Listening to Audiobooks

July 14, 2014

I find that the busier I get, the more I turn to audiobooks instead of paperbacks or e-books. Obviously, hands-free listening has its advantages, particularly when it comes to commuting or exercising.

But the problem is that I hate the standard earbuds that come with Apple products. They don’t fit well and are thus very uncomfortable for me. So now I’m looking for the lowest price, highest quality headphones I can find. I figure if I spend a bit of money to make my listening experience better, then I’ll benefit in the long run.

Off for more research now!

0

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

July 4, 2014

7 habits covey Summary (from the publisher): In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey presents a holistic, integrated, principle-centered approach for solving personal and professional problems. With penetrating insights and pointed anecdotes, Covey reveals a step-by-step pathway for living with fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity — principles that give us the security to adapt to change and the wisdom and power to take advantage of the opportunities that change creates.

Reaction:

This has been on my To Read list for such a long time, because as far as self-help books go, 7 Habits is one that almost everyone is familiar with. I was looking forward to gleaning lots of useful info out of Covey’s work, but was somewhat disappointed with the result. All of his advice seemed to stem more from common sense than any exclusive insight, so I had to wonder what was the point.

He gives each of the 7 habits a descriptive name, such as “Sharpen the Saw” or “Synergize,” but these actually just mean “take care of yourself” (e.g. exercise, study, etc.) and “teamwork.” In fact, the other habits can similarly be distilled to more familiar concepts like time management, prioritizing, and listening. Well, yeah, no kidding that’s how to be more effective!

To Covey’s credit, he doesn’t claim to have invented or discovered these habits. Instead, he says that he just put them together into a plan aimed at helping people lead more productive lives. Still, I sort of wonder what all the hullabaloo was about.

Rating:

I guess maybe the fact that I’m reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People 25 years after its initial publication might have something to do with my perception of Covey’s habits. They seem so commonplace and ingrained that I have a hard time figuring out what new things I’m supposed to take from the book. To me, there was nothing groundbreaking here; however, if you’ve never had any exposure to efficiency training or time-management skills before, this might do you some good. I give the book 3 stars out of 5.

0

Zoo by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

June 17, 2014

zoo Plot summary (from the publisher): All over the world, brutal attacks are crippling entire cities. Jackson Oz, a young biologist, watches the escalating events with an increasing sense of dread. When he witnesses a coordinated lion ambush in Africa, the enormity of the violence to come becomes terrifyingly clear.

With the help of ecologist Chloe Tousignant, Oz races to warn world leaders before it’s too late. The attacks are growing in ferocity, cunning, and planning, and soon there will be no place left for humans to hide.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The book started off well enough, with the idea of a widespread animal uprising against humans. That premise could have made for an excellent thriller — in the hands of different authors.

Disliked:

  • The plot went from intriguing to extremely ridiculous very quickly. Even when hand-waving the pseudoscience away for the sake of fiction, there was just too much else that couldn’t be overlooked, from Oz and his “nympho” girlfriend to the dumb scenes of animal attacks all over the world to the unbelievable “solution” and eventual non-conclusion.
  • I couldn’t stand the various scenes of animals suddenly turning on and attacking humans. While a couple of well chosen and well written ones could have added to the plot, the sheer number of them (and the way they were never referred to again after the initial description) told me that they were included simply for the sake of padding the page count to satisfy publisher demands.
  • Don’t even get me started on Oz and Chloe. Gag. Me.
  • The writing was heavy-handed and terrible, complete with eye-rolling dialogue throughout. And no, Mr. Ledwidge, describing the dawn as “rosy-fingered” (a la Homer) does not elevate your prose at all.
  • If the animals were going batshit crazy due to cell phone signals and petroleum use (or whatever the stupid reasons given in the book), why were the effects being seen in remote places like Africa and Siberia??? Wouldn’t the preponderance of events be confined to big cities where cell phones and petroleum abound?
  • Even assuming for a moment that the “science” were true and that the whole world agreed to the U.S. president’s recommendation to cease all cell phone/power/gasoline usage for two weeks, is it possible that the calming effects on the animals would be so immediate? I mean, come on! It was like flipping a switch. One minute they’re murdering and maiming people, and the next they’re as docile as ever? Yeah, okay.

