Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: Year in review

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

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

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

Fiction read: 24
Nonfiction read: 6

Adult read: 27

Young adult read: 3

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

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

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 30

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2014

"Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, Please" by Amy Poehler

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"We Were Liars" by E. Lockhart

How did I end up reading two YA books in a row after reading only one other the entire year? Oh, well. We Were Liars is certainly a different kind of YA than The Infinite Sea, and it comes from E. Lockhart, the author of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, a smart, funny, feminist YA that I loved.

We Were Liars is also different than Disreputable History, as it's centered on a mystery and potentially unreliable narrator. Its narrator is Cadence, the oldest grandchild of the Sinclairs, a wealthy family that summers on their own island. The three aunts (including Cadence's mother) spend most of the summer sniping over the family wealth, but Cadence and her cousins Mirren and Johnny--as well as Johnny's Indian friend Gat--don't want anything to do with the family conflict. The book takes place two summers after a terrible accident that left Cadence with selective amnesia, and the novel's focus is on the process of Cadence unraveling what really happened.

Lockhart does a great job of building up the suspense around what happened to Cady, and she casts doubt on what all the characters have to say by including the family conflict and by telling us Cady and her cousins are collectively called "The Liars." The mystery drives the book at breakneck speed (I read it in one afternoon). The mystery is theoretically complemented by the romance between Cady and Gat, but I never felt much connection between them.

But, most unfortunately, Lockhart's reveal isn't able to live up to the tension of most of the novel. The "truth" isn't especially interesting or shocking (especially when the book's blurb summary sets huge expectations by proclaiming, "And if anybody asks you the ending, just lie."). And I never got why the group was called "The Liars." They didn't seem to lie all that much, and Cady's narration appeared to be truthful.

We Were Liars was still a good ride with a dud ending.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"The Infinite Sea" by Rick Yancey

Though I rarely read YA anymore, I'd enjoyed Yancey's The 5th Wave, a violent alien-invasion dystopian. Like all genre YA these days, The 5th Wave was only the first in a series, so I felt obliged to try The Infinite Sea.

When we finish The 5th Wave, Cassie has rescued her younger brother Sam, who was being trained by the alien invaders (disguised in human bodies) to kill other humans. She was able to execute the rescue only with the help of dreamy Evan Walker, one of the aforementioned alien-invader-in-human-body types who, of course, fell in love with Cassie. When The Infinite Sea begins, Cassie is holed up in a dilapidated motel with Sam and his fellow soldiers: Ben (aka Zombie, aka Cassie's high school crush), Ringer, Dumbo, Teacup, and Poundcake. Cassie's waiting for Evan, and since they're all recent escapees, everyone's pretty tense.

My problems with The Infinite Sea began pretty early. To start, there's not much going on. After a daring escape, they're sitting around, waiting and arguing. And Cassie, who narrates the first section, is just a boring narrator this time around. She's still a bit conflicted about Evan, but all this ground was covered in the last book. Evan's narration (which is thankfully short) is equally annoying. His Edward Cullen attachment to Cassie comes off creepy, not romantic.

The story gets better when Ringer picks up the narration, and fortunately her section is the longest of the novel. There's new characterization to be had here, and she has a little more to do.

Nevertheless, Ringer's narration doesn't make up for a lot of the novel's issues. For one, the outlandish injuries just keep piling on and on. Nearly all the characters are mortally wounded--in multiple places--at some point, yet they all heroically trudge and fight on. One minor character's mortally wounded stand is so absurd that it comes off as comical rather than brave. The hyper-violence even started to bother me; it's gratuitous and occurs toward children as young as six.

Yancey also tries to address some of the criticisms of the first novel, namely the question of why the aliens would bother with a complicated multi-step extermination scheme of humankind when there's easy ways to wipe the whole population out at once. Over and over the characters wonder about this issue (it's as if Yancey's saying, "SEE--I meant for it to make no sense! It was all part of the plot plan!"), but an answer's never given (saved for the third book, I'm sure). The twist "reveal" that does occur at the end of the novel is pretty unexciting.

I was bored through the first half, and though the second half improved, I'm not sure I'm too eager to finish the series.

Friday, October 10, 2014

"The Magician's Land" by Lev Grossman

My husband and I are at odds about Grossman's The Magicians trilogy. I love the subversive fantasy because it's an unexpected take on a genre I love. My husband hates it because it's dark and refuses to create heroes, villains, and traditional victories. Well, he might just complain it's bone-crushingly depressing, and that's true too--at least for the first two books.

So maybe my husband would find he actually likes The Magician's Land, whereas, for me, the final book in the trilogy is the least interesting. The story feels more traditional, and the satire of the worlds of Harry Potter and Narnia, which made the first two books so fresh, feels more stale this time. And there's finally that happy ending, though I won't complain about that--the characters deserve that much.

The Magician's Land focuses on a much older Quentin. Gone is the whiny college student of the first novel. This Quentin is in his 30s and exiled from his beloved Fillory. He grew and became a better man in the last book, but his sacrifices haven't made his life better. Instead, he's getting involved in a shady magical heist. And this is where I first began to lose interest. The heist set-up is out of Ocean's Eleven (okay, a less cool Ocean's Eleven), but it just didn't grab my interest. Maybe that's because because there is no real stake in it for Quentin. He wants the money payout, but his reasons seem nebulous.

And that nebulous-ness continues throughout the book. Quentin's father dies, and the death affects him significantly, but he never really had a relationship with his father to begin with. And then--out of nowhere to me--he becomes devoted to finding Alice, his girlfriend from the first book who died and became a niffin (a kind of rage demon). Redeeming Alice eventually becomes his singular purpose, but I felt like reference to Alice had been almost wholly missing from book two. [Tangent: Maybe I'm wrong here. My memories of the plots of the first two books are very hazy. I tried to find complete summaries online, but I could only find teaser synopses. You definitely need a good understanding of the established characters to follow The Magician's Land appropriately.]

The book also follows Janet and Josh, who are currently ruling Fillory, and their quest to save Fillory--which is dying, of course--feels more like the previous two books.

Though I've complained about much of The Magician's Land, I can understand that a change from the other two books is necessary in order to reflect the change in Quentin. Much of the book focuses on his maturity, and while he (and the book) still acknowledge that the world sucks, there's no longer a sense of hopelessness. Even still, there was a lack of "realness" to the book and an over-abundance of exposition that makes it the weakest Grossman's three novels.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"The Girl With All the Gifts" by M.R. Carey

I've been hesitant to describe Gifts as a zombie novel because I think that term can turn certain readers off. And, of course, on a basic level, Gifts is a zombie novel. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic near future where "hungries" have destroyed much of the human population. A small enclave of non-infected live on a base, doing research on a group of children with a strange abnormality: they're infected but not mindless killers. Sure, they'll eat and destroy you if they get a whiff of your natural smell and aren't restrained, but otherwise they're normal children. Besides that, like other zombie novels, Gifts includes plenty of violence and gore.

But where Gifts diverges is in its protagonist, 10-year-old Melanie, who's one of the base's research subjects. What makes the novel so chilling at first is that Melanie has no idea she's a hungry and has known no life where she's not restrained with guns at her during all human contact. The highlight of her life is Miss Justineau, one of the teachers assigned to the children. Because Miss Justineau is the only adult to show the children warmth and kindness, Melanie idolizes and adores her.

