Sunday, March 2, 2014

They're not fairy tales. They're true. Every story in this book actually happened.

It's the end of the month --- oh wait, I missed that. Yeah, that's pretty normal right now. So I thought I would do an end of the month wrap up of the books I read in February. But it's a beginning of the month wrap up of the books I read in February. Which I guess is ok too. 

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

The Story:
A sex ed teacher is sued by members of a new Christian fundamentalist group. The school board responds to the suit by implementing an abstinence only curriculum. The teacher struggles and continues to battle members of the church, including her daughter's soccer coach. 

The Review:
I'm not sure how I feel about this. 

First -- I really liked the way it was written. It's very engaging and the movement between time, between characters, and between sections was really well done. 
Second -- I was impressed with how he was able to write about the fundamentalist church without sounding disparaging or mocking. 
Third -- and here's the but. But I just had a hard time with the subject. And I said in the summary that it's about sex ed, but really it's not. It's about faith and what do you do that sustains you. Ruth (the teacher) is sustained by her belief that knowledge is power and at the beginning Tim (the coach) is sustained by the belief that Jesus saved him. And the story is actually about the disintegration of the things that sustain them. Ruth because her ability to provide open, accurate, detailed knowledge is removed by the schoolboard, and Tim because he starts looking at the world around him and goes through a faith crisis. Because the story is about that disintegration, I just found it to be sad.

Recommendation: Eh, if you like that sort of story. 


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

The Story:
Hahahaha. How do you sum this up? 

Cloud Atlas features multiple parallel first-person narratives from different time periods, in different writing styles, from the perspective of a person seemingly reincarnated in each different form. The novel begins with the earliest narrative and moves forward in time, until the center of the novel when it begins moving backward. 

The Review:
I feel that if I had understood what this was about or what the intention of the novel was I would have gotten into it way faster/easier. But I didn't really understand, so it took me a while. That said, the way I would explain it is that Mitchell is exploring different types of writing. So he begins with a journal/diary that creates the feel and effect of an old (1700s?) journal, with a writing style like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Another section is written in a postmodern style with super short sections, quick, abrupt, and minimal. 

The other thing that I didn't understand was the structure of the novel as a whole. I almost yelled out loud while I was running at the gym, because I got to the end of the first section and it just abruptly cut off, in the middle of a sentence. Mitchell splits each character's narrative in half and stacks the first halves together as the first half of his novel, and then moves backward through the second halves for the rest of the novel. 

Some sections were difficult to read because of the peculiarities of the dialect, so that made a very long novel into a very slow read. 

So those were the things that I struggled with. But that said, the set up and switching of styles of writing was really clever. I enjoyed that aspect of it. The stories were interesting and the theories of how time will move forward in the future and how lives are connected is also very interesting. 

Recommendation: I can't highly recommend it, but I recommend it if you are nerdy and like that sort of thing. 


Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore

The Story:
This is a biography of Benjamin Franklin's younger sister Jane. She was born when he was six years old, and in their family he was the youngest boy and she was the youngest girl. 

The Review:
This is a really well-written biography. It has short chapters and moves really quickly. Lepore says in the beginning that spelling is part of the story, so she includes a lot of direct passages from letters which are difficult to read, but she does a nice job of translating them. 

I got a little frustrated/bogged down in the middle of the book because it slows down a lot and focuses on Benjamin Franklin. Jane spent twenty years of her life pregnant and giving birth to her twelve children. She didn't have time to write, so the story is almost all taken from what Franklin was doing at the time and imaginings about what Jane's life was like. 

The next section picked up as Jane's children grow up and she had much more time to write. She began to actually become a real person. 

As she closes the book, Lepore makes the claim, "As history, the story of a life like Franklin's is, finally, a mystery, unless it's told alongside the story of a life like Jane's." In finishing the book, I wound up liking it better than I did through the middle, so I was ready to say it had redeemed itself, but then I read this (and she includes many other thoughts about biographies from a variety of people) and I thought, "Ok, why?" If that is going to be your thesis, the reason that you wrote this book, what do you think is the value of presenting these parallel stories? What does knowing about Jane's life (in the limited way that we know) add to Ben's life? And, though Lepore makes the claim, the reasons aren't explained and I'm still wondering what the value-add is.

Recommendation: If you are interested in Benjamin Franklin, definitely read it. If you are interested in social histories, I think you'll enjoy it. Otherwise, maybe choose something else. 


Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

The Story:
A non-fiction examination of ultramarathoning and a tribe called the Tarahumera -- "The Running People." McDougall starts with the question "Why am I getting injured all the time when I run?" And begins looking at the different people who run, the different ways they run, what allows some to run farther and faster and not get injured, and how our bodies are designed. This leads him to the Tarahumera.

The Review:
I loved this. (I should have said "Nerd Alert" before that). McDougall writes for magazines, including Runner's World, so his style is fast and easy and very engaging. He moves into a lot of side tangents throughout the story -- like barefoot running, and the evolution of homo sapiens and extinction of neanderthals -- but all the tangents connect in to the main story and are so interesting by themselves that they don't cause any frustration of get back to the point. 

And this made me want to run. Which was really convenient because I was reading it while I was at the gym running on the treadmill. I kept wanting to run taller, lighter, and barefoot. 

The book is a really interesting exploration of what our bodies are designed to do and how our modern life has altered that. But there are still people who manage to capture it and run with complete joy. 

Recommendation: Absolutely! Go read this.  

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