28 March 2015

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I liked vampires and gore, this would have been good fun. As it is, I don't like vampires and gore, so I struggled with it. "Why did you read it?" you might ask, gentle reader.  "Did not the title and the graphic cover art give you ample clues as to what you were in for?" Well, yes. Yes they did. But my 11 year old kid wanted to read it, so, like all good parents, I sacrificed myself to a pre-read of something I would never have picked up to read on my own.

And I'm kind of glad I did.  Kind of.

I am always intrigued when people create alternate realities with our standing history. I remember seeing Capricorn One as a child and wondering how much of our history might have been staged. Conspiracy theories. What ifs.  They are interesting to consider and I'm always in awe of someone who can imagine the sliding doors. Who can imagine the alternatives. Who can think of a story I never thought of. Or ever dreamed of thinking of.

This is one of those stories. And the reviews that get all up in arms about playing fast and loose with history, shhhhhhhh.  It's like taking The Onion seriously. All good satire is based in fact and reality.

I did wish for an afterword, or annotations, that tracked what was real and what wasn't. I have read a lot of history of Lincoln and the Civil War, so I was somewhat able to look at a speech or a journal entry and guess. But I would have liked to know for sure.

My three stars is for my distaste for the gore but also for some missed opportunities. The introduction inserts the author but never explains why it was so important to tell the story. The book actually stops before I wanted it to. I wanted it to go past 1963, up to the day the author was brought in. I wanted a clear vision of the reasons ..."reasons" ... the book needed to be written. Are we in danger now? Why come clean with our vampiric-infested history now? Are they back? Have they always been here? I wanted more depth. From my fake history. Hmmm.

"Without death. Life is meaningless. It is a story that can never be told. A song that can never be sung. For how would one finish it?"

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08 March 2015

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only IvanThe One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My kid's 5th grade English teacher sent him home with this.  He read it in about 30 minutes.  It took me slightly longer. ;)

Somewhat in the vein of "Love That Dog" where fewer words manage to tell a powerful story (as Ivan, the silverback says, "Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot. Everyone knows banana peels are the best part" and "Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.")

A heartbreaking story well-told with wonderful bite-sized nuggets of wise philosophy scattered throughout:

"I always tell the truth. Although I sometimes confuse the facts."

"When I'm drawing a picture, I feel...quiet inside."

And in the reproduction of the author's Newberry acceptance speech, this quote from Madeline L'Engle captures so beautifully why I often abandon books written for adults and return to young adult fiction;

"You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."


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07 March 2015

Book Review: Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little RockElizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My son and I went to the Brown vs. the Board of Education National Park site in Topeka last year.  Writ large on a wall was a copy of the Johnny Jenkins version of the picture of Elizabeth and Hazel. Elizabeth, eyes hidden by sunglasses, in a perfectly pressed skirt and shirt, grasping a notebook in her thin, dark-skinned arm. Hazel behind her, her white face contorted, her mouth agape with hate.  I knew nothing about the two women. I didn't know their names. I didn't even, at that point, know that the picture depicted part of the story of the Little Rock Nine.  But the picture captivated me.  I took a picture of my son, grasping his Junior Ranger packet in his thin, white arm, staring at the picture. What my photo didn't capture was what he said as he gazed; "Mom, people were pretty ignorant back then, huh?"

Fast forward several months later. We were traveling through Arkansas and stopped at the Little Rock Central High School historic site.  There was the picture again; a different version (and, I later discovered, a more famous version by Will Counts, though I confess I find much more drama and emotion in the Jenkins snap)  Then, in the bookshop, I saw a poster of two older ladies, one black, one white, standing in front of Central High School. "Reconciliation," it was called. I did not recognize those aged ladies as the two from the picture that had captured my imagination. But then, browsing further, I came across this book.

I was thrilled. I expected to be captivated by the story of these two women. About the world they lived in then. About the world they live in now. And about the world they traveled in between.

I was disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were way too high. But this book disappoints at almost every level. It spends time telling the story of how the picture(s) came to be.  It tells the story of how America reacted to the picture (including a famous anecdote about how Louis Armstrong was finally inspired to speak out against racism based on the anger he felt at being confronted with that picture). It tells the story of life inside that high school for the Little Rock Nine (only the Japanese students, left over from the WWII internment camps, were more isolated). It tells the story about the larger issue of race relations in America.

