Book Chat

This month’s book reviews contain affiliate links.

 

book chatNight CircusI was excited to read The Night Circus, because my older girls’ marching band show this season is based on the book’s setting. And what a setting it is! Without a doubt, the highlight of this book is its setting and descriptions. It opens with “The circus arrives without warning,” and from there, it’s off to the mysterious circus which is open only from twilight until dawn. It’s all shades of black, white, and silver (although its fans, or rêveurs, distinguish themselves by adding a touch of red to their clothing). The circus features amazing, intricate clocks, and a series of tents filled with magical environs and acts. It travels from city to city, continent to continent, over the years.

At the heart of the tale are Marco and Celia. Since childhood, they’ve been chosen to be opponents in a murky type of competition. And here I need to get into the plot, which really disappointed me, because it was so … vague. I’m not sure if this was on purpose, in keeping with the mystical/magical feel of the circus, or not, but so many things just didn’t make sense or add up. Celia and Marco don’t find out they’re opponents until they’ve grown up and (but of course) fallen in love. They also learn at this point that the only way the competition will end is for one of them to die. Now, having learned this, I don’t see why they have to force things along, but they do. The author does a great job building up suspense and a sense of foreboding, even if we never quite have those crescendos resolved in a way that makes sense. Marco ends up … I’m not even sure. Maybe like throwing himself into a flame/fire, and of course Celia leaps in to join him, and they both die. Well, I think they die. I’m not really sure though, because immediately after joining in the flame, we learn that they open their eyes and they’re in new circus tents. And they’re still thinking and all that, so …

If this sounds confusing, it is. It’s also confusing that the chapters of the back veer from city to city and back and forth across decades. At first, I tried to keep up with where things were, but eventually I just gave up on that and enjoyed the ride. It is a really neat book in many ways, if you can read it to enjoy the mood without worrying too much about the details.

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Flora GodwinProbably twenty years or more ago, I discovered author Gail Godwin. I loved her books; found the characters ones that really resonated. I can’t even remember the details from the books anymore, but I recall particularly loving Father Melancholy’s Daughter.

So, I decided recently to look into Godwin and see if she’d published anything lately. She had; a novel called Flora. It’s the 1945 tale of Helen, a ten-year-old girl who is spending the summer under the care of her mother’s cousin, Flora. Helen’s mom has been dead for years, and her father (a high school principal) is at Oak Ridge for the summer, supervising workers for the Manhattan Project (side note: after visiting Los Alamos, I became really interested in all this making-of-the-bomb stuff. I hadn’t realized that the headquarters of the whole project was in Oak Ridge, TN. Fascinating!).

Helen is one precocious 10-year-old (she seemed much older) — intelligent and critical. Her beloved recently-deceased grandmother had said, “Every one of us needed to get away from other people and replenish our personal reserves,” and that is true. Helen clashes with Flora, who is a much cheerier, simpler character. The two spend long summer weeks together, since Helen’s dad has commanded them not to go out due to a local polio outbreak. A disabled WWII vet does come by often to deliver groceries, and Helen develops a bit of a crush on him. But, he develops a bit of a crush on Flora. Hmmm …

This book is largely character-driven, and much of it just lolls along like the slow summer it depicts. I was okay with that — I found the characters really interesting, and Godwin did an excellent job capturing the feel of those childhood summer days where there’s not a lot to do other than explore the house, the outdoors, and your own thoughts.

Then, BANG! The last part of the book had some huge events that I didn’t see coming at all. No spoilers here, but I recommend Flora whole heartedly.

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Living Oprah OkrantI have a bit of an odd relationship with Oprah (no, I don’t have a “real” relationship with the O at all, but I think most women feel kind of like they know her, just by virtue of her ubiquity on the TV). I don’t agree with her on a lot, yet I’m often pulled in by her show topics. I suppose I should make that past-tense, since her show has ended, and I haven’t followed her over to her new channel. Still. When I saw Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk, I figured it might be interesting.

The book tells about author Robyn Okrant’s 1-year experiment in “living Oprah” — ie, watching Oprah each day and taking any suggestions/advice she doles out. This resulted in Okrant “living her best life” through more exercise, better eating, and a whole lot more: watching lots of movies Oprah recommended. Attending a Celine Dion concert (although she was not a Dion fan at all). Voting for Obama (O’s preferred candidate). Buying wardrobe staples as recommended by the media Queen.

Okrant writes the book month-by-month, charting her expenses and documenting each thing she did.

It was somewhat interesting — not greatly so, really a better book to skim than read — and if you’re not fairly familiar with Oprah’s show, it probably would not interest you at all. Even Okrant seemed a bit meh about the whole project: the final chapter finds her struggling to sum up whether she’d learned anything from her experiment, and going back and forth about Oprah throughout the book (Oprah does so much good, but then again she advocates some things that are damaging to women, but then again she started that school in Africa, but on the other hand … etc.)

