Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “LurkeyTurkey”

LurkeyTurkey, #CBR4 Review #18, Guns Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

ImageSo, I know, I’m about 5 years late from the tidal wave of people who read this book.  I’m also just now getting into “Lost” and signing up for “The Facebook.”  Step off, people.

Where to start?  For the two of you out there in TV land who haven’t read this book, Diamond explores some of the possible reasons why certain cultures are the dominating, while others are the dominated.  It seems he is really trying to refute the statements that Europeans and Asians are “smarted” than other cultures, which is why their cultures have spread, flourished, and subjugated other cultures such as the Aborigines of Australia.

One of the main themes of this work is that our relationships with animals has had an incredibly large impact on the “success” of some cultures, and that geography had more to do with technological advancements than did intelligence.

The argument of beasts: Diamond notes only 14 large mammals have ever been domesticated: sheep, goat, cattle, pigs, horses, camels (Arabian and Bactrian), llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, and two minor relatives of cattle in southeast Asia called Bali cattle and mithrans.  Other large mammals (lions, rhinoceros, moose, elk, etc.) have proven to be too difficult/dangerous to be domesticated.  Thus, if a specific society lived in an area where you could domesticate a large mammal, you had a beast of burden and could give up your hunter/gatherer method of life, and go to a sedentary farming lifestyle.

Beasts also provided those with close man-animal relationships with germs, namely exposure to smallpox and influenza.  Though they were deadly in the first exposure, humans eventually developed antibodies which made their immune systems resistant to these deadly diseases.

Not so much the Native Americans, which is why it makes sense that when Columbus and Cortes showed up, nearly 80% of the native populations were wiped out without lifting a blade or chambering a round.  Fascinating stuff, really.

A review of this book could go into great detail, as there were several interesting theories and explanations offered by Diamond.  I would caution everyone to take this with a grain of salt and read some other experts on the field.  Oversimplification can make some of the more detailed and complex systems seem obvious.

Still, if you’re looking for a good starting place for an overall discussion of the evolution of certain societies, this is a broad-brush place to start.

LurkeyTurkey, #CBR4 Review #17, Dancer by Colum McCann

I have to admit to being a ballet troglodyte, and as such when one of my book clubs recommended we read this “racy novel about dancing,” I agreed.  (Malbec may or may not have influence my affability).  An thus began my journey into the (to me) unknown world of ballet in Russia (and elsewhere).

Whether you are concious of it or not, most people have seen a glimpse of Rudi Nureyev dancing in a ballet clip or highlight.  He was THE ballet superstar of the 60s, and danced with Margot Fontaine, perhaps THE prima ballerina of the world stage.  Together they were unstoppable, and remained dance partners until she was in her 60s- ancient for a professional ballerina.

Though this was not a biography of Rudi’s life, it was based on historical events, and thus does closely follow his life line.  The different characters in orbit around his life were amalgams of real people in his life: friends, family, peers, etc.  They all had their own roles to play, not only in Rudi’s life, but in describing the general feeling, tone, and reality of life in Russia at that time.

Rudi was a fascinating character: completely at odds with himself, but driven wholly and completely by his desire to be a perfect ballet dancer.  He is an unlikeable protagonist, but after learning his history from boyhood to fame, he is also a character of extreme vulnerability.  It is an intriguing look into the mind and heart of a genius, narcissist, and ultimately, a man with an unfulfilled heart.

One of the main issues I had with the book was that the author jumps back and forth between narrators, which I usually enjoy.  The main problem was that I listened to it on audiobook, and it was very hard to distinguish the narrator’s voices from one to another.  I am not sure if that problem exists in the written word, but it appears to be a bit jumpy.

I considered this to be well worth the read, particularly if you have no real background or knowledge of professional ballet.  There was very little ballet terminology, which keeps it accessible to those with no understanding of the art (like me).  The characters that pop in and out of the novel are also thrilling: some famous names do make an appearance in this account of Nureyev’s life.

LurkeyTurkey, #CBR4 Review #16, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Aye, what to say about this book?  I heard about it from a librarian friend of mine, and so our book club decided to take the plunge.  And a plunge it was.

