 7/25/2010 | Finished: 7/29/2010

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Toy Story 3

I heard today that Toy Story 3 recently passed the billion-dollar mark in worldwide box office sales, making it a member of a very exclusive club--only six other films in history have done that. And, despite the fact that the movie is now over two months old, it's still in first-run theaters and still apparently chugging along. My local cineplex still has three showtimes for it.

What with the movie being pretty old at this point, rather than doing a normal review, I'd like to take the opportunity to meld in a topic that I've been thinking about a lot lately: coming to movies after the hype.

Obviously, at this point we're way after the hype for Toy Story 3, but even though I saw the movie almost four weeks ago now, that was also still far enough after the premiere that I couldn't help but be aware of the huge buzz about the film. That's just how it goes for my wife and I now that we're parents; we see movies late, if at all. On the one hand, it's good for us, because we see so few movies nowadays that we want to make sure we get the most out of our time at the theaters. We just can't waste time with the mediocre ones the way we used to.

On the other hand, though, it also means that it's more or less impossible for us to see a movie without being biased. Of course, now that every movie is previewed and reviewed inside and out for months before it debuts, almost nobody actually goes to see a movie without any preconceptions. But back when we saw 50 or 60 movies in a year, we'd see them before most of our friends and before we knew that this movie was a flop or that one was a critical darling or this other one made a trillion dollars. Having all that information ahead of time can't help but influence the way you view a film.

Take Inception, for example. Everyone I know that saw that film came out discussing theories about what was really going on. None of them gave me any of those theories, of course, not wanting to spoil it for me, but just the fact that I knew that they were doing it meant that I watched that movie with an eye toward "figuring it out." Now, I generally do watch movies with a more analytical mindset than the average audience member, but this one had me examining things like themes and cinematography not just from an aesthetic standpoint, but also with the intention of unraveling some sort of secret. I still enjoyed it a lot, mind you, but I can't help but wonder what my reaction would have been had I seen it on opening night.

Similarly, with Toy Story 3, I went in with the knowledge that a huge percentage of my friends (both offline and on social networking sites) had talked about the fact that they cried at the end. So I knew that there was going to be a big emotional moment, and it absolutely changed the way I reacted to the plot and characters--there were several points in the film, for example, where my predictions about what was going to happen next were way off base. Even the fact that I was consciously making predictions in a movie that isn't about "figuring it out" says something.

And this brings me to the "review" portion of this post, because the fact that I knew what everyone else's reaction was, my tendency is to remove myself to a cool, analytical distance from the story and characters, one where I'm more likely to notice how a scene evokes an emotion than to actually experience the emotion for myself. So the fact that I was still hit hard by that emotional payoff and did cry, and that it came in such an unexpected and truly heartwrenching manner, that speaks volumes to the skill and talent of the filmmakers.

That I can still be amazed by what Pixar does, that I've come to the point where I can simultaneously take for granted that their films will be amazing and yet still be profoundly touched by them, that is something wonderful. With every new offering, Pixar keeps managing to bring me back to that place where film is new and exciting, where I remember what it is that keeps me coming back to theaters, and for that I cannot thank them enough.

Viewed: 7/27/2010 | Released: 6/18/2010 | Score: A

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It feels a little silly to write a review for a movie that opened almost six weeks ago, especially since I already wrote up a piece about my interpretation of the movie, but, you know, that's where I am these days.

What can I tell you that you don't already know about Inception? Probably not a whole lot, if you're even remotely interested in movies. It is, like many Christopher Nolan films, complex and layered, and rewards looking closely and (I would think) watching it more than once. On one level, it's basically a heist film and even if you view it as just that and nothing more, it's a very good movie. But, as I pointed out in my previous piece, there may be a lot more going on than initially meets the eye.

As far as the performances go, my appreciation of Leonardo DiCaprio continues to increase--a trend that kind of started with Catch Me If You Can but didn't really kick in until The Departed. I do still find his performances a little on the heavy side--he's clearly a guy who takes himself and his profession very seriously--but given the sort of films he does, that's probably appropriate. It was also very nice to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I quite liked in (500) Days of Summer) take on a more adult role, one which he handled expertly. The one who stole the show for me, though, was Tom Hardy in the role of the "forger," Eames. I've only ever seen him before in Star Trek: Nemesis--which was a pretty forgettable movie overall--but here his combination of charm, dry wit, and occasional seriousness came off just perfectly for me.

There's a lot more to talk about with a film like this, of course, but at this point it's kind of yesterday's news. Besides, the best part about a movie like this is the face-to-face discussions with your friends that you have as you're walking out of the theater, so if you haven't had a chance to check it out yet, grab a couple of friends and get to it.

Viewed: 7/25/2010 | Released: 7/16/2010 | Score: A

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The Vorkosigan Saga

Since committing to a regular update schedule of normal blog posts and photos, my reviews seem to have fallen by the wayside. I've actually managed to read seven books in the two months since my last review, but somehow I just haven't had the time or motivation to write about any of them. To those three or four of you who enjoy reading these reviews: I apologize.

In the interests of speeding things along, rather than reviewing each of the six remaining Vorkosigan novels and omnibuses separately, I'm going to do all of them at once in a single giant-sized, no-holds-barred mega-review. Except, you know, it won't actually be any longer than a normal review and there will be no wrestling or any other form of physical combat involved.

