Thursday, March 6, 2014

Playing Catch-up

I'm going to do somewhat-mini reviews on the following, and then try to get back to normal!

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I loved this book.  I started hiking a few years ago with my sister.  We've only done what regular hikers consider "easy" or "moderately easy" trails.  I would consider myself more prepared than Cheryl was on her big hike.  Now, to be fair, I do happen to know (in-laws) someone who hiked a large portion of the Appalachian Trail (and was VERY well prepared), so I may know a little more than the average amateur dabbling hiker.  But still.  Strayed was so severely unprepared it was... well, it was funny.

Strayed did well what I believe very few memoir-ists are able to accomplish:  She told her story in a compelling, humorous, deferential, emotional, sincere manner that made her both endearing and likeable.  She told her story in a way that begged to be read.  She made it interesting.

Wild made me want to hike, be a trail-angel, buy hotel rooms for hikers, bring food to hikers... and it made me appreciate my life, my family, and my friends.  It is a wonderful tale and I highly recommend it.  This was a book club selection (for April), and I eagerly await the other members' reactions!

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Oh man.  Night Film is one of my new favorite books.  I think I might be lucky that I was able to read it on a very laid back vacation... because I read the nearly 600 pages over the course of only 3 days.  As a result, the ambiance and the story and the nuances weren't lost on me.  This is another book club selection (March), and I am very curious if my ability to read it in such a condensed timeframe made the book better...

Regardless... yes, this book is about (none of this is spoiler -- this is intro/first chapters type information): a spoiled brat rich kid, the daughter of a famous highly eccentric very dark film maker.  The kid kills herself, spurning the journalist (who, in an attempt to discredit her father, was himself discredited in his career) to pursue this huge story.  Because of this journalist's raw talent and prior history with the subject matter, he seems to be a step ahead of the other people who may be attempting to "get this story."  SUCH an over-simplification of the story, but that's the bones of it.

This is my first Pessl.  I am so impressed.  She created the perfectly creepy (but never quite scary) atmosphere, a tangle of questions that seem to have partial and flawed answers, and just a darn good story.  She populated her story with interesting, three-dimensional characters who you had feelings about (not all positive, which adds depth).  This book is full of darkness, humans who act in the worst of ways, blood, maybe murder, psycho- and socio-pathic tendencies... and hope.

This was one of those books where I slowed down my reading to savor the treat of it.  I was SO pleased to be reading this book.  And for me... I was SO satisfied when it was all done.  Highly recommend.

Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson

Well, to be fair to Buncle, I had just come off of Wild and Night Film, so Buncle had some telling to live up to!  Miss Buncle's Book is cute and fun and ok.  It wasn't terrific, it certainly wasn't terrible.

Miss Buncle lives in a small countryside-ish type town in England.  She has money troubles so she writes a book in an attempt to solve them.  However, Miss Buncle cannot (as she says) write about something about which she has no knowledge.  So she writes about her town and the people within it.  The publisher loves the novel, thinks it's either the work of a simpleton or a genius, and seeks to publish it in short order, under a pen name for Buncle, to protect the not-so-innocent.  The name of the town and the name of the characters have, of course, all been changed, but it is clear to the townsfolk that they are the subject of the book.  As might be anticipated, chaos ensues.  The townspeople are in an uproar about the book and react in humorous, over-the-top, caricature-like fashion.

The book is a sweet little thing, a quick read, a pleasant romp through this 1940s (I think -- around that time) small town in England.  The personalities are strong, the story is fun, and it was an entertaining way to pass the afternoon.

Not spectacular, but recommended for readers to whom the above-paragraph appeals.

The City & the City by China Mieville

Phew!  I've been meaning to read Mieville for years.  This was my first Mieville, and what an introduction!  I understand from having read other reviews that this is not the most typical of Mieville... But I think I get the picture.

So, I was about 30-40 pages in, and I had to stop reading to do some research on what the F was happening.  The story is about two cities that share the same space on a map, but which do not engage with one another at ALL, without express permission from the appropriate governmental authorities.  If citizens of one city interacts with the other city at ALL without such permission, a "breach" is deemed to have occurred.  A murder happens in one city, and the detective assigned to the case believes that breach is involved.  In such a case, an entity that oversees even the governments of the two cities--itself called Breach--takes over.  The detective proceeds thusly, but there are, of course, complications of the factual-type, the political-type, the potentially-supernatural-type, etc.

