Friday, December 30, 2011

Elle Ewok's Reading Goals for 2012

All my goals for 2012 generally relate to being a more productive person. I thought it would be fun to memorialize my reading goals for the coming year and see how I do come this time next year...

Reading Goal #1: Finish the 4 partially read novels that have been sitting on my nightstand for years. The sad part is these are not books I have purposefully abandonded. I have really like them so far and I'm not sure why I haven't finished them yet.
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1957)
  • In the Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
  • A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin (2005)
  • The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone (1961)
Reading Goal #2: Read the following Novels:

  • The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya (2007)
  • A Dance With Dragons, George R.R. Martin (2011)
  • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1966)
  • Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
  • Enders Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
  • The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (2008)
  • Song of Kali, Dan Simmons (1985)
  • The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929)
  • The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie (1988)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey (1962)
  • Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein (1959)
  • Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
Reading Goal #3: Read at least 5 Non-fiction Books TBD.

Reading Goal #4: Read 2 short story collections preferably Nabokov and Flannery O'Connor.

Now look at how cute Gimli is:

Monday, December 26, 2011

Thunderstruck, Erik Larson (2007)

Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Rating:  3 Pierogies

Review: Erik Larson knows he's got a formula that works, and he employs it with success time and time again. Like The Devil in the White City, in Thunderstruck, Larson juxtaposes important historical events with a grisly story of murder.


  would have liked Thunderstruck a lot more, if I hadn't read The Devil in the White City less than a month ago. The tone and pacing of both books is identical. All you do is swap out the historical facts, and you've got essentially the same book. Don't get me wrong, Thunderstruck is well written and engaging...I just don't recommend reading the books back to back, as it becomes tiresome.

Thunderstruck tracks Gugliemo Marconi's development of radio transmission technology alongside the story of Hawley Harvey Crippen, a meek, mousy doctor with a detestable fame-seeking wife. It's no secret Crippen is involved in murder (it says so on the book jacket), but the book hardly gets around to the murder part until the very very end. With the buildup in the description, I expected more gore. It wasn't scary, and I'm obviously watching too much American Horror Story, because I didn't even think it was that gruesome.

The last part of the book is pretty exciting. Scotland Yard begins investigating him, he tries to flee, and an exciting cat-and-mouse game ensues involving Marconi's radio technology. It's an interesting connection, even though I didn't find the Marconi storyline very interesting.

This book isn't a bad use of your time if you have some time to kill in an airport, but if you have something else to read that you're really excited about, I'd read whatever that is first.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Books that Blew Our Minds: Spudbabe

Kindergarden-4th Grade:
Polar Bear Brothers, Ylla (1960)
I couldn't take the pressure of picking a new book in 10 minutes every week during Library class.  So most weeks I would panic in the last 20 seconds and take out Polar Bear Brothers.  It's about two polar bear brothers who play together-ADORABLE!!

Elementary School (when I wasn't reading Polar Bear Brothers):
My Brother Sam is Dead, James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (1976)
I'm pretty sure this had a traumatic effect on everyone who had to read it at that age.  Seriously though, who has 9 year olds read a book that has a young boy watch his older brother get executed at the end?  Those teachers were a bunch of sick F-ers. 

Middle School
Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls (1961)
This is a traumatic book for EVERYONE who reads it regardless of age/sex. 

Junior High School:
Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)
Because 13 year olds are retarded. 

High School
Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)
I still don't understand why Scarlett was so in love with that fruit loop Ashley over Rhett.  Rhett was sexy and wonderful (marital rape aside) and loved her so much!!!!  And I just started crying...  

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937-1949)

I at first refused to read any of these books or watch the movies because they're for dorks.  Then Elle Ewok rented the first movie and made me watch it with her.  We then watched it 5 more times that weekend.  Then I read all the books, watched the first movie 20-30 more times, stood in line to see the other two movies, bought all the extended release DVD's and watched them multiple times, bought the action without those books and movies, it could have been many more years before I realized I was a complete Dork too.
20 - Something:

The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand (1943)

I just can't speak highly enough of this book.  I absolutely LOVED it.  It came into my life at a time when I was starting to grow up (a little bit) and was trying to form my political beliefs in a more solid way.  Up until then all I knew was that I didn't like responsible people paying for losers and that George W. Bush had a cute butt.  I still feel that way, but reading the Fountainhead helped me to refine my beliefs and had a sexy romance in it to boot. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

SLYBC Question of the Day: What is Your Favorite Pilgrim Tale in Hyperion?

Elle Ewok: One thing most members of Yinzer Book Club share in common is our desire to make out with Dan Simmons because we love his books so much.

Hello Sexy!

