Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book Review: Gulp: Adventures On The Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach

So even though I wasn't the biggest fan of My Planet, Mary Roach is still one of my favorite authors.  I make sure to pick up everything she writes.  Gulp is her newest pop science book, dealing with the alimentary canal - what happens to our food, from the time we put it in our mouths until..well, you get the idea.  Sure, it's graphic, but if you know Mary Roach, you know she doesn't shy away from the gross and gory.

Perfect pop sci. Her work is always well-researched, well-documented, and presented in an amusing way.  I have no criticisms of her science writing and can only say that this book lives up to her reputation as a popular science author.

Entertainment Value
Again, this is another example of exactly what I like to read in terms of popular science writing.  She's funny, and she manages to pull out the most interesting facts from a particular subject.  She combines the biological and chemical processes with fun historical anecdotes and crazy science from the past.  I have complete faith that she can make any topic fun, and she lives up to that in this book.

Definitely worth reading.  I think Roach gives readers a great opportunity to learn something in a fun way.  If you like popular science and you liked Roach's other science books, give this one a try.  '

Thank you to W.W. Norton for sending me a copy of this book to review!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess by Jen Hatmaker

My wonderful friend and reading triplet, Jacki, sent me this book at the beginning of the year and, I do not exaggerate, it changed my life.  I read it right around the same time I discovered 52 Weeks to An Organized Home, and it fit with that challenge and then took it a step further.  The premise is that the author, Jen Hatmaker, was convicted about the excess in her family in these seven areas - clothes, shopping, waste, food, possessions, media, and stress.  So she took seven months and attacked one area of excess every month, making radical changes in the way she lived her day to day life.  And the results are just amazing.

The book's is formatted to reflect the structure of blog posts, following the course of each month as the author implements changes and realizes the impact of her choices.  The format completely fits the author's tone, which is informal and conversational.  One thing that stood out to me is the authors humility.  When you're writing a book that challenge so many of our natural inclinations and much of what we've been taught and conditioned to believe, it's so important to come across in an approachable manner.  Had Hatmaker started listing the evils of contemporary culture, she would have lost her audience immediately.  Instead, she uses her own life and her own struggles to illustrate societal issues in a way that doesn't seem preachy or confrontational.

Entertainment Value
I was immediately challenged by the book.  When the author begins to count the clothes in her closet, I knew I had a problem as well.  Each section of the book pushed further and further against my complacency in terms of what I own and the injustice of my wealth when compared to the way the majority of the world lives.  The book is compulsively readable and I finished it quickly, but I do plan on doing a reread before the year is out.  It truly revolutionized the way I think about "stuff".  

Some examples of things I've changed:
  • I got rid of four garbage bags full of clothes.  On the recommendation from the book, instead of dropping them off at Goodwill, I gave them to a friend at work who donates clothing overseas.  
  • I've started questioning my spending.  Before I buy something from the dollar section at Target, I ask myself how I'll use it, when I'll use it, and if it's a purchase that will advance the things that I value for myself and my family.
  • I've looking into local farming options.  I've started going to the Farmer's Market for produce and trying to buy with the environment in mind.
You must read this book.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  You should be aware up front that Hatmaker is a Christian and her changes are motivated by her interpretation of what it means to follow Christ in these areas.  She really focuses on the social importance of the gospel and how Christians can change areas of excess to reflect Christ to those we interact with.  Obviously, this part of the book was very appealing to me.  Again, I can't recommend it highly enough or thank Jacki enough for sending a copy my way!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

When I saw that Kingsolver was going to be one of our reads for the Sony Readers Club that I participated in, I was thrilled.  I read The Poisonwood Bible in high school and had a great first experience with her writing.  I gave up on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle because I felt like it was a bit preachy, but I was confident that Kingsolver would pull through on her fiction.  The added benefit to this one is that it is set in rural Appalachian Tennessee, not too far from where I live.  It's about climate change, marriage, poverty, and religion.  

Kingsolver did a great job in this book of uniting several disparate issues in an organic way.  While the climate change portions of the book were the most overt, I felt like she blended in the topics of infidelity, child rearing, education, and poverty in a way that felt like it was a part of the story, not a list of topics to be covered.  They melded together with Dellarobia, our main character's, story in a way that didn't feel contrived.

I also loved the setting and, particularly, the descriptions of rural Appalachian life.  For the last five years I've worked with students who have faced the same barriers to education and the "better life" of the American dream that the characters in the book face.  Kingsolver did a great job of making her characters sympathetic and their difficulties understandable.  She didn't fall into the caricature of poor Southern/Appalachian life that I see so frequently depicted in popular culture.

