Friday, January 30, 2015

Comics Friday: Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann

From Goodreads:
Kerascoët’s and Fabien Vehlmann’s unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale is a searing condemnation of our vast capacity for evil writ tiny. Join princess Aurora and her friends as they journey to civilization's heart of darkness in a bleak allegory about surviving the human experience.  The sweet faces and bright leaves of Kerascoët’s delicate watercolors serve to highlight the evil that dwells beneath Vehlmann's story as pettiness, greed, and jealousy take over.  Beautiful Darkness is a harrowing look behind the routine politeness and meaningless kindness of civilized society. 
It doesn't get much darker than this story of a group of tiny people who live inside the corpse of a dead little girl.  Until, that is, her corpse starts to decompose and they are forced into the woods where they are threatened by evils both internal and external.  It's horrifying enough when you consider it a grim fairy tale full of butchery and danger, but when you realize that it's a metaphor for the bleakness of life as a human and all its trials and tribulations, you'll just want to lay right down and die.

Except you won't because the art is so beautiful that it completely outweighs the horror of what you're seeing happen to these adorable tiny people.  Which, I suppose, is its own metaphor for the human experience.  Shockingly brutal, but also beautiful beyond words.  It demands to be reread once you get what the author is trying to convey and it's totally worth that reread.

It's certainly  not a book that I'd recommend across the board to everyone, even everyone interested in comics.  It's not for children and it's also not for those who will be appalled at the idea of a precious little race of tiny people being slaughtered by nature and by each other.  Have I mentioned that this is dark?

However, if you can stomach it, I think it's not only a pretty deep and interesting commentary on what it means to be human in our world, but it's also gorgeously illustrated.  I don't frequently reread, even graphic novels, so it's high praise that this one demanded a more thorough second read.  It's just beautifully done, on both a metaphoric and artistic level and I highly recommend trying it.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: Clear the Clutter, Find Happiness by Donna Smallin Kuper

From Goodreads:
Finally, a way to get rid of the clutter -- and keep it away -- without making the process a full-time job! Organizing and cleaning expert Donna Smallin shows you how to enjoy the happy, healthy, inviting home you long for with hundreds of time-saving tips and solutions to your clutter and cleaning problems. Her approach is manageable and simple, helping you focus on the things that will make the biggest difference with the least amount of effort and time. You'll discover small, quick routines that will keep your spaces clean and clutter-free over time, as well as lots of things that you can do to introduce order and serenity in just one minute! Clear away the clutter once and for all, and enjoy the happiness you'll find hiding underneath!
Writing
Not much to report here.  The way the book is laid out is very simple with one or two tips on each page.  The tips themselves are just a sentence or two long, so not a lot in terms of quantity of writing or any requirements for a particular level of quality.  They're de-cluttering tips, so Shakespeare is not wanted or needed.

Entertainment Value
I really, really love books that make me want to throw things away.  Especially at the beginning of the year or as the seasons change.  It's just so refreshing to get rid of junk.  This book completely succeeding in boosting my desire to get my chaos under control and, most importantly, throw a bunch of stuff out.  A few things I took away from the book that have helped as I've cleaned out my room and bathroom this week:

  • Recognize that you've changed as a person and only keep objects that mean something to who you are now.
  • Ask yourself, "If I were moving would this be worth packing/unpacking?"
  • Make it easy to put things where they belong.
  • Start with the biggest items and then move to the smaller ones.
For me, this meant getting rid of piles of magazines, old shampoo/toiletry/makeup items, and creating a clear path to my closet, dresser, and hamper.  I'm already feeling lighter and more organized and I've only done the master suite!

Overall
If you're looking for some quick inspiration and motivation, this is the ideal book to read.  It's quick and easy to read, without any unnecessary frills.  The simplicity of putting one or two tips on a page really keeps things moving.  I like that you could just choose to enact one page's principles each day if you choose, or you can read the whole thing and decide which ideas to put into action as a whole.  If you're looking for something quick, short on words (more organizing time!), and motivational, I think this is a good choice.

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Small Victories by Anne Lamott

From Goodreads:
Anne Lamott writes about faith, family, and community in essays that are both wise and irreverent. It’s an approach that has become her trademark. Now in Small Victories, Lamott offers a new message of hope that celebrates the triumph of light over the darkness in our lives. Our victories over hardship and pain may seem small, she writes, but they change us—our perceptions, our perspectives, and our lives. Lamott writes of forgiveness, restoration, and transformation, how we can turn toward love even in the most hopeless situations, how we find the joy in getting lost and our amazement in finally being found.

Profound and hilarious, honest and unexpected, the stories in Small Victories are proof that the human spirit is irrepressible.
Writing
It's Anne Lamott, so I'm not sure that a whole lot needs to be said about the quality of her writing.  Her reputation as a brilliant author is completely deserved.  She's one of a very few who can write about universal truths in a way that feels new and refreshing.  Thoughts that may be cliched when coming from other authors or that aren't entirely original become new and exciting and inspiring when Lamott writes them.

