Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Stiff" by Mary Roach

Summary: A nonfiction look into human cadavers.

Musings: I enjoyed Roach's Packing for Mars (her book on space travel) and was hoping for a similar light and engaging look into another subject I know almost nothing about: human cadavers.  Stiff certainly has the same formula as Packing for Mars, though overall I found it less interesting, perhaps because the science and history of cadavers is significantly more limited than that of space travel.

Roach addresses a couple of basic areas involving cadavers.  First, she covers the research angle, including medical school anatomy, organ donation, forensic research, and safety testing.  Here, Roach focuses on both what happens to the bodies and the researchers' feelings working with dead humans.  The descriptions of the cadavers can be a bit grotesque (this is not a book for the squeamish) and the questions to the researchers somewhat repetitive (typically they try to be respectful but also create distance between themselves and the idea of the cadaver as a human).  Later in the book, Roach explores cannibalism and issues of body disposal.

More than anything else, Stiff is a look into our complicated history with dead bodies, which are both lifeless objects and loved ones.  Much is made of "public outcry" over using bodies in any way, though I side with the researchers (and Roach) in believing that a dead body is an object and that it's more respectful to use that body in a way that helps the living than to let it rot in a coffin (which is no less disgusting).

I was especially intrigued by Roach's visit to Sweden, where one woman is promoting composting cadavers, which would then be used to fertilize a memorial tree or plant.  I'm hoping such technology will be available in the U.S. by the time I go; being buried in a coffin seems wasteful, and this method does more good than cremation.

Roach keeps her trademark light tone (which I like) in this book, though even I thought her questions and probing at times became inappropriate.  Her style seemed to work better in Packing for Mars, where she might annoy astronauts and scientists, but not offend.

Individual chapters of Stiff are certainly worthwhile, though I would recommend the book as a whole only to those with a particular interest.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Black Swan Green" by David Mitchell

Summary: Black Swan Green follows a year in the life of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor.  In this quiet bildungsroman, Jason deals with bullies, his fear of being outed as a stammerer, and his constant attempt to hide who he is in order to go unnoticed.

Musings: Black Swan Green is a book that excels entirely on the strong voice of its protagonist, Jason. The reader feels completely inside his head, and his acute desire to fit in is something I imagine everyone can understand.  Jason has a poet's soul, and because of that his prose is always engaging, whether its the personification of his stammer (called Hangman, who knows just when to trip him up) or his constant war with what he can and can't do (like noticing things are beautiful but being unable to say so because the word beautiful is "gay").

In particular, Mitchell catches the intricacies and tacit rules of being a teenage boy; image is everything and the punishments for being different are harsh.  Jason's navigation of school occurs simultaneously with his growing awareness of the problems in his parents' marriage, and both aspects of his life are weaved together in a way that feels real.  Perhaps this is because story is not told in a straightforward narrative but rather through short story-like chapters, chronicling the entire year in Jason's life.

The novel has a satisfying ending without being cheesy, and Jason grows without finishing growing. Black Swan Green is a more standard story than I typically read, but Mitchell's strong style makes is a completely unique read.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Wizard's First Rule" by Terry Goodkind

Summary: The boundary between the non-magical Westland and the magical Midlands and D'Hara is falling.  Richard, a simple woodsman, is called upon to wield the Sword of Truth and become the Seeker in order to defeat D'Hara's Darken Rahl, who is bent on ruling the world.  At Richard's side is Kahlan, a Confessor, and Zedd, a Wizard of the First Order.  They must race to keep Rahl from collecting the three boxes of Orden, which will give him unlimited power.

Musings: My husband and I became big fans of a shortly lived TV show called Legend of the Seeker, which is based off Goodkind's series.  The show was classic epic fantasy, but it was also a bit campy (along the lines of Xena and Hercules) and lots of fun.  There were many great things about the show, but the greatest of all was the main character Richard, played by Craig Horner (see photo to the right). Sigh.  Let me regain composure.

So, I spent most of my time watching the show swooning over Richard, but I also enjoyed the story in its own right.  Although I consider myself a fantasy fan, I tend to stay away from "epic fantasy," so I'd never looked into the books.  But, one of my students is a fan of the novels and convinced me to try Wizard's First Rule, the first book in the series and the book on which the first season of Legend of the Seeker is based.

