Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rumsfeld, Divergent, Hangman, Spoiled, Wilder

Book reviews! There's a lot, and some of them are long. Sorry.

The star ratings refer to what I gave each book on Goodreads.

City of Fallen Angels, by Cassandra Clare. 2.5 out of 5 stars. Not as good as the original trilogy that precedes it, and I didn't even love those books. Still, there is something smart and effortless about Clare's writing that makes her books fun to read, if a bit forgettable. I kind of get the feeling she tosses these books off in a series of weekend afternoons. I would love to see her really apply herself to a book - I think the results would be brilliant.

Divergent, by Veronica Roth. 4.75 out of 5 stars. These days, it seems like every book that has a brooding male love interest and any touch of the supernatural gets compared to Twilight. Any book that is dystopian gets the same treatment, with The Hunger Games. It's not really fair. But there's no way I can write this review without mentioning the latter, so deal with it.

(However, as long as we are comparing Divergent to other books, I think it has just as many elements of Ender's Game to it - with an older, less futuristic, female Ender.)

But anyway, yes, this is a book in the style of The Hunger Games. We can all recognize that. But Divergent stands on its own two feet just fine, thank you very much. A few years ago, I said of a different YA book that it was "one of those lovely, delicious books that sucks you into its world and makes you want to ignore every other responsibility in your life, every other engagement, commitment, or member of your family, even the tiny helpless ones, and just READ." Divergent - hooray! - is another one of those. It has been so long, my friends.

I loved the world Roth created, but it was something that grew on me. She doesn't explain a lot at first, but this is a service to the reader. It's nice that she assumes we're not stupid, you know? And you know how sometimes books are populated with peripheral characters that are just kind of there? Not so with Divergent. I cared about each of the characters in this universe. I wanted to know more about them, their motivations, their lives. As for the principals: the heroine, Beatrice, was an everywoman, like you'd expect, but in unexpected ways, if that makes any sense. She's blonde, for one - finally, a kick-butt blondie! The hero was smart and realistic and not forced to compete for the girl in the context of an obligatory love triangle. Hallelujah.

Now, back to that great unmentionable, The Hunger Games. No, this book is not quite as good as that one, but I don't really care. I think its main weakness is that it may not stand up to repeat readings like THG has (at least in my experience). But for that adventure of the first trip into Divergent's world, I was every bit as invested in the story and the characters. I also appreciated that Roth continued the story several chapters past where she could have ended it, considering the way trilogies run these days.

Anyway, this is by far my favorite YA read of the year so far.

(I feel compelled to mention that this book has quite a bit of violence in it, so don't go reading it to your 10-year-old for a bedtime story, mmmkay?)

East, by Edith Pattou. 3 out of 5 stars. Good, but not great. Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow told the same story, and it did it better.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley. 4.5 out of 5 stars. I don't even care what any book with Flavia de Luce in it is about. I don't care. It could be about ants destroying a tomato plant and as long as she's the one describing it to me, I will gobble it up. I love this girl. Like I said after I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: I want Flavia de Luce to follow me around all day and provide a running commentary on my life.

So yeah, the mystery wasn't beyond brilliant, but it was good, and, again, FLAVIA DE LUCE.

(One of my favorite things that the author gets right about her is the relationship among the three sisters. Shifting alliances, jokes that go too far, knowing when to turn the rancor on and off...ah, perfection.)

The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis. 4 out of 5 stars. This is another one of my "more favorite" books of this series. Miriam liked it, too!

Known and Unknown, by Donald Rumsfeld. 4 out of 5 stars. OH YES I DID. Unabridged version and all.

I'm a sucker for a good memoir. It doesn't matter if you agree with Donald Rumsfeld or approve of everything he's ever done: he's an engagingly lucid writer who has lived through (and influenced) some seriously major historic events. Reading this book was like having a good sit-down with your aged grandfather, except this particular aged grandfather has held an impressive smattering of government positions over the years including serving as Secretary of Defense for two different US Presidents.

That said, once I hit the post-9/11 chapters on Iraq, this book became a bit of a "long, hard slog," if you will. The narrative became mired in details and minutiae and I've already heard so much about that period of time through other books. So I checked out right around there and tuned back in once Hurricane Katrina came around.

