Saturday, December 18, 2010

Book List 2010: 2/3

* = reread

Divine Misfortune
by. A. Lee Martinez

In a world where picking a god is a lot like picking an insurance carrier, a couple decides to try out a raccoon god of luck. Unfortunately now he wants to crash on their couch. Oh, and did he mention he's made enemies with the meanest God in town?

Despite the fact that I ragged on the guy in the last list, you'll notice that I keep reading his books, so it's a friendly sort of ragging. This one was a middle ground for him: it wasn't as amazing as his best, but definitely better than the other ones I read this year. He writes great potato chip books. They may not always have too much substance, but they're quick reads and they're just fun. Some delightful imagery: a god in the market of revenge on ex-boyfriends, a squirrel being forced to carry beers, and a house party held by Gods.

“Hello. My name is Anubis. I Like long walks on the beach, carrying departed souls into the underworld, and the cinema of Mr. Woody Allen.”

Prodigal Summer
by. Barbara Kingslover

3 interconnecting stories about nature, love, and the connection between the two.

This really is a beautiful book. I'm not even sure what else to say. If you're into nature and/or romance you'll like it.

“This is how moths speak to each other. They tell their love across the fields by scent. There is no mouth, the wrong words are impossible, either a mate is there or he is not, and if so the pair will find each other in the dark.”

His Majesty's Dragon
by. Naomi Novik

It's the early 19th century and dragons make up nations' aerial forces. Through a twist of fate, a Captain in the Royal Navy, William Laurence, winds up the handler of a newly hatched dragon and is forced to join Britain's air force to do what he can to repel Napoleon's forces.

It's the Napoleonic Wars...but with Dragons! If I really need to say anything else then maybe this book isn't for you.

“I am beginning to feel the need of a glass of wine to fortify myself against this conversation.”

Bringing Down the House:
The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas For Millions
by. Ben Mezrich

The true story of the brilliant MIT students who figure out a system to beat the odds at blackjack. They make a whole lot of money, and a whole lot of enemies.

Damn, Vegas is a pretty crazy place. Also some people are ridiculously smart. I read this because Prince Gomolvilas touted it as the greatest piece of Asian American literature of all time. Maybe it is. While perhaps it isn't the greatest book in a literary sense, certainly no one can say that a young Asian American would not feel at least a little bit of pride upon reading the story of a group of Asian Americans, who through their intellect, skill, and charm, took Vegas for millions of dollars.

“...Kevin watched the flickering lights and wondered if life could possibly get any better. He had seventy thousand dollars in a money belt around his waist and another quarter million back in his room. Card counting was the key that had unlocked the casino's coffers, and there was no reason to think the party ever had to end.”

Parasite Rex:
Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures
by. Carl Zimmer

A look into the world of parasites.

I already reviewed this go read that. In case you don't want to bother, I will sum it up: Parasites are so much more fascinating than you ever thought possible and book is pretty great.

“There's no shame in being a parasite.”

The Cardturner
by. Louis Sachar

A young boy learns how to play bridge from his blind grandfather, but when his grandfather dies he must learn to play the game for himself.

Another book that really wasn't aiming at me, which makes my opinion on it kind of void. I will say, however, that Louis Sachar is a great writer. Even when writing a simple story like this one the story flows so smoothly that you hardly notice just how smooth it is. Apparently he just wanted to write a book about Bridge and didn't care what anyone else said. If nothing else, that passion makes it interesting. It's a rather laid back narrative about bridge and a kid finding something he's passionate about.

"I hope I remember everything," said Toni.

“You won't," said Trapp. "That's how you learn. But after you make the same mistake one, or two, or five times, you'll eventually get it. And then you'll make new mistakes.”

The Male Brain
by. Louann Brizendine

A book about the physiology of the male brain.

I found Brizendine's earlier book, The Female Brain, to be really fascinating and eye opening. This one, however, lacked the vigor and excitement she brought to the first one. It seemed like she wrote it for the paycheck. Maybe I should be judging it on its own and not comparing the two, but since it is basically a sequel, I think I'm allowed. Then again, I'm a male so there is a decent chance that I just took the information in this book for granted and thus it wasn't as eye opening an experience as the previous one. It's an easy read and you'll learn about the male brain, so there you go.

