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Ten-and-a-half-or-so tiny book reviews

August 15, 2012 by Kaitlin

Oh right, I have a blog.

I would say I’m back from the wilderness, but the truth is I’m in the wilderness–if you consider the wilderness a cabin with all kinds of modern amenities and a wifi hotspot.

Since I last wrote, I left London, flew to DC to interview for a job I didn’t get (spoiler alert!), flew to Texas, hugged my family and picked up my car, drove to LA, graduated from USC, drove to Portland then middle-of-nowhere Washington, did Sasquatch, drove back to LA, worked a 10-week internship at Morning Edition at NPR West, went to weddings in Cleveland, Nashville and finally Quechee, Vermont, where I hugged my family again and then traveled with them to an undisclosed location in the Northern Adirondacks. It’s totally not a secret, but it’s way more fun to say “undisclosed location.” Waiting for me there was my dog Pivo, and my heart felt full once more.

And now I blog. That’s what Thoreau was always on about, right?

Besides writing, when I’m lucky enough to be here, I also read. I spent a good chunk of the summer learning about all kinds of wonderful books and movies through NPR interviews and compiled a massive to-read/watch list. Someone tell me why, then, I can’t put down the third Game of Thrones book. Full dorkdom revealed.

I also read some in London, and in a total rip-off of the brilliant Jen Andrews, I thought I’d just leave little tidbits of reviews for the books I’ve read this year.

This is how I prefer to read–under a tree at Downton Abbey.

Note, Jen reads a lot more than I do, but she’s way smarter than I am, and you have to take into consideration that I lost about a month on the second Game of Thrones book because it’s really long (and I won’t bother reviewing it here because you’ve all obviously already seen the TV show) AND I watched the entire Sopranos series (not one season, the entire series) in an unhealthily condensed amount of time. No reading was happening then. But way back in January, when I was again enjoying cabin time, it was.

Reviews after the jump, in the order that I read them.

Night Circus
It’s fitting that I copy Jen because I first heard about this book from her. It is fantastic, in the true Merriam Webster “seemingly conceived by unrestrained fancy” sense of the word. Erin Morgenstern manages to build a world of wonder and intrigue around a circus you so want to be real. There’s a love story between magicians who are forced to be rivals. You’re sucked into a world you don’t want to leave. Unfortunately at the end, things kind of fall apart plot-wise. I guess that makes it a little bit easier to fold up the big tent.

The Hobbit
Nope, this wasn’t revisiting a childhood favorite. I had just never read it. I know, I know, all the cool kids did (or claim to have, anyway), but decades ago I was busy taking the Babysitter’s Club too seriously to spare a moment for fantasy. Anyway, Bilbo. He’s a lovable chap, isn’t he? I can’t really remember anything that happens. He out-riddles Gollum to get the ring and then there are some dwarfs and some bears and some fairies, right? Maybe? Plenty of other people have perhaps rightfully praised this one to no end, so you don’t need me to do it here. I am, however, excited because Benedict Cumberbatch (aka SHERLOCK) is voicing the dragon in the movie. Actually, looking at the IMDB page now, I’m even more excited because I see Lee Pace is playing King Thranduil. No idea who that is, but Lee Pace is simply superb and exceedingly adorable.

The Marriage Plot
When I finished this book I wanted to throw it across the room because I hated it so much, but I didn’t do that because I read it on my Kindle and I’ve heard those are breakable. I’ve blocked most of this book from my mind, but I think I disliked it so much because I just didn’t care about any of the characters. I’m also in the stage where lots of friends are getting married (or in some cases, divorced, as also happens in this book…I think…), so I don’t really need that topic covered in my fiction right now. My bad. Perhaps I also hold Jeffrey Eugenides to a higher standard because he has in the past created characters about which I did care very deeply.

Ready Player One
If you like video games and the 80’s, or if you don’t hate fun, this one is totally worth a read. The quality of the writing isn’t the best ever (look who’s talking, right?), but the world Ernie Cline creates is deeply envisioned and seems not terribly far off from a hyper-connected reality that could one day be. Pop culture references galore, a lovable protagonist and some great sidekicks, along with some moments of genuine suspense. Plus, Cline got a little bit meta by designing a real-life contest based on the one in the book. Love it.

