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With this story collection, it's clear that we're no longer at the Hotel Adequate View with Jess Walter. I loved Beautiful Ruins and think it showed the incredible range of Walter's writing ability, but these stories show mainly gritty realism, those broken and dispossessed, maladjusted and malfunctional. Some of these stories are very short, too short for me to understand the characters in any depth. Some of them also end very abruptly, which left me with the feeling that they were more verbal "descriptions" than stories. With the last story, "Statistical Abstract For My Home Town, Spokane, Washington", Walter does a good job tying the collection together. While We Live in Water is perfectly adequate, it's just not my personal favorite from Jess Walter.
What a fun book! I've recently read a series of incredibly well-written literary novels concerned with math, science, and astronauts that led me to The Martian, the story of American astronaut Mark Watley stranded alone on Mars and his attempts to survive. Initially, I was a little turned off by the log-book format and Mark Watley's adolescent comments ( Yay oxygen! Pirate-ninja!?) but after a short while it really felt like The Martian was the right book at the right time for me. The book has been described as “MacGyver on Mars”, and that it is. It's full of science, logic, struggles to survive against all odds, an astronaut with incredible resourcefulness and the best can-do attitude in the universe, along with thrills, danger, and even humor. There is plenty of math here also, and there were times that I began to skim through what felt like lists of equations and ASCII, but the math is nothing more difficult than multiplication and division. If you're looking for evocative prose, a beautiful, complex story, character development, and introspection, I'm afraid you won't find it in this book, and you may have to suspend a bit of disbelief to enjoy the story, but you will find a compelling adventure. For me, this is a solid 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 because I'm not usually a science fiction reader, but I still thoroughly enjoyed The Martian.
I began reading The Infinite Tides almost immediately after I finished Kiefer's 5-star book, The Animals. I think I was expecting (and hoping for) more of the same – exciting plot, a main character I loved, written almost like poetry. The author himself had warned me that “My first book is a much different animal. It’s meant to have almost zero velocity (like a Henry James novel) and spins in one place (purposefully, I mean), so you may have to get into it in a different way.” Of course, he was completely right, and at one point I had to put the book down for a few days. I ended up re-starting The Infinite Tides from the beginning, just reading, without any expectations, and let Kiefer's writing once again work its magic on me.
This book is a much different animal, and the fact that Kiefer is capable of writing such completely different books, each excellent in their own way, is part of why this is another 5-star read. I won't recount the plot, but it is imaginative, original, and horrifying. The main character, astronaut Keith Corcoran, is not a completely likeable guy, but how he deals with (or doesn't deal with) the bleak, grief-filled circumstances of his life form the basis of his this book. Several characters question Keith's devotion and single-mindedness in becoming an astronaut, and note that that path has ill-prepared him for life after he has reached this pinnacle. He has this truly interesting, synesthesia-like relationship with numbers, and relates to them much better than to people. I appreciated the juxtaposition of how math has answers and logic but human nature is often completely without logic or answers. Keith does end up in an interesting friendship with Peter, a Ukrainian astronomer who now works at Target, and it is Peter's wife Luda who provides a wonderful end to this book.
Just as Kiefer chose the perfect setting for The Animals, he did the same for The Infinite Tides. The empty ranch house that Keith returns to, on one of many culs-de-sac in suburbia, surrounded by big box stores and Starbucks, helps the reader understand and picture how grim and meaningless things are for Keith. There is something that happens in/to the house that was perfect for Keith's story, literally and metaphorically, but it feels like a spoiler so I won't give it away. Read The Infinite Tides and find out for yourself. I'm looking forward to reading Kiefer's next novel, knowing it will most likely be something completely different, but perfectly wonderful.
For me, This is How is the perfect book at the perfect time. I personally hate platitudes, dishonest positive thinking, and trite prosaicism. Augusten Burroughs writes brilliantly for the person that is hungry for honesty. Sometimes things really are awful, and Burroughs offers logical and reasonable cogitations for these times in our lives.
Although Plainsong is set in an unremarkable small town in Colorado, it is itself a remarkable story. The variety of characters and the situations they face are all written by Haruf with plain, simple, understated, and unflinching language; it is his writing that makes this story so quietly evocative and compelling. Tom Stechshulte's narration is perfect.
