Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Shaman”

Shaman’s Cannonball read #CBR4 review #26: The help by Kathryn Stockett

I can’t believe I’m already done with this challenge. I signed up for the half-Cannonball read, which entailed reading 26 books within a year, and I’m already done. What will I do with my life now? What do you mean, I can read a book and not review it?

 

 

The help by Kathryn Stockett is an unputdownable book. Unputdownable – is that a word? No? Well, it should be. It tells the story of three women living in Jackson, Mississippi in the early sixties. One of them, Skeeter, is white and trying to become a writer, while playing bridge and attending high-society parties with her other privileged white friends. The two others are black, their job description being to take care of said friends’ households. Predictably, they get treated like lesser beings, like slaves – only because they’re getting paid it’s somehow ok. They have to sit and eat by themselves at work. Use separate toilets so that they don’t spread their black diseases to the white folk. And never disagree with their bosses, no matter how unjust they get treated, because then they’ll be accused of stealing things, lose their jobs and, in some cases, end up in prison.

 

These three women will join forces to write a book about the situation in their town, risking everything they have, during a time in history when black people got beat up and even killed for wanting equal treatment. In the process they’ll find out things about themselves and each other and form a friendship that transcends the racial barriers.

 

Stockett draws a lot of her inspiration from her own experiences growing up in Mississippi. She describes how, for a well-off white family, having a black maid was a given. How much love often existed between said maids and the children they took care of. How, despite the abolition of slavery more than a century before, tension between the two races was like a ticking bomb. Tension, which along with shame (for some people), bull-headed adherence to the old ways (for others) and even frothing-in-the-mouth hatred (for a few) made life a living hell for these maids.

 

It takes many years for societies to change. Racism will most likely always be a part of them. It’s just that we find a different bogeyman each time. And it all boils down to the barriers we put up between ”us” and ”them”, and seeing ”them” as an anonymous mass with no discernible features. We don’t know ”them”. We just need a vessel onto which to empty our hatred, our fears, our own failures. If we look too close, we see that these people have fears of their own, they have dreams, hopes, they are similar, they are different, the same way you and I are similar yet different. And I think that one of Stockett’s main messages is that we need to start looking closer instead of hiding behind charity (which is often an attempt to quiet our conscience rather than done out of true love).

 

An easy read that deals with a heavy subject, it’s a book that is obviously written with love. None of the characters are caricature-like good or evil. Persons who behave in a horrible way towards their help are great mothers. Victims behave like bullies in different circumstances. And people that we adore have dark secrets in their past. It is these grey zones that exist in reality that make it so hard for those who are willing to see them to make sweeping generalisations about races.

 

Maybe the best book I’ve read this year and one of the best I’ve ever read.

More of my reviews on my blog.

Shaman’s Cannonball read #CBR4 review #25: Eat and Run by Scott Jurek

“Eat and run”, a memoir by ultrarunner Scott Jurek, is by no means a literary masterpiece. Jurek is a lot of things (physiotherapist, winner of many prestigious ultramarathon races around the world, cook, vegan) but he is no high-brow writer. Yet I devoured his book as if it were one of his delicious-sounding vegan meals.

 

Jurek tells the story of how he became a great ultrarunner. He speaks of the building blocks that made him who he is -his parents, friends, coaches- with warmth and humour. He speaks of the trials he went through, the slow deterioration of his mother’s health, his falling out with his strict father, his divorce. And then he speaks of how changing his diet was the catalyst for reaching the top of the ultrarunning mountain.

 

It is hard to review an autobiographical book without judging the person writing it. Jurek comes across as a loving yet competitive, spiritual yet down-to-earth, fragile yet strong individual. He tells his story in a tone that suggests that he might as well be sitting next to you over a couple of beers; friendly, relaxed, personal. The format he follows to tell this story is also one that reminds of the above scenario: loosely connected episodes, bits of his life that, put together, give us a better understanding of who Scott Jurek is.

 

The book is, of course, not called just ”Run”, but ”Eat and run”. Jurek started out hunting and cooking his own food as a child, but ended up becoming a vegan through fine-tuning his diet. A vegan athlete is no common occurrence, especially when it comes to elite level, and Jurek explains how it worked for him. At the end of each chapter he shares one of his recipes.

