Monday, May 16, 2016

Satrapi, Marjane (Persepolis)

I wanted to re-read this for book club but couldn't find the time to do that outside of lunch time at work today. Panic! Where can I quickly scan this graphic novel so I can recall what I thought when I read it years ago. Oh, right, I work in a library, duh. Yay, libraries!

In many respects, I doubt this story is different from any told during a revolution. Young people's ideals are tossed about like ships in storms - you hear things, learn they are not true, get educated (formally or informally) about things that are more akin to the truth, add all those things together, plus anything you personally experience, and this becomes how you approach the world. In some circumstances, the truths you learn about are either vastly diverse or non-existent. Either way, you build a personal view of how the revolution affects you, your family and your country.

This book is a fascinating mix of all that with the bonus of clarifying and illuminating illustrations. These illustrations are starkly designed and drawn, which brings us closer to the terrifying aspects of this particular revolution(s). They also stop short of telling the whole story - meaning that there is another volume about Satrapi's childhood that completes the tale. The impact of the revolution on Satrapi can't be wholly felt unless both books are read.

Friday, May 6, 2016

McDougall, Christopher (Born to Run)

Not surprisingly, I both loved this book and was irritated by it. (Aren't I always saying things like that? I feel like I'm always saying things like that.)

I loved it because it was engaging, fascinating and seemed well-researched. It also had the funniest real-life characters I've read about in a long, long while. These ultra-marathoners are bonkers crazy! Drinking like a fish the night before and then running an ultra-marathon - reminder: this is anything that is longer than a marathon, so this could be 30 miles or 100 miles or anything in between - and finishing in 3rd or 4th and smiling the whole while. Who are these people?!

Which leads me to my second point. McDougall's premise is that we're all runners, since caveman times, we gave up running as a culture (a world) and ruined our lives, and we should all return to running (barefoot, if possible) because anyone can and should run. Mulefritters. I do running 5Ks and I really, really enjoy the camaraderie of these, but I don't love the running. I love swimming (so now you know why I do 5K races - there's no camaraderie in the water!) and it's absolutely right up my alley physically and mentally. It also happens to be one of the best sports/fitnesses for your body because it works everything in it. Apparently, after this book came out, McDougall developed serious running calf and Achilles problems from running barefoot. Yea, well, you wouldn't get those if you swam instead (you might have other problems, but not problems that will make it impossible to walk, much less run).

So, this is kind of a +1 for swimming as an exercise (sorry, couldn't help myself), but also just a wish that folks who write super-entertaining books about running (or any exercise) should mention somewhere (anywhere) in it that if you're interested in not being sedentary, don't forget there are lots of other activities you can try. They might get less hate mail as a result!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mankell, Henning (An Event in Autumn)

Having seen this twice, and now read the book, it's like I've lived it myself. Perhaps it's silly to continue to read the remainder of the Kurt Wallander series for that reason, but they are so very well written.

This is a novella, something short and sweet that I think Mankell created as an afterthought, and thus it is in Wallander's world, but doesn't exactly fit the timeline. There are a lot of twists and turns for a short book, which means there's a little less time to hear about how Sweden and the world are all going to pot. Don't get me wrong, this is part of what makes this series so enjoyable - there are no punches pulled, and how the Swedes live as a community is always eye-opening - but in this book there are no wasted words. In fact, the final surprise happens so fast that you barely have time to register who the villain really is. I wish he'd developed this one a bit more fully.

However, I still have the 4 middle books of the series to finish, so there's that to look forward to.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Chandler, Raymond (The Long Goodbye)

Reading one of the first of a genre is something special. (Although in fact this novel is one of the last that Chandler wrote, it's still the first one of his that I've read. And he was at the top of his game in defining the genre by this point.)

We've all seen some version of film noir, whether it's the incomparable Maltese Falcon or the super classic The Big Sleep. The world of film noir - and if the film is based on a novel, the noir detective novel - is essentially grumpy. Everyone in it thinks the world is going to pot, whether it's the gumshoe, the cop, the gangster or the blonde. And the private dick is the one with the moral conscience - others don't ever get to rate as highly as he does - consequently, he is your anti-hero. A grumpy old puss with a heart of gold.

What Chandler does differently in this novel is put himself in it. He adds a victim - of circumstance, of his own making, of both - who is a novelist. One of those novelists who writes really long books because that's what the public wants and who is quite the hack writer, adding sexual innuendos wherever he can. It adds a nice bit of humor to the whole grisly affair, although of course what happens to this victim is not particularly funny.

There is a sequence about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way in where Chandler describes the different kinds of blondes in the world. I started the scene getting my feminist hackles up and ended it in complete amazement of his craft. That's why you read Chandler.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Carriger, Gail (Soulless)

I am faintly disturbed that this book won ALA's Alex award (for books of special interest to 12-18 year olds). That seems a mite too young to be reading a book like this. But what do I know? Life has changed immeasurably since I was a kid.

Obviously, this is pretty fluffy nonsense, but it's fluffy in such a decided manner. Let's build a Victorian England, but make werewolves and vampires a real, recognized, and accepted part of society. And then add a woman who can take all those supernatural powers away. Plus! Let's just make it a romance, while we're at it. The author is deliberate in her world-building, and confident in her ability to make us live inside that world. Consequently, a delightful read.

The one thing I did not enjoy was that the scientists were the bad guys. There are a few nods to these only being the crazy scientists, not the normal ones, but there is still a highly unfortunate undertone to all of it. Especially if this book is designed for a particularly young age group. In the same way that watching Prometheus drove me nuts because scientists would never just reach out and prod something on an alien planet, it drives me nuts when the evil scientist is the only bad thing you read about in a book. Characterize scientists correctly, please!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Kaling, Mindy (Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?)