But then it falls into tabloid territory when it starts to try to capture the lives of the two women; it feels more like material for afternoon television than material for The New Yorker.  Sentences like "It is here that I step into the story" are illustrative of the heavy hand of the author.

But, despite its weaknesses, I am glad I read the book.  At some point, Hazel (the white girl) says "Life is more than a moment." But these two women might never overcome their moment because we, as a nation, can't really let them. It's almost as if we need them to be nameless iconoclasts instead of real humans who moved forward and continued living after the shutter snapped.

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15 February 2015

Book Review -- The Unwinding - An Inner History of the New America

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New AmericaThe Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

George Packer writes for The New Yorker and this book reads like an extended version of one of his profiles.  Or five of his profiles.  There's almost no big-picture analysis of forces which are unwinding America (deindustrialisation, recessions, real estate bubbles) but the astute reader can analyze on his own. Packer wanders back and forth between the profiles, interrupting periodically with collages of news headlines and brief biographies of public figures (Packer acknowledges the influence of John Dos Passos in his afterword).

The unorthodox structure takes some getting used to but the overall impact of the book is powerful because of it.  Ordinary people, not caricatures. Isolated, failed by our institutions, battered by our financial systems, made impotent by our political circus.

In the biographical section about author Raymond Carver, Packer captures the overall mood of the book when he writes, "Ray wanted to write a novel.  But a man who was trying to wash six loads of clothes at the Laundromat while his wife was serving food somewhere and the kids were waiting for him to come pick them up somewhere else and it was getting late and the woman ahead of him kept putting more dimes in the dryer--that man could never write a novel.  To do that, he would need to be living in a world that made sense..."

Packer hits on themes that have gotten under my skin for years, highlighted in books like The Geography of Nowhere and Cheap: The High Price of Discount Culture.  Dean Price, one of Packer's subjects, synopsizes the trouble with big-box retailers brilliantly, "And if you think about it, the people that ran the hardware store, the shoe store, the little restaurant that was here, they were the fabric of the community. They were the leaders.  They were the Little League baseball coaches, the were the town council members, they were the people everybody looked up to.  We lost that."

Later, Packer puts this stream-of-consciousness in Dean Price's head, "Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses--always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking--chickens pumped full of hormones that left them too big to walk--and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles' up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens."


In another section, profiling a unionized millworker in Youngstown named Tammy, outlines a specific struggle the area had to tackle after the closing of the steel mills and highlights one of the biggest problems America seems to have; standing in the way of a good idea because by supporting it, you might inadvertently support something you are supposed to be against. "Youngstown was a food desert--there were hardly any decent stores in the whole city.  From certain parts of the east side, it took a four-hour round trip on the bus to buy fresh groceries...The food campaign put Tammy in touch with a white evangelical church south of Youngstown, where the minister, Steve Fortenberry, had started a cooperative farm on thirty-one acres.  His congregation had some older and more conservative members who were skeptical of anything having to do with environmentalism, so he pitched the project as feeding the hungry, which was easier to sell."

And progress. What is progress?  Are you reading this on your phone?  Is THAT progress?  "At Cafe Venetia in downtown Palo Alto--the spot where Thiel and Elon Musk had decided over coffee in 2001 to take PayPal public, five blocks up University Avenue from the original offices of PayPal, which were across the street from the original offices of Facebook and the current offices of Palantir, six miles from the Google campus in Mountain View, less than a mile in one direction and half a block in the other direction from that secular temple of the new economy known as an Apple Store, in the heart of the heart of Silicon Valley, surrounded by tables full of trim, healthy, downwardly dressed people using Apple devices while discussing idea creation and angel investments--Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and said, 'I don't consider this to be a technological breakthrough.'  Compared to the Apollo space program or the supersonic jet, a smartphone looked small.  In the forty years leading up to 1973, there had been huge technological advances, and wages had increased sixfold.  Since then, Americans beguiled by mere gadgetry had forgotten how expansive progress could be."

Oliver Burkeman, reviewing this book for The Guardian wrote "On finishing the book, the reader might be forgiven for feeling the urge to follow the example of Connaughton, who, after leaving his last job in DC, flew straight to Costa Rica, went on an eight-hour hike, then returned to his hotel and 'turned on the shower and got in without taking off his clothes, standing under the stream and letting it soak him and soak him until he felt clean.'"


