Category Archives: Cannonball Read 3

At Home: A Short History of Private Life – Review – ****

The first Bryson book I ever read was A Walk in the Woods. It’s a good starting point – short, interesting, and absolutely hilarious, I’ve been a fan of his ever since. (Sorry James May.) But recently, Bryson has moved away from travel writing and starting focusing more on history: social and scientific. He also seems to have moved away from laugh-out-loud funny, to simply incredibly interesting. This is not a bad thing.

The conceit of the book is a tour of Bryson’s old country house in England, which he uses as a backdrop to explain the history of the house from prehistory to the modern day. Each chapter describes a specific room or area of the house, while telling the story of how it came to be that way today.

The book is a bit of a brick in hardcover, but at just under 500 pages, its scope is enormous. It is incredible the number of times things that actually came up in my life in the days I was reading this book were mentioned, directly, in the book. The origin of the phrase “room and board,” the reason “K” means “strike out” in baseball, the architecture of Palladio, and more (although I was surprised that there was no mention of Tesla in the section on light bulbs). Not directly applicable to that week, but equally interesting, were the discussions on the history of salt, sex, and fashion as they relate to the development of the home.

The book is filed under the category of “social history,” which may turn some people off, but I would suggest you give it a chance. Bryson, as usual, takes us on a very accessible and entertaining journey. At Home is a great way to increase your general knowledge without having to do anything more than enjoy a book.

Cannonball Read III: 10/52

Lord Edgware Dies – Review – ***

When I was a kid, my mom brought home from the library a new book for her budding little addict. She told me it was an Agatha Christie, and that’s not even close to where it began. Because I read one short story, the first one, about a woman who confessed to a crime she didn’t commit, one that, in fact, never even happened, and was jailed for the rest of her life in response. I was not pleased with this ending, and hiding the book under my dressing table didn’t help. It was years before I would give Agatha another chance.

So, it started years later, in Chapters, with The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. Now, for the record, I have no idea what Christie book my mom got me from the library that day. I have read over 50 of her 80 novels since then, and haven’t yet come across that story. Perhaps it wasn’t actually her – perhaps one of us (my mother or myself) was confused. It doesn’t matter anyway. It had been a while since I read a Christie, and I’m WAY behind on the CBR, so I figured a quick mystery would be just the thing.

To me, this wasn’t a particularly special one. It was a fun, quick read with faintly likable characters. There’s not a heck of a lot more to say, especially if you’re a Christie veteran. It was exactly as I expected, you know? A little Hercule Poirot, a little Hastings, a little domestic disturbance, and a little murder. The solution wasn’t really surprising although I can’t say I guessed it (because I accidentally found out who the murderer was before I passed chapter 3 – long story).

I always enjoy the little swipes she takes at Sherlock Holmes mysteries (which I also love, and have read all of), and there are a couple in this one. I’ve said it before, but as much as I enjoy Holmes, I’ve always thought Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t always play fair. So often in his books, the culprit is a well known criminal who only Holmes and the inhabitants of his world can have heard about. Christie, except in her occasional international thriller, gives you just about as much information as she does her detectives, which makes it fun to try and play along.

The one thing this book DID do was cause me to add a new thing to my ever-expanding 1?? Things To Do List: (re)read all of A. C.’s books. I remember loving The Pale House, Destination Unknown, and The Secret Adversary as much as I’ve ever loved any books, and thinking Passenger to Frankfurt was one of her worst, but I read the bulk of her books 6-9 years ago, and I’ve always wanted to complete my set. Maybe for next year’s CBR?

Cannonball Read III: 9/52

Edited to add: Part of the reason this book might have seemed so predictable and familiar? Because I have already read it. I just forgot. Of course, that in itself says something about the book…

The Bullpen Gospels – Review – ****

I found the notes for this one! Less work for me.

A man of integrity can make any profession seem heroic by how he lives while doing it.” ~ pg 359

I read this one on my brother’s recommendation (obviously), and after he sent me link after link to Dirk Hayhurst’s blog.

I’m glad he did. I’m a casual fan of baseball. I cheer on the Jays no matter how depressing it gets, and I follow a couple of my favourite players. Ever since downloading the Sports Tap ap on my phone, I even know some statistics. But I’m sure as hell not a fanatic (though few are when compared with my brother). It doesn’t matter. This book is a good read no matter what sport you’re into, or how into it you are.