Entertainment Value
Again, the novelty she brings to classic truths and the openness she has about her own life make this an exceptionally fun book to read.  I rarely cry while reading, but this one had me tearing up in a few places, particularly the essays where she talks about forgiveness and how her sibling relationships have changed as an adult.  I couldn't stop reading and devoured it in two sittings, but it would also be a great book to read slowly here and there.

Overall
It's definitely a must-read and I can only imagine it'll have a place on my end of the year best of lists.  Just a delight to read, and, although Lamott is a Christian and many of these thoughts revolve around God and her relationship to Him, I think it's broad enough to encompass a wide range of spiritualities and denominations.  The only thing I can think of that might prevent you from reading is that several of these essays have appeared in other places.  I hadn't read them, so it was all new to me, but if you follow her writing you may have already read some of them.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer


Annihilation is the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Authority is the second, and Acceptance is the third. 
     Area X—a remote and lush terrain—has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer. 
     This is the twelfth expedition. 
     Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. 
     They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything. 
     After the disastrous twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the Southern Reach—the secret agency that monitors these expeditions—is in disarray. In Authority, John Rodriguez, aka “Control,” is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve. And the consequences will spread much further than that. 
     It is winter in Area X in Acceptance. A new team embarks across the border on a mission to find a member of a previous expedition who may have been left behind. As they press deeper into the unknown—navigating new terrain and new challenges—the threat to the outside world becomes more daunting. The mysteries of Area X may have been solved, but their consequences and implications are no less profound—or terrifying.
I know that's a super long description, but I wanted to include a bit of information about all three books and the only way to do that was to use the description from Area X, a collection of all three books.

Writing
It's not every day that you come across a work of genre fiction, especially science fiction, that's more focused on writing and characterization than it is on plot or action.  This one definitely succeeds in the quality of writing category and particularly in the area of character development.  I'd argue that the point of the books is not the crazy goings-on in Area X but how each character responds and changes as a result of his or her experiences.  I think it would also be very easy to make a case for Area X itself as a character, as opposed to just a setting.  Incredibly well done and a pleasure to read.

Entertainment Value
This, I think, is where things will be a little bit trickier and less amazing across the board.  I, personally, was thoroughly entertained by each book and found Annihilation and Acceptance particularly difficult to put down.  That said, I don't think that this is a series that will appeal to all science fiction fans or to all literary fiction fans.  Unlike the typical science fiction book, this one isn't as focused on action and plot movement, which may make for a slower read.  It also doesn't wrap every mystery up in a neat bow at the end - there are lots of unanswered questions.  In terms of literary fiction lovers, I think the complete weirdness may not appeal.  This series is absolutely bizarre, full of moments that will just completely jolt you and, for the reader who prefers realism, may cause a few too many eyebrow lifts.

That said, I found both the elements of literary fiction and science fiction to be perfectly combined into an absolutely engrossing series.  I wasn't bothered at all by the questions that remained at the end of the book - they've remained on my mind in the days after I finished Acceptance, which is always a good thing.  It's the kind of mystery that lead me to seek out other reviews and blogs covering the series to see how others interpreted the parts that aren't spelled out explicitly.  I love when an author can capture my interest that fully and then let my imagination do the work.  I also enjoyed the craziness of the plot itself and was absolutely enthralled with the world of Area X.

Overall
For me, this is the perfect combination of literary and genre fiction.  It had the elements that I love from literary fiction combined perfectly with the elements I love from science fiction.  The second book, Authority, read a bit slow for me, but it reflected what was happening at that point in the story.  I recommend this to those who can enjoy a crazy setting/plot with elements of the bizarre, but who also enjoy quality writing and don't need to have every question answered.



Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review: Dear Committee Members by Julia Schumacher

From Goodreads:
Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can't catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville's Bartleby

In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. We recommend Dear Committee Members to you in the strongest possible terms.
Writing
This book was laugh-out-loud hilarious.  I loved the novelty of the story being told through the letters of recommendation our narrator is forced to write for various co-workers and students.  I'm all about a good epistolary novel and this one was perfection!  I thought it was witty and fun and wished it was twice as long - which is probably a good sign that it's just the right length.  Always better to wish for more of a book than to wish for less, right?

Entertainment Value
Again, hilarious.  I think it will especially appeal to anyone in academia, anyone who attended a small liberal arts school, and anyone who majored in English.  I loved the budget cuts the English department faced, while the Economics department lived in the lap of luxury - during my senior year as an English major, my department had to deal with the effects of the Business School's fancy new building being built - while we met in conference rooms or professor's homes.

Overall
I can't say enough about how funny this book is and what a blast it is to read.  I do, however, think that it may have a limited appeal - those who have no English/Creative Writing in their background and who haven't worked in academia may not find it as humorous.  It's full of in-jokes about working in a college, dealing with Millennial students, and the liberal arts/humanities setting.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Comics Friday: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

From Goodreads:
'It came from the woods. Most strange things do.'

