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Book Review: Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone

October 3, 2014 Leave a comment

Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? by Mark Zwonitzer is not just the story of the Original Carter Family or the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle. It’s the story of bluegrass and hillbilly music, of the Great Depression and before, of how country music was shaped and influenced by three seemingly inconsequential people from Maces Spring, VA. They could have just been country musicians who never left Poor Valley, but instead they chose to spread their music far and wide and ended up influencing so many people from Chet Atkins to Hank Williams to obviously Johnny Cash.

Before reading this book, I didn’t know much about the history of country music. For me, it was just something that had always been around for me and my dad to listen to as we drove along. On one of our many road trips, we drove down to Bristol, VA and actually went to The Carter Family Fold to listen to the music that still gets played there. My dad had read about the Carter family, but I had pretty much zero frame of reference for the performance; the only thing that really stuck with me is that Johnny Cash had married into the family and who doesn’t like Johnny Cash?

For Christmas that year, he gave me a copy of Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? with the express instructions that I give it to him so he could read it when I was finished. I want to say that this happened within the past five years, but now that I think about it…um…I’m not 100% sure of that. It’s not that I didn’t want to read it, but that I have so many unread books that…

No, let’s not make excuses. I didn’t read it because it takes a very special nonfiction book to get me interested. Even after I started this one, it still took me over six months to get through 397 pages. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting, but I found myself reading a chapter and then, once that chapter was done, not reading another chapter for days at a time (it probably also didn’t help that I read the first book of The Stormlight Archive somewhere in there).

I’m glad I did read it, though. I feel better for it, even though I spent the whole book waiting to see where Johnny Cash shows up and he ends up appearing somewhere in the last three chapters. There’s so much history out there in the things we take for granted. It’s amazing how far country and bluegrass have gone. It went from this to this to this in just under 100 years.

And now I’ve got to get this book into the mail to my dad.

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars

March 24, 2014 Leave a comment

I realize that “reviewing” a book that’s spent over a year on the NY Times Best Seller List is like throwing a salt shaker into the ocean and feeling like you’ve made a difference in its overall salinity, but bear with me because I’ve had a realization.

Here’s what the inside flap of my copy says:

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

“Aw, hell no,” you’re thinking. “Not a book about kids with cancer.” And it is.

I knew going into it that it was going to mess me up, making me miserable and happy at the same time. It did, but probably not in the way you think. Obviously a book about anyone having cancer is going to be heartbreaking because unless you find the book in the section of the bookstore titled “Romance,” there is not going to be some kind of miracle cure–someone is going to die. That’s how cancer generally works and especially how it works in books because every book needs a conflict. Cancer wouldn’t be a good conflict if it was cured in the first chapter and the rest of the book was three hundred pages of being in remission (though if someone wants to write that book and make it interesting, by all means).

What I wasn’t prepared for, despite loving the vlogbrothers, was for it to be written so heartbreakingly beautifully. There are books that I read and think “Oh, I could have written this.” There are books that I read and think, “Wow, this is really good.”

And there are books that I read and think, “Why did I ever think that I might possibly be a writer someday? I should just give up because I could never do something this awesome.”

I mean that in the literal sense of the word awesome and not in the “Awesome Hot Dogs, Only $2.99” sense of the word.

Which isn’t to say that I’m actually going to give up, exactly. Just that I will probably never be as smart or as articulate as John Green. I’ll settle for half, though.

2013 Book List

January 29, 2014 Leave a comment

1. Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley
2. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World by Bryan Lee O’Malley
3. Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness by Bryan Lee O’Malley
4. Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together by Bryan Lee O’Malley
5. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the Universe by Bryan Lee O’Malley
6. Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O’Malley
7. Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems by David Rakoff
8. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
9. Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World by Vicki Leon
10. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
11. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders By VincentBugliosi
12. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
13. The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family by Dan Savage
14. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
15. The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier
16. Darth Plagueis by James Luceno
17. First Light by Rebecca Stead
18. Brave New Worlds edited by John Joseph Adams
19. The Paradise Snare by A.C. Crispin
20. The Hutt Gambit by A.C. Crispin
21. Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood
22. The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson
23. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner
24. Rebel Dawn by A.C. Crispin
25. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
26. I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman
27. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
28. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
29. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
30. American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics by Dan Savage
31. Children of the Sea, Volume 1 by Daisuke Igarashi
32. Star Wars: Tag & Bink Were Here by Kevin Rubio
33. A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
34. The Shining by Stephen King
35. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Book Review: The Book Thief

September 17, 2013 2 comments

I love starting a book I know almost nothing about. There’s a delicious sort of anticipation as the story unfolds because I have no idea which way it’s going to twist and turn. Every page is a new surprise. My boss recommended The Book Thief to me because she had watched the trailer for the movie that’s being made. It’s one of her most beloved books, so she was worried because the trailer starts being narrated by the young girl protagonist, Leisel Meminger, and not Death like the book is. I hadn’t read the book, so I couldn’t totally commiserate, but I could empathize because when they finally made The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into a movie, I had the same fears.

