Genre: Contemporary fiction, Jewish
Setting: Chicago, Illinois. November 14 to 17, 2006
Narrator: Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a 10-year-old student at Aptakisic Junior High, who may or may not be the messiah.
First line(s): “There is damage. There was always damage and there will be more damage, but not always.”
Quick summary: Gurion is a brilliant and devout Israelite who has been kicked out of three Jewish schools, and is now in the Cage, a program for disruptive and violent students at his new secular school. Over the course of four days, he falls in love with a girl named Eliza June Watermark, wrestles with his destiny, and attempts to overthrow “the Arrangement” (the teachers and jocks), with the help of his friends in the Cage and his army of Torah scholars.
How did I feel about the character(s)? Gurion is a piece of work, that’s for sure. Spouting off dialogue that makes him seem closer to 30 than 10, he has a lot of expectations heaped onto him. His fellow scholars call him Rabbi, his friends in the Cage look to him as their leader, and he himself suspects (and hopes) he is the messiah. Gurion is tough and more than willing to fight for what he thinks is right, but he can also be uncertain and will analyze the actions of himself and others to an often excruciating degree. I wouldn’t say I agree with many of his actions, but he is definitely a good talker and explains himself well.
Did anything surprise me? Not to ruin anything, but there was a moment 160 pages from the end where I might have audibly gasped while reading on the bus. Let’s just say it was near the start of the Gurionic War and it had to do with Boystar. Yikes. Really, though, I was very surprised by the seriousness of Gurion’s opinion of himself. I really didn’t expect that level of follow-through.
Other thoughts? I think the book’s length has less to say about the author than it does about Gurion. This is his story, and he’s going to tell it how he wants. The book covers only four days, but is a THOUSAND pages long. To say that he dissects every day to its smallest detail is an understatement. Some of that slows down the pace a bit, but the engaging dialogue between the pre-teens makes up for it. He calls the book his scripture, but it really acts more as his defense, and he needs every bit of it.
Who do I recommend it to? This is probably obvious, but anyone who likes the work of Jonathan Safran Foer, particularly Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, would be remiss to pass this by. Gurion’s serious precociousness reminded me a lot of Oskar, and both characters are Jewish.
Why did I read it? I’m all for books about wiser-than-their-years kids. One about a boy who legitimately thinks he is the messiah kicked the interest up a notch. I also liked the idea that part of the story is told through letters, e-mails, and transcripts.
Do I like the cover? Definitely. The book was originally released in five different hardcovers, and I received the white one. The design is simple, but made elegant with plain type and gold foil. It still catches my eye when I see it on a shelf.
How long did it take to finish? 11 months and 20 days, but that’s seriously skewed. I bought the hardcover version in January and read it fairly consistently until March, but the size just got annoying. Then, in November, I discovered that it had been released for Kindle, so I was finally able to finish it!
This is a super (SUPER) belated review, but I actually wrote most of it right after I finished the book back in October. But work got busy at the beginning of November, and since then, I’ve just been…lazy. (The internet and my phone are huge distractions.) But here it is, finally:
I know that zombies are pretty prevalent in American culture at the moment, but I’m kind of a newbie to this sub-horror genre. I’ve seen exactly one zombie movie (Zombieland), two episodes of The Walking Dead, and, now, I’ve read one zombie book.
A plague has created “skels” (zombies) across the planet, effectively wiping out most of humanity. The federal government has relocated from Washington D.C. to Buffalo, New York, and is currently clearing an area of Manhattan to be repopulated by the survivors. Unfolding over three days, the novel follows a civilian sweeper, Mark Spitz (which isn’t his real name, but a nickname he earned during an event that is eventually described), as he and the Omega unit search for skels and stragglers, building by building and floor by floor, within the zone. As they work their way through the zone, Mark Spitz recalls the events that led up to the present day: the arrival of the plague, how he survived, and his relationship with another survivor.
Though the book is in third person, the writing was very stream-of-consciousness. The narrative jumps from present day to a memory without warning, and often this was a little hard to follow. I understand that it was structured this way to illustrate the Mark Spitz’s PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder), and that non-linear form is probably what contributes to its reputation as a literary novel, as opposed to a genre novel, but it was still confusing. I’m willing to forgive that, though, as the writing was captivating and quite highlight-able:
“He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect.”