I was a bit nervous at first, primarily because the novel is over 800 pages, but I really enjoyed it.  The story is one big adventure: mysteries, romance, monsters, fighting.  Because of that, the story goes quickly and doesn't seem to drag.

The TV show changed many of the details of the book, but the basic story and characterization is the same, so I enjoyed "returning" to my beloved Richard (and Kahlan and Zedd).  Richard's a pure, noble man, which can occasionally be annoying (he's constantly apologizing), but it works well given his role as the Seeker.  His relationship with Kahlan is also somewhat agonizing (they can't be together for reasons I won't get in to), but, again, it works in the setting.  Zedd is fun and impish, which can be a relief from Richard and Kahlan's seriousness.

The part I most dreaded in the novel was Richard's "training" with the evil Mord-Sith Denna. I really dislike torture scenes of any kind, and this one goes on for quite awhile.  It is important to the story as a whole, but I tried to skim that section as quickly as possible.  For the more squeamish, it could definitely be a turn-off for an otherwise engaging book.

Furthermore, there's an undercurrent of sadism and masochism throughout the entire book.  The Mord-Sith are based on the concept of pleasure through pain, and even for the noble like Richard, power is equated primarily with the ability to withstand pain. Again, it's easier to not think too much about it than to consider the implications.

The book plays with the nature of right and wrong more than the TV show, which raises interesting ethical questions.  In the show, Richard makes sure to help and save every minor person he meets, but in the book he recognizes that doing good for most does not always create easy choices.

I wouldn't mind reading one or two more books in the series, though I'll certainly take a break for now.  There's eleven books total, but I've read that they get progressively weaker.  However, reading the book does make me want to re-watch Legend of the Seeker.  I highly recommend it if you get Netflix.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Sapphique" by Catherine Fisher

Summary: In this sequel to Incarceron, Finn is now living in the Outside with Claudia, but he's not satisfied being the heir to the throne.  His oath brother, Keiro, is still in Incarceron, as is the former dog slave, Attia.  As fights for power occur both in and outside of Incarceron, the novel follows each character as he or she chooses loyalties.

Musings: I enjoyed Incarceron, despite its somewhat convoluted (and pretty forgettable) plot, and I feel the same way about Sapphique.  When I first began listening to it, I had to look up a detailed summary of the first book because I remembered nearly nothing about it, and I think in a few weeks I'll have the same problem with Sapphique. There's just too much going on, and for me, too little empathy developed in the reader for the characters for the novel to stick with me.

That's not to say there's no fun to be had while listening.  There's a lot of mystery, and it's rewarding to pick up on small new pieces of information along the way.  The unlikely pairing of Keiro and Attia provides for some interesting adventures, especially as they are more fun than the more whiny Finn and Claudia.

The audio narrator, Kim Mai Guest, does a decent job with the different characters' voices, which is especially important because the book switches points of view frequently.  I was initially turned off by Attia's strong cockney accent (and Ricks, for some reason, has a cockney lisp), but eventually I got over it.

Fisher's series is full of interesting ideas, but there's too much happening to be fully invested in the worlds and characters.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"The Broken Kingdoms" by N.K. Jemisin

Summary: Set in the same world as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms takes place ten years after the end of the first novel.  The world is no longer ruled by Bright Itempas alone, and many godlings now live and exist among mortals.  One of those mortals is Oree Shoth, a blind artist with an ability to see magic.  When godlings begin to be murdered, Oree is immediately involved: because of her magic, because of her godling ex-lover Madding, and because of "Shiny," a strange being she finds behind her home.

Musings: I thoroughly enjoyed the dense world building of Thousand Kingdoms and the complex relationships between mortals and gods it depicted.  And I liked Broken Kingdoms even more than the first book, perhaps because of its reduced focus on politics and increased focus on relationships and magic.

The protagonist, Oree, is in many ways similar to the protagonist Yeine from the first book.  Although their situations and statuses are very different, they have similar voices and personalities.  This didn't particularly bother me, though sometimes reading gave me vague deja vu.  However, though Broken Kingdom also focuses on the relationships between gods and mortals like the first book, I found the relationships in this book more compelling.  Oree's loving relationship with Madding and her difficult relationship with Shiny are central to the novel and develop and grow over time.

The novel does have a bit of the "magical blind woman" trope, but I did find Oree's powers and use of magic interesting, especially as contrasted with the other characters'.  Jemisin is also careful to stress the force and limitations of the gods' powers, who have a somewhat straddled existence.  They live among mortals, can love mortals, and can be hurt and even killed.  Yet they are also feared, worshiped, and strong.

