CBR-V Wrap-Up

I set out to read 52 books in 2013. I ended up reading 65, which averages out to 1.25 books a week!

I read some truly great books this year, and some okay-to-bad books. In no particular order, here’s my list of top 3 bests and worsts. This is by no means a definitive list–there were dozens of others that could have made my best list alone.

Best:

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 

Worst:

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Divergent by Veronica Roth

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta 

CBR-V Review #65: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

I am, unabashedly, a J.K. Rowling fangirl. I grew up with Harry Potter and my devotion the series has only deepened over time, and in my eyes, Rowling can do no wrong. Although I still haven’t gotten around to reading A Casual Vacancy yet, I most certainly will at some point. However, given the mixed reviews of her first foray into adult literature, I’m glad that The Cuckoo’s Calling (written under a pseudonym) was my first exposure to her non-Harry Potter work.

I do want to say that I think I would have loved this book even if it hadn’t been written by Rowling. I might not have ever had the opportunity to pick it up, given that it wasn’t hugely successful before the reveal of its author’s true identity, but I would have definitely still liked it. And if I hadn’t liked it, I wouldn’t have given it a strong review just because of who the author is (as much as I adore her).

The Cuckoo’s Calling is an old-school detective novel, featuring the hardened-yet-lovable protagonist of Cormoran Strike, a former soldier in the British army and a current private eye, struggling to make ends meet and dealing with a recent breakup with his beautiful ex-girlfriend. He’s approached by a wealthy lawyer who wants Strike to investigate the suspicious death (deemed a suicide by the police) of his sister, a beautiful and famous model named Lula Landry. With his new assistant, Robin (a practical young woman caught up in the excitement of detective work), in tow, Strike sets out to find out what really happened to Lula.

I could not stop reading this book. It was just so, so good.

I appreciated, first and foremost, that this was simply a really good mystery. Nowadays, I feel like a lot of mysteries are closer to the horror and/or psychological thriller genres, which can be good, but aren’t my favorite. What can I say–I’m a scaredy-cat. This was just a fun read, with nothing too grim or disturbing to weigh down the enjoyment of figuring out whodunnit. It’s a lot like an Agatha Christie mystery, complete with the dramatic, chapter-long monologue at the end revealing who the culprit of the crime is, and I loved that.

In that same vein, Rowling keeps the tone light and the prose fast-paced. This is where her years of Harry Potter experience really benefited her, because she was really able to use her (underrated, in my opinion) knack for humor here, while also keeping things moving and giving the reader some exciting action and a twisty, unpredictable mystery (along with the requisite red herrings, which were convincing and deployed well).

Rowling is also so good at creating unique and memorable characters, as evidenced by the amazing cast of the Harry Potter series. She lives up to that reputation here. Not only is Cormoran Strike a perfect protagonist (something of an anti-hero, complex, with a good backstory), but her supporting characters are brilliant as well. Robin is a great foil to Strike–somewhat naïve, but smart and capable too–and the people they encounter throughout the investigation are just so well-rendered and so believable that they practically jump off the page. She also doesn’t disappoint with her creative names, which were one of my favorite things about the HP series–we’ve got Lula Landry (a superstar name if I’ve ever heard one), Guy Sommé (a flamboyant fashion designer), Deeby Macc (a popular rap star), and Tansy Bestigui (a young and obscenely wealthy housewife), just to name a few.

I’m pretty sure this is going to become a series (I’d be disappointed if it didn’t), which makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot more to discover about Strike, I think, and I’m excited to see where his relationship with Robin goes (and what mysteries come next). Given how good this book is, it seems like Rowling may have struck gold twice in terms of successful series.

I really don’t have anything bad to say about this novel. With it, Rowling has proved that she’s not just a kid’s writer, and can hold her own as a writer of adult fiction as well.

CBR-V Review #64: Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness by Erich Schiffman

I’m still fairly new to yoga. I started practicing in free sessions led by students during college, then spent a year doing audio classes from YogaDownload.com (which I HIGHLY recommend) in my bedroom because I was too poor to afford to go to a studio. It’s only been in the last six months that I’ve started going to classes regularly and really attempting to expand my knowledge of yoga and my abilities in my practice. I’ve been looking to go deeper recently, to understand the benefits of poses and how to put them together in sequence effectively, in order to develop my own practice at home for the days I don’t go to a studio (and to make it a more personal, meditative experience without external stimuli to distract me). A yoga instructor friend lent me this book once she heard what I was trying to accomplish.

