Bookworming, Picture Perfect

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: The 50 States

In case you didn’t know this crucial thing about me: I love picture books!

er-the50statesThe 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan, illustrated by Sol Linero

Category: Books

Find it on: see nice pictures on our design blog

What it is:
A collection of illustrated maps of all the states in the United States, filled with facts and curios. For each state one gets to know basic data, important(ish) dates from history, location, famous people and a whimsical selection of things worth seeing in the state. Everything is gorgeously illustrated and very entertaining. And yes, technically it’s a children’s book but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

How I found it:
I think it might have been some random Amazon recommendation which my husband then bought for my birthday.

Summary judgment:
It’s both lovely to look at and quite educational, I kid you not.

Best things about it:
How lovely it looks. Sol Linero and the graphic designer Nicola Price have created a pretty object which gives joy to look at. It is especially impressive when you do a search for other books on the similar subject (spoiler: they’re ugly). The book uses a lovely color palette and charming, whimsical typefaces, plus many inherent design problems in page layout etc. are very well solved (I’m not going to get technical, just trust me). Learning about states becomes an aesthetic pleasure.

Worst things about it:
One, infinitesimally small thing: too many exclamation marks. They start irritating after a while.

Other pluses:
✤ The illustrations are charming in their simplicity and use a unified style, which is worth underlining because I’ve seen some books with a similar idea that didn’t manage to be stylistically consistent.
✤ Again, design is also very good, including typographic choices.
✤ I like the progressive politics of the book which mentions many important moments from the history of American struggle for social rights.
✤ The selection of facts manages to create a positive image for each state and convey its (sort-of) uniqueness.

Other minuses:
✤ This is an observation, not a minus: the book refers to so many children’s books that I never heard of. But, probably, American children, who are the real target of the book, will know them (especially those children who are into books in general) and it will even make them like 50 States more because it mentions their favorites.
✤ I guess the portraits of famous people are rarely recognizable. Cute, though.

How it enriched my life:
You’re going to laugh but I have actually learned a lot: I now know where all the states are and what their capitals are (seriously, you may quiz me). And before you conclude that I sound like a simpleton, this is not something generally required from an educated person here, some distance away from the US and I forgot all I learned about the geography of the US in the elementary school. It was actually fun to re-learn.
A completely different thing: this is certainly an inspiring standard for picture books. If I ever get down to creating one, I hope it’s not worse.

Fun fact:
If I had a bucket list it would be one thing: Making a picture book. This is only tangentially relevant but still worth sharing.
More to the point, I’ve always wanted to do a road trip across the US but this is so unlikely that’s not even on the bucket list.

Follow-up:
There is another book by the same authors, about American cities, and while it feels less essential, I will probably be getting that one too for some special occasion when nobody knows what to get me.

Recommended for:
Children interested in American geography and/or good illustration. People who love pretty, interesting books, even if they’re no longer children.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The Magicians

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Tropic of Cancer

Every now and then I will give my reading habits a self-educational slant and read a classic I managed to miss in school. I rarely review them because, really, what can I add to the discussion of Madame Bovary, but this time I have a few things to say.

er-tropicofcancerTropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
An American classic, for a while considered too pornographic to be allowed in the USA, Miller describes the adventures of a Henry Miller in Paris in late 1920s. He lives as a bum, with no money and no prospects, sort of working on a book and expertly leeching off people he meets, sleeping with every prostitute he can find.

How I found it:
The first time I heard of Henry Miller was in high school, from my high school teacher who said he was her favorite writer. I mixed him up with Henry James and said I’d read him and found him boring, which really surprised her. Then I did start Miller but did indeed find him boring and only returned to him now as a sort of project to fill some of the gaps in my literary education.

Summary judgment:
I had this category for required reading that I finished because I was a good student but had to make myself finish: a feat of endurance. This wasn’t quite so hard to get through but really didn’t do much for me.

Best things about it:
Miller has a good sense of place. The Paris of his book is not the Paris I know and love (which is a very touristy, very postcardy one) but it lives and his description of the other places he visits are even more lively.

Worst things about it:
In general, I didn’t find particularly good reasons to immerse myself in this unpleasant, (literally) lousy world that Miller creates – other than a (misplaced?) intellectual ambition.
But if I were to choose one thing that was the worst, I would say the philosophizing, which would always turn into indecipherable, “poetic” drivel with nihilistic undertones. Oh, and sometimes when you felt it couldn’t get any muddier he would start describing a dream, which is generally the most useless writerly activity in the world.

Other pluses:
Sometimes when Miller focuses more on the people his character meets than on his insufferable inner monolog, the book flows better and reads faster. Some characters he describes remain fairly memorable, even though that’s usually because of how callously he writes about them.

Other minuses:
✤ It’s been discussed many times and there’s no disputing the fact: Miller’s depiction of women is offensive and heartless (and it doesn’t help much that his depiction of men has little heart as well). It was bad to begin with but it has grown old even worse.
✤ When you’re no longer 13 and sex scenes are not something exciting because you read them on the sly in your parents’ books, you appreciate how boring most sex descriptions are. So when their presence is the main thing that made the book famous, the book doesn’t stand the test of time too well.

How it enriched my life:
I can tick off one more book from the list of unread classics and now I can dislike Miller in an informed way.

Fun fact:
The book was banned as pornography in the USA and Great Britain and only became legally available in the 1960s. You can see why, of course, but the decades that passed since have really made us less sensitive to this kind of thing.

Cover notes:
A classic shot of a naked lady is a safe choice that’s hard to dispute and I could get behind the framed typography, especially that it makes for a recognizable series. But the last frame, with the Cancer, has no outline and rounded corners and this I just can’t approve of because it shows the designer’s helplessness.

Follow-up:
I’m quite happy never to take up another Miller again.

Recommended for:
This book should only be read by two kinds of people: American lit professors who need to know the classics and pretentious teenagers who still think descriptions of sex make a book some kind of revolutionary.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Wonder Woman

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Age of Wonder

I don’t read non-fiction as often as I perhaps should because I always miss fiction when I do that. But non-fiction, and particularly history of something else than wars and battles, always gives me this pleasant feeling of accomplishment.

er-ageofwonderThe Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A history of British science in the time of Romanticism, focusing on the biographies and achievements of several great scientists, like William Herschel, Humphry Davy and Joseph Banks. It aims to find connections between Romantic science and Romantic art (mainly poetry).

How I found it:
It was among a batch of historical books I’ve once marked for future reading. But I read non-fiction rarely and it took me a while to get to it.

Summary judgment:
It is more interesting that it has any business being.

Best things about it:
It reads almost like a novel, focusing on anecdotal details from the lives of the greats of British science, making them human and memorable. I didn’t know about any of them too well and now the facts are vivid in my memory.

Worst things about it:
I feel like the book doesn’t offer a clear enough thesis about the relationship between Romantic thought and its practical applications. The attempts to relate them mostly get limited to quotes from poetry without a more theoretical, maybe even more spiritual analysis of the contemporary ideas and when they do get mentioned (like Vitalism), they are not particularly well explained.

Other pluses:
I appreciate the effort put into emphasizing the role of women who participated in the discoveries, or at least William Herschel’s sister, Caroline. It feels like the author felt a particular mission to re-establish her well-earned position.

Other minuses:
Despite its length the book didn’t bore me, but I feel it could be shortened and thus become even livelier.

How it enriched my life:
I actually learned a lot about people I only knew vaguely or not at all and gained a clearer idea about various early-19th century scientific discoveries.

Cover notes:
I will always appreciate a cover which uses an old engraving, especially with such a whimsical, subtle use of color. This one conveys well the mix of playfulness and academic seriousness, which Holmes manages to create.

Follow-up:
It gave me a desire to read more non-fiction about explorers because I found those the most exciting chapters in the entire book (and explorers never interested me much before).

Recommended for:
Science and history buffs who appreciate lively writing.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Nashville farewell

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Crooked Kingdom

Summer is great for reading books for pleasure, particularly when your doctor tells you to spend a part of the day in bed and so: no remorse!

er-crookedkingdomCrooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A sequel to Six of Crows, a YA (but not infantile) adventure fantasy about a group of teenage criminals who take on the system, conning merchants, armies and politicians with nothing but a handful of talents and the power of friendship.

How I found it:
I read the first volume – maybe last year? I quite enjoyed it but forgot the story so completely that before reading Crooked Kingdom I needed to read an online summary.

Summary judgment:
Pure entertainment, but of a very competent and enjoyable kind.

Best things about it:
Bardugo builds an interesting world based loosely on historical places (the Netherlands, a sort of idealized Russian empire, only with magical mutants, Scandinavia) and the entirety of this volume takes place in Ketterdam, the capital of the Dutch-like Kerch, where profit is god (literally), which allows her to focus on the city and make it more than just a location. The specificity of the place differs the story from most adventure fantasies with their stock locations.

Worst things about it:
I guess the fact that I forgot the first volume proves that this is a fairly forgettable experience. Still, it’s better than pretty much any adventure movie you could watch instead

Other pluses:
✤ The book never bores you, always swift with the action and properly entertaining. Some of the twists manage to be surprising.
✤ The completionist in me really enjoys the fact that it’s just the duology. I’m always a little daunted by those multiple-volume fantasies.
✤ I liked some of the characters, particularly Nina.

Other minuses:
✤ I’m not a fan of the typical adventure story structure where each chapter ends on a cliffhanger but at least in Kingdom‘s case I could hope that each new chapter will soon grab my attention, too.
✤ I feel the characters could use a bit more development. We don’t learn much about them beyond what was already revealed in the previous part.

How it enriched my life:
I simply enjoyed reading it, without necessarily changing my outlook or learning anything in particular.

Cover notes:
The crow-city combo was done better on the first volume’s cover. Here, while the crow is expressive, the buildings become a little naive. I have minor complaints against the typography (even though the fancy title typeface works inside of the book) but despite my whining it’s still levels above your average YA cover.

Follow-up:
Bardugo wrote more books about her Grisha mutants and I’m not opposed to reading one of those some other lazy summer (or, you know, winter).

Recommended for:
Fans of good YA adventure with careful world building.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Cloak & Dagger

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: An Invisible Sign of My Own

er-aninvisiblesignofmyownAn Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A fairly short novel about Mona Grey, whose father one day develops a mysterious sickness (a sort of anxiety disorder or depression, probably, but it’s never specified). The novel focuses on how this makes Mona slowly withdraw from life and from the things she enjoyed. Even though it chooses a lighthearted tone, the story actually touches upon very profound and unsolvable questions: the fear of loss and death and the difficulty in communication.

How I found it:
No idea. I did like the description I found somewhere: it sounded like just the right kind of gloomy (it’s not really gloomy though).

Summary judgment:
I liked the book well enough but I feel it had potential to engage me more.

Best things about it:
I like how it tackles the dark theme of the fear we all have to learn to live around. I like the weirdness of Mona and how all her quirks (and, frankly, neuroses) don’t completely incapacitate her or her potential for developing relations with people. I was quite impressed by the casualness of the story.

Worst things about it:
I feel like the book would benefit from a more experimental, sophisticated approach to language. I kept wondering how Lady Oracle-Atwood (rather than the new dystopian Atwood I don’t read) would approach this story and make it both more alive and more chilling with her linguistic games.

Other pluses:
✤ The author has a good ear for children. The scenes in the elementary school are the most lively in the entire book.
✤ I liked the composition of parts of the book, where we are given a series of surreal facts about Mona (for instance, she eats soap not to have sex) and only later learn how this started.

Other minuses:
Maybe the ending did feel too easy and you can wince at the fact that a guy is a catalyst for change but personally I didn’t mind.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoy psychological narratives and stories about children. It also reinforced my already strong belief that I could never teach children.

Fun fact:
There is a movie adaptation of this story with Jessica Alba, of all people, and it appears from the trailer to have turned the story into a cutesy rom-com mush. I’ll steer clear despite Chris Messina’s presence.

Cover notes:
The cover doesn’t excite me and I wish it found a smart way to use numbers (though alternative covers I saw underline the fact it would have to be smart; overall, I prefer the unpretentiousness of this one). But, unlike the movie adaptation, it emphasizes the subtlety of the story, the composition is evocative and they managed to find a convincing model.

Follow-up:
Definitely not the movie, and I don’t necessarily see a direct follow-up.

Recommended for:
People who are not discouraged by introvert stories about slightly broken characters (but with an overall optimistic sense).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Dietland (the show)

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Bookworming

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Among Others

Sometimes you find a book which reminds you what fun it was to discover magical books randomly as a child.

er-amongothersAmong Others by Jo Walton

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Technically speaking, it’s a YA fantasy novel but it doesn’t bow to most conventions you would expect from those. Mori’s story happens after her great battle – to which we only hear allusions – ended. She survived but her twin sister didn’t and now she needs to build a life after she’s saved the world, surviving a snotty boarding school, getting to know her estranged father and, most of all, reading tons of science fiction.

How I found it:
Don’t remember. It was on my to-read list with 4 stars so I must have read an inviting review somewhere. Maybe LibraryThing?

Summary judgment:
I haven’t enjoyed a book quite like this for a while.

Best things about it:
The unconventional way it treats fantasy, so that it resembles magical realism more than anything else. Mori is very matter-of-fact about seeing fairies and doing magic and focuses more on down-to-earth matters of growing up, which makes the story very grounded.

Worst things about it:
For people who want their fantasy fulfilling certain expected conventions, it must be a letdown, a book in which barely anything happens. In fact, as I was approaching the end, I wondered if it had a continuation because I wasn’t sure if it would manage to finish a story at all (it did).

Other pluses:
✤ The very idea to focus on what happens to the hero after the battle is won is successful in its un-flashiness.
✤ I really like how unostentatious magic is, more a moral question than a source of fireworks and how its lack of glamour allows Walton to focus on the heroine’s personal dramas. In fact, you could probably remove the magic altogether and still have an interesting story about a dysfunctional family (and a disturbed girl). At a stretch, you could probably interpret it this way.
✤ The just-unrealistic-enough love affair is cute. I would’ve loved it as a younger person. Now I focus more on the unrealistic part, I guess.
✤ The places live in the story, not just Wales, which the author clearly loves, but even the school and the small town nearby.

Other minuses:
Sometimes the protagonist reads as many as eight novels a week, five regularly. I find that hard to believe (even in my better reading days I never managed as much).

How it enriched my life:
It made me want to read more, for one thing. It also reminded me of the joy of reading just for the sake of getting to know the story.

Fun fact:
It’s funny how much of the science fiction novels that Mori devours I have actually read. Because the story takes place in 1979 and 1980, it is a love letter to older science fiction and fantasy which I used to read in large amounts because that’s what the local library had in stock.

Cover notes:
(A new section because why not. It’s the thing I’m most qualified to discuss anyway. It will always refer to the version of the cover illustrated on the top.)
The photo captures the atmosphere of the book magnificently but the stars are an overkill: they should’ve been done as a photographic trick of light, rather than so literally because this cheapens the concept (both of the cover and the book).

Follow-up:
I might check out Walton’s other stuff if I come across it but I like how much of a standalone this one is. I might possibly return to it some time.

Recommended for:
Fans of classic science fiction and fantasy who don’t mind challenging the conventions. People who enjoy an unromanticized vision of a boarding school, or just of growing up.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: Lovesick

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Lost Books of the Odyssey

er-thelostbooksoftheodysseyThe Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A collection of 44 short stories, all centered around the character of Odysseus as he appears in the Iliad and the Odyssey but, of course, completely transformed through postmodern sensitivity. In fact, each short story – they’re unrelated and only called a novel to mess with you – consists of an intellectual exercise: What if Odysseus was Homer? What if the books were really a chess manual? What if Penelope was a werewolf?

How I found it:
I had it on my reading list to read after the real Odyssey, which I finally finished and followed up with this collection.

Summary judgment:
An impressive intellectual and literary exercise that I enjoyed more than the actual Odyssey.

Best things about it:
Well, if you read the Odyssey, you might have similar doubts that I had when I finally read it. I mean, Odysseus is a psychopath. (I know, I simplify without taking the times and circumstances into account but seriously, just look at the story.) We never get enough insight into his psychological life to understand him – because literature wasn’t big on psychology yet. I feel like Mason’s book makes the mythical story more approachable and intriguing, filling in some gaps left by the original narrative and trying to answer questions a modern reader will have. It also does it in a subtle, poetic and mostly unpretentious way that I enjoyed.

Worst things about it:
As is the case with collections, some of these stories are weaker than the others. I personally preferred staying closer to the original with fewer direct modern references.

Other pluses:
When I was just starting to read short stories my father told me this theory that a good short story has to have a surprising conclusion that twists the whole thing around in the last paragraph. I might have discovered since then that it isn’t always, or even usually, the case, but I still on some level expect such a construction from a short story and “One Kindness” scratched that particular itch.

Other minuses:
Only a small complaint about misrepresentation: this is in no way a novel. The cover lies. (It’s a good cover, though.)

How it enriched my life:
It made me understand the Odyssey better and feel more curious about the story than Homer’s work did.

Fun fact:
Zachary Mason wrote another book but professionally he’s a computer specialist who works in a startup. That makes this book a true work of passion and makes me even more impressed by it.

Follow-up:
I’m not sure there’s a direct follow-up but I’m always interested in a reinterpretation of a classic myth.

Recommended for:
People somewhat interested in Greek mythology who would like to see a different approach to it. I recently saw it on a list of recommended books by a translator of the Odyssey‘s modern edition, so that should be a recommendation enough.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: 13 Reasons Why

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