Ruined by Reading

The Post-American World

Posted in Book Reviews by M on April 7, 2010


The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
Political Science Non-Fiction, 336 pages
Rating: 4/5

The Post-American World is divided into three sections. The first is kind of like an introduction and addresses a lot of concepts you would have learned in a basic political science class. Each following section is about China, India, and America, and where they’re headed in the future.

I found the section on China especially interesting. I knew China’s economy was large, but I had no idea exactly how huge. Zakaria makes some interesting comparisons between China and India regarding the pros and cons of democracy v. a “communist” leadership (China’s leadership is not Communist so I hate using that word but the average person does see it as such). India’s democracy is more stable but much less efficient. On the other hand, China’s government allows for much more efficiency and therefore faster growth.

The final section on America is also interesting. Zakaria summarizes the rise and fall of the British empire in order to compare it to America. He suggests that Iraq is like the Boer War – the beginning of America’s decline.

Zakaria remains hopeful throughout the book. He claims that America will never fade into the background completely and that China will never take America’s place, but we will have to learn to be less powerful than we once were, and we will have to learn to share power with others. I think it’s a valid point, but it is so optimistic and moderate (as are many of Zakaria’s opinions found in his other work), that I sometimes wonder if he truly believes that.

I think China is demonized in the media and largely misunderstood, and this book helps to correct some of that. I think its an interesting subject and does a good job in explaining things so that it won’t go over your head if you’re not familiar with the topic.

After Dark

Posted in Book Reviews by M on March 31, 2010

After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Fiction, 256 pages
Rating: 4.5/5

After Dark is a mash-up of encounters, set in Tokyo, between midnight and the early morning hours. The story centers around two sisters, Mari and Eri. Eri is the older, stereotypically beautiful, shallow, and disturbed older sister while Mari is the responsible and studious younger sister. Although about every other chapter is about Eri, Mari is the central character as Eri remains asleep for the majority of the book.

The plot in this book is complicated and all over the map so its impossible summarize concisely. Some of the encounters include some sort of The Ring-like mysterious entity on a TV screen, translating for a beaten Chinese prostitute, and connecting with a sweet musician.

After Dark is very complex, conceptual and artistic. It’s very metaphorical so if you’re looking for answers at the end of the book, you won’t find any. There are many layers to the story that I wasn’t able to peel back until after I had finished it and spent some time thinking about it. It is also very character driven. The character development is excellent and feels very real.

The thing I liked the most about this book was the mystery of the disembodied voice. The beginning of the book and the chapters about Eri are told from an unknown viewpoint. In the beginning, it sounds like a group of people who happen to be out wandering the streets late at night and focus in on Mari. It is only until it starts to observe Eri that the reader realizes that it is something else entirely. This entity refers to itself as “we” and slowly reveals more details about itself as the story goes on. It says that its job is to observe and collect data – not to interfere in the progression of events. It has camera-like qualities as it can zoom in and out, but it also has a voice. You never find out exactly what it is, but it makes the story much more interesting and creepy.

This was the first Haruki Murakami book I’ve read, and it certainly will not be the last. I can’t wait to read more of his work and I understand now why many people are crazy about him. After Dark is a short, but engrossing read and I highly recommend it.

The White Queen

Posted in Book Reviews by M on March 30, 2010

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
Historical Fiction, 415 pages
Rating: 2/5

I read a lot of great reviews on The White Queen, and I loved The Other Boleyn Girl, so I had some high expectations. I guess they were too high because I thought The White Queen was a disappointment.

The White Queen tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville: a commoner who is married to King Edward IV. It tells of the endless fighting and scheming of the War of Roses.

The one thing that bugged me the most was how repetitive Gregory’s writing was. She would often repeat the same phrase several times in the book – sometimes even in the same paragraph. Perhaps she thought it would be artistic, but it was just irritating.

I also thought the characters were shallow and underdeveloped. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters – especially Elizabeth. She is meant to be a devoted wife and mother, but I didn’t get any of that from the book.

I disliked Gregory’s depiction of magic and witchcraft, and her repetitive telling of the story of Melusina, a water goddess that Elizabeth believes her family is descended from. I first thought that Gregory was trying to depict the role of magic and superstition in English life, but the spells that Elizabeth and her mother preform actually work, and her mother can tell the future. I thought it was unbelievable and laughable. Historical fiction should be believable.