“Best to let the broken glass be broken glass, let it splinter into smaller pieces and dust and scatter. Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but the new places for things. That was where they were now. The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.”
I’m going to preface this by saying I’m going to waste as little time and effort as possible thinking and writing about The Night Circus. If you are at all excited about this book, you probably shouldn’t read what I have to say about it. If you are hesitant about reading it, I hope you learn from my mistake.
I was really excited about this book. I even referred it to friends before I bought it, because I was so sure I’d love it. It had tons of glowing reviews, was set during my favorite period to read about, and had a unique premise: During the late 1800s, two magicians (Marco and Celia) are trained all their lives to square off in a duel within a magical circus, Le Cirque de Rêves, which is only open at night. If that was what actually happened in this book, it would have been somewhat exciting. What it ended up being is a drawn out, completely cheesy bore. (I literally fell asleep reading it multiple times.) There is no face-to-face battle between these two magicians, and instead they work for years and years (did I mention YEARS?) passively one-upping each other in a game no one understands. In fact, they collaborate on several tents within the circus, building elements expressly for the other person. Yet it’s somehow supposed to be a fight to the death? But there are no consequences for not actually competing? Throughout the whole book, I got the feeling that the author had no idea what was going on or how to explain it. For example, Celia can heal herself, but not other people. Marco can keep people from aging, but no one ever notices, even “rêveurs” who follow the circus for years. There’s a lot more, but it makes me annoyed just to think about it.
Predictably, Marco and Celia soon fall inexplicably in love. The impossibility of it all made me want to throw my Kindle across the room, but all I could do was highlight a passage and write the note “BARF”:
“Marco lifts his hand to brush a stray curl away from Celia’s face, tucking it behind her ear and stroking her cheek with his fingertips. Her eyelids flutter closed and the rose petals around their feet begin to stir. … The air between them is electric as he leans in, gently brushing his lips against her neck. In the next room, the guests complain about the sudden increase in temperature.”
Are you kidding me? Did someone really write that and think it was a good idea? What kind of Harlequin Romance fantasy is she trying to fulfill, and is it is necessary to impose it on the rest of us? The love story between these two characters is absolutely one of the most contrived and ridiculous things I’ve ever read. Dare I say it was worse than Twilight?
What I don’t understand is how this book could possibly have a rating of 4.18 on Goodreads, with more than two thousand 5-star ratings. Did we read the same thing? How is my opinion so disparate from 95 percent of the other people who read it? Sure, sure…to each their own. But there is no way I will ever recommend this book to anyone, regardless of their reading tastes.
In summary, I hated it. It took me three weeks to read, solely because I didn’t want to be subjected to it. I hate abandoning books, though, and that’s the only reason I made it all the way through.
On the shore of Lake Michigan lies Westish College, a small liberal arts school whose biggest claim to fame is that Herman Melville once gave a lecture there. That discovery became such a big deal when it was revealed that the school’s identity was rebuilt around it. Their mascot changed from the Sugar Maples to the Harpooners (after Moby Dick), and a huge statue of Melville was erected facing the water he found so fascinating. Enter Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop with the ability to truly put the school on the map. A scrawny kid with an uncanny ability to predict a ball’s path off the bat, he’s recruited to Westish’s baseball team by his fellow teammate, Mike Schwartz, who becomes his mentor and drill sargeant. As his swing strengthens and his errorless-game count increases, the scouts come a-knocking, putting on the pressure.
The book isn’t only about Henry, though. There’s his openly gay roommate, Owen, who is also on the baseball team and becomes its sort of moral compass. Then there’s the college’s handsome president, Guert Affenlight, who surprises himself by falling in love with Owen, putting his career and reputation at risk. Things are further complicated when his daughter, Pella, arrives for the first time in years after leaving her husband, an older man she dropped out of high school to marry. As father and daughter struggle to repair their fractured relationship, she meets Schwartz, who—as a senior—is also at a turning point in his life, with few available options come graduation day. The two begin a relationship as they each try to figure out what to do next.
