Review: How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance by Marilyn Yalom

13623847Blurb: Oh, how the French love love! For hundreds of years, they have championed themselves as guides to the art de l’amour through their literature, paintings, songs, and cinema. A French man or woman without amorous desire is considered defective, like someone missing the sense of smell or taste. Now revered scholar Marilyn Yalom intimately examines the tenets of this culture’s enduring gospel of romance.

Basing her delightfully erudite findings on her extensive readings of French literature, as well as memories of her personal experiences in la belle France, Yalom explores the many nuances of love as it has evolved over the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the present. Following along, step-by-step, on her romance-tinged literary detective hunt, the reader discovers how the French invented love, how they have kept it vibrant for more than nine centuries, what is unique in the French love experience, and what is universal.

Review: So I was led astray by the title of this book How the French Invented Love–doesn’t that suggest a sociological explanation of the significance of love in French culture? Now of course, love is important in every culture. But to my romantic American Francophile mind, the French seem to have cornered the market on love. Stereotype or not, it seems to me that the French, both throughout history and today, are much more devoted to the pleasures of love. I was expecting a sociological exploration of this belief. I wanted to learn: why do we associate the French so strongly with love? is the French emphasis on love fact or fiction? how do the French treat love differently from other cultures?

Unfortunately, this book somewhat broaches these questions but not sociologically. Rather, Yalom, who writes both congenially and informatively, takes us on a sweeping adventure through French love literature. She begins with the tragic story of Abelard and Heloise, whom she names the “patron saints” of French love. From there we discuss Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances and his focus on courtly love before moving to the invention of gallantry during the reign of Sun King Louis XIV. Then we investigate the Romantics’ fixation/fascination on love as the absolute purpose of life and finally we explore the more modern cynicism toward love as found in Proust and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Yalom does not limit herself to heterosexual love either–lesbian and gay relationships are well-covered. What I found most interesting about this chronological expedition through French literature was the oscillation between periods of romantic attitudes toward love followed by periods of jaded attitudes toward love. A lot of French love literature is motivated by backlash toward these ideals.

While this book left me with a long list of French love stories to seek out, I didn’t get the answer to my most pressing questions: do the French actually love differently? and if they do, why? This omission was somewhat assuaged by Yalom’s inclusion of several personal anecdotes on French love. She tells charming real life stories of French lovers that are so utterly French in character that I can’t help but believe that l’amour à la française is not merely imagined but truly exists.

4 out of 5 stars

Here’s a LONG list of French works focused on love that Yalom has inspired me to read as soon as possible:
The Lais of Marie de France
The Princesse de Clèves
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Manon Lescaut
The Misanthrope
Claudine at School
Madame Bovary
Cyrano De Bergerac
Remembrance of Things Past: Volume I – Swann’s Way & Within a Budding Grove
The Lover

So obviously that list suggests that you probably shouldn’t pick this book up if you’re not looking to add even MORE books to your already towering to-be-read pile. The Francophile in me, however, can’t wait.

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Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

21Blurb: In Bryson’s biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand — and, if possible, answer — the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves. Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.

Review:

Do you appreciate being reminded of your futility when comparing your existence to the scope of the entire universe? Do you love hearing that you will live and you will die making no difference to anything in this infinitely large universe? Do you enjoy remembering that you are merely composed of atoms, bits of matter that aren’t even sentient? Then read this book.

Do you despise being reminded of your futility because you consider yourself a special snowflake? Do you enjoy hearing about how miraculous and incredible your existence is? Do you love thinking about how the odds of you becoming a living organism, in particular, becoming a living human on Planet Earth in the Milky Way, have more zeroes than our extraordinary brains can possibly conceive? Then read this book.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. In this sprawling work, Bryson begins by explaining the creation of the universe and ends with the evolution of modern humans and potential climatic changes facing us in the future. In between, he covers the eccentricities and brilliance of Isaac Newton; countless scientific feuds; the curious profluence of trilobites in the Cambrian era; the frightening possibility that we may die any second from A) a rogue meteoroid B) Yellowstone’s supervolcano C) manmade problems, ranging from the use of lead to the destruction of our planet D) infinite other creepy crawlies present in the vast universe; and, well, everything else. Bryson’s scope is immense, and I enjoyed every second of it.

