BONUS BOOK: Dear Data by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

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“Dear Data – Week 07: A week of complaints and general grumpiness.”

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Every week for a year, designers Giorgia and Stefanie sent each other postcards capturing information describing something different about the details of their daily lives, from their digital activities to their emotions. Things like: How often did you check the time this week? Make a list? Apologize? What music did you listen to? Where did you go? But they didn’t write it – they drew it. Containing each correspondent’s fifty-two cards, along with thoughts and ideas for drawing with data, Dear Data shows how information design can be an artistic expression and inspires us to capture hidden patterns and find creativity and beauty in even the smallest details of our lives.”

Review: I first picked up Dear Data at the library after being drawn to the cover (I read the “Giorgia version,” the left cover in the picture above). I had never heard of the Dear Data project before and thought the overall premise of the project and book sounded interesting. In a similar vein, I had never really thought about information design prior to reading this book, and think that Dear Data is an excellent primer to very a interesting field. Overall, I preferred Giorgia’s designs to Stefanie’s, but found that it was much easier to quickly read and understand Stefanie’s cards.

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I had to read Dear Data in spurts because it quickly became tedious to decipher the different drawings each week. Overall, I think that the content of Dear Data was better suited for the original digital installment form (where Stefanie and Giorgia uploaded their cards each week to the Dear Data website) than the print form, but it was nice to read a unique and graphical book for a change.

Rating: 

Three_Star

 

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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“Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energy, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something. But I know this isn’t true. It is just passing the buck, as children do, to mothers.”

Genre: Dystopian, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now…”

Review: I wanted to read The Handmaid’s Tale because I was (naively) interested in watching the renowned Hulu TV show. I almost always prefer to read the book version prior to seeing a movie or TV show, and figured I could kill two birds with one stone by reading The Handmaid’s Tale (an often banned/challenged book). However, having now read The Handmaid’s Tale, I have no interest in watching the show. This book was disturbing and vivid enough through text alone that I know the TV show would be too disturbing for me. I’ve never read Atwood before, but found that I really enjoyed her writing style. It’s somewhat hard to describe, but she writes the way that I think (with long sentences and lots of commas). I found her style to be poetic and straightforward.

“Waiting is also a place: it is wherever you wait. For me it’s this room. I am a blank here, between parentheses. Between other people.”

Like many other readers, I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be a particularly challenging read because parts of it feel disturbingly relevant. Given the political climate in my home country, I can’t help but wonder if we’re at risk for certain Gilead-esque consequences.

“Others have thought such things, in bad times before this, and they were always right, they did get out one way or another, and it didn’t last forever. Although for them it may have lasted all the forever they had.”

I really liked trying to unravel the mysteries of Gilead through the windows provided by Offred, the reluctant narrator. My biggest complaint was that I wanted more from Atwood! I wanted more details, more history, more explanations. It’s a credit to her storytelling that I felt this way at the end of the novel, but I also think the book would have benefited from just a bit more detail. The epilogue helped fill in some of the blanks, but I’ll always wonder what happened to Offred and the other characters. Perhaps I need to watch the TV show after all…

Reason for Ban/Challenge: The Handmaid’s Tale has maintained a spot on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned and challenged books for multiple decades. It touches on a lot of hot-button topics, including sex, feminism, reproductive rights, religion, and equality. It’s also almost universally agreed upon that The Handmaid’s Tale is a disturbing (and terrifying) read, which has likely contributed to the many bans and challenges received over the years.

Rating:

Four_Star

BONUS BOOK: Stranded by Ben Mikaelsen

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“That’s what I want when I die. I want to be dumped out so the fish can nibble on me – give the ocean something back for all that I took from her.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Nothing has been the same for Koby since she lost her foot in an accident four years ago. Between the smothering concern of her parents and the awkward glances from the kids at school, Koby can truly feel at home only when she is on the ocean in her dinghy, Titmouse. But tonight, when twelve-year-old Koby finds herself stranded in the middle of the dark ocean with two dying pilot whales and an aching “phantom” foot, she can do little more than tremble. The lives of the two whales are literally in Koby’s hands and her strength is weakening. There are no rescuers in sight. The ocean is the last place Koby wants to be.”

Review: I first read Stranded when I was in sixth grade and, unbeknownst to me at the time, this book would go on to play a pivotal role in my life. When people ask me how I first became interested in studying whales, my answer is threefold.

  1. I met a girl in sixth grade who wanted to be a marine biologist. She was the first person I’d ever personally known who (at the time) planned on making a career out of studying the ocean and its inhabitants.
  2. I saw a southern right whale photo series by National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry, and was forever mesmerized by the images.
  3. I read Stranded, a story about a girl my age who rescued and befriended two injured pilot whales.

