Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: State Of Wonder – Ann Patchett

State Of Wonder – Ann Patchett

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness.

Review: I have so many mixed feelings about this book. At first it was “Meh,” then it was “Oh, that’s interesting,” then it was, “What the hell? Why?”

Dr. Marina Singh works for a company that creates new medications. When two of her coworkers disappear on a research trip to the Amazon Rainforest, Marina goes to find them. Her trip into the deadly jungle forces her to reevaluate the choice she made to change careers and not have a family.

I’m conflicted, so I guess I’ll start at the beginning. I had a really hard time getting into the story because Marina isn’t a very compelling main character. She has daddy issues, an elderly boyfriend who she calls “Mr. Fox,” and a job studying cholesterol. There’s nothing about her that grabbed my attention. I actually considered giving up on the book because it takes Marina forever to get into the Amazon. I wanted to read about the jungle and the missing doctors. I didn’t care about Marina’s daddy problems and childhood trips to India.

The story becomes much more captivating when Marina gets into the rainforest. I flew through the middle of the book. The storyline about the maybe-dead coworker gets a little lost, but a lot of thought-provoking ethical questions take its place.

Marina’s missing coworkers went to the Amazon to study a tribe of natives who have some medical abnormalities. The coworkers are reluctant to release the results of their tests because scientists would flood into the area. The tribe and their home would be destroyed. While Marina’s coworkers are trying to protect the tribe, they’re also exploiting them. They’re doing medical tests on them. The tribe members don’t completely understand what’s happening because Marina’s coworkers didn’t bother learning the tribe’s language. Their philosophy is to interact with the tribe as little as possible.

“It is said the siesta is one of the only gifts the Europeans brought to South America, but I imagine the Brazilians could have figured out how to sleep in the afternoon without having to endure centuries of murder and enslavement.” – State of Wonder 

“The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects indigenous people. If you pay any attention at all you’ll realize that you could never convert them to your way of life anyway. They are an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned. You might as well come down here to unbend the river. The point, then, is to observe the life they themselves have put in place and learn from it.” – State of Wonder

Most of the characters are flat, but there are a few I like. Dr. Annick Swenson is complicated. It often seems like she cares more about her research than about the people who the research is supposed to help. I also love Easter, the deaf boy who drives Dr. Swenson’s boat. He’s a sweet, enthusiastic child.

Then the end of the book happens. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but some major stuff goes down. The main characters make several horrible decisions. By the end of the story, I hated everybody except Easter. I felt sorry for him.

Like I said, I’m conflicted. I enjoyed the middle of the novel. The Amazon Rainforest is an intriguing setting. The book definitely made me think about the ethical issues that surround medical research. I didn’t like the beginning or the end of the book. The beginning is slow, and the end irritated me.

“The part when they are together for a while, the two of them, before things go wrong. The way things ended always obliterated the genuine happiness that had come before and that shouldn't be the case.” – State of Wonder

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Sunday Post #123

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends. I’m spending the week with my family and some delicious pies. Wish me luck in my attempt to avoid dinner conversations about politics.

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I review State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.
  • On Wednesday I review Touching the Void: The Harrowing First-Person Account of One Man’s Miraculous Survival by Joe Simpson.

In My Reading Life

I’m doing the Tome Topple Readathon, so I’m reading giant books for the rest of November. Last week, I finished The Odyssey by Homer. Right now, I’m reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. I finally updated my About Me page. I’ve been meaning to do this for approximately 11 months. Head over there to learn more about everybody’s favorite subject: Me.
  2. I ate a really good meatball sub.
  3. There are deer outside my house right now. They’re so fluffy!
  4. I (kind of) have an Instagram account. I don’t think I can post anything on it because I don’t own a phone or any mobile devices. I made the account so I can see other people’s photos. If you want me to follow you, leave a link in the comments.
  5. A US Navy pilot used an airplane to draw male genitalia in the sky. Several people were offended. Immature weirdos (like me) laughed at all the news stories that contained the words “giant sky penis.”  

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other! See you around the blogosphere!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy The Shocking Inside Story – Ann Rule

The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy The Shocking Inside Story – Ann Rule

Ann Rule was a writer working on the biggest story of her life, tracking down a brutal mass-murderer. Little did she know that Ted Bundy, her close friend, was the savage slayer she was hunting.

Review: Books don’t usually make me anxious, but this one sure did. There were a few chapters where I set the book down and listened to my heart pound. Ted Bundy was one sick weirdo. I feel very sorry for all the women who had the misfortune of meeting him.

