Just Kids is a story of the lifelong love/affection between Patti Smith and Robert Mappelthorpe, written by Patti after Robert's death to fulfill a pr...moreJust Kids is a story of the lifelong love/affection between Patti Smith and Robert Mappelthorpe, written by Patti after Robert's death to fulfill a promise she made to him to write down their story. While the book is autobiographical, it isn't Patti's autobiography; the story glosses over the parts of her life where she lived apart from Robert and ends with his death.
The whole book feels like a fairy tale, which is the source of both its charm and its frustrations. Patti's version of her young life in New York is magical, and she mentions but glosses over the days they went without food or heat as they struggled to make ends meet. Even Robert's slow recognition and acceptance that he was gay didn't seem to faze Patti; she must have struggled with this knowledge, but the picture we get focuses on their love and not their hard times.
Patti Smith is, unsurprisingly, a wonderful writer, and this book is well worth a read, but go into it understanding that it is the story of a relationship and not a biography of Patti or Robert as individuals. If you're somebody who is really put off by name-dropping, this book might be a hard read because of all the people they were rubbing shoulders with in New York, but there were only a few points in the book where it really felt to me that she was mentioning people just to make sure she mentioned them. Overall I really enjoyed reading Just Kids even though it turned out to be more dreamlike and less detailed than I expected.(less)
So when I was a kid my parents had a book called Benjamin Alexander Sheep, which I read over and over again and thought was great. I was too young to...moreSo when I was a kid my parents had a book called Benjamin Alexander Sheep, which I read over and over again and thought was great. I was too young to realize that the whole story was meant to be a Christian response to a much more famous book. So, like everything else in my life, I came to this book in a totally backwards way, reading it in my 30s just to find out what my childhood book was based on.
I'm not sure how to rate this. It's very transparent as an allegory, and you don't actually get that invested in the characters, but it's still a fast and engaging read, and I enjoyed breezing through it. It's one of those books that might change your life at 16 but probably isn't going to have much impact otherwise. But if you want to feel good about embracing the infinite potential inside all of us, or you want encouragement about doing your own thing in spite of others' opinions, you could probably do worse than this book. Mostly, though, I think the only reason to read it as an adult in the 21st century is because it was so huge and is still in some ways a cultural touchpoint - but the whole thing is so obvious that you probably don't actually have to read it to understand any references to it that you might come across.(less)
I've always appreciated Atwood without ever quite loving anything of hers that I've read. The Kindle Single "I'm Starved For You" didn't change my opi...moreI've always appreciated Atwood without ever quite loving anything of hers that I've read. The Kindle Single "I'm Starved For You" didn't change my opinion, though it's a predictably well-written and engaging dystopian story. This one definitely took a little suspension of disbelief for me; you have to accept that the outside world has become so truly horrible that volunteering to spend half your time in prison sounds good to people. That taken, though, what you get is a tale of two couples alternately living in the same house while the other serves its time in prison every other month, and the discovery of a note that makes one of the husbands start fantasizing about what the other couple must be like. I didn't love this story, but it's classic Atwood and will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed her other works.(less)
This book made SO MUCH more sense to me when I got to the end and saw that many of the chapters had been previously published as standalone short stor...moreThis book made SO MUCH more sense to me when I got to the end and saw that many of the chapters had been previously published as standalone short stories. Egan's writing is fantastic, and reading this as a short story collection there are far more hits than misses. However, trying to fit it together as a novel just didn't work for me. The characters were interesting as short-story figures, but we never get to know any of them well enough to care about them very deeply. There are moments in the book that I really loved, but as a novel I found it a big disappointment - and the final chapter was a trainwreck of the worst elements of the other stories put together in a gibberish of text-speak. (less)
I'm not quite sure what to say about A Perfect Spy. One of the first things that struck me is how beautifully written it is - it reminded me of readin...moreI'm not quite sure what to say about A Perfect Spy. One of the first things that struck me is how beautifully written it is - it reminded me of reading Brideshead Revisited. However, the plot is sparse and nonlinear, and even though I chipped away at it regularly, it took me three months to finish the book. In spite of my early enthusiasm, I just never got sucked in.
