Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#37 [2014/CBR5] "Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick

Like most people, I find history and politics more palatable when they focus on specific people rather than the sweeping ideas and dates of textbooks. Obviously, you need a balance, but if you look only at the big picture, you miss the innumerable tragedies and triumphs that are more relatable. This is one of the strengths of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2010) by Barbara Demick.

Demick gives us a look into North Korea during the famine of the 1990's through the lives of six North Korean citizens living in the isolated northern region--far from the tourist-approved Pyongyang. There is a rebellious daughter; a homeless boy; an ambitious student, a young school teacher, a patriotic doctor, and a loyal mother. As communism falls around the world, North Korea loses its much needed subsidies and support, and the economy falls apart. By 1998, an estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans had died as a result of the famine, as much as 10% of the population.

My very extensive knowledge of North Korea includes some documentary that I saw sometime in the past ten years that I can't remember, and that's about it. I know North Koreans are fed a lot of propaganda and Kim Jong-un is unreasonable. When I hear about Pyongyang, I think of the Where the Hell is Matt 2012? video. So, in many ways, this was a very eye-opening book, especially considering how recent these events took place. I was graduating from high school when some of these people were fighting for their lives or being thrown into prison. The paranoia, especially, made me appreciate the Freedom of Speech that we enjoy here in the U.S. One thoughtless comment and you could find yourself in a labor camp.

The stranglehold that the state holds over the people is also noteworthy. People were forced to work for no pay and there was no food to hand out anymore. Yet, they are still technically not allowed to work for themselves. It's intriguing that North Korea was the only communist regime to stay wholly intact, despite its frightful circumstances and increased globalization. On the whole, this was a fascinating book that taught me a lot about North Korea and what some of their lives were like.

Because we have such detailed information about the lives of these six people, we know going into the book that these people survived and managed to get out of North Korea. Some of my favorite parts of this book was when they made it out of North Korea and realized how different reality is than what they were told. Their challenges in adapting to South Korea were also fascinating.

Despite the fact that I really liked this book, I did find myself consistently wishing for a little more context. For whatever reason, I often felt disconnected from what was happening--like the people I was reading about weren't fully fleshed out. I think more pictures would have helped, although I'm sure my reading this on my Kindle, and squinting at those stunted pictures didn't help. However, I didn't see any pictures of the main characters until near the end of the book. In addition, the pictures of North Korea were few and far between with little explanation. I was also wanting something more of a psychological explanation for how growing up in the isolated North Korea with constant propaganda would keep a country from rising up, despite their circumstances. This may be an unfair criticism considering how little information there is on North Korea, but I got the sense that Demick had access to a lot more information than was in the book. When comparing this book to Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I felt like I understood and knew the people in Demick's book less well.

Finally, I have a couple nitpicky criticisms. There were a couple of sentences that I thought were sloppy and distracting. I guess I have higher standards for non-fiction because I want to learn, and I want to be able to trust that what the author is telling me is true. First, on page 81: "Kim Il-sung also discouraged early marriages, giving a 'special instruction' in 1971 that men should marry at twenty and women should marry at twenty-eight." Considering that North Korea was a conservative, patriarchal society I found it odd that women would be ordered to marry later than men--especially when there was no explanation from the author. So, I'm left to wonder if it's a typo or if it's true. Also, this sentence on p. 100 doesn't make sense, "Those who were too overwrought to stand upright would support the others by their elbows." These issues did make me wonder how carefully the rest of the book was put together.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

#36 [2014/CBR5] "Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon

"One never stops to think what underlies romance. Tragedy and terror, transmuted by time. Add a little art in the telling, and voila! a stirring romance, to make the blood run fast and maidens sigh." (470)

I wasn't sure I wanted to read Outlander (1992) by Diana Gabaldon. I first heard of it through a Cannonball review. Although I believe Mrs. Julien called it a classic, there appeared to be some mixed feelings. The novel was reported as an amalgam of time travel, history, and romance, along with some healthy servings of violence, beatings, and rape. It was also very long. I was thinking of skipping it, but my interest was piqued, so it stayed in the back of my head. Then I heard they were adapting it for television, and I figured I better read it before the show comes out. Even so, I began reading with some trepidation...and got sucked immediately into the story.

