Book Reviews

I mostly review books here, but you may find some short stories along the way.

Review: Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is an elegiac novella set in the American west. The novella takes place between the late 1800’s and into the 1960’s. It chronicles the life of Robert Grainier and his struggles to carve out a living through logging, building railroads, and working odd jobs. At a deeper level, Train Dreams meditates on the losses Grainier experiences and how he adapts. The writing is thoughtful and gorgeous., showing Johnson’s skill as a writer and Grainier’s fresh perspective. Furthermore, the narrative flows well and lends the novella a dream-like quality as time jumps around through Grainier’s memories. (more…)

Review: Warbreaker – Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson is a complex fantasy novel that, thankfully, is not part of a trilogy. I don’t have anything against trilogies, but it’s nice to read a self-contained fantasy novel without waiting a few years for the follow-up books to come out. Point-of-view and rapid pace make Warbreaker such a compelling read. As a reader, entering a fantasy world is a shift in perspective. It takes time to figure things out and understand the system the world is built around. For instance, take the novel Dune, while not a fantasy, it establishes a world in which spice is the dominant currency. The system in Warbreaker is that of religion, as occasionally, people come back from the dead. (more…)

Review: Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

Exclamation points, like so many symbols, have a specific function and many unintentional meanings. Technically, an exclamation point is a sudden cry or yell that can be full of emotions ranging from anger to excitement. However, exclamation points are the all-caps-email of punctuation. They often feel out-of-place and come across as unnecessary yelling, like that email from an aged relative that says, HOW IS LIFE IN THE BIG CITY? CAN’T WAIT FOR YOU TO VISIT. THE TURTLES MISS YOU. Of course, there is the ironic exclamation point in names like Yahoo! and Swamplandia!, but really, beyond an exclamation, what is the point?

All this is to say, readers, beware. Take one look at the exclamation point after Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and turn back, because nothing on this trip through the Floridian swamp can save you.

Tech Takeaway: Trello

Product: Trello
Company: Fog Creek Software
Cost: Free
Use: Collaborative Project Management
Summary: Trello is a simple web service for collaboration and project management. Tasks are arranged in lists. These lists can be labelled according to the user’s need. The default is “to do” “doing” and “done”. Deadlines, files, checklists, labels, votes, and other people may all be added to a task. Tasks are moved and people are assigned to a task through a drag and drop interface. People can login with their Google Account or create a new account through Trello.
Educational Use: Trello is an easy way for students and faculty to collaborate on projects in real-time. The service could be used to manage student work in a lab or on a digital humanities project. Further, students could use Trello in order to organize and work on a group project together.
Pro’s: Trello is free, available online, and easy to use.
Con’s: Trello does not have a business model yet, so fees could come in the future. The software is not downloadable, so users have to be connected to the Internet to use it. While the service is extremely flexible and simple, some users may be uncertain how to best use it.
Recommendation: If you don’t have the money or the requirements for something like BaseCamp or JIRA, Trello is a great service to use.
From the Company:

Review: Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer

What’s the capacity of our memories? What does it mean to have outsourced our memory to technology? In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Joshua Foer explores the niche competition of the USA Memory Championship, human memory, and the lost art of remembering. Reporting on the Championship, Foer becomes obsessed with what he witnesses and takes up with Ed Cooke, a Grandmaster of Memory, who tells Foer he can train him to win the Championship within a year.

Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carré

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy by John le Carré is an inaction-packed suspense novel about a high-level mole in British intelligence and one man’s mission to uncover the traitor and take him down.

I say inaction-packed, because most of the novel involves George Smiley, the former second in command of the service, sorting through old files, interviewing former colleagues and contacts, and piecing together the puzzle.


Review: Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath

How do ideas stick in our minds? What is it about those ideas that makes them so hard to shake? In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath answer these questions and more in a way that’s entertaining and easy to understand.

In the introduction the Heath brothers lay out the keys to making ideas stick. Ideas need to be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and contain a story. Each chapter that follows focuses on one of those topics.

One central idea to the book is the curse of knowledge. How do experts communicate with non-experts? In other words, how does our knowledge blind us to the perspective of a novice? The more familiar a person is with a topic or an area of study, the easier it is for them to talk abstractly and assume their message comes across. Meeting your audience in the middle ground is not the same as dumbing down your message.


Review: Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides reminds me of a gilded mirror with intricate details swirled along the frame. The novel is a mixture of family history, coming of age, and gender identity. The mirror metaphor works, because the narrator, Callie/Cal Stephanides, spends so much time exploring who s/he is. That’s a difficult enough question for most teenagers and adults, but  how does that question change when a person’s body seems to mislead them? While the narrator focuses on their identity, the novel suffers at times by diverging into the past and getting lost in details. It’s obvious Eugenides loves language, but it comes at a cost in terms of rhythm and pace.

Some details I loved about the novel were the descriptions and metamorphosis of Detroit. I’m from Michigan and Detroit is a place that inspires both pride and sadness. Pride because of its greatness, because of the auto industry, because of all that Detroit used to mean. Sadness, because of the past tense, because words like used to linger on. To see Detroit described in its height is wonderful. To see how the city languished in the last 40 years is important.

Middlesex spans three generations and is full of rich characters. It navigates around sadness, but perhaps that is part of the immigrant experience. Lefty and Desdemona upon arriving to the United States are completely out-of-place. They can’t speak the language, their clothes stand out, and they’re unsure how to earn money. What must they give up to assimilate? More importantly, what must Cal/Callie give up later on?

Black and white are easy. A light is either on or it’s off. A thought either occurs or it doesn’t. Black and white seem easy, because it’s so limiting. A child is either a boy or a girl. Except when they are not. Same goes with the light, it’s not always just on or off. It could have no power, it could be broken, it could be anything less or more than on and off. Immigration takes this idea a step further. Is a person Greek, Greek-American, or American? Why is a choice even necessary? Depending on the context any label may fit.

So what is Middlesex? It it a novel about gender identity? Is it a mix of fiction and memoir? Is the novel about what it means to be American or an immigrant? Middlesex broadens the lens through which life is viewed. Depending on the reader, the novel may illustrate how life is more nuanced than they previously thought.

Middlesex was published in 2002 and is available through Amazon.