Browsing Category: book reviews

To the Lighthouse

Book #3: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

This is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century by many critics so I feel like a bit of an idiot for not liking it more. Woolf is not one of my favorite feminist novelists but I find myself quoting her all the time. Her suicide note, which I know I have noted on here before, always breaks my heart. 

“I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V”

I always read her work with this quote in mind and the awareness that I am reading someone who lived for her work and was a very conflicted individual. She has iconic lines such as “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” or “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” It is hard not to want to love her work but I always struggle with her books. 

Part I of the novel draws you into the lives of the Ramsey’s and their friends, particularly focusing on Mrs. Ramsey. You follow their lives for one afternoon and by the end you feel very, very close to some of the characters. But in Part II, without any warning, Mrs. Ramsey is killed off and the home that you spent the last 80 pages in has fallen into despair. I love how Woolf did this. It immediately had the effect of making me realize how brief and trivial life is. (Though I’m not sure this was Woolf’s intention.) The tables she dusted, the home that she took such meticulous care of is gone. The woman that so many of the characters were mesmerized or tortured by is dead. 

Read If: You like really clever social commentaries. I love the passages in the book where Woolf has us listen in on the internal dialogue of several of the characters during dinner. It is so well done and probably not that far off from what happens at diner parties, even now. 

Don’t Read If: You like stories that move along and don’t have too much philosophical introspection. Although I read a lot, I am not the best reader. I often don’t focus enough, so I depend on the author doing some of the work for me. For this book, I had to read the sparknotes after to understand what I was supposed to take away from it. 

Overall, I can easily see why this book received the acclaim that it did but it was just not for me. 

Rating: 6/10

The Secret Life of Bees aka PUKEFEST

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

I had heard a lot of good things about this book and was excited to read it. As I started reading, I really didn’t see anything special about it and by the end I was downright annoyed at wasting my time. Part of the problem was that I only read about 70% of the book, often finding myself skimming over sickly sweet passages and sometimes even skipping pages all together because I couldn’t handle any more of the tiring prose. Part of me wants to say that I just couldn’t relate to the 14 year-old narrator but that isn’t fair to the many books with young narrators that I love such as A Wrinkle in Time or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. As I was reading the book, I couldn’t quite figure out  why I disliked it so much but it became very clear to me when I went to the Amazon reviews for the book after reading it. I have quoted the review that most spoke to me below in the “Don’t Read If” section below. Overall this book seemed an insult to my intelligence and a fine example of poor writing and the commercialization of fiction.

Read If:
Even with all its faults I still think this is a good book for teenage girls. (as long as you explain to them this is not a good portrayal of life in the South during the 60s) Lily struggles with issues of abandonment, low self-esteem and loneliness which I think are very contemporary issues. She resolves these struggles by accepting that mothers come into our lives in many forms.
“If all you want from a novel is a simple, entertaining read with a happy ending, then please run –don’t walk– to buy The Secret Life of Bees.”

Don’t Read If:
“I cannot imagine African-American women having the slightest interest in this story. It is a white child’s Uncle Remus fantasy, and it makes me sad that readers could possibly imagine it would be meaningful to women of color. Most would find it tiresome and even offensive.”
“This was South Carolina in the 1960’s, how in the world would a white girl have lived with these black women for all that time? How would she have managed to drive around with a black boy and not be pulled over by the police or caused him to be strung up? How did these black women never say a thing to her about getting involved with him? They would have lived under Jim Crow for too many years to have not seen it as a safety issue. And how did these black women (and their female ancestors) manage to keep this land and honey business going, all the while selling to white people? No one ever came to harass them, used racial slurs, nothing? Where was that struggle? There were probably some places August couldn’t have even walked the front door of, much less convinced to sell her products. It just became more and more ludicrous to me as the book went on. Scenes in the beginning of the book showed a small portion of what it was like to be black in the south, but in general there was a lack of racial awareness and seemingly a knowledge of history on Ms. Kidd’s part that frustrated and angered me.”

