Thursday, May 31, 2012

Book Review: Collapse

Author: Jared Diamond 
Title: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Description : Diamond analyzes societies from the past that collapsed suddenly and mysteriously (i.e. Easter Island, Greenland, Mayan Indians, Anasazi) and describes the forces, most often environmental, that caused the societies to fail. He then applies these lessons to our own situation.
Writing style: This book is long, over 500 pages. The writing kept me interested, for the most part. I couldn’t ever read it in one sitting, though. It probably took me about six months to actually get through it. Diamond uses painstaking detail and lots of archaeological evidence, which is interesting, but can get old around page 350 or so…
Audience: I’m an archaeology buff and really enjoyed reading about these societies and the reasons they disappeared. Rather than doing the sensational “what happened to them” that seems to be so common, Diamond explains what happened, using enough evidence to be convincing. Those interested in the environment should also read this book.
Major ideas: Diamond identifies twelve risk factors, all of which are present in the US today; the book should act as a wake-up call. Now that we can understand what the ancient societies couldn’t, due to their lack of historical records and environmental awareness, we have to act to reduce our risk, or our own society will face collapse.
Wrap-up: This book was masterfully and convincingly written, if a bit scary and gloomy. 4/5* If you'd rather hear the TED talk, here it is...

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book Review: State of Wonder

Author: Ann Patchett
Title: State of Wonder
Description: Dr. Marina Singh gave up her promising surgical career for a career in pharmacology. When her office-mate dies on a fact-finding trip to the Amazon, Marina is asked to trace his footsteps to determine what really happened. The trip means that Marina must confront her medical school nemesis, Dr. Swenson, who is the head of the research team in Brazil. She also confronts her fears and her feelings about her life thus far.
Review source: This book was chosen by our book group (although it was already on my to-read list).
Plot: There’s a lot going on here (much of which I didn’t mention in order to avoid ruining any surprises).  What is the source of the Brazilian tribe’s abundant fertility? What happened to Anders Eckman, Marina’s colleague? Who is Easter, the deaf and mute boy who helps the research team? What is Dr. Swenson hiding? What does Marina want to do with the rest of her life?
Characters: The characters are well-drawn, though at times unknowable. I found myself getting frustrated with Marina, though in her passivity, she was being true to who she was. Dr. Swenson is at once heroic and supremely aggravating. Even the minor characters are lively and fleshed-out.
Writing style: I think State of Wonder is actually the description of anyone reading this book. Can’t figure out why else she would title it that. In other words, Patchett’s prose style always blows me away.
Audience: This is literary fiction, but the type that would turn anyone who hates literary fiction into a convert.
Wrap-up: Sorry, writing reviews of books that blow me out of the water makes me feel so helpless to grab the words. Ann Patchett is one of the gifts in my life. Reading her books makes me supremely happy. Finishing them bums me out. 5/5*

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Book Review: The Rape of Nanking

Author: Iris Chang 
Title: The Rape of Nanking
Description: Iris Chang wrote this book to tell the world what happened in Nanking at the dawn of World War II. After occupying the city, the Japanese proceeded to savagely kill nearly all of the civilians who survived and remained in the city. Chang’s Chinese parents told her about the Rape, and she was surprised that no one else knew about it.
Writing style: This is documentary non-fiction. There have been those who have challenged Chang’s sources and accused her of exaggerating, but even if the figures in the book had been exaggerated, this episode of history would be shameful and something not to be forgotten. The book does include graphic, gory (and sexually explicit) photos.
Audience: The book would probably appeal to WWII history buffs and those interested in Asian history.
Major ideas: Chang covers the military background and operation, the actual atrocities (with some pictures), some of the westerners (including a Nazi) who acted courageously to save as many of the Nanking civilians as they could, and the aftermath, including the cover-up by the Japanese.
Wrap-up: Obviously, this book wasn’t pleasant to read. I was pretty taken aback to realize that I knew nothing about this chapter in history. I’m not going to save this for a reread, but it was a worthwhile use of my time. Those of you who read this blog from time to time know that this book isn’t comfortably within my typical reading habits (it was one I received for free from Penguin), so I’m in a spot to know how to rate it. I’ll rate it based on how I liked it (2/5*) and the author’s skill in writing it (4/5*). (Sadly, the author, Iris Chang, committed suicide not long after the book was published.)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

Author: SuzanneJoinson  
Title: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar
Description: Eva and her sister are new missionaries to Kashgar, supervised by the nearly fanatical Millicent. Their very first act gets them put under house arrest and awaiting trial on murder charges. Meanwhile, Millicent’s not-so-subtle methods seem to be stirring up animosity among the natives. Running parallel to this story is the modern-day story of Frieda and her new friend Tayeb, an illegal immigrant. Frieda inherits the contents of a flat belonging to someone she has never heard of, and has a week to dispose of them before the housing authority comes in to clear things out.
Review source: ARC from netgalley
Plot: Both plots, the historical and the contemporary, kept my interest. Eva is writing The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar; she has brought her bicycle with her on the missionary trip. Along with her pointers on cycling, she uses her notebook as a diary to record the events taking place in this country where they are nearly the only foreigners.
Characters: Both of the main female characters, Frieda and Eva, are well-drawn and likeable. The supporting characters are also interesting and believable.
Writing style: It can be tricky to write parallel stories; the author has to make each story interesting in its own right, and they have to move at about the same pace. From the beginning I was more interested in the historical portion of the novel, probably because it was so alien to my own experience. Aside from this bit of unevenness, though, I enjoyed the writing style.
Audience: I’d place this novel squarely between chick lit and literary fiction. I think both groups of readers would enjoy it; it would make a good book group read as well.
Wrap-up: The book’s running theme of religious belief and what it means to the individual as well as to the community was very well done and thought-provoking. I did find the ending to be not as strong as the rest of the book, though. 3.5/5*