Rating:

Honestly, I keep saying that I should know better than to read James Patterson + [insert hired hack's name here] books, and yet this is precisely what I keep doing. Why do I insist on torturing myself so? Probably because my damn library only ever has these audiobooks in stock and available for immediate checkout (wonder why). Zoo was probably one of the worst books I’ve EVER read — and we’re talking about a lifetime of reading that encompasses thousands of titles. I give this one 0 stars out of 5.

0

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

June 13, 2014

Purple Sage Plot summary with spoilers (from Wikipedia): Riders of the Purple Sage tells the story of Jane Withersteen and her battle to overcome her persecution by members of her polygamous Mormon Church, a leader of which, Elder Tull, wants to marry her. Withersteen is supported by a number of Gentile friends, including Bern Venters and Lassiter, a famous gunman and killer of Mormons. Throughout most of the novel she struggles with her “blindness” in seeing the evil nature of her church and its leaders, trying to keep both Venters and Lassiter from killing her adversaries, who are slowly ruining her. Through the adoption of a child, Fay, she abandons her false beliefs and discovers her true love.

A second plot strand tells of Venters and his escape to the wilderness with a girl named Bess, “the rustler’s girl,” whom he has accidentally shot. While caring for her, Venters falls in love with the girl, and together they escape to the East, while Lassiter, Fay, and Jane, pursued by both Mormons and rustlers, escape into a paradise-like valley by toppling a giant balancing rock, forever closing off the only way in or out.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • This was a very fast read with a story that didn’t get overly bogged down with unnecessary detours. Grey stuck with the two predominant plot lines without much digression.
  • The characterization was straightforward almost to the point of being simplistic. With the possible exception of Lassiter, the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad. Sure, Venters veered into the gray area when he shot Bess’ father, but he had a “good” reason for doing so.

Disliked:

  • All the hidden/mistaken identities got to be a bit difficult to follow, as the explanation was convoluted by the protestations and misunderstandings of the characters. I’m still not sure I’ve got the answers straight. Bess was Lassiter’s niece and Jane’s half-sister? Was Fay a blood relation to them?
  • The foreshadowing was rather heavy-handed in this book. As soon as the author described the boulder that could effectively block all ingress and egress to the canyon, I knew someone was going to get shut up in there. I just figured it would be Bess and Bern, rather than Lassiter, Fay, and Jane.
  • The chase scene on horses went on for too long, especially as it involved a secondary character that had barely been mentioned up to that point. If more had been made of Jerry Card’s riding exploits, then the scene might have been more appreciated. As it was, it felt like filler.

Rating:

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey is often referred to as a classic western. I don’t know if that’s just because it’s old or if people actually think this is a quality story. I thought it was just okay, and worth reading — especially as it’s offered as a free Kindle download at Amazon and on Project Gutenberg. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

0

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

June 5, 2014

willa-cather-the-song-of-the-lark-001 Plot summary (from the publisher): The Song of the Lark is the self-portrait of an artist in the making. The story revolves around an ambitious young girl, Thea, who leaves home to go to the big city to fulfill her dream of becoming a famous opera star. Along the way, her realization of the mediocrity of her peers propels her to greater levels of accomplishment, but in the course of her ascent she must discard those relationships which no longer serve her.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I am almost always intrigued by stories of success, so there were some aspects of this novel that appealed to me. I liked that Thea was able to rise above her small-town beginnings to achieve that “$1,000-a-night” status that her aunt bragged about so much. Thea’s road wasn’t easy and she definitely deserves some credit for staying the course.
  • Cather does a good job of showing how many people are behind the success of one great artist. If Thea didn’t have timely financial help at exactly the right moments on her journey, she would have ended up teaching piano lessons in Moonstone for her whole life.
  • I loved that Thea and Fred were driven into a cave together by a ferocious storm. This scene totally reminded me of the exact same situation with Aeneas and Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. That had to be the inspiration, right??
  • I liked how Cather showed various folks from Moonstone popping up in New York to see Thea perform. That seemed like a totally natural reaction, as people everywhere are always willing to cheer on one of their own.

