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Summer Book Roundup: Month One

Four weeks ago today, I was walking across the stage in Mizzou Arena, receiving my social work diploma (or at least a really fancy holder for it). The next day was the official completion of my sociology degree. Since then, I’ve been attempting to adjust to life without school. For years, I’ve longed for days where I can do absolutely whatever I like, which mainly translates to finally getting to read books for fun, instead of a reading list for school. I still like setting random goals and challenges for myself, so when my friend Megan posted about her summer reading challenge, I decided it sounded like fun. For more information about the full challenge, check out her blog: http://megancstroup.blogspot.com/p/semi-charmed-book-challenge.html

So far, I have completed three of the categories.

1. Read a pair of books that have antonyms in the titles.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
Total number of pages: 734 (paperback edition)
Goodreads Summary: Mikael Blomkvist, crusading journalist and publisher of the magazine Millennium, has decided to run a story that will expose an extensive sex trafficking operation between Eastern Europe and Sweden, implicating well-known and highly placed members of Swedish society, business, and government. But he has no idea just how explosive the story will be until, on the eve of publication, the two investigating reporters are murdered. And even more shocking for Blomkvist: the fingerprints found on the murder weapon belong to Lisbeth Salander — the troubled, wise-beyond-her-years genius hacker who came to his aid in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and who now becomes the focus and fierce heart of The Girl Who Played With Fire. As Blomkvist, alone in his belief in Salander’s innocence, plunges into an investigation of the slayers, Salander herself is drawn into a murderous hunt in which she is the prey, and which compels her to revisit her dark past in an effort to settle with it once and for all.
What the summary leaves out: The first 150 pages of the book are essentially filler. Maybe I will feel differently once I read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but 50-75 pages of Lisbeth chilling on the beach just did not feel necessary. I kept putting the book down and walking away from it, but once I made it to around page 200, I could not put down the book. The next 500 pages were a whirlwind adventure of trying to prove Lisbeth’s innocence while trying to figure out who killed the three victims. The actual translation of the first book’s title (Men Who Hate Women) is still extremely applicable to this book. Even though the book is essentially about a bunch of misogynist assholes who enjoy torturing women, I at least found comfort in the fact that nothing about their actions was glorified. Lisbeth is a total badass who, while still definitely a sociopath, could be a hero to women everywhere who long for a female heroine who can stick up for herself. The book comes to a bit of an abrupt end and leaves many things unanswered for the third novel in the series. The first book was certainly more tightly written, but the second one is definitely an excellent follow-up for fans of Dragon Tattoo.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby
Total number of pages: 307
Goodreads Summary: Will is thirty-six, comfortable, and child-free. And he’s discovered a brilliant new way of meeting women — through single-parent groups. Marcus is twelve and a little bit nerdish: he’s got the kind of mother who made him listen to Joni Mitchell rather than Nirvana. Perhaps they can help each other out a little bit, and both can start to act their age.
What the summary leaves out: The book was written in 1998 and set in 1994, before many children were diagnosed with autism. Where Marcus is described as nerdish, he really comes across more as autistic. He doesn’t pick up on social cues and has lots of trouble interacting with people. Will is pretty much the textbook manchild. He has no idea who he is and is pretty much just a selfish prick. Marcus’s mother is suicidal and clearly suffers from major depression. I really just wanted to have a DSM on hand and diagnose every character in the book with some sort of psychological disorder. I have a really hard time reading books about people who are unlikable. Will has some good things about him (he is at least somewhat caring toward Marcus), but I mainly just hated him. When I hate the main character, it makes it really difficult to get invested in the book. After I finished reading it, I did not feel any strong emotion one way or the other. I just moved on. Overall, it was fairly forgettable and I will likely never think about it again.

