Category Archives: Cannonball Read 3

Reviews: The Harry Potter Books (ALL of them)

In what must have been 1999, my family went to Chapters on a book acquiring expedition. I must have been out of Animorph books to buy, because I remember wandering around, looking for something to catch my eye. A very nice lady (sigh; she was probably my age now) who worked there brought down a small red book with big yellow letters written on it, and told me and my dad that the books were flying off the shelves in Britain, and were a great read for parents and kids alike. Evidently I got stuck on that, because I remember harassing dad in the car: “Are you going to read it when I’m done, dad? You could read it TO me. She said we’d BOTH enjoy it. You’ll read it, right? Good. You promise? Okay.”*

That book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and after I read it, I immediately snatched up the next one in the series. It’s unfortunate I’m a fast reader (or at least, I was…) because I remember waiting desperately for the third to come out, hopping in and out of book stores. Alas, when I found it in Toys Toys Toys or some such nonsense in the Bayview Village Mall, I didn’t have any money to buy it, but for once, I was grateful for my mom’s inability to spend less than 29 hours at a time in a mall, because I just sat in the store and read as much as I could. I can’t remember how or when I got hold of my own copy of the book, but at this point, I had passed the point of no return. (<– That’s fan art, for anyone who doesn’t want to click. I can also thank HP for getting me drawing again.)

***AHEAD THERE BE incredibly minor SPOILERS FOR ALL BOOKS***

The fourth was a pre-ordered birthday present from a friend (I still remember, Daniel), and the rest were pre-ordered by myself. I’ve read the first three more times than I can count, and the first five, I’d definitely need the fingers on more than one hand, but until the summer of 2011, I hadn’t read the last two more than once. This is because in 2005, my grandmother died and was buried immediately before I read about the significant death and funeral in the sixth book, and I had no desire to revisit that moment for years.

But this summer, I felt the urge (plus, you know, I was getting pretty behind in the CBIII, and it’s not as though HP is known for being a long, challenging read), so I decided to delve into the series again, from the beginning, and the whole way through.

There is almost nothing I enjoy more in a book than intricate, well-thought-out plotting (of course, good grammar, characters, and prose are also important STEPHENIE MEYER). The extent of this isn’t immediately apparent in the first HP book, but the seeds are there. For me, the friendly storyteller tone of this book (which, much like to Hobbit in comparison to the LotR series, dropped off after the first, introductory book) was a great way to enter the series, but I know a number of people I’ve recommended HP to have been turned off by it.

JK is great with little world building details and the passage of time, which is another part of what makes the books such a pleasure to read – you really feel like you’ve gone through a whole year of school with these kids. Much of the praise directed at HP, and the first three books in general, has a very clear ‘good “for a kid’s book”‘ tone. To which I say: bah. This is just a good book period.

Side note to those who’ve read the books: Dumbledore’s a bit of an ass, no? Harry was out for three days, the house points could have been given out then? No, let’s wait until the celebratory dinner and sucker punch those Slytherins in the neck. No wonder they’re pissy.

Rating: 4 stars

(Note: this one is dedicated to the person Jo has referred to as her “Ron” friend.)

I’ve always found book two the least enjoyable of the series to read. I don’t really have a good reason for this – going in, I thought I’d look for one to write for this review, but I have nothing in my notes. I always end up enjoying it more than I expected to. It’s kind of like the Freedom Day episode of Futurama – I never want to watch it (I don’t even want to now, and I know what I’m about to say), but I’m always glad I did.

By the time I first read book 2, complaints of “oh, so Harry’s magical and wonderful AND the best at the big wizard sport and it’s SO annoying” had become pretty common; to that, I would say: the first book is all wish-fulfillment fantasy – as you read on, you begin to see that Quidditch is the only thing Harry actually owns, with no help from friends, teachers, fate, dumb luck, or circumstance.

Reading the first few books in the series after becoming so familiar with the series as a whole over the last thirteen years, you realise how skillful JK is at weaving in information that will become so important later – most of the big, coincidence-y plot developments feel fairly natural, almost inevitable, because she mentions their foundations a book or more in advance of their importance. The fact that the deathly hallows were only really brought up in the last book was a part of that book which did, to me, feel like an afterthought. I know the cloak, and even the wand, were sort of mentioned before (and before they turned out to be different things, I thought the stone was the beozar encountered in book 1, which seemed brilliant), but you’d think the wizard version of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes might have come up at some point in Harry’s seven years immersed in the world (and I mean come on, he’s friends with Hermione. How she could have read that many books and never come across the Tales of Beedle the Bard before?…please.)

Rating: 3 and a half stars

And speaking of intelligent plotting…this is still my favourite HP book (and least favourite movie, but let’s not go there). It is, in my opinion, the most well-plotted and carefully planned, and had the best twist ending of any book I read in my tween years. Plus, here was the intro of my favourite character, Remus Lupin, who is also featured most heavily in this book. (Oh, Remus Lupin. You and Ford Prefect were the major literary crushes of my formative years. I mean, the first thing he does when we meet him is give everyone chocolate. I was in love.)

Sirius Black was introduced in book 1 (in the most amazingly blaze incident of advance plotting I have seen in some time), Azkaban and Whomping Willow in book 2, therefore their existence in book three is already established in the world, and it feels like a fun reveal when their significance is explained, rather than a hollow event. (This is similar to my complaint with some of the Sherlock Holmes stories – hey, the culprit was this criminal mastermind that only someone within the universe of the novel could possibly have heard of! Also, we didn’t know there was paint on his clothes until you told us, Sherlock! Play fair.)

