Thursday, December 30, 2010

Where Men Win Glory:The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer

Where Men Win Glory is the third of my "military kick" books. This is the story of Pat Tillman, a man who gave up an NFL contract to join the Army Rangers after September 11th. Krakauer gives a lot of background into Tillman's career in the NFL before he joined the Army as well as background about events leading up to the current political climate of the middle east. The heart of the story though, is about Tillman's time in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger and his untimely death, first said to be from enemy combatants but later revealed to be from friendly fire. Krakauer investigates how the story was covered up but later exposed.

Of the three military books I've read this year (including Generation Kill and Lone Survivor), this is my least favorite. But that's not to say I didn't enjoy it. It just had drier moments and a bit more of a reporting feel to it, versus a story-telling feel. But like the other books, it's an important tale from modern history and another way to try and understand why our military is in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

While trying to find an image of the book, I found a really good review (much better than mine). So if you want to know more about this book, check out this reader's blog.

The Hubs' take: "It's a good story that told the truth." While he found it "inspirational," he said it makes you mad at the military.

Reviewed by Cathy

Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell

When I wrote about Generation Kill, I mentioned it started a military reading kick. Well, this is one of those books. Unlike Generation Kill, which is about Marines, Lone Survivor is about the Navy Seals.

Marcus Luttrell knew he wanted to be a Seal as a child. He even started training as a teenager and eventually became a sniper for the Seals. In 2005, Luttrell was deployed to Afghanistan on a mission to capture...or kill...Ahmad Shah, a taliban leader. Luttrell and his team, consisting of three other Seals, were ambushed by the Taliban and all, except Luttrell, eventually died. Not only was Luttrell's tale of survival amazing, but the tale of his teammate's deaths is equally memorable.

This book was quite a change from Generation Kill, not only because it was about a different branch of the military, but also because Luttrell's perspective is very different from Wright's (hmmm, Rolling Stone writer vs. hard core Texan...). But like Generation Kill, I found things tangential to the main story really riveting, like the SEAL training Luttrell went through at Coronado and the hell those guys are put through.

My impression overall, a great book. Again, not a big military buff but I'd recommend this book. And not just because it's got a great story. It really opened my eyes to what our military forces have been doing for us and gave me a better understanding of the situation in the middle east.

The Hubs' take: "I liked that story, it was well-written, humorous, very right-wing. Entertaining"

Reviewed by Cathy

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

This is the second book of the Hunger Games Trilogy and a great sequel. Collins picks up right where she left off - after Katness and Peeta win the Hunger Games. Now, they must visit every district in a victory tour. Before the tour, President Snow visits Katniss. He explains how her and Peeta's suicide attempt at the end of the Hunger Games could be interpreted as an act of defiance, instead of one of love. President Snow threatens Katniss' loved ones unless she can convince him that she truly was motivated by her love for Peeta. The citizens of the twelve districts, however, want to believe that Katniss has other motivations, and Katniss isn't quite sure how to respond to the pressure from both sides.

I hate to admit this, but I read the book months ago and can't quite remember how I felt about it except that I liked it. But if you read the Hunger Games, you already know that you have to read this and the third book as well. There's just no question about that.

One thing I DO remember and was excited about is that Catching Fire alluded to the fact that the 13th district might not be extinct after all...of course the murmurs of a rebellion are also forming, so there is a lot to look forward to in Mockingjay (which I STILL haven't read because there is such a long line for it at the library...).

The Hubs' take: The book was "alright but not as good as the first one."

Reviewed by Cathy

The Dead Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan

This sequel to Ryan's first book, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, started off strongly but overall fell short of the first book. But let me begin with the reasons why I liked the book.

First of all, you quickly learn that Ryan sets her book years into the future from when the last book left off. And the perspective has changed from Mary to her daughter, Gabry, which brings me to the main reason I liked the book. Because the book is written in Gabry's voice, it's not necessary to read the first book to understand what is going on. There are many things from the first book Gabry doesn't know because she doesn't know a lot about her mother's past. She isn't aware of the Sisterhood, which was so central to the first book, for instance. But Gabry's story continues despite this. And that is the perspective the reader takes on if he/she hasn't read the first book. Gabry will say things like, "my mother has a habit of writing on the door thresholds and I never understood why." Well, if someone hasn't read the first book, then they would simply not understand this as well, just like Gabry. If someone HAS read the first book, like me, you'd understand,. This is because you're going into the second book with the mother's perspective.

In a strange way, this made me feel aged. The traditions and customs I was "used" to based on the first book, now seemed years in the past and obsolete. It made me wonder how much of this feeling happens with my parents, or my grandparents, or even with me when I compare myself to people younger than me. I felt like this gave me perspective into how one generation sees another. For that reason alone, I am happy to have read the book.

Now for the reasons why it didn't measure up to the first...There were times when I read the book that I was reminded it's a young adult book. For me, that's a good way to separate good YA books from great ones. For example, there were a lot of teenage angsty moments that didn't seem to quite fit. For example, Gabry can't decide which boy she likes better even though there are greater things happening as far as people dying and being hunted. I guess these moments were in the first book too but Ryan seemed to blend them a bit better. Also, I liked Mary's character better than Gabry's. Mary was a lot stronger and didn't seem as whiney (as my husband put it) as Gabry. Finally, I was disappointed that the second half of the book was basically a replay of the first one - the characters are left wandering between fences in the forest. I was hoping for something new and different, which was offered in the first half of the book only.

Despite these disappointments, I will definitely read the next book in the hopes that Ryan will wow me with something new.

The Hubs' Take: "whiney...really whiney...not as exciting as the Hunger Games. Very lifetime story-ish."

