In which I do, actually, have some thoughts

Referring to The Golem & The Jinni by Helen Wecker:

One of the most meaningful parts of the book involved a very minor episode with a completely minor character. Sophia Winston is this belle of the ball, a heiress who doesn’t look forward to the fact that she’s going to basically get married, bear children, take up a cause—“Temperance or Poverty or Education,” something socially acceptable—and eventually raisin up into the social spinster at the head of the table. To escape this, she reads.

Sounds a little uncomfortably familiar to me.

So—some spoilers be here—she gets involved with the whole mess of the jinni (Ahmad) & the golem (Chava) & their whole crazy crew (etc).

& at the end there’s this moment where she’s like—screw it, my reputation is shot anyway, I think that I will go and do what I always wanted. I’m going to break off my engagement to this boring, appropriate young man & go travel the world—see Istanbul, Africa, Rome, and the Amazon. Forget reading travel books. I’m going to travel.

This moment—her heart lightens, all of a sudden the weight of all these expectations are off as she decides to make the leap—that was the most precious moment to me in this wonderful book. There were many precious moments—there were many interesting thoughts & laughs about being, about responsibility, about living—but Sophia Winston’s decision to abandon society’s expectations and live her life in a crazy & adventurous, fearless way? That touched my heart.

It’s not anything new, particularly; it’s a theme or thought or idea in many different books, movies, comics, etc. But Sophia Winston? She hit me pretty hard.


Agghh so behind

Well, I’m way behind here. I haven’t actually been sucked into the Earth or devoured by aliens–your top two fears, I’m sure–but I DID have a finance exam yesterday (long-term variable-rate annuities? anyone?), and that’s been slowly draining the life out of me.

I HAVE been reading, sort of; I read The Stranger for a two-person book “club” that a friend & I recently started; I read The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker last night to avoid the fact that I bombed said finance exam.

I will update soon, I promise. I will give you all the brilliant thoughts that I have about how obnoxious The Stranger is and why I think Camus was a whiny idiot; I will also write odes to how awesome The Golem and the Jinni is.

But probably not today. The best part? That exam was a midterm. I’m only half done…

Italy, I miss your cappuccinos.

ImageI saw the famous “Last Supper” in Milan four months ago on a complete whim of a trip. I went with an old college roommate that I hadn’t really spent time with since graduation three years ago, as I couldn’t convince my husband that traveling to northern Italy in January to sight-see was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The accommodations—the floor of the studio apartment of a friend that I hadn’t spoken to since high school—were likewise not to his taste.

It was on the fifth day of this odd trip, in the early dark of a January evening, in a hazy ice-cold drizzle, wearing brand new [fake] leather boots that I hadn’t worn in yet and that were giving me awful blisters, with a roommate that was increasingly getting on my nerves and a friend that I was enjoying but just barely knew—that I found myself at Santa Maria della Grazie with a group of Asian tourists. At least I wasn’t the only one deluded into thinking that January in Milan was a great deal.

We stepped past the guards, through a sliding door to a closed room, through another door—once the first door had closed—to a room that again served some nameless purpose, through another set of doors—again opening once the second set of doors had closed—to finally step into the refectory for our fifteen-minute appointment (if you’re late, no money back). We walked into this bare stone room and turned 90 degrees to see it—the bits of paint on the wall that are at once a masterpiece of technique and a complete failure of chemistry. There are chairs for those that are incapable of standing for fifteen minutes (either for medical or attention-span issues).

Paintings always seem larger in real life—perhaps because paintings in books and on the Internet—and on postcards—are so small [and if that’s not the most obvious statement you’ve read today, you’ve had a rough day]. The sheer size of some works never ceases to amaze me. The “Last Supper” covers an entire good-sized wall. Even though so much of the paint is gone and only the briefest outlines of color are visible, it’s still incredibly plain even to a art ignoramus like myself that this—this is genius. It seems like the artist of the mural on the opposing wall must’ve done something deserving of a low circle in hell to be placed eternally in comparison with Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

It is this experience that led me to pick up this title when I saw it at the library last week. I actually read my first Ross King book while on the train in Italy—one on Brunelleschi’s dome [on the Florence cathedral] that I read on the way to, appropriately, Florence. Florence was rainy. Brunelleschi’s dome was spectacular. Ross King’s book was highly entertaining and informative—enough that I was very happy to see that he’s not a one-hit wonder.

Like the Brunelleschi book that I read five long months ago, Leonardo and the Last Supper doesn’t deal solely with this single event in Leonardo’s life—it starts with his childhood, provides scholarship and numerous references to current events of the time, talks about social and economic trends, what Leonardo’s life would’ve been like, what he would have eaten, etc. I learned that Leonardo was left-handed; that he preferred pink and purple clothes; that he had a weakness for curly hair. I also learned some less-fun trivia about political actions in the 1480’s. Interesting, but just not the same as coming out in the middle of a dinner conversation with the visual of Leonardo da Vinci in a pink cape.