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.

These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.

Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there...
I went into this one knowing nothing but that it was reviewed as a super creepy collection of dark fairy tale-type stories.  I love fairy tales, especially dark ones, and I love graphic novels, so this was a perfect combination.  I honestly didn't go in expecting to be creeped out because it's just drawings, right?  And they're done in the same style as the cover - largely simply silhouettes with a very basic color palette, so we're not talking about horrific or graphically violent images.  

I was completely delighted to discover that the reports of how creepy this book is are not exaggerated.  In fact, the simplicity of the drawings really added to the creep factor.  It reads really fast, of course, and I couldn't put it down.  I wanted to devour it slowly, but I just couldn't stop reading.

The artwork is absolutely stunning and the stories are delightfully scary.  I loved it and think it will have a great appeal for fans of spooky ghost stories and things that go bump in the night.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Gann

From Goodreads:
Each of the dozen stories in this collection reveals a hidden and often dangerous world and, like Into Thin Air and The Orchid Thief, pivots around the gravitational pull of obsession and the captivating personalities of those caught in its grip. There is the world's foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes who is found dead in mysterious circumstances; an arson sleuth trying to prove that a man about to be executed is innocent; and sandhogs racing to complete the brutally dangerous job of building New York City's water tunnels before the old system collapses. Throughout, Grann's hypnotic accounts display the power--and often the willful perversity--of the human spirit. 
Writing
Another book written by a successful journalist that combines my favorite aspects of interesting stories and quality reporting.  Each of these essays concerns a certain type of obsession (although some are more successful at this than others - see below) and Gann has clearly and thoroughly researched each piece.  He presents each story in an unbiased manner, and includes lots of quotes from interviews conducted with those closest to each story.  A great combination of quality reporting and a style that keeps the reader interested.

Entertainment Value
For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to these essays.  There were a few, however, that I felt were really trying to fit with them theme of obsessions and not quite making it.  There were times when I felt like the author maybe didn't have quite enough material for an entire book and just grabbed whatever he had that loosely fit (most of the essays were published previously in various journals and magazines).  I have no problem with the essays being pulled from the author's previous writing, but some just didn't seem to fit at all.  My favorites were the ones that fit into the murder or madness categories.  Only a few didn't concern crime and those were the ones I felt the most jarred by.  They were interesting essays (a search for a giant squid or constructing tunnels under New York City), but I didn't feel like they connected well with the rest of the book.

Narration
As much as I enjoyed the essays, the narration left a fair amount to be desired.  I thought the reader was fairly monotone and, in the less interesting essays, verged on dull.  I'd probably recommend trying it in print instead of on audio.  That would also give you an easier way to skip past the essays that you may not enjoy as much.

Overall
I learned about this on Book Riot's list of books to read after listening to Serial and I think it fits into that category pretty well, particularly the first few chapters.  Again, I'd probably recommend it in print rather than on audio because I was fairly disappointed with the narration.  That said, if you're a fan of mysteries or true crime or intrigue this is a great book to check out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Book Review: Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

From Goodreads:
Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in this riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness – and of the chilling secrets of its maniacal, spellbinding patriarch.

When Papa Pilgrim appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy with his wife and fifteen children in tow, his new neighbors had little idea of the trouble to come. The Pilgrim Family presented themselves as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal, with their proud piety and beautiful old-timey music, but their true story ran dark and deep. Within weeks, Papa had bulldozed a road through the mountains to the new family home at an abandoned copper mine, sparking a tense confrontation with the National Park Service and forcing his ghost town neighbors to take sides in an ever-more volatile battle over where a citizen’s rights end and the government’s power begins.

In Pilgrim’s Wilderness, veteran Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia unfolds the remarkable, at times harrowing, story of a charismatic spinner of American myths who was not what he seemed, the townspeople caught in his thrall, and the family he brought to the brink of ruin. As Kizzia discovered, Papa Pilgrim was in fact the son of a rich Texas family with ties to Hoover’s FBI and strange, oblique connections to the Kennedy assassination and the movie stars of Easy Rider. And as his fight with the government in Alaska grew more intense, the turmoil in his brood made it increasingly difficult to tell whether his children were messianic followers or hostages in desperate need of rescue. In this powerful piece of Americana, written with uncommon grace and high drama, Kizzia uses his unparalleled access to capture an era-defining clash between environmentalists and pioneers ignited by a mesmerizing sociopath who held a town and a family captive.
Writing
I love a good solid piece of investigative journalism, and Kizzia has delivered exactly that in this book.  He's found an incredible story set in an absolutely stunning locale and populated with characters that are so bizarre you know they have to be real.   In addition to having a fascinating and disturbing true story to tell, Kizzia has obviously done his work researching the family and their history and presenting all possible sides and angles, including those that are difficult to read (he conducts multiple interviews with Papa Pilgrim that are just chilling).  I can't say enough great things about how well the story is presented and how thoroughly Kizzia has investigated every angle.