One important thing to know about A Perfect Spy is that it really isn't a spy novel at all. It's a loose autobiography about John le Carré's difficult relationship with his father, and a reflection on the complexities of friendship and loyalty. The book is told in part from the perspective of the main character, Magnus Pym, a British spy whose loyalties to England come under increasing doubt over the course of the novel. Pym's childhood was dominated by his con-man father's massive personality, and he spends much of his life torn between wanting to please his father and wanting to cut him out of his life entirely. The book alternates between chapters where Pym is writing his own autobiography - largely in hopes that his son will understand him and not turn out like him - and scenes set in the novel's present day, as Pym's family and intelligence officers from multiple countries try to figure out where exactly he has disappeared to and who, if anyone, actually has Pym's final allegiance.
I wanted this book to work out so much better for me than it did, but it just never clicked for me. The writing is beautiful and the story is brilliant, but I never got sucked into the book in the way I expected to.(less)
I remember really liking Middlesex, but The Marriage Plot fell flat for me. The prose is good and it reads pleasantly enough, but the characters didn'...moreI remember really liking Middlesex, but The Marriage Plot fell flat for me. The prose is good and it reads pleasantly enough, but the characters didn't feel real. It seems like the book had a good idea behind it but that Eugenides was too caught up in his literary idea to give us fully realized characters.
The book is meant to be a modernization of the traditional Victorian marriage plot novel, following its characters toward some inevitable wedding or other major relationship decision. Much of the book is set at Brown University in the early 1980s, as our heroine Madeline studies literature, toys with the heart of her friend Mitchell, and falls in love with dark, brilliant Leonard. From time to time the story shifts, giving us Mitchell's or Leonard's viewpoint of the same scenes we've already seen from Madeline's perspective.
All three of the main characters feel like caricatures - worst of all is Madeline, the beautiful rich girl who, despite her intelligence, can't recognize how cliched her behavior is. Leonard never reveals enough personality to feel real, in spite of the intense conflict we know must be going on inside him. Mitchell, with his religious struggles and his growing resentment toward Madeline, was the only character I found myself caring about at all, and he too was thinly drawn at times.
I'm giving this three stars because it really isn't a bad book; the writing is strong and a pleasure to read. I just don't think there's anything particularly rewarding about reading it and can't imagine recommending it to anyone.(less)
I read Never Let Me Go several years ago and knew the name of The Remains of the Day, but had no idea what it was about when I checked it out of the l...moreI read Never Let Me Go several years ago and knew the name of The Remains of the Day, but had no idea what it was about when I checked it out of the library. Told in the form of the journal/memoir of an English butler, the book reflects on what makes a good butler and looks at the ways that a singleminded dedication to his job led the narrator to miss out on much of his own life.
The narrator, Mr Stevens, is earnest and candid, but the more he reveals of himself, the more it becomes difficult to relate to the ways he sets aside personal and interpersonal concerns in the name of becoming an ideal butler. Very little happens in the book - it alternates between a narration of a car trip he takes over the course of a few days and various memories of his younger days - but the tragedy of the butler's life slowly becomes more obvious as we watch opportunities slip past him over and over again. It's a sad book, but beautifully written, and worth the short amount of time it takes to read it.(less)
I didn't know anything about this book when I checked it out from the library, but I really enjoyed reading it. Although it's a book about children (w...moreI didn't know anything about this book when I checked it out from the library, but I really enjoyed reading it. Although it's a book about children (who later become teenagers), it manages to be one of those books that straddles the line between young adult and adult literature and could be enjoyed easily by any age group.
The story follows Vaclav and Lena, two first-generation children of Russian immigrants living in Brooklyn, as they meet in ESL classes and become best friends. Vaclav has a comfortable life living with his parents and dreaming of becoming a magician, but Lena lives with her absentee aunt and spends most of her time at Vaclav's, ignoring her own home situation. The early parts of the book are told in the voice of a young, non-native speaker, and it takes a few pages to become accustomed to the narration before the book starts to feel natural.
