I usually love Connie Willis, but this novel failed to click for me. I had several problems: first, Willis asks readers to sympathize with Robert E. L...moreI usually love Connie Willis, but this novel failed to click for me. I had several problems: first, Willis asks readers to sympathize with Robert E. Lee, a lot. But even though Americans of my generation are kind of trained, from elementary school on up, to think of Lee as not such a bad guy, my sympathy, frankly, cuts off after a certain point. (Totally different debate here, but: blah blah blah duty, yeah sure; but basic morality trumps duty, okay?) More significant, probably, was how underdeveloped the characters in this felt: by the end I had no idea, really, of what type of guy Jeff was, and Annie I found mostly annoying. The parts of the narrative I found the most interesting were the bits about Lee’s horse Traveller; I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say that the main narrative draw should pretty much never be the horse. (Certain children’s novels excepted.) The whole book almost feels like a warm-up for Passage, and if this is what Willis needed to get out of her system in order to write that book, fine, because Passage is amazing. Lincoln’s Dreams, on the other hand…not so much.(less)
A decent but unspectacular account of the 1916 shark attacks off the Jersey Shore, which served as the inspiration for Jaws. The book is slow to get...moreA decent but unspectacular account of the 1916 shark attacks off the Jersey Shore, which served as the inspiration for Jaws. The book is slow to get going as Capuzzo attempts to paint a picture of life in the Eastern United States in the teens, a task with which I felt he had only limited success. Clearly a lot of research went into this account, and Capuzzo provides a lot of detail, but he never really makes the past come alive like, for example, E.L. Doctorow does in Ragtime. Neither are the descriptions of the shark attacks particularly intense; there are far too many chapters in which Capuzzo describes a swimmer going out into the water in proximity to the shark, only to close with a line like, “Little did Robert know who close he came to death that day.” This doesn’t add suspense; it just makes the narrative seem needlessly drawn out. Weirdly, Capuzzo also orders the climax so that the chapter in which the shark is captured and killed is followed by several chapters describing failed attempts to capture and kill the shark. Uh, dude—I think you’ve got that backwards.
If you’re a big shark fan, you might enjoy this book more than I did, although I feel like I’ve read National Geographic articles that described shark attacks in a more titillating manner. Or you could just watch Jaws again, which I did the day after finishing the book—I found it much more satisfying.(less)
Fun and fascinating exploration of the science of sex. Roach writes, as usual, with verve and humor, which made this book a blast to read. I say this...moreFun and fascinating exploration of the science of sex. Roach writes, as usual, with verve and humor, which made this book a blast to read. I say this despite the fact that there are many discussions of bizarre and unpleasant medical problems herein, and as usual when learning about anything of that sort, I tend to walk away from my reading convinced I have all of them. (Does it matter that I do not have a penis? No. I am sure I have every possible penis disease.)
Roach kind of loses her focus toward the end—I’m not sure what her overall point was supposed to be; it’s more like “Some interesting facts about sex: let me show you them.” Which means this book doesn’t attain any depth beyond being interesting and educational. But you know? That’s okay.(less)
This book should be called Laika, or Please Enjoy Sobbing Hysterically Over a Dog That’s Been Dead for Sixty Years. My guess is you will; I did. This...moreThis book should be called Laika, or Please Enjoy Sobbing Hysterically Over a Dog That’s Been Dead for Sixty Years. My guess is you will; I did. This graphic novel starts slowly, but once it gets going it’s a beautifully illustrated story about duty, freedom, sacrifice, destiny, unrequited love, and the original space dog—all that good stuff. I cried like a baby and I wasn’t even PMSing. Damn.(less)
Vowell’s latest book is not the best example of her work. It’s the closest thing to a straight-out historical narrative that she’s done, and I think i...moreVowell’s latest book is not the best example of her work. It’s the closest thing to a straight-out historical narrative that she’s done, and I think it suffers from (as weird as this may sound) being too focused on its topic. This book is about the Puritans, and that’s pretty much all it’s about. Vowell is always an amusing writer, but I had a hard time being as interested in her topic as she was. My sense of involvement always blossomed on the occasions when connections were drawn between the Puritans and some other topic; my favorite section was definitely the one where Vowell compares John Winthrop’s meaning behind his “city on a hill” speech to Reagan’s appropriations of it (which since, of course, could be compared to Sarah Palin’s appropriation of that). But the rest of the time, Vowell is mostly just explaining— albeit deftly—what happened. It made me miss the travelogue and comparative aspects of her previous books.(less)
A workmanlike account of the rise and fall of comic books, from their creation in the early part of the 20th century to their near-destruction at its...moreA workmanlike account of the rise and fall of comic books, from their creation in the early part of the 20th century to their near-destruction at its midpoint. Hajdu provides ample quotage both from interviews with comic book creators and from the various writings of comic book detractors. Basically the two arguments can be summed up thusly:
Pro-comics: FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION! Also, sex and violence really sell! Anti-comics: THINK OF THE CHILDREN! Also, my anti-comics screeds really sell!
