The reading month ahead: January 2011

What am I going to read next month? Hopefully a LOT. 🙂 I also have a few books to finish up from “December” too: (Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut – almost done, the Class of 1846: From West point to Appomattox – barely started, and Stephen King’s Full Dark, no Stars – one of four stories read). Then comes January…

First, as the month’s “Featured Attraction,” my primary book club is reading John irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I have long wanted to read, then there’s The Desert Spear by Peter Brett – the sequel to a surprising favorite from this year, The Warded Man. I still haven’t settled on a clear 2011 reading “project” yet, but I’m leaning toward Project: Epic Poetry (“PEP” for short). If I go with this, I may read The Epic of Gilgamesh to get started. I also want to read (soon) Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Otto. I suppose what I really need to do is come up with a decent TBR list and stick to it. Oh, and there’ll be a Vonnegut book in January too, just not sure yet which one the KVMLBC is reading yet.

How about you? What are your reading plans for January … and beyond…?

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My Book Club’s new website

I created a new blog for my book club this week.  It’s at if you’d like to take a look and see what we’re up to…

“1922” -Story #1 from Stephen King’s “Full Dark, No Stars”

Santa brought me this:

“There on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes.”

Stephen King’s knowledge of the canon of horror literature cannot be disputed. I learned this years ago when I read his non-fiction effort, Danse Macabre, a sweeping review of the horror genre. It’s not surprising, then, that I found many elements of this new story that recalled to me several of the horror classics. The quotation above, for instance, isn’t from “1922”, but instead from a classic Bram Stoker (yeah, the Dracula one) short story entitled The Judge’s House. I was also, on other occasions during reading, reminded of The Monkey’s Paw and The Tell-Tale Heart.

Stephen King’s Danse Macabre

***Spoiler Alert*** A quick summary of the plot: the story is presented as a written confession (told eight years later, in 1930) of a man who murdered his wife. Wilfred James was a contented farmer. He had a wife, Arlette, and an almost fifteen year old son, Henry. (I guess that would make the murderer “the father of Henry James”… Not sure if that has hidden meaning or not) Anyway, Arlette is NOT a contented farmer’s wife and wants to sell the farmland and move to The Big City (as in Omaha or St. Louis). Wilfred is legally powerless to stop her, as she owns the majority of “their” land herself. He calls upon his inner, so-called “conniving man” and decides to kill her and dump her down an old well on his property, planning on explaining her absence by saying she “ran off” to The Big City. Somehow he convinces his son (who also loves and doesn’t want to leave the farming life) to become complicit in the murder.

They figuratively (and literally!) make a mess of it though, and returning to the well a couple days after the deed find her body seemingly animate (turns out it’s rats(!) though, who have already begun to feast on her) and with her head in an odd position which seems turned upwards to laugh and mock Wilfred. Poor Henry struggles to deal with the secret of their crime and begins to view Wilfred with contempt. His life speeds “down the tubes” after he follows a neighbor girl (who he’s gotten “in trouble”) to an Omaha “home for girls” where her parents have sent her.

Wilfred struggles on alone, but is haunted by Arlette’s spirit (or her literal corpse, if we assume he’s not hallucinating) and her minions (rats!). Her visit to the house is eerily reminiscent of the W.W. Jacobs story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” and his guilty-conscience-driven hallucinations of seeing rats everywhere reminded me of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” All in all a great short story/novella (it’s 130 pages) in classic Stephen King style. Of her corpse’s visit he writes:

“I can see it now, as I write. I told myself to die, but my heart kept pounding. Her hanging face slid alongside mine. I could feel my beard-stubble pulling off tiny bits of her skin, could hear her broken jaw grinding like a branch with ice on it.”

Wow, doesn’t get much creepier than that.

P.S. Reading this alone at night is not recommended.

Horror master Stephen King:

“Back Down South Now”* – The Quiet Game by Greg Iles

This was my book club’s December book. It was kind of a thick one at 624 pages (paperback) and I got a late start on it to boot, not beginning until the morning of the day three days prior to our meeting last Thursday. I just barely finished it which, I suppose, is testament to how great a page turner it was. I was a bit leery before I started, though, as we had just read a “mystery thriller”-type book the prior month (P.T. Deuterman’s Darkside) which I found a little disappointing.