Vaclav and Lena have so many plans for their future - until one day, Lena disappears without a trace. Vaclav grows older, but he never forgets his childhood best friend. Eventually, they reconnect, and while being back together feels surprisingly natural, they find they have to come to terms with childhood issues they had always overlooked before.
Vaclav & Lena is one of those books that manages to give you the sense that everything will be okay and is happening according to plan even while nothing seems to be okay and nothing is going the way you want it to. My only complaint about this sweet and engrossing book is that it ends too abruptly - I couldn't believe there were no pages left when I got to the final paragraph. (less)
Nearly everyone on my Goodreads friends list had read and given a positive review to this book before my book club selected it, so I knew it was going...moreNearly everyone on my Goodreads friends list had read and given a positive review to this book before my book club selected it, so I knew it was going to be interesting, but I didn't expect it to be as engaging as it turned out to be. While on the surface this is a book about science and medical ethics, it turns out to be even more a book about a family and their struggles to reconcile the good things their mother's cells have done for science with the fact that neither she nor they knew her cells were being taken, and that no profits from the use of her cells have ever come back to the family.
Henrietta Lacks lived in poverty in rural Virginia and died of cervical cancer at the age of 31. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University during an era when best practices for medical ethics had not been codified, and so a tissue culture scientist at Hopkins didn't think twice about taking a cell sample from a black woman who was not paying for her hospital stay - he was engrossed in a project to try to create the first immortal line of cells and was taking samples from everyone he came in contact with. He had no way of knowing that the cancer growing on her cervix would be the the first cells to thrive in a laboratory - but thrive they did. When her cells kept growing, the scientist, George Gey, started sharing them with every scientist who asked, and amazingly, the cells survived shipment through the mail and long trips in people's pockets and continued to grow in other laboratories. Suddenly, HeLa cells were everywhere, even though other cell lines continued to die out after a few generations.
Henrietta passed away, yet for years - continuing even to the present day - scientists conducted thousands of tests on HeLa cells to understand how cells survive in outer space, in atomic bombs, and when subjected to any number of medical conditions. Her cells led to a multitude of scientific discoveries, and because of the lax regulations when her cells were first taken, it didn't take long for journalists to uncover Henrietta's identity and to start contacting her family - which is how they first learned that Henrietta's cells had outlived her. Her family, living in poverty, was understandably divided between pride at the discoveries that had come from HeLa cells and anger that scientists and corporations were profiting off of their genetic material.
The scientific side of the story is interesting in itself, but Skloot's book succeeds primarily because she lets us get to know Henrietta's children and other family members. Over time, Skloot formed a friendship with Henrietta's daughter Deborah, and Deborah gradually allowed Skloot access to other family members, most of whom were guarded after repeated bad experiences with members of the press. At the heart of this book is the story of Deborah and her relatives, who lived in poverty and were primarily uneducated, yet who wanted desperately to learn more about their mother's legacy and to reach some kind of closure in the whole situation.
I was surprised by how quickly I was drawn into this book, and by how quickly I devoured it. If you're unfamiliar with HeLa cells, you'll learn a lot by reading this book, but even if you know the science, there's a lot to think about just reading about the Lacks family and their struggles to understand what had happened to their mother's cells. Highly recommended.
Note: I wrote this review after my original reading of the book, October 7-14, 2011. I re-read the book in July 2013. I think I'm a little stingier with five-star reviews now than I was on my first read and might have only given it four this time around, but I'll leave everything as it stands. This is a very engaging and informative read and still something I highly recommend.(less)
WHAT THE HECK. I take back any complaints I made about the ending to Ash, author Malinda Lo's first novel, because Lo takes the cake with this one. Hu...moreWHAT THE HECK. I take back any complaints I made about the ending to Ash, author Malinda Lo's first novel, because Lo takes the cake with this one. Huntress is a fabulous novel with a disappointing and purposeless final 30-page quest tacked on after the main 300-plus page story line had been completed.
In both Ash and Huntress, Lo has written beautiful, engaging stories about strong young girls who learn about and eventually interact with another race (the fey) that lives in the woods and generally avoids human interaction. I loved the world she created in Huntress, where the main characters Kaede and Taisin are students at a school to become sages (a sort of extremely educated witch/magician) and where, for reasons not immediately revealed, something has gone wrong with the seasons and the sky has stayed gray and cold even as summer approaches.
