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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Review – ***1/2

guernsey

The last time I wrote a book review (Stargirl), I began by saying, “I have been incredibly busy lately finishing up the memoir project, as the deadline for the completed manuscript is the end of this month. So perhaps staging this “one post per day” nonsense could have waited until next month, but oh well.”

Then it turned into a 600+ word review, so I got rid of that intro. But I’m using it for this review, because damn, February was a stupid month to choose for this project.

First, I would like to point out that if you are going to have a book take place in Britain, with characters from Britain, consisting of the letters that these British characters from Britain are writing to other British Britains, then you bloody well spell “honour” with a U, dammit! I’m not sure who is to blame for this, the publishers, the editors, or the authors, but come. on.

As for the actual story itself? Well, I found it endearing. Of course, it was incredibly cutesy (like Stars Hollow on rainbows), and most of the main characters lacked any actual human flaws. Also, and this is a common problem in epistolary novels, most of the many different characters’ letters – male and female, old and young, educated/literary and not – read suspiciously like they were written by the exact same person. I’m sure developing a unique voice for 10+ original characters is a difficult job, but them’s the breaks if you choose to structure your novel through letter.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reminded me of nothing so much as The Secret Garden – so, so sickeningly sweet, and everyone is ridiculously wonderful, but you don’t really care because sometimes people really can be like that, and it works. There’s room in the world for books like this (and room for books like The Big Sleep, equally).

In short, hating this book is kind of like hating a litter of puppies. Most of the time, it’s just adorable and solves all the problems in the world, but every once in a while, if you’re feeling particularly bitter, all the cuteness might make you feel a bit…stabby.

Cannonball Read: 45/52

(Cannonball Read V: 6/36)

(Ok, this review also isn’t as short as I thought it would be. Hurrah for long-windedness.)

How To Be a Woman– Review – ***1/2

howtobewomanAaand we’re back to memoirs.

[Just a warning – this review is definitely going to suck more than usual because I’m in a hurry; I recently realised I’ve posted every day so far this month, and now I would like to continue the trend. Thank goodness the month I chose to do this during is February.]

Ok, so the book. I bought this one (yay gift cards!) because I read an excerpt in one of mom’s magazine’s which basically stated, in funnier terms, my exact views on feminism, which is, essentially, the following:

All right-thinking human beings should be as comfortable labeling themselves “feminists” as they might be stating that they are pro good things and anti bad things. Because, you see, women and men are equal and should be treated as such, and all people are different from one another in some way, and these people can always find another group of people who share a bit of the same differences. So whether you divide them into men and women, introverts and extroverts, Community fans and non-Community fans, all people have worth, and should be treated as such.

In short, to be a “feminist” is to believe that women and men are equal. It is not the belief that men are bad, or that women are better (although I am pretty sure Community fans > non-Community fans). And that excerpt pretty much restated that. But, as I said, funnier. So, in other words, I liked what Moran had to say, and went out and bought the book. You know: duh.

But as I flipped through it at home, I couldn’t really find anything I liked. She was talking about being in love with some obvious douchebag and presenting on TV at the age of 18, and all I could think was, “I wasn’t that stupid at 18, and I’ve never been on TV.” Because…logic.

I put the book aside. I mentioned in my review of Bossypants that How To Be a Woman was next up on the line of things to read, and as you might have noticed (or not – I am reviewing them mere days apart after all, because…time management), I didn’t get around to actually reading it until months later. You know, after I put it on my Shelf in order to force myself to read it, given that I had spent the money, and it was in my house.

SO I started actually reading it and found the first few chapters hilarious. Like, I was seriously rolling on the [bed] laughing at each of the first three chapters, scaring the hell out of the dog, and being totally been converted to use of the word “cunt.” Her tirade on the porn industry is hilarious and true.  I also enjoyed the chapters on abortion and aging. And Nataly, if you’re reading this, I think you’ll really like the section on weddings.