Entertainment Value
It took me a long time to read this book.  It took me forever to get into the story, but once I did, the story picked up and I read it fairly quickly.  However, the last quarter of the book dragged as well.  It took me about four months from the time I first stared the book till the time I finished it, which, for me, is super long.  I'm glad I read it, but I think there's a fairly specific audience for this book.  

If you're a fan of literary fiction, then you should definitely give it a try, particularly if you've got time to invest in a slower-moving plot.  It's also more likely to appeal to those who are interested in climate change or the Appalachian setting.  If you're wanting something fast-paced and plot-driven, then this is probably not going to appeal.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review: Shut Up, You're Welcome by Annie Choi

This is a collection of humorous essays from Annie Choi, dealing largely with her childhood and adult relationships with her parents and brother.  Each essay begins with an open letter to someone (or something) that has inconvenienced Choi and is indignantly sarcastic.  She captures "snark" perfectly in her essays.

As always, since this is humor, I'll just review writing and entertainment value together, since they're too tied up to differentiate.

I'll start with what I loved.  I've always been a fan of open letters (thank you McSweeney's) and I think Choi was perfectly snarky with hers.  They were my favorite part of the book - I laughed out loud during several of them.

Unfortunately, I didn't find her essays as funny.  Some were better than others (I loved the one about her family road trip), but others fell flat.  I did love reading about Choi's parents and the humorous dichotomy between her parents as first generation immigrants and her own identity, growing up in the United States.

The book is a good, easy read, but I think there are funnier essay collections out there.  I probably wouldn't buy this book, but I think it would be worthwhile to pick up if you see it at the library.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book Review: The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

Fifteen year old Marnie and her sensitive younger sister, Nelly, have just buried their parents in their backyard.  They are the only ones who know what caused their deaths, and they both know that they can't tell a soul.  It's hard enough to keep anyone from finding out that they are living alone, but their neighbor, Lennie, has started asking questions.  And his dog won't stop digging in the garden.

I was seriously impressed by the writing in this one, particularly as it's a debut.  I loved the way the author combined the darkness of the story with darkly comic moments.  Marnie and Nelly are intensely lovable, as is Lennie.  Marnie in particular was a striking character.  O'Donnell does a great job of slowly revealing just how damaged she is, continuing to shock the reader with each new revelation.  At the same time, you can't help but love her and sympathize with her.

Entertainment Value
This is one that you'll be tempted to neglect your responsibilities for.  I couldn't stop reading it.  And at approximately 300 pages, it's possible to read it in just a sitting or two.  It's very smart, but also very readable.  I thought it was clever, funny, touching, and intensely disturbing at parts.

I definitely recommend this one.  It's a great coming of age story that manages to be original and capture a unique voice.  My one word of caution would be that the content is at times hard to read, especially given the age of the narrators.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Book Review: Don't Worry, It Gets Worse by Alida Nugent

I'll start this review with a funny story regarding me and my experience reading.  For some reason, I went into this book thinking the author was looking back on her 20's.  In my mind she was a few years older than me and recalling her younger years.  About halfway through, Nugent tells a story about being in college and taking a road trip.  In 2008.  I was MARRIED in 2008.  It was kind of a blow to realize that the author of this MEMOIR is younger than I am.  Surely people my age (ok four years younger than my age) aren't old enough to be writing memoirs.  I feel old.

It reminded me of how every once in a while I will remember that Sugar Bear is four years younger than me and how wide that age gap seemed while we were growing up.  I even caught myself telling Buddy, who is eight years younger them me, about someone "our age."  He just rolled his eyes.

The book itself is something of an exploration of this feeling.  The author has graduated college and, without a job, is forced to move back in with her parents.  Even after she is able to get an apartment in the city with roommates, she feels like she's living in some kind of alternate reality, where she isn't old enough to be on her own.  She has a hard time adjusting to "adult" life and determining what that even means.

Because I think the book is meant to be a humorous memoir, I have to point out that I didn't really appreciate her sense of humor.  I felt like she was trying to write like other popular writers.  I'm not turned off my bad language and some crude humor, but I felt like the author was somewhat over the top with both.  It was like she included those aspects because she felt like that's how a young person's memoir should sound.  It didn't always seem genuine.

That said, the author has promise as a writer.  I think her writing issues and the lack of an authentic voice could just be the result of being young.  At "our age" it doesn't surprise me to see a memoirist lacking authenticity.

Entertainment Value
Along with being put off by the author's writing style, I had a hard time enjoying the book because I had a hard time empathizing with (and at times even liking) the author.  While I love an unsympathetic narrator or characters in fiction, it doesn't work as well when you're reading about the author's own life.

