Saturday, January 31, 2009

10. "Bonk" - Mary Roach

It's official. I adore Mary Roach. A science writer with a spectacular sense of humor, she tackled the science of sex with relish. At one point, she volunteers to have sex with her husband in an MRI-type machine to study orgasms. Seriously. Adore her.

The book focuses on the history of sex research, including rats, pigs, and humans. Alfred Kinsey is mentioned, of course, but it is the research about rats wearing polyester pants and men imitating male hogs that makes this a book to put on the to-read list. Though, you may want to read it at home, in bed.

4.0 out of 5.0 Sex with an Alligators.

9. "Last of the Amazons" - Steven Pressfield

As a gawky teen, one of my many nicknames was "Amazon." If only I had known that it was a backward compliment. OK, no it wasn't because that was high school, but for all of you Amazon women out there, know that it is praise.

King Theseus of legend, the one who slayed the minotaur, fights the Amazons and returns with Antiope as his war bride. However, this story tells of the war, as well as details of the Amazonian (or tal Kyrte) life.

Pressfield knows how to write war scenes. At one point, his description of how a tal Kyrte warrior draws her axe as a weapon was so beautiful that I couldn't believe this hadn't been made into a movie. Vivid and detailed, yet full of wonder. My biggest complaints are that the relationships between the women (as triads and as lovers) are ignored, while he repeats a lot of information (like "ippe" meant "horse"). The language is more romantic British (with thees and thines), and he combined Greek and Latin to create his own words.

Still, it's very similar to the story I'm writing, so I learned a lot. For others, though, I'd recommend some of his newer novels.

3.75 out of 5.0 Ambrosias.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

8. "Fun Home" - Alison Bechdel

"A comic book!" my youngest said. "Can I read it?"

Um, no. You may not read a book.

"You've never said that to me before. You always tell me to read. Is it inappropriate?"

Totally, for your age group.

Of course, I found him peeking at it while I was in the bathroom. He later said it was boring and didn't understand why I wouldn't "chillax."

This is all beside the point. The graphic novel, Fun Home, is not appropriate for kids, but it is a funny, poignant look at Bechdel's life. Memoir as art as writing.

Bechdel's father, a closeted English teacher, is both funny and distant. He also works for the the family business: a funeral parlor (called "The Fun Home"). As Bechdel grows up, and deals with her own sexual orientation, the one-liners become sad. She was shoved into the background after her father's continuous affairs with younger men. The fact that she is a lesbian brings this response from her mom, "Your father has been doing that for years." (paraphrased)

It's a very quick read on a quirky subject. The best part is that Bechdel uses parts of her diary to supplant the book. Nice... a memoir to believe and enjoy.

3.0 out of 5.0 Hyper Beams.

7. "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" - Katherine Porter

NPR said I should read this book. Now, I don't normally listen to radio signals (neither do I wear tinfoil hats), but I thought I'd give this book of three novellas a shot.

The title's novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, is about Miranda, a young woman from another novella, who is working at a Denver newspaper during the World War I influenza outbreak. While the balance between life and death is overwrought, it was the dialogue that killed the mood for me. Paraphrasing, one man says, "I must go to war or I could not live with myself." I've seen or read or heard that in multiple television shows, movies, and books. I read to escape that kind of mediocre drama.

Of the three, Noon Wine was the most interesting. A dairy farm is taken over and revitalized by an escapee of a lunatic asylum. Still, I would not put this on a must-read list. Read short stories by Updike or Eggers or Hempel. Read to learn something about yourself.

1.75 out of 5.0 Bay Horses.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

6. "Edinburgh" - Alexander Chee

This is a novel that is breathless in its cruelty, yet thrilling in its beauty. It has been a while since I have read slowly, nibbling instead of devouring. These words have the sweetness of raw cane.

However, some can't get past the bitterness at the core of the novel. Fee, a twelve-year-old soprano for the local choir, is molested by his choir teacher. Due to the sequence of events, like dominoes, he becomes a ceramics teacher who wishes to be dead every day.

All right, detractors, I'll admit that the story is overwrought with red herrings and similarities and oh-no-way coincidences. But the writing. Oh, the writing is like listening to Yo Yo Ma or tapping the burnt crust of a perfect creme brulee. Like The Road, you have to read through the pain.

4.1 out of 5.0 Kisses in the Dark.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

XX. "In the Shadow of the Sun King" - Golden Keyes Parsons

Yes, it would have been wise for me to check into this before reserving it at my local library (where, if I haven't mentioned it lately, the librarians are amazing at pulling books from shelves like magicians and calling me for a third chance before sending requested materials back to Ely). For some reason, I thought this would be more historical in nature. After all, it is about 17th century Europe and the war against Protestants.

However, it's a little "church-y" for my tastes. There is religious strife, and there is "praise Jesus" on every other page. I made it to page 28. Bring on the sex, sin, and swearing.

5. "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife" - Mary Roach

What happens after we die? Do we have souls (OK, do you normal people have souls)? Is this - reading a book review blog - *it*?

