Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.02

I renewed my public library card this month! With my limited reading time over the past few years, I had let the poor thing lapse. While I know there are issues with e-book licensing, I now have access to a ton of books for my Kindle! While I have a lot of classics loaded already, it sure is nice to be able to throw in the occasional newer book, particularly since “newer” extends back to the early 20th century if you’re talking about not-free non-public domain books. Public Domain Day in the United States is an embarrassment. Even The Great Gatsby, written in 1925 isn’t in the public domain in America yet, and won’t be until 2021, assuming copyright terms aren’t extended again.

But I digress. As mentioned, I had previously been loading free classics onto my Kindle, supplementing occasionally with the purchase of a book that I was either ready to read based upon recommendations, or that I wanted to read, though perhaps not with any urgency, and which were on Amazon’s daily deal email for a couple of dollars.

With my shiny new library card, I review the daily deal emails and check to see if a book is available from the library before making a purchase (there are exceptions where I buy the book anyway). If it is available at the library, I add it to my also-brand-new Goodreads account where I keep a running list of books I want to read, which I’ll later go about checking out.

Three of the five books I read in February were library loans. Huzzah!

Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson. This was a disappointing read and I almost didn’t finish it, but then Bryson finally made it into Scotland and I was curious to hear his descriptions of the places we’d been and others where we still want to go. I had so much enjoyed other Bill Bryson books, including A Walk in the Woods read years ago. But this book seemed unpleasantly like a series of ill-tempered travel complaints. And he never stayed long in any one place. An overnight in Inverness? Really? How could you possibly formulate any kind of an opinion arriving one afternoon and rushing off to the train out of town the next morning?

I found more enjoyable the few chapters in which he was traveling with someone. Perhaps that’s what his books really need. A Walk in the Woods had Stephen Katz. Maybe Bryson just needs a travel buddy. Playing off other people does seem to do good things for his writing.

Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut. Another author I was embarrassed I had never read before. Honestly, the synopsis of the book didn’t sound appealing at all, but I remembered friends from college speaking so highly of Vonnegut that I decided to give it a go. It was really good! Don’t let the totally absurd-sounding synopsis throw you off; it’s a really well-written story. Remember what I said about Brave New World, that I am able to accept details of an unrealistic story as long as the dialog and character development is there? Here’s a case in point.

The Martian – Andy Weir. This was a really enjoyable book. I saw and enjoyed the movie when it came out last fall and didn’t really plan to read the book. I’m a bit of a contrarian (shocker, I know) and I don’t tend to read books just because they’re popular when a movie comes out, simply because they’re popular when a movie comes out and I’m not a band-wagon person.

Yes, I know this may seem like a bald-faced lie since I started last month by admitting that most of my recent reading involved Harry Potter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones. However, the key is the personal recommendation. I generally turn my nose up at the popular made-into-a-movie book unless they are highly recommended to me by someone whose opinion I trust. For the above it was my sister-in-law, my mother, my sister-in-law again, and half the known Facebook universe.

The Martian was recommended post-movie viewing by a friend with impeccable film, popular culture, sci fi, and geek credentials, so I added it to my list.

The old adage is that the movie is never as good as the book. It’s hard to say for sure here since I saw the movie first and that can influence the analysis, but I think it’s a pretty tight race in this instance. All of the great Watney humor was present in the movie, perhaps a little less focus on bodily functions and resultant waste, but that was obviously there, too. Most of the major plot points were present, and those that were glossed over made sense. Yes, the movie passed over the sand storm during the long-haul road trip, but it wasn’t like it was a wind-whipping, swallowing storm like in The Mummy. It was a more subtle potential disaster and, honestly, by that point in the book, the endless minute descriptions of going into the HAB/Rover and attaching cable X to valve Y was starting to wear just a little bit. The movie really benefitted a bit by the inclusion of the Sports Training Montage.

I also think my understanding of some of the scientific descriptions benefitted from seeing the movie first. While Weir did a very good job of making the science accessible, I think seeing, for example, the set-up used to convert hydrazine into water made it much easier for me to follow the scientific details in the book. I just don’t think I would have been able to visualize it as well on my own.

I did prefer the ending of the movie to that of the book. The extra couple of wrap-up scenes in the movie do a good job of, well, wrapping up the story in a way that “this is the happiest day of my life” just didn’t do for me. After all the time invested in Watney, it was nice to have just a little bit of a sense of his post-Mars experience to bring closure to the story.

Restoree – Anne McCaffrey. McCaffrey was my favorite author from 6th grade through early high school. At the time, I quickly read through the Crystal Singer trilogy and the voluminous Pern series, but never did read every single thing she wrote. My recently revived “to read” list includes a re-visit to McCaffrey’s universe of books. Restoree was one I hadn’t read previously; my public library has very slim pickings when it comes to McCaffrey e-books, so I snapped this one up when it appeared in a Kindle Daily Deal email.

Restoree is essentially a romance novel, bearing all the typical romance plot points, but set on another planet and involving a human encounter with a humanoid alien species. McCaffrey’s first published novel (1967), it’s extremely dense reading, and probably could have used a good whittling down. But it also contains the hallmarks of McCaffrey’s other novels, including a smart, strong, resourceful female main character. It’s not the best romance novel I’ve ever read, nor the best sci-fi, but it was enjoyable and it held my interest. Certainly a solid first effort. Not really recommended on its own, but worth reading as part of the broader McCaffrey oeuvre.

The Whistling Season – Ivan Doig. Earlier I mentioned the importance of personal recommendations in my book selection habits. This book was recommended by a friend just after my first Book Blather was published. I had literally just finished Restoree that morning, and this book was available from the library, so I started it that very evening on the commute home. I LOVED about 90% of this book. Like, “grinning stupidly on the bus to work” loved this book. It was so well written, with such a love of language embedded into the very fabric of the narrative, that it pretty much dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s for me. One reviewer summed it up perfectly:

Doig’s use of language is thoughtful and clever. Sly, quiet jokes are tucked into the text here and there and if you read too fast, you might read right past a good laugh.

I particularly loved the copious use of “metaphor by down-home wisdom” in the book. A couple that spring to mind include “proud as a kitten with its first mouse” and being given “a look that would put a blind person on notice”, but there were dozens more throughout the book, all of which brought that same goofy grin to my face. They reminded me of the type of sayings my Grandpa Barker was known for, although his were apparently a bit more off-color.

Why did I only love about 90% of this book? The coming of age story at the book’s core is embedded within a shell of the now-adult main character revisiting his old stomping grounds as he prepares to deliver unwelcome news, news with which he personally disagrees, in his capacity as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. I didn’t really think the story benefited from these interludes, and I would have rather just kept living where the majority of the book dwelt than be drawn into these more reflective musings.

Also, things kind of fell apart for me near the end. There is a plot twist that just comes on too suddenly and is dealt with too quickly for a book that otherwise spends time luxuriating in description and character. It kind of felt like watching one of those television shows that gets about 50 minutes in and you know it’s not a two-parter. You’re sitting there wondering how they can possibly wrap the story up in the time remaining; they barely manage it and you’re left feeling like there’s a big hole in the resolution.

So, not a perfect book, but so damn close I’ve added all of Doig’s other books to my to-read list.

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