I think reading this helped me realize that I will always struggle to identify with books about young single women trying to balance sex and work in the big city.  I picked up the book thinking it would focus more on humorous aspects of the struggle my generation faces in feeling "grown up", it really was more "how can I make it in the big city."  I've just never been there.  I married young, I'm a small town girl, and I've never been much of one for partying.  Instead of sympathizing with the author and commiserating over our shared youthfulness, I just wound up feeling old and boring.

It's not one I'd recommend.  I think there are better and more convincing essayists who are more fun to read who have written on the same topic (Sloane Crosley for one).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Book Haul (10)

Titles in video:

Best American Short Stories 2005
Listening Is An Act of Love (mention: All There Is)
A Thousand Sisters: My Journey Into the Worst Place On Earth To Be A Woman
Man's Search for Meaning
The Hunters
The Proposal
Love Comes Softly
The Worst Book I've Ever Read
One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding
Hella Nation
Children Playing Before A Statue of Hercules
Snobbery: The American Version
Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation
The Church of Dead Girls
The American Wife
Restless Virgins: Love, Sex and Survival In Prep School
Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture
Sex In the South
Savor The Moment (Bridal Quartet #3)
Bobos In Paradise
Shopaholic Ties the Knot
The Big Sleep
In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover At A Time
You Can't Drink All Day If You Don't Start in the Morning
Forgotten Bookmarks
Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression
The Condition

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Book Review: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Pandora and Edison are siblings who grew up in a dysfunctional family, as children of a father who was a washed up TV star and a mother who may or may not have killed herself.  When Pandora gets a call that her brother is short on money and may need some help, she's quick to volunteer her home.  When he arrives, she doesn't recognize him, as he has put on a few hundred pounds since they last saw each other.  Edison's weight put a strain on his already tense relationship with Pandora's husband, Fletcher.  After two months, he delivers an ultimatum and is shocked when Pandora is willing to risk their marriage to try to save Edison from himself.  

This is straight up literary fiction, so you should go into it without expecting a lot in the way of plot.  Pandora's relationship with Edison as well as with her husband, and how those two relationships play off of each other is the main focus of the book.  There's a story line to be had, but the main focus of the book is on characterization.

With that said, the book is certainly well-written. It is thoughtful and unique and, although it took me longer to read than a book of its length typically would take, I feel enriched for having read it.  I've reviewed one of Shriver's previous novels, We Need To Talk About Kevin, in a positive light and I consider this one to be just as well done, if a bit less compelling.  

In my review of WNTTAK, I mentioned the author's characterization and, again, that is what stands out for me in this novel.  Her characters are all so believably ambiguous.  I read with sympathy and dislike for each character at different times, which is, I think, how we feel about many people in real life.  Just as you are starting to really feel like you're on a character' side, he or she does something to get under your skin again.  

Entertainment Value
Here's where I have a few words of caution.  If you are not a fan of character-driven novels, this isn't for you.  I can't lie, it took me about two hundred pages to really start to care about it.  And it didn't grab me at any point the way WNTTAK did.  The intrigue for me lay in the ideas presented and the characters themselves.  The plot was secondary and, because of that, there were many times when I felt ambivalent about reading.  

I think part of this may have been that the author tries to cover too many issues in a deep, insightful way.  We have the social, cultural, personal, and ethical issues surrounding obesity; the relationship between siblings and how that shared history can intrude on a marriage; the issues of blended families; the complicated relationship Pandora and Edison have with both their parents; jazz references; Pandora's ambiguous feelings about her job; competition between spouses and siblings; etc.  It was just too much and I felt like some of it could have been taken out to make the book more streamlined.

However, I did wind up appreciating the book from an entertainment perspective almost as much as from a writing perspective.  It made me think pretty seriously about what I would do in a similar situation.  If my husband gave me an ultimatum to either stay with him or take care of Sugar Bear or Buddy, how would I react?  Does birth order play a role (it does for Pandora and Edison)?  How far would I strain my marriage for a sibling?  

Also, I found the competitive dynamic between Fletcher and Edison to be interesting.  I know there have been times we've spent with my siblings where my husband has felt left out of our shared history.  So I could relate to Fletcher's feelings of jealousy in "losing" his wife to her brother.  

If you're into character-driven works of literary fiction, this is a great choice.  Don't pick it up as a quick beach read, though.  It requires a reader's full attention and can be laborious reading at times.  The sibling relationship is fascinating as is the book's examination of obesity.

