Monday, April 26, 2010

38. 2/23/10 The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (561 pages)

I've been meaning to read this one for a long time, but had never gotten around to it. Then, while reading the bookseller of Kabul, it became clear that the one thing everyone could agree on what that The Satanic Verses was evil and Rushdie should be killed. That really bothered me, so I needed to read the book on principle. I think that Mr. Rushdie's clever/manic style sometimes prevents me from identifying with or feeling close to his characters, but I really liked the framing of Gibreel and Salahuddin's stories in a surrealistically religious but not morally absolute framework. Basically, an angel, the devil and God are throughout the entire novel, but questions of faith are never claimed to be definitively answered. My kind of story. Is it harder to be an angel than the straight up devil? Or, I have no idea what I'm talking about. Either way, I found the novel thought provoking, and certainly believe that anyone should be allowed to read it.

37. 2/14/10 Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 2: The Sea of Monsters ( 279 pages)

This is, possibly, my least favorite Percy Jackson novel (Hey, that's also like Harry Potter! Book 2 is my least favorite!). Although its excellent when Percy is discovering all of his badass sea powers, there are very few parts that I actually love. Pretty much just Hermes. That being said, there are cyclopes and pirate ships full of dead soldiers and hippocampi and all, so its not like there's nothing going on.

36. 2/11/10 Fire by Kristin Cashore (461 pages)

By the author of Graceling, this book is more a companion than a sequel, but its very similar in tone. The writing isn't superb, but the story is effortlessly feminist and entertaining. Fire is the last Human Monster- she's so beautiful she mesmerizes people, and she can control their thoughts. She makes some new friends, falls in love and learns to use her powers for good and not be afraid of them. What did I like so much? The casual sex. The evil father who was actually really good to her. The not-shying-away-from-killing; no one likes it, but they know they have to do it. I also loved the casual positive use of birth control, and the mention of abortion as just another choice. My one problem is that I felt like Fire sort of breezed by the idea of sterilizing herself. She probably made the right choice, but it didn't seem like that much discussion (even with herself) went into it. Talk about emotional issues. And I know its a fantasy novel, and I need to stop worrying about Aslan's Red Silk Tent and all that, but I would like to understand, chemically and physically, how she sterilizes herself with herbs, but still menstruates. I'm just saying.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

35. Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (385 pages)

Shockingly, this is, in fact, a biography of the Duchess of Devonshire. And although I haven't seen it yet, I'm guessing its not quite like the version with Keira Knightley.

So Georgiana (great-great-great-something-or-other to Princess Diana) had some issues. An overbearing mother, social pressures, a gambling problem, an intermittant drug problem, and being married to Voldemort. (COME ON! How can I not make a Duke of Devonshire=Ralph Fiennes=Voldemort joke? Or did I just out myself as three different kinds of nerd?) Her life was very much like a soap opera: she married an incredibily rich, powerful man under pressure from her family. Although she became the toast of the town and the leader of fashion, she and the duke were never tight. So she got involved in politics and made some good friends. Then the duke got to know her friends too. And they moved in. Hints of homosexuality? All over the place. Menage a trois? Check. Illegitimate children? Like four of them. At least. (you know, between the Duke, the Duchess, and their live-in "friend" Bess). There was spousal abuse, flights to Europe, crazy politics, dramatic deaths, revenge, excessive gambling debts etc etc.

Despite all this, however, the Duke and Duchess choose to stay together rather than get divorced. In the end they seem to have been closer than ever- which doesn't seem very dramatic at all. It wasn't all anachronistically girl-power, 'I'm going to leave the jerk', and, for lack of a better word, I enjoyed the realism of it.

I also enjoyed the straight historical nature of the book. Foreman illustrates how Georgiana was a strong and powerful woman in her own right, but she would never have considered herself a feminist. It wouldn't have occurred to her, and it was nice to hear that straight up without pretending she was another Mary Wollstonecraft.

Monday, February 8, 2010

34. 2/4/10 Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (375 pages)