The inside flap of the book alludes to the mystery of the two missing princes – Elizabeth’s sons. But most of the book doesn’t even address this issue, and it is hardly the central plot.

I really wanted to like this book because I don’t know enough about this period in English history. I did learn some things from it, but that isn’t enough to redeem this book. It is an easy read, but not something I would recommend.

The Lost Symbol

Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction by M on October 3, 2009


Title: The Lost Symbol
Author: Dan Brown
Pages: 528
Rating: 2/5

The Lost Symbol follows symbologist (is that a word?) Robert Langdon to DC, where he’s fallen into the trap of a freakishly tattooed psycho who seems to think that the Freemason’s have hidden some ancient mysteries, which is the key to unlocking man’s full hidden potential. The key to this mystery is a pyramid with codes, symbols, and maps hidden on it. Langdon teams up with the CIA and his friends sister – a scientist doing cutting-edge research in the field of Noetics (don’t ask, just google) – to save Langdon’s friend and maybe possibly keep the ancient mystery out of the hands of the weird tattooed guy. (They keep changing their mind on what they’re going to do so I lost track.) Add in some cliche family drama, and plenty of idealistic spiritual hippie-dippy talk, and you have Brown’s latest book.

I finished this book over a week ago, but I’ve been procrastinating on a review. My feelings on this book changed several times while I read it and after. I’ve decided that it was a disappointment.

It was difficult to get into the story, but it was pretty good when the plot really took off and things started to come together in the middle of the book. But eventually it got boring again and the ending was very anti-climatic and it really ruined the whole book for me.

The whole premise of it – a lost treasure inside DC, which is of course full of creepy facts and ancient secrets hidden in its architecture – sounds like National Treasurer. The whole secretive, spiritual concept of the book – that men are divine, gods, or have God inside them – is pretty interesting, but the story built around that wasn’t that interesting at all.

Brown’s strong point has always been that he can tell interesting stories, even though his writing is not so great. The story always distracted me enough from the poor writing, but since the story flopped I definitely took notice of his writing skills in this one. He goes way too heavy with the foreshadowing. It’s almost laughable.

I wanted to like this but I really didn’t. It’s probably worth reading but definitely not worth buying.

Freakonomics

Posted in Book Reviews by M on August 29, 2009

Title: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Authors: Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
Pages: 352
Rating: 4/5

(From Amazon) Forget your image of an economist as a crusty professor worried about fluctuating interest rates: Levitt focuses his attention on more intimate real-world issues, like whether reading to your baby will make her a better student. Recognition by fellow economists as one of the best young minds in his field led to a profile in the New York Times, written by Dubner, and that original article serves as a broad outline for an expanded look at Levitt’s search for the hidden incentives behind all sorts of behavior. There isn’t really a grand theory of everything here, except perhaps the suggestion that self-styled experts have a vested interest in promoting conventional wisdom even when it’s wrong. Instead, Dubner and Levitt deconstruct everything from the organizational structure of drug-dealing gangs to baby-naming patterns. While some chapters might seem frivolous, others touch on more serious issues, including a detailed look at Levitt’s controversial linkage between the legalization of abortion and a reduced crime rate two decades later. Underlying all these research subjects is a belief that complex phenomena can be understood if we find the right perspective.

Freakonomics isn’t economics in a traditional sense. To me, it seems more like sociology and plenty of data and statistics.

A large part of this book addresses the nature vs. nurture debate. What makes a good parent or a good student? What effect does a name have on ones outcome? It also talks about the testing gap between blacks and whites, which I found to be the most interesting and important discussion in Freakonomics. If random facts is your thing, there’s plenty of that too, including the history of the KKK and an explanation on how crack gangs operate.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s written in such a way that it keeps your attention and never goes over the readers head.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, Mystery by M on August 29, 2009


Title: The Girl Who Played With Fire
Author: Steig Larsson
Pages: 512
Rating: 4.5/5

(From Amazon) A few weeks before Dag Svensson, a freelance journalist, plans to publish a story that exposes important people involved in Sweden’s sex trafficking business based on research conducted by his girlfriend, Mia Johansson, a criminologist and gender studies scholar, the couple are shot to death in their Stockholm apartment. Salander, who has a history of violent tendencies, becomes the prime suspect after the police find her fingerprints on the murder weapon. While Blomkvist strives to clear Salander of the crime, some far-fetched twists help ensure her survival.