As noted in "The Books That Blew My Mind" post below - Hyperion (by Dan Simmons) is one of my favorite books of all time. It is structurally based on The Canterbury Tales in that the book tells six independant stories (each of which can stand on its own as a great short story) and connects them all together via the main (but separate) plot line.

In Hyperion six pilgrims travel to a far away planet to meet THE SHRIKE. If the Shrike is not the coolest horror/villian/monster ever written I'm not sure what is. It is pretty much guarenteed that they all will die horrible horrible deaths at the hands of The Shrike and there is only a small chance that one of them might survive and have a wish granted. Yet, they all go. Why you ask? What would compel a person to do such a thing? Well that's what the short stories are for. To reveal the motivations behind the Pilgrims' suicide mission.

Each of the short stories are fantastic. But some are better than others and some are truly exceptional. I asked SLYBC members and friends to nominate their favorite Pilgrim Tale:

Elle Ewok: The Priest's Tale - "The Man who Cried God" (Part 1)
Elle Ewok: "This is the best short story I ever read. EVER. Horrifying and deeply imaginative."

Spudbabe: The Priest's Tale - "The Man who Cried God" (Part 1)

Spudbabe: "I hate picking the same thing as Elle Ewok."

Trixie Beldon: The Scholar's Tale - "The River Lethe's Taste is Bitter" (Part 4)

Trixie Beldon: "So good!!! And sad!!!"

Spudbabe's Fiance: The Scholar's Tale - "The River Lethe's Taste is Bitter" (Part 4)

Spudbabe's Fiance: "Um I forget. Probably the dude with the baby."

Cock-eyed Bobby Eff: The Soldier's Tale - "The War Lovers" (Part 2)

Cock-eyed Bobby Eff: "Very tough question. I could spend an hour discussing each. I'll go with the colonel. I always dig stories of warriors who get the girl. But the Keets story is right up there."

Books that Blew My Mind: BeezusKiddo

The tricky part of making this list for me is that I haven't read most of these books for a long time, and I remember little more than that I loved the bear with me through my feeble reviews... Elementary School: Matilda, Roald Dahl (1988).

I loved everything Roald Dahl wrote. I think I've probably read all his books, including the books he wrote for grown ups. I think I read Matilda 10 times as a kid. Matilda was neglected, even loathed, by her parents but she found happiness in books. We were kindred little spirits (except my parents didn't hate me, they thought I was ok).

Junior High: Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi (1974) and The Thief of Always, Clive Barker (1992)

Neither of these books are good. They're both garbage. I went back and tried to read The Thief of Always when I was in college, and thought "I was obsessed with this?" Yes, I was a morbid, dark kid in Jr High (and some of high school). I searched for books as demented as possible. I loved these books, and for a brooding kid in a podunk town, these were amaaaaaazing. Thank goodness I developed some taste as I grew up.

High School: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1939)


This is when I finally started to "get" literature. The Grapes of Wrath is my all time favorite book. It holds a special piece in my heart because this is where I cut my teeth on reading critically and learned how to interact with a book. Chapter 2, the chapter about the tortoise crossing the highway, is the most perfect chapter in all of American literature. It is the whole book, the whole era, all the feelings, all the thoughts, all in one little tortoise.

College: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)

It has been almost 10 years now since I read this book, so I suppose it's excusable that the only things I remember are that (1) this book is really hard to read, and (2) it is so worth it. It is amazing and mindblowing, but don't ask me what happened, because I don't remember. I just remember that everyone had the same name. After revisiting favorite books from my past and finding out they were actually terrible, I'm now more hesitant to go back and revisit favorites...but Oprah loved this one and put it on her favorites list, so it must be good for reals.

Law School: The Series of Unfortunate Events Books, Lemony Snicket

Law school involves reading all day and reading all night (followed by a career of reading all day, and reading all night). During leisure reading time, I needed a break. During those 3 long years, I read a lot of young adult novels. They're fast, easy reading, and a lot of fun. The Series of Unfortunate Events books are intelligent. Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) is a master at cross-writing his works for audiences young and old. While the stories are enjoyable for little ones, they're also full of sharp literary and political wit for grown-ups. Yes, you may feel silly checking books out of the children's section of the library, but check these ones out, they're well worth it. YA may well be my favorite genre. Other YA series you should NOT miss: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins.

20s: The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (2003)


Over the last few years, I've been reading a lot of fiction bestsellers. It's easy enough to pick one up at the big fancy display at the library, or Costco, or the airport, or wherever I happen to be. I can't say that The Time Traveler's Wife is a work of timeless literature, but it is a really, really good read. I love having that feeling where I want to keep reading, where I want to put everything else aside and just read this book, because I'm really enjoying it, and I want the whole rest of the world to just disappear. I think I got through this book in like 24 hours, and yes, I cried a few times. Do yourself a favor and skip the movie, the movie is terrible. The book, though, is fantastic and it is well worth it to set aside a weekend to get lost in it.

