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.
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.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger, 4/5
Disjointed, unscholarly, easily debatable and offering no real solutions, this book nevertheless makes a tiny but very specific contribution towards understanding the complexities of U.S. mental health issues. Junger postulates that mental health declines as societies lose their tribal features, becoming more complex, prosperous, elitist and individualistic. Further, he attempts to prove that people’s resilience actually increases in troubled times, when society temporarily becomes more communal and egalitarian. His final claim is that long-term PTSD in soldiers is not so much caused by wartime trauma, but the difficulty of transitioning between these two cultures.
Junger makes some controversial statements and is up-front about his book’s origin (a Vanity Fair article) and purpose (nonacademic). Because of this, I feel Tribe transcends its pop-psychology characteristics and can be forgiven for feeling like a very preliminary exploration of a complex topic.
Why I read it: When the title was recommended separately to me by two of my brothers, I knew it was worth checking out.
When God Laughs by Jack London, 4/5
The short story has never been one of my favorite literary forms, so I was not exactly jazzed to crack open what I thought was a Jack London novel to find a collection of twelve shorter works under one title. They say a brief speech requires much more effort to create than a long one and I can only assume that even the best novelists face a similar challenge when it comes to crafting shorter works. My mild pessimism was wasted in this case, however, because most of these stories were captivating–full of vivid characters and a variety of dramatic plots and settings. It is a testament to the author’s skill that I could become so emotionally invested in stories ranging from just ten to forty-two pages long.
Why I read it: Just trying to read through the old books on my shelf!
Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, 4/5
This true story wasn’t quite as readable as I’d expected, having been absolutely blown away by Hillenbrand’s later work Unbroken. I was partly to blame for approaching the book with a skepticism that made me look disconsolately for footnotes where there were none. For some reason, I just couldn’t escape the nagging question “does she really know what all the people in her story said and felt, or is she just making it all up?” I would have had a much more enjoyable experience if I’d read the end notes, acknowledgements and interview with the author at the end of the book first. These sources helped me realize the insane amount of time and energy Hillenbrand, already an accomplished equestrian author, put into researching the story of Seabiscuit.
I just have to point out how bizarre it is that the horse’s face didn’t make it onto the cover of the book! Even the image on the spine is of the jockey, not his famous steed.
Why I read it: I was looking for something light to read while traveling and Seabiscuit had been on my radar for quite a while.
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.
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.