This book is unquestionably very well-written and fascinating, yet I struggled with how many stars to give it. The author is, quite simply, a rather un...more This book is unquestionably very well-written and fascinating, yet I struggled with how many stars to give it. The author is, quite simply, a rather unlikable person. I hate looking at her photo on the cover, I’m glad I don’t know her, and I don’t really wish her well. This was troubling to me because it seems one should like (or at least have empathy for) the character one is reading about, particularly if the book is a memoir. Should feeling empathy for the author of a memoir be a prerequisite for a 4- or 5-star rating?
The writing is indisputably excellent. Her childhood remembrances embody the perfect child’s voice, she shows wonderful self-awareness (except for two significant lapses toward the end) and her details and general observances are authentic and even humorous despite the subject matter. (less)
For almost 600 pages, the voice is absolutely perfect—as perfect as I had hoped it would be after seeing the back of the little girl’s head (braids fl...moreFor almost 600 pages, the voice is absolutely perfect—as perfect as I had hoped it would be after seeing the back of the little girl’s head (braids flying in the wind) in the cover photo. Unfortunately, the adult Madeleine is not as relatable, and certain events at the end are somewhat difficult to believe (frustrating because the first 600 pages are so very flawless). Nonetheless, this book is award worthy and unforgettable. And I found myself running to the computer when I was done to learn more about the plight of the Acadians.(less)
I tried so hard with this one because the topic is important and I wanted to learn whatever it was he had to say.... in fact I almost succeeded in fin...more I tried so hard with this one because the topic is important and I wanted to learn whatever it was he had to say.... in fact I almost succeeded in finishing (got to within 30 pages of the end) but I was forced to skim; I just couldn't read every word anymore. Such dry writing. He didn't bring any of these fish to life! Where are the descriptions of what the fish are like in their natural habitat? To care about them we need them brought to life. Drawings would have added greatly; I have no idea what most of these fish look like. Maps of where in the seas they live/migrate would have been lovely too. There are certainly tidbits here that are interesting and need-to-know information, but the writing is simply not a pleasure to read. Dry & lifeless.(less)
I loved the first quarter of the book, in which we get to know the two characters, and their college life in the early seventies is described in detai...moreI loved the first quarter of the book, in which we get to know the two characters, and their college life in the early seventies is described in detail. I was looking forward to finding out what the terrible thing involving Ann was. But by the time I got there I was rapidly losing interest, and the incident itself was not intriguing to me in the slightest, so I decided there was probably no reason to finish the book. I figured the last quarter of the book was probably all about the aftermath of the incident, and I didn't care enough to find out how it would play out. Perhaps I was wrong and I missed out on a great ending. (less)
Since Running with Scissors and Dry are both on my Best Books Ever shelf (5 stars), I naturally assumed this would be well-written, insightful, and fu...moreSince Running with Scissors and Dry are both on my Best Books Ever shelf (5 stars), I naturally assumed this would be well-written, insightful, and funny. How wrong I was.
He comes across here as SO unlikable, I could hardly bear to read what he has to say. He is an animal-hating, child-hating, bitter, angry person with an overly inflated ego. This book went into the trash because it isn't even fit for library donation. That's saying a lot, because I've probably only trashed (as opposed to donated) fewer than 5 books in my life. There's no denying he can write well about his childhood, but do not bother with these mean, unpleasant tales from his adult life. (less)
Fascinating and must-know history, science, and environmental issues, but with a focus on animals.
It is also, incidentally, an engrossing memoir with...moreFascinating and must-know history, science, and environmental issues, but with a focus on animals.
It is also, incidentally, an engrossing memoir with such a shocking event in the author’s life that I had to stop reading to absorb it.
Chapters 19 and 20, in particular, are MUST-READS. Everybody in this country, without exception, should carefully read and ponder these two chapters--they contain crucial information about salmon that everybody must be made aware of as soon as possible. (less)
Middlesex is an original and exceedingly well-written book about a hermaphrodite believed to be female at birth who was raised female and lived as a f...more Middlesex is an original and exceedingly well-written book about a hermaphrodite believed to be female at birth who was raised female and lived as a female until the age of fourteen. Up to that point, it is a female voice telling the story, complete with the expected female thought processes and female desires and concerns. Later, when the character chooses to live as a man, the author perfectly changes the voice.