Honorable Mentions: In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1966) and No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy (2005)


I still like crime books, but unlike my Jr. High self, I now actually have taste. Each of these books are amazing. They juxtapose smooth prose with unspeakable horrors. The effect is enchanting. These are the books where I get to the end, and I am so sad, because the book was so amazing and now it's over.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Books that Blew Our Minds: Elle Ewok

There a certain books you read in life that really affect you and stick with you over the years. Perhaps it was the time in your life you read them, or maybe they actually taught you something about the world. Maybe you don't even know why that affected you so much. I've asked SLYBC members to share the books that "blew your mind" over the years.

Books that Blew Elle Ewok's Mind (why does that sound dirty?):


My Brother Sam is Dead, James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (1976)

I read My Brother Sam is Dead at a very young age even though is technically fits in the "young adult" cateogry. Perhaps I was too young to read it because it affected me probably more than any book I have ever read in my life. It was the first time I had ever read a story that didn't have a happy ending. It was the first story I read where something horrible happened to a good person. It was the first story I ever read that included death. Up until reading this book it had not occured to me that the world could be a cruel and senseless place. It was devastating. I remember being physically nauseous I was so upset. I read this book 25 years ago so I can't say whether or not it is a good book - just that I will never forget how much it affected me.


Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls (1961)

I have never cried so hard in my entire life than when reading the end of this book. I remember exactly where I was, I remember the color of the bedspread I was laying on even though it was 20 years ago at least. My love for animals, I feel, is one of my defining characteristics and Where the Red Fern Grows had a big part in propelling that lifelong devotion.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

I have yet to meet a female (woman or girl) who does not LOVE this book. I was 14 and at choir/music camp when I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In any free moment I could find, I would race back to my dorm room to read this 528 page perfect novel. This IS the coming of age story for girls and it is fabulous. It was the first book I read that showed me what a great novel can accomplish as it relates to character development and describing interpersonal realtionships. A book to be adored.


Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)

I read Crime and Punishment my senior year in high school as it was part of my English curriculum. We read many great works that year but Crime and Punishment took the cake. It also spearheaded my deep devotion and obsession with Classic Russian Literature which consumed about 4 years of my life and still has a significant hold over my mind and heart. It is probably why I ended up marrying a man of Russian descent in the Russian Orthodox Church! Maybe not ;) Crime and Punishment was the first time I realized how truly significant, profound and monumental a novel could be (although I must confess I didn't love the end). Nevertheless, it will always hold an extremely special place in my heart.


The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937-1949)

I read The Hobbit is grade school and didn't like it so I never bothered with Lord of the Rings until I was in college. My mistake. The Lord of the Rings is absolute perfection. It is my desert island book. Not only is its scope mind-blowing (Tolkien created actual languages for God's Sake!) but its themes of courage, friendship and sacrifice are inspiring to all people of all times, ages and cultures. It is the perfect adventure fairy tale. I literally get goose-bumps just thinking about it. My husband and I named our cat after a character in The Lord of the Rings!  (Gimli). I have been a fantasy freak ever since reading this book/s.


Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon (1991)

One of my law school professors was an adjunct from Chicago who was an Assistant United States Attorney. This book was on his "recommended but not mandatory" list of course materials. Homicide describes the year Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon spent with the detectives of the Baltimore Police Department homicide squad. It was later turned into a tv series. I read the book because my Grandfather was a homicide detective in NYC and I idolized him right up until he died when I was 14. I thought this book would let me in on what his life and work was like. I wasn't expecting much though. I remember this book because I had never been so pleasantly surprised by a book before. To say I loved Homicide would be an understatement. Homicide is probably the best non-fiction book I have ever read. It was dramatic, suspenseful, horrifying, inspiring and even incredibly funny. This book included some of the most disturbing things I have ever read along with some of the funniest things I have ever read. It basically perfectly reflects the juxtaposition of how horrible, wonderful, hilarious, disgusting and ridiculous life can be.


Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)

This is the book I wish I had written. A grand tale full of adventure and myserty and dark magic written with such artistry that it makes me want to cry. To me, at the time I read it, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was the perfect combination of imaginative story-telling and perfect writing. Although this book is over 1,000 pages I literally made my self slow down while reading it because it made me sad when I realized it was coming to the end. I have recommended this book to everyone and it seems no one loves it as much as I do but I don't care. This book is absolute perfection in my mind and it is my dream-fantasy in life to one day write something comparable.


Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)

I have been Dan Simmons' book-slave ever since reading Hyperion. I will literally buy anything this man writes for giving me this book. Hyperion was the first science ficiton book I ever read which is amazing because I am such a fantasy dork and the genres are so closely related. That said, Hyperion really affected me because it was the first time the power of someone else's imagination really knocked my socks off. I used to think I had a good imagination. Not so much anymore after reading Hyperion. I was literally in awe of the originality and cleverness of this book. It was also profound and moving. Hyperion is horror, science-fiction and fantasy rolled into one that makes meaningful commentary on the horrible-beauty of life.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (2011)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: I was psyched when BeezusKiddo chose The Night Circus as our next book in our non-SLYBC Book Club. I LOVE stories about dueling Victorian-Era magicians. Yes - there are numerous books and movies on this topic (e.g. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; and The Prestige etc)

The Night Circus is about two magicians who are bound to compete against one another in a magical contest created by elder magicians that they neither understand nor really care about. Chosen as children, one maintians natural magical talents while the other is taught to perform magic. The stage for the duel is a magical mystery circus that operates only at night and has mind-blowing magical attractions. The magicians duel by trying to outdo one another with circus attractions. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the magicians fall in love. As such, their contributions to the circus mainly become love-tributes to one another.

I could not help but compare The Night Circus to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell as they are both about dueling victorian-age magicians.  Obviously, The Night Circus suffered by the comparision. It simply cannot hold a candle to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. That said, it is not a fair comparison because Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a goddamn literally masterpiece. While Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell made me want to shave my head and join a convent so I could devote my life to writing something half as good, The Night Circus made me want to eat a caramel apple and go to a carvnival. One is serious and signficant literature while and the other is a lovely story. That's not to say The Night Circus is not good, however. It is very good for what it is.

The Night Circus doesn't provide much in the way of character development or plot line. While the premise of the book is certainly clever there is no driving narrative. There can't be as there really is no conflict. No one seems to care that much about the "Duel". At all. Furthermore, the characters were undeveloped and one-dimensional. I could care less about any of the characters and what happened to them. That's okay though because this book is about stunning and vivid descriptions of magical feats - and that is enough. The circus is the main and only true character in The Night Circus. The attractions at the circus were imaginative and described beautifully. I was perfectly content to travel through the circus tents and "observe" even without a real plot line or any notable character development. Outside of the circus, the book focuses on elaborate descriptions of the victorian era clothing and food and dinner parties. Yes, it sounds boring and superficial but everything is described so well I didn't care.

Obviously to enjoy this book you have to make peace with the fact that the magical individuals use their extraordinary abilities to make a really cool circus rather than....oh I don't know... curing cancer, or flying or world domination. But I was content to ignore this glaring absurdity and enjoy the circus.

I enjoyed The Night Circus very much but it certainly is not for everyone. My husband would never forgive me if I told him to read this book for example. Somehow I doubt he would enjoy reading about victorian party dresses and exotic flavored creme brulee.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (2003)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 glorious homemade pierogies (almost good enough to be 5, but not quite)

Review: I had never heard about this book before, and then three separate people recommended The Devil in the White City to me in the space of two days. I needed to see what I was missing.

Larson tirelessly researched turn-of-the-century Chicago, in this nonfiction work that simultaneously explores the path to the creation of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, as well as traces the mystery of a serial killer, H. H. Holmes, feeding on the crowds the fair attracts. This book reads like fiction and is very engaging. I appreciate that Larson included endnotes, with an epilogue inviting the reader to personally explore the sources.

Larson alternates skilfully between the two storylines, it never feels choppy or uneven. Larson took great pains to give the reader the true feel of Holmes' personality. Holmes' most distinctive and disturbing traits were his chilling blue eyes and cool demeanor. The description the first few times around was effective. However, Larson repeats this description every time Holmes makes a new acquaintance, and after a while it is tiresome. Although this is a serial killer book, it's not frightening. Actually, I found the storyline about the construction of the fair, the tight deadlines, and its looming failure to be very stressful, and create much more of an impression.


Larson explained how he used Truman Capote's In Cold Blood as an inspiration for his work. In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books. Devil in the White City can't stand up to the poetry of Capote's language or the atmosphere Capote creates, but if you're a fan of In Cold Blood, you will likely find this book enjoyable.

During and after reading Devil in the White City, I've been thinking about the condition of America at the time of the World's Fair. A fair like this simply could never happen again. Oh, we could easily put on an enormous exposition, however, the world was a much larger place (so to speak) then. We are no longer small town bumpkins who revel in wonder at cowboys or bellydancers. Between National Geographic and the internet, we have access to everything. There is nothing left to revel at anymore.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter (2010)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: I picked up this book during an insane period of work. I was overburdened and exhausted, and like usual, none of my stress management techniques were working. (Honestly: the techniques I try hardly ever work, I need to find some new techniques). I knew that I'm not the only running-crazy working mom out there, somebody must have done it before and done it better, and written a book about it...right?

