Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Year in Review

Well, this makes five years blogging! Hard to believe I've been doing it that long. I suppose the "success" comes from the very low pressure--if few are reading, you're not beholden to anyone but yourself! And that's mostly the way I like it.

Clearly my reading took a big hit this year, though I've been dropping in numbers the last few years. I read about half as many books this year as last year and about a third as many as I read in 2010 at my peak. Again, the same reasons get in the way. I'm teaching, working out, and now assistant directing the drama program at my school. That "sacred" reading time I used to have after school and before dinner is now entirely erased. And, like last year, I've had a harder time getting excited about what I read. So much of it leaves me feeling "meh." Nonetheless, here we go:

My top 10 books read in 2013:
1. Tenth of December by George Saunders
2. Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss
3. The Dinner by Herman Koch
4. Zealot by Reza Aslan
5. Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
6. The Long Walk by Stephen King
7. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
8. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra
10. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Total books read: 39
Total books reviewed: 37
I wasn't going to embarrass myself by reviewing the first two 50 Shades books. I made it about halfway through the third before getting really bored.

Fiction read: 30
Nonfiction read: 9
If nothing else, I tend to stay very consistent in nonfiction making up about 25% of my reading each year.

Adult read: 36
Young adult read: 3
Little drawing me to YA anymore.

Female authors: 17
Male authors: 22
I always start out pretty well here, and then somehow the ladies start losing out by the end of the year.

Years published:
- 2013: 14
- 2012: 20
- 2011: 1
- 2000-2010:  2
- 1990-1999: 0
- 1900-1989:  2
- 1800-1899: 0

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 37
- Total purchased: 1
- Total already owned: 1

Happy new year and best wishes for 2014!

"The Long Earth" by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Like all good sci-fi, The Long Earth begins with a compelling premise. One day, in the near-ish future, a design for a device simple enough for kids to put together appears on the internet. Soon, thousands of people have built the device and immediately "step" into a parallel Earth. In the time that follows, people discover an infinite number of parallel Earths going in two directions from what is now called "Datum Earth." There are oddities of course--most people experience severe nausea from stepping, and though the stepper takes whatever he or she is touching along for the step, no iron can be passed between worlds. Each of the parallel worlds retains the same underlying geography--if you step from New York, you step into the New York of the parallel word--but none of the parallel worlds have people or modern development. Instead, each world appears to represent a "potential" world that our physical world could have evolved into a some point in its history.

What I liked most about this premise was that it allows for a lot of exploration into how such technology would affect our current world. Early on, many people begin to settle the parallel Earths, but it's mostly the middle class--the rich have too much to lose in leaving Datum Earth, and the poor have insufficient resources to make such a trip feasible. It's also noted early on that a small portion of the population is unable to step, creating hostilities. I thought both of these issues were interesting, but unfortunately they make up a small portion of the novel.

I also thought the psychology of why people would leave Datum Earth was interesting. At first, I thought there's no way I'd leave the modern conveniences--not just cell phones and the Internet but toilets and modern medicine--to start over in a new world. But, the more I read, the more I could see the appeal of leaving behind the burdening details and concerns of the modern world (buying insurance, investing in retirement properly, paying taxes, etc.) and focusing just on subsistence and survival. Such an idea certainly excessively romanticizes "pioneer" living, but I could understand the desire for such a life.

But, again, a lot of those issues are pushed aside to focus instead on the story of Joshua, a bit of a hero stepper who can step naturally and without getting sick, and Lobsang, the first artificial intelligence to be recognized as a person by the courts. Lobsang hires Joshua to travel with him millions of Earths beyond Datum Earth. Unfortunately, their story--traveling through world after world--and their relationship--Joshua getting accustomed to Lobsang's quirks--are pretty dull. Neither person is especially exciting as a character, and I found myself more engaged when the story strayed to other people or places.

I still liked the book and will read the sequel. There's enough interesting worldbuilding and lots of potential exciting storylines to bring me back, even though I hope Pratchett and Baxter find a new way to use Joshua and Lobsang in the future.

A side note: My husband went into The Long Earth expecting the humor and absurdity associated with Pratchett. He kept laughing--trying too hard I think--at things that weren't especially funny, and he had a hard time believing me when I said it's not a funny book. It's not--there's some humor, but it's fairly serious sci-fi. That's not a criticism in and of itself, just something to be aware of.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" by Mohsin Hamid

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a fiction novel (very) vaguely in the guise of a self-help book, is written entirely in the second person. This means we never learn the name of the protagonist ("you") nor his love interest, "the pretty girl." The point of view conceit had me concerned at first because I hadn't liked how it was used in Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, done entirely in the "we." I felt it erased individual characters, making the book less affecting.

However, the same is not true in Filthy Rich, since the reader remains in the world of the protagonist, his feelings and desires becoming fully-fleshed, even if he's not given a name. The novel follows the protagonist from his youth in poverty to his success as an entrepreneur, to his eventual old age. For anyone who's read books about Asia (it reminded me particularly of India, though I don't think that's the setting), a lot of the themes are familiar: poverty, corruption, bribery, and violence. Yet because the novel follows such a lengthy portion of the protagonist's life, the stories feel somewhat new.

The novel is slim and easy reading, and though it isn't my favorite of the novels that deal with similar themes, it's a worthy enough read.

Monday, December 9, 2013

"Five Days at Memorial" by Sheri Fink

The first half of Five Days at Memorial is one of the most compelling reads I've read all year. Fink recounts five days at New Orleans' Memorial Hospital immediately following Hurricane Katrina, detailing the events that ultimately led, on the last day, to several doctors and nurses administering lethal doses of drugs to a number of the hospital's sickest unevacuated patients.

Fink does an excellent job of putting the reader in the hospital staff's shoes as they fight mounting panic and uncertainty of rescue. Though rescue helicopters began to arrive early, they arrived without a central coordinated effort, making future return trips always uncertain. And the staff received no relief in caring for its many patients or in the simple yet backbreaking work of carrying patients up the stairs in order to be evacuated. If Hurricane Katrina revealed anything, it revealed a complete lack of disaster preparedness, from the individual hospital level all the way to the federal government.

Of course, why Five Days at Memorial has been made into a book is because of the staff's decision to euthanize a select number of patients whom they deemed would be unable to be evacuated from the hospital. For that reason, the second--and much drier--section of the book concerns the investigation into what happened and the later attempts at prosecution. I don't blame Fink, but there's just no way to make recounting interviews especially interesting, even if the subject matter is.

Though the book is written from a third-person objective point of view, it's clear that Fink ultimately believes that the doctors acted inappropriately and should be subject to criminal punishment. Yet, despite Fink's bias, I just couldn't agree (and neither could many others--none of the doctors and nurses were ever prosecuted). We expect individuals to be superhumanly heroic in times of disaster, but, even though they performed extraordinary services to the patients, the doctors and nurses are, ultimately, human. They were under stress, concerned for their lives, and had little outside support. They did not act maliciously or negligently--they did what they legitimately believed had to be done at the time. And, perhaps equally important, what is to be gained by prosecuting the staff? You deprive their patients of their services. You deprive their families of the presence. And you make them a jailed burden on the tax payers. What does that achieve? The doctors and nurses are unlikely to act similarly again, and the idea "justice" for the deceased families seems somewhat hollow. Their loved ones were very sick, and even if they had been evacuated, many or most probably would have died. After all, even after evacuation, the majority--sick and healthy--were left uncared for for days on roadsides or in the airport.

That's not to say that there were no poor judgments. That's made especially clear in the case of Emmett Everett, an obese man who was chosen for final evacuations because of his weight and other health conditions. He too was euthanized despite being conscious and alert the final morning. His case, more than any of the others, caused me to reconsider the doctors' actions.

Despite Fink's clear point of view, the book is excellently researched and compelling. Though the content should provide much for discussion, perhaps its most important contribution can be its emphasis on the need for clearly defined emergency procedures. When the insane occurs, people perform best with structure, order, and a sense of purpose.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Zealot" by Reza Aslan

I first heard about Zealot from an interview with Aslan (my husband couldn't help but comment on the coincidence/irony [depending on how you read it] of the name) on NPR. Plenty of books have been written about the historical Jesus--what Aslan terms the "Jesus of Nazareth," as opposed to "Jesus the Christ," worshiped by modern Christians. But what makes Aslan, as an author, stand out is that he's Muslim, though he converted to Christianity for a period of time as a teenager. Ultimately, though, Aslan's personal background is irrelevant in Zealot, which seeks to explain the historical context for Jesus' life and ministry.