What a great book! All of the characters bring so many layers to the story, so while it is mostly about baseball, it delves into much more, such as understanding one’s identity, dealing with expectations, and the importance (and consequences) of sacrifices. Like Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, Henry completely and endlessly pursues one goal: perfection on the baseball field, with unfortunate consequences. Owen, whose perspective is only shared via interactions with the other characters, acts as a sort of anchor for them all. Unwilling to conform and completely comfortable with his sexuality, he is static throughout the book, while those around him change and grow.
It took me nearly three weeks to finish this book, but it wasn’t at all because I wasn’t interested. In fact, in the time since I finished it, I’ve wished I was still reading about Westish and the people there (though maybe that says more about the next book I picked up). It’s well-written, well-constructed, and well-worth your attention.
Rating: 4.5 stars (I try not to do half stars, but had to)
Finished: September 27, 2011
Total Pages: 520
Kindle Locations: 8,243
Date Published: September 7, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Buy It: Print or Kindle
A lot of buzz has been surrounding Justin Torres’ super short novel (okay, novella) We the Animals, and looking at Goodreads, it seemed people either loved it or hated it. Because it weighs in at only 125 pages, I figured the risk of wasting my time on it was pretty low, but in the end I didn’t need to be worried.
The book reads a lot like a series of short stories. The narrator and his brothers are “mutts” living with their white mother and Puerto Rican father in New York. Together they wreak havoc on a local farmer’s crops, fly kites made of trash bags, and just generally be boys. “We fought with boots and garage tools, snapping pliers—we grabbed at whatever was nearest and we hurled it through the air; we wanted more broken dishes, more shattered glass. We wanted more crashes.” Theirs is a dysfunctional family, to be sure, but it’s all the boys know and they are shaped by it. Sometimes Paps leaves for long periods, and sometimes he hits Ma. Many of the scenes involve the boys watching the interaction between their parents, whether fighting over a large purchase or making out against the bathroom sink. But what happens when they’re exposed to the world outside their small home, and what are the consequences?
This book feels very honest and more personal than I’m used to fiction being. I don’t know if its truly fiction or part memoir, but it read like the latter. The writing is what really makes this a book worth reading, as it is so descriptive and eloquent:
“We made kites: trash bags on strings. We ran, slipped, the knees of our dungarees all grass stained, we got up, ran, choked ourselves half to death with laughter, but we found speed, and our trash kites soared. We flew for an hour or so, until daylight fully buried itself into night and all the light sank back, except for stars and a toenail clipping of moon, and the kites disappeared, black on blackness. That’s when we let go, and our trash kites really soared—up and away, heavenward, like prayers, our hearts chasing after.”
No, the book didn’t completely knock me off my feet, but it is certainly impressive, nonetheless. I finished it more than a week ago, and it’s taken this long for me to gather enough coherent thoughts to write about it. It’s one of those books that linger will with you, that you will recall after seeing something that relates to it in some small way. It’s deserving of the praise it’s received.
I’m fairly picky about the historical fiction I read, but as soon as I read the plot of The Kitchen House, I added it to my to-read list.
The novel begins in 1793, when Lavinia is a seven-year-old Irish immigrant whose parents have just died on the passage to Virginia. Too sick to sell, Captain James Pyke had no other choice but to indenture her, and send her to live and work in the kitchen house with his slave and illegitimate daughter, Belle. Because Belle is weary of the child at first, most of Lavinia’s care during the first few months comes from Mama Mae, a slave who works in the big house, and they form a close bond. Among the others who become her family are Papa George, Mama’s husband; Beattie and Fanny, their twin daughters; and Ben, their son. What unfolds over the following 17 years is Lavinia’s struggle to understand the world in which she lives, and her own place within it. Those she is closest to are almost all slaves, but over time she finds herself drawn to the advantages of white society, as well. Belle is forced into a similar struggle, being half-white with a father who wants her to be free, but not wanting to leave the only home she has ever known.
I really enjoyed this book a lot. It had been a long time since I read historical fiction set during this time period, and I really liked that Grissom tackled both slavery and immigration, because it offered a unique perspective for an institution that was so common in the region. Had Lavinia been an American child, I’m not sure her observations would have been as guileless as they were.