Perhaps if these three things hadn’t happened in the same year, my career goals would have been different. Ultimately, however, that pivotal year in sixth grade would go on to define every professional step I’ve taken since.

Ironically, despite my personal love for Stranded, it was widely ridiculed by most of my classmates. Any assigned reading in middle school is bound to be mocked to a certain extent, and Koby certainly didn’t win herself any points by frequently complaining about the “fleshy bulb” of her stump. Having reread the book now, it strikes me as a somewhat interesting choice for middle school reading lists. While Koby certainly does evolve as a protagonist throughout the novel, many of the supplementary characters seem incapable of change. I don’t remember disliking Koby’s parents when I first read Stranded, but this time around they were increasingly frustrating to read about. Perhaps Mikaelsen intended for readers to relate to Koby in her struggle for autonomy, but I think the novel could have benefited from better secondary character development. The best scenes were by far the ones where Koby interacted with the pilot whales and with head veterinarian, Tracy Michaels. Despite its flaws, I think the merit of this novel is that it tells an unconventional story.

Rating: Stranded is the third unrated book in the history of the Banned Book Brigade. I find it impossible to separate my personal gratitude to this book for the role it had in shaping me as a scientist from the actual merit of the writing.

BONUS BOOK: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

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“And so he came not charging on a horse, but quietly riding a story.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis:In Lisbon in 1904, a young man named Tomás discovers an old journal. It hints at the existence of an extraordinary artifact that—if he can find it—would redefine history. Traveling in one of Europe’s earliest automobiles, he sets out in search of this strange treasure. Thirty-five years later, a Portuguese pathologist devoted to the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie finds himself at the center of a mystery of his own and drawn into the consequences of Tomás’s quest. Fifty years on, a Canadian senator takes refuge in his ancestral village in northern Portugal, grieving the loss of his beloved wife. But he arrives with an unusual companion: a chimpanzee. And there the century-old quest will come to an unexpected conclusion. The High Mountains of Portugal—part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable—offers a haunting exploration of great love and great loss. Filled with tenderness, humor, and endless surprise, it takes the reader on a road trip through Portugal in the last century—and through the human soul.”

Review: I really wanted to like The High Mountains of Portugal. Like most Yann Martel readers, I LOVED Life of Pi. I even enjoyed Beatrice and Virgil, which seems to put me in the minority (maybe enjoyed isn’t the right word, but I certainly appreciated it). However, this latest Martel novel (written in three parts) misses the mark, particularly in the first and second sections. In general, I found the novel to be preachy and misguided. The book jacket synopsis, while technically being true, makes the novel sound way more exciting than it actually is. The object that Tomás, protagonist of the first part of the book, seeks would certainly NOT “redefine history.” Indeed, the first section was by far the most tiresome, with over 100 pages essentially dedicated to documenting Tomás as he tries to get a car to work. There are some great quotes, as you would expect from Martel, but the plot itself was sorely lacking. 

“Love is a house with many rooms.”

While the Portuguese pathologist in part two is obsessed with Agatha Christie, his obsession plays little to no role in the actual “mystery” he investigates. The High Mountains of Portugal reached peak preachiness during this section, but improved towards the end. I particularly enjoyed reading about his surreal autopsy, though I doubt I picked up on all of the symbolism Martel intended.

“That is Christianity at heart: a single miracle surrounded and sustained by stories, like an island surrounded by the sea.”

The third and final part of the book, focused on a Canadian senator and his chimp companion, Odo, was by far the highlight of the book and reaffirmed that, in my opinion, Martel does his best work when he writes about animals.

“Of the river of time, he worries about neither its spring nor its delta.”

I truly enjoyed this final section, particularly the relationship between Odo and the senator. But it was simply not enough to make up for a dull first part and an exhausting second one. 

Rating:

Two_Star

 

 

 

BONUS BOOK: Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare

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“He felt as if he were falling towards something, a dark unknown, the ragged edge of unwanted choice.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “A Shadowhunter’s life is bound by duty. Constrained by honor. The word of a Shadowhunter is a solemn pledge, and no vow is more sacred than the vow that binds parabatai, warrior partners – sworn to fight together, die together, but to never fall in love. Emma Carstairs has learned that the love she shares with her parabatai, Julian Blackthorn, isn’t just forbidden – it could destroy them both. She knows she should run from Julian. But how can she when the Blackthorns are threatened by enemies on all sides? Their only hope is the Black Volume of the Dead, a spell book of terrible power. Everyone wants it. Only the Blackthorns can find it. Spurred on by a dark bargain with the Seelie Queen, Emma; her best friend, Christina; and Mark and Julian Blackthorn journey into the Courts of Faerie, where glittering revels hide bloody danger and no promise can be trusted. Meanwhile, rising tensions between Shadowhunters and Downworlders has produced the Cohort, an extremist group of Shadowhunters dedicated to registering Downworlders and “unsuitable” Nephilim. They’ll do anything in their power to expose Julian’s secrets and take the Los Angeles Institute for their own. When Downworlders turn against the Clave, a new threat rises in the form of the Lord of Shadows – the Unseelie King, who sends his greatest warriors to slaughter those with Blackthorn blood and seize the Black Volume. As dangers close in, Julian devises a risky scheme that depends on the cooperation of an unpredictable enemy. But success may come with a price he and Emma cannot even imagine, one that will bring with it a reckoning of blood that could have repercussions for everyone and everything they hold dear.”

