Avery Jankowsky is a middle-aged, free-lance writer whose world is upended when his younger lover informs him that she has had an affair. To help himAvery Jankowsky is a middle-aged, free-lance writer whose world is upended when his younger lover informs him that she has had an affair. To help him move on, a generous uncle offers him a spot on a high-end Scandinavian sex tour. Though Avery's original intent is to participate in the tour only as a detached undercover journalist, it's not long before he is swept up in a riptide of events well beyond his emotional control.
Willing got off to a promising start for me. Spencer is a skilled wordsmith who rewards his readers with beautiful turns of phrase. I was quickly pulled into the story and grew sympathetic to Avery's muddled attempts to cope with the affair. I was also intrigued by Avery's first flirtations with the paid sex industry; the inner battle between his idealistic beliefs and the forces of rationalization was fascinating. These things kept my interest level high enough that I was willing to overlook the fact that Spencer dispensed with the conventions of normal dialogue and crammed his characters' verbal exchanges into quoteless, run-on paragraphs that made the book distractingly hard to read at times.
Unfortunately, the story began to fall apart for me as soon as the sex tour began. Part of this stemmed from Avery making an early choice to send a life-altering e-mail that struck me as inexplicably out of character. Most of it, however, came from the fact that he is primarily passive in his response to the unfolding events. The only exceptions seemed to be driven more by primal emotion and sleep deprivation than actual growth as a person. This made him significantly less interesting to me as the book wore on. By end of the story, I no longer cared enough about Avery to be upset that Spencer ended his story with some disturbingly large questions unanswered.
This was an unfortunate disappointment given the promising start. I've noticed, however, that some of Spencer's fans have commented that this is not one of his best. Given the strengths that he clearly has as a writer, I would be interested to check out some of his other work. ...more
I had no idea dead bodies could be so fascinating. In Mary Roach's capable hands, however, the subject of what happens to our physical selves after weI had no idea dead bodies could be so fascinating. In Mary Roach's capable hands, however, the subject of what happens to our physical selves after we die is page-turning reading.
I always thought it basically came down to burial or cremation. But I now know I also have the option of becoming a crash test dummy, a bit of chemically rendered goo, or some hearty memorial compost.
As this book explores everything from organ donation to anatomy labs to cannibalism to the budding "head transplant" movement, I learned an astounding number of things. Many of these things were not exactly comfortable to consider (I will never look at Chinese medicine the same way again), but Mary's sharp wit and ability to keep the tone light despite the subject helped me get past the parts I personally found most difficult.
I can't say that what I learned is really of much practical value, however, unless I ever find myself in the position of hoping to dispose of a dead body at the bottom of a lake. Turns out that's not such a good idea, as dogs trained to find human remains are able to smell the decomposition gasses as they bubble up to the surface. Who knew?
Upon finishing it, however, I can say that this book has gotten me to think a lot more about the possibility of donating my body to science after my demise. While it's not exactly comfortable to read about all the various things that are done with donated remains, the wealth of knowledge that has been gained from those who have made that choice is truly astounding.
The book closes with the author's reflection on what to do with her own remains. Her discussion of the impact of that choice on those who are left behind is valuable reading for anyone considering end of life planning, as well as for those of an environmental inclination who may not have yet considered the planetary impact of their choice. After all, just because you can be plastinated to last 10,000 years like the folks in Gunther Von Haagen's BodyWorlds exhibits, that doesn't necessarily mean you should....more
I learned a number of interesting things reading Mary Roach's survey of the historical and scientific efforts to prove the existence of a soul.
Her diI learned a number of interesting things reading Mary Roach's survey of the historical and scientific efforts to prove the existence of a soul.
Her discussion of the scientific inquiries into stories of reincarnated children provides an excellent example of the difficulties of trying to objectively prove something when your main resource is the shaky memories of those who are already convinced of whatever it is you're trying to prove.
Though I was already familiar with the theory that infrasound (sound at a frequency too low for humans to hear) can cause the experience of ghostly phenomenon, I was intrigued to learn that a tiger's roar contains infrasound and some theorize that the fear we feel in the presence of infrasound is left over from days when escaping tigers was a high evolutionary priority.
I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about the various ways spiritualist mediums faked the extrusion of ectoplasm.
Despite the interesting nature of the topic, however, I didn't love this book as much as I hoped. There were moments in which the narrative got bogged down as the author detailed a few too many historical efforts to prove the existence of the soul.
