Here's the challenge: commit to reading 50 books and watching 50 movies in the next year! (Find out more...)
Courtesy of Jen Fidler | Fiddy Two Cents | Originally posted 4.7.2012
"It was about damn time something happened."
-Lev Grossman, page 297
This book is 402 pages long, and even though that line appears on page 297, nothing remotely exciting happens until page 338. Seriously.
I'll just warn you now...I'm going spoil the living daylights out of this book. If you haven't read the book, I do not encourage you to try. However, if that warning isn't enough to convince you to not read this book, then you should probably stop reading this review right now.
Onward to the spoilers.
Let's start off by saying just what a miserable protagonist Quentin makes in general. There is nothing likable about his character. NOTHING. He is too smart for his own good. He only attracts other miserable characters. And there is not a single instance in this book where he does anything worthy of being the protagonist. He is not a hero, nor is he an anti-hero. He is simply the character that we follow for 402 pages. Which is 402 pages too many.
And then there's the plot. Or lack thereof, for about 75% of the novel (as the cover proclaims it to be). Talk about a boring tale. The Magicians is broken into four sections. Book I introduces us to Quentin, a miserable S.O.B. with a giant chip on his shoulder and an IQ high enough to get him into any Ivy League school that he wants. But on the day of his Princeton interview, Quentin finds himself whisked away to Brakebills, Grossman's rip-off of Hogwarts. Instead of a sorting, Quentin is put through a magical SAT of sorts before being granted admission. Without even checking to see if this institution of higher magical learning is accredited, Quentin matriculates and the rest is torturous history.
So you're probably asking yourself about now, "Well, why did you read the entire book if it's just that painful?" Because I'm crazy. Obviously, there is something wrong with me. There are probably medications I can take, but instead I continually subject myself to horrible literature and films. Did you see that I read all of Modelland? Clearly. Insane.
But back to Quentin Coldwater and the Chamber of Ennui.
So at Brakebills (yes, this is still Book I), Quentin spends four years completing a five-year program where the magical curriculum covers everything from levitating marbles to copulating as arctic foxes. It's a progressive program. He becomes close friends with his classmate Alice, another special individual on the five-years-in-four-plan, as well as the other handful of miserable souls known as the Physical Kids. As far as I can tell, Grossman chose to name them the Physical Kids because 1) the magic they specialize in deals mainly with physical applications and 2) they just like to drink and fornicate. A lot.
There are two events that occur during Quentin's four years (and the books first 221 pages) that come close to being interesting for the reader. The first comes packaged in a chapter called "The Beast" and tells the semi-exciting tale of the day a random guy in a suit with a tree branch covering his face magically appears in one of the Brakebills classes and eats one of Quentin's classmates before disappearing inexplicably. You'd think that would be a significant incident, but no. Everyone reacts oddly calm about the whole ordeal, and the attack gets written off as just-one-of-those-random-moments-in-magical-life-sort-of-things. The other takes place when Quentin and the other fourth year students are hazed while studying abroad in Antarctica with a Russian magician who has a wicked sense of humor. The students are given an optional final exam where they are cast out into the snow naked and alone with only their magical prowess to survive a 500-mile trek to the South Pole. Although optional, Quentin signs up...because why not? Nothing else interesting ever happens. His journey is pretty much the most entertaining part of the book up to this point. Oh, except for that day the Russian magician transformed them all into arctic foxes and Arctic Fox Quentin and Arctic Fox Alice got it on. But that was just so disturbing.
Book I concludes with Quentin and Alice graduating (their only other friends having graduated the year before). As part of their commencement ceremonies, they each get a magic key back to Brakebills and a Cacodemon (a magical creature who will force its way out of your belly when summoned and try its best kill whoever you command...good for one time only!) tattooed into their back. And all I got at my college graduation was a diploma and a mini Etch-a-Sketch with RISD screenprinted on it. Bet that Cacodemon comes in handy. On to Book II.