Other novels have certainly used sympathetic zombies as their protagonists, but Melanie's age and innocence make her feel somewhat different. I noted in recent reviews that, for some reason, I keep reading books about child abuse (a cruel trick of the universe as I glance over at my sweet 8-week-old daughter, asleep beside me). Reading about the cruelty inflicted on Melanie was almost impossibly hard, but Carey does work to show the perspective of others whose world has been destroyed.

To do so, though Melanie is the focus of most of the novel, Carey also switches perspectives to Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks (in charge of security at the base), and Dr. Caldwell (the lead researcher). The changes in viewpoints keep Parks and Caldwell from being utter villains, though their redemption (well, maybe partial redemption in Caldwell's case) comes slowly.

The pace is fast with cliffhangers ending most of the relatively short chapters. The mystery around the truth of who Melanie is soon gives way to an on-the-run adventure. Enough of the zombie world building is different to keep things fresh.

If I have any quibble, it's that Melanie is extremely intelligent and mature for her age (though that's acknowledged in the book), and she's perhaps too perfect. However, the adults are much more messy, and the whole novel is so engrossing, that I didn't really mind.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin

Book lovers are a persnickety bunch. We're passionate about what we love, and such passion also makes us opinionated. For that reason, I think authors of novels about book-loving have a hard time. They have to effectively capture the love of reading with a plot and in a writing style that's worthy of such love itself. In this regards, The Storied Life bombed for me. A mediocre beach-read feel-good plot with a generic pop-lit style just can't convince me that its characters love books as much as I do.

The book centers on the life of bookstore owner A.J. Fikry, recently widowed (though not old). We're told he's cranky and asocial, though his behavior is never especially bad in the book. One evening he discovers a 2-year-old girl named Maya has been abandoned in his bookstore, and she's wearing a note asking A.J. to care for her. Because this is a novel, the local police agree to let A.J. care for her for the weekend until social services can arrive. He wants to care for her... for some reason (not really clear because isn't he supposed to be all cantankerous?). He takes her for the weekend (one of my favorite parts of the book is him Googling how to do everything--i.e. "How does an adult man bathe a two-year-old girl without being a pervert?") and of course falls in love, and a chapter later A.J.'s adopted her. Now, this whole process is made easier by the fact that Maya is mature and precocious and perfectly well-behaved. Also, she seems totally unfazed by the fact that she's lost her mother (who committed suicide).

So A.J. raises Maya in this idyllic independent-bookstore-on-a-tiny-island life. And, do you remember book sales rep Amelia from the first chapter? The one A.J. was cranky to? (remember how cantankerous he is?) Well, A.J.'s in love with her. And they start a romance hindered by the fact that it's darn difficult to get to the island (you have to take a ferry!). Will true love ever prevail? But, don't worry, A.J. and Amelia overcome that insane obstacle and get married. Like Maya, Amelia is basically perfect except that she's not traditionally pretty (really, that's her one flaw). Oh, and of course Maya and Amelia totally adore one another.

The book continues through Amelia's young adulthood, ending in sweet tear-jerking fashion. Any of the real issues--like why Maya's mother committed suicide; the truth about Maya's father--are fairly skimmed over. And the pace felt off. I think Zevin was attempting to mimic a short story style (A.J. talks regularly about liking short stories) by showing discrete episodes from A.J.'s life, but such a structure means important elements of the story are skipped over. Instead, random points are emphasized but never go anywhere. For example, Amelia talks repeatedly about how difficult her mother is; we finally meet her and she has maybe one line (and, sure, it's a bit cranky), but the she never appears again. So who cares?

Worst of all, the characters in the novel all love books, but such love seems generalized ("I love bookstores!") rather than rooted in a real discussion of literature. The only part that seemed genuine (and, actually, my favorite part of the novel) were the short prologues to each chapter. In each, A.J. describes to Maya a favorite short story and explains why that story spoke to him.

If you like sweetness and happy endings, Storied Life is perfectly acceptable. If you like good literature, skip it.

Stray thoughts:
- It's interesting that A.J. is Indian and Maya is black since people of color are underrepresented in novels of this ilk. Their cultural backgrounds are almost never mentioned and play no part in the story, though. On the one hand, there's no reason why they have to be--can't that just be in the background like it is for white characters? On the other hand, exploring those aspects of the characters' identities (and how such identities play out with those around them) would have added an interesting layer to the story.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"The Leftovers" by Tom Perrotta

I first heard about The Leftovers from an NPR interview with Perrotta about the new TV series coming out based on the novel. The deceptively simple premise seemed fascinating: one day (October 14th) about three percent of the world's population simply disappears. Some call it the Rapture, though there are no clear connections between who disappears and who remains behind. The Leftovers picks up three years later in the suburban town of Mapleton, exploring what happened to those who have had to continue on.

Perrotta's novel spends no time on the sci-fi/fantasy mechanics of the disappearance, which is never explained. Instead, he's focused on how normal individuals react when the extraordinary happens--and then they must go back to "normal" life. Most of us rely on predictability and routine to make sense of our existence, but the "Rapture" throws all of that into question. No where is this more evident than in the characters of Laurie and Nora. Though no one in Laurie's immediate family disappears, she's haunted by the disappearance of her best friend's daughter. She eventually abandons her family to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult devoted to keeping the event foremost in everyone's minds. Members live a monastic existence--renouncing material goods and maintaining silence--while following around (and silently judging) those trying to live normally. Though at first it's hard to understand how Laurie could leave all those she cares about, the appeal of giving up attempts at normalcy and turning one's life over to a bigger force eventually becomes clear.

Nora's loss is much worse. Her husband and two children all disappear on October 14th, and though she attempts to continue a real life, she doesn't deal much better than Laurie and feels even more guilty.

Their stories struck me the most, particularly when Laurie does form a relationship again with Guilty Remnant recruit Meg. The culmination of their story, though perhaps foreseeable, was quite the gut punch.

But, if it's the loss of relationships that destroy us, it's also relationships that have the potential to redeem us. Perrotta's not about sugar coating real life, and not everyone is able to grab a hold of what's offered, but the novel does offer some hope.

The characters are varied and richly developed, even though most of the novel centers on Laurie and her family: husband Kevin (the town's mayor), daughter Jill (delving into slackerdom), and son Tom (who also left to join a cult). Though there's relatively little action, I was fully engrossed the whole time. I'm sure the show will be excellent.

Monday, August 25, 2014

"Frog Music" by Emma Donoghue

I suppose this should be a special post because it's my first post-baby! My beautiful daughter was born on August 2, and even though she keeps me on my toes, frequent napping has allowed me to get some reading in. I had checked out Frog Music before the birth, so there was no special meaning in it being the first book I read--it just happened to be around.

But, because the world works like it does, there was an interesting connection as protagonist Blanche's "awakening" to the reality of her life comes from her realizing her feelings for her mostly abandoned child. Though I couldn't connect on that front, I did find the descriptions of her abused and neglected child especially hard to read and could empathize with feeling love and utter incompetence in equal measure.

Frog Music, however, is really the story of two women in 1876 San Francisco: Blanche, an erotic dancer and upscale prostitute; and Jenny, a rabble-rouser who wears pants despite the law. They're both interesting characters for defying basic stereotypes. Though Blanche's attachment to her deadbeat lover Arthur may be nothing new, her nearly insatiable sexual appetite is something rarely portrayed in female characters. And Jenny is not only unusual for her early feminism but also for her atypical friendship with Blanche. Both have intriguing pasts as well (for example, Blanche was a circus performer), but those pasts disappointingly remain fairly hazy.

