Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: "Popular" by Lauren Urasek

Reviewing "Popular", sub-titled "The Ups and Downs of Online Dating from the Most Popular Girl in New York City", turned into a challenge for this free-lance, er, amateur, book reviewer.  When I receive books from publishers/publicists, I make every attempt to read and review, and uphold my end of the deal.  They provide a book, I provide a review.  I've put off writing a review of "Popular" for a few months for various reasons, the main one being the time my main blog, Merry and Bright!, takes during the holidays, leaving no time for Der Bingle Books.  Another reason, though, was that honestly I didn't like this book very much, and writing a negative review is a challenge.

But, I'm accepting the challenge by separating the review of the book from the main reasons I didn't like it.  You'll see what I mean (I hope) as you read further.

When I really don't like a book, I stop reading it, and don't waste my time by trying to finish it.  Reading time is precious, and I'm not going to trudge through something terrible when I have hundreds of others lined up to read.  This was not the case with "Popular".  I finished it, and finished it quickly, in only a few days.  Hmmm... did I *really* not like it?  Read on...

Lauren Urasek is an It Girl of online dating sites, mainly OKCupid, and also is neck-deep in social media sites like Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, etc.  "Popular" is a series of anecdotes and stories about her rise to what we consider fame these days via these internet sites through her dating experiences and edging into more traditional broadcast media.  It's her Fifteen Minutes in book form.  Interspersed are "yeah, this really happened" stories, and  shared experiences from other online-dating singles.  So, it's a bunch of stories about dating in New York in the 201ns, which is enabled through dating apps and social media.

So, the book.  It's entertaining.  Some of the anecdotes are funny, some are in the 'I can't believe they did that, but yes I can' category, particularly when Lauren describes the tweeting behavior of her potential suitors.  It's a picture into the open life of the author.  It's the story of a person that most of us will never be, and will never have the opportunity to be.  It's a vivid painting of a world that is completely foreign to some and all-too-close-to-home for others.  It's easy to read, it's moderately shocking at times, and yeah, I read it.  Many readers will find it very amusing.

What I didn't like was that it felt like I was reading a trainwreck (please excuse the intentional mixing of verb and metaphor).  To me, the author was completely self-centered to the point of selfish, with a victim mentality, and oozing double-standards.  She expected the men she dated to change to match her expectations, yet she is herself totally unwilling to change.  The behavior she saw in many men was unacceptable, yet she herself enthusiastically engaged in the same behavior later on.  Hypocritical, why-won't-the-world-do-what-I-want attitudes everywhere.

So that's why I didn't like the book - I didn't like the author and the picture of herself that she painted.  That's how the book came across to me.  Now, Lauren Urasek may actually be an extraordinary person, kind, charming, and not the impression that comes across in the pages of "Popular".  I hope so, I hope that the image of Ms. Urasek I got from the book is wrong.  Perhaps it's a generational and/or geographical thing that makes it hard for me to relate.  But ultimately this is why I didn't care for the book.  Others may love it and relate to it much better than I.  Reviewers on Amazon are exceedingly positive, so perhaps this book is one you will enjoy more than I.

The book is an interesting and amusing picture of online dating and how social media affects our lives.  It succeeds as a social study, but fails as a literary portrait, in this review's opinion.

A review copy of "Popular" was provided by the publisher.

Amazon link

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Curse of Crow Hollow" by Billy Coffey

My personal rule of starting a new novel is 100 pages.  I'll give any book 100 pages before making the decision on whether to continue and spend the investment of my reading capital.  Sometimes I give it up, if the book fails to draw me in, or I find it just not my thing.   Stephen King's "The Tommyknockers" - gave up.  "Deadwood" by Pete Dexter, a tremendously popular book by fans and critics - the pacing was all off for me, and I couldn't finish.  "Lamb", by Christopher Moore, again, a majorly popular writer - I didn't make it to word one on page 101.  And others, usually horror novels by lesser known authors, have been stricken by the 100 page rule.

You can see where this is going.  "House of Leaves", reviewed previously, made it well past the 100-page test.  "The Curse of Crow Hollow" didn't.

