Book Reviews: April 2018

Four books in April! I managed to keep my reviews shorter, minus Hillbilly Elegy. I got a little rant-y on that one.

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  • American Kingpin by Nick Bilton

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical coming-of-age story. As a child, Angelou lived with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, except for when she was with her mother in St. Louis or San Francisco.

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Before reading this I had only heard a few of Angelou's poems here and there, so I didn't know much about her life or writing style. As soon as I started reading, though, I realized it was going to be a good one. Usually when I love a book I can go on and on about it, but every now and then I read one that's just so perfect I feel inadequate to add anything else to what's already been said. This book is one of the latter.

One thing that struck me was the way she depicted her rape. Yes, it was graphic and horrifying to read, but more than that, Angelou did an excellent job of showing the confusion she felt as a child. She was lonely, unsure what was happening to her, and afraid to be honest. It was heartbreaking, and I just wanted to hug her.

There were dark moments but plenty of humorous ones, too, all made more powerful by Angelou's skill as a poet. But enough trying to do justice to this, just read it!

A few lines I liked:

“She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy.”

“The air was weighted and thick. A bigger house had been set on our roof and was imperceptibly pushing us into the ground.”

“The trip to the kitchen and back could not have taken more than two minutes, yet in that time I tramped through swampy cemeteries, climbed over dusty gravestones and eluded litters of night-black cats.”

Rating: 5 of 5 stars


 

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

Hillbilly Elegy, an honest appraisal of author JD Vance’s family history, touches on tough subjects such as drug abuse, absentee parents, and "making it" when the odds seemed stacked against you. 

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I have very mixed feelings on this book, so this is going to be a long rant. I was expecting more social commentary, less memoir. While I absolutely see grains of truth in some of what Vance said, I’ve managed to boil down my discomfort with this book to three points:

  1. Hillbilly Elegy has been heralded for a couple years now as a way to understand Trump supporters. Nope. Wrong. This is just one guy talking about his very messed up family. I don’t think the marketing was necessarily Vance’s fault, but it’s misleading and the only reason people are talking about it is because this guy “made it” and went to Yale law after serving as a Marine. (To be clear, I do respect him for all he accomplished.) Just be aware that Trump is not even mentioned in this.
  2. Hillbilly Elegy does not speak for all of America's white working class, both in political opinions and in life experience. Not all white people in the South are drug addicts. 
  3. Vance pretends racism isn’t really an issue.

I’m not going to get into politics much, but just to be transparent - there is nothing I like or respect about Trump. But again, this book doesn't mention him, so the rest of my review won't either. 

Vance spent the majority of this book giving the reader his family history, and he didn't hesitate to get right into the dirty details. One old story was about a family feud in which a relative of his killed someone else and got away with it. The story made it into the New York Times, so guess what? “When I first read this gruesome story in one of the country’s most circulated newspapers, I felt one emotion above the rest: pride.” Um, WHAT? Vance was PROUD that his family made it into a paper for murder?

Another thing that completely baffled me was how Vance repeatedly excused his family’s terrible behavior. (Mamaw in particular.) The best example was a story Vance told about Mamaw, Papaw, and their oldest son, Vance’s Uncle Jimmy. Once at a store, the clerk asked young Uncle Jimmy not to play with a toy - a reasonable request, since the item was for sale and Uncle Jimmy was a young child all alone. Store employees are not babysitters. When Mamaw and Papaw finally showed up and learned that their kid wasn’t allowed to play with the merchandise, what did Papaw do? He smashed the toy. They both started throwing items around the store. Papaw threatened the employee: “If you say another word to my son, I will break your fucking neck.” Then, because this was the 70’s or something, he walked out with zero consequences. THESE PEOPLE WERE THE SANE ONES IN VANCE’S LIFE! Vance later said, “Normal middle-class parents don’t wreck pharmacies because a store clerk is mildly rude to their child…. That’s what Scots-Irish Appalachians do when people mess with your kid.”

