Sunday, June 19, 2011

"What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you're really selling is your life."

Nickel and Dimed:  On (Not) Getting By in America – Barbara Ehrenreich

230 pages

Genre:  Non-fiction; Sociology

Summary: Barbara Ehrenreich, a well-to-do reporter, decides to go undercover in an effort to ascertain what it’s like to be among America’s working class.   In the course of her investigation, she accepts jobs as a maid, waitress, and Wal-mart employee, respectively, in various parts of the country, and writes about her experiences in Nickel and Dimed.

Review:  When I first saw Nickel and Dimed, I was quite anxious to read it.  Even though it was written 10 years ago, the subject at hand (working Americans inability to make ends meat) is, of course, still pertinent to what the working poor experience today.  Much to my chagrin, however, I didn’t really care for this book.

My biggest annoyance with Nickel and Dimed was the author’s flippant attitude throughout.  Instead of shedding her pretensions to really get into the spirit of the investigation, she remained quite pompous and haughty throughout, never really accepting anything that she deemed “beneath her,” be it a job or sub-standard housing.  If you are truly among the working poor, you tend to take whatever you can get regardless of what it is, as you need money to support yourself and your family.  When you’re really trying to survive, you do whatever it takes. 

There was one instance in particular that really stands out in my mind, where she made a disparaging comment about people in the Midwest.  Apparently, everyone, especially if they can be found at a certain huge, anti-union discount store, is overweight, which is completely false, offensive, and an incredibly pompous generalization to make about an entire community of people.

It was also rather astonishing to me that Ehrenreich was so flabbergasted about her findings related to workers’ rights and lives.  If one has ever worked a minimum wage job, even as a teenager, one can probably relate to several of the findings in this book, if not all of them.  Are people with money really this far removed from reality?

Despite the pretension, this book did bring light to issues that tend to be swept under the rug in national discourse.  Most specifically, workers’ rights, wages, healthcare, access to quality food, and inability to secure decent places to live are important issues that the working poor face everyday.  People can’t just pull themselves up by the bootstraps and make their way out of poverty because it is a vicious, perpetual cycle that oftentimes seems impossible to escape.  By putting these issues on the table, people who were previously unaware of them have no choice but to pay attention. 

Ultimately, if you truly don’t know about what the working poor face on a daily basis, Nickel and Dimed may be worth your time.  If you are aware of what goes on, however, feel free to skip this book.

Rating:  2/5

Other Books by this Author:  Bait and Switched, Bright-sided, This Land is Their Land

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"In the sanctuary of my thoughts, I am a fearless renegade." - Tassie

Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn

208 pages

Summary:  Set on the fictional island of Nollop and founded on the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel that chronicles the correspondences between various inhabitants of the island.  Everything on the island is going quite well until letters from the pangram begin to fall from a statue in town, thereby moving the governing body to put a unilateral ban on each letter, respectively, as they think it’s a sign from Nollop himself.  Will Ella and her cohorts be able to find a solution before every letter is eradicated from existence?

Review:  I am a lover of language, so when I read that Ella Minnow Pea focused on letters, words and censorship, I couldn’t wait to read it.  Fortunately, this book was incredibly well done, and my only wish is that I had read it sooner.

I’m quite sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I absolutely love epistolary novels.  Something about the way in which they are written makes me feel as if I’m getting to know the characters on a deeper level than I would otherwise.  One of the strengths of this book was the varying perspectives to which the reader was given access.  The letters weren’t just between two people; rather, they were addressed to a plethora of different characters, and sometimes, even a formal letter by the council was presented to the reader.  Telling the story in this way worked really well when taking the subject matter into consideration, as it physically showed the ways in which language was forced to change with every declaration of the council.  It was also interesting to see the evolution from incredibly verbose to much shorter and nonsensical in order to fit into the constraints. 

The writing itself was incredibly witty, and when the characters still had access to all of the letters in the first part of the book, the language was absolutely beautiful.  I love that Dunn played with the idea of eliminating letters, and the fact that he had to pay such close attention to what he was saying throughout the book makes his effort even more brilliant.  It even makes me want to try such an endeavor myself, just to see if I can do it.

Ella Minnow Pea was a great read, packed with humor, crazy governmental rules, and painstaking attention to language.  If you’re a lover of words or epistolary novels, definitely give it a try!

Rating: 4/5

Other Books by Mark Dunn:  Ibid, Welcome to Higby, Under the Harrow

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane - as a means of inciting evil, to borrow the vocabulary of the devout - there may be no more potent force than religion."

