Thursday, January 31, 2013

For the Young at Heart

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick
Rating: 4.0/5.0

If you are looking for something different, here's an interesting choice. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is intended for younger readers so it's not very dense. It is beautifully illustrated by Selznick himself. There is mystery, adventure, and for adult readers who can read between the lines, the story is quite moving.

Hugo lives in the walls of a train station in Paris. His parents are dead and his uncle, who maintained the clocks in the station, has disappeared. Hugo continues to fix the clocks himself so no one knows that his uncle is missing, and no one knows Hugo exists. From behind the walls, Hugo watches a toy shop owner work and occasionally steals from him. One day, he gets caught and the shop owner takes something very valuable from Hugo, which he must work to earn back. Adventure and mystery follows.

I really liked the way Selznick blends illustrations, photos, and text to tell parts of the story. It adds a level of suspense and sympathy for the characters that wouldn't be the same without the pictures. I also enjoyed that the story turned out to be a bit of historical fiction. The toy shop owner is Georges Melies, who developed many of the early special effects techniques in movies back in the late 1800s/early 1900s. The real Melies actually did end his career as a poor toy maker. Here, Selznick imagines a bit of Melies' life during that time. Selznick's target audience won't get the reference but as an adult, it was very interesting and it motivated me to look him up and learn more about him.

There is a movie based on the book, called Hugo. I haven't seen it yet so I can't say how it compares, but the trailer does give you a feel for the story:

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Road Trip

China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power, Rob Gifford
Rating: 4.0/5.0

Stories about, or set in, China have always fascinated me. Maybe it's because the culture is so completely different from anything I have ever experienced. One of the most memorable books that I've ever read is Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang. It's non-fiction and it was the first time I'd read anything about Chinese history and politics. It both intrigued and repulsed me at the same time.

Not long after reading Wild Swans, I saw Rob Gifford on The Daily Show (back in 2007) and his interview is what sparked my interest in this book. If you're in the US, you can see his interview here. If you're in Canada, you can dig through the Comedy Network website to get to it. Outside of those countries, I have no idea, sorry. Stupid geoblocking.

China Road is, essentially, a road trip story. Gifford was the China bureau correspondent for NPR for about six years. When his time in China ended, he decided to make the journey across the country on Route 312 before leaving for good. This road runs from one end of China to the other and Gifford likens it to Route 66 in the US. He tells the story of China's past, present, and future through the people and places that he visists along the way. You can read serialized excerpts that Gifford posted as he was making the trip on the NPR website, here.

What I took away from this book, which wasn't a major revelation for me but was interesting nonetheless, is that China is a mess of contradictions. They are working to secure their place as a global economic superpower but at the same time, they are clinging to the past in ways that will never allow them to truly progress. The details Gifford gives about Chinese history gave me a new perspective on the Chinese way of doing things; he made it make sense. For instance, Gifford suggests that the Chinese focus on perfecting ideas that already exist rather on innovation because their guiding principles are still rooted in the past. Their ancestors were not innovators; they saw no need to develop new ideas and make big changes to the status quo. Thus, there is no need to do so now. Gifford argues that the Chinese will eventually need to encourage innovation if they want to compete with their global counterparts in the long run.

Gifford highlights some of the progress that has been made since the end of Chairman Mao's regime and discusses the ways in which China is still recovering from that time. Some parts were inspiring: the people in my generation that are studying and working to create opportunities for themselves, and to create lives that are their own. Other parts were appalling: the AIDS villages that were created by a careless government, who now has to pay those residents to take their medication (while at the same time displaying billboards touting that preventing AIDS is "everyone's responsibility" depsite it being a disease they spread in the first place), the forced abortions for women who have already had two children, regardless of the stage of pregnancy and the willingness of the mother to submit to the procedure. It was a learning experience.

Just last week, I came across an NPR article about a man in Beijing that opened up a Central Perk cafe that is an exact replica of the coffee shop from Friends. The man's sentiments about why the Chinese like Friends so much and what the cafe represents echoes a lot of what the people in Gifford's book had to say, about the yearning for freedom of choice in their own lives. After having read China Road, I understood that article in a way I wouldn't have before.

