Here are my selected readings for the month of April. I was just beginning to clear my “to read” shelf a little, but a trip to the used bookstore solved that problem!
Women by Charles Bukowski
Poet Charles Bukowski, known for his wild unrepentant alcoholic status, has also been called (and self-identified as) a chauvinist. This may be true, but the paradox is that Bukowski also really loved and admired women. For all his efforts, he just couldn’t understand them and was too busy being Bukowski to care all that much. This theme, tapped into in his other novels and heavily addressed in his poetry, is center stage in his novel titled, simply, Women.
Bukowski addressed his topic through the eyes of the semi-autobiographical character of Henry Chianski that he uses in most of his novels. Chianski is an aging poet, traveling across the US for occasional poetry readings, in a consistently boozed state and with a woman in every port so to speak. Bukowski speaks crudely of these women, and alternately quite tenderly. He is candid in his ignorance of their ways, and frequently addresses the guilt he feels for the way he treats them; especially the ones he reluctantly falls in love with.
So why read about the sexual exploits and bitter grunts of an aged man in his circuit from home to racetrack to bar? In between these, Bukowski does what the poet does best. He gets raw and real, and tells the truth in ways a parent would if they could escape the urge to shelter and protect. Uncle Bukowski tells all, and in this we see the beauty in the dirt. One of Bukowski’s more engaging novels, light on the revelations and philosophy and heavy on the hard life. One for lit enthusiasts and philosophers alike.
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
This is the third work I’ve read by Joe Hill, but the first he wrote. This collection of horror and suspense shorts is unremarkable at first glance. The only reason I imagine someone would pick it up would be once they realize who Joe Hill’s famous father is. Hint: Hill comes by the horror genre honestly.
Yet, once you read a few of the stories in Hill’s collection here, you begin to realize how greatly they have made an impression upon you. You find yourself recognizing elements from the stories, and picking them out in your world; getting goosebumps from everyday occurrences. One of Hill’s greatest assets in his writing is forming these memorable ties through his open and wholly normal characters. Once you realize this though, you’ve already fallen into his trap.
One of my favorites in this collection is “My Father’s Mask” which uses a fairyland cabin setting to upset a boy’s notion of everything he knows. The story could easily have stretched to novella length, and I wish it had. There’s also a hidden story, but I won’t tell you where. Just be sure to investigate this one cover to cover, knowing that you’re lost in the paper maze that Hill himself will elaborate on the novella of the book “Voluntary Committal.” Other favorites of this work include: “Abraham’s Boys” and “The Cape.”
Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
In continuing with my effort to read a Vonnegut work every month, I turned to Hocus Pocus, published in 1990. I was unprepared for the workload of this read. Most Vonnegut is easy in its flow and driving action, but this one tripped me up. The first 100 pages read like a different author with heavy political opinions, lots of negative Vietnam references, and thicker than usual black humor. It rambled and wobbled, but I nervously continued hoping for the curve that would help it find its footing.
Once that happened around page 100, it was smooth sailing. The big reveal in that our main character has had sex with the same number of people as he has killed in Vietnam doesn’t pack the punch I think the author intended. The unlovable Eugene Debs, fired as a professor for his liberal statements made in the company of conservative folk, just comes across too bitter this time.His transition to being a teacher at a Japanese run overcrowded prison helps him survive the prison break that happens, but in the end (just as Eugene echos) there seems to be little point to it all. “Little point to it all,” can similarly be used to describe Vonnegut’s opinion on Vietnam. This is one of Vonnegut’s weaker works to me, but the messages such as these have merit.
Headstrong 52 Women Who Changed Science–and the World by Rachel Swaby
The pivotal line of this book is delivered by Hertha Ayrton, who was a scientist, an author, a close friend of Marie Curie, and the inventor of a fan that dispersed noxious gas away from soldiers. She is quoted as saying: “Personally I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all. The idea of ‘women and science’ is entirely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist or she is not; in any case she should be given opportunities, and her work should be studied from the scientific, not the sex, point of view.”
