reading challenges 2011

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.

R. I. P. VI Challenge – Completion

Ever since I was a child I have been reading books from the supernatural, crime and mystery genres. TV shows featuring similar themes have also been a favourite of mine. So, when I found out that Carl V is hosting the R. I. P. (R. eaders I. mbibing P. eril VI) Challenge at Stainless Steel Droppings, I just had to participate.

The R.I.P. Challenge has taken place every year from September 1st through October 31st for the last 5 years.

There are several challenge levels at which participants can join in. I had chosen,

Peril the First:

Read four books, any length, that you feel fit the very broad definitions of R.I.P. literature. It could be Stephen King or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming or Edgar Allan Poe…or anyone in between.

I have taken my time with this challenge, savouring the two mysteries and two horror genre books that I had chosen. Reading (and in the last book’s case, re-reading) for this challenge was a great pleasure.

I have received some very nice feedbacks from fellow challenge participants for my reviews.  Thank you guys!

Overall, I have enjoyed The R.I.P. Challenge very much. So, thanks to Carl V for the challenge and here’s to hoping that I’ll be seeing you again next year.

Books Completed:

1. By The Pricking of My Thumbs. Agatha Christie.

2. Clouds of Witness. Dorothy L. Sayers.

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

4. Dracula. Bram Stoker.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Published in 1897, Dracula by Bram Stoker single-handedly brought the genre of Vampire literature to the forefront. A classic of the Gothic and horror genre, its impact has been enormous to say the least.

Dracula tells the story of Count Dracula, an un-dead being and a master manipulator. The narrative follows the efforts of a group of men and woman as they try to foil the Count’s evil designs. The story of is told through series of diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings; etc.

How can a book that I have read and re-read so many times still fill me with so much fear and dread? I know the book almost by heart now. But Jonathan Harker’s experiences in the Castle Dracula, the count’s arrival in England, his encounter with Lucy and her mother, the Count’s evil presence at the asylum, it all still manages to scare me and I’m not a person who’s easily scared.

Dracula was a part of the trend of  Invasion literature popular during the 1880s and 1890s. Many famous authors of the time including Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. G. Wells, wrote stories where fantastic creatures threatened England. But Dracula has outlived its contemporaries and has taken on a life of its own.

The way evil is presented in the book is very refreshing. The evil brings darkness with it but there are glimpses of a past, in a past where things may have been different.  Stoker shows that even for someone who is an outright villainous character there still lays the possibility of redemption.

Stoker had a real flair for creating just the right ambiance. I could feel the dust, the hopelessness and the suffocation of the isolated Castle Dracula. The account of the voyage of  The Demeter  is another remarkable example of Stoker’s vivid imagination.

The iconic character of Count Dracula is the life line of this book. He has got to be the singular most evil and creepy villain I’ve ever read about. Apparently the inspiration behind his mannerisms and physical appearance came from actor-manager Henry Irving who was a friend of Bram Stoker’s. The Count’s suave manner, his noble birth and education all mask a sinister personality. His malevolent attitude towards everyone, particularly towards the Harkers, is disturbing to say the least.

The character of Jonathan Harker felt bland. Mina Harker’s character is a bit one dimensional but so are the characters of all the other good people in the book.

The character Dr. Van Helsing is good but his exaggerated foreignness is a bit too much at times. Dr. Seward was an interesting character. His character has a certain depth to it.

Lucy Westenra’s character is not properly fleshed out. I don’t get why everyone is in love with her other than the fact that she is pretty. Arthur Holmwood comes across as kind of dull while Quincey Morris is wooden.

The problem with an epistolary novel is that the point of view keeps constantly changing. As a result the narrative becomes a bit irregular. The climax, for instance, could have been more effective had we been able to view it from the viewpoint of either Harker or Dr. Seward. Instead we view it from Mina’s perspective. Perched at a mountain crevice along with her, the reader feels more like a spectator than an actual participant. After a narrative that is so full of thrills the climax loses its edge a bit.

The narrative of course has traces of Victorian melodrama in it. The good are incredibly good, the women are incredibly sweet and patient, everyone starts weeping at the drop of a hat; etc, etc. But these flaws can be overlooked as the story has so much more to offer.

Dracula. The very name that conjures up countless images in our minds. A pop culture staple for many years, our vision of the blood sucking, eternally damned gentleman has become tainted with its various incarnations. But for me nothing beats the book that started it all. The book certainly lives up to its name and fame and remains one of my all-time favourites. Highly 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.