Disliked:

  • I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea that all of Thea’s financial help came from men who were in love with her. She wasn’t that beautiful or even personable, so I found the idea of Ray Kennedy, Dr. Archie, and Fred all coming to her aid to be a bit of a stretch. Then again, what were the alternatives back in those days? It’s not as though she could have gotten a bank loan on her own or anything!
  • The chronology of events wasn’t always laid out in a linear fashion, which served to confuse me on a couple of occasions. For example, when Dr. Archie and Thea were talking about how Thea failed to make it back to Moonstone after her mother died, I had to thumb back through several chapters to see if I had somehow missed that episode. But no, it was explained in detail only later in the book.
  • Thea wasn’t particularly remarkable or interesting to me. The only thing that set her apart from run-of-the-mill folks was her singing voice, and that’s obviously not something that can come through on the printed page. Other than singing, she was dull and even sort of ungrateful to some of the folks that had helped her.

Rating:

Having enjoyed some of Cather’s other works, I’d hoped for similar success with The Song of the Lark. But although this book does have its merits, I found the protagonist uninteresting and the story a bit too long for my tastes. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

0

A Death in the Family by James Agee

May 31, 2014

death in the family Plot summary (from the publisher): Published in 1957, two years after its author?s death at the age of forty-five, A Death in the Family remains a near-perfect work of art, an autobiographical novel that contains one of the most evocative depictions of loss and grief ever written. As Jay Follet hurries back to his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, he is killed in a car accident–a tragedy that destroys not only a life, but also the domestic happiness and contentment of a young family. A novel of great courage, lyric force, and powerful emotion, A Death in the Family is a masterpiece of American literature.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • This was such a wonderfully written book that it was a joy to read (despite the subject matter). Agee’s prose is often lyrical, giving the reader a chance to truly revel in the language. This is certainly a book I intend to read again.
  • The portrayal of the family’s reaction to Jay’s death was so raw and realistic as to be utterly captivating. I especially liked Rufus’ reaction: he wanted to go outside so other kids could see him and he could be the center of attention for once. That was just so perfect for a 6-year-old.
  • All through the book, I wondered how much was true and how much was embellished (since I know the story is autobiographical). I guess it’s a testament to Agee’s skill that I couldn’t detect where reality ended and fiction began.

Disliked:

  • Well, clearly this is nobody’s fault, but I’m saddened by the fact that this book was assembled and published posthumously. As such, we’ll never the know the exact order in which Agee intended the scenes to unfold. Again, not anybody’s fault–but a disappointment nonetheless.
  • Some parts of the book were rather dull and plodding, which, for all I know, Agee might have revised/polished had he lived long enough to finish the work to his satisfaction.

Rating:

A Death in the Family by James Agee is a well-written and realistic–yet unfinished–portrait of how family members react to the sudden death of Jay Follet. It’s easy to get caught up in the author’s language and style, making this a mostly enjoyable read. I give this book 4 stars out of 5.

0

A Prayer for Owen Meany

May 25, 2014

a-prayer-for-owen-meany Plot summary (from the publisher): In the summer of 1953, two eleven-year-old boys—best friends—are playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy’s mother. The boy who hits the ball doesn’t believe in accidents; Owen Meany believes he is God’s instrument. What happens to Owen, after that 1953 foul ball, is extraordinary and terrifying.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • John Irving prides himself on writing amazing first sentences, and considers the opening of Owen Meany to be one of his best. I have to agree: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he was the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Wow.
  • It was great that Owen’s dialogue, diary entries, and newsletter articles were presented in ALL CAPS. Was all caps considered “shouting” in typewriter days as it is now on the Internet? If not, can Irving be considered the pioneer of the concept?
  • I really enjoyed reading about Owen and John’s friendship. They seemed like such complete opposites, but their friendship ended up being full of genuine love and mutual respect.
  • Dan Needham and his relationship with John was wonderful, too. I’m glad Dan and John stayed together, even after John’s mother’s death, and I loved that John considered Dan to be his father — even after learning about Reverend Merrill.
  • I liked that Owen was kind of a mystical figure. I actually don’t quite know what to make of him, whether he was truly an instrument of God or not (though I lean towards “yes” because he foretold the exact date of his death). Either way, he believed it and acted accordingly, which made him sort of noble and tragic all at the same time.

