hp: ravenclaws are vulcans

2014 Book Post

Some stats:
Total books read - 18
Male writers - 10
Female writers - 8
Non-white writers (to the best of my knowledge) - 7
Countries visited (counted according to country of author's origin, not the book's setting) - 6
Countries visited list: Zimbabwe, Nepal, Afghanistan, Trinidad, Haiti, Somalia

Five Stars
Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman *****
My project to read a book from every country is slowly trundling along, and this book added Somalia to my literary map. These short, poignant stories focus on Somalian expats reconciling LGBT identities and mental illness with a traditional culture of tightly knit families. The prose is peppered with Kenyan slang and Somali words that make no allowances for clueless Western readers, so to get the book's full impact, you have to be willing to google for unfamiliar terms. This was actually one of the things I liked best though: this isn't one of those stories that sneakily vilifies a non-Anglo culture while the narrator finds liberation in the West. Instead, the author is writing to an audience of his fellow Somalians, all of whom are proud of their culture even while they seek greater acceptance within it.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury *****
I read this book for the first time in high school, then again five years ago when I decided to teach it, and one more time this year when I decided to bring it back to my curriculum. Every re-reading reveals more creepy comparisons to our culture: the ubiquity of earbuds, the stream of short, meaningless videos, the society that gradually agreed to surrender their intellect in order to remain comfortable.

All of the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr *****
This book tells two parallel stories that slowly draw together. One is a blind girl who flees from Paris to St. Malo, France to escape the Nazi invasion; the other is a young German soldier who specializes in rooting out Resistance radio broadcasts. The book alternates between their stories, starting from the firebombing of St. Malo in 1944 and slowly working backward into their childhoods. At first, I was reluctant to read this book -- I thought the narrative structure could be gimmicky, and I wasn't sure that the book really needed 500+ pages to tell its story. I'm so glad I read this though - the characters and setting are both completely vivid and real, and I was sorry when I got to the end.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs *****
Robert Peace escaped from the poverty-stricken streets of Newark, NJ to attend Yale University. In spite of graduating with honors, he returned to his old neighborhood, fell back into the drug trade, and was eventually murdered. Jeff Hobbs, the author, was Peace's roommate at Yale. In order to understand his close friend's demise, he chronicles his life in exacting detail from birth to death. The result is a 400 page eulogy that explores Peace's decisions with honesty and compassion.

Four Stars
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee ****
Apparently I go on vacation and read books about post-apocalyptic dystopias. Chang-rae Lee is one of my favorite writers, and I really enjoyed his foray into dystopian fiction. The world he created is well-crafted, he makes you care about the characters, and the book subtly comments on income inequality in thoughtful ways.

California by Edan Lepucki****
This book got terrible reviews, but I love it anyway. Imagine your favorite chick lit protagonist dropped into the middle of a post-apocalyptic America and forced to confront more than first-world problems. Some critics complained that there’s no explanation for the disaster that reordered society, but I was content with this creepy, realistic exploration of its effects on spoiled Americans. Bonus points for thoughtful consideration of how gender relationships might be affected in survival scenarios.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesay****
A vivid retelling of Jane Eyre set a Scotland that’s slowly transforming after World War II. Gemma is my favorite kind of female protagonist: flawed and still sympathetic. Her relationship with Mr. Darcy evolves in a believable way, and I especially liked the way they renegotiated their relationship after the big break-up.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt ****
This book about two hardened criminals in the Gold Rush is not my usual cup of tea, but I’m glad I took an LJ friend’s recommendation. This book fulfills two of my biggest literary kinks: sympathetic villains and a distinct narrative voice. Easy enough reading for vacation, but still fulfilling if you’re in the mood for something thoughtful.

Three Stars
We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo ***
This is a pretty standard immigration novel -- scenes of hardship in the old country, the dream of coming to America, discovering that life in America is harder than imagined, ambiguously hopeful ending. I did like the glimpses of street life in Zimbabwe, but I can barely remember reading this book.

The Bee Keeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King - ***
To be fair, this book held my attention and I stayed up late reading it because I had to know what happened. That said, I had too many problems with it to award it four stars. As much as I loathe the term "Mary Sue," that's exactly what the lead character felt like to me. A young girl! Who's not quite pretty! And she's just as smart as Sherlock Holmes! Maybe with some Joan Watson-style character development, I would have bought it, but it just didn't feel plausible to me that there would be two Sherlock Holmes in the world. Also, I thought the mystery was pretty predictable, and I didn't get the level character development I wanted.