“If testosterone were beer, a nine-year old boy would get the equivalent of about one cup a day. But by age fifteen, it would be equal to two gallons a day.”

Willful Creatures
by. Aimee Bender
A collection of fantastical short stories.

I'm a sucker for memorable and interesting short stories and these were some truly interesting and memorable short stories. I read this thing months ago and, unlike many of the books I've read this year, I can still recount to you pretty much the entire book. Definitely one of my favorite things I read this year.

“My genes, my love, are rubber bands and rope; make yourself a structure you can live inside.


Crocodile on the Sandbank
by. Elizabeth Peters

A forward woman and her traveling companion go on an Egyptian adventure only to find themselves in danger, in love, and in the way of a murderous mummy.

Think Pride and Prejudice, but taken up a notch, put into Egypt, and occasionally dealing with mummies. Right off the bat I'm going to say this book didn't have nearly as much mummy action as I was led to believe there'd be. On another note, while Elizabeth Bennent was right to be so bold, the main character in this one is just pompous at times. I mean, who complains that an archeologist's lab is dirty? Dirty things are kind of their trade. And they aren't telling you not to touch anything because you're a woman, they're telling you not to touch anything because it's all freaking fragile and you're an idiot. She eventually tones it down and you start to like her, but damn if you don't want find yourself wishing someone would smack her a little bit in the beginning.

“Peculiar or not, it is my idea of pleasure. Why, why else do you lead this life if you don't enjoy it? Don't talk of duty to me; you men always have some high-sounding excuse for indulging yourselves. You go gallivanting over the earth, climbing mountains, looking for the sources of the Nile; and expect women to sit dully at home embroidering. I embroider very badly. I think I would excavate rather well.”

Dear Mister Rogers, does it ever rain in your neighborhood?:
Letters to Mr. Rogers
by. Fred Rogers

A collection of children's letters to Mr. Rogers and his responses.

Mr. Rogers is pretty much the nicest guy in the world. I grew up watching him and I love him to death. What would you say if a little kid was a fan of yours and wrote you a letter pridefully telling you that they just learned how to use the potty? I didn't think it was possible, but it turns out there is a way to handle that with poise. The man is amazing and the book is darling.

“Dear Mr. Rogers,

How did you get your face on all our pennies?
Your face is on the front and your Trolley's on the back...

Penn, age 4”

The Girl Who Played With Fire
by. Stieg Larsson

An antisocial computer hacker and a headstrong journalist work to get to the bottom of a secret ring of prostitution and human trafficking.

I'm just noticing that I apparently went from reading a book by mister rogers to reading a gritty crime story. There's probably something seriously wrong with that. Anyways I saw The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie and decided I wanted to read the books. Turns out a lot of other people had that same idea because the queue at the library was enormous. Therefore I decided to put my name on the lists for all 3 books and save myself some trouble. I ended up getting this one first, but since I had seen the movie I figured I wouldn't be that lost so I rolled with it. It's very good. Personally I think the series deserves all the hype its been getting.

“But she wished she had had the guts to go up to him and say hello. Or possibly break his legs, she wasn't sure which.”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by. Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith

The book that answers that age old question of what if Pride & Prejudice had zombies in it?

The name pretty much says it all doesn't it? It is everything you would expect. I especially enjoyed what happens to Wickham in this version. Also the discussion questions at the end are hilarious. While any zombie fan might enjoy this book, I'll just say that to really appreciate this book you need to be a Pride&Prejudice fan, because the subversion of the original text is really the best part about it.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

by. Sebastian Junger

A reporter lives with one of the most dangerous units in Afghanistan to learn what war is like for soldiers.

So often books will focus on a war but not on the people fighting it. This book does a great job giving you a look into the mind and experiences of the people on the front lines. From all the good to all the bad. It also dares to say things that many would maybe try to gloss over. For instance, the fact that soldiers often enjoy what they do. It's easy to think of a soldier in terms of a draftee in Vietnam, but soldiers who choose that life are different. They like getting to use big guns and they like taking down bad guys. Some probably even love the smell of napalm in the morning. To do what they do and not go crazy they have to. Being able to see war from the point of view of a soldier really makes you appreciate what it is they do, but it also makes you appreciate why the Government and military big wigs need to be careful about what they tell them to do.

