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:

Why 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 want to 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 hope to understand the foundation and growth of this country, and gain context to help me understand current events.

Blah blah blah, 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.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Don't get me wrong, I like me a dystopian mind blow every now and again to make me feel good about my current situation, but guh-damn. I've got to read about a lot of unicorns and rainbows to cleanse my palette after this cluster of darkness.

The Handmaid's Tale is an American version of oppressive societies like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or anywhere ISIS is in charge. With fundamentalist religious imagery, creepy sex scenes, and people displayed on hooks, I noped my way through this book as fast as I could.

A part of my discomfort lies in the setting. It wasn't in some unnamed distant future. It was now. Offred (our narrator) grew up in the 80's, like me. She lived before everything went to hell, after a totalitarian regime took over the United States. She didn't wonder what things were like before. She knew. And that makes her reality more relatable to me and harder to accept.

And her kid? Don't get me started. All I have to say is Margaret Atwood owes me an apology for bringing children into her nightmare society the way she did. It's like watching effing Walking Dead after stupid Judith was born and all I could think about was how the baby wasn't going to get eaten by zombies every freaking minute of the show. Not that Offred's daughter is a big part of the book, and her life isn't in danger, but STILL.

And if you're wondering what happens, well, nothing in particular. We just hear about Offred's life - with snippets of her before. We learn basically what daily life is like for someone in her position, basically living as a concubine in a patriarchal society that suppresses women's rights (among others). No bigge.

Is it interesting? I guess. But so is a car accident, or a jerusalem cricket. Doesn't mean I need to linger any longer than necessary in their presence. And with that, I am over this book. It's thought-provoking, but too severe for my taste. Any society where people greet each other with "blessed be the fruit" or "under his eye," is one I'll only see in my rear view mirror. Real or fictional.

Just got word that the Hulu series is even worse than the book. Will I watch it? Of course! I can't NOT!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is a work of historical fiction written in 1976 by Alex Haley. He begins with the life and eventual capture of his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte in Africa. In what follows is a mostly fictional story, except for possibly a few details and Kinte's lineage.

Fiction or not, Roots is an amazing saga of nine generations. The most intriguing part of the book, for me, was the beginning, which focused on Kinte's life. After Kinte was transported to America to be sold as a slave, I understood how he yearned for his village, the sounds of the monkeys in the trees, his simple hut, hunting for food, and being so self-sufficient. When I first started reading about life in his village I thought how horrible it must be to live in such primitive conditions. But by the time Kunta was kidnapped, I saw how beautiful and amazing his life had truly been.

It was also interesting to see how, when Kunta lived as a slave on two American plantations, he despised the American slaves. Their culture was so completely different from his, and they seemed more complacent to him, as he couldn't understand why they didn't all try to escape. In the first of many personal compromises he would make, he married a Christian American slave and struggled with instilling his heritage in his daughter, Kizzy. The fact that slaves were not allowed to read or write (and Kunta could do both, in Arabic), made it even more difficult. In addition, after Kizzy was sold to another plantation, her ties to her father and mother were completely severed. What would Kunta have thought, to know that his grandchildren would grow up to be culturally similar to those American slaves he despised? His dreams of a family, living as Muslims, repeating the traditions he grew into, would never be achieved.

In full disclosure, there is some controversy surrounding the book that might make it unpalatable to some. A few years after its release, Haley was sued by author Harold Courlander and Haley settled, acknowledging that some passages were taken from Courlander's book, The African.

There were also questions raised about how true certain parts of the book actually were, in terms of Haley's purported research into his family's ancestry. 

Controversy aside, this was quite the read, and so worth it. It's heartbreaking, eye-opening, and likely a  different perspective on American history than many of us were offered in school. Highly recommend. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

"Mom, after someone dies and becomes a ghost, do they become a kid again?"

My four-year-old asked me this just a day after I finished reading Atkinson's book, Life After Life.

"Well, some people believe that. It's called reincarnation." I told him, wondering if his earlier comment about how I should wear a certain necklace "the next time I got married" was related to this conversation.

