Posts Tagged 'three stars'

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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Somewhere, I heard Everything I Never Told You described as “an Asian Gone Girl.” Though I had some issues with Gillian Flynn’s smash hit, I enjoyed it more than not, and especially appreciated the unrepentant, malevolent, genius female sociopath at Gone Girl‘s core. (Why are there not more truly-despicable female characters out there? Authors?)

Like Cersei! Love her. Even when Martin writes himself into a corner regarding her character.

So when my library hold for Everything I Never Told You came up, I dove in excitedly, eager to unravel the mystery and discover the dark heart at the story’s core. Ng does an admirable job of gripping the reader by the throat from the first sentence:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know that yet.

Almost immediately, things slow down as we enter the point of view of each of the remaining family members in turn, and watch them deal with the numbness and grief that accompany losing a daughter and sister.

For me, this was a case of pre-reading expectations dampening my enjoyment of the actual novel. Expectations: the great enjoyment-killer. If I had been expecting a more straightforward family drama, with my mind primed for the mystery to be more of a “mystery,” perhaps I would have found this to be a four- or even a five-star read. As it stands, this was a solid three stars for me.

Still, there was a lot to like about Everything I Never Told You. Some of the imagery was beautiful; many of the thoughts and actions from the point of view of Hannah, the youngest and most-ignored child, were honed to a scalpel’s edge and cut just as deeply.

Parents James and Marilyn are the most fully-formed characters in the novel, given extensive backstories so the reader understands just how they ended up being the people that they are. Again, this produced some of the finer writing in the book. James, the son of Chinese immigrants, craves acceptance and the ability to blend into mainstream white American society; Marilyn is the daughter of a single mother who sees how domesticity can be a prison, and vows to fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor. Both of these driving motivations are placed squarely on the shoulders of Lydia, the much doted-on–and stifled–daughter.

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Book Review: The Tastemakers, by David Sax

Kale. Cupcakes. Bacon-wrapped everything.

What do all of these foods have in common? Besides being delicious, that is.


They’re all trendy. Who could possibly forget the internet’s obsession with bacon? Or the prevalence of fondue in homes in the 1970s? Or even the spread of the chia seed as the next superfood?

Spurred by the cupcake craze of the early 2000s, journalist David Sax takes on the mission of deciphering the popularity of different food items in The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed up With Fondue. He doesn’t stop there, though. Sax takes us on a journey through the kitchens of top-notch chefs who have a renewed interest in the artisanal, the fields of farmers experimenting with crop cross-breeding, and the board rooms of food corporations spending millions to create the next big thing.

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Book Review: Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie

Movie popcorn is a peculiar thing. When the lights go down and the movie starts up, that $7 popcorn tastes goddamn incredible.

Nom nom nom.

But afterwards, when you’re left with all of the unpopped kernels at the bottom of the bag and fingers greasy with synthetic butter substitute, you sort of realize that you just paid way too much money for what amounts to some oversalted cardboard.

That mirrors my experience with Craigh DiLouie’s horror novel Suffer the Children: enjoyable while reading, certainly worth the money, but not likely to leave too much of an impression after.

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Book Review: xoOrpheus, Ed. Kate Bernheimer

I read xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, edited by Kate Bernheimer, last year, and am only getting around to reviewing it now. Usually I try to force myself to write my responses to what I’ve read no more than a week after I’ve finished it; I’m a fast, enthusiastic reader, but I have a terrible memory and will often struggle to recall plot points, or character names, or anything deeper than a surface recollection. (Is it true playing Sudoku helps improve memory? If so, I need to get on that…but I’ll probably forget.)

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In this case, spending a bit of time away from short story collection xo Orpheus was a good thing. It helped me to determine which stories actually moved me and gripped me beyond the short time I spent reading them, which stories went completely and bafflingly over my head, and which stories produced images or descriptions that are still lingering in my mind today. In a collection that I found to be somewhat frustratingly uneven, some distance was necessary for a more tempered–and hopefully more helpful!–review.

xo Orpheus is a collection of fifty “new myths,” or  myths from a variety of times and cultures that have been altered without becoming unrecognizable. Many are the familiar Greek myths that many of us were raised on–including several different takes on the myth of Persephone–while others come from cultures that may be less well-known to a modern Western audience. Still, all of them dealt in some way with the same very human themes: love, death, loyalty, fear. Life, really. Some of the stories take myths and adapt them for contemporary settings; others expand upon the original myths in their intended time and place by giving us a new point of view or an epilogue. I commend the idea behind this collection, because as Bernheimer herself says in her introduction, myths themselves are timeless; they have had a hold on the human imagination for centuries, and have certainly not lost their grasp on us yet.

