Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach; narrated by Emily Woo Zeller (2013)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Perhaps not everything you ever wanted to know about what happen from mouth to ass but (no pun intended) Roach includes enough details laced with humor about food, the tongue, the throat, the stomach, the intestines, and good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon shit and farts to keep you laughing, grossed out, and engaged the entire way through. I'm no scientist, but I do know Mary Roach is considered one of the best, most accessible, (and funniest) science writers out there. This is the first of her books I've experienced, and it will not be the last. Emily Woo Zeller was a great narrator - I did the audio version of this - only her English accent left me cringing. Other than that, for now (at least) Mary Roach sounds like Emily Woo Zeller in my head. 


The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)

This book was what the World War I season of Downton Abbey should have looked like, instead of the mostly forgettable season it turned out to be.  It had some bumpy spots - and a multitude of characters to keep track of.   Far above fluff though; mostly well written and quite enjoyable.  Some characters got their just desserts, and others got the rewards that you wanted them to get, and that made me a happy reader.

The Summer Before the WarThe Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is what the World War I season of Downton Abbey should have been but wasn't. A bumpy, occasionally meandering but engaging and fun plot, some drama (both romantic and otherwise), two different sets of homosexuals (perhaps they would have been called "uranians" in 1914?), a multitude of posh characters who did and said things that were completely television ready. Simonson's book isn't high literature and it's fluff - or perhaps it is marshmallow fluff, only name brand fluff rather than generic fluff. Great fun regardless; I was a happy reader.


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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Ancient Greece: Everyday Life in the Birthplace of Western Civilization by Robert Garland (2008)

This seems to be some sort of publishing remaster of an older book.  The e-book, which I also checked out from the library, has a new publisher, a completely different cover and totally different illustrations, but exactly the same text.  The new illustrations are slick; the book looks quite modern; I like the cover.  

This is an uneven book with a writing style that veers back and forth between academic and very folksy. Sometimes it feels like an academic paper (many sections end with a concluding section with the heading "conclusions"  which felt like a college essay.  But then Garland drops words here and there that jar you out of that academic feeling:  "a pretty young girl cost much more than an old hag" or "Domitius, an ungrateful old sod."  Or this stumbling sentence:  "Plato established his school in the vicinity of the Academy.  The name, which derives from a local hero named Akademos, is the origin of our word academic. "  Um, actually, it's the origin of our word "academy" which you just referenced in the sentence before this one."  Strange.  

So Robert Garland isn't the best writer in the world, but I still learned quite a bit and was fascinated by quite a bit more.  Did you know that the Athenians spent more on staging theater productions than they did on their war with Persia?  At least that's what Plutarch said, and if it's true, these are my kind of people (their gayness makes them my kind of people as well."  The Greeks say cool stuff  like Hippocrates (or as Garland sort of pretentiously spells it, Hippokrates, and then there is Sokrates, but I will not say another word from here on about the spelling of various words) said:  Ars longa, vita brevis: which means "Life is short, art is long" and then Garland continues with "opportunity fleeting, experiment dangerous, judgment difficult."  


I still liked Will Durant far, far better - he wrote with a definite style and elegance.   

We don't know all that much about the Greeks actually.  That was surprising, for how famous they are.


Ancient Greece: Everyday Life in the Birthplace of Western CivilizationAncient Greece: Everyday Life in the Birthplace of Western Civilization by Robert Garland
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book see-saws between an academic style and a folksy style that is sometimes jarring. Garland can be writing along a bit dustily, and then refer to a woman as an "old hag" or a call someone "an ungrateful old sod." That lack of editorial control seemed to haunt this book. Robert Garland isn't the best writer in the world, but I still learned quite a bit and was fascinated by quite a bit more. NOTE: This appears to be a remastered version of a book published earlier, but from a different publisher. Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks is the same text, but the newer version is a slick publication with lots of great pictures and a fancy new cover. 