Pak Jun Do is the son of the master of the orphanage Long Tomorrows (hence the book title).  Though he is not technically an orphan, he is treated as such, which in North Korea essentially means you are the lowest class, and nearly untouchable.  Orphans are stripped of their birth names, and given names of North Korean martyrs, and as such, are easily distinguishable.  They are also easily plucked by the government to do the most deplorable jobs that no one wants, or even acknowledges exist: secret tunnel digger/fighter, kidnapper of Japanese citizens, and radio operator on a local fishing vessel.

Propaganda plays a huge role in the story, as the North Korean government feeds its citizens “information” on loud speakers multiple times per day.  Citizens live in a sort of blind terror of their government, and each other, and the animalistic ways people survive is nothing short of terrifying.  It almost makes you wonder if the struggle is worth it at all.

Although this was a very interesting look at the North Korean culture, I don’t know how accurate a portrayal could actually be from a Stanford professor.  I appreciate the attempt at bringing North Korea to the American public, and I have no doubt life there is terrifyingly different from our own.  I am so much more grateful, for example, that Kim Jong Il is dead now than ever before: he is portrayed as being both humorous and vicious, nearly in the same instant.  My main problem is that I wonder at the authenticity of the character portrayal, due to the fact that it was written by an alien of North Korea.  Feel free to tear me apart on this one, but that’s my opinion.

I do wish the last 1/3 of the book hadn’t been as wildly erratic and plot-twisty.  I don’t know what purpose the wild departure served, maybe to lessen the blow for the reader?  Maybe to lessen the attempt at connection to real life in North Korea?  I don’t know, but it was rather less satisfying than it could have been.  Again, just my opinion.

All in all, worth a read, but this one did take me a long time to slog through.  The darkness, and the seeming inevitability of watching yourself become the villain in this kind of society does take a toll.

LurkeyTurkey, #CBR4 Review #15, Wild Thing by Josh Bazell

Hello, fellow Cannonballers!  I’ve fallen off the literary map lately due to a move from Our Nation’s Capital to the Windy City.  But now I’m back, and only slightly worse for the wear.  “Wild Thing:” Impossible to live up to the first Bazell novel, “Beat the Reaper,” which was gruesome, hilarious, irreverent, and terrific.  “Wild Thing” is…. less so?

The novel continues with the protagonist, Dr. Peter Brown, though this time around, courtesy of the WITSEC program, he has a new name and a phony medical license.  He is serving as the junior medical doctor aboard a cruise ship, which is apparently the kiss of death for practicing doctors.  The descriptions of staff life aboard the cruise liner are hilarious and depressing, in classic Bazell style.  He is still trying to come up with the cash required to “finish” his ruined relationship with the Mafia, and as such gets connected with a perhaps-insane-billionaire and a wild-ass plot device, replete with a smoking hot paleontologist named Violet.  Uh huh.

I suppose I would best describe this as a kitchen-sink kind of novel: everything was thrown in, including the protagonist.  Peter Brown was somewhat wasted on this trek to find out if the Loch Ness Monster, Part Deux, actually existed in North America and had a taste for mammalian blood.  There are some interesting characters, but by the time a real-life political figure works their way into the book, it simply doesn’t have enough focus (or connection to reality) to conclude in any really satisfying way, which is a shame.  Bazell nearly pulls it off, but then not quite.

I’m hoping this is a sophomore slump, and the next book in the series will be back to a kick-ass kind of madness. Not a bad read, and we listened to it on audiobook from DC to Chicago, which passed the time in an entertaining, if NSFW, way. Thanks, Josh Bazell, now get out there and write another Peter Brown book!

LurkeyTurkey, #CBR4 Review #14, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Ah, Neal Stephenson, how I love thee in general, but perhaps a little less in this book. 

Snow Crash was written in 1992, a fact that makes it ground-breaking, in that it essentially describes a metaverse (or internet in common speak) with Second Life type applications.  Pretty cool and mind blowing for a country that was obsessed with Ace of Base at the time. 

The plot is, like the other Stephenson novels I’ve read, complicated and fun.  Hiro Protagonist is, wait for it, the protagonist.  His business card reads, “Last of the freelance hackers and Greatest swordfighter in the world,” and that is an accurate description.  The United States government has ceded nearly all power and control to corporate sponsors- the military, judicial system, and even other countries are run by private industry.  The only major exports of the former US at this point are: micro-programming, movies, music, and pizza delivery.