This is the standard of measure of all the women in the book Headstrong by Rachel Swaby. In this work, Swaby covers the lives and contributions of 52 women in varying branches of science including invention, physics, mathematics, biology, chemistry, and more. Why 52? Swaby reasons that there are 52 weeks in a year, and so in reading this book you can learn about a different female scientist each week.
Each selection is just a snapshot of their life and their lasting impact to human progress and innovation. Some of these portraits are only two pages long; the longest is only about 5 pages. Although each segment is brief, the value of having so many different contributions by women compiled together effectively drives home the point of the impact women have made to the umbrella of science area which they fall under and upon the larger world.
The work is fact-filled, interesting, full of trivia, and delivers strong evidence of the value of female scientists without harping on or getting lost in hot-button issues like male dominance in science and exclusion of women in the field. The book deals in facts, and these include the struggles women had to go to in obtaining education and standing in their passions within fields where they were the glaring minority.
My favorite profiles included those of Gerty Radnitz Cori, a Biochemistry scientist responsible for our understanding of glycogen; Virginia Apgar, who developed a test to establish newborn health standards; Marry Anning, a pioneer in paleontology and fossil discovery; Tilly Edinger, a Jewish woman who encountered Nazi targeting in establishing paleoneurology; Rachel Carson, the voice behind environmental awareness and author of “Silent Spring”; Rosalind Franklin, whom developed a structure of DNA that was “borrowed” by Watson and Crick; Hedy Lamarr, an well-known actress who also worked in tandem to invent a system for coded radio waves to aid torpedo navigation during war-time; and household name Florence Nightingale, responsible among many other contributions for her statistics work and suggestions for improved hospital conditions like better lighting and quiet time for recuperation that are still being pursued today.
Headstrong was enlightening and kept my interest. I see this being a valuable tool for students in researching these scientists, and grasping the timeline of scientific discovery more fully through human interest stories such as these. For me, this would be a recommended reading for college freshman or AP high-schoolers. The work is well-researched and written, and with such a variety of topics of interest that spurred me to want to know more about each of these women.
I would highly-recommend this read to those who love science, history, feminism, and generally just a good read.
Interested? Buy it from Random House
More info on this author at: Rachel Swaby
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
The Postmortal by Drew Magary
What if there was a cure for aging? Cancer, auto crashes, homicide, sickness, and all other manner of ill can still kill you, but you don’t get any physically older. Sound pretty great, right? Well, that’s what this near futuristic world created by Drew Magary thinks as anyone and everyone gets “The Cure.”
And then the problems start. The great thing about The Postmortal is that it isn’t your typical dystopian story. The ethics, laws, and moral/religious hangups associated with “playing God” are all on display here in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Actually, it all feels quite real. Presented in the form of blog entries from our main character, the story seems factual and almost verbatim news copy if and when a cure for aging was ever found in real life.
The Postmortal is a smart, and calculated read. The two opposing groups that develop around The Cure, the pro-death and pro-cure groups, mirror our current society’s antagonistic factions a little too well. For those who tend to lean on the science of science fiction, this is a crowd-pleaser.
The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum
I’m working my way through the Oz series (in order too), and it’s a harder task than I imagined it being. Books 1-5 were easy finds (all in a single volume), but as I try to find the second half of the series (books 6-14) the used bookstores are proving less helpful. On this same note, books 1-5 of Oz were great; image laden, colorful, and cheerful.
In book six, you get the feeling that Baum is getting burnt out on Oz. He can’t get away from it and write something “adult,” because the letters he is receiving are constantly asking for more Oz! It becomes clear in The Patchwork Girl of Oz that Baum just isn’t feeling the magic.
In Patchwork, the Raggedy Ann type girl named Scraps Patchwork is only a minor character. She accompanies our unfortunate boy-munchkin character Ojo and a vain, glass cat with pink brains (you can see them work). This odd bunch sets out to gather an assortment of items needed for a magic spell to turn Ojo’s uncle back into a live man after an unfortunate accident with a petrifaction potion.
So the adventure begins. The group meets up with the scarecrow, the tin man, Dorothy, Ozma, and many other odd Oz inhabitants. The characters in this series have now reached a hefty number, and including them all and their set up/back story leaves little room left for the new story-line.
