New bookcase for home

March 9, 2015

modern bookcase I have been buying ebooks almost exclusively for the past few years, but I still have a bunch of physical books leftover from my school days that I’m not ready to part with. They’re basically just shoved in a closet right now, which is obviously not a permanent solution. That’s why I’m currently looking for a cool bookcase for my living room or office.

I really like modern styles, and think this website has great selection of the kind of bookcases I’m interested in. Buying isn’t something that’s high on my list of priorities right at this moment, but maybe after my tax refund comes in I can give these another look.

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Abandoned books

March 8, 2015

I hate abandoning books. The ones I’ve left unfinished in my lifetime can counted on two hands and still bother me to this day. In fact, several times a year I dedicate myself to pushing through a book or two that I had previously abandoned. Sometimes the perseverance pays off (Portrait of a Lady, Gulliver’s Travels); sometimes it does not (Middlemarch).

So this post is serving as a reminder to myself of the books I need to revisit in the very near future:

  • The Wealth of Nations
  • The Crying of Lot 49
  • The Pursuit of Love (Mitford)
  • The Executioner’s Song (ugh, the mere thought of this one…)
  • Money by Martin Amis

I want to finish at least two of these before the year ends!

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The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

March 7, 2015

silent wife Plot summary (from the publisher): Jodi and Todd are at a bad place in their marriage. Much is at stake, including the affluent life they lead in their beautiful waterfront condo in Chicago, as she, the killer, and he, the victim, rush haplessly toward the main event. He is a committed cheater. She lives and breathes denial. He exists in dual worlds. She likes to settle scores. He decides to play for keeps. She has nothing left to lose. Told in alternating voices, The Silent Wife is about a marriage in the throes of dissolution, a couple headed for catastrophe, concessions that can’t be made, and promises that won’t be kept. Expertly plotted and reminiscent of Gone Girl and These Things Hidden, The Silent Wife ensnares the reader from page one and does not let go.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I was looking forward to a modern take on the whole “woman scorned” trope (none of the usual fainting fits and smashed perfume atomizers typical of Victorian lit), especially since this time the wife of 20 years was a common law wife. The premise was interesting, but unfortunately, the author never delivered.

Disliked:

  • Jodi’s transcribed therapy sessions were pure torture to read. I get that the author wanted to provide some psychological basis for Jodi’s later actions, but the method she chose was just so boring! And to have the result be sexual abuse at the hands of an older brother? How…trite.
  • I thought the ending was utterly ridiculous. Sure, Todd was an asshole, but are we to believe that TWO people (ordinary citizens at that, no criminal/mob ties at all) ordered a hit on him AT THE SAME TIME and for THE SAME DAY? And that the execution (no pun intended) of the crime would be so similar that the cops could plausibly pin the deed on Natasha’s father rather than Jodi? Riiiiiight.
  • There were absolutely no likable or sympathetic characters in this book at all. These people were all despicable in one way or another, which made reading about them neither enjoyable nor instructive.

Rating:

The marketing team for The Silent Wife did a good job of playing this up as another Gone Girl. This comparison is what piqued my interest in it in the first place. But this was NOTHING like Gone Girl, which at least had enough suspense to keep me turning the pages. The only reason I kept turning the pages of The Silent Wife is that I wanted the damn thing to end. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

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Basic Kindle just $59

March 7, 2015

Amazon is celebrating National Reading Month by offering their basic Kindle (WiFi, with offers) for only $59! I know it’s just the barebones model, but that is still an amazing deal. I remember when the first gen Kindle came out and was an astronomical $499. I waited until the price dropped to $359 before buying it. And now it’s just $59? Awesome!!

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The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

March 6, 2015

the-antagonist Plot summary (from the publisher): A piercing epistolary novel, The Antagonist explores, with wit and compassion, how the impressions of others shape, pervert, and flummox both our perceptions of ourselves and our very nature.