While I'm not sure Life After Life is about reincarnation, parallel universes, or a hybrid of both, it nonetheless has an intriguing premise: a woman lives her life again and again, with small tweaks here and there that enable her to live longer in one life (or shorter), or follow a completely different path in another.

Ursula Todd is born (and reborn) in a snowstorm in Britain, 1910. She is primed to live through the first and second World Wars, which makes for an interesting perspective in its own right. Through Ursula, Atkinson explores themes of family, fate, intuition, free choice, and, obviously, mortality. One thing I like about this book is that there are many tongue in cheek moments, even in the darkest places Atkinson ventures. But I wouldn't describe this book as funny. It can be a bit heavy at times, yet Atkinson does a great job of giving levity here and there to remind us that even in the darkest times, there's always hope, if not in this world, then well, you know.

We learn what life in the English countryside is like, as well as life in London during the World War II Blitz, and we even learn a little about life in Germany in the 1930's. As with Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, Atkinson explores that nagging feeling you sometimes get about something, but can't quite explain. She also explores what life might be like if that niggling feeling moves toward awareness.

And it's this final point, that got me thinking about what my son said next, after asking if after people die and become ghosts, they become kids again.

"After I became a kid again, my house looked different" he told me as matter of factly as if he'd just said there were clouds in the sky.

While I haven't gone all in on the prospect of reincarnation, the goosebumps on my arms reminded me that some things, like Atkinson's book, or a conversation with a four-year-old, just might make you wonder.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

According to wikipedia, Anne Rice is an author of "gothic fiction, christian literature, and erotica."

One of these things is not like the other... 

I know Interview with the Vampire has been around for awhile, after all, I was in high school when Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt played Rice's vampires, much to her dismay. That was more than *gulp* 20 years ago. But crap, the book is 40 years old people!

So if you live under a rock, like me, or you just have yet to dabble in the literary vampire arts, here's a briefing.

The story is told in the present day, with the vampire Louie telling a young reporter about his life over the past 200 years. He begins in New Orleans in the late 1700's when he was made a vampire by Lestat, a sadistic, manic vampire who doesn't seem the type to play well with others. I kinda get the impression vampires, as a class, don't play well with others though. So Louie is really an outlier. He maintains a semblance of compassion and humanity. He struggles with killing people every night and doesn't have a penchant for playing with his food, like Lestat does.

The story is great. We travel from New Orleans to Eastern Europe to Paris. We cross the span of 200 years (although there aren't a lot of historic or social landmarks that highlight the different time periods). But what I really liked was Louis' voice. Like literally. The man who narrated my audiobook did a great job. He kinda sounded like he had an eastern European accent from...well, wherever the Count is from. Yes, I'm talking about Sesame Street again. Anyway, I liked how Rice wrote him too (Louis, not the Count). He struggles with questions of immortality and religion. One of my favorite scenes is when Louis is in a church, looking around at the relics and religious symbols. Disillusioned, he thinks to himself, "I'm the only supernatural creature in this church."

And when he is talking with Armand, one of the Paris vampires, about the purpose of life without God, he says, "And what constitutes evil, real evil, is the taking of a single human life. Whether a man would die tomorrow or the day after or eventually... it doesn't matter. Because if God does not exist, then life... every second of it... Is all we have.”

That struck me. I've heard only the opposite argument, that if there is no God or no cosmic repercussions of any kind for human behavior, then what is the point of morality? Louis argues that it just becomes even more important to make the most of this life. Leave it to a fictional vampire played by Brad Pitt to bring me to an existential epiphany.

Here's another one I liked.

"Consequently, if you believe God made Satan, you must realize that all Satan's power comes from God and so that Satan is simply God's child, and that we are God's children also. There are no children of Satan, really.”

This stems from Louie struggling with whether or not he is good or evil, given his religious background and carnal reality. Whether or not you agree with these things is immaterial. Rice's writing will make you think about why you do or do not believe as you do through Louis. And according to Brad Pitt (who played him) he's a lot better in the book, than the movie. So....

