Saturday, November 11, 2017

Mistry, Rohinton (A Fine Balance)

It's probably been a very long while since I read a book that is both utterly engaging and downright upsetting at the same time. What I mean by that is that I had to force myself to put the book down, but every 100 pages or so (it's a long book) something horrific would happen and it would shock me enough that I was in a state of constant worry as I continued reading.

OK, this makes it sound like it will cause you too much stress to read the book. That's not your takeaway here - the book is phenomenally well written (or I wouldn't have wanted to keep reading). How much do you know about 1970s India during the time of Indira Gandhi's reign? What Mistry does is use that as a backdrop for the lives of 4 main characters and a host of additional (but not minimally described) characters. I'm fairly certain his main goal is to provide insight into what Gandhi's reign did to India and its peoples. But it isn't the only one.

And that's where I lack the required knowledge to really understand his intent with respect to one particular character. I won't give away which one (and if you read the book, you'll know which one I mean), but I would venture to say that he gives three of the main characters happy endings (sure, you can call them "happy enough" endings) but one character a distinctly unhappy ending. I am under the impression that this has nothing to do with Gandhi's reign, but more to do with each character's upbringing. And in that case, what impression should I leave with? How does that fit into the story?

I certainly don't want my noodling to dissuade you from reading the book. If I don't get all of Mistry's intentions, the writing is far and away a good reason to read it.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Rowell, Rainbow (Eleanor & Park)

Rowell has me intrigued now. The first book of hers that I read (Landline) was kinda wacky, but I loved its twists and turns. This one is very, definitely, absolutely forthright - it cuts to the heart of so much teenage angst.

While I didn't relate to every single part of the story, the concept of opposites attracting, and attracting strongly, is an extraordinarily powerful message in this day and age. Eleanor and Park couldn't be more different - what they've experienced, how they live their lives, how they look, etc. And yet they still have strong attraction to each other, and what's more, are able to find a ton of common ground about what they like and don't like. That message needs to be shouted from more mountain tops.

One thing that distressed me in the acknowledgements was the intimation that the stressful home life Eleanor has to contend with is a home life that Rowell herself experienced. Having now read some interviews with her, it seems quite clear that is not true (she calls her stepdad "great" in one). But this is an example of how deeply realized her characters are. They leap off the page and into your brain and you're utterly convinced that the author has lived through this, or how can it be that well realized?

For those who have already read the book, regarding the words on the postcard... I do not want to be in the "I love you" camp because that's too... trite. On the other hand, Rowell herself says the words are hopeful, so I'm trying to figure out what they could be. "See you soon" would be nice!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Fey, Tina (Bossypants)

Don't doubt me, I love Tina and Amy equally. But I love them for different reasons. Tina - you're the awesomest writer, but your TV series are simply... odd. Amy - you're a pretty terrible writer, but your TV series are the BEST EVER CREATED.

Now that that is out of the way, more on this book. Of course, I loved it! Tina promoted her themes galore, showed folks how comedy is done, gave more than a smattering of background, didn't devote a whole chapter to Amy but incorporated her correctly, and was generally genial and assertive throughout. In other words, you get the full flavor of Tina in this book.

You also get quite a lot of play-by-play about the Sarah Palin portrayal. Perhaps a bit too much? I understand it's essentially what launched her to fame. (Although I don't think more people watched 30 Rock as a result. You have to be an Alec Baldwin fan to do that. How are there not more Alec Baldwin fans in the world?)

I have to say, though - I'm waiting for the day someone mashes up Tina, Amy, Felicia and Mindy's books into one, to showcase the full flavor of female comedians from this day and age.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Roach, Mary (Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void)

Ms. Roach sure can write! Her humor is what keeps you motivated to learn more about her subject, but she is amazingly deft with the rest of the words she uses, too. I can't believe I hadn't picked her up before.

She seems to be really, really obsessed with bodily functions. I'm glad I started with this book, because its obsessions are wrapped inside the tale of how we got into space, what keeps us there, and what we need to achieve to go much further. But, boy howdy, does she ever get excited about things like pooping in space, bodily hygiene in space, farting in space, you name it. Now, it's not that these things aren't relevant - of course they are if you're going all the way to Mars and need to figure out how to live with a bunch of other people in a small box. I suppose I was hoping also for some discussion of the problems of creating a box that won't fry its inhabitants within a month (by "fry" I mean give them horrible leukemia, not burn up in the sun or anything). She is careful to subtitle her book so that it's clear it's about how to live inside the vacuum of space, but I'm sure the world is also interested in all the other problems related to getting to Mars.

And that's where the book was a huge bummer to me in the end. Before reading it, I had thought the vast majority of problems facing us were about the construction of the box itself. After reading it, I worry more about people turning into axe murderers in space, and the risk of everything related to putting folks into space for so long not being palatable to humans, in general (i.e., "Why would I pay for that? It's far too risky!"). Her last line keeps me hopeful, but just barely.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Shetterly, Margot Lee (Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race)

As usual, the book is way better than the movie. Keep in mind that I took a strong dislike to the movie, and its overly dramatic tendencies, for the most part because I wanted the whole, true story. Not some Hollywood concoction that included black women telling off their white supervisors (unbelievable) and department heads knocking down bathroom signs (even more unbelievable).

So, yea, those things didn't happen, as I expected. However, the real story is even more compelling. Shetterly weaves a tale of the times with the day-to-day work these black women did at NACA/NASA. It is necessary for her to set up what it was like for black people to live in the late 50s and early 60s in Virginia. She provides all the reasons those Hollywood concoctions never happened, but also shows who and where people were fighting - on the national and state level, and also inside NACA/NASA (less so, and she provides reasons for that as well).

