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14
May 13

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay

So, I’ve finished Mockingjay, the final book of The Hunger Games trilogy. I don’t really have a lot to say about it. The first book (reviewed here) was certainly interesting – the story had enough plot points to keep it going, plus learning about the world of Panem and the Hunger Games easily kept me interested. The second book (reviewed here) unfortunately spent a lot of time reviewing the first, though it did keep the story moving a bit. It even had a good twist (I thought) in the middle and ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, the final book continues the downward slide and doesn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities. It picks up right where the second book left off and we learn more of the Rebellion and District 13. However, there is very little plot activity for the majority of the book. Things trudge forward along the expected path all the way to the end. There is a bit of a twist at the end I suppose, but you could see it coming from far away. The book never hits any real dramatic points and sputters out in a fairly depressing final chapter.

Overall, I’m happy enough with the trilogy, though the final two books could have been condensed into a much better single book. They were quick reads, so at least you  don’t have to suffer through too much boredom. But in any case, I’ve go them behind me and I’m totally ready to take on the application process for The Famine Games!


05
May 13

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

catchingfire

As I talked about in my last post, Donna and I are reading The Hunger Games trilogy in preparation for applying to The Famine Game puzzle hunt. Like the first book, Catching Fire was a quick read – I picked it up from the library last Sunday and was finished by Tuesday evening (and I’m not exactly a speedy reader). I suspect this final book will be similar, judging from the format as I just picked it up from the library today.

Anyway, speaking of similarities, I found Catching Fire to be very similar to The Hunger Games. This is partly due to the fact that Collins felt it necessary to recap much of the story from the first book. And on top of that, there’s what I consider to be the big twist of the second book – described here in ROT-13 so as to avoid an spoilers, though I hear the previews for the upcoming movie version don’t leave a lot to the imagination anyway:

Ubyl fuvg, vg gheaf bhg gung Xngavff naq Crrgn unir gb cynl va gur Uhatre Tnzrf *ntnva* gur sbyybjvat lrne qhr gb n ehyr punatr! Fb, va gur frpbaq obbx, jr trg gb erivfvg gur neran ohg gunaxshyyl va n fbzrjung nooerivngrq fgbel.

Finally, I can say that Catching Fire does move the story along in ways you would expect, especially with respect to the underlying societal issues in Panem. If anything, I felt more time could have been spent on this broader backstory as well as the details surrounding the various other districts. One thing I found amusing was that even though the political nature of the story becomes more prominent, the character of Katniss remains fairly oblivious to the bigger things happening around her (“Why do people keep showing me Mockingjay symbols?”). Perhaps she’s still too busy trying to figure out her feelings for Gale, Peeta, etc.

In any case, I’m looking forward to reading the final book and seeing how it all works out. At this point, I can see it going a couple of different ways, though I’d enjoy being surprised. Hopefully, it won’t end up being unpleasant as Anandi hints in the previous post’s comments 🙂


21
Apr 13

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The-Hunger-Games

A year ago, I saw the movie version of The Hunger Games. I normally wouldn’t see a film adaptation before reading the book, but at the time I wasn’t really planning on reading it. But then The Famine Game was announced – an instance of The Game themed after The Hunger Games. As we’ve never been to Washington D.C., doing a one-week visit there and wrapping it up with The Game seems like a good way to kill two birds with one stone. So of course, this means I’m now reading The Hunger Games trilogy.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time The Game has lead me to read a YA series. It happened once before when we decided to apply for the Hogwarts and the Draconian Prophecy Game. Donna and I ended up zipping through the entire Harry Potter series, which we both found quite enjoyable. Also, the Hogwarts Game itself was amazing – plus, it was Los Jefes’ first Bay Area Game and our second full length Game. Good times!

Anyway, back to The Hunger Games. If you’ve seen the movie, there’s not much more the book will give you (at least according to my fading memory of the movie I saw a year ago). That said, I enjoyed reading the book. It’s a pretty quick read, the pace is good and Collins’ style is straight-forward. There’s a bit of a recurring theme of teenage emotional exploration (“Is he saying he likes me? But what about my friend G.? Oh, it’s all so confusing!”). Then again, this is a YA novel with a teenage heroine, so I suppose it’s par for the course.