This novel takes place in the town of Natchez, Mississippi. A former district attorney turned best seller writer returns to his parents’ home with his little girl after the untimely death of his wife due to cancer. He goes there hoping to give himself and his daughter a better chance to ‘heal’ but – naturally – stumbles into all kinds of trouble (and a couple beautiful women who, naturally, want him). First he learns his dad is being blackmailed by the evil Ray Presley, a local villain who would “kill someone like picking off a scab.” Second, after making reference to a decades-old unsolved “race murder” that ends up in the local paper – even though he thought the remarks were off the record – he finds himself irresistibly drawn to pry into the case, aggravating just about every bad guy and faction in town. Add to this that he has the vengeful brother (of a murderer who he had convicted and seen executed) waiting for an opportunity to do him and his family harm, and you have quite a lot of material for a legal mystery thriller. I’m not exactly a fan of this genre, but this is one of the better books of this type I have read recently.


*Back Down South Now is the title of a track on the latest Kings of Leon CD (yes, it ROCKS). Admittedly, they’re from Nashville, but this CD has been ‘featured’ in my car stereo the past few weeks, and has been stuck in my head – even during the time I was reading this book.

Below: bridges over the Mississippi River at Natchez

Checker Charley and Deep Blue

What a shock this morning as I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano. I’m only about 20% into the novel when I encounter a great scene. ***Spoiler Alert*** At a kind of ‘company party’ the protagonist, Paul Proteus prepares to defend his title as undefeated, undisputed checker champion against the latest challenge from among the ranks of the young lions who work at The Ilium Works. Lo and behold, what happens next but they wheel out a checker-playing machine dubbed “Checker Charley!” (I should mention that this book was written in 1952, in the mere infancy of the computer age.)

At first Proteus begins to walk away from the challenge, (“I can’t win against the damn thing. It can’t make a mistake.”) but is somehow convinced to play. His friend, Finnerty, is confident in his chances and even wagers money on Proteus, eagerly covered by supporters of the machine. When the game starts, Proteus suspects something is up, as he is able to capture a man without seeing any drawbacks. He assumes that the machine’s plan is so long-range and deep that he simply doesn’t grasp it yet. The captures continue, however, and soon the rout is on. Clearly something is wrong with the machine. It’s operator touches a panel and explains it’s running “hot as a frying pan.” The machines backers try to get out of the bet, arguing that if its circuits were sound, the game would be fair. (Finnerty, it seems, had discovered the bad connection before the game, but hadn’t told anybody). When chided that he “should have told somebody about that connection,” In a great triumph of man over machine, he says:

“If Checker Charley is out to make chumps out of men, he can damn well fix his own connections. Paul looks after his own circuits; let Charley do the same. Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis.”

I love it. I’ve written before that I used to compete in chess tournaments, and was quite serious about them for many years. I even was editor of “Chess in Indiana” magazine for a stretch which included the year 1997. This part of Player Piano reminded me of how, In May of that year, the inevitable finally happened when a computer, IBM’s “Deep Blue” (a less catchy name than “Checker Charley,” don’t you think?) finally defeated the World Chess Champion (Garry Kasparov in this case) in a match. I remember following the match on the Internet Chess Club, along with thousands of others. I even saved a screenshot of the final position of the final game – which included the notification that Kasparov had resigned and published it in my magazine.

An odd thing I just remembered: the display of the games on the Internet Chess Club site would default to showing the White pieces at the bottom of the board, but in my picture, it is the Black pieces (users were able to customize the display if they wanted) leaving little doubt as to which side of the contest I identified with. 🙂

How prescient this scene of Vonnegut seems when reading it today. It predates the ultimate defeat of man by machine by 45 years.

Below: Kasparov vs another incarnation of Deep Blue

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End of 2010 Reading Survey

End of 2010 Survey

This survey is hosted by The Perpetual Page Turner. I so enjoyed reading all of the participants lists that I feel obligated to do one myself:

(like many others, my list deals with books I read in 2010, NOT books that were published in 2010.)

1. Best book of 2010?

That’s a tough one. Probably the one I enjoyed the most was Kurt Vonnegut’s collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House. 25 stories in all, and almost all of them great (it’s like that album or CD you buy and tell someone, “I like ALL the songs on here, not just the hits.” Honorable mention could go to The Gargoyle, Gone With the Wind, Two on a Tower, and Guy Mannering.

