Book Reviews · DNF

DNF: A History of God

I bought this book in 2007, half a year out of school, still trying to impress the boys reading Noam Chomsky and The Economist.

I’ve always found religion, history, and human nature fascinating and full of layers. At 22 years old, with more time on my hands than I knew what to do with, and fresh out of new episodes of Friday Night Lights, I wanted to read books that piqued my interest and enlightened me. Or at least I thought I did.

Non-fiction, even the most highly rated and captivating, has always bored me. I wish it didn’t. I know there is so much to learn from memoirs and academic essays. But the books I’ve found the hardest to push through (with a few exceptions) fall squarely into the non-fiction category.

Unfortunately, this book joins that list. I have picked it up and started from page 1 more times than I can count. In 2007, I thought perhaps I needed more patience, less distractions. I bookmarked page 17 and left it to sit. I picked it up, started over, let it sit. Picked it up, started over, let it sit.

Earlier this year, I picked it up again. Craving some exercise for my brain, begging to be enriched, I thought “Now is the time!”

And I finally, after 9 years, finished chapter 1. As a Jewish person, reading such a detached and historical depiction of the Hebrew tribes was difficult and eye-opening. But the style is still dry and any hint of story telling is still far too academic and impersonal for me.

In a work of non-fiction like this, the detachment is probably for the best. There is no judgement of religion, no qualitative assessments, no clear preference. But I’ve found that those sorts of author-biases are what drive me to continue. So this is obviously just a personal preference, but this book is not for me, and after almost a decade, I’m putting it down for good. 2 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) – April 2013

is everyone hanging out without me Firstly, I’ve learned that I really need to write my reviews much closer to the time that I finish the book. And this is especially true with audio books. It’s much more difficult to go back and refresh my memory for the details.

That being said, I really enjoyed this audio book. I love that Mindy Kaling narrates, because she is inherently funny and, much like with Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) feels like an extended intimate stand-up routine. Kaling weaves a story of growing up in Boston, dating, working, managing a career, and being single (all while being a “woman of color,” natch). I love hearing completely relatable personal stories and hilarious anecdotes from women I admire.

I have two complaint with the audio book format for this particular book. The first is that Mindy Kaling uses a ton of lists, and hearing them over and over feels very repetitive and not terrible funny. I don’t think I would have this problem if I were just reading the text, and I can’t really explain why. I think it has something to do with the nature of intimate story-telling and listening to the writer narrate, that makes that specific writing trick underwhelming when heard (and not when read).

Also jarring was her use of two male voices, so that some vignettes were more like scenes in an audio play, rather than a simple story being told. I think this only bothered me because it was unusual, but it didn’t take away any enjoyment.

So. The book was good. Legitimately enjoyable. But not great. It hasn’t really stuck with me in the way that some of the other books I’ve read this year have.

I really wish I’d written this sooner. 3.5 Stars

Book Reviews · DNF · Random Thoughts

Random Thoughts III and My First DNF: Beautiful Creatures

Become a Better Writer by Learning to Become a Skilled Reader First

I came across this surprisingly poignant article on reading and writing. The first section, “Skip Sections”, struck a cord with me. The images of the eye-tracking study are particularly familiar, as I am regularly guilty of reading only bolded and bulleted information in long blog/web entries.

Then came the “Quit Altogether” section. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The remainder of the article, which I did actually read in detail, was very smart with helpful tips and inspiring quotes. I’m sure I’ll go back and read it again (see: Nabokov, Vladimir), and perhaps take notes (see: Parrish, Shane). I love the idea of reading material outside of one’s comfort zone, which is partially what this little project of mine is all about. Sure I have some favorites authors in here, but memoirs and essays? Historically, those have not been my bag, baby.

Anyway, I definitely recommend the article, so have at it.

DNF: Beautiful Creatures

I can’t remember the first time I saw the trailer for Beautiful Creatures, but I do remember that I was very excited. Southern Gothic? Check. Supernatural? Check. Decent Acting Talent? Check.

Because the movie was based on a YA novel, and because YA novels are notoriously “easy” reads, I decided to check out the book first. I downloaded a sample chapter onto my Kindle and, within 3 pages, decided not to finish it in that medium.

I thought perhaps listening to it would be better, the reader potentially giving it more depth with his performance. I purchased it through Audible, and listened to about 45 minutes (one commute to work) before deciding that, no, the narrator added nothing.

So I caved and rented the movie the other day, thinking perhaps it would give me more insight, and I could go back to the audiobook afterward. But unfortunately, the plot and dialogue were just too convoluted and stunted, respectively, to warrant any more time. It’s unfortunate, really.

So. I quit altogether. “Reading is meant to be a fun activity. Your brain doesn’t want to slog through something it finds boring.” Or offensive. There’s too much good stuff out there that I haven’t read yet to spend anymore time on something so dreadfully, depressingly boring.

Firstly, I know that I am not Shakespeare, or Faulkner, or Gaiman. I write this little blog for fun, to improve my skills, and if I raise a decent amount of money, I’m happy. So, please know that I am fully self-aware when I give this next criticism.

The writing is bad. Like SO bad. Like O.M.G. bad. The Stereotypes. And Tropes. Are bad.*

The dialogue, the names, everything just smacks of my first attempts at writing short stories in high school. Any southerner, teenager, or black person who reads it should be offended. You have to hide your NYT so your town doesn’t judge you? Everyone still calls the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression or the War Between the States? A mammy magical negro? REALLY?

No thank you. So for the first time in a long time, I Did Not Finish. I highly recommend skipping all iterations of this trashy attempt at cashing in on the Twilight craze.

