Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Host - Stephenie Meyer

After enjoying the first three books in Meyer's YA vampire series, I thought I would check out her first adult novel. But, I just couldn't get into it. Then my brother-in-law, Mark, who is knowledgeable in all things science-fiction recommended it and noted that he enjoyed reading a book written from the first person perspective (apparently not all that common in the sci-fi genre). So, I decided to give it a second shot. In this futuristic world, the Earth has been taken over by "souls" who somehow capture and then inhabit human hosts. The souls then take over the human mind and body and continue on with life in their new form. Aside from the seemingly violent act of inserting and overtaking another being, the souls are otherwise benevelont and positive creatures. Among their own kind, there is no suspicion or violence. But, they are determined to erradicate the human race - though small pods of natives still remain. One of the remaining outliers, Melanie, is caught. Wanderer is inserted into her, but instead of immediately taking over like usual, Melanie's mind fights back and Wanderer finds herself unable fully to occupy her host without constantly hearing her thoughts and eventually reevaluating the souls' purpose on Earth and her right to exist in her host's body. Meyers' writing is more sophisticated here than in her YA series - which is something I wondered if she was capable of - but the conversations among her characters are still often awkward, and her female characters all border on the annoying/whining/I'm so unworthy - similar to Bella, the main character in the Twilight series. And while from chapter to chapter the action was a bit predictable, I found myself unsure of the ending Meyers would pick - would it be the inevitable tragic destruction of the souls and triumph of the humans or would it be the love-fest everyone lives in harmony ending? I was a bit surprised at the one she chose, but very happy overall. Not winning a Pulitzer anytime soon, but it is an entertaining story and I could see it worthy of conversation in a book group on a number of different levels.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Likeness - Tana French

This is the follow-up to French's debut novel, In the Woods, which I read a couple months ago at Colleen's suggestion. The Likeness focuses on Cassie Maddox, the better half of the homicide duo featured in French's first novel. The underlying premise of this novel is unbelievable. Years ago, Maddox worked undercover as a college student in Dublin named Lexie Madison. She ditches the identity when her assignment ends, but years later, a young woman carrying Lexie Madison's identification is found murdered. Madison is a dead-ringer (no put intended) for Maddox. So, in an effort to find the killer, Dublin homicide covers up the death and sends Maddox back in undercover - to live with Madison's eccentric four best mates - the prime suspects in the murder. And no one seems to suspect a thing. Maddox has trouble with a few details - how much does the "real" Madison smoke? Which vegetables does she like? And who could possibly have been the father of Madison's unborn child? Yet, despite the ridiculous premise, I found myself feverishly wanting to find out what was going to happen. French takes a bit too long to get Maddox into her undercover position, with drawn-out hemming and hawing on Maddox's part. The end is also drawn out, with the four roommates giving elaborate (read: boring) explanations for their strange behaviors. There are some books that I don't much enjoy while I'm reading them, but afterwards I think more about them and I find they served a much more important use than I'd originally believed. French's books are kind of the opposite. With both In the Woods and The Likeness, I really enjoyed myself while I was reading the books - they are suspenseful, and while reading late at night, the creaks in my own house definitely made me jump. But, once I was done with the last page, I found both strangely forgettable. That being said, for those interested in murder mysteries, you'd be hard pressed to find one better written and more enjoyable in the moment.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A New Earth - Eckhart Tolle

This book has some very important messages in it. After all, who wouldn't be for finding your life's purpose and overcoming stress and anger? But, there is just something about new age cult gurus that make my skin crawl, and make it difficult to believe that they care at all about the issues they're exploring. Instead, I am sure they are just focused on how to sucker 3 million people out of more money. Sadly, Oprah has no problem peddling this garbage to the masses. My problem with these types of books is that they don't really say anything that isn't obvious - they just package it in psychobabble talk about egos and nihlism, and make people think that they are actually stumbling upon some amazing new discovery. Ultimately, if this book helps people become happier with themselves, and in turn, better to one another, then I suppose I am supportive. I just wish it didn't have to be packaged in all this strange other worldly talk about suffering and attaining peace. I think it could all just be a bit more straight-forward and accessible, and in the end I think that would make the world of difference Eckhart promises will come only with true spiritual enlightenment.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Up High in the Trees - Kiara Brinkman

