Review: The Snow Leopard

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The Snow Leopard
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been rating a lot of books four stars lately. I wouldn’t call it a rut. There are lots of good books out there and I’m glad I’ve read them. Some, because I feel I should have and I’m glad for the belt notch (The Secret History, The Secret Garden), others because they were remarkable finds and charming reads but they may have fallen just short of greatness (The Planets, The Singing Bones).

The Snow Leopard is a remarkable book, rightfully shelved as a great American travelogue. It fulfills every expectation from its genre. The author perfectly balances his account of a personal, spiritual journey with his physical, geographic, scenic journey. Even the title lends itself to a motif, the goal of seeing an elusive, beautiful creature out in the snowy wastes, and the author does not fail to use this symbol to impart the lessons he learned. I may never set foot in Nepal or Tibet, but I understand how such a sparse, introspective religion as Buddhism could have thrived there. Westerners really only associate Nepal and the Himalaya with Mount Everest, and that very male, western, phallic mission of conquering her summit. Mathiessen’s journey had nothing to do with mountain climbing and everything to do with studying wildlife, visiting temples, and meeting the local lamas. That mission breathes a fresh vitality into the Abode of Snow as a place of discovery, healing, introspection, and wonder.

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Review: The Planets

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The Planets
The Planets by Dava Sobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I strongly recommend this to anyone who has not ever been touched by a sense of wonder in science. I read Longitude a few weeks ago, and stumbled over this one at the bookstore when I was looking for Galileo’s Daughter. I am getting the feeling that I can read anything this author has to write. She has a fluid way of guiding the reader through scientific concepts while educating and entertaining, conveying the childlike sense of wonder that drives her profession. As for those who already have caught the science bug, this is a charming, easy read, but won’t go into much detail or teach you all that much you don’t already know. She reviews the basic astronomical catechism about Saturn’s rings, Mercury’s orbit, the moon’s origin, Neptune & Pluto’s discovery, etc. If you are already hip to that kind of thing, read Music of the Spheres for a mind-blowing, life changing tour through the solar system. The Planets is basically Music of the Spheres lite.

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Review: The Secret Garden

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The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a joy to read. I wish I’d read it at a young age. It never even occurred to me it was a book until I saw it on the shelf. I’d just never heard of it before. So I guess I should say, every fan of this wonderful movie should check out the primary source! It reads like a Beatrix Potter story. Slightly Victorian in tradition (1911), easy to read, introducing young people to difficult concepts like sickness, life and death. Best of all, telling the story in metaphor and in literal plot that it is healthy and magical to spend time outdoors.

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Review: The Singing Bones

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The Singing Bones
The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent companion piece to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The quality of the hardback is excellent, and Tan’s sculptures are exquisite. My only criticism, and the only reason I can’t give the book 5 stars on its own merit is the format. To draw focus to the artist, the tales were distilled into single paragraphs on the facing pages of each photograph. While well-intentioned, there is just no way to take stories as wonderfully simple and flowing as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, or Rapunzel and compress them to a few sentences. I know the concept was not to be an illustrated Grimm’s Tales, and I don’t know how best they should have juxtaposed the two, but it was simply stilted. The sculptures are plucked right from the mythological core of each tale and they are staged beautifully. I cannot compliment them enough (and certainly not with mere words). But they belong alongside the full tales or in a book on their own. Every admirer of folklore & fairy tales must check out Shaun Tan.

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Review: Big Fish

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Big Fish
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a very charming book, and I’m glad I picked it up. It’s always refreshing to read a southern writer. I have to say, after reading this book only because I loved the movie (like so many others, I’m sure), that the movie makers did an astounding job of adapting it. The book is chronological, simple, and sparsely told. The movie not only adds characters, nuances, and scenes, it also tells the story nonlinearly and mixes elements of several of the tall tales together.

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Review: The Secret History

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The Secret History
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book started off so well, opening with a murder, with intrigue, with the premise of well-to-do socialites drawn in to exploring their ancient carnal natures. There was even a passage toward the beginning–by whom I assumed would take on a leading role but turned out to be little more than a side character–about how the Greeks believed in ritualistically cutting loose since repression was prerequisite to cold-blooded, predatory evil. I thought that’s what this book was going to be about, and in the exposition, it certainly seemed headed in that direction.