Review: I was really looking forward to Lord of Shadows, given how impressed I had been with the character and plot development in Lady Midnight. While I did enjoy this second installment in the Dark Artifices series, I also felt that it did not live up to the strong precedent set by the first book. One of my primary complaints is that Clare did not fully flesh out the current Shadowhunter world conflicts, particularly the anti-Downworlder movement led by Zara Dearborn. I understood what Clare wanted me to think and feel, but she didn’t do a great job of using her prose to actually make me think and feel that way. I have also grown somewhat tired of Clare using the same overarching conflict throughout all of her novels. I get it, the Downworlder/Shadowhunter relationship is complicated, but it would be nice to have a fresh conflict to deal with for a change. While I still think that Emma and Julian are strong characters, I was less impressed with the supplementary character development this time around. The chapters narrated by Kit, Christina, and Mark inevitably dragged more than those narrated by Emma and Julian. The single character exception was Tiberius Blackthorn, who evolved in this novel in ways that the other characters did not.

“Who would ever want movies or TV when there are books?”

On a more positive note, Clare once again did a great job of incorporating well-timed moments of humor into the story, with Emma standing out as the funniest character.

“I’ll crash the wedding,” Emma suggested. “I’ll jump out of the cake, but not in a sexy way. Like, with grenades.”

Overall consensus for Lord of Shadows: good, not great.

Rating:

Three_Star

BONUS BOOK: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

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“Being tired didn’t mean one was capable of sleep, just as the need for food wasn’t the same as a relish for it. Which brought her back, as everything did, to Anna.”

Genre: Mystery, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “A village in 1850s Ireland is baffled by Anna O’Donnell’s fast. The little girl appears to be thriving after months without food, and the story of this “wonder” has reached fever pitch. Tourists flock in droves to the O’Donnell family’s modest cabin, and an international journalist is sent to cover the sensational story. Enter Lib, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, who is hired to keep watch for two weeks and determine whether or not Anna is a fraud. As Anna deteriorates, Lib finds herself responsible not just for the care of a child, but for getting tot he root of why the child may actually be the victim of murder in slow motion.”

Review: I really expected to love The Wonder, given how impressed I was by Donoghue’s Room. Unfortunately, The Wonder ended up being one of my least favorite books of 2017 (so far). I really had to push myself to finish this novel and was disappointed throughout. My major grievances include an incredibly slow and boring plot (I felt like half the novel was just Lib walking around the village) with fairly unimaginative twists. The truth behind Anna’s fast is lackluster and predictable, and all of the characters came across as dull. I admit that part of my disappointment in this book likely stems from high expectations and an indifference towards Gothic literature in general, but I felt overall that The Wonder simply did not live up to its book jacket synopsis in any way. The plot picked up in the last 50 pages, but this marginal increase in pace could not overcome a fundamentally flawed novel.

Rating:

Two_Star

BONUS BOOK: A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

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“They say you came back different. Came back wrong. I never bothered to tell them I think you came back right. Came back right at last.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Feyre has returned to the Spring Court, determined to gather information on Tamlin’s maneuverings and the invading king threatening to bring Prythian to its knees. But to do so she must play a deadly game of deceit – and one slip may spell doom not only for Feyre, but for her world as well. As war bears down upon them all, Feyre must decide who to trust amongst the dazzling and lethal High Lords – and hunt for allies in unexpected places.”

Review: I had no idea until about 200 pages from the end of A Court of Wings and Ruin that this was the “last” book from Feyre’s perspective! However, I discovered through some research that Maas is planning on writing additional novels that focus on other characters in the series. While I know that many readers are particularly obsessed with Feyre and Rhysand, I’m actually really looking forward to those future novels, as Feyre has never been my favorite character. Regardless, I thought A Court of Wings and Ruin did a nice job of wrapping up this chapter in Prythia’s history. While I did feel like Maas did an unnecessary character dump at the end of the novel (although this made more sense once I learned that she plans to continue the series, albeit with different narrators), I did appreciate the character development in the main cast, particularly that of Nesta. There were several instances where I genuinely laughed out loud, most often because of a Nesta/Cassian exchange. Personally, I think the Throne of Glass series outshines the Court series, but Maas never fails to offer her readers a humorous and exciting escape into other realms.

Rating:

Three_Star