Galapagos

img_1695Book: Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Date Read: November 18 to December 10, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Every time I read Vonnegut, I end up feeling a little content and a little unsettled. While it seems a bit of a conundrum, it’s not all that bad of a place to be. Nearing the end of 2021, I was trying to wrap up all the prompts from the Unread Shelf Project to get a “bingo blackout” for the year. One prompt that has always been difficult for me is to choose a book from your favorite genre—I am not entirely sure what to call my favorite genre. So with that in mind, I figured that Vonnegut would fit the bill.

One of the things that I love about reading Vonnegut is that while he tends to stick to very similar themes of humanity, he manages to take you by surprise with the unique ways he presents this in each of his books. In this case, we are taken on a journey of over a million years into the past—all the way back to 1986, the year when a series of coincidences combined with Darwin’s theory of evolution to save the fate of humanity. The retrospective is told from the only one left who would be able to tell it: a ghost who has been hanging around since the fall of man to see it all play out.

The ghost narrator lends an interesting aspect to the story that is different than any of the other books I’ve read from Vonnegut. While the story begins as if it were a history, the narrator gives hints throughout about things that have changed in the million years he has been watching humans—we never get a completely clear picture, but enough to piece things together. The contrasts here reminded me of something that was included in one of the later Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books: humans believe that we are the superior beings on earth because of our technological advances, while other intelligent animals like dolphins just muck about and play in the water all day; dolphins know they are the superior beings for exactly the same reason.

Boris’s Thoughts: “It sounds like he was on to the reasoning of how cats know we are really the ones in charge. Suspicious. 3 paws.”

A Room of One’s Own

img_1388Book: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Date Read: November 3 to 17, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

For November, I was prompted to choose a book that was published before 2000. To make this easier on myself, I decided to go way back rather than try to guess at which books I have might fit that criteria. I picked up this book for a history class back in college, but for some reason the class never got around to reading it. From my recollection, the class had a large number of required readings, and this was one that became optional. Obviously I could not abandon it completely, although it did take me some time to circle back around to it.

This book originated as a lecture on the subject of “Women in Fiction,” which turns out to be a fierce criticism of the patriarchal society. While I did enjoy reading this and feel that it continues to be relevant, if I’m being completely honest, I was probably not in the appropriate headspace to fully appreciate this book. I have found myself struggling through many of my chosen reads lately—not quite a reading slump, but something akin to it. With its short length and feminist slant, I thought this might be a jumpstart for me. Despite the inspiration that can be found here, it did not turn out to be quite what I needed, which I suppose is clear in the fact that it took me two weeks to get through a book just over 100 pages. I think this is one that I will have to revisit at another point in time.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Do you think you’re perpetuating a stereotype by pairing this book with tea and a cat?”

Frankenstein

img_1149Book: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Date Read: October 4 to November 1, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Of course, Boris was right last week: despite the passing of Halloween, it was not the end of the spooky books. I picked this book to read in October for the Unread Shelf Project Prompt: a book you’re secretly afraid of. I was not entirely sure how to apply the “secretly” prompt, since I do not know that I have any books that I am openly afraid of either. I picked this one because it could fit the prompt in two ways: it is a horror story, and it is one that I have been uncertain about starting due to hearing mixed reviews.

My first thoughts as I was reading were that this was not what I was expecting it to be—kind of a silly thought, since I am not really sure what I was expecting. Going in, I only knew the very basics: Frankenstein creates a monster—and Frankenstein is the creator, not the creation. Of course I have seen some pop culture variations on the story, but none in full, so I did not have much to associate with the book itself. After finishing, I would say that the horror aspect was subtler than I had expected. While horror definitely still fits, it is not the action filled, in-your-face type horror.

The “story within a story” framing added an interesting level to the story that I had not anticipated. The novel begins and ends with letters initially unrelated to the main tale, with the story of Frankenstein embedded within them as a story relayed to the letter writer. The initial story contained in the letters follows what I have discovered to be a popular trope from the time period—an adventurer seeking to journey to one of the extremes of the earth, in this case the northern pole. Captain Walton writes to his sister regarding his travels, and then begins to impart the story told by Viktor Frankenstein after picking him up as a castaway. Going beyond simply using this as an entry point for the main plot, the end of the novel loops back to connect the two stories: Viktor’s ambition in creating the monster is paralleled by Walton’s ambition to push forward on his journey, but Walton knows when to stop as his crew begins to fear for their lives on the perilous journey.

This leads in to where the true substance of the horror tale lies—who really is the “monster” in this story? In general, Viktor comes across as the villain, but there is wavering sympathy for both him and his creation woven through the story. The reader is able to feel sympathy for the monster, but it is not totally straightforward, as he clearly does perform evil acts. However, Viktor’s treatment of his creation is the driving force behind the crimes committed—and his seeming inability to recognize his own responsibility for the outcomes tips him further into the side of villain.