Listen. I AM (partially) Scots-Irish Appalachian and I have never had an urge to do such a thing and I don’t have a single family member who would do this. Can I think of a handful of people from my hometown who act this way? Yes. Trashy people are everywhere. But the vast majority of people from my hometown, high school, childhood church, etc. would be embarrassed beyond belief to throw such a hissy fit as an adult.

Mamaw had other issues. Once, Vance mentioned that she was a hoarder. Another time, after telling her husband not to come home drunk or she’d kill him, this happened: “Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it to his chest.” And apparently this was how Mamaw communicated: “Stop being a lazy piece of shit.” “You have shit for brains.” “You’re too stupid for the Marines/You’re too smart for the Marines.” Again - she's the sane, reliable adult in the family. 

Vance also had plenty of issues with his mother, who was a drug addict and had a constantly rotating line of men in her house. In some chapters Vance would say all the men weren’t that bad, then he’d say “I wanted these goddamned strangers to stay the fuck out.” Sadly, it came across like he still had issues with it even as an adult. I feel for him there. I’m sure that was hard to live with and Mamaw, definitely to her credit, always had her door open ready to give him a place to stay.

Overall, Vance was very honest about his family’s issues. I respect that. I’m sure it was difficult to write all of this down, and the problems he brought up are very real issues in society (particularly the drug abuse). That being said, he clearly avoided certain subjects, such as racism. He tried to gloss over the racism against Obama by saying the people in his area thought that Obama was too good. As in, his redneck, hillbilly, white family thought that Obama was too good a father, too educated, his suits were too nice, etc. And for that reason, they didn’t like “his wife” telling the hillbillies how to eat healthier. (It irritated me so much that Vance did not say Michelle, or First Lady, but “his wife” instead.) Sure, I can believe that some people were intimidated by Obama’s success. But Vance refused to complete the thought. These hillbillies were intimidated by this success...in a black man. I have heard, with my own two ears, a white man admit, “I hate Obama because he’s black."

For the record, I am not related to this person and yes, I did get furious and say something back to him. It was long ago and I was so mad I actually couldn’t see anything for a second and I don’t remember what I said. I haven’t seen that person in years but VANCE, DO NOT FUCKING TELL ME THAT RACISM ISN’T A PROBLEM. You are lying to yourself. He even admitted he had a cousin whose family stopped talking to her when she had a half-black child.

Okay, enough ranting. One final quote:

“I took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel. In my youth, it was the height of fine dining-my grandma’s and my’s favorite restaurant. [To my] Yale friend’s, it was a greasy public health crisis.”

I’ve got Vance’s back on this one. Cracker Barrel is the bomb. I could eat those biscuits all day.

I truly hope this book was therapeutic for Vance to write, but I don't think it needs to be held up as some great social commentary when in reality, it barely skims the surface. Read simply for another human's life story. 

Rating: 2 of 5 stars

 

 

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

College professor Jason Dessen is happy with his life. He loves his job, wife, and son. One night, he's kidnapped and knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he realizes that everyone around him knows him as Jason - but nothing about this world is the same as his own. 

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Dark Matter was more "thriller" and less "science fiction." To be fair to all the detailed sci-fi out there, the science itself was pretty mediocre. After a few vague, Physics-101-type explanations, the book became strictly focused on Jason's attempt to restore his life. For that reason (and because of the constant paragraph breaks, yikes) this wasn't a five star book. 

This would be great for an afternoon beach read, though. For a whole day after I read it, I was thinking things like - What would have happened if I'd gone to a different college? What if I didn't take the class where I met my husband? What if I moved somewhere other than DC? I have no hesitation in recommending Dark Matter as something easy and fun.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars (4 on Goodreads)

 

 

American Kingpin by Nick Bilton

American Kingpin is the real life story of Ross Ulbricht, a programmer who started the Silk Road - an anonymous online forum where users could purchase drugs, weapons, and even human body parts. 