The counterpoint to these two women is Arthur and Ernest, former acrobatic partners. Their love--or, at least, Ernest's love for Arthur--is probably the strongest in the book, and I almost would have liked to hear more about their relationship.

In fact, there were many places where more of the characters could have been explored, but instead the novel felt weighted with repetitive worries from Blanche: conflicting feels about Arthur or her baby or Jenny. These got repeated so often (and she was delirious from not eating so often) as to lose their impact.

And the great mystery around Jenny's murder, which forms the premise of the book, also seemed to drag, rather than engulf, the reader.

Donoghue's working with great characters, and Frog Music is certainly not dull, but I don't think Donoghue used what she had as well as she could.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson

I suppose this review is really a review of two books with somewhat similar premises but which are significantly different in the success of their execution.

The first review--the unofficial review--is of Jo Walton's My Real Children. The novel is the story of Patricia Cowen who, in old age, can recall two different lives: one with an abusive husband and another with a wonderful lesbian partner. The novel alternatively tells each version of Patricia's life. The stories don't overlap or relate to each other, and other than some subtle alternative history (e.g. in one version JFK is killed by a bomb), the novel is really just two different possible versions of one woman's life. The stories were so dull, lifeless, and unbelievable (and unbelievable in the most mundane way--like that fact that Patricia and Bee's relationship is honey perfect) that I only read a little more than half.

So, coincidentally, the next book I pick up is Atkinson's Life After Life. Her novel is also the story of one woman with multiple lives and occupies a similar period (overlapping especially in World War II) in history. But whereas Walton's book falls flat because the premise offers nothing especially new, Atkinson uses the multiple life premise to add interest and characterization. In Life After Life, Ursula is born and dies many times. But each time she returns--born into the exact same life--small things change. Sometimes the change is caused by Ursula herself, who retains a vague sense of dread/deja vu about her previous lives. Sometimes other external differences alter Ursula's course instead. In this way, Ursula's characterization is developed over the course of many lives, and it's interesting to see what she "learns" through each incarnation. 

Atkinson also uses the backdrop of World War I and II much more effectively than Walton. Though Ursula is an ordinary woman, she is intimately affected by both wars, from carrying out rescues during the bombing of London through interacting with Hitler himself.

Unlike Walton, who tries to cover the entire breadth of Patricia's life (resulting in a story that feels more like a Cliffs Notes summary), Atkinson easily skips large portions of Ursula's life, focusing on a few key areas and relationships in depth.

Both stories have some missteps. Each contains a story with an incredibly abusive husband that felt tired and excessively dramatic. Both continue the pregnant-on-the-first-go trope, which I hate, though My Real Children takes it a step farther by having Patricia get pregnant virtually every single time she has sex. We really can write better than this.

Nonetheless, Life After Life was engaging and worth a read while I'd avoid My Real Children (do try Walton's Among Others, though, which was much better).

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler

I haven't listened to an audiobook in awhile, but I decided to download We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to listen to while I did my pregnancy walks. Fowler's novel was another book that I added to my "to read" list a long time ago but had long forgotten what it was about by the time I actually got it.

So, this total lack of awareness contributed to two large surprises (I don't think these are spoilers if you have any idea what you're reading):
1. When Rosemary spends the first part of the novel talking obliquely about her disappeared sister Fern, I didn't realize Fern was a chimpanzee until Rosemary "drops" the bombshell (rather coyly, she acknowledges).
2. I also didn't realize the book was fiction--not a memoir--until I finished the audiobook and it suddenly occurred to me that the author name I'd been seeing--Fowler--didn't match the name of the narrator.

So, through my own fault, I was rather hoodwinked the whole time. I don't know that being unaware hindered my enjoyment, though I might have been able to appreciate some of the literary structures more if I'd known it was a novel.

For those who are in the unawares like me, a brief description: Beside Ourselves is Rosemary's account of her family. The daughter of a psychologist father, she was raised alongside the baby chimpanzee Fern for the first five years of their lives as part of a social experiment. When both Rosemary and Fern were five, Fern was suddenly taken away for unknown (to Rosemary) reasons. Rosemary's brother, Lowell, left the family not long after in search of Fern and has been on the lam as an animal rights activist ever since. The story is not told chronologically or in long narrative sections. Instead, most of the telling takes place when Rosemary is in college, having avoided the topic of her sister for many years.

As Rosemary acknowledges, though Fern and Lowell are the more interesting characters, the novel stays mostly with Rosemary, and everything is told through her point of view. It's somewhat surprising that we spend much more time on Rosemary's college adventures with the crazy Harlow than on her childhood interactions with her chimpanzee sister, but, again, the book's not really about chimpanzees. It's about one woman who's avoided confronting what happened to her family for years, yet she's also deeply troubled by her missing sister.

The lack of traditional structure can make the book a bit jumbled, and you never get as many answers or details as you like. Nonetheless, it's an interesting read so long as you don't mind exploring the human more than the chimp.

Monday, July 7, 2014

"One More Thing" by B.J. Novak

The Office was one of my favorite shows for years, and B.J. Novak was always a part of that. Though he was only sometimes on the show as temp--and later boss--Ryan, his behind the scenes role as writer was much more significant. One More Thing is his first published book, a collection of fictional short stories.

The stories are very short--my high school students would be thrilled--which makes for easy reading. Most stories are perhaps 3-4 pages; some are only a few sentences.

The stories are absurd and random and frequently worthy of a light chuckle. But they also fail to go beyond such juvenile smirking--they lack any emotional resonance. For that reason, the book comes off as mostly fluffy rather than especially engaging.

That's not to say they're not occasionally clever, particularly when touching on pop and celebrity culture. A story about "Wikipedia Brown"--a spin-off of the Encyclopedia Brown of our childhood--was quite funny, as was a story about Stephen King suddenly recognizing one of his books was published with a stand-in (not permanent) title.

The book would be a good "time to kill" text--something to read snippets of while waiting for a doctor's appointment or wanting a 10-minute wind down before bed.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Baby and Birthing Books

My reading has been very slow recently, but I can, in part, blame that on all the baby reading I've been doing. It's just over a month before my husband and my first child is due, so I'm trying to read and absorb all I can prior to her arrival.
Since I haven't necessarily read all of these books in their entirety, I thought I'd do a big collective post on what I've been perusing.

What to Expect When You're Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel

I absolutely love this book and would recommend it to all mothers-to-be. I'd even buy it as soon as you start trying to have a baby. I waited until month four or five before getting it and regretted all the reassurance I missed out on. The biggest peril of pregnancy is that the internet provides troves and troves of information which often inflames, rather than soothes, fears. On the other hand, What to Expect is clear and easy to read, and each month it provides practical guidance on what's normal and what you need to talk to your OB about. More than once it told me that what I was experiencing (i.e. stuffiness--who knew pregnancy caused congestion?) was normal and not for concern. I also liked that it provided a snippet of what was going on with baby each week; it became a "treat" for my husband and me to read that together each time we hit the next week's milestone.

Recommendation: Definitely an immediate buy!

Baby Bargains by Denise Fields and Alan Fields

This is another book that I regret waiting on. I attempted to build my baby registry from scratch, using various internet resources--and was totally lost. I'd read dozens and dozens of reviews for products, only to find that some parents thought an item was essential and others claimed it destroyed their children's lives. And that's even when I knew what to look for! Baby Bargains is another easy-to-read book (much like What to Expect) that breaks down the various baby item categories, offers information about what's important, and then provides compiled reviews of the most popular products. It provided a lot of reassurance and guidance.