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Friday, February 10, 2017

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014)

Bad Feminist was my book club book; we are meeting on Sunday to discuss it.  Gay is obviously political, but she's also funny in a sharp, biting way.  I liked her best when she was writing about race and gender in regard to popular culture; The Help rightly gets skewered, a book (and especially movie) that time has soured in my mind (my Goodreads review doesn't reflect that though).  The essay on Fifty Shades of Grey was masterful.  I also thought her essay on Tyler Perry was at the very least provocative,  highly readable and interesting.  Gay touches on all the academic points of gender and race that have swirled around in the last few years - rape culture, trigger warnings, entitlement, microagressions.  I'm a white gay man; I will go down those paths with her, but I'm not doing to debate their cause and effects, other than to agree with her that they are challenges to modern society.  I have a very good (white, female) friend who loves to troll about gender and race.  I will spar with her about gender sometimes; about race, I I always shut the hell up.  I was brought up to never, ever mention someone's race; we are all the same, and should be treated that way.  Modern society, and modern youth, love the fuck out of not only talking about it, but baiting about it too.   It makes me uncomfortable.  Thus, large portions of Roxane Gay's book made me uncomfortable too.

Bad FeministBad Feminist by Roxane Gay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The essays of Roxane Gay are biting, sharp, humorous, academic without being boring, occasionally horrifying, often moving, and almost all quite engaging. The stuff I liked the best were about pop culture in regards to gender and race. She takes on The HelpThe Help and Fifty Shades of Grey, and most provocatively, Tyler Perry. She loves Sweet Valley High and Scrabble, two other essays I enjoyed. She also, often, made me extremely uncomfortable.


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Monday, February 6, 2017

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (2016)

I sort of devoured this book in two big gulps, reading as much as I could the first time I picked it up, and then finishing it the second time.  The plot, setting and characters are truly unique - I had never heard of anything like this before.  I'm a huge fan of books where children are magically lured or plucked into another world - Narnia, Oz, Alice - so I was really looking forward to reading this.  It's more of a novella than a novel, very short, but McGuire used her limited space quite well.  It didn't totally live up to my expectations (or the hype) - but it was still a good read. Although nominally a fantasy, it reminded me more of am 80s teen slasher movie (for reasons I won't get into to avoid spoilage).

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children, #1)Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I devoured this novella in two rather rushed, big gulps; but the feeding frenzy didn't exactly fill me up. The premise attracted me - I'm a fan of Narnia, Oz, Alice - and the hype (awards!) drew me in as well. It's a novella rather than a novel, and McGuire put the limited space to good use. But its a good read rather than a great read; I would recommend it, but not heartily.


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Friday, February 3, 2017

Murder On the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934)

Original UK cover
 I read this beat up old Pocket paperback copy with a crazy cover and the original U.S. title - Murder in the Calais Coach.  The name was changed because Graham Greene had a similarly named book, The Orient Express (which was also a trans-Atlantic name change, the original being Stamboul Train:  hmm, the more you know...).

In my quest to read (or re-read) Christie, I think this is the best one I've read so far.  It does not come as a surprise to me; after all, this is one of the best murder mysteries ever written.  Everything about this book is perfect:  the plot, the pacing, the characters, the red herrings, the clues.  Even though I've read this book dozens of times, I'm still enchanted by how neatly and brilliantly Christie ties up all the loose ends.
Rescued from the rubbish bin







Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've re-read Murder on the Orient Express dozens of times. I first discovered it in seventh or eight grade, and I've been a fan ever since. It may seem funny to some to hear that I've re-read a murder mystery so many times: after all, you may wonder, the puzzle is solved; I already know the identity of the murder (one of the most famous fictional murders of all time too). But I remain enchanted by this perfect little book. Christie is at the top of her form here, and many a writer could learn from her example of perfect plot, excellent pacing, clearly defined characters, and dialogue. She drops hints galore, and re-reading them, you get to notice how Hercule Poirot's line of questioning provides plenty of hints as to whodunnit. That wily old Belgian was on to it all along. Then she neatly ties everything up, with a bow on top, in a matter of five pages or so. Brilliant. This is one of those books that soar into new heights and break new ground; over the years, Christie drew lines in the sand for excellence and this was one of them.