“Society can give its young men almost any job and they'll figure how to do it. They'll suffer for it and die for it and watch their friends die for it, but in the end, it will get done. That only means that society should be careful about what it asks for. ... Soldiers themselves are reluctant to evaluate the costs of war, but someone must. That evaluation, ongoing and unadulterated by politics, may be the one thing a country absolutely owes the soldiers who defend its borders.”

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
by. Stieg Larsson

A defamed journalist is hired to get to the bottom of a family's loathsome past and finds help in an unexpected source: a fearsome and intelligent computer hacker.

First off, as I said before, I saw the movie first. Second off, I loved the movie. Thirdly, the book is even better than the movie. Although I should mention that it does contain some very brutal scenes. In fact, I've seen many reviews that say this series is nothing but exploitation. Personally, I didn't see it that way. For one, I don't believe the author is showing that violence for cheap thrills, but is showing it in order to portray just how horrific those acts are, to show the lasting scars from the point of view of the victim. The original Swedish title for the book was Men Who Hate Women, which I think is rather telling. For two, in Lisbeth Salander, Larsson has crafted a character uniquely suited to bear the weight of these acts; to be victimized, but to never be a victim.

All the shock value aside, the narrative structure of the book is pretty intriguing. While journalist Kiel Blomkvist is the force the propels the story forward, these books are really all about Lisbeth Salander. So in a sense the main character is a supporting character. Even if the book wasn't interesting and exciting she would make it worth checking out. She's smart, she's tough, she's self-reliant, she's flawed, and she's fascinating. How often do you find a character so interesting that they've single-handedly made a series a bestselling franchise?

I've had many enemies over the years. If there is one thing I've learned, it's never engage in a fight you're sure to lose. On the other hand, never let anyone who has insulted you get away with it. Bide you're time and strike back when you're in a position of strength - even if you no longer need to strike back.

Adventures Among Ants:
a global safari with a cast of trillions
by. Mark W. Moffett

It's a science book about ants.

If you read one book about ants this year, make it this one...what do you want? Nonfiction books are hard to write opinions for. Moffett is the kind of guy who will spend days staring at ants and actually love doing it and his passion is infectious. If you aren't interested in ants enough to want to read a big ol' book about them, I'd still suggest finding it to just look at the amazing pictures (some examples of his work). Ants are a lot more interesting than I originally gave them credit for. Although the parts where Moffett is talking about his time in the field are still my favorites. Especially the part where he tries to impress a couple ladies by telling them he's an entomologist (sexy right?). The book is quite in-depth and long which makes it a little tedious to just read straight through (unless you're really into ants of course), but as long as you read it bit by bit it remains fascinating.

“...Any ant recognized as an ant is female; males do exist, but they are socially useless...”

Physics of the Impossible:
A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel
by. Michio Kaku

A look into the plausibility of science fiction.

Physicist Michio Kaku is amazing. While he does write in a very accessible manner, I quickly realized that this man was so far beyond me intellectually that I am a idiot child in comparison. He co-founded the string field theory for God's sake! However, he is still no Neil deGrasse Tyson and thus he gets pretty heavy on the science at times and if you aren't very science literate you'll probably have some trouble following along. I consider myself to be at least a little science literate and I certainly felt a little lost a couple of times. With that being said, this book is awesome. You have to be at least a little bit nerdy to think so though. He does a great job at not just saying what is and is not possible, but also the whys. If something isn't quite possible as depicted in science fiction movies, he'll go into how maybe something similar could be. If you're a big nerd you should definitely go read this book.

“Already one “impossible” technology is now proving to be possible: the notion of teleportation (at least at the level of atoms). Even a few years ago physicists would have said that sending or beaming an object from one point to another violated the laws of quantum physics. The writers of the original Star Trek television series, in fact, were so stung by the criticism from physicists that they added “Heisenberg compensators” to explain their teleporters in order to address this flaw. Today, because of a recent breakthrough, physicists can teleport atoms across a room or photons under the Danube River.”

by. China Miéville

A museum curator is thrust into the world of the preternatural when his museum's giant squid specimen goes missing and sinister forces start looking in his direction for answers.