Mary Roach is the perfect person to tackle the scientific side of life after death. As she states in the foreword, "This is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith. It's a giggly, random, utterly earthbound assault on our most ponderous unanswered question. It's spirituality treated like crop science."

She does not disappoint.

Exploring everything from historical scientific data to modern experiments (for example, a laptop computer that faces the ceiling has the picture of an umbrella, so if a patient has an out-of-body experience after "dying," the doctor can test him or her), Roach approaches the subject with glee. Though it is obvious that she isn't a religious right-winger, she does not bash religion. She just wants answers, and her religion is science-based.

The stories are both hilarious and stunning. I finished the book with a greater appreciation for the everyday world, knowing that I am the only one who holds the key to the afterlife answer. OK, fine, Mary Roach and I still don't know what happens, but what a fun ride.

Speaking of fun rides, I'm reading her science and sex book, Bonk, next.

4.0 out of 5.0 Shots from Hell.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

4. "World Without End" - Ken Follett

Arrgh. I know why people love Ken Follett's books. He moves the action forward. He sprinkles in just enough sex and power struggles and murder and mayhem. He has a firm grasp of what makes history interesting to people.

But he drives me crazy. I get about 400 pages into it, start to like the characters, then he creates outrageous plot twists and frustrating leaps of logic. Don't even get me started about the use of adverbs. It's annoyingly, obviously, infuriatingly overused.

However, I know many of you love his work. I wish I could get over some things (see the spoilers at the end).

World picks up 200 years after Pillars of Earth in the same cathedral town of Kingsbridge. There are the same fights and manipulations to become prior of the church. Now, the main characters also bear witness to a knight's strange fight in the woods. The knight buries a parcel and swears Medric, a child who later becomes the town builder, to secrecy, then the knight becomes a monk.

Medric, meanwhile, grows up and proposes to his dear-heart, Caris. She is drawn to healing arts and business, running a successful red-dyed cloth business for her father. She doesn't believe she could adapt to marriage, and ends up in a nunnery for most of the book, sharing her healing expertise when the town is hit by the plague numerous times.


While the other characters are vital to the plot (and heft) of the novel, there were too many wrong baby-daddys, causing me to roll my eyes until they nearly fell out of their sockets. And, Gwenda... seriously? The entire storyline was too predictable and should have been edited out. The last page made me gag - literally - because Caris was no angel. Sheesh.

If you have hours of time and adore historical romance, go for it. If you are reading it for a book group, rock on - you'll have plenty to talk about. Otherwise, meh.

2.75 out of 5.0 Zwiters.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

3. "The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You"

OK, while I might be a "medical nightmare" (my husband's words, not mine), I am now an official "hypochondriac." At least, according to the test given at the beginning of this book. There is hope for me, and others like me. Read this book. As Dr. House always says, "It's not lupus." Or bradycardia. Or a multitude of things.

However, the book admits that it could have the opposite reaction with readers, and people may find new reasons why their necks hurt when they turn them all the way around. Still, if you read it with a handful of salt (with its "if you have blank, you might have blank" style), it's a great one to leave out at family functions.

2.75 out of 5.0 Grateful Deads.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

2. "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" - Susanna Clarke

This book has been called fantasy, alternate history, and science fiction, but at its heart is the simple story of two English magicians who have very different beliefs in how magic should be conducted in the early 1800s.

Mr. Norrell fosters knowledge, feasting upon thousands of archaic books about magic. He believes all magic can be learned from books, yet he does not share his library with anyone except his servant.

Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, believes that the only way to understand magic is to practice it. As Mr. Norrell's pupil, he becomes frustrated, and eventually leaves to begin binding spells and creating his own incantations. This makes Norrell furious.

Add in a nasty faerie who manipulates both magicians, and the book becomes an 800-plus tome that uses names and places from the time (Lord Byron, for example) and well as footnotes from fictitious sources.

Many critics believe that this is the best fantasy book (geared toward adults - geez, we don't want to piss off the Potter-lovers) to come from England in decades. Perhaps. It's not my specialty. But, as a reader, I would drop this heavy book whenever something new and shiny came within armslength. I could always pick it up again and blend back into the narrative. The first is negative, the second is positive, so I'm reluctant to pick a side. It may be easiest to state that this novel is memorable, yet disposable.

I'm glad I finally finished it after an on and off affair of eight months.

3.5 out of 5.0 Black Magics.

Friday, January 02, 2009

1. "The Outline of History" - H.G. Wells

I plodded through this two-volume series for months in an attempt to better myself, to learn and think and link the problems of today to the history of mankind. While it was much more interesting than the history books of my high school experience, the writing seemed purposefully vacant. Rather than give the impression of the vital importance of historical events (through World War I), the voice is God-like and impersonal.

For a history buff like me, it felt like wading through a cow pie strewn bog.

Skimmed to the end and I'm not sorry.

2.25 out of 5.0 Hockey Pucks.