Reading book 3 is a great experience. Like the first two books, it’s all the imagination evident in the little details that make this a true classic, new world, long-lasting book. I mean, her prose s never going to move you to tears, but this series is about plot and character, which are vivid, and the prose is sometimes detailed, sometimes atmospheric, but always in service to the aforementioned, and never flowery for its own sake – you can visualise everything (maybe that’s why the movies pissed me off so much).

Rating: 5 stars

I don’t have very much to say about this one that I haven’t gone over in the last three mini-reviews. There are more continuity mistakes in my 1st edition than I believe there were in others (e.g. Harry’s father coming out of the wand before his mother, “horseless” carriages should have revealed thestrals in the end of the book since we know Harry’s just seen Cedric die, etc).

We never find out who won the house cup, but it should be Hufflepuff. Of course, knowing Dumbledore, he probably pronounced Gryffindor as the victor moments after the moment of silence for Cedric (see review of first book).

Also, it’s interesting to watch the praise on the back of the book go from “wonderful children’s novel” to “publishing phenomenon” – I don’t really see how the latter is a reason to recommend a series to anyone. “Read this! I have no idea if it’s any good, but a WHOLE SHIT LOAD OF OTHER PEOPLE BOUGHT A COPY, so…you know. You buy one too!”

Rating: 4 and a half stars.

As much as I inexplicably dread reading book 2, this one is probably the hardest to get through for three very big reasons: 1) it is the longest (I believe JK herself, and certainly plenty of fans, have stated that this book cries for an editor more than any other; I’m not sure I agree with that last bit, but there is a lot of filler here); 2) angry Harry is just as unpleasant to read about as he (and most teenagers) are to be around*; and 3) UMBRIDGE. Oh my god, Umbridge. I am barely restraining myself from releasing the rant on Umbridge. I remember literally wanting to tear pages out of the book and eat them as a totally useless and impotent display of my hatred of her. Jeebus, what an effective villain. I’m almost tempted to say centaur rape was too good for her. But actually, that’s kind of horrific. I mean, holy shit, Jo.

*I remember that endless, bottomless, helpless rage of being a teenager, but that doesn’t make it fun to read about, especially considering how unbearably selfish that phase of teenagerhood is. It’s admirably realistic, but this is the longest book in the series, and Umbridge AND Harry being insufferable? It’s almost too much to bear.

Rating: 4 stars.

I like the device used in this one and book 4,  of introducing the reader to the plot from the perspective of a character who is not Harry Potter – the deviation from tradition is very effective (much like the absence of Hogwarts in the 7th book); despite grim news, the whole prime minister scene was very funny. JK is very good at low-key humour, and the moments make the grim events of the last few books a bit easier to stomach, and add a level of reality and humanity to the characters. No one in their right mind would deny that LotR is a masterpiece, but it reads more like a bible (in itself an incredible feat of world-building, much like the first Dune novel) than a story about characters you could know.

A note about this one: I remember reading a friend’s new username on msn before this book came out. It said “SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE” and I thought “hahaha, good one.” And then I read the book. So…lucky I’m reverse gullible?

Rating: 4 stars.

I can’t find any notes on this one. Not sure that I wrote any, since I read it when school began in September. Dammit.

So here, I will briefly describe the feeling I had upon opening this book – the last new Bloomsbury hardcover with “Harry Potter” printed on the front and JK Rowling’s name floating around somewhere random. There’s a smell that new books have the bleeds into your mouth, a taste, of crisp, clear pages, untouched by My Brother the Book Destroyer, glue and ink, the promise of a full day or days of reading and discovery, and know you’ll enjoy it no matter what because you already care about the characters, and for once, you have faith.*

I remember I had pre-ordered this one, but the day it arrived in front of every fanatic’s door, my family was on our summer holiday in the states. EVERYONE was talking about the damn thing, and I couldn’t read it because it was sitting and home in the proper cover, and American covers are STUPID.

*I think the reason I was always sure that each new HP book wouldn’t be a disappointment was that I knew that most of the books had been planned out already, so much of the writing was just filling in puzzle pieces and connecting the dots – anything that went wrong would have done so a long time ago. Plus,  I wasn’t a huge “shipper,” and most of the couples I was vaguely interested in I was pretty confident were canon. The most I ever worried about was if/when my favourite character would die. Because it always, always happens. And Remus doesn’t die until almost the very end – I was so hopeful. Sigh.

So yeah, it was a fitting ending. A lot of it was fairly predictable, but there were only so many ways the story could end, and after years of obsessive fandom immersion, it was almost inevitable someone would have suggested each one. I didn’t even really have a problem with the epilogue. It was a bit needless, but I understood the desire to have the audience know that Harry and his friends were fine – in this world of needless sequel milking, it was nice that JK wanted to decisively end things.

Rating: 4 stars.

I don’t have a heck of a lot to say about these ones either. They’re nice little companions, utterly inconsequential to anyone who isn’t a superfan of the world JK created. I probably liked the Tales of Beedle the Bard best of the three – the stories really did feel like old classics, and it was neat to see JK’s drawings. I would have killed (someone who really deserved it) for that gorgeously bound special edition. The other two were entertaining. I know this is a silly complaint, but for a library book and a supposed school text, they really were a little slight for believability. But they were fun, and the amount of thought and detail that is evident throughout is just further proof of the completeness of this wizarding world. Love it.

Rating: 3 and a half stars.