Bourg Carter's book isn't a magic bullet, but it will get you pointed in the right direction. In addition to the obvious causes of stress, she points out smaller subtle things, that you may actually have control over, that may be increasing stress without your awareness. She explains why traditional stress management techniques like deep breathing or yoga are not necessarily going to be helpful for high achievers, and why they may even increase stress.

For those in the true depths of burnout, Bourg Carter provides a guide to overcoming it, and starting to get your life back on track. I feel like this book targets women who are overachieving at a level or two above me (CEO's with multiple children, for example), but there was a lot in it that was extremely insightful and useful even for me, a baby-overachiever.

This book is best to read at a time when you're not completely overwhelmed. Overcoming stress and burnout involves a certain level of decisionmaking. You will have to decide that you want to tackle the problem head on, this book cannot fix it for you. You may have to set certain boundaries, which may be uncomfortable. I know that in periods of acute stress, all I want is a magic remedy, and I would probably become frustrated with this book. A lot of the proposed solutions are things I've heard before (and so has every other high achieving woman), but they're discussed with new insight. Even though I picked the book up when everything was absolutely crazy, I didn't get around to reading it until things died down a little bit. If I were reading this in a period of high stress, I'd be frustrated (1) that I'd heard of a lot of the proposed solutions before, and (2) they hadn't worked for me before, so how is this book possibly going to help me? Reading the book in a period of lesser stress helped me appreciate the fresh insight Bourg Carter contributes, and will enable me to better implement some of her suggestions into my life.

My favorite part in the book is Bourg Carter's short discussion on balance. She explains that treating "balance" as a work/life formula that is uniform across all women, and is achievable, serves only to cause more stress and frustration. Striving toward a balance formula that doesn't work for you is never going to help:  

Adjust your thinking. Don't view it in terms of all-or-none. Get whatever balance you can get in your life and be happy about it. You also have to decide what the right balance is for you. Who said that balance had to be 50/50, with half of your life devoted to work and the other half to home and family? No one. If 50/50 is best for you, try to get as close to it as possible, knowing that you won't succeed all the time, or maybe any of the time. In fact, some days, you may not even come close. But you're doing he best you can, and you should reward yourself for the effort. If 75/25 fits better in your world, then that's what you should strive for. Don't let balance define you. You define balance based on who you are, how you live, and what you want.

You would get the best use out of this book if you keep it around as a reference guide, picking it up now and then for a quick refresher on signs of burnout, stress management techniques, etc. If nothing else, the book has immense value by showing the reader that she's not alone and that burnout is not a personal failure. Burnout is a creation of larger institutional and cultural problems, but those larger problems aren't going to change overnight, so Bourg Carter helps the reader work through her side of things as best she can.

Word to the wise-- I read a large chunk of this book right before bed one evening. This resulted in: (1) A nightmare that I was pregnant, (2) After falling back asleep from the nightmare, a dream about getting ready for work, (3) waking up at 6am on a Saturday, confused about why my alarm didn't go off, and (4) finally falling back asleep around 8am, only to have a dream that I had to conduct a deposition about a bunch of documents, except I forgot to print the documents out, was wearing sweats instead of a suit, and went to the wrong office building...and somewhere in this dream I also managed to stop by the grocery store and pick up a huge multipack of those Gerber turkey sticks that Baby Beez loves (note to self: need to go to the grocery store, we are out of turkey sticks). This book was great and I highly recommend it, but pick something else for a bedtime story.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien (1977)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating:  1 Pierogi for (lack of) readibility, 5 pierogies because Tolkien was clearly much smarter than me.

Review: It was SLOW and PAINFUL, but I finally finished The Silmarillion. I like Tolkien well enough. I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and saw the LOTR movies, but that's about it. My interest in the Silmarillion isn't attributable so much to my interest in Tolkien, as it is to a class I took in college. The class was an Anthropology/Linguistics course, and focused on artificial languages. The professor was a little koo-koo-bananas, but he really knew his stuff, and you could tell he came into class every day super excited to share what he knew. In the class, we talked about the different languages Tolkien invented, as well as Klingon, Esperanto, and a few other topics I don't entirely recall. About 75% of the class was devoted to Quenya and Sindarin-- Tolkien's 2 "big" languages. The Simarillion, as the Middle Earth creation story, was a constant topic in the class. The book was recommended reading, but I didn't get around to it at the time. Since then, I've wanted to get back to it.