Claire, a nurse, and her husband Frank travel to Scotland for a second honeymoon and to reconnect after the end of World War II. While they're up there, Claire falls through time and ends up in 1743 with Highlanders and English soldiers running amok across the countryside. Claire is lucky enough to fall in with a small group of Highlanders who take her up to their castle, suspecting that she might be an English spy. Along the way she meets a Highlander outlaw..and the rest is history. There is the historical aspect of 18th Century Scotland and even comparison with post-World War II. There is also adventure, danger, and stirring romance. If you haven't read this book yet, I'd recommend that you do before the television show comes out. I'll definitely be getting around to reading the rest of this series, although I need a little break from Gabaldon's world to come back to reality for a bit.

The rest of this review is probably better for those already familiar with the plot, since I plan on talking about it freely. First, I loved the romance between Claire and Jamie. I knew so little about this book going into it, that I didn't know who the love interest was. Every man Claire met, I assumed was the love interest--until she started interacting with Jamie. A roguish highlander and a forced marriage: it had all the trappings of a typical bodice ripper, but the historical detail, the care taken for the characters to get to know each other, Claire's experience and Jamie's lack thereof, made this one incredibly unique. And unlike many romances I read, I can remember almost every detail of their relationship, despite the fact that I raced through this book at record speed.

The more troublesome aspects that I was anticipating included when Jamie beat Claire. For whatever reason this didn't bother me as much as I was expecting. I think it helped that I was prepared. It also helped that he didn't hit her when he was angry, and he promised that he would never do it again. Taken together with the circumstances, the time period, and how he'd treated her since he'd met her, I could forgive him. I was actually more bothered by their completely consensual sex scene after that--the one where he's really aggressive and says things like, "I'm your master." That made me more uncomfortable.

When I was about 3/4 of the way done with the book, my curiosity got the better of me and I went looking for the trailer for the Starz version of Outlander. The scene with Jamie and Claire on the horse almost had me swooning, and that's when I learned about Sam Heughan--the new Jamie Fraser.
Sigh...I am very, very satisfied with the casting for this show. [He had me as soon as I heard him say 'Sassenach.' If I can remember how to spell his name, I'm putting him on my Pajiba 5 list.] Not only did this increase my anticipation for the show, but it put a real person into the character of Jamie Fraser, who I was liking more and more, the more I read about him. So, I really didn't want anything bad to happen to him. And that's what sucks about the end of the book. It's still well written, and I'm impressed how Gabaldon was able to articulate how Jamie's torture and rape were more than just physical wounds. However, I hated reading about it. Why would I want anyone, but especially someone so charismatic and likable to go through that? I also didn't really understand the whole scene where he's almost dying and Claire gets through to him and somehow he gets better. I kept hoping all of his pain was over, but it went on forever. And even though I'm dying to see the show, I'm dreading all the violence: the whippings, the beating in the hall, and the rape and torture. Ugh, that's something I don't need to see.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

#35 [2014/CBR5] "The Ideal Man" by Julie Garwood

Julie Garwood was at one time one of my favorite romance authors, but lately I've found her not living up to my expectations. Her latest books have seemed much more formulaic. I don't know if that's because she's not writing them all herself, if she's running out of ideas, or if I've just read too many of her books. Anyway, I was browsing my library's collection when I stumbled on The Ideal Man (2011). It took a while before I figured out I hadn't actually read this one before, and finally decided to give it a try.

Not surprisingly, this book was very similar to many of her other recent romance novels. Dr. Eleanor Sullivan (Ellie) is a young, prodigy of a surgeon (think Doogie Howser), and she is in need of some protection by an FBI agent--Max Daniels. Not only does Ellie have a stalker from her childhood who once tried to kill her, but she also just recently witnessed an attempted murder by some very shady people. Enter: Max Daniels. They are immediately attracted to each other, although work and keeping Ellie alive can get in the way at times. Ellie travels back to her hometown for her sister's marriage. When Max learns that she's still in danger, he follows her on his own to watch over her.