It's nice to see the characters from Thousand Kingdoms back again, even though they are all in significantly diminished roles (Yeine, T'vril, Nahadoth, and Sieh all make important appearances). Interesting yet under-explored characters from the first book (namely Bright Itempas) are more important.

In content, feel, theme, and tone, Broken Kingdoms is much like Thousand Kingdoms.  For those who enjoyed the first book (like myself!), this is definitely a good thing, even if the book doesn't feel completely and distinctly different.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"My Korean Deli" by Ben Ryder Howe

Summary: A memoir of Howe and his wife's decision to buy and open a New York City deli with the wife's mother-in-law.

Musings: I reserved this book on its novel topic (a pure-bred Bostonian WASP opening a "Korean" deli) and supposed comedy.  I didn't find it a particularly funny book, though it was amusing at times, but it was an interesting look into one man's search for identity and purpose.

On the first point, there's certainly a bit of awe and shock in Howe and his wife Gab's decision to open a deli.  Who really does that and thinks it'll be a good idea?  I was amazed they saw it as a way to give back to Gab's parents (though her obsessive filial devotion was also rather nuts and could provide its own story) and make enough money to move out of Gab's parents' basement (which they lived in for EIGHT YEARS! EIGHT!).  Howe explains how much of their decision to open and run the store went against his Puritan upbringing, both in terms of the family intimacy and living for the moment (rather than worrying about the future) it required.  I could see much of my own ideology in him, though that only reinforced my belief that although Howe and Gab are undeniably smart (he was an editor at a somewhat pretentious literary magazine; she had just resigned being a corporate attorney), they are also morons.

Not surprisingly, many things go wrong, though fortunately it's not a complete disaster.  In the midst of the trials and tribulations of running a small business there are some great stories, from working with a pushy coffee vendor to opening the store during a blackout to navigating underground merchandisers.  One of their workers, Dwayne, also is fodder for interesting commentary.

Of course, memoirs are typically not just a collection of anecdotes but must provide some personal journey.  And though I appreciated Howe's introspection into how operating the store forced some changes in his worldview, at times the philosophizing did drag the book down.

My Korean Deli is a unique "fish out of water story" and covers a range of topics: the difficulties of being a small business owner, the bureaucracy of cities, cross-cultural misunderstandings, and the search for contentedness in life.  It's light enough for those seeking a casual read, but it also provides food for thought for those who want a little more.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte

Summary: Jane Eyre, an orphan, lives with her hateful Aunt Reed and her snotty children. When Jane finally reaches her breaking point with her Aunt and responds to the abuse, her aunt decides to send Jane to boarding school.  Although Jane has a difficult time at first, she eventually excels.  After many years she seeks work as a governess and is installed at Thornfield Hall where she meets Mr. Rochester.  As romance starts to develop, so too do the secrets of Thornfield.

Musings: I read Jane Eyre in high school but had retained only the barest outline of events, and it was truly a delight to reread (listen) to the novel.  Jane Eyre is the perfect protagonist.  Bright, confident, and spirited, she rebels against the dormant lifestyle expected of women in that day.  Instead, she seeks intellectual and physical engagement.  Her relationship with Mr. Rochester blooms not because of physical attraction or novelty but because he equals and respects her intellectually. With him, Jane does not need to hide or restrain any part of her personality. 

Going in I expected Bronte's style be along the lines of Austen, whom I enjoy but do find long-winded.  I was happily surprised that Bronte's novel felt much different to me, moving along at a good pace despite some extraordinarily long conversations.  I did occasionally grow impatient in the latter part of the novel during Jane's time with the Rivers, but that may be because I was so anxious for the ending (which I remembered) to come.  Yet I do think Jane's time with St. John Rivers (an aside: the narrator of my audio book pronounced his name as "Sin-gen"--is this normal?) is important in order to juxtapose Jane's personality and life with him against that of her time with Mr. Rochester.

My audiobook version was read by Susan Erickson, who did an excellent job capturing Jane's composed personality and Mr. Rochester's fiery temperament.  I loved the way she voiced Jane and Mr. Rochester's repartee.

Rereading Jane Eyre was thoroughly enjoyable.  Because I listened on audiobook, it took me over a month to finish it, but I'm glad that meant it lasted longer.

***This book qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge (19th century classic category).