And that’s it. The series is more than the sum of it’s parts – I’d rate it 4 and a half to 5 stars overall, in reverence to the amount of times I’ve re-read it, and the enjoyment it, its characters, and its fandom have given me.

*By the way, my dad STILL has not read any of the books. I was more successful with my brother, who couldn’t get through the first book at first, but now may have read the whole series more times than I have (although I doubt anyone has read Prisoner of Azkaban more times than I have).

Cannonball Read III: 21-28/52

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Reviews: The Iliad and the Odyssey

Ok, so for my minor in Classical Civilization (aka Greek and Roman studies), I’m taking a class in Greek and Roman Literary Genres, and naturally, I had to read the big three: The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. Now, I feel strange as hell writing reviews of the classics – their impact on society is already so established that it almost feels redundant to write a review – that’s why I’m not assigning stars to these books. So what I’d like to do is write a quick little piece on my opinions while reading the book, and then post the essay I wrote for that class, examining the themes of death and honour in Greek society.

The translations assigned were both Richmond Lattimore (who was apparently my prof’s prof). I already owned translations by Robert Fagles, but couldn’t read them for obvious reasons. Now, in my under-educated and surely plebeian opinion (in other words, DON’T JUDGE ME, I think what I think), Lattimore’s translation reads like Shakespeare in that the English verses are convoluted and a bit difficult to follow. I also find that his translation was very stilted and clinical, and managed to make both books (including the incredibly gory Iliad) a struggle to get through, especially when compared to the vivid imagery and immediacy of Fagles’ translations (which I haven’t finished reading, and will therefore get its own post later). I understand his text was chosen because it corresponds more closely to the original Greek, but I wonder if it does a bit of a disservice to the vitality (and epicness) of these epics to be introduced to them in such a passionless manner.

Anyway, I expected to enjoy the more other-worldy and character-driven Odyssey more than the Iliad, but I think you can sense from this sentence structure where I’m going. I kind of loved the Iliad, and its ridiculous descriptions of the various tears, holes, and other damage done spear points and arrows. Even though I spent most of the epic wanting to slap Achilleus and murder Agamemnon (SPOILERS there was no need, his wife got to him before I could), Patroklos, Hektor, and a portrayal of war that was surprisingly even-handed made the play worth it. Although if I never hear the phrase “and his armour clattered upon him” again, it will be too soon.

(Side note: Lindsay! Remember Cartman as Achilleus – “But mooooooooom”? Liane as Thetis! We need to get this idea to Trey Parker stat, I swear.)

Essay time!

Honourable Death in the Homeric Epics: Murder, Revenge, and Duty

Myths are important to any society. They help answer those questions without answers, and give meaning and shape to an often incomprehensible life. In ancient civilizations, the purpose of the philosophy expressed in mythology was to make sense of the world, to answer questions that had no answers; what is the purpose of life? the meaning of death? Ancient myths from around the world have a lot in common. Their stories explain the creation of man, the formation of civilization, and describe an afterlife. In Greek mythology, much of what we know today comes from the two Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both deal heavily with the theme of death, treating it in similar ways, with the same underlying belief system, but in different contexts.

The Iliad is an epic of war, taking place in the midst of the 10 year battle for Troy. The story as told takes place within a period of a few weeks, with most of the significant events occurring over a few days near the end of the war. At the beginning of the epic, very little time is spent on the battlefield. However, once the talking ends and the killing starts in book 4, it is fairly relentless. Antilochos is credited with the first kill of The Iliad, striking Echepolos with a bronze spear (Iliad 4.457-462).

The poet, a descendent of the Achaian victors of the Trojan War, nevertheless speaks favourably of both the Trojan and the Greek sides, as both sides fight with similar ideals of honour. For example, Hektor is respected as a warrior and a man by the Greeks (Iliad 21.280), and Achilleus is similarly admired by the Trojans. Even Hektor’s wife, Andromache, while warning Hektor of the dangers of fighting Achilleus, allows that he is a great and fair warrior, who treats the dead with respect (Iliad 6.416-420). A heroic code that warriors on both sides of the war appear to follow is outlined by the Trojan Sarpedon, speaking to his companion Glaukos:

Therefore it is our duty in the forefront of the Lykians
to take our stand, and bear our part of the blazing of battle,
[…]      Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle
would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal,
so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost
nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory.
But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
in their thousands, no man can turn aside or escape them,
let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.

(Iliad 12.310-328)

Although willing to fight and die for the causes of their leaders, the warriors understand that their opponents, too, are fighting for the same glory and honour, and expect nothing less of them. The importance of adhering to customs is also highlighted during the exchange of armour between the Achaian Diomedes and the Trojan Glaukos:

Let us avoid each other’s spears, even in the close fighting.
There are plenty of Trojans and famed companions in battle for me
to kill, whom the god sends me, or those I run down with my swift feet,
many Achaians for you to slaughter, if you can do it.
But let us exchange our armour, so that these others may know
how we claim to be guests and friends from the days of our fathers.’
(Iliad 6.226-231)

So death is treated as an inevitability in battle, and, in abstract, nothing to resent, although the killing of close personal friends does result in the single-minded pursuit of revenge. In response to companion Patroklos’s death at the hands of Hektor, Achilleus kills Hektor and desecrates the corpse, a show of disrespect that is contrary to his previous actions. Indeed, by the end of the poem he has relinquished Hektor’s body to his father Priam. While warriors often “talk big” before launching into the fray, insulting and belittling their opponents, strip victims of their armour and boast over the dead, at the end of the day, there is an understanding that these are the motions of war.