Oh y'all, Mindy Kaling. Now, I didn't read her first book, and that may make some of what I say seem obvious, but I'm in love with this book. Here is why:

1. She never apologizes for what she is or does. I enjoyed the memoirs by Poehler and Day to varying degrees but they constantly apologized for themselves. For not being there for their families, for their insecurities, for not understanding the zeitgeist well enough. Kaling couldn't be bothered. Her attitude is: here I am! like it? great! hate it? not listening.

2. She accurately uses the term "entitlement". You'll see.

3. She CORRECTLY describes why it's hard for her to lose weight. In other words, she explains that there are those of us who love to eat. Eating is a big thing for us. Passing delicious food by is completely wrong on all counts. Trying to lose weight is torture. So, if you eat right and exercise (I'm not completely convinced she has a handle on this) who the fart cares what you weigh or how you look? Give the folks who body shame you by looking you up and down the same evil eye back. It's all relative, baby. (Also, she talks about how hard this all is to do in this culture, but... onwards and forwards.)

4. She is so freakin' funny. Again, I've laughed out loud in other memoirs, but she's funnier than most. And that mini-TV-pilot about the schoolteacher in Manhattan. MORE, please.

My new outlook on life is to be more like Mindy Kaling. Onwards and forwards!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Palacio, R.J. (Wonder)

There's no question that this is a valuable book to read. For no other reason than that it surfaces all sorts of feelings in yourself and makes you re-evaluate how you react to any kind of person that doesn't look or act like you.

It's certainly written for teens and pre-teens, and I'd value its inclusion in the appropriate school curriculum. But probably mostly as a teaching tool, and an aid to further discussion. It provokes a lot of thought, so the writing has to be commended to some degree for that. However, I did find the description of many of the children to be somewhat facile. I think it's done deliberately, there's no question of that, and for decent reasons.

But the children often seemed unrealistically described. I don't think most children have such good intentions and thoughtful hearts and minds - then again, I don't have children so I very possibly know nothing! We saw some of the conflicts described, but I would have appreciated Palacio providing some differing points of view. Perhaps bringing one of the "poisoned heart" children around would have helped the storyline. Anyway, the unrealism didn't bother me enough not to finish it! In record time, too.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Atkinson, Kate (Life After Life)

I can really see why folks are in a snit about this book. She's playing both ends against the middle and folks are missing the main point of the novel.

Firstly, she starts with the age-old trope of killing Hitler before he gets a chance to begin the Holocaust. I'm giving nothing away, it happens within 5 pages. That's a dangerous place to begin. Secondly, she's playing on the time-worn subject of the Buddhist "bardo" state aka purgatory aka reincarnation (not all the same things, really). I'll certainly admit to being distressed after the first lengthy loop in time - wait, all of that is now going to be rewritten? For reals?

She seems to be working these both into her novel to make it seem that it's about these two things - and it's these that readers are likely irritated by. But the book really isn't about those, per se. It's about her life as an Englishwoman, someone who clearly loves her country, trying to understand what it was like to live through the days before, during and after WWII. Cases in point - when she describes what she loves about the English countryside, or what London is now missing because of the bombings, or the unenviable task of picking up the pieces after a particularly bad air raid. She also does a commendable job recounting what was to be loved about Germany before the war, as well as the abject misery of its citizenry during the war.

In the end, it moves very quickly for a 500+ page novel that keeps repeating itself, and it's engaging in its description of England and Germany in the 30s and 40s. Reason enough to read?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Scalzi, John (The End of All Things)

This purports, and seems to follow through, on its claim that it is the final Old Man's War book. At least in the current spate of Colonial Forces - Conclave - Earth novels. I'm pleased with the ending; it is neither foregone nor depressing.

Which doesn't mean I'm pleased with all four novellas in this latest volume. (Novellas, short stories, you decide.) The first one felt like I'd read it all before - either by Scalzi or by someone with even more caché to his name - and I was, in fact, confused as to whether I'd read this book already. If I were Scalzi, that comment would give me pause. I mean, he did give us two renderings of the same Old Man's War story before (meaning he reaped money for both renderings) so you understand my confusion and my concern that this was happening yet again.

That particular story had a satisfying ending, but the noodling throughout was dull-o-rama. The rest of the stories were quite good, especially the last one. But, if you've never read a Scalzi book, you better know two things - they are chock full of a) sarcasm and b) political meanderings. In fact, don't get caught up in the sarcasm, because if you do, you'll lose track of where you are in the political meanderings and then, oh boy, you're in trouble.

Anyway, all told, this was enjoyable in a completely Scalzi way, and consequently I had a good time reading it (well, 80% of it).

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Karr, Mary (The Liars' Club)

Karr sets up the entire point of this memoir (and, apparently, the next two memoirs) via the introduction by pointing out that all families are dysfunctional, in some way, mainly because we're all human and we all have secrets and we all have things we fear. It's the degree of dysfunction that makes her particular life so engaging to read about.

Now, there are parts of her life story that are abysmally awful, that no one would wish upon anyone. They are, likely and sadly, common tales, especially from young girls - tales of sexual abuse. Karr treats these parts of her story differently from stories about her mom and dad and sister. She just... describes them. And lets the reader decide how he/she feels about their impact on Karr's life.

Everything else is treated so differently - poetically, in fact. It's not surprising that Karr is attempting to wring meaning out of why her mom would throw all their dresses on a big bonfire. Or what it meant when her dad told slightly fallacious stories to his friends at the Liars' Club. Or how her sister's personality helped shape who Karr is as a person, inside this family.

So the difference in treatment comes down to this - you can't wring meaning out of sexual abuse. It happened, and if you're lucky, you can move on. But the family memories - of what you did together as a family - those make you who you are and help you grow and understand yourself throughout your life (and their lives).