Gordon Rankin Jr., aka “Rank,” thinks of himself as “King Midas in reverse”—and indeed misfortune seems to follow him at every turn. Against his will and his nature, he has long been considered—given his enormous size and strength—a goon and enforcer by his classmates, by his hockey coaches, and, not least, by his “tiny, angry” father. He gamely lives up to their expectations, until a vicious twist of fate forces him to flee underground. Now pushing forty, he discovers that an old, trusted friend from his college days has published a novel that borrows freely from the traumatic events of Rank’s own life. Outraged by this betrayal and feeling cruelly misrepresented, he bashes out his own version of his story in a barrage of e-mails to the novelist that range from funny to furious to heartbreaking.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Some of the emails were quite funny. The author clearly has a good ear for humor, and I admit I laughed out loud several times while listening to this audiobook.
  • The reader of the audiobook was one of the better ones I’ve heard in a while. He really brought the Rank character to life and read with just the right inflections. I also liked that he was from Canada (or else used some deliberately Canadian pronunciation for words like “out”, “about”, etc.). That was a nice touch given that the story was set in the Great White North rather than, say, Greensboro NC or somewhere closer to home.

Disliked:

  • The story takes way too long to unfold. This wasn’t even a long book, but it felt like it took forever for Rank to get to the point and reveal that he had caused an accidental death while trying to break up a potential bar fight. I mean, there were plenty of clues so the “reveal” wasn’t exactly dramatic. Why, then, wait so long to present it?
  • I wanted to learn more about Adam’s book and what set Rank off in the first place. The only thing readers ever learn is that Adam wrote a character loosely based on Rank, but gave the character some worse traits. That set Rank off on his epistolary rant. But what were the details of Adam’s book? That probably would have been more interesting than half the stuff with Rank’s father.
  • The epistolary form wasn’t really necessary here. All it did was to further distance the reader from the action — which was a mistake since Rank was already talking about stuff that happened 20 years ago. So this double removal from the main events just made everything come across as hazy and unclear.
  • The predictable swipes at our Facebook culture were neither original nor relevant. Again, I felt Rant’s Facebook adventures were an unnecessary drag on the plot that just served to forestall the end.

Rating:

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady had a few bright spots, particularly with the writing style and some of the humor, but suffers from poor pacing and a plot that lacks real depth. While I wouldn’t be opposed to reading something else from this author, I didn’t find this book to be that good. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

March 4, 2015

the-remains-of-the-day Plot summary (from the publisher): At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive, during which he looks back over his career to reassure himself that he has served humanity by serving “a great gentleman.” But lurking in his memory are doubts about the true nature of Lord Darlington’s “greatness” and graver doubts about his own faith in the man he served.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Regret is the most devasting emotion one can feel at the end of a long life, and poor Stevens had this in spades. I enjoyed how Ishiguro framed the story, unraveling it a bit at a time until we — and Stevens — come to realize that his biggest mistake was letting Ms. Kenton go. For someone who exerted so much effort in trying to do exactly the right thing, this was such a terrible epiphany.
  • So much of the book was understated and muted, just as one might expect from a gentleman’s butler. I liked that the reader was left alone to absorb Stevens’ thoughts instead of constantly being steered to certain reactions by the author.
  • Stevens’ musings on bantering and wit were funny, and I liked the way he forced himself to strive to become more adept at the practice.
  • The scenes with a younger Stevens and Ms. Kenton interacting and sometimes clashing in Lord Darlington’s service were very enjoyable. Ms. Kenton was full of brio, yet also extremely competent at her job, which made her a perfect match for Stevens. Why couldn’t he see that?!
  • The part where Stevens drops Ms. Kenton at the bus stop, after their two-hour meeting was positively heartbreaking. She revealed that she wasn’t unhappy with her husband, wasn’t thinking of leaving him, and wasn’t planning to return to work at Darlington Hall. but, she admits, she did used to wonder what might have been if Stevens had spoken up and made a move for her way back when. She is crying, and later, when a stranger on the bus bench offers a handkerchief to Stevens, we realize that he is crying too. And to top things off, Day 5 of Stevens’ motoring trip is not recorded in his travelogue. Good god, there’s that regret again.
  • Ishiguro’s prose is wonderfully engaging in this book. I don’t know if this is a fair comparison, but I’ll make it anyway since these are the only two Japanese authors I’ve read more than once: I think Ishiguro is far, FAR superior to Haruki Murakami and don’t understand why Murakami gets all the buzz.