This book really delves into the complexities of choosing one sex or the other, and the horrifying ramifications of other people (parents and doctors) choosing on behalf of another. But like all great books, this one is more than its primary story; it has a wide-ranging list of topics including Turkish atrocities against the Greeks in the 1920s and the Detroit race riots of the 1960s. Through it all, the author veers off on many interesting tangents while maintaining a highly intelligent and poetic (but totally relatable) voice.
EXCERPT: “He was a great teacher, Mr. da Silva. He treated us with complete seriousness, as if we eighth graders, during fifth period, might settle something scholars had been arguing about for centuries. When he spoke himself, it was in complete paragraphs. If you listened closely it was possible to hear the dashes and commas in his speech, even the colons and semicolons. Mr. da Silva had a relevant quotation for everything that happened to him and in this way evaded real life. Instead of eating his lunch, he told you what Oblonsky and Levin had for lunch in Anna Karenina. Or, describing a sunset from Daniel Deronda, he failed to notice the one that was presently falling over Michigan.
“Mr. da Silva had spent a summer in Greece six years before. He was still keyed up about it. When he described visiting the Mani, his voice became even mellower than usual, and his eyes glistened. Unable to find a hotel one night, he had slept on the ground, awaking the next morning to find himself beneath an olive tree. Mr. da Silva had never forgotten that tree. They had had a meaningful exchange, the two of them. Olive trees are intimate creatures, eloquent in their twistedness. It’s easy to understand why the ancients believed human spirits could be trapped inside them. Mr. da Silva had felt this, waking up in his sleeping bag."(less)
“Start this book, and you won’t stop. Memoir, detective story, travelogue, time capsule, horror movie come to life (and swinging a hatchet), obsessive...more“Start this book, and you won’t stop. Memoir, detective story, travelogue, time capsule, horror movie come to life (and swinging a hatchet), obsessive manhunt, a tale of American innocence dashed and left for dead....”
This book is gripping and disturbing, and vividly brings to life 1970s Oregon. You can’t beat the essential story—a young girl traveling rural America who experiences a life-changing event—but like all great nonfiction, the book is much more than its basic tale, and veers off into many fascinating tangents.
What still stands out for me, many months after finishing it, is the idea that while you may be certain an event affected you alone, there are countless others unknown to you living their lives across the country completely separate from you, for whom the same event continues to live inside them in numerous ways—occasionally has even helped shape who they are.
EXCERPT: “The second question was easier to grasp: Who was the man who emerged that night in a desert park, bent on destruction? This question had but one simple answer: an individual with a name. A man with his own history—a past, a present, and, impossible to imagine, a future. Fifteen years had passed, and the crime had never been solved. Its reckoning was long overdue.
Both questions converged in a flashbulb image that struck deep into my memory: the headless torso of a fit, meticulous young cowboy suspending an axe over my heart. The image conjured for me a villain out of myth and legend.
I began an education in such mythic imagery early on, when for my fourth birthday I received a 3-D Viewmaster that came with a package of sample discs. I remember holding the Viewmaster to my eyes and clicking the button on its right side. I clicked my way through 3-D views of beautiful American landscapes and frames of iconic American imagery until I froze at one: a headless torso wearing a costume out of the Old West, a holster slung around his waist, his hand training a revolver on me, the viewer….
As I excavated my personal history over many years of returning to Oregon, questions kept arising, still more troubling questions that brought to the surface the violent and extreme in our culture. The first time around, America’s dark underside found me. Later, I went looking for it. And it wasn’t hard to find. Of all developed nations, America is especially violent. It is violent by habit. My 3-D Viewmaster warned me of this when I was just four years old.
But I also found the other extreme. John Steinbeck said it just right in The Grapes of Wrath, our archetypal tale about lost American dreams: strange things happen to people in America. Some bitterly cruel. And some so beautiful that faith is refired forever."
Unbeatable plot: a truly psychotic mother raising twelve children in poverty in rural 1950s Georgia. It’s very well-written—I didn’t mind the dialect...more Unbeatable plot: a truly psychotic mother raising twelve children in poverty in rural 1950s Georgia. It’s very well-written—I didn’t mind the dialect at all, which speaks volumes about the author’s talents. She uses dialect perfectly: at no point is the writing at all difficult to read, nor does it distract. I couldn’t put this down.