Recommendation: Another definite buy, especially because it can be used for awhile (i.e. later in the baby's life when you're buying a high chair or moving out of the infant car seat). Be sure to get the newest edition.

Expecting Better by Emily Oster

Oster's book got a lot of buzz when it first came out for challenging conventional assumptions about drinking and eating during pregnancy. Oster's not a doctor, but she's an economist who looked at the various studies that have been done to determine whether the perceived risks conveyed to pregnant women are really present. And, not surprisingly, she found that many of the dangers are over-hyped. I didn't read much of the first section since I didn't pick up the book until my third trimester, so I can't comment on it directly, but my experience as a pregnant woman has suggested that we're overly restrictive without actually improving outcomes for women or babies. I was most interested in the section on labor and delivery because I've been taking a natural childbirthing class, and the information provided in that class has sometimes clashed with what my OB is saying. Expecting Better provided a neutral approach to many of these issues (like monitoring and episiotomies) that helped me feel more confident with both groups--the natural parenting movement and the medical establishment. The book is quick and easy to read while providing solid information.

Recommendation: A good choice to borrow from the library in the first trimester and perhaps again in the third.

On Becoming Baby Wise by Gary Ezzo and Robert Buckman

Early on, I think most parents have at least some concept of how they'd like to parent. Nowadays, the choice seems to be between attachment parenting and some form of parent-direct parenting (lots of different terms are used), though I think the reality for most people is somewhere in between. In the end, I think a baby can be raised on any plan and be perfectly happy and healthy. Yet I knew early on I would be a parent that needed some kind of routine--nothing too strict, but something I could rely upon to plan my and my baby's day. Baby Wise is on the stricter side (at least compared to true attachment parenting), but it's also a plan that provides some flexibility. Two of my neighbors raved about it, so I was happy when one offered her copy for me to read.

Again, I liked that the book was straightforward, easy to follow, and not overwhelming. The authors push their parenting style a bit too heavily (suggesting that attachment parenting is significantly detrimental to baby/family's happiness), but their actual plan--called Parent-Directed Feeding (PDF)--is practical and moderate. It provides the baby and family with a reliable routine that is based on the baby's cues but doesn't have mom breastfeeding constantly through the night for months on end.

I do disagree with their advice on letting babies cry it out, and I think they could have been more specific in parts (the philosophy is fairly broad), but it did give me a good basic blueprint of how I'd like to approach feeding and sleeping. Now, I haven't actually tried it yet, so we'll see what I say in a few months. :)

Recommendation: If you think this type of parenting appeals to you, I'd borrow the book from the library first and see if it gels with your approach/expectations. If you know you're going to be drawn to attachment parenting, don't bother--it'll probably just make you angry!

The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems by Tracy Hogg and Melinda Blau

Baby Whisperer picks up where Baby Wise leaves off--it offers a significantly more detailed and somewhat more moderate approach to the basic Baby Wise philosophy. The general philosophy of establishing a eat-wake-sleep routine is the same, though Hogg does not advocate leaving babies to cry, She offers the specific advice that Ezzo and Buckman lack, such as a "winding down" routine before putting baby to sleep or specific methods for calming a crying baby who should be sleeping. She also spends considerable time going through common problems and providing solutions, based on her methods.

The big downside about Baby Whisperer is that in being so comprehensive it becomes lengthy, repetitive, and totally overwhelming. I felt like I wasn't remembering much and was completely confused--I was supposed to do this, but only if this, and not if this was happening, in which case it was this, but only if you didn't...

Her attitude can also be simultaneously encouraging and discouraging. On the one hand, she suggests pretty much any problem can be solved--there's no such thing as being stuck with an unmanageable baby. On the other hand, this implies that if you do have a problem, it's completely your fault. You've "accidental parented" your way into the situation.

Recommendation: Read Baby Wise first. If you like their approach and want more direction or options besides letting a baby cry, give Hogg a try. I recommend you don't read the entire chapters (even though she advises to). Just read her philosophy sections or sections that address a specific problem you have.

Birthing From Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz

This book was loaned to me by my doula, and I just started reading it, so the review will be pretty incomplete. I like that it provides an alternate look at natural childbirthing. While my childbirthing class emphasizes hypnosis and relaxation, Birthing from Within emphasizes exploring the woman's psychological state and acknowledging that birth can be painful and difficult. It relies a lot on art therapy, which I'm not sure appeals to me, but I like its realistic attitude toward birth.

Recommendation: Haven't read enough to recommend yet, but perhaps a good buy if you'd like some pre-birth activities to address your attitudes toward birth.

Monday, June 23, 2014

"Black Moon" by Kenneth Calhoun

Gotta love a disaster dystopian, and even if Black Moon doesn't cover especially new ground, it's still an engaging "what if" look into human nature and the structure of society.

In Calhoun's dystopia, humanity has suddenly become unable to sleep. People still live, but without the rest and restoration that sleep provides, they devolve into violent and incoherent beings consumed by hallucinations. Yet, not unexpectedly, there are a few individuals who, for reasons never explored, still possess the capacity to sleep. Their lives are in equal danger, as the sight of any sleeper quickly turns a non-sleeper murderous.

Through this world the reader follows several individuals: Biggs, a sleeper who's looking to finding his afflicted wife; Chase, a young man desperate to get back his girlfriend; Felicia, a researcher at a sleep institute and Chase's ex-girlfriend; and Lila, a high school student still able to sleep. Though the destruction of the world looms over each of them, Calhoun's novel highlights the ways in which people are unable to let go of personal issues even in the most dire of circumstances. For example, Chase is still obsessed over fixing his sexual impotence, and Biggs is still focused on his struggling marriage

The stories move quickly, and because the reader follows a range of viewpoints, he or she is given a decently broad perspective about what is happening. More time is spent on fallout than the science of the insomnia, which I appreciated--I prefer to just accept that this is the way the world works and then explore the consequences.

I think the ending strikes the right balance between utter despair and false hope, even if it's not as uplifting as we might want.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"All the Birds, Singing" by Evie Wyld

After reading the goliath The Goldfinch, it was nice to follow up with the short, tense mystery that is All the Birds, Singing. Fear and paranoia permeate this novel, which follows Jake, a female sheep herder still fearful of her past catching up with her. This past is revealed slowly to the reader--as half of each chapter chronologically advances Jake's story of living alone with her sheep and Dog, the other half of each chapter jumps chronologically backwards to reveal a single part of Jake's history. Such a structure forces the reader to piece together what has made Jake into the woman she is.

This structure also creates mystery and adds to the paranoia. We know Jake's skittish of men, but it's only slowly that we see what has led her to that place. We also are aware of her independence and strength, yet it becomes clear early that such strength was forged through incredibly harsh necessity.

There's also an element of mystery with a supernatural air (what's been killing Jake's sheep off?) that's never fully resolved. Such a lingering question didn't especially bother me since I felt the real focus was on the human relationships, but it does mean the book lacks a neat ending.

I'd recommend reading the book in as close to one sitting as you can manage (annoyingly, the book became due [and non-renewable] at my library when I was only about 50 pages in. I had to return it and wait a week or so before I could check it out again, which ruined some of the effect!). Doing so helps make the connections between pieces clear and amps up the tension.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

It's only natural that I'm always seeing connections between the books I read in succession, though a recent finish--Winter's Tale--really does offer a nice contrast to The Goldfinch. Both are giant books (Goldfinch comes in at 775 pages) and somewhat epic in scope (Winter's Tale more than Goldfinch, though Tartt's novel does cover protagonist Theo's journey from child to adult). But, whereas Winter's Tale was an interminable slog, there's something about Goldfinch that keeps you hooked and reading more--even though Theo becomes an unsympathetic mope.