Around page 150, Henry confides in the narrator the group’s machinations, popping the bubble Tartt so carefully constructed, and dashing the book’s sense of mystery. From there on out came 400 pages of prose consisting mostly of various characters visiting other characters’ dwellings in every conceivable combination to talk about “what to do next.” The author obsesses over drinking, smoking, sexual pairings, prescription drugs, food, and insomnia. I got the same nihilistic impression from Another Country, The Great Gatsby, and The Sun Also Rises, that sense of “how is this kind of depraved, shallow materialism supposed to drive the plot forward?” It’s employed not as a device or critique, but presented as the actual meat-and-potatoes of the book itself, that I am supposed to spend 400 pages caring about these trust fund babies’ furtive glances, hurt feelings, fragile friendships, sleeping and eating habits, blackout episodes, and betrayals. I didn’t.

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Review: Lit

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Lit
Lit by Mary Karr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an incredibly deep, heartfelt memoir. There are lots of references to the author’s childhood and mother that are alluded to either sideways or conspicuously glossed over. I assume it is because the author assumes the reader has read The Liars’ Club. I haven’t, but I intend to, after this. Perhaps the themes of broken childhood and alcoholism are too tightly interwoven to completely separate. My only criticism is that, like most books longer than 300 pages, the author drones sometimes, or gets off on tangents unrelated to the central story. Of course, it is difficult to stick to a central story with the memoir format, but still. There was cuttable material here. What’s left is a well-written exploration of a woman’s interior — that of alcoholism, brokenness, and literary light.

Oh, and funny as hell:

In natural childbirth classes, with women sprawled around the room on wrestling mats, the men had seemed mystified by the process. One night in the car going home, Warren said, When are we supposed to learn the stuff that stops the pain?
We already have, I said. That’s what the breathing exercises are.
My God, he said, that won’t accomplish anything.

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Review: The Vegetarian

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The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a powerful, nearly perfect book. I think the first part is the strongest, in which Kang sets up the creepy premise: that terrifying, murderous nightmares possess an otherwise ordinary woman to give up meat. As the book progresses, we see this oddity evolve into an obsession, then to a complete departure from reality as the protagonist descends into madness.

Each of the three parts is told by a different point of view: first her husband, then her brother-in-law, last her sister. The first two parts compound the inherent violence of the prose by presenting the heroine as a kind of possession of the narrator. This insidious undertone really emphasizes the symbols of dominion, control, and social behavior the author explores throughout the book. Parts one and two also each end with a frightful crescendo. Sadly, part three breaks all of these patterns and continues the still creepy story as an emotional relationship between two sisters. I had in mind as I was reading some kind of ultimate, grotesque climax, bordering on science fiction, but alas, it never came. Nonetheless, this is an incredibly original and creative book, and I hope more of the author’s work is translated into English.

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Review: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this little gem in a used bookshop for one dollar. I was faintly aware of “the longitude problem” but totally unaware of the details. This book packs an extraordinary story of those details in a mere 180 pages. The story involves father-son inventors, royal arch-nemeses, Galileo’s invention of the telescope, danger on the high seas, the invention of modern clocks, and 18th-century arms races among countries seeking to dominate the oceans (spoiler: England won).

If you have never heard of John Harrison or his forty-year quest to build the perfect maritime clock, this easy afternoon reader is a geek’s dream. It’s a great underdog story about a rural craftsman attempting the impossible, trying to crack the greatest unsolved science challenge of his day, using an approach completely at odds with the astronomy elite… to claim a million dollar prize (well, £20,000 in those days). This is exactly what we wander used bookstores hoping to find.

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Review: Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

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Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anything with the word “Pulitzer” on the cover is generally a safe bet when it comes to books you’ve never heard of. I picked up this well-regarded travelogue when bulking up on civil war fodder, and it did not disappoint. In fact, I got far more than I bargained for. I was expecting a fly-on-the-wall, war correspondent style dive into the world of civil war reenactors, and several chapters were exactly that. But the author delves so much deeper. Horwitz spent several years traveling the south visiting sons & daughters of confederate veterans, sites of controversial riots, murders, rebel flag spats, and monuments. This amalgam, presented in clear, regimented, one-chapter-one-topic format, does a good job initiating one into the world of the “occupied south.” Some of the unfiltered testimony, the extreme voices of the lost cause and racial enmity are difficult to read. Horwitz doesn’t editorialize; he presents these voices plainly, right alongside those of “liberal confederates” who make annual pilgrimages in great-great grandfathers’ war regalia to relive battlefields.

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