One of the great strengths of this series, I think, is in how each new episode both maintains and extends the overall world and narrative while still remaining relatively self-contained. For people who like to take breaks in between books, this means that you have convenient stopping points along the way. If, on the other hand, you prefer to charge straight through (as I did), you have the effect of a very long story that rewards you with extremely satisfying milestones along the way.

Of course, there's a danger with open-ended, episodic series in that they can get either repetitive or suffer from a sort of "Superman syndrome," wherein the writers have to go to increasingly absurd lengths to continue to challenge the central characters. In this respect, writing open-ended series well can be more challenging than single novels or closed series. I'm happy to report, though, that Bujold has enough skill and imagination to keep her Vorkosigan novels fresh all the way through.

Part of this lies in the way that science fiction lends itself so well to new ideas. So, for example, in Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos, Bujold can give us a look at new civilizations and cultures, and explore the differences from and similarities to what we're used to, while in Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance, she can tackle topics like identity and brotherhood. As it progresses, the series twists and turns through different concepts and angles, all the while maintaining the same central "feel." It takes a pretty skilled writer to accomplish something like that, I think.

If I had to pick a favorite episode it would probably be either Cetaganda or "The Mountains of Mourning"--the former for the fascinating construction of a civilization both utterly alien and distinctly human, and the latter for the strong characterization and emotional content. My least favorite is probably A Civil Campaign. Really, though, even at its worst, this series is still at the very least a lot of fun to read, and at its best it's grown to be among my favorite works of "light" science fiction.

Miles, Mystery & Mayhem:

Started: 6/21/2010 | Finished: 6/25/2010

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Miles Errant:

Started: 6/26/2010 | Finished: 6/30/2010

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Started: 7/1/2010 | Finished: 7/4/2010

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Miles in Love:

Started: 7/5/2010 | Finished: 7/14/2010

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Diplomatic Immunity:

Started: 7/15/2010 | Finished: 7/20/2010

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Falling Free:

Started: 7/21/2010 | Finished: 7/24/2010

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Samurai William

By Giles Milton

If I were to tell you a story about an English sailor who sails halfway around the world, surviving scurvy and starvation to arrive half-dead in Japan, only to befriend the shogun, become the first Caucasian samurai, and open trade relations between England and Japan, you'd probably think I was making it up. But then, I'm not telling it nearly as well nor with as much detail as Giles Milton in his book Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan.

Milton's book recounts the life and adventures of William Adams, the title figure who, indeed, became an influential member of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu's court, and helped establish the first English trade factory in Japan. But while Adams' life is a great story in itself, Samurai William provides a much broader view. Milton also goes into the history of the European East India companies in Asia and Oceania, the political turmoil at the beginning of Japan's Edo period, and the lives and struggles of the other men at the English factory. The complete picture is one of drama and adventure, presented with some great storytelling.

What struck me most about Samurai William was the sense of how Japan was both impressive and utterly foreign to its European visitors. It's something that you continue to see in Western attitudes toward Japan and its culture, but coming at it from the perspective of men for whom Japan was truly an unknown adds a whole new level, especially considering the relative levels of sophistication of Japan and England in 1600.

I think anyone with an appreciation for history and a good story will enjoy this book. Samurai William manages to both inform and entertain, which, in my book, puts it in the same class as all the best histories.

Started: 6/2/2010 | Finished: 6/18/2010

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The Books of the South: Tales of the Black Company

By Glen Cook

After how much I liked the first volume in this series, I can't believe it took me over a year to pick up the next one. I guess that's just a testament to how long my reading list has gotten.

I should note here that this review will contain some information that could be seen as spoilers if you haven't read the first collection.

The Books of the South is the second omnibus of Glen Cook's Black Company novels. The first two of the included stories--Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel--picks up just after the events of The White Rose. With the Company reduced to just a handful of men, the new Captain decides to turn south to try to return to the group's origin, the city of Khatovar. Along the way, they are swept up into a new battle between the once-pacifistic nation Taglios and its would-be conquerors, the Shadowmasters. Old enemies resurface, and a dark secret is hinted at in the Company's lost history.

Unlike the previous volume, though, this one does not collect a single narrative. Instead, the third novel (The Silver Spike) is a standalone novel that takes place in parallel with the events of Shadow Games. The plot here revolves around a group of small-time criminals who hatch a scheme to steal the titular spike--within which is imprisoned the soul of the Dominator--and sell it to the highest bidder. The Black Company itself isn't involved in the main action; rather, it's the White Rose and her companions--who split off from Croaker and his band at the end of the previous volume--who are left to deal with the problem.

As much as I liked The Chronicles of the Black Company, I expected to be able to jump right into this volume and pick up where I left off. I found, though, that this story was a slower burn. There's a more personal, less epic feel to most of the narrative--the Shadowmasters, for example, seem a pale shadow of the Dominator and Lady of the first arc. Still, I found that I was pretty hooked by the end of Dreams of Steel, which made the cliffhanger ending somewhat frustrating. I'm not sure I can say that this volume was as effective for me as the first, but in any case I'm still looking forward to the next one.

Started: 5/12/2010 | Finished: 5/28/2010

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