Archive for the '2005 Book Challenge' Category

The Panic-Free Pregnancy by Michael S. Broder

Saturday, October 22nd, 2005

#82 in my book challenge for the year, The Panic-Free Pregnancy, was recommended to me by a food critic, because it debunks common pregnancy myths such as “don’t eat sushi.” (Why? Sushi may cause food poisoning, but not listeria, the only kind of food poisoning that can cross the placenta. Ditto for rare meat.) The book is divided into sections of pre-, during, and post-pregnancy. I found it most effective in the “during” sections for things like what drugs are safe. The author, a doctor and researcher, debunks many commonly held beliefs such as avoiding ibuprofen entirely, and avoiding cold medicines. One of the most interesting factoids he attacks is the “8 glasses of water a day” rule. According to him, there is absolutely no study or test to back this up. It was put out as a nutritional guideline at one point, and people adopted it and now never question it. Instead, he advocates drinking if you’re thirsty. What a concept.

The book is useful, but it’s not world-shaking. Ultimately, much of what he says is common sense, and much of it is able to be found elsewhere. It upholds some of the common advice, such as avoiding deli products, soft cheeses and blue cheeses for listeria. He also is not able to confirm that topical creams that contain retinol are safe, so there are still plenty of common things that are off the list for pregnant women.

This book should be used with caution. A topic can be discussed in a few places, not all of which are listed in the index. For example, in one discussion of listeria that’s not in the index, he recommends avoiding blue cheeses, but not in any other. Additionally, my doctor disagreed with his assertions about ibuprofen. She agreed that it might be used occasionally as needed early in pregnancy, but said that the further on in pregnancy one goes, the more of a detrimental effect it has on the circulation of the developing fetus. Broder’s book is more cavalier than cautious on this point. While this book sells itself as the grain of salt that one should take with the conventional wisdom about what to do or avoid during pregnancy, it should also be used cautiously.

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

Saturday, October 22nd, 2005

#81 in my book challenge for the year is What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. It is well-written, with strong characters and a compelling story. It centers around the friendship between Leo, an art historian, and Bill, an artist, and their loves, their children, and their tragedies. The novel also includes a lot of art history and feminist theory, but these are always used in service of the story. They enhance the understanding of the characters, as well as the reading experience.

Godless by Pete Hautman

Wednesday, October 12th, 2005

#80 in my book challenge for the year, Godless by Pete Hautman is teen fiction and won a National Book Award this year. Hautman is a Minnesotan writer and will be presenting at this Saturday’s Twin Cities Book Fest.

Godless describes Jason Bock, a Minnesotan teen forced by his parents to attend weekly meetings for Catholic teens. Bored during class, Jason decides to invent a god, and he seizes on the local water tower. As he shares his notion with friends and acquaintances, they ask to join his new religion. Difficulties ensue. Jason and his friends are sparely drawn in this short novel, yet they are likeable and believable, and Jason’s crisis of faith rings true. This is a good story, and a good book for any teen or adult who has struggled with the faith in which s/he was raised.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Tuesday, October 11th, 2005

#79 in my book challenge for the year, Hosseini’s book The Kite Runner is a darling of women’s book clubs. Women’s book clubs are often derided as being earnest but not erudite; I felt similarly about this book. I am meanly tempted to do a one-word review: overdetermined. But that would both be unkind and unfair. Hosseini’s book has merit. It is the story of two boys in pre-war Afghanistan. One boy is rich, entitled and longing for his father’s love, the other boy is a persecuted minority, but honest, noble, and the deserving recipient of admiration from both his own father and that of the other boy. (See what I mean about overdetermined? And that’s just the set up.) The rich boy does a Bad Thing, and the relationships are severed, just as war begins to divide the country. The rich boy eventually gets the chance to atone for the Bad Thing. This book works very well as a portrait of pre- and post-war Afghani culture. The central story, though, did not draw me in.

