May 2017 books

May 2017 books

Word by Word: The Secret Life of DictionariesWord by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars. If you are the kind of person who would enjoy reading a whole chapter about 'irregardless,' then this book is for you. If not, move along! This book is like The Professor and the Madman but more personal; like Alphabet Juice but more serious.

My only unfulfilled wish: I was hoping she'd write about 'nonplussed,' a word which is now used to mean one thing, as well as (in nonstandard English) the opposite of that thing, to the point that it is now completely meaningLESS to me. She doesn't address 'nonplussed,' but she does USE it (in the chapter entitled Posh). And in the nonstandard way! I am so confused by this word and I wish it would go away.

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I'll Give You the SunI'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is Jacob Have I Loved for my adult self - twins with a love/hate relationship, full of angst and parents doing their best but failing, the sea as its own character, sacrificing to send a child to art school, childhood friends growing up and changing, and a cantakerous grandma speaking uncomfortable truths.

And I say "for my adult self" knowing full well that this book is YA. But I never would have read this as a teenager (not least because, uh, it hadn't been written yet), and I'm glad I didn't. I wouldn't have been ready for it.

Five stars, but there's something funny going on in this book when it talks about boys and girls interacting with each other as young teenagers (like 13 and 14). It is doing one of two things: glossing over the sometimes extreme awkwardness of being that age (like how TV shows about teenagers cast 25-year-olds so we don't have to deal with pimples and almost-boobs and cracking voices), or really committing to being from the perspective of teenagers. I mean, have you SEEN a 14-year-old boy recently? One who recently hit a growth spurt? Yeah. They are not handsome. UNLESS. Unless you yourself are ALSO fourteen. In that case...well. So I wanted to quibble with the characters being as young as they are, but I ended up just embracing it and remembering how it felt to be 13 and crushing on (shudder) another 13-year-old.

Because that's what this book does so well - it remembers what it's like to be a teenager. I always loved the part in New Moon when Bella sits motionless on the couch for like six months after Edward leaves and then takes up cliff jumping or whatever. Everyone rolls their eyes at that part but you guys, that's what it's like to be a teenager! Don't you remember?? This book does. And unlike John Green's books where you're like "...no teenagers actually are like this in real life," in this book, teenagers are totally like this in real life.

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Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death FraudPlaying Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Here is another book in the mold of The Wilder Life: a trip into a potentially interesting subject area with an unfortunately annoying guide. The book started out really charming and light and I thought maybe I was getting an awesome Jon Ronson-style romp through the world of faking one's own death. But then: the author. I am sure she is lovely in person (and she came across as lovely when I heard her on Tell Me Something I Don't Know), but I did not like her as an overt presence in this particular book. She tried to make the subject personal, when it would have been better to focus completely on the experts and case studies in the book. For example, I would gladly spend a few more chapters hanging out with the two Filipino fixers in Manila. But instead, she keeps barging into the text like this:

"In the meantime, we return to the lobby of the Holiday Inn, which is trying to distract us from the fact that it is a midbudget hotel by splashing lurid geometric patterns across every available surface to cover up the chintzy hardware. I appreciate this strategy of diversion because I employ the same tactic with my wardrobe of Forever 21 cocktail dresses. Now that I’m past the age of thirty-one, the frocks might scan as more poignant than playful, but usually I can pass off the polyblend monstrosities. Unless the setting is formal, that is. You can divert attention with spangles and peplum for only so long until you reveal your lack of resources, and then everyone is embarrassed."

Like...I did not need to know that? It's not fair, I know - if it were Alexandra Petri oversharing like this then I would be eating it up, but Alexandra Petri would have earned it.

And then there's the author's humongous loan debt from college. She made it practically a central character in the book and it made me so uncomfortable. She was just so unapologetic about it! Not that she should be groveling, but to be so flippant about owing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and assuming she had the reader's sympathy by default...it came off all wrong, and it's one of the major reasons I think she should have let the subject shine for itself instead of inserting her own backstory into everything. It would have made for a stronger book.

Finally, there's this kind of attitude toward her readers:

"When I tell the backstory of how my fascination with the topic originated from debt, people who carry a burden themselves understand immediately: I owe a tremendous amount of money, and I considered faking my death to escape it. People who come from more affluent backgrounds, who don’t know the terror of a figure owed growing with interest despite monthly payments, assume I am writing a book about faked death to make a profit to pay my lenders. So innocent, those moneybags."

I am so confused by this. Books like this always have to escape the shadow of "yeah...but you only did this stuff so you could write a book about it." Always. And for her to dismiss the mere idea of such mercenary motivations in a sentence like that...well, it came off as dreadfully disingenuous to me. So she's not making money off this book? Or the money she makes will not go to pay down her debt? Or...?

Also, there are people out there who think Michael Jackson faked his own death and despite the huge, out-of-place chapter devoted to them in this book, THEY ARE NOT INTERESTING.

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Like a River Glorious (The Gold Seer Trilogy, #2)Like a River Glorious by Rae Carson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remain wholeheartedly in favor of the ideas behind this series, while continuing to be underwhelmed by the reality of the books themselves. There's just no there there.

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The Crown's Game (The Crown's Game, #1)The Crown's Game by Evelyn Skye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A bit uneven, but it gets stronger toward the end. Four stars it is! I think this is a middle-grade book dressed up as YA, which weakens the effect of the plot. It was a straightforward story (The Night Circus in 19th-century Russia), but put any two teenagers in this book together in a room and they just HAD to fall in love with each other. A lot of people (=random strangers on the internets) say that this series is shaping up to be better than the Shadow and Bone books, but I don't agree.

That said, I will a) pass this on to Miriam to read, and b) look for book 2 to read myself!

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June 2nd, outsourced

Kuusamo Cliff Notes

Kuusamo Cliff Notes