Sunday, May 26, 2013

Weekend Update

Hi everyone! As you may have noticed, I've been on a bit of a hiatus.  Why?  Well, in the past couple of months, I interviewed for a new job, got an offer, accepted it, and MOVED TO ALASKA.
The view from the window of my new office
So, you know, setting into a new job in a new state on the other side of the continent has been keeping me pretty busy.  But I've finished a few new books, and have some exciting plans in store for the blog.  

COMING SOON:  a guest blog post by an amazing friend of mine who travels to places most of us never even dream of going.  I also hope to have my very first author interview soon!  So thanks for not giving up on Brave New Bookshelves, and check back soon!

Happy Memorial Day!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

At Christmastime, Heartwarming is Code for Tearjerking

Christmas Stories: Heartwarming Tales of Angels, a Manger, and the Birth of HopeChristmas Stories: Heartwarming Tales of Angels, a Manger, and the Birth of Hope by Max Lucado
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is it February already?

I downloaded this to read over the holidays, but I had so many other books I was desperate to read that this one got left out in the cold. Yeah, that was a bad pun. [Insert another bad pun about there being "no room in the inn" for this book here.]

Puns aside, this is a collection of Christmas stories by Max Lucado. Lucado's books are overtly religious, and he goes heavy on the sentimentality, but if that's your kind of book, there's no one better. In other words, if you're looking for the kind of stories that Nicholas Sparks writes, except with religious holiday themes, this is definitely the book for you.
The Nicholas Sparks Holiday Collection
But if you're feeling less religious, maybe try this holiday collection instead?
The first story, "The Christmas Candle," is by far the longest story in the book (it accounted for about 40% of the Kindle version). In a cozy, old-fashioned town (some chapters take place in 1664, some in 1864), this story follows the arc of a family of candlemakers. Every 25 years, an angel appears and blesses one of the Christmas candles, and the prayer said over that candle is heeded.
I was taught that this is not how prayer works... but wouldn't it be nice if it  were?
Hokey, yes, but it's still a charming little story. I found an exchange between one of the townspeople and the new minister who's skeptical about the Christmas candle to be surprisingly thought-provoking:

"What are you afraid of, Reverend? Afraid the prayers won't be answered or afraid they will?... Do you fear that God will dash the faith of the people, my son? Or do you fear that he will stretch yours?"

Personally, I don't think God does things like deal in magic candles every few decades, but I also have to admit that when I say, "God doesn't behave like that," I'm subjecting Him to my own standards of how I think He should behave -- and who am I to do that?

The rest of the (mostly modern-day) stories are a little uneven. Lucado's signature sentimentality sometimes comes close to being downright maudlin. Women in his world seem to die awfully frequently, whether in car accidents or childbirth, and they almost always seem to leave a young child behind. But despite the tortured plot devices, there's always a simple and heartwarming message at the core of each story, and the collection as a whole will probably give you the warm fuzzies even while you roll your eyes.

After all, if there's any time of year when gooey and sweet is appropriate (even cherished)... surely that time is Christmastime. Read this in front of a crackling fireplace while the lights on the Christmas tree twinkle softly in the corner, and all will seem right with the world.

And if it's February and your Christmas lights are still up... hey, that's perfectly okay, too.

Or make your own Christmas tree... details about this DIY project can be found here.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sharp Objects are Just Too Edgy

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My least favorite book by this author to date.  Read my reviews of Dark Places and Gone Girl, and pick up one of those instead.

This started off like a standard pulp murder mystery.  A little dark but interesting, lacking the pretentions of "literature."  It could have been a novel by Tess Gerritsen.

Before long, I realized I was dealing with a narrator who cuts.  Not just tidy railroad track marks down an arm or a leg, but words.   Everywhere.  Nonsense words, sex words, insults.  On her shoulders, wrists, stomach, thighs.  Words that itch or glow or vibrate or something whenever she feels emotion.  Maybe that's metaphor, or maybe it's just weird.
Emo Teens Deal Depression with ‘Cutting’
Photocredit  Shudder.
At least three or four different characters (none of whom are toddlers) literally bite someone else in the story.  Maybe that's metaphor, or maybe it's just weird.
Orthodontic side view straight not crooked teeth, ideal bite
Photocredit  (The answer is yes.)
Did I mention the murder victims have their teeth pulled?  Hm, now that's a coincidence.