It's this context that has been stripped away from modern Christianity, which seems to argue that Jesus' message is timeless and the time period in which he lived is arbitrary. And while the generic platitudes of Christianity--turn the other cheek; love God, etc.--aren't rooted in any time period, Jesus certainly was. He existed as a Jewish man (and the identity is significant) at a period of Roman occupation of the Jewish people. Like other revolutionaries of his time, his goal was freedom from Rome: an independent country of God's chosen people. He was the called the Messiah, but was done so like many others before him. I once had someone tell me the "proof" that Jesus was the literal son of God was that "no one" would have called himself the Messiah unless he was the son of God or was absolutely crazy. Somehow this "either/or" proposition was supposed to convince me (I guess I was supposed to be offended by the suggestion that Jesus could have been crazy?). Aslan effectively argues that there's a third option--that Jesus was called the Messiah in a long tradition of non-crazy devout believers who took the title. Such an argument doesn't discount the other two options, but it does reject the premise of the "either/or" argument.

Aslan suggests that the significant Jewish underpinnings of Jesus were stripped away after the destruction of Jerusalem, when Christianity became a Roman religion. Of course they would want to remove the cultural significance of his actual life and preachings.

Aslan addresses simple, basic misunderstandings about the Bible. Like the fact that the New Testament books concerning Jesus were written after Jesus' death, by people who never knew him (and not by the people for whom the books are named), and by people who had clear agendas. This doesn't mean that the writers of the books of the Bible were lying, but they also weren't recording "history" in the way that we presume history books are written today. They had a specific ideological goal in mind, and their stories reflect that.

Similarly, Aslan notes that basic elements of the Jesus myth are absurd--like Joseph and Mary going back to Bethlehem on the night of Jesus' birth. From Aslan: "Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and his possessions, which in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous" (30). There's nothing wrong with studying the stories of the Bible, but only as myths and parables designed for a purpose--not as literal "truth."

Zealot is in no way out to "debunk" Christianity. In many places, Aslan notes that items are matters, ultimately, of faith. For example, he does not try to give scientific explanations for Jesus' attributed miracles, as the argument would ultimately be fruitless. Either you believe he's the son of God and performed them, or you believe they never happened and were inventions by the Bible authors. There's no way to "prove" one way or another. Instead, Aslan attempts to lay out the known historical record of Jesus, producing a book that I think could actually enrich Christianity.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer

I think I've spoken before of my automatic distaste for any book described as a "saga." Not that I haven't enjoyed books spanning lifetimes or generations, but somehow the term "saga" has become associated, in my mind, with drawn-out melodrama--of the decidedly unappealing variety.

So, that brings me to The Interestings, which came up on so many "best of" lists that I felt the need to try it. And it is a "saga" of friendship, it is a drawn-out melodrama, but it's also a mostly engrossing book.

The Interestings begins at Spirit-in-the-Woods creative arts summer camp, where ordinary Jules is unexpectedly drawn into a group of "cool" campers: siblings Ash and Goodman, animation star Ethan, musician Jonah, and dancer Cathy. The story follows Jules throughout adulthood and her continuing friendships with Ethan and Ash.

Thematically, the novel hits home for many. Our concept of identity as formed as a teenager and challenged as an adult. Dealing with jealously as we recognize our peers and friends are more successful than we are. Learning to be happy with what you have. Finding and accepting your place in the world.

I enjoyed the book for the first half, but at some point, it started to drag. I think I was tired of hearing how "gentle" Ash is or how "talented" Ethan is. Or how Jules is so "funny" and "awesome" even though the reader doesn't really see that side. Or, goodness, the dragging on of Jules' husband Dennis' depression. It just felt like nothing was happening--the same feelings were just recycled through new periods of the characters' lives. And though that's perhaps true to life, it was also a bit dull.

The book also didn't seem to know what to do with Jonah, who's more of a character than Goodman and Cathy--they largely drop out of the book except to exist on the periphery--yet significantly less important than Jules, Ethan, and Ash. His childhood trauma is wrought and overdone, and somewhat irrelevant to the rest of the novel.

In the end, The Interestings began promising, despite being called a "saga," but ended a bit flat.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

"We Need New Names" by NoViolet Bulawayo

In many ways, We Need New Names is a collection of short stories, though all follow the experiences of the young girl Darling, first in Zimbabwe (though I believe the country goes unnamed in the book), and later after she immigrates to America. But rather than a continuous narrative, the novel is comprised of a series of vignettes illuminating Darling and her friends' lives.

I found the stories about Darling's life in her home country the most engaging, as Bulawayo perfectly captures the voice of the young while illuminating a culture and country different than my own. There's the simple joy of stealing and eating guavas, or the fear (even though Darling and her friends are black) when a white neighborhood is ransacked.The simultaneous concern and indifference with which Darling and her friends treat the pregnancy of their friend Chipo--a child as well--too feels emblematic of youth.

The stories when Darling moves to Michigan are similarly engaging, though thematically they tread ground I was more familiar with from similar novels which describe the challenges of the American immigrant experience. Darling is proud to be living in America, but she also desperately misses her country and her friends, and she struggles to adjust to the inevitable distance that such a move creates between her and the people back home.

Bulawayo writes beautifully, and I had a hard time putting the novel down, even though, because of the structure, it would seem easy to stop. I'm eager to read more.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness" by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire is the true account of Cahalan's battle with a mysterious neurological illness which caused her to become paranoid, hallucinate, and completely forget a month of her life. The story is helped by the fact that Cahalan was a young, attractive, New York Post reporter--in short, a person going places--when everything began.

What I found most interesting about Cahalan's story was the way in which the medical establishment is ill-equipped to treat unusual illnesses. This fact makes sense--after all, most illnesses do fall into pre-established categories--but it also means that people who fall outside the norm are easily dismissed. In particular, it was frightening how quickly doctors were willing to write Cahalan off as a young person drinking too much, or later as just another case of mental illness. Cahalan notes that if it weren't for her privileged position and a supportive family, she easily could have ended up in a mental institution for the rest of her life.

Cahalan's bizarre behavior and the search for the cure are compelling stuff, but not enough to sustain an entire book. The other space is filled with medical descriptions of disease--relevant, but dull material. I was left feeling that the book would have been better as a lengthy essay rather than a standalone piece.

In short, I'd try Cahalan's original article in the New York Post first and only pick the book up if you're left wanting more.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

Like many, I'm a Neil Gaiman fan, so it's almost a disappointment that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is such a slim book. The length doesn't diminish the novel in any way--it's the perfect length for the story it wants to tell--but I wanted the pleasure of reading for a longer period of time.

Ocean is a bit unusual because it's a book for adults with a child protagonist. What makes it really shine, though, is the relationship it posits between its adult readers and the seven-year-old narrator. For we don't read the book thinking, "Ah, yes, those silly fears of children!" Rather, we read the book and fully inhabit and understand the very real terror of being a child, a person without physical or social power to change his surroundings.

The unnamed narrator recounts his childhood and relationship with Lettie Hempstock, an usual girl at the end of the lane. Lettie tries to control a creature from another world, but a portion of the creature is left in the narrator, which brings evil into his home.

The book's main message seems to be that, to children, adults are every bit as scary and monstrous as actual monsters. After all, adults make and enforce the rules, regardless of the logic, desires, or needs of children. When the creature enters the narrator's home in the form of the wily babysitter Ursula Monkton, the narrator knows that his parents won't buy his protests that she's evil or out to harm him. The rules that say adults are smarter, that adults are civil, and that adults are rational will always prevail. As a reader, we're terrified for the protagonist as he attempts to escape because we understand this logic and his powerlessness.

Gaiman also blurs the line between the evil of Monkton and the "evil"--or at least wrong--of adults. Monkton has power over the narrator's father; he has an affair with her and he attempts to drown the narrator after he insults Monkton. But, it's never clear how much of the father's actions are a result of supernatural mind control and how much are the natural selfishness and anger of the father. The lack of clarity--and the implication that adults can be terrible without a villain forcing them--makes the story all the more chilling.

