the martian

Three weeks ago I read The Martian by Andy Weir, a pre-ordered gift from Christmas that came in the mail after it was officially released mid-March. I thought it would be the perfect “published in 2014″ selection for my 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge. From Goodreads:

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first men to walk on the surface of Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first man to die there.

It started with the dust storm that holed his suit and nearly killed him, and that forced his crew to leave him behind, sure he was already dead. Now he’s stranded millions of miles from the nearest human being, with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his food would be gone years before a rescue mission could arrive. Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to get him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. But will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

The Martian had its ups and downs for me. The good:

  • Engaging voice right off the bat. Mark is certainly a character, and his personality shines through. He feels like a real person you might know, and you’re rooting for him the whole time.
  • The premise is mind-boggling  and compelling, and the story itself is harrowing. It’s hard to put down because of all the great cliff-hangers each chapter.
  • The research level is insane—everything that Mark comes up with to save his own life is inventive, creative, and believable.

The not so good:

  • Most of the characters fell a little flat for me, even Mark after a while. He was just too upbeat and sarcastic the whole way through… it was hard to take his situation seriously when he’s writing “Yay!” and cracking crass jokes months into his ordeal…
  • Speaking of that, I guess I was expecting more of a bleak thriller than what I got. There were maybe only a couple of times you really get the sense of utter isolation and dire urgency. Part of the reason for that (besides the upbeat voice) is that the majority of the book is Mark’s diary, so you know he made it out of whatever bind he was in—you’re reading him telling you about what he did instead of experiencing it “live” along with him.

Weir did a great job of making top-shelf science talk accessible to readers unfamiliar with space travel, too, which I appreciated! The Martian was actually a very easy, fast read—if I wasn’t so generally busy with life I probably could have finished it in a weekend rather than almost a week. I think The Martian may be a case where it translates better on film, especially the last 15 percent of the book. I could NOT put it down once I hit the final chapters—totally a page-turner!

The Martian is my fourth of twelve books read for the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge.

Read from March 24 to 30, 2014.

brief hiatus

Hi everyone! I’m sorry I’ve been MIA the last several days… I’ve been on a roadtrip and like I’ve mentioned before, this is the busiest time of the year at work for me. So, that means the blog falls on the ol’ priority list.

I have a rare free day this weekend though and I plan to get some posts written and scheduled for publishing through next week! Stay tuned for reviews of Andy Weir’s The Martian, Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (possibly, if I finish in time), and more! Thanks for hanging in there with me :) In the meantime, I’m a little more active on my twitter account: @kristinshafel

Pictured: View of the Capitol across Lake Monona in Madison, Wisconsin, June 2011. That’s my next trip—back to Madison in July. Counting down the days!

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

STILL reading The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Totally didn’t finish in time for the library group discussion, and after missing the discussion anyway I didn’t really feel like I needed to rush through it anymore. I’m having trouble reading on a screen lately, too. I spend all day at a computer! Just don’t want to look at screens in my free time much lately. I need time to unwind and unplug after work (and after my computer work at home for my second job AFTER my FT job workdays. Sigh. I love being busy but this time of year can be a little much sometimes!)

So I’m slogging through The Worst Hard Time a bit but I did manage to finish The Martian by Andy Weir this weekend. I bet if I had a little more free time I could have read it all in just a couple of days; it was a pretty quick read. Not perfect, but I enjoyed it. Hoping to have a blog post up on my full thoughts this week!

Last night I started The Round House by Louise Erdrich. It’s not part of any of my challenges. But I just have all these beautiful books I bought as “retail therapy” during my moving trauma in 2013, and this one jumped out at me last night.

What are you reading this week?

regina carter

New issue of today, and I have a one new review:

I was lucky to squeeze in this one review last weekend, seeing as how things are really ramping up at work/school and for my own concerts! My review this week of Regina Carter at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts will likely be my last for the next month or so.

Virtuoso jazz violinist Regina Carter is currently on tour for her latest CD Southern Comfort, released this month. Southern Comfort is inspired by field songs, Americana folk tunes, and Louisiana jazz styles. I have long admired Carter and her playing—she’s incredible! I love seeing an artist who is equally comfortable and skilled in multiple genres. I jumped at the chance to hear her live in Kansas City. Carter brought four musicians with her to Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center—drums, bass, guitar, and accordion. The concert was incredible, pristine, refined… perhaps just a bit too refined but still, a wonderful experience of powerful, moving music.

Read my full review at Americana renewed and refined

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Well, I’m still working on The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan for my library book group (meeting’s on Wednesday, eeeek!!) Just too darn busy to get hardly any reading done! Not only the usual work/rehearsal stuff that naturally amps up this time of year, of course we’re trying to get our taxes done and have had family scheduled to visit in March. But yeah I’m only about 40% in… wish me luck for finishing before the group discussion!