While I could’ve done away with some of his focus on the amusing personalities behind the scientific discoveries rather than the science itself, I can think of few authors who could make these finicky subjects approachable to the layman. If you are reluctant to read this book because you aren’t scientific, please reconsider. Although I am experienced in biology, physics is basically my kryptonite, yet I found the chapters on particle physics and the background to the creation of the universe some of the most interesting. Just yesterday, I found myself explaining Einstein’s theory of relativity and how the Newtonian conceptualization of gravity isn’t valid because gravity is simply a distortion of spacetime. Yes, reading this book gave me the chops to throw down words like “spacetime”—clearly, I learned a lot.

For anyone who wants to learn about science but may feel ill-equipped to do so, A Short History of Nearly Everything is the book for you. It will make you marvel at the miracle of our existences one moment and demonstrate how terribly unimportant we all are in the grand scheme of things the next.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Serena by Ron Rash

2815590Blurb:

The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

 

Review:

Never has a titular character deserved her title as much as Serena in Ron Rash’s Serena. Because Serena Pemberton is everything. She’s intelligent, ambitious, not exactly beautiful, unconventional, and daring; but mostly, she’s ruthless.

It is rare that a book physically affects me, but Serena did. As I rocketed towards the finale, my heart pumped faster and my palms started to sweat. Turning each page felt like the long and low creaking of a door opening in a horror film. There is a suffocating sensation, a feeling, nay an absolute certainty, that terrible events are approaching.

But while the plot chugs with refreshing speed, Ron Rash writes in restrained yet beautiful prose to create a rather thoughtful story. Serena is almost universally recommendable because it bridges commercial and literary fiction in the best way; it’s an exciting thriller that questions standards of femininity, the dangers of ambition, and the lengths of love. Serena will destroy anyone if it helps herself, her husband, and their lumber empire. Because of the early 20th century society Serena lived in and the society we still live in, it’s tempting to interpret Serena’s character as a jealous and unhinged harpy, a woman gone mad following her failure to produce a child, her one true purpose on Earth. But that’s an unfair and sexist designation. Serena is simply ambition magnified a thousand times. In fact, her qualities would likely be admired if she were a man. She’s both awe-inspiring and reprehensible and certainly one of the greatest characters I’ve read about in a long while.

While the main conflict plays out between Rachel, the mother of Serena’s husband’s illegitimate child, and barren Serena, the surrounding Appalachian landscape is ruined, logged until it too rests barren. Serena is thus also a proto-environmentalist tale set in the 1930s. The most alarming part is how so little seems to have changed since that era. Unbridled avarice and unthinking apathy towards the wonder and precariousness of the natural world are still common today, an unfortunate fact that only heightens the novel’s relevance and appeal. With a fantastic touch, Rash includes a Greek chorus of lumberjacks to discuss the personal and natural destruction around them. At the end of the novel, one worker states solemnly, “I think this is what the end of the world will be like.”

And he’s right. As the forests fall, leaving scarred and empty lands, along fall the characters’ facades until only the ugliest scraps of human nature remain, deformed and laid out to fester in the sun.

5 out 5 stars

Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

16160797Blurb:

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you’ve never seen them under an investigation like this.

Introducing Cormoran Strike, this is the acclaimed first crime novel by J.K. Rowling, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

Review:

Can you imagine how hard it is to write a good mystery novel? Every reader who cracks open a detective story is trying to prove himself more capable than the actual detective. How bothersome for the author then, who must not only figure out how to have her protagonist outsmart the fictional criminal but also figure out how to outsmart legions of armchair detectives reading at home. Galbraith, however, is a clever fox. I had no idea who pushed bright young supermodel Lula Landry over her balcony on a snowy London morning until it was revealed in the final chapters. Either I am just unnaturally obtuse for an otherwise decently intelligent individual or everyone else is lying about being able to finger the killer within the first 100 pages because The Cuckoo’s Calling is intricately plotted, to the point where I had to page back and puzzle through who did what and who knew what and who knew who did what. Lack of knowledge is always a big motivator for me, so I turned these pages as fast as my skinny little fingers could without inflicting myself with a papercut.

