Winter Book Reviews

Ok ok, so technically we still have four more weeks of winter, technically I’m early with a “Winter Book Recap.” But! Since I’m currently reading my own book, and March is right around the corner, I figure now is the appropriate time to take a look back at the books that helped me slog through winter.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Androids This may sound odd, but I read this book not based on its own merit, but because of the other works it’s influenced. Blade Runner is the obvious correlation here, but Janelle Monáe has said in interviews that it’s a big influence on her work, too. I was curious about a book that could inspire so many, across so many genres.

And you know what? This was a really, really good book. Simple and straightforward prose, but a complex idea: what does it mean to be human? This is where science fiction really shines: creating an other-worldly scenario to tackle all-too-human questions. I’m laughing right now reading the quote on that cover — “a kind of pulp-fiction Kafka” — because it’s totally true. This is pulp fiction in the best sense — a fun, action-packed read that still makes you think.

Did it have its issues? Sure. The pacing seemed a little off in parts, and the female characters aren’t the most well-developed. But all in all I’m definitely glad I read it, and definitely understand why it’s considered a classic in the genre.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five

I have a confession to make: up until this book, I had never read any Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible, considering that I practically lived in my college’s English department. And confession time isn’t over yet: I’ve been somewhat avoiding Vonnegut. He seemed like another White Dude Writer whom you’re Supposed to Read. But then Slaughterhouse-Five was on sale for less than a latte, so I scooped it up. And now I’m kicking myself for not reading Vonnegut sooner, because my first thought upon finishing this book was, “I wish I were back in college so I could discuss this with fellow English nerds.”

This book, man. It was so good. SO GOOD. I don’t know what I expected from Vonnegut, but it wasn’t this — simplistic prose, a sci-fi angle, a keen eye for just-right details. (How did I not know Vonnegut is considered a science fiction writer? WHERE HAVE I BEEN?). But most of all, I love that this book doesn’t leave any answers. It is both fatalistic and hopeful, dismally sad and darkly comedic. And Billy Pilgrim — was he really abducted by aliens? Did the skull fracture break his brain? Is he suffering from horrible PTSD and these are his coping mechanisms? The answer to all these questions is “yes” — they can all be true, all at the same time, just as they can all not be true. As a writer, I’m definitely going to need to re-read this book to study how Vonnegut does it.

3. The Explorer by James Smythe

The Explorer

Nope, sorry. This book was a “not for me.” I heard about it on Chuck Wendig’s blog, and it sounded right up my alley:

Cormac Easton is the first journalist to travel to space. The crew he’s with all die, and he’s left alone, slowly dying. Unless, of course, he can find out how to stop it…

Awesome! Sign me up! But somehow this book… bored me. I’m not even sure how that’s possible. But to me, it was slow and boring. I followed Nancy Pearl’s advice on this one and put it down after about 100 pages. It has a LOT of good reviews, though, so clearly others enjoyed it. Maybe you would, too? Let me know, I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts.

4. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Writing

I already talked about my adoration for this book — but it does bear repeating. This is an AMAZING book for all you writers out there. The chapters are short, easily digested in any time increment you may have. Goldberg is at once encouraging in a maternal sort of way, and matter-of-fact in a no-bullshit way. It’s a mix that shouldn’t work, but totally does.

One part that struck me in particular — in the last chapter, she talks about how it feels to finish a book. The combined exhilaration and letdown. The joy and the loneliness. I had just finished my first draft, and the words struck home. This woman gets it, guys. Whatever “it” is. Seriously, if you write at all, check this book out.

5. The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

Cormorant

This book! And it’s ah-maz-ing cover. I had been looking forward to this book ever since I finished book two of the Miriam Black series. This one involves a road trip down to the Florida Keys. Which, I have to say — Wendig does a great job describing. You can practically taste the Keys. Now I want to go and snorkel and drink rum and eat fresh fish caught by a cormorant.

Without getting spoilery, I’ll just say — there were a lot of returning characters that I didn’t expect to show up, and I was pleased they did. One qualm, however — there were times when Wendig referenced characters or events from the previous book, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember exactly who they were or what they had done. It didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the overall book in any way, but a little more “catching the reader up” would have been nice.

I was surprised at the gut reaction I had to reading the last page — it was a (surprisingly) emotional ending with a character you’ve really come to care for. Miriam shows a LOT of personal growth in this book — more so than we’ve previously seen. She confronts difficult relationships and doesn’t find easy answers. All in all, it felt like a good direction for the character to go in. Also, the set up for the next book? SUPER intriguing. I’m in.

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Alexie

The members of my writing group were shocked — shocked! — when they learned I hadn’t read any Sherman Alexie. So seeing as he’s speaking at the upcoming AWP conference  (which I’m attending wheeee!), I figured now was a good time. The Absolutely True Diary is technically a young adults book, but I’m here to tell you that it is totally enjoyable as an adult. It’s a quick read, but it never feels like you’re being talked down to (as some poorly written YA books can do). The narrator, Junior, is a Native American kid who leaves his reservation to attend the adjacent “white” school. In many ways, this book seems to be a love song to the reservation that Junior knows he MUST leave for his own good — yet it still breaks his heart to do so.

