Aug 29, 2014

The Billionaire's Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace

A nonfiction bestseller from a few years ago, "The Billionaire's Vinegar" is just as interesting a read as I've heard it was. Wallace details for us the growth of the rare and antique wine market, and the parallel rise of wine forgery. Living in wine country, it's a particularly apt book to read, and I certainly recognized some names. Even without that connection, though, it's a fantastically readable piece of investigative journalism. Wallace is a deft writer, and knows how to slowly reveal the bud of truth from the petals adorning and obscuring it. Will I ever have a need to be wary of the fake-riddled rare wine market? Almost certainly not, but that doesn't stop this book from being a delicious little mystery and expose, and I quite enjoyed reading it.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

This is only the second Murakami book I've read, and I must admit that I wasn't very impressed. "Colorless" reminds me greatly of "1Q84:" lonely, isolated, emotionally bereft protagonist; odd shifts in reality that could point to supernatural or paranormal occurrences; constant references to Western culture, especially music. People generally rave about Murakami, but these two that I've read mostly just confused me, nor did they strike a chord at all.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36-year-old bachelor who helps redesign train stations. At the age of 20, his four best friends, with whom he had been extremely close, suddenly stop talking to him and demand that he cease communicating with them. Stunned, Tsukuru can barely even ask why; no answer is given, and he sinks into a deep depression. Now, at 36, he's finally met a woman he can see having a future with, and she demands, as a condition of continuing to see her, that he find his old friends and figure out what happened, since it seems to have left "an emptiness" inside of him.

First of all, I find the notion of a person taking psychological advice from a woman he hardly knows rather bizarre, and even more distasteful is her ultimatum and his quiet acceptance of it. I'm not fond of people who lack a backbone. Second, we find out what did happen about halfway through the book, so the rest of it is just him roaming around, trying to force himself into some great epiphany. I get it, it's not supposed to be about the plot, it's his inner journey that really counts. But his inner journey is, well, kind of boring. He's an empty man, and the idea that he could only become whole with the help of other people, and that his emptiness is only filled when it is full of a feeling for another person is something I personally find unacceptable.

I think I need to try Murakami's earlier books, which people seem to love so much. Perhaps now that he's written so much and is so famous, his writing has become a bit stagnant. Or maybe I won't like those either, and I'll be a non-Murakami-fan in a sea of Murakami devotees. And that would be okay, too.

Aug 17, 2014

The Last Illusion, by Porochista Khakpour

In the legend for which the main character, Zal, is named, Zal is rejected by his father as an infant and left to die in the wild. A giant bird finds him and raises him as her own; his father later returns, recognizes his son, sets him on the throne, and Zal becomes a mighty conqueror, protected by a huge white feather from his magical bird mother. Our protagonist Zal, born in Iran with white skin and yellow hair, is rejected by his horrified mother, who calls him White Demon and delivers him into a cage, raising him as a bird alongside her more beloved bird pets. Discovered at the age of 10 by his elder sister, Zal is freed, renamed, and adopted by an American man who specializes in the psychology of feral children.

Zal becomes in interesting man; he defies the odds and reaches a surprising level of normality, considering. This is a big word for Zal, who wishes he could be himself and also be normal without having everyone around him ending their assessments of him with that word, considering, implying that his past is so overpowering that he will never be able to be just plain old normal, with no considering on the side. In his early twenties, Zal meets the very strange Asiya McDonald on the streets of Manhattan. Asiya, whose parents divorced and left her in charge of her two younger siblings - one of whom is so overweight she is confined to a bed, while the other has serious anger management issues - is an artist, a religion-hopper, and an anorexic. And also kind of crazy. Maybe.

This is a fantastic book, cleverly written and conceived, so much so that (having started reading it without referencing the blurb on the back) I only realized what it's really about until I was two-thirds of the way through. I won't say what that is here, since I think I enjoyed it much more not having that thought in the back of my head the whole time. It allowed me not to categorize it as anything but just "fiction," and I really liked it.