The narrator also does drugs -- Oxycontin and Ecstasy -- with her thirteen-year-old sister, and there may or may not be vaguely sexual implications.  Maybe that's metaphor, or... nope, that's creepy and definitely weird.  I think this was the low point for me; I fervently hoped no one was reading over my shoulder on the subway and wondering what kind of pervert I was.
I suspect Gillian Flynn may have watched this movie multiple times while writing. 
I finished reading this primarily to see if my suspicions about the murderer's identity were right.  They were.

Basically, this book made me uncomfortable, and the discomfort didn't seem to be in the service of anything except adding edginess to an otherwise fairly typical murder mystery.  Was it reasonably well written? Yes.  Did it have unique characters?  Yes.  Worth it?  Not for me.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Matched Gets Crossed... Off My List

Matched (Matched, #1)Matched by Ally Condie
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Oh, dystopian young adult fiction, you are one of my guilty pleasures.

Well, sometimes, at least.

I did like the dystopian world of this book, though I think it owes an awfully large debt to The Giver for everything from deaths orchestrated by Society to the widespread use of emotion-suppressing pills.
The Giver (The Giver, #1)
The Patriarch of Dystopian Young Adult Fiction
 But you know what Matched has that The Giver didn't?  Really dumb, overwrought, unbelieveable romance.  I'm not exaggerating; I found myself making gagging noises -- out loud! -- every so often.  Good thing I was reading this while home for the holidays instead of on the subway to work.
 Okay, so it wasn't quite as bad as having to sit next to one of these guys during a no-pants subway ride...
The bulk of this book is an overwhelmingly mushy relationship between Cassia and Ky, replete with agonizing tension over whether he'll ever finally kiss her.  This breathless tension awkardly coincides with Cassia's insistence that she loves Ky so much that she'd leave her family, her friends, and give up all her dreams of a normal life, just to be with him.  Is it old-fashioned of me to think that maybe you should wait until at least second base before you decide to trade everything you've ever known for the guy?

Even more awkwardly, there's supposed to be a semblance of a love triangle.  See, Cassia might be falling in love with Ky, but she's matched (by Society!) with her BFF Xander -- and gosh darn it, she kind of loves him too.  Just, you know, not in the same way.  So we get some more teenage angst in the form of Cassia wondering if maybe she should just settle for perfectly wonderful Xander, even though it makes no sense that she'd be wondering this (because as I just mentioned, she is totally and completely bonkers over Ky, to the point that she's basically ready to take a bullet for him).

Take out the stupid romance, make Ky into just a good friend (even, gasp, a female friend!), and the story is actually not too bad; the dystopian Society would make a great setting for something other than googly-eyed pining.

Crossed (Matched, #2)Crossed (Matched #2) by Ally Condie
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Ugh.  Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, but the sequel was so much worse.

Unlike the first book, which was told from Cassia's point of view, this book has chapters alternating between Cassia's and Ky's points of view. (Note: it wasn't until I saw Ky's name in caps at the top of a chapter -- "KY" -- that it occurred to me how unfortunate it would be if his name ever appeared in a sentence with "jelly.")  The problem is that Cassia and Ky are basically in the same situation -- each is in the Outer Provinces searching for the other -- so the perspectives just aren't different enough.  Repeatedly, I would start reading a chapter with one character's voice in my head, only to realize a few pages in that the perspective had switched.  "Oops, now I'm reading about the other character who's lost and hungry and endlessly hiking through canyons!"

Virtually everything that interested me about the first book, particularly the design of Society and its careful planning of its Citizens' lives, is absent here.  Out in the Outer Provinces, Society is just a Big Bad that sends its less desirable inhabitants out to be decoy farmers in otherwise-uninhabited villages (aka cannon fodder) for the mysterious Enemy.

That seems a little dumb and not well thought out.  We're supposed to believe that Society is sending kids out to populate villages for the sole purpose of letting the Enemy bomb them.  Why not just let the villages stay uninhabited?   Is the Enemy so busy bombing the fake villages that it can't plan an attack on, you know, actual military targets?  If the Enemy is that stupid, shouldn't Society have beaten them by now?

