Friday, June 6, 2014

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

If you're not familiar with Allie Brosh, she is a blogger, whose crude drawings and random stories might just make you laugh out loud.  She uses Paintbrush (similar to MSPaint) to draw cartoons about memorable incidents in her life.  Although her drawings are simple, she has a great way of showing a range of emotions in her characters, which are biographical.  Her stories are either funny-because-it's-true, or just completely non-sequitur (which I love too).

Brosh writes a lot about her childhood.  One of my favorite stories is how she and her sister had a toy parrot that would record whatever they would say.  They used it to drive their mother crazy, like any respectable siblings would do.

I also love stories about her dogs.

Despite their simplicity, Brosh has used her illustrations to express some pretty complex emotions.  Specifically depression.  The blend of her silly drawings and at times disturbing narratives of how she has suffered with depression is powerful.  You want to cry, and laugh at the same time.  You realize that this person drawing some of the funniest cartoons you've seen is actually...a person.  It's like realizing your favorite comedian isn't always cracking fart jokes all day.

I remember when a friend of mine first told me about Brosh's blog.  I checked it out.  It was pretty funny, so I periodically checked in on it.  But the posts slowed, and shortly after an excited "I'm writing a book!" post, Brosh posted "Adventures in Depression."  She struggled, and it was apparent.  Not just from the lack of posts on her site, but also from her posts themselves.  But her openness about her struggles just made me love her even more, and hopefully, if you don't already, her book or blog will make you love her too.

Click here to view Allie Brosh's blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

"If there really were vampires, what would they do for a living?"  That is a question that this book became the unexpected answer to, according to the author on her blog.  As for me, although I've read that Harkness hasn't read the popular YA series, I'd dare say this book could be considered a Twilight for adults.  Compliment?  Or criticism?  You decide.  But at its simplest, there are vampires, witches, and daemons.  (If you're not sure what a daemon is...think borderline insane, ADHD, wildly creative person...beyond that, I haven't figured it out in terms of superpowers or anything).

Here's what I like about the book, and it mostly concerns the author.  Harkness is a historian.  She has several degrees and teaches at USC and has extensively studied the history of magic and science in Europe from 1500-1700.  If you, like me, have ever wondered why classes like this exist beyond giving history buffs something random to chew on, maybe this novel is one.  Harkness' love for these things is obvious from reading A Discovery of Witches, which is a historical work of fiction.  There are all kinds of allusions, most of which were lost on me, to scientists, authors, and novels.  The story spans a range of geography and time, and Harkness seems comfortable with it all.  At times, I feel our 1500 year-old, well-learned vampire Matthew can get a bit pretentious, but understanding Harkness' love for history forgives that for me.

The story begins with Diana, an alchemical history professor at Oxford university (if there is such a thing at Oxford, I wasn't able to figure it out from their website).  Diana is descended from a prominent line of witches, but has shunned her magical ability, at least to the degree it's possible (WHY!?!?!).  During her studies, she is able to recall an old, long-thought-lost volume of magic called Ashmole 782, and this draws the attention of not just her fellow witches, but other supernatural creatures as well.  While Diana doesn't realize the significance of her finding, it sets in motion a series of events that make magic an inevitable part of her life.  As she becomes entrenched in the mystery of Ashmole 782 (which you can read about on Harkness' blog), Diana meets Matthew, a geneticist (and also a vampire).  Why would a vampire be interested in an old book of magic?  Is there something extraordinary about Diana that Matthew sees?  How could Diana's find be the catalyst for a war between witches and vampires?

These are the questions A Discovery of Witches begins to answer, BUT...and here's where other reviewers and I agree, the pacing is slow.  In fact, it took me several months (if not a year) to get through this book as it was a between-book-read.  But I felt, by the end, Harkness had really laid out her premise and introduced her characters fully.  It also helped that the book picked up steam near the end and left off on a cliff-hanger that makes me really curious to see how she handles book two (yes, this is a trilogy...and yes, there is a movie in the making).

So, to be honest, this was a book I almost gave up on.  But in desperation for something to read, I finished it and now want to read the second book.  Probably not for everyone, but if I had you at "vampires" or "Twilight," then we already know you'll want to read it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Here's the next big YA trilogy, the first book of which has already been released to the big screen.  It has all the sexy elements a YA dystopian thriller needs to be teenagers (going off of the movie trailer a bit on this one)...Ok, wait.  Did I just say "hot teenagers"?!?  Creepy.  I'm way too old to be saying things like that. (I was going to put "waaaaaaaay too old" but no, I'm just "way" too old).

Which brings me to my next point, maybe I'm not the target audience for this genre.  Or maybe the genre is being diluted...I don't know.  Whatever it is, I wasn't totally sold on Divergent.

Okay, back to the "hot teenagers" comment.  This is bothering me.  When a book about 16 year olds is made into a movie that is marketed to adults and teens alike, what the hell am I supposed to think when "Four" is played by a chiseled 30 year old?  I guess technically his character is 18 so I'm in the clear.  Okay, glad we hashed that out.