Much like in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a very large part of The Girl Who Played With Fire is character development and side stories that involve the lives of the main characters – not necessarily the main mystery. Normally this might have annoyed or bored me, but I find all the characters in this series to be completely fascinating, especially Lisbeth. I really enjoyed following her character in the beginning before the story really got started, and learning more about her life.

The Girl Who Played With Fire also serves as a critique of Swedish society and its treatment of women because it discusses human trafficking and the sex trade. I was shocked by the treatment of women in this book and how little punishment rapists and violent criminals received in the Swedish justice system. But Larsson also talks about responsibility, guilt, and innocence. Lisbeth constantly repeats that no one is innocent, there are just varying degrees of guilt (not a direct quote). Is a criminal truly completely to blame for his actions? In both books there is a character who is raised and trained to be a killer and criminal, so shouldn’t the circumstances also be blamed?

The only reason why I gave this book a 4.5/5 was because I wasn’t really ‘wowed’ by the plot twists. Maybe it was just that it was a little predictable, or maybe it was just my mood when I read it, but when the big mysterious fact that was meant to shock the audience was revealed near the end of the book, I wasn’t exactly shocked or overwhelmed. That being said, The Girl Who Played with Fire is still a great book with great characters and a pretty good plot. I’m really excited for the next, and final book, which comes out this fall.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction by M on August 19, 2009

Title: The Art of Racing in the Rain
Author: Garth Stein
Pages: 336
Rating: 5/5

I think this just might be the best book I’ve read all year. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and more importantly, it made me think.

The Art of Racing in the Rain tells the story of a family from the perspective of their dog, Enzo. His master, Denny, is a semi-professional race car driver, who falls in love and starts a family. Enzo shares his observations and his thoughts on the family. More than anything, he wants to be a human – to have a tongue that works and a pair of thumbs, if for no other reason than to warn Denny’s wife, Eve, of what he smells growing inside of her brain. But he can’t, and it’s too late for her, so Enzo is left to helplessly observe the aftermath of her death and his crumbling family.

Its impossible not to love Enzo. He’s insightful and spiritual with the soul of a human and a wisdom well beyond his years. The author has a beautifully touching way of describing life and death from Enzo’s perspective. I was moved to tears twice while reading this book and even at the end I could smile through my tears. Despite the sadness it does actually have a happy ending.

I can’t recommend this book enough. Not only is it the best book I’ve read all year, but it’s one of the best books I’ve read, period. It’s such a fast read and now I even find myself wondering if my dog is thinking similar things about me. I doubt it!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, Mystery by M on August 14, 2009

Title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Pages: 590
Rating: 5/5

I’ve been complaining for a long time that it’s become difficult to find a book that’s so good, it’s difficult to put down. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of those books.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo deals with two intertwined plot lines. There’s a murder mystery, along with a story of political and financial intrigue and revenge. After being convicted of libel for breaking a story on an industrial big shot, financial journalist Blomkvist is lured into the countryside to write a biography on the Vanger family and its financial empire. He’s also asked to solve the 40-year-old mystery of the disappearance of 16-year-old Harriet Vanger. He discovers a dysfunctional family and unearths unspeakable crimes with the help of a strange social outcast, Lisbeth Salander, who also happens to be a genius computer hacker and private investigator.

I like how the book speaks about how women are treated – both in general, and in Sweden. Some of the statistics given in the book are absolutely shocking. The original Swedish title of the book was Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, which translates to Men Who Hate Women, which reveals a lot about the underlying message.

I loved Lisbeth Salander from the beginning. Probably because I can relate to her in some small ways. Her character evolves and changes drastically. Almost unbelievably so. On the other hand, I really didn’t like Blomkvist very much. He seemed to be a little too perfect. He never acknowledges any faults, and he’s too much of a lady’s man, bedding anything that moves. I hated Erika Berger, his boss and occasional lover, even more. The dislikable characters don’t ruin the story, though.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to discuss the mystery without giving something important away, but it definitely is suspenseful and well thought out.

I can’t wait to get my hands on The Girl Who Played with Fire and see the movie version of this book.