An oldie but goodie. But I'm gonna watch the movie anyway.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

In the words of the great John Cleese, "and now, for something completely different..."

I don't know what I was expecting from this book, but it wasn't that. And yet, it's probably spot on for Gaiman. So what do I know?

I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to say because in reading the back of the book synopsis and other reviews, I just didn't realize that this story was so out there. Whoever was tasked with writing that synopsis stuck on his best poker face and really kept his hand close.You read the back and think, "okay, some guy visits a childhood friend's home and remembers stuff." Whatever. Maybe it's the crazy adventure to the creek or that epic slumber party.

Suffice to say, when things took a left turn (and it was abrupt) I was a bit surprised. My suspension of disbelief hadn't warmed up yet, I guess. Gaiman throws you right into his world where otherwordly creatures live amongst us mere mortals. I know all you Gaiman groupies are rolling your eyes right now in your best "er-doy" expression, but humor me.

The story is sufficiently creepy. Some of the imagery Gaiman evokes made my spine tingle. And the story seemed blissfully compact. I don't know how Gaiman told it in the number of pages he did, because it didn't seem as long as it was. There weren't any moments where I was bored or felt the action or tension really eased, yet I wasn't exhausted from all the excitement. I know I'm making myself sound like some kind of geriatric reader, "Oh the tension! It was too much! I need a nap."

I realize at this point in the review, I've normally given a better synopsis of the story. But like I said, I'm not sure what to say. Basically, if you already know you like Gaiman, I think this book won't disappoint. If you've never read him, it's a pretty good intro to his stuff. I definitely liked it better than some of his other books I've read. *ducks and hides*

Some interesting tidbits I got from Wikipedia about this tale, his characters, the Hempstocks, have appeared in other books, like Stardust and The Graveyard Book. He also wrote this book for his wife, who doesn't like fantasy. And some elements are drawn from his own childhood (like how someone stole his dad's car and commit suicide in it). Creepy.

A film may be in the works...the rights were bought a few years ago, and Tom Hanks is a producer. Should be interesting.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

"Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?"
"Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me."
"Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?"
"Down in the boneyard ten feet deep."

What if this was a schoolyard rhyme you learned as a kid, whose origins lay in a mysterious house in your neighborhood where you've heard two strange sisters live, but who you've never seen? You've heard other things, too. That the sisters eat children, and if you think you've insulted them, to leave a gift on the doorstep in a basket. To your surprise, you'll find that the next morning, the basket will be empty.

What actual events could have caused all this mystery? What if one of the sisters could tell you everything?

Mary Katherine, or Merricat, is our narrator. She is the younger of the two sisters. Her story begins after the mysterious poisoning of most of her family, and after her sister Constance's trial. She tells us about the routines that occupy her days, how Constance fills the kitchen with wonderful smells, how her uncle Julian has good days and bad days, and how she and her cat Jonas scamper into the woods by her house, to bury treasure, or nail a trinket to a tree, or dream about living on the moon.

Merricat's voice is immature and dreamy. She lives in a world all her own. She loves her routines, and fights against change. So when cousin Charles visits the small family, Merricat sets to work trying to get him to leave. From an outside perspective, Merricat's actions are confusing, scattered, and nonsensical. Why would she put sticks and dirt in Charles' bed? But from Merricat's perspective it makes perfect sense. One might look at Merricat and wonder if she's a burgeoning witch, with her superstitions and strange love for nature.  But is there another reason why the village hates them so?

This is a short read, but a compelling one. And Shirley Jackson seems to have a cult following for her strange tales, which include her controversial The Lottery, published in 1948, as well as the Haunting of Hill House.

Obligatory movie notice: We Have Always Lived in the Castle will be released as a major motion picture this summer.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

Why do people like this book? Am I missing something?

