Monday, February 29, 2016

Words to Read By: Evaluating Books by Their Blurbs

BLOGGER’S NOTE: I usually try to keep my blog family-friendly and age-appropriate, but this entry will describe briefly some of the things I avoid when choosing reading material.

The last time I was at the library I went on another borrowing binge. As I was scouring the stacks searching for my next Great American (or any other nationality, I’m not particularly picky on that count) Novel, I realized that I was judging books by their covers…but more than that, I was judging them by their blurbs.

This is perfectly acceptable library behavior. Blurbs—the description of the book’s contents either on the back cover or inside the front flap of the dust-jacket—are carefully crafted in order to communicate how great and readable the book is, in order to sell as many copies as possible.  It’s important to remember that a badly written blurb does not mean the book itself is badly written or vise-versa. However, it is also important to put some time into decoding a blurb in order to get a correct idea of what the book will actually be about.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Some Short Story Reviews for a Change

I don’t often review short stories, and that’s mostly because I don’t often read short stories.  Especially during this time of year where I live, the days are short and dreary and windy, making for great atmosphere to read a long novel by Elizabeth Gaskell or one of the Bronte sisters.   But just as sometimes one hankers for a feast, and other times is just a pit peckish for a small snack, sometimes it’s just the right time for short stories.  I’ve had my fill of Araby and Mrs. Dalloway and The Awakening from my college years—though oddly enough I didn’t get any Kafka or Dostoyevsky assignments, which is a conundrum and a shame in my opinion.  But when it comes to picking out contemporary fiction—short stories and novellas in particular—I look for less depressing fare, mostly quirky, magic-realism or almost science-fictional genres.
Kevin Wilson’s collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth includes many such almost-parallel realities that reflect different aspects of our own.   The short story which lends its name to the collection, for instance, is about three college graduates who dig a hole in the narrator’s backyard, then start to tunnel and eventually even live underground rather than face the uncertainty of their future adult lives. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Beginnings and Endings…not necessarily in that order…

Every year I make the same reading resolution, and every year I break it: to not start any new book series before I finish the ones I’m already working on. This includes but is not limited to the Amelia Peabody mysteries, all books by P.G Wodehouse, various YA books that seemed like one-off novels until the last page when it read “Such and such characters will return in ________.”  The worse repeat offenders of my ruined resolutions are Agatha Christie novels and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. Not that I’m complaining; these mysteries, either in paper or audio book form, are among my favorite reads. However, since there are so very many of them, I have given up trying to read them in order.

This had proved problematic for two reasons. First, sometimes Poirot or Wolfe refers to an incident in the past which is actually in a previous novel which I may or may not have read yet.  This is not as problematic for me personally, since chances are by the time I get around to reading that other mystery I will have forgotten the “clue from the future” and besides, these mentions rarely spoil the climax of the whodunit. 

More problematic is when I read the last book of a series and it spoils an aspect of the books that have gone before. Much like trying to watch any of the earlier Newhart episodes after seeing the historic ending, it’s hard to go back “home,” as it were, by reading any previous books.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Surprises and Disappointments: "The Birds of Pandemonium" and "Drood"

After the pleasant surprise of my previous audiobook What If? (which I briefly reviewed last week) I almost though it would be pressing luck to immediately get another random audiobook from my long library queue. However, I’d already clicked “Place Hold” so there was no going back, and before I knew it The Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic and Endangered was waiting for me at the checkout counter.

When getting nonfiction books, I often stumble across little pockets of our world heretofore unknown to me. I didn’t know the blog xkcd existed until I read the book What If?, and even now I’m not sure I know how to spell it. 
The same thing happened with Pandemonium. The Pandemonium Aviaries is a nonprofit bird sanctuary that started out as a woman taking in unwanted birds, then developed into a breeding program for endangered species. The main characters are the birds themselves, of course, along with the humans who love them. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Hits and Misses

This is the story about how I read Randall Munro's What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, which is a book compilation of entries to Munro's blog, renown for science, humor, and stick figure doodles.  

But first, some autobiographical backstory.  The way I get most of my library books is randomized: every month my library puts a list of “Don’t Miss” new additions on their online catalog.  I go through this list, checking boxes next to the titles that look even remotely of interest to me, and then hit “Add to My Lists.” This goes into a queue of books that I eventually want to check out.  As time goes on, then, I gradually put books on hold—I usually have about 10-20 books checked out, and pretty steadily have 15 on hold.  Some items take longer than others to reach me, so that by the time I am at the checkout counter of the library and receive my holds, I might have forgotten why I wanted a certain item to begin with. 

The most egregious items that make me wait until I am out of the mood to read them are audiobooks.  I like audiobooks because my commute to work is long and often hectic, and if I get stuck in traffic I’m at least accomplishing something by chipping away at my TBR pile.  Yet for some reason I have to be in the right state of mind to actually start audiobooks.  Once I am in that mood, I get into a rhythm of consistency with them and get through them quite swiftly.  However, when I got the audiobook What If? I admit it must have sat in my TBR at least a month, forcing me to renew it at the library before even starting it. 

Why was I unenthused about starting this book?  You see, I’d previously gotten several books written in a genre I’ll dub “pop science” (even though I’m not sure if that’s an actual thing; if it’s not and I just coined the phrase, patent pending!) and was sadly disappointed.   Geek Physics: Surprising Answers to the World's Most Interesting Questions, for example, drove me nuts.*  What is it with Rhett Allain and Angry Birds, anyway?  Why is there an inordinate and unfair amount of Star Wars questions in this book as opposed to Star Trek, Star Gate, Farscape, Doctor Who, or Firefly? And why does he keep starting his hypothetical scenarios with demanding that I make wild assumptions such as “pretend that Lex Luthor is a slinky.”**  What does that have to do with anything?  Why a slinky, anyway?  These analogies seem so arbitrary and do nothing to help me understand the more complex physics end of the question.

But What If is exactly what I’d hoped Geek Physics would be.  What if someone created a jetpack out of machine guns?  What if I suddenly had all my DNA removed from my body?  What if our oceans were drained out to the planet Mars? What if you were able to collect the actual elements on the Periodic Table?  What if one were to try to cook their steak by dropping it from a high altitude so that entering the earth’s atmosphere would make it heat up like a meteorite or all those UFOs that nobody wants to admit have crashed on earth?  These are the important questions in my life that I need answered. 

This is also the kind of book that I can see most “non-readers”*** reading.  Even if someone does not consider themselves  scientifically curious usually likes to think over idle theories of whether the earth could be forced off its orbit by everyone on earth gathering on one side of the planet and then jumping in unison.  Also, because this book began as a blog, the chapters are fairly short and “bite-sized” for those who don’t have a lot of spare time to devote to longer chapters.****

I listened to the audiobook, meaning I missed all the stick figure illustrations that are apparently a trademark of the xkcd blog.  However this did afford me a chance to listen to Wil Wheaton’s reading, which was excellent.***** It wasn’t even (very) hard to understand the mathematical formulae that was read aloud.  Which, coming from me, is saying a lot.

*Possibly because it was Star Wars saturated and thus did not have an ample amount of Jean -Luc Picard related content. 

** Of course I'm making up this specific example.  The real scenarios were MUCH more ludicrous. 

***Readers in denial, in my opinion.

****I’m lookin’ at you, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

*****And made me almost forgive him for making my favorite captain look like a fool by being a teen wunderkind always saving the Enterprise.  Almost.