When a painful and wholly unnecessary love triangle among idiotic teenagers is the most interesting thing in the book, the time has come to put it down. And I mean that in a friendly neighborhood veterinarian way.
bulldog puppy getting vet exam
I'm sorry, buddy, but trust me -- it's the kindest thing.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

You May Have Had Me at Hello, But...

I know, I know.  I owe you lovely readers my first book review of the new year.  It's coming soon!  In the meantime, though, here is something new for Brave New Bookshelves: a perfume review!

Yes, I found myself humming The Beatles' "Hello" shortly after picking up this sample.
I received the above sample, a Harvey Prince perfume called "Hello," in my December Birchbox.  The tagline, in a stroke of marketing genius plagiarism, is "You had me at Hello."

Sorry, Harvey Prince, but you're no Jerry Maguire.
 The inside description was sweet and romantic and tugged at my heartstrings.
  • Meyer Lemon, Mandarin, Grapefruit -- because Citrus is nature's way of saying "Good Morning."
Love it.  "Good morning!"
  • Forsythia -- because they are an early spring floral, a welcome sign of new beginnings and possibilities.
Love it.  I suddenly feel hopeful. 
  • Plumeria -- because the flowers are traditionally used in Hawaiian leis, given to greet friends old and new.
Love it.  I was an anthropology major; an appeal to cultural traditions is a slam dunk with me.  Celebrating old and new friends -- how very Auld Lang Syne and appropriate for the New Year!

My camera was so excited, it found it difficult to focus.
So I tried it out.  The scent is actually quite lovely.  I am generally hard to please when it comes to perfumes, because I think most "floral" notes just smell like chemicals, but the citrus is bright and fragrant enough to make me smile.

I skimmed the rest of the text on the sample card, thinking I might have to check out how expensive a full-size bottle is, when the following phrase stopped me short.

 "We started Harvey Prince in dedication to our mother, and we craft exceptional fragrances that empower women to feel young, happy, slim, and beautiful."

Sorry, what?  This perfume is supposed to empower me to feel slim?  Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I have never once, not in all my nearly thirty years, smelled something that influenced my perception of my body size.  If such a thing existed, I'm pretty sure it would be marketed by Jenny Craig, not Harvey Prince.  So all I can conclude is that Harvey Prince thinks slimness is of a piece with youth, happiness, and beauty, and frankly, there's no empowerment in that for me.  Anyone can feel young, or happy, or beautiful -- but they don't want to risk marketing to fatties!  If you can't feel slim, begone!

I personally don't need to "feel slim" (which raises a quasi-ontological question about the nature of slimness: can one feel slim if one does not look slim?) to feel happy and beautiful.  Nitpickers may argue that beauty isn't really a feeling either, but because beauty can be defined in so many ways, I do believe one can feel beautiful even if one doesn't meet the traditional cultural standard for looking beautiful.

In any case, I'm irritated with Harvey Prince for telling me that I need to feel slim, and trying to sell me a perfume that will help me.

You may have had me at Hello, Harvey Prince, but you lost me at your limited understanding of empowerment. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shopgirl is a Quiet Pleasure

Shopgirl: A NovellaShopgirl by Steve Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's confirmed. I have a bit of a crush on Steve Martin.

Sensory descriptions like this make me weak in the knees:
...the various scents that have been sprayed throughout the day onto waiting customers have collected into strata in the department store air.  So Mirabelle, at five-six, always smells Chanel number 5, while someone at five-two is always treated to the heavier Chanel number 19.
I love that I can almost visualize the strata, and I immediately imagine walking through that store with girlfriends of different heights and each of us thinking that the store smells like something different.