Boris’s Thoughts: “As usual, the human botched this one—I bet a cat companion could have solved all of their problems. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for October

  • Books Read: 3
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 282

Little Fires Everywhere

img_0855Book: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Date Read: August 27 to September 26, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I finally got around to reading this one when faced with the prompt to read a book that I bought because of the hype. I feel like this does not need much explanation—this book was everywhere for a long time even before it was made into a television series. When everything was starting to close down in the early months of 2020, I decided to start making regular purchases through some of the independent bookstores that were offering online ordering. As if I really needed an excuse to buy more books.

This one follows something that has become a theme in this blog: books that I loved and rated highly, but cannot find the right words to write about. Does it suffice to say that it lived up to the hype that inspired me to buy it? Probably not.

There’s a lot of things going on here, so let’s start with the big one: this takes place in a suburban community that is all about planning and order. Everything in its place and nothing that is unexpected. Of course, it’s not all bad to approach things that way—having a goal, sticking to a plan. The problem comes when that ideal is clung to too hard; when you forget that life does not always (or even usually) work that way. Sometimes you do everything right, and things still do not turn out how you plan. And that is when the first domino falls and everything begins to crumble.

Following along those lines, I enjoyed the varying dynamics of the mother-daughter relationships and the exploration of gray area in what makes a “good” mother. While each mother had the best interest of her children in mind, how this ultimately plays out varies wildly. Adding in layers of differing backgrounds, life experience, and culture to this complicates it further, creating an intriguing web of interactions. Despite the time that it took me to get through this, I really did find it engrossing.

Boris’s Thoughts: “A month of this book made a month of decent lap snuggles. I’ll take it. 3 paws.”

Zombie, Ohio

img_0482Book: Zombie, Ohio by Scott Kenemore

Date Read: August 13 to 26, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

I chose this book in response to a prompt to read a book that was an impulse buy. I have so many books that would probably count as impulse buys—maybe even most of them. To narrow it down a little, I decided to choose a book that I had purchased for my kindle. For several months, I would regularly check the kindle daily deals, and racked up quite a few new books ranging from $0.99 to $2.99. It does not matter if a book had been on your radar if it costs that little, right? Well, I may have taken that just a bit too far. Although it seemed like a good opportunity to try out some new styles and genres, the actual end result was an increasingly out of control to read list.

This was one of those books: a zombie novel. I have never read a real zombie novel until now (and I am not entirely sure this one counts either). I know people who like them, so I thought I would give it a try. This was a slightly different take on the zombie novel, being told from the perspective of one of the zombies—seemingly the only truly sentient one in the bunch. While this twist did make for an interesting story, it was not one that I was really crazy about.

The book starts with the protagonist, Peter, waking up after a car accident. Other than memory loss, he does not feel that he is badly injured, although he can see that the accident looked serious. Peter’s memory loss is used as an opportunity to introduce us to the world and some of the characters—he needs to put the pieces together himself, so this is a natural way to lay things out for the reader. The first section of the book goes on along these lines, and is aptly titled “Revelation.” The book moves on into two more sections with similarly fitting names: Rampage (where Peter embraces life as a zombie) and Redemption (where Peter, although unapologetic, attempts to make up for his behavior in the previous section).

Part of what puts this story on shaky ground with me is the heavy use of two factors: gore and introspection. I realize that gore is to be expected in a novel about zombies. Given the premise of a sentient zombie as narrator, I also understand the need for some introspection. I think the issue comes with the combination: gore may be expected, or even required, in a zombie novel—but it typically does not come with descriptive soliloquy on the joys of licking the brain from the inside of a skull or the satisfying pop of biting into a fresh eyeball.

The introspective nature of our zombie narrator also meant that there were long sections that seemed to plod along, followed by condensed action. The balance felt a little off. Overall, it felt more like a diary of events than a plot driven novel, which did not feel like a good fit with the subject matter.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Silly humans. Everyone knows that cats are the only ones who are going to actually survive the zombie apocalypse. 2 paws.”

The Time Traveler’s Wife

img_0097Book: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Date Read: July 27 to August 7, 2021

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

Generally speaking, I tend to lean toward books that are on the shorter end of the spectrum. Not that I avoid longer books altogether, but I find myself satisfied with books staying in the 300-400-something page range. These books feel like anytime books. Anything longer feels like a little more of an undertaking—something that should be taken on with some intention. So I was intentional about timing the “read a book over 500 pages” prompt, and my week of summer travel seemed like the perfect fit. I started this book on a plane on my way home from Denver, and then wrapped it up a couple days after arriving home from Nashville.