Other reviews have complained that Known and Unknown is nothing more than a string of mea culpa avoidance behaviors, to which I say, dude, this is a memoir and he can write it how he wants it. I have to say, there were some cases where the record needed a little setting straight and a memoir is the perfect place for that. To take a minor example, you may recall that the title of this book was taken from a famous Rumsfeld quote:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

Read it again, folks. It makes perfect sense and is actually quite insightful no matter what you think of the man. As is this book.

Spoiled, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. 3 out of 5 stars. Clever and witty and straightforward. It made me laugh out loud a few times. I was neither disappointed nor wowed by this book - it was exactly what I expected it to be.

The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure. One out of five stars. The thing about a book like this - a book about a journey through some topic or other where the author's presence is overt - is that the author has to be likeable. Otherwise, it's like being stuck with a tour guide whose voice is kind of annoying and half the things she says aren't interesting and maybe she's a low-talker sometimes and at the end of the tour you're just glad to be DONE.

Unfortunately, that's how this book was for me. From almost the very beginning, it was the weirdest thing: I didn't like the author. The things she said, the way she said them, the little details of her life that she chose to bring into the story - ugh, I just did not want to spend 350 pages with this person, but there I was, reading The Wilder Life.

And in the end, I didn't even feel bad for not liking the author as she presents herself in the book, because you know what? The author doesn't like anyone in her own book! She is snide and condescending to everyone she comes across - but don't worry, it's only behind their backs, in the pages of this book, which will unfortunately be read by a lot of people.

You see, in McClure's published opinion, really earnest zealots of the Little House on the Prairie books (meaning anyone more interested in the series than the author herself, of course) are too weird. Those who aren't interested at all must have had crappy childhoods. Fans of the TV show: oh, that is SO lowbrow, the NERVE. People who have children, people who believe in emergency preparedness, people who dress up like pioneers for fun when visiting Laura Ingalls historic sites = WEIRDOS. Only the author, her precious long-suffering boyfriend, and a couple of college friends are in that special club of people who are not mocked in this book. (And also, inexplicably, this one lady at a gift shop named Barbara Walker. Good for her.)

It's sad, too, because I was really excited to go on a fun, informative romp through the books that had a great influence on me in childhood. I read the Little House on the Prairie books so many times as a young girl that it's almost as if the landscape is still there in my imagination, just as it looked twenty years ago, waiting to be populated by Laura and friends the moment I pick up one of the books to read it again.

Instead, I felt like my soft-edged, glowing, skipping-through-the-wildflowers memories of everything Laura Ingalls were trotted out by this book and shoved around roughly for a while, but in a lazy, half-hearted manner, and then left by the side of the road when the author got tired of it.

Because seriously, the author doesn't even bother concealing how blase she got about this whole Laura Ingalls Wilder thing (about which she was writing a book, you may recall). There were multiple times in the book where someone at a Laura-related site would ask her, "would you like to see more," or "would you like to stay longer," or "would you like to drive 15 minutes out of your way to..." and the author's answer was, "meh, no thanks. I'm too tired/hungry/bored."

And you can't even imagine how disorganized this book is. It seems to me that the way to do it would be to have a chapter for each book in the series, or sections devoted to recipes she tried, and then sites she visited, and then studies of the lifestyle, or SOMETHING. Instead, there is no clear method or beginning or end or arc to any of the chapters, so it goes something like: "I thought about trying a recipe, and then I read on the internet for a while about butter churns, and then I drove to this one site, and then I talked with this girl who wrote a book about it a long time ago, and then I decided I never wanted to have children." What the?!?

In conclusion, the only parts of this book that I liked were when she visited the site of Farmer Boy (and even then, she couldn't resist a sneer about how that was her least favorite book in the series); and when I finally, after all these years, got a slight idea of what the heck a slough is.

I cannot think of a reason anyone should ever read this book. Even if you're a fan of the Little House on the Prairie books. Heck, ESPECIALLY if you're a fan of the Little House on the Prairie books.


Nemesis said...

Ugh. That is really, really disappointing about the Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Dangit.

Also, totally agree about East vs the Jessica Day George retelling.

Susanne said...

Great reviews!! I can't even remember what I wanted to comment on, but thank you for sharing. You really make book reviews entertaining.


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