Although only a quarter of the length of the first part, Book II really packs on the excitement. And by excitement, I mean more drunken debauchery. Brakebills, while impressive with its curriculum, has horrible job placement percentiles. Quentin and Alice, unemployed, join up with the Physical Kid pals (Eliot, Josh, and Jane) in Manhattan. With the exception of Alice (who uses her time to continue her magical studies and explorations), the gang spends its days sleeping and the evenings throwing elaborate dinner parties centered around enchanted ice sculptures of Leda and her Swan doing the nasty. Seriously Grossman, you have issues. ISSUES. Quentin and Alice are a couple, but they also have issues. Issues that are not made better when Quentin sleeps with Eliot and Jane following one of the aforementioned dinner gatherings. Before Alice has a chance to scream at and/or kill Quentin for his infidelity, their old Brakebill pal Penny (an almost member of the five-years-in-four-plan crew) shows up out of the blue and invites everyone to join him on an all-expense-paid trip to Fillory.
What is Fillory, you ask? Why Fillory is Grossman's version of Narnia. Throughout the previous 250 or so pages, Quentin constantly brings up Fillory and his love of the fictional fiction writer Christopher Plover. Look. Grossman even made up a fake website for the fake author: christopherplover.com. That's dedication. Or possibly schizophrenia. The stories are continually referenced as if we were all raised on the stories of Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter and their adventures through the Wardrobe into Narnia...er, I mean the Chatwin children and their adventures through the old grandfather clock and Fillory. Quentin just LOVED the books as a child...and as a teenager...and often finds himself wishing he'd find a secret passage into his beloved Fillory. But he keeps having to remind himself that Plover made Fillory up, as fiction writers do.
But no! Fillory is real! And Penny hasn't gone there on his own yet. But now that he's with his very bestest of friends from Brakebills (who coincidentally have far greater power than Penny ever will), they can all go together! Huzzah! With the exception of a quick trip to the Neitherlands for Alice and Quentin (where she maims but not kills the infidel), this is basically where Book II ends.
Book III. To Fillory and Back Again: A Hobbit's Tale. Once again, Grossman rips off C.S. Lewis by blatantly patterning the Fillory journey on the Narnia tales. Quentin and co. manage to get their act together (finally!) and arrive in Fillory. They have no official goal for their trip; they just figure they'd see if they could track down the infamous Questing Beast or maybe see if the job of King or Queen of Fillory had any openings. They meet talking animals and trees. There are fauns and beavers (sound familiar?), too. Eventually, they are given a task: find Martin Chatwin's crown and reclaim the throne in the name of the Earth children. Because much like Narnia, Fillory can only be ruled by Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. Just brimming with originality there, Grossman.
But the quest for the crown is not a simple one, so the gang needs guides. And the guides are instantly provided for them. As everything has been easily given to them over the past 300 pages or so. Because who would want to read a book where the heroes actually have to do work? The guides, Dint and Fen, bring them to Ember's Tomb, where it is strongly believed that the crown resides. Dint and Fen are also handy at killing vicious Attack Rabbits and Ferrets, too. Something Brakebills did not provide training in.
Anyhoo. They arrive at the tomb, which reeks of Tolkien's Moria. (Seriously Grossman, did you even try to come up with something on your own?) The tunnels seem abandoned, but soon the the fellowship is attacked. The first attack is reminiscent of a Final Fantasy fight sequence, where Grossman assigns each of the characters a distinct attack move (Fen: Attack, Alice: Cacodemon, Jane: Run). The second attack is far more enthralling (and, oddly enough, starts on page 338...see above). The second battle marks the first time in the entire book where the Brakebills alum have to do anything of importance. It's actual work. And it was actually interesting.
I'm actually going to refrain from giving too much detail regarding the following 40 or so pages, as it's the only part of the book that is really worth reading. So for those of you who haven't read the book yet, I recommend you open to page 338 and start reading from there. To those of you who have read the book, all I can say is...do you feel as dirty as I do?