Goldfinch begins in dramatic fashion. Theo and his mom are heading to a school meeting over an infraction, and with time to kill, they stop inside a New York art museum. The museum is subject to a terrorist bomb attack, which results in Theo's mother's death--and Theo stealing "The Golfinch," a famous painting by Fabritius. From there Theo's life takes a huge downturn, including living with his gambler father in Las Vegas; forming a friendship with Boris, who's all too eager to drink and get high; and dealing in fake art.

Theo is immediately sympathetic. He's young and his life is suddenly upturned, but he has few people to offer support or stability. His family is so absent that he lives with a rich childhood friend (and his family) immediately after his mother's death. His dad is drunk and uninvolved at best, and it's easy to see how Theo soon falls into alcohol and drug abuse at an early age. What was fascinating to me, though, was that at some point you lose much of your sympathy for Theo. His life has been comprised of a terrible set of tragedies, but he also opts to take the easy way out--excessive drug use, illegal activities, hiding rather than presenting the truth.

But, through it all, I wanted to know what happened. The theft of the painting hangs at the edges of all that happens, periodically haunting the reader (and always haunting Theo) whenever you start to forget about it. And though Boris is nothing but trouble, you can't help but grin at his indefatigable nature.

Though the very end drug on a bit (lots of dialogue and philosophical musing), I was still surprised at how quick a read 775 pages could be.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet" by John Bradshaw

My husband and I love our two cats. Our phones and Ipad are filled with nothing but adorable cat photos. We proudly whip out the photos to brag to family and friends. So I thought Cat Sense would be perfect: a way to better understand my furry friends in order to make their lives (and my life) even better.

And there are some great and fascinating parts of Cat Sense. One of the most interesting was Bradshaw's discussion of the future of the house cat. Our well-intentioned programs aimed at neutering as many cats as possible has a dangerous downside: the only cats who are reproducing are those most shy or aggressive around humans, those least socialized and least likely to be caught. We're thus "naturally selecting" cats for those traits least desirable to humans, making future generations of cats likely to be worse--not better--pets. Unlike dogs, which have been bred for centuries to develop certain human-appropriate skills or personalities, we've made no such efforts with cats. And because cats already naturally have traits that are "undesirable" (liking to roam; the prey instinct; no natural affinity for socializing with other animals), the very future of the cat may be in danger.

Take my two cats. Both are somewhat unusual in that each is very friendly, even to strangers; they actively greet people at the door. The older of the two is a "momma's girl"--though she's amiable to everyone, she's particularly attached to me, and if I'm in the room, I get all the attention. She can easily switch from wanting love to wanting to playfight (with claws), and though the coming change is easily apparent to me, strangers can be surprised. And she is terrified of young, rowdy children. So she's a good cat (well, I think she's perfect), but perhaps not ideal for everyone.

The second our cats is probably the "ideal" type cat. He's friendly to everyone, even small children (he'll let the neighbor girls pick him up in a rather undignified manner without any fuss). He gives love and attention freely and will sit in the lap of anyone who's available. He doesn't run or hide; is docile when picked up; and never bites or scratches. But, of course, he had been neutered before we adopted him (and even if he hadn't, we would have done it immediately). And if he hadn't been neutered, it's possible his laid back behavior would have been masked behind raging male hormones. So we're left with a cat who would make an ideal pet for most families being taken out of the gene pool--but it doesn't seem like there's much of a better option.

Bradshaw also includes some interesting tidbits about cat behavior. For example, I always assumed my two cats, which were both adopted as adults from shelters, had been strays. But Bradshaw points out that cats not socialized with humans at a young age will never be comfortable with human company, so my cats' high amiability and friendliness would suggest they did have such positive exposure. Or, he points out that cats' "meow" is largely a reaction to human company--feral cats rarely vocalize. Instead, cats have learned to direct their meows as a way to get human attention (something one of my cats uses to her advantage at an annoyingly high rate!).

Unfortunately, though there's some great information, Bradshaw doesn't know how to keep an audience's attention. Far, far too much time is spent hypothesizing on the evolutionary origins of the domestic cat and the banalities of cat anatomy. These sections feel like a textbook and are endlessly repetitive. I had hoped for more insight into cat behavior (why one of my cats goes outside then wants right back in, then wants out again; or why the other cat will, out of nowhere, dash across the house like she's being attacked) and more insight into how I could be a better "parent," but there was little to that effect. Long sections were incredibly dull, which is why I took several months to actually finish the book.

Thought there's some great tidbits hidden in the tedious, a long essay would probably be more enjoyable to read than the entire book.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"Vampires in the Lemon Grove" by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is just up my alley: a collection of weird, off-beat sci-fi/fantasy short stories. All are creepy because they combine our world with something other-worldly and thus ask how we would respond in such a situation.

My favorite was "Reeling for an Empire," in which young Japanese girls are sold as factory workers, only to be given a drink which turns them into human silkworms. They are confined in a factory where they have no choice but to pull out their thread each day or die. I think this one appealed to me because of the way it reflects our fear of our bodies not being our own, something I can relate to as I'm currently pregnant. And though my pregnancy is much desired and wanted--whereas the girls' condition is not--I can still understand the frustration of not feeling in charge of your own physical self, of feeling your body as something different from "you" for the first time.

But, truthfully, all the stories were fabulous, with the last two, 'The New Veterans" and "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," especially affecting. "The New Veterans" takes the idea of psychosomatic pain to a new level as a massage therapist works to literally knead out a soldier's war trauma from his tattoo. The last piece makes scarecrows the most terrifying I've ever seen them.

"The Barn at the End of Our Term" is the most absurd. It takes place on a horse farm, where half the horses are embodied by former U.S. presidents. It answers a great question no one has ever asked: what would it be like to get a bunch of our former presidents together and force them to live in horses' bodies?

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is the perfect kind of new horror. It's terrifying and strange without ever going too far beyond the understandable.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

"Winter's Tale" by Mark Helprin

Things to know before choosing to read Winter's Tale:
1. It's 750 pages long.
2. It's nothing like the movie trailer. It's nothing like the opposite of the movie trailer.
3. It's not fantasy--maybe magical realism, in its least attractive sense.
4. Probably not worth it.

So, my history in choosing to read and finish this book: Like most people, I'd seen the trailer for the movie version with Colin Farrel and Sybil from Downton Abbey. The movie looked terrible--another cheesy period love story. But, then, I read a post by Neil Gaiman (whom I admire) where he bemoaned the romance-focused trailer and highly praised the actual movie and the novel on which the film is based. I still didn't want to see the movie, but Gaiman said I'd like the story if I liked fantasy, so I reserved the book.

Then the book arrived. And it was enormous. And I generally avoid enormous books because I feel that life is too short not to read as widely as I can. Nonetheless, I decided to feel out the Amazon.com reviews--which were largely terrible. But, those terrible reviews seemed to all come from book club members whose club chose the book based on the trailer. Feeling all superior and high-minded, I took their criticism as assurance that I (of quality literary tastes), would love the novel.

Where to begin? Well, if you did choose Winter's Tale for the movie trailer, you'll certainly be disappointed. The "romance" between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn last perhaps fifty pages early on. Then Beverly dies and is gone. Peter Lake jumps back in at the end. And those fifty pages are pretty dull in terms of emotional romance. It's love at first sight. Beverly's a weirdo who likes the cold but is petulant like a child. She has consumption because apparently consumption is the most romantic way to die ever (and all those Lurlene McDaniel books I read as a kid thought it was cancer. Pshaw.). She says weird things about constellations and animals, but unless I missed something, her rambling is meaningless.