The Art of Fielding
My absolute favorite so far this year. It’s got a couple things going for it that have nothing much to do with the book itself, but I’ll expound upon them anyway. First, I read this one mostly while riding busses around London, so it’s already got warm memories attached. Also, the story is set at a small liberal arts college that could be my alma mater transplanted to the Midwest. Chad Harbach nails liberal arts life. Add in an outsider shortstop (my position in middle school softball. No big deal or anything), a gay roommate, a surprisingly tender taboo relationship and tons of Moby Dick references, and you’ve basically got an English major’s dream novel. Word is that HBO bought the rights. I’m sure whatever they do with it with be wonderful, but I’m enjoying the time before it’s brought to the screen where I’ve still got my own vivid images of characters and locations, before they’re supplanted with whatever HBO dreams up.

A Visit from the Good Squad 
A fun romp through various times and locales with characters who are constantly interacting with each other in surprising ways or popping up in unexpectedly places. It’s a little like Love Actually or Crash where there are a bunch of people who are all intertwined, but the book never really feels formulaic. I admit a lot of the details are escaping me on this one, but I remember the ride being fun while it lasted (TWSS, amirite?). I realize I’m giving no actual insight about the book here, and I think it’s because I also read this one in London, but mostly all in one day while I was waiting for my computer to be fixed, and for a while there I didn’t know if it was going to make it. Some people pace and smoke cigarettes when they’re nervous. I binge eat and binge read, almost unmoving in the corner of an unlicensed Mac repair store. The calories stick with me, but the plots apparently do not. My computer totally pulled through, btw.

Fifty Shades of Grey
Yeah, I’m part of the horrible, repressed female masses that’s now made this the best selling book of all time, or whatever. This is another one I read almost entirely in one sitting. Or rather standing. The line to see the David Hockney exhibit at the Royal Academy in its final week was really, really, like 5 hours long.

See that tiny “TM”? That’s right, don’t even try and use this phrase because “Laters, baby” is trademarked. Baby.

I figured the time would pass faster if I had like a million orgasms while I was waiting. Sadly, this didn’t happen. This is another one that has already has plenty written about it, so I’ll spare us all, save these three things: 1. Not that I was a huge fan of the phrase “inner goddess” before, but it’s now been ruined forever. 2. Christian. You’re supposed to be older and wealthy and suave. I can picture this guy in my mind. You know who he isn’t? A freakin’ 27-year-old who is somehow a CEO with a helicopter, has a creepy servant/sidekick, and is weirdly controlling about what his girlfriend eats. 3. As one of the editors at Morning Edition pointed out, people can’t look at each other through their eyelashes. I know you’re trying right now, and you can’t do it, right? Unlike me, whose curiosity simply gave into the hype, she was reading the book for research. Then she interviewed the author at Comic Con and reported this great piece on fan fiction. She also brought me back this pin.

David Hockey, however? Totally worth the orgasmless wait.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell 
I heard this one was good for fans of The Night Circus. I got about a quarter of the way through and gave up. Someone tell me what I’m doing wrong.

A Dangerous Fortune
For some reason, I thought this was a new Ken Follett book. It is not. It was written in 1994. I liked Pillars of the Earth. This is not Pillars of the Earth. It’s kind of historical fiction, but every major event or change (omg, merchant banking!) is explained out to the most tedious degree. The dialogue is utterly unbelievable and the characters lack any kind of moral ambiguity—you’ve got strictly good guys and bad guys. Why then, did I schlepp all the way through this one and peace out on the critically acclaimed Jonathan Strange? Well, why do my parents drink Bud Light with Lime without shame or irony? Some mysteries are too vast for this universe.

This one took me some time to get through, and in the end, I’m not positive I enjoyed it, but it made me think and reflect a lot, and sometimes I forget that this is what books are supposed to make us do. The story is set almost entirely in South Africa (but written by an American), mostly post-apartheid, and revolves around the interactions between a famous author and her chosen biographer, both of whom have been previously involved in the other’s life, but neither of whom is revealing their full hand to the other. That was the most convoluted way possible to say that, but you get it. They have secrets, people! The author also tackles topics like censorship, family loyalty, and extreme home securitization. Parts are overwritten. You know how Coetzee can be despairingly sparse? This is the opposite. I’d be curious to talk to any South Africans who have read it. I thought Patrick Flanery does a great job describing physical locales of places as diverse as Cape Town, Joburg and the Karoo. He also, to my far-from-expert ear, gets accents and names. But seriously, has anyone read this? I have questions about Laura I want to discuss.

Never Let Me Go 
I read this mostly because I remember being haunted by the movie trailer and having lots of questions just based on a short clip. Kazuo Ishiguro reveals many of the answers about the creepiest-ever British boarding school by slowly and heart-breakingly peeling back layers through cool and measured prose. The book presents a world in which science has advanced to do a lot of good curing disease-wise, but of course there are trade-offs. I hesitate to say more. Give it a read, and in the meantime, I’ll see the movie.

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