In the 1970s, crime writer Ann Rule was contracted to write a book about the unknown serial killer who was stalking the western US. When Ann wasn’t writing, she volunteered to answer phone calls for a suicide hotline. At her volunteer job, she met Ted Bundy, a college student who was studying psychology. They became friends. Several years into their friendship, Ann learned that Ted was the serial killer that she was writing about. The Stranger Beside Me is a chunky book (500+ pages) that covers everything from Ted Bundy’s birth to his execution.

I have no problem reading horror fiction, and I’m fascinated by serial killers, but real-life murderers majorly creep me out. Especially murderers like Ted Bundy. I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that a dude would bludgeon women to death and then have sex with their corpses. How do people even get that messed up? Ann Rule attempts to answer that question in this book, but it’s still hard for me to understand. It’s just . . . yucky.

“And, like all the others, I have been manipulated to suit Ted’s needs. I don’t feel particularly embarrassed or resentful about that. I was one of many, all of us intelligent, compassionate people who had no real comprehension of what possessed him, what drove him obsessively.” – The Stranger Beside Me

Ted Bundy is a thought-provoking (and nerve-wracking) subject for a book, but I struggled to get through Ann Rule’s writing. Mostly because she needs an editor (or several). There are lots of typos and clunky sentences. The book also has huge pacing issues. The story often gets bogged down in pointless details. I don’t need to know the names and job titles of every person in a courtroom. Just tell me what they’re saying and why I should care.

I also think the synopsis is misleading. Since the author was friends with Bundy, I expected the book to be more insightful. Instead, it mostly contains information that could be found in newspapers or by reading court transcripts. Most of the book is very surface-level.

This is probably going to sound bitchy, but I’m going to say it anyway. I think this book would have been phenomenal if it had been written by someone with better writing skills.

Not-So-Fun Facts About Ted Bundy

1. In the 1940s, it was scandalous for an unmarried woman to get pregnant. Ted was born in a home for unwed mothers. His mother left him there for several months while she decided if she wanted to keep him or put him up for adoption. She decided to keep him, but not tell him the truth about his birth. Ted lived his childhood believing that his grandparents were his parents.

2. Bundy spent years concocting a revenge scheme to get back at his ex-girlfriend. She broke up with him because he wasn’t the type of man she wanted to marry. He transformed himself into her “perfect” husband. They started dating again. She fell in love with him. He proposed. Then he broke up with her. He planned this all out for revenge.

3. Bundy escaped from jail twice. The first time, he got lost in the Colorado mountains. After days of wandering through the forest, he stumbled back into town and was arrested a few blocks from the jail.

4. Girls loved Bundy. He actually proposed to his girlfriend in a courtroom. When the proposal happened, he was on trial for murder, and she was on the witness stand. She said yes.

5. Ted had “groupies.” Hordes of girls wrote to him in prison and attended his trials. They claimed they were in love with him. I don’t understand any of this. He was convicted of murdering young women. Why would any woman love him? Why would they want to be one of his sex corpses? Weirdos.

“The most basic bit of advice given to women who have to walk alone at night is, ‘Look alert. Be aware of your surroundings and walk briskly. You will be safer if you know where you are going, and if anyone who observes you senses that.’ The stalking, predatory animal cuts the weakest from the pack, and then kills at his leisure.” – The Stranger Beside Me

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Picture Books I’ll Force Upon My Future Children

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is books I want my children to read. I don’t have any kids, but if I ever acquire some, here’s what I’ll read to them. Most of these books were my favorites as a kid.

Picture Books My Children Will Read

The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle

A much-loved classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has won over millions of readers with its vivid and colorful collage illustrations and its deceptively simple, hopeful story. With its die-cut pages and finger-sized holes to explore, this is a richly satisfying book for children.

Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak

One night Max puts on his wolf suit and makes mischief of one kind and another, so his mother calls him 'Wild Thing' and sends him to bed without his supper. That night a forest begins to grow in Max's room and an ocean rushes by with a boat to take Max to the place where the wild things are. Max tames the wild things and crowns himself as their king, and then the wild rumpus begins. But when Max has sent the monsters to bed, and everything is quiet, he starts to feel lonely and realizes it is time to sail home to the place where someone loves him best of all.

The Polar Express – Chris Van Allsburg

Late on Christmas Eve, after the town has gone to sleep, a boy boards a mysterious train that waits for him: the Polar Express bound for the North Pole. When he arrives there, Santa offers him any gift he desires. The boy modestly asks for one bell from the reindeer's harness. It turns out to be a very special gift, for only believers in Santa can hear it ring.