If you’re looking for a readable, engaging book that’s part sci-fi, part dystopian future / political thriller and relatively action-packed, I’d suggest giving The Hunger Games a read. As for me, I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the trilogy.


12
Apr 13

Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges

Borges

I forget exactly when Borges ended up in my mental queue of authors to read. I think it was  sometime over the last year, probably in the context of something else I was reading. In any case, I recently found myself killing time in a used bookstore and picked up a copy of Ficciones.

The book is a collection of 17 short stories, divided into two sections. After I read the first two stories, I was tempted to put it down and walk away. The writing was fairly abstract, with a lot of references to obscure and/or fictional writing, plus he threw in a fair mix of foreign language side passages (mostly Latin). Right off the bat, he dives into the deep end of the philology pool and proceeds to do laps. This was exactly the reason I stopped reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum the first time I gave it a shot. I eventually picked up Pendulum years later and made it through to the end (it got better after the beginning).

With this in mind, I decided to power through and see if any of other stories might be a bit more engaging. It turned out to be a mix – I probably enjoyed about half of the stories. They tended towards the philosophical and metaphysical end of the spectrum, and occasionally veered into fantasy. For example, one tale I particularly enjoyed had to do with people living in a world that consisted of an infinite library. The endless rooms held endless books of an identical format. However, it was speculated that the books were simply permutations of all books that could be written using the alphabet and the format constraints of the book. Obviously, this would only produce a finite (though large) set of books, but there was further speculation that extended it out to infinity (I don’t think I fully understood that part, though).

Anyway, it’s a short book and you might consider giving it a go if you’re interested in philosophical and mystical sorts of things. Also, having a Latin dictionary on hand might be useful.


27
Mar 13

Twinkie, Deconstructed – Steve Ettlinger

Twinkie final cover

This is totally my kind of book. I’ve always been an ingredients reader and I’ve always wondered about those strange, chemically-sounding items that show up all the time. Over time, I’ve learned about a few of these mysterious ingredients, but Twinkie, Deconstructed conveniently addresses most of them in one book.

The book starts off with the author’s kids catching him reading the ingredients of an ice cream bar and they ask him what’s in it, followed by questions like “What’s polysorbate-60?” and “Where does polysorbate-60 come from, Daddy? “. So he decides to delve into the world of food processing, using the Twinkie’s ingredients list as the basis. He ends up looking into all the ingredients (listed here in the book’s table of contents), exploring the production and processing of everything from eggs, wheat and sugar to cellulose gum, phosphates and, yes, polysorbate-60.

twinkies

I guess I wasn’t too surprised at this glimpse into today’s world of modern food production and processing. Everything is done on a huge industrial scale and is part of a global food/industrial complex. Some of the more interesting points I took away from the book are:

  • A ton of things are made from corn
  • It’s all about chemistry
  • Even more things (including foodstuffs) are made from petroleum
  • For many ingredients or raw materials, there are only a handful of producers worldwide
  • Everything is very proprietary (trade secrets) and production facilities are often off-limits under Homeland Security regulations

I found the book to be very interesting, even if it did start to get a little repetitive as he described yet another industrial facility and the various sequences of chemical reactions that turned A into B into C into something you end up eating. However, I appreciated his engaging and often humorous style as well as the historical context he gave for many of the ingredients in addition to their modern production methods. So, if you’ve ever wondered about polysorbate 60 (or riboflavin, diglycerides, calcium sulfate, FD&C Red No. 40, etc.), where they come from and how they’re made, then you’ll enjoy this book.


22
Mar 13

Power Chord: One Man’s Ear-Splitting Quest to Find His Guitar Heroes – Thomas Scott McKenzie

powerchord

 { Note: I’ve been a bit lazy about getting my recent book reviews written. I read this book in early March. }

Since I’ve been taking guitar lessons recently, my reading interests have also turned in this direction. I came across this book while searching the Seattle Public Library online for interesting sheet music, so I thought I’d check it out and give it a read.

