Books! Thanks #cbr4 for more books in 2012

I have to thank Cannonball Read for a great 2012. Every year I have a goal to read more and I never really accomplish that in any tangible way. I didn’t hit my Cannonball goal of 52 books and book reviews in one year, but this year I can say I surpassed my expectations. I’ve read more books this year than I’ve read in a long time, probably since college, and I think I wrote some solid reviews. I’ve also found with the help of wonderful friends some new authors and titles I wouldn’t have tried on my own. So, despite not meeting my goal, thanks Cannonball Read and here’s to 52 in 2013.

I’ve been skeptical of challenges, but I have to say that they are pretty useful and not just for racking up the numbers. Reading a large number of books meant that I had to get out of my comfort zone when it came to genres and authors. I was really bored with my usual historical fiction by March and had to branch out a bit. Writing the reviews was also an excellent way to fix those books in my mind. Obviously, the books I didn’t review (around 20) don’t stick out as much as the ones I took the time to write about. I’m sad that I didn’t review some especially Gods of Gotham and NW because they were definite highlights of the year.

As for 2013 I am going to do CBR5 and try for 52 books and 52 reviews. Fifty-two books isn’t that difficult to manage, especially if I cut out the 1,000 page books, but 52 reviews is a bit different. My biggest mistake this year was not writing the review immediately after each book. This coming year I will try to keep up with each review rather than putting them off to later. We will see how that goes.

I’ve also joined two other challenges: the Mount TBR 2013 and Historical Tapestry’s Historical Fiction Challenge. Mount TBR challenges you to read from your To Be Read pile through the year and the levels are based on mountain names. I will be doing Mount Blanc which is 24 books (aiming low). The historical fiction challenge also has levels and I will be getting Medieval with 15 books. Goodness knows there will be overlap between the two! Looking forward to 2013!


Books! The true story of the Congress of Vienna

Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna by Adam Zamoyski is not a book to approach lightly. It demands commitment and a willingness to wade through the numerous individuals involved in the Congress of Vienna. Ultimately though it is a great book and at times brings to life an exciting period in European history.

The book opens with the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall and his race back to France after the failed invasion of Russia. The Treaty of Paris helped to end the Napoleonic Empire and the wars, but Europe was left with many unsettled issues such as the status of Poland, who gets what territory and more. The Great Powers of Europe convened several committee meetings in Vienna that lasted for almost a year and discussed a variety of issues facing the continent. My favorite was the Statistical Committee. As Zamoyski explains, “In all the negotiations at the congress the political value of land was calculated not in acres or hectares, but in numbers of inhabitants, commonly referred to ‘souls'” (pg 386). The committee’s job was to verify the figures that the Great Powers were calculating thereby determining the value and the fair distribution of land.

The value of the book is in its retelling of the congress, especially its attention to detail. While this can become monotonous at times with dozens of unfamiliar names, Zamoyski brings out the flavor of the period by not only discussing the official proceedings but also describing the unofficial and at times debauched activities of the participants. Between balls, dalliances, hunts, and eating, it is a wonder they had any time to negotiate the future of Europe. It makes the politicians dealing with the fiscal cliff seem like a bunch of stodgy old monks.

The book also has a different take on the effects of the Congress of Vienna. In political science we tend to teach the Congress as resulting in the establishment of legitimacy of states in Europe and the beginning of stability on the continent. This is in part due to the writings of Henry Kissinger and Paul W. Schroeder. Zamoyski argues that the congress actually had negative effects because it left so many question unanswered, dreams unfulfilled, and completely ignored the rising tide of liberal thought in most of Europe. Although he doesn’t say this directly, in many ways the congress set the stage for the disasters of the next century.

While it is long and only for the determined, if you are interested in the Congress of Vienna and the late Napoleonic era, this is  a fantastic work. Very well-written and researched.

Books! Black helicopters?! Um, No.

I doubt this book will be the most popular entry for Cannonball Read, but I’m counting it as one of my 52. Get over it.

Of course everyone wants to know all there is to know about the United Nations. Or rather, I wish more people knew more about the UN. The United Nations by Sven Bernhard Gareis is called an introductory textbook, but it is pretty hefty and goes into incredible detail about the major UN functions. However, the chapters on peacekeeping and reform are good introductions to those topics. The chapters on collective security are a bit of slog and could use with some editing and reorganization.

