Monday, February 8, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Steig Larsson)

The first of the posthumously published "Millennium Triology," this book by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson was certainly an interesting read. Apparently, he submitted the three books to a publisher shortly before he died, and the series was actually intended to contain a total of 10 books, only three of which were completely in full. The somewhat cliff-hanger-esque ending of this first book has filled me with a sense of dread that, when I get to the end of the third book, I'll be devastated to not know what happens next.

My initial impression was that, seeing as how the author died before the book was published, there weren't many revisions done, as the publisher couldn't very well change the authors words without his permission. But I wonder if I was just harsh to judge, and possibly some of the halting pace of the beginning was due to the work being translated from Swedish - maybe I just didn't get into the correct meter at first (though I more firmly believe that the beginning just isn't as good as the rest). The plot starts out slow and awkward; the seemly unconnected story-lines are too much so - I spent the first 70 or so pages wondering what the hell was happening.

But when Larsson got into his story-telling groove, things just seemed to flow. The pace quickly picked up, resulting in a very intense, suspenseful murder mystery/detective story. All in all, I thought it was a fun, entertaining read (albeit graphically disturbing and much too violent for my tastes in general), and I look forward to reading the next two books (though I am disappointed that the paperback version of the second book from the same publisher won't be available until mid-March - I'd prefer if my books matched - and I don't particularly want to buy it in hardcover - even used!). :)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Confessions of a Tax Collector (Richard Yancey)

One Man's Tour of Duty inside the IRS

This is the first non-fiction book (technically, it's a memoir) I've read in a while, and it definitely reminded me how good non-fiction can be. This book truly seems to personify the saying, "truth is stranger than fiction." Countless times throughout this book, I had to remind myself that the things he was describing were true, and it really did happen. He, of course, changed the names, descriptions, and even professions of the taxpayers he encountered, but the events were all intended to be as close to his recollection of reality as possible. And it left me in awe - and mildly worried about my taxes (which we haven't filed yet this year).

This book give a hilarious, tense, and oftentimes heart-wrenching account of the job of a revenue officer in the IRS (although it is my understanding, based on the epilogue, that this position no longer exists as described by Yancey, after the passing of a new act of Congress in 1998). The revenue officers are the ones who physically go out "in the field" (an astounding amount of the terminology used by the IRS is derived from war terminology - and not entirely unjustly so) and attempt to collect the delinquent taxes owed by taxpayers. These aren't people who slipped up and forgot one time - these are the repeat offenders who owe thousands (and sometimes significantly more) in unfiled back taxes. They have received at least 4 letters demanding compliance, several phone calls, and at least one visit by a RO before their property is in danger of being seized. But the collections and seizures are what make the job interesting - and give it an air of a war-zone.

I think my favorite part of this book is how open Yancey is with his audience - he truly spills his life on these pages, down to the smallest details of his insecurities and struggles. He most definitely doesn't portray himself in a biased way, but he still comes across as an incredibly endearing, personable man. Astoundingly, the book is also a vague sort of love story. And not just in an awkward, misplaced narcissistic way.

I really enjoyed this book, and I have a new-found respect for the IRS and those who work there. But, in spite of the relatively newer legislation, I'm still not going to fall behind on my taxes. I'm less intimidated in general by the IRS (if you follow the law, you won't have any issues, as evidence in the book), but I don't think I want to cross them any time soon! Definitely a good read for the second fiscal quarter of the year - it'll inspire you to file your taxes quickly and accurately!! Overall, a very funny, moving, touching, sympathetic work.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Under the Dome (Stephen King)

With the exception of the Dark Tower series, I think this book may be Stephen King's best work ever. I do tend to like King's work in general, but I really loved this one. Like always, the characters are so personable and familiar - as if you've not only known them for years, but you're actually there with them, sharing their experiences and emotions (but fortunately, in this case, as with most of his books, you're NOT with them). That being said, I didn't feel the characters were quite as "lovable" as typical King characters, most likely due to the pace of the book.

In his letter to his "Constant Reader" at the end of the novel, King said he and his editor worked to trim the book down to its mere 1070+ pages with the intent of keeping the plot moving "with the petal to the metal." I'd say he more than achieved this!! The break-neck speed of the book was almost a negative aspect. I often found myself frustrated or irritated at the chapters dealing with secondary and tertiary plot lines - reading through them as fast as possible just to get back to the main story to figure out what happened next. I think I might be able to enjoy the book more a second time through, as I (hopefully) wouldn't feel the same intense, anxious need to know what happens. There was probably a good amount of subtle storyline I missed completely in my mad rush to get to the end. From the very first lines, this book grabs the reader and goes - without a pause or moment for relaxation until the end. I've never before felt so exhausted or out of breath just from reading.