If you like Italy, or history, or art, or biography—I highly recommend this one. It’s fun & not too long, and Ross King has such a fantastic narrative voice and persona. For me, he’s the Bill Bryson of art history. My only very small complaint was that he seems to have a personal issue with the Da Vinci Code and people who think that there’s any merit to the claims about the Priory of Sion and that whole set of nonsense. Honestly, I don’t know anyone that gullible. As fiction—why do so many people miss that classification?— The Da Vinci Code didn’t merit the kind of scholarship in refuting Dan Brown’s fake claims that King paid it.

Other than that, phenomenal. Very fun. Check it out.

The Orphanmaster


The next semester of my MBA starts in less than a week now, so I figure I better get these reviews out now while I still have my head above water! Plus exciting times—my little brother is graduating from university this weekend, and pretty much every member of my family [except me] has a birthday this week. Lots of fun times to be had before I hit the textbooks.

On the book side, it’s a complete but weird coincidence that I read two books about orphan masters (this one & The Orphan Master’s Son) in a row…I mean, it’s not like orphan master books are all over the place. Orphan books, sure. Orphan masters? I’m not even sure what that is. There also seems to be some disagreement about one word or two. I’m not calling that one.

In this case, an orphan master was apparently a real job in New Amsterdam [now we call that place New York, guys, which is way shorter to write on envelopes] in the mid-1600’s. The idea was that there were a lot of orphans wandering around, & somebody should get those kids off the street & into people’s houses as free labor, dude. I mean, the idealist perspective was apparently to keep the orphans safe, but basically we’re putting them into servanthood while doing lip service to “safety.”


um, maybe you should stop smiling and run, little annie.

But the main character isn’t really the orphan master, Mr. Visser himself—it’s the spunky traditional-female-role-rejecting Blandine von Couvering, the only female tradesperson in the colony. &, of course, her male counterpart, the mysterious British spy, Edward Drummond. Edward is a horrible spy and basically gets nothing spy-related done except write some snarky comments about the governor, but hey, it seems like a fun life.


The story has all the makings of a good historical suspense novel—great historical details, a great setting, interesting characters, a good villain, horrific crimes & the misunderstood heroine and hero that have to race against the clock to save their friends—pretty classic. The problem I had was with the execution [um, pun not intended]. The pacing is funky; the POV switched around so many times in the first hundred pages that I got whiplash. The historical setting has obviously been meticulously researched, which is good, but sometimes that comes out in strange ways—like the paragraph near the beginning of the book that lays out the town map—market street is parallel to blah blah street, which faces blah blah other thing, where this quarter of people lives—completely unnecessarily. And boring.


The rhythm of suspense didn’t flow quite right, either—we find out way too early who’s involved in the suspicious murders, and the characters seem ridiculously slow to figure out who’s behind the whole nefarious scheme. And then right in the middle of the action, things basically take a week-long vacation. Accusations of witchcraft are thrown around. People obsess about making ridiculous jokes about a guy with one leg.

Overall, very fun idea, but it definitely felt like a first novel.  Maybe you should stick to nonfiction, Jean, ‘cause those bits were interesting [other than the town map, I seriously can’t get over the ridiculousness of that part]. But the plot—not so much. Three stars for you, Jean Zimmerman.



I read this one between about 10 PM – 1AM last night when I was SUPPOSED to be sleeping because I had to get up early the next morning, but I had made the poor life decision of drinking my favorite Starbucks latte [from B&N, so my two favorite things ever] at about 8:00 at night.

So there I am, lying WIDE awake in bed, thinking “So now what?” and this was next on my list. Any criticisms, then, should be tempered by the fact that it was basically the middle of the night and I was supposed to be sleeping and was correspondingly grumpy. It turned out okay because yay, coffee [the root of my problem as well as the solution] saved me the AM, but I digress.


Angelopolis, I found out after I finished, is actually the second book in the series. The first book, Angelology, came out 2010 and—according to the publisher—was a “New York Times bestseller and global sensation.”

Angelopolis, however, follows Vermaine, an angelologist aka angel-hunter [these are the good guys, angels are bad] and his angel-hunting buddies. Angels here are basically at the moral level of your traditional vampire—endowed with superpowers & like to prey on humans, except less sucking of blood and more of general menace. They’re trying to basically take over the world [gasp] & it’s up to our friend Vermaine to stop these Russian bad guys from killing his kind-of-girlfriend and harnessing ancient secrets for their destructive purposes.



Trussoni spends a LOT of time explaining her whole world by using various cheesy devices like “Oh yes, I remember the last time we spoke, we discussed how this type of angel is like this and we learned this and this” and also just blatant narration and “Oh yes, I remember how this and this is true and blah blah blah.” That got really old, but again, I was grumpy. I did feel like half of the book was Trussoni being really excited about her own world-building skills and wanting to tell us all about the amazing details that she made up that weren’t really relevant at the moment.

