Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Books I Read: January - February 2013


Heights of the Depths by Peter David

This book wasn't as excellent as the first one, but still pretty good. Maybe because it's the second of a trilogy, always a disadvantage since it loses the excitement of an introduction or resolution and there's more moving characters to a destination.

Also, the eBook version had quite a few typography problems. The spacing would go from single to double with no transition, and the font size would change sometimes. It looked unprofessionally produced, which doesn't match what I know of Peter David -- a consummate writer-fo'-life. I hope this was just a blip.

The book continues where it left off, dropping off some characters from the last book and introducing some new ones. The biggest problem is that there are about six storylines going on, and when you've got that many, each one can only develop a little bit before it moves to the next. There's going to be stories that are interesting and ones that aren't, and you've got to wait for those to pass.

Plus it feels like the intrigue and mystery behind the world got explained away in this one, by the simple act of lifting the curtain. And the end didn't really entice me to read on, since it eliminated what seemed to be the primary obstacle.  Now I'm not sure what the big goal is.

But I still will read the next one. I still like this universe, I still love the characters. And I want to see what happens next.


Bossypants by Tina Fey

Tina Fey is awesome, but I can't determine how she got awesome. All the female comics I know of had a gimmick. Ellen's a lesbian, Sarah Silverman's Jewish, Lisa Lampanelli's a loudmouth Italian, Rosie O'Donnell is "nice", Margaret Cho is Korean, Whoopi Goldberg is Rastafarian, Janeane Garofalo's alternative (and hard to spell), and Joan Rivers is obnoxious.

Tina Fey is just... Tina Fey. She's a nice, respectable, cute girl from Chicago.  But no matter what she does, she friggin' nails it. She's one of those "I Don't Know How She Does It" supermoms you can't hope to emulate. So I wanted to figure out how she does it.

And there really is no good secret. Just hard work, good people, and paying attention to what's around you.  In the book, Tina also explains about being female among males, what being a mom means, tips on improv and comedy writing, her first photo shoot, SNL dish. If you're looking for something Tina Fey, you'll find it in here. It's really an all-purpose book.

And everything's pretty hilarious. It reminds me of Bill Cosby's writing. There's no reason not to pick up this book. You will enjoy it, guaranteed. Unless you're a douche bag. You're not a douche bag, are you?


Blubber by Judy Blume

I'm unsure what to think about this book. This and Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret are the two titles everyone associates with Blume. I didn't know what it was about going in. YA titles often have bizarre names  mostly to intrigue the reader, like How to Eat Fried Worms and My Teacher is an Alien. Not this one.

Going in blind, I was allowed to judge the characters with impartiality. The main character, Jill, starts as whiny and spoiled, and doesn't get any better when she starts targeting the title character (a fat girl).

The bullying is instigated by ringleader Wendy, and the things she and Jill (and others) do to "Blubber" are absolutely atrocious, like trapping her in the bathroom and attempting to strip her. The story culminates in a mock trial of "Blubber" that becomes too unfair not to protest. For her insolence, Jill becomes the bullied. The story ends with friendships manipulated and changed, as often happens in elementary school.

When I realized the story was about bullying, and that the bully is the protagonist, I wasn't sure how to react.  I had automatic lack of sympathy for her, which I can't believe Blume didn't expect. Then I started thinking, is this a cautionary tale? A walk in the other person's shoes? No, because the reader doesn't understand why Jill started bullying, or anyone in fact, and there's no consequences from it. Is it like The Great Gatsby where you're not supposed to sympathize with the characters but observe the decline and fall?

And I can't help reading this book without applying what we now know about bullying and girls. I'm not saying the book is out of date. Far from it, it's actually close to home. But you've also got more knowledge on the subject like Queen Bees and Wannabes, cyberbullying, school shootings, bullycide, causes of bullying, interventions, scapegoating, and so on.

Jill's bully persona doesn't match her non-school persona (she collects stamps, for God's sake).  The bully's perspective didn't feel plausible (a book that did do it well was the sequel to My Teacher is an Alien). And in the book, it never goes beyond the circle of girls. The events feel disconnected, like "a bunch of stuff that happens".

I guess my two biggest complaints are that, except for Jill, we never get out of the bully cliche (even though Blume says she wrote this based on what was going on her daughter's class at the time -- maybe this is the kind of stuff that actually happens to girls and not boys). It's more about the instances of bullying. They're not well-developed, complex, or have backstory. The worst people on Earth are the most fascinating. The other complaint is that no one seems to learn anything by the end, except that "war changes things". Maybe that's the lesson we're supposed to learn?


The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

This and Heights of the Depths were the reasons I don't have a long list this time around. Thick books, man.

I'd heard a lot of things about J.K.'s post-Potter experiment. Opinions seemed to be split. I heard critics panned it on release day, but at the end of the year, it was hitting a lot of "Best of" lists. I went into it giving  a lot of benefit of the doubt. After all, this is an author who has her own theme park.

The "story" starts when a guy on a small English town's council dies suddenly. There's a vacant seat and there's a big debate who should fill it because there's going to be a vote on where to draw property lines around a ghetto part of town. Unfortunately, the main plot remains unthrust because it's more about the tons of characters and the mundane things they do. It was still kind of interesting because there are several core conflicts of teens vs. parents, rich vs. poor, and so on. It kept my interest, but nothing goes beyond arguing and suffering. My interest waned as the pages went on and on and on, and nothing happened to "change the game".

Every single detail gets expanded, every characters thought gets explained. There's too much internal dialogue and not enough external. I can see this book being appealing for fans of Pride and Prejudice or other long British epics where there's a lot of talking not even talking, but minor interactions like doctor's visits, prosaic house conversations, arguing couples, and so on.

I wish this book had started in the middle, cause there's no tangible problem until then. (I will say that it's nice to see a book that integrates Internet into the plot, you'd be surprised how many texts ignore it.) After that you see the consequences and all the exciting stuff that happens, the conflicts and revelations. Before that it's all set-up.

So to sum up, I don't think it was worth the time I spent on it. It's a milieu book, where you've got a lot of characters, but not a lot of interest.
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