Brief Thoughts: 2015 Final Reads

I’ve spent most of December working, enjoying the company of friends and family, and hurrying to polish off some books. Here are some brief thoughts on a handful of the books I finished recently.

  • That’s Why I’m a Journalist: Top Canadian Reporters Tell Their Most Unforgettable Stories edited by Mark Bulgutch
    • Great collection of varied stories that let you get a glimpse into person who brings you the news. As a Canadian, I loved being able to read about what reporting can really be like for these people I see on TV for brief moments – what dangerous situations they enter, why they pursue certain stories, and what it’s like when they get to share something significant with the world. Reading the journalists’ own words adds a unique dimension to events I saw unfold in the news. Bulgutch provides a few paragraphs of biographical introduction to each story. Most of these journalists have been at their jobs for longer than I’ve been alive! So, I appreciated learning a little about each of their careers. 
    • One small caveat is that most of these stories could easily have been longer. I’ll have to explore which of these journalists have published their own books.  
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull
    • I’m really not the right sort of person to appreciate poetry. This stuff isn’t too bad! I most enjoy reading about the Middle-earth context of these poems. The commentary, including earlier versions of the poems, enhances the reading, but at times I thought it would’ve been better as an annotated version (i.e. with definitions for obscure words in the margins of the poem).
  • Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton
    • Intense read told in first person, alternating between Jennifer and Ronald. Your heart breaks for the both of them. Their reconciliation and further activism gives hope that some of the justice system’s injustices may yet be repaired.
  • The Way of the 88 Temples by Robert Sibley
    • Another book exploring matters close to me, so it’s hard to give an objective opinion.
    • I can with certainty that it’s a good introduction to the Shikoku Henro, even for those who know nothing about it. Whether you just want to learn about it, or if you’ve already undertaken the pilgrimage, I recommend this account.
    • I appreciated hearing a foreigner’s perspective, someone who has a very similar mindset to me – at first too rational to truly embrace the religious aspects of it, but still able to appreciate the spirituality and evolve over the course of the pilgrimage.
      • The Japanese have an intriguing relationship with their ‘religions’, Buddhism and Shinto, in that it’s rare a Japanese person will say they are religious or that they believe everything contains kami, but nearly all will visit shrines and temples as occasions call for it (53).
    • Made my heart yearn to return! Really captures the natural and spiritual aspects of Japan that are particular to Shikoku.
    • The conclusion punched me in the gut. Certainly wasn’t prepared for it. The only book that made me cry this year.
  • Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
    • Easily readable account of how human behaviour can be predictably influence to act irrationally. Based on numerous small experiments Ariely conducted on university campuses. 
    • I appreciated the bit where he explained how humans can’t value things on their own (i.e. how can you say how much something should cost without knowing how much similar/different things costs?); we must compare to other things. This made me feel better about how I always end up comparing books in my reviews 😛

Quick Review: If I Stay and Nothing to Envy

It’s been a few months since I reviewed two books in one quick review post. The only way I could think to connect these two is that they’re both for Adam @ Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge. These are my fourth and fifth reads for that challenge.
 

  •  Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • Ugh, why am I reading books about North Korea? Okay, it’s only the second book I’ve read, but man, they are so bleak and unbelievable, in the sense that is so difficult for me to comprehend that this is happening in the world I live in, right now. That makes reading about it a different experiences from reading about WWII atrocities. It raises so many how questions: How can people be okay with this, how can someone want to rule a country like this, how can we let this happen, how do you rate a book like this; how do you react to it? Especially when there is so little you can do. I had basically the same reaction upon finishing Escape from Camp 14 (thankfully, Demick’s book is a slightly easier read because of her more general subject matter.)
    • Early in the book I thought there were too many details and characterizations that Demick possibly couldn’t know and that she had  to be using a lot of artistic license. I wondered where she got all her information from. I’m not sure why I was critical of this point at the start of this book – I know it must be the case for many non-fiction books that tell people’s stories. Gradually I settled into the narrative style and it didn’t irk me after the first few chapters.
    • A large part of this story is grounded around the change from Kim Il-Sung to Kim Jong-Il. I wonder how much of the story is out of date – or, perhaps more accurately, what has changed since Kim Jong-un took over.
    • I’d recommend reading Nothing to Envy before Escape from Camp 14, because that book has a narrower focus on one particular life within North Korea.
  • If I Stay by Gayle
    • Rating: ★★½ [ratings guide]
    • I messaged my sister immediately upon finishing this book. I wrote, “Wow I just finished reading If I Stay and I was wholly underwhelmed. It felt like a writing experiment, not a novel. I couldn’t believe it was so short!! My ebook said 217 pages but the story finished at 167. I read it in one sitting. It had some good moments but it ain’t no John Green 😛 /immediate reaction.” Let me expand on two points:
      • Emotional depths – I expected some moving tale on the level of a John Green story, from the way people talk about this book. Because it’s centered on teenage romance, however, I couldn’t get into it (although I appreciated how realistic Adam and Mia’s relationship was). I’ve never been into teen romances, even when I was a teen. It’s not that I think they’re invalid; they’re just not interesting to me. (Green’s novels appeal to me in spite of any ‘romances’ within them). Overall, I didn’t find the story that sad. It is sad…but not an emotional tearjerker.  I thought it was more intellectually interesting for me, given the discussion of life and death that it explores. There are some very good moments that gave me a swell of emotion and paused my reading (for example, Mia’s comment about her mom and dad on page 28 or her thoughts on Mr. Dunlap on page 86).
      • Shortness – This ties into the point above. The story’s shortness surprised me. I think I would have appreciated it a lot more if it was a short story or a novella, with most of the flashbacks cut out and the boyfriend storyline minimized, distilled so it’s just ruminations on life after death.
    • The information dump in the first three pages almost turned me off this one. My interest kept me going and thankfully, the story gets started right after that.
    • What’s up with the parents? They were too unbelievable for me; they never felt real. I get that that super-cool parents do exist, but these were almost like caricatures of some teen’s ideal mom and dad. 