Other than that I’m dipping my toes into The Martian
by Andy Weir
this week. My husband already read it and loved it, and I’ve only read a couple of chapters… so far I’m still trying to get used to the main character’s tone and delivery, and then the “tell” vs. “show” style of the book. But, it’s a fairly easy, quick read from what I can tell and I’ve enjoyed the start.

What are you reading this week?

the hot house

Last week I read a book I’ve been interested in for a long time, The Hot House by Pete Earley, about life in Leavenworth Prison, 1987–89. This year, I decided to add it to my TBR Pile Challenge this year. From Goodreads:

An account of life in Leavenworth Prison, based on interviews with inmates and others, describes the lives of a sexual predator, a gang member in for forty-two years, a sociopath in “no human contact” status, and others.

I have been curious about The Hot House since I first learned about it, and realized that Leavenworth Penitentiary was so close to Kansas City, where I live. I also was completely hooked on HBO’s Oz, and now feel inspired to watch the series again after reading this book.

Life in the Leavenworth is pretty much how you’d expect it: schemes, violence, murder plots, drug and weapon smuggling, drug and gambling rackets, sexual predators, inappropriate staff behavior, and more. Much of it, though, I found incredibly mind-bending, like the relationship between Carl Bowles and Thomas Little. Was it sexual? They claim not. Did Bowles brainwash Little intentionally? Certainly emotional manipulation. It was complex and disturbing.

I was also fascinated by Thomas Silverstein, arguably the most compelling subject in the book. A “no human contact” clause has been enforced for Silverstein since he killed a guard in 1983. In Leavenworth, he was confined in a tiny basement cell with the florescent lights on 24/7, only sparingly interacting with guards that despised him. When Earley interviewed him, Silverstein admitted the disorienting isolation was taking a toll on his mental state. His drawings and dreams were disquieting.

One thing I noticed was that Earley’s main subjects were all white, with the exception of Warden Matthews, who was black. There is a big subplot regarding the Cuban prisoners rioting, but for the most part minorities remain in the background. I wonder if this is because Earley is white himself? It’s pretty clear in the book that races tend to stick to themselves. Perhaps it was difficult to get close and intimate (conversationally) to non-white inmates?

Anyway, The Hot House raises tons of issues that have escalated in the decades since publication, from race relations to the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs to mental illness to the staggering, embarrassing escalation of prison stats in the United States. This book brings to the forefront a huge, complicated blot on our society deserving of attention and action.

The Hot House is my second of twelve books read for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from March 3 to 16, 2014.

narek hakhnazaryan + hmc preview

KCMetropolis.orgHUGE new issue of this week, and I have a couple of articles:

On Friday night I headed to the Folly Theater for the Harriman-Jewell Series latest Discovery Series presentation, cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. He won the Gold Medal in the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition, which is a pretty big deal! Since then he’s been appearing as a featured soloist with tons of orchestras around the world, and it was a real treat to see him in an intimate recital setting. The repertoire was mostly Romantic—Beethoven, Schumann, Paganini—with one twentieth-century work by Shostakovich. I loved the encores too, by Arutunian and Tchaikovsky. It was a well programmed recital and I hope Harriman-Jewell brings him back on its main series!

I also conducted an interview with two members of the Heartland Men’s Chorus in anticipation of its upcoming production, I Am Harvey Milk at the Folly. Unfortunately I’m not sure I can make it to the shows, so I am glad to have talked about it with these two well spoken gentlemen! I’m sure it’s going to be an inspiring and moving performance.

Read my full articles at

top ten tuesday: spring tbr

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, a fun way to get yourself thinking and sharing about books and bookish things.

March 18: Top ten books on my spring 2014 tbr list

Oh boy. I’ve been a pretty big fat failure with my winter, fall, and summer TTT TBR lists. I think at this point I’ve read about 30% from these three previous lists combined. So with this one I’m going to try to go a little more… realistic? Spring this year is March 20–June 20. I think I can do this… some might be on previous lists… oh well, here goes!

  1. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick (TBR Pile Challenge)
  2. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (TBR Pile)
  3. Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill (TBR Pile)
  4. Midnight in Peking by Paul French (Eclectic Reader Challenge)
  5. The Walking Dead Compendium 1 by Robert Kirkman, et al (Eclectic Reader)
  6. The Martian by Andy Weir (Eclectic Reader)
  7. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  8. The Unwinding by George Packer
  9. We Are Water by Wally Lamb
  10. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Plus whatever books are picked in my library book group those three months…! What are you looking forward to reading this spring?