I get it. Bad writing and an improbable plot that could also operate as a pasta strainer have united like a defective pair of power twins before to create cult successes (I'm looking at you Sharknado). And really, there is a whole genre of bad horror films...but does it work with books, too? I'm not a horror book reader, so I'm sincerely asking.

Why do people think this book is so scary? Creepy kids? Scary. Does this book have creepy kids?


Psychological drama? Can be scary. Like when someone thinks they're going crazy because they are seeing things other aren't. Or when they hear things other people don't. Does this book have psychological drama?


Clowns? Scary. Does this book have clowns?


Ghosts? Okay, now we're talking. This book has ghosts! However, they aren't Japanese or Korean ghosts, and we all know those are the scariest kind. And IDGAF if I'm spoiling anything, because this book is so bad, I'm doing you a favor. If you read it anyway after you read this review, you deserve to have it spoiled for the poor decision making skills you are exhibiting.

So there are ghosts. But (okay, I'll indulge you) *SPOILER ALERT* they're not scary.

And the plot? The plot, you ask? We have a handful of characters who are written as caricatures that we care little about. They work in an IKEA knock-off store that might be haunted and spend a night there figuring it all out. There's a homeless guy/possible ghost living in the store, but that's never resolved or really followed up on. In fact, it was like Hendrix was going in one direction and then forgot what he previously wrote and decided to completely change tack, so he killed the homeless guy and we are left wondering how he fit into the story at all. But maybe he was a character wonders at the end. This is Hendrix's idea of resolution, I guess.

I won't go into any more holes in the plot. Suffice it to say you will find less in a heroin addict's arms after nickel night in the back alley.

I think the only good thing about this book is the actual book, which is made to look like an IKEA catalogue, complete with a store map and product drawings and descriptions. But I read the audiobook, so...

The dialogue was boring and humorless, and the only reason I finished the book is because it was short and I wanted credit for my cannonball goal. So here's my review and now I can move on with my life.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

After finishing several audiobooks, I had gotten used to "reading" while accomplishing some other task. So it took several weeks for me to actually read this book, which was a Christmas gift. How time-consuming to SIT DOWN and READ an ACTUAL book...Could I truly devote ALL my attention to it? I was afraid I wouldn't get the kitchen cleaned or my email checked or God knows what else if I just READ the book myself. Oh no, is this what kids these days think about books? *high fives myself for bridging a generational gap*

Speaking of kids these days, Ove is the kind of curmudgeonly old man who would say exactly that. He yells at people and calls them names, never mind the people he DOESN'T like. But he saves his deepest ire for anyone who ignores the no driving sign between the row houses in his neighborhood. He is the sort of man who doesn't understand idle chatter, who judges another man by the car he drives, and whose (albeit reluctant) willingness to fix your radiator is a sign of his ability to tolerate you.

Mild spoilers ahead, but nothing that isn't revealed in the movie's trailer...

Ove's wife has died and so Ove doesn't see fit to live himself. But things keep getting in the way of his...attempts. Nosy neighbors, broken furniture, kids to yell at, that kind of thing. And in the story of the end of his story, we learn how he became mortal enemies with his former friend and neighbor, how he met his wife, how he got a cat he didn't want, as well as some back story on some neighbors.

A Man Called Ove is about the ups and downs that make up daily life. For such a simple premise, you'll want to keep reading nonetheless. I hate to call it a "feel-good" book, but that's kinda how it made me feel. And while it might not make you full on ugly cry, you may have to squeeze back a tear or two in moments both happy and sad. And besides all that, it makes you look at grumpy old men in a whole new way. And who doesn't need a little helping hand to bridge that generational gap, amirite?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

One of my top five! And it's only January!

This book is soooooo good, you guys. It's eye opening and tragic and heartwarming and epic and so many other things.

