Book review Monday: What I read over Christmas holidays

I thought I would read more than I did over the holidays, but apparently all that eating and drinking took up way too much time. I did get through a few though, some of them truly excellent.

I actually found it a little interesting in that a lot of people in my circle of friends and acquaintances seem to be reading the same books at the same time, even though the books aren’t exactly contemporary. It made me wonder what, exactly, makes a book trendy to read? Are we sharing collective wavelengths as to the books we want to be reading right now, or are we just sharing our reading lists?

Anyway, here are the last few books I’ve gotten through.

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer

Book description: Reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen depletion, Jon Krakauer reached the summit of Mt. Everest in the early afternoon of May 10, 1996. He hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours. As he turned to begin the perilous descent from 29,028 feet (roughly the cruising altitude of an Airbus jetliner), twenty other climbers were still pushing doggedly to the top, unaware that the sky had begun to roil with clouds …

This is the terrifying story of what really happened that fateful day at the top of the world, during what would be the deadliest season in the history of Everest. In this harrowing yet breathtaking narrative, Krakauer takes the reader along with his ill-fated expedition, step by precarious step, from Kathmandu to the mountain’s pinnacle where, plagued by a combination of hubris, greed, poor judgment, and plain bad luck, they would fall prey to the mountain’s unpredictable fury.

My review: I became interested in this book when several different friends told me they were reading it. I’ll confess I didn’t know anything about the disastrous trek to Everest that happened nearly 20 years ago, but everyone said the book was really well written and a recommended read. Boy were they right.

Reading this book left me breathless. Like, literally, I would have to remind myself to breathe, it was so suspenseful and horrifying. It made me realize that anyone who climbs mountains is at least half insane and I have no idea why anyone would want to do it. Written by a reporter still traumatized by what happened and feeling the need to explain his actions, which he saw as at least in part leading to some deaths on the peak of Everest, this adventure narrative is raw and grisly. And absolutely fantastic, I really recommend it.

 

Away, by Jane Urquhart

Book description: A stunning, evocative novel set in Ireland and Canada, Away traces a family’s complex and layered past. The narrative unfolds with shimmering clarity, and takes us from the harsh northern Irish coast in the 1840s to the quarantine stations at Grosse Isle and the barely hospitable land of the Canadian Shield; from the flourishing town of Port Hope to the flooded streets of Montreal; from Ottawa at the time of Confederation to a large-windowed house at the edge of a Great Lake during the present day. Graceful and moving, Away unites the personal and the political as it explores the most private, often darkest corners of our emotions where the things that root us to ourselves endure.

My review: Maybe I was a little unfair to this book, having just finished a book I really enjoyed that was drastically different, but Away bored me. It is very lyrical, with lovely flowing language and dreamlike interactions between characters. Maybe at a different time, not just coming down off my Everest adventure high, I would have enjoyed this more. But, as it was, it was a struggle to get through. Urquhart is supposedly a Canadian treasure, and I’m sure some people greatly enjoy her books, like potentially the judges of the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, but I wasn’t one of them. No, actually, I’m sure I’m not being fair to this book, so don’t listen to me. If you like books about Irish immigrants, pioneers and political activism, give it a go.

 

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkein

Book description: Written for J.R.R. Tolkien’s own children, The Hobbit met with instant critical acclaim when it was first published in 1937. Now recognized as a timeless classic, this introduction to the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf, Gollum, and the spectacular world of Middle-earth recounts of the adventures of a reluctant hero, a powerful and dangerous ring, and the cruel dragon Smaug the Magnificent.

My review: Inspired by the recent release of The Hobbit movie, I decided to reread this childhood classic. I do know that I read The Hobbit when I was younger, although hilariously I remember so little about the book I wonder if I gave the book up halfway through because it was so long. I did stuff like that when I was a kid (as well as now, actually). I remembered well the exchange of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum, and the ring. I also had a vague recollection of the spiders in the woods, but that’s about all.

This is such a sweet child’s adventure story, and I did enjoy reading it, although I didn’t remember how long it seemed to be. Bilbo and his dwarf companions seem to plod along at a not-altogether brisk pace, something I’ve heard about the three Hobbit movies as well, har. That being said, I’m glad I refreshed this book in my memory, and it’s one I’ll read to my kids. Now I can go out and see the movies.

 

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine

Book description: Come inside and take a seat; the show is about to begin…

Outside any city still standing, the Mechanical Circus Tresaulti sets up its tents. Crowds pack the benches to gawk at the brass-and-copper troupe and their impossible feats: Ayar the Strong Man, the acrobatic Grimaldi Brothers, fearless Elena and her aerialists who perform on living trapezes. War is everywhere, but while the Circus is performing, the world is magic.

That magic is no accident: Boss builds her circus from the bones out, molding a mechanical company that will survive the unforgiving landscape.

But even a careful ringmaster can make mistakes.

Two of Tresaulti’s performers are entangled in a secret standoff that threatens to tear the circus apart just as the war lands on their doorstep. Now the Circus must fight a war on two fronts: one from the outside, and a more dangerous one from within.

My review: I really enjoyed this book. It was reminiscent of The Night Circus, with the same otherworldly feel that surrounds the mysterious circus. While the night circus was a stunningly beautiful book, Mechanique is somewhat grittier, and it offers the turns of plot that I felt was missing in the Night Circus.

The tale is part apocalyptic, part adventure, part steampunk, the book was mysterious and suspenseful, but everything did come together in the end and I was so happy by how Valentine tied it together. Also, can I just comment on how awesome the name Genevieve Valentine is? It doesn’t seem like a real name, it is way too romance-novel-ish.

 

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan

Book description: Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties.

My review: This is another book that everyone seems to be reading right now, despite the fact that it came out in the ’80s. I suspect it has something to do with Tan’s new novel out right now, The Valley of Amazement, which I really want to read.

Tan did an excellent job describing the emotional burden carried by these women immigrating from China and passing on their stories and lives to their daughters. At times completely heartbreaking, the women are alternatively strong, and resentful, and beautiful, and resilient. While I don’t have the experience of a family emigrating from Asia, Tan was able to share these stories in a way that I can empathize with, which I think is the definition of a truly talented author.

Word of the day:

Entropy: a doctrine of inevitable social decline and degeneration; (in cosmology) a hypothetical tendency for the universe to attain a state of maximum homogeneity in which all matter is at a uniform temperature

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