It did remind me, though, to re-read an essay called “Naji’s Taliban Phase” which originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine, and was collected in the 2002 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading. I do recommend both the essay and the collection.

Sweetblood by Pete Hautman

Thursday, October 6th, 2005

#78 in my book challenge for the year, Sweetblood a teen novel about vampires, is a short, satisfying read. Lucinda, or Lucy, is a diabetic high-school student with a theory that the legends of vampires grew from observing untreated diabetics. Lucy dyes her hair black and spends a lot of time thinking about vampires, though she doesn’t identify as a goth. Lucy’s appearance and vampire theory get her in trouble both at home and at school.

Hautman skillfully balances the question of whether vampires are real with the realistic struggles of Lucy with her diabetes and in her relationships. Lucy is a believable teen with a strong voice. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will likely enjoy this book.

Snap by Alison McGhee

Tuesday, October 4th, 2005

#77 in my book challenge for the year, Snap is a children’s novel for grades five to eight, but I found nothing childish about it. McGhee’s usual lovely prose and complex characters were present, as was the town of Sterns in the Adirondack mountains. It is a profound pleasure to visit Sterns in McGhee’s books, even if the stories are so often sad.

Snap is narrated by Edwina, an almost seventh grader who goes by Eddie. She wears rubber bands around her wrist to try and tame bad habits. Her best friend Sally’s grandmother and caretaker, Willie, falls ill, and both Eddie and Sally must try to deal with their sadness. This is a bittersweet, short book that is profoundly respectful of its young readers. It does not pretend that loss and complicated families are any easier than they are.

Invisible by Pete Hautman

Tuesday, October 4th, 2005

#76 in my book challenge for the year, Invisible is a teen-fiction novel by Minnesotan Pete Hautman, who will be appearing at the Twin Cities Book Fest on October 15. Hautman’s previous book, Godless, won the National Book Award. He writes for both adults and teens.

Invisible is narrated by Dougie, and it a spare, disturbing book. Dougie’s spends most of his time working on building a bridge for his model train. His best friend is popular, football-player Andy. From the beginning, I knew that things aren’t right with Dougie. The book is all the more uncomfortable because I could also identify with the “mean” kids in high school who persecuted him. Dougie is so weird that I could easily see why he was picked on. Hautman skillfully tells the story, giving the history of Dougie and Andy’s relationship, and leading to what felt like a difficult but inevitable conclusion. Invisible reminded me of a shorter, less touchy-feely Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but also an American teen-boy version of Muriel Sparks’s The Driver’s Seat. It was powerful, unsettling, and moving.

DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

#75 in my book challenge for the year, this mini-series and its subsequent graphic novel collections are like historical fiction of the DC universe, so a sort of meta-fiction about DC silver-age heroes like Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. This is both a history and a new story, though, so seasoned comic book readers have something new to read for. It is incredibly dense, so much so that I understand, though am annoyed by, the need to put one story into two graphic novels. Cooke’s art is distinctive and well-suited to the type of tale he’s telling. Additionally, each issue is dedicated to the writers/artists who created the heroes of the tale, and it is a skillful tribute. Best of all, for someone like me who does not have an encyclopedic knowledge of comic book history, it unfolds in such a way that new readers can get to know a character before finding out which superhero s/he is, while more experienced readers can have fun identifying who’s who.

Was It Beautiful? by Alison McGhee

Monday, October 3rd, 2005

#74 in my book challenge for the year, Was It Beautiful? by Minnesotan writer Alison McGhee, was, in fact, startlingly beautiful. I put off reading this book for a long time because I was afraid it was too sad. I based this on my readings of her two previous books, Rainlight and Shadow Baby, both of which were wildly lovely and terrifically sad. This one was supposed to be even more sad, and I wasn’t sure I could cope. I should have trusted the writer.