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

I finished reading The Hot House by Pete Earley yesterday! It was the second book for my TBR Pile Challenge. That one took me about a week longer than I would have expected, but I had a couple of particularly busy weeks with extra rehearsals, a concert, working through lunch a bit, and my parents visiting last weekend. I liked the book a lot though—it was a real page turner and it made me want to rewatch my Oz DVDs! I’m planning to have a review post up later this week. Stay tuned!

This week I’m going to read The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. This is my KC Library Stranger than Fiction book group’s March pick. Hopefully I will make it through and not get sick this month, I hate to miss the discussions! Anyway, I’ve had this ebook on my iPad for a while now, so it’s also a little bit of a TBR pile book, but I’m not counting it on my “official” list for the challenge. I know about the Dust Bowl already from knowing about Woody Guthrie and literature from that time, but I’m happy to be reading a non-fiction about it, especially since I live near-ish the Dust Bowl area now.

What are you reading this week?

kc library winter reads 2014

You guys! I’m so behind. I meant to write up this post more than a week ago. Well, same as always, I got distracted by real life! Last weekend my parents were in town and I had a concert, and the weekend before that I was sick (BOO) but of course that does afford one lots of reading time, so I was able to finish this year’s KC Library Winter Reads program! This year’s theme was “Stop Me if You’ve Read This One,” all in the humor genre. Last month I read The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (click for review) also for the program. I was glad to read humor since it’s not normally a genre to which I naturally gravitate, but I’m glad to get into something dark and heart-wrenching this week.

In Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell delves into American history and politics with a roadtrip hopping around to different landmarks associated with the assassinations of Lincoln, McKinley, and Garfield. Vowell has a quirky sense of humor and feels a little bit like she’s trying too hard to seem… I don’t know, weird or unique (or weirdly unique) or something. But I did like how much I learned from this book, and I think Vowell does a great job weaving the history with humor, especially related the past to the current (well, early 2000′s) political climate in the United States. It’s a fun, educational journey (yes, both! sneaky). Assassination Vacation was the February book for my library book group, but I missed the discussion due to being sick. [Read from February 23 to 27, 2014.]

An Unexpected Twist by Andy Borowitz was next, and I sort of feel like I cheated a little bit here (a Kindle Single, so, it was super short), but it was funny, and it still counts as reading. Comedian Andy Borowitz tells about the time not long after getting married when a painful intestinal condition leads to a couple surgeries and his almost dying. Basically, he starts feeling horrible and is diagnosed with a twisted colon, so there are cracks about poop a-plenty in this shorty. I’m not sure how much of his memories are hyperbolic, but I appreciated how Borowitz took the life-threatening edge off this retelling with lots of great humor. Laughter is the best medicine, they say! [Read on February 27, 2014.]

I’m generally not into books that spring from Twitter accounts, but Rob Delaney’s Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. is more of a memoir than straight Twitter-to-book experience, and definitely my favorite of the five humor books I read for the Winter Reads program. Mother. Wife. Sister. is a collection of essays about Delaney’s life roughly in chronological order. I loved the one about his childhood fandom for Danzig, his college year abroad in Paris, and his stance on the cats v. dogs debate. The darker passages about his alcoholism, recklessness, and depression were harrowing and fascinating at the same time—and at the end I found myself feeling really happy that Delaney made it through his struggles, finding and making good use of the help he received. There’s profanity, poop, bungee jumping off the Manhattan Bridge, hepatitis A, masturbation, and lots of food. Mother. Wife. Sister. is a great example of a comedian who has fought personal demons, which seems to be quite common. I’ve never seen or heard Rob Delaney, but he’s hilarious on paper! [Read from February 27 to March 1, 2014.]

Lastly, I had no excuse not to finally read Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Hmmm… well, hmm. I have read Sedaris before years ago (Me Talk Pretty One Day and Barrel Fever) and I can’t remember anything about or from them. I’m afraid this collection might be the same… maybe Sedaris isn’t for me, we don’t share a similar sense of humor. I did chuckle at times, but they were for things others said or did that he observed, not his own humor. A lot of the essays just kind of came off as an old grump annoyed by everything. People are harried and wear schlumpy clothes at airports? No kidding! (eyeroll) I found myself cringing a bit through his self-absorbed, petty rants (to which he admits, to his credit). I was uncomfortable with his nonchalant attitude about his abusive childhood, the way he mentions race, and his stories about his affluence didn’t capture my attention. However, I did like the travel essays, which is a lot of the book (counting it for my Eclectic Reader Challenge!)—especially his observations on learning different languages for his travels. But still I don’t know—I feel ambivalent. I think Sedaris is a talented writer and with finely tuned observational skills, and I had a great time at his reading here last summer—he was charming in person!—but this might be my last Sedaris book. [Read from March 1 to 2, 2014.]