Posts Categorized: Books

Backlist Love | Let’s talk about S-E-X

February 12, 2017 Backlist Love, Books 4

Backlist Love is an informal series on “older” books that I hope you’ll find interesting. These aren’t so much reviews as quickie recommendations, so check out Goodreads or your favorite book review sources if you want more info.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008)

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014)

Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles by Robin Baker (Basic Books, 2006)

Bonk

In Bonk, the best-selling author of Stiff turns her outrageous curiosity and insight on the most alluring scientific subject of all: sex. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Why doesn’t Viagra help women — or, for that matter, pandas? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Mary Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm — two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth — can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to make the bedroom a more satisfying place.

The Birth of the Pill

We know it simply as “the pill,” yet its genesis was anything but simple. Jonathan Eig’s masterful narrative revolves around four principal characters: the fiery feminist Margaret Sanger, who was a champion of birth control in her campaign for the rights of women but neglected her own children in pursuit of free love; the beautiful Katharine McCormick, who owed her fortune to her wealthy husband, the son of the founder of International Harvester and a schizophrenic; the visionary scientist Gregory Pincus, who was dismissed by Harvard in the 1930s as a result of his experimentation with in vitro fertilization but who, after he was approached by Sanger and McCormick, grew obsessed with the idea of inventing a drug that could stop ovulation; and the telegenic John Rock, a Catholic doctor from Boston who battled his own church to become an enormously effective advocate in the effort to win public approval for the drug that would be marketed by Searle as Enovid.

Sperm Wars

Sperm Wars is a revolutionary thesis about sex that turned centuries-old biological assumptions on their head. Evolution has programmed men to conquer and monopolize women while women, without ever knowing they are doing it, seek the best genetic input on offer from potential sexual partners. If you’ve ever looked upon sperm as a little army of white-coated soldiers setting off to sack and pillage a barely pregnable fortress… well, you’d be right, according to Dr. Robin Baker, who has studied sperm and cervical mucus in much greater detail than anyone would’ve thought necessary and has come to some startling conclusions.

Why I liked them

Well, you know, the actual subject of intimate human relationships is and always has been kind of a hot topic — especially with Valentine’s Day coming up. But beyond that, I just really like well-researched narrative nonfiction that can take an embarrassing or taboo subject and present it in an interesting or even humorous way. Bonk is probably the best of the bunch — or at least the funniest. The Birth of the Pill gets a little more into the weeds with all the history of contraception and early 20th century sexual health/culture issues, but is still absolutely fascinating and well worth the read. Sperm Wars is also fascinating, but TBH it kind of goes off the rails at some points. The author got a little too, uh, excited about the fictional scenarios he made up to illustrate certain points, for one thing. And even though his points are based on scientific research, the conclusions presented in this book should be taken with several very large grains of salt (they tend to rely on oversimplification of human psychology/behavior and outdated social norms).

Who I’d recommend them to

I’d recommend Bonk to just about anybody, or at least anybody who has a sense of humor about sex. The Birth of the Pill is great for people who are interested in the history of medicine or the medicalization of the human life cycle, or early feminism and its impact on our current contraceptive options. I’m a little more cautious about recommending Sperm Wars, though. Only read this one if you can stand to wade through unadvertised erotica and can recognize/contend with occasional pseudoscience.

Links

Bonk

The Birth of the Pill

Sperm Wars

backlistlove_redux

The Color Purple
by Alice Walker

February 5, 2017 Book Reviews, Books 7

★ ★ ★ ★

The Color Purple by Alice Walker | 1982 | Open Road Media (this ed.) | E-book $14

Celie has grown up poor in rural Georgia, despised by the society around her and abused by her own family. She strives to protect her sister, Nettie, from a similar fate, and while Nettie escapes to a new life as a missionary in Africa, Celie is left behind without her best friend and confidante, married off to an older suitor, and sentenced to a life alone with a harsh and brutal husband.

In an attempt to transcend a life that often seems too much to bear, Celie begins writing letters directly to God. The letters, spanning twenty years, record a journey of self-discovery and empowerment guided by the light of a few strong women.

Whew… this novel was a bit of a rough ride.

I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t much like it at first. The dialect and disturbing abuse of the narrator made it tough to get through. In the introduction to this edition, Walker says that the story is supposed to be about a woman figuring out what “God” means to her. But for the first half of the novel, I just couldn’t see it. It seemed more like a simple story about the particular cruelties of the world towards black women in the early 20th century.

I’m glad I kept reading, though. The story seemed to coalesce into something with deeper, complicated ideas about beauty and hope and family and bravery and all of those kinds of things — and I was eager to find out what would happen next, plot-wise, and was pleasantly (or sometimes unpleasantly) surprised several times.

The Color Purple is widely considered a modern classic for good reason. It’s not an easy read, it won’t necessarily give you warm fuzzy feelings or romantic thrills, but it’s still just as rewarding as it is demanding.


Links:


Publication information: Walker, Alice. The color purple. New York: Open Road Media, 2011. EPUB file.
Source: Borrowed from public library.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Wizard of Oz Read-Along
Book 1 – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

January 30, 2017 Books, Read-Alongs 10

Welcome to the Oz! Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Book 1 – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Dorothy thinks she’s lost forever when a tornado whirls her and her dog, Toto, into a magical world. To get home, she must find the wonderful wizard in the Emerald City of Oz. On the way she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion. But the Wicked Witch of the West has her own plans for the new arrival — will Dorothy ever see Kansas again?

My Thoughts:

I vaguely remember reading this as a kid, but unsurprisingly the book story was supplanted by the movie story in my memory and the only thing I really recalled from the book was the whimsical illustrations and Dorothy’s silver shoes. But some scenes came back to me during this little re-read: Boq the Munchkin, the dainty people of China Country (my favorites for some reason), the goofy green glasses worn in Emerald City, and the Wicked Witch having only one eye.

There seemed to be rather a lot more gore and property destruction than I remembered, too, what with all the chopping off of heads and the smashing up of buildings and suchlike. Probably not the kind of story that could get a G rating if Disney tried a true-to-the-book animated film version these days — not that I’m complaining, it just wasn’t expected. I seem to have taken it all in stride when I read it as a child, which seems to be pretty common — grown-ups notice and are sometimes shocked by “bad” things in stories that kiddos wouldn’t blink an eye at.

A lot of the characters (all of them?) are not all that well fleshed-out. And a lot of them are just idiots. Still, it’s a charming little story, and I’m a huge sucker for creative/insane world-building, so that wasn’t too much of a problem for me. There are better children’s fantasy books out there these days, but it’s easy for me to see why this one was so well-loved in its time and gained “classic” status so quickly.

Questions:
  • Have you read this book before? How did your re-read match up with your memory? Or if you haven’t read it before, did the book live up to your expectations?
  • If you’ve seen the 1939 musical film, how do you think the book compares? Do you like one a whole lot better than the other?
  • Did you have a favorite character or culture/land?

Are you reading this series along with me? If you have reviewed or discussed this book online, please feel free to post a link to that in the comments. (But you don’t have to be an “official” participant to discuss this book in the comments if you feel so inclined.)

Please note: Even though I try to avoid major spoilers in my blog post, I can’t promise that the comments will remain spoiler-free too — so read at your own risk!

Want to participate in this read-along? Sign up here.


East of Eden
by John Steinbeck

January 29, 2017 Book Reviews, Books 7

★ ★ ★ ★

East of Eden by John Steinbeck | Originally published 1952, this ed. 2002 | Penguin| Paperback $16

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families — the Trasks and the Hamiltons — whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

This book was a late addition to my Classics Club list. I’d tried to read Middlemarch and just could NOT get into it, so I asked for help picking a replacement and this is the title that was most commonly recommended. So — thanks, y’all, for convincing me to read this book!