I just couldn't shake the feeling that I'd read this book somewhere before...only it was set in England and it was called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Only the kid in Mark Haddon's best-seller was a 15-year old autistic savant, and the one in this book is an 8-year old who has just lost his mother and has a father on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The book is written in the first person, from Sebby's (Sebastian) point of view. So, obviously everything is supposed to be child-like and innocent, but in my continuing belief that children are smarter and more observant than adults given them credit for - I felt as if Brinkman's portrayal of Sebby suggested developmental disabilities - beyond those caused by his emotionally unavailable parents (perhaps he is supposed to have Asperger's - though this is never stated outright, and Sebby is certainly not receiving any help in this regard). Plot-wise, the book follows Sebby in the months following the loss of his mother - clearly the one person in his life that he truly loves and who he believes cares about and understands him. Slowly, through the book, the true nature of his mother's death is revealed (though one can pretty much guess the circumstances after about 10 pages). Sebby's father takes him away to a vacation home for some much needed healing - but then does nothing to assist Sebby is facing reality and dealing with his issues. Sebby's two older siblings seem to care deeply about him - and repeatedly wish that he would stop acting so weird - but are ill-equipped to do anything to address his desperate need for a psychologist - a representative from Child Protective Services does appear at one point, but perhaps in an honest commentary about CPS in this country - asks a bunch of questions and then does nothing. This is most definitely a story about a family and a little boy spiraling into the depths of depression and mental illness, but sadly without any hope at the end. It all just kept getting worse and worse, and I was most shocked to reach the end and find that Sebby had not actually committed suicide. Brinkman raises and half-way explores a number of incredibly important issues - particularly when set in the life of a child - but she does little to present solutions or anything beyond complete despair.

Monday, September 22, 2008

American Nerd - Benjamin Nugent

American Nerd is a non-fiction exploration of the origins of the term and the concept of the nerd in America. Nugent, a self-proclaimed nerd, appears to have at one time attempted to shun his nerdish tendencies, but has now whole-heartedly embraced them. Nugent's chapters focus on different aspects of nerd evolution in American language, portrayal in media, and case studies in debate and Dungeons & Dragons. There is not, however, a seamless thesis about nerd culture and identity (not that there need be one uniform answer to the question of: What is a nerd?), and at times it felt as if the thoughts were a bit haphazard. Nugent also seems unsure of whether he wants to write a serious analytic piece, or whether he just wants to use the subject as a vehicle to examine his own existence and to atone for the wrong he inflicted upon other nerds as an adolescent. Mostly, this was a reminder to me of how cruel people can be to those who are different - or perhaps just not good at/interested in sports. I did appreciate Nugent's popular culture references though and saw much of myself in his descriptions - mostly in ways that I am actually quite proud of.

Friday, September 19, 2008

How Reading Changed My Life - Anna Quindlen

This is a short little book of author Anna Quindlen's experiences growing up a bookworm. She recounts her adventures and travels through literature - how in many ways it set her apart from her peers, but also how it allowed her to grow as a person. She confronts and attempts to dispell negative views of lifetime readers, and explains quite perfectly (but perhaps only for those who share the same malady) the compulsion to read. While I found this book interesting, and I definitely could relate, there wasn't anything particularly coherent or revealing about it - and I mostly spent the whole time I was reading it thinking, "Wow, if you become a best-selling author, you can pretty much write about anything you want memoir-wise and people will probably buy it." Or in my case, think it's worth borrowing from the library.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway

Like many of the books I randomly pick up, this one has a great title and marvelous cover art. But, unlike many of these books I judge by their covers, this one completes the trifecta by being a wonderfully written story. The book starts out with a cellist in war-torn Sarajevo playing while looking out his window at the people standing in line for bread. Without warning, mortar shots hit and 22 people are killed before the cellist's eyes. As a tribute to the people who have died, and perhaps as a symbol of hope, the cellist decides to spend part of the next 22 days playing in front of the ravaged building. The rest of the novel follows three other characters - a female sharp-shooter tasked with protecting the cellist, a middle aged father seeking water for his family, and an older gentleman who runs into an old friend from before the war. Each of them is trying to survive in their own way - dodging sniper fire, while attempting to determine how much self-preservation they can sacrifice in the name of compasion. There is nothing particularly in-depth about the story - and all you get are snippets of these characters lives - but it is still satisfying. As I was reading, I felt like I was looking at a photgraph, and learning about people here and there as they passed through the scene for brief moments. This is a book set against the backdrop of war - with the threat of death all around - and yet, it remains simple and truly beautiful.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle - David Wroblewski

