How I Review Books

Books can be looked at from many points of view. My one most strenous belief is that when I talk about books, you should not hear the plot in too great a detail (unless the author intends the ending to be known before the book begins). Hence, I rarely comment on plot devices or any story development as I feel I could be shortchanging the reader of the review.

So, I have to look (and like looking in any case) at the other aspects of the book instead. One of these is the writing — very important indeed for me, and I hope for most people, but I need to feel comfortable reading the book. It should not feel forced (again, unless that is the intent), and it should feel good. I should get the sense that the author enjoyed writing it, and if their words are put to paper with such skill that I lose myself in their world, even better.

Part of the above is how well the characters come out. I think I here quite often contradict what some other people say, or at least when I have compared reviews on Goodreads it is quite obvious that characters I liked very much were considered incomplete by others and vice versa. I cannot quite explain it, except perhaps I look for the establishment of the character in something more than the written person. They must feel consistent throughout, and they must feel logical. They must have culture (if that is their background), and they must act as if they belong to wherever they are from.

The above is not always the case. However, I have also noted a lot of people have preference with respect to how much text is descriptive vs dialogue (say Tolkien vs Asimov for an easy one here). I think both of these can be similarly splendid, but they must be appreciated for what they are and how they are. The being of Asimov’s characters will come through their words, while Tolkien’s characters get constructed perhaps even before they say their first sentence. That is the difference between various authors.

Next, I am always partial to an interesting story which is interlaced with enough background for it to feel real. This includes an aspect which is not directly related with either of the above, but which is indirectly connected to both of them: there should be some wisdom in the book. No matter what form or method it takes to come across, either the narrator or a character, whether or not it is picked up on and used or not.

But, lastly, and most importantly, the writing must be good enough for me to feel what is going on. This I’d term as emotion. And, indeed, in my reviews I often go with whether something feels right or wrong and what other emotions the story created. How the characters felt and whether they were right is another aspect. This, for me, that a book feels a certain way, is maybe my own classification, but very useful in the sense that if I am feeling a certain way it is quite nice to pick up a book which complements it. There is, after all, no point in reading a fact-oriented history (as opposed to a story-oriented) when looking for amusement or philosophy, or looking for sarcasm from high fantasy.

The above is not perhaps the most perfect description I could give, but I know that my book recommendations follow this. I know my friends well enough and try to recommend books to them if what I felt in that book seems to match what that friend is like. Sometimes I am wrong, sometimes not. Nonetheless, I have always taken great care if I recommend something (or, at least, I would like to think so).

And, I hope, that derives from me considering more than just the plot. For, indeed, the plot is just the first glazing on the house that is the book, and that is also why I nearly always recommend picking an old book up after years have passed to read it anew.

“Whose entire body of work is worth reading?”

Reading Marginal Revolution brings up interesting questions every now and then. Tyler Cowen is a person with a very wide range of interests, and these are well reflected in the wide spectra of posts that can be found on MR. So, with interest I opened up a post with the same title as above, thinking: “What has Tyler written now?”

That original post can be found over here, ‘Whose entire body of work is worth reading?’. It might be interesting to acquaint oneself with what Mr Cowen has said for I think I wish to differ in my opinion.

Yes, I’ll grant that historians are an easy pick. Or, at least, an easier pick than any fiction writer. But there’s a reason for that and I am not entirely confident that the reason is that high quality history is always substantiated by top research. And, even if it is, it is not the research but the author’s readability which is the important part in reading a historical book. And, being very good at research means very little in immediate writing skills gains so there must be more to the puzzle.

My theory on the historians would be that historians who have the knack for writing come out better in the general readability of their tomes. If they know how to write well instinctively, they have an easier time writing for having to worry less about making the story into a single cohesive unit. And, yet, I would dare not name any names. I don’t think I am familiar enough with the works of any single historian to bring him/her out in full.

Overall, then, this question comes down to style for me. But, if I concentrate on the problem, is it possible that any writer has kept their style from the very beginning to the end without pause so that it is uniformly strong and infallible?

I don’t think so.