The magical Hempstock family is made perfectly normal within the novel, even though the novel exists in a solidly real world and even though the family is anything but typical. The protagonist's inherent trust in them--because they are calm and assured--also serves to reinforce the precarious nature of children, who are dependent upon the solidity of adults to shape their lives.

Ocean is certainly an adult book, with terror and subject matter inappropriate for children who share the protagonist's age. Yet it's a perfect book for adults, a modern horror fantasy with all the Gaiman details one would expect.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

"The Golem and the Jinni" by Helene Wecker

Aah! Since I began this blog in January 2009, this is the first time a month has gone by without a single post! I suppose nothing lasts--at least in its same form--forever. I actually did finish The Golem and the Jinni in September, so I didn't go a month without reading...but I did go a month without posting.

I'm back at school, teaching two new classes, and that takes a huge chunk of my time. I'm teaching AP Language for the first time, and it scares me. I so desperately want my students to do well--they're good kids and they're talented--and I'm constantly worrying I'm not preparing them sufficiently. Come May I'll have a "grade" of how well I've done for the first time. I don't want to fail.

I've also taken up the position of drama coordinator at my school. I don't direct the plays, but I am at every rehearsal every day. The phrase "herding cats" has only really come true for me for the first time with high school drama. It's exhausting, even though I'm mostly an observer.

I'm still attempting to work out four times a week, something I've done the past year. I went once this past week.

C'est la vie. Time for books.

The Golem and the Jinni was a solid book for me. Entertaining plot and characters, plenty enjoyable, but without that spark of style to the writing that makes it memorable.

Wecker brings together two myths--the Jewish golem and the middle-Eastern jinni--in early 20th century New York. The blending of three cultures (Jewish, Syrian, and American) only works because golem Chava and jinni Ahmad are so similar--beings of great power constrained by the ordinariness of human life. They're connected in another important way, though it would be spoiling the novel to say in what manner. Wecker does a good job of conveying their otherness: Chava's literal inability to relax or Ahmad's perpetual claustrophobia.

The best parts of the book involve Chava and Ahmad's developing relationship, but there are great moments with their human friends, from the rabbi who takes in Chava to the tinsmith who teaches Ahmad his trade.

The book is somewhat lengthy and drags a bit in the middle before coming to a roaring conclusion. There aren't any great descriptions or lyrical prose, but it's a good, character-driven light fantasy worthy of a read.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"The 5th Wave" by Rick Yancey

I think I've discovered the formula that is The 5th Wave:

Hunger Games' Katniss + male version of Prim + a Gale who doesn't know Katniss + Twilight's Edward Cullen = new hit YA dystopian

But, though I think The 5th Wave is certainly derivative from the boom in the YA dystopian genre and thus the books that came before it, it's also engaging, action-packed, and a lot of fun.

The book takes place in the time period following the Others' attack on earth. In the 1st Wave, they knocked out all the power (ala the TV show Revolution); in the 2nd Wave, they flooded anywhere near the coast; in the 3rd Wave, they used birds to carry a deadly virus; and in the 4th Wave, they revealed themselves living inside human bodies (ala Stephenie Meyers' The Host, a book which also has significant similarities with the novel). Now, few humans remain, among them Cassie, who's alone and on the run.

Cassie's narration makes up the first hundred pages (nearly a quarter of the novel), and it's through her flashbacks that we learn about the Others' invasion and the first through fourth waves. Cassie's an easy protagonist to root for, and the worldbuilding is interesting without being overwhelming.

After those first hundred pages, the book begins alternating points of view, and also--I thought--got somewhat weaker. It's jarring to go from Cassie to include her high school crush, Ben Parrish; her little brother, Sammy; and mysterious hunk Evan Walker. Their viewpoints give necessary insight into the larger picture, but their views are also more predictable.

The romance (?) between Cassie and Evan was also rough. Edward--um, sorry, I mean Evan--is gorgeous and understanding and perfect and, oh, gorgeous. And he smells like chocolate. But fortunately Cassie isn't Bella, and she maintains a healthy distrust of him and a healthy reaction to his annoyingly perfect persona. Yancey is also smart enough to portray stalking as creepy, not romantic. Nonetheless, their scenes together were always a bit too much for me.

But, like I said earlier, the actions comes quick, and there's tons of violence and gore for those needing the post-Hunger Games fix. Interesting that we've definitely reached a point where kids as young as seven killing other people is normal stuff.

Ultimately, what separated The 5th Wave from Hunger Games is that it's about the fact that humanity will always come together--even when it's most dangerous for us to do so--while Hunger Games continually isolates its protagonist. It's a more hopeful message, maybe, even amongst the carnage.

Monday, August 19, 2013

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

I'm aware of how little I know about history--particularly the history beyond the United States--yet it's always somewhat surprising when I read a book about a period in history that not only do I know nothing about, I've never even heard about before. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena concerns the civil wars in Chechnya, covering from 1996-2004. Much of the situation is familiar from other countries: poverty and starvation; "disappearances" in the night; neighbors ratting on one another.

Constellation weaves together several individuals' stories. First, there's Akhmed, an failure of a doctor (he'd rather be an artist) who ends up with his neighbor's young daughter after the neighbor, Dokka, is taken to the Landfill. He brings the daughter, Havaa, to a surgeon, Sonja, in a nearby run-down hospital. He's never met the doctor, but he's seen her skilled work, and she reluctantly takes in Havaa and takes on Akhmed as an employee. From there the novel flits back and forth in time, exploring the developing relationship between Akhmed and Sonja, Sonja's relationship with her missing sister, and the relationship between Akhmed's neighbor Kassan and his informant son.

The book covers a terrible time in Chechen history, yet it does so with the right balance, never becoming too tragic or too falsely saccharine. The characters are fully developed and complex, and they're all so very human--no one's a complete hero or villain.

I find I don't have much to say upon finishing, but I cried through the entire ending--something that happens seldom. It doesn't end happily, but it doesn't end hopelessly either, and the mixture of sadness and possibility stayed with me.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles

(book finished on August 4)

It's obvious that one's expectations going in to a book significantly affect how much a person will enjoy it. Over the years, I've also found that having no expectations, or not knowing anything about a novel, can be dangerous in its own way. A study found that "spoiling" a story actually increases our enjoyment of it, and, to some extent, I think pre-knowledge of a book's general direction also helps us like the book more. It doesn't mean there can't be surprises, but we like to know the situation we're getting into.

All of this is a roundabout way of introducing my experience with The Rules of Civility, a book I'd downloaded onto my Kindle a long time ago, but only got around to reading now. I had no idea what the book was about, and because of that, I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I might otherwise have done.

The book begins with friends Katey and Eve on New Year's Eve 1938. At a bar, they meet a rich man named Tinker, whom they begin a friendship with. Soon after, the three are in a car accident that leaves Eve somewhat disfigured, and she takes up residence (and a relationship) with Tinker. Now, from this beginning, I assumed the novel would be about Katey and Eve's relationship with each other and with Tinker. But, soon, Eve and Tinker largely drop out of the story (though Tinker importantly returns), which then focuses on the trials and tribulations of Katey's life as an independent woman in New York. There's nothing wrong with that story line, but I kept reading it as an interlude to the real story--I just couldn't see where it all was going.

I wanted to care more about Katey's attempts to find happiness and a career in the world, but I couldn't. Her various flings didn't hold much interest either. Again, I think I was supposed to be intrigued by her breaking of social taboos in the time period, but it never felt like she was being all that revolutionary. I also couldn't quite understand her relationship with Tinker nor her condemnation of him when she learned the truth of his past. After all, all of them were trying to climb the social ladder in their own way.

Maybe "period" novels just don't work for me. Or maybe reading on trains and planes was too distracting. Whatever the reason, I just couldn't see the point of Rules of Civility.

"The Long Walk" by Stephen King

(book finished on July 27)

It's appropriate that I read The Long Walk at the onset of a 10-day trip to England and Wales. Because one of the aspects that makes The Long Walk work is the outwardly mundane nature of its premise. One hundred boys sign up for a competition--and they start walking. The last one standing wins. There's no fighting, no subversive techniques (well, unless you count the fact that you are shot dead if you stop for more 30 seconds or drop below a four miles per hour pace three times in an hour). The winner just walks longer and farther than anyone else.