I was a little intimidated by this chunkster, but needn’t have been. It’s true that it dragged a bit in spots and included some rather heavy-handed moralizing on the part of the narrator, but overall it read more like an old but clever relative telling an important family story — a kind of family story for the country as a whole, perhaps.

Plus, the prose was simply lovely. The content was not often lovely, no, mostly quite the opposite actually, but Steinbeck was unquestionably a master of prose. Take this example from Chapter 7 (no spoilers):

Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the full eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy — that’s the time that seems long in memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.

Have you read East of Eden, or any other Steinbeck novel? How did you like it?


Links:


Publication information: Steinbeck, John East of Eden. Penguin: New York, 2002. Print.
Source: Personal collection.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation
by Randall Fuller

January 22, 2017 Book Reviews, Books 6


★ ★ ★ ★

The Book That Changed America by Randall Fuller | January 2017 | Viking | Hardcover $27

Throughout its history America has been torn in two by debates over ideals and beliefs. Randall Fuller takes us back to one of those turning points, in 1860, with the story of the influence of Charles Darwin s just-published On the Origin of Species on five American intellectuals, including Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, the child welfare reformer Charles Loring Brace, and the abolitionist Franklin Sanborn.

I absolutely jumped at the chance to get a review copy of this title from Edelweiss. Science? Antebellum American history?? A book about a book??? Yes, please.

I read Darwin’s account of his adventures as a young naturalist (Voyage of the Beagle) just a few months ago. Even though I didn’t give it a full 5 stars, it’s one of those books that has stuck with me — you know the kind I mean, like when random bits of news or conversations will suddenly remind you of a scene from the book or an impression it gave you.

In my review of that book, I mentioned that Darwin seemed to accept his colonialist culture’s prejudice against indigenous peoples as a matter of course. An acquaintance of mine pointed out that Darwin was actually an abolitionist, and some of his statements that might sound paternalizing to contemporary readers were in fact pretty radical for his own time.

In an 1862 letter to Asa Gray, a scientist at Harvard who was the first to read On the Origin of Species in the U.S., Darwin wrote (in reference to the Civil War):

But slavery seems to me to grow a more hopeless curse. […] This war of yours, however it may end, is a fearful evil to the whole world; & its evil effect will, I must think, be felt for years.

The Book That Changed America is an examination of the ways in which Darwin’s idea of biological evolution by means of natural selection influenced the scientists, authors, and social reformers who read it — and therefore influenced the trajectory of our country. Non-Americans (and many Americans, too) are often baffled by our country’s long-standing issues with the acceptance of the scientific theory of evolution. I think this book helps to explain why evolution has been so contentious for us — because the idea is all wrapped up in our national troubles with the repercussions of slavery and institutionalized racism as well as the popular (yet flawed) idea of our history as a Protestant Christian nation.

The book is written in a narrative style that makes the profiled individuals feel more like interesting characters than plain old names out of history books, which I mostly enjoyed. Some bits kinda dragged for me, and there were a few little tangents from the main story that I found frustrating. And I would have liked to see viewpoints from folks outside of the particular little intellectual circle that the author focused on — politicians involved in the events leading up to the war, African-Americans, Southerners, and maybe just “everyday people” sorts, you know?

Regardless, I did enjoy the read and would recommend this book to people who are interested in the history of the theory of evolution as well as anyone who’d like to learn a little more about science-based abolitionist perspectives prior to the American Civil War.



Publication information: Fuller, Randall. . New York: Viking, 2017. EPUB.
Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Quick Classics Club Update

January 20, 2017 Books, Meta 6

This is just a quick little post to let y’all know that I’ve updated my Classics Club page. It now includes my original list, arranged by title with color-coded categories, and two other arrangements: by time period, and by geographic origin.

And because I’m apparently completely bonkers, I’ve already been working on future Classics Club list(s)… with well over 200 titles to play with (and growing), I felt like I needed to be a bit more organized! Hence, the multiple sorting options.