Yoga is an extremely comprehensive overview of the practice, beneficial both for complete newcomers and for those who simply want to know a bit more about the things they do in class. Schiffman recounts his own introduction to yoga and then spends a great deal of time discussion the benefits of yoga, especially the mental and emotional effects. He then breaks down the most common poses with detailed instructions on how to do them, what their purposes are, and what they look like (in pictures). He also gives some sample sequences for different ability levels.

I liked this book, and felt like it taught me a lot. Yoga is about continuous growth and learning, and this book is a great example of that–I think that even the most advanced yogis could benefit from some of the things Schiffman says. It’s a fairly philosophical book, too, and there’s a lot of discussion about personal connection the universe and the strengthening of ties to all other humans through yoga, self-awareness and self-acknowledgement, and attaining true peace and happiness through one’s practice. The language got a bit too hippy-dippy even for me at times, but overall I appreciated the message and thought that Schiffman does a great job of encapsulating how yoga should (and does) make you feel. I took a lot of notes on the things he said, including many inspirational and encouraging quotes on mentality and carrying your practice with you, and I’m sure this is going to be a book I refer back to often.

I think the best part of the book is Schiffman’s incredible pose guide and instructions on mediation and awareness and breathing. His guides for the latter are simple and easy to follow, and his pose breakdowns are also very good (I tried out one pose–a headstand–based on his instructions, and was able to do it for the first time ever!). I think the pictures are awesome and helped me visualize some of the poses I hadn’t done before, and I really liked that he included the traditional names for them in addition to the westernized versions. My favorite part was the small section included for each pose on its benefits and why it’s done–not only does he discuss the immediate/obvious benefits like stretching out the hips, for example, but he also talks about which poses relax you, detoxify you, energize you, etc. Teachers don’t have the time to include all that information in an hour-long class, so it was kind of cool to learn about the poses I didn’t know as much about.

The pose sequences at the end are also great, and are a really helpful starting point for starting a home practice. He also lists the most important poses that should be incorporated into every practice, which is also a good thing to know if you’re short on time or trying to try out a new sequence or something like that.

This is a very good resource for yogis of all levels–whether you’ve never set foot in a yoga studio or have already achieved enlightenment, I think there’s something to be gained from this book. If you have any interest at all in yoga, I’d highly recommend checking it out.

CBR-V Review #63: Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

I’m a sucker for crime mysteries. This comes from a long-time obsession with Law and Order in all its variations, I think–I just love procedurals. I only recently transitioned that love to books, for some reason, but now I can’t get enough. True crime is a genre I haven’t spent too much time with, as I generally prefer fiction, but I’d heard really good things about it so I wanted to give it a shot.

A few years ago, a young woman–a prostitute–called 911 from Long Island and then disappeared. During the subsequent search for her, the bodies of four other young women were discovered, each one wrapped in burlap. These women were revealed to also have been sex workers, each of them from different cities and with different backgrounds, but all of them working in the same business. Robert Kolker explores the lives of each of these four women leading up to their disappearances, and the subsequent investigation of their murders, and in doing so reveals the ins and outs of prostitution in the age of the Internet–sex work based almost entirely on Craigslist posts. It’s prostitution made easier but also more dangerous, and these women are its victims.

I really commend Kolker for his meticulous research into the lives of these women–he clearly spent a lot of time interviewing family members, friends, and acquaintances to develop a full picture of who they were as individuals. He’s never judgmental of the women he’s profiling, and does a really good job of trying to understand and honestly portray the circumstances that led them to prostitution. In that regard, the book is very well-executed, and I appreciated how much he made me feel for each of the women.

There were some big problems with the book beyond that, though. The first is that although each woman had a different story, I had a hard time keeping them straight and remembering who was who. I was also puzzled by the lack of pictures–it would have been logical, to me at least, for Kolker to include a photo of each women to really bring them to life and acknowledge that these were real women with real lives (and also help the reader keep them straight). It’s a little ironic given the title of the book–Kolker was trying to give voice to the voiceless, but by muddling their identities he doesn’t truly succeed. I also felt like Kolker had a hard time knowing what to leave out–he interviewed so many people and it seemed like he included literally everything he found, including pointless and mostly irrelevant Facebook posts and things like that.

