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.