Book 12: Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
Book: 12/52
Completed: November 2, 2015
Purchased: Borrowed from Francis

This might be my favorite short story collection that I’ve read. The collection includes poetry, sci-fi, horror, and degrees of fantastical encroachment upon reality. I loved thumbing through the intro and pairing up the stories with the backgrounds that Gaiman provides for each. It really went through the writing process and felt personal to Neil Gaiman.

Most significantly, this book put me in the mindset to start writing my own fiction again. Reading about the author as a character provided a tremendous amount of creative inspiration for me.

As I complete this review, it’s been nearly 2 months since I read the collection. As such, it’s hard for me to recall why my favorite stories were the most impactful. Make sure not to miss The Wedding Present, which is nested within the introduction. Also of note is The Goldfish Pool and Mouse.

Would I read more by this author?: Such an enthusiastic yes.
Rating: 9/10

Avalon

Book 11: World War Z

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World War Z by Max Brooks
Book: 11/52
Completed: October 26, 2015
Purchased: Goodwill

Occasionally compelling but generally dry, World War Z steered clear of action despite heavy military themes. This book sure made me loath acronyms.

The sociopolitical commentary was so heavy handed that it severely dated the book.

The zombie fighting was interesting during the 5% of the book that actually addressed zombies.

If you would read a book about the gradual restructuring of the governments of the globe after a near-catastrophic event, which is delivered in a way that prevents you from becoming attached to any characters or experiencing the “human angle,” this book is for you. It wasn’t for me, which is a particular let down because I’ve heard nothing but good things about it, and I picked it out especially for Halloween. Oh well.

Rating: 5/10

Avalon

Book 10: Alexandra

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Alexandra by Valerie Martin
Book: 10/52
Completed: October 21, 2015
Purchased: Goodwill

Alexandra is a quick and captivating read about a middle aged man driven down a rabbit hole by lust. Set in (and presumably near) New Orleans, the reader is privileged to puzzle out the motivations of a cast of characters with a murderous secret. While the tone of the story travels far from where it begins, it knows what exactly it’s doing. I enjoyed this book. It ended very cleanly. I’m uncertain whether any of the characters are likable or even hatable, which I think is a testament to how well written they are.

Would I read more by the author?: Yes.

Rating: 8/10

Avalon

Book 9: Sex at Dawn

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Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Book: 9/52
Completed: October 19, 2015
Purchased: Barnes and Noble

Eep! Those paying attention will notice that I completed this book almost 2 weeks after book 8. Francis and I had extended visitors from Brooklyn who kept us very busy, but I as of today I have officially caught up. I even managed to avoid buying more books to add to my book queue! However, I do still have my review posts to catch up on.

I purchased Sex at Dawn sometime around 2012. I had always been interested in human sexuality, and was let down that it was rarely touched upon in any human behavior courses that I took during college. There was a time when I considered specializing in sexual disfunction in graduate school. So when I came across this book at a Long Island Barnes and Noble one night, I was very excited to read it.  At the time, I was in an unhealthy relationship that lacked emotional and physical intimacy, and I wanted desperately for it to work. Sex at Dawn‘s directness about the futility of long term relationships was a bit too much for my denial to handle. I couldn’t make it past the introduction without crying, so it sat shelved for years.

I’m not exactly sure why this book followed me across 5 moves, while many of my favorite books were donated.

Shortly after we began seeing each other, Francis went on a two-month road trip around the United States. Along the way he began listening to the Savage Love Podcast, a snarky PNW-based sex and relationship advice column featuring Dan Savage. The podcast has become a bit of a joke in our household because of how often Francis quotes it or forces me to listen. I promise that this is relevant.

I added Sex at Dawn to my 52 books challenge knowing that once I began, I would HAVE to finish, no matter what feelings it unearthed. (I mean, I made it through Pedagogy, right?) I was relieved when my reading of the introduction went smoothly. I was even excited to continue! Satisfied, I closed the book and studied the cover for the hundredth time to discover the most prominent review, top center, was a glowing accolade from Dan Savage. My edition also includes bonus content from his interview with Christopher Ryan. Clearly there was a time and place for me to read this book, and I had found it.

Now, on to my review.

I am very happy to have finally read this book. Its arguments are thorough and fact-based. The book itself is readable and not overly-technical. I have some academic background in evolutionary psychology as well as anthropology, and didn’t find this information overly simplified. In fact, most of the information was novel to me. I can’t remember the last time I was exposed to new ideas (book, movie, lecture, etc) and felt so compelled to SHARE what I was learning. It was downright exciting to put this book down after a paragraph and look around eagerly for someone to teach my new fact to. (Surprise answer- it was only ever Francis. We need Oregon friends badly.)

The most crucial component of science is remaining ever-critical, and so I believe the authors would appreciate my skepticism. While the book presents a cornucopia of evidence, it’s hard not to remember the author’s own warning about seeking evidence that supports our preexisting suppositions. I would like to see more literature to support their arguments from additional sources- particularly sources who might have stronger academic qualifications. The puzzle pieces in this book fit together a little too cleanly.