I'm not sure if  this one just hit me when I was in the right mood, but I enjoyed it more than some of Garwood's other novels. Ellie is a fun character, accomplished and successful. Unfortunately, Ellie's sister, Ava, is a pretty ridiculous caricature. And sure, the plot is already fading into the murky darkness of my mind--where all the romances I've read kind of blur together, but on the whole I enjoyed reading it.

I'd recommend this to Garwood fans who like this sort of thing, although I wouldn't call it a must-read.

Friday, June 27, 2014

#34 [2014/CBR5] "The 5 Love Languages" by Gary Chapman

Words of Affirmation
Quality Time
Receiving Gifts
Acts of Service
Physical Touch

There you go, the entire book in a nutshell. You're welcome.

But I should probably go into more detail. One day at my gym, a spontaneous conversation erupted about love languages. As each person chimed in to say which "love language" they were, it made me wonder what I was missing. What are these mysterious love languages? Why don't I know my love languages? I also couldn't resist the allure of labeling my personality in some new way.

It wasn't hard to find The 5 Love Languages (1992) by Gary Chapman once I hit the internet. And it didn't take long to get it from the library. Although it was apparently once a bestseller, there's no wait for it now. The book is pretty straight forward. Chapman has been a marriage counselor for quite a long time and he believes that people are most receptive to love when it is given to them in specific ways. Some people feel most loved when they're given gifts, some people feel most loved when they're touched, some people feel most loved when their spouse does things for them, etc. The problems come up when you have two people who express love in ways that don't work for their partner. The spouses don't feel loved, and everyone gets bitter, resentful, and unhappy. It's also a problem when a partner simply doesn't express love at all.

I think I'll start with the good parts of this book because that section will be shorter. In a general way, the five long languages provides a good framework for intentionally making your spouse feel loved. Chapman focuses on how both partners should be willing to compromise and look for things to do to show their love and make their spouse happy. He uses many examples of couples that he's worked with, and he seems to be, for the most part, compassionate, realistic, and fair when giving them advice. These are all good things. I'm no expert, but if both partners are willing to follow his suggestions, I could see it helping marriages.

My least favorite aspect of this book was that it felt very conservative and traditional. Chapman is religious. He counsels couples at churches. This isn't necessarily bad, but he only speaks about marriages--marriages between men and women. He also reinforces traditional roles of women. This book sometimes made me feel suffocated by conventional expectations. This book isn't just about having a loving relationship, it's about having a good, christian marriage. I kept getting distracted when the author used awkward phrases, such as, "Love touches may be explicit and demand your full attention such as in a back rub or sexual foreplay, culminating in intercourse," (111) as well as Chapman's (probably trademarked) use of the phrase: filling up your "emotional love tank.".

One of the more irritating habits of Chapman was his false insistence on an old-fashioned view of female desire. For example: "For the female, sexual desire is far more influenced by her emotions. If she feels loved and admired and appreciated by her husband, then she has a desire to be physically intimate with him. But without the emotional closeness she may have little physical desire. Her biological sexual drive is closely tied to her emotional need for love." (125) Hmmm...that's interesting. Maybe she won't want to sleep with the husband she dislikes so much, but that's different from her entire biological sexual drive. Fortunately, I've just read me some Dan Savage and Daniel Bergner, both of whom have a drastically different perspective. Their perspective is also more firmly rooted in science. To be fair, this book was written in 1992. On the other hand, Chapman didn't look too far beyond his own presumptions when explaining to me how women feel desire. There are a total of eight endnotes in this book. One is a website. Four are bible verses. And the last three are other books that Chapman has written.

