2011 Chunkster Challenge

Chunkster Challenge 2011 – Completion

I usually read quite a few books that would easily fit in to the category of ‘chunkster’. But each year I shrink from taking up the ‘Chunkster Challenge’. What if I can’t finish it? But I took the leap this year. My new job became  a serious  impediment to my finishing this challenge. Anyhow, at long last managed to finish it.

I participated under the “The Chubby Chunkster” participation level of the 2011 Chunkster Challenge, the challenge was to read four books of adult literature (fiction or nonfiction) of 450 pages or more between February 1, 2011 and January 31, 2012.

Thanks to Wendy of Caribousmom for hosting this challenge. I enjoyed participating in it.

Completed Books: 1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Haruki Murakami.

2. Barchester Towers. Anthony Trollope.

3. The Shadow of the Wind. Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

4. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson.


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

In the introduction to this book, Bill Bryson explains why he decided to write a ‘popular science’ book. Bryson felt that most text books are needlessly complex and in general kind of dull. According to him,

“There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.”

Thus, A Short History of Nearly Everything was born. In it Bryson tries to explain scientific matters in a language that would be easily understood by the general populace.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was published in 2003. It became a best seller on its publication and won several awards.

This book touches on an astonishing variety of topics. It starts with the creation of the universe, moves on to Quantum Physics, Geology, Biology and finally discusses Palaeontology and the origin of human beings. Natural disasters like volcanic irruptions & earthquakes and theories about mass extinctions are also discussed. The narrative is made livelier by interjecting it with humorous anecdotes about the people behind the science.

I really liked how Bryson talks of the people behind the science. The lives of known and unknown people behind some of the greatest discoveries come alive through Bryson’s narrative.

Bryson’s sense of humour shines through the narrative. I could quote passage after passage from the book that made me laugh.

Bryson tries his best to put the most difficult scientific terms and formulas in plain English accompanied with clever and witty examples. He does succeed to a large extent but an understanding of Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics helps. I fortunately have a grasp on these subjects as they formed the backbone of my education. I am surprised at how much information I have retained from my school days! Also, I am by profession an Anthropologist. So, the chapters about fossils and the debate surrounding the origin of human beings were right up my alley.

The book does contain some factual errors but they are not numerous. Generally the book is accurate and informative.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is a fairly big book. My edition runs over 600 pages and is divided into 6 parts & 30 chapters. It took me a while to finish it but not because it’s boring or difficult. Time constraint was a major factor. Plus, this is one book you cannot skim over. Most of it has to be read with careful attention. I did skim over the final chapter entitled Goodbye but that’s because it talks about how human beings are responsible for the extermination of many species of animals. Sometimes killing them for food but mostly killing them just for the sake of fun, out of boredom and sometimes callousness. Bloodlust, cruelty and above all a general attitude callousness, it seems, is in our blood. Reading of so many instances of our cruelty made me sad. So, I skimmed over most of it.

How much my being an Anthropologist with an interest in Physics, Chemistry; etc, etc, influenced my enjoyment of the book I am not sure. Overall, I can say that I loved reading A Short History of Nearly Everything. It took me quite some time to finish it but I liked it and rarely felt bored. Recommended.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind (La sombra del viento in Spanish) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón was originally published in 2001. The 2004 translation by Lucia Graves catapulted the book to worldwide fame.

The story is very dark in tone. This is a true example of Gothic literature. People who are dead, who are forgotten, people who are as good as dead or are better off dead, occupy most of the story. When I was reading the book, I felt like I was viewing the past through a dark glass. The past always seemed like a late afternoon with dark clouds gliding across the sky.

The landscape of the city matches the mood of the story. A dark, dreary Barcelona is presented, a far cry from my sunny idea of Spain. You can actually feel the chill to your bones at certain times especially when the narrative moves around the mysterious Aldaya mansion.

I really enjoyed the touch of supernatural to the story. The history of the Aldaya mansion and Jacinta’s mysterious premonitions gave me quite the thrill.

I liked Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s writing. He knows how to control the pace of the story. He does enough to keep the reader’s attention focused on the central mystery of Julián Carax.

The true connection between Julián Carax and the Aldaya’s didn’t really surprise me. Having read enough Gothic literature, especially the short story The Dead Smile by F. Marion Crawford, I had a vague idea that something like this may be the reason behind Penelope’s disappearance. Only The Dead Smile was even more grotesque.

