The Tale of Despereaux: being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread by Kate DiCamillo, 4/5
This charming story begs to be read aloud near a cozy fireplace and I think even children too young to read would love hearing it. I appreciate that, in the style of all classic fairy tales, it does not shy away from portraying darkness to balance out the light. By acknowledging the violence and tragedy of existence in a matter-of-fact and age-appropriate way, the author puts a backbone in what might otherwise have been a silly, sappy, story for kids.
Why I read it: a student’s mom, Paige, recommended it in conversation.
Early Riser: A Novel by Jasper Fforde, 3/5
This dystopian novel explores the logistical, social, and political implications of living in a world so close to another ice age that humans must hibernate through the winter months. Fforde’s inimitable style does shine through in a couple places, but overall I found the story to be a bit on the pedestrian side. Not exactly predictable, but familiar, like it was based on a Netflix series I’d already seen or something. Of course, Netflix was still a mail-order DVD service the last time I read anything by Jasper Fforde, so hopefully the perceived lack of depth and magic is not simply a result of brain rot from indulging in more mindless TV than good books in the last few years.
Why I read it: the author came up in conversation with my sister.
Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy–Until You’re 80 and Beyond by Chris Crowley & Henry S. Lodge, M.D., 3/5
Clearly, the target audience for this book is aging guys who will appreciate the old-fashioned generalizations and cringey humor that make Younger Next Year pretty unrelatable to anyone else. Fortunately though, you don’t have to be an old man to be encouraged by the premise that consistent exercise, smart eating (but not “dieting”), and healthy relationships can make old age a less terrifying prospect. This book also confirms something I’ve suspected for a long time–that we often associate increasing age with loneliness, misery and a sedentary lifestyle because those are the most available and memorable role models (thanks, negativity bias). All the healthy, adventurous, active, passionate old people are too busy out doing things to stop and convince us that a post-prime life can be amazing.
On a sad side note, I learned that the younger co-author, Dr. Lodge, died at the age of only 58 from prostate cancer. I’m tempted to conclude that one shouldn’t sacrifice happiness for health, since the latter is never guaranteed.
Why I read it: my dad gave me a copy because he enjoyed it.
How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It by Patricia Love, Ed.D., and Steven Stosny, Ph.D., 2/5
Perhaps I’m just cynical, but I feel this book’s title may as well be How to Improve Your Marriage by Reading About It. Yes, the book presents some interesting psychological concepts, focusing mainly on how men’s vulnerability to feelings of shame and women’s vulnerability to fear can result in a sense of disconnection not reparable by verbal communication. Unfortunately, you have to take the authors’ word for even the most outlandish-sounding statements, since they provide no footnotes or references. This lack of academic documentation seriously undermines the book’s credibility, in my opinion, and gives a strangely pop-psych flavor to an unpopular message of resolute self-improvement and one-sided commitment to acts of connection. While I respect and agree with the authors’ encouragement to generally be an emotionally intelligent human being and not a shitty, selfish one, their “practical” advice seems laughably out of touch with reality. I honestly can’t see the “Power Love Formula” saving any relationships, but I guess what do I know since I’m lucky enough to be almost four years into a relationship with an amazing, sensitive man who is secure and loving enough to demand we talk things out even when I’d rather sulk in silence. In terms of practical relationship advice that resonates with what I’ve observed and experienced, I find The Five Love Languages to be much more relevant and helpful.
Why I read it: it resonated with my dad but not my mom, so I was curious.
Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 4/5
Written by a bona fide Arctic explorer, this book reflects a bygone era of exploration, when sane men packed up and left on insane adventures into unexplored territory from which they well knew they might never return. Indeed, every one of the five stories in this book involves death or disappearance, often punctuated by the horrors of starvation, betrayal, cannibalism and pure ineptitude. The author is not shy in drawing his own conclusions for each scenario and though his writing style is not the most entertaining, his first-hand experience and rational approach to the information available at the time make for a fascinating read.
I learned a lot from this book, such as that the Arctic, which I once imagined to be an abandoned ice desert, is (or at least, was) actually livable land, teeming with life. Unintuitively, the Inuit would move north during winter due to the abundance of game in the frozen landscape, killing everything from seals to polar bears without the aid of guns (often in territory in which well-armed Europeans managed to starve to death). I also learned a lot about scurvy, its causes and surprising psychological effects. According to Stefansson, scurvy plagued those explorers who tried to maintain a European diet, even when supplemented by fruits and vegetables. It was the author’s strong opinion that a diet consisting solely of native, fatty meat was the best way to stay healthy in the Arctic. It’s strange to think that the ketogenic diet is still controversial after over 80 years of arguments and studies.
Why I read it: an impulse buy in a used book store; for $3, who could resist?
House of Leaves: A Novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, 4/5
This book is so bizarre that I’m tempted to refer to it as this “book,” as if quotation marks will somehow convey its reality- and genre-bending strangeness. Its core is an incredibly inventive transcription of a fictional documentary film, wrapped in layers of contrived academic interpretations which are communicated via endless footnotes and interspersed with the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of an unreliable narrator, all while periodically diverting to tedious appendices. This mental obstacle course of a book ranges in tone from academic analysis to B-horror and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say it manages to check off nearly every know narrative technique.