Like so many movie previews these days, the book jacket on this one gave away pretty much the entire story. Jake's aunt Colleen lent this one to me, with somewhat of an unsure/lukewarm endorsement -- though now I am quite curious to hear her thoughts. The book has received an incredible amount of hype, and I would not be surprised to see it on the short list for the Pulitzer. But, alas, this is not because I found the book to be particularly enjoyable. Edgar Sawtelle is a mute boy living on a farm with his mother and father. They breed an imaginary species of dog that has somehow been created by happenstance and intuition through years of mating dogs with characteristics Edgar's grandfather and father just knew would be right. The dogs have an eerie sixth-sense about them, yet it never really becomes clear in the novel why their strange pedigree actually matters. Rather, it all just seemed to be a gimmicky device - perhaps something animal lovers would glom on to (not being a domesticated animal lover myself, I think it was beyond me). The basic plot is that of Hamlet. Edgar's uncle (conveniently named Claude) comes to town - and another inexplicable plot device - he has a long-standing grudge against Edgar's father. They argue and fight, and Edgar's mother explains that it all goes far back and has nothing to do with Edgar, but it never becomes clear where it comes from or why the reader should care. Edgar's father then suffers a somewhat mysterious death perhaps involving poison (don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything the publisher didn't already spoil on the jacket). Edgar becomes convinced his uncle played a role, and when the uncle gains the affections of his mother, Edgar becomes hell-bent on exposing the crime. Akin to Hamlet's little play within a play, Edgar sets up a scenario to prove his uncle's guilt, but alas the plan backfires. Edgar is then forced to run away - and we spend hundreds of pages following Edgar and three of his dogs through the forest, as their clothes become dirtier and they all become hungrier. In the end, Edgar returns home, and the overly dramatic ending, I found unnecessarily tragic. This is a strange book because it has so many laudable characteristics - it is at its core, very well written. Because of this, the plot itself is almost irrelevant and I found myself wanting to read more even though I couldn't put my finger on anything I actually found interesting in the narrative. Edgar is a very likeable character - after all, who wouldn't love a child who didn't make any noise - he is quite clever, with an appropriate mix of naivete and precociousness. I also really loved the character of Henry - an older gentleman Edgar meets during his forest wanderings. But, there were just too many aspects of the story that went unexplained, or were too implausible to wrap my head around. I'm all for suspension of disbelief, but the lack of originality coupled with the over the top outcome was a bit too much.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Rescue Artist - Edward Dolnick

After reading and loving Dolnick's book, The Forger's Spell, last month, I was eager to read his much acclaimed book about art theivery, The Rescue Artist. Even better, the book focuses on the 1994 theft of Edvard Munch's ubiquitous painting, and one of my favorites, The Scream from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. The theft itself seemed relatively amateurish, but nothing compared to the lack of security in the museum. The Scream was housed on the second floor of the museum right next to a window. There were no security cameras in the gallery room, and the painting itself hung on the wall - not enclosed by glass or attached to any type of alarm system. Dolnick's book follows the joint efforts of the Norway police and Scotland Yard to devise a plan to re-purchase the painting from the criminals. Along the way, Dolnick provides an in-depth history of high-profile art theft cases, undercover detective work, and the internal politics of police squads that put the recovery of stolen art belonging to billionaires on the back burner in favor of "real" crimes that need to be solved. The Scream is such a haunting image - it doesn't matter how many times it's reproduced or parodied - I find it mesmerizing everytime I see it in a book or on a postcard. The idea that such a prized piece could be stolen with seemingly little effort is amazing - and that people were able to orchestrate a sting to recover it is no less dramatic. The Rescue Artist is much more dry than The Forger's Spell and is not told with as much suspense. But, it is still meticulously researched and informative about the art world and it was an intriguing study of the lengths people will go to - to make millions and to have a unique treasure all to themselves.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1) - Philip Pullman

With the Harry Potter series done and read, I was in desperate need of a new children's literature series. My friend Theresa first recommended the His Dark Materials trilogy to me years ago, claiming that it was even better than HP (let's not get too crazy here) and then last year, the high school kids I work with all agreed. And then of course, they went and turned the first installment into a movie staring Nicole Kidman (which I never got around to seeing)...so one day when browsing in Borders, I came across the entire trilogy in one fat volume, and I could resist no longer. The Golden Compass stars Lyra, who like all proper children's protagonists is an orphan. She lives in a world (England, but most certainly in another time) in which all humans have a companion called a "daemon" which takes the form of an animal - in children the daemon can change shape depending on its (or the child's) mood. Once the child reaches a certain age, the daemon takes on a permanent shape. In some ways the daemons appear to have minds of their own, conversing with their human counterparts, and even enlightening them at times. But, there is no question that the daemon is a part of the human (its soul) and the idea of being separated from one's daemon is so unimaginable that the mere suggestion can result in physical pain. Then suddenly, children begin disappearing from Lyra's neighborhood - kidnapped by "Gobblers" and taken North to unknown lands and for unknown purposes. Lyra, with the help of a little golden compass, finds herself compelled to rescue these children from a fate she cannot quite understand but knows she must confront. The Golden Compass appears to be written for an audience slightly older than HP (assuming that HP is supposed to be read by 8-10 year olds). This is probably more appropriate for a 12-14 year old who is intrigued by the solar system and the idea of other worlds in a more science-fiction than fantasy way. The story is told in a straight-forward chronological fashion, and there are many likeable characters along Lyra's journey - including armored bears, witches, and a pirate like band of untouchables. But, Lyra herself is at times a bit too whiney for my tastes, and she comes about her inexplicable powers a bit too easily. She does not seem particularly clever in terms of working out problems - rather the answers just seem to come to her. The book lacked a wise elder (read: Dumbledore) to assist Lyra from afar, though there are many who reveal snippets of her history here and there. It is impossible for me to read this series without making comparisons to HP - some of this is just a basic evaluation of all the components I think are necessary for a good children's book (and which I think Rowling has mastered) and some of it is just that it will be a very long time before I can relinquish the space in my reading heart that I reserve for Harry, Ron, and Herminone. Ultimately, I could not shake the feeling that Pullman was merely disgusing his theology (anti-theology) lesson in a children's story - but like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - I try to ignore such things even when I am being hit over the head with them - and try to enjoy the superficial story. I'm interested in seeing how the next two installments unfold.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Elvis is Titanic - Ian Klaus

