Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoy watching college sports, but I'm not a fanatic. I attribute my lower levels of enthusiasm to the fact that I never played - only watched. I never followed baseball - it just wasn't popular when I was growing up. Despite my lack of understanding and enthusiasm for baseball, I loved this book.

Baseball is a backdrop, and a perfect one now that I think back on the book, for the internal struggles and drama we all have in trying to be good at something we love. A young man, Henry, is technically too small for the position he loves, short-stop, but has talent despite his size. Henry meets Mike Schwartz, who shepherds him into the baseball program of a small liberal-arts college. It is at that college that we meet the other characters and participate in the life and baseball drama of the book.

College is also a perfect setting for this book because it is the place where many people go to decide where the rest of their lives will take them. College also mixes people in the community of shared purpose despite differing backgrounds. I felt as though I was back on my own campus, shuffling around and telling everyone and myself that the current crisis "will be okay."

The author did a great job of showing how the team captain, athletic stars, college president and his exceptionally smart daughter all struggle with being on display. Struggles and screw-ups are so much easier to handle when you can assume that nobody is watching. For these characters, every struggle is played out publicly and the reader knows it.

The characters themselves were so real that I was cheering for them individually and as part of the college community. I was worried as I saw them make decisions I knew could lead to problems later in the book but I was powerless to stop. I felt like a parent sending my child to college and hoping that they can overcome the inevitable problems that will cross their path.

This book is very long, but it held my attention the entire time. Few books can do that for me, and that is the main reason it got 5 stars.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterAbraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Historical paranormal fiction. That is the only way I've found to describe this book. I Googled that and can't really tell if it is an official genre. Abraham Lincoln's secret life as a vampire hunter is enough of an intriguing premise to get me to pick up the book. Seth Grahame-Smith's storytelling skill keeps you reading until the end.

Many of the characters and events in the book are pulled directly from the actual history of Lincoln. Some historical facts are twisted slightly to serve the purpose of telling the underlying story of vampire hunting. Most people know the basic story of Abraham Lincoln and that makes him familiar and comforting as he discusses the outlandish adventure of ridding the United States of vampires.

The pacing of the book was fantastic. The story moves along with plenty of action as Lincoln moves through his childhood, life as a young man, life as a young politician, and as the President of the United States. Seth Grahame-Smith's backlist includes Pride & Prejudice and Zombies. I probably wouldn't have picked that up, but based on this book I'll probably give it a try.

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The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High SchoolThe Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School by Alexandra Robbins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full disclosure - I was an outsider in High School. I had friends, but was in no way a "popular" kid and nobody would have invited me to anything that involved the "cool" kids. I was poor, uncoordinated, and was interested in everything that gets you labeled "weird." I was, by every reasonable social measurement, a complete failure at High School.

I loved college and law school. Professionally I'm the same weird guy, but that doesn't seem to matter much anymore. This is the thesis Alexandra Robbins attempts to prove in her book. The qualities that get a person labeled an outcast in High School are the very attributes that can lead to success - assuming you survive High School.

Full disclosure again - the author is the daughter of my Criminal Law Professor. I probably wouldn't have picked up this book without that connection, mostly because my pleasure reading is primarily fiction. Regardless, I found the narrative style very interesting and like many novels I read. I got a little bogged down in the documentary style narratives of the High School kids. However, by the end of the book I really felt I knew them and was invested in them moving beyond the High School paradigm.

Despite reliving some painful personal High School memories, it was an enjoyable read.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

This Is Where I Leave YouThis Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read How to Talk to a Widower several months ago and enjoyed it so much that I bought this book. This was even better than the first book. I am a huge fan of family comedies and this book really delivers. The main character, Judd, has a father who is not that religious. However, his mother tells him and his siblings that his father's last wish was that they sit shiva for him. This is the Jewish mourning ceremony that lasts for seven days. The problem is that they are stuck in the house they grew up in with their siblings and respective wives and girlfriends - and everyone doesn't really get along.