Under the Banner of Heaven:  A Story of Violent Faith – Jon Krakauer

400 pages

Genre:  Non-fiction; Religion; History; Mormonism

Summary:  As the title suggests, Under the Banner of Heaven investigates violent acts of faith perpetrated by radical Mormon Fundamentalists.  In his exploration, Krakauer also provides the reader with a history of the Mormon faith, highlighting significant people and events, while also identifying the places in which extremists began to splinter off from the mainstream Mormon faith.

Review:  Overall, I found this book to be extremely interesting and a thorough examination of Mormon history, especially as it relates to the small sect of individuals who take their faith to the extreme and commit acts of violence.

Going into this book, I only knew the basics about Mormonism, and I had absolutely no idea about all of the violence associated with some of the people in the faith.  It was really interesting to get a glimpse at the history of Mormonism, the important people within the religion, and the ongoing debate with polygamy.  In the same vein, it was also interesting, yet extremely sad, to read about the people on the fringe who took their beliefs to violent extremes in the name of their God.

The stories contained within the book were incredibly compelling, albeit terrifying at times, and the events surrounding the Lafferty brothers were especially poignant.  The way in which they discussed the murders they perpetrated after the fact was incredibly heartrending, indeed, and it was amazing to me that they really felt compelled by a higher power to carry out their atrocious acts.

The writing itself was a bit dry at times, but that tends to happen when one is reading a book presenting historical facts.  The action in the rest of the book more than made up for these few instances, however, and I flipped through the pages eagerly when something in particular sparked my interest.

If you have an interest in radical Mormonism or religious violence, definitely give Under The Banner of Heaven a try. 

Rating:  3/5

Other Books by Jon Krakauer:  Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, Where Men Win Glory 

"Right, good temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 2:  The Reptile Room – Lemony Snicket

190 pages

Genre:  YA/Juvenile; Adventure; Fantasy

*Spoilers for the first book are in both the summary and the review, as it’s kind of impossible to talk about the second book without revealing crucial plot points from the first.  Proceed with caution if you haven’t read it yet and still wish to maintain an element of surprise.

Summary:  In this second installment of The Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire orphans are back for their next adventure.  After escaping from the evil clutches of dastardly Count Olaf, the children are sent to live with their distant relative and animal enthusiast, Uncle Monty.  Everything is going along quite swimmingly until Uncle Monty’s new assistant comes to work at the house, effectively turning everything upside down.  Will the Baudelaire children ever get the quiet, happy life that they seek?

Review:  I thoroughly enjoyed The Bad Beginning, the first book in this series, so my expectations were quite high for The Reptile Room.  Much to my delight, I enjoyed The Reptile Room just as much as its predecessor, and read the whole thing in an hour or two.

Lemony Snicket is a great storyteller, and the way he weaves his words really makes the events, characters, and settings come to life.  I love that he talks directly to the reader in various parts of the story; since this is written with a younger audience in mind, it really helps to draw readers in, teach them moral lessons and manners, and also allows them to try to deduce what they would do if they were in any given situation.  The foreshadowing within the book does tend to hit the reader over the head, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing when the intended audience is taken into consideration.  Knowing that something bad is going to happen before it actually occurs may make kids feel as though they can one up the characters, in a sense, while also allowing them to really pay attention to what caused the events to transpire.

The characters are also really great, and I’m sure many readers could see themselves in at least one of the Baudelaire children.  The trio are incredibly smart and logical, and their ability to stick together no matter the situation gets them through everything.  Uncle Monty was incredibly eccentric, and I really liked that he had a room full of reptiles.  Count Olaf was just as terrifying as I’ve come to expect, and I love that he was brought back as the villain in this book, too.

These books are packed with twists and turns and are incredibly fun to read.  Some of the subject matter is a bit dark, so I think this series would be great for a mature 9-12 year old.  I certainly can’t wait to read more!

Rating:  3.5/5

Other Books in this SeriesThe Bad Beginning (Book 1), The Wide Window (Book 3), The Miserable Mill (Book 4), The Austere Academy (Book 5), The Ersatz Elevator (Book 6), The Vile Village (Book 7), The Carnivorous Carnival (Book 8), The Slippery Slope (Book 9), The Hostile Hospital (Book 10), The Grim Grotto (Book 11), The Penultimate Peril (Book 12), The End (Book 13)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all." - Nina

 XVI – Julia Karr

325 pages

Genre:  YA; Dystopia

Summary:  Set approximately 100 years into the future, XVI is told from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old Nina Oberon, an average girl living in Chicago.  Nina has no desire to reach the age of sixteen because girls in this dystopian society are branded with an XVI tattoo on their wrists, and are expected to become sexually active at that time. While her worries are a stark contrast to her best friend, Sandy’s, feelings about reaching the age of “adulthood,” turning sixteen becomes just one of a series of issues that plague Nina’s life after somebody she loves is attacked.   Can she escape her fate, or is she doomed to live the life of a typical sixteen within the society?

