Reading Challenge #30: A Book with Pictures

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Title: Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air

Author: Richard Holmes

How it fulfills the challenge: Besides the normal strategic inserts of color photographs, the text of the book is studded with black and white pictures of hot air balloons, portraits of the balloonists who flew them, and various documents and drawings.

Genre: Nonfiction

Quick Description: A detailed look at the rise of hot air ballooning, with less emphasis on its early history and more on the height of the ballooning craze and time of exploration and exhibition. (1700-1800s mostly). It also deals with the characters and histories of particular balloonists, trying to get at what made them take to the air in the first place.

Highlights: If you’ve ever wanted to get into the head of a historical balloonist, this book will take you there. It’s really great at explaining the time period and the lives of different balloonists. It’s set up for a fairly casual reader but still offers a lot of depth and covers a wide range of time periods and subtopics. The writing, for a book of this type, is fairly engaging–you can tell the author is very passionate about the subject. This could be a problem in a standard biography, but the range of subjects seems to help him keep his objectivity. He regards ballooning itself with something almost like reverence towards something greater or magical, and it’s really interesting to read what balloonists themselves thought about flying.

Low Points: Like many nonfiction books, there were sections that seemed to drag, but that could be because I was reading the book as research. Anything that resembles required reading is just automatically less fun for me.

Goodreads rating: 4 stars. The bottom line is it’s a well-researched book on a very specific, sort of obscure topic.

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Reading Challenge #27: A Book with a Title that’s a Character’s Name

Title: Ethan Frome

Author: Edith Wharton

How it fulfills the challenge: This is sort of self-explanatory, but it seems like this kind of title was far more common in days of olde. There are a ton of classics that are named after their protagonists, but there are far fewer that are published now, or at least that’s what a stroll down my library’s bookshelves told me.

Genre: Classic

Quick Description: The story of one New Englander’s tragic life as told from the perspective of an outsider.

Opening line: I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

In another moment she would step forth into the night, and his eyes, accustomed to the obscurity, would discern her as clearly as though she stood in daylight.

Highlights: Edith Wharton is a master of tragedy and manners. if Jane Austen was a pessimist, she and Wharton would get along very well. Wharton’s writing is immersive and intelligent, as well as remarkably quick-paced for a classic. I also love her introductory statement where she talks about why she chose to write this book and why she wanted it to take this form, which she says is the only thing of value an author* can say in an introduction–a statement about primary aims.

*She refers to “an author” as male rather than female, and I found this very interesting. Either she sees most authors as male, or she aimed this little introduction to be a contrast to men’s (or a certain man’s) statements, which possibly didn’t achieve the things she thought they ought to be doing.

Low Points: Well the whole story is kind of a bummer, really.

Goodreads rating: 4 stars. Probably deserves 5 on the strength of the writing, but it was just too depressing for me to love it enough to give it that rating.

Reading Challenge #5: A Book By a Person of Color

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Title:  Sula

Author: Toni Morrison

How it fulfills the challenge: Toni Morrison is a person of color, and many of her books center on what it is like to be a black woman in America. Sula was nominated for the National Book Award, and her 1987 novel, Beloved, won the Pulitzer prize.

Genre: Fiction

Quick Description: Morrison’s book is a study on the nature of friendship and womanhood. The novel follows Sula and Nel through their lives starting in the 1920s.

Opening line: In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.

She had clung to Nel as the closest thing to both an other and a self, only to discover that she and Nel were not one and the same thing.

Highlights: A quick moving, and sometimes shocking portrait of friendship. The drawing of life that it renders is as moving as it is unflinching.

Low Points: More melancholy than uplifting–this isn’t really a low point (just something to keep in mind before reading this book). It’s powerful, but not exactly fun to read.

Goodreads rating: 4 stars. Probably deserves 4.5 because the writing is so good.

Reading Challenge #52: A Book Based on Mythology

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Title: Ragnarok

Author: A.S. Byatt

How it fulfills the challenge: This book is an adaptation of the Norse end of the world myth (Ragnarok)

Genre: Fiction (maybe could be considered fantasy? Literary Fantasy…)

Quick Description: A detailed and almost poetic interpretation of a Norse myth with amazing imagery and a complex look at good and evil, power and weakness, as seen through the eyes of a child obsessed with the story.

Opening line: The thin child thought less (or so it now seems) of where she herself came from, and more about that old question, why is there something rather than nothing?

It began slowly. There were flurries of sharp snow over the fields where the oats and barley were ready to be harvested. There was ice on the desponds at night, when the harvest moon, huge and red, was still in the sky. There was ice on water jugs and an increasing thin, bitter wind that did not let up, so that they became used to keeping their heads hooded and down.

Highlights: Beautifully descriptive and evocative retelling of an ancient myth. My favorite section is on Yggdrasil, the great tree that contains so much life and death.