Power Chord is McKenzie’s account of his tracking down and interviewing the metal guitar heroes of his youth (and beyond). This turns out to be a motley set of characters, including:

  • Steve Vai
  • Oz Fox (Stryper)
  • Ace Frehley (KISS)
  • Bruce Kulick (KISS)
  • Warren DeMartini (Ratt)
  • Kip Winger (um, Winger)
  • Stacey Blades (L.A. Guns)
  • Phil Collen (Def Leppard)
  • Glenn Tipton (Judas Priest)
  • Rudy Sarzo (bass player for Quiet Riot, Whitesnake and Dio)

The actual stories of the guitarists and their bands are pretty interesting, especially since many of them are past their heyday but continue to perform on smaller tours at venues like casinos and county fairs. However, I found myself disliking the author and the ongoing backstory / context of his project. For one thing, he’s constantly coming across as a Republican, frat boy,  guitar nerd which put me off (apologies to any of my readers who fit this description).  Right from the beginning of the book, he talks about his lifelong obsession with KISS and similar groups and describes his lovingly-maintained collection of eleven expensive guitars. However – HE DOESN’T ACTUALLY PLAY THE GUITAR!?! He has this weird fascination with the idea of his ‘guitar heroes’ and constantly obsesses about it, but he seems somehow disconnected from the reality of what being a guitar player is really like. To his credit, he does go into some of this with his interviews and he even decides to start taking lessons during the course of his project.

If you’re at all interested in the stories of iconic guitar players from the late 70’s through early 90’s, there’s probably something in this book for you. Hopefully you can put up with the author better than I could.


21
Mar 13

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

wind-upBird

Note: I’ve been a bit lazy about getting my recent book reviews written. I started this book in late February and finished it in early March. }

This is the third Murakami book I’ve read. The first was What I Think About When I Think About Running, which I read a few years ago. I was getting back into a jogging routine at the time, and it seemed like it might be good inspiration. It was basically a non-fiction account of his experiences becoming a long-distance runner – he eventually ran a bunch of marathons as well as one ultramarathon. Crazy! Not a bad book, though. The second book I read of his was Norwegian Wood, a novel he had written in 1987 (English edition published in 2000). This was an excellent book, the tale of a college student in the late 1960’s and his complicated relationship with a complicated girl. Recommended!

I had heard that Murakami was well-known for his surreal works, even winning the Franz Kafka Prize in 2006. Donna had previously read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and assured me it qualified as surreal, so I was quite looking forward to it. However, I think I learned that I was confusing ‘surreal’ with ‘absurd’. I like absurdist literature, especially when it has humorous or satirical overtones (think Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). As it turns out, this Murakami book was definitely surreal, but not absurd. It heavily featured characters engaged in supernatural activities (ESP, fortune telling, etc.) and there were many scenes that were intentionally ambiguous as to whether they were happening in real life or in a dream. Plus, even when things were clearly happening in dreams, they often produced side-effect in real life. Surreal!

On the whole, it wasn’t a “bad” book. Murakami is a great writer of clean prose, and his style comes across wonderfully in this book. The pace is pretty even, without a lot of ups and downs, though a little more drama wouldn’t have hurt. There are a few side stories that drag on maybe a little too long – editing them out wouldn’t have been a great loss and would have cut down on the sizable length (607 pages). In that respect, it reminds me of another book that went on far too long.

So, while this wasn’t my favorite Murakami book, I am looking forward to working my way through some of his other works. Specifically, I’m looking forward to reading the non-fiction Underground, a collection of interviews he conducted with people affected by the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Also, I’ll try a couple of his other “surreal” books (e.g. Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84), just to make sure that they don’t actually appeal to me 🙂


18
Feb 13

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

Reluctant-FundamentalistThe Reluctant Fundamentalist was the third book we bought on our recent trip to the Rolling Huts in Winthrop (see earlier post). Once again, it was something that Donna picked up that I read afterwards. It’s kinda nice being able to get an opinion of a book from someone before committing yourself to it. However, in this case, the risk wouldn’t have been that great since it comes in at only a slim 182 pages or so.