Yaa Gyasi (last name sounds like "Jesse") is a Stanford graduate, born in Ghana and raised in America. On a visit to Ghana, while researching her book, she saw the Cape Coast Castle. This is one of many forts in Africa used by European traders. It is also the genesis of Gyasi's fictional story, which begins in the late 18th century with two half sisters. Effia's fate leads her to the upper parts of the castle, where traders live and keep their African wives. Essie's fate leads her to the dungeons below, where slaves are held before leaving Africa on ships to the Americas.
The Cape Coast Castle
Gyasi alternates her chapters between the two family lines, advancing generation by generation, until she's covered 8 generations, two continents, and over 200 years. She takes us to villages in Ghana, where a woman's "first blood" dictates when and where she will spend the rest of her life; to the plantations of the American south, where families are split up and sold for labor; to Harlem, New York, where racial tensions permeate daily life. Despite the heavy subject matter, there's something easy about Gyasi's writing that makes the reading palatable and exciting.

Homegoing not only examines slavery and racial identity (both in Ghana and America), it also explores family, intuition, religion, and fate. I loved hearing about the Ghanian views of life events in terms of spirituality, how Gyasi describes a churning body of water as having demons in the depths, waiting to call people to them. Do people drown, or are they summoned by those other worldly entities? Are seemingly random thoughts the result of an arbitrary synapse firing, or is there a more deep seated reason that surpasses space and time that causes us to think about something? A shadow of our past, or even our ancestral past, perhaps? Is a dream just a dream? Or is it our forefathers calling to us, warning us, wishing us home? Do we have full control over our own fate? How much of what we are is the result of pure luck?

One other note, I "read" the audiobook and the narrator, Dominic Hoffman, was wonderful. He could sound African, southern, Californian, male, or female. Although I had trouble understanding a lot of the names (and this might be a book you'll want to flip back and forth with the names and places and times), I really felt the audiobook format enhanced the story.

As this is Gyasi's first novel, I look forward to what she writes next. Highly recommend.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Circle by Dave Eggers

"Individually, you don't know what you're doing collectively."

This is Mae's ex-boyfriend's synopsis of the new company she works for. But what does he know? She is working for the most lucrative tech company on the market and he just makes chandeliers. The Circle has made its success in streamlining internet applications by rolling them into one interface based on a user's actual identity. "True You," as it's called, has ushered in a new age of internet transparency.

The Circle employs young, innovative people and encourages employees to linger after hours and on weekends for the many parties and social groups it sponsors. A feeling of community is fostered through the use of social media, which is heavily encouraged and tracked by ranking employees according to their level of online activity. In order for people to fully immerse themselves in this culture, and in line with the "True You" philosophy, employees accept that everything about a person is public information, because, after all,

"Privacy is theft." Have you ever thought that by not sharing an experience, you are depriving another person of that experience as well?


"Secrets inspire speculation." Isn't it better to know the truth than speculate something worse about someone?

And if you feel you can't share with others because you are going through a painful experience, remember this, "Pain experienced in public in view of loving millions was no longer pain, it was communion."

Uh, yeah. I'm totally not creeped out by this company at all. I would absolutely want to work there, just like Mae. And there would be no alarm bells screaming in my head or anything tingling my spidey senses about the amount of control such a company was exerting over me. Of course, if Mae had these reservations and quit, we wouldn't have much of a book. We also wouldn't have the many comical moments where Mae is given a talking to for not participating in events she didn't even know were occurring, or for hurting someone's feelings by not responding to their online comments to her. And of course, we wouldn't get to meet her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who is one of the few rational people we meet:

"Listen 20 years ago it wasn't so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren't doing so well socially. And judgments like "like", and "dislike", and "smiles", and "frowns" were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, "Do you like unicorns and stickers?" and you'd say, "Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!"  That kind of thing, but now it's not just junior high kids who do it. It's everyone. And it seems to me sometimes I've entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself!"

But Mae continues to drink the kool-aid. It wasn't until Mae is confronted by her superiors at work for breaking the law that things go from "okay, maybe she's a bit oblivious and naive" to "I'm hitting the I want to believe button." In order to show her commitment to the company's ideals, Mae agrees to be a test-user for a new product, See Change, a small, easily worn camera. The idea, initially marketed to politicians to show their constituents they have nothing to hide, begins a movement in which people "go transparent," a movement started in part by Mae's agreement to beta test the system. Her every move and word recorded for the world to follow, Mae's life drastically changes as she raises in rank with The Circle, but struggles to maintain relationships with those closest to her.