The Silmarillion reads a lot like the Bible-- the language is awkward, the story is told from a very detached third party, and each of the characters and places have several different names. If you're reading it on your own, it's very hard to keep everything straight. There is a comprehensive glossary and other resources in the back of the book, but I found flipping back and forth to be tiresome, so I didn't bother. I would have gotten a lot more out of the book if I had actually read it back when I was taking that class in college. If you're able to find like-minded people interested in doing a "Silmarillion study" and working through it together, you could likewise get a lot more out of the book. From where I stand, I only really comprehended the last two parts of the book. One of them was an Atlantis-type story, and the other one was the setup for Lord of the Rings and I probably just recalled it because I remembered seeing it at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Other than those two parts, all I remember is that there were Valar, and Elves, and Men, and Orcs, and good and evil, and lots of characters with lots of children, and lots of battles, and jewels and rings.

All that being said, Tolkien proves his brilliance through this book. It's not going to be on Oprah's book club anytime soon because it's not a fun read in the traditional sense, but the obvious depth of Tolkien's imagination and efforts is impressive. Tolkien created 2 languages, multiple races that span generation after generation, and an entire new world and its history. Not every great work is an easy read. Reading The Silmarillion is something I'm glad to have done, although I wish I had done a better job of it and come out of it retaining more of the stories, and their characters.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer (2003)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: FYI - I am on a non-fiction kick.

While on vacation in Aspen I needed something to read and my husband recommended Under the Banner of Heaven since we were in the American west and close to "Mormon Country." Under the Banner of Heaven is written by American author Jon Krakauer who is better known for his writings on mountain climbing and outdoorsey stuff. It is essentially two stories (1) the history and development of Mormonism - the fastest growing religion in America; and (2) the modern double murder committed by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who subscribe to a version of fundamentalist Mormonism. As to be expected, the Mormon Church went completely ballistic when this book was published and have denounced it.

Both stories were captivating. I knew virtually nothing about the history and theology of Mormonism prior to reading this book and now I feel fairly well-versed (at least superficially) regarding the place of Mormonism in American history and culture. I like being knowledgeable about the history of my country and understanding this country's only homegrown major religion is vital. Because Mormonism is so new and young, its founding and evolution are very accessible. Prior to reading this book, I thought Mormonism was a ridiculous religion seeped in fraud and stupidity. Frankly, I still feel that way although I have more ammo after reading this book. The reality is all religions have elements of ridiculousness and ask its followers to believe some crazy things. That said, the established world religions at least have an ancient history and mystery that instill reverence even in the most cynical among us. Mormonism just doesn't. Being able to pull up Joseph Smith's arrest warrant for fraud on google just makes it all the more difficult to take seriously. My two favorite things about Mormonism I learned from this book are (1) Emma Smith, Joseph Smith's wife, thought her husband's testimony about polygamy was complete horseshit, refused to recognize his plural wives and after he died joined a Mormon offshoot with her son which denounced polygamy; and (2) another Mormon offshoot came to Pittsburgh. Not sure what happened to them but you don't see too many Mormons around here.
The story of the Lafferty double murder is a sensational aspect of the book meant to draw in readers. It probably isn't fair to mainstream Mormonism to wrap a book on its history in a double murder committed by crazy fundamentalists but it worked as far as making the book even more interesting and captivating. It is just a hell of a crime drama story. I also think the story of the Lafferty murder (although surely offensive to mainstream Mormons) served a purpose. It shows how and why Mormonism is so popular and fast growing. It also demonstrates how Mormonism's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.
Essentially, Mormonism cuts out the middleman. It tells all Mormon MEN (not the women, eff them) that they can speak directly to God and receive testimony. It is obvious why this would be an attractive religion to many men (hence Mormonism being the fastest growing religion in America). It is also pretty clear why this would be attractive to many freaks in particular.  For example, a man who may want to bang his 12 year old step-daughter would probably find it compelling to subscribe to a religion where God hypothetically can tell him to do so. Additionally, men who might otherwise not be very successful in life may find a religion that gives them the ability to talk to God could help with self-esteem issues. The appeal to your garden variety egomaniac is clear. For most Mormon men born into the religion, it is probably just a nice bonus. The problem is, since anyone can receive testimony (as long as they are a man) the Church cannot control what "testimony" is "recieved" and can't control crazy offshoots from sprouting up all over the place. And that is exaclty what has happened and why you have polygamous groups in Colorado and Arizona and small little individual fundamentalist crazies like the people who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart and the Lafferty brothers and Bill Paxton's obnoxious character on Big Love.
Anyway, the book is fascinating and I would recommend it highly.