Is China Road worthwhile? Yes. But I'll end this review with a plug for Wild Swans. Even if you don't have any interest in China Road, I highly recommend Wild Swans. It will make you angry, it will break your heart, but it will inspire you.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Winter is on its way...supposedly

A Storm of Swords, G. R.R. Martin
(Book 3 of the Song of Ice and Fire series)
Rating: 3.5/5.0

The Starks keep saying winter is coming. Three books and nearly 2000 pages into this series, it's still not here. As much as I enjoy these books, it is starting to get a little irritating.

A Storm of Swords is the third novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series. For those of you who've been living under a rock for the last couple of years, this is the epic fantasy series that inspired HBO's Game of Thrones. Set in the fictional kingdom of Westeros, the story begins with the death of a king and follows the major players in the "game of thrones" to sort out who will rule the seven kingdoms next. Lots of sex and violence ensue. Here's the trailer for the first season of the show:

I have two major gripes with this book. The first is the pacing. That was my biggest complaint about book two as well. It was better here but still not consistent. Some characters' story lines kept movig along but others just felt like they were going nowhere or just going in circles. Arya, for example. Until the very end, she just kept bouncing from place to place but her journey wasn't actually contributing to developing the story in a meaningful way.

My second gripe is with the complete about-face that Martin pulled on some of the characters. Catelyn Stark started out as a strong female character. She stood up for her family and did what she had to do to protect them in the first two books. In this one, she was useless. All she did was mope around and it got repetitive. Her sister, Lysa, was reintroduced after being left out of the second book. Her pesonality is also completely different from what we encountered in GoT.

I'm looking forward to seeing how things evolve in the next book but I'm not as excited about it as I was when I first started the series. Martin would benefit from some serious editing. As nice as it is to have rich details in these epic sagas, these books feel longer than they need to be. And like I mentioned earlier, if you keep telling us that winter is coming, how about bringing it on already?

I'll believe it when I see it.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Honeymoon is Over

This week, I knocked off my first two books of 2013. Work has been so busy since school started up again that this feels like a major accomplishment! Reviews will be coming in the next few days. In the meantime...

For our honeymoon, my husband and I went to Hawaii. We spent a few days on Oahu then cruised around the islands onboard the Pride of America. It was incredible. Our first time in Hawaii, our first cruise, being newlweds, everything about it was wonderful. We came back trying to convince everyone we knew that they had to go to Hawaii. This month, one of our mutual friends made the same trip. He's been posting pictures this week and while they are beautiful, I've been finding that looking at them just makes me sad. 

We got married three and a half years ago. I'd just finished school. The whole world felt like it was full of possibilities. A new career ahead, a new life ahead with my husband, full of all kinds of plans and dreams. Fast forward to now and while some things are the way I'd planned,  many things are not. I look at our friend's pictures and a part of me is happy for him, but an even bigger part of me just sees everything that didn't turn out like I'd hoped and wants to have a pity party.

I feel silly thinking like this because, in the grand scheme of things, we've been very blessed and are doing fine. But while I know that in my head, I still can't help feeling disappointed. It feels like time is passing but we're just spinning our wheels. A lot of it is work related. Neither of us are particularly happy with our work situations, for various reasons. Changing either of our situations is complicated, though, and in the current economy, very challenging.

A large part of it is also related to our family plans. We've been trying to have a baby since last July. Today marks the beginning of month #7. Every time the month count goes up, it stings a little. I naively thought that I'd finish my birth control, we'd start knocking boots on the regular, and after a few cycles, bam! Pregnant. In reality, it's now been six full months. In that time, my body has been through four cycles. Only three of those had good timing because we were both sick during the last one, so it was a complete wash. Six months. Three kicks at the can. It's now been almost a month since I got sick and I'm not convinced that my ear infection is completely gone, so this cycle is up in the air too. The hell?!

Charting has been a saviour during this time because I can see that things appear to be working as they should be, though delayed, but it is getting frustrating. I'm a planner and I like to be in control of things but this is a situation that I have very little control over. My body will do what it's going to do, whether it's hormone issues or illness, and I can only do so much to help it along. Most of the time, it's a matter of
waiting. Endless waiting. And in the meantime, any other plans we might want to make are up in the air because everything rests on "am I going to be pregnant/will we have a baby by then?" There is so much about the emotional parts of this process that I wish I had known from the beginning.

