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.
How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems by Randall Munroe, 5/5
This book does not disappoint! It is filled with hilarious, ridiculous, scientifically strenuous “solutions” to problems ranging from “how to jump really high” to “how to change a light bulb.” As a piano teacher, I found the chapter on how to play the piano particularly hilarious and thought-provoking. I’ve never thought to ask questions like “how many keys would need to be added to the piano keyboard to make music for whales?” (spoiler: it’s not as many as you’d think!).
In 2019 I read seventeen books, twelve of which were nonfiction, four fiction, and one webcomic collection.
I read 1 book written in the 1800s
5 books written between 1900-1949
2 books written between 1950-1999
9 books written between 2000-2018
Books that I rated 1 star: 2 (12%)
2 stars: 3 (18%)
3 stars: 3 (18%)
4 stars: 2 (12%)
5 stars: 7 (~40%)
Pose! 1,000 Poses for Photographers and Models by Mehmet Eygi, 2/5
I like the basic layout of this book, which features one pose per page, each accompanied by a short summary, tips and three variations. Most of the poses seem to exist on a scale of somewhat to extremely cliched but presumably that is practically the point of a reference book like this. It is also understandable that many of the photos would feel lifeless and contrived, since they necessarily feature the same models and backdrops over and over again. Less forgivable are the extremely repetitive “tips” which add little additional value to the images, and the inclusion of many mediocre and a few absolutely cringe-worthy pose variations that made me question the author’s taste and expertise altogether.
My confidence in the author was further eroded by his brief “key lessons,” which did not display a nuanced or insightful perspective, but repetitively recommended a contrived and inorganic approach to photography at odds with common sense, psychology and my observation of other methods. What kind of photographer broadly advises others to methodically exhaust the possibilities of every single pose and variation before relentlessly moving on to the next? I was curious, so I visited Mehmet Eygi’s website (which was mentioned in two places in this book) and Facebook page. Surprisingly, neither features any of his photography or even mentions his name: they represent his comp card printing/design business. His Instagram page, where he identifies only as “Entrepreneur & Author,” is certainly no convincing testament to his photographic expertise either, displaying only a few generic pictures. In fact, I could find no other website, portfolio, resume or examples of his work not associated with this particular book, which seems very strange. Though Pose! does technically fulfill the promise of its title, I feel that it attempted to accomplish more and failed.
Why I read it: I’m trying to improve my photography and ordered every book on posing my library had.
David Busch’s Canon EOS 5d Mark IV Guide to Digital SLR Photography, 5/5
Much more appealing than the chunky little manual that came with my camera, this book is thoughtfully laid-out and well-illustrated. I read straight through it, but it was also easy to look up the answers to specific questions, thanks to the functional index.
Why I read it: Because I was waiting for my new camera to arrive and knew this model would be a bit different from my previous one.
Herding Cats: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection by Sarah Andersen, 5/5
Just as funny and disturbingly relatable as Andersen’s webcomic and other books.
Why I read it: I saw it advertised on the Sarah’s Scribbles website.