Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

I share much the same initial sentiment of my fellow readers on this WTactualF did I just read. I was thrust into a world where the players affectionately sniff each other in greeting (as was polite) and kill small children for multiple reasons because you can't have just one. Just as this tale was at times unsavory, yet at times really intriguing, I'm also of two minds about how I feel about it.

To say the characters are unlikeable is an understatement. There's our "librarians" - David, whose catalogue is murder and war. His hobbies include squeezing blood from the hearts of his victims into his hair, creating a sort of warrior's helmet over time, and bringing his girlfriend the still animated, severed heads of his spoils to play with. Speaking of Margaret, her forays into the underworld require dying, obviously. But with each visit, she loses a bit of herself after every trip, until, well, she thinks it's fun to lick the tears of severed heads. And of course this constant dying and reviving is made possible by Jennifer, whose catalogue is medicine. She can heal and bring back the dead, but her constant dabbling with pain and its relief has led to her working most effectively in a drugged out stupor. Then there's Rachel, who kills children on a regular basis. She walks surrounded by her ghostly charges, who enable her to see the future.

Speaking of reanimated dead (because there are many types), some serve as housekeepers and placeholders for the librarians. Think complacent zombies that sweep and dust and live in houses that serve as a front to disguise the library, which exists in 17 dimensions.

But back to our librarians. There's Carolyn, who is a language expert for every language ever to exist, including things like the poetic language of storms. And Michael, ambassador of beasts. He lives among and communicates with animals (hence the sniffing greetings). These are some of the 12 librarians, all selected and trained by "Father," whose methods of discipline include roasting his children in an exotic bull shaped barbeque, among other things. A man who could call down lightning or stop time, to whom stones spoke to by name. But is he God? Or a god? Hardly.

And that's part of the intrigue of this book. Who is God? What are the rules of the universe? What makes someone good, or evil, or powerful?

With all the violence, death, and heavy themes, Hawkins blends humor and farcical touches throughout the book.

Like the part where one character is celebrating being basically a god but sits around drinking Budweiser. BUDWEISER!

Or the part where Father explains how all the horrible things he's done had reasons behind them, as if he's some misunderstood psychopathic sadist. Like we're supposed to sympathize with him when he explains how he had an epiphany the last time he roasted David in the bull.

Or how the language of the librarians is Pelapi, a singsongy cross between an illegitimate child of Vietnamese and a cat fight.

Or how David, having to spend some time in America, decides a tutu is the closest thing to his customary loincloth. Hawkins loves to remind us of how bloodstained it is each time David makes an entrance to engage in mass murder.

Or when Carolyn concocts an overly complicated plan that involves killing someone, getting someone else locked up in jail, breaking said person out of jail, then sending him off somewhere to be potentially attacked and killed by wild dogs, in the off chance that he'll drop something somewhere for someone else to find later and on and on. Just hearing her explanation of her plan was more ridiculous than the playing out of said plan.

Then there's the whole, the sun disappeared bit, where earth basically experiences an apocalypse, something Hawkins really just glosses over, having one character note that maybe she noticed something off because the store WAS out of guacamole...

And I could go on and on.

Here's the rub for me...if still you're on board after reading all of this so far. I basically read the book twice. After the first read, I wrote an angry I-hate-this-book review. But I felt I needed specific examples of what I actually hated. So I skimmed the book a second time through. I noticed two things, first, I didn't remember a lot of details from the first read. I think I read the book half asleep the first time. Second, because I had some context, a lot of the details I (legitimately) read the first time, actually made sense the second time. After that second go, I felt completely differently about this book.

It's hard to follow, confusing, and seriously random. But it's also wildly creative and original. It's definitely not for everyone, as there is a lot of violence. But it's written in a way that you don't really feel too invested in anyone or anything that dies. And death isn't necessarily a permanent condition, so...I wasn't really bothered by the violence as much as others seemed to be. Let's just say this book would make for a great Tarantino film. I almost hope that happens.

And while I've only read great reviews on this book, I also wouldn't be surprised if you, like me, hate it, at least the first time around.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

This World War II biography is written about Jan and Antonina Zabinksi. Jan was the Warsaw zoo's zookeeper. Before the war, he and his wife lived in a villa at the zoo and enjoyed a home filled with strange and exotic pets, (besides the animals in the zoo, of course).  It wasn't unusual to see a hawk hopping throughout the house, or a baby lion being nursed. But what was once a beautifully strange and fulfilling way of life turned to a life of survival and secrets, when Germany invaded Warsaw during World War II.

What may have appeared to be the Zabinskis' love for animals before the war was revealed to be a love for life of all kinds, during the war. Although they lost most of their animals, holding on to those they could, and became active participants in the Warsaw underground. The zoo, amidst war-torn Warsaw, and occasionally visited by Nazi soldiers, was an unlikely location for hiding Jews. But the unoccupied animal enclosures served as convenient hiding spots for Jews making their way through the Polish underground.