In Ash I felt like Lo rushed to finish the book - characters' thoughts and decisions didn't always entirely make sense as she hurried to incorporate a romance at the end of the book. In Huntress Lo does a beautiful job of getting into characters' heads - you can relate to and sympathize with Kaede's conflict and self-loathing when she is forced to fight or kill, and to Taisin's confusion as she tries to reconcile her deepening feelings for Kaede with the knowledge that sages must take a vow of chastity. Lo takes the time and space she needs to follow the characters through to the conclusion of their quest, but rather than end the book there, she tacks on an unnecessary, unsatisfactory, and rushed final side quest featuring an absolutely ludicrous storyline. I nearly threw the book across the room when the Fairy Queen explained what she needed Kaede to do, and why, and I think I said "Are you kidding me?" out loud.
Lo is a wonderful writer and there's a lot more right about Ash and Huntress than there is wrong. I'm still looking forward to reading more of what she writes, because once she figures out how to write a strong and appropriate ending, she's going to be a force to be reckoned with in the world of YA fantasy.(less)
I saw the movie version of this book a couple of years ago and enjoyed it but felt that it left a few questions unanswered, and I made a mental note t...moreI saw the movie version of this book a couple of years ago and enjoyed it but felt that it left a few questions unanswered, and I made a mental note to read the book to see how it compared. The book does go into slightly more detail about the reason the city of Ember was created, which was satisfying, though ultimately DuPrau leaves the origin story vague. Short version: The Earth was in bad shape, people were worried that some impending crisis might destroy humanity entirely, and a group of scientists and builders decided that the solution was to create a society far underground and have those people stay there for 200 years, till the threat had passed and the Earth would be safe to inhabit again.
Some 200-odd years after Ember was created, it's in bad shape - the generator that illuminates the underground world is dying, and the supplies of food are running out. The builders had intended for this to be a temporary home, but the instructions they had left about leaving Ember were lost over time, and nobody in the city now believes there is any world but Ember. Two children, whose eyes were suddenly opened to the severity of the crisis facing Ember, decide to investigate and come to believe that there must be a way out.
The story is engaging and manages to feel largely convincing, if sometimes too precious when the author dwells on the things we know that the people of Ember don't ("What's a boat? What's a sky?"). A few things raised some questions for me (wouldn't a group of people who had lived their lives entirely underground and were used to absolute blackness when the power was turned off in the nighttime develop some kind of coping system for dealing with the dark, much like the spacial awareness of blind people, and be able to explore the outlying areas beyond the lights of Ember?) but on the whole I was swept into this world and didn't want to put the book down.
There are apparently several sequels to this book, but it stands well on its own, and frankly I'd much rather think of this as a standalone - it's a self-contained story that didn't leave me with any kind of cliffhanger to wonder what comes next. I might give one of the sequels a try sometime, but I don't feel compelled to continue following the characters on whatever future adventures they might have.(less)
I had to read a couple of Steinbeck books in junior high, and I remember not liking them at all, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I loved Ea...moreI had to read a couple of Steinbeck books in junior high, and I remember not liking them at all, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I loved East of Eden from the very beginning. Steinbeck has a style that manages to be both sparse and detailed, and I suppose that's what puts so many kids off of him - there are a lot of words and not a lot of action. But coming back to him as an adult, I really appreciated the beauty of his prose and didn't mind taking the time to stick with him as he described the scenery. In fact, there's a sense in which East of Eden is as much about the the California landscape as it is about the people living there.
The story follows several generations of the Trask family, from the sternly military father Cyrus, to the central character Adam and his brother Charles, to the twins Aron and Cal in the third generation. We watch as the story of Cain and Abel plays out again and again as certain curses seem to be handed down from father to son.
Adam hires a servant, Lee, who turns out to be one of the most interesting characters in the story (if doubly stereotyped - the incredibly intelligent Asian man, who talks in pidgin around white people because that's what they expect of him). Lee weaves into the story a study of the Hebrew word timshel, which might mean that the universe requires us to behave a certain way to succeed, or might mean that things will work out in a predetermined way no matter how we behave - or might mean something else entirely. Though the word only shows up at a few points in the book, the whole story hinges on what it actually means.