The first 50 pages of "The Curse of Crow Hollow" were fine, were engaging if not gripping, and set the stage for what was potentially a good October supernatural read.  A small group of teenagers in rural, southern Crow Hollow, instead of going to a party in the usual teen spot in Harper's Field went to The Mines, the legendary, haunted, forbidden place where teens in a horror story always go.  Terror starts when a stolen diamond bracelet is re-stolen, and cloven hoofprints seared into the hard ground, up and down trees, and ending then re-emerging across a pond lead to the bracelet at the remote cabin of the local rumored witch.  The teens encounter the witch herself, and hear the raging roars and growls of something, presumably the owner of the cloven hooves, locked inside the shed.  The teens escape, but not without terrifying consequence.

Sounds good so far.  Teens in trouble.  A witch.  A Jersey Devil-like thing imprisoned and controlled by the witch.  Promising.

The next 50 pages though, for me, didn't resonate.  The focus shifted to the parents and other adults in Crow Hollow, their reactions to the returns of the teens, and bits and pieces of backstory.  The story moved along slowly, losing the tension that had been established earlier.  Perhaps this was foundation-building for a terrific story - I'll never know.  Disinterest took hold, and I set the book aside.

The story was written partly in the usual omniscient third-person narrative, but also partly in first-person, Crow Hollow-resident storyteller point of view.  These styles wove in and out too seamlessly, and it was distracting to me as a reader.  The lack of consistent voice was ultimately what led me to give up and move on to another selection.

Billy Coffey has many fans, based on reviews on Amazon, and "The Curse of Crow Hollow" has many positive reviews.  It may be a perfect tale for many readers out there.  And, with Pete Dexter and Stephen King, Billy Coffey has fine company as an author whose one book just didn't strike a positive chord with me.  "The Curse of Crow Hollow" might be a great selection for you, but for me, it wasn't.

The publisher provided an ARC of "The Curse of Crow Hollow" for review purposes.

Ronda Rousey: "My Fight Your Fight"

Ronda Rousey's "My Fight Your Fight" hit the bookshelves with impeccable timing, just as her fame and popularity attained new heights and reached audiences well beyond the usual UFC/MMA crowd.  Like myself, to be sure.  The stories of Rousey's bouts ending in mere seconds (12 seconds?!!?! How is that even possible?) reached the mainstream, and her combination of good looks, toughness, athleticism, and entertainment marketing converged during her book tour.  I happened upon her book tour scheduled stop in Kansas City just a few days prior to the event, and decided to attend and check out the Rousey-pandemonium first hand.  So, my two sons and I went to see and meet Ronda in person.

The book signing was crowded and as raucous as a book-signing can be, though nothing got out of control, thanks to police presence as well as Rousey's entourage.  Quickly the "no pictures from the stage" rule dissolved away, through the crowd still moved through the book queue quickly.  Ronda shook hands, posed, and spoke to each person coming through the line.  It was a great event.  Capping the event was Ronda coming down from the stage to greet a wheelchair-bound special needs fan.  She spent a few minutes talking to the the young man, who was ecstatic to be able to meet and share some time with the Champ.

Enough about the booksigning - how about the book?  "My Fight Your Fight" is a very good sports memoir/autobiography.  Ms. Rousey describes her youth, including the tragic death-by-suicide of her fathter, and her subsequent rise through the USA Judo ranks, culminating in two Olympic games.  Her story continues on to her few amateur MMA bouts, and then her turning pro in the UFC, through her current status as the undisputed most popular athlete in the ranks.

As a framework, each chapter begins with a few paragraphs about achievement, hard work, no-pain-no-gain, stuggles-bearing-success, and the like.  This framework does provide an effective motivational thread through the book, but overall does not add significant interest.  It's OK, but that's it.  

Ronda's insight and story about her years in the world of Olympic-caliber judo, though, are fascinating.  The struggles with coaching, the terrifying (to me) methods of weight-cutting, and the minimal support from the governing association are eye-opening and superbly interesting parts of this sports auto-bio.  The reader gets a close sense of what it takes in terms of day-to-day and also months-long efforts to reach the peak of the sport.

What also works in "My Fight Your Fight" are Ronda's descriptions of her bouts and opponents.  She gives us detailed insights into the athletes that she has fought, and move-by-move accounts of the fights.  I found myself going to Youtube to watch the fights after reading her detailed descriptions, which always include her recollections of her thoughts during the matches.  These chapters were the best of the book.

