mini-reviews: bailed! lincoln, spaceman, game of thrones

I thought talking about a few books I DNF’d would be a fun change! Here are three books I bailed on in the last year.

I got about an hour into the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders before ditching it. Yeah, not for me. I borrowed this one from the library to see what the hype was about and I couldn’t get into it. I think with Lincoln, there are so many characters, so many different voices, living and dead, and it doesn’t read like narrative fiction—it’s almost like a play—that it was way too confusing on audio. I’ve heard that Lincoln is better on paper, but I don’t think I’m going to try a different format, though. I wasn’t crazy about Saunders’s Tenth of December either, though I did finish that one (wasn’t bad, just, again, not for me). And of course, now Lincoln has won the Booker Prize! The cheese stands alone, I guess. [Bailed in March 2017.]

I got halfway through Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia. I really tried—I had this as a borrow from the library on ebook! I’m the worst at reading ebooks! I was really disappointed to quit because I thought this was extremely interesting premise: Czech orphan grows up to be his country’s first astronaut, is assigned a dangerous mission to Venus, upon which he encounters a strange and mysterious giant spider with human features on his ship. Is this spider real; is it an alien? Or is it his imagination? Jakub’s personal history and relationships, as well Czech political history, dominate this book. I guess I was expecting more of an adventure story than philosophical novel about myriad topics… none of which were a giant, possibly imaginary space spider. Sadly, reading this just started feeling like a chore. [Bailed in April 2017.]

Sigh, A Game of Thrones. I love the show and I’m all caught up on it there. George R. R. Martin‘s masterpiece series is SO hyped and SO revered. I thought I’d give it a shot between seasons of the show. Again, I had this on ebook from the library and I really gave it a chance. 177 pages into this first book and I was bored to tears. The writing is just godawful, pure shit. Am I alone here? Maybe this will be my unpopular opinion of the month! [Bailed in December 2016.]

mini-reviews: house of leaves, the troop, and dead mountain

This year I’ve been watching more scary movies, but last year I spent more time reading scary books to get in the right frame of mind for Halloween! Here are three books I read last October:

Wowza. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves wasn’t quite what I was expecting—more spooky than terrifying—but I really enjoyed it, especially the story at the book’s core (the house). A young man named Johnny discovers an old academic manuscript written by a dead blind man in his apartment building. The manuscript describes a film documentary, titled The Navidson Record, on a house that defies logic, as it is apparently larger on the inside than the outside, constantly shifting its shapes and dimensions, and the family that lives there. House of Leaves is the manuscript, footnotes and all, as well as Johnny’s commentary, the documentary’s transcripts, and other random things. However, it appears that there’s no evidence The Navidson Record film exists. This is a book that people seem to either absolutely love or absolutely hate. It’s by no means an easy read, being ergodic, postmodern literature where you have to really work to follow the text, laid out in all sorts of ways (backwards, upside down, different colors and fonts, one word per page, footnotes that make you skip around to different pages… it’s like a treasure hunt). Johnny’s interjections were annoying at first but grew on me as it progressed; I found his devolving psychological state very interesting the further I got into the book. Danielewski’s debut here is really imaginative and I loved how the layout forces you to interact with the book in an unconventional way. What a mindf**k! [Read in Oct. 2016.]

The Troop by Nick Cutter is a great old-fashioned scare. A scout troop is on its annual, traditional camping trip on a deserted island in the Canadian wilderness when a pale, sickly stranger appears at their campsite. All hell promptly ensues. It’s creepy, gory, gross, and weirdly a lot of fun in a twisted kind of way. I giggled and eeeeewww‘d a lot while reading this fast-paced, gross-out novel. Even though The Troop isn’t particularly groundbreaking and its characters and plot are somewhat stereotypical, it’s still a good mix of campy horror and science fiction. [Read in October 2016.]

I can’t quite remember if I watched Devil’s Pass first, or picked up Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain, but my interest was piqued about a year ago on this subject either way. In 1959, a group of skilled young hikers died under mysterious circumstances in the Russian Ural Mountains, on the side of a peak known as Dead Mountain. Forensics at the time revealed they experienced an apparent sudden panic, ripping the tent walls to escape and fleeing without donning appropriate gear for the freezing temperature. The hikers’ bodies were discovered to have either met violent ends or frozen to death, with some having trace radiation on their clothes, and one even missing a tongue. This event, known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident (named after one of the hikers), lead to decades of questions in Russia, and Dead Mountain is Eichar’s investigation into the tragedy. The author pores over the hikers’ diaries and photographs, newspaper clippings, government records, and more. He conducts countless interviews with friends and family, and retraces the group’s path himself. I appreciated the level of detailed research here. Sometimes the author inserting themselves into the narrative doesn’t work so well, but in this case I was utterly fascinated nonetheless. He reaches a solid conclusion (which does NOT mean the mystery is definitively solved), but he does explore all possible theories as to why and how these kids died. The 2013 movie Devil’s Pass was a fun “found-footage” mockumentary take inspired by the Dyatlov Pass Incident, and it also inspired a few music albums. I’m still intrigued. [Read in October 2016.]

mini-reviews: americanah, what it means, beasts

As I’ve been catching up on these blog posts of book reviews, I noticed I read three books that center around Africa and African characters:

Why, why, why did I wait so long to read AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie crafted a brilliant, epic story about relationships, family, love, cultural identity, the immigrant experience, race, class, home, belonging, and more. I bought this years ago but was kind of intimidated to start since it looked dense and long (and it is), but once I got into it I found it difficult to put down. My minor quibbles are that it might be overly long—some scenes are repetitive of earlier ones—and Ifemelu could be pretty annoying at times. But generally this is a great book and I look forward to reading more from Adichie. [Read book and listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

So many great reviews of What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah compelled me to borrow this collection of short stories from the library, and I wasn’t disappointed. The stories are memorable, with not one dud, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. There are a few that still stand out to me in particular months later, like “Who Will Greet You at Home,” wherein a childless woman crafts a baby for herself out of hair, and the titular story, in which mathematicians have devised a way to eradicate grief in the future. Magical realism permeates a few of the stories, and most revolve around young women testing the waters of adulthood and wildness. I loved it. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

I requested Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala as my entry for “author born the same year as you” for the Litsy bingo reading challenge… which I quickly abandoned. Oh well! But I’m still glad I read this short, harrowing book. I had already seen the Netflix movie, which was excellent too. After his family is killed during a civil war in their unnamed African country, a boy named Agu is recruited into a group of rogue guerrilla fighters. The movie was quite faithful, but the book gives even more insight into Agu’s internal thoughts and fears. It’s fascinating to see how is psyche becomes increasingly warped in his new, horrifying reality full of fear, terror, and brutality as a boy soldier. I highly recommend both the book and movie. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

mini-reviews: station eleven and the last one

I bought Station Eleven right after it came out, and of COURSE I didn’t read it until two years later. Somehow it survived my Great Purge of Stuff of 2016 in the overseas move, and I finally read it last fall. Coincidentally, I won a copy of The Last One from a Goodreads giveaway right before moving too.These two post-apocalyptic literary books are often compared, and rightly so.

I had to work a bit to get into Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and unfortunately (for me) I only got a little ways in before I had to put it down for the move, but when I finally picked it up again I flew through it. After a lethal virus sweeps the globe, a group of actors, musicians, and artists travel the decimated Great Lakes region performing plays and concerts to the few inhabitants left in the towns they pass through. There were a few odd things (like the dearth of guns/ammo and books in America after almost all of its citizens are wiped out… wouldn’t there be an abundance of these things?) but these minor anachronisms don’t detract from the story. I really enjoyed this thoughtful and imaginative speculative fiction novel. It shifts timelines, giving you a glimpse of living through a societal collapse instead of just showing you the aftermath. Thus, rather than being strictly about survival during and after a global epidemic, the story is more about beauty, nature, music, art, literature, and culture surviving. It’s about humanity and connection. Station Eleven was one of my favorite reads of 2016. [Read in September 2016.]

Alexandra Oliva shows she is a promising, creative writer with her debut novel, The Last One. During the filming of a survival reality TV show, a pandemic killed off much of the population. The show’s contestants have been cut off from the outside world and don’t know what’s happened. One person, a woman known as Zoo, who continues believing she’s in a game rather than an apocalypse. Zoo wasn’t as kick ass as I wanted her to be and I think the book is a bit long and winding overall. I also kind of wish I (as reader) hadn’t known that the corpses, danger, and devastation Zoo comes across were real—it left me frustrated that I knew and she didn’t, having to witness her behavior based on being in the dark. But I liked the book in general. It’s thought provoking regarding the portrayal of reality in media (how much of reality TV is real?) and how it can shape your perception of people, the world, etc. I think it’s worth a read if you like post-apocalyptic stories. [Read/listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything—an actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight. It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants—they just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is an excellent companion piece to Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear. Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)—finding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer. This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed—a blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]

mini-reviews: black earth and on tyranny

In the last year, I ended up reading two books by Timothy Snyder. One is a couple years old, one is brand new, and both are terrifyingly pertinent to what the United States is going through right now.

Black Earth is a dense and extensive look at the Holocaust, but is told not only as an historical account but also as a warning that the past isn’t so unrepeatable as we may think. Snyder delves into how the Holocaust began—as a dark idea within Hitler’s mind—and each step Hitler took towards attempting to achieve his vision. Military strategies, individual heroes, the dangers of statelessness, and of course the horrors of mass human slaughter are all examined here. Snyder’s warning comes as a conclusion that we in early-twenty-first-century America are facing similar ecological and ideological issues that Europe did in the early twentieth century, and missing the lessons of the Holocaust has endangered our national and global futures. We’re not as removed from Hitler’s supposedly incomprehensible world as we want to believe. It’s a bleak read, but necessary. [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

On Tyranny was released in March this year, hot on the heels of the inauguration. It’s a slim volume of twenty ways to defy fascism, the dismantling of democracy, and an authoritarian governmental takeover, citing historical (mostly European) examples from the twentieth century. It doesn’t go into great depth the way Black Earth does—it reads more like daily devotionals or meditations. But still, On Tyranny does serve as a reminder that there are ways to fight back. Some lessons included are refusing to normalize the situation, defending institutions, doing your homework when it comes to information, opposing a one-party state, paying close attention to words, believing in and defending the truth, reading, refusing to obey in advance, and making human connections. This is another excellent addition to the abundant response resisting this administration and time in U.S. history. [Read in April 2017.]