Entertainment Value
I should start by saying that there is a special love in my heart for stories about crazy cults and religious ideas as well as any book that claims to investigate the dark side of a particular group of people, so it's like this was written just for me.  It also came on the heels of my addiction to Serial and it scratched some of that same itch for just totally having my mind blown with craziness.  I devoured this in just two sittings because I was so intrigued about where it would go and what would happen next.  The fact that this is non-fiction just made it all the more intriguing.

Overall
This has some hard material, so readers should be aware that there are depictions of domestic abuse and sexual abuse, although none that are graphic.  That said, it's a gripping true story and I think it will appeal to fans of true crime, investigative reporting, or just straight up crazy business.  It'll also be appearing on my upcoming list of books for Serial fans to read.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Bookish Ephemera Review: Silhouette Masterpiece Theater Postcards by William Staehle



These two adorable postcard books arrived courtesy of Quirk Books and the Silhouette Masterpiece Theater.  Each book has thirty hilarious postcards around the themes of Americana and Romance.  Who doesn't need sarcastic postcards featuring our Founding Fathers?  I'm not even kidding, my main problem has been deciding who will appreciate each card the most - they are absolutely hilarious.  These are my favorites from each set, but you can click here to see the Silhouette Masterpiece Theater website and get an idea of the author/artist's work.   



I'm super excited about these and think you should be too - especially if you're a bookish friend whose mailing address I have!  I've got a stack to send out this week, when I can force myself to part with them.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Book Review: 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff

From Goodreads:
13 Hours presents, for the first time ever, the true account of the events of September 11, 2012, when terrorists attacked the US State Department Special Mission Compound and a nearby CIA station called the Annex in Benghazi, Libya. A team of six American security operators fought to repel the attackers and protect the Americans stationed there. Those men went beyond the call of duty, performing extraordinary acts of courage and heroism, to avert tragedy on a much larger scale. This is their personal account, never before told, of what happened during the thirteen hours of that now-infamous attack.
Writing
I have absolutely no complaints about the quality of writing.  It's ideal for those who, like me, are coming to the table with a blank slate.  I hate to admit it, but I do a terrible job of keeping up with current events and I feel like there's very little media that can be trusted.  I came to this book knowing that Benghazi was a controversy and nothing else.  I feel like this book was written for someone just like me.  Zuckoff provides enough background information for the average reader to understand the situation faced by the security operators in Benghazi and why the attacks occurred.  I also found the reporting of the event itself to be clear and concise and easy to follow.  In terms of an analysis of the situation, I was pleased to see that the author left that to others and focused only on the events that occurred and the heroism of the men who were involved.

Entertainment Value
I think this book has a great appeal to others like me who just want to know what happened, without a partisan skew either way.  It's written in an engaging voice and is accessible to the average reader, even one like me who came to the book with no prior knowledge.  While the author sticks to the facts, he presents the story in a way that is hot-stopping and had me on the edge of my seat.  I am still in awe of the bravery the American men showed and how they responded to an unexpected attack calmly and courageously.

Overall
I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to be more knowledgeable about the attack itself and why it occurred.  I think it will also appeal to fans of spy/espionage thrillers and those who enjoy heroic accounts of bravery along the lines of Unbreakable or Flags of Our Fathers.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Book Review: Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

From Goodreads:
Hell-Bent explores a fascinating, often surreal world at the extremes of American yoga. Benjamin Lorr walked into his first yoga studio on a whim, overweight and curious, and quickly found the yoga reinventing his life. He was studying Bikram Yoga (or “hot yoga”) when a run-in with a master and competitive yoga champion led him into an obsessive subculture—a group of yogis for whom eight hours of practice a day in 110- degree heat was just the beginning.

So begins a journey.  Populated by athletic prodigies, wide-eyed celebrities, legitimate medical miracles, and predatory hucksters, it’s a nation-spanning trip—from the jam-packed studios of New York to the athletic performance labs of the University of Oregon to the stage at the National Yoga Asana Championship, where Lorr competes for glory.

The culmination of two years of research, and featuring hundreds of interviews with yogis, scientists, doctors, and scholars, Hell-Bent is a wild exploration.  A look at the science behind a controversial practice, a story of greed, narcissism, and corruption, and a mind-bending tale of personal transformation, it is a book that will not only challenge your conception of yoga, but will change the way you view the fragile, inspirational limits of the human body itself.
 
Writing
While Lorr is certainly a skilled reporter and has clearly done his research, I had a few issues with the way the book is written.  I appreciated that the author was attempting to examine every aspect of Bikram yoga, but I found that he chased rabbit trails with such frequency that the book lacked an overall cohesion.  I would find myself intrigued in the author's story of finding yoga only to be derailed be several pages on the social and medical nature of pain.  Or I'd be ready to find out exactly what secrets Bikram was hiding behind his celebrity status only to find myself immersed in a side story about a friend of the author's.  It needed to be narrowed and focused.  All of the information was reliable and interesting, but it didn't fit together in an altogether logical way.