EXCERPT: “‘Satan’s in here,’ Mama repeated with mounting fear in her voice. Edna started to cry, and Mama spun around to face her. ‘Shut up. You want him to hear you?’ she whispered, easing back to her armchair, glancing over one shoulder, and then the other.
She sat on the edge of her chair, poised to move quickly, and we followed her gaze to the leaking ceiling, to the corners of the room, and to the doorway that led into the hall….
And the silence began. And the sound of silence was frightening. Rain pounded the tin roof like a thousand demons marching for their master, and the roof yielded. Liquid curses splashed down upon our heads and into the waiting vessels. In the gray shadows of a rainy dusk, the clock on the table ticked rhythmically, but the hands never moved. They were stuck….
We shifted slightly and silently on our seats, we sighed, we sat. Darkness filled the room until I could no longer see Sam or Tarabelle sitting on their chairs. It fell heavily over Wallace, Laura, and Edna. Tick…tick. My fingertips vanished. The coal stove belched to the grumble of my empty belly and digested the last of its evening meal, then from the darkness came an angry voice that I recognized as Sam’s. ‘Look here, Mama…’ There followed the sound of an object sailing through the air. It crashed against the back wall and shattered. And the sound of silence was missing a tick.
For hours we sat, until the beam of headlights rounded the bend down on the road. Judy began to cry, and suddenly the kerosene lamp illuminated the room. I blinked and saw my mother, milky-wet stains encircling her breast, glaring at the baby with pure hatred.
‘Satan,’ Mama hissed. ‘He done crawled in that baby. Gotta get ’im out my house.’”(less)
An incredibly well-written and informative book about the Hmong people (from Laos) who have settled near Fresno. The chapters gracefully alternate bet...moreAn incredibly well-written and informative book about the Hmong people (from Laos) who have settled near Fresno. The chapters gracefully alternate between the story of a Hmong girl, Lia, who was born with epilepsy, and more general overviews of Hmong history and culture, specifically the clash of our culture with theirs. Lia’s story is stay-up-late gripping, and the overview chapters are both fascinating and infuriating.
EXCERPT: “It was said in the refugee camps in Thailand that the Hmong in America could not find work, were forbidden to practice their religion, and were robbed and beaten by gangs. It was also said that Hmong women were forced into slavery, forced to have sex with American men, and forced to have sex with animals. Dinosaurs lived in America, as well as ghosts, ogres, and giants. With all this to worry about, why did the 15,000 Hmong who gathered on the Ban Vinai soccer field to voice their deepest fears about life in the United States choose to fixate on doctors?
A year after I first read the account of that gathering, as I was attempting to deal out a teetering pile of notes, clippings, and photocopied pages from books and dissertations into several drawerfuls of file folders, I had a glimmering of insight. There were hundreds of pages whose proper home I was at a loss to determine. Should they go in the Medicine folder? The Mental Health folder? The Animism folder? The Shamanism folder? The Social Structure folder? The Body/Mind/Soul Continuum folder? I hovered uncertainly, pages in hand, and realized that I was suspended in a large bowl of Fish Soup. Medicine was religion. Religion was society. Society was medicine. Even economics were mixed up in there somewhere (you had to have or borrow enough money to buy a pig, or even a cow, in case someone got sick and a sacrifice was required), and so was music (if you didn’t have a qeej player at your funeral, your soul wouldn’t be guided on its posthumous travels, and it couldn’t be reborn, and it might make your relatives sick). In fact, the Hmong view of health care seemed to me to be precisely the opposite of the prevailing American one, in which the practice of medicine has fissioned into smaller and smaller subspecialties, with less and less truck between bailiwicks….
Not realizing that when a man named Xiong or Lee or Moua walked into the Family Practice Center with a stomachache he was actually complaining that the entire universe was out of balance, the young doctors of Merced frequently failed to satisfy their Hmong patients.”(less)
This is the memoir of a girl who grew up near the Himalayas in southwest China in a region with a culture unlike any other in the world: their society...moreThis is the memoir of a girl who grew up near the Himalayas in southwest China in a region with a culture unlike any other in the world: their society is matrilineal, there is no marriage, and women sleep with as many people as they wish, with nothing negative attached. Her story is fascinating, and the writing is very evocative of the region. (I really felt I was there in the freezing cold, trying to warm up by holding my legs under yaks while they pee.)