2. Read a book set in a place you’ve always wanted to go.

For this category, I decided to read Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult. I had tried to read it during the school year, but got overwhelmed with assignments and had to return it to the library before I finished it. Since I have always wanted to visit New England (or really anywhere on the East Coast), I decided this book was suitable for the category.
Total number of pages: 466
Goodreads summary: One miscarriage too many spelled the end of Max and Zoe Baxter’s marriage. Though the former couple went quite separate ways, their fates remained entangled: After veering into alcoholism, Max is saved in multiple senses by his fundamentalist conversion; Zoe, for her part, finds healing relief in music therapy and the friendship, then romantic love with Vanessa, her counselor. After Zoe and Vanessa, now married, decide to have a baby, they realize they must join battle with Max, who objects on both religious and financial grounds. Like her House Rules and several other previous Jodi Picoult novels, Sing You Home grapples with hot button issues.
What the summary leaves out: The summary on Goodreads actually gets a couple of things wrong. First of all, Vanessa is not Zoe’s counselor. Vanessa is a counselor at a local high school that has occasionally worked with Zoe when students have needed music therapy. Their relationship starts out as strictly professional and then eventually becomes personal. Vanessa also introduces Zoe to Lucy, a suicidal teenager who could benefit from music therapy and ends up playing a crucial role in the battle between Max and Zoe. Also, Max does not necessarily object on financial grounds. While Max and Zoe were married, they tried in vitro fertilization and had several embryos stored to try and impregnate Zoe later. When settling the divorce, the two completely forgot about the embryos. Later, Zoe wants them so she and Vanessa can try to have a baby, while Max wants to give them to his brother Reid and sister-in-law Liddy, so the potential child could be raised in a “good Christian home.” As is typical of Picoult’s other novels, each chapter is written from a different character’s point of view. In this book, Picoult switches between Zoe, Vanessa, and Max, so the reader really gets to see all sides of the story. The main issues at hand in the novel are whether embryos should be considered people or property and if homosexual couples are fit parents for children. The fundamentalist Christian church that Max joins is essentially shown as the clear villain in the story. They bring about the idea for the lawsuit and provide the most repugnant attorney possible. Normally, Picoult’s books feature chapters written from the lawyers’ points of view, which was something I missed in this story. Regardless, the book presents multiple sides of a really complicated issue and makes the reader consider new viewpoints. While not her strongest book ever, it is certainly worth the time to read.

3. Read a book in one calendar day.

I spent Thursday driving from Columbia to Kansas City in order to fly to Milwaukee. All that travel meant I had a ton of time to read. Fortunately, my wonderful fiance John was nice enough to drive us to KC, so that I could spend the morning reading. Not only did I have a ton of free time to read, I was reading Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, which was impossible to put down.
Total number of pages: 277
Goodreads summary: Before Liz Lemon, before “Weekend Update,” before “Sarah Palin,” Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through an airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV. She has seen both these dreams come true. At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon — from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence. Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.
What the summary leaves out: There are parts where you will nearly pee your pants from laughing so hard, which makes for really awkward situations when you’re sitting next to a stranger on a plane, shaking from trying to keep in laughter. This isn’t so much a traditional memoir. Although there is a somewhat linear path throughout Fey’s life, she mainly highlights specific funny instances and how they impacted her in various ways. She writes about first feeling like a woman and what getting her first period was like. She writes about her time working at summer drama camps and her first experiences with gays and lesbians. Most fascinating for me, though, were her chapters on trying to make it as a female comedian. There is a lot of debate over whether women are funny. Some say that women can’t be funny. Others say those people are idiots. Fey explains her experiences with the institutionalized sexism of the comedy industry, but does not do it in a way that comes off as whiny or angry. I especially enjoyed the chapter about the birth of 30 Rock and had completely forgotten that Donald Glover started out as a writer on the show. I also did not realize that Fey was a writer on SNL for three years before appearing as a performer. Overall, Fey further proves that she is one of the greatest comedy writers of her time and provides a solidly entertaining piece of literature.

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#8 The Lost Dogs, by Jim Gorant (9/17, 9/24)

EW Description: “The 51 pit bulls seized from NFL star Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring were thought to be lost causes. In this moving nonfiction book, a Sports Illustrated editor recounts the efforts to give some of them new lives.”

I hate books about dogs. I’ve loved dogs my entire life and inevitably, any book about dogs ends in death and despair. I can’t watch movies where the dog dies. I can’t listen to songs about dogs that die. I just can’t do it. So, when I got this book, I was extremely skeptical and sure that the book would end with me in tears, clutching my own dog for fear he would die if I let go.

This book proved me wrong, though. This is one of the most inspirational and heartwarming books I have read in quite some time. The best thing about it is that it’s inspriational without being saccharine. It doesn’t read like a Mitch Albom book. It’s just a story about how these dogs overcame all the odds and started new lives.

Nearly everyone knows the story of Michael Vick and while Gorant goes over some of the details of the case, the primary focus is on the dogs’ rehabilitation and recovery. When BAD RAP (one of the agencies that oversaw the evaluations of the dogs) came in, they hoped to be able to save 10 percent of the dogs, which translated to five. Out of the fifty-one dogs, they only thought they could save five. They ended up recommending two for euthanasia (one due to inoperable injuries, the other because she had been forcibly bred so many times they believed she had gone insane and was simply too violent). Two of the dogs had died while in government care. That left forty-seven dogs they thought they could save.

Many of the dogs went into foster care. Some went to animal sanctuaries. Some went to shelters. All of the dogs were evaluated individually and given a customized recommendation for what should happen to them. Even the Humane Society of the United States believed all the dogs should be put down, but fortunately, no one listened to the naysayers. With a lot of love and attention, these dogs were able to be reformed.