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01 July 2014

Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of KatherinesAn Abundance of Katherines by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had never heard of John Green until Rainbow Rowell, who is a friend, was excited that he, like she, was coming to an author panel that was being set up by another friend who runs a great independent bookstore.  "John Green is a MONSTER get!" she proclaimed.

So I read The Fault in our Stars.  I laughed.  I cried.  It was good.  Well-written, not typical, etc.  I realize writing this review that I never wrote a review, so I sure need to do that, but my problem with Fault was the contrivance of the Dutch author and how that all fit into the story.  I found it not real in a book that was extraordinarily real.

Fast forward to An Abundance of Katherine.  Contrived story line but one that felt real regardless, perhaps because I have a bright kid who some consider to be a prodigy and Colin's concern that prodigies only learn but geniuses do is something I can already see my kid contemplating.  And the question of how to "matter" is one that still echoes in my own life.

But beyond all of that, I enjoyed this book more than Fault.  Maybe it's because it didn't make me cry.  Maybe it's because I love stories that are compartmentalized to give you a sense of place (Gutshot).  Maybe it's because the set-up was so unreal, yet real, that there was nothing jarring in it that pulled me out of the story to question the contrivance.  Or maybe it was the ideas floating around in these kids' heads;

"I think mattering is a piss-poor idea.  I just want to fly under the radar, because when you start to make yourself into a big deal, that's when you get shot down.  The bigger deal you are, the worse your life is.  Look at, like, the miserable lives of famous people...there's a word in German for it...Schadenfreude."

"Son, if there's one thing I know it's that there's some people in this world who you can just love and love and love no matter what."

"You're so goddamned scared of the idea that someone might dump you that your whole fugging life is built around not getting left behind.  Well, it doesn't work, kafir.  It's just--it's not just dumb, it's ineffective.  Because then you're not being a good friend or a good boyfriend or whatever, because you're only thinking they-might-not-like-me-they-might-not-like-me, and guess what?  When you act like that, no one likes you."

"Do you ever wonder whether people would like you more or less if they could see inside you?  If people could see me the way I see myself--if they could live in my memories--would anyone, anyone love me?"

"I'm full of shit.  I'm never myself.  I've got a Southern accent around the oldsters; I'm a nerd for graphs and deep thoughts around you; I'm Miss Bubbly Pretty Princess with Colin.  I'm nothing.  THe thing about chameleoning your way through life is that it gets to where nothing is real...the only sentence that begins with 'I' that's true of me is I'm full of shit.

"The past is a logical story.  It's the sense of what happened.  But sense it is not remembered, the future need not make any fugging sense at all."

"Books are the ultimate Dumpees: put them down and they'll wait for you forever; pay attention to them and they always love you back."

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30 June 2014

Book Review: Divergent

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dystopian future stories intrigue the heck out of me.  Even dystopian present stories intrigue me; stories about how the world would be if we gave in to our worst selves.  Stories like "The Most Dangerous Game" and 1984 and Anthem.

The new generation of these stories was officially kicked off with the Hunger Games trilogy, which I found to be readable and, of course, intriguing.  So of course I had to read Divergent

I liked it.  The factions were, um, intriguing.  I did question their odd names, though a Q&A with the author in the back of my edition explains, "...I did intentionally choose unfamiliar words, for an assortment of reasons.  One of them is that I wanted to slow down comprehension of what each faction stands for, so you learn as much by observing as by the name of the faction itself.  Another is that the definitions of the more obscure words are more specific, in interesting ways.  And a third is -- since I'm being honest here -- that they sound cooler."  However, moreso than their odd names was that they didn't match; Candor, Abnegation and Amity are all nouns.  Dauntless and Erudite are both adjectives.  This little "lack of detail" bothered me.  Then I got to the end of the book and realized that the "doing" factions, the ones who are the most active in trying to change the world, whether for good or bad, are adjective factions.  If that was a conscious choice, bravo Ms. Roth.

I found Roth's writing to range from passable to effective.  She's telling an action story, after all, so there isn't much room for reflection.  But the few moments of authorial insight into the human character she gave us made me wish for so much more.