I’ve highlighted below the stories in xo Orpheus that made the biggest impact on me, but the beauty of a collection this large, spanning so many authors and so many myths, is that there is truly something for everyone. For example, while some of the more postmodern offerings (“The Story I am Speaking to You Now,” “Belle-Medusa,” “In a Structure Simulating an Owl”) were not to my taste, I know people who would have delighted in their unconventionality!

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Book Review: Imperial Dreams, by Tim Gallagher

Imperial Dreams: Tracking the Imperial Woodpecker Through the Wild Sierra Madre, by Tim Gallagher, is an account of the author’s travels through the Sierra Madre mountain range in Mexico in search of the imperial woodpecker. Presumed extinct since the 1950s, the imperial woodpecker–the largest of its species in the world!–is a close cousin of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which Gallagher claimed to have encountered with a birding team in Arkansas. This book represents one of his many in-depth searches for a rare, possibly extinct bird.

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I’m a birder (though not on Gallagher’s level), and in addition to having birded in some cool places, I’ve also been lucky enough to have traveled throughout Mexico as a result of my father’s family still living there. So really, this book seemed as though it was tailor-written for me!

However.

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Book Review: Netsuke Nation: Tales of Another Japan, by Jonathan Magonet

Netsuke Nation: Tales from Another Japan, by Jonathan Magonet, is a short-story collection unlike anything you might have encountered before–unless you are familiar with netsuke, small and elaborate decorative carvings that are part of proper Japanese dress. Magonet, who has lived and taught in Japan, became enamored of netsuke and began to collect some of his own. Netsuke Nation is the result of his fascination with the carvings: partly short stories based around the imagined lives of individual figurines, and partly an ethnographic exploration of netsuke life, including politics, art, entertainment, and even sexual relationships.

As I read, I found myself wishing the Magonet had dropped the enthnography conceit entirely, and instead focused solely on the personal histories he had created surrounded his own personal netsuke. Those chapters, to me, felt the most in-depth, realistic, and creative. There are stories about a geisha cat, a pair of elderly sumo wrestlers, a fox priest, a professor, and more. They range from exploring themes of loneliness, relationships, and politics, with just a twist of magical realism, and are written with a certain detached wryness that I thought was appealing. Enough of the “other Japan” comes through in these stories, in bits and pieces that occur naturally as our characters navigate the world, as to make dedicated ethnography chapters seem flat and overly-expository. The geisha cat, for example, introduces the reader to the role of a geisha–to be a conversational, charming, objective of beauty–in addition to what her days and nights might look like, without necessarily going into a formal study of geisha culture. It probably also helps that I was the type of kid that totally believed her stuffed animals were alive, and had all sorts of fun adventures the moment my back was turned. It was very easy for me to fall under the spell of the netsuke characters!

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Review: Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

My experience with Colson Whitehead’s Zone One mirrors my that of a similar novel, Justin Cronin’s The Passage. First, I get excited at the prospect of literary fiction taking on genre fiction subjects (zombies and vampires, respectively). Then, I get even more excited once critics and readers flood magazines and blogs with positive reviews. Then, I actually read the thing and inevitably find myself disappointed. Either my expectations are too high, or literary fiction stylings of sci-fi and horror tropes are just not for me (which, how can that be possible?!).

Zone One is, on a macro level, a story about the end of the world. A nameless plague has swept through the United States, turning humans unlucky enough to get bitten into “skels,” so named for their increasingly skeletal appearances. We never discover how or why this happened; people are more interested in surviving and resettling. Zone One refers to the portion of lower Manhattan that will be one of the first parts of the city to be resettled, thanks to the Marines killing the first wave of skels and a wall that protects them from outside hordes. Mark Spitz, our main character, is part of a sweeper team–soldiers and civilians who kill off any “straggler” skels–working its way, block by block, to a skel-free future.

The city had long carried its own plague. Its infection had converted this creature into a member of its bygone loser cadre, into another one of the broke and the deluded, the mis-fitting, the inveterate unlucky.

I like being dropped into a world, without a lot of backstory or a long, tortured prologue, and that is how Zone One appeared–at first. But the flow of action was quickly stifled by endless flashbacks. The novel’s opening, for me, was excruciating to get through: while being attacked by three skels, Mark Spitz drifts in and out of memories, including an explanation of a popular tv show whose character inspired a hairstyle worn by one of the skels and his feelings about one of his former teachers. This info-dumping of related and unrelated memories continued for the entire book. I would often lose track of which events were occurring during what time, which was disorienting and often forced me to flip back to the chapter’s beginning. I can intellectually appreciate that Whitehead did this purposefully, to depict through form the manifestation of Mark Spitz’s PSAD, but as a reader I had to wonder if disrupting the flow of the story to such an extent was worth it. It certainly hampered my enjoyment, and almost caused me to put the book down after 20 pages.

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