And the reason I mention my trip is because, at first, walking seems easy. Walking is easy. We all do it everyday. I really enjoy walking. But after spending a week of heavy walking, including walking eleven miles through downtown London one day, I can also say: walking is exhausting. By the end of my day in London, my shins hurt, my feet hurt, and my back hurt. I just wanted to sit down. Though, of course, I'd been able to take breaks throughout the day, eat normally, use a restroom, and go the speed I wished--the characters in the novel don't have that luxury.

King does an excellent job as well showing how grueling walking can be over the long run, both physically and mentally on the boys. The main character is Garraty, and like most characters in the novel, he doesn't have a clear motive for entering. At first, this bothered me. Because the winner gets anything he wants for life, I assumed the contestants would be either in dire straights financially or be full of bravado (like the Careers in Hunger Games). After all, you're almost certain to die in the competition. But, these characters are teenagers, so their entry makes sense. Everyone else was applying. Once they got in, they delayed backing out. They avoided thinking about the reality of what they were going to do. They were dissatisfied with their lives without really knowing why.

Since the plot of the novel is comprised solely of the characters walking, its strength has to be based on the relationships built between the characters. I enjoyed how the friendship of Garraty and McVries developed over time, and characters like Scramm, Stebbins, and Barkovitch are also drawn well.

In many ways, The Long Walk is an anti-Hunger Games, exploring through a somewhat similar concept the fight within the self rather than the fight between others or against a corrupt government (though the government in the book does seem corrupt, it's barely explored, and there's little evidence of a real tyranny). I'd highly recommend.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"The Burgess Boys" by Elizabeth Strout

I really enjoyed Strout's Olive Kitteridge, but, reading the summary of The Burgess Boys, I wasn't too excited. I think that's because anything that rings "family saga" tends to bore me--I can only read so much of tense relationships, fraught feelings, and long inner monologues. And a summary that begins "haunted by..." is even worse.

So I was predisposed against the novel, and maybe, for that reason, it met my expectations. It certainly wasn't bad, and Strout is adept at capturing the nuances and contradictions present in any relationships--romantic and family--but I just couldn't care all that much.

The novel is about the Burgess siblings--Jim, Bob, and Susan--though the brothers are the focus. The family grew up in Maine, but only Susan remains there with her son, Zach. After Zach is arrested for throwing a pig's head into a Somali mosque during Ramadan, the siblings are brought back together.

Jim is idolized by his siblings, and though we're told about his magnetism, it's hard to see his charm in the novel. He overreacts to Zach's situation (we're told he's the person who "takes care" of things, but he seems to mostly freak out and be grumpy) and is terrible to Bob. His abusive behavior to Bob is all the more confusing given that Bob seems like a decent guy. We're told by his siblings what a loser he is, but there's little evidence of that (other than some heavy drinking early on). I suppose the point is that sibling relationships don't always make sense to outsiders. Instead, within a family, people are assigned certain roles and characteristics, and those assigned personas are difficult to lose.

From the initial rush of activity after Zach's arrest, little happens. The characters go back and forth from New York City to Maine. They think a lot about life or whatever. They're mean to one another. 

As a character, Zach is the most underdeveloped. He's a scared, quiet kid, who had little reason to throw the pig's head in the mosque. It's clear he didn't mean it maliciously, and some of the officials' attempts to prosecute it as a hate crime is overreaching, but he also gets off the hook quite easy. I mean, the kid's scared, so he isn't responsible for anything?

The characterization of the individuals' relationship is expertly done, but there wasn't enough in their lives or problems for me to be invested.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is not "one of the year's best books" (according to the cover), but it's a fun and occasionally funny summer read. The novel's written in epistolary form, a structure which often annoys me (it seems sophomoric), but the format works here to highlight the comedic elements of the story. Fortunately the compiler of the letters (the titular Bernadette's daughter, Bee) also includes straight first person narration where necessary, saving the book from unrealistic dialogue and action-heavy letters.

The story concerns Bernadette, a once rising star in the architecture field who fled L.A. with her husband and daughter after one of her projects was destroyed.  Bernadette's lived as a recluse since then, and her stress builds when Bee insists on a trip to Antarctica for her 8th grade graduation and Bernadette gets into a series of tiffs with Audrey, the mother next door whose son attends the same private school as Bee. And, as is suggested by the title, Bernadette eventually goes missing, leaving Bee and her father, Elgin, to find her.

Bernadette is an amusing character, making fun of the private school helicopter parents and riffing on various things that annoy her. It's a little hard to see the agoraphobic mother as a star architect and winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant, but that's okay. However, pretty quickly all the characters run together--there's little to distinguish the style and tone of one from the other. Even 15-year-old Bee sounds similar to her father, or her father's amorous admin.

Nonetheless, I plowed through the book, particularly since the letter format makes it easy to read. The action keeps moving quickly (disaster piling atop disaster), and it was worth it to see the descent of Audrey, even if she does come too close to a caricature of "snooty private school mom."

[Spoiler Alert] Yet the ending was really too far-fetched, not just because of the Antarctic heist but because it wraps up some significant issues without actually addressing them. I mean, Elgin is going to be a father to Soo-Lin's baby, so Bernadette can't just declare she will "swat her away [her]self" (326). He's also (though perhaps temporarily) unemployed and all their financial accounts have been taken over by the Russian mafia (or whatever), which means the family is more or less without money, which I would think would make Bernadette's return to real life rather difficult. And though perhaps Bernadette's hopeful letter (in which she is unaware of the baby and job loss), which ends the book, could be meant to be satirical, that tone wouldn't fit in with the rest of the novel, so I'm taking it to be intended as a sincere happy ending.

But, as always, I'm focusing on the flaws when it was an enjoyable two-day read, one I probably should have saved for my upcoming long plane ride to the UK!

Stray Thoughts:
- I have issue with novels where people have sex together one time and the woman gets pregnant (this; Water for Elephants). I mean, I know an unexpected pregnancy builds drama, but the rate is so misleadingly higher in books than in real life. I especially hate books where the virgin gets pregnant her first go (I'm looking at you, The Natural and A Thousand Splendid Sons, among others). How about all those people who have sex and don't get pregnant?
- I also hate the hyperbolic blurbs on books that are somewhat comedic. I mean, how often do you really laugh out loud during a book (Bossypants--hands down. But that's it.)? So the dude from People blurbing that Bernadette is "an uproarious comedy" or Redbook saying "[I'll] laugh [my] pants off" is just annoying.
- [Spoiler again] Was it not weird that the "Manjula" issue was wrapped up so perfunctorily? I mean, there's something about this first world woman whining about her privileged life in long letters to this Indian woman being paid 75 cents an hour, but, then, no, "It's the Russian mafia" and the whole issue is done. Also, "Manjula" did do everything Bernadette asked... 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

"Argo" by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio

Like many people, I saw the movie version of Argo and enjoyed it (though I thought Lincoln was better). It's a great, tension-filled spy caper and feel-good-about-America film. Though the true account isn't quite as dramatic as the movie (but truth be told, there's still plenty of drama), it also does a better job of providing a comprehensive look at the CIA's work, which is interesting in and of itself.

The book is told by Mendez (played by Ben Affleck in the film), the decorated career CIA agent who orchestrated the rescue of six American embassy employees from Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979 and 1980. Surprisingly to me, though it makes complete sense, Mendez was originally hired into the CIA because of his skills as an artist. He and others worked essentially as forgers, creating paperwork, stamps, whatever was needed for CIA agents and the people they worked with. I have to imagine this department is significantly different today, mostly relying on computer graphic technicians.

However, Mendez didn't stay just in that area, as he eventually rose to be Chief of Disguise! (okay, and then Chief of Authentication, but that's not exciting) How badass is that? I mean, did he have business cards that said "chief of disguise"? And he actually created disguises, a la Mission:Impossible! So I spent a lot of the early book geeking out that at least some of the cliche old spy movie stuff was actually true.