It amused and saddened me to think that there are a lot of schools that ban this book. This is, on the whole, a pretty innocent book — it tackles some BIG complex issues, yes, but Junior is a good kid. He does well in school, he works hard, he loves his friends and family. He is actively trying to create a better life for himself. Those seem like good messages for young adults. But the fact that he *gasps* mentions masturbation makes the book unfit for young eyes. Come on, America. Let’s pull it together here, ok?

Winter always seems like such a cozy time for reading. What books did YOU pick up? Anything I should add to my own list?

Fall Book Recap

Here it is, your seasonal recap — the books I read this past fall. I wish I was more excited about this list, you guys. But for the most part, my fall reading list consisted of books I was REALLY excited about… but made me feel like this:

The exception to that is, of course, MaddAddam, which I reviewed early early this fall. But the rest… well, you’ll see. NONE of them are bad books. But none of them really did it for me.

1. Fireside Magazine

Cover of Fireside Magazine

Well see, here we are, starting out with another exception. I read Issues 4 and 5 of Fireside Magazine, and both were actually really enjoyable. Each issue consists of a couple pieces of flash fiction, a few short stories, and then a section of a serial novella from Chuck Wendig. Not gonna lie — I originally signed up for Fireside because of that Wendig series, but there have been some other really good pieces in there, too. I’ve never really been one for flash fiction, but there are some in there which show me that genre’s potential (“The Filigreed Cage” by Krystal Claxton stands out). Each issue only takes about 20 minutes to read, so I’d definitely recommend it for fellow bus commuters.

2. Wool

Cover of Wool by Hugh Howey

I’d heard SO MUCH GOOD about Hugh Howey’s Wool. Plus, he’s a self-publishing success story! So, you know, that’s cool. But Wool failed to grab me. It’s a post-apocalyptic romp, which I’m normally down for… but for whatever reason, the premise of this one (humans living in an underground silo, unable to go outside) didn’t do it for me. Or maybe it was the characters? I realized after I finished that I didn’t really care about any of them. Which made it hard for me to want to read more.

Now, admittedly, I only read Wool Part #1, which was Howey’s original short story before he continued the series and compiled it into one book. But if Part 1 didn’t grab me… why should I go onto Part 2? Am I missing out? Anyone read the rest of these? I’d be curious to hear opinions.

3. In the Garden of Beasts

Cover of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

Ugh, this one… this one had been on my reading list for a long time. I was pretty damn excited to read it. I loved Larson’s The Devil in the White City, and In the Garden of Beasts sounded like a total winner. It follows the story of William E. Dodd — the American ambassador to pre-war Nazi Germany — and his family as they navigate the political waters of 1933 Berlin. Sounds fascinating, right? RIGHT?

Well. This book was boring. The Dodds are duds. The narrative perspective switches between Dodd and his adult daughter, Martha. I didn’t find either one particular likable or interesting, and questioned why Larson chose them as the pivot for his book. Plus, Larson had this annoying habit of Foreshadowing. With a capital F. All throughout the book, he hinted at some MAJOR event to come. At the characters who would die horrific deaths, at the horrible turning point that would be a defining moment of Germany history. He hints at the climax SO MUCH that by the time you get there, you think… that’s it? THAT’s what you were going on and on about? And I mean, the climax of the book IS a Big Deal historical event… so the fact that it’s a letdown? That tells you something about this book.

4. A Fraction of the Whole

FractionoftheWhole

This is the one I almost abandoned. It came HIGHLY recommended from a friend, a friend who’s reading taste I very much trust… but again, it didn’t do it for me (are you catching a theme with these books?). A Fraction of the Whole is written by Steve Toltz (and I just realized…how can I not think of this?), and it follows the story of a father and son in Australia. Both of them are certifiably nuts — and for me, not in a good way. They’re over-the-top introspective, they ramble, they fancy themselves philosophers. The book’s plot itself was somewhat intriguing — but I just couldn’t get behind these characters. I found them eccentric at best, infuriating at worst.

After I finished the book, I looked at some Goodreads reviews, and a lot of people mentioned how funny the book was. Like, “laugh out loud” funny. Which… I didn’t get. At all. So I’m wondering what I’m missing? Is it just ME? Again, if you’ve read this one, I’d be curious to hear…

5. The Paris Wife

Cover of The Paris Wife.

The Paris Wife was a confounding read. For the first half of the book, I couldn’t figure out if I liked it or not — and yet I kept turning pages. I didn’t dislike it. But there was something I couldn’t put my finger on, something that rubbed me the wrong way. And then it clicked: I didn’t really like the narrator, Hadley Richardson Hemingway. I found her annoying. Passive. She watched the action around her, rather than being the protagonist of her own novel. Which I’m not sure is a valid criticism of the book — after all, it’s possible that Hadley was submissive and passive in real life. But every time she said, “I felt it was my duty to support Hem, no matter what” or “As a mother, I finally felt fulfilled,” I wanted to smack her.

