Book review quickies

the prestigeThe Prestige, by Christopher Priest

I picked this novel up at the library because I remembered being fairly entertained by the movie with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman.  Not realizing it had been based on a book, my curiosity was piqued.  If you haven’t seen the movie, The Prestige is the story of feuding illusionists, and the secrets they keep in order to stun and confound their audiences and each other.

First, I’ll say this is one of those rare moments when I preferred the movie to the book.  Maybe because I saw the movie first, the book seemed a little less mysterious than I think it was trying to be.  And the very premise of keeping secrets made the author write in a very euphamistic, round about style (as if the narrator was keeping his secret from anyone that might stumble upon his journal) that felt ineffective.  And wordy. And, what was up with that ending?  The main story is flanked by a mini-narrative involving the descendants of the two feuding illusionists, but their story was not fleshed out, and felt completely unnecessary to the main story line.  Good points?  The general idea of the plot of the novel is interesting, I liked the discussions on how magic tricks are done, and some sections are tense and foreboding.  Not exactly a page turner, but an interesting idea.  5/10 mangoes

vortexVortex, by Robert Charles Wilson

This is the third in a trilogy (Spin and Axis having already been reviewed) about an alien entity that has encapsulated Earth to save it from a growing sun, in order to build and implant a gateway to other, habitable worlds for humans to cross to.  In Vortex we have a double narrative, where one mentally impaired character in the early post-Spin time writes a story set thousands of years in the future, as if he is the character introduced to us in Axis, but 10,000 years later.  It’s very confusing.  I think this is where sci-fi starts to lose my interest.

The story here was fairly interesting (once you get the general time line down) and captured some of the fast paced narrative of the first book, but just didn’t work as well.  Why is it that sequels always have to try and get more complex?  Why can’t they just tell another good story?  We learn a lot more about the alien entity in Vortex, it’s motivations and where it came from.  But this was my least favorite part of all three books.  It gets so theoretical, so abstract, that I just lose interest.  6/10 mangoes (for everything before the last two chapters)

PFMcoverPacking for Mars, by Mary Roach

Now here’s a book that’s exactly the opposite of the ethereal ending of Vortex, despite it’s setting outside of the atmosphere.  In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach writes about all the minutiae that has been involved in getting people into space, to the moon, and hopefully on to Mars.  I LOVED this book.  In Packing for Mars Roach has extensively researched the research behind the space program.  And she does not spare the reader on the gross stuff!  (And who knew there was so much gross stuff involved in space flight?)

Have you ever wondered how astronauts go to the bathroom?  If you can you have sex in space?  Did you ever consider the effect of zero gravity on things like circulation, digestion, or giving birth?  What about the mental effects of being away from the earth?  Or in a crowded space with relative strangers?  How about the contingency plans for getting astronauts out of crashed, flaming pods?  What happens to bodies inside those crashing aircraft?  Well, lots of people have apparently thought about these questions and spent a good portion of our tax dollars researching them.  Packing for Mars is a hilarious book filled with anecdotes about horrible ideas, interesting research projects, and Mary’s own experiences on the Vomit Comet and other disturbing NASA inventions.  Anyone that is interested in space, science, or research in general should read this book.  9/10 mangoes

kitchen-confidentialKitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain

This book is primarily about Bourdain’s adventures in New York’s restaurants.  Although I was a bit (ok, a lot) disturbed by the level of depravity he depicts in an average upscale restaurant kitchen, and in spite of his use of terms for genitalia to describe women early in the book, I actually liked it.  After reading through to the end I found out that it is partially a collection of Bourdain’s previous writings (primarily for magazines) that have been put together with new material.  That makes the book make much more sense, which lacks any sort of cohesiveness at all.

In fact the chapters are pretty hit and miss.  Some of them, like the ones about what a home chef should have/do in their kitchen and Bourdain’s first culinary trip to Tokyo, are fantastic.  Interesting, informative, and very readable.  Some of the others, like the exploits of his friend-without-a-last-name or a never-ending exposition on the daily business of a local kitchen, not so good.  I’d say, start a chapter and if you aren’t engaged right away, skip it and move on to the next!  Skipping the boring parts, this book is a solid 7/10 mangoes.

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4 Responses to Book review quickies

  1. Enjoyed your review of The Prestige, I really enjoyed the film (mainly for David Bowie and his moustache) and was thinking of reading the book. Though you felt the film was better my interest is still piqued!

    • David Bowie as Tesla was pretty much genius! You should still give the book a shot, if you’re curious about it. It was nominated for and won several awards, and the reviews tend to be positive. I think if I had liked the ending more (and left the book feeling more positive than negative) my review might have been a bit more encouraging. My view of a book (and a movie, for that matter) is very much influenced by how it ends.

      • I definitely will! And that raises an interesting question as to our enjoyment and appreciation of storytelling in general I think. A book is something that is often read over many days, or even months (I recently finished Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which I read solely on my commute) and our experience and evaluation can change a lot during that time. The ending however has the final say, even if we enjoy the book for the most part, if the ending disappoints us, do we then tend to lower our opinion of the entire work almost unconsciously as our most recent experience of it was negative? As authors understand this, an emphasis on great endings must have evolved throughout literature!

      • What did you think of 1Q84? I’ve been trying to decide if I want to start that. (I have a long commute, as well)

        I agree entirely. I think part of it (at least for me) is psychological. It’s difficult for me to put down a book I’ve started, even if I’m not enjoying it that much. But an good ending can go a long ways to making that investment worth it. Likewise, if I’ve spent a lot of time with a book, and dislike the ending, I feel almost cheated. I want a pay off for my effort.

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