I’m kind of indifferent to all of this month’s read, but here we are:
Word by Word by Kory Stamper:
It’s interesting how all of the books on language I’ve read so far all have the same sentiment: language changes, so despite how you feel about them, even words like “irregardless” have their places in the dictionary. This book, which revolves around the author’s time as an editor for Merriam-Webster, reinforces this more than anything else. It’s quite funny and reveals some interesting things about dictionaries as well as the persons behind them (actually I never even thought about the writers and editors of the dictionaries at all, but now that I think about it, dictionaries, like any other book, need to be written by someone). 4/5
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevallier:
I took this with me on my trip to Da Nang. Since it’s a beach trip, I figured a book about two women hunting for fossils on the beach of England in early 19th century would be appropriate. It’s too bad that the book itself is boring. There are some interesting bits about fossil hunting and the way women are written out of history, but none of those really pans out. I don’t connect with either of the narrators (Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot), and I hate the fact that when they have a falling-out, it is because of a man. So much for feminism. 2/5
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco:
I saw the movie adaptation of this a long time ago, and all I remembered about it was Sean Connery and Christian Slater in funny haircuts solving a series of murders at a monastery. The book is so much more than that. In fact, the murder mystery part is only incidental to the book. It is mostly a book on Christianity, philosophy, history, and much else. However, it is the murder mystery part that I’m interested in – it’s basically medieval Sherlock Holmes (the main character’s name is William of Baskerville, and in the movie he even says “It’s elementary.”) So I admit, I skimmed through a lot of the other parts to get back to the mystery, which becomes frustrating after a while. Just as the mystery is getting interesting, it is interrupted by a long discussion about the poverty of Christ or a description of an altar or a hallucination or something like that. And of course, being only incidental, when the mystery does get resolved, it feels anticlimactic. I’m not saying it has to be some stupid conspiracy like The Da Vinci Code or something, but I wish the murder mystery could have been a little more intergrated into the whole thing. 3/5
I got an eclectic mix of books this month, but the good news is that all of them are enjoyable, each in its own way. Let’s hit it!
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan:
I just finished the series based on this (once you get past the Blade Runner rip-off aesthetic, it’s very good, plus Joe Kinnaman is not too terrible to look at either) so naturally, I wanted to check out the book. It is set in a distant future when human consciousness can be digitized and stored, which allows people to change bodies (called “sleeves”). As you can’t rely on physical appearances to tell who is who, it is the perfect setting for a murder mystery. The mystery itself is quite standard, but the setting makes all the difference. I’m glad that I watched the series first though, because it makes the sci-fi lingo a lot easier to follow. The thing is, the series deviates quite a bit from the book, so about halfway through, I lost track of the plot a bit, but in the end, just like when I watched the series, I sort of let the story wash over me and didn’t think too hard about it, and I was able to enjoy it much more. 4/5
Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett:
After Altered Carbon, I wanted an easier book, and a Discworld novel just fit the bill. This book revolves around the Witches, who have to face a family of modern vampires that threaten to take over their country. It contains some hilarious bits about the “edgy” vampires (who stay up during the day, drink wine, and give themselves names like “Tracy” and “Gerald”), some adorable bits about Igor and his dog Scraps (or Thcrapth, in Igor’s accent), and some profound bits with Granny Weatherwax (“Sin is when you treat people as things”). A great Discworld novel, all around. 5/5
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore:
I’m rounding up this month’s reviews with a non-fiction book. This, as you can guess from the title, is about the women who worked in US factories during the 1920’s and 1930’s, painting watch dials using self-luminous paint and contracting radium poisoning as a result, and their legal fights against their employers for compensation. It is horrifying to read about how radium literally eats its way through these women’s bodies (there are some very graphic descriptions and photos) and how their employers callously dismiss their suffering. At the same time, the women’s strength and determination can be very touching and inspiring. I can’t imagine how they can go through so much pain and still do everything they can to get justice for themselves and all workers like them. 5/5
This month I only managed to read two new books because I was rereading the complete Sherlock Holmes. Why? Well, it’s like this: I just read a Lovecraftian script for work. Anything Lovecraftian reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald, which is essentially Holmes/Cthulhu fanfiction, so I reread that. And then I realized it’s been a while since I read the original A Study in Scarlet, so I reread that, and I figured, might as well reread all the Holmes stories and novels while I’m at it. And that is how a bibliophile’s mind works…
Anyway, onto the two new books I read:
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Michael Sullivan:
I’m a bibliophile (see above), so any book that has to do with bookstores or libraries or writers can catch my interest. This one is essentially a murder mystery set in a bookstore – a homeless young man kills himself in the bookstore he usually frequents, and the bookseller that knows him must confront her own dark past to unravel the mystery of his death. It’s a very quick read and the mystery itself is pretty engaging, but I find the beginning too slow and the resolution a bit too easy, and I didn’t really connect much with the main character. 3/5