I have never suffered from a learning disability, or any kind of hyperactivity disorder (unless you count Restless Leg Syndrome, which I am dead convinced that I have), but that doesn't mean I've never daydreamed about finding out I'm the child of a god. Huh. That sounded a little bit psycho. Still, I think you know what I mean. In that sense the first installment in the Percy Jackson series is classic kid-wish-fufillment fantasy. Percy's life with his loving mom, not-so-loving step-dad and ADHD and dyslexia problems is tough, and when he finds out his father is Poseidon it doesn't get any easier. It does, however, become...more. (I don't think this is a spoiler, because this is the set up for the ENTIRE SERIES) Percy lives his life with pizazz, once he settles down to his destiny of fighting monsters in between difficult terms at school. Isn't that what most of us want, even as adults? On another level, seeing a kid with ADHD and dyslexia get to be the hero of a story has to be heartening for kids struggling with it every day.
I am prepared to concede that I'm a sucker for anything where the gods appear in mortal guise (Dating waaay back to Hercules and Xena. Admit it, you watched them too...) but I also really like these books for themselves. The first one in particular may feel a little like a high quality Harry Potter knock off, but by the time I reached the end I wasn't connecting Percy with Harry at all, despite their similarities. I cared about Percy, Annabeth, and Grover for themselves, not just as stand ins for Harry, Hermione and Ron. The way the Greek mythology is continuously slipped into both the plot and modern culture is really clever. And in the end, although Harry and Percy have loads in common with one another, they don't really feel the same. Harry is an earnest young man, trying to save the world, because he's the only one who can, by making the best choices. Percy feels more like a borderline juvenile delinquent yelling at adults to shape up and act like adults (or in this case, gods), because he can't clean up this mess all by himself. Anyway, I would recommend giving it a try- worst case scenario, it won't take very long to read.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

33. 1/31/10 The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad (288 pages)

This book wasn't quite what I thought it was going to be. The story of an Afghan family from the inside, the author lived with them, but took herself out of the narrative completely. It was a good source of information for processing the news these days, but I spent most of the book angry about the lives the women in the family were living. I don't know if that was one of the purposes of the story, or if that's my personal beliefs informing how I'm reading it, but it was hard to feel emotional attachment for people who were enraging me. I was expecting an unrealistic tale of a super-enlightened bookseller, and what I got was yet another unwanted dose of realism.

32. 1/30/10 The Onion Our Dumb World Atlas of the Planet Earth (240 pages)

I don't think this was meant to be read straight through, more like a hilarious reference book. That being said, I couldn't help myself- didn't want to miss anything, and some of the funniest bits are in the fine print on the maps or captions. It was worth all the time it took to get through, but I do feel a little but like a horrible person for laughing at some of those jokes. But "France: One Nation, Above God."? HILARIOUS. "Wales: Land of Consonant Sorrow." And they just keep coming, right up to "this is where Santa Claus would have died of exposure, if he was real." at the North Pole.

31. 1/25/10 Ex Machina- The First Hundred Days vol 1 by Brian K. Vaughn (100-ish pages)

I loved Y: The Last Man, so when Chris got this graphic novel by the same writer, I jumped on the chance to check it out. It didn't seem like much happened, in an action sense, but it also felt a lot like buildup. Presumably if I kept up with issues as they came out there would have been more action by now. I found the fusing of city politics with superhero antics to be very interesting. And it was nice to see the superhero chosing the civic duty route, while others pressured him to use his powers in a more direct manner. There's not too much to be said about it at this point, but if Chris buys them I would be very interested to keep up with the story...

30. 1/24/10 The Alienist by Caleb Carr (498 pages)

Well written and tense, but not emotionally engaging for me. It was written like a modern psychological thriller, but still respectful of all of the historical details. I think the alienist himself invented criminal profiling in this book- tv needs to thank him. What would we be watching if he hadn't come up with the idea of recreating the killer's mind and personality? The actual killer-tracking story didn't do too much for me, although it felt suitably urgent when I was reading it, but I really like how the narrator was the reprobate rather than the quiet, sober one. Usually the rowdy character is the friend that seems glamorous, but who's life is less satisfying than it seems, and the narrator is the dull one who thinks things through. This time the other main characters were smarter, duller and more diligent. This also made me like Theodore Roosevelt. Most of the things I've heard about him make him seem irritating: he was good at everything, and annoyingly chipper. Carr makes his enthusiasm seem endearing. Yay Teddy! Oh, and I thought that Sara Howard the lady detective was a nice, feminist touch. I do, however, wish that I hadn't read the afterward- it didn't make me like the author any, and I would much rather his presence stayed invisible.

29. 1/17/10 The Ideal Wife by Mary Balogh (339 pages)

Yeah. This is a romance novel. So? The last 1o or so books I've read have been really serious, and between that and work I decided I needed some fluff quite badly. So I found a romance ARC on my shelf that I had never read, and although it took barely any time at all to read, it was delightful and satisfying. It wasn't the best I've read, not even the best Mary Balogh, but it go the job done. I liked that there was no manufactured argument to hinder the romance, but the sex was kind of lame. Still, nothing like a historical romance to take your mind off reality.

