Monday, July 30, 2012

Short History of Tractors in Ukranian-Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian-Marina Lewycka


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 324
gender: F
nationality: Ukraine/UK based
year: 2005
Novel

"When an elderly and newly widowed Ukrainian immigrant announces his intention to remarry, his daughters must set aside their longtime feud to thwart him. For their father’s intended is a voluptuous old-country gold digger with a proclivity for green satin underwear and an appetite for the good life of the West."

The wit and funny of this book really cannot be underestimated. What could have been a bitter, dead serious topic was handled with infinite joy that actually caused me to laugh out loud. The humor is almost absurdist but with enough real life that you know it's not really that absurd. The stubborn old man, the golddigging immigrant, the feuding sisters, and the whole cast of almost-stereotypical (but human enough) characters unwittingly throwing themselves into an overall quirky narrative.

However, don't let the humor mislead you. This book tackles some very serious subjects including the effects of war and peace on a family that has seen both. The two sisters are divided not just by the typical feuding sister relationship but also by a cultural divide that sinks down into the very core of stability. The father with his dialect is the very picture of a man who has made a new life but still thinks of the old one and his short history of tractors is his way of expressing his nostalgia and regret for his home country.

The tragedy is as well handled as the comedy and the comedy is where the book truly shines. I loved it and well understand how it has appeared on "books you must read" lists. I actually bought this book and intend to keep it...a sign of quality.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Wintergirls-Laurie Halse Anderson

Wintergirls- Laurie Halse Anderson


the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 278
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2009
Novel, YA

Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in fragile bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the thinnest. But then Cassie suffers the ultimate loss-her life-and Lia is left behind, haunted by her friend's memory and racked with guilt for not being able to help save her.

Having enjoyed Speak, I decided to grab the other Anderson novel I've heard a lot about. Just as Speak was raw, so is Wintergirls. At first, Lia was too broken, so broken it was hard and rough to make it through the beginning pages. Even if you've never had an eating disorder, the feelings of inadequacy hit everyone when you desire control. This is first hand obsessive behavior without hope of resolution.

Listen, this book is horrifying. It's very, very real. Lia is fully realized, difficult to sympathize as an outsider and difficult to understand as an insider. There are no statistics and facts about self-image and eating disorders-just the disorganized painful thoughts of one.

My yardstick for knowing how real this novel gets is one particular instance. When she's talking about the online community support system for anorexics I remembered this one community I stumbled on and my 13 year old self was horrified at the idea of girls not eating and berating themselves for having a couple of pringles. This same horror and helplessness hit me again while reading this book. Cassie's bad death is the ultimate price for bulimia and despite the typical need of YA novel characters to overcome their problems, I was convinced Lia was going to die as well.

I do like this one quote from near the end: "I'm angry that I starved my brain and sat shivering my bed at night instead of dancing or reading poetry or eating ice cream or kissing a boy or maybe a girl with gentle lips and strong hands." It's a great step towards the recovery you desperately want Lia to have and it encapsulates, for me as someone who's never had one, the true tragedy of eating disorders.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Annabel-Kathleen Winters

Annabel-Kathleen Winters

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 461
gender: F
nationality: Canada
year: 2011
Novel

Portrait of life in a very isolated Labrador town for an intersex youth and the people around zir.

This is a book about beauty. Inner beauty, the beauty of a hostile landscape, and the beauty of individuals. The Labrador setting is incredibly vivid-a landscape I've never read about in such a way before through the eyes of a trapper who has lived and breathed in that environment. This makes a great way to explore interconnections. The relationships between each character in the novel, the settings to the characters, and Annabel to Wayne. These relationships are complex and interwoven and not very easy to convey but Winters does a great job of involving the reader.