Entertainment Value
First of all, I have to start by saying that Bikram yoga and competitive yoga are so far from being my thing that they are not even in the same realm.  I love yoga (the yoga I practice, that is) because I don't get too hot and sweaty, I don't have to compete with anyone around me, and it's all self-focused and not about achievements but about stretching yourself.  That said, I totally respect that there are other types of yoga and other preferences and I am fascinated by the idea of Bikram and competitive yoga.

I loved the expose portions of the book and getting an inside look at the man who created Bikram yoga and is credited with starting the yoga craze in the United States.  I also enjoyed hearing the author's personal experiences with training and the intensity of living a Bikram lifestyle.  I was distracted to some degree by the rabbit trails, especially those I found less relevant to the theme of the book.

Overall
I think if you're into yoga, you'll probably enjoy the read.  It's always fun to read about something you love and aspects of it that are vastly different from your own experience.  I don't, however, think it's going to have much of an appeal to those who aren't interested in yoga as a whole.  I had hoped that there would be more about the author's transition from being overweight and merely curious to being competitive, but that's not really the focus of the book at all.  I'm hoping to read more from a beginner's perspective in Stretch: The Unlikely Making of A Yoga Dude - my next yoga read.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: Mr. Bones by Paul Theroux

From Goodreads:
A dark and bitingly humorous collection of short stories from the “brilliantly evocative” (Time) Paul Theroux.   A family watches in horror as their patriarch transforms into the singing, wise-cracking lead of an old-timey minstrel show. A renowned art collector relishes publicly destroying his most valuable pieces. Two boys stand by helplessly as their father stages an all-consuming war on the raccoons living in the woods around their house. A young artist devotes himself to a wealthy, malicious gossip, knowing that it’s just a matter of time before she turns on him.

In this new collection of short stories, acclaimed author Paul Theroux explores the tenuous leadership of the elite and the surprising revenge of the overlooked. He shows us humanity possessed, consumed by its own desire and compulsion, always with his carefully honed eye for detail and the subtle idiosyncrasies that bring his characters to life. Searing, dark, and sure to unsettle, Mr. Bones is a stunning new display of Paul Theroux’s “fluent, faintly sinister powers of vision and imagination” (John Updike,The New Yorker).
Writing
I feel like there are probably a lot of pretentious, writerly things to say about the quality of these short stories.  Thoughts on the way it reflects the conditions of modern humanity and its darker aspects, particularly those motivated by greed and consumption.  What it all comes down to in the end is that smarter people than me are just raving about this book.  And the writing is certainly well done.  Every aspect of short stories that I appreciate and admire are present: the set up, the subtle shifts, characters who are representative of humanity as a whole, etc.  So from a technical standpoint, things here are all looking fine.

Entertainment Value
You may have sensed above that I was less than enthusiastic about these stories.  I am.  I just didn't get it.  I was super excited to start this collection, given the description of "searing, dark and sure to unsettle" but if that was the measure of the collection, I have to say it failed.  Sure, it was dark.  And dreary.  And the outlook was bleak.  But it wasn't unsettling and nothing about it made me stop and think.  It wasn't the intriguing kind of dark, just the dingy, smoggy, poor kind of dark, if that makes any sense.  I was hoping to be unsettled and was, instead, just bored.  Selfish people do selfish things.  Some stories were more entertaining than others - I did actually find myself enjoying "Voices of Love" and "Long Story Short" - a series of vignettes.  And I also enjoyed "The Furies".  For the most part, however, I was bored and somewhat disappointed with the collection as a whole.

Overall
I think it's completely successful in terms of writing quality.  And they're largely what I think the more literary elite expect to see from an author describing the dark side of humanity.  Think lots of suburban ennui, working class woes, and dingy urban landscapes.  Theroux certainly has his place in literary fiction and in the genre of short stories, but it's not one that I personally enjoyed very much and it won't be earning a spot on my shelves.

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

From Goodreads:
Sixteen-year-old Austin Szerba interweaves the story of his Polish legacy with the story of how he and his best friend , Robby, brought about the end of humanity and the rise of an army of unstoppable, six-foot tall praying mantises in small-town Iowa.

To make matters worse, Austin's hormones are totally oblivious; they don't care that the world is in utter chaos: Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, but remains confused about his sexual orientation. He's stewing in a self-professed constant state of maximum horniness, directed at both Robby and Shann. Ultimately, it's up to Austin to save the world and propagate the species in this sci-fright journey of survival, sex, and the complex realities of the human condition.
Writing
I went into this one with some sense of trepidation, because I disliked The Marbury Lens, also by Andrew Smith.  I had also heard that this is heavily geared towards the mind of a teenage boy and, if there's anywhere I don't really care to be, it's in the mind of a teenage boy.  I probably wouldn't have read it if it weren't a pick for our FYA Bookclub, but I did know that whether I enjoyed it or not it would inspire some good discussion.