The biggest problem, though, was that this is, as the title states, an unsolved mystery. As such, the latter half of the book, dealing with the police investigation into the murders, is noticeably weaker than the first half, which focuses more heavily on the women themselves. It’s a sad fact that the investigation hasn’t resulted in anything, and that there isn’t very much information to go on, but it makes for a boring narrative. There’s no substance to that part of the book simply because there’s nothing to write about–there aren’t any real suspects, all leads have proven to be fruitless, and as of right now, it’s a stagnant case. That’s not Kolker’s fault, obviously, but I question the logic of writing a book about it–or at least, devoting so much attention in the narrative to the actual investigation. I think that’s where the editing problem comes in–it almost felt like he realized towards the middle of the book that he was running out of things to say, so he just included everything. As a result, it was hard to finish the book, because I just lost interest. I almost wonder if he started writing when he did in hopes that the case would be solved before he finished, but then found himself stuck when nothing came of it.

It’s a shame, because the first part of the book–the stories of the women–is genuinely compelling, and I found the discussion of how prostitution is changing so dramatically in the Internet Age fascinating. If Kolker had instead chosen to write about that topic more in-depth, rather than focusing on the crime, I think the book would have been much strong. As it stands, though, it’s an uneven effort. I do think it’s worth reading if only to bring attention the complexity of prostitution and the unlikely paths that might lead to it as a career, but feel free to skip out on the last part–you won’t miss much.

CBR-V Review #62: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

I first heard about this book when someone put it on their “Best Books of the Summer” list, and shortly thereafter, my beloved Lena Dunham tweeted about it. After having read this book, it makes total sense why she’d love it and recommend it, but in the very best way–Nate P. is a slightly older, male version of Hannah Horvath, her character on Girls. And like GirlsThe Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is about as true of a representation of the plight of the young, white, and upper-middle-class trying to get by while trying to navigate the responsibilities of the real world, maintain artistic integrity, and figure out who you are while also trying to figure out the people around you.

The titular Nathaniel–Nate, as he more often goes by–is a writer who, after years of scraping by as a freelancer, is about to make it big with the publication of his much-hyped first novel. He’s enjoying his newfound position as a fledgling star, occupying a role of power and recognition in New York’s literary scene. However, despite his professional success, he’s still a child in many ways, most obviously when it comes to women. He bounces from woman to woman, stringing them along and breaking hearts, until the day he meets Hannah–a woman who is by no means his type, but who intrigues him and challenges him in ways he’s never experienced.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is that it’s written by a women. Of course, there are plenty of books out there with convincing narrators of the opposite sex from the author, but there are very few that I can think of where an author truly becomes the opposite-sex character. One of the only ones that comes to mind off the top of my head is She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb–it’s crazy that a middle-aged man could so fully encapsulate the voice and experience of a teenage girl, but he does. Granted, Waldman has an easier task in that she’s probably encountered more than a few Nathaniel’s given that she, like him, lives in New York and is presumably part of the literary scene there. But her commitment to the character is truly remarkable and her insight into the male psyche is pretty astounding. I kept having to check Waldman’s picture on the back flap of the book to remind myself that a woman had written what I was reading–Nate is that fully realized and so totally male (complete with observations and beliefs that I, and I’m sure many women, have suspected but rarely confirmed). Beyond that, Nate’s just a great character in general. He’s so real–flawed and completely unlikeable at times, but human enough that you still root for him and want him to figure it all out.

I don’t know that I’ve read a book that so fully represents love and relationships in the millennial generation–this is, to give the closest comparison I can, High Fidelity for a new generation (although that’s a modern classic that will never fail to hold up). Just replace music with books and you’ve got a new version of Rob Gordon, complete with the pretentious asshole behavior and commitment issues (and, of course, the inexplicable lovableness).

There’s not much to say about the book beyond the incredible characterization, because Nate is the whole story. The plot is overall uneventful–it’s more a meditation on the women Nate has loved, and his attempt to sort out what they mean and where he’s going in his mind. It’s a very internal narrative, without a lot of external action, but it works. I’ve seen this book criticized as being pointless or navel-gazing, but I didn’t think that at all. The plot is not the point here.

I highly recommend this book–it was one of the best I read this year.