While delivering a pizza, Hiro gets ‘pooned (short for harpooned) by a Kourier, Y.T., short for “Yours Truly,” a 15-year-old streetwise gal.  He crashes his delivery car (provided by the Mafia, the owners of the pizza delivery service), and she offers to deliver the pizza for him, which she does.  This turns into a partnership between Y.T. and Hiro, which is based on their ability to collect intel for the CIC (a for-profit CIA), and thus begins their journey together. 

Hiro’s friend, a computer hacker, gets infected with a pseudo drug, Snow Crash in the metaverse that also manages to cause extreme brain damage in the real world, or Reality.  Hiro and YT decide to search for the cause and source of Snow Crash, which is becoming prevalent in the metaverse, but which only impacts hackers.  At this point a slew of other interesting characters comes into play.  Here’s a short list:

Uncle Enzo, the head of the Mafia pizza industry. 

Raven, an embittered Aleut harpoon master and  overall badass.  He is lethal and incapable of being killed, as he has a hydrogen bomb wired to go off in the event of his death.  Whoa- talk about an insurance policy.

L Bob Rife, a fiber-optics monopolist and scary dude with big plans that are, as yet, unknown.

Juanita, a hacker responsible for the creation of facial expressions on avatars in the metaverse.  Also the first love of Hiro, and dedicated to solving the Snow Crash problem through a different path.

Rat things, semi-autonomous guard units, are about the size of a Rottweiler, with a long, whip-like tail for which they are named.  They are pretty cool, and play a unique role in the story.

All in all, this was a fun book, though the 50 pages of exposition on the Sumerian culture got a bit much at times.  I love Stephenson, and his ability to go off on tangents about math, linguistics, and programming is usually right up my alley.  His re-imagining of the Tower of Babel is interesting and inventive, but just gets kind of silly toward the end.  The climax was also a bit of a let-down for me, which is why this gets 3 stars instead of 4. 

A fun read, if you want to geek out on programming and linguistics for a spell, just not my favorite Stephenson to date.


LurkeyTurkey, CBR4 Review #13, Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

“We are funny creatures. We don’t see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects but endless fire.”

 This is my first introduction to Saul Bellow, but having read this, it will certainly not be my last.  I would say this book is really more of a 5-star work with insight into the human psyche, and a 3-star adventure book rolled into one.  A strange combination, but fairly often the bumbling, earnest, likable narrator says something so intensely insightful, you have to read it again.  That my friends, is a novel worth reading. 

Gene Henderson is a gluttonous, loud-mouthed, passionate, listless boor of a man.  He’s the sole surviving child of a wealthy man, and has had the ability, and occasionally curse, of having no real need for ambition in his life.   One day, while cursing at the banalities of married life, he decides to go to Africa, and off he goes.  In true Henderson fashion, he invites himself along on the honeymoon of his best friend, while also managing to snub the bride.  He falls in with an African guide, Romilayu, who introduces him to the Arnewi tribe where he blunders (though with the best of intentions) and leaves in disgrace.  They are captured by the Wariri tribe, and through a series of unusual events, Henderson becomes their rain king.  Political machinations and hijinx ensue.   

Henderson is both a comedic and a tragic character, searching for meaning in his clownish way, while simultaneously providing keen insight into the hearts of men.  In this way, Bellow created a comically inept buffoon to express a true and deeply poignant love of  life- right when you are about to write Henderson off as a complete moron, Bellow gets you with the one-two punch.  These passages sing, and some of the lines, particularly coming from such a walking disaster of a man, are that much more beautiful and compelling. 

“Shall I run back into the desert … and stay there until the devil has passed out of me and I am fit to meet human kind again without driving it to despair at the first look? I haven’t had enough desert yet.”

“Maybe time was invented so that misery might have an end.”

All in all, perhaps the adventure side of the book was necessary to really move the plot forward, while allowing this deeply personal love letter to life itself.  Either way, I will be heading back to the library to read more Bellow.  And I am seriously looking into a way in which I could have a lion as a pet.

LurkeyTurkey #CBR4 Review #12, A Single Girl’s Guide to Marrying a Man, His Kids and His Ex-Wife: Becoming a Stepmother with Humor and Grace by Sally Bjornsen

I understand this will be a fairly esoteric review, as not too many folks are in this situation, but whatever.  I’m supposed to read and review 52 books this year, and I read this one, damn it, so it’s getting reviewed. 