While trying to refrain from giving away anything about the plot, I'll keep this fairly short. I did notice one aspect of this book that I haven't before encountered in a King novel and thoroughly enjoyed. Every now and then, he included a chapter with a somewhat guide-like third person omniscient narrator. This unknown narrator (King?) speaks directly to the reader and shows us the town and its inhabitants, often telling us to pay close attention, or to "see" every little detail. I found this not only a fascinating step back from the action (without slowing down the speed of the racing plot), but an interesting additional level to the story itself.

I really wish I had someone else to discuss this book with, but since my husband's school started up again, he won't get a chance to read it until this year is over, at the earliest. I guess I'll have to just bide my time and try not to let slip the ending... Overall, I would most definitely recommend this book, especially to any of King's faithful Constant Readers. But just make sure you don't have any plans for a few days, as you won't be able to put this book down until you race to the end with the citizens of Chester's Mill.

Also, be sure to check out the town's website: - Love it!!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Say You're One of Them (Uwem Akpan)

It's probably fairly safe to say my impression of this book is somewhat biased. About halfway through reading it, I glanced in the back and read the "About the Author" blurb and found out that Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest from Nigeria, studied English at Creighton University (my Alma Mater!), which led me to look through his acknowledgments in the slim chance that he would not only have known some of my English professors, but actually thanked them - lo and behold, I saw one of my absolute favorite (and most influential) professors names. Needless to say, this small connection with the author made me feel a deeper closeness with his words - we both know, and are grateful to, the same man.

In general, I'd say this book is depressing, at best. Though, I don't know what other outcome I could have expected from a book about children in Africa. The book contains five short stories, each about different children, in different circumstances, in different countries, but the unifying ties are that of poverty, war, genocide, and the basic evils of human nature. I found it hard not to be overwhelmed by a sense of desperation while reading this book, although I can admit, I didn't actually cry. While I think Akpan did an excellent job of portraying the reality of the various horrible (and unimaginable) circumstances of these children, he didn't do it in an overly sympathetic way. The book didn't seem to be designed to just pull at the reader's heartstrings, but rather to convey these terrible realities in a way that makes them much more real than a more emotional writer could have done. The straight-forward honesty of his writing forces the reader to accept that these are not stories of fiction, but the actual mind-numbing reality of children in Africa - in today's world.

I liked the structure of the book, being divided into five shorter stories, but I think Akpan easily could have expanded any one of the five into its own novel, and I would gladly have read all five. I think this segmentation of the stories actually aids his purpose of portraying the reality, though, as many of the stories seemed to just pick up and end without ceremony - no introductions or farewells, just brief glimpses into the struggles with open beginnings and endings that make the reader's mind reel with wonder, worry, agony, etc. over the circumstances of these children. Since I finished the novel a few hours ago, I've found myself returning to it at least half a dozen times to pick up where I left off, only to realize I didn't have any more.

The blurb on the back states that this book "pays tribute to the wisdom and resilience of children, even in the face of the most agonizing circumstances," and I think that best captures the essence of Akpan's work. I can tell already that these stories will haunt me for years to come, and my heart will continue to ache for the real children who have survived such dire experiences as those depicted here. I can also admit that, upon finishing this book, I went and held my own little boy for as long as he'd let me - the idea that these children are somebody's babies - that they could be so strong and capable in light of such horrific situations - that they have to be - is painful for anyone to read, but manages to be hopeful, in a way, simply because of their survival. In one way, the open-endedness could be reflective of the children's survival and ability to continue on. We, the readers, don't know what happens to them, but there is a small hope - at least the story is left with room to continue.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Book of Air and Shadows (Michael Gruber)

Let me start off by saying, briefly, my opinion of this book can be summarized in one word: fun. Now let's begin. :)

I have to admit, I was very skeptical after the first few pages, for fear that this was going to be a "Da Vinci Code" style mystery/thriller. I have very strong feelings toward that book; to be terse, I hate it. Not because the plot isn't fascinating and exciting, but because Brown treats his readers like they are logically incompetent, spending the last five pages of each chapter carefully reviewing the otherwise obvious plot twists and story revelations. But that's for another review, entirely. Back to the point - this book is nothing like "the Da Vinci Code," except in spirit (and that intended in a good way).

To give a short summary without revealing any details, the book is about the discovery of a personal letter of a man who died in the mid 17th c. This man knew (and spied on) William Shakespeare, recording through encrypted letters personal and detailed events of the Bard's life and character - which, to anyone familiar with Shakespeare would know, would be an amazing discovery - as we (in reality) only know five facts for certain about the acclaimed Greatest Writer of All Time. We then discover that, not only do these letters reveal personal insight into the Bard's life, but they also tell of a never-before-seen, hand-written Shakespeare play - and its supposed whereabouts.

Now to any literati, this would obviously rock the world of academia as we know it. For instance, Meredith and I would have to immediately go out and buy a big bottle of wine and some cheese...