Discovering Saramago

I came across Blindness by Jose Saramago in a Turkish bookstore. It was on a table that hosted classics such as Crime and Punishment and Pride and Prejudice. I had read just about every book on this table but had never even heard of Blindness.

I usually only bought books from the used stands in Istanbul because full priced English books were so expensive. I was very hesitant to drop about 18 dollars for a book that I could probably buy on Amazon for 5. But deciding that 13 dollars was a fair price to pay for entertainment and enlightenment I went ahead and bought the book.
Jose Saramago is a celebrated Portugese writer who sadly died just a few months ago. He didn’t publish his first novel until he was sixty and after that he wrote many works that were recognized for their brilliance all over the world.
Read if:
-You are interested in reading an author that shuns conventions. Saramago writes however he wants to (he uses commas instead of periods, uses run on sentences and paragraphs can go on for pages) and creates a world completely his own in Blindness. His characters aren’t named and his writing is as much social commentary as it is anything else. 
-You like to think about what base human nature is and want one person’s interpretation of that. 
Don’t read if:
-You don’t like writers who go off on tangents.
-You are squeamish as there are some horrifying passages and Saramago forces us to accept what humans can and will do in desperate times. 
-You get obsessed over plot holes. If you hated Inception, you won’t like this book.
Rating: 7.7/10

Book Reviews!

So, last August I started with a goal of reading one autobiography a week and it evolved into something pretty different. I grew tired or reading autobiographies for a few reasons. When I’m traveling it is hard to find autobiographies I want to read and usually they are so big that they are a hassle to lug around. (I’m not sold on the kindle-like things business.) Also, since I was writing non-fiction, supposedly it is better to read other good non-fiction to help you become a better writer. It made sense so I decided to take that advice. Finally, I was just getting sick of reading people’s life stories. I needed a change. Although I didn’t stick to my initial goal in the end I read much more than I have in the last few years and have rekindled my love for reading.

And as cheesy as this will sound, and it will sound VERY cheesy, as many places as my travels took me this past year and a half, none compare to the places I visited through books. Books are really and truly a magical thing.  

Below is a recap of the books I read. In the beginning I was still expecting to write a review of what I’d read but as you’ll see- that didn’t happen. Disclaimer: Many of these reviews are not pretty.

12: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzerald- 5/5
Although I have read this book many times, it is always worth another read. Who knows if we will ever see the likes of an Amory Blaine again in the literary world? According to Wikipedia, this book made Fitzgerald famous overnight. The initial printing sold out in three days and just ten days later he was married to the love he lost in the book!

It’s interesting to read books that are memoirs veiled as novels. Whenever I sit down for the writing process I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to borrow from the real world. In one sense, it is all borrowed from the real world.

13: Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart: 3.8/5 – I read this book at the recommendation of my friend Jordan and also because it was one of three books in his flat when I visited. It was entertaining and perfect accompaniment to a week in Belgium.

14:The Global Soul by Pico Iyer: 4.1/5 – There were so many passages from this book that I really loved or related to. The begining was full of fascinating tid bits but as the book wore on I wanted to take out an editing pen and cut out chapters all together.

The author is ethnically Indian, with a British accent, raised in the US and London and now living in Japan. All these various identity markers have left him feeling somewhat like he has no place in the world to call home and no sense of belonging.

Iyer discusses the dilemma of the global soul. He tells the stories of friends who fly over 150 days of the year, those who have won the ‘ultimate frequent flyer’ contest and are given one month of unlimited global travel.

Increasingly, we have friends like that. Friends who are never in one place, who travel all week long for work, who have offices scattered all over the world, for whom home because a word that invites a chuckle.

And perhaps more commonly we all have friends like Feraz, who was born of Indian parents in Wales, grew up in London, moved to the mid-west of the United States for half his life and now shares his time between London and Istanbul. (Strikingly similar to Iyer’s background except he now spends his time in Japan)

Iyer tells many stories that an immigrant can relate to. When you go back home and meet people that think that because you are American you are salvation in human form. That you can take them to America too. You nod your head in the beginning. Saying, insha’Allah, God willing, trying not to let your eyes cast with insinceeity betray you.