Reformed might not even be the best way to put it. The majority of these dogs were not violent. Only a couple of them had actually been used successfully in fights. Most of the ones who did not perform well were killed, as per Vick’s demands. He often helped with the killing. Many of the dogs found alive were gentle, but were suffering from severe PTSD symptoms. The biggest problems the animals faced were that they were terrified of most humans and many other dogs. Instead of becoming violent, they would go catatonic. They didn’t pose a danger to anyone.

Since the dogs have been taken, five more have died. Two were hit by cars in freak accidents. One developed cancer and died. The other two died during surgeries due to their injuries. Of the forty-two remaining dogs, several have been certified as therapy dogs. One of them, Jonny Rotten, now works with public libraries to go in and read with children. The idea is that children who are extremely shy suffer when reading because they’re afraid to read to other people. So, they send dogs in to sit next to the children while reading, so the kids can work on their reading skills with an animal who will not judge them. It’s a really adorable premise and apparently, Jonny loves being around kids.

Many of the animals still have a long way to go. Some are still extremely afraid of humans, which makes their training difficult. Others are terrified of other dogs and cannot be around them. Every animal has their own little quirks, but the people rehabilitating them are treating them as individuals. They are not thought of as a “Vick dog.” One of the first things the rehabilitators did was to go through and name each individual dog. They gave them an identity for the first time in the dogs’ lives.

The biggest thing this book did was to completely change my outlook on pitbulls. This showed me these dogs are not vicious creatures. They can be trained to be vicious and mean, but that is not their inherent disposition. They are extremely kind animals who are great with children. They just get an awful rap from the media. Honestly, I really want to get a pitbull now. They seem super sweet.

There are some graphic scenes toward the beginning of the book when Gorant describes what Vick did to the dogs and how they were found. However, for every graphic scene, there are five scenes where the dogs are completely adorable. I highly recommend this to any dog lover. It’ll bring a smile to your face by the end of it.

#4 Bloody Crimes, by James L. Swanson (10/8)

EW Description: “The Manhunt author further explores the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination with this astoundingly researched new book.”

I’ve been in the process of reading this book for about two months now. This is by no means something that reads very quickly. It is an extremely interesting book, but it is sometimes a little bit dry. There are parts that are definitely page-turners and then there are parts that just drag on for pages.

There is no doubt that Swanson is an extremely talented researcher and writer. His passion for the Civil War and particularly the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination are clear in every page. The parts about Lincoln’s funeral and the process of getting the former president to his final resting place are probably the most interesting part. They really dragged him all over the country before he finally got buried. They had to have some sort of ceremony for him in every major city in the Northeast and the journey took a little over two weeks.

The full title of the book is “Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse.” The death pageant part is far more interesting because I feel like Swanson is probably more passionate about it. However, there’s really only so much one can say about it. For a 400-page book, I feel like a lot of stuff could have been omitted. However, Swanson can definitely not be accused of not being thorough enough. We know every detail of Lincoln’s funeral at the White House. How many guests, who was in charge of the planning, how they fit everyone into the East Room (bleachers because they couldn’t fit enough individual chairs in the East Room). We know the details of the funeral procession in each city. We know how big each hearse was. We know how many people showed up to mourn the president. We know who was traveling on the train with the president’s body. We know which city had the most extravagant procession (New York, of course). We know all about the battle over where Lincoln’s body would be buried. The Lincoln stuff is very extensive and for the most part, very interesting.

I feel like the parts about Jefferson Davis are what weigh down the book. Maybe it’s because I do not know a whole lot about Confederate history, nor do I really care to learn about it, but I just did not find it that interesting. Swanson did debunk the myth that Davis escaped wearing ladies’ clothing (it was just loose-fitting, it wasn’t a dress and bonnet). I did enjoy reading about the actual capture of Davis and how he was tried by the federal government. That part was extremely interesting. It was all the details leading up to it. I didn’t need to know how many days Davis spent in each city or read excerpts from letters between him and his wife or know how he was received in each city or know how every conversation between him and Robert E. Lee went. There were entire parts that I just wanted to skip, but I soldiered through to the very end.

If you are a big US history buff and love knowing every detail about things, you would probably greatly enjoy this book. It’s just that I was only interested in about 1/3 of the book. However, that third was pretty riveting.

 

#8 “Listen to This,” by Alex Ross (10/15)

EW Description: “The New Yorker music critic follows up his best-selling The Rest Is Noise with this indispensable, erudite collection of his magazine essays, which span the aural universe from Schubert to Radiohead.”

If you love a variety of music and also love talking about music, then this is the book for you. If you’re like me and just like listening to music without all the deep philosophical discussions about meaning and chord progressions and other things, then you probably won’t like this very much. I’ve been trying to finish this book for a couple months now and I can’t finish it. I’ve tried and it just isn’t going to happen.

