Most novels ostensibly about math feature math as a Dan Brown-ian McGuffin, approximately equivalent to magic: we take these numbers and then Do MathMost novels ostensibly about math feature math as a Dan Brown-ian McGuffin, approximately equivalent to magic: we take these numbers and then Do Math and then the secret to the universe pops out-style. That is not the Mathematician's Shiva. This is a book written by someone who clearly loves and understands math. The whole novel is basically a love poem to math, and cold Wisconsin winters, supported by knowing winks at academic culture and a heavy dose of Madison in its setting. Out of that comes a charming family story, staring all middle-aged+ protagonists (shout-out to Jon, who's into that sort of thing), as well as some thoughtful exploration of the meaning of religion, and specifically Judaism to a bunch of hard-nosed skeptics who don't literally believe but still gain value, the difference between intelligence and genius and the areas of the world where gender discrimination is alive and well.
I'm not totally sure who this novel was actually for, but as an academic Eastern-European Jewish math-enthusiast, cross-country-skiing-enthusiast who was born and raised in Madison, I enjoyed it largely as a "hey, look at that, someone wrote a book just for me!" I'm not sure whether a broader audience would appreciate it....more
This was really cute and unique. A perfect blend of tenement historical fiction, with really spot on accurate Jewish American history with a kid's fanThis was really cute and unique. A perfect blend of tenement historical fiction, with really spot on accurate Jewish American history with a kid's fantasy book, with all the bells and whistles of typical YA fantasy.
Major props for the creativity - this is probably the only book ever written to combine a Dybbuk and Thomas Edison in more or less the same plot. Also, the magic feels well thought out with a clear culture of how magic is and isn't used and how this varies among the upper and lower classes. Finally, the tenement culture felt familiar and true to the historical nonfiction that I'm familiar with.
The weakness was the pacing - the entire book feels like a build up to the "to be continued" that occurs at the end. I think it probably would have been more satisfying to wait until the series was finished and read it all at one go....more
I'm still mulling over exactly how I feel about this book. It's very, very rare for a book to ever make progress from my "partially read" shelf to myI'm still mulling over exactly how I feel about this book. It's very, very rare for a book to ever make progress from my "partially read" shelf to my "read" shelf. I'm still a little shocked that I actually read this book. I meant to just make another college try at reading it, so that I could reshelve it without guilt. Instead, I found myself 50 pages in, than 100, than 300.
I think part of the reason that I hadn't gotten very far in this book before is that I picked it up knowing nearly nothing about it. Being a big fan of How to Buy a Love of Reading and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I anticipated it to be another meta-book. I was extremely disappointed to open it and realize that it was a holocaust book.
You see, I spent much of my childhood haunted by the specter of the holocaust. My maternal grandparents are concentration camp survivors, and it felt like it was the only thing that my grandparents ever talked about. Every day in Hebrew school and day camp and overnight camp seemed to be Holocaust day. I think every fiction book my mother has ever read, and certainly every book she has sent to me unsolicited has been about the Holocaust. I think I've read nearly every Holocaust book every written, and the only one to date that I've liked has been A Thread of Grace To say I am burned out on the Holocaust is a major understatement. And, more importantly, I was extremely skeptical that there is anything new to say about the Holocaust that hasn't been said already.
But once I actually got into The Book Thief, it was gripping. Liesel was so vulnerable in the beginning, Hans was so warm and, I figured, at least it's about communists, not Jews. And then I got into Hans teaching Liesel to read and the beauty of those stark, midnight scenes, illuminated only by paternal love and the desire to read was so beautiful written, and the choice of the Gravedigger's Handbook both poignant and hilarious.
Ultimately, what kept me reading was the characters. There's not a single character in the book who is forgetful. And far from being caricatures, all of the characters are well-rounding, with flaws and virtues and react appropriately to situations and change. Perhaps my favorites are the damaged, uncertain mayor's wife and the coarse, prickly, but loving Rosa.
The imagery of words is heavy-handed, and often it feels like Zusak is screaming "I'm using imagery here! Look at me!" That being said, the animation of words as a concept is fascinating, and a powerful thread linking the book together. Words fly out of people's mouths, fall heavily and a thousand other movements.
Much has been written about death as a narrator, but to me, it felt like a minor part of the novel. It certainly was not overdone: death barely made an appearance in the first 300 pages. By the time he did, it added a nice foreshadowing and helped contextualize the activity within a very small community within the broader setting of world war II. ...more
I'm having trouble coming to terms with this book. Add it on the pile of my ambivalence about Michael Chabon. I think the thing that bugs me the mostI'm having trouble coming to terms with this book. Add it on the pile of my ambivalence about Michael Chabon. I think the thing that bugs me the most is the potential for greatness here.