Despite the glory of battle, The Iliad is full of a longing for peace. Both sides pray for an end to the war (Iliad 3.319-323), and there are numerous attempts at a truce. The Trojans themselves resent Paris for bringing about the war; his own brother Hektor suggests they would be better off if Paris had died, even by the hand of his own people (Iliad 3.38-45, 56-57). In this poem, domestic life outside of war is referred to only in passing, as prizes for after victory, or depicted as pastoral ekphrases on the warriors’ shields (Iliad 18.490-607). The metaphorical references to calm, pastoral life stand out in stark contrast during the grisly battle scenes.

While The Iliad brought the reality of the Trojan War home to his audiences by focusing on a few key characters, The Odyssey focuses on the personal journey and struggle of Odysseus, and uses his family members and fellow warriors to widen the scope and importance of the story. The warrior Odysseus’s long and arduous voyage home to Ithaka after 10 years of fighting in Troy gives The Odyssey a more personal perspective than The Iliad, as it follows the plight of the family Odysseus, his son, and his wife, rather than the diverse group of characters who are the warriors of the Trojan War.

Odysseus and his men who are with him on his journey, and the suitors surrounding his wife in Ithaka, are the characters at risk of death in this story, a context far removed from that of battle. Odysseus, his son Telemachos, and his wife Penelope follow the customs of their culture and are ultimately rewarded with a happy reunion. However, unlike the fighters in the Trojan War, the suitors do not follow the prescribed customs of their culture. As Odysseus has been gone for 20 years and is presumed dead, it is expected for the eligible Penelope to choose a new husband. By courting her, the suitors are not breaking custom. However, they impinge on Penelope and Telemachos, taking advantage of Odysseus’s absence and the Greek laws of xenia (guest hospitality) by wasting food, treating the house and its contents as their own, and plotting the death of Telemachos. Lead suitors Antinoos and Eurymachos embody the loathsomeness of the suitors, with the former acting as the imprudent spokesperson for the group, and the latter exhibiting a more low-key form of hypocritical wickedness. He feeds Penelope platitudes and calls Telemachos “dearest” to him, “but himself was planning the murder” (Odyssey 16.435-447; 448-449), and after the slaughter begins in book 22, attempts to pin the entirety of the blame on the already dead Antinoos, taking no responsibility himself (Odyssey 22.48-59). The suitors therefore have no honour, and are not respected by anyone. The poet himself judges the suitors unfavourably, calling them “arrogant young men” (Odyssey 4.769), and placing blame, “For they had begun the wrongdoing.” (Odyssey 20.394)

In fact, the eventual slaughter of the suitors is continuously justified throughout the book: The gods (especially goddess Athene) condone the death of the suitors, and Odysseus is aware of this (Odyssey 22.413-417); the suitors themselves admit that their actions were wrong and deserve retribution (Odyssey 22.45-59); they are warned to cease their unsavoury behaviour by the prophets Halitherses (Odyssey 2.160-169) and Theoklymenos (Odyssey 20.363-370); and during the Telemachy, Telemachos is told by Nestor about Orestes’s revenge on Aigisthos, who together with his lover Klytaimnestra, Orestes’ mother, killed Orestes’ father Agamemnon when he returned home from the war. In fact, Telemachos is told explicitly to use this as an example for his own future actions. “Be brave too,” Nestor says after relating this grisly tale, “so that men unborn may speak well of you.” (Odyssey 3.200). And at the end of the epic, the goddess Athene ensures that no revenge is taken on behalf of the suitors, that the cycle of violence ends with their death: “And pledges for the days to come, sworn to by both sides, were settled by Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus of the aegis…” (Odyssey 24.545-547). Like Paris of Troy, in stealing the wife of his host Menelaos, violated the rules of hospitality, so too did the suitors of Penelope, and the consequences for the offenders are brutal.

Contrast this with the The Iliad, where the gods cannot go against fate and change the ultimate outcome of the Trojan War. Zeus cannot even save his son Sarpedon from death at the hands of Patroklos (Iliad 16.433-436; 459-461). In this sense, then, it would seem that the suitors are fated to die. Indeed, characters throughout The Odyssey routinely talk about the death of the suitors as a matter of the gods and fate, excusing the physical murders of those men by Odysseus, Telemachos, and their allies as acts willed by the gods. “These were destroyed by the doom of the gods and their own hard actions,” says Odysseus to his old nurse Eurykleia, “[…] So by their own recklessness they have found a shameful death.” (Odyssey 22.413-417). The swineherd Eumaios says to a disguised Odysseus, “The blessed gods have no love for a pitiless action, but rather they reward justice and what men do that is lawful,” subsequently referring to the suitors as “hateful and lawless” (Odyssey 14.83-84, 85).

On the mortal plane, death is an inevitability, but the way that death comes about is usually (but for fate) up for each person to determine by their choices and actions. In both epics, death by sea is decidedly not preferable; both feature the major character explicitly stating their desire to die in any other fashion. In The Iliad, Achilleus pleads to Zeus while fighting the river Xanthos that he may die gloriously in battle rather than drown in the river (Iliad 21.273-238), in particular, “I wish now Hektor had killed me, the greatest man grown in this place. A brave man would have been the slayer, and the slain a brave man. But now this is a dismal death I am doomed to be caught in[…].” In The Odyssey, Odysseus, too, wishes he had died gloriously at Troy, rather than in the storm that seems destined to take his life in book 5 (Odyssey 5.305-312), in particular, “Three times and four times happy those Danaans who died then in wide Troy land […] as I wish I too had died at that time and met my destiny. […] Now it is by a dismal death that I must be taken.” The use of word “dismal” in both instances is telling, as is the implication that those who die at war, fighting worthy opponents, are happy. When lamenting the presumed death of his master, even his swineherd, Eumaios, says of Odysseus, “But now ingloriously the stormwinds have caught and carried him.” (Odyssey 14.371; emphasis mine).

