Dec 23, 2013

Catching Fire & Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I couldn't help myself. I read "Catching Fire" in four days and "Mockingjay" in two. I think Collins went a little overboard with Katniss' craziness, but then the horrors she witnessed, and took part in, would probably be enough to drive any seventeen-year-old girl insane. "Catching Fire" was much more complex than the movie. There's a lot more information about the rebellion and the crackdown in District 12 that I think adds depth that the movie lacked. The film is so focused on Katniss that the viewer misses all the nuances in the book. I'm interested to see what they do with "Mockingjay," and would actually be glad if it's true they are splitting it into two movies. I hope in that way they can do justice to the complex world Collins weaved, where there is no black and white and the gray is far, far vaster than it should be. Torture is so utterly damaging, and despite being labeled as "young adult," the books do not shy away from what what damage really looks like. Rebellion is never as simple as "us good, them bad," and Collins does a good job of making that clear. It's a fantastic series of books, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the film adaptation of "Mockingjay."

Dec 17, 2013

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, by Yiyun Li

This is a stunning collection of short stories, all of which focus on women at older stages of their lives, reflecting back on what was but also looking into what could be. The clash of traditional Chinese values with newer ideals and realities is written with a deft hand, subtly and smoothly. Li is wonderful writer, the kind that reminds me of the quote professing that fiction often speaks the truths that facts and non-fiction tend to gloss over. Everyone is lonely in these stories, but in different ways; we are given snapshots of their lives, some of them, while with others we are granted the decisive moment. A beautiful collection, this, one I would readily suggest to others.

Dec 14, 2013

Welfy Q. Deederhoth: Meat Purveyor World Savior, by Eric Laster

This Advanced Reader's Copy was sent to me at the bookstore from the author, who lives in LA but often visits Napa, and it's a fantastic find. It's written for middle readers, but of a decidedly precocious bent, as it has plenty of advanced vocabulary and some rather dark themes. The eponymous hero grew up in the foster care system, and had some awful experiences, causing him to run away to New York City when he's about 15 years old. He eventually finds a steady job at a deli, owned by the astrologically obsessed Morton, and by accident (or is it?) discovers a portal to an alien planet. The Brundeedles are convinced he is the prophesied savior of their people after near total annihilation by an insect-like species called Ceparids. Laster is deft at weaving Welfy's complicated - and all too common - past into his science fiction future, and it's really nice to see another boy hero in a genre overpopulated by female warriors. I look forward to handselling this book to our young customers!

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I haven't read this series yet, since YA fantasy is totally my thing, and that I've already seen the first two movies before reading the books. I was first a little surprised by the novel; I wasn't expecting it to be in first person, but I like the ambiance it creates. And it sure was engaging as all get out. I had a hard time putting it down, though it isn't, by any means, the best YA book I've ever read. I understand the changes and deletions they made for the movie, which is what I had heard from friend who had read it before seeing the movie. And though I love Jennifer Lawrence, she definitely isn't the same physical type as Katniss in the book: she should be quite small, thin from years of eating at a barely subsistence level, where Jennifer Lawrence is quite healthy looking. But I loved the book, and I can't wait to read the next two (hopefully, I'll finish the third before those movies come out).

Dec 8, 2013

Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

One of the best Discworld novels I've read. I love the Moist von Lipwig character, which also featured in "Making Money" (I'd read "Going Postal" first in this mini-series inside the Discworld series). Thank you, Terry Pratchett, for your humor and impressive writing skill!

Dec 7, 2013

Jerusalem: A Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

It took me well over a month to read this tome, and I'm still not sure whether it was time well spent. This 550 page book is a history of the city of Jerusalem, from pre-Jewish times up through the modern day. Some parts are more interesting than others; sometimes this was because I already knew some of that particular history so the section was less intriguing to me, and sometimes it was because the section seemed better written than others. The section entitled Judaism is well-written, and it's interesting how Montefiore told the story as found in the Bible while also referring to outside sources. Other sections reminded me why I didn't read non-fiction for such a long time: they seemed to be simply fact written after fact, with little in the way of literature to make the facts come alive. And though Montefiore makes much of his unaffiliated, unbiased presentation, he doesn't hide that his own family, the Montefiores, were ardent Zionists and had a large impact on Jerusalem and the founding of Israel. One has to wonder, then, exactly how unbiased he can be.

I find that the overall history left me rather cold, but the numerous little factoids, the oddities of history, were fascinating. I would much rather have read a book more focused on, say, the Jewish army corps that was created by a German kaiser in the 1800s, than read the entire history of Jerusalem.

Despite Montefiore's hopeful stance in the Epilogue, I can't say that I was left with much more hope for a peaceful Jerusalem than I had before reading the book. What struck me most was the horrific fighting between - not the Jews and the Muslims, as you might think - but the various sects of Christianity! In modern Jerusalem, it appears to be more likely for a Greek Orthodox Christian priest to attack a Catholic priest than for a Jew or a Muslim to attack the other. If not even two sects of the same religion can get along, how can two separate religions hope to coexist peacefully?

My cynicism aside, it's an interesting, varied history, and one not as well known as many people think. I don't know that I would suggest this book to the lay reader, but for anyone interested in religious history or the roots of the current Middle East crisis, "Jerusalem: A Biography" is certainly a good source of information.

Dec 2, 2013

No Place for a Wallflower, by Nathaniel Robert Winters

This is a curious little book, given to my bookstore by a local author. It's based on the letters of Iola Hitt, now a 93-year-old woman living in Napa Valley, to her family when she served as a nurse in the Army during World War II. They aren't the actual letters; the book takes the form of a dated journal based upon those letters, with some fictionalizations added in to provide context. It's a mere 97 pages, and though I started it with major hesitation, it turned into a lovely little find. The prose is a bit awkward, which is fine given its pedigree; the book makes no pretensions about being a great work of literature. It's a fresh take on a much-traveled subject. WWII seen through the eyes of a nurse, who viewed the before and after of war but not the actual act thereof, is quite interesting. I'm glad Winters brought it into the bookstore, and glad I read it.