*Game of Thrones Season 3 Spoilers

Book Reviews

Review: The Graveyard Book – March 2013

the graveyard bookNobody Owens, Bod to his friends, is a normal boy growing up in a decidedly abnormal way. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, opens with the horrific triple homicide of Bod’s family when Bod is only a year or so old. Through a series of miracle-like coincidences, baby Bod makes his way into a nearby graveyard at the exact same moment the man Jack is committing the murders. Once the residents of the graveyard realize the murderer is still searching for the innocent and helpless little boy, they decide to protect him, granting him the Freedom of the Graveyard.

An ominous beginning for such a future hero. The Graveyard Book follows Bod through childhood and adolescence, adventures and education, and finally to his inevitable encounter with (not really a SPOILER if you understand story structure at all) the man Jack.

I liked this book. The world of the Graveyard was fully fleshed out (pun intended) and felt real and a little magical. The story is told through third person limited perspective, and this worked really well because it kept the mystery in the context of Bod’s perception. Bod doesn’t receive a normal education, and therefore he doesn’t act or respond to things in the way a “normal” child would. He is mature for his age in some ways, and yet believably naive in others.

My only minor complaint is that I don’t think this is a Children’s Book, as it’s being categorized  but I’m kind of a prude when it comes to dealing with death.

Overall, it’s not my favorite work from Mr. Gaiman, but it’s an enjoyable and quick read. 3.5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – March 2013

WITAWITARHaruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a lot of things, but first and foremost it is a series of personal essays documenting a writer’s training program leading up to the New York City Marathon. It is a memoir, chronicling  the life of a former smoker and bar owner, novelist, professor and runner. It is a memory of one man’s journey from Athens to Marathon. It is running as a metaphor for writing and writing as a metaphor for running. It is a beautiful story about aging gracefully. It is a sad and heartwarming story of the inherent tragedy of an aging athlete.

This book was lovingly crafted by Murakami to tell a very intimate story about his own life, his own experiences, and his own struggles with a very personal sport. I related to some parts and found myself inspired by others. The fluid storytelling, the beautiful imagery, and the painstakingly detailed physicality were all so incredibly written that I was engaged from the first words, and didn’t let up until the last.

One note – I would not recommend listening to this book. The narrator was great, but Murakami jumps around so often in his personal timeline that I found it hard to keep up, and had no easy way to reference the When. Obviously for me, this did not detract immensely from the book, but it was enough that towards the end I was a little frustrated.

Overall, I would definitely purchase this book and keep it around to read again from time to time. 5 Stars

(See also: Random Thoughts II)

Book Reviews

Review: The Night Circus – March 2013

the night circusThe circus arrives without warning.

This is how The Night Circus begins, and this is how it ends. From Amazon:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.

The novel is, at first, a series of vignettes, introducing character after character. It also spans several decades, and jumps back and forth to an almost dizzying effect – much like the circus itself.

I loved this book. It set out to tell a fantastical fairy tale, and it accomplished that in the most charming and vivid way. The imagery was everything I had hoped for when I picked it up at Barnes and Noble. I would recommend this book to just about anyone.

That said, the novel is not without faults. Because it is chalk-full of colorful characters, and because it jumps through time in nearly every chapter, the dizzying effect makes it difficult to narrow down an emotional attachment to anyone in particular. Though the two protagonists are obvious from the start, Morgenstern does not spend a terrible amount of time crafting their emotions or motivations. Instead, she focuses on their technical training and their execution of beautiful illusions. She focuses on the circus itself and it’s dreamlike mysteries. She focuses on those just outside the circus who are affected by its wonders. So when the two magicians finally fall in love, though it feels natural, it also feels a little empty and unearned.

This was almost a perfect book for me: it was an historical fiction, it contained fantasy and magic, it was beautifully told with style, and it was a fairly easy read, though not depthless or bland. I felt like there was just one more element, something bubbling under the surface that was never revealed. It fell just short. Short of what, I can’t say. But honestly, that undefined lacking is only a minor concern. This novel transported me, and that’s the best compliment I can give to any story. 4 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: The Final Solution – February 2013

the final solutionI picked up The Final Solution, by Michael Chabon, not knowing anything about it other than the fact that it was 131 pages, including some illustrations, and it was written by a writer whose work I have enjoyed in the past. I wanted to pick something that would be quick (because, yes, my total number of books read so far is a little behind), but smart.

The back page summary seemed interesting enough. A reclusive retired detective living in the English country-side is more content with bee-keeping than interacting with his fellow man. Into his life walks an intelligent but mute boy and his exotic African parrot. The boy is a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, and his bird never leaves his side, repeating a random string of numbers in German regularly and peaking the curiosity of several characters. When a murder occurs, and the bird is stolen, the detective is recruited to help solve the case.

And the detective is Sherlock Holmes. It’s never stated, but it’s incredibly obvious, and had I known I probably would not have picked this book. I’ve never read a Sherlock Holmes mystery, and as such I have a nagging feeling that I probably missed a lot of references in this short little book. The mystery itself is fine, I suppose, if you like that sort of thing, but honestly, I’m finding that I don’t.

I think my issue is that I love character driven stories, and this novella is framed through a previously developed character. Each additional character in the novella, including the parrot, has his own motivations, but “the old man” is the protagonist grounding the story. Having not read the source material, I felt a bit cheated. The story seemed almost hollow somehow, which I’m sure was not Chabon’s intent.

All of that being said, it’s a very well crafted little story. I’m sure if you enjoyed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection, you’d enjoy this. 3 Stars