As the tale progresses, Ojo and his group find all they need for the magic spell except for a final item that is just seemingly impossible. Solution? Enter Glenda the Good and the Wizard of Oz who use magic to straighten everything out. It’s a dissatisfying ending and an abrupt one too. Basically, we learn that magic will make everything right no matter what. Listening to this on Hoopla Digtal’s audiobook rental site was the silver lining as all the voices in this book were preformed to give the story a lively narrative. Unless, you just demand on slogging through the Oz series for completion’s sake, skip this one.
Serena by Ron Rash
I read this book not too long after finishing Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and so the character of “Amazing Amy” was fresh in my mind. If you too have read Gone Girl, take that image of Amy and imagine if her psychotic self was put smack dab in the 1930’s Southern wilderness and given power over a timber empire. That’s exactly what Serena is like. A more familiar comparison, might be to Lady Macbeth, but unlike Shakespeare’s devious female, Serena hides behind no veil in her actions and, if anything, lathers the blood on her hands.
The title character of this book is ambitious, ruthless, single-mindedly driven towards power and wealth. Her husband, Pemberton, is like-minded, but we have sympathy for him perhaps because he fits into these qualities better as a male or perhaps because Serena takes all these qualities to a bitter end whereas we see slivers of conscience in his character.
The story is simple. Pemberton and Serena meet, fall in love, and attempt to conquer all that lays before them in the unforgiving, untamed North Carolina wilderness. The complications come before the reader enters the story when we find that Pemberton has had an illegitimate child in the North Carolina lumber camp before meeting Serena in Boston. Not a huge deal to affect either party, until we find that Serena is barren. For a woman determined to have it all, this fact is what really gets the blood flowing.
I read the book in about three days. It’s beautifully written, descriptive, and action laden to keep almost all of the 400 pages turning. The ending has just as much bite as the first blood-soaked pages. Serena is ruthless, and her story will get its claws into you.
This work is 246 pages. For the first half, the set-up is very Scooby-Doo/Mystery Gang investigation of some creepy vibes. And then…jenkies…it turns into a very different kind of story.
Our crew in this story is floor associate and wisecracker Amy, her annoying supervisor Basil, Southern-fried warm and sweet co-worker Ruth-Ann, hipster beard co-worker Matt, and paranormal obsessed slightly ditzy co-worker Trinity. One of my only gripes is that all the characters are so easily boiled down to these stereotypes. This makes them easy to identify and work with in storyline, but it also makes them slightly boring and we are less vested in what happens to them.
This cast of characters all comes together to spend a night in Orsk, an IKEA rip-off store where they all work, and where some strange events are going on at night. The characters are moving about, bumping into one another, making quips, and generally being only slightly involved in figuring out the source of the mysterious graffiti, overturned couches, broken glassware, and “substance smeared” merchandise. When the group finds a hobo hiding out in the store to avoid the elements, all (including this reader) thinks the mask has been pulled up and the problems are revealed.
Not so. This is when the horror gets put into “HorrorStor.” It’s a well-planned novel, topical, a good parody representation of big-box stores and how they effect our psyche, and there’s good action and investment to keep the reader going until the lengthy although ultimately satisfying conclusion. Visit an IKEA the weekend before reading this one to get maximum spooky effect.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carl Ruiz Zafon
I’m not a big reader of the mystery genre, and so my comparison frame of reference for a book like The Shadow of the Wind is limited. The book is a translation from Spanish to English, and as such it’s easy to get lost in the Spanish names and war history. But the story will drive you to the end once you get caught up in the gale of it, so to speak.
The action of the book follows a young boy named Daniel from his first beloved book encounter (of the same name as this book we now read) and the subsequent fight to hold on to this book while some mysterious force that calls itself the Devil attempts to wrestle the book from him. There’s a beautiful blind girl that our main character crushes on, a childhood friend, an eccentric mentor figure, and Daniel’s father. The author of the book “Shadow of the Wind” that exists within THE Shadow of the Wind is Julian Carax, and we get his history as Daniel delves into trying to find why someone is trying to burn and erase all knowledge of Carax’s novels. Sure, it’s a little confusing, but that’s a good mystery, right? It’s intelligent and well-manipulated.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
This book came highly recommended to me, and although it took me awhile to get to, as an animal lover, I appreciate the complex lives of a family in turmoil as seen through the eyes of the family pet. Enter Enzo: “The Wonder Dog.”
