Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book Review 2010 (Part One)

The review is part one because I am going to take this section to review just two books in some detail, and the next post to make short reviews of all that I read this year. My two selections here are the winning recommendations from last year. I include summaries, but no real spoilers as both books are works of non-fiction.

The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives
by Cheryl Jarvis

recommended by GenJunky

Early in this decade, a woman in southern California (who considers herself an old hippie) walked past a jewelry store she had seen dozens of time, but was completely caught off guard by the beauty of a diamond necklace that was on display in the window. Over the ensuing weeks she admired it many times, but was struck by the thought that such remarkable luxury was available to so few. If other resources could be shared, why not a necklace?

Upon finding out that the necklace was going to be auctioned, she sprang into action and recruited a dozen women to each put up $1,000 and put in a bid on the piece. Each would own the necklace. The jeweler, amazed to see such regular and enthusiastic women in his store (diametrically opposed to his regular crowd) that he let the necklace go for a fraction of its worth on the condition that his wife could join the group.

The group, known as "Jewelia" (the truly inane name chosen for The Necklace), met monthly to swap stories, pass on the necklace and, ultimately raise money for charity.

Oh, and fight.

The thing is that while I love the premise of this book, and the idea behind their sharing, I had a really hard time with the book itself. Each chapter is a character sketch of the women. And though each is certainly unique, I have to admit that I didn't really feel connected to any of them. Even the ones described as being of modest means (and some of them certainly had backgrounds that fit the term), seemed exceptionally wealthy to me without truly appreciating just how remarkably blessed they were. It was rather astounding to me that they had to become a part of the group before they felt the necessity of sharing their (vast, by global terms) resources with others.

The jeweler who sold the necklace said the wear and tear on the clasp of the thing indicates that it was worn nearly 700 times the second year after purchasing (like anyone can KNOW that). With a single owner, such a high-end item might be worn just 2 or 3 times in a year. My first thought is that so much wear and share would take away from the wonder and uniqueness of such a thing, but on the other hand, the women say that what makes the necklace so special is the sharing. Interesting idea.

Some of the lessons of the necklace were truly profound. It seems that for the most part, their involvement in the group has made them less selfish, more bonded to a strong sisterhood, and more community-minded. On the other hand, some of the essays seemed trying too hard to create meaning, or shared lessons just a little too personal. Like the woman who only could convince her husband to let her join because she told him that she would wear ONLY Jewelia during their lovemaking. That is only the tip of the TMI iceberg.

I'm not exactly certain why I disliked the book so much. The essays, for the most part, weren't brilliant. Jarvis is a nationally renowned magazine writer (according the jacket), but I really didn't like her writing in this format. The timeline was all over the place; I didn't know what year anything was happening and it lost me a little bit. I also couldn't keep the women straight. Though they were different, most of their stories weren't all that memorable and when she would refer to one of the women later in another's essay, I was always thinking "Which one is this again?"

I think it is a book that would have been wonderful as a blog. The women who started Jewelia should have chronicled their journey in their OWN essays. It may have been more convincing.

A Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson

recommended by Katie

I feel a bit sous doing the review of this one now because I haven't actually finished it yet. I was truthfully a bit daunted by the size and topic, though the recommendation came from a highly trusted source. I was hoping to finish by year's end, but it just won't happen. I'll be close, but not quite there.

This book is basically a chronicle of all major scientific discoveries for lay people. I love it because so much of the science he describes I already have a basic understanding of, so I don't get lost in the details. What I didn't know was all the drama behind so many of these discoveries. The history, and maybe more so the telling of it, of scientific thought in the 1800's reads like an episode from a soap opera. He has really delved to find the story behind the eccentric and brilliant people whose remarkable discoveries have made modern life possible. Bryson worked hard to find female contributors as well. (Favorite anecdote read today: Marie Curie was so steeped in radiation that even her personal effects, many of which still are in existence, are still emitting toxic levels of it, 80 years after her death. To handle her things, even her cookbooks!, researchers must don special suits and remove the artifacts from lead-lined boxes. Awesome.)

It would have been so amazing to have had science professors who could have elucidated the history of all the discoveries about which they took such care to teach the details. I can see Bryson's point about science being so fascinating, but so inaccessible. When I teach again I think I will incorporate some of this human drama into the process. What a great approach to a student textbook. This book (which reads like a novel in sections) has also shown me what a great addition to a humanities course the history of science could be.

And I haven't even made it to all the good, meaty biological science portion yet. You see, the oldest science is really math. Once scientists had a good understanding of math, a study of physics became possible. When planetary motion proved baffling, Newton had to first discover a new math (calculus) in order to move forward. From physics you can move outward to astronomy or inward to chemistry. And only when chemical interactions can be explained, understood and cataloged, can the biologist create any meaning from the observations he makes. So the biological stuff will come later. I can hardly wait.

It isn't a book for everyone. I think Bryson kind of takes atheism as a basic premise in his foundation. I, for one, will take just the opposite stance. I find such wonder in all that he describes. Even as we find explanations for things, we can never discount the depth of intelligence in all living things. Our most brilliant men just shake their heads and shrug about what happened, what was, where everything was, in the instant before the Big Bang. I think it will be funny when we get to the other side with our list of questions only to find out that we were wrong about so much that the questions themselves don't even make sense. We will ALL have to go back to Science 101 to really figure stuff out.

Now it is your turn!