What I liked about this book is that, despite the atrocities described and the undertones of war, Ackerman's writing didn't leave me as drained as I've felt when reading or watching other things about World War II. She focuses on Antonina's spirit of hope and humanity, which makes reading about some of the more distasteful things more palatable.

There is also an almost whimsical quality about Antonina, from her playing "Go Go Go to Crete" on the piano as a warning to those in the home, to her love for creatures both large and small. While she lives in constant fear and worry, she hides it well from those in the house, and in a way, from whomever is reading the book as well.

It's an amazing story about even more amazing people during an extraordinary time. For more information about Antonina and Jan, here is a brief interview from her daughter, Teresa, who happens to give the movie, based on this book, an endorsement.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Kulti by Mariana Zapata

This book is not really one I'd pick up, except for the rave reviews I was reading about it. So I decided to give it (and soccer lit) a go. Is that a thing? Soccer lit? Well, it is now.

I liked the narrator. Sal Casillas is strong, funny, and swears appropriately. But she's also a bit annoying, in a  righteously indignant way. And let me tell you, she. has. done. nothing. wrong. If there is a takeaway from this book, let it be that. Because she will remind you every flipping day.

So I guess I didn't like this one as much as everyone else.

But overall, it was good. I enjoyed the story of a U.S. professional female soccer player, whose team brings on Reiner Kulti, a soccer legend, as a coach. Of course personalities conflict, the past is dredged, revelations are made, and shenanigans ensure. Despite the soccer and professional sports thing, it's really a story that could happen to anyone. In that way, it's relatable, but also non-eventful.

Yet I kept reading. It was safe and comfortable, I guess. Like the old toaster in the attic my old boyfriend tried to compare me to when he was breaking up with me. But that's a different story in no need for further comment.

So I'll end with this: you'll probably like this book. I've heard it's really very good.

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah

Now that flu season is in full swing, and our flu shots aren't doing us much good this year, it's a good time to talk about all the disgusting diseases that can kill you. But let's up the stakes and focus on diseases that spread worldwide, we're talking cholera, Ebola, SARS...pandemic level contagions.

Sonia Shah's book, Pandemic, focuses heavily on cholera, tracking its meager beginnings to its reemergence today. Shah believes that by studying cholera, many other world diseases can be understood. But she doesn't just talk about cholera, she uses it as a vehicle to segue into other diseases, explaining what exactly they are, how they spread, and how environmental or cultural factors contribute to this spread.

And it's this last point I found most interesting. She talks about how China's wet markets contributed to the spread of SARS, or how public sanitation, or lack thereof, contributed to cholera's spread.

Among social and economic factors, Shah talks about how a foreclosure crisis in South Florida contributed to an explosion of Dengue fever. The foreclosures allowed mosquitos to breed in abandoned swimming pools and gardens out of sight of mosquito inspectors and homeowners. 

I particularly enjoyed her discussion of how the influence of Christianity basically made people dirtier than their ancient counterparts, who had elaborate water systems and rituals. She talked about how Hindus, Muslims, and Jews also have water based hygiene rituals, but Christians, just had to sprinkle a few drops of holy water to be "clean."

"The most holy Christians, with their lice-infested hair-shirts, were among the least washed people on earth."

And the European descendants who came to America had forsaken these ancient rituals, consuming up to 2 teaspoons of fecal matter in their food and drink a day.

And don't get her started on global warming. We are protected from many fungal pathogens that decimate amphibious populations because of the temperature of our blood, which is too warm for these pathogens to survive. But could a slow warming of the environment allow certain pathogens to soon tolerate the warmth of our blood?

She also had a great example of how the loss of biodiversity in bird species can influence the spread of human pathogens.

While this review from the New York Times suggests Pandemic doesn't offer anything new to the genre, and in fact falls short of relevant disease discussion, I suppose an uninformed person like myself just might find the book compelling.

Give Me Liberty! A review of American History and Voices of Freedom by Eric Foner

Give me liberty! And two book reviews damn it! Yes, I'm reviewing (more) textbooks. Why American History? Well, my instructor asked me the same question, and here was my answer to him:

     "I chose history because it's everywhere. It's in the events that lead to a new technology, it's in old pictures I see of myself, as I laugh at the fashion trend of the time. It's in the changes in popular culture, or in our search to understand why something happened the way it did. It's in the obituaries we read about a life now passed.

     Why American History? Well, whenever I hear a news report that talks about the workings of government. I always wish I had paid a bit more attention in my high school history class. I hope that in taking this course, I will be more informed about how this country works and why it works the way it does. I don't want to have to turn to Wikipedia anymore to figure out things I feel I should already know, like how a bill becomes a law, or why we have an electoral college. I expect to come out of this class with not only a better understanding of American History, but that by understanding the foundation and growth of this country, it will give some context to help me understand current events."