Although, I doubt anyone would read this book and have their opinion of Mormonism inflated, at the end of the day it didn't make me any more or less hostile to mainstream Mormonism. As long as they aren't hurting anyone who the hell am I to judge? (Fundamentalists who marry children and become welfare dependants to support their brood can kiss my butt, I will judge them very very much.) I am just as likely to vote for Mitt Romney now as I was before reading this book. Also, all the mainstream Mormons I have ever met (while a bit odd for my irreverant and smart-ass sensibilities) have been hard-working, productive, tax-paying citizens who take good care of their children and teach them positive values. As a practical matter, I can only wish all citizens of this country behaved like Mormons.
In the end, like so many things, my thoughts on this matter are summed up perfectly by South Park:
Gary (Mormon Classmate to Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman):

"Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that's stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion and just be my friend. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls."

Monday, November 21, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson (2010)

Reviewer: Beezuskiddo

Rating: 1 soggy pierogi

Review: I stuck it out and finally finished Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Phew, it's finally over.

Simonson's debut novel is a parade of caricatures in an English village. Major Ernest Pettigrew, a prim and proper retiree, spends his days pining over Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Jasmina Ali. When he's not drifting in a cloud of cartoon hearts, he's brooding over his father's heirloom pair of Churchill shotguns. The Major's father gave one to him and one to his brother. Each of them were supposed to leave their own gun to the other upon death, so that the pair of guns would be reunited. The Major's brother conveniently omitted that little tidbit from his will, and upon the brother's death, the Major must face his brother's widow about the matter. The Major is also troubled by his social-climbing yuppie son, whose selfishness blinds him to civility.

We had our book club discussion about this book last week. At least one club member adored it, and a couple others liked it. I did not like it, and only finished it out of some absurd sense of duty to finish things I've started. None of the characters were relatable, and the plot was not compelling. On the whole I found it boring. The characters were such ridiculous caricatures that it was at times insulting to read...I kept thinking "Really? You're really describing people this way?"

This book has sold well, and she has won a fair deal of praise, including recognition from Alexander McCall Smith (whose own novels face similar problems with character development). I don't see the reason for any of this praise. I'm just glad I crossed this one off my list, and can move on to the next book.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (2011)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: The hype around The Night Circus has been crazy...I rarely pay enough attention to new books to know about them until they've been bestsellers for a long while. Erin Morgenstern managed to get hooked up with Starbucks, giving away a download of the first 100 pages of the book, and news of this novel spread like wildfire.

The Night Circus shares a competition between two magicians, for which they have trained their whole lives, and the circus provides a mysterious forum for them to display their talents.

The Night Circus is full of imaginative fun...I've heard it compared to Harry Potter a number of times, but Harry Potter is the go-to comparison for any kind of fantasy/magical novel now. It's an awful comparison for The Night Circus, because besides magic, this book isn't anything like Harry Potter. It's an awkward comparison.

The Night Circus' magic, and Morgenstern's skill, lie in description. The circus is there for exploring. All the major points in the story could be covered in about 20 pages, the remainder of the book is lavish descriptions of magical performances, beautiful clothing, and all sorts of fantastical sights. It's escapism, and it's wonderful.

Laura Miller at did a thoughtful review in which she described The Night Circus as an "etsy novel"-- it's clever, hand made with lots of effort and care, and even has a few lumpy spots and frayed edges. I couldn't agree more. Morgenstern has obvious mastery of imagination and description, but the plot is simplistic and left me wanting. I spent most of the novel wanting to learn more about the rules and logistics of the game between the two young magicians, but when she finally comes around to providing an explanation, it's a mere recitation of basic rules I had figured out well before on my own.

Morgenstern, showing off her festive side.

The Night Circus is not well-suited for a sequel, but I do hope that Morgenstern comes out with a sophomore novel. She has talent, and even if she does not develop more complicated plots over time, her imaginative descriptions and mastery of wonder will make for more fun works. I don't know if the book necessarily was worth the immense hype, but it was worth my time and attention, so that's an all-around win.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett (1934)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 3 pierogies

Review: I do most of my reading right before bed. I'm pretty sleepy, and unless I'm very engaged in the story, I am prone to getting confused or mixing up characters. I'm thinking now that mysteries are the wrong kind of books for me at bedtime. With both Murder on the Orient Express and The Thin Man, I read through the story, had a general idea of what was going on, and then when I reached the resolution at the end, I'm like "Huh? What just happened?" And I feel like I missed a million different things. I read Hammett's Red Harvest in college and having the same issue there. Again, I likely was probably reading during my overnight shifts in the computer lab, when I wasn't entirely my sharpest.

The Thin Man is not a confusing story to the fully awake reader. There are quite a lot of characters, and the plot and dialog are fast paced. My difficulties in following things are totally tiredness/user error.