Let’s get one thing straight: I am not “sassy,” and I believe that to be the self-described attribute of women who would want to read this book.   I am engaged to a wonderful man who is divorced and has a young son.  I have watched myself act insane, jealous and angry not towards my beloved or his progeny, but at the situation itself.  It was recently, while watching myself as though my sane brain was floating in a balloon some 8 feet above my Mr. Hyde-like self, I realized I perhaps needed some advice on how to deal with the situation.  I turned to the self-help section, and found this book.

I will not say the book itself does not include little gems of wisdom- they do exist.  I would say that the author has clearly learned a lot, and that she does a decent job outlining the differences between her single life, and that of being a married woman with stepchildren.  The main problem for me was that her single life and mine are in complete opposition.  Our approaches are different, and perhaps that is why it didn’t resonate as much with me as others.

Was it funny?  Meh.  I prefer a dry and clever sense of humor, so maybe it just wasn’t my particular cuppa’ funny.  I was also reading it in tandem with a Christopher Hitchens essay collection, which is not a fair companion in the slightest.  This book was honest, and some of it was helpful, but it was generally lacking the insight, coping strategies, and the psychologist-backed tips I was hoping to absorb.  Still, a lighter approach to a fairly heavy topic.  So, bravo for making the transition, Mrs. Sally Bjornsen.  I hope to be as successful.

LurkeyTurkey #CBR4 Review #11, Arguably by Christopher Hitchens

“Stay with me.  I’ve done the hard thinking for you.”

Truer words, Mr. Hitchens.  This collection of essays is an amalgam from his contributions to Vanity Fair, Slate, The Guardian, and The Atlantic, as well as some introductions to other novels, etc.  What a collection!  I thoroughly enjoyed every essay, even those with which I did not agree.  The Hitchens approach is one of carefully thought out, well-reasoned, and eloquent (and often hilarious) design.  His eye is keen, his wit is sharp, and though this tome was 750 pages (or 45 hours on audiobook), I flew through it.

The topics discussed were so wide in range, I’ll admit I was skeptical that he would be able to a) keep my interest in topics I would not have chosen to read and b) address each topic with the same degree of insight and passion.  I was wrong on both counts, and delightfully to be so.  Waterboarding, Hitler, Marx, Graham Greene, the Flashman series, September the 11th- all discussed beautifully and insightfully.  He even had essays on the Harry Potter series, and Steig Larssen.  It was a fascinating few days.

Mixed in with the more heady topics were those of the naughty sense of humor for which Hitchens is known, including my favorite piece: As American as Apple Pie, a history of the American ascendancy of fellatio.  Another famous piece, Why Women Aren’t Funny, was just as irreverent and well-written as the first time I read it. 

Threads run through the essays, with allusions to Animal Farm, 1984, Evelyn Waugh, and September the 11th appearing often.  I am grateful to Hitchens for introducing me to Rebecca West and Elmo Zumwalt, two authors I am eager to read. 

I had a lot of respect for Mr. Hitchens before reading this collection of works.  Now, however, I find myself mourning his passing as though he was a dear family friend.  He is truly missed.

LurkeyTurkey, #CBR4 Review #10, Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Love, the deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it and when you don’t.

But that isn’t it, exactly.

The condemner and the condemned. The executioner; the blade; the last-minute reprieve; the gasping breath and the rolling sky above you and the thank you, thank you, thank you, God.

Love: It will kill you and save you, both.”

I’ve waited several days to write this review, to fully allow the novel to marinate in my brain because the last couple chapters really changed the entire momentum of the book.  The last few chapters were, in fact, a complete departure, and they were action-packed and taut.  The rest of the book was…  well, to quote The Princess Bride, a kissing book.

The story starts in Portland, Maine sometime in the future.  Society is under the brutish control of the government, and love, or Amor Deliria Nervosa, has been labeled a disease.  In an Equilibrium-like move, the government has determined that love, and really all strong emotions, are hindrances to control, and have required all citizens to receive “The Cure” at age 18.  The Cure is a medical procedure which prevents strong emotions, namely love, thus making the population complacent zombie-sheep (no, that’s a thing, trust me).  Invalids are the enemies of the state: unCured people living in “the Wilds” (the area outside of government control) who, according to the government, are attempting to infect the pre-Cured population. 