Disliked:

  • This novel was way too long and had too many dull patches along the way. In particular, I didn’t like any of the “present day” stuff with John moping around Canada railing against the Reagan administration. That stuff could have been completely excised without affecting the main storyline at all.
  • I thought Owen’s death scene was a bit underwhelming. I knew the dead soldier’s crazy brother would be the instrument of death as soon as he was introduced, so that wasn’t a surprise to me. Still, I was hoping the buildup to the event would pay off in spectacular fashion — but that’s not what happened. The only surprising thing about the death was that Owen and John used the move perfected from all that time practicing “The Shot”. I had no idea that would actually come into play!
  • Speaking of no payoff, what did it matter that Reverend Merrill turned out to be John’s father? Unless I missed something, that little nugget had no impact on the story at all.
  • Simon and Noah kind of went nowhere as characters. I was expecting a lot more from them since Irving spent so much time describing them early in the novel. But only Hester got any real attention as the story progressed, which made me wonder why I had to sit through all the stuff with the cousins in the first place.

Rating:

I’ve read a few John Irving novels, so I’m fairly used to his writing style, quirky characters, and unbelievable happenings. And even though I wanted to love A Prayer for Owen Meany because of all the praise it has earned since publication in 1989, I can’t muster up anything more than lukewarm feelings to the book. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

0

Missing You by Harlan Coben

May 22, 2014

harlan coben Plot summary (from the publisher): It’s a profile, like all the others on the online dating site. But as NYPD Detective Kat Donovan focuses on the accompanying picture, she feels her whole world explode, as emotions she’s ignored for decades come crashing down on her. Staring back at her is her ex-fiancé Jeff, the man who shattered her heart—and who she hasn’t seen in 18 years.

Kat feels a spark, wondering if this might be the moment when past tragedies recede and a new world opens up to her. But when she reaches out to the man in the profile, her reawakened hope quickly darkens into suspicion and then terror as an unspeakable conspiracy comes to light, in which monsters prey upon the most vulnerable.

As the body count mounts and Kat’s hope for a second chance with Jeff grows more and more elusive, she is consumed by an investigation that challenges her feelings about everyone she ever loved—her former fiancé, her mother, and even her father, whose cruel murder so long ago has never been fully explained. With lives on the line, including her own, Kat must venture deeper into the darkness than she ever has before, and discover if she has the strength to survive what she finds there.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I thought Kat Donovan was a decent protagonist. Sure, the “hard-drinking cop” thing has been done before, but at least she had some redeeming qualities (like not being right 100% o the time, which is a personal pet peeve of mine when it comes to thrillers). Put it this way: I’d read a procedural featuring Donovan any day.
  • The identity theft storyline was actually fairly interesting and was the one that kept me turning the pages. I wanted to learn more about the scam and go into more depth regarding Titus’ motivations (could he really have abducted/killed nearly 30 people just for money???). Unfortunately, this being Coben, one major plot line was not enough.
  • There were several mentions of Win, erstwhile enforcer for Myron Bolitar, in this book. Too bad it sounds like the guy has gone off the deep end and is now a “Howard Hughes-like recluse.”