For most of us (especially the ladies), we will never know the insides of a professional sports clubhouse. This isn’t exactly a reason to fold it in and die an unfulfilled and desperate death, but it does mean that books like this are an interesting behind the scenes look at the life of an athlete that you don’t get from a lot of places. Let’s face it, most athletes aren’t really known for their way with words (seriously, if I have to sit through one more pre-game show about players taking it one game at a time, I swear…).

But this book is about baseball, and for fans of that specific sport, it’s a good reminder of what we love about the game, despite the steroids, scandals, and rise in popularity of other sports that might have dampened our spirits a tad. Or, you know, the fact that Toronto teams SUCK, a fact I’ve been shouting for years only to finally be proven correct once and for all. ONCE AND FOR ALL!

Of course, another interesting thing about reading a book by a man who grew up in sports is seeing what he chooses to explain. For instance, I found it bizarre that Hayhurst felt “baseball gods” was a term that needed a two paragraph explanation, but “dip” is left to the imagination. Anyone? Dip? He says it as though it’s some sort of chewable maybe, or a thing players use on their hands? I don’t know.

Some of it is, and I am so sorry for putting it this way, really amateur writing. Sections were cheesy, and most of the emotional beats were pretty familiar. But for the most part, the prose is good, and often great – whether it’s his passion for the game, or writing talent, or a bit of both, Bullpen Gospels is a pleasure to read.

Cannonball Read III: 8/52

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Review – ****1/2

Somewhere in my house are pages and pages (ok, maybe two pages) of review notes I made while reading this book, full of insights and specifics and quotes. But I can’t find them, so you’re getting this instead.

A lot of people have said that Rebecca Skloot was born to write this book. I can see what they mean. It is almost unbelievable to me, and singularly admirable, how much time and effort she has spent on researching, writing, and marketing – getting to know and gaining the trust of Lacks’ family, uncovering the history despite inaccuracies, sloppy reporting, old and faded memories and records – it’s no surprise it took her over 10 years to write it.

Thankfully, the result is worth it. This book was an incredible read. I’m not sure why I have it in my records as 4 1/2 stars instead of 5 – presumably the last 100 pages, which I first skimmed and then read again in full, were slightly less effective the second time around. I don’t know. Anyway, they’re just numbers. The fact is, this book was intellectually stimulating, emotionally fulfilling, and endlessly engrossing.

The story itself was a great find – it’s got it all. Science, emotion, family, racism, secrets, drama, injustice, even an exorcism. All these superlatives – I’m not trying to say it’s the most fantastic and amazing thing I’ve ever read in my life, but I’d recommend it to anyone. If you’re a professional scientist and somehow already familiar with the story of HeLa, read it for the story. If you’re…not a fan of story, read it for the accessible explanation of the science. Read it for whatever you like. There’s something in there for everyone.

Cannonball Read III: 7/52

Packing For Mars – Review – ****1/2

I want to be Mary Roach.

For this book alone she has managed to find excuses to travel to Japan, Russia, and Texas, speak to astronauts and waste specialists, ride a parabolic plane flight, and sky-dive indoors in a vertical wind tunnel. She has also tasted her own pee, which I am slightly less jealous of.

And instead of bragging, she condenses her experiences, interviews, and endless historical and scientific research into a wonderfully entertaining, intelligent, and, of course, funny novel; so you can’t even hate her properly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly (given that I am 12), my favourite chapter of 16 was “Separation Anxiety,” a title that is much, much funnier after you have read said chapter. To give you a better idea about what’s going on, here’s the subtitle: “The continuing saga of zero gravity elimination.”

Mars is written in such a way that you can  read any chapter in any order, which is nice, but gets frustrating if you’re the predictable type who reads books straight through. Retired Air Force Colonel Dan Fulgham is introduced in an identical fashion at least 3 separate times; enough that I didn’t have to look up his name or title to type this sentence.

There is a good mix of hard science and more indirect tangents explained thoroughly enough for newbies, but briefly enough that those with a (very) basic knowledge of physics and engineering don’t get bored.

For a journalism student, the book has an unexpected use: it gives a rather interesting insight into the workings of a professional journalist as she navigates through contacts, archives, and PR people, particularly when tracing incorrect data, stories, and rumours.