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American Kingpin was for my book club, so this probably wasn’t one I would have ever picked up on my own. I had a vague notion that the Silk Road had something to do with drugs and the internet, but honestly that was as far as my knowledge went. The details about the case were really interesting; I specifically liked the parts about each Federal office’s investigation and how they were really able to build a case against Ulbricht when they all worked together.

The reason I only rated this three stars was because of the writing style. There were just so many useless details, like the weather when Ulbricht went camping various times with friends. Or constantly repeating over and over that Ulbricht was a libertarian. And melodramatic warnings that “Little did he know, [this dramatic event] would soon happen and change his life!!!!!” It jumped back and forth from non-fiction into an attempted narrative style too often for me to really get invested.

Again, the case itself was interesting. There are plenty of podcasts and documentaries out there on Ulbricht and the Silk Road, though, so if you’re really interested in this case one of those might work for you just as much as this book.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Reviews: March 2018

I read 4 books in March! Ready Player One and the Thrawn trilogy. 

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Decades into the future, a financially and physically devastated Earth has become obsessed with the 1980’s. The founder of the world wide OASIS, a virtual reality where every person spends their free time, is hosting a contest based on clues from his 80’s childhood. Wade Watts finds the first clue and is thrust into the spotlight with a giant target on his back as others want to use him to win the contest.

Note: This was written prior to watching the movie and reading other reviews. I liked the movie more.

I didn’t hate this book enough to quit reading but I didn’t love it nearly as much as I expected.

The reason I kept turning the page was because I liked the idea of the OASIS, even if I wouldn’t have cared about Halliday’s contest in real life. I’d have been using the OASIS to visit Coruscant, Tatooine, Middle Earth, the Cosmere...you get the point. I also really loved the game where you could act out your favorite movies. Sign me up for that!

Now I have to rant. I had two main issues with this book: crap writing and lack of an audience.

The writing in this book was terrible. I tried to be forgiving as I’m pretty sure it’s Cline’s first novel, but it got worse as it went on so by the end I wasn’t feeling very gracious. Wade was a cliche gamer Mary Sue - overweight, virgin, obsessed with the most beautiful girl (who, of course, was a talented gamer), and the best in the world at his video game of choice. No part of the contest was that difficult for him; the only time he didn’t dominate was when he was sitting around feeling sorry for himself. At no point was I worried about the outcome, because everything was so incredibly obvious. AND I HAVE NEVER READ A BOOK WITH SO MANY INFORMATION DUMPS. DEAR. GOD.

Cliches aside, the writing itself was...bleh. For example, on page 450 in one five sentence paragraph, all of this happened: “I now had access to…” “I was now logged in as…” “I was now able to create…” “I had access to…”  Did Cline even have an editor?

Secondly, I could never really tell who the audience was supposed to be. It was barely written at a YA level, but I’m 27 and didn’t know half of the 80’s references. I’m not sure how someone younger than me is supposed to care. Unless perhaps they’re an old-school video game nerd? But how can that be so when 15-year-olds these days don’t even know what MySpace is? The people who actually grew up in the 80’s and could understand these references don’t seem to be the ones reading and reviewing this book, so I’m not sure if they’re the target or not.

Don’t mind me - if you love video games and can turn a blind eye to bad writing, this will be a fun read for you.

(Also: My copy of the book says “Harry Potter for grown-ups” on the back. That is utter bullshit, and a heresy. This is nothing like Harry Potter.)

(One final note: The two Japanese characters were awkward cliches. FYI, Ernest Cline - seppuku and suicide are NOT the same thing.)

Rating: 2 of 5 stars


 

The Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

Five years after Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance has become the New Republic and is focused on rebuilding the galaxy while eliminating any final threats from the Empire. The last of the Empire’s Grand Admirals, Thrawn, has a plan to bring the Empire back to its full power. As Thrawn’s attack gains attention from the New Republic, Han, Leia, and Luke are drawn into the action. They have to find a way to stop Thrawn from unleashing new warships, a second Clone Wars, and unhinged Dark Jedi upon the galaxy.