Even though I have a fairly decent understanding of the space race and the Civil Rights movement, this opened my eyes in other ways. I was surprised and intrigued by NACA/NASA efforts in hiring black "computers". The same goes for the paths these black women took to their jobs there - especially that they were almost all secondary school teachers, as that was, in fact, the only avenue for ultra-smart black women at the time. And, to be honest, I was surprised at Virginia. I'm not sure I understood how backwards its stance was as the years went on.

So, read this book, it's very, very worth it. Also, the book text itself is only 250 pages long, in case anyone is confused about this in their e-books. (Why oh why can't ebooks make the percentages and number of pages add up in the same way??)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Greenwood, Kerry (Cocaine Blues)

I have to wonder how interesting of a read this would have been if I had never seen Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. Especially since this first book sets up all (or most of) the characters you're familiar with from the TV show.

Now, the police detective is not as you might presume he would be from the get-go (or perhaps I'm forgetting the first episode myself). And her aunt is nowhere to be seen. But Phryne herself is even better in print - I mean, props to Essie Davis, and her ability to pull off both the fashion and the flair - but the book gives you more to sink your teeth into with regards to her character. It makes her unapologetically pleased she's rich, a little bit more unsure of how Australia will treat her, and far more sexy (although I suppose that could be argued as well).

These books are also quite short - more like long novellas than full-length mysteries - so, you can pack a few of 'em in at one sitting, if you'd like. Likely, they're the perfect beach read, although I'm not sure I want to wait 6 months to read the next one.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sanderson, Brandon (Arcanum Unbounded)

This volume of short stories and longer novella-length stories was extremely hit-and-miss for me. Almost the entire first half of the volume was not my cup of tea - some combination of how juvenile I found the story and how uninterested I was in the characterizations.

I did enjoy the Mistborn story - the one set at the time of the original trilogy - but not because it revealed a whole ton of what was going on in the background of the trilogy. I liked it because we got to hang out with Kelsier again, which was always a great thing, being such a lovely conflicted character. The remainder of the stories in the first half are just too silly or uninteresting for me to care about. I'm not actually a fan of the Elysium world, and wasn't familiar with the rest of the worlds there.

The second half is better, but by far the best one is the final one with Lift from the Stormlight Archive. I had forgotten about Lift (she apparently made an appearance in the 2nd Stormlight novel), and she really is utterly delightful. Stuck in childhood, but important enough to be one of the Knights Radiant, she's a refreshing breath of fresh air in a very, very serious series.

I did almost stop reading after the Mistborn tale, but I am glad I soldiered on. It's pretty darn spotty, but overall worth your time (plus you will want to know the secrets, I'm sure).

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

McCarthy, Cormac (All the Pretty Horses)

I don't think this is a book about a lullaby! (Although that's "All the Pretty LITTLE Horses".) But in the end, it is all that John Grady Cole can rely upon, so it is relevant in that respect.

McCarthy's books are distinctive for how they make you feel as you read them. This one is no different from any other I've read by him. He sets the stage through his style of writing - compact, reflective, evocative of another time and place - and lets you recognize what works for you and ignore what doesn't. The most useful thing I can say about McCarthy's writing is that he creates utterly believable characters in so few strokes of the pen. John and Rawlins, sure, but also Blevins and the captain and Alejandra herself. And that amazing Mexican countryside, which is clearly a character in and of itself. (I'd go visit if those "men of the country" weren't even more terrifying nowadays.)

I know this is a trilogy. But I'm not ready for the next parts of what McCarthy wants to tell me because I'm not ready for John to to move on from the results of this tale. He knows, you know, and I know that he has to sit with these feelings for some time before moving onwards. (OK, that's weird when it's a fictional character, but that's how strongly this affected me.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Mitchell, David (Black Swan Green)

I was convinced this was Mitchell's first book while reading it, until I went and actually looked that fact up. A self-reflective novel about growing up as a smart stuttering boy in rural England and having more imagination than most others? It seems like an intelligent first book choice to me.

But no, it's actually Mitchell's 3rd book, and I would claim that of the books I have read of his (apparently not the first two), this one dials the fantasy factor way down. It seems to be exactly as I described above - which would make it nothing special if it were in anyone else's hands. But in Mitchell's, you can feel the ice on the pond under your feet, or understand the strange pull of a far distant set of hills, or be utterly confused about what to do when presented with a lost wallet stuffed with pound notes. It's the most evocative storytelling out there. (Heck, I still remember specific, detailed scenes from Cloud Atlas, which is saying a bunch for a book that is over 500 pages long.)

You'll understand far, far more about stuttering (and how it differs from stammering) but don't worry, there's nary a lesson to be found. It is a book told from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old boy - not many lessons are going to be gleaned from it. Unless it's that growing up as a boy utterly stinks. (Yes, I've clearly forgotten what it was like to grow up as a girl.)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Turner, Megan Whalen (Thick as Thieves)

Oh, Ms. Turner, you have let me down. I understand that you want to move away from your original intent with this series, but we so, so loved the Thief of Eddis. His is the story we want to continue to be told, not someone else's.

I understand that you're developing further "hero's journeys" here. That you're twining together the myths of the world you've built with those who embody them (and also? really, really channeling The Left Hand of Darkness while you're at it). That you want to expand because it's boring, tedious and frustrating to come up with a new story about the same character. But you left us all these clues as to the King of Attolia's current life at the end of this one, with zero details! Argh!

Since it took you 7 years to come out with this book, I will not hold my breath. I will continue to think that you're one of the better YA fantasy writers around (although this is barely YA - fully functional for all readers). I will hope, but I will put that hope into a small, dark place and not nurture it. In the meantime, I will read James S.A. Corey who spits theirs out at an absolutely furious pace!