Till the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis Sharma - ***
Another entry in my diary of literary world travels. This book is an interesting exploration of an ill-fated relationship between a strong-willed Trinidadian woman with a troubled past, and the overly prideful man who loves her. I enjoyed this while I was reading it, but it didn't leave a strong impression afterward.

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi ***
The main character in this novel is a bacha pash, a girl whose family dresses her up as a boy. Apparently, this is common practice in Afghan families with no male children, and the rest of the neighborhood accepts the girl as a boy so long as she behaves like one. Reading about the main character's transformation was fascinating. Unfortunately, the author wanted to write a sprawling family saga set in Afghanistan, so the focus leaves the bacha pash tradition pretty quickly and the last half of the book isn't nearly so interesting.

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat ***
Dew Breakers were tortures employed in Papa Doc's brutal Haitian dictatorship. This book centers on one of them who escaped, repented, and began a new life in NYC. Although the premise was promising, the non-traditional narrative structure just made the book confusing, and the overly ambiguous ending left me unsatisfied.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul D. Tough ***
If you teach in a high-poverty school, this book is packed with enough useful information to justify ploughing through some pretty leaden prose. If that does not describe you, I don’t recommend this.

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl ***
Former Gourmet magazine editor and NY Times food critic tries her hand at chick lit. The main character undergoes a predictable transformation from country mouse to fashion maven in just a few pages, and I seriously question the book’s perspective on romantic relationships. That said, if you’re looking for something easy to read by the pool, this would be a good choice. I read for the glorious descriptions of food and the behind-the-scenes look at life in a food magazines.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe ***
Standard ghost written celebrity fare, just entertaining enough to earn three stars. The prose is extraordinarily bland, but I did enjoy a peek at Hollywood behind the scenes.

The Guru of Love by Sandiyat Upadhyay ***
A dude has a mid-life crisis and cheats on his wife with a much younger woman. His wife's unexpected reaction is fascinating, but unfortunately, we don't get to hear anything from her POV. I enjoyed this because I wanted to read some Nepalese literature while I was in Nepal, but I'm not sure how much I'd recommend it to others.

Another Great Day at Sea by Geoff Dyer ***
A marginal entry in the three star category. A hapless British journalist manages to get himself embedded on a US Navy aircraft carrier. The result is an interesting collection of human interest stories, but there's not really enough here to make a book, and the author's persona gets grating after awhile.

Two Stars
The Silkworm by Robert Gailbraith (JK Rowling) **
I loved thie first book in this series, but this one was a disappointment. The main character, Cormoran Strike, crossed the line from "lovable curmudgeon" to "actual asshole with a side of sexism," my favorite female character barely got any screentime, and I didn't think the mystery was very plausible.

Divergent by Veronica Roth **
I like a lot of YA literature, but this book felt pretty hackneyed. As soon as the protagonist described herself as a plain girl with no special talents, I knew she would get a makeover, get a hot guy, and uncover a special skill -- and I was completely right. I'll leave the rest of the series to teens.

One Star
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki *
Every year, there’s one critical darling that I just can’t finish, no matter how hard I try. This year’s was A Tale for the Time Being. The book tells two parallel stories: one, the tale of a bullied Japanese school girl, is totally riveting. The other is the story of a middle aged woman who lives an extremely slow paced life on a small island, and that’s the part of the novel that killed me. I tried for three months, and then I gave up.
How much do I love book lists from people!!!!

Fahrenheit 451 is a classic for good reason: almost prescient and its message rings true. Love it, though I agree it just gets creepier the closer we get to its reality. The first time I read it, it made me want to memorize The Hobbit so I could be a book person.

The Doerr book is on my to-read list, and your review makes me think I should bump it up.

As to the Laurie R. King, I can understand your dissatisfactions with it, but the snide-ish banter between the two of them did make me love it :) The sequels do more with character development, so if you found it at least a pleasant distraction, you might try the next one or two. A Letter of Mary is one of my favorites since it takes them to Jerusalem.

I have had a hard time understanding the popularity of Divergent, for just the reasons that you give. I think I'll give it a miss.
Ooh, some of these sound really interesting. I've seen All the Light We Cannot See recced just about everywhere, so I really need to get a hold of it at some point soon.