Sunday, November 1, 2015

October 2015 Book Reviews

The Martian by Andy Weir.  I kept reading good things about this book, and got it on my kindle many months ago, but then when I saw it was about to come out as a movie, I decided I had better read it before I inadvertently heard what happens at the end.  And it was a really good read!  The kind where I was a little depressed when it was over, and also wished that it would have gone on for 100 or so more pages with some follow up (although it certainly doesn’t need extra).  For those who don’t know, it’s the story of an astronaut, Mark Watney, who goes on a mission to Mars (the US’s third, I think) and gets left behind by his fellow astronauts when things go wrong and they think he is dead.  Watney is a funny nerd with MacGyver tendencies – he’s an engineer and botanist by trade – and when he realizes his situation, he sets about trying to see how he could possible stay alive until the next scheduled Mars mission.  The majority of the book is in diary/log format kept by Watney, but then we get NASA’s point of view interspersed as well.  I’m told that Weir posted most or all of the book on a blog as he wrote it, and got scientists to help him fix the technology until it was as accurate as possible.  I can’t speak to accuracy, but it was fascinating to read about how Watney thinks of solutions and then puts them into motion.  It’s a much better book than I had been expecting.  The writing is a bit on the utilitarian side, but it fits with the subject matter.  It’s a really enjoyable and fun read!  Have at it!

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.  I have mixed feelings about this book.  I kept reading that it was one of the top five books of the Fall, and I had mostly enjoyed her previous book, Arcadia, but for the first half of it, I was at best indifferent, and mostly grumpy at its turn of events.  It is the story of a couple, and I suppose a marriage.  The first half of the book is from the man’s point of view – from birth through death.  That’s the part I didn’t much like.  I didn’t enjoy Lotto, and didn’t find him interesting.   Then when Lotto is dead, Groff goes back and starts over with the story of his wife, Mathilde, and I found this part more readable.  She’s a rather prickly, hard to like character herself, but what was fun about the second half of the book is that you can compare her depiction of events with Lotto’s, and it’s interesting to see how they differ and how they fit together.  I also found Groff’s writing to be a little bit too everything-but-the-kitchen-sink.  There are tons of Greek play references, and myth references, and Shakespeare references, plus author asides, and play synopses, and I kept waiting for there to be an overarching purpose that would become clear, but when it did not, it just seemed to me like she was trying to throw in everything and see what worked.  I usually really love an authorial aside “dear reader” moment too, but the author here was all-knowing in a way that I just couldn’t quite work out.  So in summary, I disliked the first half, liked the second, but thought it didn’t quite work as a unified whole.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware.  This book was a recommendation for a good scary read that I read about on a blog, and I have to say that it was not quite that.  I eagerly read it on the train for a week, and I wanted to find out what happened, but it was pretty thin, on the whole.  The narrator is an older twenty-something who is herself a reclusive mystery writer, and gets an invitation for a “hen weekend” (thus clueing me into the fact that this is an English book) from a childhood friend she hasn’t talked to in a decade.  She sees that another old friend is invited, and contacts her, upon which they decide randomly they both will go if the other does.  The hen weekend is in a glass house in the forest, and Ware does do a good job making the place very spooky in its open-ness, as well as assembling a strange cast of characters.  For it’s not the jolly, alcohol-filled party one would expect.  There’s the bride to be, the friend who is hosting the party in her aunt’s house and who has recently suffered a mental breakdown, a normal woman who leaves right away, and a man who was friends with the bride in college.  So basically almost no one knows each other, and we soon learn that there is a reason why the narrator hasn’t spoken with the bride in ten years.  Where the book fails is that the characters remain very one-dimensional:  we don’t know much about them, and they don’t seem like real people.  There is no fleshing out.  I was drawn in because of the unchronological narrative – the book begins with the narrator in the hospital after a bad accident in which someone else died, so I read on to find out what happens, but it just wasn’t very impressively constructed or written.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert.  This is an interesting little book that I believe came from two TED talks that Elizabeth Gilbert gave in the past year or so.  I admit, too, to being fond of Gilbert (I loved her first three books before Eat, Pray, Love, and liked the two after, as well), and finding her almost always delightful, both on the page and in interviews.  So I was happy to start Big Magic, a self-help book telling people to give themselves permission to live a creative life.  Gilbert made a vow as a young girl that she would always write, and she has remained true to that vow.  She believes if you want to create, you should create, and create daily, and also don’t expect your creativity to be your meal ticket.  She has this interesting theory of creative ideas being out there floating about in the ether, and they will end up with anyone who is receptive to them, but they will also leave if you don’t use them.  It’s kooky, yes, but intriguing.  I thought it was an enjoyable read, although I’m not sure I ended it feeling hugely inspired.  She does a good job extolling the virtues of daily work on a craft, and is also wise to instruct that you should divorce your craft from your paycheck.  I disagreed with her a little when she wrote of how she doesn’t think a creative degree from a university, or grad school, is necessary.  And whereas I agree that it isn’t necessary, I think she overlooked the main benefit of such a degree – which is the time it affords you in which to write, or paint, or otherwise create.  Gilbert is clearly a very energetic person who could work four jobs and still come home and sit down and write for hours, but that isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone!  I haven’t read yet how the book has been received, and I’m curious as to what other people think of it.  I think it is fun, and conversational, and raised interesting questions.

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