The author reiterates throughout that the failings and successes of the UN fall squarely on the shoulders of the states that make it up. Without the member states, especially the P5, there is no UN. There is a tendency for students to judge the UN as an entity without considering that its failings cannot be easily separated from the actions of states. The actions we take in the US have a direct effect on the efficacy of the UN as an institution.

The book would be great for someone teaching an entire class on the United Nations or International Organizations as the chapters can easily be separated out for class readings. I definitely recommend for higher level courses though and not as an introductory text. For the individual reader, be sure you have a strong interest in the functioning of the UN. You will need it.

But! If when you think of the UN all you think about are black helicopters or Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust, then this probably a book you should put on your list. At least read the introduction. Please.

Books! The ethics of savior siblings #cbr4

I would have never picked up The Match by Beth Whitehouse on my own. I read it as part of our Friends of the Libraries book discussion group. They read three books each semester and I try to read most of them. The Match is eye-opening, but definitely not a book to approach lightly.

The story follows the Trebing family after their daughter is diagnosed with Diamond Blackfan anemia, a debilitating disease that requires monthly blood transfusions. Because the transfusions lead to a build up of iron in the heart and liver, her parents begin to search for alternative methods. They find out that the bone marrow of a sibling with the same genetic match as their daughter could cure her, but would require a potentially life-threatening transplant. They use several cutting edge procedures to give birth to a “savior sibling,” including preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and in vitro fertilization.

The book does a fine job bringing up the ethical issues of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and the idea of “savior sibling”. One question she discusses with doctors and ethicists is whether parents may use PGD to choose traits like eye color or intelligence. Another is the protection of the savior siblings and whether desperate parents wanting to save another child will consider fully the medical interests of the savior sibling. I can’t imagine any parent not loving their child,  treating them equally, and keeping them from as much harm as possible, but people are crazy (Toddlers in Tiaras are evidence of this).

Well-researched book about an extremely difficult subject. It is short and accessible though. I definitely recommend if you are interested in issues of medical ethics.

The Match

Books! a new meaning of getting lost in a book #cbr4

I’m going to finish this freaking Cannonball if it kills me. Or if I have to read YA. Not such a bad thing, but I have a lot of reviews to write. So here is review #26.

A friend described The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde as a detective novel with a crime solver who can jump into great books. Intriguing idea, definitely. Execution? Well …

This will be the hardest teaser summary to write because the plot was all over the place. Basically, we are in England of 1985 where the country is in a perennial war with Russia over the Crimea, Wales has seceded to become a (sort of?) communist state, and the English populace is freaking mad about great authors, especially Shakespeare. Our main character, Thursday Next, is a Special Operations detective for the LiteraTech department that seems to focus mainly on great book forgeries. She gets involved in the investigation of a really bad dude named Hades. Why does she get involved? Well, because she’s special, of course. And chaos ensues, which includes worm holes (I think), time bending, dodo birds, and Thursday jumping into the plot of Jane Eyre … WTF?

As you can see from the Goodreads reviews, people seem to either adore these books (it is a series) or hate them with a passion. I enjoyed the world the author created, but felt like there were too many holes in the story, too many plot points that didn’t make a bit of sense. Plus, Thursday as she became more and more gooey about her long lost love really lost my attention. I just wanted her to get married and stop the whining. Nevertheless, if I don’t think too hard about it, the book was admittedly fun to read and honestly I might read another. I really liked the dodo birds.

Looking for an alternate reality detective story that involves great books, but goes by quickly? Thursday Next just might be the gal for you.

Books! My kind of historical fiction #cbr4

I’ve never read Gore Vidal before. As a cultural figure he always struck me as a long-winded curmudgeon. Before the Thanksgiving break, however, I was wanting something EPIC and Vidal popped into my head. I started with Creation because I wasn’t sure in what order to read the American history books and because it was the smallest paperback of the bunch at the library. Ah, convenience.

To be perfectly honest, this is an amazing book. It is historical fiction as it should be and as I have always wanted to read it. I was in love with the story and language from the moment I started reading. I am being a bit effusive but this is the truth. You should read it.