 

My feet were itching to hit the trail by the end of the book. My stomach was sending me signals that it wanted to try the hummus or the lentil burgers. As for myself, who has looked up to Jurek and drawn inspiration from him for a while now, I felt like I knew him a little bit better after reading this book, and that I respected him even more. The book inspired me and made me think about my own running, and -perhaps most importantly for Jurek- it made me want to buy hum a beer.

 

You can read more of my reviews in my blog.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR4 review #24: The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Terry Pratchett has been so successful in writing the numerous Discworld novels that he finds himself in a predicament: people either expect him to be just as funny in his other novels, or they expect him to do something completely different. Unfortunately, in this collaboration with Stephen Baxter for the book ”The Long Earth” he falls somewhere between these two. Not funny in comparison with Discworld, too pratchett-y to be different.

 

The Long Earth is a fantasy/science fiction novel about parallel universes. One day people discover that they can ”step” between worlds using a strange potato-based contraption. This opens up a lot of possibilities, at the same time as it creates a lot of problems. The book explores all those issues through the eyes of Joshua, a saviour kind of guy who was raised by Harley-riding nuns, and who travels through these universes in the belly of a Zeppelin controlled by the robotic reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman.

 

I’ll give you a minute to re-read that last sentence, shall I?

 

See the pratchettness of it yet? The quirk? The philosophical questions it raises? But there is one pratchettian component missing: the humour. And that’s where I think Pratchett has dug a hole for himself. He’s so good at what he does best, ie the Discworld novels, that a lot of people – myself included- expect him to keep doing exactly that. As soon as he strays from the formula and aims for something more ”serious”, like he did with ”Nation”, for instance, he’s doomed. People will make comparisons, and his non-Discworld offerings will be lacking, because they’re not Discworld. Oh, and because they’re not as good. Pratchett is best when he’s funny.

 

But say that you somehow manage to put the comparisons aside, and judge the book as is. Pretend that it was written by an unknown author. The book is still lacking, despite the very promising premise. It drags on, until the last 50 pages or so when it suddenly picks up pace and becomes really, really interesting, only to leave you hanging. No, really. The end felt like a cliffhanger, and I don’t know if it was intentional and they are planning a sequel (probably) but it seemed like the book would have benefited by getting rid of maybe 200 or so pages about what came before and telling us what comes after instead.

 

Stephen Baxter, then? I mean, his name is on the book cover. Well, I wasn’t able to ”see” his contributions to this novel as much as sir Terry’s. But then again, I haven’t read that many of his books that I can easily recognise his voice, as I do with Pratchett’s.

 

In the end, I think the book has trouble finding its audience. It’s not kid-friendly (because of the swearing) but not adult, either (too….lightweight). Will I read the sequel? You bet. I’ll read whatever Pratchett throws at me. Even if he throws me crumbs. Don’t judge me! They taste a bit like the cake they came from.

 

More of my reviews and ramblings in my blog.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR04 review #23: Titan by Stephen Baxter

It’s a mystery. I enjoy most science fiction films I watch, most books I read, yet I never actively seek science fiction books out to read. This particular book, Stephen Baxter’s Titan, was in my bookcase for years before I finally picked it up, reading the summary on the back cover and trying to remember if I’d read it. A sticker on the front told me I had bought it on sale, but I had no recollection of it. This didn’t seem like a promising start.

 

Half an hour into the book, I was ready to put it down again. Details upon details of spaceships and how they work, jargon that might as well be another language, and science. Lots of it. I was wondering when the story was going to begin. But, paradoxically, despite the book balancing precariously on the edge between good story-telling and Space Flight for Dummies, Baxter slowly but surely drew me in.

 

Titan is the story of a manned mission to the titular moon of Saturn. Five astronauts make their way through years and unfathomable empty spaces to what they hope will become a new frontier for mankind, at the same time as Earth undergoes a catastrophic crisis. It is a journey fuelled by curiosity, that basic human thirst for knowledge and, in the end, for finding out what comes next. Are we alone in the universe? And – something that is perhaps implied, but never openly discussed – what happens when we die?

 

The aforementioned details that, early on, threatened to bog down the novel, prove to be the catalyst for its success. They are precisely what turned the astronauts’ bland journey to the outer reaches of our solar system to riveting fiction. They spoke to my own inner curiosity about how people would survive such a journey, both mentally and physically. I felt what the astronauts felt: their boredom, their detachment, their fears and hopes. My only minor complaint is that I never cared for the characters, never rooted for them other than that I wished they’d survive so I could follow them on their journey. Their personalities are almost interchangeable as soon as one strays from their job descriptions, and that makes it hard for the reader to find someone to identify with. We identify with the idea of them instead, that they represent mankind. But maybe that was the point? That we are all flawed and ultimately as boring as these five?

 

Titan is not a book about hope, at least not if you honestly believe that we are the masters of the universe. Yet it is not a book about despair, either. It is a book that explores what it is that gives meaning to our existence and that reminds us how small and insignificant we are as soon as we’ve left the gravity boundaries of our home planet.
More of my reviews and ramblings here.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read CBR#4 review #22: Slow Food Nation by Paolo Petrini

The message of this book is simple: try to eat good, clean, fair food. By good, Petrini means food that tastes like it should, and not the washed-out, bland doppelgangers that get transported around the globe to end up on our plates. Clean food is the kind of food that has minimal environmental impact. Fair food entails respectable working conditions for the farmers producing it and wages that match their efforts.

In this vision there is little place for monocultures and agricultural giants that bully small enterprises and cause environmental damage. Petrini stands up for the farmers and the consumers, and wants food to be more than nutrition. He wants it to be a culinary experience and he wants to preserve the cultural baggage it carries with it. Through the pages of his book he presents his vision, a global network of gastronomers (that is, farmers, cooks and consumers that share his ideals of good, clean, fair food) whose goal is to push for a new way of trading edible goods.

It is important for Petrini to point out that these gastronomers, himself included, are neither elitist nor want to revert to the previous state of things. He means rather to protect the cultural heritage associated with farmers, and to present a way of producing and consuming food that’s more sustainable for our planet, a planet that is already on the brink of environmental disaster.

I am however not sure that he succeeds in convincing the reader of his intentions. His -at least initial- focus on the importance of taste in food brings to mind overweight Romans shoving all that is edible into their mouths, alternatively privileged older gentlemen that have little contact with the real world. I am definitely not convinced, as he claims, that a hungry, poor person cares so much about taste as they are about, you know, avoiding dying. As for the language he uses, it is stiff. The content, important message aside, is repetitive and tiresome. The book is plain boring.

Other authors with similar messages, for example Michael Pollan, have succeeded in capturing the reader’s interest much better than Petrini. The anecdotes Petrini uses (presented to us as ”diaries”) are the most interesting parts of the book, without which it would just have been even drier and dull. And it is a shame, really; such an important message should be made available for all to read, and not just the most determined foodies, who -like me- probably don’t need convincing to begin with.

More of my ramblings here.

Shaman’s #CBR4 review #21: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit has been a favourite of mine ever since I first read it as a kid ages ago. I remembered bits and pieces with great fondness (Trolls! Dragons! Riddles in the dark!), and reading Lord of the Rings as a teenager only served to firmly place Tolkien on the number one spot among my favourite authors. I’ve been meaning to re-read the Hobbit for years. And now I finally have.

 

It is a very well written book, full of adventure and Tolkien’s trademark mythology. But it is a book for children, a fact that somehow escaped my nostalgic reminiscing and regret that they don’t make books like that any more; unlike Lord of the Rings, with its dark themes and complex writing, the Hobbit is a fairytale.

 

Of course, even a fairytale is a majestic thing when written by Tolkien. But you can never go back. Knowing the story that follows the events in this book, I nitpicked about how Gandalf was portrayed, wondered about some things that seemed to be inconsistent with LotR, wanted more…seriousness in the book. I am an adult now, and the days I could curl up with a book like the Hobbit and enjoy it like a child are long gone. But, if I had any children of my own, you bet I’d be reading this book to them every night before they went to sleep until they hit puberty. After all, they don’t make children’s books like that any more.

 

More of my reviews on my blog.

Shaman’s Cannonball read #CBR04 review #20: A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin

Major spoilers, obviously.

 

I was a latecomer to the Game of Thrones party. It wasn’t until after I had watched the first episode of the TV series in mixed horror and fascination, that I knew who George Martin was. As an avid Tolkien fan (you know Tolkien: Fairies, elves, hobbits, heroes and maidens), this particular brand of fantasy, with all its sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, sellswords and whores, flux and greyscale was completely new to me.