Review:  While I thought the concept of XVI was rather interesting, for me, the execution mostly fell flat. 

I love a good dystopia, but there were way too many unanswered questions in this book that made it near impossible for me to suspend disbelief.  How did society get this way?  Why does everyone just go along with it?  From the way XVI ended, I have a feeling that there will be sequels, so perhaps these questions will be fleshed out a little bit more in the next books.  It was also kind of strange that, in some instances, the characters were discussing things that they had been acquainted with all of their lives, and therefore, shouldn’t really have had a need to discuss since it was already part of their collective experience. 

The one-dimensionality of the characters also really stood out to me.  The females, especially Wei and Ginnie, were definitely tough, but it was hard to really feel any sympathy for their plights because they all seemed rather generic.  In the same vein, the male characters didn’t seem to have any personality at all, and much like the females, it was quite hard to get to know them.  Additionally, Sal and Nina’s relationship seemed a bit contrived, and I really didn’t find myself caring about what happened with their romance at all.

Taking all of these factors into account, I actually did enjoy this book and read the whole thing in a few hours.  Yes, most of it was rather predictable, but that didn’t really detract from the fun I had reading it; in fact, I’ll probably continue with the series.  Ed was a great villain, and I spent the whole book wishing vengeance would finally come to him.  The technology and dead zones were also rather cool, and I loved that it enabled the characters to talk freely about what was going on around them.

If you enjoy dystopias, especially any of the ones listed below under “read-alikes,” XVI may be a book worth looking into.

Rating:  2.5/5

Read-alikes:  The Adoration of Jenna Fox – Mary E. Pearson, Feed – M.T. Anderson, Uglies trilogy – Scott Westerfeld, Matched – Ally Condie, 1984 – George Orwell

Saturday, June 4, 2011

"Take no heed of her... She reads a lot of books."

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

374 pages

Genre:  Alternate History; Mystery; Fantasy           

Summary:  Set in various places in England, The Eyre Affair follows Thursday Next, an agent working for a branch of London’s Special Operations known as the LiteraTecs, in 1985.  In this alternate reality, literature is highly valued and incredibly popular, and it is the responsibility of the SpecOps to protect it against any threat.  When a hardened criminal named Hades begins to literally fall into the pages of the books and permanently change the plots, will Thursday and her cohorts be able to stop him?

Review:  I am a huge Jane Eyre fan, so when I heard about this book, I knew I was either going to really love it or throw it forcibly against a wall.  Fortunately for both my sake and the binding of my copy of The Eyre Affair, I absolutely loved it and was drawn in from the very first page.

This book was hilarious from start to finish, and Fforde’s wit was evident on every page (Jack Schitt…well played, Mr. Fforde).  Fforde’s London was incredibly imaginative, and I couldn’t help but wish I lived there; after all, what voracious reader wouldn’t want the opportunity to leap into her favorite poems or books (not to mention work for the SpecOps)?  I loved all of the references to other books throughout, but mentions of Bronte, Shakespeare, Bacon, and Marlowe brought a special kind of giddy joy to my nerdy, English major heart. 

The way in which Jane Eyre was tied into the story was incredibly interesting, and I liked that the ending of that book was different at the beginning of The Eyre Affair.  It was also interesting to see the parallels from Jane Eyre to Thursday’s own life.

The characters themselves were quite well drawn, and I really liked that the story was told through Thursday’s eyes.  Sometimes I get a little worried when I find out that a male author is trying to write a female protagonist, but I thought Fforde did a really great job here.  Thursday was tough, smart, extremely well-read, and sometimes, she made mistakes, which made her quite believable.  Even though he only showed up a few times, Thursday’s father was also a compelling character, and I loved when he popped in to ask if Thursday had ever heard of someone who was supposed to be historically important.  Hades, the villain, was also quite interesting because he was so maniacal, and as I read along, I kept hoping that the SpecOps would finally be able to stop him somehow.

All in all, The Eyre Affair was an excellent start to what I’m sure is a fantastic series.  If you enjoy alternate histories, classic literature, and mysteries, definitely give The Eyre Affair a try.  I certainly can’t wait to read more!

Rating:  4/5

Other Books in the Thursday Next Series:  Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of Our Thursdays is Missing

Read-alikes:  Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Inkheart – Cornelia Funke, Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte, The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger