We’ve rounded the corner into summer, and I just finished book #49 for 2019. This month had some good ones and a couple duds. Let me know if you’ve read any of these!
Essential Zen by Kazuaki Tanahashi & Tensho David Schneider (Non-Fiction) ♥
Is this book some kind of existential joke on people who are earnestly trying to learn more about eastern religion? You may recall from last month’s book review that “The Tao of Pooh” was a disappointing foray into the basics of Taoism, and now this. Here’s a typical excerpt from “Essential Zen”:
When you boil rice, know that the water is your own life.
Awakened within a dream, I fall into my own arms. What kept you so long?
What does this meeeeeaaan?? And these are not just little quotes thrown in at the beginning of each chapter. This is the content. The whole book is like this. Maybe I’m too goal-oriented to be zen. This book has me screaming, “Draft an outline, you guys!”
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Fiction) ♥♥♥♥
Ah, Swamplandia! You were so very close to being my favorite book of the year. And then, 300 pages in, you ruined it. I loved the eccentric family of alligator wrestlers, the vibrant setting in the Florida swamps, and the storylines both exotic (dating ghosts) and familiar (losing their mother to cancer). It is a good tale, and I have to recommend it even though it broke my cardinal rule of books, which is to say it contains a rape scene. I don’t consider that a spoiler, by the way, so don’t complain that I ruined the book for you. As stated above, it was already ruined by the rape scene. If you can handle these things better than I can, please do yourself a favor and read this book. I hear the author has a new one on the way.
The Marvels by Brian Selznick ♥♥♥♥♥
This author continues to amaze me. First, the drawings: you guys need to see these delicate pencil sketches he does. They’re so rich and detailed, sometimes deceptively simple. I was inspired to spend a few nights copying one of the sketches in an attempt to improve my own pencil skills (from “zero” to “Hey, I copied someone else’s drawing and lost all the perspective and depth in the process!”). Second, the stories: the wonder of Selznick’s books is that he marries illustrations and prose to tell the story. The pictures don’t just accompany the words in his books—they tell part of the story on their own. His books are fat tomes for this reason; they’re like a cross between graphic novel and regular novel. The story of the Marvels, in particular, is my favorite Selznick tale so far. I don’t want to give it away, but the story involves lots of Shakespeare references and a house full of vintage collectibles whose owner lives in the past, and I just wanted to climb inside the book and live there.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
(Non-Fiction, Essays) ♥♥♥♥
I feel like I say this at the beginning of a lot of my book reviews: when I picked this up, I thought it was a collection of short stories but it turned out to be non-fiction essays. Maybe I need to pay more attention to the book cover before I start reading.
Anyway, that didn’t ruin anything . . . this book of essays is fantastic. Koul holds forth with insight and humor on topics ranging from errant body hair to the terror of Twitter to traditional Indian weddings. This last was my favorite essay; it reminded me of the stories I’ve heard from friends attending such events in India, stories that are funny and poignant and maddening all at once.
Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations by Simon Rich (Fiction) ♥♥♥♥♥
I haven’t met a Simon Rich book I didn’t like. He’s gold, Jerry. This is my third book by Rich, and I’ve given each one 5 stars. Ant Farm is his first collection of short (short) stories, I think. Each is only a couple pages but I laughed out loud at every one. One of my favorites was “Conversations at the Grown-Ups Table as Imagined by the Kids’ Table.” See, you’re laughing already.
Start Late, Finish Rich: A No-Fail Plan for Achieving Financial Freedom at Any Age by David Bach (Non-Fiction) ♥♥♥
Hmmm. The first half of this book gets 4 stars. It offered a lot of helpful and sage advice about increasing your 401(k) contributions, coaxing your credit card companies into lowering your interest rates, and other things you were probably told by your parents a long time ago but never heeded. The second half of the book gets a sad two stars, though. I didn’t find much useful information there. This section focused on increasing your income in kind of silly ways like selling things on ebay and taking a side job in direct sales (think Avon). Nothing against those activities, but they’re not for everybody. I don’t have much around the house I want to sell on ebay, and hunting down stuff at a low price that I think I can turn around for a profit on ebay sounds like too much hassle. And don’t get me started on direct sales . . . I’ve tried my hand at it and I am terrible. Here’s me as a saleswoman: You’re right, this is kind of expensive. I’d probably save my money and get it used on ebay if I were you.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (Fiction) ♥♥♥♥♥
Holy cow, Karen Russell can write some short stories. So many of these stories haunted me long after I’d finished the book, so you know they were good. I wish I hadn’t read it so fast. My favorite story was Reeling for the Empire, about girls who are taken from their families in rural China to reel silk for the emperor, only to find out when they arrive that they will accomplish this by being turned into real silkworms. It was creepy and great.
Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell (Fiction) ♥♥♥♥♥
I’m giving out 5 star reviews like candy this month! This book is brand new, and I was able to get a signed copy while on vacation. (Books are the best souvenirs, don’t you think?) I’m officially a Karen Russell fan, even though we had a minor fiasco with Swamplandia, see above. These stories are even better than the last set. My favorite was The Tornado Auction, about a rogue tornado farmer who spends his last dime taking a risk on a baby tornado he buys at auction. I love how the author can spin an entirely new world for each story and make it so easy for the reader to slip right into it like there’s nothing weird at all.
That’s it for my May books! I’m about to jump into the first book of June: “Hamlet” (yes, the cheater edition that has modern English alongside the original text, because this stage of my life is all about comfort).