Even more important than a twisty plot in a mystery novel, however, is compelling characters. Creating a good detective is tricky business. I’m not partial to arrogant genius PIs à la Sherlock Holmes who solve cases effortlessly, dazzling the reader with their seeming omniscience. But I also don’t like dumbed down detectives like those in CSI who dully follow cookie cutter protocol until the (usually very obvious) criminal is discovered. For the most part, Cormoran Strike, the physically and personally damaged private detective, is to my satisfaction. He is not unquestionably brilliant; he must painstakingly track leads and try to make sense of muddled witness testimony like the rest of us. But he is also not formulaic, mostly because his past—an absent rockstar father, a deadbeat mom suspiciously dead of a drug overdose, a leg blown off in Afghanistan, a coldly posh on and off again girlfriend—keeps him unbalanced and interesting.

The numerous other characters are equally impressive. The structure of the novel is straightforward. Strike is presented with a case, identifies persons of interest, and slowly hunts all of them down for interviews. Truly, the characterization is incredible. Each person of interest is described with such precision that you can imagine their inner lives even though these inner lives are of no significance to the story. That’s plainly good writing because it shows, quite realistically, that the world is bigger than this single case and the few major characters. My absolute favorite character is Robin, Strike’s unwanted personal secretary. She’s the type of girl who grew up idolizing Nancy Drew (aka me) and when she fortuitously finds a temp job as a PI’s assistant, she’s in paradise. She’s smart and kind and ambitious, and I cannot wait to see how her and Strike’s relationship develops, both professionally and personally. Move over Batman and Robin, because there’s a new dynamic duo in town: Strike and Robin. (I’ll admit that lacks the same ring to it, but I love this Galbraith Robin so much.)

I have only one complaint about The Cuckoo’s Calling and it’s about the narration. Occasionally, Cormoran would allude cryptically to discoveries he made concerning the case without including the reader. I don’t like being dangled in the Halls of Unknowing for longer than necessary, and I especially don’t like when a character flaunts his knowledge in front of me. I often consider the relationship between an author, a POV character, and her readers as predicated on mutual trust. A reader knows the author knows how the story will end, which is fine. But if an author has decided to write from a character’s limited perspective but then fails to disclose certain information when it is solely to the author’s benefit, I feel cheated. It’s the cruel antithesis of dramatic irony—the character knows more than the audience—and I don’t like it one bit.

Altogether The Cuckoo’s Calling is a great mystery novel and I haven’t even mentioned its insights into celebrity culture supported by fantastic classical epigraphs and its deft handling of mixed race and adoption. You heard it here first: Robert Galbraith is a promising author to watch. What a wonderful debut novel! I can hardly even believe it’s a debut!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!*

*Usually when I use copious exclamation points I’m being sarcastic. Usually.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Angelfall by Susan Ee

11500217-1Blurb:

It’s been six weeks since angels of the apocalypse descended to demolish the modern world. Street gangs rule the day while fear and superstition rule the night. When warrior angels fly away with a helpless little girl, her seventeen-year-old sister Penryn will do anything to get her back.

Anything, including making a deal with an enemy angel.

Raffe is a warrior who lies broken and wingless on the street. After eons of fighting his own battles, he finds himself being rescued from a desperate situation by a half-starved teenage girl.

Traveling through a dark and twisted Northern California, they have only each other to rely on for survival. Together, they journey toward the angels’ stronghold in San Francisco where she’ll risk everything to rescue her sister and he’ll put himself at the mercy of his greatest enemies for the chance to be made whole again.

Review:

I’m sure anyone who has taken a middle school English class has suffered through endless discussion of the plot diagram below:

How many times did I have to break down a class-required reading using this chart? Too many! After reading Angelfall, I’d love to go back to my 8th grade teacher and shove this diagram in her face because Angelfall’s plot structure looks a bit more like this:

ENDLESS. CLIMAX. It’s like Susan Ee went, “exposition? pshhh who needs that? I’ll just have a major battle scene in the first few pages. Denouement, you say? Well, I don’t speak French, so I think I’ll just end my book in the middle of the climax that has been going since page one.”