Thanks to TLC for providing me a copy to review.  You can click here to see the rest of the blogs participating in the tour. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Audiobook Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

My copy was checked out from the Free Library of Philadelphia
When Hattie moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920's she has no idea what life holds in store for her.  As the first story opens, we witness the death of Hattie's first two children.  The book proceeds from that point, telling the stories of each of Hattie's other nine children.  The one constant throughout the stories is the children's relationships with their mother - both good and bad.  Each child faces a different struggle, but Hattie is the theme that binds them all together.

Although this is classified as a novel, it reads more like a series of connected short stories.  I think it would have been more powerful if the author had approached each unit as a short story, rather than trying to string them together as a novel.  It fell into a middle ground of being too disconnected to be a novel, but without the punch that separate short stories would have packed.  

There was a lyrical quality to the author's writing, particularly, I felt, in the stories of Hattie's sons.  But many times that was overwhelmed by the disjointedness of the book as a whole.  In some characters, the tone and voice of the story varied widely, but others seemed to melt together.  There was a distinction missing between the daughter's voices that I found myself noticing frequently.

Entertainment Value
Hattie's family certainly faces its share of intriguing and titillating issues throughout the course of the book, from homosexuality, to abuse, to infidelity, to domestic abuse, to adoption.  At times it was a little overwhelming just how horrible a time all of Hattie's children, and Hattie herself, have throughout their lives.  There is very little in the way of happiness or redemption for any of the characters.

What bothered me the most is that you would be hard pressed to find a single decent man represented in the book.  Every husband, brother, teacher, uncle, and friend who has the misfortune of being male is a liar, cheater, gambler, abuser.  It just goes on and on.  There are a few flat, secondary characters who we don't get to know enough to determine their position, but for the most part, every man in the book is presented in a negative light.  Combined with the issues facing Hattie's family, it made for a very bleak read.

The narration on this one threw me off a bit.  There's a woman narrator who narrates all of the chapters told in a female voice and a male narrator who narrates the men's chapters.  And then there's one random chapter narrated by a different women, for no discernible reason.  It didn't kill the audio experience for me, but I kept wondering why they had a second woman narrate a single chapter.  Other than that, no issues.

If you're looking for a family saga, I think you can do much better than this.  It just wasn't unique enough to catch my attention and the disjointed feeling made it less enjoyable.  

My copy of this audio was checked out from the Free Library of Philadelphia 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Review: My Planet by Mary Roach

Review copy courtesy of NetGalley

As a childhood fan of Reader's Digest, it surprised me that I've never put together that the Mary Roach whose essays I grew up reading was the same Mary Roach whose popular science books I've loved as an adult.  I'm happily working my way through her latest, Gulp, in fact.  So once I did make that connection, I was happy to see this collection of her essays available on NetGalley.  Since it's a collection of humorous essays, I'm going to forego my typical review style, because in humor writing I feel like entertainment value is really all that counts.  

In this case, I hate to say it, but Mary kind of let me down.  I remember finding her essays hilarious as a child, but as an adult I wasn't nearly as impressed.  It was particularly odd because I find her science books to be very funny.  My experience of reading these essays, however, was that they were written to a different audience.  I think my mom or maybe my grandmother would have found them funny, but they just didn't appeal to me.  I think they were just too mundane - I prefer to read madcap adventures along the lines of the Bloggess or Jen Lancaster.

While the stories didn't appeal to me as much as I had hoped, I do think there's an audience for this kind of anecdotal essay.  One major thing that Roach has going for her is that her essays are clean. If you're put off by off-color humor or bad language, I think Roach's sense of humor will appeal to you in that respect.  She's also sensible and down to earth.  As I mentioned above, I think my grandmother would enjoy the stories.  If you're knowledgeable about Christian literature, I'd tell you she's comparable to a Barbara Johnson.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.  Check back in the next few weeks for my review of Gulp, which should be a bit more on the "loved it" side of things.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Review: Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber

I read my copy of this book courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia

My reading year so far has been chock full of short stories.  The fact that the unifying theme of Serber's book is mothers and daughters just made it that much more appealing.  Several standalone stories explore issues such as a daughter's anorexia and a young mother's position as the wife of her much older professor.  The real highlight, however, is a suite of stories following the lives of two characters - Ruby, who has a troubled relationship with her own mother, and Ruby's daughter, Nora, who comes of age in the turbulent 1970's.

I really appreciated the quality of Serber's writing.  The title story, and the first in the collection, caught my attention as being especially vivid and poetic for prose form.  Her word choice in that story is exceptional.  I also enjoyed the suite of stories focusing on Ruby, but I felt like those stories would have been better served in novel format, or even as connected short stories in their own book.  Having just a few non-connected short stories seemed strange and somewhat jarring, as most of the stories revolved around Ruby and Nora.