Holt, Colorado is populated by many characters, high school teacher Tom Guthrie, his depressed and fading-away wife Ella, their young sons Ike and Bobby, pregnant teenager Victoria Roubideaux, her abusive boyfriend Dwayne, bachelor brothers and ranchers Raymond and Harold McPheron, and teacher Maggie Jones, whose stories are told in alternating and overlapping chapters. There is loss of innocence, sex, violence, and death, but there is also kindness, decency, community, and family.
Plainsong is an honest and eloquently-told story that will be with me for a long time.
Rachel, drunk, divorced, and despondent, is the girl on the train who uses her commute to obsessively watch her ex-husband Tom, his new wife Anna, and their baby. She also makes up names and a life story for the "perfect couple", Jess and Jason, who live in the same row of houses along the railroad tracks. When Jess (really Megan) is murdered, Rachel approaches the police with her observations and imaginings. Her alcohol-induced blackouts make her an unreliable witness and narrator.
What I hoped for with The Girl on the Train was something akin to Rear Window, but it didn't measure up to Hitchcock or the hype for me. While it was a pleasurable, i.e., average read, some of the book's initial strengths became its weaknesses in the end. The jumps of the story between narrators along with moving from present to past kept me guessing for the first half, but later became clunky, scrambled, and confusing. I felt there was a distinct lack of character development, to the point that at times it was hard to tell Rachel, Anna, and Megan apart. Rachel's alcoholic blackouts with only vague glimpses of what might have happened keep the reader wondering, but the reliance on her returning memories at the end of the book is completely at odds with what she herself (and more importantly, science!) has told us:
"But I'm feeling dispirited about ever recalling what happened on Saturday. A few hours of (admittedly hardly exhaustive) Internet research this afternoon confirmed what I suspected: hypnosis is not generally useful in retrieving hours lost due to blackout because, as my previous reading suggested, we do not make memories during blackout. There is nothing to remember. It is, will always be, a black hole in my timeline."
These are all things that kept The Girl on the Train from being great for me, but it was a pleasant and passable book.
Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to come across the perfect book at the perfect time, and it has happened again with Burial Rites. The bleak, gray, and icy grip of winter here has provided the perfect backdrop for Hannah Kent's incredibly well-written debut novel. She tells the tragic story of maidservant Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person executed in Iceland in 1830 after she and two others were convicted of killing Natan Ketilsson and neighbor Pétur Jónsson. Because there were no prisons in Iceland, Agnes is sent to live and work with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, and two daughters on their farm. We come to know Agnes and her story through her talks with her spiritual advisor, young reverend Tóti, who is meant to prepare Agnes for her punishment so she can meet her end with contrition.
Kent has researched her topics well, and writes about the details of water-collecting, knitting socks, making blood sausage, shearing, lambing, and slaughter that make life on the farm difficult on a good day. She never hits the reader over the head with these illustrative details, but they are presented simply as an integral part of the story.
The narrator, Morven Christie, is superb, in her pronunciation of Icelandic names, timbre, and emotion. I was tempted to give Burial Rites four stars, but Christie's narration makes it a five-star listen. This is a book that will stay with me for quite a while.
It is a bit ironic and telling that while reading The Marshmallow Test I wanted Dr. Mischel to just give me the tips and tricks that would enable me to gain more self-control. Even if I lack patience now and probably would have been one of the children that wanted one marshmallow right now, he has written a book that gives me hope along with plenty of scientific explanation that self-control is a skill that I can develop, nurture and practice. I think he does an excellent job of explaining what self-control is, where it is warranted, instances where it may be more appropriate not to delay gratification, and what we might gain in our lives if we are able to better hone our willpower. As every science and statistics student has learned, correlation does not imply causation, and Dr. Mischel gives a well-reasoned explanation of what the ability to delay gratification may be correlated with. The reader is left with a clear understanding that waiting to get two marshmallows later instead of gobbling one immediately does not cause an easy and worry-free life! As other reviewers have stated, this is not a self-help book with a series of steps to be followed, but it is thoughtful and thought-provoking writing from the man who has spent his life researching self-control and provided us with the tools he has discovered.
Thank you, Ian McEwan, for writing exactly the book I've looked forward to for many months. Rationalism, science, biology, logic, law, and the absence of unnecessary drama and hyperbole are all things I prize in life, and it was a real pleasure to have them written so incredibly well in the character of Fiona Maye in The Children Act. Fiona is an English High Court judge in the Family Division who must decide the fate of Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness who has leukemia and is refusing a life-saving transfusion. Fiona is also dealing with a crisis in her personal life; her husband Jack has announced to her that “I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair.”