Of course, much like in the last Roach book I reviewed (or any book I review, really), there were a few small things that bugged me:

“In the words of some academic I can’t name because I’ve lost the first page of his paper…”

There’s a horrible, nit-picky part of me that can’t abide by this. Rephrase, find another source, Google the damn quote. On the other hand, she is a very comedic, accessible writer, and you can readily imagine the epic search for that first page ending in this little nugget of frustration.

The last chapter is a nice inspirational little essay on the “point” of progress. One standout suggestion: funding the enormous cost of a Mars mission not through taxpayer dollars, but through the media – what network wouldn’t pay to see the elimination of candidate after candidate until the final astronaut contestants are chosen? Jesus, what an idea. Using reality TV for good.

Overall, recommended, of course. I enjoyed this one just as much as Stiff, and more than Bonk and Spook, which, while good fun, just didn’t keep me as entertained, amused, and full of wonder.

P.S. If you’re interested in more Roach, check out her website, or the interview pajiba.com did with her when Bonk came out.

Cannonball Read III: 6/52

Reviews: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – **** and Ella Enchanted – ***1/2

As someone who has severe difficulties with time management and keeping the buzzing in her brain subdued, I go through hot and cold periods of reading. There have been summers (during high school, when summers were long) that I’ve read over 50 books, and 6 months stretches when I’ve barely read 3. I also tend to read several books at once, so while I won’t have finished a book for a couple of weeks, I might have started 6, and will finish them all around the same time. So right now, I’m in the middle of 8 books (and actively reading four of them), but I’ve only completed 5 since starting this year’s Cannonball Read, and I’ve only done 3 reviews. Part of this has been the demands of school, but another part of it is being a perfectionist – I can’t think of anything useful or meaningful or clever to say about these books that I’ve read, as much as I’ve enjoyed them, so I haven’t written a review. Unfortunately, unreviewed books don’t count for CBIII, so I’m going to challenge myself to write something crappy and NOT CARE. Here goes.

This was the first book I read for CBIII. I picked it up for no other reason than because it was free, because I honestly assumed that with a title like that, and a movie like that, it would be utter crap, but a quick read.

It was actually wonderful. I mean, it was ridiculously cutesy, full of cloying nicknames and syrupy dialogue, but eventually it stops feeling forced (or I just learnt to enjoy it) and you can enjoy the genuine wisdom and maturity of the storyteller, and the richness of the characters and their world. As someone familiar with mental illness (due to family, myself, and my chosen profession), I really appreciated the treatment of stress and depression in the novel, the way that no one was a villain, because as much as you hate or dislike or get frustrated with them, they’re all people, they’re all well meaning and selfish and confused, and they all try. I wish I could clear my head enough from biology to do this book better justice, but since I have a bunch of labs to do, I’m going to leave this review unfinished and not perfect, and if I’ve intrigued you at all then please take a look at some other reviews online, or go ahead and pick up the book yourself.

Rating: 4 stars

I read this book when I was a kid, and I ADORED it. Most books I read look as though they’ve never been touched by human hands (unless someone else in my circle of family or friends has borrowed them), but Ella Enchanted is one of the special few who, despite my careful touch, has been manhandled so many times that it has, sadly, become soft and dog-eared.

I saw bits of the movie a couple of years ago on TV, and nearly had a conniption while screeching “MY EYES!” a la Chandler and Phoebe and have been bad-mouthing it ever since, until a friend suggested to me that perhaps the book wasn’t as good as I remembered. In order to shut said friend up, I finally got around to rereading this book (because, frankly, I need something short to pad my 52 books for this year, at the pace I’m going).

I still love it. I don’t really get why I was quite so enamored of it as a child, but it’s still a great read, entertaining and exciting, quick and sweet. A great kid’s book with a great heroine. The sort of book I wish tweens were reading these days.

Rating: 3 and a half stars.

Cannonball Read III: 5/52

Much Obliged, Jeeves – Review – *****

Oh, how I love this man. It’s tempting, when reading the work of a master, to want to match your review to the talent reviewed. I’m not even going to try. My humour writing attempts are basically collections of of swear words and complaining loudly. Wodehouse makes art out of every whimsical sentence. He is proof that whoever said “all good comedy comes from pain” was talking total rubbish. I’m pretty much hoping that if I read enough Wodehouse in a row, some of it will rub off on me and I’ll send everyone I walk past into fits of laughter after simply commenting on the time. I can’t express in words how much I adore a good Wodehouse.