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden:
This is the third fantasy books I’ve read based on Russian folklore and mythology (after the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Deathless.) I guess I’m just drawn to them because I grew up with Russian fairy tales. Anyway, the plot of this book is quite standard – Vasya, a young girl whose mother dies giving birth to her, inherits some of her mother and grandmother’s otherworldly abilities, and she uses those abilities to protect her village from a dark force. Still, the world of the story feels very authentic, and the characters are well-portrayed. My only complaint is that the ending is a little rushed (I was expecting a more epic journey, but I guess that’s for the sequels). Also, if I have to read that Vasya’s stepmother “shrilled” or “shrieked” once more, I’m going to shriek too. 4/5
As promised, here is the book review post of March. It’s all fiction this month, but unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy any of them 😦
Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome:
I was going to read this during my Cuba trip – it is a humorous travelogue about three friends (and their dog) who decide to take a boating trip down the Thames, which would make the perfect travel read. But in the end, I chose Bill Bryson’s book, so I didn’t read this until now. It’s quite enjoyable if you’re into British humor (which I am), but my problem with it is the weird inconsistency in the tone – between the humorous and sarcastic observations, there would be some horrible purple prose mixed in. At first, I thought it was supposed to be satire, but then toward the end, there is this scene in which the characters find the body of a woman who drowned herself and the narrator muses about what might have happened to her, and I don’t know if I was supposed to laugh or cry. It’s really strange. 3/5
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde:
I was offered a chance to translate this book, and as its blurb compares it to Station Eleven, which I love, I decided to check it out. It contains three interwoven stories, one set in England in 1852, one in the US in 2007, and one in a dystopian China in 2098, revolving around three characters whose lives are defined and changed by bees and beekeeping. It sounds interesting, and I could see where the Station Eleven comparison comes from, but this is nowhere near as captivating and touching as Station Eleven. I had a hard time identifying with any of the characters, William, the 19th-century character, downright annoys me, with his self-absorption and constant whining. This is what happened when you started out with a theme and built the story to fit it, instead of letting the story and the characters speak for themselves. (I’m still going to translate it though.) 2.5/5
Red Rising by Pierce Brown:
I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, but I guess I’ve waited too long and now I’ve grown out of the whole YA dystopian genre. I wouldn’t even bother with a summary because it is just like every other YA dystopian novel – a bit of The Hunger Games, a bit of Divergent, a bit of The Maze Runner. And yes, of course it is part 1 of a trilogy. Sure, it’s set on Mars and the story is more violent than most YA novels, but it’s the same “plucky teen overthrowing tyrannical government” plot. Read one and you’ve read them all. I think that’s why I liked the Six of Crows series so much, because the plot is like a breath of fresh air compared to the usual YA stuff. 2/5
What did you guys read this month?
Because I couldn’t post this in February due to a lack of Internet access in Cuba, here is a belated book review.
The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker:
I’m always on the lookout for more books about language and linguistics, so when Steven Pinker’s name came up in John McWhorter’s Words on the Move, I decided to check out his books. If Words on the Move deals with the social and historical development of English, then this one focuses more on the neurological and psychological aspects of language (not just English). It’s fascinating, but I have to admit that some parts are too technical for me and I found myself not retaining a single word after reading several pages. It probably didn’t help that I always read this before bed. It’s not really a bedtime sort of book. Still, a great book if you’re interested in linguistics. 4/5
Vietnamese Festivals by Nguyen Van Huyen:
This collection of essays was written in French during the 1940’s by one of Vietnam’s leading historians and folklorist, and later translated into Vietnamese. It offers a wonderful look into the traditional festivals of Vietnam, most of which are still celebrated today, though some of the traditions are now lost or their meanings have become obscure. My only criticism is that it’s a collection of essays, so some of the information tends to be repeated. 4/5
The Spy by Paolo Coelho:
I knew this was going to be disappointing even before I read it, because I was hoping for a biographical novel about Mata Hari and this is too thin. But I read it anyway, figuring that even if it doesn’t give me all the details about Mata Hari’s life, then at least it could give me some sort of insights into her personality. The book, a series of letters from Mata Hari to her lawyer, is certainly supposed to do that, but it doesn’t. It tries to depict Mata Hari as a tragic figure who just wanted to be an independent woman, and that proved to be her downfall, but I don’t sympathize with her character or have any investment in her life. The book is simply too truncated to leave any kind of resonance. 1/5
The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson:
This is the book I read during my Cuba trip – non-fictions are best travel read, I find, because you can pick it up and put it down anytime you want. Subtitled “More Notes from a Small Island”, this details more of Bryson’s travel around the British isle. It may not be funny as the first Notes from a Small Island, but I still really enjoyed it, because I identify with Bill Bryson as a traveler (like me, he always seeks out the museums in every town he visits and grumbles about the prices of everything). 4/5
So that’s my books for February. What have you read?
