Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco -------------- 1.5 Stars

The Name of the Rose was a huge hit when it was released in the 1980s. I recently came across it as it many said it was a great book and very engaging. Well, something went wrong because it was one of my last favorite books in the past few years.

As I am not sure how many of you are familiar with this book, as it was written a generation ago, quick synopsis - set in the Middle Ages (early 14th century), it tells the story of a monk and his assistant who go to a monastery to investigate a death. Once there, further deaths take place and a quasi-murder mystery takes place.

I include "quasi" above because about 5% of the novel is a murder mystery. Those parts are actually pretty engaging and would have made a good book. Unfortunately, the other 95% was about religion, and Jesus, and mostly a whole bunch of stuff from 700 years ago that was super archaic and incredibly confusing. There was multiple sentences, paragraphs, and pages where I was truly lost and, while I understood the words being used (except maybe Dominicans and Fraticelli), the words together made very little sense. The book was so in depth and nuanced in its focus on Catholicism that it really was not enjoyable.

Then, after reading 495 pages of this drivel, I decided to read the last 30 pages after the book ended. In this edition, the author offers answers to many questions that he apparently received over the years. I thought maybe I'd learn more about things I missed. No chance - instead I got even more maddening confusion and more answers that made no sense.

Overall, the book was a really challenge for me. Perhaps I just needed to pay more attention or have more prior knowledge about the Middle Ages and Christianity. Or, perhaps, this book is just not an engaging read for me as a modern, discerning reader. Either way, you have been warned should you decide to take it on.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell --------------- 4 Stars

I might be a little bit late getting to Gone with the Wind, since it is nearly 100 years old (lol), but I like to take on a longer book during the summer. Well, this one certainly met that goal, checking in at over 1,000 pages. When I started this book, which was a couple months ago, I also did not anticipate a historical social justice movement taking place at the same time which made me read this book differently than I most likely would have otherwise (during my reading it was also reported that HBO stated it would no longer show Gone with the Wind movie).

So, related to the note above, I want to get out of the way quickly - this book is incredibly racist, sexist, and very dated (there was also a part where Scarlett is basically raped and seems to offer enjoyment for the assault). It was hard to even read various parts and realize just how different a time it was during the setting of this book, the Civil War/Reconstruction, and even when it was written in 1936. While I tried to really engage with the story, it was impossible to not juxtapose the current inequality and systematic racism and white supremacy that exists in the US with what was going on during the writing and setting of this novel.

As for the book, I can see why it's a classic and beloved story. While so much of the setting and actions are dated and not connected to any part of modern life. The themes of love, hope, survival, etc. are certainly easy to connect with. Of course, I know of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler but really appreciate learning more about each of them and who they truly were.

Ultimately, I found the novel very engaging, which is why it earned a high rating of 4 stars, but I don't particularly enjoy how the story ended up or Scarlett. Truthfully, I found her awful, selfish, and totally self absorbed at every other characters expense. When Rhett offers the famous line, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," I strongly empathize with him. I too struggle to give a damn about her as a person. However, she is the ultimate survivor who will allow nothing in her way to continue to move forward and succeed.

As everyone is probably aware of this novel, it's hard to recommend to people but I would say if you have not read it by now, have some time, and are okay getting pretty shaken up by overt racism of this time period, it may be worth the read.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Where the Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens --------- 4 Stars

While I'm a bit late to the Where the Crawdads Sing party, as this book came out over 18 months ago, it's still a massive bestseller and currently#2 on Amazon books. And while I really didn't enjoy the ending (more below), I was thoroughly entertained by the book as a whole.

I would imagine many people have read or know of this book. Short synopsis - story, over multiple decades, about young girl who becomes a woman who lives in nature in very rural North Carolina. Of course, there is some intrigue and mystery in the book to keep it moving, but most of the novel is about the interesting experiences of her life.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this book. It's a really comfortable read and has a nice pace. The plot moves forward in a smooth way and never feels rushed. Nature is a focal point of this novel and the author does a wonderful job of going into beautiful and serene descriptions of different outdoor scenes. As much of the novel is based on the swamp the protagonist lives in, wonderful and detailed descriptions are offered of the beaches, birds, water, etc.

