Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015: Year in Review

In my 2014 "Year in Review," I noted that I'd soon be returning to work after my maternity leave. And I quickly realized that while I could have a baby and continue reading, I couldn't have a baby, work and read. Now my evenings (once baby is in bed) consist of cleaning, grading, and lesson planning. So in 2014 I read very little, and it's something I've certainly missed. But, now that the year is coming to a close, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on the books I did manage to complete.

Books read in 2015:
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
Wolf in a White Van by John Darnielle
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

I also partially completed Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning and The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (somehow I just didn't have the staying power for short story collections).

So I read eight books (I think--I wasn't good at keeping a list as I went along, so it's possible I forgot one). Fortunately they were all books I enjoyed (this was also a year where I had no patience for books that didn't grab my attention; I started and put down several others).

My favorite was probably Grashopper Jungle, followed by Station Eleven. Grasshopper Jungle is a weird, "edgy" YA/sci-fi mashup that's mostly about Austin's uncertainty over his feelings for his best (male) friend but is also about giant grasshoppers attacking and the end of the world. As an adult now far-removed from the teenage world, I was happily surprised to see the novel's very frank approach to sexuality (books have come a long way from Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret).

Station Eleven was a nice take of the apocalypse/dystopia genre that brought together diverse characters in a satisfying way. Wolf in White Van was mysterious, weird, and a little scary--about the pointlessness and idiotic purposefulness with which we sometimes make life-changing decisions.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot I liked when I was reading but liked less once I finished. I don't normally go for the "big" term-heavy sci-fi, but Ancillary Justice was enjoyable nonetheless.

I've written reviews of the last two since they're fresh enough in my head.

I'm guessing 2016 won't be much different, but it is nice to take a little time to read--and write--again. :)

"The Rest of Us Just Live Here" by Patrick Ness

First caveat: I love (love love love) Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy. It is my favorite YA series of all time. I would love to reread it, but I'd cry too much.

See my reviews:
- The Knife of Never Letting Go
- The Ask and the Answer
- Monsters of Men

Moving on...

Some friends, my husband, and I recently finished watching the entire run of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's a series I really enjoyed as a teenager, and it was even more fun to re-watch it. Occasionally, while Buffy and the "Scooby gang" were still in high school, we wondered about what parent would enroll their child at Sunnydale High School. I mean, students were dying constantly. And the school was almost always under attack by some demon or another. And where were the police in all this? Did they just completely ignore it so a 16-year-old with a stake could take care of it?

Clearly Ness wondered the same, and thus The Rest of Us Just Live Here was born. The Rest is about the peripheral students in all those YA fantasy series--what happens to them while the Chosen One is battling the Big Evil?

It's a fun idea, but one that doesn't quite work out. Though The Rest is set up as a satire of the YA fantasy genre, the satire is so gentle (even when it appears, which isn't often), that the cliches of the genre are hardly criticized. Sure, there's a side comment about the "Chosen Ones" never using the Internet or observations about how the police never believe the students' stories about strange things happening (even though vampires destroyed the town, like, a month ago!)... But, otherwise, Ness is more interested in his own characters' stories. Which is fine, but it means the whole premise feels somewhat insignificant.

What Ness is interesting in exploring is his protagonist Mikey and his three best friends: his sister Mel, his friend Jared, and his unrequited crush Henna. But unlike in Ness' other books, these characters felt cliche (ironic, considering the "satire" of the novel). Mikey is OCD and too afraid to tell Henna his feelings; his dad's an alcoholic; his state senator-mom is too self-involved to notice him. Mel is a recovering anorexic. Jared is gay but not really out. Henna is constrained but her strict parents. All of these can be real teenage issues, but they felt excessively heaped on. Even Mikey's "I'm cool with my BFF being gay" attitude--something I'm completely thrilled to see--just felt like a repeat (but perhaps that's because I read and loved Grasshopper Jungle, which had a similar relationship). There's some nice commentary about the nature of friendships, and I felt Ness did an especially good job of capturing the mindset of someone with severe anxiety, but otherwise it was too neat and too expected. The kids were too good to each other; everything worked out too well in the end.

It was a quick read, but it probably won't read as fresh to people who've read a good deal of YA fantasy.

[A side note--everyone refers to the "kids who are always involved in the strange stuff happening" as "indie kids," (they all have uber-hipster names like Finn and Satchel), but the term always felt wrong to me, so it became distracting.]