Some of the best parts of The Children Act are the beautifully reasoned details of several of Fiona's decisions. In her judgements, she tries to bring “reasonableness to hopeless situations.” Her decision in Adam's case has consequences that affect Fiona's personal life, and part of the miracle of this book is that McEwan writes this human drama without TV movie dramatics or bashing of religious beliefs. This is the first book I've read by Ian McEwan, and I'll approach some of his other books with a bit of trepidation, but The Children Act is about as close to perfection in a novel as I've ever read.
“Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." I couldn't read the opening sentence of Everything I Never Told You and not read the book. As a mother, I would like to think that my connection to my sons is so strong that I would know if something life-threatening had happened to them. I know this maternal connection fairy tale I tell myself may be a bit at odds with reality, but it still bothers me intensely that a child could be dead and her family might not know it. Yet, that is the tragedy that befalls the Lee family. James is a Chinese-American father, married to his white wife, Marilyn. Because of his race, James has always felt like an outsider, so as he raises his children, Nath, Lydia, and Hannah in the 1970s in Ohio, he aches to have them be popular and fit in as he never has. Marilyn has unrealized dreams of becoming a doctor, and her unfulfilled dreams become her expectations for the favorite child, middle daughter Lydia. Everything I Never Told You explores how a family falls apart when they can't see, understand, and accept each other for who they really are. Celeste Ng writes this from each character's perspective while telling their stories so the reader can better understand why each family member acts as they do. She explains the culture and climate of the 1950s when James and Marilyn marry, along with the years of assumptions, misunderstandings, miscommunication, and sometimes total lack of communication that has led the Lee family to this point. There is no big reveal or twist, just a heartbreaking, poignant resolution.
There are several things that I don't understand or can't judge because I have no experience with them, and they affected how I felt about the book. I believe that a Chinese-American would have experienced some prejudice in the 1970s, and even more so in the 1950s, but I wonder if the level of prejudice displayed towards interracial parents and their children was as much as is written here. Also, Lydia seemed to be a lovely child, but I would have liked more detail as to why she was her parents' clear favorite, to the point that Nath and Lydia are barely noticed. Lastly and most importantly, I wonder about a completely reprehensible, almost unforgivable act that James commits after Lydia's funeral. I can understand being so emotionally distraught at the death of your child that you want to blot out all emotion, but what he did has repercussions later in the book, and I wish there had been some further exploration of why he behaved this way and his wife's response, or lack of it! I couldn't find any other reviewers that seemed to be bothered by this as much as I was, but it was a big one for me. This is a solid 3.5 star book, rounded up because it is a worthwhile read that has made me think.
The narrator of this book had an unfortunate habit of reducing her volume at the end of some sentences, especially during highly emotional scenes. This may have been an attempt to add some emotion to her narration, but there were some disruptive instances where it was just plain difficult to hear what was being said without rewinding and relistening at a higher volume.
I run across a lot of books that I add to my to-be-read list and then forget about until after their publication dates or I stumble upon the book in the library or bookstore. How Not to Be Wrong was initially one of those books, but it sounded so good that I found myself obsessively thinking about it and started a search for a pre-publication copy. Since I'm not a librarian, didn't win a copy via First Reads, and don't have friends at Penguin Press, it took some time and effort, but having procured a copy and read it, I can say that it was well worth my time and $6.00. How Not to Be Wrong is a catchy title, but for me, this book is really about the subtitle, The Power of Mathematical Thinking.
Ellenberg deftly explains why mathematics is important, gives the reader myriad examples applicable to our own lives, and also tells us what math can't do. He writes, “Mathematics is the extension of common sense by other means”, and proceeds to expound upon an incredible number of interesting subjects and how mathematics can help us better understand these topics, such as obesity, economics, reproducibility, the lottery, error-correcting codes, and the existence (or not) of God. He writes in a compelling, explanatory way that I think anyone with an interest in mathematics and/or simply understanding things more completely will be able to grasp. Ellenberg writes “Do the Math” for Slate, and it's evident in his column and this book that he knows how to explain mathematical ideas to non-mathematicians, and even more so, seems to enjoy doing so with great enthusiasm. I won't pretend that I understood everything discussed in this book, but it's such an excellent book that I also bought the audio version and am listening to it (read by the author himself!) so I have a much more thorough understanding. I've wished for a book like this for a long time, and I'd like to thank Jordan Ellenberg for writing it for me!
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