But the story doesn't end in the tunnels. Oh no. Instead, Quentin finds himself trapped in Fillory while the surviving Scoobies return to Earth. In a complete break from character, Quentin goes after the Questing Beast and wins three wishes. His first two wishes are basically a bust, but he uses his third wish to return home. And so concludes Book III.
Book IV is basically the beginning of the movie Wanted, but with rock-star magicians instead of bullet-bending assassins. Now back home, Quentin has chosen to leave behind his childish magical ways and enters (gasp!) the work force. He has an office job. It sounds boring (imagine that). But the very last few pages bring back a few of the Physical Kids (now with flying powers and spandex!) trying to convince Quentin to return to Fillory with them. Although he's hesitant at first, he eventually takes the plunge, as Grossman does have a sequel. Which I am refusing to read.
So there you have The Magicians. That took me way too long to read. Mostly because I didn't want to. I'm still questioning why I trudged my way through it. While not wholly convinced, I'm going to go with...I did it so I could write this amazing review. Yeah. That's it.
For the record, if they ever make a movie out of this book, I refuse to see it.
Courtesy of Heather | Fifty/Fifty...Really? | Originally posted 4.8.2012
The scarves at left are souvenirs of a Pony Express mail service that runs through Payson, AZ. It's one of the reminders our enduring love for the Pony Express.
I've been interested in the Pony Express since I was a little kid. I remember reading a children's book about it that belonged to my father when he was little. Of course, in high school, I enjoyed watching The Young Riders on television.
When I heard about a lecture on the Pony Express at the National Postal Museum last year, I knew I wanted to attend. The lecture took place close to the 150th anniversary of the end of the Pony Express. The lecture was a talk by Christopher Corbett about his book Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express. I bought the book, and got it signed by Mr. Corbett after the lecture.
Basically, everything we know about the Pony Express is wrong. Most of what we remember is myth and legend passed down across generations. The Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company (the Pony Express) was a private operation fast mail service of Russell, Majors & Waddell. It began in 1860 and was over and done with by 1861. The central overland route went from St. Joseph, MO through Kansas and Utah territories (never Arizona) and on to Sacramento, CA. The riders generally were not orphans. Even though it cost $5 an ounce (in 1860 dollars) to mail a letter, the operation never made any money, and the telegraph put an end to any need for it.
Accurate records are few, but Corbett does a good job of sifting through all that's been written about the Pony Express and figuring out what's probably true and what couldn't be true and how we got to the current story we all know. In addition, he looks at how the legend grew. Buffalo Bill Cody, never a rider - he was 11 or 12 at the time - did a lot with his Wild West Show to secure a place for the fast mail service in our collective memory. There were also many books and inaccurate movies and TV shows. Of The Young Riders, Corbett said it was "a farrago of nonsense" (a phrase I really need to use whenever I can). But, I'm sure I wasn't watching it for its historical accuracy.
Corbett does a good job bringing the characters associated with the Pony Express, either truthfully or fraudulently, to life. It was an exciting time in history, and an amazing feat to carry mail by horse and rider across half the country in ten days. And, it was fun to read about it. This much I know to be true.
Courtesy of Stuart | Likhaavat | Fifty Pachaas
I joined the fiftyfiftyme challenge to have the incentive I needed to read more books. I also saw a chance to pursue my other hobby, Hindi films. Joining the challenge is the perfect opportunity to watch more of them, and to promote them.
Although I’m of Anglo-Indian descent, I didn’t get into watching Hindi films until my late 30s. Before then, if I’d been asked what Indian films were all about, I probably would have said “song and dance”. It’s that stereotype I hope to challenge here.
Indian films are often marked by their use of musical numbers, but to define them by that is to do them an injustice, and anyone who dismisses them for that reason is doing themselves a disservice.
I love old, classic Hindi films, where the songs are an integral part of the storylines, and the poetry of the lyrics is sublime. Quite possibly my favourite film ever is Pyaasa, a masterly example of how traditional Hindi musical cinema can reach the heights of art cinema. In more recent times, films like the Oscar-nominated Lagaan and 2011’s Mere Brother ki Dulhan have shown that song and dance are still relevant and productive elements of Hindi films.