To my surprise, I actually found the book to be delightful, if a bit on the raunchy side.  Smith really does manage to capture the essence of teenage boyhood, particularly what it's like to be a teenage boy at this point in history.  And I love the bizarre way he uses the end of the world (as brought about through praying mantises) as a backdrop for Austin to discover himself and how he fits into the future of humanity.

I'm very impressed with the author's characterization, at least for Austin and Robby, although I was a bit disappointing in the book's portrayal of women (more about that later).  Overall, I think this is very successful in terms of writing for a YA audience.  It's not going to appeal to those with a more literary bent, but it's fun, fast-paced, and has enough going on to keep the reader's interest, in addition to sympathetic and well-developed characters.

Entertainment Value
I thoroughly enjoyed my reading experience, but I feel like I have to make two points here about what I found troubling and what I think other readers may find troubling.  I was personally bothered by the way that women were portrayed in the book as a whole.  I've really debated (both with myself and with my book club) whether or not the fact that we have a male narrator justifies the one-dimensional portrayal of women.

Every woman in the book is seen, at some point, as a sex object.  On the one hand, I believe Smith that this is how many teenage male minds operate.  On the other hand, it's disconcerting as a female reader to see women as nothing more.  Even Austin's girlfriend has almost no personality and never interacts with the reader in any way other than as a sex object for Austin to lust after.  While the book is groundbreaking in its treatment of LGBT characters, it ignores the female characters.  They have no agency or voice and Austin is never called out on his sexualized view of them.

Another aspect of the book that I think will turn off many readers (although I wasn't especially bothered) was the sheer amount of sex and violence talk.  I want to be clear that the book is certainly not explicit.  We know two characters have sex, but it is done in a fade-to-black style setting.  I expected it to be much more graphic.  That said, the narrator does spend a lot of time thinking about sex and how much he wants it.  There's also a fair amount of violence, as you'd expect in a book about giant praying mantises devouring humanity.

Overall
My book club was divided on this one.  Most of us enjoyed it, but some were put off by the amount of frank sex talk, violence, and crude language.  I think it's going to depend on the reader and how much information they consider "too much".  My personal problem with the book was the depiction of women and their objectification.  I'm still torn on what I think Smith's responsibilities are in terms of providing YA readers with a respectful view of women and a believable portrait of a teenage boy.  That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the read and recommend the book to those with a taste for the bizarre, who won't be too put off by being in a teenage boy's head.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Book Review: The Andy Cohen Diaries by Andy Cohen

From Goodreads:
A year in the whirlwind life of the beloved pop icon Andy Cohen, in his own cheeky, candid, and irreverent words

As a TV Producer and host of the smash late night show Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen has a front row seat to an exciting world not many get to see. In this dishy, detailed diary of one year in his life, Andy goes out on the town, drops names, hosts a ton of shows, becomes codependent with Real Housewives, makes trouble, calls his mom, drops some more names, and, while searching for love, finds it with a dog. We learn everything from which celebrity peed in her WWHL dressing room to which Housewives are causing trouble and how. Nothing is off limits – including dating. We see Andy at home and with close friends and family (including his beloved and unforgettable mom). Throughout, Andy tells us not only what goes down, but exactly what he thinks about it. Inspired by the diaries of another celebrity-obsessed Andy (Warhol), this honest, irreverent, and laugh-out-loud funny book is a one-of-a-kind account of the whos and whats of pop culture in the 21st century.
I'm not going to give this book my typical review because nothing about this book or my reaction to it is in any way typical.  To start, I have to say that I used to watch quite a few Bravo shows, particularly the Real Housewives.  I loved seeing Andy Cohen host the reunion shows and I thoroughly enjoyed his memoir, which I listened to a few years ago.  That said, I don't have cable anymore and haven't watched the Housewives for some time.  I am also, typically completely uninterested in the mundane lives of celebrities.  I roll my eyes at tabloids and could not care less about who is sleeping with who or who broke up or got together.  And I especially don't care about seeing them buy shampoo or play with their children.

So it makes absolutely no sense at all that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, other than that I think Andy Cohen is clever and funny.  But I loved it.  Every minute.  I listened to it on plane rides, car trips, and while I got ready for bed at night.  And I can't explain to you a single thing that would make this book appealing.  It's one reason I had to write a review because my reaction is just so bizarre.

Basically, the "plot" is that we are reading a year's worth of Andy Cohen's diary entries.  We listen to him whine about his weight, love his dog, and go out to a bazillion dinners with various celebrities.  There isn't really any juicy gossip and no shocking revelations.  Every chapter/entry is just a catalog of Cohen's day, filled with name dropping and rich-person complaints.  He goes to dinner with famous people and has a nice time.  He takes his dog to the park.  He goes on a TV show that I don't even watch and interviews another celebrity.  He's happy he lost weight or sad he gained weight.  He wants a boyfriend.