In many ways, the story of where the main character lives, is just as important as what happens to her. The marsh that is her home for the extent of the novel is a character unto itself. As the main character's life is so closely connected to the environment she lives in, you can't help but fall in love with it. Or, at least, fall in love the way she falls in love with it. The story provided and the environment and setting really do make this an enjoyable read. It's got a scenic and leisurely pace that I really enjoyed.

While I really enjoyed the majority of this book, and found it hard to put down, I really was left disenchanted with the ending. For me, it closed this up just a bit too quick. After spending 350+ pages becoming connected and truly caring about protagonist, it was a bit tough for me to see her story end so abruptly. I also found it quite odd. The author spend so much time carefully nurturing her story and the environment that enhances it, it seemed surprising she would not take as much care with the ending. Perhaps she had some other things to do? Lol.

Overall - really entertaining read and was hard to put down, just be forewarned that you may not enjoy the final parts of the book!

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Wisdom of Crowds - James Surowiecki ------------------ 1 Star

The Wisdom of Crowds had been on my to read list for a number of years. I was hoping that it would be as entertaining and enjoyable to read as some of the Gladwell books or perhaps Freakanomics. Unfortunately, as you can glean from the rating, it did not live up to my expectations.

Quick synopsis - the book makes a strong case that people's collective opinion, on nearly anything they are educated about or have a background about, will be more accurate or show more wisdom than a singular person. Okay, now you don't have to read the book! Honestly, this would have been a great Atlantic article that explained the author's main points with a few examples. Instead, I slowly trudged through this not interesting, much too long book that went into areas that were both confusing in purpose and boring.

While the book started strong with an interesting introduction and on point first chapter, it slowly lost my interest with each subsequent chapter seeming less useful and less entertaining. Unlike, say the books by Gladwell, this author is not a great storyteller and really needs a better editor. While he tried to use real life examples to make his points, like many other books of this type, he was long winded with the anecdotes not easily understandable by a laymen.

It's rare that I read a book that is such a dud. First, I am pretty good at vetting books to ensure they are not going to be a waste of my time. Second, it's really hard for me not to get interested in what I am reading. While I have a bias for certain types of books, I really can enjoy any time of literature (fiction or non), so I usually can find some interest in almost any type of book. Third, it is possible this book is better than I give it credit (which is very little). Perhaps this global pandemic and my viewing of more engaging TV has lowered my patience and tolerance to push through more esoteric writing... Or, perhaps this book is just super boring!

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen ------------------ 3 Stars

I really enjoyed Franzen's other major novel - The Corrections. I assumed that Freedom would be just as good, if not better. For some reason it didn't hold up. And, I can't tell why. Was it simply not as good as The Corrections or am I a more discerning reader nowadays? By comparison - here is my review of The Corrections from nearly 9 (!) years ago!

Just re-read my past review; I do think this book is just worst. I talked in the last blog about how this is "modern literature" as the themes are about the modern world and all its craziness. Really, I found this book interesting but slow. It's about a pretty dysfunctional family (same as last time) but I found them super unlikable - which was probably the point. But, that was not why I disliked. I disliked because nothing really happened. The book is over 500 pages and a slog to get through. The characters are interesting and very real. Since the vast majority of the novel is based on a few characters, Franzen does a great job of rounding them all out. But, so much is about the boring of their lives and what they are thinking about it.

Of course, the book is still interesting to read. The dialogue is funny and the writing is crisp. Franzen is a gifted author. While I do think the novel's pace was glacial and the stories of the characters seemed real, I just didn't love their stories. It's like the characters were trapped. Franzen couldn't decide if he should go all the way with the craziness of the story and really push it and make it seem totally fictional OR if he should make this a more realistic story about people's lives that is more based in realism.  Being stuck was not for me. Again, it's not a bad read but just not sure it's worth the effort to get through this long read.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Only Plane in the Sky: On Oral History of 9/11 - Garrett Graff ---------- 4 Stars

While not intentional, the coincidence of my reading of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic beginning, created a fascinating juxtaposition. As 9/11 was probably the last crisis that most closely resembles our current challenges, it was interesting to relive one of the most horrible and memorable days of American history.