Was It Beautiful? is the story of William T. Jones, a formerly happy man who has lost his son, his wife, and his cat to various forces in a short time. Unsurprisingly, William T. is no longer happy. But how he copes and how his story unfolds is mesmerizing. In the end his suffering, and that of those around him, is redeemed. Crystal, a chararacter from Rainlight, gets an increasingly significant role in this book, and I was pleased that Crystal got her share of redemption as well. McGhee’s characters are so good it’s almost scary. They’re like warm tapestries that I want to draw around me and snuggle into on a cold night.

The Queen of Everything by Deb Caletti

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

#73 in my book challenge for the year was The Queen of Everything. This book had a lot of good things, and a lot of distractions. 17 year old Jordan’s father suddenly starts acting weird when he begins an affair with a married woman. The book foreshadows a lot of what is to come. Jordan isn’t able to talk to her friend, who she doesn’t actually like very much, or her mother, who she dismisses as a hippie. When she tries to talk to her grandfather, bad things ensue. Jordan’s voice is strong, and she is a believable teen, though sometimes quite unlikeable. Her romance with a bad boy is painfully drawn out. Additionally, she often quotes Big Mama, a woman who helped her in the aftermath of the difficulties with her father. Jordan’s relationship with Big Mama, as well as Big Mama’s salmon anecdotes, reminded me unpleasantly of the movie cliche of the “Mystical Negro” who has to explain life lessons to the sheltered white kid. What stood out most, though, was how the nasty situation with Jordan’s father was not dumbed down or glossed over. This book doesn’t talk down to its intended young-adult readers.

Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

#72 in my book challenge for the year, Magic or Madness was recommended to me by Duff at Girlreaction, who sent me this link, noting “This sounds like something you’d like.” Isn’t it wonderful to have other kindred readers looking out for you? I certainly think so, and this book is a great example. I liked it a lot, and thought it a really good young-adult fantasy novel. Reason is a fifteen year old Australian girl who has been on the run with her mother Sarafina all her life. They’ve been running from Sarafina’s mother Esmeralda, who Sarafina claimed was an evil person who pretended magic was real. Now, however, Sarafina has been institutionalized, and Reason has to go live with her grandmother. She soon discovers that magic is real when she opens a door to New York City. She meets two other teens, Tom and Jay-Tee. Separately and together they must determine whether the adults in their life are trying to help them, or help themselves. The writing is strong, the characters are likeable, but the biggest strength of this novel lies in its ambiguity. There are no absolute answers given, so the reader is left to draw her own conclusions, along with Reason. This book clearly paves the way for a sequel, which I look forward to.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

#71 in my book challenge for the year, Never Let Me Go was a recommendation of Michael Schaub at Blog of a Bookslut. I took Schaub’s warning and advice to read the book soon and not to read reviews of it beforehand, since it is a mystery of sorts, some of which is spoiled in reviews. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker prize. In the book, there are gradual unveilings rather than sudden surprises, both for the characters and for the readers. Ishiguro does a wonderful job of ensuring that the reader does not reach conclusions far in advance of the characters. It mainly focuses on the lives of three English school friends, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. It’s hinted at, then made clearer, that this story is science fiction/fantasy. Kathy’s narration is often emotionally distant, but the society that these three inhabit is all about distance and euphemism. The low-level emotions are well suited to the story. This book is beautifully written, with strong characters, a compelling story, and it pulled me through quickly to its end. The sci-fi/fantasy topic it centers on was handled so delicately and believably that it is chilling to think about, long after I have closed the book. There was a young adult novel on the same theme a few years ago that garnered awards and praise that I felt were based more on its challenging topic than on the quality of the book, which I found poorly written. (Follow this link to see, if you don’t mind the spoiler of what the theme is.) Never Let Me Go was a far more fulfilling read and complex examination of the topic, suitable for both adults and older teens.