Reviewed by Cathy

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink

How cool would it be to work at a food psychology lab where you could perform experiments like making people eat soup out of bowls that keep refilling themselves? This and a host of other eye-opening experiments actually happened at the Cornell Food and Brand lab in which Brian Wansink, PhD works.

Wansink explores how details like packaging, plate size, lighting, labeling, and a host of other things affect our food choices. He details a lot of interesting and funny experiments performed at his lab, and explains how people mindlessly eat and make food choices they aren't even aware of every day.

What I like most about this book is that it has some real simple and practical tips you can start using right away to change your food habits. It also has a great chapter on kids and eating including some creative tips on how to get kids to eat vegetables!

But even if you aren't looking to change the way you think about food, the experiments themselves are worth the read. Do people eat more chicken wings if the bones are left on the table or if they're cleared away? Why would being told a wine is from California or North Dakota affect how much food a person ate or how much they enjoyed their meal? Does plate size affect how much a person eats? These and other experiments have helped Wansink consult with various players in the food industry, particularly in packaging and marketing, which Wansink discusses.

This book is not only really entertaining, it will change the way you think about food. I highly recommend it. For more information about Wansink's work, click here.

Reviewed by Cathy

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline is a quick read but definitely worth it! Neil Gaiman writes about a young girl who moved with her parents into a new and mysterious home. In the home she finds a small door that opens to a brick wall. One night, however, curious about the door, Coraline opens it to find the brick wall gone and a long passageway in its place. She crawls through the passageway to find it leads to a copy of her house with copies of her mother and father. Everything in this other world seems better to Coraline at first, but she soon finds not everything is as it seems.

What struck me most about this book is how incredibly creepy it is. And not only creepy, but just outright scary. The imagery is dark, the characters sinister, and the story itself is somewhat gruesome. With that said I absolutely loved the book! It's a great work of fantasy with a good dose of darkness. And I would definitely recommend the movie as well. Although there are plot elements in the movie that aren't significant parts of the book, it's a great film and really captures the essence of the book.

Reviewed by Cathy

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

If you haven't heard of Neil Gaiman, perhaps you have heard of his other book, Coraline, which was made into a fantastic movie in 2009. The Graveyard Book was written after Coraline and is about a boy named Nobody Owens, or Bod. Bod's family is killed when he is a baby and he ends up living in a graveyard raised by adoptive parents, who happen to be ghosts.

Because Bod lives in a graveyard, he is privy to the world of ghosts, goblins, and other things. He even possesses some supernatural abilities. The book follows Bod as he grows up, detailing his adventures which eventually culminate in meeting those responsible for his family's murder.

I enjoyed The Graveyard Book, but as far as young adult books go, although wildly creative, this one is relatively tame - despite the potentially scary themes. But it's a fun and easy read and a great companion to Coraline.

Reviewed by Cathy

Generation Kill by Evan Wright

Let me begin by explaining that I had no interest in military anything before I read this book. Not movies, not books, not men, nothing. The only reason I read it is because I saw the HBO miniseries Generation Kill and actually liked it. And the only reason I saw the miniseries is because my husband was watching it. And the only reason he was watching it is because he read the book and liked it. And he read the book because, well, he likes military stuff (let's keep that down to the movies and books categories though).

Anywho, back to the book. It is written by a Rolling Stones journalist (Evan Wright) who thought it would be fun to spend a couple of months with some reconnaissance Marines during the Iraq invasion in 2003. It sounds like, at least in theory, the recon Marines go ahead of the fighting units and, well, do reconnaissance. They aren't supposed to be seen or heard and shouldn't have any interactions with the locals, if all goes well. You can probably guess, however, that things didn't go as planned. In fact, the Marines of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion ended up on the front lines of fighting a lot of the time.

There are a lot of things that amazed me about this book. First of all, my eyes were opened to the day to day life of these marines, and I was amazed at how wrong my pre-conceived notions of the military actually were. I found the smallest details interesting, like what they ate and wore, and where they slept. Second, I was dumbstruck by the danger Wright was actually in by riding along with this battalion. And not just Wright, but the Marines he was with. This unit, sometimes the first to enter hostile territory, had nothing more than humvees that sounded relatively lacking in the armor department. Then there were issues of there not being enough ammunition or other supplies that ensured their weapons worked properly. Of course, there's also the small fact that the book is based on actual events, many of which we've all heard about in the news (remember the whole Jessica Lynch thing? That's in there.). If all that isn't enough, the Marines Wright encounters and writes about are really interesting and entertaining to read about.

If all that hasn't convinced you, let me remind you that the book was so good, HBO made a mini-series about it. And there's the fact that reading it actually set me on a military kick - after I read this book, I went on to read two more true-life military books. But to be perfectly clear, let me just say plainly, I highly recommend this book. It was eye-opening, entertaining, current, and shocking. It's one of my tops books for 2010.

The Hubs' take: "It was good, entertaining."

Posted by: Cathy

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

This book, like Gladwell's Outliers, is provocative and thoughtful. Unlike Outliers, however, it's a collection of articles that Gladwell wrote, so each chapter is its own independent unit. This is probably, at least in part, why it took me several months to read. I'd read a chapter or two while I was between books. The good news about that is that I didn't need to remember what I had previously read, I could just pick it up a week later and start a new chapter.

Like Outliers, Gladwell picks a topic and makes you think about it in a completely new way. You'll learn a lot about ketchup, for instance, and why there aren't more varieties of it (and what the hell umami is). One of my favorite chapters explores the issue of homelessness and whether or not cities should provide free housing to the most chronically homeless. Other topics include things like hair dye, birth control, and even Caesar Milan.

Overall, I recommend the book. But it goes in the think-y category, which I know isn't for everyone. But then again, maybe it should be...? I guess if you're reading anything, you're ahead of the game.

Reviewed by Cathy