Aug 14, 2014

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck

This fascinating book was chosen by one of my bookstore's owners for our next book club meeting, and I really enjoyed reading it. Speck is arguing for a vastly reduced dependence upon cars for all but the most rural of environments, and his arguments are very convincing. He cites study after study that prove that increasing walkability makes all aspects of the economy go up: property values, local businesses, income savings. He suggests building our cities around the pedestrian instead of the car, which has proven to only blight downtowns, which should be the lifeblood of our economy. He especially attacks traffic engineers and the various state DOTs for insisting on huge, unnecessary roadways, giving lipservice to safety, when really it's been proven that smaller, tree-lined streets lead drivers to drive more slowly and cautiously and have far fewer accidents. It's a no-nonsense approach, backed by an immense amount of hard data that the average person generally has no access to (or interest in). Speck's enthusiasm makes for a very easy and entertaining read, and I can't wait to discuss his ideas with our group.

Aug 5, 2014

Golden Boy, by Tara Sullivan

This is the final selection of my bookstore's summer teen book club. It's about Habo, an thirteen-year-old African albino whose family is forced to leave their failing farm and move to a city to find work. Habo is the only albino he and his family and village have ever seen, and he has no idea that there are others like him. He only knows that he is different, though he knows he feels the same emotions and has the same needs as everyone else. Mwanza, the city his family first goes to, holds great danger for Habo: here, albinos are killed and their body parts harvested as tokens of good luck, much like a rabbit's foot. Habo tries to hide but is found out, and must escape the city, leaving his family and everything he knows behind.

"Golden Boy" is a bit of a stressful read; it's written in the first person, from Habo's perspective, so we feel very immediately all of his fears and anxieties. Since he's frightened for most of the book, this can make for some decidedly unrelaxed reading. But this is an issue well-worth bringing attention to, and I'm glad Sullivan is doing so with this book.

VALIS, by Philip K. Dick

I can't decide if this book is brilliant or utterly ridiculous; perhaps it's a bit of both. It's incredibly hard to explain "VALIS," but here goes: Dick, writing about himself in the third person as Horselover Fat, has a psychotic break. He thinks that God/Jesus/Buddha/Asklepios/an omniscient alien satellite fires a beam of pink light into his head and he is suddenly filled with knowledge, both of a mundane and surreal nature. Half the book is taken up with Fat's exegesis, delving into the mythological pasts of most of the world's major religions, conflating and explaining them. The rest of the story is actual plot, though even most of this consists of philosophical/religious discussions amongst Fat and his three friends (one of whom is Dick, who at this time considers himself a totally separate entity from Fat). Since I studied history and religion in college, I was able to follow a good deal of the exegesis, but it was still confusing and hard to get through at parts. I'm still trying to sort out exactly what it is I read... This is probably the least accessible work of science fiction I've ever read, though interesting, and I'm glad I read it despite not understanding it all.

Jul 31, 2014

Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King

This is the first, and last, Stephen King book I will read. Some people get a thrill reading about gruesome murders and horrific rapes; I am clearly not one of those people. This is a collection of four short stories, novellas, really, though I could only read three of them and had to skip part of one of those. Graphic violence really does nothing for me. I've heard a lot of people really love King's writing, and while I did think the first story was well-written, the other stories didn't stand out to me. I can't even really remember the third, and I read it mere days ago. Fantasy or sci-fi violence doesn't affect me the same way modern violence does; chopping off heads with swords isn't something I would read in the newspaper, whereas King's stories seem totally plausible. But reading is my escape, and I have no interest in reading about something in my spare time - and for pleasure - that sounds like it could actually happen. I know that horrible people do terrible things to each other, but I don't want to think about it any more than I absolutely have to.

On a similar note, I also tried reading Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent," which has been recommended to me on several occasions. I got about thirty pages in before running into the same problem: I just don't want to read about a public prosecutor being raped and murdered in her own home. There's nothing titillating or interesting about that to me. So I think I'll stay away from horror and mysteries from now on.