In addition, I struggled with the tone of the book. Roach admits to being a skeptic, but she said her goal was to explore this topic with an open mind. In this I don't think she really succeeded. Though she does acknowledge some inexplicable events, she spends more time poking cheap fun at many of her subjects. In some circumstances, I can imagine the temptation was hard to resist, but this semi-snarky tone felt a little too easy. A few moments of genuine humor combined with her generally readable style, however, made me want to seek out her first book, which I've heard is much better. ...more
In Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri returns to the short story format of her Pulitzer prize-winning first book, Interpreter of Maladies. Like IoM, th In Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri returns to the short story format of her Pulitzer prize-winning first book, Interpreter of Maladies. Like IoM, the stories in UE explore the experiences of Bengali immigrants in America, and the ways in which the intersection of cultures plays out in the lives of those who do not fully belong to either land.
Each story focuses a lens on a different aspect of the Indian immigrant experience. In the title piece, the fully Americanized daughter of a widower struggles with the traditional Indian duty to invite her father to live with her family. Other stories look at a son coming to terms with a life that did not live up to his parent’s expectations; an accomplished sister’s troubled relationship with the brother who failed to find his own way, and a mother’s struggle to find meaning in a culture awash in the freedom that she was denied in her own.
Lahiri’s smooth, rich prose is as good as ever here, and within just a few lines of each tale I felt drawn in to the lives of people I enjoyed getting to know. Though all of the main characters are defined in some way by their heritage, their struggles felt more universal to me than her previous books, not quite so exotic as before. Her tale told from the perspective of an American PhD candidate who struggles with information about his Indian housemate’s Egyptian boyfriend was particularly effective in showing the universal emotions underneath cultural differences.
Though the luxurious writing made this book a genuine pleasure to read, these stories live on the more melancholic end of the emotional spectrum. Though they may not always be happy, they are incredibly rich, and I am glad to have read them. ...more
Battersea Park Road is Isabel Losada’s wry memoir of the various self help/spiritual programs she undertook in her efforts to become a happier and morBattersea Park Road is Isabel Losada’s wry memoir of the various self help/spiritual programs she undertook in her efforts to become a happier and more peaceful person. Unlike some of the other self-help memoirs that have come out recently, however, Losada is writing about a journey she took as an organic part of her life rather than something that seemed like a good experiment for a book proposal, so right away she gets bonus points for that.
Though Losada considers herself a skeptic, it didn’t take long for her to be swept away by the power of the workshop experience. Over the course of the book, she pushes the edge of her "comfort zone" in programs like Insight Seminars, a goddess workshop, Sky-Dancing Tantra, past-life regression, anger release, NLP, and angels.
Like everyone who has ever dropped a lot of cash on a weekend workshop, Losada is pretty motivated to find the positive in her experiences. Though she doesn’t hesitate to criticize the aspects she dislikes, she also loudly sings the praises of many of her programs.
Having traveled much of the same road as Losada in my earlier years, I feel this book is a pretty accurate reflection of what walking the workshop road is like. Each program offers the excitement of new insights and experiences, yet the effects wear off so quickly it’s not long before a person is drawn to the next guru-du-jour who promises to change one’s life in a weekend.
Since it’s been a while since I've been on that path, what was most interesting to me was the opportunity to step back and observe the kind of mindset I used to have. It was fascinating for me to notice how willing Losada was to try to fit herself into whatever particular belief system she was being presented with—though she doesn’t really fit the classic description of a codependant, she spent six weeks attending meetings designed to convince her that she was. In addition, I had never before realized just how masochistic self-help can be. In the chapters on rebirthing and past-life regression, Losada doesn’t seem to question the belief that pushing one’s self to generate the most traumatic emotional experience possible is a good thing. I remember when I used to think that, too, and I’m really glad I no longer do.
There are some genuinely funny moments in this book, and Losada offers enough real insight into her journey to make it worth reading. How much a person enjoys it will likely depend a lot on their relationship to the world she's writing about.
At the end, she talks about what she learned, and speaks about the importance of accepting herself as she is with all her flaws. I’m glad she’s come to a place where she is able to do that, but I can’t help wondering if she realizes that the entire workshop industry is built on people doing exactly the opposite. ...more
Diablo Cody wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the smart and funny movie Juno. As one might expect, her memoir about a year spent working as a strDiablo Cody wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the smart and funny movie Juno. As one might expect, her memoir about a year spent working as a stripper is also smart and funny, but much, much harder edged.