Disliked:

  • What is with Coben and the “long-lost love” theme? This crops up in sooo many of his books that I wonder if he has Nicholas Sparks-like intentions of dominating the romance genre. Good grief, the fact that Kat couldn’t get over Jeff in 18 years wasn’t romantic. It was pathetic and completely unrealistic. Everything that had to do with these two and their twu wuv was stomach-churning.
  • So Jeff high-tailed it because he accidentally shot Kat’s father and couldn’t deal with the guilt? Yeah, okay. So much for their wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime relationship with a soulmate to whom you can tell everything.
  • The Aqua character was over-the-top and annoying. Ditto the too-perfect Stacie character. It’s as though Coben put zero thought into these secondary players and instead relied on stereotypes.
  • How fantastic that everything happened to work out at the end! Everyone was saved! Jeff and Kat have a future together! Kat and Stagger and Chaz made up and will be able to work together after all! Hooray!
  • The violence in this book was a bit graphic at times and seemed inserted just for the shock value. I guess that’s what sells these days.

Rating:

While some of Harlan Coben’s standalone novels are thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining, I wouldn’t count Missing You among that number. Maybe it’s just that his formula is becoming stale or maybe I’ve just read too many similar books to be able to appreciate the genre like I should. Whatever the cause, I thought this one was subpar. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

0

Light in August by William Faulkner

May 16, 2014

light in august Plot summary (from the publisher): Light in August, a novel about hopeful perseverance in the face of mortality, features some of Faulkner’s most memorable characters: guileless, dauntless Lena Grove, in search of the father of her unborn child; Reverend Gail Hightower, who is plagued by visions of Confederate horsemen; and Joe Christmas, a desperate, enigmatic drifter consumed by his mixed ancestry.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • This is one of the more accessible Faulkner books available. The plot is mostly understandable, as are the characters and their motivations.
  • I was utterly captivated by Lena Grove and her relentless search for Lucas Burch. She tracked him down ON FOOT from Alabama to Mississippi, which speaks to her sheer determination. And her naiveté, I guess, since she seemed to want to believe the best of him until the end.
  • Byron Bunch was so pathetic, but I ended up liking him anyway. Love makes you do crazy things, so he must truly have been in love with Lena to do so much for her despite her circumstances.
  • Joe Christmas was intriguing, too. I didn’t like him or dislike him; I managed to stay neutral throughout the book. He was probably supposed to inspire some stronger feeling one way or the other, but I could take him or leave him. (I certainly could have done without the castration scene though!) I’m listing him here with the “Likes” because his story took up so much of the book and didn’t put me off it, which counts as a like by default.

Disliked:

  • I did not like anything having to do with Gail Hightower. I thought his flashbacks and family history were boring, and I couldn’t figure out how those things tied into the main plot.

Rating:

As I wrote above, Light in August is one of Faulkner’s more accessible books and serves as a great introduction to his work. Neither Lena Grove nor Joe Christmas or their separate fates will soon be forgotten. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

0

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

May 10, 2014

the book thief Plot summary (from the publisher): It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I thought Liesel’s relationship with Max was awesome. The way she brought him the snow in the cellar (to have a snowball fight and build a snowman) and the little gifts she gathered for him during his illness are touches of character that I shall not soon forget.
  • Come to think of it, this book was filled with memorable scenes like the ones I just named. For example, painting words on the wall while learning to read, Rosa Hubermann coming to the school and pretending to scold Liesel out in the hallway so she could reveal that Max had woken up, Rudy Steiner’s death (along with finally getting his kiss, albeit too late) were all just fantastic.
  • I’m glad that Liesel ended up living a long, happy life and becoming a famous author before Death finally caught up to her, especially since he had been “tracking” her and those around her for so long.

Disliked:

  • Books about this particular period in German (and world) history are just far too depressing for my tastes. Obviously there’s no way to put a happy face on what happened; I’m just stating a personal preference in literature.
  • Some parts of this book were boring (and even a bit repetitive). For instance, the sections that covered Hans Hubermann’s time in the army were boring, while the stuff about Rudy and Liesel’s thievery, while entertaining at first, soon started to feel rather repetitive.

Rating:

I read The Book Thief based entirely on its reputation as an “amazing” story and a runaway bestseller. While I found that it lived up to the hype in several places, I had mixed feelings on the work as a whole. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

0