A few things in the book are contradictory, as well. Oprah never contacts Okrant, but at one point she does send her a Kindle, just as she’s given them to her audience one day. Okrant is hugely conflicted by this because she doesn’t want to accept anything that might compromise her objectivity, so she sends it back to Oprah. Okay, but Okrant has no similar objections when an agent and publisher contact her and agree to publish a book she writes about the experiment. I’m assuming she was paid to write the book —

So, I’ll leave this one up to you. I found it skimmable and mildly interesting.

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Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives -- How Your Friends' Friends' Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do

About a year ago, I got an email about an “online university” course offered by my alma mater. We were to read the book Ulysses, and each week attend a video lecture and conversation online. Well, I tried. But I must say that, despite being called the greatest book in the English language or somesuch, I found Ulysses horrible. Really awful. The book equivalent of modern art. I might have stuck it out for 200 pages of this nonsense, but at almost 1000, I gave up.

So, when the university announced another online book group this fall, I was understandably leery. But  Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do sounded far preferable (or at least, more accessible) than good ol’ Ulysses, so I decided to give the book a try.

“Connected” is basically a discussion about how people connect and how those connections affect us, in many ways — our health, our actions, our political affiliations — you name it. The book admittedly has a lot of fascinating research findings: marriage adds 7 years to a man’s life, 2 to a woman’s. More people would like to earn $33,000 if their coworkers earned $30,000, than would want to earn $35,000 with peers earning $38,000. Most of us find jobs and marriage partners not from our immediate friends, but from friends of friends.

But boy, is this book ever a dry read. Visualization software tries to show this in two dimensions and to reveal the underlying topology by putting the most tangled buttons in the center and the least connected ones on the edges is a typical sentence. Early on, I found myself thinking, this must be written by a professor, and sure enough, it’s 2 of ’em: 1 teaches at Harvard, the other at UC/San Diego. Related to that, the book has the predictable liberal bias: “No doubt some citizens of Florida felt regret about not voting in 2000 when they learned that  George W. Bush had won the state” — “Obama’s campaign was a historical milestone in all kinds of ways” — also mentions of Sarah Palin’s “Bridge to Nowhere boondoggle.” Sigh. I should expect this kind of thing from academe by now, and I do, yet still — it annoys me. Every.Single.Time.

Check out more book reviews at Semicolon’s Saturday review of books.

14 thoughts on “Book Chat

  1. You do such a wonderful job reviewing the books. You read a lot, too! I am glad you can lose yourself in a book. I don’t think many of them would be good for me to read. Keep up the great reviews!

  2. I sometimes have to read books and ignore the details too. ha. “The Imperfectionists” is a novel I read like that last week. There were so many new characters introduced in each chapter.

    I haven’t heard of the Oprah book; sounds interesting. I haven’t watched Oprah in years, but yes, I do feel like I know her too. 🙂

  3. Lisa, IU — did you not get an email about it? Next time I get one, I’ll forward it to you so you can sign up for the list. I have to say though, though this book was better than Ulysses, the 2 partial online groups I attended were really pathetic — basically a prof struggling with English going through basic powerpoints. Then, a couple of the participants continually posting that they can’t hear, the screen looks strange, etc. Sigh. I agree it’s a neat idea.

  4. I had to read a stream-of-conscious style book in Spanish in graduate school. I can understand why you gave up on Ulysses. I actually broke down and bought my assigned book in English b/c it was impossible to follow in a foreign language. Even the translated text was beyond my capabilities. Don’t feel bad. Some ‘classics’ aren’t worth the trouble.

  5. I’d not heard of Gail Godwin, but your review of Flora caught my eye because we are not far from Oak Ridge, TN. They have a museum that featrues, in part, heir role in bomb-making, and they were called “the secret city” for years. I might have to look that one up!

    I’m wondering what the whole reason was for the woman doing the Oprah experiment? Just to find out more about what kind of woman she was? Almost sounds like it was just to write a book, but maybe I am being too skeptical.

  6. I probably wouldn’t read The Night Circus but I LOVE the cover art!!

    Nor would I read the Oprah book even though I find myself morbidly curious about it. 😀 What an….interesting book idea. And an irritating one at the same time. Yes, I have mixed feelings about it even from your description. (It nauseates me that she would place a vote for a major political candidate just because a.) Oprah said to and/or b.) because she was taking part in a challenge. And I don’t care WHICH political party it is either. It’s just nauseating to me that you wouldn’t put more thought and belief into your vote. This aside from the fact that brave men and women have died to give you that right to vote. Just grr.

  7. I don’t think I’d read any of these books, but I certainly enjoyed reading the reviews. Keep up the good work!

  8. I’m interested to look up Gail Godwin now.

    Despite her personal challenge to take Oprah’s advice, I cannot fathom casting a vote because someone who I cannot have a back and forth real conversation with would suggest it!

    Interesting books!

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I enjoy hearing your thoughts.