Julián Carax comes across as a self-centred man. He is always thinking about himself, what he wants and what he didn’t get. What about all the other people in his life? They sacrificed so much and suffered terribly for him but he seemed rather oblivious to all that.

The characters from the past are so strong that the characters from the present time pale in comparison. Daniel Sempere and his lover Beatriz ‘Bea’ Aguilar are examples of this. I found their love story to be bland and kind of awkward. I didn’t care much about their fate. The only character from the present that I found in interesting was the funny yet strangely tragic character of Fermín. I liked the motherly figures of Jacinta and Bernarda.

I felt really bad for Miquel Moliner. He sacrificed so much for the sake of his friendship and his love but got very little in return. I especially disliked the part where Nuria Monfort decides to forget all about him (though later she shows a glimmer of guilt) just after that terrible scene at the café. Later on he is rarely mentioned.

Fumero’s story was interesting. His abusive childhood, his twisted nature, his adult life and his single minded obsession with Carax, made him one of the more intriguing characters of the book. He makes quite a formidable villain.

I didn’t understand the motivation behind the actions of Officer Palacios. I thought there must be an explanation of Palacios’s actions near the end of the story but that was not the case.

The reason Laín Coubert hates Julián Carax’s works so much and intends to burn them all seems a little thin. Sure, I understand terrible mental anguish and larger than life ideas of romance but the revelation of his identity and motive still didn’t match the intensity of the story in general.

I am not generally a fan of romance. And here the idea that you can be sure about who you want to spend the rest of your life with when you are only 17-19 years old, is something that I don’t agree with. The intoxication of first love can be very exciting. You may think that it’s going to last forever, you may go against everyone’s wish, and you may cry and be very bitter about being disappointed but in eight times out of ten this is just infatuation. Most people grow out of this kind of ‘teen passions’.

The story by the end had begun to bore me a little. Once the truth behind Laín Coubert and the disappearance of Penelope has been revealed, the story kind of peters out. Once again, I realized I didn’t care much for Daniel and Bea’s fate.

Overall, I liked The Shadow of the Wind. It’s a very engrossing read. Any fan of Gothic literature would definitely enjoy reading this modern addition to a centuries old genre.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope was published in 1857. This is the second book in a series of six books set in the fictitious cathedral town of Barchester, collectively known as The Chronicles of Barsetshire. This is the best known and perhaps the most popular book from the series.

Barchester Towers tells of the ‘upheaval’ caused by arrival of the new Bishop, Bishop Proudie, in Barchester. The new Bishop’s wife and his chaplain’s struggle for power, the many suitors of Eleanor Bold and her family’s anxiety over them, the return of Dr Stanhope and family after an interval of twelve years and much more form the rest of the story.

The book preceding Barchester Towers in the series is The Warden. In many ways Barchester Towers is a direct continuation of The Warden. The main problem faced by the characters in The Warden gets constantly mentioned in BarchesterTowers. It is because of that that this book can be read as a stand alone work. The plot of the first book becomes pretty much clear after it has been discussed from so many different angles so many times.

How Eleanor Bold’s private life goes out of control was interesting to watch. Eleanor and her family do not speak their mind but keep assuming things when clear communication could have cleared everything up. Their anger, egotistical behaviour and refusal to admit mistakes felt real.

Among the characters I found Eleanor Bold, Archdeacon Grantly and Mrs. Grantly to be irritating at times and insipid at others. Mr. Arabin felt one dimensional.

Mr. Harding is a good natured if weak character. Misunderstanding the nature of his favourite daughter and his subsequent reactions are quite apt for a man like him.

There are a bunch of villains in Barchester Towers but most of them are not completely black. They are streaked with shades of grey. Mrs Proudie with her meddling ways gets on most people’s nerves but the one thing she most bullies her husband about helps provide for large family in need. Signora Neroni surprised me. She is instrumental in bringing about many of the changes in the lives of the characters. What she does is apparently for her own amusement but she also brings about good in her own strange way. In the end she ends up playing sort of a fairy god mother to certain characters. Only Mr. Slope can be said to be without any redeeming qualities.

Mr. Slope is simply slimy. He is power hungry (but so is a lot of other people in this book), crafty and calculative. Of course, none of his complicatedly devious schemes bear any fruits but he is left undaunted by his failures.

Bertie Stanhope is the typical happy-go-lucky, ne’er-do-well son of the Stanhope family. His character is nothing novel. Charlotte Stanhope’s character felt wooden.