I’ve read a lot of reviews that criticized Moran’s condemnation of the word “fat” while simultaneously calling people “retards” and making outlandish comparisons between that darned patriarchy and, for example, starving orphans, and I’m not sure this is entirely fair. For one thing, I didn’t read the “fat” chapter as an order to stop using the word, but more of a caution raising the awareness of what it can do to people. And for another, having scanned some reviews on Goodreads, it seems that the version I’m reading has been edited for the States, and I may be missing some of the more offensive phrasing. But mainly, she sticks to my preferred method of being obnoxious, which is to do it to all people equally, thus diluting its affect.

However, even when I disagreed with Moran’s points or conclusions, the tone of the book is friendly and conversational. I think part of what irritates people is the fact that her manner tends to suggest that her thoughts and opinions are the be-all and end-all, but I talk like that too, and that doesn’t mean I think that my word is the final word – it’s just a manner of speaking. We think it makes us sound funnier. So I’m less inclined to get my back up about the things I disagree with.

Of which there were plenty. Here are some notes I  made while reading:

“Disagree vehemently about women doing nothing for 100,000 years, but if you can get past that, she has some interesting things to say.”
“…That is not how the sorting hat works.”
“You don’t know me, stop telling me to do things.”
“Wait, you don’t like Top Gear? Your arguments are dangerously close to becoming invalid.”

Really, How To Be a Woman succeeded far more as a funny memoir in the vein of Jenny Lawson‘s, and less as a feminist screed, but Moran has a lot of interesting things to say, and is fearless in saying them. Whether you agree with her or not, she gives you a lot to think about, and new ways to think about it. If you’re looking for something to read the next time you’re snowed in, you could do a lot worse.

Cannonball Read: 42/52

(Cannonball Read V: 3/36)

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection – Review – ****1/2

drop deadI’ve read all of A.J. Jacobs’ “stunt” memoirs. The Year of Living Biblically was my favourite by far, but his first, The Know-It-All is pretty damn good, too*. My Life As A Guinea Pig is fine – it’s a collection of articles written for Esquire following the Jacobs’ theme of experimenting on himself.

Drop Dead Healthy is just as good as Biblically. I spent the entire week I was reading this book reading quotes out loud to everyone around me, and making notes to improve my own healthiness.

It’s not your average self-help diet and exercise book, there isn’t one simple program that he hawks. It’s a fairly broad overview of all that healthy living has to offer, told with minimal judgement (a tone I call “respectful skepticism”) – a lot like Mary Roach. It’s not surprising that I’m always reading endorsement quotes from one on the jacket flaps of the other. There are the expected chapters on exercise and diet (encompassing everything from mindful eating, caveman living, and the veggie smoothie diet), but, as usual, Jacobs goes several steps further; you’ll also find chapters on ear health, back health, hand health, and more.

Some standout chapters are those on sleep (hilarious and, for this insomniac, so so relevant), and the aforementioned back (utterly, surprisingly, hilarious). This is that wonderful type of book that will cause you to accidentally learn things while entertaining you effortlessly. As a wannabee musician and athlete, the information on finger fitness was especially intriguing. The information on Retina A/tretinoin was very nice to know. I’m totally going to do HIIT for *my* mini-marathon. And he shared some truly terrifying information about sugar that the willfully ignorant like myself may have missed.

So four-and-a-half stars for you, A.J., and I’m looking forward to reading the next one.

*After reading them yet another quote from the book, my parents asked if I remembered anything from The Know-It-All, and I got to show off all proudly my remembrance of aposiopesis and apotropeic names, so there. Although I do remember purposefully trying to memorize those ones back when I was reading it, for the sole purpose of retaining *some* information, so…

Cannonball Read: 40/52

(Cannonball Read V: 1/36)

Favourite quotes:

“…As I learned in my year of living biblically, only by exploring the limits can you find the perfect middle ground.”

“If you could lock 10 thousand people in identical rooms for eighty years and feed half of them nothing but vegan food and feed the other half nothing but steak and eggs, and keep everything else the same, you could have some real data. But unless a Bond villain decides to pursue a doctorate in nutrition, that’s not going to happen.”

Reframing an airport security pat-down as a free massage? Hee.

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

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

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