Monday, September 15, 2014

Apparently, that book you gave him aren't exactly the stories in the most traditional sense.

I've had "write a book review post" on my to-do list for quite a while. But then I was busy moving across the country, and then I was getting moved in, and then I was starting a new job, and then I read more and more books and it just seemed too overwhelming to even start. But you know what they say, you eat an elephant one bite at a time... so here goes.


***



One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Story:
A sweeping multi-generational story of the Buendia family and the town of Macondo that they founded.

The Review:
People love this book. Love love. And yes, a lot of those people are my English people. But other people seem to love it too. And I see the good things about it. It is beautifully written, and by that I mean the language is gorgeous. It's beautiful to the point of wanting to reread a sentence two or three times just to savor it. The city of Macondo becomes a character in the story that is beautiful and spiteful and fascinating. And the language is so lovely that you feel you are there while it rains unendingly there while the banana trees grow.

But good grief, could the characters have their own names?! All the men are Jose Arcadio or Aureliano. I couldn't keep anyone separate or distinct. And maybe that's the point, but it's annoying. It became very difficult to keep the story straight because I didn't know who it was talking about.

And then, the book is 450 pages. It just goes on and on and on.

What I really like about Garcia Marquez, what actually keeps me interested in the magical realism doesn't show up until the last page. And that wasn't enough to redeem the book for me.

There were interesting things, but I don't really recommend it.


***


What Is Tao? by Alan Watts

The Story:
An 80 page explanation of the basic tenets and principles of the philosophy of Tao. 

The Review:
This is a great short introduction to the philosophy. Of course, what makes reading philosophy difficult is that it comes with this idea that Tao is unknowable. So... there's that. But I like the basic principles and those are fairly easily explained in this book. 

I recommend it. It only took an hour or two to read. 




***


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

The Story:
This is Dave Egger's memoir of his early 20s. His parents died of cancer very close to each other and he became the legal guardian for his seven-year-old brother. He recounts his life in an extremely postmodern style -- no linear timeline, no plot, very self-aware, angsty, and self-involved. 

The Review:
Let's start with the positive. I really like Egger's style. I find postmodern writing enjoyable and am always interested because it calls attention to itself as writing and is always surprising. One thing Eggers does here that I particularly enjoyed was the dialogue between him and his brother Toph when Toph suddenly steps out of character and starts calling Eggers on his motivation for what he's doing. It's clever. 

On the bad side, I got frustrated with this memoir for a few reasons. 
1. I really had a hard time reading about Eggers as a parent. He's the quintessential twentysomething searching for himself who doesn't want an actual job and just wants to change the world and be famous. And I found myself yelling at him "Suck it up! You have to take care of this kid so get over yourself. 

2. Eggers is extremely narcissistic and self-involved. All his writing is an attempt to demonstrate how smart he is. It's grating. 

3. It was 437 pages long. That's at least 200 pages too long. There's a reason The Things They Carried is only 200 pages. That's about as long as a postmodern novel can be sustained. 

I don't recommend it. 



***


The Story of the Human Body by Daniel E. Lieberman

The Format:
Audiobook

The Story:
Lieberman is an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University and he sets up this book to look at why humans are so sick and diseased, particularly with chronic diseases, right now. He looks at human evolution and history to examine what we were designed to do and how can the way we were designed and the way we evolved help us to cure these diseases. 

The Review:
This book was so fascinating!

There are three parts. Part one is about evolution. Lieberman goes back to the last common ancestor with the apes and moves forward with what we know from fossil records and looks at the adaptations. The once homo sapiens arrive on the scene, he looks at changes from the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. 

Part two is about the development of disease. Lieberman's theory is that the agricultural and industrial revolutions caused "mismatch diseases." For example, the agricultural revolution changed how humans ate, and that lead to disease because evolution doesn't change that fast. 

Part three is about specifics of disease and what we can do to correct or ameliorate the mismatch diseases. 

I found this fascinating because he moves through everything so clearly and explains so simply as he points out all the connections that I didn't know. Honestly, his view jived really well with my hippie-granola perspective, and he talks about addressing the problem rather than just the symptoms. Lieberman's main idea is that we have to know where we are coming from to shape where we are going. 

As a random aside, he quotes the Bible a lot, which I thought was interesting for an evolutionary biologist. 

I definitely recommend this. 


***
There are many more books to review, but that was a decent start. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

You used Quicken to manage books for a business this size.

The beginning of a new month, and of course I'm thinking about book reviews. Mostly because that is way more fun than thinking about packing...

Oh, and let me explain this month's excitement: I discovered audiobooks for free from my library that I can download straight to my phone! Since it is summer, I have been running outside. And I was sad because I was losing all my good reading time. So I discovered how to do the audiobooks and have been listening to those while I run. It's delightful. I'll make a note in the review if something was an audiobook for me, because I think it's nice to review that experience as well.


***


Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup

The Story:
This is Solomon Northrup's account of his own life. He was born a free black man in New York, then after growing up, getting married, and having three children, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. After being sold, he was taken to Louisiana and spent twelve years on a couple different plantations there.

The Review:
This is a powerful story. Northrup is very thorough as a narrator so he provides a lot of details. But he's also a detached narrator. He makes it very clear that he is recounting his experiences after the fact, that it is over, and that he has been returned to freedom and his family. Because of this the horrible scenes of slavery that he describes are not completely overwhelming for the reader.