2. Worst book of 2010?

Probably The Quickie by James Patterson. I was “forced” to read this by my book club, where I am bound to read anything – even things outside of my normal genres…

3. Most Disappointing book of 2010?

Probably Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I had heard so many good things about this book that I didn’t expect to spend a whole month slogging through it. I felt it WAS beautifully written, but just not so much my cup of tea.

4. Most Surprising (in a Good Way!) book of 2010?

Maybe Beastly by Alex Finn. This was a YA book that I ended up enjoying a lot. It may be that it came “just at the right time” for me as I had recently read a bunch of books that were much “deeper” and needed a break.

5. Book You Recommended to the Most People in 2010?

Probably a three way tie between The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books, The Hunger Games series, and The Gargoyle. This last one is less heard of – you may want to check it out. I always meant to write a ‘gushing’ post about it but never have.

6. Best Series You discovered in 2010?

Probably a tie between the first two mentioned in the previous question. I have a feeling when all is said & done (and written), that the “Demon Trilogy” of Peter Brett – for which I only read the first book this year, and the third won’t be out til next year – might surpass these other two.

7. Favorite New Authors discovered in 2010?

New to me authors: Margaret Mitchell, Peter Brett, Sir Walter Scott (well I’d read Ivanhoe before 2010, but I came to appreciate him only this year; the same would go for Kurt Vonnegut)

8. Most hilarious read of 2010?

I only read two books with much comic value, and only one of them purposely so. The winner by default is Wade Rouse’s At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream.

9. Most Thrilling, Un-put down-able book of 2010?

Another tie. The Hunger Games and The Gargoyle

10. Book you anticipated most in 2010?

Probably The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I’d heard so much about it I wanted to see what all the fuss is about. Now I know. Lisbeth Salander kicks butt.

11. Favorite Cover of a Book read in 2010?

I’ll go with the Classic cover of Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

12. Most memorable character in 2010?

Lisbeth Salander. If I suggested anyone else she’d kick MY butt.

13. Most Beautifully Written book read in 2010?

I’ll go with the incomprehensible 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A close second might by Cold Mountain. Beautifully written, but tough going for me.

14. Book that had the Greatest Impact on me in 2010?

Maybe Welcome to the Monkey House again. It really rekindled the joy of reading in me. The month I spent reading about a story a day from this book in the morning at the coffee shop before reporting to work with the other drones was quite memorable and pleasant. The stories in this book really make one think…

15. Book you can’t believe you waited until 2010 to Read?

I guess I’ll have to go with Gone With the Wind. It’s been on my list forever and FINALLY I can do more than “smile and nod” when people mention and discuss it. Now, if I could only sit still long enough to watch the movie as well…

2010 Reading “Stats”

This is all very “unofficial” but I looked at all the books that I will have finished by the end of the month (53 in total – see my “My Book Lists” page) to determine how I came to read them.  Here are the results:

My main book club – 11 books. (we actually met 12 times, but July is our “Short Story Month” which I didn’t count here

My personal reading project (Project: Civil War books): – 11 books.  I wanted to get 12, but looks like I’ll have to count one that I read in December of 2009 to make that “goal”

Personally chosen: – 8 books (these are books that don’t fit into the other categories that I read on my own volition)

Books discovered through other blogs:  8 books (or 12 books if I count other books in a series, e.g. The Hunger Games, or The Millenium Trilogy of Stieg Larsson)  This number includes 2 “read-along” books.

My “new” book club (Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library BC): – 5 books. Haven’t been to that many meetings, but I’ve read the books whether I’ve been able to make it (hey, they meet at 1130am on a Thursday – I have to work sometimes, you know…) or not.

Personally recommended by others: – 4 books  (looking back, these were some of my favorite books (of the year, too.  Perhaps I should give this “category” more attention…)

My off & on book club at Bookmama’s Bookstore – 3 books (one of these books also fit into my Civil War reading project)

Books I read about in the books section of the newspaper – 2 books 

What about you?  How did you come to read the books you read in 2010?

