The Greatness of Dark Matter

I recently finished reading Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I have a great urge just to shout at you in all caps: JUST GO READ IT!!  However, this doesn’t make for the most interesting blog post.  So, I’ve decided to give you a few reasons.

Reason one-

It clearly explains Schrodinger’s Cat paradox.  Okay, before you go screaming in the other direction. This is a novel, but its premise centers on some pretty incredible quantum physics.  However, Crouch does a great job at explaining how it works.  You don’t have to be a physicist or even pass physics class to get what Crouch is saying.  I’m a science nerd, so I’ve read and heard many different explanations for Schrodinger’s cat and honestly this book contains the best and easiest to understand explanation I’ve come across.

Reason two-

The book shows how much we take for granted and is a really good reminder to be happy with what you have.  It shows that choices matter, but that sometimes the less glamorous choices are the best ones.  They are the choices that have the best long-term effects.

Reason three-

It’s a really fast read. Crouch tends to write in these short, clipped paragraphs which give you the impression that you are careening through the book like the characters are though the storyline. But this speed doesn’t lessen the emotional impact or character development.

Reason four-

This book is a bit of a mind screw, but it’s a hugely fascinating concept. It gives you a lot to chew on and is very memorable. It presents a few conundrums that, as a reader, I haven’t faced before.  Mainly the relationship between the hero and the villain is very unique.

Honestly, this is just an all-around good read and one of the few that I would feel pretty comfortable recommending to almost anyone.

Happy Reading!

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A Uniquely Gripping Tale

Obviously, I’m an avid reader. I read to and from work. I read at my desk before work and during lunch. I read while making bread and doing laundry. I read before I go to bed and even while waiting in line at the grocery store to check out.

Nevertheless, I can usually put my book down when it’s time to start work, or go to bed, etc. But, every once in a while, I will find a book that has me so entranced that I can’t be bothered to start laundry or go meet friends at a brewery for a drink.

One of these such reads was The Alienist by Caleb Carr.  I found myself completely enthralled. I had no regard as to when chapters ended. I normally consider how much time I have and how long the next chapter is going to be to see if I should keep reading or not, but not with this book.  No, I simply kept going.

It was a highly disturbing and at times gruesome read, but one I couldn’t look away from. The style of writing reminded me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  The story is told from the first-person perspective of a sidekick-like character.  Some reviews didn’t like the writing style, but I personally felt it enhanced the book’s general aura and fit with the time period.

This style also lends itself to some of the deeper philosophical ponderings that Carr delves in to, but in a very easily digestible way.  I found myself struck by the clarity of such thoughts as they were put forth. It is deliberate, comprehensive, and while it can meander, it does so with the intention of filling in background knowledge and information.

I heard of this read through the Editor. Her brief but positive assessment of the book piqued my interest. It was first published in 1994, when we were only in grade school and thus weren’t aware of this highly successful book.  If you also were in grade school at the time or simply missed it, I recommend it you give it a try.

Nevertheless, there is some caution to this tale. As I mentioned above, the topic and plot of this novel is deeply troubling and the descriptions of the crimes are vivid and grisly. The main plot centers around a serial killer and children who are sexually exploited. It will not be a read for everyone.

Despite its dark topics, Carr gives us one heck of a thriller, and a detailed view on psychological profiling for those interested.

Book Recommendations go Beyond Star Ratings

What makes a book good? Now, isn’t that the ultimate question that readers and writers face, alike. It’s, at times, a really difficult question. There isn’t one answer and it’s strangely a gut feeling, just like love.

I’ve recently read three books. I gave them all about three stars (I really wish Goodreads had half-ratings.) But in the end, I feel very different about them and my recommendation of them is far more complex than a simple star rating.

When I begin a book, I mark it as “currently reading” on Goodreads and do a quick scan of the reviews. I find that it can help temper my expectations or get me in the right head space. The first book was Summer Hours at the Robbers Library. It’s a light, fluffy read, but it didn’t get the best reviews.

The reviews were right in one sense. This book isn’t an award winner.  The story is a bit discombobulated.  The point-of-view constantly changes. The flashbacks are subtle but can lead to confusion. The characters are developed but a little troup-y.  And yet…

This was one damn delightful read.  Yes, critically it’s a bit of a dud, but I had a co-worker catch me in a full-on grin as I was reading this book.  She smiled and said, “It must be good.” And damn it, it was!

Once I finished Summer Hours, I started The Life of Pi. Obviously, this not only got a fairly solid rating on Goodreads, it’s award-winning. There was a lot of hub-bub and a movie; nevertheless, when I finished it I felt pretty meh; hence the three stars. I get why it won awards, but it didn’t grip me. It didn’t really evoke my emotions. It was a little too out there for me to identify with the character or story. And while I gave it the same rating I would recommend Summer Hours before The Life of Pi.

Finally, I read The Handmaid’s Tale. The highest rated book according to Goodreads of the three. It is viewed as a feminist classic and like The Life of Pi almost everyone has heard about it. However, I in the end, wasn’t blown away. If I were able to, I might have said three and a half stars, but since I can’t I couldn’t in good conscious give it four and thus three it was.

Despite The Handmaid’s Tale being critically and average joe acclaimed and the fact that I might rank it slightly higher than the other two, I still would recommend Summer Hours first and foremost. It’s more accessible. It’s sweet and fluffy. It isn’t going to make your head hurt or make you attempt to make heads or tails of what happened or what it all meant in the end.

I get why The Handmaid’s Tale caused a stir and partially what it’s getting at (I will not claim I get it all because frankly I don’t.) But it’s a bit heavy handed in a purposely befuddling way. I see what Atwood is up to, I just don’t really know that I can get that excited about it.

So, if you’re looking for a book to read and happened to not have read any of these my advice would be: If you’re looking for a new contemporary masterpiece of literature, Summer Hours ain’t it, but if you need something to warm your heart and make you smile. This is good choice. I admit that I’m a sucker for feel good tales. They are my comfort food in reading. If you want the philosophical- The Life of Pi. And if you want literature that inches remarkably close to our modern times, The Handmaid’s Tale is the book for you.

Happy Reading!

An Unlikely Pair: Chocolat & Choke

I have a very eclectic reading spectrum.  In fact, besides straight horror or romance, I’ll read pretty much anything. I also tend to switch gears between books. I stray away from reading several books of the same type in a row. After I finished reading Chocolat, I wanted to save other lighter reads for later, but I did want something quick for my next read. Thus, I grabbed the shortest book I had:  Choke.

Now if you are familiar with these books you know that this is about as far apart as you can get on the fiction spectrum…but then again, is it?

In college, I had a professor task us with writing a compare/contrast essay on The Life of Brian and The Passion of the Christ. I’m proud to say I aced it.  This assignment popped to mind as I finished reading Choke. Wouldn’t it be funny if I compared Choke to Chocolat? Is it even possible?

After some thought it actually seemed more than possible. Both are stories with main characters attempting to find a sustainable life.  Victor, in Choke is trying to pay for his mother’s health needs, get past his fucked up childhood, and potentially do something more with his life than pretend to choke at restaurants to get money and have sex to forget about his miserable existence.  Vienne, in Chocolat, is trying to find a place to call home permanently, something that she has never experienced due to her own messed-up formative years and her battles with religious doctrine and social norms.

Both characters are raised by single mothers that believe in, and do some, screwed up things.  Both characters use sex as a remedy for attention. Vienne’s is mainly in the past while Victor’s is current, but Vienne does venture back down this road. They can each be at times selfish, but also self-sacrificing.

These stories show character progression and yet in the end leave the reader with the knowledge that they still have a long way to go before achieving what they want or need.  And there is the distinct possibility that they never will. They keep doing things which make you wonder whether they have learned anything from their past.

Both plots have influential, manipulative side-characters.  In Chocolat it is the village priest, the clear villain who is crazed with “righteous” religious behavior. While in Choke we have Dr. Paige Marshall, who isn’t necessarily the villain. She’s trying to “help” her patients the best she is able, but Paige has got some issues of her own.

Obviously, the tone of the stories are very different.  Choke is raw, direct, in your face. It’s done intentionally to make you uncomfortable and possibly face some of your own insecurities.  Chocolat is much softer. It relies on the reader completely understanding the issues that the characters grapple with; the answers aren’t force fed. But in the end, they both present the general idea that life is messy and incomprehensible and yet somehow as humans we manage.  It’s the difference between industrial lighting in a warehouse and the soft glow in a mahoganized university library.

Choke and Chocolat are about as far as possible from each other in the general fiction section at B&N, and yet weirdly close, like sweet potatoes being a part of the morning glory flowering plant family.

Chocolat: Movie vs. Book

When I was a kid, my mom and I would occasionally go to the local convenience store and rent a movie or two.  We didn’t have a Blockbuster, but for small town Iowa the selection wasn’t bad.  We tended to do this on summer nights.  We didn’t have many channels at the time and staying up late watching movies was a fun summer treat.

One evening we rented Chocolat. It is the only movie I remember us renting and watching more than once before we returned it.  It was wonderful.  There seemed to be magic in it.  We enjoyed it so much that we purchased it on our next shopping trip to add to our ever-growing home movie collection.

It has since been a feel-good staple in my movie repertoire.  I mean who doesn’t love chocolate, a rebel wearing red shoes, and a hunky guy like Depp?  It’s a good remedy for a long, shitty day.

Thus, when I saw the book that the movie was based upon sitting on the shelf of a friend, I was stoked to read it.  Perhaps it would finally cast light on why the mayor is cutting up his wife’s dress in one of the scenes. My mother and I could never figure that out.

I figured there would be some differences, but I was surprised at just how much was different.  I strangely found myself sad that the book was not more like the movie.  This is an odd thought given that the movie was made to reflect the book. Not to mention, when is the movie ever better than the book?

I then wondered:  do I like the movie version more because I saw it first?  And I not only saw it first but fell in love with it first? Watching it over and over again. Maybe. Perhaps if I had read the book first I would have disliked the movie or at least not found it so charming. And yet…

The movie is a tighter story. It makes more sense.  It has a logic and progression that I find the book is missing.  The movie ending is nicer, more conclusive, cleaner. Yes, the book’s ambiguity is more the reflection of human nature and life for better or worse, but the movie gives us what we crave:  a happy ending with a clear resolution.  The movie also gives us an interesting twist where the villain doesn’t necessarily get his due. He finds redemption. He’s forgiven and ultimately does the right thing.

