Saturday, March 30, 2013

Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera ★

The Unbearable Lightness of Being13% and I'm done.

I have had a run of books that have bored me, or annoyed me, or just did nothing for me. This one is... You know, I don't even know how to describe this one.

I pretty much hated it from the first page. I do not understand the high rating on Goodreads for this book. I can barely stand the thought of picking it up again and reading more of the words telling me things about characters that I could not possibly care less about.

We have Tomas, whom we meet standing on his balcony and vacillating between whether he should ask a woman that he's "in love with" (read: met in a chance encounter and became infatuated with) to move in with him. He's saved from making any kind of fucking decision by her showing up on his doorstep (literally) with her bags packed and ready to move in. Which she does. And then she clings to him (literally) every night - to the point that he controls her sleep patterns. He even, charmer that he is, fucks with her partially-asleep mind and tells her that he's leaving her forever, so that she'll chase him and drag him back home.

Tereza (that's the woman - I had to look up her name) begins to have nightmares that he's cheating on her and forcing her to watch after finding a letter from a woman in Tomas's drawer describing that very thing. So then, in the course of a sentence, we learn that Tomas has never stopped womanizing, then that he lied to Tereza about it, then tried to justify it, and now just tries to hide it from her, but won't stop.

And she stays. He gets her a dog, because the dog will hopefully "develop lesbian tendencies" and love Tereza, because Tomas can't cope with her and needs help.

So yes, Tereza not only stays, but marries him.

Why? *shrug* The book said so.

So then war comes, and they relocate... but after a while Tereza leaves Tomas (taking the female dog that they named Karenin and now refer to using male pronouns... Maybe to make Tomas feel as though Tereza has a lover as well? Who knows. This book is so stupid...).

She leaves him, and I think, "About frigging time." There's no reason for her having decided to leave him NOW, as opposed to any day of the 7 previous years of dreading him coming home smelling of another woman, of fearing that every single woman she sees will be her husband's next conquest. She decided to leave now... because the book said so.

And then he realizes that he can't be without her, and goes to her, and she takes him back, and then he realizes he feels nothing for her but mild indigestion and "pressure in his stomach and the despair of having returned".

I am a character reader. I need characters that I can identify with, that I can understand, maybe like... but these were none of those things. I don't know them, I don't understand them, I don't identify with them in any way... and I don't want to.

I just want to stop reading about them.

And so I did.

Obligatory Lamentation; or "WHY GOODREADS, WHY?!"

By now, I'm sure you've heard. It's old news, for the interwebz, anyway. Amazon bought Goodreads.

*sigh* It's not that I have anything against Amazon... other than their predatory market practices, censorship policies, review approval requirements, proprietary attitudes, user content ownership claims... I mean, I use Amazon-owned Audible and love it, even more now that they'll refund me a credit if I dislike an audiobook, no questions asked. I was a member of Audible when Amazon took it over, and to be honest, the transition was virtually seamless for me. One day there was an Amazon sign-in, which I used (because I do have an Amazon account), and that was it. I can't say I noticed anything at all otherwise. Is the refund process their doing? Perhaps. If so, credit where it's due and all that: I love it. Thanks.

But I don't review books for, or on, or Amazon, except in the rarest of cases where I was asked specifically to do so. I've only ever reviewed consistently on Goodreads. Much more consistently there than even here - my very own blog.

Because I consider Goodreads my online Book Home. It's where I go for everything book related. I find and discuss books there, I review books there, I catalog books there. But more than that, I made many book-loving friends there, people who are more than just "online friends" to me, but real friends that I love and would hate to lose.

I love Goodreads. I love the community, the friends I've made, the groups I've created and moderate and helped to grow. I feel like I contribute to a whole there, as a participating member and a librarian. I loved their independence, and how Goodreads was neutral among booklovers - anyone was welcome, there was no bias, no perception of preference for a particular bookseller... And in fact, as little as a year ago, there was a distinctly anti-Amazon attitude there. Goodreads would not be dictated to by Amazon; they'll get their data elsewhere, thank you very much.

I saved quite a few books during that time, and now it was all for nothing, it seems. But I'm not actually upset about that. I volunteered to help save books after Goodreads banned Amazon data sourcing because I wanted to, because I'm part of the community, and because the time I put in benefited everyone, not because I'm anti-Amazon. I can't say that, because I'm not. I buy from them (though generally not books), and technically I am an Amazon affiliate, though I've done exactly zero with that since signing up. I just don't think that Amazon is right for Goodreads, and I'm worried that Goodreads will lose everything that makes it... Good.