CBR-V Review #60: Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III

I’m going to preface this review by saying that I have a huge crush on Andre Dubus III–I’ve met him before and he’s just awesome, and he’s an incredible writer. I tore through House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days and adored them, and I was really excited to hear that he had a new book coming out because I just love his work. I actually had no sense of what this was about before I read it–I just knew I wanted to read it because it was by him!

Dirty Love is actually a collection of three short stories and a novella, all of them loosely connected by their characters, who share passing relationships with one another. All of them, as the title would suggest, deal with love and sex in our modern world–a world of pain, darkness, and loss. Love (of all kinds–of others, of oneself) isn’t simple, and that seems to be the overall message of the book: it’s messy. We meet a man struggling to come to terms with his wife’s affair, a woman facing the prospect of being alone forever, a bartender struggling with his constant urges to cheat on his pregnant wife, and a teenager dealing with the consequences of a hook-up gone wrong.

As is typical of Dubus, all of these characters are stunningly portrayed and incredibly complex (and, more often than not, not particularly likable). I felt like in the first three stories, he was really able to get into their heads, express thoughts and beliefs and perspectives that are most certainly not his own. It’s a tremendous talent, and his ability to characterize so well is one of the reasons I fell in love with his writing. The fourth story/novella was more of a disappointment–it felt too try-hard. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a male author to accurately capture the voice of a teenaged girl (it’s not super common, though. Off the top of my head, only She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb comes to mind, although I’m sure there are others). Dubus himself has done a great job with female characters, even in this very collection (with the second story). But the fourth piece of the book fell totally flat for me, and I didn’t buy his main character at all. It seemed like he was trying to incorporate too much “teen-speak” and sound hip and that really bothered me. It just wasn’t authentic, which is so unusual for him–typically, his work is all about the authentic human experience, giving voice to stories that don’t get told.

Maybe its because his work is so character-based that I felt like short stories weren’t necessarily the best platform for his talent. I don’t know–I was definitely intrigued by most of the stories but I wasn’t as engaged as I should have been. I felt like he couldn’t necessarily go as in-depth as possible, and there wasn’t really any momentum in any of the stories (except maybe the second one). I actually had a hard time getting through this book; I kept putting it down and picking it back up. Which, given how fast I’ve read his other work, isn’t a great sign.

I don’t know. Overall, I’m just lukewarm on the book. I still love Dubus, but I’m going to hold out for his next novel and hope it meets his old standards.

CBR-V Review #59: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I reviewed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix a few weeks back–I know it’s a little weird to be working backwards, but it’s actually been sort of fun to read in reverse, making it easier to catch references and foreshadowing that I might not have remembered otherwise.

I always forget how good the fourth book is! The titular Goblet refers to the prize at the end of the Tri-Wizard tournament, an infamous, dangerous competition between the schools of the wizarding world. For the first time in years, it’s being hosted at Hogwarts–and Harry, despite being too young to enter, finds himself competing as one of two representatives of Hogwarts. Once again, Harry finds himself thrust into the spotlight, which is hard to deal with while also trying to figure out how to get through the tournament without embarrassing himself (or worse, being killed).

I mentioned in my last review that the 5th book seemed like it was a turning point in the series, but this is the book that lays the groundwork for that shift in tone/plot structure. While there’s obviously darkness to be found in all the HP books in the series up until this point, this one has the biggest stakes, in that Voldemort and his followers are regaining power, and the biggest consequences (namely, death, although I won’t name names if you for some crazy reason have never read this). I still can barely get through the first and second-to-last chapters of this book; they’re truly disturbing and scary.

This book is also important because the world of Harry Potter–previously confined to, essentially, the Muggle world, Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, the Weasley home, and Hogsmeade–expands dramatically here, in geographic scope, in background information, and in characters. Accordingly, this book is significantly longer than any other in the series up until this point–I remember being shocked at how huge it was when I first got my hands on it at age 10. It’s the first book that shows us that there’s a wizarding world outside of England, with wizarding schools and Quidditch teams. It’s in this book that we get important background information/world-building, with details on Voldemort’s supporters and their time in power, insight into magical creatures and wizarding world history, and more. And we also get a whole new cast of characters, many of them some of the most memorable in the whole series (I’m particularly fond of Rita Skeeter and Mad-Eye Moody).

This is a great installment of the series–I’m guessing most people have read it already, but if you haven’t, it’s really worth a read. (I know I’m clearly a HP fangirl, but really…it’s great).