Again, I feel silly thinking like this because I know that there are many women out there who have been trying for far longer than we have, who have more difficulties than we have had so far, and who have experienced losses. I know that it could be so much worse and so much harder. I absolutely do not mean to be insensitive to that or compare my situation to that. I know it's totally not the same. But this is where we are and what we're experiencing, and on milestone days like today, it is hard.

One of the ladies from the The Bump forums (which have been keeping me sane) recently blogged about the same subject and she said it perfectly: "the unknown waiting every month of TTC is slowly eroding who I used to be." I look at those pictures of Hawaii and wish I could have that naive happiness and optimism back.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Who in the what, now?

The new year usually inspires me to start new things, or at least get a fresh start to things I may already be doing. I’m a little late to the party, but here we are. New year, new blog! The one thing that has remained constant in my life, through all of the new things and fresh starts, is my love of books and reading in general.  So what better subject for a new blog than books?

There are several new things that are happening in my life this year (see the header at the top of this page) and I’m sure those things will inform some of my reading choices. I hope to share some of those events here as we go. In the meantime, let's get to know each other a little bit.

I read mostly literary fiction but am not above chick lit if it’s good. I have a weakness for historical fiction and coming-of-age stories.  Last year, I also read a lot of books that were part of a series (Hunger Games, A Song of Ice and Fire, Outlander, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants).  

Here are my favourite books of 2012, in no particular order.

Riding Rockets, Mike Mullane
Mike Mullane is a member of NASA's astronaut class of '78. In Riding Rockets, he chronicles his time with the space shuttle program including training, the three shuttle missions he flew, and NASA office politics. He also discusses Challenger and Columbia, giving insights that were new to me. Mullane's sense of humor made the book incredibly entertaining. His descriptions felt real and the Challenger portion was heartbreaking.


The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
The characters and the story make this series unique. I had a hard time putting it down until it was finished, then I couldn't wait to get my hands on the next two books. I didn't love the other two books as much as this first one but it's still great series.

In One Person, John Irving
Irving is one of my favourite authors and this is his latest novel. It captures everything I love about John Irving's books: memorable characters, stories that are quirky but still somehow believable, humour, and just good writing in general. This one is about Billy Dean and his coming of age in the '50s, when he begins to realize that he is bisexual. The novel follows him throughout his life as he tries to figure out, and come to terms with, his sexual idenity.


When the Nines Roll Over: And Other Stories, David Benioff
When it comes to short stories, I'm sort of picky. It's hard to beat Alice Munro but I have discovered a few other writers over the years that I like. David Benioff is one of them. The characters and stories in this collection drew me in, and the stories were thought-provoking. Some were intense. This is a very well written group of stories.

Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali 
Ali was born in Somalia and grew up in Kenya, in primarily Islamic communities. Infidel is her story about being a woman in an Islamic society and her struggle to reconcile her faith with the brutality that she witnesses as a direct result of that faith. Ultimately, Ali breaks with Islam and with her family, escaping to the Netherlands where she eventually becomes a member of parliament. Her story is interesting, thought-provoking, and inspiring. 

The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connolly
I read this book because the movie was coming out and the trailer looked really interesting. I'd never read anything by Connolly before and I was pleasantly surprised by how entertained I was. Mickey Haller is the title character. He's a criminal defense attorney with a quick wit and questionable ethics. I enjoyed the mystery and the courtroom theatrics. I plan on reading more from this series, and hope that they make another movie because Matthew McConaughey is perfectly cast.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed 
Yet another memoir! I should have mentioned that I have a fondness for those, too. This one I actually listened to as an audiobook during my commute to work. Back in the '90s, Strayed's mother died, her marriage fell apart, and she discovered heroin. With her life going down the tubes, she decides to leave it all behind and spend 100 days alone, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Her journey was really interesting to read about and she writes very well. There were some moments that were just gutwrenching.

What were some of your favourites from last year?