The story is a bit of a thriller. A young, Princeton-educated Pakistani man meets a mysterious and menacing American stranger in a Lahore, Pakistan marketplace. The young man proceeds to act as a host, settling into a cafe with the silent stranger. Over the course of the evening and dinner, well into the night, the young man tells the story of his time in America: graduating from Princeton, getting a high-paying job at a New York City valuation firm, falling in love with a girl named Erica. However, his attitudes about his new job and life in America begin to shift, leading him down an unexpected path. This happens at the same time as the nature of his relationship with Erica changes – a part of the plot that’s very reminiscent of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (which was an great book – I’ll likely be talking about Murakami in my next post).

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It was a quick read and the structure of the novel with the building tension surrounding the mysterious stranger kept me engaged through all the way through to the interesting ending.

Also, I just found out from IMBD that the book has been made into a movie, apparently due to be released in April. I think I’ll have to check it out!


12
Feb 13

War Dances – Sherman Alexie

WarDances

 I used to read The Stranger a lot, but not so much these days. But lately when I do, I’ve enjoyed Sherman Alexie’s pieces of short fiction. So, when we were in a Winthrop bookstore recently (see my previous post), we picked up a copy of War Dances. Donna read it first, but I’m more than happy to mooch off of her good finds.

The book is a collection of poetry and short stories. I really enjoy Alexie’s writing – it’s straight-forward, honest, funny and poetic – often all at the same time. I also think his writing resonates with me due to a certain amount of cultural connectivity. First of all, he’s only three years older than me, and a lot of his subject matter is retrospective, so I can personally appreciate his references. And while I’m by no means of Indian descent, there’s a surprising amount of overlap in his experiences growing up on the Reservation and my having grown up in rural Texas. Finally, on a more contemporary note, he lives in Seattle and many of his stories are set there – just another aspect of his writing that makes it more personal for me.

As this book is a collection of his writing, it turns out I had read a few of the pieces in other publications. That fact aside, I enjoyed this collection quite a bit – it’s a quick read in its entirety and the mix of humor, realism and poignancy help provide an interesting perspective on the sometimes mundane aspects of everyday life.


11
Feb 13

Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age – Gary Marcus

guitarZero

This February marked our second trip to the Rolling Huts outside Winthrop, Washington in the scenic Methow Valley. During the day, there’s cross-country skiing aplenty. During the evening, we generally hang out in the cozy hut and spend a lot of time reading. On this trip, we didn’t bring any books with us, but the Trail’s End Bookstore in Winthrop provided some great options (we ended up getting three books – you’ll hear about the others in upcoming posts).

While browsing the bookstore shelves, Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age caught my attention. Over the years, I’ve had a passing interest in the guitar. One of my goals during our 2012 year off was to actually focus a little more time in that direction by signing up for guitar lessons – I’m currently taking lessons at Half Note Music School in Bellevue (tell ’em Jeff sent you and get a free lesson!). One of my goals with lessons was to try and gain a deeper understanding of musical fundamentals and to see if I could develop a basic level of competency. In other words, I’m seeking to become musical at a certain age, so this book seemed like a perfect choice.

The book is written from the perspective of a non-musical cognitive scientist who decides to take up the guitar during a one-year sabbatical. While going through the process, he describes his experiences and discusses the related brain science. He does a good job of weaving together his personal history, anecdotes from the music industry and existing theories of the mind with respect to music. If anything, I found he spent a little too much time going over the detailed science, but then again he is a cognitive scientist.

While it was a good read, especially given my current guitar explorations, I didn’t learn anything terribly surprising (except maybe that certain accomplished guitarist can’t read music: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, etc.). Marcus downplays the notion of a “critical window” for gaining certain skills (new languages, musical ability) but acknowledges that it can take more work the older you get. If anything, consistent practice over time makes the biggest difference (though not necessarily requiring the 10,000 hours made famous by Malcolm Gladwell). Also, talent is a real thing and definitely helps certain people progress more quickly.

Anyway, enough blogging – I’ve got some guitar practice to do!