Back to the book.  Basically everyone in...Chicago (from what I can gather) decided that the ills that plagued them could be boiled down to one thing.  What is that thing?  Well, depends on who you ask.  Some people say it's ignorance.  Others say it's selfishness, or dishonesty, or cowardess, or just plain being mean.  So society split into 5 factions, each trying to embody the opposite of what they believed was the root evil of mankind.  When an individual reached the age of 16, he or she could choose which faction they wanted to become a part of.

So Beatrice grew up in Abnegation, which is a fancy term for self-sacrifice.  But she doesn't quite feel like she fits in.  She isn't down with wearing gray clothes, and not having mirrors, and always being stuck at parties cleaning up.  She's intrigued by the Dauntless (or fearless), who don't just ride the train to and from school, they riiiiiide the train to and from school (the extra i's in that word mean the train doesn't ever stop, it just rolls by while all the Dauntless kids jump in and out of the cars, because they're Dauntless.  And they don't need no stinking train stops).  I could see why that might be appealing enough to make me leave my family too.

So before "The Choosing," Beatrice undergoes evaluation to determine which faction best suits her.  Her test results are abnormal...Divergent, if you will.  Which, apparently is a bad thing.  But really, the fact that people fit cleanly into just one category had me scratching my head.  But okay.

Despite the results, Beatrice ultimately has the choice of which faction to join.  She makes her decision, and most of the book deals with the initiation process that entails.  Then there's some evil plot to take over Chicago (I don't think Chicago is ever mentioned but that's what wikipedia says), and hilarity ensues.

Okay, the book is better than I'm letting on, but it's not the greatest YA novel I've read.  I think my biggest problem was that I couldn't sign on with the premise that people fit into just one category.  Not only does Roth create these clean lines and divisions, but she goes overboard with the stereotyping.  Really?  NO ONE besides Abnegation can help out after an event?  ONLY Amity can be caretakers?  How the hell do children survive in the other factions?  "But that's the point!" you're probably screaming at me.  Yeah, well, if it's that glaringly obvious from the get-go, then what the hell am I doing for the next 400 pages?  And I think we already know that being "divergent" really is the rule, not the exception.

So what's the payoff here?  I'm not sure.  Maybe a great story? Maybe a chance to live in another world for a brief period?  Those are the optimistic options.  The realistic one?  For me?  To skip the rest of the series and diverge to something else.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog by Chad Orzel

I'm a bit of a closet physics fan.  It's hard to admit, seeing as the classes I struggled with most in college were my physics courses.  But if you don't force me to work out equations for things like how a ball bounces, and just talk to me about all the weird stuff that physics predicts, I'm an enthusiastic student.  While there are a lot of mysteries to be understood in this world, there is one thing that really bothers me.  I don't get relativity.

You know, Einstein?  E=mc2, and all that?  Of course, if I can't even figure out how to superscript the squared in this equation, what hope do I really have?

Einstein's theories of special and general relativity are elegant and straighforward, as far as these things go (at least I've been told).  It's the ramifications of these theories that will blow your mind.  Things like black holes, time travel, and spaghettification (not a pleasant thing) become topics of discussion.

Orzel frames his book as a series of discussions with his clever dog.  While in theory, the premise is cute, it comes across as contrived.  Orzel's dog listens intently to each argument and then asks highly intelligent questions that my little mind didn't have the capacity to form.  And while I get the impression Orzel is a really nice guy, his jokes fell flat.  But he tried.

I also had a hard time with the diagrams.  I am a very visual learner and the diagrams just didn't do it for me.  I found them confusing and difficult to follow.  I guess I'm a sucker for Hawking's books (something I think Orzel wouldn't be thrilled to hear).  Is it possible I just wasn't Orzel's target audience, and this book was geared toward a more learned audience?  While that might be the case, in a book that's supposed to be understandable to a dog, it's not what I would expect.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

There is a haunted house and ghosts, but this isn't a ghost story.  There is a lake monster, but this isn't a horror story.  And there is an illicit affair, but this isn't a love story.  The Monsters of Templeton is Lauren's Groff's freshman novel, a story about cause and effect.  It is about actions and reactions, and the constants in our lives we think we have, and others we don't even realize are there.

The Monsters of Templeton begins with Willie, a post-grad who has left an archaeology trip in Alaska in disgrace.  She takes refuge in her small New York town of Templeton, which is having its own dramatic crisis.  A strange sea creature has turned up dead in the lake, bringing media, lookyloos, and lots of speculation to Willie's usually quiet town.  Upon arriving home, Willie's mother, Vi, also unloads a family secret on Willie that occupies her time and thoughts as she delves into her family tree, which is also entrenched in Templeton's history.

If this sounds like a lot, Groff handles it all pretty cleanly.  She brings up things in the right places at the right time.  Her storytelling is complete, but requires patience.  And it might be here that I disagree with other readers who would give this book a solid 5 stars.  But perhaps it's more a fault of my own impatience rather than Groff's. 