I have a (not-so) secret love/admiration/sense of camaraderie, etc, with any author who uses an abundance of untranslated German in their works, and Gruber is no exception. I honestly have no idea if the general public can also share in our Muttersprache connection (I don't know how many obscure German words and phrases most people know off the top of their heads - although Gruber does do a fair job of translating all the vital-to-the-enhancement-of-the-plot German), as I hardly speak a word of French, but usually have no problem understanding this equivalent use of untranslated French words in other works (based on what I assume to be general public knowledge of obscure French phrases and words), but I do get a bit of a thrill out of reading any German used to make the story that much richer. Had Gruber not won me over with his suspense, the German would have done it.

I also delighted in reading (and questioning - and discovering the consistent correctness of) the 17th c. writings. I spent a good deal of time looking up the etymology of many of the words Gruber used (because I'm a huge nerd), and I adored his accurate inconsistent spellings of the same words - especially Shakespeare's name. I've always had a liking for Middle English (or in this case, Early Modern English, as it were), and really the development of the English language as a whole, probably mostly in part to it's Germanic roots (as English is actually a Germanic language, not Romance, as many people falsely assume because of our influx of Latin-based words - thanks a lot, Frenchies).

This book basically follows three developing (and interspersed) plot lines, which all ultimately converge into one. I loved seeing the stories come together, and I especially appreciated the consecutive tension that built from each chapter, even through the centuries that elapsed between one of the narratives and the other two. Gruber had an amazing way of maintaining and advancing the suspense felt at the end of one chapter into the next, regardless of which story line came next.

Although I was thrilled and on the edge of my seat till the very last pages, I have to admit, I was mildly disappointed in the ending, though I'm not sure it was for the same reason as one might assume. I'm not going to elaborate, in case anyone actually reads this, as I don't want to spoil anything. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the intellectual stab Gruber took at his reader (in stark contrast to Brown) toward the end when he implied (via a first person thought of one of the main characters) that any outside reader of these events would have solved the mystery long before one looking from the inside. I had my suspicions, but I can admit, Gruber had me questioning and requestioning myself until the very end.

Again, this really was a very fun read. Historically, it is probably not very accurate or likely, but the fantasy of something like this happening is truly a fascinating one. Definitely not a timeless, classical read, but a very entertaining and exhilarating one, nonetheless.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Road To Wellville (T.C. Boyle)

This was my second T.C. Boyle book (the first I read, "The Tortilla Curtain" was one of the books I taught my 12th grade English Leistungkurse (honors course, basically) while I was teaching in Germany a few years ago. Because it was one I taught, I've probably read it through at least 8 times, not to mention several study guides on it, so reading this one was a completely different experience for me - reading strictly for enjoyment!). The first, and most obvious, similarity was Boyle's rather verbose writing style - which isn't to say I don't thoroughly enjoy it; his ability to play with the words is both inspiring and pleasurable, not to mention a good exercise in vocabulary.

The second greatest similarity I noticed was the pace of the book. The slow, gradual build-up to the ultimate climax in the last 50 pages or so - an almost frantic, all-over-the-place, hectic climax for each character, but each intertwined with the others - the revelations of the overlapping stories becoming ultimately apparent. Maybe it was because I was expecting the pace to be similar to "The Tortilla Curtain," but I found myself often urging the story's progression and frequently wondering what the true conflict would be. Although this made for a slight sense of anticipation, I also found it somewhat frustrating to be 90% finished with the book before being introduced to the main conflict.

The book is set in the early 1900's, amid the newest health-craze - the boom of breakfast cereal. The estranged brother of the famous Kellogg (as in, Corn Flakes) is the mastermind of "the Sanitarium," a mecca of healthy, "biologic," and "physiologic" living, in which the wealthy (and dreadfully ill) patients are subjected to no less than 5 enemas a day, a strict vegetarian dietary plan (with extremes such a "the milk diet," during which the patient drinks 4 oz of milk every 15 min during the day, and once an hour, on the hour, during the night - for weeks on end), and various other calisthenics, exercise regimes, and nearly torturous medical procedures (such as the sinusoidal treatment - during which the patient places his arms and legs inside big tubs of gently electrified water - which ends, in one tertiary character's case, as disastrously as the reader could expect). I think the truly fascinating part of this education in early turn-of-the-last-centuries medical knowledge is learning how accurate Boyle's descriptions actually are. In my investigative experiences, I also learned quite a bit about obscure and otherwise obsolete diseases of the time, as well.

Although I didn't find as much humor in this book as many of the reviewers conveyed they had, I did enjoy it overall. Again, there weren't clear pro- and antagonists, but rather, I often found myself wondering which characters I was supposed to be siding with. Both of the main characters were quite sympathetic, almost to a fault. Because of the this and the long-in-coming climax, I had several moments of just wishing the worst for each of these two men in the hopes that it would just end their struggles (and my growing impatience).

With it's somewhat accurate historical fiction setting, this book was an interesting insight into a past world I would have otherwise remained completely oblivious to, but was pleased to share in through Boyle's unique and inviting style.