In effect, I would go so far as to say that all of the names that Mr Cowen brought up in his post are names that I would not dare mention. In which case, what names would I bring up?

That’s a trickier one to answer, partly because I feel like I would want to name a few people, but I am afraid that their originals read worse than the translations that I have read. It might be a fortuitous event that I’ve probably read Arthur C. Clarke most extensively, probably covering the majority of his published works, but even that list is a few titles short of a full collection. And no matter how good the ideas present in the books I’ve read, Mr Clarke has had a few weaker books.

Henryk Sienkiewicz would probably come second, and again the question of translations has to be present. Assuming that Sienkiewicz’s style in Polish is just as clear and strong as it was when I read it in English and Estonian, I would be happy to say that all of his work is worth reading. If, however, some parts of it were a fluke of chance or an edit of the translator, then maybe the reader has been deceived. [Note that a lot of the sentiment present in Mr Sienkiewicz’s works is something I might consider worthy of reading to understand the past rather than the present.]

Of other names, I would bet on Ryotaro Shiba. Again, I have only read him in translation, some of which was not the top quality work I was expecting, I do say myself, but I think that his style in the original is likely to be so much better. So, there’s another unsubstantiated claim that I cannot prove.

On the philosophers: why would I cross off Plato and the rest mentioned in Tyler’s post above?

I am not certain that their works carry the worth of reading throughout. The thoughts of philosophers naturally vary over time and space, and I would not find it difficult to believe that the heavy style we have attributed to Plato and Nietzsche is stronger in some of the books than in the others. And if that is the case, then with the style of the author faltering how can the author himself be consistently skillful?

Indeed, if I were to guess of a type of people who would have put down the most to paper that is all worth reading, I think I would lean towards a playwright or a poet. Maybe Pedro Calderón de la Barca is a good guess, but I’ve only read one title by him so I cannot comment in full. Yet, Calderón de la Barca sounded as if he had something to say. Likewise, I would probably prop J.R.R. Tolkien up there if only for all of his poems, although that is shirking the question slightly again…

So, those are the names that I would put forward. I didn’t think much on where to get them from, nor did I spend an inordinate amount of time on them, but I think that’s something for a start (I’d be interested to see what any of my readers say). I dare add that this is probably one of those questions which are better left unasked in general, although it is also always fun to throw names around and see which ones stay in the air. But, for now, I’ll keep to the poets…

What Have I Been Reading?

Since it has been a long time from my last post (more or less two months) — not including the one from yesterday — I thought it might be prudent to give a short overview of what I’ve read up to this point.

‘Artemis Fowl’ was the last book I seem to have commented on here. Naturally, after reading Eoin Colfer’s work, I have taken up quite a few new ones as well as a number of ones I knew from the past. I have tried to write them out in a list so that there would be an overview somewhere, and here you go.

New Books:

  • ‘1Q84: Part 3’, Haruki Murakami
  • ‘The Client’, John Grisham
  • ‘Arctic Drift’, Clive Cussler
  • ‘Tarnished Knight’, Jack Campbell
  • ‘Guardian’, Jack Campbell
  • ‘Black Wind’, Clive Cussler
  • ‘Captain Vancouver’, E.C. Coleman
  • ‘The Glorious First of June’, Sam Willis
  • ‘Starter for Ten’, David Nicholls
  • ‘Diamond Queen’, Andrew Marr

I probably have a number of things to say about the majority of these books, and I will do my best to get round them (or the memorable ones at least) at some point in the near future.

What I have also been reading though are the old books, the ones I was supposedly familiar with. These are the ones I have revisited since March:

  • The Empire trilogy by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts
  • ‘The Hobbit’, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • ‘One Day’, David Nicholls
  • ‘The Madman’, Kahlil Gibran [And I know I am not consistent with the spelling of his name.]
  • ‘Siddhartha’, Hermann Hesse
  • ‘Into the Black’ series by E. Currie

And I am of a mind that some of these deserve a look into as well. It always does astound me how ‘The Hobbit’ changes when I read it again… but I hope to get back to that in the not too distant future.

I’ll do my best to comment on these books I’ve mentioned, but I am sure some will be left out. I would only hope that the better ones will be the ones included.