In fact, I have enjoyed the hell out of every single P.G. Wodehouse book I have read so far, but I couldn’t for the life of me differentiate between the plot of one and the plot of another, except to say “This one has Jeeves in it!” and “This one was one of the other ones!”

No one reads Wodehouse for the story. They read him for the language.

This creates a bit of a problem for reviewers, as you can’t very well write the same review for twelve different books, can you?

Can you?

Well, I can’t really justify including another P.G. in my year’s CBR (and there are several lined up) if I’m just going to copy and paste the above paragraphs, so I’ll try to write something specific to Much Obliged, Jeeves.

This one’s about Bertie Wooster’s visit to his more tolerant aunt in Market Snodsbury, where he goes in order to help out an old friend run for political office. While there, he runs into not one but two of his many ex-fiances and struggles mightily to maintain the ex- status. Meanwhile, in Jeeves’ world, the Book of Revelations (the book of the Junior Ganymede gentlemen’s gentlemen memorializing the habits and activities of those gentlemen’s gentlemen’s gentlemen), formerly thought to be safely under lock and key, has been stolen. Naturally, and as usual, Jeeves’ brain is expected to save the day, but not before some good, old fashioned, what-I-imagine-to-be-the-pre-TV-version-of-sitcominess ensues.

Did any of that make sense to you? Doesn’t matter. Not the point.

I picked up this book a couple weeks ago in Chapters, because I thought I had a gift certificate with me, and when it turned out I’d left it at home, it wasn’t like I was going to just not by the book or something. I had a pile of similarly bound Wodehouses in hand, and while I couldn’t justify buying all five of them, I figured one for the bus ride back was perfectly reasonable. But how to choose?

I read the first couple of sentences from each pile-member, but when I got to the following passage:

‘These eggs, Jeeves,’ I said. ‘Very good. Very tasty.’

‘Yes sir?’

‘Laid, no doubt, by contented hens.’

I knew there was but one book for me.

And, I’m happy to say, it was a damn good choice.

As I mentioned above, I haven’t come across a bad Wodehouse yet, but this one was exceptional. I smiled at every page, I laughed embarrassingly in public places; at several points I may or may not have actually hugged the book. If you want a dose of Bertie and Jeeves, you could definitely do worse than this one.

 

Cannonball Read III: 3/52

Earth: The Book – Review – ****

I’m not really sure what to do with a Cannonball Read book of which I have almost nothing useful to say.

Basically, if you’ve read America: The Book (which I have), or watch the Daily Show (which I do), you know what to expect, and the book certainly doesn’t disappoint. It doesn’t really present anything new, either, though.

Let’s see…

The book is packaged in a manner similar to the faux-textbook presentation of America, but written as a guide to Earth for the aliens who will succeed us once the human race, inevitably, self-destructs.

The nine chapters focus on such important areas as culture, science, religion, man, and, of course, Earth, and they make all the expected jokes. I don’t mean this as an insult – very few jokes fell flat, for me, and the presentation, illustrations, writing, and concept all gel to make a thoroughly entertaining yet relaxing read. Each chapter ends with an amusing FAQ (Future Alien Questions) section and a sort of Earth-bingo score card, which is a fun touch. I just mean that there really isn’t much more to say. Maybe my brain’s just fried from midterms, but *shrug,* I’m out of words*.

-30-

* One thing about Earth that got me ridiculously, super excited, though, was the last page of Chapter 9, Culture. This was a silly-looking crossword puzzle. The caption? “Do it. You know you want to.” This train of thought followed: this couldn’t possibly be an actual crossword. Who would spend so much time creating a crossword that no one’s likely to do? I wonder if any of the clues even have actual answer. This one does. Huh, it even matches with the across version. Oh my god, is this actually real? It’s 2 in the morning. I should go to sleep.

 

Three hours later.

 

I didn't want to get pencil marks on my new book.

.

.

Cannonball Read III: 2/52

The Accidental Billionaires – Review – ***

Accidental BillionairesI have to share with you what is possibly my favourite sentence ever written:

“A mountain range of scrambled eggs towered over foothills of breakfast potatoes…”

If you can read that without laughing, then have I got the book for you.

Ben Mezrich is a Harvard graduate, and I’m going to go right ahead and assume that his degree is not in creative writing.

The Accidental Billionaires is the story of Mark Zuckerberg, and those who managed to get caught up, however fleetingly, in the juggernaut that was to become Facebook.