After about 30-40 pages,  I still could not figure out if the two cities were interposed on one another in some kind of magical way (as I had assumed upon first reading the description of the book), or if it was a political/governmental separation, involving no magic.  I read one review that said that at about 70 pages, it becomes more clear and sorts itself out.  So I kept reading.  At about 70 pages, I still felt like my question was answered.  Frankly, I think it is HELPFUL and makes for a better read of the book if you understand which is happening, so I will tell you.  But I will couch it in SPOILER protections in case you don't want to know ;)

The Spoiler (highlight with your cursor/mouse to see):  They are in the same location on a map and are in the same place physically and there's nothing magical about it.  THAT is, frankly, one of the things that I think is so brilliant about this book.  I've lived in a very big city, and when you live in that big city, you stop noticing people as individual persons and start just treating them as physical objects you pass.  Take that and mix with it a sort of Dr.-Seuss-Stars-on-Chest mentality, then make it serious and brilliant, and you have The City & the City. Something happened years ago, we never know what and the characters in the story are not clear, the the two cities were either merged or split, thus creating the current situation.  There are two cities, governmentally, mentally, and in every single other way, except physically.  Certain portions of the geography are exclusively in 1 city OR the other, and various portions are in both, or what they call "cross-hatched."  In a cross-hatched portion of the city, one building in 1 city could be immediately next to a building in the other city, or one floor in a building could be above a floor in another building. In these cross-hatched portions, the cars drive on the same road, but they have to act as if the other does not exist.  You can imagine what happens in ambulance-type situations!  But Mieville pulls this off and makes it believable.

And then, overseeing the two cities is Breach.  And involved in this whole murder mystery is the question of whether Breach is good or bad, real or perhaps imaginary, supernatural or political, in a war with another potentially existent supernatural-or-not "city"in the cracks..... It's so complicated and SO well done and SO recommended.

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

This is a fun classic murder mystery.  What I really liked about this one is that it was FUN!  It was funny, light, and moved quickly.  There weren't long and involved explanations of the scenery or drawn-out descriptions of the personalities... it was just a story that quickly moved from one scene to the next, creating, complicating, and then resolving the mystery.

In the book, several people have been called to a castle in Scotland for a "family meeting" to discuss the death and after-affect of a certain family member.  There is a dispute about whether the man committed suicide or was murdered and the various characters are quickly drawn into the activity, the mystery, and the frivolity.

Recommended for people looking for a quick and fun classic murder mystery.

Just Checking: Scenes from the Life of an Obsessive-Compulsive by Emily Colas

And finally, Just Checking.  I bought this book SO many years ago because I have some interesting tendencies toward OCD and because a quick peruse of the book made me laugh (i.e., she is funny, not that I was laughing at her).

I finally re-picked up this book and read it from front to back.  It did not quite live up to its expectations.  Emily Colas is writing mini David Sedaris'esque essays on her life.  It is somewhat chronological, though often flips between her past and her present, in an effort to make a single point.

Some of the essays are funny.  Some are sad.  Some are enraging or depressing.  Emily Colas indulged in her ocd and those around her did the same.  She managed a marriage and motherhood despite her rather severe (at least at times) inclinations.  Although she appeared toward the end (and in the afterward interview) to have finally made some progress and address the issue (e.g., seeing a doctor; taking medication), it took her a LONG time and a LOT of heartache to get there.

I think that this book is probably a good read for people who know people with OCD, to help understand the disease a little better.  Colas seems to be pretty (at times, embarrassingly) honest and definitely self-depricating (i.e., not making things sound better than they actually were) and I think provides a good understanding of those people with the disease who have NOT sought to address the problem.  There are certainly amusing moments, and there were definitely stories to which I could relate.

Overall, the book just fell a little flat because she was just not particularly likeable and the reader was left frustrated with her lack of willingness to do anything for herself.  So, a kind of hit and miss, overall.  Not terrible, somewhat useful, somewhat entertaining, and somewhat recommended.

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