Low Points: I’m not super familiar with this myth, and Byatt does little to familiarize it. Instead she delights in the strangeness and otherness. It’s a more faithful retelling than other adaptations (or so I’ve read), and it feels older and darker, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not exactly what I was expecting and it was very different from Byatt’s Possession.

Goodreads rating: 4 stars.

Reading Challenge #28: A Novel Set During Wartime

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Title: Victory of Eagles

Author: Naomi Novik

How it fulfills the challenge: This book takes place during the Napoleonic wars, though the battles that are depicted never actually happened.

Genre: Fantasy

Quick Description: In the 5th book of the Temeraire series, the dragon’s captain, Laurence, has been branded a traitor and Temeraire has been sent to the breeding grounds, no longer in active duty. But as the war comes closer, the reluctant Aerial Corps will have no choice but to call them both back to the front.

Opening Line: The breeding grounds were called Pen Y Fan, after the hard, jagged slash of mountain at their heart, like an ax-blade, rimed with ice along its edge and rising barren over the moorlands: a cold, wet Welsh autumn already, coming on towards winter, and the other dragons were sleep and remote, uninterested in anything but their meals.

We will be our own army, and we will work out tactics for ourselves, not stuff men have invented without bothering to ask us…

Highlights: The Temeraire series is a great choice for anyone who thinks that history is all well and good, but it would be better with dragons in it. Novik does a really good job of capturing the period through both her setting and through her characters. This book in particular was interesting because for the first time we see the story through Temeraire’s perspective as well.

Low Points: Book #5 wasn’t my favorite out of the series so far (I think the 1st and 2nd ones get that honor). The tone was a little more melancholy, bordering on the despondent in some places, and this book in particular was more concerned with battles and troop movements and strategy, which aren’t my favorite things. Still, I’m eager to read the next one.

Goodreads rating: 4 stars. The fifth book is consistent with the rest of the series and was fun to read.

Reading Challenge #20: A Book with Career Advice

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Title: Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”

Author: Lena Dunham

How it fulfills the challenge: This book doesn’t actually give all that much advice in the traditional sense, but the essays are written in such a way that you discover the career lessons for yourself. Namely, listening to your heart and going after the things you want even when it’s uncomfortable.

Genre: Memoir/essays

Quick Description: A book of essays about growing up, discovering who you are, and not being (too) afraid of who you turn out to be.

But ambition is a funny thing: it creeps up on you when you least expect if and keeps you moving, even when you think you want to stay put. I missed making things, the meaning it gave this long march we call life.

Highlights: Dunham’s writing style is warm and chatty. I’m pretty familiar with it because I’m a Lenny newsletter subscriber, and so I already knew I would like her informal writing style. Her stories are interesting and easy to relate to, even though I haven’t experienced a lot of the same things.

Low Points: Non-fiction tends to be aimed at a very specific audience, given that it’s usually written on a pretty narrow topic. You probably won’t like Dunham’s book if you like a more cohesive narrative style, if you don’t identify as a feminist, or if you don’t have an interest in the arts or media.

Goodreads Rating: 4 stars. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though in parts I wish the writing had been a little closer. A quick, interesting read.

 

Reading Challenge #49: A Book You Got From a Used Book Sale

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Title: Foundation and Empire

Author: Isaac Asimov

How it fulfills the challenge: Every year our library has two huge book sales put on by the Friends of the Library. I helped run the fall sale, but I went a day early to check out all the books. I ended up with a huge box of books for  both myself and as gifts, including this old copy of Asimov’s book for 50 cents.

Genre: Science-Fiction

Quick Description: In Asimov’s second Foundation book, new forces are set to destroy the fledgling Foundation, which was established at the end of the Empire’s power. The Foundation started as a scientific endeavor to create a giant encyclopedia containing all knowledge to shorten the inevitable chaos that will follow the end of the Empire to 1,000 years instead of 30,000 years. To do this, the Foundation must weather different crises. The first ones are described in the first book, but the new ones threaten to topple everything the Foundation has ever stood for.

Opening Line: The Galactic Empire was falling.

The city was quiet under its conquest and curfew, and the hazy milk of the great Galactic Lens, with here and there a lonely star, dominated the sky of the Foundation.

Highlights: This book series is without a doubt a masterpiece of science fiction. It shows interesting views of all of humanity, since part of the premise is that large bodies of people are predictable, even though individuals are not. The writing is atmospheric and smart, and through the jumps in time and space, Asimov is simultaneously able to make his characters seem individual as well as a part of the bigger picture.

Low points: Like any book, you really have to be in the right mood to read this one in order to keep up with the plotting, the history that’s been set forth, and the political powers at work. It’s a book that demands a lot from the reader, and you have to be into that. I’m not sure this really counts as a low point though… It doesn’t for me.

Goodreads Rating: 4 stars–though it probably deserves something more like 4.5. I find series difficult to award 5 stars to consistently. It definitely feels like this book is set up for more intense galactic struggles to come.