Set in the fifth century BCE, we follow the adventures of Cyrus Spitama, the grandson of the prophet Zoroaster and a leading figure in the Persian court (during the reigns of Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes). In addition to providing the Persian version of the Greek wars as told by Herodotus, he narrates his travels through India and China where he meets Buddha,  Confucius, and more querying them on the meaning of creation and heaven. Vidal has said that he wanted to write a novel that included Sophocles, Buddha, and Confucius, and he wrote a splendid one.

The only part I found slow was when he firsts visits China, but it picks up when he meets Confucius. I especially loved this part:

Confucius smiled. “I should think so. It has always seemed to me clear that the spirit which animates the human body is bound to return at death to the primal unity from which it came.”

“To be reborn? Or judged?”

Confucius shrugged. “Whatever. But one thing is certain. You cannot rekindle a fire that has burned out. While you burn with life, your seed can make a new human being but when your fire is out, no one can bring you back to life again. The dead, dear friend, are cold ashes. They have no consciousness. But that is no reason not to honor their memory, and ourselves, and our descendants.”

The biggest criticism of Vidal is that he likes to bend history to fit his novels and he does that quite a bit in this book. But honestly he bends to make a much better novel and in the end tells a better story than most historical fiction out there that tries to retain the truth and ends up feeling false. Gore Vidal in death has a new fan.

If you are looking for a well-written, complex story with dialogue that isn’t painful to read, then this is the historical fiction for you. Having some interest in ancient history is a plus but not necessary to enjoy the story.

Books! Dude needs a new fairy godmother stat #cbr4

I’m not going to finish my full Cannonball Run, but I think I’ve done pretty well for the first time. I’ve read 38 books this year, which is the highest number I’ve read since I was like 12. I’ve only done 23 reviews so far, but I will try to push out some over the break, maybe. Next year I might be more strategic in the types of books I read. I tend toward the long and dense. More YA might need to be in my future.

My parents introduced me to the Dresden Novels by Jim Butcher about a year ago. I was looking for easy and fun novels to read during the summer vacation. They had just finished reading the entire series together (AW! Yes, it is sickly sweet, but the family that reads together!)  and thought I would enjoy it. So, I’ve been making my way through the novels since then. I definitely wouldn’t be able to read these one after another like the rents. They are, let’s say, too similar in style from one to the next for me to read them all in a row. I would seriously get bored. However, if you are looking for a quick and fun fantasy series these fit the bill nicely.

The Summer Knight is the fourth in the series. To give you a bit of background, Dresden is a perpetually down on his luck wizard turned detective who fights a bunch of fantasy realm characters on the mean streets of Chicago. But these aren’t your childhood fantasy characters, of course. There are some mean baddies. He is so down on his luck that even the people who supposedly like him, seem to, well, not really like him. And he gets beat up A LOT. I wonder sometimes if Jim Butcher takes sadistic delight in imagining his main character demoralized, tossed about, and mostly ineffective (until the end at least). Anyway, I digress.

This installment finds Dresden dealing with an emotional breakdown after the third novel (I’ll save you specifics) and trying to keep himself alive after his world has started falling apart (mostly his fault). He is hired by a queen of the Winter Faeries to figure out who killed off the Summer Knight. It is too much to explain, but basically there are Winter Faeries and Summer Faeries and they trade off control of the year. They have knights and when one gets killed there is a disturbance in the force. And all hell breaks loose. Or at least Dresden must figure out what the heck is going on.

Like I said, the Dresden novels are fun, but repetitive. I’ve love Jim Butcher’s imagination and he sets a solid scene for the reader. I don’t like how much of the novel is focused on Dresden being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting the crap beat out of him until finally he doesn’t anymore. I know the purpose is to create suspense, but I find it hard to believe half the time that this loser will accomplish anything. I’ve started skimming the middle a bit just to get to the final scene where, yes, Dresden’s awesome powers shine through, and yes, Dresden makes it all (or, well, mostly) right.

The good thing about these novels is that the main character doesn’t always set everything to right. Someone always gets killed or turned into a vampire. But again we are reading about a down on his luck wizard.

Great vacation reading. Even I can finish them in two or three days (I’m a SLOOOOW reader). Solid fantasy detective stories with a bit of the pulp.