So, the sum of my knowledge about the book going into it was comprised of two points: a) The narrator is the embodiment of Death and b) the protagonist is a little girl. I didn’t even read the back of the book.

As I read, I was given a new picture of Nazi Germany–one where a street of poor people are trying to get along as best they can despite the war around them. The book opens with Leisel’s mother taking her two children, nine-year-old Leisel and her six-year-old brother, to an orphanage so they can be fostered with someone who can take care of them. The little boy is sick and dies before they reach Munich…he is buried without much ceremony at one of the stations on the way. As they are leaving the graveside, Leisel notices that one of the gravediggers has dropped a book–The Grave Digger’s Handbook–which is the first book she steals to earn her title as the book thief.

Ultimately, she is fostered with the Hubermanns, Rosa and Hans. Rosa is a surly and foulmouthed laundress; her husband is a gentle man who paints houses and plays the accordion. Leisel starts school, but the teachers quickly realize that she can’t read, so she gets pushed back to Kindergarten. Meanwhile, she has been waking up with horrible nightmares about her brother’s death. Thus begins the early morning lessons by Hans (who states himself that he’s not a very good reader in the first place) on how to read. He paints the walls of the basement so that they can write on them what words Liesel doesn’t know so they can learn them together.

But the book is less about her learning to read and more about the power of words.

Which is probably why I liked it so much.

My parents constantly read to me as a child. It got to the point where the only way my mom could get any housework done was if she sat me down with a book-on-tape that came with the book and made a special noise when to turn the page…which is something I can’t seem to find the current version of at the toy store, but I digress. One of my happiest memories is of my dad reading me The Great Mouse Detective which, now that I think about it, probably contributed to my love of Sherlock Holmes.

Digression over with, suffice it to say that this is a word book. Each word is chosen for exactly what it means. Definitions are given when necessary. Language and its power are given prominence.

And then there’s the one who collects them–the book thief.

Book Review: The Geography of Bliss (via Eat Pray Love)

August 28, 2013 Leave a comment

A few years ago, a coworker of mine handed me a copy of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and said to me, “Oh, you’re just going to love this!” I assume she thought that because she had loved it and it has Italy in it. For some reason, people assume that if something is slightly Italy-related that I’m already an expert on it or that it will automatically titillate my senses.

Unfortunately, when I handed the book back to my coworker a few weeks later, the best I could do was say, “Well, she is a good writer” and luckily, that was enough to pacify her.

Let me see if I can explain what I found so repulsive…the book starts off with Gilbert having gone through some sort of existential crisis that involves her crying on the floor of her bathroom while her mean, awful husband sleeps the Sleep of the Ages in the next room, blissfully unaware that his soon-to-be-ex-wife is miserably huddled in a ball, her face pressed against cool tile. Her life is one big pile of suck and it is all his fault, so she insists upon a divorce and ends up giving him EVERYTHING just so she can escape the marriage. She moves in with her sister, then gets an idea to go travelling for a year–to Italy, India and Indonesia–in order to rediscover and reground herself.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “But Amadei, you just said that she gave her ex everything. How will she ever afford to spend a year not working?”

Easy peasy, she’s going to use the money she got as an advance for writing a book about her journey to self-discovery.

Record scratch.

And that’s the short story of how she lost me less than a chapter into the book. I could no longer suspend my disbelief. The entire book felt disingenuous. How could she take money for a book about her own personal discovery without having first had the discovery? What if she had gone on this yearlong trip and learned absolutely nothing about herself?

I spent the entire time wondering, “Did she really learn anything about herself or did she just write the book she thought people would want to read?”

Why am I bringing up Eat Pray Love now after reading it so many moons ago? Because, as I was going through the books on my wishlist, seeing which ones I could get from the library, I came across The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. I just finished it and it kinda reminded me of Eat Pray Love in the way that seeing a ball of yarn might remind you of a scarf, but actually having the scarf is so much better than just having a ball of yarn (unless you’re a knitter in which case you make a scarf out of the yarn, so you get to have your cake and eat it too and I’m digressing again, aren’t I?).

For one thing, Weiner doesn’t go on a vision quest to find his own happiness, though that is part of what prompts his journey. He knows he’s a grump. He knows he’s generally sad and dissatisfied. He’s not looking to change that, exactly, but maybe to discover why he’s that way…if he happens to find that answer as he goes along.

