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.