Now though, more than ever, Hindi films cover a wide range of genres, and many have no songs at all. Hindi cinema has everything from superb Shakespearian adaptations such as Maqbool and Omkara to bawdy farces and pratfall style comedies like the current box office hit, Housefull 2. In the course of my fiftyfifty challenge I will be watching comedies, thrillers, biopics and social issue dramas, in addition to the “song and dance” romances that many think are the sum total of “Bollywood”.
I will also be watching many films that are not “Bollywood” at all. That term has made a place for itself, and is a convenient catch-all for mainstream commercial Hindi cinema. Indian cinema is so much more than just Bollywood. Hindi cinema itself includes many films that are outside the mainstream of Bollywood. Some examples from the last few years are Shor in the City, Dor and Dhokha Every major Indian language has its own film industry, and the biggest of the South Indian languages have cinematic cultures as distinct from the Hindi industry as their languages are. My focus is on films in Hindi, since I have almost enough comprehension to get by without subtitles, but I hope to include some films in Malayalam and Bengali as well.
For those unfamiliar with Indian cinema, a key mantra to remember is this: SLUMDOG IS NOT BOLLYWOOD AND BOLLYWOOD IS NOT SLUMDOG
India is a huge country, where diversity is perhaps the only constant. The same is true of its films. From the internationally-acclaimed works of Satyajit Ray to small gems like I am Kalam, from Hindi masala standards like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge to the quietly thought-provoking Malayalam Adaminte Makan Abu, from the Elvis-like swagger of Shammi Kapoor to the moustachioed machismo of the one and only Rajnikanth, from the piercing genius of Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics and the magic of A.R. Rahman’s music to the unflinching honesty of Nandita Das’s social issue films, Indian cinema really does have something for everyone, and I hope that many fiftyfifty participants will include India when selecting films for the challenge.
A sample list of some Indian films I enjoyed:
- Pyaasa, Lagaan
- Kannathil Muthamittal
- Adaminte Makan
- Abu, Firaaq
- Amar Akbar Anthony
- Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge
- Jab We Met
- Wake Up Sid
- I am Kalam
- Road: Movie,
- Mere Brother ki Dulhan
Courtesy of Hannah | mclicious.org
For me, the 50/50 challenge is more about the movies than the books. Having read 163 books in 2011, I’m quite close to 50 books already, and I will easily surpass that goal. More broadly, I like the idea of 50/50 because it makes me think that I can use it to actually read less, and to watch more movies than television shows—all things that will bring me to working on my ability to have sustained focus on one thing, not divided focus among twelve Firefox tabs.
But I can only go so far with that. My instinct is always, always, always to read voraciously. But in recent years, incidentally as I have become more reliant on my Goodreads account, my drive to finish books, and to have intelligent thoughts about what I read, has taken precedence in my reading habits. That, plus college general education courses and intellectual friends and family members and attendance at keynote addresses and much, much more have broadened my interest in more and more subjects, making my to-read list inevitably and exponentially larger than my have-read list.
I thought coming up with a major or minor or two, as the website suggests, would be excellent. But I’ve already forgotten what I set out to do. When I reviewed my first personal blog post about this challenge today, I was surprised by how many vague themes I had suggested for pursuit. Documentaries, non-fiction, history, diversity—all interesting themes worth looking into, all things that I generally do strive to read. But I can’t major in anything. And I’ve finally been able to qualify why.
Nicholas Carr is a writer who has studied brain plasticity and the Internet. As you probably know, people blame the Internet for shorter attention spans, a dip in people’s interest in long books or long articles, and general inattentiveness. I think there is certainly a lot of truth to that, but I have to give a lot of credit to the Internet for opening up my mind and reading list to far more subjects and genres than I read when I was young. Part of that is growing up, sure, but I would have far less awareness of the theorists, experimental creative writers, sociological concepts and ethical dilemmas that I now enjoy reading, thinking, and writing about if it weren’t for the inattentiveness that the Internet fosters. I realized, while reading Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (The Atlantic Monthly, July 2008), that the greatest gift the Internet has given to people who were already interested in the pursuit of learning and intellectual expansion is hyperlinks.