What else? Well, there's Hardesty with his gold plate and a supreme mission from his father--which gets lost and forgotten most of the book. He falls in love (at first sight! what a coincidence!) with Virginia. Also, there's Asbury and Christiana, who shake it up and fall in love at first hearing of voice. They all work for a big New York City newspaper.

The last third of the book takes place in present day (well, leading up to the millennium), but the setting feels indistinguishable from the first third, which takes place a hundred years earlier. For example, people don't seem to use phones or computers. Hell, a character runs for mayor and wins by talking about how awesome the winter is.

Speaking of which, the entire book is largely a love story for a) the winter and b) New York City. So if you don't think both of these are the end-all-be-all, be wary. Because apparently in this world (so I guess the book really is fantasy) when we get crazy terrible winters, everyone loves to go outside and ice skate and eat warm food and take sleigh rides (I mean, literally, a family goes and gets a horse-drawn sleigh. In NYC in 1999.).

There's also a kinda magical white horse. And an immortal (?) guy who wants to build a bridge out of light? Did I miss the section where any of this made sense?

With the possible exception of Peter Lake, there's no emotional connection to any of the characters. And the plot feels utterly random and meandering, with characters and time periods all feeling essentially the same.

That's not to say there aren't some enjoyable sections, if you can ignore all the above. Reading about Peter Lake and his fight against Pearly Soames and his gang was largely interesting. I liked the mysterious Lake of the Coheeries and its characterization. There were certainly individual pieces that could have worked.

But, overall, I hated it. Maybe I missed the meaning because I skimmed a lot, just wanting to finish. I shouldn't have been so stubborn, and I should have just given up, but I didn't, maybe just so I could write a rambling crticism.

It's true that it's far, far easier to condemn than praise. Condemning is easy. But, hell, the book was long enough that I feel sufficiently justified. :)

Monday, April 21, 2014

"Eleanor & Park" by Rainbow Rowell

Though I've mostly given up YA novels, Eleanor & Park made "best of" lists so often that I gave in. And, truthfully, I'm not sure whether I should have, because although Eleanor & Park is sweet and touching with genuine teenage emotions, it is also so heartbreaking and bittersweet that I'm still wiping away tears.

On the outside, Eleanor & Park is your typical misfit-meet-misfit romance. Park is half-Asian, and though he's not actively bullied, he mostly tries to stay under the radar. Eleanor is big with loud clothes and hair and a terrible family situation--living in poverty with her four siblings and mother under an abusive step-father. Park and Eleanor bond reluctantly over shared bus rides and comic books, but their relationship soon blossoms with an intensity neither 16-year-old has felt before.

It can be difficult to capture the intensity of first teenage love without making the romance come across as hokey, insincere, or cliche. But Rowell successfully navigates not only the strong emotions, but also the insecurities and doubts that everyone remembers. And she's especially adept as capturing just how magnified every moment, word, and touch is at that age. How electrifying it is when you first touch another person--and are touched back--even if such touch is not sexual. Heck, I still vividly remember seeing a movie on a date at 16 and being so distracted by the fact that my elbow was grazing his on the armrest that I couldn't pay attention to the film's plot.

Rowell's novel also reflects the difficult dichotomy of any relationship. On the one hand, it's an intensely personal and private bond between two people. On the other hand, any relationship that lasts has to exist in the wider world--the world of families, friends, and outside obligations. We like to believe that if our personal bond is strong enough, nothing else matters, but that's simply not the case.

I'll give that Park may be a little too perfect--a bit too much of a fantasy realized for a real 16-year-old boy--but Eleanor is so perfectly messy that her characterization makes up for it. The book may cross certain adults' lines in terms of its language (even though it's nothing that teenagers haven't heard already), but I think its authenticity and belief in goodness will win most over.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Hyperbole and a Half" by Allie Brosh

Like most people, I discovered Brosh through her immensely popular--despite being mostly dormant for the last few years--blog. Her combination of crudely done graphic art with personal stories of childhood and adult failures rang true for me and many others. Brosh disappeared for a long period, disabled by depression, but her book recently emerged and includes a number of references to that time.

First of all, not all the material in Hyperbole and a Half is new. A number of stories are reprints from the blog. They're still funny the second time around, but it's something, I think, to be aware of before shelling out money for purchase.

Then there's the new material, which is a little inconsistent. Some of it is absolutely fabulous. I laughed so hard at "Warning Signs," where Brosh addresses younger versions of her self, that my husband demanded I hand over the book so he could be "in" on the joke. And Brosh is usually spot-on with her stories about her childhood and troubles with her idiot and uncontrollable dogs. These stories typically reflect Brosh's inflated sense of ability ("Yes, I can go to my friend's birthday party after heavy dental sedation"; "Yes, I can be the one to 'fix' this terrible dog"), which also comes across as admirable--though wayward--determination.

The personal stories about her struggles with depression and sense of identity are somewhat less effective. One the one hand, "Depression Part One" is a moving and understated approach to what depression feels like to the person suffering. It also effectively shows how misplaced most attempts to help are. On the other hand, later chapters about her sense of identity seem repetitive and overblown. Similar points are hammered over and over, and Brosh's insistence on her failures (like imagining herself as a better person than she really is--something I think we all can relate to) eventually come across as inflated and less sincere.

If you enjoy Brosh's work on her blog, the book is definitely worth a read--after all, I haven't laughed out loud so hard at a book in a long time--but be aware that not all of it is equally strong.

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain

I resisted reading Billy Lynn for a long time because I just couldn't see myself interested in a "war" book, despite the many accolades Fountain's novel was achieving. Of course, Billy Lynn's a "war book" in the same way that Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 are (though without the absurdism and dark humor). Instead, like its predecessors, it works to expose the fractured and paradoxical mindset of a person who has experienced war, with Fountain's novel also covering the similar mindset of those back home who passionately "defend our troops."

The book's protagonist is Billy Lynn, a young solider home for brief leave with other members of his Bravo squad after video of one of their fights in Iraq makes them famous heroes. Billy and his fellow squad members are lauded and praised wherever they go, but at the same time they have to live the reality that they're returning to Iraq in days to finish their tour.

Most of the novel is Billy's inner monologue as he struggles presenting the facade the American public expects while being bombarded by the basic insincerity of those gushing around him. And it isn't that his "fans" are purposefully insincere, but rather that they're ultimately ignorant, with a simplistic view of what it means for our country to be at war.

Billy Lynn highlights many other truths of war: the incredible youth of many of our soldiers; the camaraderie formed in such circumstances; the fact that parades and award ceremonies aren't always the best way to support the troops.

Highly recommended even if, like me, this type of story normally isn't your "thing."

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"MaddAddam" by Magaret Atwood

MaddAddam is the culmination of Atwood's trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake, a book I believe I read on my way to my first job interview nearly 10 years ago. MaddAddam culminates the story by following a small group of survivors living together after Crake wiped out most of humanity in the first novel. This third book picks up characters from the previous two, especially the second book--The Year of the Flood--and it also retraces events from the earlier novels from different perspectives.

Familiarity with the other novels is somewhat a two-edged sword. Though I've read both, I have very little memory of either, particularly the second (I appreciated that both novels were briefly recapped in summaries before the beginning of this book). So when events were retold or characters reappeared, I had a sense I should have been feeling "a-ha" moments of new understanding--instead, it was just a story. On the other hand, I could see where it might be dull to read a new book that is mostly a rehash of what already happened. In fact, most of the novel takes place in flashbacks as Zeb recalls his upbringing with his brother Adam.