The family baggage, and every family has baggage but this family makes it an Olympic sport, unfolds over the seven days. The characters in this book are amazing and the dialogue is spot-on. You can hear the voices and they seem genuine despite the sometimes crazy things that are said and done. It was a wonderful read and I'm looking through Tropper's back-list right now looking for another gem.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The Pale KingThe Pale King by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is essentially a commentary on boredom told from multiple points of view using different employees at and Internal Revenue Service examination center. The novel is unfinished because the author, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide before he could complete work on the novel.

Knowing that it was an "unfinished" work going in was good because it lowered my expectations. I overlooked some parts that seemed disjointed and continued to listen through long internal dialogue sections of minute detail. Parts of this novel are wonderfully insightful about the boredom inherent in an average life and that it is wonderful in a bizarre way. A job may be horribly dull, but that doesn't mean that the people who do it are dull. The quirky characters and their stories are very entertaining. The characters reminded me of many odd people I've met in my life who I enjoyed listening to because their perspective was so much different than my own. The perspective of these characters on what would otherwise be mundane descriptions of daily life were very entertaining.

Regardless of the wonderful writing and unique character viewpoint, the prose does get tiring. There is just too much internal dialogue and pontificating on life and the meaning of a person's place in society. I imagine that this is a flaw that would have worked itself out if the author had time to finish the novel. Wallace is very talented and it is a shame that he is no longer with us anymore. I have no doubt he would have found the perfect balance for these incredible characters so that the reader never tired of hearing them tell their stories.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Resolutions and the Big Finish

I made a new year's resolution to read 50 books in 2011.  I finished the goal, and the three books listed below, in the month of December. They are all very different books.  A celebrity biography, Christmas fan-fiction, and a Pulitzer Prize winner's new novel. The reviews are below. 

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was hilarious. Her reflections on life, work, and being a parent were priceless. I'm not a huge fan of celebrity books, but this one was definitely worth the read.

Jacob T. MarleyJacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is Dickens fan fiction. I bought this for the Christmas holiday but finished it after Christmas but before 2011 ended. I didn't like it. The author spent most of the book telling me why everything was important. When he wasn't describing the significance of everything he was flinging moral imperatives at me with alarming force. The premise is good for a fan fiction concept, but it was ruined by a poor telling of Marley's side of the story. I would have preferred that the author left more unsaid so the reader could draw their own conclusions. Also, I found Marley's transformation unbelievable. My disbelief cannot be suspended that much.

View all my reviews The Marriage PlotThe Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book because it was so well written. Mr. Eugenides is a Pulitzer Prize winner after all. The characters were also very well done. They were real, complex, and interesting to read about as they struggled with the basic problems of young college graduates finding their way. I ended up not liking the book very much for two reasons.

First, nothing really happens. I know that this isn't a suspense novel, but the story still needs something to happen to make me want to turn the pages. They all graduate, they don't know what to do with their lives, they think about it for hundreds of pages. Not very exciting. There is some conflict between the characters and a meager attempt at a love triangle but overall it was very boring.

Second, too much background without clear purpose. There is an enormous amount of background on the characters and what they are doing. The first part of the book reads like a college syllabus as we get quotes and long histories of esoteric concepts. Then there are long descriptions that sound like journal entries from a backpacking trip to avoid the real world for just a little longer. The other parts don't use as much background, but the author still tends to include a lot of stuff that doesn't relate to any specific important characteristic or plot point in the story. It was very distracting.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness IndustryThe Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't read a lot of non-fiction - just a preference, not a comment. This book caught my eye because my undergraduate education is in Psychology. The book is an incredibly interesting account of Jon Ronson's investigation of the madness industry and how we perceive and interpret mental illness. I really like Ronson's storytelling style because it reads like fiction. He also seems like the type of guy that I would be friends with if I met him one day at a party or on the street and struck up a conversation. Despite the comfortable tone of the book, it is very well researched. You can tell he did his homework and the questions he poses are very poignant. The label of psychopath is incredibly damaging to a person but you can see how certain character traits could spun into something more sinister than they are.