One aspect that I thought was interesting was the details that he provides about the running of the plantation and the procedures and expectations of being a slave. He explains, for example, how the crops are planted, and also how the slaves get things like spoons and bowls. He creates a really good picture of what life was like for the slaves. Although he does point out that this is based entirely on his experience and certainly isn't the same for everyone.

This is very worth reading. I recommend it for that. Also, if you've never read them, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs are well worth reading along with this.


***


How to Love by Katie Cotugno

The Format:
Young Adult audiobook.

The Story:
This is the story of Reena and is told now "After" and two years in the past "Before." In the "Before," Reena is a 16 year old girl who falls for the local bad boy and gets pregnant. In the present, he comes back to town, unaware that he has a baby. A baby who is now a year and a half old. And of course drama ensues.

The Review:
Cue the teen angst.
And I'm running along thinking, why can't anyone talk to anyone? Why doesn't anyone tell anyone the important things? Or even the trivial things? And the teenagers weren't the only ones caught up in this.

There were a few interesting things about the story, and I wanted to know how it would end, so I kept listening. But the end was a cop-out, casting the blame on religion and leading to an abrupt epiphany that makes everything ok.

I don't recommend this, but if teen angst is your thing, you might really like this.


***

The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Format: YA Audiobook

The Story: 
A small family, mother, daughter, and son, move to a small village in France. The mother's new job is for an eccentric toymaker and seems like a dream come true and the perfect place to recuperate after the death of the father. But suddenly strange things happen and the family discovers a secret. 

The Review:
My immediate gut response is to say this was too much for me, but I am still trying to piece together why. It was a mystery, and becomes a murder mystery. That probably would have been enough for the characters to cope with, but then a fantastical element is added with the toymaker who makes automatons that are too realistic. And then we, the reader, are present for the first murder committed by a shadow. So suddenly the battle is against a shadow, the toymaker has a crazy backstory and a thing for the mother, and another mystery with his wife. 

And I'm still thinking, it was too much. 

I don't recommend it. 


***

The Secret Rooms: A true story of a haunted castle, a plotting duchess, and a family secret by Catherine Bailey

The Story: 
This is non-fiction. Catherine Bailey, a historian and researcher, wants to write a book about the Leichestershires, men from the estate of Duke of Rutland who fought during World War I. She is interested in their story, but also how World War I impacted the aristocracy and the Duke of Rutland's family. She gains entrance to the Muniment Rooms in Belvoire Castle where Duke John has extensively and obsessively catalogued the family's papers. But there she discovers a number of mysteries and the book becomes a first person account of her attempts to solve these mysteries.

The Review:
This was fascinating! 

It begins with the story of John's final days and death, in 1940 at the beginning of World War II. At the time, Belvoire Castle (his home) was being used to store England's documents. I thought this was really interesting after having read The Monuments Men. Then Bailey interrupts with her story in the present and begins to describe her initial entrance into Belvoire and her encounters with the staff, who are all very suspicious and wary of both Bailey and the Muniments Rooms where she is working. Then she flashes back to World War I and it all becomes very Downton Abbey

I liked the recreation of life at that time. I also really liked following Bailey's research process. It's not too technical and she creates a really engaging narrative about how she learns these things, and fills in the holes in the information she finds in the Muniment Rooms. But, even though I liked the story, I found the resolution of the mysteries to be pretty tragic. And the family was seriously screwed up. One of my book club friends said, "More money, more problems. More titles, more drama!" We all agreed the Duchess (John's mother) was cray-cray (which means double crazy, right?)

I highly recommend this.


***

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

The format: Audiobook. Read by the author.

The Story:
A memoir. After a bitter divorce, Elizabeth Gilbert takes herself on a year long journey to Italy, India, and Indonesia.

The Review:
Ok, first some background. I picked this up after a discussion at book club. Diane said she loves Elizabeth Gilbert, and the rest of us said we had never read Eat, Pray, Love because the movie was so awful. She said no, you have to give it a try. The next month Michelle came and said she had read it and loved it and that we had to try it because it is nothing like the movie. And I agree. 

I really liked this. I love the idea of traveling and really learning what a culture does well and how to incorporate that into your life. So the idea gets me from the beginning. 

Gilbert is a great storyteller. She has a marvelous way of creating the characters around her and sharing these episodes from her journey that are funny and poignant. She also does a great job of incorporating background and history and information so that it is easy to understand. Particularly as she gets into some of the more esoteric beliefs of the Indian yogis and the Balinese medicine man, her approach to the explanations is really important and handled really well. 

As someone who is fairly new to meditation (everyone seems surprised by this. I've done yoga for years, but I'm just in the last six months or so trying to just sit and meditate), it is great to read her struggles, because sometimes you feel like you're the only one this doesn't work for. Gilbert makes it really clear that you are not the only one. And that it is worth it to keep trying. 

Bonus: The audiobook read by Gilbert is awesome! She reads so smoothly it is like you are just sitting at her kitchen table and she is telling you her stories. She also imitates her friends, including the drawl of Richard from Texas, and my absolute favorite -- the old man yelling in Italian at the soccer game in Rome. "Die! Die! Nella porta! Madonna!"

I highly recommend it.