Mirabelle (played by Claire Danes in the movie, which is coming up on my Netflix queue as soon as I catch up on Downton Abbey!) is a salesgirl in the nearly deserted gloves department of an upscale department store in southern California. Shopgirl is primarily the story of Mirabelle and two men: one a slacker type (played by Jason Schwartzman) with whom Mirabelle becomes passively involved, the other an older and wealthier businessman (played by Martin himself) with whom Mirabelle finds herself in an unexpectedly deep relationship. The former is described thusly:
He never complicates a desire by overthinking it, unlike Mirabelle, who spins a cocoon around an idea until it is immobile.
The pupa
This moth is really an immobilized desire.
 That kind of pithy insight into his characters' emotions is one of Martin's great strengths as a writer.

You know how sometimes you look up from a book, or work, or a good conversation, and realize it's gotten dark outside without you realizing it? In other words, a dramatic change has occurred, but so gradually that you can't pinpoint when it happened.  The unfolding of the characters was like that for me; by the end of the book I felt that I fiercely understood Mirablle, but I still can't point to a specific moment when I began to understand her motivations.  And I thoroughly enjoyed the characters' journey, though at times it seemed largely a passive one.

I withheld a star because of the ending. Whereas the rest of this novella was marked by the slow, quiet progress of three characters' lives, the last several pages were composed of clipped summaries that spanned months and years in just a few short paragraphs. It felt rushed and abridged after the patient pace of the rest of the book, and left me feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. Still, I liked the rest of it so much that I recommend Shopgirl rather highly if you're in need of a short book that is mostly sweet but has a thread of melancholy. But if you have time for something longer, pick up Martin's An Object of Beauty instead.

An Object of Beauty

Monday, December 3, 2012

November Giveaway Winner: Ashley!

Congratulations to the winner of the November Giveaway!  Ashley's winning entry was a tweet about Brave New Bookshelves.  She'll receive the BNB copy of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.  Thanks to everyone who submitted their entries!

Suri's Burn Book Doesn't Quite Burn -- It's Just Uncomfortably Warm

Suri's Burn Book: Well-Dressed Commentary from Hollywood's Little SweetheartSuri's Burn Book: Well-Dressed Commentary from Hollywood's Little Sweetheart by Allie Hagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you aren't familiar with the tumblr that inspired this book, stop reading this review and go there immediately. If you laugh out loud, or at least giggle quietly to yourself, within the first thirty seconds, then this book is for you.

Suri's Burn Book

The book is something between an overview and a recap of the tumblr. Rather than comment on specific photos for the most part, the book goes through the prominent families of Hollywood and gives "Suri" the chance to give her take on the fashion choices and social value of celebrity offspring. Being under two is not -- I repeat, not -- an excuse for being seen barefoot in public.

But the level of snark is a little underwhelming without the photos to inspire outfit-specific commentary. There are still photos in the book, but roughly one or two per target. Unfortunately, on the Kindle, the photos are black-and-white and lose a lot of their punch.  Still, it made enough of an impression that I fashioned the following quiz as my Facebook status the next day:

If you read Suri Cruise's Burn Book before bed, you will:

  • (a) dream that you are listening to Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck fight in the hallway, then wake up and realize there is a real argument occurring in the stairwell that adjoins your apartment;
  • (b) go back to bed and dream that you are Tom Cruise;
  • (c) wake up with serious tension knots in your shoulders because being a celebrity is stressful; or
  • (d) all of the above.

On the whole, this is great if you need some quick, easy, portable entertainment, but if you're sitting at home... save some money and just go hang out on tumblr for awhile.

Or, leave your best burn-book-style caption for this humbling photo of yours truly.  Can you imagine Suri's horror?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Year with Chesterton is a Great Idea, But the Execution is Mediocre

A Year with G. K. Chesterton: 365 Days of Wisdom, Wit, and WonderA Year with G. K. Chesterton: 365 Days of Wisdom, Wit, and Wonder by Kevin Belmonte
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a fantastic idea in theory; in fact, I'd like to see a series done, with a book for each of my favorite authors. It's a little like a page-a-day calendar in book form. The entries for each day average a page or less, so five minutes before bed is sufficient to read that day's passages.

The passages each start with a brief Bible verse, usually three lines or less, that relates loosely to the topic of the Chesterton excerpt that follows.

