Monday, February 28, 2011

The Help, Room, cells, professors, etc.

Another book review round-up, for your consideration, coming right up.

The Ends of the Earth, by Robert D. Kaplan. Kaplan is a master of the fascinating travelogue where you learn a lot along the way, and The Ends of the Earth follows that formula. On Goodreads, I gave this book three out of five stars. Really, that rating is in comparison to everything else Kaplan has ever written (that I've read). A less biased review would be four stars. I felt that The Ends of the Earth has been rendered ever so slightly irrelevant by the passage of time, whereas Kaplan's other works seem to stand up pretty well even after a decade or more.

It was also uneven at times - the parts about Africa were great. Egypt - meh. Central Asia - brilliant. Iran - meh. Southeast Asia - brilliant again.

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. I re-read this one in Qatar. My original review is here. Read on its own, removed from the energy and continuity of the other two books, Mockingjay suffers a little. There were too many decisive, exciting scenes that took place while our heroine was unconscious so we don't see them happen. And the ending is devastatingly bleak. I would probably give this book four stars (out of five) on its own but I stick to my five-star rating when Mockingjay is read with the series as a whole.

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. I gave this book five stars on Goodreads even though I felt that the last few chapters didn't live up to the standard of the rest of the story. The last section was all at once too broad yet too specific and didn't make for a very coherent conclusion.

That said, what an amazing book! I had had this book described to me by a friend in Ithaca as a book about two couples just out of grad school and their lifelong friendship. It sounded kind of boring. And to someone who has never been immersed in academia (or married to someone who has), it probably would be.

But to those of us who know too well the experience of spending the better part of a decade earning a series of degrees, and then jumping into the void of employment at a university, Crossing to Safety is an astonishingly accurate portrait of that life. There are basically only four characters in this story and throughout the entire book, I could see myself or Jeremy in at least one of them. On the whole, I think I am Charity and Jeremy is Sid (but before you get too many ideas, we are not like them in EVERY respect, just on the whole).

There is so much more I could say but I won't waste it on (or bore) someone who hasn't read and loved the book.

My favorite passage, with Larry describing settling into a lectureship after finishing his PhD:

"In a way, it is beautiful to be young and hard up. With the right wife, and I had her, deprivation becomes a game...I set up a card table for a desk and made a bookcase out of some boards and bricks. In my experience, the world's happiest man is a young professor building bookcases, and the world's most contented couple is composed of that young professor and his wife, in love, employed, at the bottom of a depression from which it is impossible to fall further, and entering on their first year as full adults, not preparing any longer but finally into their lives."

Ah, so true.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. WOAH, what a story. This book is all over the place and yet the author did a good job of tying it up neatly. I learned so much about so many different things. I love it when authors widen the scope of a book's subject to take in super interesting related material (when it's done well, as it was for the most part in this book).

Room, by Emma Donoghue. I could not put this book down. It was a slightly rough start as I adjusted to the book's conceit of being narrated entirely by a five-year-old boy, but after that it was smooth sailing right up until the end. Having read this book, I think I will never look at my kids the same way again. Children really are amazing creatures, aren't they?

It pained me to do it, but on Goodreads I docked a star (giving it four stars) because I thought there was a slight undercurrent of implausibility running throughout the story. Which doesn't make sense, because in real life - in recent, real life - stranger things have happened. I guess my main quibble is with one part of the story in particular, which I think could not have unfolded as it did, or at least not as fast as it did.

Still, if you're looking for a super engrossing read, this is a good one.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. Three stars out of five, and before anyone has a heart attack or is deeply offended that I gave this book "only" three stars, I must tell you that no fewer than TWENTY-FOUR of my Goodreads friends gave The Help four or five stars. I had heard so many good things about this book that I shouldn't be surprised that upon finishing it, I was...disappointed.

I liked it just fine. I looked forward to reading it. I enjoyed the story while I was reading it. But it definitely didn't live up to its hype and there were even a few things about it that really bothered me.

For example, every character in this book is exactly as s/he appears. Nobody is conflicted, or has startling revelations, or even grows very much as a person during the course of this book. Everything I know about the characters at the end of the book, I knew at the beginning.

Another thing that bothered me is that the "bad guys" were terribly one-dimensional. They were just bad, with no redeeming characteristics, at all.

I'm making it sound like I disliked the book more than I did. Like I said, it was fine. I appreciated that it was engaging and clean and interesting and I definitely see how someone COULD love it. But I am not that person.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. I've read quite a few "survival story" books in my time, but I think this one outdoes them all in terms of what the hero had to survive. Wow. Just WOW.

I loved that the hero was a runner, and that the author spent some time on his running accomplishments. That was a nice connection.

By the way, don't go looking for information about this story elsewhere (Wikipedia, etc.) if you're going to read the book. It was all the more suspenseful because I didn't know a thing about Louis Zamperini before I read Unbroken. At one point in the story, you think things are moving toward a definitive resolution, but no: there's still half the book to go. Four out of five stars.

As always, recommendations, complaints, and corroborating opinions are welcome.


Crys said...

I'm started Unbroken today...glad to hear it will be good. I loved Seabiscuit so I was crossing my fingers I'd like this one as well.

Kathy Haynie said...

I wonder if Rebecca Skloot is related to Floyd Skloot (Oregon poet / author)?

Jessie said...

Have you seen this yet on By Common Consent? It went up on Twitter right after I read this post.

(I didn't read it because I was afraid of possible spoilers)

Bridget said...

Kathy, on the book jacket (or somewhere...) it mentions that Rebecca Skloot is indeed the daughter of Floyd Skloot. With a last name like that, you'd have to figure they're related somehow.

Jessie, I had not seen that post until you linked it. It doesn't have any spoilers so read away!

Susanne said...

Thanks for the list! I always love these posts!


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