Until that time, then…

On the Quality of E-Books

Whilst I generally prefer to live a peaceful life of which reading is an important everyday piece, I discover every now and then that there are a number of difficulties with this approach. Generally, everything works well or good enough and I do not have to regret the amount of monies spent or effort put into purchasing and reading books but there are also moments when I wish to say something of what is being done under the near-proper term of “digital publishing”.

Let me start first by insisting though that while the following will be true in a large number of cases, it has notable exemptions and I will bring out at least one that I have seen myself. Likewise, the problem does not exist only in digital books but at least with digital books the solution is simple.

Now, I have mentioned a problem but have not defined it yet. If I may: Customers are paying considerable sums of money for books in digital form for download to e-readers or other devices with similar functionality, and yet the final product that the customer receives is not always presented to them in a final form.

Namely, while in regular publishing there is a certain quality and level of spelling that is expected of anything sent to the press, in the digital word this same quality seems to have disappeared with the publishing houses seemingly content to upload anything without ascertaining its quality.

As the next step, I will clarify my own position: I own a Kindle (and have owned previous Kindles in the past) and I spend a reasonable amount on digital books. Digital reading, or e-reading, certainly forms the majority of books I read these days. I do not mind paying for reading anything that another person has written or published, but I do expect any product I receive to respond to certain standards of quality.

Let me bring a concrete example. Over the last few weeks I have read a number of books by Jack Campbell on my Kindle, all of which were priced between £5.50 and £6.00. This price was accompanied by an explanation that the books were approximately 300 pages in other versions, and that the file which included the book was between 300 KB and 700 KB in size. In other words, a very small file with an average-length book had been priced at the aforementioned sum. I’ll be very clear that had there been nothing else, I would not mind this price for it is clear that the good Mr Campbell needs to make his income from something.

However, there was “something else”. Namely, the books were readable but my enthusiasm decreased as I encountered more and more spelling mistakes and punctuation errors. One would think that a simple spell check can find solutions to problems like that, or that one read of the book can note that a word has been split into several pieces (say, “in def ens ible” comes to mind).

Can anyone say how this is a fair use of the money that the publishing house and Mr Campbell make off the people who are purchasing their products?

I remember that when I first read George RR Martin’s “A Dance with Dragons”, the same issue was present. I also know that is the only time a book on my device has been updated, but since I have not read it again thus far, I am not confident in how much has improved.

To get back at the main issue though: We, the customers, are receiving products that are seemingly at a stage where no self-respecting publishing house would release it as a paperback, and yet we pay a very similar amount as if we were buying a paperback. So, where’s the quality I was expecting?

Do I need to pay extra for the publishing houses to trouble themselves by reading through the works at least once?

What needs to change so that I would be able to buy a final product that I could read in peace?

Are the publishing houses deserving of the money I have paid for the titles if you cannot put in a small measure of effort to make their own creations presentable?

Now, I’ll note that digital publishing is not the only culprit. The one title I have from Forgotten Books’ “Easy Reading Series” is similarly full of spelling mistakes and riddled with bad punctuation, but at least I have a personal copy of the title which acts as a small measure of comfort for the similar price I paid towards it.

I am hopeful that this trend in digital publishing can change — I say this not only with the one example I brought in mind but also remembering a number of other items I have read which have been sub-par. However, I also think that we customers need to be more vocal about establishing some set of standards.

I guess the other option would be to set a price per kilobyte, and then the publishing houses can sell me whatever they want to with me going in there knowing that there is no massive profit lurking for these same entities behind the screen — very much unlike the present situation.

So, how do we go about establishing that what is sold to us is a book that we can read when we purchase it?

And until we have managed achieving some standards of quality, let’s make the issue more public!

Of Watching ‘The Hobbit’

‘The Hobbit’, made into a wonderful movie by Peter Jackson, has been out for a while now. I have not yet taken myself to the cinemas to watch it. And this, rather interestingly, has managed to surprise a few people — and I admit it, it surprises me as well, when I think about it. But I have my reasons.