Disliked:

  • Not much actually happens in this book, and some of Stevens’ reminiscences (especially about his father) tended to drag along quite slowly. I don’t mind character-driven novels, but felt this one included some very boring stuff.

Rating:

It’s always a risky enterprise for me to read books that have won numerous awards because of the high expectations automatically attached to them. But The Remains of the Day was well-deserving of every bit of praise it has received. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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Teach Yourself Guitar

February 15, 2015

teach self guitar I was looking around for some cheap Gifts for Guitarists today (since my little cousin’s birthday is coming up), and I saw this book called Teach Yourself Guitar. It’s on sale for only $3.99 and has a 4.5-star average rating from nearly 300 reviews. That’s pretty good, if you ask me!

The problem is, I’m not quite sure where my cousin is with his guitar skills. I don’t know if this book would be helpful to him or is far too basic. Oh, well — guess there’s only one real way to find out!

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Back to Kindle Unlimited

February 15, 2015

Well, after bowing out of Kindle Unlimited once my free trial expired, I find that I’ve signed up again. This time, I have no special offers, so I’ll be paying for at least one month of membership.

The reason I’m back? I’m just so damn tired of listening to utterly crappy Librivox recordings! Look, I know the Librivox readers are volunteers and are generously donating their time, etc. etc. I get it. But that doesn’t mean I have to pretend all of the stuff they put out there is of even mediocre quality. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve abandoned due to horrible readers. Ugh.

So, yeah. Kindle Unlimited it is. I figure if I read/listen to at least 5 books a month from there, I’ll be getting my money’s worth.

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Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder

February 14, 2015

pain parties work Summary (from the publisher): Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder is a compelling look at a young Sylvia Plath and the life-changing month that would lay the groundwork for her seminal novel, The Bell Jar.

In May of 1953, a twenty-one-year-old Plath arrived in New York City, the guest editor of Mademoiselle’s annual College Issue. She lived at the Barbizon Hotel, attended the ballet, went to a Yankee game, and danced at the West Side Tennis Club. She was supposed to be having the time of her life. But what would follow was, in Plath’s words, twenty-six days of pain, parties, and work, that ultimately changed the course of her life.

Thoughtful and illuminating, featuring line drawings and black-and-white photographs, Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 offers well-researched insights as it introduces us to Sylvia Plath—before she became one of the greatest and most influential poets of the twentieth century.

Liked:

  • It was very interesting to see Plath portrayed as a young woman with a lust for life, which she clearly was. Other biographies and profiles tend to focus on the darkness and speculate about the causes leading to Plath’s suicide, which of course is a valid approach as well. But I appreciated that Winder took a different tack here.
  • Hearing directly from Plath’s fellow editors from that summer was very cool, as firsthand accounts tend to be. Again, the overwhelming opinion from Plath’s peers was that she was just like the rest of them (though clearly more talented even then) without a hint of the darkness that was to come.
  • I loved reading about scenes and people that would appear later in The Bell Jar. It’s always fascinating for me to see how writers transform their real-world experiences into fiction, and it was fun to see some of Plath’s episodes (notably the clothes out the hotel window scene) make it intact from life to the page.

