Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunI know I say this a lot, but I am so thankful for my book club for introducing me to fascinating historical novels that I would never otherwise read. I am getting a bit better, though — I knew well before picking this book up that I was going to have to miss my book club meeting, but I had already checked it out of the library and I figured I might as well read it anyway, since it was there…

And I was mostly not disappointed, though I liked different parts of this novel than I was expecting to when I started it.

Half of a Yellow Sun covers the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, during which a small but significant part of the country broke off and became the country of Biafra. As usual, this is something I never learned in history class, so I was glad to have this book around to educate me on the many forces at play in Nigeria at the time, from fading British rule to Nigerian nationalism to religious and cultural clashes to anti-education sentiment and so on.

The main characters are Ugwu, a young servant boy who leaves a small town to work for a university professor; Olanna, the lover and then wife of said professor, whose family is quite important but who won’t leave her new home and family for safety when the fighting starts; and Richard, a British transplant in love with Olanna’s twin sister who adopts Biafra as his home but who has to straddle the political and cultural lines very carefully.

At first I was really intrigued by the characters, but as the book went on I almost felt like their actions and emotions were getting in the way of the real story of Biafra and the vagaries of war. These are serious vagaries, too, ranging from characters having to beg for food or to move house due to the whims of officials to random attacks on towns and buildings to a woman carrying around a severed head. It is so heartbreaking to read about the bad things that happen in war when there’s so much war going on right now, and so those boring character things like infidelity and depression fall completely off my radar.

I didn’t get 100 percent behind the war parts either, though, as much of Adichie’s plot relies on some very predictable turns and some moderately unbelievable ones as well. But most of it was solid and the history lesson was well appreciated, so overall I think this book is a win. It maybe could have been 100 pages shorter, but Adichie writes lovely enough sentences that even those pages are worth a read.

Recommendation: For history nerds and avoiders alike with lots of hours to spare.

Rating: 7/10

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World War Z, by Max Brooks

World War ZI had been meaning to listen to this book ever since I found out that it was a full cast recording, and especially since I found out that the full cast included such people as Jeri Ryan and Nathan Fillion. Yes, please! Unfortunately, all of the library places I tried to find the audiobook in had only the original, abridged version (without Nathan Fillion, the horror!) and I was having none of that. So I watched the movie instead, which was pretty okay but obviously not anything like the book.

Finally I found the unabridged version and took it on a road trip in November, but then it turned out that the book was about two hours longer than the road trip — and of course I couldn’t finish it without Scott present since he had listened to it with me — and so I didn’t finish listening to it until another road trip over a month later. So if I have failed to remember things correctly or at all, that is the reason why!

The premise of the book is that it has been written after the Zombie War, aka World War Z, a decade or so when humans became zombie-like creatures and ate brains and temporarily took over the world until such time as the non-zombies figured out how to fight back. Different areas tried different tactics for keeping the zombies at bay, with varying success, and so Max Brooks the character went around the world to talk to all sorts of people and collect their stories for posterity.

The stories are ordered roughly chronologically from the beginning of the zombie plague to the end of the war, and they are all pretty interesting. There are stories from military people and civilians; those who lost everything and those who managed not to; those who came out of the war decently sane and those who went crazy or feral. Some stories I especially liked: the one with the guy who made boat-loads of money selling useless zombie cures, the one with the woman whose plane is shot down and who makes it to safety with the help of a pal on the CB or ham radio or whatever, the one with the girl whose family protects her at all costs, the one with the guy talking about the officer who went nuts, and the one where Nathan Fillion talks to me about who cares what. Swoooon.

If you can time your road trip right, I have to say that this is a fantastic book to listen to, because the short stories give you lots of good stopping points when it is time for gas or lunch or whatnot. And, as mentioned above, it is a full cast recording and so instead of one dude talking at you for twelve hours there are, like, forty people talking at you for a few minutes each.

On the minus side, there are a lot of foreign dudes (and I do mean dudes, lots of dudes) in the book and the producers of the audio did not always procure appropriately foreign dudes to voice those characters, so sometimes there are cringe-worthy fake accents and sometimes there are descriptions of a particular kind of dude who is then played by an obviously not-that-kind-of-dude.

But it’s still a good listen, and I would definitely recommend it for your next twelve-hours-or-more road trip. I may need to bust out my print copy at some point in the future and see how it reads, though, as I mostly remember the individual stories that I liked best and not really the whole arc of the novel.

Rating: 8/10

Rare Beasts, by Charles Ogden

Rare BeastsI saw a few books in this Edgar & Ellen series going out of my library around Hallowe’en, and when I picked up this first one and noted the phrase “fans of Lemony Snicket” in a blurb on the back, you know I was sold.

The premise is simple: Edgar and Ellen are twin kids left alone at home by their parents, who have clearly run screaming from their weirdo children. The twins are inveterate troublemakers and spend their days running around their giant house, playing a game of hide and seek in which the loser gets hog-tied, and their nights painting rude words on their village’s signs. When they get bored of all that, they venture out into the village to bother the normal folk.