Sort of bizarrely written as though the reader might start with any chapter, Mezrich has an annoying habit of repeating the same information every five pages or so, I suppose in case we forget how books are supposed to be read.

The worst is the beginning of each chapter, when Mezrich decides to put on his scene-setting pants. Dear lord. Chapter three begins with a memorably purple description of the Charles River by the Harvard campus, describing the water as “a serpent’s twist of greenish blue,” a “swirl of greenish blue,” and, just for good measure, “green-blue water,” in six sentences. When he’s finished making sure we understand the Charles’s subtle variations in water colour, Mezrich moves on to explaining the fibreglassian nature of a boat in a similar manner.

As another example, we are introduced to the Winklevoss twins at the beginning of chapter 3. We are informed that the twins are brothers, and related, and tall, and siblings, and tall. They return in chapters 8 and 10 without comment, but in chapter 12, I guess in case chapter 11 left us with severe amnesia, we are reminded of the Winklevoss’s status as related brothers who are siblings.

There is a lot of pointless, scene-setting information and oddly long descriptions of food. Look, I understand the appeal of food in literature, when it’s done with some sort of purpose. The food in the Harry Potter universe exists to make that magical otherworld more complete and tangible, and to showcase JK’s imagination. In, I don’t know, Jane Austen novels, food can be used to suggest class and sophistication (or lack thereof). In many novels about immigration, “ethnic” food is described to evoke memories of home, or the comforts of a certain culture. But mashed potatoes in a cafeteria? The only purpose I can fathom for the existence of so very many sentences in this book is the padding out of what, in spite of its complexity, is otherwise a surprisingly brief story.

However.

Once you get past all that, though (particularly, as I mentioned, the first paragraph or two of a new chapter – although the last couple of lines in a chapter are also pretty overwrought), the story flows reasonably well, the writing stops being distracting, and you can focus on what you came here for: the creation of Facebook, and all the sex, money, genius, and betrayal that ensued.

Mezrich certainly does a good job at not portraying any of those involved as villains. In the acknowledgements, he says that he was a huge fan of all the “characters” in his book, and I can’t really think of anyone who seems to have been treated unfairly. Each characters’ beliefs and motivations are presented in a way that you really can understand the entitlement the characters feel for credit, money, fame, a place in history.

Billionaires is a fairly quick and easy read about a fascinating subject, marred, if you are unable to turn off your inner editor (and, unfortunately, I always, always am), by absolutely hilariously terrible, pompous writing.

Cannonball Read III: 1/52

Cannonball Read III

  1. The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook – Ben Mezrich (***)
  2. Earth: The Book – Jon Stewart and the Daily Show writers (****)
  3. Much Obliged, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse (*****)
  4. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood – Rebecca Wells (****)
  5. Ella Enchanted – Gail Carson Levine (***1/2)
  6. Packing for Mars – Mary Roach (****1/2)
  7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot (****1/2)
  8. The Bullpen Gospels – Dirk Hayhurst (****)
  9. Lord Edgware Dies – Agatha Christie (***)
  10. At Home: A Short History of Private Life – Bill Bryson (****)
  11. Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher (***1/2)
  12. I Know I Am, But What Are You? – Samantha Bee (***1/2)
  13. Carry On, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse (***1/2)
  14. The World of Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse (****)
  15. Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert (***1/2)
  16. Absurdistan – Gary Shteyngart (***1/2)
  17. This is Your Brain on Music – Daniel Levitan (****)
  18. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling (****)
  19. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling (***1/2)
  20. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling (*****)
  21. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling (****1/2)
  22. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling (****)
  23. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling (****)
  24. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling (****)
  25. Harry Potter and the Supplementary Readings (The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Quidditch Through the Ages) – J.K. Rowling (***1/2)
  26. The Iliad – Homer (-)
  27. Cake Wrecks Books (Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Horribly Wrong and Wreck the Halls: Cake Wrecks Gets “Festive”) (***1/2)
  28. The Odyssey – Homer (-)
  29. The Aeneid
  30. Gabby (****)
  31. Unbearable Lightness – Portia de Rossi (****)

Legend:

* = irredeemably awful
** = middling
*** = decent; has value (of some sort)
**** = very good
***** = amazingly fantastic
****** = almost never used; the perfect book

Read Bill Moyer