Lena, the protagonist, is a 17 year old girl just months away from receiving her Cure, and relieved at the prospect of being inoculated from the disease.  She is an orphan whose mother committed suicide when the government attempted to Cure her after 3 previous failed attempts.  Lena is believed to have this tainted blood, and is essentially an outcast and looked upon with suspicion by her Aunt and Uncle (with whom she lives), and various members of society.  Hannah, Lena’s only real friend, is well-to-do and gorgeous, and seems to have  a bit of a wild streak, which could be dangerous in this society.  Both girls are ready to graduate from high school, receive their Cure, get paired by the government with their mate, and lead lives of quiet subservience.   

All is on track until Lena meets Alex.  Commence kissing.  Alex is smart, handsome, and initially believed to be “safe” because he has been Cured.  Lena falls for him the way teenagers do, and spends the book hiding her illicit romance, and fantasizing about Alex during nearly every waking (and sleeping) moment.  They both realize the relationship is doomed, as her Cure looms, but are unable to stop their feelings.  Alex clearly has secrets, which are unveiled as the book goes on.

This was my introduction to Lauren Oliver, though I have read some high praise for her book, Before I Fall.  I think this book had an interesting (though hardly profoundly innovative) concept, and the execution was ok.  I hope that the characters are more fully developed and interesting in the second book, though I wonder why I should have to wait for that to occur.  The author had 400 pages to develop them in the first book, what happened?

I will say that Oliver did have some beautiful prose, and she managed to paint the canvas of the society through nursery rhymes, government propaganda, and the basic handbook to society, The Book of SHHH.  I think the audience would have been better served had this been 1 book, instead of the 3 that are planned.  Tightening up the story lines would have served for a much more taut narration, and more impact.  Still, I’ll read the next two books, if just for the cultural augmentations, like this nursery rhyme: 

Mama, Mama, help me get home
I’m out in the woods, I am out on my own.
I found me a werewolf, a nasty old mutt
It showed me its teeth and went straight for my gut.

Mama, Mama, help me get home
I’m out in the woods, I am out on my own.
I was stopped by a vampire, a rotting old wreck
It showed me its teeth, and went straight for my neck.

Mama, Mama, put me to bed
I won’t make it home, I’m already half-dead.
I met an Invalid, and fell for his art
He showed me his smile, and went straight for my heart.

Bottom line: a decent book, but really more for those who are into love stories instead of those who love the dystopic genre.

LurkeyTurkey, #CBR4 Review #8, Watermelon by Marian Keyes

Oy, my ovaries hurt.  I enjoy some chick-lit.  And some is dreck.  In my opinion, this book is on the drecky side. 

Claire’s husband, James, is a total wanker.  On the day she delivers their baby, he comes into the recovery room and announces he has been having an affair and is leaving her for another woman.  Claire, head spinning, immediately packs up her baby and herself, and heads from her apartment in London to her childhood home in Dublin, with a newborn.  A 2 day-old newborn and a new mother.  On a plane to Dublin.  Uh huh.   

The reader is then introduced to Claire’s wacky, off-kilter, and supposedly endearing family including: domestically challenged Mother, long suffering Father, hippy-dippy Sister, and narcissistic Other Sister.  All this happens within the first few chapters.   Commence Claire’s pity party, anthropomorphized emotions, unrelated trips down memory lane, endless anecdotes, and pages upon pages of trying-too-hard-to-be-witty observations for the next 250 pages. 

Claire goes through a kind of grieving process, but not one that makes a full emotional journey.  She is touted throughout the novel as being charismatic, highly intelligent, and the life of the party, but the descriptions are hollow, and quite often I thought the author had mixed up the character with some other manuscript.  I kept thinking, “Smart?  Independent?  Self-assured?  Wait, who are they talking about?”

 The main problem (for me) is that the narration gets in the way of whatever plot might have existed under the laundry heap of words in this book.  I skipped entire pages of talk and talk and talk to get to the next action.  Verbs, lady.  They are your friends.   

Basically, this book was a good escape from reality, but also a bad escape from reality.  There were certainly some funny lines, and Keyes writes with humor, but the protagonist just become repetitive and grating, and I just wanted her to get on with it already. 

Side note/Pet peeve:  I would very much like just one chick-lit book to have an even mildly believable romantic male interest.  I mean, come on already.  Can I get an Amen?

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