This month I read some new, fast-moving nonfiction and some novels I should have read 4 or 5 years ago.
Record Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Record at a Time – Courtney E. Smith (2011)
I am a rabid rock music fan/geek/snob and I read all books in this genre. I was conflicted about this book because if you are a rock music geek, then nothing in this book will be news to you, and if you’re not, you mightn’t understand the obsession. So, the ideal audience for such a guidebook would be young women who are keen to gain more music knowledge, and appear more sophisticated in their musical tastes. However, this isn’t a how-to guide: that book has yet to be written. Although the author is an industry insider, she wrote mostly about how music soundtracks her personal life – especially romantic relationships and break-ups. This reinforces the pervasive idea that women can’t be real music obsessives because they don’t care about stats and facts and quality – just personal associations.
If you want to know more about rock music terminology and obscure history, I’d recommend The Rock Snob’s Dictionary. If you want to read a comprehensive history of women in popular music, I’d recommend She-Bop by Lucy O’Brien. If you want to build a curated music collection, I’d recommend 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. If you like rock music fan memoirs, I’d recommend anything by Rob Sheffield or Chuck Klosterman. And, of course, there are wonderful novels like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Verdict: Recommended, with the caveat that it isn’t a guide to unleashing your inner music nerd
Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners – Henry Alford (2012)
Once again, a guide that is not a guide! With the exception of the introductory article on decorum in Japan, the book reads like an extended blogger challenge: How I Interacted with Everyone I Know about Manners and Recorded the Results. The author includes some provocative and irritating examples which may get your hackles up, such as his “Touch the Waiter” prank. But midway through the book, the attention-seeking dies down and the author gets to the heart of the matter: how we can communicate respectfully in the modern world, whether on email or Facebook, in a restaurant or at a party.
Verdict: Recommended, but only after you’ve internalized everything by Miss Manners
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – Amy Chua (2011)
I read the first half of this book with rapt attention, then recoiled in horror for the second half. The author contrasts Chinese power-parenting with lax North American parenting. Stage-managing your child’s achievements is good; focusing on your child’s happiness and his or her desires is bad. The author demanded perfection from her two daughters in the areas of academics and music performance, and did not allow them any choices or any personal life. She relentlessly monitored and criticized her kids’ progress and achievements. We see that one child is compliant and the other rebellious, and the relationship between parent and child is seriously damaged. I was particularly appalled by the overt comparisons made between the two sisters. We also see that Amy Chua’s version of Chinese parenting is a personal creation not shared by her extended family.
I had thought of myself as a parent with very high expectations until I read this book, so it had the effect of making me feel less guilty for pushing my child: it’s all relative! Compared to other families I know, I promoted and enforced duty, manners, academics and achievement more than average. But, I thought of it as a process: the more skills mastered, the greater freedom and privileges gained. Over time, I accepted that personal happiness, choice, and good relationships are indeed just as important as achievement and measurable outcomes. But that doesn’t mean your child should walk all over you or the family…a point better made in one of the books I read last month, Bringing Up Bebe.
Verdict: Recommended, but not for the faint of heart
Bone: Out from Boneville – Jeff Smith (1993)
I am a big fan of graphic novels, in particular, North American single-volume ones. The 55 Bone comics were compiled into 9 books, and I had somehow never got around to reading them, probably because they are multi-volume, and children’s comics. Smith creates a very strange world by mashing up comic book conventions, such as buffoon relatives, with fantasy elements, such as medieval worlds and monsters. The first volume is clearly a set-up for an epic adventure, so I will need to continue the story. The other children’s comic series I haven’t “read” yet is Owly!
Verdict: Having read this, I will now be better able to recommend it to my library customers
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins (2008)
I resisted reading The Hunger Games because I was not the world’s biggest fan of either Harry Potter or Twilight (gasp! I know!), so I thought the latest teen sensation wouldn’t grab me. I should have realized that since I love apocalyptic fiction, this would be right up my alley. From the first chapter, clearly referencing Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, through the lightning-speed plot, to the reality-show ending, it held my attention fully. The author cleverly worked in lots of teen appeal features such as coming of age, sacrifice, family, love, friendship and independence, into a high-impact storyline. I especially liked how the Games were filmed and broadcast live, so the characters were playing to the camera and for an audience – just like all of modern teenage life. I sense that volume 2 of the series could be a more typical teen drama with the love interests to be resolved, so I am not looking forward to reading it quite as much, but I will soldier on.
One thing I appreciate about this book is that because of the action-packed plot, boys are continually asking for it at the library. As boys don’t read as much as girls, and virtually never read books with female lead characters, this is noteworthy!
The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery (2006, English 2008)
I was wowed by this book which is a compilation of philosophical ramblings by two characters who live in a Paris apartment building – the frumpy concierge, and an intellectual (but despairing) 12-year-old girl. From the first chapter, I was almost afraid to go on, because of the young girl’s constant threats of suicide. Would the author let this happen? The concierge hides her intellect and lets no one know she is their cultural equal (or better). The young girl assesses everything and everyone around her, looking for reasons to go on living. You can guess how the two strands come together, but there are lots of surprises, including a powerful oomph at the end.
Verdict: Highly recommended
The Shack – William Paul Young (2007)
Alert: This review contains spoilers.
I don’t read any religious or spiritual books, just philosophy and ethics. This book was literally put into my hands by my sister, who told me several times I should read it, then – for good measure – gave it to me. I put off reading it for so long that finally I thought, let’s be done with it. I could at least tell her I read it and she would be happy. And she would exclaim, “What did you think!!” and wait for tales of my conversion.
Now my siblings and I grew up in a strict Catholic home. Of the three of us, I am the only one who still attends church – but a Unitarian one, which is about as un-churchy as you can get. However, I am sure my brother and sister would call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” My sister, in particular, has been developing some zeal around her spiritual and patriotic beliefs.
So I was deeply skeptical going into this book. The first part completely turned me off because I felt it trivialized the experiences of parents who have lost a child. For those unaware of the basic plot line, a man takes his kids camping, and while saving one of his children from drowning, another of his children is abducted and murdered. All of the man’s relatives, friends, and people he encounters are devout Christians, but he is ambivalent about God, and sometimes angry. The second part of the book might be described as magic realism: the man goes alone to the site of his child’s murder, meets the Holy Trinity (each of whom has assumed a human form) and develops a relationship with each of them. He returns to his family with new faith to face the future.
I imagine that this book resolves theological dilemmas for some readers, such as “the problem of evil.” Interestingly, there is no religious or theological basis for the author’s arguments – he has quite simply made them up, with little reference to scriptures or religious traditions. So if you are looking for a modern story that raises Christian issues and offers one person’s answers, this might appeal. It is probably intended as an extended metaphor: all that is important is that God loves you, and wants you to be in right relationship with God. These are neither the questions nor the answers that I am seeking. However, the book certainly did challenge me – I don’t want to be a close-minded heathen.
Verdict: Not recommended as a work of fiction; recommended for those seeking to explore Christian faith issues in allegory form
The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill (2007)
I have wanted to read this book ever since I heard the author speak about it 5 years ago. But I put off reading it because it is a novel about slavery, and I didn’t want to face the suffering within. Stupid me! I deprived myself of the character Aminata Diallo for five years too long! This is the fictional narrative of a child stolen from her village in Africa, who crossed the Atlantic in a slave ship, was sold and resold, and eventually sailed to Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone and England as a free woman. None of this is a spoiler because the story is told through flashbacks, so you know how it turned out. You just want to know how she got there. The story is told through the wise voice of the elder Aminata, who reads, writes, tells stories, and remembers everything. The author did an incredible amount of historical research, and cites his sources. You don’t have to be in the mood for pain to read this, and you don’t need to love historical novels or generational sagas. It stands on its own as a crackling good read, fast-paced, warm and approachable.
Verdict: Highly recommended
I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you’ve read any of these!
Reading Round-Up # 1 is here