My biggest beef, and it's a big one,
Like, THIS big. 
is that there is ZERO information about these excerpts.  Frustratingly, the reader isn't told where the excerpts are from (a diary? a letter? a book -- which book?) or in what year Chesterton wrote them.  Chesterton was a gifted writer with big thoughts, and these excerpts (usually a short paragraph) offer only a tiny snippet of the ideas he was writing about.  Anyone interested enough in Chesterton to buy this book is also likely to want to look up some of these snippets in their larger context.  I reread the preface and acknowledgements three times because I could not believe this information was wholly nonexistent.

Bizarrely, following the daily unattributed paragraph excerpt, some days contain bonus passages from Chesterton that are attributed.

For example, on August 4, the entry reads like this:
He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much. --Luke 16:10 NKJV

To love anything is to see it at once under lowering skies of danger. Loyalty implies loyalty in misfortune.

A Passage from Orthodoxy (1908): Had Christianity felt what I felt, but could not (and cannot) express -- this need for a first loyalty to things, and for a ruinous reform of things? Then I remembered that it was actually the charge against Christianity that it combined these two things which I was wildly trying to combine. Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic about the world. The coincidence made me suddenly stand still.
That's it.  I might wonder where "loyalty implies loyalty in misfortune" (a nice phrase, by the way) came from, but the text gives me no clue.  I might assume that it is also from Orthodoxy, but the entry for August 5 contains no attributed supplement at all, so that doesn't seem like the right answer.  I just can't imagine why the editor wouldn't have insisted on the quotations being attributed -- it's not only sloppy, but it undermines any claim the book has to being a tool for increasing interest in Chesterton's work.

However, I did enjoy that the book noted on which days something interesting happened in Chesterton's life, such as the date one of his works was published.  On February 8, the book notes that in 1930, Chesterton wrote a letter to the president of the University of Notre Dame [insert mandatory celebration of #1-ranked football team here] containing a dedicatory poem for the university mentioning a golden dome. I loved learning that little factoid.
What though the odds be great or small, old Notre Dame will win over all
On the whole, I am glad I received this book and I hope it leads people to explore Chesterton a little bit.  But withholding the tools that would make it easier for people to go further in their reading is, in my opinion, utterly inexcusable.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


For serious bibliophiles, a free book is a special pleasure -- especially when it's one you already know you want to read.

To celebrate (a) the fact that this morning I achieved my goal of reading 100 books in 2012, and (b) the 1000th pageview of Brave New Bookshelves, I'm giving away my copy of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.  In hardcover.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
This copy has been read exactly once, by me.  It's in very good, although not perfect, shape.  I don't underline or highlight or dog-ear pages.  If you ask nicely, I'll even sign it for you.  
HOW TO ENTER: It's simple, read my review of the book and then leave a comment telling me why you're excited to read this book, or what you liked/didn't like about the review. Comments must be at least five words to count. Yes, that's an actual rule. Also, US residents only, please.
ADDITIONAL ENTRIES: Help me test this nifty giveaway gadget, and gain additional entries. a Rafflecopter giveaway
Good luck everyone!

Monday, November 12, 2012

For Book Nerds, the Comfort Food of Books

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, for me, was like someone read all the same books as I have in the past few years, then sat down and wrote a novel combining elements from all my favorites.  There's a pinch of library adventure in the style of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler.  Then there's a touch of The Da Vinci Code (don't hate; it was fun to read), but without gruesome murders or the casting of disturbing aspersions on a major religion.  Face it, secret societies generally make for good times, and secret societies organized around methodical study of old books make for even better times.  There are joyful bits of Ready Player One gamer nostalgia and of The Magicians childhood fantasy novel nostalgia.  There's even a dash of Just My Type: A Book About Fonts-style font geekcitement.  Yes, I made up that word, and yes, I know none of you read Just My Type -- but that just underscores my point, that Robin and I are clearly kindred spirits.  And yes, since you [didn't] ask, I've decided I'm on a first-name basis with the author.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, #2) Ready Player One
 The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) Just My Type: A Book About Fonts

What tipped this from four to five stars for me was the deft handling of the inevitable confrontation between centuries-old books and the modern-day repository of all knowledge (also known as The Google).  I won't spoil it for you, but I got quite a kick out of it.