In the present day setting of the novel, relatively little happens. Former God's Gardener Toby is living with the other human survivors. With them is Jimmy--Crake's friend from books 1 and 2--as well as the Crakers, simple-minded and pure human-like creations of Crake (also see books 1 and 2). The group is busy building up their compound and keeping themselves safe from things like the Pigoons (vicious pig hybrids) and Painballers (humans who had survived killing matches back in the day). But mostly the book follows the day-to-day, including Toby's burgeoning relationship with Zeb.

One area that particularly bothered me (spoiler alert): The book begins with Toby and others searching for Amanda, who has been captured and raped by the Painballers. They are reunited and discover themselves among the Crakers. The Crakers mate much like animals--they're aware when a female is in heat and they pursue (and are happily accepted by the females) accordingly. So, when the Crakers come upon Amanda and the other women, they (innocently) assume the women are open for procreation and have sex with them. We learn at the end of the novel that Amanda, Ren, and Lotis Blue were impregnated from that evening with the Crakers.

Okay, so these women are raped by the Crakers. Yes, the human-like beings had no malicious intent, but does that change what happened to the women? Yet the fact or implications of such rape are never mentioned. The women seem totally cool with it--yes, Amanda's emotionally troubled, but it's made clear that solely because of what the Painballers did. The women would have been fighting and protesting--something else that seems rather hurried over since everything appears to happen in seconds, and I really don't know how that could work--and (not to be crude) the Crakers have huge penises, yet it's dismissed as a simple misunderstanding. The women seem equally and inexplicably cool with having the children as well. I'm not saying the Crakers should have been punished or anything, but for such events to be glossed over seemed problematic.

Otherwise, I thought the most interesting part of the novel was the Crakers and their growing understanding of the world they've been created in to. The book wasn't nearly as interesting as Oryx and Crake, but it concludes the trilogy appropriately.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"The Rosie Project" by Graeme Simsion

Have you see that movie about the straight-laced guy whose world gets turned upside down by an unexpected, quirky woman? You know, he's stuck in his ways--life in a rut. Has very particular ideas of where his life's headed. And then he meets her--and she's so different from him. She's wild and unrestrained (but also a little sad inside), and suddenly he's doing things he never would have done before, and, even more shockingly, he's enjoying it. You know, that movie?

Okay, so "manic pixie dream girl" is such a common trope that we have a well-known phrase for it. We see it time and again in movies, TV, and literature, but apparently it doesn't get old. Because it's the plot for The Rosie Project.

The fact that the plot of The Rosie Project has been done a thousand times before doesn't make the book bad, but it also makes it largely unremarkable and expected. For that reason, I'm surprised at the praise the novel has received, as, for me, it was a very run-of-the-mill story. I suppose the "twist" that's supposed to make Simsion's novel different is that the protagonist Don is not your average straight-lacer. Instead, he's an autistic/Asperger's-type professor. But even that seems derivative. After all, I've read plenty of novels with a similar narrator, and like those novels, Don is also of the autistic genius trope: he's great with math and science, remembers minute details, takes life literally, is a slave to routine, and is poor in social situations.

He's still a more engaging character than the "dream girl," Rosie. We're told throughout the novel about her anger towards men, presumably because of her poor relationship with her stepfather. But we get few details about that relationship, and in the end, her anger with him seems boiled down to the fact that he failed to take her to Disney World.

As a rom-com, The Rosie Project is cute and sweet with appropriate character sidekicks and relationship twists. It just isn't great reading.

Stray thoughts
- This is the second book in a row I've read that casually takes place in Australia. It's made my America-normativity abundantly clear. I just assumed both this and The Husband's Secret took place in the U.S. and was suddenly surprised when a stray fact indicated otherwise.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

"The Husband's Secret" by Liane Moriarty

For the first part of the book, The Husband's Secret has elements of Gone Girl which make it appealing--dark secrets revealed at turn; people with questionable motives. It never gets anywhere near as insane as Gone Girl, though the coincidences and overlap between characters do build up quite incredibly by the end. But, by not letting its characters stray into the psychotic, The Husband's Secret also remains a lot more relatable, which makes it a very different book by the end.

The book interweaves the stories of Rachel, whose daughter Janie was murdered as a teenager; Cecilia, a type-A woman who learns of a dark secret of her husband; and Tess, whose husband Will wants to leave her for her cousin Felicity. As alluded to before, the first half of the book is a build up in suspense, but by half way through, most of the big reveals have occurred. The second half of the novel, then, follows the consequences: what do you do when your life has been turned upside down?

What I got most out of the book was the fact that anger--and, maybe even more importantly, righteous anger--is still most harmful to the angry person. Even in circumstances where a person has every right to be furious at another, those emotions prey on the holder, not the person who's done wrong. Funnily, this was most hard for me to accept in the case of Tess. I could see where Rachel needed to move on from her fury about Janie's murder, but I wanted Tess to punish Will, to be vicious to him for straying in their marriage. Letting go of one's anger doesn't mean condoning the wrongdoing, but it is the only way to preserve relationships and yourself.

Less significantly for me, the book also focuses on the secrets (big and small) that we keep from one another. While I could certainly understand Cecilia's husband, John-Paul, keeping his secret, other characters' actions seemed utterly bizarre. Tess thinks she has social anxiety but has never told anyone? (and her husband never picked up on it?) Cecilia and John-Paul don't have sex for six months but Cecilia is ashamed to bring it up? Funnily, at the same time, I read a New York Times article that said, "Spouses who spent time alone with each other, talking, or sharing an activity at least once per week were 3.5 times more likely to be very happy in their marriage than spouses who did so less frequently." And all I could think was: there are enough spouses who don't talk once per week to make that statistic meaningful?! Clearly, the point is: talk with your family. It just surprised me that that was a point that needed to be made.

The epilogue really pushes the coincidences too much, but The Husband's Secret is still an enjoyable and quick read.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"On Such a Full Sea" by Chang-rae Lee

I think reading some reviews of On Such a Full Sea prior to reading the novel itself helped me appreciate the book more. Several reviews talked about the epic, myth-like quality of the story, and understanding it--and protagonist Fan's journey--through that lens avoids pesky and ultimately irrelevant objections of "that's not realistic!" For though the book is fiction, it's certainly not realistic fiction, nor even realistic dystopian fiction (though that would probably be closest to its genre). Instead, it's part futuristic dystopian and part Odyssey, with Fan's journey being best understood as a series of encounters and challenges (cannibals! Sirens!) with obstacles on her path.

And while the central narrative is Fan's (little "o") odyssey to find her boyfriend Reg after he is taken from B-Mor, the regimented colony in which Fan and others live and work to provide fish for the wealthy Charters, unlike in the Odyssey, Fan's journey is only half the story. The other half of the story is that of those left behind in B-Mor, told through an anonymous first person plural narrator. In this way On Such a Full Sea is really a combination of ancient Greek styles: half epic hero's journey and half chorus in a Greek tragedy. And though at times I felt a little frustrated to be brought back to B-Mor (where little happens) when I wanted to keep following Fan (where much was happening), I do think there's something worthwhile in exploring what happens to those left behind in an epic journey. As Fan becomes myth and legend, the residents of B-Mor use her as a catalyst to question their own lives, and what results is fully realistic: some resistance, some acceptance.