It was also an odd read because my sympathies alternated between the two main characters, Hadley and Ernest. Now, obviously, Ernest Hemingway did a lot of shitty things to this woman, numero uno definitely being cheating on her and then marrying his mistress. But there were times early in their marriage when I found myself sympathizing with him rather than her. When he needs to go off and write, she pouts. When he needs to travel to Istanbul to report on the conflict there, she throws a temper tantrum. As a writer, this behavior would drive me up a wallBut perhaps if you’re not a creative type, it’s easier to understand where Hadley was coming from.

6. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Cover of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Ok, this one! This one I was SO EXCITED TO READ. It’s about running! It’s about writing! It’s about the intersection between running and writing! All things I find super interesting. But after I’d read the first 50 pages or so… meh, I dunno. I felt like it could have been shorter. Edited down a bit. And here’s the thing — it’s not a long book! Only 180 pages. But it just felt to me that Murakami was somewhat stretching the material. He’s obviously an excellent writer, and I’d be interested to read more of his books, but this one didn’t reach me quite the way I expected it to.

Still, there were some really good nuggets in there. Such as this:

No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.

And this:

Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life–and for me, for writing as well.

What did you read this fall? What are you reading now? I’m currently on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — and man, am I excited to talk about that one in the next recap…

Book Review: MaddAddam

Well, I did it. I basically binge-read Margaret Atwood’s trilogy. Starting with Oryx and Crake, continuing on to The Year of the Flood, and ending with MaddAddam.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

(Side note: how do I get that amazing cover?? Is it the Canadian version? The U.S. one is definitely inferior.)

I read the first two books in the trilogy earlier this summer, so all the back story was pretty fresh in my mind. Which greatly enhanced the reading of this book. Atwood seems fairly conscientious about getting readers caught up to speed, so I think technically you could read this book on its own — but why would you want to? It’s so much richer when you have the whole background, the entire mythology.

“Mythology” seems to be a central theme of this book — specifically, the stories we tell ourselves, both for ourselves and about ourselves, and how those stories shape us. The book is told through three distinct narrators: Toby (she was one of our narrators in The Year of the Flood), Zeb (a character from the past book), and Blackbeard (a young ‘Craker’, a new species of super-humans created by Crake). Each voice adds its own nuance to the story, its own meaning. At first, I was somewhat puzzled by Atwood’s choice of narrator in certain sections. But then I realized what a different story it would be if someone else told it.

Two quotes stood out to me while reading the book. One near the beginning:

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

And near the end:

“‘There,’ says Blackbeard. ‘Telling the story is hard, and writing the story must be more hard. Oh Toby, when you are too tired to do it, next time I will write the story. I will be your helper.'”

Throughout the book, there are musings on writing, on stories, what stories mean, what’s the point of stories in a dystopian society where mankind struggles for survival. At the end, Atwood’s answer is very clear: stories do matter. Stories are important. They are a flicker of hope in what can be an otherwise dark and scary world.

I was sad reading the last chapter of MaddAddam. I was sad to leave this world, where I’d spent so much of the summer. But that’s always how a good book is, isn’t it? You want to know what happens, but you never really want it to end. And fortunately, I get to extend this out just a teeny bit — Margaret Atwood is coming to Seattle the end of October, and I’m going to her reading. So perhaps MaddAddam isn’t quite over yet.

Book Review: The Blind Assassin

I finished The Blind Assassin on the bus yesterday. I was totally that freak who was praying that all the lights turned red, so I had enough time to get to the ending. I’m everyone’s favorite bus rider!

The Blind Assassin

I don’t think I enjoyed this one quite as much as The Handmaid’s Tale — but then again, it may be too soon to tell. It seems Atwood’s books kind of need to “sink in” with me. They’re complicated, and WHOA. The Blind Assassin was no exception. First you have a narrative that spans…what, 30 years? And then you put a novel within a novel within a novel…and just, whoa. This thing gets dense fast. But it also shows what an amazing writer Atwood is, because it totally works. I admit to being 100% confused throughout the first 50 pages or so, but if you stick with it, it’s worth the payoff.

Looking back at it, none of the characters are actually all that likeable. Let’s face it, Alex Thomas? Kind of an asshole. Yeah, he’s under a lot of pressure, yadda yadda yadda — asshole. Iris herself — you sympathize with it, but she’s not exactly warm and cuddly, is she? Laura is probably the most likeable person in the book, but even she… well, admit it, if you knew her in real life, she’d drive you crazy.

(Side note: I would totally read a Lizard Men of Xenor book.)

I can see why writers love this book. Aside from the dizzying plot structure, the eloquent writing — in a lot of ways it seems to be a book about words. Laura is a literal creature, she takes words at face value. In the end, words are her undoing. And Richard — one could say that words bring about his end, too. Iris only really gains power once she gets the book published. So of course we writers like it. It validates what we do.

One thing’s for sure: I need to get more Atwood into my life. Probably won’t be my next read — these books seem to be heavy, I think spacing them out is wise — but there will be more.