It's heartbreaking in many ways, this book, the landscapes and cultures each are hostile in different ways. The book ends with "It inhabits the fathers" but the book is about leaving to find one's own way. Both Wayne and his friend both needed to leave their fathers to become themselves. But most of all, it's a book about how things don't turn out like you plan or expect. His friend lost her voice and thus her dreamed of singing career. Wayne was designated a man but feels Annabel within. Treadway, his father, wanted a son to share the wilderness but ends up completely unable to understand Wayne. And so on, every character in this novel had to come to grips with unexpected change caused by their relations with others. It's about the challenge of being unique and who you are despite the human need for interdependence.

In a strange way, it's also a book about the hidden lives of women.

I greatly enjoyed this novel. There are flaws and it seemed as if it ended too early without conclusion but nevertheless I think it's fantastic.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Tell Tale Brain- V.S. Ramachandran


Tell-Tale Brain-V.S. Ramachandran


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 293
gender: M
nationality: Indian
year: 2012
Non fiction

Ramachandran uses neuroscience to explore questions of human existence through the discussion of very unusual cases.

I heard the premise of this book and immediately thought of Oliver Sacks. I enjoy Sacks but I've always felt a bit of a strange disquiet from his case studies-a bit of voyeurism. I'm happy to say Ramachandran was not at all like that. They explore many of the same disorders,like alien hand syndrome, but approach in completely different ways. While Sacks tries to understand how it feels to have the altered perceptions, Ramachandran seeks physical reasons for them going far beyond the accident that caused them. Instead Ramachandran looks to the structures in the brain whose function is highlighted when they are damaged. The disorders are partially ways to understand murky parts of the brain itself rather than just a way to understand our human experience.

And still, Ramachandran looks beyond just the structural damage and the structures that we can understand better and THEN steps back and discusses how that then can be tied into more general understandings. He is not shy about extrapolating but he also provides ways to test his explanations which is invaluable. His reliance on the scientific method may be a little impersonal but it leads credence to the ability of taking small scale analysis to the large scale.

I was particularly intrigued by the mirror neurons. The neurons that fire not just when you perform an action but when you watch others perform an action. His arguments linking those to the assimilation of information and autism were convincing and I look forward to future research on these neurons. Ramachandran was that convincing and that capable to transferring his excitement to the reader.

I recommend to folks who are intrigued by our minds, autism, neuroscience, or are fans of Oliver Sacks's case study based work. I'd argue this is a step up.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Essays in Love- Alain de Botton


Essays in Love- Alain de Botton


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 249
gender:M
nationality: Swiss
year: 1993
Novel

Set up in an essay style, this philosophical novel follows a love affair from beginning to end.

I loved this book. No seriously, I loved this book on love. It's highly prone to digressions and tangents but that's kind of what I love about philosophical novels. The writing takes itself too seriously while mocking itself. It's clever and intelligent elevating the thoughts and observations above the banal plot.

I think what makes this book work overall is the networking of ideas de Botton sprinkles throughout. There's definite Stendhal influences in there combined with folks like Wilde which overall creates a sense of wit and control over the poetry. There are bits where I immediately thought, “oh goodness that's me”. I was told it was a flawed book but I think the flaws might be what made it relatable. It wasn't a history of /my/ love affairs (that to me would be quite dull) but there were enough glimpses of wisdom and shared experience that made me like the book all the more.

If you like philosophical novels that are more about the thoughts and poetic analysis than plot-this would be right up your alley!

Living day to day with her was like acclimatizing myself to a foreign country, and being prey therefore to occasional xenophobia at departures from my own traditions and history. It implied a geographic and cultural dislocation, forcing us to cross an exposed period between two habits,”

P.S. the amount of times I accidentally called this guy de bottom is unreal

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Suits Me- Diane Wood Middlebrook


Suits Me-Diane Wood Middlebrook


the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 281
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 1998
Non-fiction, Biography

A biography of Billy Tipton-an American jazz musician active in the Midwest, South and Northwest.

This is not a spoiler-Billy was born Dorothy Tipton but ze lived as a man all zir life as a bandleader and performer on stage. Ze was married to multiple women. This is a fascinating life story that provides a snapshot into a transgendered individual in early American history. I mean, Billy was born in 1917 and was in the public eye all throughout the 50s and 70s and I know of no other such biography or memoir that I can access through my local library system that covers such a life.