In some ways, this structure was refreshing. Who hasn’t read a poorly paced book with dull spots aplenty hoping for endless action? But I think by focusing exclusively on high-octane events, Ee does her book a disservice. We never truly get to meet the characters, understand who they are and what motivates them. Thus I failed to connect with them and care about what would happen to them. Furthermore, since the characters are engaged in a battle every other chapter or so, they never really got to know each other. So later in the novel, when their connections become central to their personal choices, I didn’t believe these choices. Additionally, the fascinating backstory to this apocalypse and the details of angelic politics are glossed over in favor of action, meaning the worldbuilding is rather weak, which is a shame since Ee’s interpretation of the angel mythology seems quite novel.

While reading Angelfall I kept thinking “THIS IS AWESOME” but I never really cared what happened. It was more so just a need to know. Without any considerable depth, Angelfall is a book I anticipate forgetting quickly. That said, I will likely check out the sequel because 1. holy cliffhanger 2. I’m a chronic series completist 3. a girl can hope Ee gets a hold of the more traditional middle school plot diagram and decides to use it.

2 out of 5 stars

(Pro Tip: if you own a Kindle, this book is dirt cheap on Amazon since it’s self-published. Also, it’s slated to be a major motion picture and it will likely make millions in a few years time. Just some advice in case you want to jump on the bandwagon early so you can brag to all your friends.)

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

12600138Blurb: It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune–and remarkable power–to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved–that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt–among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life–and love–in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready?

Review: Have I mentioned how much I loathe bloated action scenes? I loathe bloated action scenes. What fun am I supposed to find in reading about characters attacking each other? Unfortunately, the last quarter of Ready Player One descends into a massive battle where the wholeheartedly good draws virtual weapons against the unabashedly evil, which led my eyes to skimskimskim since: I loathe bloated action scenes.

Casting aside this disappointing ending, however, I found Ready Player One to be fantastically entertaining. It’s not high literature, but on a popcorn level—where once you take a bite, you can’t stop—it’s excellent. It’s about a young guy living in a dystopic future where everyone lives inside a virtual video game reality. This young guy faces off with a Big Bad Corporation that is trying to take control of the video game by winning a scavenger hunt contest created by the game’s deceased creator. Winning the contest requires an encylopediac mind crammed with 80s pop culture trivia, early video games lore, and famed fantasy and science fiction knowledge.

Now my familiarity with the 80s is limited. Beyond playing Duck Hunter and listening to Tainted Love on a loop, that decade does not exist for me, mostly because I did not exist. I would have loved a 90s version of this with challenges based on Beanie Babies, Tamagotchis, Pokemon cards, the Backstreet Boys, The Lion King, and Gameboy Colors, but alas…(though, whoa, I need to write that book pronto before I succumb to ND—Nineties Deprivation.) I was worried about not enjoying this due to my lack of 80s knowledge, but it’s absolutely secondary. Some of the references triggered no neural impulse, yet I still understood what was going on.

The main problem is that Ernest Cline is obviously a debut novelist. His prose is constructed almost entirely with simple sentences. A subject verbs something; then the subject verbs something else; next the subject verbs a new something else, etc. His characters are flat too. Wade, the protagonist, has no flaws and miraculously succeeds at everything he tries to do. The choice of Wade as the main character is disappointing actually. Another main character in the scavenger hunt, Art3mis, is a geek girl and would have been a more interesting protagonist than your typical pimply white male hacker geek extraordinaire.

There is also no depth. There is a chapter near the middle of the book where I could tell the author suddenly tried to add some deeper themes for pondering, but it failed since it was the opposite of effortless. Yet strangely, I didn’t want to be challenged in my reading. I was enchanted enough by the creativity of the virtual reality world designed and by the scavenger hunt challenges themselves. The challenges are the best part; in a nice parallel fashion, the book is a virtual reality for us readers, a bit of personal escapism where we can put ourselves in the characters’ places and try to solve the puzzles. So when Cline made a clumsy attempt at profundity, all I wanted was for him to return to the game so that I could get back in the zone.

When you’re looking for a few hours of fun, definitely read this. I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy it in the basest pleasure center of your brain. For now, excuse me, I need to hunt down an original Nintendo set and watch every John Hughes movie ever.

A solid 3 out of 5 stars