When recently-removed-from-Abnegation Tris reflects, "I guess I haven't really had a friend, period.  It's impossible to have real friendship when no one feels like they can accept help or even talk about themselves."

Or after Edward's violent injury when Tris reflects, "I don't want to cry for Edward--at least not in the deep, personal way that you cry for a friend or a loved one.  I want to cry because something terrible happened, and I saw it, and I could not see a way to mend it."

Or when she's falling in love and she thinks, "And even though it seems impossible that he could feel something for me, given all that I'm not ... maybe it isn't."

I'm eager to continue this story.  I'm hopeful that there will be lessons about how human nature must contain portions of all these factions, and many more, in order to create individual balanced lives, which creates a balanced society.  I'm hopeful that lessons like the one that sticks with me most from the Harry Potter books ("We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are.”) will be the overarching moral of the trilogy.

But if this does not come to pass, at least I know it will be a darn good adventure read.

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23 March 2014

Book Review: Stardust

StardustStardust by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book because of Buzzfeed.  No really. I did.  Yes, I'm getting my book recommendations from a website with questionable editorial acumen but unquestioned purview and influence in our increasingly uncurated world; a place in which any schmo can write a review, or even make a suggestion that I might like this book because I liked Phantom Tollbooth and I say "Hmmm.  Maybe.  I'll try it." Heaven help us all.

But finding books in unlikely places allows one to find books you might not have found otherwise.  This can be good.  This can be bad.  In the case of this particular book, it was somewhere in between; in that middle-ground country occupied by a feeling of ambivalence, a shrug of the shoulders and exhalation that sounds something like "Eh...."

A fairy-tale for grownups.  Which just means that you are lured into that safe place of a tale for children, then someone has sex.  Or a fallen star whispers "fuck."  Jarring at first but either Gaiman, after the job of reminding you ever-so-not-gently that this is, indeed, meant to be for adults ("nipples") he got back to the work of telling a story.

And it wasn't a bad story.  I found myself wanting to get to the end of it so I could find out if the connections I made were the right connections. And they were, of course, because there wasn't much magic to the story in the end.

There was potential, for sure.  Like the idea that the lands of Faeire were bigger "than the world (for, since the dawn of time, each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going on and proving it wasn't there has taken refuge in Faerie; so it is not, by the time that we come to write of it, a most huge place indeed...)"

Or this throw-away moment;

"A fieldmouse found a fallen hazelnut and began to bit into the hard shell of the nut with its sharp, ever-growing front teeth, not because it was hungry, but because it was a prince under an enchantment who could not regain his outer corm until he chewed the Nut of Wisdom.  But its excitement made it careless, and only the shadow that blotted out the moonlight warned it of the descent of a huge grey owl, who caught the mouse in its sharp talons and rose again into the night.  The mouse dropped the nut, which fell into the brook and was carried away, to be swallowed by a salmon.  The owl swallowed the mouse in just a couple of gulps, leaving just its tail trailing from her mouth, like a length of bootlace.  Something snuffled and grunted as it pushed through the thicket---a badger, thought the owl (herself under a curse, and only able to resume her rightful shape if she consumed a mouse who had eaten the Nut of Wisdom), or perhaps a small bear."

But Gaiman never went the direction I wanted him to go.  He overviewed when I wanted him to dig deeper.  He dug deeper when I wanted him to overview.  And, meanwhile, the story lost its meaning.  Then the ending snuck up on me, ridiculous and unreal as fairy tale endings always are.

I rather enjoyed moments of Gaiman's prose.  Like the evil witch who declaims, "The squirrel has not yet found the acorn that will grow into the oak that will be cut to form the cradle of the babe who will grow to slay me."  Or the character that says, "There is a proverbial saying chiefly concerned with warning against too closely calculating the numerical value of unhatched chicks."

But, unlike Phantom Tollbooth, those moments were not woven tightly into the tapestry of the adventure.  They were clever bits, followed by some storytelling, followed by another clever bit.

You know, I should have realized that Buzzfeed should not be entirely trusted when I picked up the book and saw that the hero is named Tristran, not Tristan, as Buzzfeed suggests.  But fool me once, and I pick up another book from the same list, recommended because I liked Ramona Quimby when I was a kid.  Stay tuned.

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