Disliked:

  • There was a bit too much description of fashion, makeup, Mademoiselle magazine content, etc. for my taste. I mean, I’m all for details and authenticity, but the author occasionally went on for pages and pages describing various dresses, lipstick shades, hairstyles, photo captions, and articles that were either not directly related to Plath or only tangentially so. Yeah, tell us about her internship, but don’t describe in excruciating detail how she had to pick up medicine for her cold or what she wore to a birthday party on April 4.
  • Plath apparently did not keep a journal during her time in New York. Most of the Sylvia quotes used in this book are from journal entries that predate (sometimes by years) or post-date her sojourn in NYC. This is not the fault of the author, but one of the book descriptions I read was a bit misleading in how Plath’s journals were used.

Rating:

Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder is a very quick, mostly compelling look at how Sylvia Plath lived, worked, and loved in the formative summer of 1953. Some of the information was familiar to me thanks to The Bell Jar and other writings, but much of it was new, making this a good choice for any Plath fan. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

February 5, 2015

one summer bryson Summary (from the publisher): The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed in Le Bourget airfield near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, the titanically talented Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record, which would culminate on September 30 with his sixtieth blast, one of the most resonant and durable records in sports history. In between those dates a Queens housewife named Ruth Snyder and her corset-salesman lover garroted her husband, leading to a murder trial that became a huge tabloid sensation. Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole in Newark, New Jersey, for twelve days—a new record. The American South was clobbered by unprecedented rain and by flooding of the Mississippi basin, a great human disaster, the relief efforts for which were guided by the uncannily able and insufferably pompous Herbert Hoover. Calvin Coolidge interrupted an already leisurely presidency for an even more relaxing three-month vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The gangster Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through a gaudy and murderous reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. The four most powerful central bankers on earth met in secret session on a Long Island estate and made a fateful decision that virtually guaranteed a future crash and depression.

All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927, and Bill Bryson captures its outsized personalities, exciting events, and occasional just plain weirdness with his trademark vividness, eye for telling detail, and delicious humor. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.

Liked:

  • I never would have singled out the summer of 1927 as a particularly stellar one in American history (aside from Lindbergh, of course), so it was fascinating for me to read everything that was going on (and there was quite a lot). Give Bryson some credit for recognizing that so many big events were happening simultaneous and for presenting them in an understandable way.
  • I had no idea that Herbert Hoover was such a jack of all trades. I’ve never read in-depth about the man, so my only impressions of him stem from the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression (Hoovervilles, etc.). And though Hoover did have his faults, he seems like he was quite intelligent and actually very accomplished. I now want to read a biography about him!
  • Speaking of presidents, the stuff about Coolidge was pretty funny in a WTF kind of way. Again, I just had a very simplistic image of silent, stodgy Cal in my mind. So to read about him dressing up in cowboy garb because he thought he looked good in it or a full Indian headdress for some ceremony or other had me laughing out loud.
  • The stuff about Babe Ruth was probably the most interesting to me. That guy knew how to live it up, didn’t he?!

Disliked:

  • This book got off to an extremely slow start. The opening chapter(s) about aviation were very boring to me, especially since Bryson talked about events that predated 1927 (which went against the very premise of the book). None of the names meant anything to me until he got to Lindbergh, and by then my patience had just about worn through.
  • There seemed to be far less of the trademark Bryson humor in this book than in his other work. Although I did smile or even chuckle now and then at a droll turn of phrase, it didn’t happen nearly as often as usual.
  • Besides the dull opening about aviation, a few of the other topics were boring, too. For example, the Sacco and Vincenzi stuff was a bit odd. It seemed that whenever Bryson’s narrative turned to those two, he tried to paint them as wrongly convicted and unjustly executed. But then in the end, he was like, “Oh, most modern scholars think they probably did it!” Alrighty then.

Rating:

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson was a mixed bag for me. The subjects that piqued my interest did so to the point that I want to pursue them further, but the boring stuff made me want to chuck the book aside for extended periods. The unevenness of the narrative plus the overall lack of humor made this a less than stellar Bryson book for me. But a mediocre Bryson still tops many other authors out there, so I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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