Tuesday, June 25, 2013

World Without End by Ken Follett


This is the second novel in the Pillars of the Earth series; however you should know that the books aren't dependent upon you reading one and then the other. They simply take place in the same place. This novel takes place in the 1300's, approximately 200-300 years after the events in The Pillars of the Earth, in the same town. The cathedral is still standing; however, there are many things that are changing in the lives of the people. Serfs are beginning to free themselves by looking to other towns that pay more for the jobs they do and the products they sell. This novel follows the lives of four very different children: Ralph, Gwenda, Caris and Merthing. We meet them when they are quite young and they have wandered into the forrest, only to watch a man be killed. The characters use this moment seminally and it completely influences who they become.

The book not only encompasses the black plague and the slowly evolving role of the church, but also issues surrounding economic and social equality. Follett is a master storyteller, albeit one thta isn't the best writer in the sense of his word choice. I loved being able to get lost in the stories of the time and Follett made it easy to immerse oneself in the stories of the characters and the lives of the people. I look forward to reading Follett's series on WWII shortly!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin


This is the 5th of seven novels in the Fire and Ice series by George Martin. There was six years in between this latest novel and the 4th book in the series so the question has to be whether it was worth the wait. It's hard for me to say because I came to the series late enough that there wasn't much of a delay between when I finished the 4th book and when the most recent book was released. Without giving much away, I think that there were both good thins and bad things. I really loved the battle scenes from the forth novel and missed those in this most recent installment. However I was also very pleased at how Mr. Martin developed quests in the most recent installment. I'm hopeful that the next book will combine the two in the ways that the first three books of the series did, since that was very effective.

That being said, Martin is a better writer than when he started the series all those years ago (and how in the heck did I not know about them, the prolific reader that I am?!). His prose is so much more than a guilty pleasure. I am not ashamed to say that I made excuses to read it - I hid in the bathroom, I read in bed, I read while watching the kids in the bathtub. Martin's prose was so rich and deft that once I started reading, it was almost as if yo were imposing on me when yo interrupted me. The way that he develops his plotlines is also priceless.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wild by Cheryl Strayed


Cheryl Strayed went through a very tough time in her life in the mid 90's. She lost her mother to a very fast moving cancer, cheated on her husband and then divorced him. She moved from waitress job to waitress job, hoping that something would appear or she would get a big break. At times she was both promiscuous and an illegal drug imbiber, exposing herself to diseases that in her prior life, she may not have. In the midst of these struggles, Ms. Strayed decides that in order to exorcise her demons, she must hike the Pacific Coast Trail from the Southernmost tip of California to Canada for a grand total of 1100 miles.

This is a memoir that encapsulates a trek through beautiful countryside as well as a meditation on loss. Strayed describes her emotional and mental landscape as thoroughly as she describes the landscape that she is hiking through - she doesn't spare any discussions of the losses that she has endured. What disappointed me a little bit was that Ms. Strayed didn't hike the entire trail. A good bit of it was snowed in so she ended up hiking only bits in California and then all of Washington. What I loved was that Cheryl was able to dig herself out of the horribly dark place that she was in by hiking this intense bit of trail. And I was so impressed that she was able to put her experiences, her bad points and her struggles out there for all of us voyeurs to partake in and she did it well. The result of her walk was hamburger feet and physical pain; however it was also self - improvement and the ability to know that she can get beyond anything.

There were definite moments that I was frustrated by this book - I couldn't believe that Ms. Strayed hiked for so long and couldn't figure out how to care for her feet (which, when you're hiking like this, are the most important parts of your body!). I felt so badly for Cheryl's ex-husband, who was hurt so badly by Cheryl and who couldn't figure out how to help Cheryl grieve. I was frustrated that Cheryl left him for a man that exposed her to a dangerous and illegal drug culture. On the other hand, I loved her voice and seeing her struggle with those same issues and succeed. All in all this was a tremendous book and memoir - one that all should read.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver


I had never heard about Lionel Shriver before, ironically, seeing the movie adaptation of this novel (starring Tilda Swinton who I think, may have won an award for her portrayal of Kevin's mother). I was shocked to learn that she was born in 1957 and is 22 years older than me mostly because the pictures that I see of her show her when she's younger and because she handled the material in this novel so adroitly.

This novel was published initially in 2003 and tells the story of a fictional school massacre from the perspective of the killer's mother - Eva Khachadourian. The story is told in the first person through letters that Eva has written to her husband, Franklin, and which seem to come every week or so. In the letters, Eva deals with everything from her relationship with Franklin both before and after Kevin is born and she struggles with adjusting to life after this has happened, which is difficult because she lives in the town that this happened in.

What made this novel so interesting to me was the tension between innate characteristics and personal experiences in determining character and behavior - the old nature vs. nurture. Eva, in having Kevin, was particularly ambivalent about maternity and motherhood in general. She had a tremendous career and owned her own company - which was hugely successful. She didn't bond with Kevin at all and in fact, pretty much hated every minute that she had to spend with him. She worries that this influenced him negatively and caused him to become a sociopath that ruined the community and his family. THis was the theme that spoke most strongly to me although the rationalization theme was also pretty powerful. We in the US, sheltered as we have been, are now being exposed to things like 9-11 and the Boston Marathon bombings in recent years that we really weren't exposed to before and are constantly asking "Why?" as if the reason could help us to deal with atrocities that happen. This was a strong theme that Eva has to deal with and I'm not sure that she gets a good answer because Kevin essentially tells her that he did it to feed our lust for drama and excitement.

All in all, a really good read and I can't wait to read Ms. Shriver's newest novel.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Columbine by David Cullen


What an awful choice of books in the current time and circumstances; however, in my own defense, I chose to read this book earlier this month - and finished it way before the Boston Marathon bombings but I never got around to reviewing it until now. And quite frankly, I always have had this morbid curiosity as to what drives people that were seemingly normal to do such horrendously awful things. That was the motivation that I had in picking up this book (and why I ahve been obsessed with the Boston Marathon case since it happened). This book is a comprehensive examination of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado and follows two story lines very closely.

What I loved about this book is how much of it took me by surprise. We all believed and thought that they were targeting specific people; however that isn't what happened. The two boys were shooting at random that day. They didn't have targets at all! Well, I take it back - the school and the community were the targets as this was a miserably failed attempt at domestic terrorism. There were bombs planted by the boys that didn't go off. THis book also is wonderful. It is a work of media criticism and the book is well written. I think that the weakest part of the book is channeling Eric HArris - the author simply can't do it effectively or well and it falls short - and this is why I think most people read a book like this. All in all though a good book.

Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti

Many know Jessica Valenti as the founder of Feministing , a feminist blog and website.  However, she's also a successful author. This b...