Der Bingle recommends "My Fight Your Fight".

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski

"House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski was originally published in 2000, and it was at least a couple years later that I read about it, and purchased my own copy after being very intrigued about the reviews and descriptions of the book.  It's been sitting on my bookshelf ever since, waiting for the right time to open it and begin the daunting project of reading.  At over 700 pages, it would seem to be a novel that would take quite a bit of time to finish.  And, flipping through the pages and seeing its structure adds the 'project' qualifier to the reading experience.  Every October I try to dive into books and stories of horror and the macabre, being with the spirit of the Halloween season, and so this year with October approaching, I decided to start "House of Leaves".  If I didn't like it, I'd concede and not make the presumably weeks-long investment in finishing, having given it my best shot before moving on.

One week and 709 pages later, I have finished "House of Leaves".

This novel was intriguing, scary, gripping, tedious, challenging, and a total trip of a reading experience.  It's unlike any other book I've ever read, and it will be for you as well, should you decide to take it on.

"House of Leaves" is about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside.  (Not really like a Tardis, no...).  But not really.  It's about a movie that may or may not exist about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside.  But, it's really about a blind man's excruciatingly-detailed analysis of the movie that may or may not exist, written as he lived inside a barricaded room, because of the movie that may or may not exist.  Er, not really.  It's about the narrator, Johnny Truant, finding the blind man's (Zampano is his name) manuscript about the movie about the house, and his descent into madness while reading and annotating Zampano's pages.  Sort of.  Ultimately it's about all of these things, and perhaps more, or perhaps less.

The book is recursive to a degree.  There are John Barth-ian elements of a book within a book, or maybe a book that is self-aware.  The book itself draws the reader in to the plot in many creative and very satisfying ways.  You will feel claustrophobic, you will experience an escape along with the characters, you will feel the influence of the house and all of its terrifying peculiarities.


The core of the book, the story of the house and its endlessness (frequently compared to the classic labyrinth), was the most satisfying element of the novel.  An extra quarter-inch inside the house revealed concurrently with a suddenly discovered new room gets your attention.  A hallway that shouldn't exist but takes 5 1/2 minutes to traverse grabs you.  A door leading to an endless(?) spiral staircase sucks you in for good.  This central story is as good and scary as any other classic tale of horror.  It's what kept me going.

Less interesting to me was Johnny Truant's story, woven in through extended footnotes until several chapters at the end.  Although, I'm sure that Johnny's story was the actual central theme, it still didn't hold my attention as much, and I found myself working through his notes just to get back to the story of the house.

Every reader of "House of Leaves" is likely to have a different experience.  It's a masterwork of vision by the author, and makes the reader a true participant in the story as no other.

There are many different editions of "House of Leaves".  Fonts, color, and printing abnormalities are essential to the story, as you'll see in the following pictures.  The first two are representative of my edition.  The third is from a more deluxe edition, with additional colors and crazy printing.

"House of Leaves" is an adventure.  Its 709 pages went by much faster than I ever imagined they could.  If you're up for a challenge, check it out.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Rapid Review: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

After three previously published crime/mystery novels, author Emily St. John Mandel branched into futurist/sci-fi/post-apocalyptic genre with "Station Eleven", her breakout novel.  "Station Eleven" made the short list for numerous awards, winning several along the way.

Although the story of Earth post-decimation by killer virus has been visited many times by many authors, few have tackled it as well as Ms, Mandel.  In her version, Earth's population has been all but eradicated by the Georgian Flu, leaving only a few survivors who, via cautious wandering and/or quarantine areas have clustered together.  No explanation is given for the new virus, nor is any needed.  Dwelling too much on the science of virology, immunity, and cures can take away from the core of the plot.  Kudos to Ms Mandel for avoiding the unnecessary.

"Station Eleven" threads together multiple stories and timelines, from the origination of the outbreak and the central characters' introductions, to the future where a band of artists travel the land keeping the spirit of humanity alive through productions of Shakespeare's plays.  Another group of survivors has stayed in a quarantined airport terminal for years, hanging on to their sense of being and community be any means possible.