A majority of the book is spent on back story, establishing Mendez's career in the CIA and his department's workings. He also recounts several other successful exfiltrations he led. The actual exfiltration of the embassy employees only comes in the last few chapters.

One of the strengths of the film was the tense atmosphere that pervaded the action. Mendez also works to ramp up the tension, though he does so by repeatedly telling us that Iran was dangerous rather than showing. The movie also creates tension by making up lots of things that didn't actually occur, like taking a tour through Tehran's bazaar, being stopped at the airport and only making it out by showing the guards the movie storyboards, or the last minute call to the fake studio in Hollywood. In truth, the exfiltration went smoothly, to plan, without any hiccups or any moments of danger. But, that's just testament to the work that went into carrying it out successfully.

Though Mendez portrays the CIA positively, he also recognizes the enormous and problematic bureaucracy involved, especially compared to a country like Canada, which quickly and smoothly aided U.S. efforts in a way that put our government to shame. In the need to keep the CIA's secret, Canada received credit for the employees' escape (they did house the employees in their Iran embassy for three months), but such credit seems rightly due. Mendez and his colleagues may have orchestrated what happened, but Canada took much of the risk.

Friday, June 28, 2013

"Subliminal" by Leonard Mlodinow

It seems like a wave of "psychology of the mind" books have come out recently--or at least I've read a number of them, including Thinking, Fast and Slow in particular. This means that each new book on the subject I read treads at least some of the same material as books before, dampening the pleasure I might otherwise get from that material. For that reason, I didn't enjoy Subliminal as much as I might have if I hadn't read Thinking, Fast and Slow, as the two cover significantly similar material.

Both books concern the division of our minds into conscious and unconscious thought (termed "System 1" and "System 2" by Kahneman). Not surprisingly, though the human mind has extraordinary abilities, it's also subject to a lot of errors, even though we're not aware of this. A lot of the early material in Subliminal echoes Kahneman, but where Mlodinow differs is in his discussion of the social ramifications of our unconscious responses. For example, all people are unconsciously biased to favor traits similar to their own. This helps explain why discrimination is so pervasive, but it also shows that rarely is such behavior malicious.

Mlodinow brings up a number of interesting points, but at times he fails to make connections that seem important to me. For example, he talks about the importance of facial recognition in our evolution--to the point where a blind person (a person whose eyes function but whose brain has been damaged in such a way that the person cannot see) can often recognize expressions. Yet, a little later, Mlodinow explains the massive errors present in eye witness line-ups. I don't doubt that these two facts are reconcilable, but I would have liked to read an explanation in the book.

Similarly, Mlodinow recounts an anecdote where his "gut feeling" saved his life, saying "that [unconscious] advice can often save us, if we are willing to open ourselves to the input" (45). But, again, he goes on to argue (as Kahneman does) that we are often enormously influenced by irrelevant unconscious input. How do we tease apart when to trust the "gut" and when to doubt our judgments?

Though it's not a self-help book, there are certainly areas where I'd love some advice. Mlodinow argues that "Teachers' expectations greatly affect their students' academic performance, even when the teachers try to treat them impartially" (113). As a teacher, I know this has to be the case, whether I'm planning for a college prep class versus an AP or writing essays with a failing student and a straight-A student. Yet if their performance is effected even if I try to be impartial, what am I supposed to do?

There was also some fascinating material about personal beliefs that I'd hope could be put to use in our current political climate. Writes Mlodinow:
When someone with a political bias or vested interest sees a situation differently than we do, we tend to think that person is deliberately misinterpreting the obvious to justify their politics or to bring about some personal gain. But through motivated reason each side finds ways to justify its favored conclusion and discredit the other, while maintaining a belief in its own objectivity. (209)
I know how challenging it is for me to recognize this, or, even harder, to acknowledge that I am not always objective myself. Mlodinow sums it up well by saying:
Our culture likes to portray situations in black and white. Antagonists are dishonest, insincere, greedy, evil. They are opposed by heroes who are the opposite in terms of those qualities. But the truth is, from criminals to greedy executives to the "nasty" guy down the street, people who act in ways we abhor are usually convinced that they are right. (212)
We are very biased in how we view ourselves, which is most obvious in studies asking people to rate themselves as "below average," "average," or "above average" in things like driving or interpersonal skills. Nearly everyone rates him or herself as average or above--a statistical impossibility.

Subliminal is an interesting book (though I could do without the cheesy jokes), especially if you haven't read much in the field yet.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Insurgent" by Veronica Roth

Insurgent is the sequel to Divergent, a YA book that, while not making up for the post-Hunger Games lack of compelling YA, did give me some glimpses into what exciting dystopian YA could be. The sequel isn't bad, but it also suffers from some of the same problems as Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy.

In Insurgent, we follow Dauntless faction member and divergent Tris in her fight against the faction Erudite, which has developed technology for remotely controlling other people. Tris is still with Tobias (aka Four), though each of them are keeping secrets from each other--namely, for Tris, that she killed Will (a friend and fellow Dauntless) while Will was being controlled under a simulation.

As a character, Tris is frustrating in many of the ways that YA protagonists are, though some of her more annoying qualities are, at least, explainable. Namely, she has the tendency to brood incessantly over her guilt and make rash sacrificial decisions. Both make sense in context of her being divergent: both Dauntless and Abnegation. She grew up being taught to value others over herself, so clearly killing Will in self-defense would weigh heavily on her. It also explains her suicide mission to Erudite later in the novel, even though the Erudite part of her should have weighed in enough to show that it was pointless.

Even more frustrating, though, was the descent in character. In my review of Mockingjay, I complained that I felt betrayed by Katniss' change of character in the last book: she loses all agency and spends most of the time locked up and crying. The same is true of Tris. In Divergent, Tris had insecurities and doubts, but she also had confidence in herself and made important decisions. She and Tobias supported one another, each helping the other through his or her fears. However, in Insurgent, the capable part of Tris is largely gone. She relies on Tobias constantly for assurance, without him needing reciprocation. She often sits around, waiting to be rescued, or is injured and out of commission. Her big mission at the end (again, eerily reminiscent of Katniss' useless mission at the end of Mockingjay) seems unnecessary, its need explained into reality rather than being organic to the situation.

At the same time, a lack of clear direction for the novel also gums up the storyline. We learn early on that there's a big secret that Jeanine, the leader of Erudite, is killing to protect. This "huge" secret is bandied about the entire book, and finally revealed in the end. However, the "truth" makes little sense (spoiler: it's much like the big reveal of The Maze Runner) and doesn't really seem to support the characters' actions.

I listened to the audiobook version of Insurgent, so perhaps I missed details that would have enhanced my enjoyment. I didn't dislike the book, but it also wasn't especially compelling.

Stray thoughts:
- I'm continually annoyed by YA in which characters who obviously would have sex in real life don't (in Insurgent, there's lots of kissing and grasping at t-shirt hems). I know sex is still fairly taboo in the genre, but c'mon: the characters are alone, without any adult supervision, and their world is more or less ending. I'm gonna sleep with my hot boyfriend.
- Tobias makes a big speech about how he won't stay with Tris if she recklessly risks her life again. And then she does. And he doesn't even mention it. So, I guess that was a pointless conversation?
- There was a really annoying alliterative nickname Tris and other Dauntless had for one of the places at which they stayed, and I can't remember what it is. It's driving me crazy.

Monday, June 17, 2013

"Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

First, a tangent, though I do think it circles back appropriately... This past Saturday, my husband and I needed to run a bunch of errands--pick up a dress from the tailor, go to Banana Republic, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Michaels, and visit several furniture stores we'd never been to before. A few minutes before heading out, I plugged all the locations into GoogleMaps, reorganized the stops to minimize our driving time, and we were off, typing in the addresses in my GPS as we went along. And at some point I started thinking about how much more time such a trip would have taken pre-Internet. Looking up stores in phone books; trying to find addresses on a map; having to call and get verbal directions; stopping at stores along the way when we got lost. The Internet (and computers and cell phones and GPS units...) have made navigating our world so much easier, but, in doing so, have they also made us much less clever and resourceful?

