Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Next Best Thing, by Jennifer Weiner

Why I chose it: Every few years, The New Yorker runs a piece about genre fiction that makes it sound much better than it is, so I'll go ahead and get hold of ONE of the books mentioned in the article just to remind myself how much I dislike 99% of it. Then I don't read any until the next article.

Podcasts: None

Brow: Low

What I thought: As interesting as the New Yorker made Jennifer Weiner's fiction sound, this book didn't prove it. There's nothing wrong with the book, and given that while I was reading it, I was trying to grade a massive number of student papers AND write a master's-level paper, it was certainly a relief not to have a challenging novel facing me at the end of the day. But I certainly won't pick up another pop fiction book until the next piece.

Should you read it? If you're already a fan of Jennifer Weiner, you probably already have. It's among the most-reviewed books on Goodreads. If like me you mostly read literary fiction but the New Yorker piece got you interested and you want to know if you should try it out with this book, you shouldn't. Well, unless you like nitpicking things like when a character is wearing trousers in one scene, but then in the very next scene, which is only an hour or so later and in the same place, she's suddenly in a skirt with no mention of changing clothes, then this book will be a goldmine for you.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Poems, by Emily Brontë

Why I read it: Western Canon

Podcasts: None

Brow: Middle

What I thought of it: Honestly, this is what I thought Byron's poetry would be like: romantic quests, flowers, love notes, occasional tales from the land of Gondal, which the Brontës made up to amuse themselves before they all died of tuberculosis. I'm sure at the time it was very meaningful, and it's made even more meaningful by the fact that the author died unmarried and childless at age 25. Unfortunately, it isn't my kind of poetry. My kind of poetry turns out to be what Byron really wrote.

But should you read it? If you like romantic poetry that's more about imagery than adventure, this is the poetry for you. Most of it isn't very difficult to understand or relate to. Just make sure you get a version that just presents the poems and doesn't try to analyse every slip of Emily Brontë's pen, unless you're a Brontë scholar.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Year That Changed the World, by Michael Meyer

Why I read it: Economist Review

Podcast: C.V. Starr Center, which you can find on iTunes

Brow: High, even higher if you've actually been to Berlin.

Summary: Meyer was Newsweek's Eastern Europe correspondent in the 80s and was a firsthand witness to the extraordinary events that led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and its most hated symbol, the Berlin wall. He walks us through each country's transition, from Poland's first free elections in 1981 to a blunder at a press conference by a communist party spokesperson in East Berlin in 1989 that led to the wall being opened that very night, with liberal sprinklings from Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, and Romania thrown in for good measure.

But should you read it? If you've kind of heard of this thing called communism but aren't really sure what it was or why some parts of Europe seem so much poorer than say, Sweden or France, this is a great book to walk you through what happened. It's also short enough that it won't take you very long to read it.  Although this book was published before the Arab Spring, another interesting reason to read it is parallel between the fates of the countries that broke free of the Iron Curtain and what is currently happening now in the Middle East. Some of the revolutions were relatively peaceful (Czechoslovakia, Germany, Tunisia); others somewhat messy (Romania, Egypt) and still others led to years of civil war (the Balkans, Syria). It will be interesting to see where everything ends up in another 40 years. If you're looking for an in-depth country-by-country analysis of the collapse of communism, this isn't your book.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

Why I read it: Western Canon

Podcasts: CBC Ideas

Brow: Upper Middle, but only if you already know how to pronounce the title character's name. Middle if you had to wait until Julia Turner said it on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

Summary: Jim Burden arrives in Nebraska at his grandparents' prosperous farm following the death of his parents back in Virginia. On the train with him is a poor but educated family of Bohemians who have bought a farm down the road. Jim is assigned by his grandmother to teach the oldest daughter, who is a few years his elder, English. The two strike up a lifelong friendship that endures even after Jim moves to town, finishes high school, and goes off to college, but is held back from turning into a romance by the gulf of social class. Years later, Jim, who has never married, returns and visits Antonia.

But should you read it? If you're a fan of Little House on the Prairie and doomed romances, this is definitely the book for you. If you get angry when two characters so obviously well-suited to each other are kept apart by their families' and society's expectations, perhaps you should give up on media altogether. It's also quite short at just 250 pages, probably just enough to tide you over during a train journey from Virginia to Nebraska.