This book provides an oral history about September 11, 2001. It begins early that morning and, deliberately and very intentionally, goes through the day by retelling people's own stories and recollections of what occurred. The book provides an unbelievable account of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who had connections to either the World Trade Center, Pentagon, United 93, or something else relevant from that day.

It was a heavy but captivating read. Graff does an incredible job of thoughtfully helping the reader remember each aspect of the day by painstakingly editing interview after interview so the reader is left with a clean story from start to end. Of course, the story is so much more than just a tale about the day. The beauty of these interviews is how personal they are; literally, each word is provided by someone remembering how the events changed their life. I can't imagine the work that must have gone in to both, interviewing the hundreds (or thousands of individuals), and organizing and editing what is most useful for the text.

Finally, while an engaging book that was hard to put down, it really was hard to go through and remember this awful day. I, of course, could easily remember my own memory of the day - turning on the TV briefly before heading to a college Pol. Sci. class and seeing one of the Towers burning and being confused. Then, after class, heading to the student center to see the other damage done with my fellow classmates. Then,  going home and watching the rest and trying to understand what the hell happened. This book, in a visceral way, really brought those memories back.

As it felt like this was the last time our country was in a true crises, until now, it's interesting to compare the two. One event was quick with a massive impact of death and injuries; the other, a slow, painful killer. One was a purposeful event by foreign terrorists; the other, an unintentional act. One led by a president who clearly understood the entire tenor of his presidency would change forever (W. Bush), the other, well, not a leader in any way, shape or form. Really, the comparisons could go on and on with one similarity clear - fear, anxiety and pain are at the heart of both.

While I would not recommend this book if you are struggling with sadness/anxiety with our current situation, it may be a useful read in remembering a painful day, but also, how our nation found a way through and came back on the other side. Certainly something we all pray for now.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson ---------------------- 4 Stars

I've had Stevenson's Just Mercy on my "to read" list for a while now, ever since I saw him speak a few years ago in Baltimore. Part of the reason I've waited is I knew it would take some extra emotional energy to read the book and be wiling to deal with the many challenges and problems with our judicial and penal systems. While it certainly wore me down, I'm happy I spent the energy taking on this incredible story.

As it's now been made into a major motion picture, I assume most readers know the story. Stevenson, an awesome lawyer, goes to the Deep South and works to get many either falsely accused or incorrectly punished individuals off of death row and/or out of prison. While there are many anecdotes and cases, much of this book focuses on Walter McMilian, a young, black man sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.

Stevenson is as gifted as a writer as he must be as a lawyer because the book was a pleasure to read. His use of effusive and colorful language helps paint the picture of darkness of prison and beauty of his subjects in a glorious way.  He also does a superb job of helping the reader understand the systemic challenges and problems of our judicial system.

Though this is why I had to give the book only 4 stars. The story is incredible and its as important a book that I have ever reviewed, but, I often really did not look forward to reading it. Rather, I often dreaded the thought of picking it back up to read about another racist decision made, another intentional structural decision that hurts a person with less social standing, or another time an innocent or traumatized person was unfairly treated. Honestly, it was hard to read about these injustices page after page. But, that is of course the point and value of Stevenson's stories - these untold stories need to be shared with the world. There is far too much unfairness and hate within our judicial system, and frankly, our society. However, as Stevenson argues, that can change. People still have options and the more we're all aware of ways we can help others, the better we can do in offering mercy and care for those who need it across our country.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach -------------- 4 Stars

Thanks to my kind brother-in-law, I recently had the chance to read the enthralling book, The Art of Fielding. While I had not heard of before, I did realize that it was a highly anticipated recent release from a young author, Chad Harbach. As a whole, it did not disappoint.

Quick premise - small, D3 college near the Great Lakes (or was it Northeast... not critical) with a small cast of interesting and very well described characters; most of which are on the baseball team along with the school President and his daughter. The story is about their dreams, hopes, loves, etc.