28. 1/14/10 Towing Jehovah by James Morrow (371 pages)

Chris told me about this book a long time ago, and I finally got around to it. God dies, and a tanker captain and a priest are tasked with finding where his body landed and towing it to the arctic so that it won't putrefy. Gross, right? And awesome. That aside, however, the entire book is unsettling. Religious persons are thrown into despair, atheists are stymied and frustrated, and the major female character is outraged as a feminist and wants to destroy god's body. A lot of questions are raised, and most of them are not answered (although they might be if I read the entire trilogy) but it certainly makes one think. Does the categorical imperative exist? Does it matter if God is up there? Is it the idea or the being thats important? It wasn't a lighthearted story, but it was definitely worth reading.

27. 1/10/10 The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett (274 pages)

I read this book in a few hours, which was really satisfying, given how slow I've been lately. It was interesting- books with a certificate of authenticity are apparently nearly always fake, Lewis Carroll invented the dust jacket, and rare book collectors frequently don't even read their books. I did not, however, find any of the persons involved, or even the author, particularly sympathetic. It struck me as kind of a thin story, and it really seemed like the author was struggling to put herself into the story and to draw conclusions. I could have done without both. Still, I really liked the book.

26, 1/4/10 The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway (576 pages)

Although this book didn't actually blow my mind, I did like it a lot.
In this case, I really don't want to give away the plot points of the story, but I will say that I did see one of the major revelations waaaay ahead of time. It may sound like crowing, but honestly I find it disappointing when I figure it out in advance. It seemed like it was meant to be a post-apocalyptic story, but it felt more like a war story to me, which might explain why my male book recommenders liked it even more than I did. Stereotype? Perhaps. But I've only met one guy who liked Jane Austen (who wasn't an English teacher anyway), and most of them seem to like Catch-22. Just saying. What I really liked was the part of the story that dealt with bureacracy, responsibility, compartmentalization and how they can lead to atrocities. As a post-apocalyptic society it was a little too fanciful for me, but there were a lot of thought provoking moments and really great writing. Plus, it was funny. One last note: the narrator doesn't have a name, and you all know how I love that in a novel.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

25. 12/28/09 The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima (426 pages)

Not entirely sure how I feel about this offspring of the adolescent fantasy movement about a teenage boy who finds out he was born to be a magical warrior (of course. weren't they all?) It was well written, but I never got emotionally attached to the characters- and its one of those that seems a little too pat at the end. Really? Overthrowing a centuries old social system steeped in magic and power was that easy? And no one of interest died? Really? Hm....I have, however, decided to check out the sequel and give it a fair chance.

24. 12/26/09 Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (326 pages)

Karli and I went to see Jonathan Safran Foer speak at Bowdoin last year. He was great- funny and articulate. After that, I really felt like I should read his books. I think I like this one better than Everything is Illuminated, but it was very depressing. Oskar's father was killed on 9/11, and he spends the rest of the book on a massive scavenger hunt across New York to solve a mystery about him that may or may not be real. Oskar made me incredibly sad, but he was also very endearing, and it was easier to read about the fallout from 9/11 from a child's perspective. Basically, I really liked the book, but it gave me heavy boots.

23. 12/23/09 The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden (471 pages)

I think this really all began before I was writing my reviews in a blog, so I probably need to explain it. I get fixated on things, subjects, ideas. When that happens, I need to get more information. Wikipedia works really well in the short term, but lots of times, that just isn't enough. Also, it isn't always true. Sadie calls them Research Projects, and is usually a good sport about hearing Important Facts About Leprosy (or Polygamy or Sherlock Holmes or 30s get the idea). So last summer I read From Hell by Alan Moore, and it was really excellent, and scared the bejeesus out of me. Those scary panels with no words where men go in and out of Mary Kelly's room in the dark...ugh. There's an image I can't shake. Anyway, after the fictionalized version that blames Dr. William Gull, a prince, Queen Victoria, and the freemasons, I needed to get solid information on that most notorious of serial killers, Jack the Ripper (and an old episode of Histories Mysteries just wasn't cutting it). It turned out that when Anna took criminology in college they studied him, so she had some books. I started with Patricia Cornwall's Portrait of a Killer, in all honesty because it looked like an easier, quicker read.
When that book had come out, I really bought into her theory. It seemed well researched, and like it fit in all of the details. The more I read of the book, however, the less I believed it. Lets just say that Ms. Cornwall didn't come off as scholarly or throrough and leave it at that. So then Anna gave me The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, which she also had from criminiology class. It took me a while to get through this one- it was a lot bigger, with a lot more footnotes and a lot smaller print.
Thorough and disturbing, I had to keep taking breaks between chapters and read it only during daylight hours to prevent being totally freaked out when I went to bed at night. It was exhaustively research, with lots of primary source material to back up Sugden's findings. I believe him a lot more than I do Patricia Cornwall, but the worst part of the whole thing was that after 471 pages the author still couldn't honestly reach a conclusion. That makes me respect him as an author and historian, but it makes me NUTS. I want to know who did it! The fact that Sugden points the finger at the man he considers to be the least unlikely suspect is honest and emotionally unsatisfying for me. On the upside, I think this exhaustive study has take care of my JTR fixation for the moment, although you know I'll go on the creepy tour the next time I get to London.