Have you read any books about North Korea? What did you think of If I Stay (am I off base about the parents?)?

Quick Review: Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman

Book 3 for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge
★★★★

  • Highly recommended if the story of one man’s accumulation of wealth and his daughter’s peculiar handling of it throughout the 20th century intrigues you 
    • In the reader’s guide at the end of the book, Dedman describes the main threads of the story as “the costs of ambition, the burdens of inherited wealth, the fragility of reputation, the folly of judging someone’s life from the outside, and the tension between engaging with the world, with all its risks, and keeping a safe distance from danger” (579)
  • Largely a biography but with a bit more spunk, as the author examines all the characters involved in the fight over Huguette’s will. 
  • First impression: “Ooh, I love it, it’s already like a moody novel about rich people. BUT IT’S REAL.”
  • What struck me most about this book is the absurdity and luxury of such wealth. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to have that much money. How does someone get so rich?? How do they decide what to do with all that money?? Unbelievable. And to think there are far, far richer people today…
    • Sooooo much extravagance!! I scrunched my eyes tight trying to imagine how much $220,000 was worth in the 1890s or how big a 121 room house is.
    • And there’s the china set – 900 pieces worth $3 million today. What does it look like? What’s it made from? What kind of pieces are included? Why do you need 900 of them? (7%)
    • Oh god, the description of the library (same page as above). The libraries of wealthy people will never cease fascinate me.
    • I nearly squealed while reading about what happens to Clark’s grand mansion (the house on the cover) (169).
  • Huguette’s interest in Japan was timely for me. At the same time I read about Huguette explaining Hina Matsuri to Paul (244), I was visiting an immense Hina Matsuri display where over 30,000 dolls were on view.
  • Huguette is an intriguing woman. It’s difficult to truly understand her as the reader comes to know her only through the stories others tell about her. It’s impossible to draw any clear conclusions as to whether she was mentally ill (perhaps on the autism spectrum) or just a happy woman living how she desired.
    • Later in the book, as I read about Huguette’s final 20 years, I found her story becoming more poignant. I thought, “Oh, that’s a bit sad. I don’t want to age to a point where all I can do is look back and try to preserve the life I had long before.”
    • Huguette is immensely charitable (she gives tens of millions of dollars to her nurse and the nurse’s family), to the extent that the climax of her tale is built around whether she was being taken advantage of. I understand this is where the tension in the story lies – in the fight over Huguette’s will – but I didn’t really like how the authors present the people involved. Which I think deserves a bullet point all on it’s own, so moving on!
  • Dedman strives to present unbiased portrayals of Huguette, her family and her assistants (or at least, he presents both the positive and negative views of all the players involved). However, I didn’t like the tone that resulted. (It’s a bit difficult to describe…If you read the book, please let me know if you understand what I’m trying to get at.) He presents all the ‘evidence’ but stops short of suggesting one conclusion or the other. I guess that’s the way to present both views in order to let the reader draw a conclusion for themself, but there’s something a bit off about the way he does this. It’s not really balanced. I suppose there’s to be some fun for the reader in deciding who is deserving of Huguette’s generosity, but I don’t like to do that. It’s too bad I can’t just ‘know’… (Though I suppose the main takeaway is don’t judge people you don’t know, ultimately.)
    • For example: Okay, so you’re saying Huguette is old and in a hospital and maybe a little mentally broken, you’re one sentence away from saying “She’s a crazy old lady”. But then on another page, there’s the complete opposite side – she’s sweet, she’s mentally capable, she knows what she’s doing, you’re on sentence away from saying “She was perfectly fine.” These views are presented as separate, like the author leads you to one conclusion and then to another. It feels like he wants you to decide something, then he can say, “Well, you said it, not me.”
    • In other places, the information presented just felt rude to me. I wanted to say “Butt out, you didn’t know this lady! Why is this the public’s business?” I get that such information would probably become relevant later on when he discussed the fight over the will, but I would have liked that to be made clear. At times it feels like he just laid out information so we, the unknowing public, could gawk at the people involved.
    • Moments like this don’t make up the bulk of the story (for the most part, it’s well-written) but when they did crop up I felt a little annoyed (and maybe that partially comes from my own guilt at being so fascinated by one little old lady’s private life).

