Friday, December 31, 2010

Book List 2010: 3/3


Half Empty
by. David Rakoff

A collection of essays regarding pessimism.

Not only was this, in my opinion, leagues better than David Rakoff's other books, it was also just a great book in general. Being somewhat of a pessimist myself, it is comforting to hear stories regarding why it isn't such a bad thing to be a pessimist, especially when the stories are hilarious.

“For now, how beautiful the world seems, how lovely the friends who deliver a potted amaryllis to my house. It blooms into a three-flowered stalk, its pink-and-white striped petals like a child's drawing of an ideal flower, if children could actually draw.”

The Shadow of the Wind
by. Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A boy comes across a rare book; rare because someone is out there burning every copy they can get their hands on. As he tries to keep the book safe, he slowly uncovers the mystery behind the author, the books, and the burner.

I really enjoyed this book, but for none of the reasons I first started liking it for. In the first parts of the book I really loved the fantastical nature of the story and the loving way it talks about books. However, it turns out the book isn't really a fantasy at all. The mystery and the characters are what the story really has to offer. It also turns out that the identity of the book burner isn't the biggest mystery (which is good because I guessed it right away). The mystery you find yourself wanting to know is what on Earth could have happened to all these people for things to turn out as they have.

“A secret's worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept.”

Sisters Red
by. Jackson Pearce

When they were young, two sisters, Scarlett and Rosie, were attacked by a werewolf. It killed their grandmother and disfigured Scarlett, before it could be stopped. Now the sisters have devoted their lives to killing these monsters. Or have they? When Rosie finds herself falling in love, she has to figure out if the hunt is really as important to her as it is to her sister.

As you may have guessed, this is a reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood. It is also what Twilight fans should have read instead. It is by no means perfect, but it is only Jackson Pearce's second book, so I'm willing to give her some leeway. Despite her novice status, she is still leagues beyond Stephenie Meyer. Here are some reasons why: she actually edited and proof read her book, the female characters are strong and capable of taking care of themselves, and the romance isn't at all akin to an abusive relationship. It's a simple book (I guessed the ending right at the starting gate), but it's quirky and memorable and fun.

“They’re adorned in glittery green rhinestones, shimmery turquoise and aquamarine powders streaked across their eyelids. Dragonfly girls. Their hair is all the same, long and streaked, spiraling down their backs to where the tiny strings holding their tops on are knotted tightly. Their skin glows under the neon lights-amber, ebony, cream-like shined metal, flawless and smooth.”

The Strain
by. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

A plane arrives in New York City and everyone aboard it is dead. CDC Epidemiologist, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, is part of the team called in to investigate, but he quickly learns that this wasn't a normal biological attack. Especially when the people on the plane start coming back to life.

This is a story about vampires, but told in the epidemic style usually reserved for zombies. If you've seen Blade II then you'll now that Guillermo del Toro is good, not only at working with vampires, but also with perverting vampires into creatures so much scarier than you've ever imagined them. I won't even go into specifics, but basically these vampires are all kinds of freaky. If that wasn't enough, the story is also presented through very unique lenses. The main characters all present very interesting and sometimes quite unique ways of looking at the story. My favorite three were the epidemiologist (who knows how to deal with disease, infections, and epidemics), the exterminator (who knows how to trap and kill vermin), and the holocaust survivor/vampire specialist (who knows all about horror as well as about these creatures).

“‘What you fought was a dead man, possessed by a disease.
What--like a pinche zombie?
Think more along the lines of a man with a black cape. Fangs. Funny accent. Now take away the cape and fangs. The funny accent. Take away anything funny about it.’”

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
by. Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander is going to be put on trial for a laundry list of crimes including multiple accounts of murder. Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist continues to unearth the scandal that has been plaguing Lisbeth since she was born. Together they are trying not only to win Lisbeth's freedom, but also to put an end to a string of corruption that has infiltrated the government itself.

If you liked the first one, you'll like the second one. If you liked those two, then you're probably going to like this one as well. Mystery, excitement, the whole lot. So instead of saying anything further I'm going to take this space to rant about something in this book that annoyed the shit out of me: the B names. There are 14 characters in this book with last names beginning with the letter B. That is ridiculous. If that wasn't enough, the author usually refers to characters by their last names. So Blomvist will be talking to Berger and Beckman about what to do about Bjurman and Bublanski. It's like some kind of horrible joke. So here you are, all the B names in the book: Blomkvist, Berger, Beckman, Bublanski, Bjurman, Bjorck, Bodin, Baksi, Bohman, Berglund, Billinger, Borgsjo, Bladh, and Branden.

“Friendship is probably the most common form of love.”

Harriet the Spy
by. Louise Fitzhugh

A young girl dreams of being a spy. She keeps a notebook of all her observations about everyone she sees, even her friends. But what happens when her friends find out what she really thinks about them?

Things I loved about this book: the way it was able to capture the thoughts and feelings of being a child. Things I didn't like: Harriet and Harriet's nanny. Harriet is kind of an awful little kid. She looks for the worst in everyone and then frolics in her feeling of superiority. Her nanny was awful because she encourages Harriet to do it! Then when everyone finds out, she just tells Harriet to lie and pretend she's sorry and then keep writing in her journal anyway. What the hell!? Worst. Morals. Ever.