Cody was working as an office drone in Minneapolis when she spontaneously decided to try out "Amateur Night" at a nearby strip dive. Though her first attempt garnered her all of nine dollars, she was so fascinated by the world she saw she got herself put on the schedule at an upscale strip club.
Driven in part by a last-ditch rebellious desire to escape the cubicle farm hell of "respectable adulthood" as well as by an urge to master the secrets of a mysterious profession in which successful dancers could make thousands of dollars a night, Cody worked in half a dozen different clubs. In her quest for sex-industry success, she also transformed herself from a pink-haired, punk nerd girl into a fake blond with hair extensions, lacquered death nails and more make-up than a circus clown.
Cody is unflinchingly honest as she describes the stripping profession from the inside. Earning a living by removing one's clothes, it turns out, is nowhere near as easy as one might presume. Bored customers, passive-aggressive DJ's, and extortionist club quota policies that can leave dancers in debt to the house at the end of a slow night are just a few of the challenges she had to overcome. Cody eventually figured out how to play the game well enough to sock away a down payment on a house, but that cash came at the expense of physical and emotional exhaustion, not to mention permanent foot damage from those towering stripper shoes.
While Cody's smart insights into this unfamiliar, forbidden world make for fascinating reading, much of what she relates is so graphic there were places I learned more than I wanted to about what really goes on behind those blackened windows. There is a decidedly un-sexy reality behind the cold, hard commercialization of sex, one that even Diablo Cody's skilled storytelling and punchy humor is hard pressed to balance out. ...more
Jennifer 8 Lee is a first generation Chinese-American who became obsessed with the interface between Chinese restaurants anThis is a very tasty book.
Jennifer 8 Lee is a first generation Chinese-American who became obsessed with the interface between Chinese restaurants and American culture after learning that over 100 people had gotten five out of six winning Powerball numbers by playing the lucky numbers that came with their fortune cookies. Her obsession has resulted in a delightful cultural history with a tiny bit of personal memoir thrown in.
Before reading this book, I had no idea that there are twice as many Chinese restaurants in America as McDonald's, that chop suey is a wholly American dish, and there are serious claims that the Japanese actually invented the fortune cookie. In chapters with titles like "The Greatest Culinary Joke Played by One Culture On Another," and "The Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989," Lee offers up a fascinating buffet of information about the widespread cultural impact of this ubiquitous industry.
Though much of this book is lighthearted in tone, there are a couple of chapters addressing the very real hazards faced by those who pay upwards of $70,000 to human smugglers for the privilege of cooking chow mien in America. A story of the tragedy that befell one family when the clash of cultures proved too much for them to bear is terribly sad, and her discussion of the high mortality rate of Chinese deliverymen in New York is sobering.
Despite these heavier sections of the book, however, Lee makes it clear that the Chinese restaurant has been a very good phenomenon for both the workers who depend on them for their livelihood and the Americans who count on them for tasty, semi-healthy food. Lee is a talented writer, and while reading the book I had that lovely experience of both learning a great deal and being highly entertained. I must warn you, however, that this book will without a doubt make you very, very hungry for Chinese food. ...more
I’m sad to say I didn’t enjoy this book anywhere near as much as the first two in the series. While I think Fforde’s choice to set the action almost eI’m sad to say I didn’t enjoy this book anywhere near as much as the first two in the series. While I think Fforde’s choice to set the action almost entirely in the Bookworld was an intriguing one, I also got the sense he was in over his head.
Like many of the partially completed books in the Well of Lost Plots, there is a great amount of creativity on display here, but also a lot of half-baked ideas and poorly developed characters. The action took place in so many different settings and with such a huge cast of characters that I never felt entirely grounded within either the story or the people in it. The book just seemed to be going in too many different directions at one time, and while a good chunk of the tale was resolved by the ending, there were enough loose ends left lying about I couldn’t tell what had been set up for the next book and which he had just sort of forgotten about.
That said, I did still enjoy the copious literary references, the smart humor, and Fforde’s unusual way of musing about the process of creating books. But the experience was unsatisfying enough I’m not sure I’ll continue. Die-hard Next fans: does the fourth one get any better? ...more
Though I'm not generally a big fan of book series, the Thursday Next books are really growing on me. This second book picks up shortly after The EyreThough I'm not generally a big fan of book series, the Thursday Next books are really growing on me. This second book picks up shortly after The Eyre Affair ended and follows Thursday as she again tangles with Goliath, tries to figure out why she is experiencing life-threatening coincidences, and begins to learn more about the fine art of book-jumping.