At its core, the book and its characters wrestle with this question of whether our lives are predetermined or whether we are able to make our own choices and break what seem like unending cycles. While I had some complaints about the ending - even at 600 pages, the book feels like Steinbeck rushed to end certain stories or knock certain people off - the final page ended the novel on a wonderfully fitting note. I really enjoyed this book and am so glad I took the time to read it.(less)
A five-star book with a three-star ending, read because it was another selection in the Bitch Magazine book club. Ash is an unexpected and clever rete...moreA five-star book with a three-star ending, read because it was another selection in the Bitch Magazine book club. Ash is an unexpected and clever retelling of Cinderella, and you're quite a ways into the book before you even start recognizing the parallels; it starts out (and remains) more of a story about fairies than anything else.
Set in what feels like Renaissance-era England, as popular opinion has begun to shift away from a belief in fairies and magic to a more rational system of philosophy, the story focuses on a girl named Aisling (pronounced Ash-ling, hence the nickname "Ash") who finds herself torn between her deceased mother's belief in magic and the rational beliefs of everyone else around her. She finds her escape in fairy tales, and while she can recognize that they are generally meant to be cautionary tales about the dangers of magic, she can't help feeling that life among the fairies would offer an escape from her increasingly unbearable life.
The interactions between Ash and the fairy Sidhean are interesting and form the most compelling narrative in the novel, and the introduction of the huntress Kaisa adds an interesting twist at first, but I found it difficult to understand Ash's motivation as the story progressed, and the ending felt hasty and unconvincing. I'm definitely curious to read more from Malinda Lo, because Ash showed a whole lot of promise, even if it didn't quite deliver in the end.(less)
Beauty Queens imagines that a plane full of teenage beauty pageant competitors crashes on a remote island, killing most of them and forcing the surviv...moreBeauty Queens imagines that a plane full of teenage beauty pageant competitors crashes on a remote island, killing most of them and forcing the survivors to band together to figure out how to keep themselves alive long enough to get back to civilization. It's full of snarky humor and criticism of societal expectations for teenage girls, though it falls short on character development and didn't quite work for me for that reason.
I love Drop Dead Gorgeous and wouldn't have minded if this book was basically that movie set on an island, but while Beauty Queens was fun enough to read, it didn't feel as clever or as rich as the movie it nods to; the characters went too far in the direction of stereotypes and the plot was deliberately unrealistic. I found it frustrating that even while Libba Bray was challenging societal norms about gender, race, etc., she let so many of her characters be so one-dimensional. While it's true that a couple of the most annoying characters do really develop and become actual human beings instead of cardboard stereotypes, most of the girls never felt real to me, and the other characters in the book were even harder to relate to. (less)
I think the strongest testimony I can give for this book is that I've never had any interest in listening to Black Sabbath before, but this book made...moreI think the strongest testimony I can give for this book is that I've never had any interest in listening to Black Sabbath before, but this book made me desperate to listen to Master of Reality immediately.
An unusual entry in the 33 1/3 series, which are usually nonfiction essays about specific albums, John Darnielle's book is a young-adult novel told via letters from a teenage patient in a psychiatric hospital to one of the staff members there. He's been instructed to keep a journal, but the staff read what the patients write, so he decides that he's going to write his entries about how much he loves Master of Reality and why the staff really need to give him his Walkman and tapes back. Over the course of his journal, his entries move from open hostility to a surprisingly confessional tone (given the audience he's writing for). The whole thing has that wide-eyed, earnest feel of Catcher in the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
If you've ever loved a record so much that you memorized all the lyrics and felt like every song was about your life, Roger's impassioned entries about Master of Reality will make immediate sense to you. I think what works particularly well about this book is that Roger doesn't focus on the things that make him different from the reader (we get only the dimmest hints of why he's even in the hospital - he and his stepfather didn't get along, and there's a fleeting reference to a suicide attempt) but rather on that sense of what it means to love and relate to a work of art. (less)