The beauty of this book lies in the fact that before beginning it, I would have said I had no interest whatsoever in Barcelona in 1945... yet within a...moreThe beauty of this book lies in the fact that before beginning it, I would have said I had no interest whatsoever in Barcelona in 1945... yet within a few pages I found I did care, very much. I miss it there and wish I could visit again.
Here we have beautiful writing, a never-before-seen plot, and a huge cast of characters, even the most minor of which has a detailed and interesting back story. This book is written exactly as the main character describes the book he is reading: “As it unfolded, the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable ever-smaller dolls within. Step-by-step the narrative split into a thousand stories…” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
EXCERPT: “The object of my devotion, a plush black pen, adorned with heaven knows how many refinements and flourishes, presided over the shop window as if it were the crown jewels. A baroque fantasy magnificently wrought in silver and gold that shone like the lighthouse at Alexandria, the nib was a wonder in its own right. When my father and I went out for walk, I wouldn’t stop pestering him until he took me to see the pen. My father declared that it must be, at the very least, the pen of an emperor. I was secretly convinced that with such a marvel one would be able to write anything, from novels to encyclopedias, and letters whose supernatural power would surpass any postal limitations—a letter written with that pen would reach the most remote corners of the world, even that unknowable place to which my father said my mother had gone and from where she would never return. One day we decided to go into the shop and inquire about the blessed artifact. It turned out to be the queen of all fountain pens, a Montblanc Meinsterstuck in a numbered series, that has once belonged, or so the shop attendant assured us, to Victor Hugo himself.”
“As a child, Maria Jacinta Coronado was convinced that the world ended on the outskirts of Toledo and that beyond the town limits there was nothing but darkness and oceans of fire. Jacinta had got that idea from a dream she had during a fever that had almost killed her when she was four years old. The dreams began with that mysterious fever, which some blamed on the sting of a huge red scorpion that appeared in the house one day and was never seen again, and others on the evil designs of a mad nun who crept into houses at night to poison children and who, years later, was to be garroted reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward with her eyes popping out of their sockets, while a red cloud spread over the town and discharged a storm of dead cockroaches. In her dreams Jacinta perceived the past and the future and, at times, saw revealed to her the secrets and mysteries of the old streets of Toledo.”(less)
Couldn't decide between 2 or 3 stars. There were problems with this book up until the end--an end that was powerful and sad and elegant. But I'm not s...moreCouldn't decide between 2 or 3 stars. There were problems with this book up until the end--an end that was powerful and sad and elegant. But I'm not sure it's worth reading the whole thing just to get to the great ending.
The two main characters are a teenager and a middle-aged woman. The teenager is rather cliched, and the older woman's insistence on keeping her true personality a secret is completely mystifying (in an annoying way, not an intriguing way). There is also far too much self-conscious philosophizing throughout the book.
But the ending! Finally, with just 15 or so pages left, we finally understand the older woman's motives. Why couldn't this have been shared a hundred pages earlier, so that we could relate to her better?? And the tragic ending, which I won't reveal here, is so well done it almost redeemed the book. (less)
One of the exceptional things about Krakauer’s writing is his talent for branching off into ten different fascinating offshoots of his topic, while bu...moreOne of the exceptional things about Krakauer’s writing is his talent for branching off into ten different fascinating offshoots of his topic, while building suspense by dropping certain threads at crucial moments and picking them up again at a later point. Every offshoot is always perfectly integrated into his main topic. He also astounds me with his ability to make any conceivable topic gripping. In fact, I would even read about World War II submarines if Krakauer wrote about them.
Under the Banner is about so many things: the polygamists and pedophiles of Bountiful, Canada... A first-person account of being a plural wife in Colorado... The history of Mormonism.... The mid-1980s murder of a mother and child... The kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart two years ago... This book is about many, many things, almost all of which are astonishing, distressful, lurid, and/or deeply disturbing. The historical segments of the book are particularly colorful. (less)