Finally (and fittingly), both poems feature the Underworld, where the souls of the dead are sent down to Hades. In The Iliad, the reader is not taken to the Underworld through the eyes of any character; it is rather mentioned only by name by various characters, and alluded to as the end destination of a gust of wind that brushes past the battlefield, or through dreams such as that in which the shade of Patroklos visits Achilleus. In The Odyssey, however, the poet describes Odysseus’s journey to a specific place, although the directions are vague, where the rivers Pyriphlegethon and Koytos flow into Acheron, and he alone travels to meet with the soul of the blind prophet Teiresias. Odysseus draws the dead out to him through rituals and sacrifices (Odyssey 11.23-50). Here, he interacts with the souls of his departed comrades, and the importance of adherence to rituals and customs is highlighted when the wandering shade of the unburied Elpenor begs Odysseus to give him his rights so he may finally enter the land of the dead and be at peace (Odyssey 11.51-76). This episode is similar to several in The Iliad, where doomed characters and their loved ones beg for a proper burial so their souls may rest in peace. King Priam’s aforementioned supplication of Achilleus for Hektor’s disrespected corpse is an example of this.

The overall theme of each poem is different; The Iliad was a story of war and the effects of Achilleus’s anger, while The Odyssey was a story of one man’s journey home. But the Greek attitude towards death at the time was clearly evident in both, and the treatment of death in both epics shows this. The trips to the Underworld in both epics emphasise the importance of death in the life of Ancient Greeks. Preference is shown for death brought about in certain ways over others (i.e. the glory of death in battle as compared to the dismal, meaningless death of an accidental drowning), and the practice of certain rituals after death must be performed in order for the deceased to complete the journey to the Underworld. Both poems deal with themes of revenge, with the death of the enemy or wrong-doer as the ultimate revenge. The gods’ preferences and the poet’s own tone and descriptors help guide the ancient listener and the modern reader towards certain conclusions (for example, that the death of the suitors is deserved). When taken together, these epics paint a clear picture of the way honour and death were viewed in Ancient Greek society, and the complexities of conduct inherent both in war and in everyday life.

Cannonball Read III: 19-20/52

Unbearable Lightness – Review – ****

I first came across Portia de Rossi in Arrested Development, and then again in Better Off Ted. In both shows, I thought her mannerisms a bit odd at first, but in both shows she grew on me, and in Better Off Ted, she became (after Phil, and I mean, come on) far and away my favourite character. And this makes sense because in person (and on paper) she appears funny and smart. Of course, in her memoir Unbearable Lightness, her sense of humour only indirectly reveals itself in her recounts of conversations with suits, because anorexia is not a funny illness, and I imagine that no matter how far she has come since 1999, it’s still difficult to treat such a dark part of her life lightly.

De Rossi writes clearly, honestly, and bluntly – there are no histrionics or flowery, colourful passages depicting her descent into despair. Instead, she recounts her experience in a very matter-of-fact way: it’s “this is what happened, this is how I felt, this is what I did.” It is therefore incredibly easy to sympathise because she’s not asking for your sympathy, she’s just putting you inside her head at a point in her life, telling you what it was like for her.

Like many anorexia memoirs, Lightness is clinical, with detached lists of measurements and rituals. The progression of the disease is similar (grossly simplified, it starts off as the desire to be perfect and achieve, becomes desire to be thin as possible as a means of controlling this, and ends up not even being about what you look like, and simply continuing the lifestyle out of habit and familiarity, because you’re afraid to live any other way), as is the initial (and lengthy) denial of the problem, the concern of family members, the slow realisation of the problem, and the long road towards recovery. I would like to point out two things that I think de Rossi did particularly well, however.

One is the way she shows how mental illness sneaks up on you, and the heartbreaking way in which big, meaningful, life changing moments seem to happen over and over again; a realisation hits, you’re filled with a sense of purpose and direction, you think it’s cured and you’re all better, and then it’s more of the same – stuck in an endless loop. De Rossi is incredibly good at portraying that hope/hopeless dichotomy simply and harshly.

The other is the mature handling of her relationship with her mother – she tells the story from the point-of-view of one who has recovered, but while relating the events, she reports her thoughts as she would have thought them back then, without passing judgement or qualifying how wrong those statements might seem to her now. So when she speaks in tones of resentment about her mother, it is clear that this is the Portia of the past talking, and whatever faults her mother may have, she is a fully realised, sympathetic person in this book. Dealing with a difficult situation that doesn’t have a prescribed set of socially acceptable and expected reactions (namely, a gay and severely anorexic daughter – one may want very much to be supportive, while dealing with one’s own issues, and not know quite how to do it), and I can’t imagine she would be disappointed by her portrayal in this book.

In short, Unbearable Lightness was intelligent, thoughtful, and easy to read, and I have a new respect for the actress who made me laugh so much as Veronica and Lindsay Bluth.

And, as a random and possibly tasteless side note, I wonder if it was purposeful that the cover was designed by “Meat and Potatoes Inc.” I mean, really.

