Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ex Libris Tuttle

When I first began buying books, the standard price for mass market paperbacks of recent fiction was 99 cents to $1.50.  And I'm not really that old. 

I still kind of think the correct price is $2.95 to $4.95, probably because that was the usual back when I worked in a bookstore in Chicago. 

Even so, the only time anyone ever heard me whine about the price of a book was when it involved outrageous college textbooks, and their planned obsolescence.  Until today.  But you'll have to read on, through my reviews of the latest additions to my library.
  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman - This is Gaiman's first conventional novel and was originally published in graphic novel form with illustrations by frequent collaborator Charles Vess. The simple story evokes the Victorian fairy tale, as young Tristram Thorn sets out to prove his love for his lady fair...by crossing the Wall into Fairie and retrieving a fallen star. But it turns out, unknown to himself, Tristram is half-Fairie himself, and also unknown to him, stars are living creatures in the land of Fairie--the one he seeks is a lovely maiden named Yvaine. The plot is further complicated by the fact that he is not the only one who seeks her: the Lilim, three hags, want her heart to give them youth and beauty, and remaining sons of Stormhold want her jewel for its power to rule the land of Fairie. It is a nice story, with likeable characters, some inventive ideas, and a satisfactory conclusion, but it doesn't compare to his other stuff I've read. Read this only if you want to say you've read Gaiman's complete oeuvre.
  • The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon - A highly imaginative "alternative history" novel in which Roosevelt allowed European Jews to settle in southern Alaska before WWII; also a noir detective story in which the dead body and the gumshoe appear on the first page. What follows is a wonderfully-written, surreal tale in which washed-up Hebrew detective Meyer Landsman pursues the killers of a gay Rabbi's son who is the "potential Messiah", through a landscape of Yiddish chess masters, a Hebrew drug rehab center on Indian lands, and the frozen wasteland around Sitka, Alaska, home of the 1977 World's Fair. It's hard to say more about this book without giving something away, but it is an amazing read.
    Denis Diderot, by Jean-Honore Fragonard
  • Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot - Not a depressing book, as the title might suggest. A fatalist here is a man who believe in Fate, that all events and episodes are written in the Great Book above. Jacques and his Master are traveling through the countryside of eighteenth century France as they share the tales of their love-lives--or at least try to, since Fate always seems to step in to prevent anyone's story from reaching its climax. Sometimes Fate is in the form of something that happens along the way, sometimes it is the narrator himself. Frequently breaking the "fourth wall", Diderot has some fun playing with the conventions of the novel form, even in the time when those conventions are still being developed. It does get a bit tedious at times--"Alright Denis, yes, you could make happen whatever you want, you're the novelist; now, tell us what you decided to have happen and get on with it." Don't worry though, by the end, everything gets wrapped up quite tidily--the real value of this book is not in plotting, but the sly commentary on social norms and the human condition, the ruminations on the nature of existence. If I've made it sound like Diderot was one of those French philosophers of the Enlightenment, that's because he was.
  • The One Minute Teacher by Spencer and Constance Johnson - At 16,500 W, this book was quite expensive for its slender 98 pages, and therefore I wish I could say each page was packed with incredible ideas and useful information. Unfortunately, it is a load of bottom water, the most insipid drivel imaginable, and totally useless for any real world teacher. It starts out in the right direction, observing that teachers are most effective when they teach their students how to learn, rather than serving as a font of information. After that, however, it's all about this scheme (which I suppose is cribbed from the Johnsons' other dozen or so "One Minute" books, about setting One Minute Goals, giving yourself One Minute Praisings when you take steps to achieve them, and giving yourself a One Minute Recovery when you go the wrong way. How they got 98 pages out of this twaddle is a mystery, until you realize that quite a few pages are nothing but an epigram all to itself, like:
    I Can Teach Myself
    What I Want to Learn
    More Easily

    By Taking One Minute
    To Catch Myself
    Doing Something Right.
    What a rip-off!  I realize I can appear to be an old curmudgeon, but I am actually a positive thinker in the classroom, who tries to instill self-confidence in his students, etc, etc. But this book is the kind of feel-good crap that has no place in the teacher's professional library. Unless there is a table with one leg too short.


조안나 said...

I really loved the concept of Stardust but for me the novel was a little dry and dull, if I recall correctly (I read it about 5 years ago). The characters weren't really developed enough for me to fall in love with them. There was a movie that was quite good and gave some of the characters more personality and likability. Usually I hate movie renditions of books, but this one was worth it for me.

Tuttle said...

Books and movies, of course, speak different languages and can be hard to compare. I suspect it's harder to make a novel into a movie than vice versa, since as you point out, the filmed version usually isn't nearly as good. Movies like The Godfather are definitely the exception.