I listened one day with Luke in the car and he was blown away by the sheer stupidity/insipidness of what I was listening to.  He kept asking what the point was.  THERE IS NONE.  It's a book full of nothing.  And yet, I couldn't stop listening.  I was consumed.  I needed to know what would happen to Andy next (hint: it's nothing!).  I fell asleep while listening on the plane and missed a few days here and there but didn't need to go back and re-listen because, you guessed it, nothing happened.

And yet.  AND YET.  This is not a negative review, because I loved this book.  I had numerous conversation with various Reader Friends while I listened where we discussed what could possibly appeal to me about this book, full of boring information about shows I don't watch on networks I don't have access to and celebrities I don't care about.  I've come to believe that I just love Andy Cohen so much and find his voice so delightful that I'd listen to him read a grocery list.  Which is basically what this book is full of.

I don't know who I would even start to recommend this to.  Anyone who adores Andy Cohen as inexplicably as I do?  I honestly can't think of a single reader who would enjoy this book the way that I did, other than anyone who is coincidentally obsessed with Cohen.  Also, I have to say this in his (and my own) defense:  Cohen knows that he is seriously spoiled and shallow.  As opposed to say, Lena Dunham, he opens his book acknowledging that it is full of name-dropping, spoiled behavior, and shallow thoughts.  It's the basic premise of the book, and I loved every second of it.  No idea why.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

2014 Recap in Stats

One of my favorite parts of the reading experience is compiling my reading stats and keeping a pretty detailed spreadsheet throughout the year.  I save up each month's reading until the first day of the new month and then enter all the data into my spreadsheet.  And I enjoy it way too much to ever be considered cool.  The best part comes at the end of the year, when I get to tabulate all the data and examine what I've spent my year reading.  You may find this completely and totally boring, but I'm sharing it anyway. 

General Stats: 

Books read in 2014: 181
Pages read in 2014: 50,700
Average books read per month: 15

That makes this the best reading year I've had in terms of both books read and number of pages read since I started keeping a record in 2009

My best reading month in terms of pages was August (5816) and in terms of books was June (24 books).  My worst reading month was September in both pages (2472) and number of books (90).

Audiobooks listened to: 15
Hours spent listening to audiobooks: 138 hours and 15 minutes, approximately 5.75 days.

Most books read by one author: 11 - Brian K. Vaughn.  Reading Saga and the Y: The Last Man series gave both Vaughn and my numbers for graphic novels read a pretty big boost.

Money-related:

In these, I use the Barnes and Noble website's current price listing for the format in which I read the book.  I count any books I purchased in 2014 towards the "amount spent" but I do not count any books purchased prior to 2014.  I've also added the $50 yearly membership fee for the Free Library of Philadelphia to my "spent on books" total.

Retail cost of books I read: $2598.73
Amount I spent on books I read: $99.68
Amount I saved by reading books I bought in previous years, review copies, and library copies: $2499.05!  I totally deserve a reward for this right?  Like more books? 

So where do all these free books come from?
My local public library: 52
Free Library of Philadelphia; 41
Gifts: 1
Already owned; 3
Review: 70
  • Edelweiss: 1
  • NetGalley; 37
  • Simon and Schuster:7
  • TLC: 14
  • Other publishers: 10
Genre Stats:
Fiction: 126
Non-fiction: 55

As far as genre-specific breakdowns go, I used way too many options this year.  I need to figure out a way to be less specific, because I wound up with about 36 genres represented, many with just one or two books.  So instead of listing them all, I'll just list the most popular.

Graphic Format (novels, comics, histories, etc): 35
Thriller: 17
YA: 17
Short Story: 14
Memoir: 11
Cultural Studies: 10

Format Stats
Audiobooks: 15
Ebooks: 75
Hardbacks: 40
Paperbacks: 40

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review: On Immunity by Eula Biss

From Goodreads:
Upon becoming a new mother, Eula Biss addresses a chronic condition of fear—fear of the government, the medical establishment, and what is in your child’s air, food, mattress, medicine, and vaccines. She finds that you cannot immunize your child, or yourself, from the world. 
In this bold, fascinating book, Biss investigates the metaphors and myths surrounding our conception of immunity and its implications for the individual and the social body. As she hears more and more fears about vaccines, Biss researches what they mean for her own child, her immediate community, America, and the world, both historically and in the present moment. She extends a conversation with other mothers to meditations on Voltaire’s Candide, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, and beyond. On Immunity is a moving account of how we are all interconnected—our bodies and our fates.
Writing
Absolutely superb.  Biss's essays cover a range of social, cultural, scientific, and historical effects and implications surrounding the decision to immunize.  She begins with the struggle she faced as a new mother hearing widely varying ideas of whether or not immunization is healthy and, from there, delves into the history of inoculation, the reasons people have feared the idea of vaccines throughout history and culture, and the current controversies surrounding the topic.  Each essay is concisely written and well-thought-out, and you can tell that Biss has conducted thorough research.