(I’ve ended up reading a surprising amount of memoirs for this little project, and I say surprising because for a good long while, I used to skew away from non-fiction – not purposefully, I just tended to latch on to a particular author or genre (e.g. Agatha Christie books, P.G. Wodehouse books, Mary Roach books, science fiction books, and so on, all read in bunches), and happened to go more for fiction. Then there was a wild swing to only non-fiction, and now, after years of buying and borrowing and rescuing books, I have so many that at this point I’m simply taking whatever catches my fancy off the shelf and hoping no one invites me on any more trips to Chapters, so the selection is a lot more random.)

Cannonball Read III: 18/52

This is Your Brain on Music – Review – ****

I am finishing up my last year of undergrad. I will graduate with a combined honours degree in Journalism and Psychology, with minors in Biology (genetics, neuroscience, and ecology) and Classical Civilization (specifically, Archaeology). Music is my most treasured art form, and even though I haven’t practiced in years, and therefore sort of suck now, I still can say that I play piano, saxophone, trumpet, and guitar.

All this to say, that Daniel J. Levitin, a musician, neuroscientist, and journalist, has somehow written my book, the bastard! This is Your Brain on Music is, like At Home, another fascinating and fairly far-ranging topic informational, general interest novel, only this one, rather than social history, focuses on the following in relation to music: genetics, neuroscience, anthropology, memory, and cognitive psychology – so…kind of everything I’m actually studying – as well as the study of babies, motor movement, audio and visual systems, and more.

Among the interesting concepts Levitan brought up was the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything. I had a professor at Carleton who said something similar, telling us all that it would take 10 years. So, let’s see…that would be presumably 1000hrs/year, or about 3 hrs/day. I think I could manage that.

Another concept I liked at just wanted to single out: music uses all areas/regions of the brain. It is the only subject we know that does so.

He talked about the Mozart effect, and explained how the complexity bell curve may explain why critics LOVE stuff that isn’t necessarily popular – their schemas are more developed from years of critical listening (or observing, or reading, or whatever the case may be), giving them a physically different mental framework for what constitutes “complex” – not necessarily “complicated”, more higher division from what is considered “normal” in a schema. INTERESTING STUFF.

So with all this, you might think it would be my favourite book ever written, like a bible and life instruction manual in one. And it is very good – like reading a very intimate, fascinating, short, approachable introductory textbook – but it IS just an overview, and it’s full of flaws which you will find fully expounded upon in any amazon book review.

Maybe it would help if Levitan dropped the informality somewhat, so that all his name-dropping would read more like good research citing, and less like…name-dropping (for example, in a phenomenal biography of Capote I read, the author Gerald Clarke knew his subject well, and Capote’s close friends, and other interesting people, but it’s never framed in an “I MET SO-AND-SO and also am totally just as cool as them!” manner; in fact, he doesn’t mention his relationship to Capote until the end of the book, where he clarifies that he was the unidentified “close friend” mentioned often throughout the book; this would be a great 5-star book right there, but I read it a couple of years ago, and I’m not re-reading that 600+ page brick with only 3 months to go until the end of CBRIII).

Also, he commits the same frustrating mistake I chastised Mary Roach for so many months ago (see paragraph 5); characters are reintroduced over and over again. I remember who Bob was from 2 pages ago, thank you, you don’t have to keep reminding me. This wasn’t even as defensible as in Packing for Mars, because at least Roach reintroduced characters from different chapters, so you could, like a textbook, treat each chapter as a separate entity. But Levitan does this paragraphs apart (and what’s more, this book, unlike Packing for Mars, actually DOES have an index).

Cannonball Read III: 17/52

Absurdistan – Review – ***1/2

Once again, I have lost the notes I made while reading this book, which is a pain in the ass, because I’m pretty sure there were quotes on there (and quotes means I get to make the review look longer while writing less)!

I remember being incredibly off-put by this book, and I don’t mean angry or pissed off. I just felt like I had missed something. Maybe a better phrase would be “wrong-footed.” It was like I knew he was satirizing something, but…I wasn’t sure exactly what. I wasn’t sure exactly who should be offended. I wasn’t sure what his thesis was. I have suspicions, but…*shrug.*

I don’t consider myself a particularly dense or stupid person. Maybe I should. Maybe others who read and “got” this book should feel righteously superior to me. Maybe my confusion stems from the fact that the book is written about the social and political, um, politics or a world I am not familiar with. Maybe all those review excerpts on the back cover were right, and this really is a work of phenomenal genius on par with Catch-22. Maybe. Or maybe Shteyngart is a little less clever than he thinks he is (oh, har har, there’s a conniving little bitch of a character named Jerry Shteynfarb, I see what you did there!), a little too caught up in the grotesque imagery he creates with his obscenely fat main character, a little on the nose in his depiction of a war built around a stockpile of oil that doesn’t actually exist, and I actually got it just fine.

I’m not being sarcastic here, I honestly don’t know, but I think for that reason this book would be great for some sort of discussion group. The prose, while often irritating to me (see above), was also undoubtedly the work of someone, like Michael Chabon, in total control of the English language. I’m sure it could really resonate with people who have different interests, familiarities, and world views than mine. And I hope there’s no shame in admitting that you really just didn’t understand a well-reviewed best-seller. So three-and-a-half stars for the values of thought-provoking-ness and good writing, but not really enjoyment.

Cannonball Read III: 16/52

Eat, Pray, Love – Review – ***1/2

Another Thailand book! My puzzle mate recommended this one to me as a quick holiday read for someone who loves travel. It was a good choice – light and easy, but interesting, and I didn’t have to feel overly jealous of her adventures, as I was off having one of my own.