It’s not that this book is poorly written. I’m just not the target audience for it. I do really love essays, but so much of the disucssion about music is so far over my head. I like some classical music, but I don’t know all the history behind it and I don’t necessarily want to know. Ross is clearly very knowledgeable about music. It is obvious that it’s his passion in life and it shows in his essays.

#6 Daily Show’s “Earth (The Book)” (9/17, 9/24)

EW Description: “Jon Stewart and his crew of writers believe the world is ending, and this irreverent 244-page guide is their hilarious take on our dubious accomplishments in science and politics.”

I hereby decree that this book be placed in every time capsule buried in the next 5 years. This book is wonderful for pointing out the general fucked-upness of our entire world. Absolutely nothing is left untouched and it is all addressed with The Daily Show’s scathing wit. Every page made me chuckle in some way.

The book addresses nine specific sections of the human condition: Earth, Life, Man, The Life Cycle, Society, Commerce, Religion, Science, and Culture. Personally, I loved the sections on Society, Religion, and Culture the most, but I found something to enjoy in every single chapter. While not as overtly political as The Daily Show’s “America (The Book)”, it will still probably piss a lot of people off and I would not have it any other way.

The basic premise is that this book serves as a tour guide for when the aliens inevitably invade and kill off the human race .The writers try to address every aspect of our lives in order to show the aliense what life was like for us on Earth. This brings about hilarious results. At the end of every chapter, there is a FAQ section where the “aliens” ask questions of humans. These questions are perfectly logical and point out how screwed up humanity is and the humans try to explain everything logically.

There’s a little something for everyone in this book, unless you’re a fundamentalist Christian who believes strongly in Creationism and thinks Jon Stewart is the devil. Then you probably won’t like it so much, but oh well.

#8 Nashville Chrome, by Rick Bass (10/1)

EW Description: “In the late 1950s, the real-life Brown siblings were a smash success on the country scene, but enduring fame eluded them. Bass’ twangy, heartfelt novel gives a fictionalized account of how they fell through the cracks.”

As with the popular biopics “Walk the Line,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” this falls in the vein of stories about country singers who have faced adversity in their lives. However, this is a story about The Browns, a family trio popular in the 1950s and 60s that did not last in the public consciousness the way Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn did. This is a shame because they’re really good. I included a video below to a performance of them singing “Would You Care?”

Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie Brown were raised in Poplar Bluff, Arkansas and came from deep poverty. Their dad was an alcoholic. Their younger brother died in an accident. Yet through all their problems, they had each other and they had their music. Eventually, they started getting local gigs to sing together and later got signed by a producer who pretty much screwed them over. They left that producer and went to another one, but fame was taking its toll on them. Bonnie was happily married to a man named Brownie after a love affair with Elvis. Jim Ed was starting to settle down. But Maxine was hungry for fame and would do anything to keep going.

The story switches back and forth between the past and the present. We see how the Browns built up their music. We see them at the height of their fame. Then we see them starting to descend. In the present, we mainly see Maxine who is clinging to the hope that she still has fans and people still care about her music. All she wants is to be remembered.

Though the Browns are real people, this is a fictional account of what happened to them. Bass does a terrific job of capturing the essence of classic country music. He writes in a very matter-of-fact manner about the family’s beginnings. He doesn’t try to dramatize the poverty or anything about their life. He just tells a story and lets the characters speak for themselves.

This is a really terrific novel and I highly recommend it to anyone, especially those who are fans of classic country music.

#8 “Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation” (9/10)

EW Description: “Seymour Chwast’s version is a clever reimagining of a classic. All your favorite characters are here, albeit in a slightly altered form. The lamentations of the damned were never so much fun.”

This whole book just felt fairly useless. It wasn’t really a reimagining the way EW describes it. More than anything, it was like Spark Notes, but even simpler and with pictures. The pictures are not even particularly good. It’s all black and white and looks kind of like an elementary school student drew most of it. There’s no real detail. I figure if they’re going to make the Divine Comedy into a graphic novel, the least they could do is add some detail to the pictures. Really make the story come alive. Have the flames of hell jump off the page at the reader.

Instead, we get a bland, undetailed book. It’s about 130 pages long and took approximately half an hour to read. I swear I read every sentence of it. I looked at every picture, but there was just so little detail that it didn’t take long to flip through. Every canto is summed up into one or two sentences. I feel like Dante would be embarrassed that this is what his masterpiece has become.

This had real potential to be something imaginative. It could have introduced Dante’s work to a whole new generation of people and made them actually enjoy it. Instead, we get illustrated Cliffs Notes. Thanks, but no thanks.