April Reads: A Half-Assed Book Review

Even though I love books, I’m actually not a prolific reader. At least, I hadn’t been until this year. In that cozy season between Christmas and New Year when you naively map out plans to shape yourself into a better person, I decided to make reading a priority for 2019.

My goal: a mere 25 books. That’s two per month plus one thrown in for good measure. An achievable goal that is also a vast improvement over my previous average of “I’m sure I’ve read at least a few books this year.”

It’s now May, and I’m happy to say I’m on book 42 (an auspicious number, of course—the secret to life, the universe, and everything. That’s in a book!). In case you’re dying to know what kind of randomness my library card has gotten me into, here’s a brief and not at all well-thought-out review of the books I’ve read so far in 2019 (January to April).

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

An excellent story. It’s the tale of a post-apocalyptic world in which almost everyone has died from a flu pandemic and the only survivors are feral, overly hostile psychos. Having been traumatized by an attempt to read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I had my hand on the ejector seat for the first hundred pages, ready to bail at the first sign of something too scary. The story got close to that edge but didn’t make the leap, so I stuck with it. It turned out to be a beautiful story of loss, love, and quiet optimism for a better tomorrow. I’m glad I stayed until the end. I’d like to see what else this author has written.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (Fiction) 💙💙💙

Though I couldn’t remember too many details, this book definitely impacted me when I read it in middle school. The main character, Charlie, is a developmentally challenged man who undergoes a pioneering surgery to dramatically increase his intellectual capacity. As you may guess, things deteriorate and Charlie ends up back where he started. I remember marveling at the tragedy of understanding you are going to lose your understanding before it happens and then not even comprehending everything you’ve lost. In this second reading 30 years later, I found the writing style hard to get through. But the story was still poignant and a bit of a tear jerker.

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Non-Fiction) 💙💙

I know you won’t find this surprising, but it sure caught me off guard: this book was b-o-r-i-n-g. Yes, it was a book about moss. I know you are wondering why I was disappointed. But moss is very interesting! At least, it could have been if the writing had been different. I only learned a couple facts about moss from this book. Here’s the weirdest part of all: when I first found out my library carried this book, it was checked out. As in, another human soul was READING it. Strange days indeed, most peculiar.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Non-Fiction, Biography) 💙💙💙💙

Here’s a profound compliment for the author: he turned detailed accounts of floppy drives and circuit boards into a bona fide page-turner. I expected to skim the boring parts, but there really were none. I read 600 pages of minutia about Jobs’ life and the development of the personal computer and ate it up. Part of this may be due to the fact that this entire story is steeped in the environment of my own upbringing. The cities, streets, restaurants, companies, people . . . all of it was part of my own life growing up in Silicon Valley. It soothed my homesickness for a moment. Anyway, I’ve become mildly fascinated by Steve Jobs after reading this book and Small Fry. He was much more of an ass than I ever realized, but I also admire him. It’s mind boggling to look around the room and realize how many of the ideas (and devices) I use in my daily life can be attributed to his vision and tenacity.

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Fiction) 💙💙💙

A quick read, pretty good. It was a downer, though, and more than a little depressing if you’re a person who struggles with food addiction. I don’t think I would have been able to finish this book if I weren’t in a positive place with my own food issues.

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (Non-Fiction, Memoir) 💙💙💙💙

As mentioned above, this is a good read if you have an obsession with Steve Jobs. Written by Jobs’ first child Lisa, it focuses on their mostly prickly but sometimes heartwarming father-daughter relationship.

The Circle by Dave Eggers (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙💙

What a surprise this book was. Dave Eggers can be hit or miss; some people love his writing and others can’t stand it. I tend to fall into the former camp, although there are a couple of his books that I’ve started several times and can’t get into. I loved his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but couldn’t get halfway through What is the What even after three tries. After a successful hit with The Monk of Mokha (see below), I decided to try another of his recent books. The Circle is about a gigantic company akin to some ungodly combination of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft that becomes more and more invasive and powerful until it morphs into a totalitarian regime. I found it spooky and disturbing, given how plausible its storyline was. Take that with a grain of salt if you wish, as I’m speaking as someone who no longer participates in social media.

The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙

A fairly good read. Birds are one of my favorite subjects, so I can read stories like these all day. I learned a lot of new facts about just how cool birds are.

I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams (Non-Fiction, Memoir) 💙💙

I was eager to read this book for two reasons. The first is obvious: who isn’t fascinated by cults? [If you are a Jehovah’s Witness, please don’t be upset that I said it’s a cult. You have to have heard that by now, no?] Second, I spent a lot of time with a JW family (the mom babysat me for a while, and the oldest daughter was my friend from school) when I was in elementary school so I have some personal experiences with that community. The first half of the book was captivating, but in the second half the author wanders off and spends a hundred pages hashing out her seriously messed up marriage and her continuing immaturity. It became less about Jehovah’s Witnesses and more about her personal therapy issues.