Another irritating thing about this book was the list of 30 questions at the end, used as a quiz to help you determine your love language. I dutifully flipped to the women's section and found that I'm "bi-lingual" with Words of Affirmation and Physical Touch in a dead heat with Quality Time following close behind. I got annoyed when I flipped to the men's section to see what their quiz was like. Most of the questions were identical with the words "husband" and "wife" interchanged...until I got to the questions discussing Acts of Service and Physical Touch. Here are some of the pertinent differences:

"I feel loved when my wife does my laundry."
"I feel loved when my husband helps with the laundry."

"When my wife cooks a meal for me, I know that she loves me."
"When my husband helps clean up after a meal, I know that he loves me."

"Keeping the house clean is an important act of service."
"I love that my husband helps clean the house."

"I love having sex with my wife."
"I love cuddling with my husband."

"I just can't keep my hands off my wife."
"I love it that my husband can't keep his hands off me."

I don't know if I can be irritated by a, most likely, accurate reflection of the people Chapman works with. Yet I still wish he wasn't reinforcing unnecessary stereotypes. Why does the husband always only "help" with the housework? Why can't women want sex? Seriously. Anyway, this book was short and easy to read with some information that some might find useful/helpful. It has it's problems, like many self-help books, but it wasn't too painful in the scheme of things.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

#33 [2014/CBR5] "The Light Between Oceans" by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans (2012) by M.L. Stedman has been on my reading list for awhile--long enough for me to forget when and why I put it on there. I had a vague notion that it had something to do with adopting a child? but that was about it. In fact, I think I confused it in my head with some other book that I wanted to read and now can't remember.

Anyway, I was right. This book did have something to do with children. Tom Sherbourne is back in Australia after WWI, haunted by all he saw, did, and the mere fact of his survival. He meets and marries Isabel, a young local and goes to work at an isolated lighthouse. This position requires him and Isabel to be completely isolated for months at a time, with shore leave only once every couple of years.

Isabel doesn't mind the isolation of the lighthouse but she longs more than anything for a family. After two miscarriages and a stillbirth, she is beyond miserable. And that's when an opportunity arises. I don't want to go any farther into the plot because I think the less you know the better.

The best part of this book was how much I believed the motivations of each character. I could understand and sympathize with everyone, even as they made choices I dreaded. No one was crazy or evil; they were just people trying to live through their tragic lives in the best way possible. In a book with no clear "bad guy" the tragedy comes from the circumstances that are thrust upon them--although these circumstances are sometimes a bit too coincidental. Even so, it makes for some fascinating quandaries when you can go back and forth and back and forth in your mind as you try to figure out the best outcome at different points in the book.

The worst part about reading this book, however, was reading this book. Every character deals with mindnumbing tragedy: a mother's two sons are killed days apart in WWI, Isabel's three dead children, Tom's dead mother and estranged father, Hannah's lost family. Add on top of that, the tragic circumstances of a child torn from her mother, and this is an extremely heavy book. The addition of the isolated setting of a small island surrounded by a stormy sea and the entire reading experience is dark and unsettling. Much of my reading was filled with dread and at one point I had to consciously disassociate from what was going on because it was bothering me so much. So, it was a powerful and effective story, but one that was not what I could call fun to read.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

#32 (2014/CBR5) "Hyperbole and a Half" by Allie Brosh

Unlike the rest of the world, I had not heard of Allie Brosh or her blog until I saw the spate of reviews of her new book, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened (2013) on Cannonball. To be honest, I wasn't sure I was going to like it when I first heard about it. It looked a little weird and potentially unrelatable, but the reviews were so wholeheartedly positive that I didn't want to be left out anymore.

After a lengthy wait at the library, I was finally able to pick up a copy and all my fears of disliking an immensely popular book were put to rest. Brosh's book is a unique kind of biography, talking about absurd, funny, and meaningful times of her life with simple illustrations in comic strip fashion with short explanations that go along with them. Each chapter is separated by different-colored background, and Brosh discusses such varied topics as her dogs, her grandmother's birthday party, her procrastination and lack of motivation, and her struggles with depression.