The book starts with a bang and made me intrigued and care immediately. It was about baseball and, more specifically, the beauty of a perfectly fielded ball and the work and effort that goes into perfectly fielding a ball. From there, the author spends even more time going into the intricacies that go into being a great fielder. As the book goes on, it continued to captivate me. The characters were slowly introduced and the author did a fantastic job of describing each of them deeply; their looks, personality, and motivations were quickly apparent. I found the more I read, the more I wanted to continue reading.

But, like many books that check in over 500 pages, it did lull in some places. Not many though, perhaps a few times I looked at the book and chose a TV show instead; but more often than not, I wanted to pick up the book and keep reading it and not put it down. The story kept me intrigued due to it's multifaceted plots. While baseball and the objective of winning was underlying much of the book, the main characters seeking to find their own ways of winning were just as captivating.

As the first novel from Harbach, I eagerly look forward to his next release (though I read that it took him 9 years to complete this book; so it may be a bit of a wait). This book really was a fun read and one that I was a bit sad when it ended; I wanted it to keep going! Always a revealing sign about the entertainment value of a book.  I highly recommend.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Unwinding - George Packer ---------------------- 3.5 Stars

I recently came across this book as I was perusing a list of the best non-fiction of the past 20 years. While I have read more than a few of them, the summary for George Packer's The Unwinding was intriguing. Well, did it live up to its ranking of a top non-fiction story? Read on....

Well, sort of. While I think it was an excellently told story; I do feel like I have been more thoroughly entertained by many other non-fiction books I've read in the past couple of decades. However, I can also understand why this book did make the list. I believe it's primarily about the themes that Packer outlines.

So, basically, Packer takes a few characters and cities (Tampa, Silicon Valley) and tells very specific stories, that cover the past 15-20 years, about these people (about 4 or 5) and places. While the very specific and individual stories are  interesting to follow and well told, they are also emblematic of many Americans stories. And, more deliberately, how this country continues to change in monumental, and life altering ways. Interspersed throughout are also about a dozen short biographies of important and timely people in American history (Oprah, Newt Gingrich, etc.).

As a whole, the book is pretty engaging read. He does a great job of making the reader really connect with each character and keep interest to learn how they lives change every few years (when he makes typical jumps). Of course, the real genius of the book is helping the reader see the marco changes of our country through these specific stories. They do seem to go on a bit too long sometimes and there were a couple of times I thought a good editor may have helped the flow, but it's a small complaint. Overall, it's a strong read, and other than a few dragging parts, does a nice job telling an interesting story - both small and big.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Talking to Strangers - Malcolm Gladwell ------------------------- 4 Stars

Well, I'm a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell and was very excited to read his new book, Talking to Strangers. I've read all of Gladwell's books and reviewed a few of them here. While I think Tipping Point and Blink were simply incredible, I do feel like his last few efforts were not as strong. Perhaps others feel this way too. Besides not getting a lot of press, this book also was sold at a steep discount (only $6) a few months after it came out. So was it worth the money and time?

Short answer - absolutely! I'd read pretty much anything by Gladwell, as he has a gift for both storytelling and explaining creative ideas. The latter in this case, included the premise that people are inherently quite awful at understanding strangers and believing them. Basically, humans are built for connection and wanting to understand others and, thus, will always default to the assumption of truth even if there many pieces of contrary evidence put in front of them.

Like usual, the book was most interesting, and moved along smoothly, with Gladwell's great ability to share short stories and anecdotes to support his argument. This book included fascinating entries about why World War 2 got going because people didn't convince themselves Hitler may be a liar, the guy who realized Bernie Madoff was running a ponzi scheme about a decade before the SEC, and his biggest and most clear question - why did Sandra Bland end up killing herself after an unnecessary traffic stop (hint - the police officer was trained with very poor tools).

Overall, the book is a pretty strong read. As I described above - pretty interesting premise and great stories along the way. However, I did find Gladwell struggled to really support his premise and pull it all together. While each and every anecdote is interesting, I did not find they always supported and helped to clarify his overall premise. With his stronger, previous texts I found he made his points abundantly clear; here, he struggled to pull the strands fully together.

Still, it's Gladwell and it's better than 98% of the books out there. It's entertaining, the premise is captivating, and it's relevant to the current world and our lives.