The story stands alone, to a certain extent, although there’s definitely the sense that this is the second in a trilogy. The action was good—it moved quickly & certainly kept up an exciting plot. If you’re in it for good writing & believable relationships [and not—he loved her! Why, we don’t know! Oh wait, just kidding!], this may not be your jive. I did skip the first one. There may have been a good build up to the relationships that we take for granted in this one, but I kind of doubt it. The plot is original, and the action keeps it moving—and kept me awake, thank you very much, until I finished it.

This reminded me most of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, but honestly, Laini Taylor does it better. If you liked hers, you probably will like this one, but if you haven’t read either, go read Daughter of Smoke & Bone. You can thank me later.



The World Until Yesterday

ImageThis title is pretty instantly recognizable, as it [obviously intentionally] echoes the covers of Diamond’s earlier books—most notably the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gun, Germs, and Steel and the 2004’s Collapse.

In this tome [seriously, I was reading the digital copy, and it went on FOREVER], Diamond analyzes the different characteristics of traditional societies & then compares them to our general modern [WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrial, & Rich Democracies] societies, emphasizing where traditional societies suck more & where our current culture could learn a thing or two.

It’s divided into a number of thematic sections—friends & strangers, children, war, old people, constructive paranoia [AKA why it’s good to walk around thinking about all the things that could go wrong in life], religion, linguistic diversity, and diet [hint: don’t eat like Americans ‘cause you’ll get fat & get diabetes and stroke and heart failure etc].  He tried to talk about EVERYTHING. Noticeably did not include a chapter on women & their roles. That was a pretty obvious gap.

I felt like some chapters were way better than others. Some [diet, old people, war] were filled with some pretty obvious conclusions. Like shocker, traditional societies [aka tribal societies] fight a lot of wars and die at a much higher rate than we do in modern societies. I know you’re all surprised. Also starving to death occasionally is apparently very good for your overall health [unless you actually die] & not being obese.

Maybe it’s just that I’m in my mid-twenties, but the section on child-rearing was probably the most interesting—talking about allo-parenting [community parenting, takes-a-village style], carrying children facing frontward and vertically [papoose style], attending to a child when it cries vs. letting it cry, and then the not-so-good things like abandoning disabled children and/or neglecting them so that they die. Hey, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is tough. Not that I would know, but apparently Jared does.

Now all I can think about is Subway.

ANYWAY, other than the fact that some of the chapters are insultingly obvious [don’t eat too much salt & sugar, guys] and he tends to repeat himself a lot to get his point across, this was interesting & overall worth reading in all the spare time that I’m sure that ya’ll have. 3.5 stars.

Oh, James Salter, we cannot be friends.

allthatisI’m really torn on this one because Salter’s prose is gorgeous. I can see why he’s put in the same category as Roth & other literary-white-males-writing-about-white-males. Take a look at this quote:

“Beatrice, perhaps because of her father’s death, which she remembered clearly, had a certain lingering dread of the fall…They knew. Everything knew, the beetles, the frogs, the crows solemnly walking across the lawn. The sun was at its zenith and embraced the world, but it was ending, all that one loved was at risk” (25).

I love this. I feel the same way about September—it’s beautiful, but it’s the beginning of the end, and there’s so much sadness for that. I love books that put into beautiful words what I haven’t or can’t express. A good book does that, I think.

On the other hand, the plot of this book was…well, there wasn’t really one. Instead, we get basically all the love affairs throughout one man’s life. I know that author=/ narrator, but this guy was so obnoxiously misogynistic—for example:

“He told her everything. He knew she didn’t think about these things,
but she understood and could learn. He loved her for not only what she was
but what she might be, the idea that she might be otherwise
did not occur to him or did not matter” (43).

That makes me itch. It also makes me want to throw something, a little bit. I mean, sure, it’s a little tongue in cheek, but it’s not just that quote—it’s an entire book’s worth of attitude toward women. It’s the fact that nothing is sacred—if the girl is pretty, what does it matter if she’s in a relationship or married? He goes through like six or seven women, tossing them all (or getting tossed, finally) when he gets bored.

This is basically the whole plot. So while I did really love the writing itself, Salter’s turn of phrase, rhythm, and diction, and I will be picking up A Sport and a Pastime eventually, I am not going to be recommending this one to all my friends. Skip it, pick up something else instead. Like Life After Life.

I’ll leave you with one last quote that I’m pretty sure I violently disagree with, just for funsies.

“The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened.
It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized
and ignored. All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it.
The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be
part of it, to be in publishing, which had retained a suggestion of
elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shined shoes owned by a
bankrupt man” (261).

This is exactly why the love-hate relationship. On one hand, this is gorgeous. The simile in the last sentence is PHENOMENAL. But the sentiment itself–I just can’t get on board with it. eBooks have brought books back into the spotlight, in my opinion, like they haven’t been in years. For good or for bad, I’ve had more discussion about books and where they’re going in the last few years than…ever. Phenomena like Harry Potter, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Gray (however much I may not personally like the last two) keep bookstores in business, and the power of the novel–like, for example, The Orphan Master’s Son, is as strong, in my mind, as it’s ever been. So there, James Salter. So there.