Tricked by Alex Robinson

Wednesday, September 21st, 2005

#70 in my book challenge for the year, Tricked was a disappointment. It was one of the hyped graphic novels after the San Diego comic convention. I very much enjoyed Robinson’s previous series, Box Office Poison, which has been collected in a lovely edition by Top Shelf Productions. Some of what I liked about BOP was evident here, such as Robinson’s distinctive and iconic art, his snappy dialogue and the characters that are so well developed and true to life that I kept feeling like if I didn’t actually know them, I knew someone just like them. But Tricked fell apart for me under the weight of its central plot. Six characters’ stories are told alternately, until all of them come together near the end for a big occurrence. Few things about Tricked surprised me, and several things annoyed me. One character, an unstable loser who has stopped taking his meds, is supposed to be unlikeable. But he gets so much story and so many pages that he still becomes wearing. The most central character is Ray Beam, a jerk of a former music star who still milks his fame even though he’s been creatively inactive for years. A third is a guy who makes a living forging sports paraphernalia. It’s hard, but not impossible, to pull off a story that centers on an unlikeable character. But to have fully half of the main cast of six be unlikeable made the story often hard to engage with. Further, the other three main characters are all good-hearted women, so the story feels artificially balanced. If you loved Box Office Poison, there is much to like here, but if you haven’t read Robinson’s work before, I recommend starting with BOP before giving Tricked a try.

Other Electricities by Ander Monson

Friday, September 16th, 2005

#69 in my book challenge for the year, Other Electricities was highly recommended both at Blog of a Bookslut and The Lit Blog Co-op. It’s a collection of connected stories, narrated by different characters of a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

He remembered reading fragments of a story from a National Geographic…Most of the story had been lost, but he was able to pick up on the leftover bits…With these points of reference he was able to reconstruct the story to his satisfaction. In a way, it was like reconstructing old fragmented poems, or like translating from one language to another, from a world of hard but sparse facts to a storyscape of soft, fulfulling fictions. P. 142

Taken individually, some of the stories are quite powerful, like the one of the title and “To Reduce Your Likelihood of Murder.” Monson’s stories were defiantly fragmented, and in the end what I wanted was that “storyscape of soft, fulfilling fictions.” What I found instead was a group of well-written, intriguing stories about characters who moved by too quickly for me to develop any deep attachment. The stories, like the town in which they are set, are chilly and harsh. This is not a novel in stories, and it is not a comforting book. But it is a well-written and challenging one, especially for those who love the short story form or experimental fictions.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Thursday, September 15th, 2005

#68 in my book challenge for the year, The Driver’s Seat is a little book that packs a big impact. It’s a single novella of just over 100 pages that follows Lise, a thirty-ish accountant, as she goes on holiday to Naples, Italy. Lise’s behavior grows increasingly erratic. It is clear from the start that something bad will happen; Spark even details what it is. It is how Spark unspools how it happens, and what happens exactly, though, that is what makes this book masterfully suspenseful and a creepy little gem.

The Clouds Above by Jordan Crane

Wednesday, September 14th, 2005

#67 in my book challenge for the year is also Drake’s new favorite book. I’m not sure I can say it’s his first graphic novel, because he has quite enjoyed the Edward Gorey books we’ve read to him, The Doubtful Guest, The Epiplectic Bicycle, and The Gashlycrumb Tinies, the latter at least before G. Grod, being squeamish, “disappeared” it. I found The Clouds Above, which is published by Fantagraphics Books, at the comic book store, and was drawn by the shape, size, cover, paper quality and charming illustrations. The story is the adventure of a boy named Simon and his cat, Jack, who escape school into the clouds above. They encounter clouds both good and bad, a villainous teacher, and some very cranky birds. Drake has requested this book by name almost every day since we brought it home. While long to read aloud, it’s great fun for me, too.

