Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins, 3/5
I really wanted to like this book (given to me by a friend to whom it means a lot) and for about two-thirds of it, I succeeded more or less. I’ve never been a fan of the hippy aesthetic, but Robbins’ writing style is humorously bizarre, featuring inventive descriptions and colorful characters, set in familiar Pacific Northwest locations. I found the non-linear narrative style to be stressful at first, but ultimately rewarding, and was interested in the unique plot and development of the theme–how best should human spirituality express itself in a post-Christian world?
However, I eventually became irked by the novel’s increasing preachiness. What starts as a quirky, raunchy story gradually turns into a hippy manifesto that preaches a muddled pop-paganism full of weed-infused platitudes while tearing apart a weak version of Christianity created by the author only to be destroyed. I dislike being preached at, especially by philosophical novels, where practically any point can be “proven” in the highly-controlled universe of an author’s creation. The temptation to commit the straw man fallacy generally proves too strong to resist in these cases and the level of intellectual integrity required for useful discussion of philosophical matters is difficult to attain amidst distractions of story and style. Perhaps someone from a less religious background than I could easily get past these concerns, but I found them distracting enough in this case to mar my enjoyment of the book.
Why I read it: A thoughtful Christmas present from a friend.
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, 5/5
All my words are insufficient to convey how exquisite this semi-autobiographical novel is; I am reduced to a string of mere adjectives…raw, beautiful, funny, insightful, uplifting, bittersweet…none of which can fully capture this story of two sisters, one a struggling writer with a history of failed relationships and the other a beautiful concert pianist who possesses everything happiness requires…except the will to live. Intensely personal, defiantly human, undeniably humorous, this book is a masterpiece and a privilege to read.
Why I read it: The first chapter is in McSweeney’s No. 48.
The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, 4/5
A semi-fictitious scholar named Bruce (who, in sharing the author’s name, not-so-clearly provides literary license) explores the concept of “Songlines” or “Dreaming-tracks,” a musical interpretation of geography by which Aboriginal Australians understand the creation of the world and their place in it. Vivid characters and landscapes, described in short paragraphs with Chatwin’s succinct prose, have the power to transport the reader almost as surely as any vehicle to foreign lands.
Why I read it: I recognized the title in the thriftstore from reading Chatwin’s In Patagonia.
Architecture in Photographs by Gordon Baldwin, 4/5
I enjoyed this little book, which contains a nice selection of photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum along with a not-overwhelming amount of text about architectural photography’s venerable history. While a couple of the photographs left me shaking my head, completely unable to discern any artistic merit in them, the majority were inspiring and obviously captured with skill and care. In my experience, looking at good art is the easiest way to educate your eye as a photographer and this book provides plenty of inspiration. After reading it, I feel especially motivated to experiment with black and white photography, while not obsessing so much over cropping choices, lens distortion and making everything perfectly level.
Why I read it: I came across it while browsing in the library for light reading material to keep me entertained while cutting weight for an MMA fight two months ago.
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, 2/5
Holy cherry-picked data, Batman! At least it’s hand-picked, I guess? That is about the nicest thing I can say for this book, which, though entertaining, smells like bad science. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think I’ve been exposed to enough good research and logical reasoning (thank you Daniel Kahneman and David Hackett Fisher) to recognize the sketchy stuff. The thesis is all over the place, ending with a laughable call to action that sounds great on the surface (let’s give everyone the same opportunities in life so they can all achieve success) but is idiotic in context (let’s wave our enlightened magic fairy wand and give everyone identical backgrounds, community, family legacy, historical timing, interests and skills, so everyone can be super successful genius millionaires). Frustratingly, this book’s popularity was inevitable–who doesn’t like to read a good success story AND be told that it isn’t all due to talent, you unluckily ordinary human being with untold potential, you.
Why I read it: Heard about it from my Dad, who thought it would be fun if I read it (I’ve been avoiding Gladwell for years).
McSweeney’s No. 48, 4/5
I tend to have a difficult time enjoying modern literature, but this curated collection of writings was just light and varied enough to be interesting. Sure, there were the dark, unsettling, claustrophobic stories and the bafflingly artistic tales that I am apparently not smart enough to understand, and the gross story by the enlightened author who thinks writing about sex is soooo avant-garde. Thankfully, though, there were also a selection of entertaining, skillfully written pieces that kept me interested and appreciative.
Why I read it: Stumbled across it in the library and recognized the name from their website, where I remembered reading some funny open letters.
Confessions of a Casting Director: Help Actors Land Any Role with Secrets from Inside the Audition Room, by Jen Rudin, 3/5
This book provides an interesting perspective into the more prosaic side of glamorous showbiz. I really enjoyed the variety of personal anecdotes, not just from the author, but from a variety of people associated with the entertainment industry. The whole audition circuit sounds intense and I’m amazed how much rejection aspiring actors can endure while still maintaining the will to live. I guess it helps that the focus seems more on finding “the one” for each role than on weeding out bad actors. So even if you’re not “the one,” it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. The author’s attitude is very positive and encouraging overall, giving all-purpose advice that emphasizes the importance of professionalism and self-confidence.
Why I read it: thought it looked interesting while wandering around the library.