The story follows the lives of Clare and Henry, a couple dealing with some peculiar circumstances: Henry cannot stay put in time. Due to this, the story is told in snippets with some variations in chronology. While it mostly follows the traditional chronology of Clare’s life, there are flash-backs and forwards that fill in additional details. The author did well in varying how these were used, sometimes foreshadowing aspects of the story and other times circling back to give more context to things that had not been fully explained. Although I’m not really sure—does it count as foreshadowing when you know things are happening in the future?

I loved the concept of this book, and thought it was done well as a romance/science-fiction crossover. I am not sure that “science fiction” is the perfect classification, but feel the time travel aspect and the genetic studies piece was enough to at least set it on the edge of the genre. It is certainly not simply a traditional love story. In some ways, I debate in its classification as a love story at all—but in the end, I am not sure how else to classify it. The time travel aspect complicates it. While I feel like it is intended to add an element of sadness to Clare’s love, it also takes away the spontaneity and serendipity of a traditional love story. Clare knew she would marry Henry before she had even met him in her chronological life—if she had not been told that, would things have happened as they did? Henry’s attempts to change other events seems to indicate that her knowing did not matter, but I think the idea of everything being preset by fate takes a little magic out, flattening the story just a bit.

Boris’s Thoughts: “This is all a bit much, isn’t it? 1 paw.”

Winter’s End

img_9697Book: Winter’s End by John Rickards

Date Read: July 1 to 11, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

In July, the Unread Shelf Project challenged readers to own up to doing what they are told to never do: judging a book by its cover. I decided to put my own personal twist on the prompt, to read a book bought for the cover. This is a book that I bought for the cover, but not in the way that you would suspect: I bought it because it did not have a cover. I found this book in the discount section of a discount bookstore. Presumably it ended up there because it was a hardcover book that had lost its dust jacket. A plain black covered, with the title embossed on the spine in metallic red. This was many years ago—at least long enough that I did not have a smart phone or other convenient way of looking up anything about the book. Intriguing enough for me to bring it home.

As with many books, it got filed away on my shelf to read when the time was right. This month, its number was up. Despite the temptation, I refrained from looking up the book or checking reviews before reading. However, I did get a glimpse of the actual cover by adding it to my to read list on Goodreads. That all is to say: I went in to this with very few expectations. I suppose it is safe to say that it lived up to all of them. It was a quick and entertaining read, but nothing that jumped out or sets itself apart. It’s a pretty straightforward murder mystery story, with a few unusual elements. The leading man, Alex, is called back to his hometown to help the local sheriff solve an unusual case, and the clues begin to point to a larger story buried under the surface of small town life.

While the story was pretty straightforward in what I would expect from a murder mystery novel, the author did throw in some misleading trails and enough hints toward the supernatural that I wondered if there was something more to the novel than it seemed. As he revisits his hometown, Alex reminisces about his childhood, but most specifically about stories of ghosts and hauntings in the town and its surrounding woods. There are several characters that are implied to be important, who end up simply falling out of the story. I did enjoy some of these elements, especially descriptions and references to the purportedly haunted Crowhurst Inn where Alex stayed in town.

Unfortunately, none of these possibilities pan out. It really is just a murder mystery in the real world. There was one piece in particularly that had me wondering: Alex makes it a point to state that he moved on from the town when he left for college, never looking back. Initially, he talks about hoping to quickly solve the case so that he can get home to Boston. However, at several points later in the book, he refers to the Inn where he is staying as “home.” As I was reading, I wondered if this was some kind of clue, but in retrospect I wonder if it was merely a bit of careless editing.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I find hauntings more interesting than the real world as well. 2 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for July

  • Books Read: 3
  • Books Acquired: 4
  • Total Unread Books: 280

I have added it up several times, and my math does not fit from where I was last month. Not sure where the error is, but I know that this current total unread is right!

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse

img_9719Book: The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy

Date Read: June 30, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I picked this one up at least a dozen times before I finally brought a copy home with me. I had seen occasional praise for it online, and the book itself is certainly eye catching. For some reason, it never felt like the book to get right in that moment—until it was. While I cannot say what it was that caused that shift, I am thrilled that it happened. This is more than a simple book: it is a work of art.

In the book’s short introduction, Mackesy states that “this book is for everyone, whether you are eighty or eight.” It truly is exactly that. It is a quick read full of wisdom and humor, coupled with some enchanting artwork. The art has an interesting style, with variation in its feeling of completeness. Some drawings are done with lines only, and give more of an impression than a full image. Others are more whole, with more details in the form and the addition of watercolor. The text of the book is handwritten, making it part of the flowing art piece.

Although the book does tell an overall story of the four friends who find their way into each others’ lives, it is not necessary to view this as a chronological story. Each page is a valuable work on its own, all of them coming together to make a book that is worth treasuring. I know that it is one that I will revisit from time to time—perhaps the whole book, or just a few pages when I need some wisdom and grounding.