I love China Miéville. He is definitely one of my favorite authors. He creates these worlds that are so imaginative while being, in a way, so realistic. This one was a slight departure for him. It was much more similar to his young adult's book Un Lun Dun than to his famous Perdido Street Station. That's because like Un Lun Dun, Miéville is having fun with this one. It's a combination of dark urban fantasy and a light hearted fairy tale. The trick to loving it is to realize that it is not some straight-laced story, but a playground of ideas where the laces are flying free. A lot of his other books are serious, but this one is just geeky and fun. The biggest thing I can say against it is that the characters aren't anything special. Then again I don't really care. They aren't the point. The world is the point. You've got a world filled with talking tattoos, paranormal Star Trek fans, human oragami, animal mediums on strike, and even squid cults. It is an absolute blast to read.

“The krakens’ lack of desire for recompense was part of what, their faithful said, distinguished them from the avaricious Abrahamic triad and their quids pro quo, I’ll take you to heaven if you worship me. But even the kraken would give them this transmutation, this squid pro quo, by the contingencies of worship, toxin and faith. ”

by. Mira Grant

In a post apocalyptic zombie world, a group of bloggers follow a presidential candidate on his campaign trail. But what's more dangerous: zombies or politicians?

Two different books with the same name in the same year. What are the odds? I picked this one up on a whim thinking it would good for a laugh, but it took me completely by surprise. It is actually one of the best things I read this year. It is part political/journalistic thriller, part comedy, and part horror movie. If there was ever a movie version it's be done by Joss Whedon. So many zombie stories focus on the outbreak, but this one goes at it in a completely different direction. It shows a post outbreak world in vibrant detail. You see exactly how the outbreak changed things. One of the great things about it is that it is tackling a silly subject seriously, but never forgets that the subject is, at its heart, silly. For instance, the main characters are named Georgia (after George Romero), Shaun (after Shaun of the Dead), and Buffy (after Buffy the Vampire Slayers). The political and journalistic intrigue is so well done that you sometimes forget it's a zombie book! I can't say enough great things about it. It is just too much fun.

The difference between the truth and a lie is that both of them can hurt, but only one will take the time to heal you afterward.

Johannes Cabal:
The Necromancer
by. Jonathan L. Howard

A necromancer with loose morals tries to get out of his deal with the Devil by making a deal with the Devil. With only a monstrous carnival and a vampiric brother to help him, Cabal has a year to collect 100 souls or else lose his last chance to get his soul back.

One of my favorite things about China Miéville is that he is verbose, but his verbosity always fits his writing like a glove. I couldn't help thinking this author was trying to use big words just for the sake of using big words. That being said it was still a fun book. Nothing amazing, but a great potato chip read. The main character is really the main reason for reading it. He is such an anti-hero that you can't help but love him a little bit. I mean the hero of the story is trying to collect souls for the devil in order to serve his own agenda! He isn't a nice man, but he isn't necessarily a bad man either, and that's what makes him so interesting.

“"It's a philosophical minefield!"

Cabal had a brief mental image of Aristotle walking halfway across an open field before unexpectedly disappearing in a fireball. Descartes and Nietzsche looked on appalled.”

More Information Than You Require
by. John Hodgman

A book of true facts that are absolutely false.

I was laughing so hard at this book that a girl at the bus stop had to ask me if it was really that funny. Answer: it really is that funny. Sadly the resulting conversation was short lived as her bus came before I could explain what it was about, but still it remains the only book that has helped me attract a pretty girl (apparently reading books about ants and zombies just doesn't cut it). Do I actually need to describe the book? Isn't the fact that I not only laughed out loud, but attracted a cute girl enough of a recommendation? No? Okay, well, it is a follow up to The Areas of My Expertise (an almanac of complete world knowledge), which was equally hilarious. Like its predecessor it is an almanac full of absolutely true facts that are entirely made up. It sounds bizarre, but trust me when I say it was the funniest damn thing I read all year.

“A stopped clock is correct twice a day, but a sundial can be used to stab someone, even at nighttime.”

God is Not One:
the eight rival religions that run the world—and why their differences matter
by. Stephen Prothero

A look at the biggest religions in the world and why their differences are important.

I'm sure at one time or another you've heard that argument that all religions are the same, but they really aren't. Each religion has a completely different goal and thus a completely different way of obtaining it. Saying religions are all the same ignores their fundamental natures. The book's purpose is to illustrate those natures. So not only is it giving you a crash course on the history of the world's 8 biggest religions, but it is also showing how these beliefs translate into people's everyday lives.