Quick Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Book 2 for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge
★★★½
  • I think I added this book after seeing it featured at Chapters.
  • This is an unusual memoir in that the person writing it doesn’t recall the bulk of the time she writes about. Susannah takes on the role of reporter into her own life. I can’t imagine how strange that must be. The slow struggle to return to her usual self, as she recognizes what she can no longer do, was also tough to witness.
  • Every now and then I come across a book about an intriguing medical condition, something fascinating and unusual that shows just how little we understand our bodies (or indeed how well we can understand them, given the variables).
    • I was astonished by how quickly Susannah’s problems were at first dismissed as being drinking related (72). It seems this is a side-effect of an overwhelmed health care system, with doctors being unable to give patients they time and attention they need.
    • Something else I was amazed by was the amount and cost of the blood infusions (erm, not sure if that’s the correct term…) she had done.
      Pg. 146 wow can’t blood cost and amount
  • The attitude toward mental disorders in this book made me very uncomfortable. Susannah, her parents and some of her doctors all seem to think something along the lines of “We don’t want her to be crazy, god forbid she needs psychiatric help, we want her to be normally, properly sick”. I understand that part of the concern comes from the fear of being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder instead of the real problem, but the way she discusses psychiatric diseases is like they’re a ‘lesser’ problem, like “Ew, icky, at least I’m really sick with my disease”. 
  • I chatted with my Mom about this book, which made me think of so many comments on reading books with family members, that I’m going to make a whole post about it later.

Quick Review: Thank-You for Your Service by David Finkel

Book 1 for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge
★★★½
  • Another book I might have given four stars (and I did on GoodReads) but I wouldn’t reread it.
  • For the past few years, one of the first books I read in a new year has to do with war. Not sure how that happened, but that’s why I finally sought out this book.
  • I didn’t realize this is something of a follow-up book. I wish I had read The Good Soldiers first, because it did feel like I missed the first part of the story. It’s on my list now.
  • I always feel a little strange when reading a book about such an American subject. Canada has soldiers, too, but in a different political and cultural climate than America. I wonder what reading this book would be like for an American who had strong feelings, either way, about the Iraq war. I was a bit thrown by Romeo Dallaire’s foreward and then the introduction that praised Dallaire’s work. I thought, “Wait, what is this book about again? It is about Americans in Iraq, right?”
  • This isn’t a book to read for a great reading experience. This is the kind of book you pick up so you can bear witness to the tragic stories inside, and try to come to terms with the fact that these are real people, real lives, contained within. It is not an uplifting read. This is something you should read so you can maybe start to understand. The writing is plain and factual. Recording the words and the actions of the families in this book is more than enough to make an impact. It’s a tough read, especially when you’re let into such intimate moments of these people’s lives. You’re learning about so many people in so many difficult places, and what you’re getting is just a snapshot.
  • I was most interested in the generals discussing soldier suicides and General Chiarelli effort’s to do something about it (see ~ pg. 100+). But it’s such a difficult situation. If you’re sending men into these horrific situations and then want them to be okay when they get back – what can you do? The current system is bloated and broken. It’s really sad, seeing men who finally try to find help but then can’t get it – hindered by politics, money, bureaucracy. 
  • I don’t understand the purpose of war. I admit I know very little about it, but I suspect there must be a better way to accomplish at least some of the supposed objectives of militants sent into areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the lives soldiers return to after completing their work is only one part of the picture, but after reading this book, I wish it was considered more. If I were American, I’d be thinking – what’s the point if we’re destroying our own people at the same time, if we can’t help them after they’ve given everything for our freedom (or whatever it is you thank a soldier for…)? It’s to remember what, if any good, comes out of such war.