I can say that I enjoyed both stories, but I enjoyed the movie more.  Perhaps it’s the nostalgia talking or the thoughts I’ve presented, but in either case I hesitantly admit that I’m glad Hollywood went off script and gave me the movie I crave when the world is looking a little flavorless.

Don’t Sleep- Tap Dance

I recently finished Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes by Dan L. Everett.  It was one of those books that was thrust at me the last time I saw my grandfather-in-law. It is the story of Mr. Everett learning one of the most unique Amazonian languages. It’s a language which nobody outside of this specific tribe has ever been able to successfully learn. It was a really fascinating read. It gets a bit heady in the second half, but the overall story is gripping.

Everett spent years studying their language and culture in order to successfully communicate with them.  Naturally, there was a lot of miscommunication, misinterpretation.  He made errors.  He got laughed at. But he would try to use all of these things to learn and get better. Part of these errors came from a cultural standpoint, such as Westerners do a lot of small talk.  This is a kind of speech where we aren’t gathering much useful information.

For instance, if you need to borrow a co-worker’s stapler. Unless you know that person really well you probably aren’t going to just walk up to their cube and say, “Give me your stapler.”  You would most likely start off with at least a “hello” or “good morning,” followed by a “could I borrow your stapler for a moment?”  And then once you return it, there will be a least a “thank you,” perhaps a follow-up nicety asking them how they are doing, which social norms say that they are to reply to with “fine” or “well” whether this is true or not. An individual in polite society is to keep their troubles to themselves. Directness is considered on most accounts rude.

Other cultures don’t always operate in this manner and can have vast differences that lead to difficult and awkward situations. Everett learned that the Amazonian tribe had no mechanism for small talk.  It simply wasn’t useful.  To understand the language of a people, you need to understand the people and how they tend to operate on a day to day basis. I have found that since reading this book that this philosophy applies to other things as well.

For the past two years, I’ve been taking tap dance lessons.  While there are many specific steps to learn and master, a big part of it is improvising. Yes, it’s as terrifying as it sounds.

Like Everett, I fail a lot. To clarify, one can’t really “fail” in improv, but I do blank out on steps or get off beat. To me, this is what I classify as failing.  The first time I was a part of an improv circle I found that people would mimic other people’s steps. I saw this as copycatting or in some ways “I can do it better than you can.” I later learned that in tap improv circles mimicking is encouraged.  The concept of improv in a circle is to watch everybody and get ideas, try new things, and actually, repeating what someone else has done is a kind of compliment.

Improv circles are not a place to see who’s better than someone else, although talent does become apparent.  It is a place to learn and grow. This was a bit of a foreign concept to me having participated in competition sports and competing for the best grades in uber-academic classes in high school.

As I struggle through two songs of improv that feel like they go on forever every week in tap class, I try to think of Everett and his 20-plus years of struggling in the jungle to learn bits and pieces of a rare and baffling language along with the culture of its people.  I’ll improve through error just like Everett did to understand this new fascinating community that I’m slowly becoming a part of.

One-Hundred Percent Whimsy

I like whimsical things. I find that I’m easily able to free myself from what would happen in the real world and enjoy the totally ridiculous.  But is there a time when things become too ridiculous? I think that’s the main question to grapple with when reading The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Disappeared out the Window.

I picked it up on my latest book haul. It seemed light and fun with a very intriguing, albeit long, title. However, I was surprised when I updated my Goodreads account to find that people weren’t as gung-ho about this as I anticipated.  There were quite a few complaints about how far-fetched the story was.

Once I began reading, I saw why some people would be unenthused about this story. Because while it certainly was far-fetched, in a fun whimsical way; far-fetched might be too tame of a descriptor.  It reminded me of the stories told in the movie Secondhand Lions.

The whimsy was compounded by the writing style.  It did a lot more telling than showing; something a new writer would probably be seriously admonished for in a workshop.  It didn’t necessarily bother me, but it was noticeable.

Naturally, the tone of the story was flippant and nonchalant, but at times it felt awkward. There was a flippancy on topics that you just can’t be flippant about.  The phrase #TooSoon comes to mind.

It took me an unusually long time to finish this read.  I think this had partly to do with the fact that I wasn’t feeling well when I was reading it.  I’m not sure why, but when I’m sick reading becomes a very difficult task. But the struggle, I think, this time also had to do with the actual book.

When I finally came to the end of the story, I was glad it was over, but I did enjoy it.  I believe this is a mood read if I’ve ever seen one.  I can see myself loving the whimsy of this story at times and completely loathing it at others.  I gave it a solid three stars on Goodreads and would only cautiously recommend it.

To those that are intrigued, I would encourage them to read it, but go in with the attitude that this is a fun, amusing tale that has no basis in reality. It’s meant to be fun and out there.  If you can get behind that, it might just be a read for you.