Let's get real, here. The themes in this book aren't new, and the parallels and metaphors obvious. I felt there wasn't a realistic amount of dissent to the blatant privacy and civil violations occurring. And I found it unlikely that so few seemed to see the ramifications of where things were headed.

For these reasons, I read the book as a satire of the proliferation of things like reality TV and government and commercial encroachment on privacy rights. It's too over the top to be taken more seriously than that. And while I think Eggers' reality, as envisioned by The Circle, is literally unrealistic, the book gets you thinking about things:  Why do we keep secrets? Is there ever a legitimate reason to deceive? Will putting everything in the open remove the stigma of things done behind closed doors? Will full transparency and accountability reduce crime and corruption? Will it make us happier?

While I can't say Eggers changed my answers to any of these questions, at least he got me thinking about why the answers were what they were. And I enjoyed his characters, like Mercer, who were comically eloquent. It was definitely a fun read, and one I looked forward to whenever I put the book down. So a solid, "like" from me 😀

NOTE: If this book sounds intriguing, read it before the movie comes out later this year (starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson). There is also a great episode of Black Mirror that handles similar themes (really, just check out all of the Black Mirror episodes on Netflix, while you're at it).

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Redeployment by Phil Klay

I accidentally read this book. Is that possible? I realized a few hours in that it wasn't autobiographical, but rather a collection of fictional short stories and had a decision to I stay or do I go? It's not that it isn't well written and interesting, I just don't have much interest in reading fictional war accounts. It's not my favorite genre, but non-fiction IS. So if it's a non-fictional war story, I'm hooked! Get the difference?


Redeployment is broken up into 12 stories, told from various perspectives of Marines deployed in Iraq during Operation Iraqi freedom. As you can imagine, some stories are funny, some sad, some both. Klay himself was a marine deployed in Iraq and spent years researching his characters before publishing. So he knows what he's writing about. A lot of the positive press on this book has been about the accurate portrayal of life for Marines in Iraq.

So was I hooked? I hate to say I wasn't, because I know this book is good. And it's probably more a mental thing for me, knowing the stories weren't actually true. But I have a feeling they are representative, and if you want an idea of what Marines experienced during this time, this just might be the book to read.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Columbine by Dave Cullen

What is Columbine to you?  Before April 20th, 1999, Columbine was simply a school to most people, if not the flower for which it was named. After the devastating shooting that took 13 lives and terrorized hundreds more, Columbine was a symbol of mass murder and disaster. Maybe you have heard of Columbine, maybe you haven't. But whatever Columbine was to you before reading this book, will surely change.

Columbine is a media driven narrative. As the events of the Columbine shooting unfolded, that narrative wasn't completely wrong, but it was incomplete at best. Stories portrayed the shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as members of a group known as the Trench Coat Mafia (true). They were painted as bullied outcasts (true), out to get the jocks and preps who victimized them (not true). Cullen explores where these stories originated and their veracity. He gives an overarching perspective of Harris and Klebold that provides much needed context for the events that occurred on April 20th and helps correct the media narrative.

Columbine is a case study in sociopathy. Cullen meticulously deconstructs not only the events of April 20th, but the days, months, and even years leading to "judgement day," as the pair called it. In addition to using media coverage and police reports, because the boys wrote extensively in journals and left behind a trove of tape recorded material, Cullen is able to examine the boys' own words and actions. Drawing heavily from research by FBI Agent and clinical psychologist Dwayne Fuselier, Cullen shows that despite their penchant for violence, the boys were different psychologically. And it is this psychological perspective that is one of the most interesting things about this book. The discussion of sociopathy was intriguing and disturbing. To say Eric Harris is a psychopath because he meets a series of criteria is one thing, but to show how he bragged about manipulating others as a cover-up for his depravity was eye-opening.