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

Beautifully written short stories, each with some element of the supernatural. I find myself wishing Lucy Wood had more books on the shelves. When I started the book, I mistakenly thought it was a novel. I was transfixed by the first “chapter” but then confused as to how the next section fit into the first. Ah, it’s a collection of short stories. I get it now, and I love it. I will probably read this book again.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Fiction) 💙💙

This is a pretty weird book. To be honest, Eve and I picked it up from the library because it had a cool cover made of vellum. It’s about a nest of hornets that comes to a boy’s house to save his medically fragile baby brother by replacing him with a new baby. Eve told me it was weird, and I defended it until I read it myself. Man, it was weird.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙

For a while I got myself hooked on these collections of journalistic essays, but I think this book cured me of that. As with most of these types of books, one or two essays are fascinating but the rest are either boring or full of details about stuff I don’t want to know about. Or worse yet, both. Even so, it was worth the read just for the one really good article about the cruise ship experience.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Fiction) 💙💙💙

Confession: I have not been able to finish the grown-ups version of this book so I checked out a short adaptation from the kids’ section of the library. After starting the real book four times and getting nowhere past the middle, I just needed to find out how the dang thing ended! Before you judge me, let me point out that the original grown-ups version of the book has an entire long chapter about the symbolic meanings of the color white and another long chapter expounding on the various categories of cetaceans in excruciating detail. There’s such a thing as too much information, Herman.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (Non-Fiction) 💙💙

I didn’t think this book was great. It was okay, but a little preachy and disorganized. None of the information about the treatment of animals in our industrial food chain was anything new to me. And thank goodness, because I don’t feel like becoming a vegetarian right now.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙

I did learn a few little things about Taoism from this book, but not as much as I had hoped. It was cute, though. I enjoyed it when Pooh interrupted the author to add something to the story.

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙

A quick read with some good tips on starting and maintaining new habits. No earth-shattering wisdom here, but a useful book to breeze through if you’re in the market for a new you.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙

A collection of essays on random and interesting topics. Some of them were pretty good, but I’m docking the author a star for dumping on The Moody Blues so often. They’re a perfectly good band.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙💙

I had to hug this book when I was done reading it, that’s how much I loved this story. It’s a mix of novella and graphic novel, with magnificent pencil sketches telling part of the story. The art was amazing, the story was beautiful, and the subject matter was captivating. I hope you read it.

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

Yes: this book. It kept my attention from cover to cover. Orlean is an excellent writer who can tell a complex story in an artful way. The movie Adaptation was based on this book.

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙

My favorite essay in this collection was the title story about a lobster festival. I am now seriously considering eschewing lobster based on Wallace’s description of the sad last moments of a lobster scrambling to get out of a pot of boiling water. I can’t stop thinking about it.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

An interesting brain stretch. This book proposes innovative, bizarre, and ubiquitous questions about the world and then systematically calculates the sometimes surprising answers. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if everyone in North America aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time, check out this book.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle (Non-Fiction, Memoir) 💙💙

You know how they say, “Never meet your idols?” In this case, I wish I had listened. I didn’t enjoy learning that some of the people I have put on a pedestal since childhood are actually drunk old horndogs. I guess I should be used to it by now, given the alarmingly high prevalence of these revelations in recent years. Everyone is a drunk old horndog, apparently.

What in God’s Name by Simon Rich (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

Such a fun read. They recently made a mini-series based on this book . . . I think it’s called Miracle Workers. It’s the story of a couple of angels who try to convince God not to destroy the earth. Earth is getting pretty boring for him, and anyway people aren’t paying attention to him anymore, so he’s pretty much had it. Rich is one of the funniest writers I’ve discovered in a while.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (Fiction) 💙💙💙

A re-read for me. This is a unique novella about an orphan and his number-spouting parrot. It takes place during WWI and has some interesting characters and plot points.

The New Kings of Nonfiction by Ira Glass (Non-Fiction . . .surprise!) 💙💙💙💙

Excellent compilation of essays from some of the best people doing this kind of writing today. My favorite was Susan Orlean’s portrait of the average American male, age 10.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer 💙💙💙

Okay, I know the entire free world loves this book but . . . meeeeeehhhhhhh. It was cute enough, but really tame and predictable. Maybe people who rave about this book don’t know that there are other, more interesting books out there?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙💙

One of my favorite reads so far this year. This was one of those books I cancelled plans for so I could stay home and keep reading. It’s being made into a movie with Cate Blanchett, and I can’t wait to see it. Semple was a writer for Arrested Development, and it comes through in her books. So entertaining with endlessly clever wit.

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie (Non-Fiction) 💙

Meh. I enjoyed my first Dale Carnegie book (How to Win Friends and Influence People), but this one didn’t do it for me. It got very religious and repetitive, and I didn’t care for that.

