Sunday, June 24, 2012

Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks ★★★★

of the BookI've had this book on my to-read list for a long time, 3 years or so, but it was one of those books that I didn't really think that I would ever really get to. A 'lifer'. I'd read Brooks' Year of Wonders back in 2008, and I liked it, but about 4 years has passed now, and the more I read in those intervening years, the more I came to feel like it wasn't really all that impressive, after all. I especially feel that way after finishing People of the Book. The writing in YOW just doesn't even hold a candle to the writing in POTB. It's a beautifully written, moving book, and I'm sorry that I put off reading it for so long.

I will say that there were parts of POTB that felt too modern for the historical sections, and even too "British" (mainly because the 'could/should/would have done' phrase sticks out like a sore thumb to me), and I thought that the romantic interest was awkward and didn't really ever sit right with me, but aside from those two things, I couldn't really find anything to criticize in this book.

I read for pleasure, and this book drew me in. I thought it was a fantastic melding of history, bibliophilia, socio-political issues, and life. I thought the characters were interesting, and even though most of them were only bit-players, I never actually felt like that's what they were while reading. They had history, and depth, and personality, and I very much enjoyed reading their stories, even when they were disturbing or heartbreaking.

But mostly, I loved this book for the story of the haggadah itself. I loved the way that the history of the book unfolded, with each clue to its journey through the years being shown as a story in itself, moving backwards in time until the origin of the book is shown. The historical sections were wonderful - they all felt completely real, although they were all horrifying as well, especially the 1492 Inquisition section.

I remember studying the Inquisition in school, and somehow it never really conveyed just how fucked up that shit was. That's probably why we never learn anything. We sanitize history to the point where it's completely lost all meaning, so we just keep doing the same shit over and over. We're still killing each other over differences in opinion regarding which religion is "right", or because a man dares to love another man and want to share his life with him, or because someone's skin is the wrong color, or because... we're just fucking bored and hate-filled. For fuck's sake. When will we grow up?
"You've got a society where people tolerate difference[...] and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other' --it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society."

Fantastic book. I highly recommend it.

Blah Blah Blah...

Yeah, so... No updates here in like... 3 weeks. Shameful I know. I've been in this horrible reading funk that I'm only just now emerging from. I didn't finish a single book from June 8th through June 21st.
It were terrible.

So, now that I think I'm finally over it (YAY!) I might just go ahead and post a review or something.

I know, I know... Try to contain your excitement, though.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: Tastes Like Human by The Shark Guys ★★

Tastes Like Human: The Shark Guys' Book of Bitingly Funny Lists2.5 Stars
I really wanted to love this book. Really I did. When I received the email asking me to review it, I thought it sounded hilarious, and pretty much jumped on that. I love clever, irreverent humor, and I was really excited to read this book - but it just didn't deliver enough for me, sadly, and I've got pretty mixed feelings about it.

This book contains some great examples of witty observations and wordplay, non sequiturs, and paraprosdokians -- fans of Mitch Hedberg will know this last one. For those who aren't, let me explain: It's the kind of joke where the back half of a sentence or phrase is an unexpected punchline for the beginning half. Such as: "I haven't slept for ten days, because that would be too long." or "I ordered a club sandwich. And I'm not even a member!" Your brain has to kind of work in reverse to see the joke. Great stuff. I love it. One such in this book was this one, from "Top 13 Fighting Tips": "8. Never Hit a Guy with Glasses; use full bottles instead." It made me chuckle, and I like that.

Chuckling is good, but I was expecting "bitingly funny" humor that would keep me giggling for the duration, and in that I was disappointed. This ebook is only 144 pages long. I can read that easily in one day after work, but this book took me 3 days to finish, and the last bit was something of an endurance test - it felt like it was trying too hard to live up to that "bitingly funny" title, with irreverence that should be funny but towards the end here was just over the top and edged on being silly (Example: all of the "Top 20 First Date Suggestions"). In and around the funnies I've mentioned before, there was just too much that didn't do it for me. List entries that left me wondering what the point was in including them, how it related to the topic at hand, how the sub-title for the list item related to the list item, etc. There were some which would have benefited quite a bit from just another line or so of detail or backstory... or relevance.

Two examples:
First, from "Top 8 Great Achievements in Sitting", number 7 is "Giving a Sit For Charity":
"Most people change seats after making quick judgment calls - should I get up for this elderly person who might not really be all that old but has just let himself go, or do I really want to wake up to a face like that should I decide to doze off on the bus.
Briton Terry Twining made the mundane marvelous when he changed seats 40,040 times in 48 hours at a soccer stadium in Belgium. It should be said that the stadium was completely empty - free from lager-swilling hooligans who'd likely not take kindly to those making the mundane marvelous in the middle of a game, so points off for deception. (Daily Telegraph, December 2008)
Wake up to a face like what? Do they mean they don't want the first thing they see when they wake up to be the see a face of an elderly person? I'm not sure what they are trying to say here...?
But my main question is: How exactly does charity fit in here? Was this guy seat-hopping for charity or were they just going for a clever list title pun? I wouldn't have ever thought anything about charity except for the title. I'd likely have thought he was trying to set a Guinness World Record (and "Giving A Sit For Guinness" would have worked just as well), or was really, really bored that weekend. But since charity WAS mentioned, and this is "Great Achievements in Sitting" - where's the relevance to the charity? Did he raise $1 for every seat his ass touched and donate it to cancer research, or anything? I don't feel like seat-swapping 40,000 times is much of an "achievement" unless there WAS a point to it. Maybe if he was doing it to call awareness to the true horror of hemorrhoids for sitters everywhere I'd see the relevance, the achievement, but as it is, I'm just left feeling like "Hoookay then..."