Now, this is obviously not a new question, but it's a question that's key to Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which pits the power of Google (literally) against human ingenuity and resourcefulness. In the novel, Clay is a recession-era unemployed young person, who agrees to be night clerk at a mysterious, and primarily customer-less, 24-hour used bookstore. At the same time he meets Kat, an up-and-coming programmer at Google, he also discovers that certain books in the store contain a type of code--which he inadvertently cracks one evening using a computer program. This leads to a secret cultish society, running around New York's hackerdom, a cardboard digital camera, and using the entirety of Google's servers for three seconds (among other things).

A bad analogy would be to call the novel a kind of techie, less annoying Da Vinci Code, though it's not nearly as puzzle driven. Instead, perhaps, it's more an ode to "cool"--both the cool that is Google, and the cool that is making a miniature in-detail town in your living room. The Google love can be a bit heavy, to the point where (close to manic pixie dream girl trope) Kat can be pretty annoying, though Google probably can do (nearly) everything, so I suppose I can't say anything. Also, everyone in the novel is pretty much absolutely amazing at everything... doesn't everyone need some dumb friends?

Speaking of characters, Clay, Kat, and the rest--Mr. Penumbra, Clay's childhood friend Neel, kinda-villain Corvina--are all fairly flat. They're hipsters (well, okay, Mr. Penumbra and Corvina are old, so they're not, but all the young characters are) who have plenty of time and money to go on adventures and be into weird things the rest of us are too "square" to get (a month away from thirty and see how curmudgeonly I get?).

But, back to the initial question. So, does the power of the Internet win over that darn human mind? Of course not. In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Google is awesome, but the brain (and friendship!) still triumph technological brawn. Way to have a boring response to a pretty interesting question.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien

Though I read (and enjoyed) the Lord of the Rings trilogy back in high school, I never got around to reading The Hobbit. My husband and I rented the new movie a few weeks back, and though I wasn't especially impressed (I fell asleep, though I'll chalk that up to not being in the mood rather than the movie itself), I did want to try the book.

As most everyone knows, The Hobbit is aimed at children, which gives it a different tone from LOTR. In fact, perhaps this is one of the reasons the movie didn't work as much for me--Peter Jackson is trying to continue the epic seriousness of the LOTR movies with a story that just doesn't match it. Instead, The Hobbit is much goofier as Bilbo and the dwarves fight imbecile trolls or Bilbo plays around with his invisibility ring. (An aside on that--in the LOTR movies, the ring is a heavy burden for Frodo; he wears it reluctantly, and it takes a huge psychological toll on him as he carries it. That doesn't seem to be the case in The Hobbit. Bilbo wears the ring frequently, for long periods of time, with no ill effect. Is that an issue of the movies changing things? [I don't remember the LOTR books well enough.] Or does the ring's power change later on with the rise of Sauron?)

Even the quest at the heart of The Hobbit has little weight. Bilbo and the dwarves aren't trying to save the world--they're trying to steal the dwarves' treasure back from the dragon Smaug. Though I suppose things in the end are for the best (no surprise, the dragon is killed, and eventually all the evil goblins are too, though that's never the original purpose), you could argue the troop's actions largely cause more harm than good (and the good that does happen isn't really because of them). And of course, there's nothing wrong with telling this kind of story--I guess it was just unexpected, given the narrative in the LOTR.

And speaking of unexpected: the dragon's death. I just didn't get it. Bilbo and the dwarves set out to recapture their treasure--and presumably slay the dragon. They arrive at the dragon's mountain, they find the treasure, and then they hole up, deciding what to do. You figure the epic battle and dragon slayage will come soon. But, then, the dragon flies out to attack a village of men and some random guy (who, literally, Tolkien introduces in parentheses with "Bard was his name.") shoots an arrow and kills Smaug. It takes maybe one paragraph. And Bilbo and the dwarves aren't even there! What? You can't just kill the big evil so easily!

I suppose, once more, the issue may be more of my expectations being subverted than an actual criticism, but I just didn't know what to do with it. The dwarves are more stupid than heroic, though in contrast, Bilbo does appear all the more stronger.

So I didn't dislike the book, but it wasn't what I expected, and I imagine it's also vastly different than the movies Jackson is putting out.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"The Dinner" by Herman Koch

The Dinner reminds me a lot of Gone Girl in its deliciously unreliable narrator, increasing tension, and building mystery. And though, like Gone Girl, The Dinner gets ever more extreme as the book continues, I didn't find it nearly as outlandish, though the characters aren't much less grotesque.

Perhaps what makes The Dinner all the more affecting is its mundane set-up: Paul and his wife Claire are meeting Paul's brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, for dinner at a fancy restaurant. But, of course, this isn't an ordinary dinner. They are there to talk about their 15-year-old sons and a grainy video that's been on the news recently. The parents recognize their sons in the video, though it seems no one else has yet, and they need to decide what to do.

It becomes clear from the start that Paul is a man with an ax to grind. His brother is running for prime minister of Holland and is expected to win, and Paul resents Serge's celebrity. Though he tries hard to make Serge appear to be a patronizing phony, it's obvious that Paul is the bully, looking for opportunities to put down all of those around him.

Over the course of the novel, Paul reveals his past and his relationships with his son and wife. Not surprisingly, he takes no responsibility for his failures, which instead only fuel his rage at the world. One problem I had with his character echoes a similar issue I had with Gone Girl. At one point, Paul visits a psychologist who informs him that he has some unnamed disorder which makes him act the way he does; according to the psychologist, if prenatal testing had been available when his mother was pregnant, she likely would have aborted him because of the disorder. To me, this is a cheap excuse for Paul's behavior--now he's medically crazy rather than a real person gone wrong.

There's some interesting commentary on parents' relationships with their children and the lengths they'll go to to protect and excuse them, though Paul and Claire's behavior does, in my opinion, go somewhat too far for belief at the end.

Though the characters do become almost cartoonishly evil by the end, I still found The Dinner hard to put down and engrossing. It's a good summer read, especially if you like the style of Gone Girl.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter

Oh, my, it's been a month! And I actually had to renew Beautiful Ruins three times in order to finish it (my fault, not the book's). It's been a busy four weeks, mostly because my husband and I just moved into our new home. There's lots to be done, though I'm trying to set aside an hour or so each day to read. We've set up our swing on our large deck, which looks out into the woods, and it's quite pleasant to read there in the afternoons.

So, Beautiful Ruins was read during a turbulent time, and I don't know that I gave it my full attention. Nonetheless, I can say it is a sweet and sufficiently engaging book. The novel is made of various forms and comes from a variety of narrators over the course of fifty or so years. It begins in the modern day with Claire, an assistant to an aged film producer, Michael Deane, and it continues in a tiny coastal village in Italy, where a "sick" American actress working on the beleaguered set of the 1963 Cleopatra is brought to hotel owner Pasquale's establishment. The novel also throws in a chapter of a book by Alvis Bender, an American veteran; an unpublished excerpt from Deane's memoir; and a play.

Though there are a lot of pieces, they all come together nicely. However, since Cleopatra and Richard Burton also play significant roles, the book might be more appealing to people familiar (i.e., not me) with the film fiasco and actor.

Pasquale is at the heart of the novel as he struggles to come to terms with his place in the world, and the distance between his aspirations and reality, and responsibility and immaturity. The story between him and Dee (the actress) is the most compelling, particularly next to the story of the rather unsympathetic Pat, Dee's son. Michael Deane is kept perfectly self-absorbed throughout.

The ending is pretty neat and happy for all the characters--lots of life revelations--but I still enjoyed it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior is a novel about climate change and class differences, set among rural Appalachia and millions of monarch butterflies. While going to meet a man for a fling, dissatisfied wife and mother Dellarobia discovers the entire North American population of monarchs has descended upon her mountain. What she sees astonishes her and jolts her way of thinking, and after looking at photos online, I can't feel otherwise. Monarchs gather in enormous clumps, like grapes, among trees, and the site is truly spectacular (image below from the Monarch Butterfly Fund).

From there, Dellarobia explores her feelings about the monarchs, her marriage, her children, and her dreams, with those around her. Her father-in-law wants to log the mountain for money. Her mother-in-law never seems to approve of Dellarobia. Her husband, Cub, is kind but slow and timid. Scientist Ovid Bryon, who arrives to study the butterflies, is the first to listen to her and teach her. But Byron is also in a world completely different than her own.