In this book, the twins realize they have no money to fund their schemes, and so they scheme to sell exotic pets for outrageous sums. The pets are, of course, pilfered from all the villagers and decorated with glitter and whatnot, and also of course it proves difficult for the twins to sell these pets a) to people who are looking for their own missing puppies and cats and pythons and b) for thousands and thousands of dollars to people who live in a small village.

It is a super adorable story vaaaaguely reminiscent of the Snicket in that it shares the same sense of humor if not Snicket’s way with words. There are also some delightful references to Poe (of course) and an ending that is appropriate to the reality of the story, which I wasn’t quite expecting. I like that we are obviously supposed to sympathize with the twins’ boredom and sense of adventure, but not with their actions. Good lessons for small children!

I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series unless I somehow run out of books to read at work (unlikely!), but I will definitely be recommending it to a few short people I know.

Recommendation: For your favorite trouble-making child.

Rating: 8/10

Lost and Found, by Carolyn Parkhurst

Lost and FoundI really enjoyed Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel when I read it a few months ago, and so I was excited to read her second book for my book club this month. But as it sometimes happens, I completely forgot when my book club was supposed to be meeting and only managed to get the book from the library a few days in advance. Oops! I was out and about basically the entire time in between getting the book and talking about it, but thankfully this is a quick and fun read so I managed to finish it up with, like, twenty hours to spare!

I was basically sold on this book when I heard it was based on The Amazing Race, which I watched religiously many many years ago and still will tune into an episode of here and there. There’s something about running around the world and solving puzzles that appeals to me, and if I led a more telegenic life I might have tried out for the show.

Which, segue, is what this book is totally about — the reality behind reality shows, from picking the most interesting contestants to staging drama and fights to what a terrible idea it is to go on a reality show. I don’t know if Parkhurst did any field research into reality show production, but I would totally believe her take on it!

If you’re not a big fan of reality shows, that’s okay, because the meat of the book is the interactions between the characters who have found themselves running around the world together. The main focus is on the mother-daughter team, whose perfect-for-TV drama is that the daughter birthed a baby without her mother knowing she was pregnant; the ex-gay husband-and-wife team who may not be as ex- as they would like; and a former child star looking to game the reality show to make her comeback. It’s fantastic tabloid fodder, but there’s also a truth to all of these characters and their problems that make them sympathetic, if only to the tiniest degree in some cases.

And did I mention the book was fun? It gets a bit heavy-handed at times, especially with the ex-gay subplot that seemed never to end, but it absolutely makes up for it with the digs at TV culture, the travel-inspiring descriptions of the game locations, and the absurd realities of the game. It’s also thought-provoking, if only in the sense that I have been wondering for the past several days, “Why DID the Howells ever go on that three-hour tour? And bring so many clothes?” Seriously. Seriously.

Recommendation: For fans and also not-fans of reality television, or for people who enjoy parrots?

Rating: 8/10

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Three Cups of TeaI had no intention of ever reading this book. I had some inkling of its popularity after the paperback came out, but I wasn’t really interested in it, and then a few years later when all the controversy started up I was like, well, now I really don’t have to read it.

Darn you, book club!

So, I read it. Barely. I started off by listening to it, but the audiobook narrator’s decision to pronunce it “Packy-stan” meant I didn’t get past the first hour. Ugh. The print version, while weird-pronunciation-free (well, except my weird pronunciations, I guess), had instead an overabundance of metaphor and creepy love for Mortenson and I spent many hours procrastinating this book. I didn’t finish it in time for the club meeting proper, which luckily didn’t affect my discussing ability (a plus of non-fiction), but I convinced myself to power through the rest of it right after.

And… it was okay. It was a little weird reading it and knowing vaguely that it was wrong… I didn’t exactly keep myself apprised of the controversy but I understand that the story of Mortenson finding this tiny village to build a school in is maybe not true, and that people were taking issue with his representations of the people he met. So I read through it taking everything with a grain of salt. Of course, I would have done that anyway, as early on in the book Relin (the narrator and writer) claims that Mortenson nearly went to Case Western University Medical School, which, last I checked, didn’t exist — unless it’s my diploma from Case Western Reserve University that’s wrong. Yeah, it’s a common mistake and not one that a lot of readers are going to catch, but dude, I’m not going to catch any mistakes about Pakistan or mountaineering or non-profit organizations either. Perhaps this slip, and a later reference to Mother Teresa’s death occurring in 2000, are fixed in the paperback edition (I was reading out of the original hardcover), but that doesn’t help shake the feeling that everything else is potentially inaccurate.

And the fawning, my goodness. Relin admits right in the opening that his journalistic integrity skips town when it comes to Mortenson, whom he wants to see succeed and prosper. Relin also outs many other journalists as Mortenson groupies toward the end, and talks about how various people want Mortenson to write a book. Wait, this is a book! Amazing!

Barf.