...19,999... 20,000! Only 20,040 more to go... Why was I doing this again?

Second, from "Top 5 Out of Control College Parties", number 5 is "Operation Storm the Dorm":
"Return to your freshmen dorm" seems like a terrible theme for a seniors' party. Why would anybody need to revisit such recent history, especially when the rashes from irregularly washed bedding have yet to fully disappear? Presumably the only benefit is that you would now be a senior and could lord over freshmen the minor achievement of having satisfied minimum academic requirements for three years as you attempt to cajole them into your old bed.
Regardless, that was the theme for a soiree at Bates College in Maine, recently found to be the most expensive non-profit college in the US, a year there costing more than someone earning a liberal arts degree would earn in five years of intensive interning. Parents forking out that kind of cake would probably not be thrilled to see the apples of their eyes bruised in a brawl with police. But that's what happened when police tussled with some 200 "return to your dorm" partiers, pepper-spraying several who the officers said refused to get out of the way of an incoming ambulance.
With his elbow on ice and face rearranged according to the preferences of law enforcement, one of the protesters called the cops' use of force "absurdly excessive". While we would be inclined to believe exactly that in most cases, one policeman did have his leg broken in the melee. (No word if it was his opening night.) (Associated Press, May 2010; WMTW-TV, May 2010)

Now, this list is about out of control college parties. But this entry doesn't actually say what the party was or why it was out of control. They hypothesize about the theme of the party, but that sounds more like a hazing scene from Dazed and Confused than an actual party. I just wanted a little more. Rather than just compiling newsclips, I was hoping for that extra step - get in touch with someone who was there and find out what the party was about and how it got wild enough to need riot police. That's what I want to know if you're going to tell me about "out of control parties", not just the outcome like it's filler on the 10pm news. Make it interesting enough so that any of the wild people reading your book will say "Pish tosh! They call that a party? Amateurs. Lemme show 'em how it's done! Jeeves, ready Party Cave." (Or, you know, whatever they named their party planning lair.)

Moving on, I want to talk about the readability. On the whole, the book was easy to read and interesting, but occasionally -- not all the time, or even most of the time, but frequently enough to allow for quite a few highlights on my nook -- I'd run into a sentence or passage that just didn't make sense to me. I'd read it again, and on one specific occasion I read the line a total of five times, even sharing it with friends to see if I was missing something. I tried coming back to it later - sometimes that helps if I just can't wrap my brain around something, but I'm still baffled by it. The sentence is the first one in the "6 Creative Drug Smuggling Operations" introduction paragraph. For clarity, I'll quote the entire paragraph:
Drug traffickers can no longer rely only on backpackers looking to turn a quick buck for a shower back home to get their products to market. While the domestic auto industry can stamp its feet and plead for government bailouts every time foreign competition threatens its innovation-free way of doing business, drug traffickers are forced to deal directly with increasingly sophisticated police methods of detection and stiffer penalties in countries that serve as transit points.
Second sentence, a little long, but that's OK. I got that one. But that first one... It's like it's two sentences in one or something. Or if it was trying to be funny, like throwing a little dig in there at backpackers for being dirty, broke, or stranded in a foreign country, or all of the above, I think it missed the mark, at least with my test subjects friends and I. It's the "for a shower back home" that grinds the sentence to a halt for me. Take that out, and "Drug traffickers can no longer rely only on backpackers looking to turn a quick buck to get their products to market." makes sense.

This example is the most baffling one, for me, but there were others where multiple hyphenated words and long sentences contributed to that feeling I mentioned before of just trying too hard, and not always hitting the mark. Often less is more with humor.

So, overall, this book was just OK for me. Would I recommend it? Yes. Everyone's sense of humor is different, and what may not have worked for me might be exactly someone else's style. I do think that it would benefit from another edit run-through to clean up some of the long sentences and make things more concise, but that's just my preference. Not terrible, but I think my expectations let me down a bit here.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

May Reading Wrap Up

Cumulative Books Read in 2012: 66
Books Read This Month: 13
Difference from previous month: +4
Avg Rating: 3.07 Stars
Difference from previous month: -0.13 stars
Pages Read: 4,076
Difference from previous month: +1,089 pages

OK- So May wasn't terrible... It really wasn't the BEST reading month I've had, there were some real clunkers, but overall, I've read more so that's a plus. :)

For the Real Life Bookclub:

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was amazing. I don't think I would have ever picked up this book, if not for my bookclub, but I was blown away by it. I thought it was well-written, and intriguing, and immensely thought-provoking. It was surprisingly sympathetic as well, and brutally honest, which is exactly what it should have been. Definitely one for the re-read pile.

The Awesome:

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a great book. I loved Butcher's take on fairies, and his books never fail to entertain. I've just started the 7th book in the series (Summer Knight was the 4th) so I'm definitely hooked! Highly recommend this series. :D

The Good:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book once I got into it. I thought that the epistolary format worked pretty well, and I liked the characters and the feeling of the time. It wasn't really as emotional as I'd have expected it to be, but still very enjoyable and worth reading.

The Bad:

The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This was really one of the worst written books I've ever read. 3rd graders have better command of punctuation and grammar than this guy. Oy. This was really bad, to the point where it was almost funny, but still. Just... Just bad. Save yourself the red ink and read something else. You're not missing anything with this one.

Did Not Finish:

Ghost Story by Peter Straub. I just... could not... continue reading. It was like wading through quicksand. Blah. I'm not even taking the time to link and whatnot.