Columbine is not what it seemed to be. What didn't come out in the media (at least not during the initial media storm) was the full extent of what the boys planned. They didn't see themselves as "just" school shooters. In fact, they made fun of school shooters. Their intentions were much more grandiose and included a plan that was formulated more than a year in advance. The bulk of the bloodshed would actually be achieved through the use of bombs, in an event that they hoped would surpass Timothy McVeigh's body count from the Oklahoma City bombing. They placed bombs on school grounds, but they didn't detonate as planned.

Columbine is healing. Cullen doesn't just focus on the shooters. He also talks about the victims and how they deal with the aftermath, both physically and mentally. While he only focuses on a few victims, he gives a range of reactions and perspectives, ultimately ending with the school itself. Particularly how each year's students have reacted and evolved to the events of 1999.

So whatever Columbine means to you, this thorough, well-researched narrative gives understanding to the misunderstood. It sheds light on the darkness created by an event that changed a suburban school from just another school to a symbol of terror. You'll learn Columbine is many things at once; a school, a flower, a book, a nightmare, a memory, and so much more than what you thought it was.

NOTE: One perspective that is missing from the book is that of the Harris and Klebold parents. They didn't give interviews and pretty much stayed out of the media for years. Here is an interview I found from Dylan Klebold's mother, Sue.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Well, I guess I owe Ms. Ng congratulations for writing a book that has seemed to appeal to so many people. Because despite the positive reviews and internet hype, I wanted to poke out my eyes with spoons after reading "Amazon's Best Book of the Year for 2014." You can go ahead and clutch your literary equivalent of pearls in your hands. I remain steadfast in my assessment. This book made me want to scream when I finished it. THESE ARE THE MOST ANNOYING PEOPLE I'VE EVER ENCOUNTERED AND I DON'T CARE ABOUT THEIR LIVES!

EXHIBIT 1: The narrator. Her voice is melodic and lyrical in the most boring way possible. She's wistful, thoughtful, insightful, on the verge of tears with every word. Her female characters sound weak and fragile. Her male characters, clueless, with a chip on their shoulder. And the one that takes the cake? Her voice for James, our not-cool cool father, who sounds like an SNL caricature. BUT SHES NOT BEING FUNNY. 

EXHIBIT 2: The aforementioned James. He has a wife who loves him, three kids he seems to love, a job as a professor...nothing overtly horrible here about his life. And he's cheating on his wife. Yeah yeah, his daughter died (not a spoiler), I get that. But I call bullshit if that's the driving force to his infidelity. This coming from a man who refused Chinese food in childhood and never spoke Chinese as an adult. But he finds the only other Chinese person in town who reminded him of his lost heritage with her cha siu bao, oh, and her loins. The irony isn't lost on me. I'm sure a high school student could write an essay about the reasons for this, but IDGAF! His wife become estranged with her mother because she chose him over any white guy. She post-poned her education and dream of being a doctor to raise his children. Yes, there was...the incident...which is reason enough for him to disconnect emotionally and physically. But still, it grated on me.

EXHIBIT 3: Lydia. the one person we'd like a perspective from and it's nearly non-existent, like her limp, soft boiled soul. And when we hear from her, it's about how she has no friends or how she tries to make friends but they politely rebuff her. Her evil mother dotes on her and her horrible father shows a constant interest in her life. When she gets gifts, they're NOT THE GIFTS SHE WANTS! Even when she gets the gift she wants, it's NOT WITH THE RIGHT INTENTION! Except she doesn't yell about anything, she just solemnly thinks these things. Because no one in this book outwardly emotes and their inward thoughts sound like pillows. I just want to smack her until she turns into someone I'm actually sad is dead. 

EXHIBIT 4: Nath (Nathe? Nayth? who knows, it was an audiobook). Besides wondering wt actual f this guy's name was every time I heard it, I wanted to scratch a chalkboard every time he'd misunderstand a situation or make some snarky comment to anyone. Urgh.