We create these extremely unnatural lives and then we have to go to extremes to compensate for them. We criss-cross across the world, we move and move until the idea of home is completely foreign.

15: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time: 4.4/5- good quick read. takes real skill to write a book from the perspective of the boy.

16: Running With the Family by Michael Ondaatje: 3.7/5- The memoir of the author of the English Patient. pretty well done.

17: Son of the Circus by John Irving- 4/5- really interesting look into India. didn’t hate it as much as I dislike most south asian lit.

18. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July- 4.5/5- great quick read with quirky stories.

19. Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis- 4/5- another great book of short stories

20. A Wrinkle in Time by Madelieine L’Engle- 5/5 – classic- no need to elaborate

21. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace- 5/5- especially loved Up Simba- McCain rules!

22. Chekhov: Collected Works by Anton Chekhov- 5/5! my introduction to Chekhov- absolutely loved him- there is no short story writer that touches him today.

23. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitgerald- 5/5- i highly recommend reading old favorites or old things you were forced to read in high school. totally different experience this time around.

24. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – 3.8/5- i liked it… but i didn’t. took me ages to read.

25. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan- 5/5- must read!!!! it should change the way you eat and approach food in the West

26. The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A tale of murder, madness and the love of words by Simon Winchester- 5/5! incredibly amazing to read about the great pains it took to create the first oxford english dictionary

27 El Diego: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Footballer by Diego Maradona- 5/5- the title says it all doesn’t it?

28. Bit of a Blur by Alex James- 5/5- quick read and an interesting look at the highs and lows of being a rockstar

29. Bliss: A Novel- O.Z. Livaneli- 5/5 – one of the best and most honest depictions of Istanbul I have read yet.

30. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath- 4.2/5- loved her biography and was a bit disappointed by this in comparison

31. Who Ate All the Pies? The Life and Times of Mick Quinn by Mick Quinn- 3.8/5- good read but really vulgar at times. made me kind of hate soccer at points

32. A Long Way Gone-Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah- 5/5- a great look into the war in Sierra Leone and the makings of a boy soldier

33. The Devil and Miss Prynn by Paulo Coelho- 3.6/5- my problem with Coelho is that he is too obvious. there seems to be no art to his writing.

34. The Zahir by Paulo Coelho- 3.4/5- eh- not a huge fan

35. The Eye by Vladamir Nabokov – 4/5 quick read- good read

36. The Life of Insects by Victor Pelevin and Andrew Bromfield- 3.5/5- loved it at parts but felt like i was pushing through a lot of it

37. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: 1/5 only Joyce I’ve read so far- didn’t like it

38. The Journals of Anais Nin: Volume 4 by Anais Nin: 5/5!! (Although at some points you think okkk i get it!)

39. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell- still reading but won’t likely finish now i have more access to books i really want to read

40. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez- 5/5- loved it.

41. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: 5/5- what a great journey! 

42. Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West by Benazir Bhutto: 4.5/5- although i always talk about how much I can’t stand the Bhuttos- every time i read one of Benazir’s books, I have to give her mad intelligence props. 

43. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins: 4.2/5- this book has its critics but still pretty bone chilling and interesting at points

There are some books I missed so I probably hit around 48 which was not too far off my goal but want to make sure to get to 50 this year. Also, this time I am keeping the categories open and want to be more consistent of writing my thoughts down afterwords. I hate the idea of reading without reflecting. It seems like half the fun of reading is gone then. I am at about four books for this year and hopefully I’ll get to writing about them verrrry soon!

You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely

Urg… I keep having more false starts with books. This is annoying because reading a hundred pages into a book and then realizing I don’t want to finish it wastes precious time! The most recent false starts: The Hitler book- I just don’t have the energy for it right now and since I already read Mein Kampf it feels redundant sometimes. So, that is back on the shelf for right now. Then I tried Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Gross. It was way too hard for me to read while I was going through the visa drama so I put that down as well. Then I got through books 8-10 and tried Walter Cronkite’s, A Reporter’s Life. I got through about 150 pages of that but didn’t want to lug it back with me and wasn’t really that into it. Surprisingly, his writing just wasn’t that captivating. 
I write about these false starts because I suppose they are reviews in themselves. The other good thing about the false starts is that they show that I can put a book down. As little as an year ago, I didn’t have it in me to leave a book unfinished. Even if I totally hated it, I had to see it through. Now that I have read so many good books, I don’t want to waste my time on stuff I don’t like. The small life lessons you learn by making yourself read a book a week! 
Book Eight
Angela’s Ashes
By: Frank McCourt
Read: 9/29/2009
Rating: 5.8/10