He started by looking at different places and what makes the people in those places happy (or unhappy in the case of Moldova). At the start, he went to Rotterdam where the World Database of Happiness (no, really) exists. He interviewed the scientist responsible for the WDH and spent some time examining the results, smoking a little Moroccan hash, and deciding that even though the Dutch are very happy, but it’s not the type of happiness for him.

From there he examines happiness in Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, and India before finally coming back to America, all the time trying to examine what those places have in common.

What I liked best about it is that he didn’t have any overarching epiphany about how he should live his life to be happier. Ultimately, he decides that there are no concrete rules to what makes people happy:

Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.

To venture any further, though, is to enter treacherous waters. (322)

So he asks a happiness researcher (again: no, really; that’s someone’s job) for an explanation and is told that there’s more than one way to be happy. “Of course,” writes Weiner and you can almost imagine him smacking his forehead. “How could I have missed it? Tolstoy turned on his head. All miserable countries are alike; happy ones are happy in their own ways” (322).

Because there was no pressure to have an epiphany, the whole exercise in searching for happiness felt more genuine. He researched happiness. He didn’t necessarily get the answer he wanted, but he did figure out a small part of it–that it really does depend on the path that you chose, one of the many to happiness or one of the many to sadness.

As for me, my huge takeaway was to skip over Italy, India, and Indonesia and head to Iceland, cold but happy.

Book Review: The Humanity Project

August 19, 2013 Leave a comment

I’m going to be uncharacteristically brief to start this review: I didn’t like The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson.

Which really bothers me because the person who suggested it normally gives good recommendations AND the premise of the book was really intriguing. From the blurb on the book, I thought the book was about a girl who moved halfway across the country to live with her estranged father and a rich old woman started The Humanity Project to answer the question, “Can you pay people to be good?”

What I got was an attempt by Thompson to interweave a bunch of characters together and not succeed particularly well. I also never got an answer to the question, so the entire novel felt like Thompson took a premise, then tried to write about it, but never got around to actually dissecting the problem itself–some of the characters literally stage a conference to discuss the question as a way to avoid actually trying to answer it.

A conference. What could be more boring than a conference? Well, I’m about to get spoiler-tastic after the jump, so you might find out.

Read more…

Book Review: Glory Be

August 5, 2013 Leave a comment

After I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, I wrote a strange sort of not-review of the book to try and help myself understand what was going on with people’s reactions to it. It’s a time and place in history that, as a white Yankee, I have little experience with–almost every history class I took in high school got us from Columbus landing to just after the Civil War then petered out fantastically as the weather started to turn hot. I think Junior year might have actually made it to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but…yeah…not a lot of focus.

Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood was recommended to me by a friend along with a stack of others, so I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about. Once I started reading it, however, I realized that it’s a spiritual little sister of The Help–it deals with the same type of prejudice in the same kind of small town in Mississippi–but it’s for kids.

The protagonist is eleven-almost-twelve-year-old Gloriana June Hemphill (known as Glory) who is eagerly awaiting her birthday party that she always has at the Hanging Moss, MS community pool. Unfortunately for her, it’s the summer of 1964 and racist members of the community have decided that it’s better that they close the pool than have the African-American side of the town be able to use it. She befriends a Yankee girl from Ohio named Laura Lampert who has moved to town with her mother who is starting a Freedom Clinic so that the African-American people of the town can have medical care they can afford.

Ultimately, Glory writes a scathing letter to the town newspaper about why she thinks the pool shouldn’t be closed. Everyone keeps telling her that it’s closed because there are cracks in the pool that need to be fixed.

Unfortunately for Scattergood, I don’t believe that Glory could have written the letter she wrote. I mean that from a completely literary standpoint, though. Throughout the book, Glory seemed to me to not really understand what was going on–why her BFF Frankie’s dad wanted the pool closed; why Laura’s mom was helping to open the clinic; why her family’s maid, Emma, would tense up when Glory would press her about why the pool was closed; why the librarian was taking a stand by not taking seats out of the library.

She seemed so focused on insisting that there were no cracks in the pool or holes in the fence that when I actually got to the letter and it specifically said, “The people in this town dumb enough to agree to shut down a pool to keep Negroes out–and lying about it by saying it’s the pool that needs fixing–they are the fools who can’t see,” I was a little flabbergasted. It seemed completely out of character. For half the book, she seemed like a naive eleven-year-old who couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t try to just get along, then wham, blindsided by a Letter to the Editor.

At least after that, she seemed a little less naive.

It was an interesting read and I can imagine that it would be a good introduction to children about what the Civil Rights movement was all about. NPR just had it as their Backseat Book Club pick in July, so if you want to hear a better summary than then one I gave as well as some input from the author, I highly suggest giving this a listen.

My only other nagging question I have about the book is…well…if her birthday is July 4th, why is her middle name June?