Through the lens of Dellarobia's growth, the book is very much a treatise on the danger of climate change. Its message is important and broken down simply, though occasionally the reductive analogies can come off as patronizing ("You mean nuclear physics is just like buying a tub of lard from Joe Bob's Food Mart? Now, I get it!").

There's also strong element of preaching to the choir as I doubt many climate change deniers will be reading it. However, I did like that Kingsolver takes some time to explain the way in which climate change has absurdly become a Democrats vs. Republicans issue and how something that virtually all scientists agree on is framed in the media as "the debate over climate change."

While I certainly agree with everything Kingsolver argues about the danger we are causing our planet, I found the exploration of class issues more engrossing within the book itself. Where the book could have gone simplistic--the kind, educated professor helping the illiterate downtrodden or the snooty urban elite destroying the poor's pure simplicity--there's instead nuance. For example, Byron becomes angry that the local high school is uninterested in sending student volunteers to learn and study the butterflies. After all, it's a great opportunity to see science in action and build valuable skills. But the school only wants to know if it pays minimum wage--because, truthfully, the students aren't going into science fields and they aren't going to college. A mindless minimum wage job is more useful.

But, at the heart of the novel is Dellarobia, whose quest to find meaning and purpose in her life centers the story. The ending's pretty optimistic, but not outside the realm of possibility.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Errantry" by Elizabeth Hand

I chose Errantry from a list of top sci-fi short stories, though I wouldn't quite classify the book's stories as science-fiction. Some fall into the quirky/weird/"what the hell was that?" category into which I'd place Haruki Murakami, others have a fairy tale retelling feel (much like The Snow Child), and still others have a creepy horror edge. So an interesting collection.

Those stories in the first category can be a bit tricky. There's something perversely appealing about a story without a clear point that nonetheless feels affecting or meaningful in some way, like Hand's "Hungerford Bridge," where one friend takes another friend to see a mysterious creature called the emerald foliot--with strange conditions attached after the viewing. But other stories were less successful in this regard and just seemed random, like "Cruel Up North" and especially "Summerteenth."

I'd argue that Hand's strength are the pseudo-fairy tales, which have a fairy-tale feel and characters in a modern setting. Of those, "The Far Shore" is wistful and "Winter's Wife" and "Uncle Lou" have excellent characterization and character relationships. I might also throw "The Return of the Fire Witch" into this category, though it has a light and humorous tone that most of the other stories lack.

"Near Zennor" and "Errantry" both fit into the last category, though I much preferred "Near Zennor," which expertly captures the horror mood. In it, a bereaved husband explores an area his wife visited as a child, encountering strange things she may also have encountered.

Of all the pieces, the first story, "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon," was my favorite. It most closely falls into the sci-fi genre, though it has pieces of all three categories. There are great characters, flights (no pun intended...) of fancy, a looming atmosphere, and questions that aren't answered but are given the barest suggestions of conclusions.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

The Round House is told from the point of view of 13-year-old Joe, who lives with his parents on an Indian Reservation in North Dakota. One day, his mom returns home late after being brutally attacked and raped. Though his mother, Geraldine, refuses or is unable to speak much about what happened, Joe and his father, Bazil (a local judge), are determined to bring her attacker to justice.

One of the things that I was glad the book addressed--though in some ways this issue was dropped towards the end--are the challenges present in the tribal legal system. The book takes place in the 1980s, but I imagine many of the same obstacles are still in place. The location (which she doesn't know) of Geraldine's rape is of utmost importance because it signifies how the rapist can be prosecuted, and without that knowledge, the case rests in a no-man's land, unable to be prosecuted by tribal, state, or federal authorities. The novel also highlights the importance of tribal authority. Before, I would have been tempted to say, "Why do we need a separate tribal government? Can't they just fall under the same state/federal guidelines most people would?" But The Round House not only highlights the long history of atrocities against Native Americans, it also demonstrates the significance of continued tribal autonomy in issues like prosecuting rape.

I've written before (as a significant problem in We Were the Mulvaneys and as a nagging issue in Finnikin of the Rock) about my concerns with novels that address rape from the point of view of the male relatives--the husbands, sons, and brothers of raped women. On the one hand, I would never say that a story about rape must always be from the victim's point of view. Clearly there are interesting and compelling issues to be explored about how family is affected by a traumatic event perpetrated against one of its members. But, at the same time, I can't help but feel that something is wrong in a novel where a woman is raped and the book is only about men--her son, her son's friends, her husband, her rapist. Part of the point of the book is how Geraldine shrinks into herself--nearly loses herself completely--after the rape, but we never learn what's going on in her head the way we do with Joe and Bazil. And, in some small way, to me, that is doubly-diminishing. She is re-victimized as a non-entity, present just an object for the men to react against. This is not to say that The Round House is sexist or treats rape lightly, particularly because the book clearly shows Erdrich's sympathy with survivors of sexual violence and Erdrich works to emphasize significant problems with our legal system (something that's timely given that sexual assault on tribal lands was a big issue with the recent re-adoption of VAWA). Nonetheless, I was disappointed to see Geraldine given so little character, though she does emerge more strongly at the end of the novel.

Despite my disappointment with aspects of Geraldine's characterization, her son, Joe, is fully drawn, and Erdrich does an excellent job of capturing his range of emotions and confusion. At thirteen he's starting to become an adult, and the challenges he faces in seeing his parents as people (not just all-knowing parents) for the first time and being privy to "adult" information are addressed compassionately and intelligently.

The book is the April selection for my book club, and I'm most looking forward to discussing the ending, which is somewhat surprising. I can't decide if it's realistic or not, or whether it's too realistic... I'm just not sure, though it certainly felt a bit incomplete. But I think my reaction can be attributed to my desire for a certain kind of ending rather than to failure on Erdrich's part.

Friday, March 29, 2013

"The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans is a quiet novel, full of characters with expected emotions and reactions. There's little that's surprising in the book, but it does what it does well.

The novel follows Tom and Isabel, a recently married couple stationed on Janus, a desolate speck of land important only for its lighthouse, which Tom maintains. Isabel desperately wants a child and is crazy with grief after her third miscarriage when a boat washes ashore. Inside the boat is a dead man and a healthy baby girl. Against Tom's better judgment, Isabel keeps the baby--reasoning that its parents must be dead--, and they decide to pass the child off as their own. However, when they return to the mainland several years later, they learn the baby was not really orphaned.

There's some beautiful description of Janus and the maintenance of the lighthouse as well as understanding about what it's like to live on a piece of land inhabited solely by you. The characters are fully-detailed, but their stories play out conventionally. Tom is a good, hard-working man, devoted to his wife; he gives in to her desire to keep a baby but continually feels guilt. Isabel is devoted to having a child and is an ideal mother to the baby; she allows no thoughts of the baby's origination to enter her mind. When they learn the truth of the baby's parentage, the expected reactions continue. There's a lot of grief and heartache--well-written but also well-trod--that follows. It is, however, a testament to Stedman's skill that even once I learned the truth about the child, I still wanted Isabel to keep her. I knew it wasn't right, but I was completely in sympathy with Isabel's feelings.

That the book ends as it must is perhaps the most surprising part. The reader hopes for a fairytale solution that doesn't come. I saw another reviewer say there was something "fatalistic" about the novel, and I'd agree--though the characters appear to make choices, there's a sense that everything is determined from the start.

The Light Between Oceans wasn't especially memorable, but it's well-written and moves at a quick pace despite little real action occurring.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Salt Sugar Fat" by Michael Moss

Elsewhere on this blog I've mentioned the changes in food and exercise my husband and I have taken over the last few years, and more significantly, over the last six months or so. We're now both at our ideal weights and fitness levels, something for which I'm very proud. I knew there were a lot of things wrong with our diets beforehand, but after reading Salt Sugar Fat, a condemnation of processed foods, I'm even more aware of where we went wrong originally and how our recent changes have improved our lives for the better. Here are a few areas I learned about from Salt Sugar Fat:

1. Soda
I've pretty much always been a diet soda drinker, so I never had much guilt around my daily consumption of diet coke. But about three years ago, something about my heavy consumption--mostly vague concerns about aspartame--began to bother me. One day, I quit cold turkey and have never gone back. Moss points to sugary sodas as perhaps the greatest contributor to the rising obesity problem, particularly because of the way the drink industry has formulated their beverages. They are sugary and desirable without sating the appetite or making people tired of the taste. And the marketing that goes into companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi is simply astronomical. Though diet sodas like I was drinking are preferable to the full-calorie version, studies show that even diet colas stimulate the appetite, still causing weight gain.