The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales – Jon Scieszka

A revisionist storyteller provides his mad, hilarious versions of children's favorite tales in this collection that includes Little Red Running Shorts, The Princess and the Bowling Ball, Cinderumpelstilskin, and others.

The Dumb Bunnies – Sue Denim

Meet the Dumb Bunnies. They eat lunch in a carwash. They go bowling in a library. And they ice-skate on the bottom of a lake. Everything the dumb bunnies do is REALLY dumb.


I Want My Hat Back – Jon Klassen

The bear’s hat is gone, and he wants it back. Patiently and politely, he asks the animals he comes across, one by one, whether they have seen it. Each animal says no, some more elaborately than others. But just as the bear begins to despond, a deer comes by and asks a simple question that sparks the bear’s memory and renews his search with a vengeance.

Puff, the Magic Dragon – Peter Yarrow

Welcome to Honalee, an enchanted land of imagination and love. 
In this special place, you can share in the adventures of Jackie Paper and his childhood friend, Puff, the magic dragon.

The Rainbow Fish – Marcus Pfister

Eye-catching foilstamping, glittering on every page, offers instant child-appeal, but it is the universal message at the heart of this simple story about a beautiful fish, who learns to make friends by sharing his most prized possessions, that gives the book its lasting value.

The Butter Battle Book – Dr. Seuss

A cautionary Cold War tale (first told by Dr. Seuss back in 1984), The Butter Battle Book still has a lot to teach about intolerance and how tit-for-tat violence can quickly get out of hand.

Last Stop on Market Street – Matt de la Peña

Every Sunday after church, CJ and his grandma ride the bus across town. But today, CJ wonders why they don't own a car like his friend Colby. Why doesn’t he have an iPod like the boys on the bus? How come they always have to get off in the dirty part of town? Each question is met with an encouraging answer from grandma, who helps him see the beauty—and fun—in their routine and the world around them.

Which picture books would you force upon your children?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing

The astonishing saga of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's survival for over a year on the ice-bound Antarctic seas, as Time magazine put it, "defined heroism." Alfred Lansing's scrupulously researched book has long been acknowledged as the definitive account of the Endurance's fateful trip. To write their authoritative story, Lansing consulted with ten of the surviving members and gained access to diaries and personal accounts by eight others. The resulting book has all the immediacy of a first-hand account.

Review: When I was a kid, I went through a multi-year phase where I was obsessed with all things polar. I think I was attracted to the idea that there are places on Earth where humans have never stepped. Picture books about explorers and cold-weather animals satisfied most of my polar curiosity, but if someone had read me a copy of Endurance, I would’ve loved them forever. This is a very “Me” book.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, tells the story of Ernest Shackleton's attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica in the early 1900s. Reaching Antarctica was so perilous that he didn’t even make it to the land. His ship was crushed by sea ice. Shackleton and his 27-man crew spent the next 17 months in the ocean, working their way across floating ice chunks in search of help.

“In that instant they felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition's original objective, they knew now that somehow they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.” - Endurance

This book was first published in 1959 and is a must-read for anyone interested in exploration. The author conducted extensive interviews with the surviving members of Shackleton's crew. He also had access to the journals kept by the crew. His research was thorough.

Even though I already knew the story of Shackleton's voyage, I couldn’t put this book down. I read most of it in one night because there’s so much tension. I wanted to know what happened next (even though I mostly already knew what happened next. Isn’t that weird?). The writing style is a bit dryer than I usually like. There are a few too many tedious details about boats and wind speeds, but that didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the book. I loved it.  

This story is a testament to human courage and human stupidity. Shackleton and his men were able to overcome every obstacle, but I can’t help thinking that the whole voyage was kinda really stupid. Shackleton wanted to be the first to cross Antarctica, but everything in Antarctica can kill you. You can starve, dehydrate, freeze, drown, get crushed by ice, get infections, slide off cliffs, fall into crevasses, get killed by the wildlife, go insane. Crossing Antarctica doesn’t seem worth it to me. I guess the world needs leaders like Shackleton, though. They manage to get stuff done when the odds are against them.     

“In all the world there is no desolation more complete than the polar night. It is a return to the Ice Age—no warmth, no life, no movement. Only those who have experienced it can fully appreciate what it means to be without the sun day after day and week after week. Few men unaccustomed to it can fight off its effects altogether, and it has driven some men mad.” - Endurance

Fun Facts About Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

 1. The men on the voyage got along well and were rarely pessimistic about their situation. This is surprising because Shackleton was not a thorough interviewer. When he was interviewing potential candidates for the voyage, he spent less than five minutes talking to each person. He relied on instinct to pick his crew.