Hajdu (and, I think, the average reader, myself included) naturally sides with the comics folks, even though some early works were apparently really nasty—though nasty enough to make Garth Ennis or Frank Miller blush, I can’t say.
The book itself is thorough and readable, but never thrilling; someone else compared it to a term paper, and I think that’s fairly accurate. I’d only recommend it if you’re really interested in the subject—or writing a term paper yourself.(less)
Incredibly powerful account of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Murakami tells the story very simply, using mostly Studs Terkel-style fi...moreIncredibly powerful account of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Murakami tells the story very simply, using mostly Studs Terkel-style first person accounts. It’s fascinating to see different people’s versions of the same events, especially since many of the survivors interviewed were in close proximity to each other (such as, on a tiny subway car) when the attacks took place, and yet their perspectives will often deviate from one another in interesting ways.
In the second half of the book, Murakami interviews former members of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that perpetrated the attacks. This section is likewise compelling, and horrifying, though in different ways. I find the cult mentality somewhat difficult to grasp, so my reaction to the second section contained an element of bafflement to it as well, but that sort of works, as in a way the book is about trying to make sense of the insensible. It’s a wonderful work as a piece of history, and as an introspective look at everyday human action in the face of tragedy.(less)
Nice graphic collection of stories about women throughout history who disguised themselves as men for various ends. This book is far from perfect: far...moreNice graphic collection of stories about women throughout history who disguised themselves as men for various ends. This book is far from perfect: far too many stories rely on speculation or stumble into "It's not know what happened to her at this point..." territory, and it's also kind of depressing how frequently the tales end with it all going horribly wrong for the women in question. But I'm still glad I read it, especially because I learned about James Barry, a British surgeon who implemented all sorts of medical reforms and performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections--and was also probably a woman who lived her whole life as a man. I really want to read a whole book just about Barry now.(less)
Graphic account of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, from the point of view of the Israeli soldiers who were to varying degrees complicit in the e...more Graphic account of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, from the point of view of the Israeli soldiers who were to varying degrees complicit in the events. I wished Folman had provided more background on what actually took place—I can understand how that would be tricky to fit into the dreamlike, piecing-together-memories storytelling, but I wasn’t born in 1982 and am sadly more ignorant than I ought to be, apparently. Thank god for Wikipedia.
The art is gorgeous and evocative, however, and the story is hauntingly told (if still a bit confusing; see above re: general ignorance, etc.). I’d be interested to see the film version of this—I wonder if it is more or less clear?(less)
Beautiful and eerie collection of photographs of (mostly) abandoned state mental hospitals. There are two informative essays by the photographer, Chri...moreBeautiful and eerie collection of photographs of (mostly) abandoned state mental hospitals. There are two informative essays by the photographer, Christopher Payne, and one by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, but in many ways the images speak for themselves. Payne highlights the grand, imposing edifices of these decaying institutions, their grandeur making it possible to understand how a mental asylum was once considered a great coup for a community. But it’s impossible not to also see the dashed dreams hidden away behind these crumbling walls. The fact that the noble ideals with which these places were built disintegrated over time manifests itself with a stunning literalness in swirls of peeling paint, moldering ceilings, and leaf-strewn breezeways. Similarly, the people society has left behind are evoked with the simple image of an abandoned rack of multicolored patient toothbrushes.
Aspects of this book are creepy—it brought to mind several horror movies (notably Session 9) that I instantly wanted to rewatch once I finished reading. But it’s surprisingly poignant, too. In his closing essay, Payne talks about witnessing the destruction of Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, the exterior of which was a familiar sight throughout his childhood. It was closed in the early ’90s and recently demolished to build condominiums. It’s easy to see why Payne views this as a tragedy against architecture and history, and his photos of Danvers being gutted are some of the most wrenching in the book. There was something here—something that mattered once—and now it’s gone forever.(less)
Confession: I don’t find jokes funny. Not really. Witticisms, yes. Humorous stories, indeed. But jokes—setup: punchline jokes—not so much. Possibly th...moreConfession: I don’t find jokes funny. Not really. Witticisms, yes. Humorous stories, indeed. But jokes—setup: punchline jokes—not so much. Possibly there is something wrong with me.