My main problem though was of pronouns. All throughout the book I'm stuck thinking WHY THE SWITCHING!? Billy seems to never have switched-he lived as man. One justification given is that ze wrote letters to zir family who never seemed to really accept zir as a man which doesn't strike me /at all/ as a good justification. Ze wanted to keep in contact with the family ze loved? To me, what.a.surprise. instead of “perfect excuse to remind you that ze was once a little girl.” (I'm writing this review in this modern, new-fangled neutral pronoun but I wish Middlebrook had stuck to male pronouns.)

But even that wasn't as irritating as the fact that I saw no justification for the assertion that Billy wanted a dramatic reveal when ze died and the whole “Billy's life was all a performance” talk really, really bugged me. I felt like it was a dismissal of Billy's life as a performance. Sure Billy never seemed to identify as transgender but he acted in all ways (except the occasional family time) as a man during a time when transgenderism wasn't really a thing which doesn't merit mixed pronouns that felt disrespectful.

I found myself asking constantly why Middlebrook felt such.a.need to simplify what is actually incredibly complicated.

I recommend this to people who can see beyond the somewhat dated interpretations who is interested in queer history.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Empress of Weehawken- Irene Dische


Empress of Weehawken- Irene Dische


the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 307
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2007
Novel

A fictionalized memoir of Elisabeth Rother, a proud Aryan and Catholic who nonetheless has been involved with Jews her whole life which involved her fleeing Nazi Germany. It follows the entirety of her young adult life to beyond her death-thus following the lives of her daughter, Renate and her granddaughter, Irene.

I’m not sure why the conceit of putting herself in the novel-Irene Dische is the granddaughter, an impossible person. But never mind the slight Mary Sue going on.

I just never liked Elisabeth Rother. She was an engaging narrator full of funny opinions and certainly kept the narrative going but I never empathized or liked her. There was never any push for me to look past her anti-Semiticism (despite marrying a converted Jew), racism (refusing to hire colored maids), and utter snobbishness. I mean, she was convincing but I never felt like I needed to read this book for her.

I did however enjoy the generational divide between her and her daughter, Renate. That perspective above all kept me going even though the Irene character irritated me to no end. Elisabeth clearly doesn’t understand the allure of being a pathologist with all her remarks about “the mother working with dead parts!” and as such- it was funny and pretty much applicable to any older/younger family relationships when the child decides to become something not seen as practical (like, say an archaeologist). Clearly there is love and this type of complex relationship is well represented within Rother’s narration.

But strangely enough, it all remained so flat and so I never liked any of the characters. I don’t really know if I could recommend the book.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Predictably Irrational- Dan Ariely


Predictably Irrational- Dan Ariely


the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 244
gender: M
nationality: Israeli
year: 2008
Non-fiction

Ariely refutes the economic idea of a rational human being and instead explains how we end up being irrational, overpaying, procrastinating, and misguided.

I read this in one go. It was gripping. His writing style is conversational (while dropping in references to case studies) and so it's easy to read. Everything he pointed out, I ended up finding to be true through my own anecdotal memory. I loved it.

And while many of the points seemed often to be no-brainers to me, I had to remind myself of the economic human being. In archaeology, whenever we talk about economic theories and models we usually wrap up our summaries with “but of course human beings are irrational,” and you can be forgiven for feeling like wondering why we bother thinking about ancient economic practices at all. I know I have often been irritated by the strange gulf between economic theories and how they work in the world (oops, just outed myself as a free-market hater). Ariely points out that there are reasons why we are irrational-it's sort of like he makes irrationality into a logical system for understanding human societies which sounds a bit like I'm contradicting myself but I'm not. I guess you ought to read the book, I promise it's not as confusing as I am.