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, could be classified as a journal (but the writer knows the future), or a memoir (but she speaks in the present tense), about one woman’s journey across Italy, India, and Indonesia as she tries to find herself (or her “I”, if you will) after a painful divorce.

A warning: if you read/open this book, you enter in to a sort of contract with the author – she will not shove her enlightenment in your face, but if you choose to read the book, she will share it with you. By this, I mean that she’s not aggressive in her writing, but it is written from the perspective of one who feels she has had a spiritual experience. If you have no patience for that sort of thing, there is simply no point in you reading this book.

It is divided into 3 groups of 36 stories (adding up to 108 stories, plus the intro, which equals the 109 beads found on a japa malas*) which makes it incredibly easy to read. I find that the more chapters there are in a book, the quicker I can read it, and I think that’s only in part because of the amount of page space taken up every time there’s a new chapter. Short chapters keep the reader from getting too lost, thus keeping there attention over long periods, and provide easy time outs while reading, allowing for quickly snatching a bit of story during a bathroom break, or in a long line. So, in other words, perfect for one who is, say, 14 books behind where she should be if she intends to complete the CBR on time.

Gilbert’s luck in scoring a book advance allowing her to take a totally self-involved year off of her life is not taken for granted, which makes the book much more bearable than it could have been. Her writing is engaging and straightforward, and she is honest about her flaws. Personally, I particularly enjoyed the first part best, which was more of a travelogue than the other two. Her spiritual insights were interesting for me to read from a sociological perspective, but as an agnostic/skeptic, I didn’t feel particularly moved by her religious experience at an Ashram in India, and was downright uncomfortable by her fawning descriptions of her guru.

The last part of the book, where Gilbert tries to find “balance” between pleasure and devotion while holidaying in Bali, was the least structured of the three,

The woman has a lot of insight, but I’m not sure I’m particularly interested in reading more about her life. Her next memoir, Commitment, covers her journey to marriage with the man she met at the end of Eat, Pray, Love, but I can’t really imagine what more there is to be gained by reading it that wasn’t already covered by her wrestle with marriage and romance in this one.

In short, it’s not the first (or second, or third) book I would pick up, but I’m not at all sorry I read it. If anything here strikes your interest, it’s worth a read.

*And for anyone who’s read the book and wondering: yes, there are 109 beads in the japa malas (basically, Indian rosary beads) that make up the “pray” on the cover. So…just me then.

Cannonball Read III: 15/52

The Jeeves Omnibus – Review – ****

More Jeeves!

I read this one in Thailand, which was a nice way to unwind after a long day of shrimp research, touring excursions, social outings, and homework. Frankly, after having read so many Wodehouse books for this little assignment, I have indeed encountered that which I feared so many months ago: I have run out of new ways to say I enjoy P.G.’s enormously entertaining, but fairly formulaic works. As I said last time, this problem is especially evident in his short stories, so this brick of a collection of them is pretty much more of the same (not the least because 10 of the short stories from that last book, Carry On, Jeeves, were included here*).

So the only new thing I have to talk about here is Wodehouse’s introduction, which reveals a humble, kind, gently funny man with a fond attachment to the characters he created, and a pretty good idea of the extents of his talent, and his place in literary history. I hope very much that this was what he was like in real life. I have a biography of him in my To Read pile, which I hope will reveal a bit more about him (but that will be part of my next book-related project). Can you imagine Wodehouse as a young man? Can you imagine a young man even coming up with these stories? They seem like the sort of alternate-universe history that an older author might tell with the prelude “in my day, this was what it was like…” Grandpa’s stories of another, smaller, simpler, better world. I guess this just goes back to what I said in my last review (again):

[E]ven when not actually laughing out loud, Wodehouse still makes me smile – his stories and tone have such a warm feeling, like coming home, and nothing ever goes too badly wrong.

I’ve given this one 4 stars because, as it includes almost all of the Jeeves/Wooster stories, it is packed with the best and the worst, and since the worst Wodehouse is, to me, worth a great deal more than the worst of ,many other authors, the very good (4-5 stars) outweighs the very mediocre (2.5-3 stars), and averages out to a nice round 4.

At this point, I am literally just writing to fill space (as if you couldn’t tell), so I’m off to write an essay about shrimp aquaculture.

*But yes, I’m still counting this as a new and separate book, because the thing was over 700 pages, and those 10 took up between 200-300. I think having read 400+ new pages book can count as its own separate book, thank you very much.

Cannonball Read III: 14/52

Carry On, Jeeves – Review – ***1/2

I chose this book, a collection of 10 short stories, about half of which were re-reads, for my next review because I am getting a bit discouraged about my book total, and Wodehouses are quick and easy to read. If, come November, I’m still hopelessly far behind, I’m going to start reviewing children’s books. But anyway.

I have come to the conclusion that Jeeves is a manipulative bastard who enjoys putting his obliging and feeble-minded master in difficult situations for a laugh. I approve of this practice.

The last short was told from Jeeves’ POV, which, in my experience so far, is pretty rare. Wodehouse stories tend to run together, especially the shorts, but I am pleased to say that I was, with about 90% accuracy, able to tell which ones I had read before. I enjoyed most of the stories, but found this collection particularly repetitive.