Though character development does not seem to be Fforde's priority and the bad guys in particular a little too thinly drawn, the underlying premise of this book was so interesting to me I was able to overlook the occasional clichéd moment. As someone who has always gotten easily lost in books, I really love the idea of being able to literally enter books and explore the world behind the story on the page. Fforde has created an endlessly interesting world of possibilities with his oddball alternate reality, and I am most curious to see where he will take it next. ...more
This book is a collection of short essays about the art and craft of writing creative nonfiction. It was born out of a special issue of Creative NonfiThis book is a collection of short essays about the art and craft of writing creative nonfiction. It was born out of a special issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine titled "A Million Little Choices," published in the wake of the James Frey scandal, in which the editors wished to present guidelines for this often misunderstood form and offer food for thought for writers in the medium.
The 30-odd pieces include the historical underpinnings of creative nonfiction, discussions of objectivity, memory, and reconstruction of events, as well as pieces on techniques such as time compression and composite characters. Responsibility to subjects and liability are also covered, as is the writer’s responsibility to make it clear to the reader where fact ends and imagination takes over.
Though the book covers multiple forms of creative nonfiction from narrative journalism to personal essay, the sections on memoir were particularly interesting to me. In one entertaining piece, the authors highlight the distinction between the self-obsessed reality television style of memoir and the memoir that uses a personal story to access a universal truth.
Most of these essays are quite short, just two or three pages in length. Despite their brevity, they manage to clarify certain key points about the form and raise provocative questions about others. Very useful food for thought for anyone interested in writing creative nonfiction ...more
This is one of those books I wanted to like a great deal more than I actually did. The premise was very interesting to me: Rose Asher, a lit professorThis is one of those books I wanted to like a great deal more than I actually did. The premise was very interesting to me: Rose Asher, a lit professor who specializes in Renaissance sonnets, finds herself drawn into a controversy surrounding the discovery of a cache of new work that might have been written by a lover of William Shakespeare. In her quest to discover the truth behind these mysterious poems, she travels to Italy where she has to confront not just the past of her elusive poet, but also unresolved emotions from her own.
The primary strength of this book lies in Goodman’s ability to capture a sense of place. Her descriptions of the Italian villa where much of the book is set are beautifully drawn, and her integration of the customs of both modern and historical Florence was particularly interesting to me.
Unfortunately, these few gems are weighed down by a surprisingly clunky plot. Asher’s trip to Italy is inspired by an early twist that relied on so many highly implausible events, it broke the spell of the story early on. I kept going because I enjoyed certain aspects of the writing, but I was disappointed to discover that the plot throughout relies heavily on things like chance eavesdropping and coincidental meetings to move the story forward. In addition, I have never been more aware of an author’s manipulation of character actions than in this book. With any first person story, it’s always hard to know the true motivation of secondary characters, but in this case, those characters rarely behaved in ways that were consistent with anything other than a formulaic need to move the plot along in a suspenseful fashion.
This is Goodman’s fifth book, and I’ve noted other reviewers say it is not as good as her earlier works. Aspects of the writing were appealing enough for me to think I might look for some of her previous books, but I can’t really recommend this one. ...more
I'll start this review with a quote from the back of the book, since it explains the premise better than I can:
"In On Being Certain, neurologist RoberI'll start this review with a quote from the back of the book, since it explains the premise better than I can:
"In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges the notions of how we think about what we know. He shows that the feeling of certainty we have when we "know" something comes from sources beyond our control and knowledge. In fact, certainty is a mental sensation, rather than evidence of fact. Because this "feeling of knowing" seems like confirmation of knowledge, we tend to think of it as a product of reason. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that feelings such as certainty stem from primitive areas of the brain, and are independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning."
Needless to say, the ideas presented in this book will be discomforting to anyone who has come to rely on their gut feelings for decision making. Burton does a pretty good job of presenting his case that any feeling of certainty we experience tells us more about our inner biology than it does about the external world, and we would do well to understand that how much we can really know is far more limited by our biology than our rational minds would like to admit.
Of particular interest to me was a chapter in which he discusses the implications of these findings on the debate about religion. He takes both Dennett and Dawkins-as well as religious fundamentalists-to task for claiming certainty regarding the existence or non-existence of God. He claims that the space between 100% certain and 99.9999% certain is the best place to find tolerance for opposing viewpoints; if we can all admit the universal limitations of our minds, perhaps these debates could become a lot more civilized.