He points out the things that can influence a normal human being and offers ways to identify them and perhaps resist them a bit. Things like how we compare things, the influence of Free!, social vs economic norms, procrastination, endowment effects (once we've gotten something), loss aversion, and leverage biases are all used in marketing for instance. It is good to realize or be reminded of the little ways we can be influenced into being irrational when we feel we are being quite rational.

Instead it is utterly readable and I recommend it to anyone who wants to have some thinking time.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Deaf Sentence-David Lodge


Deaf Sentence- David Lodge


the facts
satisfaction: side/down
pages: 435 (I accidentally grabbed a large print edition)
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2008
Novel

Desmond Bates is a retired linguistic professor who is going deaf and has a rather stultified personal life. Described on the book jacket entirely in terms of tragicomedy and deafness.

When the character muses on his life, he tends to wax poetically in a well written way. The title gives you a glimpse into the humor since deaf sentence is a pun on how similar death and deaf sound to the hard of hearing. Desmond is an engaging narrator and a spot on character.

However, I did not appreciate the novel, probably because I am hard of hearing and have been for all my life. I didn't like the constant harping on about an impoverished and hard life. I was irritated beyond belief by his gripes about his hearing aids; 'sweaty earmolds' means you need to go to your audiologist so they can drill the hole a bit larger, go and get it fixed! /tangent I really wanted to shake him sometimes and be like “Get out of your ears man!”. I can sympathize with the irritation of loud situations but quite frankly, he confessed he had digital hearing aids- if the programs aren't working well enough, go to your audiologist and talk to him/her, don't just complain about it! /tangent. Argh! I could go on but I risk sounding entirely unsympathetic.

It was particularly irritating because the strongest parts of the novel had nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with his hearing loss and yet the first part of the novel just harps on and on about how hard it is to be going deaf. Was that the comic part of the book and the humor just escaped me? I found the strange manipulative American more comic than anything else in the book and so I assumed that plotline was the comic. Or was the hearing loss the supreme tragic part? Frustrating really, because there was so much good overlaid with this bad veneer of the difficulties of going deaf. A quick glance on the interwebs shows a great number of positive reviews. But then again, maybe as a young hard of hearing woman, I simply can't understand the plight of an aged, losing-hearing man.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Darwin's Ghosts-Rebecca Stott


Darwin's Ghosts-Rebecca Stott

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 297
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Non Fiction

The book is basically a series of biographies of thinkers throughout the ages who are Darwin's predecessors in the theory of evolution.

While I recognize that Charles Darwin is certainly the modern father of the theory of evolution and natural selection, I've always been troubled by the idea of Darwin thinking in a vacuum. It goes against everything I ever have done or observed myself and it has always bugged me when discussions about evolutionary theories seem to have one author. I find it ironic that Darwin so often has the position of creator of the theory Creationism argues against. So when I spotted this book on the new books shelf of my library I snapped it up immediately.

Stott has done all the legwork in finding out about those forgotten predecessors of evolution and concisely describing their contributions. It's really a shame they are forgotten since so many ended up destitute, in prison, exiled, and tortured. It's very engaging and I am thoroughly impressed by the lack of superfluity in each mini biography that nonetheless provides enough information to bring each man alive. She is novelist and science writer. The science writer accurately describes and finds connections between far flung subjects and the novelist gives you the political and personal contexts of each individual.

Stott is much more sympathetic to Darwin than perhaps I am but I came to see her point about the bravery of his publication and to sympathize with his own anxiety about how to acknowledge his influences. Certainly Aristotle was a safe influence to admit to but Maillet with his belief in mer-man could have jeopardized his own credibility. Other influences such as Palissy pottery were probably much more subtle but as a more objective observer Stott can dwell in the pertinent nuances.

So who were his predecessors? Aristotle, Al-Jahiz, Da Vinci, Palissy, Malliet, Rafin, Diderot, Lamarck, Erasmas Darwin (a grandfather), Wallace (a contemporary) among others.

I recommend this to anyone who has to discuss evolutionary and Darwinist theory, academics, and people who like biographies of fascinating people (especially if you rarely read them like me).