An aging Sherlock Holmes is coming to terms with the fact that he is no longer in his prime and preparing himself for death and battling senility? Awesome, awesome premise. As a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, I usually refuse to touch modern interpretations, because I don't trust authors to give me what Conan Doyle did to make Holmes so compelling. On this aspect, Chabon mostly delivers: he captures Holmes' greatness in his dedication and flashes of brillance and tempers it with his moodiness and self-destructiveness. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Holmes mystery, though, failing in the complete lack of explanation of how Holmes deduces anything (and really, failing as a compelling mystery all over.) Holmes is aging, his brain isn't what it used to be, don't tell us that, show us by having Holmes try his famous Holmes deduction. Show us him missing clues, or thinking slowly, or coming to the wrong conclusions. It's an insanely original, compelling idea, that mostly only reaches it's full potential when Holmes reflects on a post-Blitz London with anger that London still exists in the post-Holmes area and that the Blitz and WWI have allowed it to change and grow into something else. I love the idea of what happens to the characters we love when they move past what they once were.
I think the big reason that this book fails is that while Chabon is good at many things, the novella is not an ideal format. His books become compelling over time, as you become more enmeshed with the characters. Pages give his language room to proliferate and his sprawling sentences feel less suffocating in longer books. There are so many ideas here, ripe for the picking. I can't possible imaging saying to myself "I have an idea for a book that's about an aging Holmes, in WWII, meeting a mute orphan, who will act as his foil, who has a parrot, who knows secret numbers, which may be the key to German codes, prompting discussion of the lengths one will go for national loyalty and exploring the tension between commitment to country and commitment to Jewish orphaned refuges in the middle of the holocaust, while also discussing the morally grey characters who form this boy's foster family and I want this story to be an exemplar of the modern mystery novel. That sounds like it can be done in 170 pages!" Everything loses in the brevity.
What really bothers me is that in the author's note, Chabon writes about the respect he has for "genre novels" and that he wants people who normally don't read genre to pick up this book and it to make them want to go back and read more mysteries. It's insulting to authors who frequently write genre. I agree that genre can be the most compelling form of fiction; it's freed from constraints; it can explore the worlds of possibilities and use that to reflect on the way our world is. This is not a great genre novel, and although Chabon has been a great friend to the melding of genre and literature in Kavalier and Clay (superhero/comic book) and Yiddish Policeman's Union (a much better version of mystery/noir), he should have left this one to the mystery writers....more
This book creeped up on me. It started slow and I kept dropping it to read something else. Then it gradually became mind-blowingly terrific. Chabon usThis book creeped up on me. It started slow and I kept dropping it to read something else. Then it gradually became mind-blowingly terrific. Chabon uses language in a way that is approachable, witty and literate. It's rare to find a book that is both fun and as full of imagery and symbolism as Kavalier and Clay. The 630 pages are filled with Chabon's unique voice on reality, escapism, narrative, imagination and family.
Of course, my typical Chabon comments still stand -- after reading a Chabon novel, I always feel as if it was written just for me to address things uniquely about my life. And I feel like Chabon is one of my closest friends, whom I know better than anyone else in the world. The universal popularity of Kavalier and Clay should disabuse me of these notions, but this is truly Chabon's unique gift.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an unparalleled work....more
This is one of my favorite books of my childhood. I reread it nearly every time I'm at my parent's house.
I was always intimidated by this book, becausThis is one of my favorite books of my childhood. I reread it nearly every time I'm at my parent's house.
I was always intimidated by this book, because I was intimidated to meet Jean Little. She was billed to us in second grade as an inspiration; a partially blind author as evidence that we could do whatever we set our hearts to. I was nervous to meet her less because she was an inspiration and more because it was the first time that I'd ever met an author. But then I was nervous to read her books because I was scared that they would be books about being an inspiration over and over.
However, her books stand completely on their own merit. Kate in particular is my favorite. It is the most honest narrative I've ever read about friendship and the perils of being friends as middle schoolers, who are constantly changing, but trying to be the best self that they can. It also deals with being the product of an inter-faith marriage and about finding an identity separate from that of your parents while still being a part of the family.
More than any other childhood book, Kate still speaks to me when I read it. It's rare to find a book about middle school that's this faithful, especially one like Kate, which deals with the parts of middle school that apply to everyoneover and over throughout life...more
Peninah Schram is one of the great Jewish storytellers of our time. These stories range from traditional to original and are based in every Jewish culPeninah Schram is one of the great Jewish storytellers of our time. These stories range from traditional to original and are based in every Jewish culture. It's intended for family use, with suggestions for holiday celebration and an appendix with music to sing-along to. The main flaw with this is that, despite the large book layout, this is really more of a chapter book inside. The stories are long (for probably an 8 or 9 year old to read by themselves, or to be read to a patient 5 or 6 year old) and unillustrated....more
Taking on a completely different genre from her flagship, The Sparrow, A Thread of Grace is set in the Holocaust. Improbably enough, Doria Russell manTaking on a completely different genre from her flagship, The Sparrow, A Thread of Grace is set in the Holocaust. Improbably enough, Doria Russell manages to make a Thread of Grace stand apart from the myriad of books that had previously been written in the setting. She brings her signature touches of a gift for character development and a canny ability to make her reader see every side of an issue, with heavy helping of moral greyness and questionable means to get to still questionable ends. Doria Russell will long be remembered as one of the epic novelists of our time....more