In general, I like Wodehouse’s full-length novels better than his short stories. They let him build, they let the mix-ups get more intense and bizarre, and they’re slightly less formulaic and repetitive; the short stories have a tendency to become a bit rote when many are read in a row:

  • Bertie is happy
  • Bertie’s friend is in a jam/Bertie’s aunt or family member is being a nightmare/Bertie is accidentally engaged
  • Bertie is sad
  • Jeeves is tasked with solving the problem
  • I bet THIS time it’s too much for Jeeves!
  • a roundabout solution with a wide margin for error is pulled off without a hitch/with a hitch fully foreseen by Jeeves
  • Bertie is happy
  • Bertie gets rid of item of dress that Jeeves doesn’t like
  • Jeeves is happy
  • repeat

Bertie gets all of the blame and none of the credit, while giving in to friends and endearingly admitting to a distinct lack of brains, which makes me feel worse for him than I think we’re supposed to. Still, even when not actually laughing out loud, Wodehouse still makes me smile – his stories and tone have such a warm feeling, like coming home, and nothing ever goes too badly wrong. In this collection, there is a very strong father/son vibe between Jeeves and Wooster, especially in the earlier stories.

In short, I love Wodehouse, and this collection showcased plenty of his goodness, but it’s by no means my favourite of his efforts.

Also, it appears that Pierce Hawthorne was not he who coined the phrase “streets ahead,” as I saw it used (in the appropriate manner) on page 141, in the story “The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy” (which, incidentally, was my favourite in the collection).

Cannonball Read III: 13/52

I Know I Am, But What Are You? – Review – ***1/2

I still remember the first Samantha Bee segment I saw on the Daily Show. It was about gay penguins (this clip was later re-used in a more recent episode, but I’m talking about the first time through), and I thought it was merely ok. No Colbert or Helms, but what the hey, she’s new. In the years since, Bee has become one of, if not, my favourite correspondent(s). Unfortunately, this may have more to do with the fact that many of my favourites have left, and a general lack of interest in the new-comers (except for John Oliver, I know, I’m so original; some of the others have their moments, too), than Bee’s comic chops, but that statement does her a disservice, because she is very, very good. [Maybe my reviewing gimmick will be “unintentionally mean girl.”]

This book is similar to her pieces in tone, but the subject matter is less off-the-wall, which makes sense, as this is a short-essay memoir in the vein of David Sedaris’ works. It has hits and misses, but it made me chuckle pretty consistently throughout, and I inhaled it in a day. I think my favourite stories were the first one, Camp Summer Fun, The Birds and the Bee, and When Animals Attack (the last story). There are twelve short stories arranged in roughly chronological order, and each has something to recommend them. Bee has led a moderately unusual life, which, combined with her talent for storytelling, means there’s something in here for voyeurs (who want all the dirty details about any celebrity life), fellow odd-balls (who can relate), and even normal people because regardless of the circumstances, Bee is relatable, friendly, and funny, and who wouldn’t want to spend a couple hundred pages with that?

*Side note: One of these days, I am going to have to find a book that I LOATHE because none of these reviews have really been scathing since maybe the first one. I miss righteous artistic anger.

Cannonball Read III: 12/52

Wishful Drinking – Review – ***1/2

A couple of weeks ago, I rewatched the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time in years. This was a waste of time, as none of those movies are on my list, but I’m glad I did, because I forgot how awesome they are. And Princess Leia is among the most awesome elements in that awesome movie. It was the seventies, and here’s this beautiful, kick-ass, intelligent, snarky, gun-toting, no-nonsense, feminine woman playing an active role in the plot. How did I not remember all this? Why were all my Star Wars memories entirely made of Yoda, R2, and lightsabers?

So I started reading up on the woman who brought Leia to life, and I began to realise that she was pretty awesome, too. But I wanted to read about her in her own words (and I had a gift certificate to Chapters), so I bought her first memoir, and devoured it in a night.

Wishful Drinking is a short book (not 200 pages), and it goes by in a flash. Like the best memoirs, you feel like you know the writer by the end of the novel. it I don’t know if there’s a more efficient way to bare one’s soul than through writing, and when you write nonfiction, when you don’t hide behind characters or plot, it doesn’t get much more personal than that. I’ve read a couple of moving meditations on the one-way nature of writing, and in many ways, it’s similar to the one-way nature of celebrity. Millions of people read/watch authors and actors, and develop all sorts of relationships with those they ogle, but the object of the ogling can never reciprocate. An author’s one novel can touch millions of readers, establishing deep and lasting connections (for me, some of the authors I would most like to thank personally for their work are Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and P.G. Wodehouse), but that one author simply cannot, realistically, reciprocate in kind. It’s a strange, voyeuristic existence, and we’re used to it, but when they invite you in so openly, it’s difficult not to actively wish you could converse with them. In short, I want to be Carrie Fisher’s friend, and so do a million other people. No one has meaningful relationships with a million people. Well, what can you do?

I enjoyed Wishful Drinking. I laughed out loud a few times, learned a good deal about a lifestyle I will never know, and discovered that at one point, Princess Leia was married to Paul Simon. The things I have managed to go my whole life without knowing. The reason this book doesn’t get a higher grade is because I was more impressed with the author than the product. I like Carrie Fisher, and this is a good book, but I couldn’t call it a must-read. It is very short, and feels like it’s missing quite a lot. It’s 2 in the morning and I don’t think I’m expressing myself at all properly, but as enjoyable as it was, it just felt slight. I have dealt with mental illness, and I think Fisher’s openness is admirable and her ability to describe her mental state evidence of a empathetic, sympathetic human being with a wonderful way with words, so I’m not trying to say the book didn’t mean anything to me. I just feel like it’s a 3.5 star book. I don’t know. Whatever. Point is: glad I read it, would recommend it, like owning your weaknesses and sharing your hard-won wisdom, love Fisher, love Leia, love Star Wars, love sleep. Good night.

Cannonball Read III: 11/52