I’m reviewing the books of the Thrawn trilogy together...to be honest, after reading all three of them back to back they kinda blended together. The writing in each one was exactly the same - nothing special with lots of dialogue while the characters quickly jumped from space battle to space battle. 

I’ve seen Thrawn recommended as THE Star Wars book to read. And while I enjoyed it and thought the action and events fit in the Star Wars universe, I wasn’t obsessed with it. I can see why it was big in the 90’s though, years before the prequels ever came out and there weren't multiple new movies on the horizon. And even though Disney cheerfully dumped this into a trash can labeled “Legends”* in 2012, the events in this book don’t contradict Star Wars canon (until VII) in a major way.

*(There are fanboys out there that are bitter that Disney didn’t borrow from the EU for episodes 7-9. Just to be clear, I am not one of them. I’m completely for Disney creating new SW stories for us.)

So, it’s a fun read. People who love Star Wars passionately like myself will enjoy it, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the casual fans. There’s just so much Star Wars literature out there, fans new to the books might as well focus on canon.

Thrawn was a great villain. Sometimes I wanted to see his thought process more, and I definitely needed more of his background. (I'll be reading the newer novel for that.) I didn't doubt that he was a genius, but often things came too easily to him and it made me feel like he could've been developed more.

The thing I loved most was seeing Leia work on her Force abilities even as she continued her job as a politician. The Leia/Noghri storyline was my favorite, by far. I didn’t care all that much about the lost ships, or clones, or the struggling Empire. But I was invested in Leia and her relationship with the Noghri from the beginning, it just seemed like a very Leia-y thing to happen. Han, Luke, Lando, and all of the other original characters didn't really grow much, but I did come to like a few of the newer characters by the end. (Karrde was a better character than Mara, fight me about it. Her backstory was wayyyy too glossed over and I kept expecting more from her.)

Star Wars diehards can't go wrong with this trilogy, but I don't really see a casual fan making it past the first book. 

Heir to the Empire (#1): 3 of 5 stars

Dark Force Rising (#2): 3.5 of 5 stars (3 on Goodreads)

The Last Command (#3): 3.5 of 5 stars (4 on Goodreads)

Book Reviews: February 2018

February was another slow reading month - just two books!

 

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

When thirteen-year-old Theo Decker’s mother is killed in a shocking accident, he finds himself alone in the world and searching for a family. As he mourns his mother, he keeps her memories close through an obsession with a particular work of art. The older he gets, the more his life revolves around the dark side of art collecting until he has to face his choices head on.

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The Goldfinch is long. As in, almost 800 pages long. Could the same story have been told in about 500 pages? Yep. Am I mad about it? Nah. Usually, length for the sake of length irritates me in a novel, but not in this one. Tartt’s writing is a beauty to behold in many passages (see below) and her characters felt painfully real to me, so I forgave her the lack of brevity. 

Skilled as Tartt is, I couldn’t give this one a full 5 stars because some parts were redundant. Specifically all the parts about Theo doing drugs, both as a teen and an adult. It got a little old to read about him being drunk and high for the umpteenth time, though I thought she did a great job of tying Theo’s childhood trauma with his poor adult choices. I think that's the thing that really blew me away with this novel: everything Theo did or said revolved around one event that shaped his entire life. He was consumed by artwork without being crazy, although his tendency to toy with death did cause him problems in the end. 

Pulitzer level writing aside, my favorite parts of the book were adult Boris, Hobie's generosity, and young nerdy Andy. Anyone looking to get lost in something grand won't go wrong with The Goldfinch

Some lines that I marked while reading...

Page 93: “But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illumined in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.” (Ugh. Beautiful.)

Page 395: “By contrast Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded back-water, far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world.”

Page 411: “after dragging Popchik around the block, where he darted to and fro and screamed in terror…” (Just a line about walking the dog that made me laugh out loud.)

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Published in 1929, A Room of One's Own argues that women need a fixed income and a place to be alone before they can truly express their creativity. 

