Mumbai-New York-Scranton — Tamara Shopsin

mumbai_newyork_scranton_tamara_shopsin From the cover to the inside back cover photo, to the weight of the paper, to the choice of font to the margins on the pages to the color of the cover ALL transported me back to the 70’s or perhaps the late 80’s when I was reading tattered library books from the decade before.

Only the occasional mention of blogging on the inside made me realize I was in fact reading a modern book. It didn’t help that traveling through India, at least according to this account is a bit like being in the past, so the subject matter throughout the first half of the book just kept the confusion going. But what a wonderful incongruous journal and journey it is!

Short snippets and snapshots, observations and glimpses, each mirrored by the style of the included square format photos. You are thrust into a travel journal encompassing the wondrously incomprehensible india. This is a rich and wonderful tapestry of sights and sounds but slowly you realize what you are really experiencing is a beautiful private shared moments glimpse into an amazing relationship.

Before you know it we are (back) in New York – just as crazy in it’s own right, and just as accurately relayed in tiny glimpses, from there we even make down to Scranton. But with each page turn, unbeknownst to you an alternate tension slowly builds, just under the surface the water is shifting, slowly building into a roaring waterfall. You don’t realize it but all of a sudden you are in a different book. Still told in observational snippets accompanied by the witty and funny photos, but all of sudden you are watching and rooting for someone who is fighting for their life.

Overall a wonderful wonderful journey I would heartily recommend for any adventurous souls who appreciates the details (probably an introvert).

The Bonobo and the Atheist — Frans de Waal

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Wow, what an interesting read. Even if you don’t agree with the many, many ideas brought forth in Frans de Waal’s central argument, or if you’re a staunch anti-atheist or hate bonobos, there is no denying there is a lot to chew on in the pages of this book.

There are some really, really interesting theories put forth about the origins of morality and how, contrary to popular belief, perhaps they do have a basis in biology.

Certainly de Waal’s work with bonobos, and other scientists with other animals like elephants, but even rats, helps support his claims.

If there is one criticism it would be De Waal’s obsession with Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, I mean I think it was meant to be an interesting jumping off point, but mostly it felt like a huge distraction, especially since no full reproduction is included only bits even though many other parts of the painting are discussed. What does a 15th century painting have to do with Bonobos and Atheism? to be honest I don’t remember anymore.

Yo Miss – Lisa Wilde

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Yet another graphic novel, but I love them. Usually if the drawing style doesn’t jive with me I have to put the graphic novel down, I just can’t deal with it, it’s a very important part of a graphic novel for me.

Things were different here, I was in danger of putting Yo Miss down, but the story just won me over. I couldn’t put it down. Fairly standard fare about a school full of kids, a second chance school for inner city kids, but the story is so full of heart and you grow to like the teacher (Lisa Wilde / Author) and the kids are so endearing (reflects I’m sure, the teachers love for her students) that you just keep turning the pages.

Lucy Knisley

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Lucy Knisley (Nice-ly) is my new favorite Graphic Novelist. I had the pleasure of reading through three of her books.

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Age of License was the first book I read. It was a pretty good read. I enjoyed the subject matter — travel. But I didn’t fully connect fully with the book or its drawing style for some reason despite the fact that I usually love travel books. My favorite part was when she visits Angoulême famed for its own love of comics and their authors because I would probably share Lucy’s excitement in being there.

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Displacement I read this book next. I liked it even better. Lucy goes on a cruise (which can be trying in the best of times! see DFW’s take on it) but she takes things to a whole other level by going on this adventure with her very geriatric grandparents. Hilarity, well more like poignant resignation and frustration ensues! My favorite part however were the flashbacks to her grandfather’s wartime journal entries ( I could read a whole illustrated graphic novel of just her grandpa’s experiences! hint hint)

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Relish This was the last one I read and it was by far my favorite, perhaps it was the subject matter. Being a foodie myself, I could really appreciate another foodie’s journey through life plus the book is littered with detailed cutely illustrated recipes throughout. This one really hit it home for me – a coming of age story, a foodie romp through farm to table, city life AND country living, awesome recipes and a lightness throughout but once again grounded by its poignancy of family life and a life lived.

Geek Sublime – Virkam Chandra

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This book is hard to pin down, and because of that it suffers a bit. It would seem that not a lot of readers possess the unique qualities and experiences that form the foundation of the theories touched upon in this book. Authors (of Novels), authors (of code) a.k.a. programmers, and people with a deep historical knowledge of indian culture and mythology.

The author possesses all three in spades, he is an indian novelist who coded on the side to make ends meet. He is very smart and seems a good novelist and probably coder too. His writing is eloquent enough to cover all three of the seemingly disparate topics, he makes a case that perhaps they are not so disparate after all — but it still seems despite the authors best efforts that there isn’t an audience for this all encompassing thesis.

Still I applaud the effort – there are some gems in there – even if for me it didn’t quite come together, and it seemed to be in need of some editing (by an outside editor, is this self-published?) in the middle to rein it all in a bit. I hope the author found some peace in putting his thoughts and theories to paper, and I appreciate him letting us in on the workings of the mind which can get messy with flashes of brilliance.

P.S. I also suspect as it did me that the title can mislead, even though the book is non-fiction the title is applied more like a work of fiction – meaning the poetic lyricism is more important than the literal meaning and I suspect geek is such a loaded/coded word right now that readers might be doubly surprised by the literary tone on the inside.

Through the Language Glass – Guy Deutscher

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Wow this book goes there and back. Apparently the premise that language shapes your thinking, worldview, possibilities is quite widespread, quite old and apparently utterly untrue.

At least that is what Guy Deutscher would have you believe towards the beginning of the book but by the end he comes full-circle and acknowledges that indeed it can color your thinking – it just doesn’t limit your thinking like some cultural theorists would have you believe in the 17 and 1800’s, they would use it support their “theories” about “less evolved” cultures and things like that.

The book starts out with the bizarre color associations in Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad what with his wine-colored sheep and green colored eyebrows. What to make of that? And it ends with an interesting language and culture of the Guugu Yimithirr which does not have “egocentric” coordinate concepts such as Left or Right, instead it only uses “geographic” coordinates so that speakers must always be aware of North and South no matter if they are in a room without windows or jumping out of a sinking boat in shark infested waters – they will always know which cardinal direction they swam to escape and their children always know which direction the tv was facing because Punch might have been to the West of Judy.

For someone who takes painstaking pains to back up his theories with evidence – the final pages of the book go into some wild hyperbole and flights of fancy and in fact the ending chapters somewhat unravel as if the author ran out of time or grant money or perhaps missed his children and just wrote some stuff to get the damn thing finished.

Overall I learned some stuff – but it wasn’t the book on language I was hoping for. And the author’s final revelation that naming things in a particular language is what actually carves up reality for us and not how reality is indeed divided, he presents as the ultimate revelation. Unfortunately buddhist monks have known about this for years.

Roz Chast – Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?

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Well that’s a wallop of a book. It’s about DEATH. Specifically about dealing with it with parents who live well into their 90’s. But it’s a really, really great read. A very insightful, funny, poignant and unfortunately sad read. But that comes with the territory and unfortunately as people live longer and longer, it’s something many of us will have to deal with. Which is why I appreciated this book so much.

It’s a one of a kind non-judgemental, un-edited, tell it like it is, look into someone’s personal way of experiencing this situation and I loved it. All told through Chast’s one-of-a-kind drawings, hand-lettered text that feels like you’re reading her diary and interspersed with family photos, like a scrap-book.

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Admittedly I picked up this book because I thought it would be hilarious. And it is, especially in the beginning but things quickly take a turn for the worse. Funny, personal, nyc-centric and geriatric quips abound and you keep going until the inevitable end, as Roz had to to do with the situation in real life.

The Dog Stars – Peter Heller

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Of all the post-apocalyptic narratives out there this one is my favorite (although Daybreak is really good). There are no zombies here. Just the everyday reality of what would happen once the immediate threat disappears – and you’ve somehow survived.

The writing style seems to give people a lot of trouble, I think these are the same people who’ve never read a poem or for whom a minimalist painting somehow is a threat to their worldview. Either that or they are grammar nazis. But who is to say that every sentence needs a period or needs to be grammatically correct in a novel?

I think the writing style was one of my favorite parts of the book. Stream of consciousness style. Done really well I thought. Full of distractions, half thoughts, other people’s voices, memories… You get to really enter the mind of the character – who happens to be a pilot, own a dog, and share his somewhat miserable life (are their lives really any more miserable post-apocalypse then before?) with someone whose moral standards are a bit different from his own (but are they wrong or is survival the only thing that matters?).

These questions and others are presented as part of the, one could say mundane, existence of Hig. I guess all these zombie and other disaster movies try to show us that we are only a thin line away from utter chaos and reversion to an animalistic survival instinct and that societal niceties are the first to go – and this book shows those beautifully – but this book is also an amazing meditation on loss and longing under the circumstances. And really it’s the little things – amazing descriptions of flying, and gardening, fishing, the little pleasures in life – the only things left really – once everything else is gone – that really gave me joy and kept the pages turning.

Thank you Peter Heller, and thanks K for a great birthday read.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

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This might be the most devastating book I’ve ever read. At the same time one of the most amazing. He has such amazing insight. A most accurate and extremely sharp mirror he holds up to society and its ills but on a micro-level. Human miserable existence as it grows from the individual, from our families, our relationships.

Our foibles, jealousies, ambitions, best of intentions all conspire to make us miserable – prisoners of our own feeble bodies, longing for understanding, relationships, power. We’re all like children not quite sure what we’re doing, just trying to survive even though all of it is possibly against us. Needless to say this is not an uplifting inspirational novel. More like a medieval treatus on the sins of humanity and how we are destined for hell. But more of a Sartrean hell where it is us and each other.

On the other hand this is a writers and a readers novel – some of the passages are just expertly writ. Beautiful poetry. There are quite a few characters here, both genders in all stages of their lives and not a moment feels false – their external actions, dialogues and internal motivations all ring true and all feel like reflections of ourselves or those who are closest to us. Throughout I marveled at Jonathan Franzen’s skill, and kept asking myself how did he do it, truly amazing.