2. Cheese
When my husband and I were first married, I supported both of us on a teacher's salary while my husband was in grad school. We pinched at every corner, and part of that pinching involved taking advantage of our local grocery store's $5 pizza deal every Friday. We knew pizza wasn't healthy, but the cost was so low that we couldn't resist. And though I would have thought the pizza was problematic mostly because of the grease, the real problem with pizza is the cheese. Surprisingly to me, cheese (along with red meat) is the largest contributor of saturated fat to our diet. Through decades of marketing, companies like Kraft have changed cheese from a snack or after-dinner dessert to an ingredient in every meal of the day. Couple that with the fact that it's nearly impossible to make palatable low-fat cheese, and you've got one bad food. Now a days we occasionally add an ounce or two of parmesan, goat cheese, or feta to our meals, but that's it.

3. Red meat
As I mentioned above, cheese and red meats are two strong contributors of fat in our diet. Like with cheese, though, I didn't always immediately picture meat as a "bad" food the way I associated potato chips or ice cream with unhealthy eating. Yet my husband and I were using beef--mostly ground--several times a week, usually buying the 70% lean (read--30% fat) kind that was cheapest. Now we work hard to have red meat no more than twice a month.

4. Cereal
I've had cereal for breakfast in the morning for as along as I can remember. And, truthfully, it was something I was proud of. I never skipped breakfast like other people I knew, and, really, wasn't I having a healthy morning meal? All the commercials told me I was. But cereal is absolutely loaded with sugar. In fact, the worst kids' cereals are 70% sugar. And cereal companies are perhaps the most deceptive when it comes to marketing cereals and the most insidious in their ability to market to kids. My daily breakfast today consists of plain oatmeal with fresh berries and a dash of cinnamon.

5. Processed snacks
I love Fritos. When I first started working (making $25,000/year in Washington D.C. and living in a $1200/month apartment... the math does not work out), I'd regularly bring several Tostinos pizza rolls in to work for lunch. Or if I was feeling really decadent, I'd spring on those gooey Toaster Strudels... And, again, I knew these were bad for me, but I didn't realize just how much the food industry has manipulated their sugar, salt, and fat makeup to maximize my pleasure. But the truth is, these foods simply don't taste good and aren't shelf stable without the presence of the three. Needless to say, none of these are in my pantry now.

Salt Sugar Fat covers all these areas and more, exploring why we desire processed foods and how the food giants have manipulated their products to increase our desire for them. Moss also talks about the marketing practices behind America's most successful products. Most of the information wasn't brand new to me, but Moss gives more depth to the knowledge I already had. Occasionally the book seemed repetitive, but there were enough new details to make it worthwhile. (I would mention, though, that the excerpt from the book published in The New York Times on March 17 highlights most of the book's salient points.)

Mostly, though, it was interesting to learn more about why the changes my husband and I made have been successful: things like removing breakfast cereal, eliminating lunchmeat and chips, and excising cheese, prepackaged sides, and Campbells cream of whatever soups from dinner. Though Moss offers some suggestions to combat the increasing obesity in America, I was more struck by how impossible to overcome the challenge seems. After all, though I'm a much healthier eater now, I also know how easy it is to give in--particularly when parents bring in a table of desserts each month for teachers' birthdays, or when we go out and a friend orders the loaded nachos. I succeed overall solely by not having those things in my home, but my resistance goes out the door when it's placed in front of me. Sugar, salt, and fat are just stronger than we are--and more knowledge is perhaps out only hope of standing a chance against them.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"John Dies at the End" by David Wong

There's a niche within the zombie/horror genre filled with films like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead. And I don't think these films are just for parody or satire because they fulfill a need. Sure, many of us like to be scared and to imagine grisly monsters lurking around the corner, but we also don't want to be too depressed or despondent about the whole situation (i.e. why my husband won't watch The Walking Dead). So we take our monsters and shadows with a good dose of sarcasm, randomness, and jokes.

Though John Dies at the End isn't about zombies (more about other-worldly monsters/shadows/evil things), I still think it falls into the same category, juxtaposing humor (mostly crass, as when a character turns to go upstairs and see the basement door handle has been turned into a penis... yeah...) with downright horror. It's a combination that is largely successful, though it wears thin at times and also hides some of the more thoughtful and touching parts of the book.

The plot beyond a broad summary is convoluted at best, so I'll stick with the basics. David and his friend John are exposed to "soy sauce," a mysterious black substance that allows them contact with creatures and other beings from another world who are invading our own. Because of their ability to see these creatures, David and John get caught up in a plot to save the world from an invasion of... shadow things? We'll stick with that. Also, there's a ghost dog and a girl without a hand.

The book's structure is set as a story-within-a-story, as David narrates his tale to a reporter. The typical "big fight that saves the world" is only half-way through, which allows Wong to build in a "what happens after?" while leading up to another "big fight that saves the world." Though both parts are interesting, I did feel the book was somewhat too long (nearly 400 pages) since at some point it the plot appears to exists only so wackier and grosser things can be piled on. And the gross and horrific are truly gross and horrific, so I don't recommend the novel for anyone who doesn't like to read about feces, bodily fluids, or moth-like creatures that dig into a person's skin.

Nevertheless, the book truly is funny at times, and though the weird doesn't always make sense, at least it's surprisingly weird. David's relationship with Amy (and even John) also has some unexpected emotional depth.

Overall, the book is fairly sophomoric, but still engaging and fun.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

"Silver Linings Playbook" by Matthew Quick

I suppose the terms "beach read" and "summer blockbuster" have similar connotations in individuals' minds: entertainment that's fun and enjoyable while it lasts but is also a bit thin once scratched below the surface. It doesn't hold up in retrospection. By that definition, I'd include Silver Linings Playbook in the same genre as summer films like Transformers or Iron Man. Not because Silver Linings has great action sequences or robots, but because it left me with similar feelings once it was done.

Silver Linings follows Pat Peoples, newly released from a mental institution. He's determined to get back his wife, Nikki, who left him after some incident which prompted the incarceration, even though everyone else is determined for Pat to move on. Soon he meets Tiffany, a similarly mentally troubled woman, and an odd friendship forms.

Pat's narration often sounds like it's coming from a mentally retarded teenager (and I mean that seriously, not as a joke/insult). He uses terms like "apart time" to describe his separation from his wife and "bad place" to describe his institutionalization. Though I understand that he's had some sort of psychotic break and now has selective amnesia and is medicated, I guess that wasn't enough, for me, to explain why he speaks and thinks like a simpleton. Sure, he's in denial about his past, and especially about his relationship with Nikki, but would he then view the entire world through "MR teenager" eyes?

The book seems mostly focused on recording its characters' quirks, much like The Elephant Keepers' Children, rather than making the characters actual people. Pat exercises obsessively and is terrified of Kenny G. Though the book spends significant time chronicling his efforts to get fit to impress Nikki, all the detail just didn't go anywhere. Okay, his exercising shows his misguided thinking (assuming Nikki's separation from him stems from his personal appearance), but that seemed to be the only reason it was there. Or take Tiffany's obsession with winning a dance competition. Again, I suppose it shows some of her character, but they practice dancing a lot, and then they dance really well, and then.... so what? It seemed to lead to nothing. Some of these traits might seem more appropriate in a movie, where randomness can come off as cute rather than just, well, random.

Truthfully, Pat's father, a reticent man who communicates only through his enthusiasm for the Eagles and whose moods are entirely dependent on the Eagles' season, is a far more interesting character than either of the leads. If there's anyone who truly needs help, it's him, and not surprisingly, he has the least cliche ending.

So I have a lot to criticize about the book. But, as I alluded to at the beginning, it was an enjoyable and quick read, and I never felt reluctant to pick up the book again. In fact, I read through the latter half in one long sitting. Recommended for those times when you need a break from "heavy" fiction and don't want to think about the book too much afterwards.