Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Author: Garth Stein
Title: The Art of Racing in the Rain
Description: Narrated by the family dog, this novel is the story of a family that hits a rough spot; the wife and mother dies of a brain tumor and the father is then hit with a child custody suit by his wife’s parents.   
Plot: This was the most depressing book I’ve read in a long while. The first sentence tells us that it’s the end of the dog’s life, so we know we’ll be witnessing the passing of a beloved pet. Add to that all the crushing blows that the protagonist, Denny, has to absorb, and you’re into a real downer.
Characters: The main concern, of course, is what the voice of a dog sounds like. I’m not sure Stein hit the right note here. The dog’s vocabulary is way bigger than mine (explained away by the fact that he watches TV all day, ha!). If the dog were really that smart, he would have easily figured out a way to communicate. Plus every now and then, he really does act like a dog—chasing critters, tearing things up, etc. So it comes across sort of like a savant voice: brilliant, yet out of control. It didn’t quite work for me.
Writing style: There’s a lot of philosophy here. Denny is a race car driver, and Enzo (the dog) derives much of his worldview from applying racing principles to life. There’s also Enzo’s idea that he will be reincarnated as a man, because he is “ready.”
Audience: People who like novels where things get as bad as they can possibly be, then come out improbably wonderfully in the end, combined with lots of information about car racing and some type of Eastern philosophy.
Wrap-up: I’m zero for three in the audience categories for this book, so guess what: I didn’t like it. 1.5/5*

Friday, January 18, 2013

Review: Holy Jumpers

Author: William Kostlevy
Title: Holy Jumpers: Evangelicals and Radicals in Progressive Era America
Description: This is a history of a small sect known as the Metropolitan Church Association which flourished between 1900 and 1950.  
Writing style: Kostlevy combines attention to detail with general focus on the arc of the history of the sect, making for a very readable book. I believe it is a revision of his dissertation.
Audience: those interested in American church history.
Major ideas: It was really interesting to see that within just about 100 years, “evangelical” ideas can change so much. For example, this group had a contempt for the rich and strongly advocated a form of socialism, to the extent that they encouraged church members to sign over all assets to the church, and constituents lived communally. They were roughly contemporary with the beginning of the Pentecostal movement and the birth of the Holiness churches (i.e. Nazarenes), yet set themselves strongly apart from both of these groups, with whom they shared significant Holiness beliefs.
Wrap-up: Since my parents’ families were both members of this group (and this is how my parents met), I have a very personal interest in the MCA, which no doubt colored my reading of the book. 4/5*

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty

Author: Dan Ariely
Title: The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How we Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves
Description: Ariely is a psychologist who has conducted many (slightly) varying experiments about the conditions under which people will be dishonest. Here he reports his findings in an accessible style in a book designed to give laypersons insight into their behavior and that of others.
Writing style:  Blessedly free of academic jargon, thank goodness, but the endless variations on basically the same experiment got really old.
Audience: Nonfiction readers, especially those with an interest in psychology or human behavior.
Major ideas: Certain circumstances make people much more vulnerable to the temptation to be deceitful, while other situations reinforce the tendency to be honest.
Wrap-up: The lack of variation in the basic setup of the experiment made the book lose steam by about halfway through. 3/5*

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book Review: Fooling Houdini

Author: Alex Stone
Title: Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind
Description: Alex Stone was in graduate school studying physics, but he really mostly cared about his time spent learning magic tricks as an amateur magician. So he took some time off to write this book, which describes how hard one really has to work in order to be a decent entertainer with magic tricks. Alex does mostly card tricks, and he delves into the connections between his physics background and magic, like the mathematics of card shuffling. He takes time off from school and surveys the magic culture—classes, journals, competitions, and practitioners who are legends in that culture and unknown to the rest of the world.
Writing style: The book is written as a pretty straightforward memoir, with a few more digressions than I might like into the physics/magic connection—but my husband will love that kind of thing.
Audience: Anyone interested in magic, memoir readers, anyone fascinated by subcultures that we don’t usually get a look at.
Major ideas: Magic takes hours and hours of work. When we are amazed at a trick where the only possible way to do it would be to memorize the order of the deck, the magician really did memorize the order of the deck.
Wrap-up: I love this kind of book, and the topic fascinated me as well. 4/5*

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Book Review: Birds of a Feather

Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Title: Birds of a Feather
Description: Maisie Dobbs is hired by a wealthy man to find his adult daughter who has a habit of bolting from the house. Meanwhile, several young women of the same age turn up dead, and Maisie wonders if there is a connection. This book is the second of the Maisie Dobbs books (I haven’t read any of the others) and is set in post-WWI England.
Review source: This was one of the picks for our book group.
Plot: It was interesting to follow Maisie and her acquaintances as they traced the connections in the central mystery, but the author unfairly held information from the reader (which it really wouldn’t have mattered if she had given the reader—it wouldn’t have spoiled the mystery). I don’t like cheap tricks like that.
Characters: I wasn’t overly fond of Maisie as detective.  She is very interested in the young science of psychology, which is well and good, but she takes it further into some kind of mysticism (a friend told me that this is made clearer in the first book). So she sits in rooms and examines auras and gets visions and weird (unnecessary) stuff like that. There was a love triangle developing throughout the book, but I didn’t really care.
Writing style: It’s a historical mystery, so think Anne Perry, with some added supernatural mumbo-jumbo, some teasing of the reader, and weaker characters.
Audience: people who like historical mystery.
Wrap-up: Another book that I wouldn’t have picked up except for the book group, so take the rating with that in mind. 2.5/5*

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Author: David Simon
Title:  Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
Description: I loved the TV show that was based on this book, so I was happy to get the book. Simon decided to take a full year and follow the Baltimore Police Department’s Homicide unit. The characters in the show were given different names than those in the book, but the book does match them up.
Source: Penguin
Writing style: Simon is really detailed—the book runs to almost 700 pages long. Many of the features of the show are here: the board with the open cases in red and the closed cases in black, the inter-departmental politics, and the strong sense of Baltimore as a place.
Audience: readers of creative nonfiction. Mystery readers might also like this real-life police procedural.
Wrap-up: The book was a little long for my taste, but it did give the sense of a year passing (it didn’t take me quite that long to read; I started it in May, so six months). I got the characters mixed up as well; there were a few too many of them, and the names didn’t line up with the names I was used to. 3.5/5.