The book was a little slower around the middle, but all of the main characters, especially Lavinia, are fully developed, and those sections were necessary to understand their actions and reactions later in the book (particularly with the Captain’s son, Marshall). Most of the story is told from Lavinia’s point of view, although Belle narrates every other chapter. At first I thought this technique was unnecessary, since Belle’s chapters are much shorter and Lavinia is a pretty observant narrator herself, but it brought more to the story when the two characters were in separate places, and when Lavinia had misunderstood a crucial event. In the end, it was smart that the author had used this format from the beginning, instead of introducing it partway through.
One thing that impressed me was the amount of research that must have been done. Grissom’s depictions of slave life and the relationships among the master, overseer, and slave were particularly well-documented. The Captain is not cruel, but he leaves the authority over most of his slaves to a man, Mr. Rankin, who most certainly is. His actions are really the crux of the narrative, shaping nearly every outcome in one way or another.
Another reason this was a fascinating read for me, personally, is that I love genealogy, and am descended from a man named William Barnhill, who was the son of a slave and (probably) her owner. I wonder how his situation compared to Belle’s, even though he was born in Pennsylvania and she in Virginia. William was given his freedom in 1796, just before he turned nine years old, and he spent most of his life in Ohio. His family is listed as “mulatto” on censuses for multiple generations.
Definitely read this if you like character-driven novels or historical fiction. However, as is often the case with novels of this subject matter, be aware that there are some uncomfortable events to read about, though the language during these scenes generally isn’t too descriptive.
I should probably preface this by saying I’m a bit of a nerd. I’ve been using some sort of the internet for nearly as long as I can remember and I learned HTML when I was 10 years old. I often prefer to spend my money on gadgets instead of clothes, and I have a fairly expansive TV on DVD collection, which is growing more and more obsolete. I’ve even played World of Warcraft. So, yeah, Ready Player One was a lot of fun for me to read.
It’s 2044 and the world is…grim. Frankly, it’s a chaotic mess. The ice caps are melting, almost all of the fossil fuels are gone, and civilization is declining fast. There is an escape, though: the OASIS, a free virtual reality that nearly everyone on the planet uses, to do everything from socialize to attend school. In it, possibilities are endless. You can walk on Endor with ewoks, drive Doc Brown’s Delorean, and basically be anyone you want to be—taller, more attractive, or even a different species. Why would anyone prefer the real world to that?
When James Halliday, the creator of this universe, dies, a challenge to all OASIS users is issued:
“Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits.”
The first to find an Easter egg hidden somewhere within the game will inherit Halliday’s entire estate, including his stake in the company. Our hero, Wade Watts a.k.a. Parzival, quickly becomes one of the many “gunters” (a nickname for the egg hunters), and spends nearly every waking moment studying Halliday to have a better shot at finding the egg’s location. Also competing, however, are an army of “Sixers” employed by ISS, a corporation that wants to takeover the OASIS and commercialize it, and they will lie, cheat, and kill to find the egg first.
This book was kind of like a dystopian version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but jampacked with 80s and other pop culture references. The combination of these made for a quick, entertaining read. Even though it takes place within a video game, Wade isn’t in it alone. His best friend Aech is also a gunter, and along the way he meets Art3mis, a blogger he’s had a crush on for years. None of them have every met in person, but their relationships seemed just as authentic as if they were communicating offline. I don’t have too many criticisms overall, but I will say that the progression of the book was predictable. I mean, the details were original and I loved the virtual world Cline created, but it seemed like it couldn’t have ended any other way.
I don’t know if the book actually has as much widespread appeal as a lot of people have been saying, though. A lot of the references might get lost on some readers, but fellow nerds and those who love all things pop culture will completely devour it.