“And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know something about whomever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.”

a new history of the invention of America
by. Jack Rakove

A look at the revolutionary war through the lens of its prominent figures.

History often ignores the individual in favor of the overall narrative. But this tends to whitewash the story and you miss out on all the great character bubbling through history. I find it hard to describe my thoughts on this book because I both loved and hated it. The chapters went from ones so interesting I couldn't put it down, to ones so boring I couldn't wait to put it down. If anything, it does portray a more interconnected view of the revolutionary figures than the usually partitioned view of a history book.

“Like many a provincial intellectual, the young John Adams harbored ambitions and dreams that outran anything his society could promise to satisfy. Had the American Revolution not intervened, the most life could have offered him was a reasonably prosperous career as an attorney.”

House of Leaves
by. Mark Z. Danielewski

The story of things that aren't what they appear and a man whose house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

This was the my absolute favorite book of the year. I loved it so much I immediately bought a copy for myself. It is both intellectually stimulating and narratively engrossing. While it isn't the best book I've ever read, it is by far the most interesting book I've ever read. Through story structure, as well as typography and design, the book takes you on a crazy journey that makes you question everything. As you read it you feel frightened and confused and intrigued. And you hardly realize that these feelings are mirroring the characters in the story, putting their thoughts into your head so subtlety you didn't even realize what was going on. Even if you don't care about the technical mumbo jumbo of it, the story is fascinating.

A man discovers that his house is bigger on the inside than on the outside. He then subsequently finds a mysterious hallway that leads to a place that should not be possible and you're along for the ride. The setting of this realm is in its very essence terrifying which makes the house itself the most fascinating monster you've ever read about. I'll admit it isn't for everyone. You have to think as you read this one. I couldn't put it down, but sometimes I had to because after too long my head just couldn't keep up the pace and started feeling fatigued.

“To get a better idea try this: focus on these words, and whatever you do don’t let your eyes wander past the perimeter of this page. Now imagine just beyond your peripheral vision, maybe behind you, maybe to the side of you, maybe even in front of you, but right where you can’t see it, something is quietly closing in on you, so quiet in fact you can only hear it as silence. Find those pockets without sound. That’s where it is. Right at this moment. But don’t look. Keep your eyes here. Now take a deep breath. Go ahead take an even deeper one. Only this time as you start to exhale try to imagine how fast it will happen, how hard it’s gonna hit you, how many times it will stab your jugular with its teeth or are they nails?, don’t worry, that particular detail doesn’t matter, because before you have time to even process that you should be moving, you should be running, you should at the very least be flinging up your arms—you sure as hell should be getting rid of this book—you won’t have time to even scream.

Don’t look.

I didn't.

Of course I looked.

I looked so fucking fast I should of ended up wearing one of those neck braces for whiplash.”

Johannes Cabal:
The Detective
by. Jonathan L. Howard

Johannes Cabal is back, but this time, while running from the law, he is forced into the role of detective as he tries to get to the bottom of a murder aboard a zeppelin.

Johannes Cabal is on the run from powerful foes after he pisses off an entire country. I think the first one had a better plot, but this one was written a lot better. A fun read. Once again that has a lot to do with Cabal. He's pretty great.

“The only more immediate alternative that I can think of is a Tantric ritual involving necrophiliac sodomy and, frankly, I don't think my back is up to it.”

Bill Bergson and the White Rose Rescue
by. Astrid Lindgren

It's up to young Bill Bergson and pals to rescue a scientist and his son from a sinister businessman after their secret formula.

In the Millenium trilogy it is alluded to that Lisbeth Salander is based on Pippi Longstocking while Kiel Blomkvist is based on Bill Bergson (both characters from Astrid Lindgren books). I was already familiar with Pippi Longstocking, but I had never heard of Bill Bergson. So I went to the library and picked up a Bill Bergson book. For young readers it turns out Bill Bergson is the star of some pretty good books. Not the kind of thing that interests me enough to read the other books in the series, but definitely something to consider reading to the young kids in your life who are starting on chapter books. Kids love stories about kids besting evil criminals and saving the day.

“The White Roses were three: Bill Bergson, master detective; Anders, his faithful assistant; and the cocky, reckless Eva-Lotta.”

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