‘The Hobbit’ is a book I really enjoy. It might not be amongst the top top favourites that I have, but it is not far off either — and that has something to do with it.

I already have seen a movie of ‘The Hobbit’ — with every book that I read, as my eyes go past the words on the paper (or screen, I guess), my mind creates an image. And that image is my own creation, it might not be something anyone else would like, but it is an important part of the story that I have read. If I were to watch a movie made by someone else, what would happen to these pictures in my own mind?

That is the reason I have not yet seen Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’, and while I really want to see it — I won’t. At least not immediately. Maybe tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow might be a better day for ruining the composition that my mind has drawn, and I might have reasons for doing so. But until I feel compelled to do so, I shall abstain.

Of Tyrants and Dictators

I generally abhor the misuse of any term which has a specific meaning, and recently it has come up in discussion that one was again misused — or misused as I see it. Indeed, I much prefer the original Roman meaning for dictator and the Greek meaning for tyrant. I find that every subsequent use has degraded the original and added a connotation that they not necessarily deserve.

A problem arises thereby when the word would still be used in the original meaning, say Dictator for a Roman dictator, and a modern person would think that we are dealing with an unlawful person who torments and tortures everyone he can see. It would simply be untrue!

So, I would firstly reiterate what I see as the ‘correct’ terminology:

  • dictator: from Latin dictātor, originally signifying an official chosen/elected to the highest position with the important distinction that there could be only one dictator at a time, and he would be the authority. [And I dare say elected because as far as I can see, the person’s reputation was relevant and would be decisive in whether a dictatorship would be given to a person.]
  • tyrant: from Greek τύραννος, originally signifying anyone in power who had gained it by unusual means (unlawful means), and could imply something more than government just by a single person. This seems to have picked up a negative connotation soonest (although sometimes governing outside the law would probably be less bad than in other cases).

The reasons why I would keep on using these in the limited instances they apply in is that we actually do have a better word to imply the government by a single person as either of these is often used. And indeed, that third word, to me, also has an inherent negative sense that I cannot get rid of in my mind — quite possibly because it carries with it a sense of power that dictator and tyrant have given to law (even if operating outside of it).

This third word, a new(er) one, that I am speaking of, is αὐτοκρατής, or autocrat (autocrator) — a term used in history for (very legitimate) Eastern Roman Emperors, but still carrying a sense of power without restrictions that both dictator and tyrant seem to grapple with for me.

So, there we go — problem solved. Or, solved for me, at least. 🙂

Concepts of Beauty and Elegance

I also thought it might be worth to introduce a few concepts of beauty and elegance, just so it would be possible to spend a fraction of that time (that time that we spend doing nothing, or maybe… maybe, not doing nothing, but say, looking out of the window at the clouds passing by) understanding what makes that cloud, passing by, worth looking at.

  • miyabi: aspects of beauty that only a highly refined taste could appreciate (the pale shades of dye in a garment, the fragile geometry of a dew-laden spider web, the delicate petal of a purple lotus, the texture of the paper of a lover’s letter, paly yellow clouds trailing over a crimson sunset)
  • en: beauty that was more obvious and sprightly
  • aware: a pleasant emotion evoked unexpectedly (what one feels when one sees a cherry blossom or an autumn maple)
  • yugen: the foreboding of aware (at a brilliant sunset one’s mind feels aware, but as the shadows deepen and night birds cry, one’s soul feels yugen)
  • shibui: the studied restraint that might be described as knowing when to stop (in a sense, the absence of all that is not essential; a sense of disciplined strength deliberately held in check to make what is done seem effortless; the absence of the ornate and the explicit in favor of the sober and the suggestive)

These were the main concepts that I have managed to identify thus far; I am sure that there are many many more, but I felt like they would deserve their place over here, so they are here.

 Full disclosure: Explanations of the terms from Thomas Hoover’s ‘Zen Culture’

To Spend Time On…

… reading. Lately, I’ve read quite a bit — science fiction mostly, the rest would fall under the genre of philosophical writings. I’ve also got my hands (finally, around six-seven years after starting with the first book!) on ‘Noble House’ and ‘Whirlwind’ which means that when I wish to continue reading about British arrogance and commerce in the Far East I can freely continue doing so. Clavell is a bit too good to miss out, so I’m planning to take it up as one of the next (not the next though: first I’ll make sure I’ve got all of the New Republic Era //all == as much as I can and have// read; after that a bit of Mahan, and then, I guess, onwards to the Clavell books). 