I’m still debating on whether I ought to call for peanut gallery opinions on future CC picks. Or maybe I should publish the list(s) ahead of time to provide opportunity for comment. What do you think?


Wheel of Time Re-Read-Along
Book 1 – The Eye of the World

January 15, 2017 Books, Read-Alongs 9

Welcome to the Two Rivers… and the rest of the world of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Book 1 – The Eye of the World

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, and Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

My Thoughts:

I remember thinking the first time I read this book that it was very Lord of the Rings-y. And it is, right up until the end — purposefully, obviously. There are the clear parallels between characters (Lan = Aragorn, for example), outright rip-offs (Mountains of Mist = Misty Mountains), and then the winking references that seem meant to tell Tolkien fans that it’s all in good fun (The Nine Rings, an inn named after an adventure story that our MC Rand really likes). Now, upon re-reading it and taking the series as a whole into account, I kinda think the LotR references/homages are bordering on red herring status.

Something else I remembered about my initial read of these books was how much my opinions of the characters changed over the course of the series. Not gonna go into a whole lot of detail about this because I do want to avoid spoilers for newbie readers, but I do think it speaks to Jordan’s skill with character development over the long term. Of course, there is PLENTY of room for character development over the course of 15 books….

I’m glad I chose to re-read this series, in large part because it’s so enjoyable to see all the little clues that Jordan seriously planned ahead plot-wise. There are the hints from Min, of course, but there are also little clues scattered in the dialogue and behavior of the characters. I’d say the writing kind of got away from him and the series is at least one book too long, but it doesn’t change the fact that this story is a feat of calculation/foresight.

Questions:
  • What did you think of the parallels to LotR? Fun, annoying, not worth mentioning?
  • If you’ve read this series before, did your opinions about some characters change as the series went on? Or have you had a favorite character or OTP ship from the very start?
  • If you haven’t read this series before, do you really like or dislike any particular characters right now?

Are you reading this series along with me? If you have reviewed or discussed this book online, please feel free to post a link to that in the comments. (But you don’t have to be an “official” participant to discuss this book in the comments if you feel so inclined.)

Please note: Even though I try to avoid major spoilers in my blog post, I can’t promise that the comments will remain spoiler-free too — so read at your own risk!

Want to participate in this read-along? Sign up here.


The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
by L. Frank Baum

December 23, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 4

★ ★ ★ ★

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum | 1902 | Bowen Merrill | Paperback $10

A magical Christmas story by the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus answers the enigmatic Christmas questions: Why does Santa travel via Reindeer? How does he fit through the chimney, and how does he deliver all those toys in one wintry night?

First published in 1902, the tale begins as a wood nymph discovers a baby abandoned in a forest. Raised among mythical forest creatures, the child learns to outwit evil as he grows towards adulthood and must discover how to re-enter the human world, which leaves him determined to share gifts and spread love to his fellow man.

If that summary sounds vaguely familiar, you may remember the rather weird Rankin-Bass stop motion animation TV movie by the same name — you know, Rankin-Bass, the same folks who did the more popular stop motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town Christmas specials you see on repeat around this time of year?

This is a simple story, if somewhat more… hm, pagan than typical Christmas stories, featuring plenty in the way of wood nymphs and fairies and such (not sure “pagan” is quite the word I’m looking for, but it’s close enough). I suppose it could be read as something of a religious allegory à la Narnia — the kind man who devotes his life to making the world a better place for children is blessed with supernatural assistance and a happy, everlasting life — but I’m honestly not sure whether younger readers would pick up on that.

Have you read this book or seen the animated movie version? What did you think of it?

If you’re a fan of L. Frank Baum, don’t forget that I’m hosting a read-along of his Oz series starting in January!


Links:


Publication information: Baum, L. Frank. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Indianapolis, IN: Bowen Merrill, 1902. Print.
Source: Used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.