In 2005, former Rhodes scholar, Ian Klaus, traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to teach United States History and English. This resulting memoir is a blend of an intense history of the Kurds and the impact the American values of supposed freedom have had on the younger generation Klaus seeks to enlighten. Klaus takes on an ambitious syllabus, hoping to cover everything from the Founding Fathers to popular culture (the students had never heard of the Beatles, but could not get enough of Titanic). He speaks about slavery and civil rights, and the students are quick to find the parallels in their own lives. Klaus touches on, but does not explore as much as I would have liked, the presence and participation of women in his classroom. The majority of the book is taken up with Middle Eastern history lessons (which was interesting and well-written), as well as Klaus's own personal experience learning to live with a bodyguard and adjusting to Kurdish culture. But, what I found most interesting was Klaus's portrayal of his students and their classroom interactions. The debates Klaus attempts to set up revealed so much about how America is viewed by the people it is supposed to be helping, and how the Iraqi Kurds view their place in the world around them. I would have loved to read a more in-depth description of the students and learned more about their life circumstances and the families they came from. This is an impressively written book, and one that gave me a bit of hope for our country's younger generation - to see that there are still those willing to dedicate their lives to making the world a better place is strangely reassuring.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Geography of Bliss - Eric Weiner

I often stop and ask myself if I am happy - or I remind myself that I should be happy. I am, in general, the type of person that tends to dwell on the unhappy - so the premise of this book appealed to me (the secondary title is, after all, One Grump's Search for the Happiest Place in the World). The author, a journalist, does his research and chapter by chapter visits and analyzes the happiest and least happiest countries in the world, in an effort to understand what it is that makes people happy. The result is part travel memoir and part psychological generalizations. What seemed to emerge from the various opinions and thoughts about happiness (from the happy countries of Iceland and Thailand to the unhappy country of Moldova), is that Americans are probably more occupied with this elusive quest than most others. The book started out strong with Weiner's hypotheses about what he would find in these various places. But, as the book dragged on, I found I was no longer interested in his assessment of different cultures and practices. While it is clear that Weiner did do research while in these countries - presenting his conversations with different people, from laymen to professors studying happiness - in many ways it just came across as a distorted version of reality - one grump's opinion of what he wanted to see in each of the places he visited. I still like the idea of this book - I think finding a way to just be happy is a good thing - and thinking about how other people accomplish this is probably a fine first step in that direction. But, ultimately, I did not feel as if Weiner actually wanted to find the answer. Instead, I think he was more preoccupied with debunking the reasons people gave for their happiness and finding ways to validate his negative outlook on life.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself - Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is always good for a chortle or two...after living in England for nearly 20 years with his British wife and four children, he moves back to America to the quaint college town of Hanover, New Hampshire. He is contacted by a friend back across the pond to write a column for English readers about life in America. This book is a collection of Bryson's columns on that topic - accordingly, they are a bit random and haphazard - but on the bright side, each one is quite short and made for a good read while waiting here and there for my husband to check all the important messages he receives on his blackberry. The columns are a bit hit or miss and range in topics from Bryson's love of motels, to America's obssession with junk food, to sending his son off to college, to celebrating Thanksgiving. Bryson's laziness, cynicism, and luddite-ness - while present in many of the other books I've read comes at the reader in full force in this one. At times, it is charming, but I found myself more than usual wishing he would just stop complaining and get over himself. I would not recommend this book as an introduction to Bryson - it is not as well written or humorous or informative as A Walk in the Woods or In a Sunburned County. But for readers who are already familiar with Bryson and like his brand of humor, these are fun little anecdotes that are worth reading here and there - but probably not straight through in one sitting.