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The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2007)

Last week, I listened to a Guardian books podcast ("books" always pronounced like the American pronunciation of "dukes" i.e. "dooks").  featuring Alan Bennett reading from his diary, published in the fall. His diary entries were humorous and witty, and his narrative voice was much fun.   I had just finished my latest audio book (which I enjoyed) and saw that his book The Uncommon Reader was available for streaming from one of my five libraries for which I have cards.  Not only was it available, but Alan Bennett himself was the reader.    I remembered liking The Uncommon Reader; now, after listening to the podcast, I have a better idea of who Alan Bennett is and how he is sort of national literary treasure in the UK.

My liking The Uncommon Reader has remained unchanged; it's a strong little book, satirical but not in a bitter way.   Although nominally about Queen Elizabeth II, Bennett is really writing about what it means to be a reader, and also eventually, what it means to be a writer.  QEII picks up the habit of reading late in life, and it completely changes her personality and the way she views the world and other people.  Reading, the queen realizes, is a muscle, and the more you work that muscle, the stronger and better it gets.  Those around the queen are aghast at her new found love of books, and the descriptive passages of their varying degrees of annoyance, alarm, and sometimes disgust reflect the trials and tribulations of a true blue reader.  What happens to the queen has happened to us; we empathize with her plight; we get angry that those in her life don't understand her new passion, because we the reader have had that same passion for our entire lives, and sometimes to our detriment.  The queen likes reading better than her job as queen, even though (on paper at least) this might be the most enriching, glamorous job in the world.  Reading is even better than being queen.

Bennett is neither soppy nor sentimental about this message though.  He's sharp as a knife, a knife that occasionally cuts both ways.  I love Bennett's voice - both his narrative voice (a rare writer that reads his work as well as he writes) and his satirical writing voice.  This, however, was satire with a heart.

I would love to think readers who don't particularly like reading about the Royal Family would enjoy this book.  I think they would.  There is so much in this about being a reader, the joys and the troubles of reading books, the transformative power of reading.


The Uncommon ReaderThe Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read this book the old fashioned way once before; this time I listened to the audio version, which I checked out via streaming audio on one of my five library cards. Nominally, the uncommon reader is Queen Elizabeth II, who late in life has picked up the (to some, nasty) habit of reading books. As reading is wont to do (research has shown this lately), this completely changes her personality, the way she views herself, the world, and definitely other people. Reading, the queen soon realizes, is a muscle, and the more you work that muscle, the stronger and better it gets. However those aforementioned other people, as Bennett loving and satirically details, are to varying degrees annoyed, disgusted, and outraged. A chunk of this small volume is devoted to the other people laying roadblocks in the way of the queen's reading. Gentle hilarity ensues; this is not a laugh out loud book. I say nominally because Bennett is actually speaking to all of us uncommon readers out there in the world; it's a love letter to people who carry books in their handbag and can't wait until people stop talking so they can dive back into their latest novel, or whatever it is they are reading. The nonsense the queen endures from non-readers (or worse, the guilt stricken non-readers, the worst kind of non-reader) is the same nonsense all true blue readers, at one time or another in their lives, have to put up with. We empathize greatly with her plight. Like most of us, even this old librarian, the queen likes reading better than her job. Unlike us, the queen is supposed to lead a rich, enriching, glamorous life. Is Alan Bennett actually telling that reading books is even better than being queen? If he is, he's doing so in a manner that is neither soppily sentimental or educational poster-ish; he's a crisp, funny writer whose delivery is sharp as a tack. He reads his own book here too - the rare writer who reads aloud as well as he writes. This entire audio was a treat, one people who love to read should definitely take up and try. I suggest the audio over the physical book!


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