The year is 1999, and Karim Issar has just arrived in New York City from his native Qatar. He’s a “cream of the cream” programmer contracted to work on Schrub Equities’ Y2K project through the end of the year. (Side note: My mom was on the Y2K team for Seafirst Bank. I regrettably dressed as a Y2K bug for Halloween that year. I was 14.) Pretty soon, he starts devising programs that he thinks will be useful to the company, the culmination of which is Kapitoil. After realizing that current events have an effect on oil prices, he writes a program that downloads news articles of the day from the Internet and scans them for words like “terrorism” and “attack,” but also more subtle words like “bitter” and “weary,” which most people don’t consider. It then predicts whether the oil price will go up or down, allowing the company to capitalize on the change. After showing the program to his boss, he finds himself slingshot up near the top of the corporate ladder. Soon he’s dressing in expensive suits, being driven by a chauffeur, and spending time with the company’s CEO, Derek Schrub himself. But how long will it last, and at what cost?
The characterization of Karim throughout the book was really well-done. The story is told through a series of diary entries, which are very “Karim-esque” (a term coined by one of his co-workers, meaning there are grammatical errors common for Karim, since he is foreign). Each entry ends with American slang or words and their meanings that he learned during the course of the entry, such as “Jackass = stupid person; Dan” and “shit-shower-shave = consecutive actions a man performs before a nightclub.” Though I don’t think it’s out-right disclosed, it’s safe to say that Karim has some form of autism. He mentions avoiding eye contact when he was younger, and he is very technical and factual in his writing and speech. He actually reminds me a lot of Alex, the Ukrainian translator in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, who isn’t autistic, but has the a similarly stilted voice.
I loved Karim’s interactions with his co-worker Rebecca, who was a good foil to his dry, straight-forward personality. The evolution of their relationship, from professional to romantic, was interesting to see unfold. She was understanding and patient with him when few others were (or would be), and I enjoyed seeing what they taught each other about their worlds.
I was going to give this book four stars, but then I couldn’t think of a single bad thing about it, so I bumped it up to five. Highly recommended, especially for those who like Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing. And for those of you with e-readers (or ebook apps), Harper Perennial is selling it for just 99 cents for the whole month of August!
UFOs and octopi and talking heads, oh my! The cover of Ben Loory’s Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is what first drew me to the book, and after reading the review by Unabridged Chick, I knew I needed to download it right then. Inside are forty short (and I mean short) stories about everything from love to revenge and discovery to loss, usually using unexpected subjects.
My favorite story was probably “The House on the Cliff and the Sea,” in which the house and the sea fall in love with each other and try to be together. While the sea struggles to climb the cliff-face, the house tidies up inside to make the sea feel at home. I won’t spoil the outcome, but I will say it was satisfying, which is something I couldn’t say for many of Loory’s stories.
I’ll admit I’m not much of a connoisseur of short stories, but the endings of many of these felt abrupt and vague. I don’t need to be spoon fed the author’s intentions, but I just didn’t get a lot of these. One example is “The Tunnel,” in which a boy ventures into a drainpipe, leaving his friend behind. He eventually reaches the end where there is a door, and when he opens it up, he sees his friend asleep in his room. His friend sees him and screams, and “so the boy reaches out with one gnarled, twisted claw. Together the two boys reach the end.” I don’t even know what happened, much less what it means, and that was a common feeling that I had while reading this book.
Still, I enjoyed the use of fantastical subjects, like martians, animals, and even an opera-loving television set. I read this book while I was on a mini vacation on Washington’s Orcas Island with some friends, and occasionally I would have to read a passage to them, either because it was so amusing or so crazy. One of those was from “The Knife Act”:
A woman and her friend are in a knife store.
Hey, says the woman, you ever see one of those shows where the guys throws the knifes at the lady?
Yeah, says her friend, and the lady doesn’t get hurt?
Yeah! says the woman. We should do that!
Okay! says the friend. Okay, if you want!
So the two buy lots of knives and run off to go practice.
Do you want to catch or throw? the woman says a moment later.
Catch! says the friend. I mean…
Both women laugh and then the friend goes to the wall, and the woman tentatively takes aim.
Be careful! says the friend.
I will! says the woman.
And she rears back and starts to throw.
The knife flies cleanly through the air—and lands perfectly in the center of the friend’s stomach.
If you’re just looking for something quick and easy to read, maybe something a little fun, then this is a good option. It’s certainly not a new favorite, and I’m a little hesitant to recommend it to a wider audience, but it has its merits and I can see how others might like it more than I did.
And, in case you’re wondering, the stories I liked the most were…