My primary issue with this book is that it urges us to take an open-minded approach to how we view monogamy and pair-bonding, but still perpetuates that sex and relationships are between a male a female. Although it mentions female sexuality it’s impossible to ignore that the vast majority of the emphasis is on men and masculinity. They support that females have a higher sex drive, but still frame female sexuality in terms of males. I also find it disappointing that the authors attribute all of society’s decline to the rise of agriculture, but suggest absolutely no way to improve upon modern society to remedy these issues. The implication is that, short of a mushroom cloud reverting us to a hunter-gatherer society, we’re all totally screwed to be poorly paired and sexually unsatisfied. Since the authors boast their healthy relationship with one another, surely there’s something prescriptive they could add.

Would I read more by this author?: Sure! Although it might sit on my shelf for a while.

Rating: 8/10
Avalon

Book 8: The History of Love

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The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Book: 8/52
Completed: October 2, 2015
Purchased: Goodwill

I am told that I tend too heavily towards metaphors. Here is the metaphor that came to mind as I was reading The History of Love:

Imagine a massive knot. Not the Gordian Knot, because that would make this about thinking outside of the box, and it isn’t.

Imagine this tremendous knot, which is more beautiful than chaotic. You believe that it can be untangled, because even though it’s complicated, it seems orderly and has amazing symmetry. So you sit back and study it, following its trail and waiting for it to unravel. Each time you mistake its solution, you feel a little more frustrated. But you have faith in eventually seeing a magnificent and straight rope at the end of it.

And then just when you can’t tolerate the frustration any more, someone comes up behind you and saws it right in half. (I already said it wasn’t the Gordian Knot, so maybe Alexander is on a knot-cleaving kick and this was another unlucky victim.) What you’re left with are all of the components of that beautiful knot, in a dozen useless, fraying strings that can never ever be connected.

THAT is how I feel about this otherwise well-written novel, with it’s confusing “how are they related” characters. For the first half of the book, I thought each character was nested within the frame story of another. For the first third of the book, I thought that one of the main characters was an entirely different sex. I can’t even tell whether or not we discovered that one of the characters was a hallucination at the end. The smaller those string pieces got, the more useless they were.

Would I read more by this author?: Maybe? The story was very disappointing, but it had potential and the writing was darkly funny at times.

Rating: 6/10
Avalon

Book 7: Pedagogy of the Oppressed 

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Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire
Book: 7/52
Completed: September 26, 2015
Purchased: Borrowed from Francis

I read this to round out my reading challenge with some nonfiction or academic writing, but when I think about reading this book, I groan involuntarily. It was very challenging for me to finish it. I hesitate to criticize it out of the context and significance in which it was written. It is the kind of book that I would be interested in learning about from someone more informed than I am in revolutionary theory and historical social justice. It is clearly a significant piece, I just struggle to see how it could possibly be considered effectively written now or ever.

Here are my (uninformed) thoughts:

  1. Not one point that is made is backed up with evidence.
  2. Most of the proposed methods for reversing oppression are stated absolutely and then never outlined. The book stands almost exclusively on, “This is the way that it must be,” but rarely delves into, “and this is how it could/should be accomplished.”
  3. Sometimes in the small intersection of inflammatory writing and academic writing where this book falls, an authoritative tone becomes confused with intellectual authority. An emotional plea that is presented as a logical argument must still make sense. Was there a need to invent so many terms and then rely so heavily on the reader’s fluency in them? How could this have possible been written for a population with limited education’s comprehension?

Would I read more by this author?: Please not without it being a part of a curriculum in which someone helps me see the merits of it.

Rating: 4/10

Avalon

Book 6: The Poisonwood Bible

IMG_2838The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Book: 6/52
Completed: September 19, 2015
Purchased: Borrowed from Francis

This book was fantastic, but it should have ended 2/3 of the way through. Barbara Kingsolver failed to capture the same spark when the characters moved into adulthood as she did when they were children. When they each separated, it became a series of incomplete and rushed narratives rather than an intricate and playful 5 perspectives of a shared experience. Unfortunately, that continued for nearly half of the novel. It was enjoyable, but I spent a long time hoping the book would recapture what it never managed to.

As with The Sheltering Sky, The Poisonwood Bible was reminiscent of Heart of Darkness. Perhaps more directly influenced in ways, Kingsolver gave more insight into the humanity of the natives than Conrad or Bowles. Still, there was always the sense that the main characters could never fully integrate into the culture they were flung into.

Part of the reason why I so deeply enjoyed reading this book was because it connected with some of my own experiences, both first and second-hand. When I was 17, I travelled to Kenya and was more or less isolated in a small city there while doing volunteer work. Kenya of the early 2000’s is in no way like the Belgian Congo during the mid-2oth century, but I felt that my experience lent to my ability to visualize the culture and landscape being described.

I was also reminded of how I presume to imagine my mother’s childhood. She is one of four daughters of a mother who is very smart but prone to staying in bed for periods of time. The five of them lived under my grandfather, who is a passionate and forceful man with difficultly relating to others and prone to waxing extremely religious. As children, they were subject to his whim dragging them across the country repeatedly, once nearly moving to Iran on the eve of the terrorism of the 1972 Munich Olympics, which cancelled their trip. I haven’t spent an abundance of time with these relatives, and so it is very easy for me to assign what little I know of them to characters, thereby filling in the gaps of the people that I suppose them to be. Hopefully I do them no insult in doing so.

Would I read more by this author?: Eagerly.

Rating: 8/10 (first half 10/10)

Avalon