On “Reading Challenges”

This time of year I’m reading on a lot of my fellow book-bloggers’ sites about a myriad of “reading challenges.” Some are incredibly tempting to sign up for, but in the end I doubt I’ll participate in any – at least not “officially.” It’s not that I don’t WANT to participate, it’s just a matter of numbers. See, I always try to have a personal reading project – one that usually involves roughly one book per month. Then, there are books I read for book club participation. This year, those took up about two books a month. I’m already up to 36 books of my “maximum” of 50 which is about all I have time for in my schedule. Of the fourteen left, there will likely a handful of “wildcard” selections that I learn of through other blogs – books that leap ahead on my TBR list – and there are also a handful that are recommended to me by friends. I always try to read THEIR books since, after all, I will likely at some point be suggesting books to them as well and of course I want them to read MINE? :-). Additionally, there are always a handful of books that I am led to by the books I’m reading. That roughly gets me to fifty.

So, what can I do to allow myself to participate? One option is to co-op my own reading project with a reading challenge. This is “dangerous” though since I don’t want others defining such a huge chunk of my reading output (hmm…should that be “input”?). Anyway, unless I luck into a reading challenge nearly identical to one of my own contemplated projects, this is unlikely to happen. Another idea is to cut back on my “live” book club participation. I’d hate to do that, however, even if I do find I get more out of the reciprocity I find in the blogging world. “Live” book clubs include a welcome social component that is lost online, and I’m a borderline hermit as it is. 🙂 Option three I guess could be to force myself to find more time for reading. (I should mention here that attempts thus far to increase my reading speed – which would accomplish the same thing – have met with abject failure) Where would I find this time? Therein lies the question…

How about you? Do you face similar dilemmas? What have you done to meet them?

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December Reading- The Month Ahead

I have a lot of reading “obligations” this month. So many I’m not sure if I’ll get done with them all. I am currently working on a book called The Warded Man by Peter Brett. Yet another in a recent bent of “post-apocalyptic/dystopian” novels for me. I’m a little over halfway through this one and am enjoying it immensely. I heard of this book through a fellow blogger.

I also have a Project: Civil War book I’m just getting started with, The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox. This is my eleventh Civil War book of the year, and I don’t see how I’ll get through it AND another one to make it to my goal of twelve for the year. Another incomplete project .

As far as book club books go, my main club, The Indy Reading Coalition, is reading Greg Iles’s The Quiet Game. This is “due” by 12/23 and rather long too. I really need to knuckle down and get reading if I hope to finish it. Then, on top of all that, the KVMLBC (Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club) is meeting on 12/16 to discuss Player Piano. I had to miss last month’s meeting due to some training classes for work, and I may have to miss this one to as next week we are implementing the system that the training classes were for. A curse on system conversions and upgrades! :-). I plan to read the book nonetheless, as I did with Mother Night (the KVMLBC’s November selection).

Oh, and I also just bought an interesting, very short book titled The Bed of Procrustes by Nassem Nicholas Taleb. A great book of thought-provoking aphorisms. Only 68 pages, but very deep.

What about you? What are you reading this month? Do you find you get more reading in during the holiday season or less?

“Dolce Pazzia”* – Anne Fortier’s “Juliet”

*sweet madness

This book was recommended to me by a fellow reader at my office. It sounded similar to another book I read earlier this year (The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson) as it is kind of a mix between the present and the past, as two (or more, in the case of The Gargoyle) stories interweave throughout. It’s yet another novel told in the first person by a female main character (I must have set some kind of personal record for this in 2010). It’s a page-turner and really kept me guessing as to what would happen next. There are several “surprises” as you read along and many twists of the plot.

The gist of the story is that the main character, Julie Jacobs (or, as we learn later, Giulietta Tolomei) travels to Siena, Italy, at the prompting of her aunt’s will, to seek a “treasure” that her mother may have left there for her. She is also shocked to learn that her aunt’s will ostensibly leaves everything to her twin sister (fraternal twin). On her trip she learns that she is a descendant of the family upon which the story of Romeo and Juliet was based. (I had learned previously in my reading of Isaac Asimov’s commentary on Shakespeare’s plays that the bard “borrowed” the plot of his play from an earlier Italian story – perhaps legend). Fortier’s takes this idea and runs with it. What Julie finds in her mother’s safe deposit box in Italy is “just a bunch of papers and manuscripts” that seem to have little monetary value. What they turn out to be, however, is a roadmap back to the history of 600-years past, and her ancestors participation therein. A great read, perhaps not to be taken too seriously, but high entertainment.

An interesting review, not too spoiler ridden, but be careful, from the Washington Post can be found here

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