A Changed Man by Francine Prose

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

#66 in my book challenge for the year. I read a recommendation of this book at Blog of a Bookslut. The novel centers on a man named Vincent Nolan, a former neo-nazi skinhead, who shows up at a peace organization run by a Holocaust survivor. The story is told from alternating viewpoints. The characters are rich and complex, their voices are distinct, and the story had a powerful pull. This was an extremely strong, well-written novel. I thought the ending pushed my bounds of belief, but I so liked the characters that I didn’t begrudge it to them.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Thursday, September 8th, 2005

#65 in my book challenge for the year. I was disapponted by this book. Nafisi, a former professor of literature in Iran, discusses the complex melange of books, war and people that she experienced in her teaching years. The book begins and ends with a private reading group she assembles of former female students of hers. A quote by a friend of hers near the end sums up what I felt was a big problem with this memoir:

As he carries in the two mugs of tea I tell him, You know, I feel all my life has been a series of departures. He raises his eyebrows, placing the mugs on the table, and looks at me as if he had expected a prince and all he could see was a frog. Then we both laugh. He says, still standing, You can say this sort of crap in the privacy of these four walls–I am your friend; I shall forgive you–but don’t ever write this in your book. I say, But is is the truth. Lady, he says, we do not need your truths but your fiction–if you’re any good, perhaps you can trickle in some sort of truth, but spare us your real feelings. P. 338

Nafisi’s memoir goes into depth about the books they read, and about the people in her life, but is frustratingly vague about her own self. It as if the narrator is a void, through which she talks about books and other people. I found it a bit unsettling that she spent more time narrating others’ stories than her own. I also found her use of quotation marks inconsistent and difficult to read. But I did appreciate Nafisi’s insights into the novels she and her students read, including Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, and Daisy Miller, and am interested to read or re-read them. This book is a good complement to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis graphic novels, but I preferred those to this. Satrapi is the main character of her narrative, not an insubstantial observer and periodic participant in her own story.

I wonder if some of the popularity of this book comes from readers who crave but did not experience the kind of critical, deep readings of books that Nafisi does with her students.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Wednesday, September 7th, 2005

#64 in my book challenge for the year. As with all the Potter books, an enjoyable, fast read that is darker and more complex than the books that preceded it.

In a wonderful reversal, Harry no longer hesitates about telling people his suspicions, so there is no contrived conflict as there has been in the previous five books. Instead, and much more believably, I think, sometimes people believe him, sometimes they don’t.

Snape’s character is continually called into question. Malfoy is up to something, but no one believes Harry as to what it is. A new professor, Slughorn, is introduced. Dumbledore and Harry are finally communicating and spending time together so Harry can learn about Voldemort. And Harry has a crush on a girl, though apparently, many people think she’s the wrong one. (Which is absurd. Those who think this have not been paying attention. Rowling has been dropping hints about these pairings in every single one of the previous books. Silly readers.) And at the end someone important dies, though Harry finds out that there is someone else out there with the initials R. A. B. who has acted against Voldemort. (I have a theory about who this is, by the way, if anyone wants to email me and discuss nerdishly.)

The next book is set up so that Harry will be leaving Hogwart’s and seeking out Voldemort, supposedly on his own. I thought this was a dark, entertaining story that was a good penultimate novel in a series, provided that Rowling can pull off the ending. She has her shortcomings as a writer–sometimes weak prose and a tendency to go on that is not edited now that she is so famous–but plotting is not generally one of them. I look forward to the next and last book in the series.

The Cute Manifesto by James Kochalka

Tuesday, September 6th, 2005

#63 in my book challenge for the year, published by Alternative Comics. Weird but charming is the best description I find for Kochalka’s work. His books are always odd, but the cute factor of the art combined with the author’s sometimes painfully earnest honesty have found a continual place in my graphic novel collection. This is a wee book, expensive at $19.95, but with a pleasing size and good paper and cover quality. The themes he covers are familiar ones: work with passion, not with craft; fear technology, not nature; embrace love and hope. The middle sections, which focus on 9/11 and the birth of his son, read like extended sections from his Sketchbook Diaries, while the rest focuses on comics criticism and theory. This is not the book to start with if you’ve never read Kochalka (for that I’d recommend Quit Your Job or Fantastic Butterflies), but it’s a worthy, interesting addition if you’re already a fan.