The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
by Howard Pyle

December 22, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 6

★ ★ ★ ★

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle | 1883, this ed. 1985 | Signet Classics | Paperback $3.99

The beloved adventures of Robin Hood come vividly to life in this wonderfully illustrated version by Howard Pyle. Deep in Sherwood Forest, the legendary Robin Hood – the brave, good-humored outlaw the whole world loves – proves himself the best in England with his bow.

This is probably Pyle’s most well-known work outside of his legacy that is the Brandywine School of illustration. Actually, this book includes nearly 50 examples of Pyle’s illustration style, either as full-page woodcut (or woodcut style) scenes or ornaments and frames. When I was first learning to draw I just loved copying the art out of this book.

Sure, the book was written in the 19th century and with an exaggerated approximation of 12th century language (lots of “whither hath that knave gone” and “take thou what thou wilt have” and that sort of thing), but it’s actually not a difficult read. The stories are engaging and mostly, well… merry!

This edition also includes an informative Afterward by Michael Patrick Hearn, which was well worth the extra pages for its explanations of the repeated anti-Catholic sentiments (Pyle was a Quaker) and distinct erasure of Robin’s romances in the older versions of his stories (Pyle thought his assumed audience, little boys, wouldn’t be interested).

This book is certainly a keeper, and one I’ll probably end up re-reading again in the future at least a couple more times.


Links:


Publication information: Pyle, Howard. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. New York: Signet Classics, 1985. Print.
Source: Owned.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.


The Book Jumper
by Mechthild Gläser

December 17, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 7

★ ★ ★

The Book Jumper by Mechthild Gläser | January 2017 | Feiwel & Friends | Hardcover $17.99

Amy Lennox doesn’t know quite what to expect when she and her mother pick up and leave Germany for Scotland, heading to her mother’s childhood home of Lennox House on the island of Stormsay.

Amy’s grandmother, Lady Mairead, insists that Amy must read while she resides at Lennox House — but not in the usual way. It turns out that Amy is a book jumper, able to leap into a story and interact with the world inside.

As thrilling as Amy’s new power is, it also brings danger: someone is stealing from the books she visits, and that person may be after her life. Teaming up with fellow book jumper Will, Amy vows to get to the bottom of the thefts — at whatever cost.

I’m a huge sucker for the Portal Books trope, where characters get to actually explore the stories that the rest of us plebes can only experience in print. The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde and Sherry Thomas’s Elemental Trilogy are great examples of this. Obviously, The Book Jumper falls into this category as well.

(Plus the cover is SO ADORABLE.)

I liked this book, but I think maybe my hopes were a little too high? I figured that if it did so well in the German-language book market that they’ve translated it into English, it must be pretty awesome. And it is good, just not quite mind-blowing I guess. Although, I’m saying that from the perspective of someone who’s read a TON of teen-aimed portal fantasy, so… perhaps I’m just being a little bit curmudgeonly?

The concept is awesome and the writing is decently engaging, but the actual plot was a tiny bit predictable and the relationships were bordering on nonsensical.

Concept: Bookish girl is delighted to learn that she actually has the power to “jump” into stories. Mysterious things start happening in said stories + in the real world, so bookish girl teams up with bookish boy to figure it all out. Totally fun!

Writing: First person narrative, which I know is something that a lot of readers don’t really care for, but I didn’t find it too grating in this case.

Plot: Pretty easy to figure out what’s going on, which means it can be kinda frustrating to watch the characters flounder around until they get it, too. I was a little bit surprised about one revelation, though.

Relationships: WHY. The primary romance, which has the potential to be shippy material, feels like a trite, cliché page-filler. There’s another romance in this book that is simultaneously more genuine and yet slightly icky to think about, too. Just… the characters in general are kinda cheesey/boring, so the crazy plot has to do a lot of the work of keeping the reader’s attention… and when it’s a little too predictable, that’s not the most awesome possible combo, y’know?

Overall I think this is a fine book for a fantasy-hungry teen or YA reader, with the caveat that it’s just not going to be 2017’s earth-shattering breakout book.


Links:


Publication information: Gläser, Mechthild. The Book Jumper. New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2017. EPUB.
Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.