I'm worried that the independence I loved about Goodreads is now gone, and that reviews and site content will now be perceived as biased toward Amazon because of this alliance. I'm just concerned about what this will actually mean for Goodreads reviewers. I am concerned how data will be used now that Amazon has access to it. I'm concerned with how policy may change. I'm concerned with how the site may change. Goodreads founder Otis Chandler has said that they have no plans to make significant changes to review policy or ownership rights, etc. And, probably naively, I want to trust that that's true, but Amazon didn't get to be the megacorp it is by letting the little guy run the show. So time will tell.

I'm in Wait & See mode right now, and I have exported all of my books and reviews as a back up. Until I know more about how my reviews will be used by Amazon, I won't be posting them on Goodreads - I'll be posting them here.

That's right, Goodreads and Amazon have teamed up in a conspiracy to ensure I start living up to my New Years Resolution to update this blog more frequently.

It's quite devious, really.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: The Fault In Our Stars by John Green ★★★

The Fault in Our Stars3.5 stars
Ok, so a little background, just to get a base point for some of my reactions to this book. In late 2010, I read Green's "Looking For Alaska". I ended up liking it more than I thought that I would, but for a long time I'd avoided it based on incorrect preconceived notions regarding what the book was about. It wasn't until I'd watched some of John and Hank Green's Vlogbrothers videos that I decided to go for it. And that made a difference. I could see John in the story - in the quirky intelligent teen characters, in the irreverence, and I liked it. After that, I bought "An Abundance of Katherines" & "Paper Towns", but I haven't read anything but their synopses yet.

So, flash-forward to present day. "The Fault In Our Stars" is chosen to be read among friends, and so I read it. And immediately, I'm struck again by the quirky intelligent teen characters, and the irreverence... But now, it's not so different, because now it seems like a pattern. A style. And that makes it less meaningful. When everyone is profoundly quirky and intelligent, it begins to seem a little trite.

So here again we have quirky intelligent characters, including a host of 16 year olds with ridiculously sophisticated vocabularies, and including an "extremely sophisticated twenty-five-year-old British socialite stuck inside a sixteen-year-old body in Indianapolis". These are midwest teenagers who sound like they're members of the Intelligentsia. Everything is profound and has "metaphorical resonance". It just didn't feel realistic to me.

Case in point: At one point there's correspondence with an author of a book that the main characters found profound, and I had a hard time differentiating between the voice of the Profound Author and the teens.

That shouldn't be the case. Ever. When one of the teens mentioned rhetorically whether the other thought they'd made up the Profound Author's letter, whether it sounded like something they'd come up with, I thought, "Yes!"

It's just too much for EVERYONE in these stories to be so quirky. Where are the average teens who just hang out with each other and don't use $10 words to say hi to each other? It was just unrealistic for me, especially in a book trying desperately to show that kids with cancer are just normal kids who shouldn't be treated deferentially just because they are sick. The problem here is that these weren't normal kids. These were extraordinary ones. Like everyone else. *sigh*

It took about half the book for this annoyance to peter out. It was like, at this point, the quirkiness and $10 conversations took a backseat to the story, finally. And that's when I really started to love it. Coincidence? I think not. Extraordinary characters are great and all, when, as a friend put it, they have "an ordinary background to shine against". I couldn't agree more.

I was far more affected and heartbroken by the simple, no-nonsense way that Hazel talked about her parents and how they were coping (or failing to cope) with her cancer prognosis than by her constant multi-syllabic conversations about the metaphorically resonant quality of... whatever.

There was a line near the end of the book that kind of summed this up perfectly:
"He wasn't perfect or anything. He wasn't your fairy-tale Prince Charming or whatever. He tried to be like that sometimes, but I liked him best when that stuff fell away."
I loved all the bits of this book that were in between all of the uber-profound stuff. The bits about loving and losing in terms of how much both hurt in stark terms of pure aching. Fancy words are fancy, but sometimes the beauty is in simplicity. When all the pretense fell away, and it was just two people wanting to spend as much time as they had left together, it became the story it always should have been.

This ended up being a moving and heartbreaking book, but I think it would have been a much better one had it been written more simply.

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