Groff alternates chapter voices.  One chapter might be a distant relative of Willie's, while the next takes us back to the present.  Her writing wasn't immediately fulfilling for me.  I'd read nearly an entire chapter not understanding what it is about and then the last few pages would begin to make sense in the grander scheme of the book. A few times I actually went back to the beginning of a chapter to reread, armed with the knowledge of the relevance of that particular character.  While I found this frustrating, the way Groff slowly unfolds the story makes it fulfilling in an entirely different way.  It's one of those books that you might want to reread.  Because you slowly learn who is who and how everyone is related, you might get more out of a second reading.

I feel like a high school English teacher would love this book for its symbolism and themes.  It just *felt* like one of those books that could elicit a lot of discussion and thought.  Maybe I wasn't in the right mindframe for this book, but I would give it three stars out of five.  While I "only" liked it, I can see how others might love it.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

If you live under a rock, Orange is the New Black is the memoir of a Smith College grad who spent her post-college days experimenting with lesbianism and drug trafficking.  Okay, to be fair, she might have been more grounded in the former than the latter, but it's not really clear from the book.  Watch the Netfiix series, though, and you'll get waaaaaaay more lesbionic love scenes than the source material proffers.

But that's not to say you should skip the book!  OITNB (get with it) is part cautionary tale, part WTF, and part commentary against the U.S. federal prison system.

Imagine you are young, spontaneous, not sure of the next step in life.  You come from a good family, you have a great education, and your girlfriend lives a life that takes her to exotic locations and pays well.  Okay, better than well.  Turns out her sister's boyfriend is a major player in the drug trade.  Eventually simply accompanying her on business trips becomes traveling with a suitcase full of drug money.  Slope slipped.  But before Kerman gets too far down, she breaks free, cuts her ties, and moves across the country.  Crisis averted.

Until five years later, when the feds come knocking at her door.  Shiznit.

This book is less about Kerman, however, and more about the federal women's prison in Danbury, CT and its other inhabitants.  Through Kerman's experience, we glimpse the daily routine, the programs (or lack thereof), the food, and the ad-hoc families that make up day to day life at Danbury.  She details the tragedy that is a part of everyday life in prison, as well as the triumphs.  Perhaps most surprising to me was the lack of sheer terror and violence I guess I was expecting Kerman to experience.  Again, that's not to say you should skip the book!

I was amazed at how people made do with their circumstances and each other.  Somewhat parodoxically, my eyes were opened to the great equalizer that prison could be.  Kerman was able to show how women from so many walks of life could coexist and foster meaningful relationships.  And you'll learn a lot of really random things, like how to make cheesecake with a microwave and laughing cow cheese, and how to clean a ceiling with tampons.  Sign me up!

I've already mentioned that the Netflix series is different from the book, but in a lot of ways, it is remarkably similar too.  Yeah, Crazy Eyes doesn't pee on Kerman's floor in the book, but she does mention a woman she calls Crazy Eyes, another who tried wooing her, and a peeing incident.  And there might not be a whole backstory on a guard and an inmate who have an affair, but Kerman describes how one guard, suspecting impropriety, caused an inmate to go to solitary, and the guard in question quitting.

But you should do more than just read this book and watch the series.  And that's one way I know I've read an intriguing book, when I want to google the author and learn more.  Because Orange is the New Black is more than *just* a memoir.  It's a commentary, and hopefully by reading it, you'll be more than just entertained.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

I saw a neurologist once.  I was feeling increasingly confused, forgetful, and mentally disheveled.  I would find myself driving on the freeway and suddenly not know where I was or where I was going.  I would walk into a co-worker's office only to forget why I was there.  I'd read a book or watch a movie and not remember what it was about.  The neurologist gave me a handful of tests, during which I quickly realized, I'm definintely not crazy.  I knew my name, what year it was, and could easily draw the face of a clock on a sheet of paper.  Given the timing of my symptoms with the recent birth of my son, I was diagnosed with nothing more than mommy brain.

A bit embarrased, but definitely relieved, I laugh about my bought of hypochondria.  At the time though, I thought I was losing it.  And that's what happened to Susannah Cahalan.  She slowly started noticing little things that were unlike her...a jealous thought, a migraine, sensitivity to lights.  She even went to the doctor and had an MRI and blood tests.  Everything came back normal.  Maybe she was stressed.  Maybe she was about to have a breakdown.  Maybe, as one doctor believed, she just partied too much.

But when her symptoms went from bad to worse and she had a series of seizures, Cahalan had the doctors' attention.  Still, all the tests came back negative.  Her symptoms, which appeared similar to schizophrenia, took her down a month-long rabbit hole of madness, most of which, she has no memory.

Brain on Fire is Cahalan's descent into madness and her climb back out.  As it turns out, it was a simple test, in fact one of the same ones I was given on my panicked visit to the doctor, that led to Cahalan's diagnosis.  Cahalan relied on interviews with her family, doctors, and her own fragmented memory to reconstruct the events during her illness.

If this doesn't sound compelling enough, Cahalan takes you deeper.  You'll learn about monstrous tumors complete with hair and teeth that inhabit otherwise normal people, and even delve into the supernatural to see how her symptoms are eerily similar to people believed to be possessed with evil spirits.

Given Cahalan's occupation as a journalist and the fascinating subject matter, this is a book you won't want to put down.  And given that it's a true story, you won't soon take your sanity for granted.