Nick and Nora, a swanky couple that just returned to New York, trade drinks and quips and although Nick swears he's done with his detective years, they can't avoid getting themselves pulled into a mystery. Nick gets wrapped up in investigating a murder of a young woman, which in turn pulls him into the world of an extremely bizarre family. The story is light, with quick fun dialog. A whole number of other strange questions and mysteries unfold in the course of the story, and now that I think about it, I'm now wondering whether they even solved the murder they set out to solve? I'll have to google that.

I did not dislike the book, and I really wanted to love it, but I feel like I wasn't following it closely enough to be able to do that. Perhaps I'll give it another try sometime in the future, but for now I've got about 8 other books in the queue to get through.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (1934)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 3 Pierogies

Review: My impressions of Murder on the Orient Express are more of a reflection of the non-stop action nature of modern thrillers and mysteries, than a reflection of the Christie's most famous work, itself.

In Murder on the Orient Express, Detective Hercule Poirot is taking the Orient Express train when the train gets stuck in a snowdrift, and GASP! The man in the room next door is mysteriously murdered. Poirot, with the assistance of Monsoir Bouc work to solve the mystery of who the murderer is. Since the train has been stuck in a snowdrift in the middle of nowhere since the night of the murder, it has to be someone on the train, BUT WHO?!

A good 75% of the book is M. Poirot and M. Bouc interviewing people in the dining car. Yes, I recognize that a lot of detective work is talking to people, and there's not a whole lot else you can do in a train stuck in a snowdrift, but it doesn't make for particularly exciting reading.

I am used to mystery books showing the reader things, and gently nudging the reader toward figuring out themselves. Orient Express however works almost entirely through the characters telling one another things. I admit that I read before bed so I wasn't firing on all pistons, and may have missed things, but I really didn't figure out the answer to this for myself before the ending, where M. Poirot announces his conclusions.

It was an interesting story, and easy reading, but I did not think it was "mysterious" or "thrilling." It is likely that I had inaccurate expectations for this book. Orient Express feels like a Murder Mystery Dinner in book-form (although I'm sure Murder Mystery Dinners are inspired by Orient Express, not vice versa). That is to say, it is fun and entertaining, but it does not keep you on the edge of your seat, biting your fingernails.

I would be up for reading more of Christie's works. I would not reserve them all from the library at once and read the read them back to back, but they'd be fun to intersperse with other books.

My book club picked this book for our October meeting because it's dark and a mystery, and seemed fitting for Halloween. I agree that it was a good pick for October, and we'll have a lot to talk about because there were so many characters. It was also a good pick for a book club filled with busy people, because it was short and easy to read.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 3.125 Pierogies

Review: My friend, Sandy, and I listened to Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" on CD on our long drive to and from Philly. In Outliers, Gladwell examines incredibly successful people, and explores what, beyond innate talent, has led them to be so incredibly successful. We're not talking about "has a good job and is making a good salary" successful, Gladwell is more concerned with the Bill Gates and The Beatles level of success.

The premise of Outliers boils down to: Incredible success is made up of (1) talent, (2) hard work, and (3) access to the right kind of opportunities to lead to that success. Bill Gates as a child, for example, had a passion for programming, but also access to a computer which was highly unusual for a schoolkid in 1968, and was also exploring programming at a time where there was still a lot of that territory to be explored and developed.

I enjoyed Gladwell's deconstruction of the path to success for Gates, the Beatles, Mozart, and others. His theories are all straightforward and make sense. Of course you can have all the innate talent to be a prodigy oboe player, but if you have no access to an oboe, and therefore can't put in oboe practice time, obviously your future as an oboe prodigy will never come to fruition.

Gladwell's weaknesses in Outliers are that he overwhelmingly relies on anecdata. Aside from short the discussion of some statistics related to the month of birth of Canadian hockey players, the rest of his book is case studies. I don't know how Gladwell's theories could be objectively tested, but I felt like Gladwell should have had more numbers and figures, or at least broader support. Gladwell also relies too heavily on absolutes. In a section exploring how cultural backgrounds fashion our actions (which honestly felt a little out of place in the context of the book's purpose) Gladwell repeatedly insists "we must take cultural influences into account", and essentially insists that extreme success cannot exist outside his formula. The New York Times speared Gladwell for these weaknesses, but I probably would have been satisfied if he just used "should" instead of "must" more.

On one hand, Outliers was incredibly depressing to me. It made me feel helpless in my own success (or lack thereof), by making success so heavily reliant on access to unique opportunities. On the other hand, it made me feel more secure in not being a prodigy in something or another. My lack of Bill Gates level success isn't for lack of effort or intelligence, but for lack of those lucky opportunities.

Gladwell is an engaging storyteller, and did an excellent job of bringing his case studies to life. He also has a nice, soothing voice which made his reading of this book on CD very enjoyable. I recommend this book as a good poolside nonfiction, but it will leave you wanting more if you are seeking hard academic writing.