Monday, July 26, 2010

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Have you ever heard of the Appalachian Trail? I hadn't. The AT and I don't have much in common. Unlike me, the AT lives on the east coast. And while I enjoy an occasional brisk walk, the AT is a career walker, at about 2200 miles and traversing 14 states. While the history and geography of the AT is interesting, that's not why I picked up A Walk in the Woods. I really had no idea the book was about the AT; I just heard it was funny.

Bill Bryson recounts his attempt at hiking the AT with his friend Stephen Katz. His stories on the trail are indeed funny, but few and far between. He intersperses these stories with a lot of history about how the trail was founded and how it is maintained. Based on a couple recommendations, I was expecting the book to be more comedy and less eduction, but it was really the other way around. I'm actually a bit embarrased to realize how little I knew about the geography of the region surrounding the AT.

I'm a bit of a book whore and will pretty much read anything. But my husband gave the book a go and didn't finish it. So the jury's still out on this one. I think the book has something to offer, but it's somewhat of a niche topic. If you need ideas of what does or does not work while hiking and camping, or you just want to learn more about one of the country's most historic trails, then this book's for you. And yeah, some parts are funny.

Reviewed by Cathy

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins

If you're in the mood for something completely different (Monty Python fan or not), this is a good starting place. This book was recommended to me by a high school teacher. And like a lot of books I read in high school, this book is rife with symbolism, word play, and literary allusions. However, this book is more suited to a college crowd than high schoolers (IMHO).

Cowgirls is the story of Sissy Hankshaw, a girl born with unusually large thumbs. You learn about her life as a child, her proclivities for hitchhiking, and her occasional work as a model for the Countess, a homosexual entrepreneur dedicated to making women smell better, if you know what I mean.

We follow Sissy, who is not inclined to stay in one place too long, as she ends up on an all-girl ranch, meets a wise Japanese hermit, learns about the mysterious Clock people, and finds her life somehow entangled with that of the whooping crane and the FBI. (Don't think like I did, however, that the FBI is a big part of the plot, "oh, a crime mystery!" It's not.)

This book follows Sissy's life from sometime in the 1940's to sometime in the 1970's. After I read it, I wasn't surprised to learn it was written in 1976 since, as wikipedia puts it, this book was a "favorite of the late 1970's anarchist hippie counterculture."

What I like about this book is that the author has a very stylized way of writing. He writes in first person and is aware that you're reading the book. He'll take time out of telling the story to write interludes and philosophize. He will also describe things in a way you would never image but, when described, seems to be the best way to get his point across. He'll talk about characters you haven't formally met yet which created, for me, a bit of mystery, And then, when I finally understand each character, a bit of an "ah-hah" moment (so THAT's what he was talking about...).

A word of advice, this book probably isn't for everyone. You have to pay attention as you read it. There's no zoning out allowed. The mystery isn't in the story that's told, it's really in the way it's told - in the images and pictures the author uses. And reading becomes more than just learning about Sissy. It's about taking time to think about things that may be directly related or only partially related to the story at hand. But don't worry, the author helps you through all of that.

Apparently, in 1993, this book was made into a movie with a cast including Uma Thurman, Roseanne Arnold, Pat Morita, Keau Reaves, and even William Burroughs (a poet and author from the beat generation with a colorful life, to say the least). Like the book, this offers to be something completely different, but based on its reviews, I'd recommend you just stick to the reading the book.

Reviewed by Cathy

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

This is the second book in a series of three, following The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which Cathy so eloquently reviewed earlier. The Girl who Played with Fire picks up with Salander exploring the world with her ‘earned’ billions and researching complex mathematical equations as a hobby. Stieg jumps into the action, much quicker than in the first book, with Salander observing a man who is violent to his wife in the room next door. This beginning conflict is unrelated to anything else in the book; however, it serves to display that Salander is the ‘woman who hates men who hate women’, a throwback to the original title of the first book.

Shortly after her return to Sweden, Salander finds herself as the main suspect in a triple homicide. Blomkvist steps forward to prove her innocence and pay his debt to her saving his life the previous year. Several other unexpected allies join to clear her name as Salander faces her past to solve the murders.

While the first book seriously lagged for the first 100 pages of the story, ‘Fire’ jumps off with a bang but then crawls to a near stop about two-thirds of the way through. Every part of it is important to the storyline, but at times I found my mind wandering and was forced to read the page over again to stay on track. The last 100 pages picked back up and the ending was exciting, if not a little unrealistic. But I guess that’s why this is fiction.

What I enjoyed most about ‘Fire’ was Salander’s character development. We find out that in addition to having a photographic memory and talent with computers, that she is much more than an awkward, brooding goth girl with a mysterious upbringing. She heavily weighs every decision before carrying out actions. And her actions, although not conformed to public opinion, are strong and morally grounded. I enjoyed this book and gained a great deal of respect for Salander. Not to mention the relief it was to root for a heroine whose only conflict is isn't a choice of two men in her life*.

*My bitterness towards that type of heroine has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with my lack of men. Not one bit. I swear.

Posted by Kil...who is pushing 30, shares a one bedroom apartment with her dog, and divides her time between knitting, running, and being a slut with a heart of gold.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

This book was recommended to me so I kept the title in the back of my head for awhile. Then a friend of mine mentioned she took it with her on a trip to New York and thought an afternoon reading in Central Park would be nice. She sat on a bench and noticed that there were girls to her left and right and they were both reading this book! I decided it was time to jump on the bandwagon and check it out at the library. Problem was, the wait list was so long, there were 345 people ahead of me in line. With a 3 week check out period, that's almost 20 years of waiting to get this book. So I borrowed it from my work library, of all places. Apparently, this book is everywhere.

The story follows a year in the life of journalist Mikael Blomkvist. After losing a court battle and facing jail time, Blomkvist decides to take a leave from his magazine and accept a temporary work assignement from Henrik Vanger. Vanger wants him to ostensibly write a family chronicle but his real assignment is to investigate a 36 year old family mystery of the disappearance of his grand-niece. In the course of his investigation, Blomkvist meets Lisbeth Salander, a troubled young woman with a knack for investigation. Together they delve into the Vanger family history as well as some other mysteries involving Salander and Blomkvist's personal lives.

In a nutshell, I think the book is overrated. Most people I've talked to agree that the book is slow to start and picks up after about a hundred pages or so. As you read on, the book continually picks up steam until I found myself not wanting to put it down for the last hundred pages or so. At 590 pages though, that's a lot to get through before I can't put a book down.

Honestly, I think reading about the author himself is more interesting. Steig Larsson was a journalist, as well as a political activist. He was considered an expert in Swedish extreme right and racist organizations. A quick online search will reveal a lot of interesting stories and rumors about his life - too many to go into here. When Larrson died of a heart attack in 2004, he left behind three unpublished manuscripts, of which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first. It was published in 2005 in Sweden and translated several years later into English. The original title in Swedish is Men Who Hate Women. I wished I knew that before I started reading the book. It really is a better title. Maybe knowing that would have made the book better too?

My recommendation? Everyone's talking about it anyway, so you might as well read it. Hell, it's summer and this is one of those reads. Just don't buy it or borrow it from the library. Ask a friend for it, chances are, you know someone who has read it.

Reviewed by Cathy