Listen, I'm sure this is a good book in a lot of ways, especially for a debut novel, and I'm happy for Ng's success. Why would you listen to me? I didn't forgive James for cheating on his wife when his daughter died and his wife did...the thing. I also think carrots go great with peanut butter and bananas with sour cream. So who am I to judge? But when I read something that enables me to see the back of the inside of my head due to extreme eye rolling, I know it's just not for me.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Okay, guys. I'm going to tell you the biggest secret I've discovered so far for 2017...It will get you reading more books, faster than ever. Read on if you want your mind's...audiobooks.

mrw guy watch annoyed how i met your mother

Okay, so maybe I'm a late bloomer on this one. But for real, y'all, this is a game changer. Just like cell phones, Myspace, Facebook, insert-anything-technological-here-that-I-discovered-years-after-everyone-else was. But hey! I just used a gif.

Besides the few audiobooks I've heard on road trips, this was my first non-vacational audio book for my listening pleasure around the house, at work, in the car, at get the idea. So while one of my new year's goals is to have a book, and not my phone, in my hands more, I consider this an ideological, if not technical, win. And anyway, Big Little Lies isn't the newest book on the block (2014). But it's recently gained traction, with an HBO mini-series coming in a few months.

I also don't know if Caroline Lee is just a particularly good narrator, but she captures the tone and personality of each character in a mind boggling way. And since everyone has an Australian accent, well, there's that.

On its face, we have a book about "kinder moms," as they're called. Or mothers whose kids will be starting kindergarten at the local school. Our setting? A beach town in Australia, where stay-at-home-dads and working mothers are more of a novelty than the norm. At the very least, it's a label worthy of attachment when talking about someone. And oh, is there plenty of that. If you're not one to tolerate idle chatter, busybodies, and speculative gossip, there's also an erotic book club, schoolyard bullying, and a murder investigation.

But wait! Stop that eye roll and hear me out! This book isn't as annoying as it could be. Moriarty tackles cliches and neighborhood drama with humor and complexity. She unfolds her characters much in the way you would get to know someone. We get a superficial perspective at first, maybe learn a thing or two, and then move on to someone else's story. But as the book progresses, you get one more tidbit about someone that changes your opinion about them. Much as you might realize a first impression about someone was completely wrong.

That was my reaction, for instance, to Madelyn, an overly assertive, opinionated kinder mom with a flair for drama. At first, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to handle her, even on the printed page. She's the kind of person that makes her presence known whether you like it or not, and who relishes the awkwardness of confrontation. She ended up being one of my favorite characters, because despite her propensity for stilettos and online shopping, her wit and sarcasm are spot on, and her personality not as shallow as it seemed.

Like Madelyn, Moriarty's other characters are deliciously complex and fully developed. Even her supporting cast is written clearly and distinctly, so that you really have an idea of who you like, don't like, and even hate to like, by the time she's done with everything.

Another thing I liked about this book is how Moriarty so perfectly captures how our outward actions and appearances don't always reflect our intentions or inward thoughts. She'll have someone fret over a look received after what she thought was a friendly smile, or describe how people join a race for a cause, when the real cause is their own waistline. Her characters say things, but mean others, and do things that are misinterpreted. She creates cringeworthy situations with a surprising ease that will make you laugh, and probably relate with a little too well.

And at its heart, Big Little Lies has a message. Moriarty takes the topic of bullying and tackles it from so many perspectives: on the schoolyard, at home, verbal, physical, in kids, in adults. Her style is so casual, you might not realize, until something happens to someone, how much you cared about them. And the way she writes about domestic violence is heartbreaking and eye opening.

I've heard Moriarty isn't a one-hit wonder, too. Her other books, like What Alice Forgot and The Hypnotist's Love Story are probably worth checking out. And I think I eventually will. Who knows, maybe it will be sooner rather than later now that I've discovered AUDIOBOOKS!!!