Pick this up when you need a fun and easy read that doesn't make you feel like you've picked up a disposable or trashy "beach read."  It's serious in setting but not in style; like mac and cheese made with pureéd cauliflower, it goes down easy but you don't have to feel guilty about it.

Delicious yet not entirely devoid of nutrients:  in other words, practically magic.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween/Hurricane!

The SnowmanThe Snowman by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine if Stieg Larsson undertook a modern version of an Agatha Christie novel, and threw in a dash of Stephen King. You might end up with something like The Snowman.

Apparently The Snowman is #7 in Jo Nesbø's detective series, but this one -- I can't speak for the others -- stands pretty well on its own. There are some references to earlier cases the detective has made, but they're well-explained enough that I was up to speed pretty quickly.

I do hate that the star detective is named Harry Hole.   I'm sure it's my fault that my mind drifts into the gutter, but throughout the whole book I kept thinking it was a name better suited for a second-rate porn star. I even tried imagining that his name was Høle (disclaimer: I have no idea whether that changes the pronunciation or not) so that I could blame it on an unfortunate Norwegian-English cognate.

I thought twice that I had guessed the killer's identity, and I turned out to be wrong both times, so the plot twists were well done.  Unfortunately, the detectives also think they've caught the killer a couple of times, so I got a little tired of the CLIMAX-WE-CAUGHT-THE-KILLER-no-wait-just-kidding-anticlimax roller-coaster.   I used to be a fairly hardcore Agatha Christie fan back in the day, and I don't remember ever thinking the mystery was solved halfway through and wondering what on earth the rest of the book was about.

Still, a snowman murder mystery with a dash of horror made the perfect Halloween/hurricane read.   I recommend it for a chilly night when you can read it through in one sitting -- perhaps when the children next door have built a creepy snowman that seems to be watching you...

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dewey Decimal Dystopia

The Dewey Decimal SystemThe Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Our setting: post-apocalyptic New York. "2/14" has overshadowed "9/11," although we don't know exactly what happened or why, just that most of the bridges are destroyed and the City is now a sparsely populated ruin of its former self.

Our protagonist: Dewey Decimal. So named because he plans to spend the rest of his days re-organizing the books in the New York Public Library. He gets his supplies from the DA, a recoil-inducing opportunist who sends Decimal out to get rid of inconvenient characters.  Librarian/hitman hybrids aren't common characters in dystopian fiction, but Decimal is more than just that. He's paranoid like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, he's a germophobe constantly thinking about using Purell, and he speaks Serbian, Ukrainian, and who knows how many other obscure languages. He also ascribes a mysterious importance to "the System," (thus completing the title's play on words).  The System -- which mandates, for instance, that he make only left-hand turns before noon -- makes Decimal's life pretty difficult, but he believes it keeps him safe.

This book is written like a pulp detective novel, but set in the dystopian future.
That pulp cliché, the oldest of the old, the most tired of all tired phrases comes to me. But I dig the truth at its core. When in doubt, look for the girl. Cherchez la femme.
That dystopian-pulp combination, like the OCD-librarian-hitman, took some getting used to, but it kept me entertained and was unlike anything I've read before. Neither of those is my favorite genre, but if one is yours, I recommend you check this out.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Everything Was Illuminated: Looking Back Twenty Years

The IlluminatiThe Illuminati by Larry Burkett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This, weirdly, was one of the formative books of my elementary-school years.  No, it's not a young adult book.  I was just a weird kid.

The year was 1992. I was nine years old, and two months into fifth grade.  My parents had just moved us to a new house, which meant a new school, and the kids in my class were about to spend three days taking a standardized test-- the same standardized test I had taken a couple of weeks before at my old school. The new school thought it would be dandy if I would consent to take the test again, but I refused.  So for three days, I sat in the principal's office and read while my classmates clutched No. 2 pencils and stared at row after row of scantron bubbles.
Do kids today even know what this is?
Don't ask why I was not allowed to stay home instead of sitting in the principal's office, because I have no idea.  In those days, I didn't really care where I was sitting, as long as I was allowed to read.  Yes, I say "allowed" to read, because I read so much that my mother would occasionally tear the book out of my hands in exasperation, hoping to jolt me into participating in conversation at the dinner table.  The woman who cut my hair when I was growing up told me later that she was always terrified that my hair would come out noticeably crooked, because I insisted on having my head bent down toward my book during my haircuts.