You know how in the past few years, it’s become commonplace for blog posts, online newspaper articles (even those that are exact reprints—or pre-prints—of the offline articles) and e-mags to make reference to other resources through hyperlinks? It’s like the update of footnotes, and it’s far more useful, because it gets you the referenced resource right then, rather than a citation. I love those. It’s because of those that I discovered what are now my favorite blogs and websites and news sources. It’s because of them that I have discovered artists and musicians and writers that I now love or want to discover. My to-read list, as well as my blog roll and iTunes catalog, have increased so much over the past few years largely due to my Internet reading. And it’s great, really. I’m a lot smarter now, I think, and I read a lot more than just fiction, which is a good thing, I think.
But it’s also why I can’t major in anything. While I have general interests and goals that will always subtly inform what I choose to read next, I can’t read everything on my list related to one interest fast enough. By the time I get through one book, I will have read a hundred news articles and blog posts that have turned me on to something else interesting, and I’ll already be adding those authors and theories to my list. I’m always both behind and ahead of myself, and even if it means I sometimes miss out, I mostly like it. Because I know a lot of stuff, and I keep finding out that there’s more to know.
And check out Hannah's companion piece here: how my to-read list works.
Courtesy of Cindy | Cindy's 50/50 Challenge | Originally posted 2.26.2012
I feel as if I have lived part of my life under a rock. I had never seen The Sound of Music until last night. I don’t know how that is possible. I spoke to my mother this morning and she was surprised to hear this; she has watched it several times. After talking about this with my mom, I recall leaving the room when the theme music for programming my parents watched began to play (I Love Lucy and Mash come to mind). Well, that might explain my childhood and adolescence, but I have long outgrown those years. Where have I been?
I don’t hear people discussing this, but it seems to me most people have seen this movie. I pinned The Sound of Music on my Pinterest board last night and it has been repinned over and over with comments of how it is a favorite. My friend Kelly wrote, “LOVE this movie! I’ve been on the Sound of Music tour twice in Salzburg. Plus I saw the movie in London (2001) at a theatre with sing along & all kinds of fun interaction, kinda like Rocky Horror Picture Show (I’ve heard— haven’t seen it). First time I saw this movie was when I was about 10 years old & stayed home sick from school at my grandma’s. :-)” I would love to do this! What a great experience (not the being sick part).
Let’s start with what I did know about the movie before my first viewing last night. I had seen Andrews sing and dance to “The Sound of Music” (I had no idea this was the very beginning of the movie, I always assumed it was somewhere in the middle). I also knew it won several Academy Awards. That is it.
On to things I didn’t know. Christopher Plummer (starred opposite Julie Andrews) was a very handsome fellow with a wonderful voice! I thought the song “ My Favorite Things” was a lovely little tune that comes around every Christmas to assist us with our shopping lists (I finally know where it originated). What shocks me most is that this famous musical is based on real people. Maria Von Trapp’s memoirs were created into a book and then later Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote music and lyrics to the now infamous musical. The musical fairy didn’t create this after all. I had no idea!
I never declared a major/minor when I first signed up for the 50/50 challenge, but I have now decided to declare a major in Musicals. I need to crawl out from under the rock and see some of these wonderful classics. I give The Sound of Music five stars. I will definitely see it again and I hope I will be fortunate enough to see it on stage one day.
Some of my favorite lines from the movie (none of the quotes below are interrelated, I just like them):
Kurt: Only grown-up men are scared of women.
Maria: You know how Sister Berthe always makes me kiss the floor after we’ve had a disagreement? Well, lately I’ve taken to kissing the floor whenever I see her coming, just to save time.
Kurt: I haven’t had so much fun since the day we put glue on Fräulein Josephine’s toothbrush
Maria: [saying her bed time prayers] I forgot the other boy.