The more I tried to analyze and understand House of Leaves, the more useless it felt, as if a “point” did not exist outside of attempts to explain it. By confounding literary (and non-literary) genres and techniques, the author creates his own layered reality, a house in which a reader can easily become lost and confused while trying to determine what actually exists both inside and outside of the leaves (pages) of the book. The whole experience stimulated me to re-consider how my perceptions and expectations shape my sense of reality, and to acknowledge the extent to which interpretation can create meaning instead of just conveying it. All-in-all, reading this book was a uniquely frustrating and rewarding experience.
Why I read it: my sister, Anna, was recommended it by a friend and passed it along to me with a somewhat ambivalent review.
The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, translated by Danusia Stok, 4/5
I’m a bit of a fantasy snob to say the least, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that Sapkowski is a competent writer, capable of reworking the tired tropes of a well-worn genre instead of merely ripping them off. At times, he purposefully incorporates elements of popular fairy tales and legends into his own in a skillful way, making it almost seem as if his stories predate the originals. I found the book’s layout to be bewildering, but after learning from its Wikipedia article about the concept of a “frame story” interspersed with other short stories, it made a lot more sense. I am looking forward to reading more books in this series as soon as the library, currently closed thanks to the COVID-19 virus, re-opens.
Why I read it: I figured that any book series spawning popular video games and a Netflix show must be worth checking out.
Everybody Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People by Bob Goff, 3/5
After loving Love Does, I was very excited to read Goff’s next book, which I hoped would provide further illumination on the challenge of how to love people extravagantly without getting used up in the process. Unfortunately, I didn’t sense the same spirit in this book: the stories felt a little forced, the resulting morals were sometimes a stretch and the whole thing came off a bit preachy and canned. It’s actually a little funny because when I read Love Does, I literally thought to myself that it was the kind of inspired book you would live your whole life to write and never write another.
Why I read it: I wished Love Does was a longer book.
No Holds Barred: The Complete History of Mixed Martial Arts in America by Clyde Gentry III, 2/5
Relentlessly packed with names, dates, dry facts and endless acronyms, this book is about as appealing to read as the world’s longest Wikipedia article (a comparison that could be considered a compliment if you account for the fact that it was written before Wikipedia even existed). The author has performed an impressive amount of research, including a jaw-dropping 125 interviews, but unfortunately seems completely incapable of telling a story, even when equipped with firsthand knowledge of the dramatic events and larger-than-life personas associated with the history of MMA. His blow-by-blow descriptions of classic fights are excruciatingly boring and he somehow sucks all the life out of even the most amusing or astonishing anecdotes. Adding to the faults of the original edition is a half-assed update written 10 years later that sees the clumsy addition of multiple-page “sidebars” (literally marked with bars) that completely disrupt the text’s already inadequate narrative flow, two off-focus chapters tacked onto the end, and multiple references to himself awkwardly as “this author” that made me grind my teeth every time they assaulted my eyes. In the preface, the author mentions that this book was supposed to be the first in a series that “never happened” and, after reading it, there is no question why.
Why I read it: A gift from my dad, accompanied with the warning “it will probably be terrible.”
Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff, 5/5
Bob Goff knows how to tell a story. His stories were almost too good; I devoured them like a kid devours a bowl of fruit loops and had to keep reminding myself to slow down and digest the bigger messages. When someone who has accumulated a lifetime’s worth of remarkable experiences takes the time to write down what they’ve learned from a broad perspective, it’s a gift–a sneak peek of a meaningful work of art when all you could see before was the close-up chaos of individual brushstrokes.
Formerly a lawyer and law professor, Goff was not a “professional Christian” when he wrote this book, so I didn’t get the uncomfortable feeling that he was trying to sell some pre-packaged, preachy, lifeless form of religion. He is very practical and realistic, using stories to transcend the cliched verbiage of encouraging people to fearlessly follow their hopes and dreams while living in God’s love.
I used to think following God required complicated formulas. I thought I needed a big stack of books, so I could figure out exactly where I was all the time. I thought if I constantly measured the distance between me and God, I’d get closer to Him. Early on, the religious people I knew explained to me all kinds of nuances for doing this sort of spiritual math. They suggested that I say certain things in my prayers, have quiet times, go to Bible studies, and memorize Bible verses. They said I needed to know how to explain to someone that God could be a person and a spirit at the same time. They urged me to know how God was going to come back someday but that some people would be here and other people would go missing because it would be a time of great tribulation. They said that for me to know God, there was a whole pile of things I’d need to know first. […] What I realized, though, is that all I really needed to know when it came down to it was the direction I was pointing and that I was somewhere inside the large circle of God’s love and forgiveness (156).
There are a lot of crazy stories and insightful life lessons packed into this easy-to-read book, but perhaps the thing that stuck with me the most a couple weeks later, was how fearlessly Goff loves other people and gets involved in their lives. If he was giving bits of himself away, he would soon be reduced to nothing, but instead his life seems immeasurably richer. It truly seems that he has an endless supply of supernatural love from which to draw. I still don’t fully understand how to live this way without getting used up by the “takers” in the world, but this book was a helpful piece of the puzzle for me and an amazing reminder that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Why I read it: My friend, Joy, recommended it to me.