The Wanderer by Sharon Creech (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

I’m a big fan of Sharon Creech. This is an interesting story with an uplifting ending, even though there is sadness along the way. Eve liked it, too.

At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life by Wade Rouse (Non-Fiction, Memoir) 💙💙

This book irritated me to no end, mostly because it is the book I wanted to write but didn’t. I started a manuscript about moving from the big city to the country in rural Michigan, parts of which populate this blog. So part of my dislike for this book is jealousy, to be real with you. But beyond that, I thought it could have been written better. Some of the stories seemed like they might have been interesting in real life but weren’t in the telling. Maybe this is still the jealousy talking, I don’t know.

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

This book left me asking, “Does this author have five more books? Because I need to read them right now.” A cute story, quick read, very entertaining.

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

I finally got my hands on this book! Ever since reading my first Kevin Wilson novel (The Family Fang), I had been trying to get a copy of this collection of his short stories. Well worth the search.

Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙💙

My favorite short story of the year is in this book. Simon Rich is now on my list of favorite authors!

Deathless (Leningrad Diptych #1) by Catherynne M. Valente (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

This book is full of colorful Russian fairytales woven into a rich, haunting story of love and power. The subtitle led me to believe there is a second part, which I’ve searched and searched for and haven’t yet found.

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs (Non-Fiction, Memoir) 💙

This book inspired me to create my first rule of reading: I don’t have to finish any book I don’t like. You guys, I hated this book. This guy had the most dysfunctional, traumatic childhood and I did not enjoy reading about it. If you don’t mind page after page of pedophilia, rape, abandonment, drug abuse, and suicide attempts, feel free to give it a go. My best friend loved it, so who’s to say?

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

This one came out of nowhere! When I picked it up from the library, I thought it was a novel. But no, it’s actually the interesting true story of a young guy from San Francisco who decided to make the revival of Yemeni coffee his mission in life. I learned so much about coffee, Yemen, and a whole intriguing drama that was unfolding in my own backyard. Excellent book.

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Menno Schilthuizen (Non-Fiction) 💙💙

Just so-so. Not as interesting as I hoped it would be.

Animal Farm by George Orwell (Fiction) 💙💙💙

A classic. Of course, I’d read this in middle school but could not remember one stitch of it. I really liked it, even though (or because) I found it eerily prophetic of our current political climate under the Dufus in Chief.

I’m Down by Mishna Wolff (Non-Fiction, Memoir) 💙💙💙💙

With one reservation, I’ll say this book was hilarious and entertaining all the way through. Sometimes I felt like the author painted groups of people with a shallow brush, leaning too heavily on empty stereotypes. But overall, this is a funny memoir about growing up in an in-between space and not fitting in on either side.

Summerland by Michael Chabon (Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

Chabon is one of my favorite authors, yet I’d never read this one. It’s an interesting creature: a young adult book by a decidedly not young adult author. This fantastical story combines baseball, mythic beasts, and Native American folklore to excellent effect.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙

I found this book helpful. Many of the suggestions are useful for getting along better with people in all kinds of situations.

BONUS BOOKS

About 5 days before New Year’s Day, I gathered three chunky books to start off my 2019 reading challenge. Then I accidentally read them all before midnight on December 31. D’oh! So these don’t count for my 2019 goal but I will tell you about them anyway.

The Stranger in the Woods: the Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (Non-Fiction) 💙💙💙💙

One word: fascinating. This is the story of a man who felt the urge to withdraw from society and live in a remote area of the Maine woods for 27 years. He had almost zero contact with other humans in all that time.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Fiction) 💙💙💙

Hmmm, what do I think of this book? I don’t generally like stories about slavery because I find them too upsetting. And yet, I read it all in one day. The author is a good writer and the story was engaging, even if I didn’t like the subject matter. I could almost write the same review of Kindred by Octavia Butler. That book was so disturbing to me, but I couldn’t put it down.

Becoming by Michelle Obama (Non-Fiction, Memoir) 💙💙💙

She keeps it diplomatic and doesn’t dish a lot of dirt in this memoir, but you do learn some interesting behind-the-scenes facts about life as the first family. Did you know the Obamas paid for their own toilet paper? You would think that comes with the house. Side note about this book: it was a gift from my friend Lisa who bought it after asking herself, “What kind of Christmas present do I get for the biggest nerd I know?” Is it weird that I’m kind of honored to hold that title?

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “April Reads: A Half-Assed Book Review

  1. I enjoyed your reviews and disagree with your assessment that they are half-assed. I would say pithy in that they are short, to the point, and are certainly from your own point of view. They are helpful as most reviews (books, movies, etc.) in that, depending on your taste compared to the reviewer’s, you can read or avoid reading (read “save yourself from reading and thus have more time to read something else) books that might otherwise escape your consideration.

    Liked by 1 person

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