The Calligrapher’s Daughter

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Fiction, Historical Fiction by M on August 3, 2009


Title: The Calligrapher’s Daughter
Author: Eugenia Kim
Pages: 400
Rating: 4/5

In early twentieth century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother – but her stern father is desperate to maintain the ways of traditional Korea, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry her into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends Najin to serve in the king’s court, where, in the shadow of a dying monarchy, she begins a journey through the increasing oppressing that will forever change her world. Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a novel in the tradition of Lisa See about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.

The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a story of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 20th century, told through the life of Najin, a young girl who comes of age during a time of modernization and revolution. She’s caught between her desire to be an independent, educated woman, and her father’s desire for the old ways where the elite scholarly class ran society, and women are seen as inferior.

Najin does not actually have a proper given name. It is revealed throughout the book that her father refuses to name her because he sees her as a symbol of the occupation and Korea’s fall. It’s shocking and sad how much her father actually detests her. He sees her as a shame to the family.

The thing that really shocked me the most about Korean traditions and culture at this time is how women were treated. I knew nothing of Korea prior to reading this book. Women were to be seen and not heard, were less than men, and were seen as really just machines there to have children and serve dinner. Even within the family, the women’s area is kept separate from the man’s, and man and wife don’t even eat dinner together. One proverb even says that a woman without talent is a virtue. I have no idea if these traditions or attitudes were specific to the class Najin’s family belonged to, or if it was more universal. But the arrival of Christianity and the Japanese occupation really changed the opportunities women had and the attitude towards them.

The thing I really loved about Kim’s style of writing was how beautiful and poetic it was. It was perfectly descriptive without being too over the top and distracting from the story. Here’s an example:

My hands reached to catch the sunshine poking between the leaves, and my feet traced the maze of shadows that I pretended would lead to a cave of glories and awe.

The only problem I had with the book was that the description didn’t actually match the story. I had originally thought it would be a book about court intrigue and drama, like a lot of the historical fiction I read. But it’s not. It’s about the life of Najin, her family, and Korea.

I learned a lot from this book, and I would definitely read anything else Kim puts out.

Thank you to the publisher and to Library Thing Early Reviewers for sending me this book. This book will be available for purchase on August 4, 2009.

The Enchantress of Florence

Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction by M on June 20, 2009


Title: The Enchantress of Florence
Author: Salman Rushdie
Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5

The Enchantress of Florence is the story of a mysterious woman, a great beauty believed to possess the powers of enchantment and sorcery, attempting to command her own destiny in a man’s world. It is the story of two cities at the height of their powers – the hedonistic Mughal capital, in which the brilliant emperor Akbar the Great wrestles daily with question of belief, desire, and the treachery of his sons, and the equally sensual city of Florence during the High Renaissance, where Niccolo Machiavelli takes a starring role as he learns, the hard way, about the true brutality of power. Profoundly moving and completely absorbing, The Enchantress of Florence is a dazzling book full of wonders by one of the world’s most important living writers.

Several years ago I attempted to read The Satanic Verses. Twice. I couldn’t get more than a few chapters in. After that, I wrote Salman Rushdie off as a bad writer, and one I could never enjoy. I know – it was an unfair judgment to make based on one book. When I then saw The Enchantress of Florence on several of last years ‘best of 2008’ lists and decided to give Rushdie one more try.

It’s a story where men can bring their dreams alive as well as escape into them. The story, including all the little details, is quite beautiful and I loved how it seemed like such a fairy tale.  I also enjoyed how funny this book was at times, as well as vulgar and seems as though it is intended to be a parody of the time.

There were lots of little hidden jokes and meanings in the text. I’m sure that I didn’t pick up on them all. For example, in the beginning, the Emperor fights the ruler of the kingdom of Kuch Nahin, which means “nothing”. The Kingdom of Nothing. I also liked how he made the distinction between Jodha Bai and Mariam-uz-Zamani. Mariam was his real wife while Jodha Bai was a phantom. I interpret this to be Rushdie’s way of pointing out how the historical figure which people call Jodha Bai was never Jodha Bai – the name was incorrectly given to Mariam-uz-Zamani much later and so this is why Jodha Bai is a fictional being while Mariam is very real.

I didn’t like the parts that took place in Italy. I thought they were a little boring and a little complicated. I mostly enjoyed the parts that took place in the Mughal Court.

I’ve heard and read that The Enchantress of Florence is one of Rushdie’s easiest reads. If that’s the case, I’m not sure if I’d enjoy his previous works. But I really loved this one.