Entertainment Value
As ideas about vaccines become more and more polarized, the issue itself has been muddied through various pseudo-scientific claims and celebrity testimonials.  Biss doesn't try to give a definitive answer to the question of whether or not to vaccinate, although she is clear about her own personal beliefs.  Instead, she explores every facet of the conversation, from literary to scientific to historical to pop culture.  It's fascinating and easy to read - I completed it in a day.

Overall
I highly recommend this to anyone, parent or not, who is interested in the ongoing debate about vaccination and it's implications for community health.  I feel like I learned a great deal and was excited by the number of discussions the essays in this book sparked among my friends.  I highly recommend getting a copy and checking it out.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review: Alice + Freda: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe

From Goodreads:
In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess, but it wasn't her crime that shocked the nation—it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell had planned to pass as a man in order to marry her seventeen-year-old fiancée Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden from ever speaking again.

Freda adjusted to this fate with an ease that stunned a heartbroken Alice. Her desperation grew with each unanswered letter—and her father’s razor soon went missing. On January 25, Alice publicly slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat. Her same-sex love was deemed insane by her father that very night, and medical experts agreed: This was a dangerous and incurable perversion. As the courtroom was expanded to accommodate national interest, Alice spent months in jail—including the night that three of her fellow prisoners were lynched (an event which captured the attention of journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells). After a jury of "the finest men in Memphis" declared Alice insane, she was remanded to an asylum, where she died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later.
Writing
No issues at all with the quality of research and documentation used throughout this history.  It gives a great glimpse into life in Memphis in the 1890's and includes lots of thoughtful commentary on social mores and race relations in the South in the years following the Civil War.  Despite the flawless research and reporting, I have to say that something kept me from really connecting with the characters.  I felt like the author presented the facts well from the research she had conducted, but maybe there just wasn't enough information for a book-length examination?  I just never really got a grasp of who Alice and Freda were and why I should care about them.  It felt largely repetitious and didn't have much emotional pull to hold my interest.

Entertainment Value
Again, I just didn't connect with the characters enough to care about the outcome of the trial or to really get into their story.  I found the most interesting parts to be the commentary on society at the time and how race and gender were viewed as a whole.  While I enjoyed reading and considering how shocking this would have been at the time and how the population at large would have little context for even beginning to understand the emotions surrounding a same-sex attraction, I felt like even those portions were so repetitive that it got old after a while.

Overall
I don't regret reading the book and it was certainly researched and documented skillfully, but in the end it just didn't captivate me the way that I expected it to.  True crime/historical crime is a genre I typically enjoy, but this just didn't grip me the way true crime typically does.  I read it slowly and had no trouble putting it down when bedtime rolled around.  I'd recommend it to those who are particularly interested in the LGBT theme or the social aspects of the era, but I don't think it's a must-read by any means.

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

Monday, January 5, 2015

Goals and Plans for 2015

So my end of 2014 plans didn't go quite as I had planned - I had hoped to get all my reviews for last year finished up and posted and stay consistent during my three weeks off from work.  I got a few reviews posted and stayed consistent for a week or two, but ran out of steam and gave up for the last week.  But it's a new year so I'm claiming a new start!  

This year I've got two specific goals:

  1. Read at least 150 books.  I know I can easily make this number and I'll reevaluate throughout the year as needed, but that's one specific number goal.
  2. My friend Jacki and I are going to use her completion of the Presidential Challenge as a reason to buy a new set of books start a new challenge.  We'll be starting with the letter A and working our way through the Penguin Drop Caps series.  We'll read one classic each month and at the end of the challenge have a gorgeous set of books to display.  I've ordered my first book (Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice) and I'm waiting on it to arrive.
And a few more vague goals:
  1. Go ahead and get my 2014 unfinished reviews written.  The ones that aren't on a deadline can be posted throughout the year when I need filler/don't feel like writing anything new.
  2. Stay on top of my reviews in 2015.  I don't have a plan for this and resolving not to accept books or not to request from NetGalley or (gasp) not to buy books never works.  So I've got no method planned for doing this, but it's still something that would be nice.  I did buy a nice new 2015 planner, so maybe owning that will help?  I mean, I'll actually have to break down and use it instead of just looking at it, but I swear this year I'll change!
And personal goals
  1. Stay in touch with my niece and nephews by Face Timing weekly (if they'll let me) and visiting as often as I can afford to.
  2. Keep going with yoga.  I will admit that yes, I do have a goal weight/size in mind and that achieving that is important to me, but I'm not sharing either number and I'm hoping to focus more on building my endurance and improving my asanas.  Weight loss will definitely help with that, but the goal is to feel better and continually improve my practice, not to just lose weight.
Anyone else have any reading or personal goals for the upcoming year?