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

Title: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Description: Kate’s friend Elizabeth passed away suddenly just before 9/11; Kate’s world is rocked by the twin losses. Now Kate discovers that Elizabeth has left her journals to her, asking only that she promise to read them from the beginning. As she does, Kate discovers that the friend she saw as uncomplicated and easygoing was completely different than she had imagined. Kate’s discoveries change the way she sees herself, her family, and her own life.
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: The gripping plot kept me interested all the way through. Before she even begins to read, Kate hears from Elizabeth’s husband that she was having an affair. The reasons for her friend’s betrayal, and even her death, are hidden in the journals.
Characters: Bernier shows how even close friends can appear one way, yet be completely different. The main characters (Kate & Elizabeth and their spouses) are finely drawn, their layers unwrapped as the story unfolds.
Writing style: For the most part I enjoyed it. The one portion that got a bit old was the constant agonizing by both women over their careers, largely lost to motherhood. I guess that is realistic, but I felt like it took up too much space in the book.
Audience: It’s chick lit.
Wrap-up: I’d call this a better-than-usual chick lit. Very little is as it initially appears, and the mystery kept me reading, as did the evolution of the characters and their marriages. 4/5*

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: Auraria

Author: TimWestover
Title: Auraria
Description: Based on legends from rural Georgia, this book describes the efforts of James Holtzclaw to purchase land for his employer, a land developer who has a complex plan to build a dam, a hotel, and a center of industry near the tiny town of Auraria. Formerly known for its gold (which is still present, but makes no one rich), Auraria has an odd assortment of residents, including some ghosts, some recluses, and some eccentric folks looking to get rich. Holtzclaw observes the strange goings-on without becoming rattled, but he is shaken when it appears that there might not be enough capital to finish the project. Likewise, he wonders how he might get some of this wealth for himself.
Review source: Library Thing early reviewers
Plot: It took me quite a while to figure out what the plot might be. Though it centers on Holtzclaw, the action revolves around him; he himself is passive through much of the early portion of the book. As the Queen of the Mountains hotel is built, however, a plot begins to emerge.
Characters: I wouldn’t say that the book is character-driven. Many of the characters are known only by their oddities. The main characters act, or are acted upon, but their motives remain hidden.
Writing style: This book is magical realism via the rural south, something quite new to me. Since the characters weren’t the strong point, I kept reading early on mostly to find out what bizarre happening would be next. By the end of the book, though, the author has us thinking about some big ideas: what is happiness? What is money for? How much is enough? What are the moral/ethical issues centered around Americans’ identity as consumers and tourists?
Audience: This is literary fiction. It would be especially of interest to those who have an interest in local Georgia history or in southern fiction.
Wrap-up: By the end of the book, I was mighty impressed, but the beginning was powerful slow. That’s the main reason it gets 4/5*

Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review: Nathan Coulter

Title: Nathan Coulter
Description: This is the first of a series of novels set in rural Port William, Kentucky. As the book opens, Nathan Coulter, the narrator, is a young boy living on a tobacco farm with his parents and Brother. This short novel relates episodes in Nathan’s life, illustrating his relationships with his father, with Brother, with his grandparents, and with Uncle Burley, who could never quite get it together.
Plot: There’s not much of a plot here; this novel reads more like a memoir. The reader gets vignettes from Nathan’s life from his early childhood through his teenage years. Each chapter could function as a short story; only the characters really maintain continuity from chapter to chapter.
Characters: Nathan is a typical mid-twentieth century farm boy, I suppose. He doesn’t seem to have any ambition or to go to school. He works on the farm and hunts and fishes with Uncle Burley and Brother. Uncle Burley is the most rounded character; he never marries or moves away from home, but he does his best to refuse to be shaped into the mold that seems to eventually capture everyone else.
Writing style: Berry is also well-known for his non-fiction and his poetry. His fiction style borrows from his poetry, I imagine. I’d call it laconic.
Audience: This is literary fiction. It is really a good deal like our previous book club read (Home), except that there is less of it.
Wrap-up: Berry is best-known for his advocacy of returning to the land. He currently lives on and farms land that has been in his family for generations. If there is a meaning to this book, I think that it is wrapped up in the family’s relationship to the land they farm. It’s a cliché to say that the place functions as a character in the novel, so I won’t, but it does. Reading back over this review, it doesn’t sound like I’m crazy about the book, and I’m not raving about it, but I still give it a solid 5/5*. I just liked it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Leaving Mundania

Author: Lizzie Stark 
Title: Leaving Mundania: Inside the Transformative World of Live Action Role-Playing Games

Description: Lizzie Stark immerses herself in the world of live action roleplaying (LARP), a subculture that few people know even exists.
Source: netgalley
Writing style: Really engaging. Stark not only describes the LARP scene and interviews players, but actually plays many games herself and relates her own experiences.
Audience: Gamers, geeks, nerds, fans, and anyone interested in any of the above.
Major ideas: Stark does a great job of describing the games in a way that make them seem fun and exciting, but more than that, she thoughtfully discusses the social role of such games.
Wrap-up: I really enjoyed this book. Now, I am part of the core audience; I’ve played and enjoyed LARPs at conventions myself.  Stark keeps the book moving with a good balance of first-person experiences and exposition. 5/5*