This book was mostly annoying. I wrote a long reflection about it in my paper journal but can’t be bothered to type it up. For the first 200 or so pages it is sad, sad, sad. One sibling dies, another dies. Dad drinks too much. Grandma hates us. Someone else dies. Life in Ireland sucked really bad. Having a drunk Irish dad sucked really bad.
I had so little patience for the people in this book. I wanted to clobber the dad and his ability to keep drinking and drinking in the face of his family’s mounting problems. I wanted to scream at the mom for being such an irresponsible parent and for continuing to bring children in the world and then acting totally irresponsibly around and towards them.
You feel bad for McCourt. You feel bad for the many Irish families, and like-families in the world. But you also feel mad at humans for being such damn idiots.
I want to read ‘Tis which McCourt wrote after this book and it picks up in New York where he is more grown and starts a life free of some of the problems of his family. McCourt ended up having a very good and full life and just died a few months ago from cancer.
I didn’t like this book but most people do. But my opinion is probably off base. It won the pulitzer prize for autobiographies, was an international best seller and made into a movie. But that still doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Book Nine
Made in America
By: Sam Walton
Read: 10/9/2009
Rating: 7.1/10

If you hate Wal-Mart, you should read this book. If you are an entrepreneur, you should read this book. If you go to grocery stores, you should read this book. If you have a dream, you should read this book. If you want to make money, you should read this book. You get the idea. Basically, just about anyone can take something out of this book. It is a great story about a really hard working guy who makes good. It is one of my brother’s favorite books of all time and he is also an autobiography addict if that helps you decide if it is worth checking out.
Sam Walton died in 1992 as he was finishing the book. It was his last project. I’ve noticed that a lot of the most successful people I’ve read about, had to wait until they were totally incapable of doing anything else before they wrote and many of them died soon after finishing their books. 
Book Ten
My Life in Action
By: Jackie Chan
Read: 10/14/2009
Rating: 9/10

What a great, amazing, fantastic, wonderful read!! I didn’t know much about Jackie Chang going into this book and was really shocked by the crazy life he had! This book is moving and inspiring. It is a story of someone who fails and fails and fails and fails and fails and then finally… finally… there is success!
Book Eleven
My friend Leonard
By: James Frey
Read: 10/24/2009
Rating: 5.7/10

By now you have probably heard of James Frey and how he is a big, fat liar and cheat.
In some ways I can’t blame him for his embellishments. It seems that his life was hard in some ways and I can imagine that when your life is hard but not hard enough to be a really big, sad deal, you might have some sense of entitlement. You might think that the world should feel sorry for you. Or that you know a certain kind of pain and from that you are sure you can talk about a bigger kind of pain. That is bullshit. I am not as mad as some people are about Frey’s attempt to pass his book as a total memoir but I think it is annoying and wish he hadn’t.
I read this book knowing that this guy already had been made a liar with A Million Little Pieces so I guess my next comment probably isn’t fair. But when I started reading it, the first thing I thought was wow, this guy is full of crap. It felt like I was reading a novel. Although it’s true that a lot of biographies are pretty amazing and unbelievable they read totally differently. The sincerity and authenticity screams through the pages. Here, there was none of that. I thought this guy sucks. I don’t want to read this anymore.
But I needed a break from big stories. I wanted to read a regular person’s memoir and lies or not, I got that to some extent. Also, if this hadn’t been labeled as a memoir, it is actually a pretty decent book. Not for everyone, but a fun thing to pick up. So, for those purposes, I actually liked it a little bit. Overall, I just need to read some stuff that is a little lighter. My brain just needs a little rest!