Minka’s Thoughts: “This seems nice. Do you think they have room for a cat friend? 4 paws.”

City of Thieves

img_9752Book: City of Thieves by David Benioff

Date Read: July 18 to 23, 2011; June 13 to 18, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

A few weeks ago, I finally got myself a library card. I moved across the state in 2012, into my current home at the beginning of 2019, and it was not until 2021 that I first made it inside my local library. Of course, a major part of this is that I already have a rather extensive library at home. The draw that eventually got me through the door was the expanded access to audio books—since I have found my audio sweet spot with rereading, I have a hard time justifying buying an audio copy of books that I already own. Up until now, I have been accessing through my school’s library, but have started to run low on books there, as it primarily offers children’s and young adult options. So, I got my shiny new library card (Grand Rapids Public Library’s 150th Anniversary edition!) and then went home to start browsing the audio options.

My first choice with my new options was to revisit this book that I read very close to 10 years ago. At the time of my initial reading, it was something of an impulse buy. I was at the store looking for another book, which turned out to be not in stock. While talking to the bookseller, she recommended this one. Ten years later, I could remember only the vague outline of the story, but recall that it made a strong impression on me at the time. It made it onto my Goodreads favorites shelf, and there it has sat.

It’s an interesting thing, to label a book as a favorite and then sit on it for 10 years. Not only did I never get around to rereading, I never looked for any other work by the author, explore more in the genre, or look for recommendations based upon it. When I decided to reread now, I wondered if this one was truly deserving of its place on the list and thought about reevaluating it and several others. A few chapters in, I was starting to question my past self. The plot was thinner than I remembered, the characters more vulgar. Nothing that outright signaled dislike, but threw up a red flag: was this really worthy of the designation “favorite?”

I cannot recall the exact moment when my thinking turned, but yes: this is absolutely worthy of its place on my favorites list. This is a story that draws you in and holds you there. It feels real. The characters are introduced to you in the same way they are introduced to each other. They are people you want to know, and you feel their impacts on each other as they develop through the story. It is alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, often at the same time. Lev’s voice rings true, not only with the telling of the story, but in how he perceives his surroundings and how thoughts of the past break through into the present moment. It was immersive in a way that I do not often feel with historical fiction.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I don’t like how they talk about the missing pets in the starving city… very suspicious. 1 paw.”

Saving Fish From Drowning

img_9415Book: Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

Date Read: June 3 to 30, 2021

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

For June, the Unread Shelf Project prompted me to choose a book that was bought in a spending spree. I feel like about 85% of my books could probably fall into that category, so decided to refine it further as it relates to my own shelves. Although I do not remember the specific trip when I bought this book, I got it during what I consider an extended book-buying spree. I know I have talked about this before, but I spent large stretches of time at Borders Books when I was in college, coming home with at least 1-2 new books every week in certain semesters. Since I was not reading much for pleasure at that point, I amassed a huge number of books rather quickly—I am still working on tackling many of them more than 10 years later. Along with being purchased in that time frame, I know this was not a book I went in specifically looking for, but one I chose in the moment at the store.

The novel is set up with the suggestion that it is a true story—told from beyond the grave based on the “automatic writing” of a medium. The story is narrated by Bibi Chen, who planned a trip to China and Burma for a group of friends, but is now tagging along as a ghost after her sudden and mysterious death. It is an interesting concept, but I have to say that I was not really sure what to think as I was getting in to the first few chapters. Honestly, after finishing the novel I still have the same mixed feelings. There were pieces of it that were lovely, but as a whole something about it fell short for me.

Initially, I found it a bit hard to keep track of the characters. With a cast of 12, it was hard to keep introductions straight, although this did get easier as the story began to move along. One of the biggest detractors for me was the attitude of the tourists as they began their journey. Although they had signed up for a pretty intensive cultural experience, none really seemed fully committed to actually living that experience. They seemed to be falling into a put of every negative tourist stereotype possible. I frequently found myself feeling that the place described seemed incredible and made me want to visit—but that I would be thoroughly miserable if I had visited with that group of people.

That said: some of the tourists did start to grow on me as things progressed. Of course, that did not completely negate my irritation with them. The description of the novel simply talks about the disappearance of the tourists, whereas in the story it is very clear that they have essentially been kidnapped. I do not want to give too much away, but will say that the kidnapping is not a violent one, and is primarily due to an unusual set of coincidences, cultural misunderstandings, and information lost in translation. So much so that by the end of the novel, even after being rescued, not one of them ever realized that they had been kidnapped. While the narrative was interesting and included some great descriptions of aspects of Asian culture, the novel as a whole did not resonate well.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I do not approve of stories that make you want to go to faraway places. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for June

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 278