From the reviews I had already seen, I was expecting something funny and unique, which this book was. However, what took me by surprise was the great writing in her short, explanatory sections. I'm afraid that I'm going to overrun this review with terms like funny, unique, and insightful, but there's no other way to describe it. I loved her tone and her choice of words. Even in the serious sections about depression, there were funny parts. I was going to quote something of hers from her "Motivation" section because I loved her descriptions, and I felt like she was describing me. Unfortunately the book was overdue back at the library, and I returned it in a rush, before I had a chance to go back and copy all my favorite quotes.

I loved Brosh's stories about her dogs and the goose. I loved the stories about her unique perspective on childhood, and I loved her descriptions of her problems with motivation and procrastination. I couldn't relate as well to her take on depression, but her comparison to the dead fish was a fantastic description. Brosh is honest and funny and her book is definitely worth reading. Funny, unique, well-written, and insightful.

Monday, June 16, 2014

#31 (2014/CBR5) "American Savage" by Dan Savage

I jumped immediately from What Do Women Want? by Daniel Bergner to American Savage (2013) by Dan Savage. I took it as a sign that Savage's recommended reading in his introduction included What Do Women Want? I felt very prepared.

Dan Savage is someone that I've heard of but didn't really know much about. My friend had told me about his sex podcast, and I'd heard about his books. I'd definitely heard of the "It Gets Better" program, too, but I can't say for sure whether I even knew that Dan Savage had started it before I began this book.

Anyway, I assumed that Dan Savage would have a lot to say and that I would probably agree with most of it. And I turned out to be mostly right. Savage discusses sex, cheating, gay marriage and equal rights, Obamacare, sex education, and other pertinent issues. He's funny, engaging, and his book is thoughtful, entertaining, practical, and easy to read. I didn't agree with him on everything--more on that later--and at times it could feel a little self-important--that Savage was using his book as a platform to redress every slight done unto him by his critics. However, I enjoyed reading it and I'm probably going to be looking for more of his books soon.

I could go on and on about all the smart, good stuff Savage says in this book. His views on what sex education should be and his coherent and emotional arguments for gay marriage and equal rights were very moving and persuasive. He had me in tears when he described the jubilant couples and cheering that surrounded the first, official gay marriages in Seattle at City Hall. It's good stuff. I think I most enjoyed the more personal stories about his life, and I'm very interested in reading the book about when he and his husband adopted their kid.

However--and again, I find myself a surprised defender of monogamy--but I did not agree with Savage when he says that cheating is okay. I don't mind what he seems to have with his husband, an agreed-upon "monogamish" relationship. They sound like they're happy and comfortable with their sex lives. But I can't condone cheating when it involves keeping secrets from your spouse. Sure, he only advocates this for some more extreme examples where one partner is simply not interested in sex anymore. I see where he's coming from, but I think honesty is always more important than sex. Also, personally speaking, I know I'm not the most knowledgeable on this subject since my long-term relationships tend to be on the short side, but I've never been truly tempted to sleep with anyone else while I've been in a relationship. And I can't share. I don't want my partner sleeping with other people. Even the idea of it makes me very uncomfortable.

Finally, I have some nitpicking issues with some of Savage's arguments. I agreed with his conclusions, but I noticed a number of times when Savage compared statistics from a northern and southern state. For instance, Savage compared the teen birth rates of Connecticut and Mississippi (I could be misremembering exactly which states he used, but you get the idea). Connecticut teaches birth control and Mississippi teaches abstinence only. Not surprisingly Mississippi has a higher teen birth rate. However, this is a correlative connection and not causal. Also, there are a million differences between Mississippi and Connecticut that might also be affecting teen birth rates. Savage seemed to use these studies to show a causal connection, which doesn't fit with the evidence he presented. Again, although I agreed with is conclusions, I hate sloppy statistics.

P.S. Savage mentioned in his book that his husband looks "very good" in leather. I happened upon some pics of his husband in a photo shoot for some slinky swimsuits when I googled Savage for this review. I concur. I imagine that Savage's husband looks good in anything.