"The Martian" by Andy Weir

Obviously this book exploded this year with the release of the Matt Damon movie (which I haven't seen). After hearing NPR gush about it for ages, I got around to reading the novel on the Kindle. It was an enjoyable read, but one I think you need to be clear about going in.

What it is:

The Martian is a fun puzzle-solving adventure. It's almost like a detailed, scientific video game being played before you. Watney is an astronaut stranded on Mars. He has no food! How will he grow some? He needs more water! How will he make it? Though the science went over my head a number of times (I wasn't going to take the time to reread carefully to try to "get" it all), you can skim those parts and still enjoy the story. You root for Watney and for the power of ingenuity and human determination. As is obvious, he's safely rescued from Mars in the end (as you always knew he would be), but it's a triumphant moment anyway.

What it isn't:

Finely crafted prose. This annoyed me the most in the beginning. Weir has a talent with science, but not with the English language. The sentences are clear, straightforward, and utilitarian. There's no beauty in syntax, no arresting imagery. It's appropriate given that the reader is supposedly reading astronaut Watney's logs (and Watney is nothing if not clear, straightforward, and utilitarian), but the English teacher in me wanted a little more craft.

Similarly, there's no philosophical approach to Watney's experiences on Mars. A friend of mine mentioned she wanted to read The Martian, saying she imagined it like Life of Pi. I could do nothing but laugh. While Life of Pi is a philosophical meditation on faith and relationships, The Martian is textbook problem solving. Sure, Watney is stranded on Mars, likely to die of starvation (or any of a million other things), but he almost never thinks about it in the grand sense. He doesn't wonder about the meaning of life, about his relationships, about his purpose. He does math problems to figure out how to create fuel. For example, he spends a huge portion of his time growing potatoes, only to have most of his crop die when his living area explodes. He barely seems upset. Again, from a realistic perspective, such an attitude probably makes sense. A person most likely to survive in that scenario is a person who can dedicate him or herself completely to practicalities; a person who can remain optimistic and focused even when things look their worst. But, from a reader's perspective, you sometimes want a little more thought about our place in the universe.

My last quibble with the book is not directly related to the other two, though it does tie in. Towards the end, NASA is trying to decide how to save Watney. Choice one is to try to send him more food, a plan with a somewhat low chance of success. Plan two is to send his Mars crewmates back to get him (they were enroute back to Earth)--the plan has a higher chance of success, but would endanger the five crewmates' lives too (rather than just Watney's). The unlikable NASA member insists on choice one because it would endanger the fewest lives. He's repeated called a coward, and a bunch of employees go behind his back to ensure they do the "brave" "right" choice--choice two. Though the debate is worthwhile, the lack of subtlety bothered me. Is it really cowardly to not want to risk more astronauts' lives? And, furthermore, how do we decide the "value" of one individual's life? NASA and many others go to extraordinary lengths and spend billions to save one man. Watney's a good guy, but we probably could have cured a disease with that kind of money. I'm not saying Watney didn't deserve to be saved, but I wish there had been more insight into the way we place value.

In the end...

A worthwhile read if you're realistic about what you're getting. And I'd like to check out the movie!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: Year in review

Well, goodbye to my sixth year of blogging. Somehow I've managed to keep it up, even though I'll never be at reading levels I once was. Yet I'm still proud I'm usually managing a few books a month, especially now that I'm mom to an active four and a half month old! I return to work in a few weeks, which means reading in 2015--beyond the board book Sheep in a Jeep for the millionth time--will be especially challenging. But, I just try to make sure reading's always a pleasure, never a chore.

My top books read in 2014:
1. On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
2. Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain
3. The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
4. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
5. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
6. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
7. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Total books read and reviewed: 30 (plus 6 baby-related books partially read and briefly reviewed)

Fiction read: 24
Nonfiction read: 6

Adult read: 27

Young adult read: 3

Female authors: 17
Male authors: 13
I think this is the first time I've read more female than male! Woot!

Years published:
- 2014: 12
- 2013: 13
- 2012: 3
- 2011: 1
- 2005: 1

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 30

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

"Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

I thought I would hate Me Before You, as I don't do romance, and I don't do weepies. Just from the book's blurb, it was clear how the story would go:

Quirky Girl gets job caring for rich, recalcitrant quadriplegic who wants to commit suicide.
Quirky Girl gets Quad to loosen up and enjoy life again.
Quad gets Quirky Girl to see life beyond small town.
Quirky Girl and Quad fall in love.
But their love can't change Quad's mind (cue tears).