Back to my story.  I'm sure I looked ridiculous, hanging out in the school administrative offices at age 9 with a book approximately the size of my head.  But this book blew me away. I was riveted. Fascinated. It was, now that I think about it, probably my very first step into a dystopian future.  I remember astonishing levels of detail, twenty years later, down to the year, make, and model of the car that figures into one of the escape scenes.  (A 1993 Chevy Caprice, if you care, which you don't, because it is the epitome of trivial detail.  Still, as a kid I loved the idea of a capricious car, which is probably why I remember it.)
Why did Chevy name this car the Caprice?  In my head it was much cooler.  You know, more capricious.
This is the book that first taught me the word "tsunami," a word that no one else around me learned until 2004.  This is the book that first made me think about how credit and debit cards could be used to track someone's movements.  This is the book that first sent me fumbling in my pocket for a dollar bill, to examine for myself the weird eyeball on top of a pyramid that was pictured there.  Finally, this is the book that probably lies at the root of my tendency to develop mild crushes on computer nerds.

So twenty years later, I tip my hat to Larry Burkett.   Thanks for writing a book that captivated me completely.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


NetherlandNetherland by Joseph O'Neill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A very few of you might remember my review of Swamplandia!, in which I lamented that I had to write a fairly negative review despite the sheer and impressive beauty of Karen Russell's prose.

 This review is the stunted offspring of that one.  Joseph O'Neill's prose is undeniably lovely, but where Russell lost me with a slightly too odd-and-fantastical plot, O'Neill simply left me trudging through endless paragraphs wondering where they were going (if anywhere).  If I wanted to place the fault with myself, perhaps I'd blame my lack of experience with -- or interest in -- cricket. A man holding his old cricket bat just does not evoke an emotional response the way, say, a young man with a gold helmet does.
Admit it, you get a little misty-eyed, too.
O'Neill, by contrast, can (and does) wax endlessly eloquent on the subject of cricket:
It's as if baseball were a game about home runs rather than base hits, and its basemen were relocated to spots deep in the outfield. This degenerate version of the sport...inflicts an injury that is aesthetic as much as anything: the American adaptation is devoid of the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.
Beautiful, right?  But I think I'm just too American for cricket, because when a description of a game doesn't contain anything about plays or scores or even winners, I get bored.  We watch and play sports because we want our team to win, not because we want to admire the inherent beauty of the way colored uniforms stand out against the green field.  That beauty may well exist, and I am not saying O'Neill is wrong to draw attention to it, but I do think it's wrong to ignore the point of the sport.  In other words, the problem is not that this is a book largely about a sport.  The problem is that Netherland is not really about a sport at all.

These are some of the sports-based books I've read.  There's a pretty healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction, and it includes books about football, baseball, basketball, gymnastics, and running.  (Admittedly, I have yet to read a book about hockey.  But I did watch Mystery, Alaska -- does that count?)
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game Jewball Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams The Art of Fielding Rookie Once a Runner    . . .  
What do all these books have in common?  Not much, other than the fact that they acknowledge that the essence of sport is competition.  Even in running, in which there are neither teams nor a point-based scoring system, you're competing against other runners (and your previous selves) for best time.  After reading Netherland, I could honestly believe that the point of cricket is to appreciate all the ways in which terrain can affect the path of the ball.

To be fair, I rather enjoyed the first 25% of the book, and the last 25% of the book wasn't bad.  Unfortunately, it's the middle 50% that really left an impression.  Our Dutch-born hero ruminates sadly but not very productively on the disintegration of his marriage, wanders the streets thinking about cricket, drives around with a guy who wants to start a cricket club, talks about cricket, and [drumroll] decides to get his driver's license.  That last part, of course, leads to all sorts of bureaucratic hijinks -- which, as we all know, are the least exciting hijinks in existence.  The big plot twist here is [dun-dun-DUN] a typo on one of his IDs!  Which he must get fixed -- get this -- before he can get his license!  

Are you on the edge of your seat?  Yeah, I wasn't either.