Enzo tells his story on the eve of his death from his days at a puppy mill to building a family with his humans to fighting alongside his master in a lengthy and emotional custody battle. Enzo isn’t like other dogs. He’s self-aware, and a philosopher. Above all, Enzo is hopeful, because he knows his dog body is only temporary; he’ll become a man in the next lifetime.
For me, this work only got three stars, not because it wasn’t a good story or well-written, but because it seemed just too perfectly tailored into what the masses want from a bestseller that it lacked the depth and heart it could have had. There are moments of comedy, of sadness, of insight, and of perception, but the work falls prey to the cliches and relies on tugging on heartstrings with the relate-able imagery of beloved pet death. I would recommend it in a second as a feel-good, fluffy “beach read,” but not for if you are looking for something more than surface layer philosophy.
People I Want to Punch In the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges by Jen Mann
I love sassy. Sassy, sarcastic, clever backbite is what makes the world go round. This levity and comical air is what I hoped for when I chose to listen to the audiobook “People I Want to Punch in the Throat.” Instead, I felt verbally assaulted by Jen Mann’s self-proclaimed humblebrag of “no filter.” At first…
And then, I GOT what Mann is talking about. As someone who is involved with elementary education, but with no children of my own yet, I thought I knew the landscape of the grammar school world. But as an new educator, some of the finer points of drama in this world such as the “mommy wars” had escaped my notice. Mann’s book, based on her hit blog, covers topics like these and others such as marked differences in school projects done by children and projects where the parents stepped in to “help” with the project. Mann wittily bemoans her struggles on keeping house, raising a prima donna daughter and a sensitive son, and getting by without the “yoga pants of vehicles” (the Minivan). Granted, Mann has a sassy mouth and sure doesn’t sugar coat her feelings, but I enjoyed the straight shooting attitude and feel slightly better armed in tackling carpool line with Mann’s experiences in mind.
Men’s Lives edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner
You know you’ve crossed the line into some kind of new nerd-dom when you read textbooks for fun. And yet, that is what the reading of Men’s Lives was for me. I enjoy reading feminist perspectives, and picked up the textbook to see how one would explain how men become men. It was an educational and thought-provoking journey as I jumped from articles on what “macho” means to men to how men with disabilities still maintain their idea of masculinity. Most of the articles are written with feminist ideals and undertones, but some are not. The collection is diverse and provides a good overview on issues that were as relevant at the time this edition came out (2004) to present day.
Some of the articles I marked for further study in a classroom environment or expansion in this collection include: The Black Male: Searching Beyond Stereotypes; Gender, Class and Terrorism; The Fraternal Bond as a Joking Relationship: A Case Study of the Role of Sexist Jokes in Male Group Bonding; Why College Men Drink: Alcohol, Adventure, and the Paradox of Masculinity; The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the “Female Professions”; Confessions of a Nice Negro, or Why I Shaved My Head; If Men Could Menstruate; Coming to Terms: Masculinity and Physical Disability; The Approach–Avoidance Dance: Men, Women and Intimacy; Men on Rape; The Heterosexual Questionnaire; and Strategies Men Use to Resist.
The article “If Men Could Menstruate,” written by feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, was particularly intriguing, funny, and generated some new thoughts for me. Also, “Strategies Men Use to Resist,” that details reasons men use to shift housekeeping to women gave me some perspective with tackling my own division of labor in the home. Whether student, teacher, or just interested human, I think everyone can benefit from reading some of the articles in this text. The work has a strong push to make the reader realize that men and women can be comrades in arms in the fight for equality, health and happiness and I think everyone can be a little more open to this.
Thanks for reading! I’ll continue to do so, and see you next month!