"Station Eleven" deservedly earned all the praise it has received.  It is a refreshing take on the post-killer-virus world, with true heart and soul at its core.  Interestingly, even though "Station Eleven" has been a best seller and multiple award winner, it wasn't until Spring of 2015 during her book tour that Ms. Mandel was able to quit her day job as an executive administrator and devote herself completely to writing.  She announced this during her stop in Kansas City - no more making travel arrangements for her company while she was on book tour.

For a unique and fascinating divergence into a new genre, try "Station Eleven".

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Tenth of December" by George Sauders

I was not familiar with George Saunders until reading "Gumption" by Nick Offerman (previously reviewed in this blog).  Mr. Offerman described George Saunders as one of America's best writers, and perhaps the funniest author of our literary age.  So, I had to give George Saunders a try.  "Tenth of December", Saunders' most recent collection of stories, was my initiation.

From the first few paragraphs (actually, it was the second) of the first story "Victory Lap", I was hooked.  Funny?  Absolutely.  Unpredictable?  Assuredly.  Creative?  Boundlessly.  Every story in this collection has moments of complete hilarity - you find yourself chuckling at a phrase or a thought from one of Saunders' characters.

Somewhere around the third or fourth story I realized that the stories seemed kin in spirit to David Sedaris' work.  I had not yet discovered the interview of George Saunders by David Sedaris to finish out the book.  Obviously others have recognized them both as twin rulers of American Satire.

Highlights?  Heck, every story in the book is a highlight.  "Sticks" totally cracked me up, especially one sentence in particular containing the word "glee" (I don't dare quote the sentence in this review - it would ruin the experience for the reader).  "Escape from Spiderhead" was a bizarre dive into pharma-tech that bordered on sci-fi.  "The Semplica Girl Diaries" was a long 'what-the-heck?' journey through the plot as told be a wanna-be journaling dad.

"Tenth of December" is an outstanding collection of stories that entertains from the first through the last.

"Revival" by Stephen King

I've been reading Stephen King since I was 18 - that would be since 1982, if anyone is counting.  To me,  Mr. King's work has gone through phases over the years.  I loved his early work - "The Dead Zone", "The Shining", "Carrie", "Firestarter", and of course "The Stand" (one of very few books I've read twice).  Then came "Cujo", "Christine", and others from that timeframe that didn't seem to be of the same quality.  Was he trying too hard?  Stretching thin ideas into 400+ pages?   Some of the work of the next period were, for me, unmemorable ("The Talisman", co-authored with Peter Straub) or unfinishable ("The Tommyknockers").

Over the years I kept reading Stephen King's work here and there.  I always enjoyed his story collections.  Several books were great reads for 80% of the book, followed by a flat ending ("It", "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon", "Needful Things").  Some works were good.  Many are still on my shelf still to be read.

With "Doctor Sleep" in 2014, Stephen King returned to top form.  Revisiting the story started decades earlier in "The Shining", "Doctor Sleep" was tight, tense, exciting, and a perfect continuation of the original.  It was hard to put down each night until I finished it.  A great return to form.  But I'm not here to talk about "Doctor Sleep".

"Revival", also released in 2014, is, in my opinion, one of Mr. King's best works, a top 10 selection alongside "The Stand" and "Salem's Lot".   "Revival" spans many years in the life of Jamie Morton and his relationship with enigmatic preacher Charles Jacobs, who conducts bizarre experiments with electricity.  Jacobs' and Morton's paths cross many times through the years, from the earliest when Jacobs comes to town as a local church minister, through a renewal encounter on the carnival circuit, to Jacobs' later years as a television evangelist.

There are two points I want to make about "Revival".  First, the plot is exceptional.  It is fast-paced, it is engaging, it is full of points that make you think you know what is coming next, only to be taken a different direction.  It's a superb, great story.  Second - this is the scariest plot climax King has ever written.  No details from this reviewer - no spoilers - but the unveiling of the secret behind Jacobs' electricity is the most terrifying imagery ever to come from Mr. King.  It ranks alongside Bram Stoker's description of Count Dracula scaling down the side of the castle tower,

"Revival" is one of King's, heck, Top 5, maybe Top 3.  Get it, read it, get scared.