I liked this book, though. It’s short—not much more than a glorified magazine article—but the history is fascinating and the philosophy digestible. I loved the examples of jokes from ancient times: they were hilarious, in the sense that they were hilariously bad. I especially enjoyed the discussion of Poggio Bracciolini, who with his 15th Century Liber Facetiarum, became the author of the first joke book published in Europe. This despite his, as Holt puts it, “regrettable tendency to preempt the punchline.” For example: “The abbot of Septimo, an extremely corpulent man, was traveling toward Florence one evening. On the road he asked a peasant, ‘Do you think I’ll be able to make it through the city gate?’ He was talking about whether he would be able to make it to the city before the gates were closed. The peasant, jesting on the abbot’s fatness, said, ‘Why, if a cart of hay can make it through, you can, too!’”
Correction: I seem to like jokes that are really badly told.
(All right, for the record, there was one joke in this book that did make me laugh in the traditional manner. From page 106:
A Jewish grandmother is watching her grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea. She pleads, “Please, God, save my only grandson! Bring him back.” And a big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She looks up at heaven and says, “He had a hat!”
Awesome, awesome book about the history and development of Penguin Books, with specific focus on its evolving design aesthetic. The images of the old...moreAwesome, awesome book about the history and development of Penguin Books, with specific focus on its evolving design aesthetic. The images of the old covers are to die for: several times, I think, I had to wipe away the drool. The later chapters are a little depressing, however, like seeing an aging actor and thinking, “Damn! He’s really let himself go!” Penguin Books: the Mickey Rourke of publishers.
Fortunately, as with Mr. Rourke, all is not lost: despite letting the general look of its overall efforts decline, Penguin is still producing wonderful limited-edition series, like the Great Ideas series. These books are gorgeous; whenever we get new ones into the store, yup, it’s drool-wiping time again. The Wrestler could only dream of provoking such a reaction.(less)
Okay, I officially do not want to go to the Amazon. I am open to the possibility of going almost anywhere—I love adventure! In a please-god-let-there-...moreOkay, I officially do not want to go to the Amazon. I am open to the possibility of going almost anywhere—I love adventure! In a please-god-let-there-be-adequate-bathroom-facilities sort of way—but the Amazon is now officially off my list. The bugs! The snakes! The parasitic worms! Haha, okay, I think I am perfectly happy visiting this region from my armchair only.
Fortunately, Grann makes the journey exciting and vivid. He combines the story of Percy Fawcett—one of the last of the terribly English, gentlemanly explorers, who disappeared in the Amazon while searching for a (possibly apocryphal) lost city he called Z—with his own search for evidence of Fawcett’s fate and with a wealth of history about the region and about exploration in general. There is so much fascinating information in this book it’s almost overwhelming, and yet that narrative is also fast-paced and consistently engaging. This is the kind of true-life story that even the best fiction would have a hard time rivaling.(less)
Terrific collection of investigative essays on topics ranging from murdered Sherlockian scholars to giant squid. I loved Grann’s full-length nonfictio...moreTerrific collection of investigative essays on topics ranging from murdered Sherlockian scholars to giant squid. I loved Grann’s full-length nonfiction book, The Lost City of Z, and as he did in that work, Grann once again proves his skills at plumbing the depths of obsession with these fascinating short pieces. If you’re obsessed with obsession (as I am), you will easily become enthralled by this book.(less)
I loved Tom De Haven's reimagining of the Superman mythos, the utterly enchanting It's Superman It seems he can pull off a great nonfiction look at Su...moreI loved Tom De Haven's reimagining of the Superman mythos, the utterly enchanting It's Superman It seems he can pull off a great nonfiction look at Supes, too, with Our Hero, a fantastic exploration of the character’s real-life origin story, his ups and downs, and his lasting cultural impact. De Haven comes across like the wise fanboy on a hill—he's got both the perspective and the enthusiasm. Even if you're not a big fan of the Man of Steel—and I'm not—this book is a joy to read: a thoughtful investigation into why stories and characters are so important, into how an alien from Krypton can help us think about what makes us human.(less)