“No matter what the odds, a man does not pin his last hope for survival on something and then expect that it will fail.” - Endurance

2. There was a stowaway on the ship. The stowaway wasn’t discovered until the ship was too close to Antarctica to turn back. Shackleton was furious. He said that if the voyage went wrong and the crew had to resort to cannibalism, the stowaway would be eaten first.

3. To help them cross Antarctica, the crew brought 70 sled dogs. Seventy sled dogs require A LOT of food, and ships have a limited amount of space. The crew ended up tying the dog food (an entire whale carcass) high above the deck of the ship. The carcass rained blood down on the men and drove the dogs crazy. Dogs get excited when a delicious dead whale is floating above their heads.

4. The men kept themselves sane through the long Antarctic winter by hunting, racing the dogs, reading aloud, playing cards, singing, writing, telling stories, and putting on plays.

5. An all-meat diet is terrible for humans. Once the food the crew brought with them ran out, they survived on seal and penguin meat. The men were either constipated or had diarrhea all the time.

6. Eventually, the food situation got so desperate that the men ate the sled dogs. According to the men, dog meat tastes like veal.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Sunday Post #122

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I review Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.
  • On Tuesday I show you the picture books I’m going to force upon my future children.
  • On Wednesday I review The Stranger beside Me: Ted Bundy The Shocking Inside Story by Ann Rule.

In My Reading Life

Last week, I finished The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. Then I read Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith. Right now, I’m rereading The Odyssey by Homer.

In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. Chinese food.
  2. I finally saw Get Out. You guys were right. That movie is messed up, and I kind of loved it.
  3. I ran 6 miles (10k). That’s the farthest I’ve ever run. My knees hurt like hell right now, and I never want to run that far again, but I did it.
  4. I’ve already started buying Christmas presents for people. I know it’s way too early to be excited about Christmas, but I love giving presents.
  5. I’m going to attempt the Tome Topple Readathon. (November 17-30.) I’m reading a giant book right now, and I have 2 other giants on my TBR shelf. If you’re doing the readathon, I’d love to be Twitter friends with you.

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other! See you around the blogosphere!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Discussion: How A Book Gets Five Stars From Me

Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts At Midnight host the 2017 Discussion Challenge.

If you’ve read my reviews before, you’ll know that I’m kind of a hard-ass. When it comes to books, I know what I like and what I don’t. So, how does a book make me happy? I’m going to tell you. 

How A Book Gets All The Stars From Me

It has a strong setting

I hate those generic “Anywhere, USA” settings. I want to know exactly where a story is set, and I want descriptions of that setting. I want to see the environment, the people, the food, the time period, the culture, EVERYTHING.

Some books that got the setting right:

It has believable characters who do things

They don’t have to be likeable characters, but they have to have agency and realistic motives. I want to feel like I’m reading about an actual person. Actual people are flawed and complicated. I want to read about characters who make things happen, not characters who sit around waiting for something to happen. Most importantly, I want to see the characters’ personalities.

Some books that got the characters right:

It has strong writing

I want language that is fresh, innovative, vivid, odd, poetic, and surprising.

Some books that got the writing right:

Unique structures are a plus

I’m a structure junkie. At this time last year, I was giving a lecture on nonlinear narrative structure to a class of MFA students. That’s how much of a weirdo I am. If a book has a unique structure (and does it well), I’ll love it forever.

Some books that got the structure right:

It puts a new twist on an old story

Some genres get very repetitive. I’m always happy when a book brings something new to the table. I like books that push the boundaries of their genres. Or books that do not fit neatly into any genre.

Some books that got genre-bending right:

It gives me something to think about

One of the reasons I read is to learn. Books don’t have to be overtly educational, but I always appreciate it when a book makes me look at something in a deeper way.

Some books that got education right:

It has tension and moves at a good pace

No waffling or floundering. Even if a plot is slow, I want it to feel like it’s heading toward a conclusion. I require tension to keep me reading. There needs to be questions raised and questions answered. If I’m not curious about what will happen next, I get bored quickly.

Some books that got tension right:

It makes me feel something

This is nearly impossible to do because I don’t have emotions. Still, a few authors have succeeded.

Some books that got feelings right:

Let’s discuss: How does a book get all the stars from you?