Entertainment Value
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading these stories.  Ruby and Nora have a fascinating story line, and the other stories in the book were also compelling.  If you're a fan of the short story, I think this will appeal, but I also think the connected stories make it good reading for those who aren't familiar with short stories or who are just getting started in the genre.

I'll definitely read Serber's future writing.  She certainly has the potential to be a great novelist and short story author.  I look forward to seeing what she writes in the future.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Checked out from the Free Library of Philadelphia
Jon Ronson is probably best known as the journalist who authored The Men Who Stare At Goats.  He's something of a gonzo journalist, and in this book he takes a look at psychopathy and the institutions that deal with psychopaths - namely the prison and criminal justice systems, the mental health industry and professions, and the world of business executives.

I want to like Ronson's writing a whole lot more than I actually do.  This is my second book by him (I've also read Them: Adventures With Extremists) and I've been solidly underwhelmed.  I feel like he leans really heavily on the "gonzo" part of his journalism - to the detriment of reliability.  So while I read, I'm questioning whether he's presenting me with a fact or an opinion.

Also, it's very much psychology-lite.  I love psychology and pop psychology books, but this is so very diluted that it goes from being accessible to being simplistic.  I think there's a balance between overwhelming the reader who isn't a subject matter expert and simplifying a subject to the point that the reader can sense it's being dumbed down.  I feel like Ronson went too far in the dumbed down direction with this one.

Entertainment Value
Obviously, this wasn't my favorite.  While it does have an appeal to a broad audience because of its simplicity, that same simplicity made it forgettable to me.  There were some interesting and moderately entertaining anecdotes, but I found the book as a whole to be something I read and promptly forgot.

If you're an armchair psychologist and particularly interested in psychopathy, you may want to give it a try.  I don't give it a very high recommendation though.  I think there are better pop psychology books that are accessible to the lay reader, but also more memorable and go deeper than the surface.

My copy of this book was checked out from the Free Library of Philadelphia

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book Review: The Little Book of Heartbreak by Meghan Laslocky

Received from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review
This book has a pretty cute premise and is just my type of refresher book - one that can be read all at once or can be easily broken down into chapters.  It's a cultural history of breakups, particularly those that are significant historically, socially, culturally, or for their just plain weirdness.  From Abelard and Heloise through current celebrity gossip, Laslocky covers the many varieties of heartbreak in short, funny vignettes.

I wanted to like the writing more than I actually did.  I think Laslocky did a good job of keeping the tone (which, obviously, could have become depressing easily) light and upbeat, but it was presented in a less scholarly format than I like for non-fiction.  By scholarly, I don't mean dry and dull, I mean with references.  I would have liked to have seen some form of citation or acknowledgment of sources or where to look for further reading, since the book dealt largely with historical relationships.

Entertainment Value 
I felt like the subtitle may have been a bit off. "Love Gone Wrong Through the Ages" made me think that this would be largely historical accounts of breakups.  However, I would say that the emphasis is more on the culture of breakups than it is on the history.  There are sections on breakups in popular music, how to recover from heartbreak, etc that I think lend themselves more to an exploration of culture than an exploration of history.

I did appreciate the author's sense of humor, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, even if it wasn't what I was expecting.  It reminded me a lot of Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love.  I recommend it for those who enjoy cultural histories or for those who are just looking for some short anecdotes filled with fun trivia.

Thank you NetGalley for providing me with a digital copy in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What I Read In May

Hey there, Reader Friends.  It's always weird to start back posting after a short break.  I feel like I need to reintroduce myself or something, but if you're a Reader Friend, I'm guessing that's not necessary.  I'm finally  ready to get back on track with my blog, and what better way to start than with a recap of my May reading.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
My Planet by Mary Roach
I Am America (And So Can You) by Stephen Colbert
I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert
The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson
Triptych by Karen Slaughter
Tiger Babies Strike Back by Kim Wong Keltner
Don't Worry, It Gets Worse by Andrea Nugent
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
The Dinner by Herman Koch
Dear Life by Alice Munro
Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman
Shut Up, You're Welcome by Annie Choi

Books read in May: 14
Books read this year: 67
Pages read this year: 19,321
Money saved: $860.59

As far as my personal life goes, well, it's been a major month.  Honestly, if you had told me at the beginning of May that I'd be quitting my job this month, I'd have laughed.  It's funny how some things happen so quickly.  I'm still dealing with all the emotions of the decision, but it's time to get back on track with my reading and the blog.  This is my last week at work, so it's possible you won't see posts until next week, but trust me when I say that I'm coming back!