And I was right about the plot progression, but I didn't realize I'd enjoy the story as much as I did. It's not new or especially different. Louisa is chatty and won't put up with Will's stubborn grumpiness. Will has a heart of gold behind his gruff exterior. But, okay, they were cute, as was the development of their relationship.

There is, also, interesting commentary about assisted suicide and how we respond to those desiring such a choice (which also corresponds with current events given the recent decision of young Brittany Maynard to commit suicide). One of the points that Will returns to is that his accident has robbed him of the ability to make most choices in his life, and that by refusing him the choice to die, those who love him only serve to remove his autonomy further.

It's stuff worth discussion, even if the book itself is more expected than groundbreaking.

"Without You, There Is No Us" by Suki Kim

I've talked before about my interest in North Korea, though it's only coincidental that I got around to writing this review just as North Korea entered the news again with the Sony hacking and cancellation of the movie The Interview. But I picked up Without You after hearing an interview with author Kim on NPR. The other books I'd read on North Korea were about everyday people, largely dissidents and defectors. Kim's book, on the other hand, is about young North Korean elite: the men who attended a Christian missionary-funded university at which Kim taught English.

The whole set-up immediately exposes the craziness that is North Korea. They oppose Christianity, but they're happy to allow the missionaries to set up their school (they're forbidden from proselytizing or mentioning God/Jesus, of course). They hate the U.S. but want to ensure the elite men can speak English. Kim teaches at a STEM-themed school, but the students have little access to technology and no access to the internet. The college is for 19- and 20-year-old men, yet they often come across as young teenagers, innocent to the world around them.

Of course, the school's very set-up exposes craziness in others. Though Kim doesn't really go there (and I wish she had), you have to question the missionaries' very purpose. They fundraise back home to open this school, knowing they can't profess their faith to the students. They just want an "in" in the country should the dictatorship eventually fall. But, in the meantime, they're raising money, in the name of God, to support the privileged elite in a country where most of the population is barely surviving. How is that Christian?

As a narrative, though, Without You feels fairly empty. Kim's existence as a teacher is heavily guarded and structured, which means she doesn't have much to talk about other than feeling isolated and down. She's purposefully kept from developing close relationships with any of the students, which means most of them stay vague, rather than emerging as characters. Thus there's no real continuing narrative to string together her time at the school. The book reads as tiny vignettes pieced together with repetitive descriptions of her emotional state.

I also found her attitude somewhat problematic. She wants to covertly expose the students to elements of the world beyond, which seems a good thing. But she goes about it mostly by showing off--describing her world-wide travels or parading her laptop or Kindle in front of the students. She's put off when they don't show more interest. Why would they? They're smart enough to recognize they don't have such items, and they're old enough to buy the government line (which, in this case at least, is probably correct) about American arrogance. I feel like she could have taken a better approach, as she does when she teaches them essay form. In a culture not used to having to use evidence to support an assertion, the essay is a radical departure.

Without You does show that even the elite in North Korea are also heavily censored, but it doesn't offer a lot to the enigma that is the country.

"Yes, Please" by Amy Poehler

I love Amy Poehler, mostly because I love Parks and Rec and her character Leslie Knope. It's hard to read a book by the real person behind the show and fictional character you adore because you're just asking for her to disappoint. I preface this review that way because I wanted to like Yes, Please so much more than I did, but I don't know that my reaction is totally Poehler's fault.

There were some good parts. She gushes about Parks and Rec and her costars, which made me happy. And her recounting of some award show gags was funny--but just because the gags were funny. I would have rather seen a YouTube compilation of them.

Other parts really didn't work. A longish chapter about an SNL skit she did in which she (unknowingly) mocked a real disabled girl just felt self-serving: "see how bad I felt about it and how I made it all better." And, "innocent" that I am, I winced a little whenever she talked about her frequent drug use, even if it wasn't heavy stuff. Leslie Knope would never use drugs! The frequent name-dropping, even if Poehler acknowledged doing it, grew old.

Poehler's background is in improv, and she clearly excels in that arena. On the printed page, she often feels flat and unfunny. I imagine even listening to the audiobook would improve the book significantly.

Or maybe she just can't live up to her friend Tina Fey when it comes to memoir/essays. Bossypants still rocks my world.