There are no, as one might say, ‘weak’ female characters in this book. Most of the women do as they please and most of the men in their lives are pretty much bullied into doing as they are told. There is just one man, Archdeacon Grantly, who is somewhat of a bully himself but even there his wife is his equal and his confidante. I found this way of portraying gender relations to be quite remarkable considering this is a Victorian novel. Of course, there are a few smatterings of lines like,

…She had found the strong shield that should guard her from all wrongs, the trusty pilot that should henceforward guide her through the shoals and rocks. She would give up the heavy burden of her independence, and once more assume the position of a woman and the duties of a trusting and loving wife… (Chapter Forty-nine- The Beelzebub Colt.)

But overall the women rule the roost and browbeat the men into submission.

This is one long book. My Penguin Popular Classics edition is more than 470 pages long.

I found Trollope to be extremely money minded. Issues such as who has how much money, who is poor and how they can get some money gets relentlessly examined. The fact that Eleanor Bold is young and pretty pales in comparison to the fact that she is rich. The rush to gain the hand of a rich woman in marriage is unbelievably aggressive!

Generally I love reading Victorian authors. At least three of my favourite authors come from that era. However I have a feeling Trollope may not become one of my favourites. Having said that I don’t dislike him either. I will read more of his books. I already have his Framley Parsonage (the fourth book in the series) on my shelf. Let’s see if I grow to like him better with time.

Overall I found Barchester Towers to be quite satisfactory if a bit tiresome at places.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Sprawling, odd, complicated, scary, these are the words that come to my mind when I say the name, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I tried to keep an open mind and take it all in. But still at times I had to stop and think,

‘What on earth is this?’

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Nejimaki-dori Kuronikuru, 1994-95) is a novel by Haruki Murakami. I read the Jay Rubin translation, first published in 1997.

An unemployed man called Toru Okada leads a perfectly mundane life. Its quiet flow is interrupted when his cat runs away from home. Things take an increasingly bizarre turn as his wife disappears and it becomes apparent that nothing is as simple as it seems.

In this story, many rather bizarre events come as a surprise to no one. After a while these events didn’t feel weird even to me. But the most ordinary things (for instance, Ushikawa’s visit to Toru’s apartment) made me feel uneasy.

This book has many bizarre elements but none as bizarre as the part ‘wells’ play in it. A dried up well takes the life force way from a young man, another dried up well leads to a sinister world of dreams, different characters climb or fall into wells and it changes them irrecoverably. But as I said after a while none of it feels weird anymore.

The character of Toru Okada just goes with the flow of things. He hardly ever reacts to anything but in the end becomes something of a saviour, a hero even. Its strange how disconnected he seems. Yet Toru Okada is strangely real.

The enigmatic Noboru Wataya is the main antagonist in this story. He is everything Toru isn’t. His fortune keeps rising as Toru’s goes down. And yet he is the one who is troubled and anxious. His shadowy presence looms large. He is not present ‘in person’ for most of the narrative and yet he is everywhere.

As Toru himself admits he has too many women in his life. The principal among them is his wife Kumiko. I had a hard time understanding her character. I think that is because we primarily see her from the point of view of her husband. As she doesn’t truly open up to him and keeps most of her feelings to herself, we also don’t get to really see her.

The psychic sisters Malta and Creta Kano are interesting. But how much influence they have over the incidents that take place in the narrative is never very clear. How much good do they really do with their powers, I found myself wondering. The character of the teenage May Kasahara felt superfluous to me.

Nutmeg and her son Cinnamon are really the ones who provide the final clues that bring Toru closer to solving the riddle of his wife’s disappearance. Their past stories, especially the silent history of Cinnamon, really grabbed my attention. For me Cinnamon is the most interesting character in the whole book.

The first part of Lieutenant Mamiya’s narrative I found to be very engrossing. It is the most shocking part of the book. The second part of his narrative disappointed me.

Haruki Murakami is a brilliant writer. Even though I had a tough time with the book’s length and complexity, I felt the undeniable power of his prose.

One down side to this book is that it felt really long. At times I had doubts whether I would be able to finish it this month.

In the end I have only one thing to say, read it only if you can give your undivided attention to this intricately plotted, puzzlingly complex and multi-layered book. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is not a book to be trifled with.

© wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life, 2011-2061. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to wutheringwillow and A Paperback Life with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.