Friday, July 6, 2012

Bluebeard- Kurt Vonnegut


Bluebeard- Kurt Vonnegut


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 300
gender: M
nationality: USA
year: 1987
Novel

The fictional autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, an artist and one eyed war vet prone to becoming a hermit until the widow Circe Berman steps in and badgers him into writing.

I loved this. It was a surprisingly quick read mainly because I just kept giggling all the way through it so you know it's a brilliant satire. Vonnegut usually amuses me but few of his novels really make me laugh. I think this one is a bit underrated to be frank.

Karabekian is a guy who bounces between the present (and his fear of the widow Berman) and his past (as the patron of the Abstract modernist art movement). He is a very human character: bitter, cynical, crotchety old man who has a secret in his potato barn. You spend most of the novel hoping that Circe will/will not succeed in irritating him enough into revealing it before he dies.

This review is rubbish, I can't capture why this particular novel is absolutely splendid. Was it the wonderfully sparse but evocative language? Was it the rich irony of a technically skilled artist funding Abstract modernism? I don't know but I recommend this one to everyone.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happiness Project-Gretchen Rubin


The Happiness Project- Gretchen Rubin


the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 292
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2009
Non-fiction/Memoir

The Happiness Project chronicles Gretchen Rubin's year of trying to be more happy. Each month she would test the applicability of the various theories of happiness to the areas in her life she found important.

This stops short of being a self-help book- yes, there are resources and you can too undertake her journey but Rubin aptly avoids preachiness. She freely shares her anxieties about the existence of this book. She acknowledges her privileges as someone who does not suffer from chronic illness or depression and that, more than anything, kept me reading. And I found she is human and inherently readable.

I read this in chapter bursts and had to tear myself away from it. It's not all applicable to my own life (I do not, for instance, have kids) but the theories she is testing are. For example, I too, often forget that anticipation is its own kind of happiness and while I do not have the responsibility of planning birthday parties I can come away from that anecdote telling myself to remember- yeah you don't want to organize/run that errand etc, but I do want the result and therefore it's up to me and I might as well enjoy it.

I liked her conclusion. She did not find happy to be something you strove for but rather something you accept you already have. And the point made was that if you yourself are happy, the people around you are going to be happier too even if you are the one who has to do the work. It's the little things that matter the most.

I do hesitantly recommend this book as long as you can accept her privilege-you'll then come away with tips and things to think about.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Leaving Atlanta- Tayari Jones


Leaving Atlanta- Tayari Jones


the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 255
gender: F
nationality: USA, of color
year: 2002
Novel

A coming of age story told by three different narrators against the backdrop of Atlanta summer murders of 1979.

Like any outcast child, I went through a serial killer stage...not becoming one of course but a morbid obsession with them. If I could go back in time, I'd give that teenage me this book. Not because it focuses on the killings but because I still find it quite astonishing how even books that purported to be about the victims were obsessed with the deaths and this is a great antidote to that. Jones in contrast concentrates on the child's eye view of the fear that serial killings instill into communities without sacrificing tone and authenticity.

I loved the voices of the three children. The recent books I've read from children narrators (some from the Booker Prize list) have all striked me as rather gimmicky and either too precocious or too infantalized or, just unnecessary. But in Leaving Atlanta, they are not gimmicky, they are not infantalized , they are children with all the worries and fears of ten year olds. They are worried about their parents, their family, and their reputations. They just want to have friends and not worry about losing them. I vaguely remember being a ten year old and this is exactly what I worried about. And the way Jones writes it, it becomes engaging and I would've read an entire novel about 10 year olds by themselves.

Except of course, I didn't worry about my classmates potentially dying and that setting adds a great mood to the whole novel and raises it above the more gimmicky recent novels in children's voices. I really can't recommend this enough!

P.S. I just recently learned that Jones actually grew up in Atlanta and had classmates who disappeared so rest assured, she knows what she's talking about.