I started using an interesting web-site called GoodReads.com. Seems to keep a list of what I’ve (you’ve) read — something that I consider rather useful. I have tried to keep such a list in the past but it never works out; on the computer/online it should amount to something better though. 

Reading the New Republic Era has made quite an impression though: with the previous ten-odd books by J. Marsden (on Australia and such) and now a whole lot by different authors I’ve seen how there’s a difference between styles, and what that actually means. Just to bring out a few, then if we look at Matthew Stover (Natalie would probably cringe just on hearing his name) then he often starts long discourses about things not-that-directly related to everything else. Yet, it suits me well since I see the relevance of the things he poses and it creates a deeper background; Roger MacBride Allen on the other hand uses deeply comical situations along with fast-paced action which has made me like the overall depth less though the few scenes that are in all of them do make a sort of impression as well as the characters he creates; Timothy Zahn is just great, of his creation is the tactical genius Thrawn and I believe that (much like John Howe in his newsletters) Zahn allows himself to dedicate the entire art-ful being that he projected into Thrawn into the entire action of his writing — the books simply flow and while not as funny as MacBride Allen’s they still offer a sense of completeness and thoroughness; finally, John Marsden

Ah, John Marsden’s books… I have to say, it might have been the first young adult (or whatever-nonsense they call that) series that I ever read, but it was good. Enjoyable. The language, as has been often noted, was exactly that — deeply in line with the intended audience. The books — content — is not that wonderful in the Tomorrow and Ellie series but it is still an interesting question to wonder about, especially given the war is a simple background setting to the larger problem of human interaction. I do deeply recommend reading Marsden and not for the same reasons for why people should read either J.R.R. Tolkien, J. Clavell, W. Somerset Maugham, or Kawabata Yasunari. No, the reason to read John Marsden is to read about becoming human/inhuman, growing up — no, not exactly that: I cannot place my hand (paw?) on what it is that is there, but there’s something worthwhile… it is not the beauty of the style nor any other obvious literary quality, but something less tangible perhaps (or therefore, instead, more tangible?).

I did also want to say a word about a few of the characters that have struck me as wonderful as few can be from the New Republic era books that I’ve read, but I believe I’ll keep that for another time now.
 

No… and yes!

 Things have changed in an inexplicable manner. I do not know the reason for this, but I am sure that I soon will. Seems like Crete again, and I enjoyed that. I know I will enjoy whatever comes after, though the changes are likely to be smaller in all manners. 

Before the first exam this year (Chemistry, on the 17th) I started listening to Strauss again. I know the reason for this. And listening on a grand scale, songs I’ve never heard before though ones I wish I had heard of. They are wonderful, the one linked to here is almost as good as the ‘Kaiser-walzer‘, and that, from me, is a praise unlike most that I could give. 

So, what has changed? 

Perception. People, time, place. As an odd twist I cannot even place whether it was Devon or my earlier thoughts back home, but something started it, and I enjoy it.

I reminded myself before writing this short piece that I promised myself I’d write on Marsden. Not today, but I would hope, within the week… but I love reading too much right now, being close to the exact scene that I wished to see (to see equals to read). But after that, certainly. 

Sundays

The wonders of the world are passing.

Sundays are interesting. Waking up early (half seven), drinking tea, listening to music, reading news, observing what’s going on…

Faint ideas that tomorrow will be worse.

I think I might have sorted out what is going on next year and the year after. Well, to be fair I kind of replanned the entire "future section". We’ll see what happens, a few contingency plans ready in my mind as is.

And this quote came to my mind (relating to studies but also otherwise // and it took me a considerable time to actually find it in the book): 
"Anyone who toadies to those above him and treats those below him with hauteur lacks confidence in his own resources and competence."
— Ryotaro Shiba