 

As a latecomer, I skipped the long wait others had to suffer between books and dived right in. Bought the first four. Loved some, loathed some. And then it was time for A Dance With Dragons. I bought this book a year ago, as soon as it came out, but put off reading it maybe because just looking at it made me collapse under its weight. This year I couldn’t put it off any longer. I started reading it almost two months ago, and made slow progress. A few pages every day were about all I could fit into my life, at a time where work and other worries occupied my mind.

 

I was bored. I had trouble keeping up with who was who and who was doing what to whom. Whose side was Bolton on? Who conspired against Daenerys? And how did all of those minor characters fit into the story? My eyes glazed over the lengthy meal descriptions that seem to be a Martin trademark. I had favourites, of course. Arya. Theon. Tyrion. I still looked forward to reading their chapters. Martin finally bringing back my favourite characters was probably what kept me reading.

 

The rest of my review can be found on my blog.

Shaman’s Cannonball read #CBR04 review #19: The Replacement by Brenda Yovanoff

I read a translated version of this book, so I wondered if my issues with it had more to do with the translator doing a poor job and less with the author’s talent for writing. Then I went online to see what others were writing about it, and saw that they had the same issues.

Mackie Doyle is a teenage boy facing some of the typical teenage problems most kids his age face: allergic reactions to steel, baby kidnappings, evil demons. Oh, and he’s also unique. You know, just like all other kids his age. Only unique in a different way: he’s also a demon, a replacement for the real Mackie Doyle, whom the demons stole and sacrificed when he was a baby.

What follows is….I’m not entirely sure. He’s on a quest. To save someone. And some demons object, while others don’t. Or do they? What’s going on?

To say that this book is confusing is to put it mildly. Couple that with a lukewarm interest in the characters and you have a very short attention span. The language is simplistic. Yovanoff seems to have some sort of fascination with teeth. Why else would she include a description of them every time she introduces a character?

A book I would recommend to angsty 12-year old goths.

More of my reviews here.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR04 review #18: 11.22.63 by Stephen King

Oh, Stephen, Stephen. I’ve been a faithful reader of yours for years, loving your relaxed way of writing, the way your characters were everyday Joes finding themselves in unusual circumstances, the uneasy sense of evil lurking under their metaphorical beds. Then you decide to venture into new territory, and why not? Artists need to reinvent themselves to keep being relevant. Still, there was something not quite right about your latest offering.

The titular date is the date of the assassination of president Kennedy that took place in Dallas almost 50 years ago. Jake, our hero, wasn’t even born back then. He’s a teacher in his thirties, recently divorced, living in 2011. Until one day, his good friend Al shows him the portal to the past he’s found in his hamburger joint’s storage room.

Everyone’s favourite teacher will go back to the past to change the world. But everyone knows what happens if you meddle with the past, right? Big no-no.

It’s a bit slow in the beginning. Then it picks up speed when Jake travels back to 1958, and King is back to his usual, much-loved depictions of small-town Maine life. Then it sags. Big time. But by then you’re two-thirds into this gigantic novel and you just have to see how it ends.

This book could have been shorter by 200 pages or so. A large part of it is dedicated to following Lee Oswald’s life the years prior to the assassination. I am not American, so maybe that’s why this whole part of the Kennedy assassination mythology left me yawning? There was something unlikeable about Jake, too. It’s one thing to drop your main character into a situation where he has no choice but to save himself and the others that are in it. It’s yet another thing to create a character that willingly takes it upon himself to save the world. It tastes funny…like hubris.

Not really a book I would recommend to anyone except die-hard King fans and Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists. But I will keep buying his books, because when he produces a good novel, he’s a lot of fun to read.

My other reviews can be found here.

Shaman’s Cannonball Read #CBR4 review #17: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

[...]

Hawking and Mlodinow’s book ”The Grand Design” goes through some theories that attempt to answer some of these questions and to explain how the world works, and concludes that the M-theory is the one that holds most promise. The authors discuss religion in this context, in what I thought was a respectful manner, to make a case for why we don’t need it to understand the universe. And (lemme see if I got this straight) the reason we are here to observe this specific universe is because this specific universe (only one of an infinite amount of universes) is the only one with the potential to have us, who can observe it, in it. Confused yet?

[...]

Read my review here.

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