[Harriet] hated math. She hated math with every bone in her body. She spent so much time hating it that she never had time to do it.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
by. Lewis Carroll
illustrated by. Alison Jay

A young girl tumbles down a rabbit hole and into a fantastical world where nothing is as it seems.

I've never made it through this book before. I usually just get bored and quit. It really is an interesting and memorable story, but as a narrative it is horrible. It is just a bunch of random scenes thrown together. How exactly does Alice wind up in Wonderland? A random hole. How will she get back? Doesn't matter. Ending: It was all a dream. You've got to be joking me.

That being said please don't take my rant to mean that I hated the book. As a continuous narrative it is complete junk, but taken as separate pieces it is wonderfully clever, witty, and fantastical. I would especially recommend this particular version because the illustrations made the whole thing a hundred times better.

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretense
Our wanderings to guide.”

Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There
by. Lewis Carroll
illustrated by. Mervyn Peake

A young girl steps through a mirror and into the bizarre world on the other side.

All my comments about the previous book work for this one as well. Except that as a narrative it is slightly more complete while its scenes are slightly less fun.

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master— that's all.’”

The Gruesome Guide to World Monsters
by. Judy Sierra
illustrated by. Henrik Drescher

A handy guide to some of the monsters you might encounter in your journeys around the world.

I love books about different kinds of monsters. The only thing I like more than books about monsters is illustrated books about monsters. I hope to one day add this one to my collection of them because it was awesome.

“SURVIVAL TIP: Water babies will never harm children who throw their baby teeth into a lake or a river.”

The Wild Iris
by. Louise Gluck

A collection of poems regarding nature.

It was pretty good. I'm not a big fan of straight up poetry collections though. They are just a little too much for me. But there are certainly some gems in the collection. I'm especially fond of the quote I'm going to use.

“What are you saying? That you want
eternal life? Are your thoughts really
as compelling as all that?”

At Home:
A Short History of Private Life
by. Bill Bryson

Using the rooms of his house for inspiration, Bill Bryson takes a look at the history of private life.

I almost loved this book unequivocally. I mean, it's Bill Bryson; how could I not? However, I have some issues with it. The biggest one is that I wanted less history in general and more specific history regarding how different rooms came into existence and evolved. The book jacket claimed that he'd be using the rooms of the house as a lens for looking at the history surrounding it and yet the book is mostly just a straight up history of private life that uses the rooms for inspiration. For example in his chapter on the Cellar he briefly mentions that cellars were often used to house coal and then launches into a history of coal use and energy usage in general. Now don't get me wrong, it is a fascinating, fun, and informative chapter. BUT, I really learned nothing about cellars and frankly I was looking forward to learning about cellars.

Besides the slight miscommunication about the style of the book, it is so many kinds of amazing. Except for the first two chapters which were completely random and thus confusing. Although I get the feeling that maybe I was just too stupid to connect the dots. Who knows. Go read it and afterward help me understand what the point of those chapters was. Now that I know what to expect, when I inevitably read it again I'll probably enjoy it even more.

“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010
edited by. Dave Eggers

A collection of literary gems from 2010. Including short stories, magazine headlines, band names, etc.

Like any collection I have mixed feelings about this one. The first section, where all the really wonderful bizarre stuff is held (the “Best American Sentences on Page 50” for instance), is pure genius. The second section, where the short stories are held, is hit or miss, but the majority of them are hits. Sherman Alexis' “War Dances” and Tamas Dobozy's “The Encirclement” were probably my favorites.

Samples from the Best American Gun Magazine Headlines: My Wife's Guns: I Thought Some Were Mine, but I Was Wrong, Kids and Guns: A Great Combination

The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish
by. Neil Gaiman illustrated by. Dave McKean

A boy trades his father for two goldfish. When his mom finds out she insists that he go and get his dad back, however, it turns out that might be a lot harder than he expected.

As those of you who know me might recall, I am not a fan of Neil Gaiman. However, I could not help myself from reading a book about swapping a dad for goldfish. I'm not really sure if this book works as a little kids book. It kind of reads like a story being made up on the spot. It does have numerous parts that are quite delightful, so I have to give it that. The illustration style is really unique and fun to look, but it is possibly a little too eclectic for a small child to appreciate.

“My little sister and I played in the garden. My sister played with her barbie dolls and I played at putting mud down my sister's neck.”

As I Lay Dying
by. William Faulkner

A family has to deal with the loss of its mother as they try to return to her hometown to bury her.

My biggest problem with this book is that the writing style is entirely too convoluted at certain parts. There were a number of times where I was reading it and not comprehending a single thing that was going on. That being said, when I could understand what was going on I thought it was great. I would describe it as a literary treat that becomes a little too literary at times. I should also mention that the character of Anse Bundren is the most despicable literary character of all time. I'd have to ruin the story to explain why, but, fictional or not, he is a truly horrible human being.

“Sometimes I aint so sho who's got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It's like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.”

The Graveyard Book
by. Neil Gaiman

A little baby is the sole survivor when his family is murdered. He wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts residing there take him in and raise him as their own.