BUT. I will allow that the provable facts of the book, that Mortenson did actually go to Pakistan and did actually get schools built and did actually help a lot of children get an education, those are interesting and useful. It’s great to read a book about someone doing something good, and it definitely renews my interest in giving money to charity, if not this guy’s particular charity. And as far as the controversy goes, I can understand the urge to exaggerate things a bit, make them sound better than they are, and I can definitely sympathize with a guy getting in way over his head — successfully creating one school in Pakistan does not a Director of the Central Asia Institute make, I don’t think. Mortenson’s story rather reminds me of the one in The Last American Man, in which a guy who just wants to live deliberately in the woods ends up spending most of his time in big cities raising money so that other people can go live in the woods. It’s a tough situation.

Recommendation: This book is a little past its prime, I think. Maybe there’s another book about charity and good works you can read instead?

Rating: 5/10

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 1, by Eiji Otsuka

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery ServiceThis… this is a very weird book. I read a blurb about it in Booklist and put a hold on it immediately — “Full of gore and humor, this tongue-in-cheek horror series follows five university students as they find a way to turn a profit while granting the last requests of lost souls.” Sounds awesome, yes? Maybe?

I think it’s a great concept, but somehow the execution just did not work for me. I think part of it is that it’s a manga, as you might have guessed, and manga and I don’t always get along. The pictures are fantastic and gory and disgusting, but the dialogue is sparse and jumps around weirdly and in some places is either poorly translated or intended to make absolutely no sense, which doesn’t please me.

Here’s what I did like: everything else. The main characters are super strange, most with some sort of power. There’s a guy who can dowse for dead people, a guy who can strike up a conversation with them and apparently convince them to move about, and a guy who wears a puppet on his hand and channels aliens. As you do. They’re all part of this little band of Buddhist university students who decide to use their powers to find dead people, fulfill their last requests, and profit. This does not always work out.

Unlike my good friend Death Note, each chapter within the volume is its own separate, monster-of-the-week story. A corpse shows up, the KCDS has a chat with it, they find a home for it while possibly fighting bad guys, then go for shawarma. (Not really that last part.) I liked this setup a lot, and I’m glad to know that if I ever want to try Volume 2 I’m not going to have to rack my brains to remember what’s going on.

So, maybe someday I will track down Volume 2. For now, though, I think I’ll stick with things that have a more fleshed-out story and make more sense. Well, I’ll try, anyway!

Recommendation: For those with strong stomachs and an appreciation for the weird.

Rating: 7/10

The Penultimate Peril and The End, by Lemony Snicket

Normally I would do two separate posts for two separate books, but then there would be two short and boring posts about these books, and I promised to be more generally awesome this year, so you’re going to get just one slightly longer and hopefully slightly less boring post about these books.

Okay, so, the Baudelaires. When we last left them, they were eating some horseradish. Mmmm, horseradish.

The Penultimate PerilIn The Penultimate Peril there is less horseradish, but more AWESOME LIBRARY, so this is a good trade here. This book takes place in the Hotel Denouement, or the tnemeuoneD letoH as it actually says on said hotel, and this building has nine floors and a basement whose rooms are arranged in Dewey Decimal order, which is just fantastic. I had fun trying to guess what numbers Daniel Handler would pick for the various characters’ rooms, which is extremely nerdy but I am totally okay with this. Anyway, library shenanigans aside, this book introduces some new characters (particularly a second set of twins who are actually triplets) but mostly does a roundup of all the surviving characters from the previous books, the conceit being that they’ve all arrived at the hotel to take part in a trial of the Baudelaires. The idea is that they’ll get exonerated of all the stuff they’ve been blamed for but haven’t done, but the orphans have done plenty of bad things themselves (like using disguises!), so they’re not sure they’re really on good footing, here. And then of course completely ridiculous things happen and the trial is disrupted and then the orphans set the hotel on fire and end up out to sea. As it goes.

The EndAnd so then in The End the Baudelaires wash up on a coastal shelf that is inhabited by a sort of utopian community, whose members are only not quite as stupid as the rest of the Baudelaire’s world in that they can recognize and dislike Count Olaf, who has washed ashore as well. But unfortunately they are all boozed up beyond belief and also completely bogged down in stupid stupid rules, and so they are of no help to the Baudelaires in either staying safe on the island or getting off of it. And then the Medusoid Mycelium shows up again and bad things happen and good things are prevented and more people die whether you want them to or not and then there is an epilogue and then I am like… sigh.

While we were listening to these Scott kept mentioning that Handler must have been being paid by the word because he just gets so incredibly repetitive and tangential and loses track of the plot quite often, and I was like, “Nooooo it’s awesome just enjoy it” but secretly (or, well, not-so-secretly), I totally agree. I enjoyed the heck out of this series when I read it, but I think I must have skipped over these parts or just blocked them from my mind, because damn, those passages are super boring.

I really loved the beginning of this series, but the end is just not the same at all and I’m finding myself really recommending against reading these last books. But I also can’t figure out where you should stop reading the series, because all of the books have their excellent parts that are totally worth it. So maybe you could just skim through the print versions and read the good parts and not the bad parts. You’ll finish in a few hours that way. Or, you could read the series to a member of its target audience, i.e. short people, and then their enthusiasm for the repetitiveness will make you smile instead of bang your head against the wall.

Ratings: Really a 7/10 for both, but PP gets 8/10 for library awesomeness and TE 6/10 for awful awful epilogue