Though structurally Fan is our epic hero, she's not a traditional hero (something the choral narrator reminds us of). She's brave, determined, and good, but she's also not entirely purposeful, often reacting to what happens to her rather than initiating. And she's also less fleshed out than you might think such a character would be, her presence often more a symbol than actual person.

So the book is a little different, but I liked it thoroughly, even though it leaves a rather ambiguous ending.

*Minor quibble in a book a quite I enjoyed is that it, like so many others, uses the trope of "woman getting pregnant the first time she has sex." Though obviously such a thing is possible, I have no doubt it's also very rare, so it irks me to no end to be used constantly to artificially create drama. I'm going to start creating a list:
- On Such a Full Sea
- My Real Children
- Life After Life
- The Natural
- A Thousand Splendid Suns
- Water for Elephants
- Twilight series
- Downton Abbey (TV) -- more than once too!
- Glee (TV)
- Juno (movie)

Monday, February 3, 2014

"Pilgrim's Wilderness" by Tom Kizzia

I wanted to like Pilgrim's Wilderness more than I did. Maybe the idea of reading about a crazy, isolationist Fundamentalist family who battled heads with the National Parks Service (and many others) in their attempt to live in Alaska sounds more interesting than the sad and pathetic truth. That Christian fanatics are often the worst kind of hypocrites, and the revelations of "Papa Pilgrim's" sexual assaults, physical abuse, and psychological manipulation against his wife and 15 children are utterly expected.

In fact, I had a hard time reading the book at times because any word or letter from Papa or the family made me cringe and gag. Even worse, they manipulated many Alaskans' strong feelings about property rights and lack of government oversight for their own purposes, preying on many decent people in the process. Kizzia isn't an impartial observer about the family--after hearing the whole story, no one can really be with the Pilgrims--but he also clearly comes down favorably on the National Park Service's efforts against the family. It was perhaps his attitude that let me continue to read.

At the end of the novel, we learn of Papa Pilgrim's trial and conviction. The remaining children are informally "adopted" by another giant isolationist Fundamentalist family. Two of the Pilgrim sons even marry two of the family's daughters. Though I was, of course, happy to see them out of the reach of Papa Pilgrim, it was hardly (from my perspective) an uplifting ending. It doesn't seem like the new family is abusive, but they're still fanatics keeping their children from the real world--and I can't root for that.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara

I love an unreliable narrator. It's what made The Dinner, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so delicious (no pun intended). But, in my book club's discussion of The Dinner, I also found that unreliable narrators made some people uncomfortable. They felt "tricked" into liking or sympathizing with a despicable character. Now, I think any good reader needs to be aware--why assume your protagonist is good-hearted and honest?--but I can understand where they're coming from.

It's these contradictory feelings about unreliable narrators that seem to account for some of the divergent opinions about The People in the Trees (at least based on the Amazon reviews). But, from the beginning, it's clear the novel is layered in potential duplicity. The story is the personal account of Norton Perina, a Nobel-prize winning scientist famous for discovering a turtle among previously unknown indigenous people that granted those who ate it extremely long lives (though debilitating mental conditions later on). Over the years, Perina adopted 43 children from the island and has recently been jailed for molesting one of the children. Considering that Perina is writing--in his defense obviously--from jail should give the reader pause. Secondly, the book is compiled and edited by Perina's former colleague and uber-fan Ronald Kubodera, which adds an additional layer of potential obfuscation.

And, by the end, it's clear that Perina is a monster. But, he's a monster who's unaware of his monstrosity. We like to assume that bad people are like Disney villains--they do bad things out of a desire to "be evil." But most people who do bad things do so thinking they are behaving acceptably, or at least justifiably. If you ask them if murder is wrong they'll say of course, but what they did wasn't murder. And if you were to ask Perina is raping a child is acceptable, he'd of course say no: but what he didn't wasn't rape. Part of the book's success is that there are moments of understanding--and yes, even sympathizing with--Perina while also seeing his grossly distorted view of life, his "children," and himself.

Most of the book concerns the events prior to the trial and even the adoption of the children. A significant portion focuses on Perina's initial visit to the island of Ivu'ivu with the anthropologist Tallent and his experience with the "Dreamers," the elderly Ivu'ivuians living extended lifespans. Throughout, Yanagihara paints Perina as a lonely, narcissistic man unable to form real relationships. A man who adopts dozen of children not out of love or compassion (in fact, he purposefully spends a significant amount of time away from home) but out of a desire for some unachievable fulfillment.

I found the book and Perina fascinating and disturbing. Though the focus is on Perina, there's plenty of interesting commentary about the destruction of indigenous cultures and Western appropriation of local people. And a punch-in-the-gut ending.


Monday, January 20, 2014

"David and Goliath" by Malcolm Gladwell

I have mixed feelings about Gladwell, and I only picked up David and Goliath for my book club. I ended up being unable to attend the meeting that discussed the book, which I'm disappointed in. Gladwell may, at times, be problematic, but at least he can provoke interesting discussion.

On the other hand, though, maybe it's not such a shame I missed the meeting, since David and Goliath has far more prosaic things to say than some of Gladwell's earlier books. Whereas The Outliers at least contained some surprising or thought-provoking assertions, most of Gladwell's arguments in D&G are utterly familiar: "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"; "you can have too much of a good thing."

In fact, the primary argument of David and Goliath is that what appear to be disadvantages aren't always so. Gladwell's version of the story which gives its name to the book is somewhat interesting. Gladwell argues that, at the time, sling-throwers were quite deadly and accurate, so it would not have been difficult for David to fell Goliath before Goliath got anywhere near in range to touch David. In that case, David and Goliath is not really the underdog story we make it out to be.

However, I found little of what followed the introductory story to be groundbreaking, and, in making his points, Gladwell treads some dangerous ground. For example, he begins his discussion about dyslexia by detailing all its problems but ending with the (shocking!) question: "You wouldn't wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?" (102). He then goes on to highlight some stories in which individuals' dyslexia caused them to overcompensate and develop extraordinary skills in another area, helping them become very successful people today. But this is hardly a pro-dyslexia argument! Gladwell (to his credit) even notes that these stories are not true for most dyslexics--in fact there's a very high incidence of dyslexia in the prison population. So, among children with dyslexia, some number are excessively encumbered by their disability and end up far worse; some number survive and manage to do okay; and some very, very small number do even better. That makes Gladwell's question utterly disingenuous and helps to obscure the fact that such success stories are not the norm. He repeats the same argument with children who lose a parent.

Other arguments are utterly obvious. For example, reducing class sizes in schools only helps up until a point. Any teacher can tell you this (though maybe this chapter highlights the enormous disconnect between teachers and educational researchers/policy makers more than anything else--maybe once in awhile ask teachers what they think?). Yes, a class of 30 is too big. Students get lost. A class of 8 is too small. There's not enough students to share the participation and generate discussion. Around 20-ish, give or take, is ideal.

There was some interesting information to be gleaned from the section on choosing colleges, in which Gladwell argues that it's not always to a student's advantage to attend the most difficult/challenging college he or she is accepted into. The section could make good reading for highschool juniors and seniors and their parents.

As always, Gladwell remains very readable, even if his tone can sometimes come off as arrogant or patronizing. A few points seemed absurd, such as postulating, via other scholars, the the Biblical Goliath had hyperparathyroidism. Really? Do scholars not have any idea how the Bible was written? And they think a few verses from it confirms a medical diagnosis? The rest of the book is fine, but, as I've said before, hardly groundbreaking.