22. 12/20/09 The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman (288 pages)

This book was a frustrating downer, but that doens't mean that I didn't enjoy it. It can only be frustrating if I'm really engaged, so I guess it turns out that its really a plus. I can see why social work students are always required to read it, and I think Fadiman does a great job of equally presenting both sides of the story. I've known about this book for years, and sold dozens of copies, but I never really picked up a good idea of what it was about- a little Hmong girl who's parents don't speak English and who lives in California is diagnosed with a severe seizure disorder, and over the years as her familiy and the medical community attempt to treat her, their lack of understanding of one another's cultures lead to difficulties and tragedy. I can see both sides of this story, and I don't think there was a "right" side, but I have to say that I agree with the western medicine a little more than Hmong culture. At times it seems like Fadiman is implying that the two are equal alternatives, and I don't think there are numbers to back that up. Its a very sad story, particularly the bits that seem like they were so very preventable, but its also a really good lesson. (Although I know there are those of you out there who strongly resist Lessons in your entertainment. You know who you are.)

21. 12/16/09 A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley (435 pages)

I read this one based on a Diana Gabaldon recommendation. It was good, but not awesome. The feminism was realistic for the period (the middle ages), which I like, but Margaret was ridiculously naive. For someone who was sold to a rich gay merchant who beat and sodomized her and left her for dead by the roadside, lived through the Plague, became a midwife and toured with a troupe of actors she was easily shocked and kind of slow. That being said, her ending up with (spoiler?) Brother Gregory (AND HOW!) was excellent and pulled off an eleventh hour save, making me want to read the rest of the trilogy.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

20. 12/10/09 Paper Towns by John Green (305 pages)

I bought this book a long time ago based on my love of An Abundance of Katherines. Using the end of high school as the basis for the story is kind of trite, and the wild, fascinating girl that Quentin loves is pretty much John Green's thing, but I liked it a lot anyway. Its a good mystery with a satisfyingly unsatisfying ending. At the very end of his senior year, Quentin sets off on a wild goose chase to find the girl he loves, and in the process gets to know a lot of people he had never spoken to before and Learns Lessons About Himself and Life. I liked the way the changing relationships (and Walt Whitman) illustrated the idea that people are rarely anything like we imagine them to be. Quentin was a tormented nerd who it turned out people thought was attractive, cool etc...It was unlikely, but not impossible, and a refreshing change. It felt a lot like growing up and realizing that your teenage years weren't really what you thought they were at the time. It was good, but I still like An Abundance of Katherines the best, although I may be biased.

19. 12/9/09 Ransom My Heart by Meg Cabot (396 pages)

I love The Princess Diaries. At the end of the series, Princess Mia writes a romance novel for her senior project called Ransom My Heart....and then they really published it. My sister ( the first of my acquaintance to love the Princess Diaries) bought it and passed it along. Hilarious. Particularly if you've read a lot of romance novels, which I have. It read like a real romance novel, and was better written than lots of them. The anachronistic feminism in the plot made a lot more sense when you run with the idea that a politically active teenager wrote it. I liked it, although not as much as the Princess Diaries themselves. Its not really fair to compare them however, as Ransom My Heart doesn't have Michael Moscovitz OR Lars. Should I summarize the plot? A medieval miller's daughter who is master of the bow and arrow kidnaps the lord of the manor and holds him for ransom to get money to help her sister run her brewing business. Definitely written by a high school student. Or someone who has a real gift for imitating one.

18. 12/7/09 The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart (440 pages)

I read the ARC of the first book in this series before it came out, and it was a decent read of the Harry Potter school (although it really had more in common with a Series of Unfortunate Events); there was a happy ending and the kids had personalities. The second didn't blow my mind, it was too much like the first one, and I'm not sure there was any character development at all. The four children struck off on their own and used their wits and ingenuity to thwart the bad guy and rescue the adults. Ta da! The series is ok, but I prefer Artemis Fowl or Percy Jackson.