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I picked this one up off my shelves because it’s short, just over 100 pages. I should’ve been able to get through it in one or two sittings, but it took me SIXTEEN DAYS to find the motivation to get through it. SIXTEEN!

I really don’t know why it took that long; I think I just wasn’t in the right mood for non-fiction. I could’ve also used a few more paragraph breaks, my eyes tend to glaze over when I see a paragraph that takes up an entire page. However, I liked Woolf’s writing and the points she made really put the timeline of feminism in perspective.

My favorite parts about this essay were when Woolf talked about the struggles of classic female authors  - Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Shakespeare's hypothetical sister. It's easy to think "I'm sure those women had a hard time writing!" without stopping to think about the times they lived in and how they'd just recently won the right to vote. Woolf scattered in plenty of details about women's daily lives for context, though I got the impression that the women she talked about were already fairly well off anyway. (Correct me if I'm wrong, history experts.)

If I ever find myself in the mood for feminist non-fiction in the future I'd probably re-rate this higher, but for now I have to be honest and say I just didn't totally love it. It read more like a quick historical anecdote to me than a call to feminist arms. But I guess that makes sense, since it's 90 years old. 

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Reviews: January 2018

I mentioned this on Instagram already - I’m changing up my book blogs slightly for the foreseeable future. Instead of an individual post for each book, I’m going to do a monthly roundup. I’ve already been doing this a little the past couple months (grouping book club reads and celebrity memoirs, for example) because all the reviews take up a lot of time. I have some other things I’m trying to focus on right now and I don’t want reading to become a chore. I’ll still be saying something about each book, just with shorter reviews and less frequent posts! If anything this will help me be consistent with posting, since there’s just one a month.

In January 2018 I read only two books, mainly because I basically hibernate in winter and I did a loooooot more Nexflix/HBO-ing than normal. (The Office. Harry Potter. That’s all.)

No spoilers below!

 

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a collection of stories inspired by traditional Norse myths. Gaiman sticks close to the source material in a novel-ish format, culminating with an epic prediction of the world’s end.

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I know exactly zero things about Norse mythology, and close to zero things about every other kind of mythology. I enjoyed this, though. The myths were told in a classic style with sentences like, "Tyr found one-handed, but he fought bravely, and he slew his share of giants that day." So even if Gaiman took some creative liberties it still felt like I was reading mythology. This made me look forward to reading more of his work.

My favorite story was The Children of Loki - I really liked the Fenris Wolf stories - and Loki ended up being my favorite character. Tyr was a close second. I pictured Thor and Loki in my head as Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston...not sure if that's because I've watched the Marvel movies too many times or if those actors are just right for their roles.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

I have never done this on a review, but I need to add a trigger warning. TW - This book contains graphic and shocking violence against women, rape, and torture scenes. If you don’t like reading violence, this is not for you.

In Pretty Girls, sisters Claire and Lydia have been estranged for decades, ever since their sister disappeared. When Claire’s husband is shockingly murdered, the two reconnect and realize they might uncover the truth about both crimes.

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I thought this book was going to be a sort of Gone Girl or Girl on the Train type thriller, but with a different vibe since the main characters were sisters. I was not at all prepared for the graphic, violent scenes. There were so many descriptions of the violence I just started to skim those parts a bit as they were making me queasy and were just plain horrific. Honestly, if I had known it had such content I wouldn't have picked it up. I can handle the occasional murder mystery just fine, but this went beyond that. And the official book summary would never lead you to suspect it!!

Slaughter did a great job of pacing this novel; the book was long but it never felt redundant. There wasn't just one dramatic scene at the end but four or five parts when I was really anxious to find out what happened next. (Mostly because I wanted to see the bad/evil/heinous guy get what he so deserved.) Between the two sisters, I thought Lydia was more relatable - and her family was cute - but I liked their relationship dynamic overall. 

My husband was glad (and I was too) when I finished reading this because he could tell it was bumming me out. Still, I’m rating it higher because Slaughter is a great, suspenseful storyteller.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars