Book reviews: down memoir lane

I don’t usually read many non-fiction books, but I happened to read three in a row over the last few months. Funny how that happens…

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The first was Glass Castle: a Memoir, by Jeannette Walls. I actually bought this book by accident; when I spotted it at a fundraising book sale at work I thought “ooh, this is the one that three different commenters recommended on an old book review post!”, but as it turns out I was thinking of Glass Palace by Amitav Gosh (although now that I’ve found that old post, I see that I got two recommendations for Palace and one for Castle after all, the latter from Alyssa). Oh well. I ended up reading the whole book in one sitting, which I haven’t done for years – it’s a very compelling story of a family of children growing up in abject poverty in various parts of the US, with parents who were intermittently infuriatingly wonderful amid a general pattern of alcoholism, mental illness, and neglect that makes you want to scream at them to get help and stop doing that to their kids. The book reminded me a lot of Angela’s Ashes, in that it’s a real page turner but you end up feeling almost guilty about enjoying such a terribly sad story. There are some beautiful moments – you really do see the attraction of the family’s lifestyle in the early days when the kids were young, and the part where the father gave his children the stars for Christmas was genuinely moving – and it’s better written than most of the (admittedly limited number of )memoirs I’ve read before. Definitely recommended.

The next book I read was Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess. This was the first time I’d ever read a book that’s based on a blog, and I somewhat naively assumed that I’d love the book because I love the blog. However, while there are some great parts that had me literally laughing out loud, overall I found that the subject matter and style just didn’t translate very well into the printed form. For instance, sandwiched in between the hysterically funny chapters about the author’s childhood and adolescence with some seriously weird parents and her subsequent wacky escapades with dodgy taxidermy and giant metal chickens, I’d suddenly come across a very serious and upsetting chapter (I initially wrote “post” instead of “chapter” there, which is telling) about her mental illness, or her miscarriage, with such a sudden, jarring change in tone that I found it difficult to keep reading. If I’d read her blog for longer I suppose I might have been better prepared, but having first encountered the blog during the aforementioned giant metal chicken adventure of 2011, I didn’t know that part of her story. This was a very strange reading experience for me; I felt emotionally drained by the end.

The third and final non-fiction book was Tina Fey’s BossypantsThis was my favourite of the three and definitely lived up to the hype I’d been hearing ever since it came out. I loved Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, but I’ve barely seen any of 30 Rock, although this book made me want to start watching it from the beginning (and also gave me a much greater appreciation of Amy Poehler and Alec Baldwin). The book is absolutely hilarious in places, with some great self-deprecating humour, but also makes some very serious points about feminism and politics (yes, the Sarah Palin impersonation gets a lot of coverage). Highly recommended.

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Amazingly, reading three non-fiction books in a row didn’t suddenly make me a better scientist, so at this point I went back to reading fiction again.

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For starters, I finally got around to reading The Trouble with Lichen by John Wyndham, and it was worth the wait. I’m a huge Wyndham fan and grew up reading his books, but the subject matter of this one was just too complex and mature for me when I first tried to read it in my early teens. The book’s very much a product of its time, but it contains some fascinating ideas about feminism, science, and the future of humankind – the author definitely redeemed himself for some of the outdated attitudes about women that bothered me when I re-read The Midwich Cuckoos a few years ago.

Next up was Legion by Brandon Sanderson – the very first ebook I bought on my brand shiny new Kobo! I got a 90% off introductory offer for my first purchase, and therefore paid a grand total of 30 cents for this short novel, which was definitely good value for money. It was somewhat cheesy and predictable, but with strong sci-fi concepts and good writing that compensated for its shortcomings. A fun and fast read!

I bought the Kobo right after Christmas during the period when Kindles were unavailable in Canada (I think they’re available again now?). I do like it a lot, but the list of available ebooks is much more limited than the Kindle’s at the moment. I hear they’re working on fixing that though (Dr. Gee of Cromer needs to become part of this noble movement methinks), and at least it’s compatible with the ebooks available for loan through the Vancouver Public Library. A colleague also turned me on to StoryBundle, a site for independent authors that periodically releases a group of ebooks on the same theme (the latest one being women’s fiction). You can choose how much to pay and what the split between the site and the authors should be, and the free software I had to download to transfer everything onto the Kobo was really easy to use. I haven’t read any of the two bundles I’ve bought so far, but I’m sure I will soon. I predict that this little gadget is going to change my reading habits – there’ll be more random buys and fewer “safe bets” by authors I already know, I think.

Although…

…the next book I read (on the Kobo) was the second part of a trilogy I started a few months ago, namely Justin Cronin’s The Twelve (I reviewed part one, The Passage, here). I found this one a wee bit difficult to get into, mostly because it begins with a recap of the first book that’s written a bizarre pseudo-Biblical style that’s completely at odds with the rest of the trilogy so far. I have to admit, I wondered if the success of the first book had gone so completely to Cronin’s head that the whole damn thing would be written like that, but thankfully it reverted to his normal prose style quite quickly. As with the first book, the narrative switches back and forth between the days and months immediately following the initial outbreak and the lives of the survivors a couple of hundred years later, with both old and new characters in both categories. It’s very well done, better paced than the first one, and features some great examples of my favourite aspect of post-apocalyptic fiction, namely the psychology of survival (this time – minor spoiler alert – along the theme of collaboration versus resistance). I’m excited to read the final installment of the trilogy, all the more so because (unlike at the end of the first book) it’s not at all obvious how the story is going to develop next.

Oh, and I’m also just starting to read the original Walking Dead comic books by Robert Kirkman. They’re not available on the Kobo, but I just bought a used first generation iPad from a friend and immediately bought and downloaded the first anthology. I haven’t read a comic book since the Beano when I was a kid, but it’s very well done. I just have to keep reminding myself to spend time looking at the drawings – I’m a very fast reader, and I realised halfway through the first chapter that I was just reading the text and not really taking in the pictures at all. So it’s a good exercise in patience as well as a rip-roaring zombie fest!

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As always, your recommendations are solicited… I’ll even try and buy the book(s) you actually recommend, this time!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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14 Responses to Book reviews: down memoir lane

  1. Grant says:

    OK, how to do get to read all of that? (Wishes he had more time.)

    • This was over the course of a few months. And some of the books were very short. And others were very fast reads. And I’m a very fast reader overall. And the weather’s been terrible. And the Kobo fits in even my smallest bag, so I take it everywhere and therefore read more than I did before.

  2. cromercrox says:

    I am honoured to have as a friend a scientist — distinguished professor, Fellow of the Royal Society, author of well-known and important books — who is prodigiously well-informed not only about his own field but about everything. “How is it,” I asked him, “that you are so prodigiously well-informed not only about your own field, but about everything?” His answer was succinct. “I don’t have a television”, he replied. Neither has he, as far as I know, any presence on social media.

    • But but but… The Walking Dead! And Game of Thrones! And Bates Motel! And Vikings! And Big Bang Theory! And Community! And HOCKEY!

      Can I get away with saying that because Mr E Man works in the industry (he made the Bates Motel sign; we started watching the show for that reason and are now completely hooked. And the sign is in every episode!), it’s in our financial interests to support it?

  3. Alyssa says:

    Glad you liked Glass Castle! I actually liked that one better than Angela’s Ashes (I’m pretty sure I’m the only person on the planet that didn’t like that book). I’ve heard so many people say wonderful things about Tina Fey’s book – I’m going to add it to my list!

    • I liked Angela’s Ashes while I was reading it, but don’t look back on it all that fondly, if that makes sense. Which is very unusual for me (the discrepancy, not the making sense. Although…)

  4. Elizabeth H says:

    I’m just finished reading Glass Castle and am halfway through Let’s Pretend This Never Happened so your reviews were timely! I’d have to say I feel meh about both. They aren’t bad but I don’t really feel drawn into either story. I read the author’s incredible stories and wonder how true they are or is there some embellishment? I know when my parents or I tell stories from my childhood the stories seem to get grander and grander with each re-telling.

    Also, I read The Passage after your review. I loved the book but was so ticked off at the end! Way to leave me hanging Justin Cronin!! I need to get the second book soon!

    Finally, have you ever read books from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series? A friend of mine raves about them and I’m thinking of starting them but have never heard them mentioned by anyone else.

    • Well, to be fair, Lawson does call her book a “mostly true” memoir… and I think, IIRC, that Walls mentioned in the introduction that her family claim not to remember parts of the story (this happens in my family too and I KNOW I’m right – I have an excellent memory!)

      Be warned about The Twelve: the cliffhanger from the end of The Passage isn’t resolved until quite a way in! I was jonesing by the time I got there!

      I haven’t heard of the Fallen series, but will check it out – thanks!

  5. chall says:

    Interesting comment about the Twelve. I haven’t read that yet… I wasn’t super happy when I finished the Passage. Something with it didn’t make me go WOW, but maybe it was because people had hyped it up so much? He did have a little section on the biblical narrative in that one though, when reading the excerpts from the survivors/old stories…. but maybe that’s not exactly like you mean in the second book? I guess I’ll see when I pick it up.

    I’ve put Bossypants on my kindle wish list and when I have money and time I’ll read that one. For now, I’m reading The Dinner by Koch…. will see what I think about it in the end.

    (as for time, when cutting out cable and only having “play on demand” I’ve noticed that if I don’t find something to watch fairly quickly I end up with a book on the couch which has made wonders for my head the last couple of months :) next week though, with the play offs, I fear the book reading will be suffering ;)

    • The whole thing with the train in the middle of The Passage did kind of sour me on the book at that point, I have to admit – but I thought the rest of the book made up for it! I don’t remember the biblical language in that book… interesting… I’ll have to skim through it again now to find it!

  6. That whole Kindle vs. Canada thing is symptomatic of the Amazon.com vs. Amazon.ca problem. In the US, you could outfit an entire home, including a considerable quantity of camping gear for backyard cookouts and sleepovers, from Amazon. If you did the same in Canada, you’d be sleeping in a hut made of books and DVDs, and eating off plates reverse-engineered from cheap east-Asian knock-offs of Nikon lens caps.

    On the other hand, the Kobo I bought my wife for her birthday last year might have been the best.gift.ever. Unfortunately raising the bar for this year somewhat…

    • Also – thanks for the link to the Giant Metal Chicken story. I LMAO’d, as the expression goes. And then immediately sent it to my wife with a note saying, roughly, “See? I didn’t do this for our anniversary which by the way is in two days. Doesn’t this just confirm what an excellent husband I am?”