I was watching an interview with Neil Gaiman about the The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldish, but it turned out to actually be an interview about The Graveyard Book. As I said before, I am not a big Neil Gaiman fan. Every time someone exulted some book of his I would check it out and be horribly disappointed. Case in point: Sandman. After awhile I just decided to stop checking them out. Despite that history, the second I heard him describe the book as The Jungle Book, but with a graveyard instead of a jungle, I was all over it. And it was wonderful. You should read it. You should read it to some kids as well. I will own it one day and try to foist it onto small children.

“Truly, life is wasted on the living, Nobody Owens. For one of us is too foolish to live, and it is not I.”

Earth (the book):
A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race
by. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

A compendium on the human race for any aliens that might come visiting while we're away...or dead.

While the book is written as a compendium of the human race for aliens, I was expecting a textbook, like America (the book) was. Obviously it wasn't. But it was great anyway. Jon Stewart and all the people at The Daily Show are just so clever and funny. If you enjoy the sense of humor of their show then you'll get a kick out of the book.

“Due to scientific limitations and more than a touch of narcissism, we believed everything in the universe literally revolved around us. It was a theory called geocentrism, which was originally egocentrism, but they spelled it wrong.”

Machine of Death
edited by. Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !

What if there was a machine that could tell you how you were going to die? Not when, but how, and it is never wrong. Would you want to know? This collection of stories seeks to answer all these questions and more.

This is a book that sprang to life from a comic strip. From humble beginnings three prominent figures in webcomics got together to seek submissions for such a book. It is a collection that is not only thought provoking, but also just fun to read. It really takes a look at just how such a machine would change, not only people, but also the world in general. The guys behind it are pretty brilliant. Case in point: when it came out they asked for all their fans to go to amazon and buy it on one particular day. That way it would rocket to the top of the charts. And it did! It beat out a new Grisham, it beat out Keith Richards' biography, it even beat out Glenn Beck! It is also the only book I read this year that you can read for free.

They are offering a free PDF of the book. Although, I would ask that if you like it, please buy a copy. The writers and illustrators aren't rich and famous. They even had to self publish it to get it made at all. So if you try it and you like it, throw them a bone.

“Missus Murphy, I will have you know that I am to be torn apart and devoured by lions.”

My Antonia
by. Willa Cather

The story of immigrant farmers, but mostly the story of a boy growing up in the late 1800s and his experiences with the girl next door.

For a book written in 1918 it is extremely accessible. If I hadn't looked at the publication date I would have sworn it was written recently. It is a pretty good book. It does a great job depicting life at the time. My only problem was that Antonia is supposed to be some amazing figure and yet I couldn't help but feel she wasn't all that special. In fact, I didn't really like her that much. I liked her in the beginning and I liked her at the end, but I don't like her the rest of the time. However, the main boy is okay and the story is more about him anyway.

“As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass.”

Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants
by. Robert Sullivan

A look into the world of rats.

I would describe Robert Sullivan's writing style as being like an unrefined Bill Bryson. They both combine observations/experiences with history and they both have penchants for indulging in historical tangents. Like Parasite Rex this book shines a loving light on a creature that dwells in the gutters of our thoughts. He brings up the interesting point that rats aren't really considered wildlife anymore. You probably won't find them in a guide to European Mammals or what not. And why would you? They don't live in the wild; they live with us. Just like the peace that comes with coming to terms with humanity's similarities to parasites, there is a peace in coming to terms with likeness to rats.

“Rats live in man's parallel universe, surviving on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage. I think of rats as our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same. If the presence of a grizzly bear is the indicator of the wildness of an area, the range of unsettled habitat, then the rat is an indicator of the presence of man. And yet, despite their situation, rats are ignored or destroyed but rarely studied, disparaged but never described.”

Zen Shorts
by. Jon J. Muth

A group of children befriend a panda who uses zen stories to help them with their problems.

First of all the illustrations in this book are amazing. You want to just rip them out and hang them all over your wall. As someone who majored in East Asian Studies and an art lover, it seems like this book was written just for me. It is just the cutest thing ever. Not only is it great to look at, but it is written in a simple yet charming style that is perfect for a little kids' book. Plus what other children's book subtly teaches kids about Zen?

“‘I'm sorry for coming unannounced,’said the bear. ‘The wind carried my umbrella all the way from my backyard to your backyard. I thought I would receive it before it became a nuisance.’ He spoke with a slight Panda accent.”

The Giver
by. Lois Lowry

In a community where there is no pain, where everything is regulated, and where everyone has a role, a young boy is chosen for a unique position. He must become the one to hold all the memories the town has forgotten. But when he learns of a world of colors and family and love and even pain, will he be able to continue living as he did before?

The Giver is a book everyone should read. It is often required reading in school so that's good. It is a beautiful and powerful story. Like any good science fiction story it really makes you think about the world. Who wouldn't want a world where there was no war, no starvation, and no pain? Yet in order to rid yourself of all the bad things in the world, would you be prepared to give up all the good things as well? Or maybe through sharing memories and experiences we can have the best of both worlds.

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It's the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”

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