You get the gist. So Give Me Liberty is the textbook we used. Eric Foner has another, more comprehensive text. So this one is the condensed version. But a lot of the materials cut out of the main textbook are included in the companion reader, Voices of Freedom. This book has short readings that supplement each chapter, usually essays and letters by people from that particular time period.

I'm not an aficionado of History textbooks, but I actually thought Give Me Liberty was quite good. Foner really emphasized things that weren't traditionally taught, especially in grade school history courses. His focus on racial inequality and the roots of racism in America were really eye opening to me. He spent a lot of time discussing the dishenfranchisement of groups like Native Americans, women, and African Americans. And his summary of American History from Columbus' voyage to the Americas to the Civil War was brief, but impactful.

The companion book, Voices of Freedom, was a bit of a bore for me, tbh.But I suppose it's a great resource if you want a compilation of writings from that time period.

So a hit and miss, respectively, for these two books. Not that you're going out to buy either anytime soon. But you should know, I still don't quite get how a bill becomes a law (that's not really covered in this book). But there's always this guy for that:


Friday, September 1, 2017

Dr. Mutters Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz

It's hard to think that there used to be a day when people would willingly go into surgery without anesthesia of any kind...without sterile procedures in place...and without a formally trained doctor. But that's just a taste of what people faced in the 19th century, when Thomas Dent Mutter practiced medicine. And the marvels that form part of his legacy are more than tangible curiosities in a cabinet.

Dr. Mutter was born into a loving family, but he lost both his parents at a young age. He also suffered from a chronic condition his entire life. But despite the setbacks life presented him, Thomas Mutter studied medicine and became a well-respected surgeon. And what I like best about him is the compassion he showed his patients, treating them as people, not mysteries to be solved. He revolutionized the way patients were treated by preparing them physically and mentally for days before surgery, and providing aftercare, rather than sending patients home within hours of experiencing the physical and mental trauma of surgery in the 1800's. His ideas on hygiene, in a time when germ theory was in its infancy, were ahead of their time. He also was one of the first doctors to use anesthetic on his patients, something that wasn't as popular as you might think among the medical community at the time. 

Mutter's contributions to medicine also include the eponymous Mutter flap surgery, a form of skin grafting used to treat the deformities of burn victims, that is still used today. And in the mid 1800's, there were a lot of burn victims, especially women, who wore flammable clothing while cooking over open flames. And such trauma often meant a lifetime of exile and shame for people who were shunned by society for their deformities. 

What's great about this book is that not only is Mutter himself an interesting person, but he lived in a strange and perplexing time. Aptowicz's narrative of 19th century medicine was the stuff of nightmares. This was a time when doctors assisted surgeons by holding the limbs of the patient, so he couldn't move, when society believed the more blood seen on a doctor's frock, the better the doctor, when surgeries were performed on stages with a live audience of medical students, and when patients were cut and bled to cure them of various ailments. 

We've come a loooooong way, and this book was an entertaining way to be reminded of that.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

After the Crash by Michael Bussi

This is a great example of what happens when a boob man writes a mystery novel. While the story at hand is fine, there were times when I'd be reading about turbulence in an airplane and then...BAM! A flight attendant with an aged fleshy bosom enters the scene. Does this character have an important role in the events at hand? Not really. Is there something about her body that is relevant to what is occurring? Nope. Well, maybe the author is just trying to paint a word picture for us...why then does he not mention anything else about this person's appearance? So now I'm left trying to solve the mystery of the mention of said bosom rather than focusing on the story at hand.

And we are only on the 2nd paragraph people.

We are then introduced to another character whose huge tits and oversized mammaries are described in two consecutive sentences. And then this character catches a ride with an acquaintance who mentions how he used to get so turned on watching her try to hide her big titties when she was on TV (his words, not mine). A totally acceptable comment from your friend's gardener while riding for 5 minutes together in the car, so I'm led to believe.

So Nicole has big boobs, got it. I'll give Bussi a pass whenever he feels the need to wax poetic about them.

But then Nicole's grandson notices her picture on a wall, and Bussi decides "ample breasted" would be an appropriate way to describe her in the photo. Maybe it's just me, but it seemed weird coming in the context of thoughts from her grandson.

And, while not quite as eyebrow raising as the anatomical fixation, I found it strange that distances were described in miles in a book that took place in France.

Luckily for Bussi, he has an out, as this book was originally written in French. There's some plausible deniability going on that allows me to wonder if all of this is really just something that is lost (gained?) in translation.

Works for me.

Boobs, miles, and hints of possible incest aside, this book isn't half bad. If you're interested in solving the mystery of a 3 month old baby who is the sole survivor of a plane crash, and whose identity is questioned, this book will not disappoint. And despite what I've said, the mystery is primary here, so boob men are better off waiting for the on screen adaptation.