Submit your recommendations here. I will randomly choose two and read them next year (preferably a little bit earlier!) along with whatever else happens my way. You can recommend as many books as you'd like, but I will only give each person a maximum of two entries in the contest. A $10 Amazon gift card if I pick your book. Let's try to get 50 recommendations!

Contest ends on January 10.


heidikinsblog said...

Oh man, I have about a dozen recommendations...but I'll try to keep it somewhat limited here. (But no promises)

In no particular order:
First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung
Nudge, Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein
The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine
The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner
The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie

and/or anything by Malcolm Gladwell. ;)


Jenny said...

2010 was not a stellar book year for me, but there were a couple that I really enjoyed.

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead
was recommended to me by my 12 year old, and it was well worth the (short) time it took to read. I'm all about cheering for the underdog.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
A FUN read--It’s a book about how far youthful idealism can carry you if it’s not stamped out, as it so often is. And besides that, it’s a rattling good mystery, too -- the sort of book that makes you feel better when you’ve finished than you did when you started.

Jenny said...

I'm going to add two more.

The Wednesday Sisters
by Meg Waite Clayton


by Kelly Corrigan

I liked the synergy that develops with the storyline in the first book, and the second was a quick nod to the joys of watching your young daughters grow.

FoxyJ said...

I've just been working on writing up my year-end reading review. In no particular order here are some books that were memorable this year:

Yearning for the Living God by F. Enzio Busche
Nothing Was the Same by Kay Redfield Jamison
Every Man in this Village is a Liar by Megan Stack
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
In the Company of Angels by David McFarland
The Passage by Justin Cronin
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Room by Emma Donoghue

loradona said...

I (and my sister) enjoy reading and sharing many interesting books. Two that she shared with me (I can take no credit for discovering these) are:
1. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. Non-fiction. Title is what it says it is. Some of it may be hard to stomach (you will probably be fine; my sister was a physiology and biology major who now works in a tissue lab and the stuff was fine for her. I was okay, too, but I did have to put it aside for a moment to get over the "ick" factor). But it is intriguing and engrossing. Covers such things as body donation, cadaver farms, and (ew) cannibalism. I recommend it. Unless you have already read it.

In which case, I recommend:
2. The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas. Fiction. It seems slightly silly at the start, but then you grow to love the characters, and then there's a dash of mystery, and then... Oh, just read it. I'd send it to you to read, but I already sent it back to my sister. (Though I considered keeping it to read again.)

Yankee Girl said...

Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy by Maxwell Taylor Kennedy


Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

Desmama said...

I'm absurdly flattered you enjoyed Bill Bryson's book. His latest offering, At Home, is my current read, and my recommendation.

Janssen said...

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

Sherry said...

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and When Everything Changed by Gail Collins.

Whitney said...

I really liked The Wednesday Sisters which I think Jenny recommended.

Matched by Ally Condie
Women, Food and God by Geneen Roth
Les Miserable by Victor Hugo

I read all of these while convalescing.

mstanger said...

So Brave, Young & Handsome--Leif Enger
A Confederacy of Dunces--John Kennedy Toole
The Yiddish Policeman's Union--Michael Chabon
The Brothers K--David James Duncan
The River Why--David James Duncan
Headlong--Michael Frayn


A Serious Way of Wondering: The Ethics of Jesus Imagined--Reynolds Price
Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, unabridged version.

emandtrev said...

Let's see...

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull (realize this is very light reading, but still fun)

I've also received high recommendations to check out anything by Sandra Dallas. I can't vouch for it myself, but I will be reading some of her writing this year.

emandtrev said...

And I second the nomination for Yearning for the Living God by F. Enzio Busche.

Cathy said...

Neither of my nominations are new books but they are very good.

Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis--his autobiography detailing his conversion to Christianity

War Within and Without by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Excerpts from diaries and letters 1939-1944
Also autobiographical. The subject matter deals mostly with the Lindberghs' opposition to World War II, primarily on the grounds that entering into the war would prolong Europe's suffering. An interesting read for all sorts of reasons--historical perspective, a profile of what principled objection to politically popular ideas looks like, an author's "voice" with which I empathize greatly--mostly I think because of her struggle to live joyfully and her detachment from much of mainstream life. I also like it--why bother denying it?--because AML had so many chances to do unusual things, opportunities given through wealth and connections but also gained by personal sacrifice. And hey, she's a liberal arts/ English major-type person who, after marrying Charles Lindbergh, also became his co-pilot. Cool.

Cathy said...

I'm throwing in another one, though I haven't completed it yet. Also autobiographical. Don't be deceived--I mostly read fiction, frequently juvenile fiction! This just seems to be the year of recommending autobiographies.

Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Saint-Exupery was an early pilot; this is a description of some of his flying experiences and insights into life gained from them.

Scully said...

I'm currently in the middle of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I still don't know how I feel about it, but I do have a very difficult time putting it down. If you are interested in any of the following things it will make for an interesting read: France, Paris, child prodigies, people who hide their true selves, philosophy, Japan, pre-Communist Russian novels, or the nature of intelligence.

I also enjoyed Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked. Although, if you don't generally like Hornby's work, you probably won't like this book.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

When she takes a job as the New York Times's restaurant critic, she learns every waiter in town is on the lookout for her. In order to be treated like an average customer, Ruth dines in disguise--as an old lady, a blonde bombshell, an aging hippier, her own mom. As she transforms her appearance, she is amazed at how that simple change affects her own behavior and the way others treat her.