I actually didn’t read any new books in January, I just reread Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (and rewatched the mini series) and The Ladies of Grace Adieu (by the same author), so here are the books I read in December:
Words on the Move by John McWhorter:
I’m always interested in linguistics and entymology, but there are so many books on the subject that I don’t know where to start. My friend Debbi actually recommended another book by John McWhorter (The Power of Babel), but I haven’t been able to find it, so I read this one instead. It’s about the development of English and basically why you shouldn’t make fun of people for saying “irregardless”, because a lot of words started out very different from what they are now. It looks into meanings, pronunciations, compound words, and grammar, to show how English have changed over the course of history. It’s very interesting, but I would still judge people who say “could care less” and “hold down the fort” though. 4/5
The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr:
This is the second book in the series that starts with The Alienist (which was just adapted into a mini-series with Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning), which revolves around a psychiatrist, Dr. Kreizler, and his friends – a reporter, a female private detective, and two police officers with some newfangled ideas about criminology – as they investigate crimes in fin de siècle New York. This one sees them investigating a kidnapping, which them to confront a dangerous and manipulative woman. I quite enjoyed the first one, but this, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as good. The crimes are not as horrifying as the serial murders in The Alienist (despite every attempt to sensationalize it), the antagonist is not as fascinating, and the pacing is very slow. The last 100 pages or so are OK, but the first 600 just drags. Plus, the writing has a tendency to replace “that” with “what” (as in, “It’s the cake what I want” instead of “It’s the cake that I want”) because the narrator is supposed to be working-class, which gets really annoying. 2/5
The Circle by Dave Eggers:
I’ve heard a few people saying that they decided to cut down on their online presence after reading this techno thriller, so I decided to give it a go. Well, after reading it, I have to say I don’t see what the big deal is. The story, which revolves around a young woman getting a job at a powerful tech company called The Circle and getting swept up in its plan for world domination, is supposed to be a cautionary tale about our dependence on technology and social media, but I just don’t buy it. For one thing, this company is so obviously sinister that I can’t believe people would be OK with any of its inventions. You would expect it to brainwash people gradually by convincing them of the small things first, right? Not here. In one of the early scenes, the company announces its plan to install tiny, undetectable cameras around the world and everybody just cheers like it’s the best thing in the world. WTF?
Two, the main character is a complete doormat. In stories like this, either she would start out a skeptic and end up getting brainwashed by the company, or she starts out as a believer and end up realizing the darker side of the company. But nope. She starts out thinking The Circle is the best and at the end (spoiler) still thinks it is the best. She doesn’t go through any changes, so the entire story is rendered pointless.
Now I know why the movie adaptation flopped so terribly despite a solid cast. It’s not their fault. The story just sucks. Do yourself a favor and just watch Black Mirror instead. 1/5
Anyway, that’s me. If you want to see more book reviews, check out my friend Mike’s blog.
In lieu of a book review, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at all the books I’ve read this year and pick out some favorites. In no particular order:
Gentlemen & Players by Joan Harris: An engaging mystery with a pretty good twist. Even though I could kinda guess it, it’s still quite well done.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach: Funny, educational, and makes me want to become a tree after I die.
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett: Of course, how would my book list be complete without a Discworld book, right? (Though by my calculation, I only have 10 books left in the series, so I need to space them out.) “Feet of Clay” may have been the book that makes me fall in love with the Watch, but this is the one that solidifies that love. It’ll make you cry.
Overall, it’s a balanced mix of genres, fictions and non-fictions, and male and female authors. A pretty good year of reading, wouldn’t you say?