Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Librarian of Auschwitz - Antonio Iturbe

Title: The Librarian of Auschwitz
Author: Antonio Iturbe, Translated by Lilit Thwaites
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2017 (Originally published in Spain in 2012) (Hardcover)
Length: 424 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: February 8, 2018
Finished: February 18, 2018

From the inside cover:

Based on the experiences of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust.

Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Displaced, along with her mother and father, from their home in Prague - first to the capital city's ghetto, then northward to the Terezin settlement, and now to Auschwitz in Poland - Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Fredy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees, becoming the librarian of Auschwitz.

From one of the darkest chapters of human history comes an extraordinary story of courage and hope.

All I had to do was glance at the title to know I had to read this. Not only do I love historical fiction in general, books centred on the Holocaust just tend to have this pull on me that I can't resist.

The book opens in early 1944 with Dita describing the family camp in Block 31 in Auschwitz-Birkenau, a section where thousands of prisoners were allowed to keep not only their own clothes and hair, but also their families. This is a piece of history I hadn't been aware of, we tend to think that young children were killed immediately upon entering Auschwitz, so the idea that there were hundreds of small children kept alive there for months on end was fascinating to read about, even if it only existed as a front to the international community to disguise Nazi genocide.

Though flashbacks, we learn that Dita was put in charge of the eight books used in the makeshift school within Block 31 that had been smuggled into the camp. Of course this is forbidden, so Dita takes great risk in doing this. It gives her a sense of purpose, not only in taking care of the books so that others can use them, but also in reading them herself. We see this especially as the book progresses and circumstances become more dire: characters die, the individuals within the family camp are threatened with selections, as well as relocation to different camps. Dita gathers strength from stories, one in which parallels her journey to the end of the war when her camp is liberated.

I really appreciated the research that went into this book. Not only did the author track down some amazing primary sources in print, he was able to interview the real-life Dita, which I think gives the book a greater sense of legitimacy. I appreciate the inclusion of Fredy Hirsch's sexual orientation (still trying to figure out if the real-life Fredy was gay or not) and the moment Miriam has with Dita where she tells her that it doesn't matter if Fredy is gay or not.

The themes of what makes us human and how culture allows humans to thrive even in the midst of chaos and tragedy are touching ones. Characters question the point of the efforts of the family camp when, in the end, so many of the prisoners in them ended up dying anyway (no spoiler alert needed, we are talking about Auschwitz after all). The author postulates that if human beings aren't moved by beauty or able to activate their imaginations, then they are not complete persons, a thought which I tend to agree with.

A beautiful, haunting novel that you have to read, especially if you're a fan of historical fiction.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love how the cover is set up with the barbed wire fence, the stack of books, and Dita at the top with the Star of David and how the books allow Dita to look over the camp fence.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up - Marie Kondo

Title: The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up
Author: Marie Kondo
Publisher: Ten Speed Press (Penguin Random House), 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 186 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel, Nonfiction
Started: February 5, 2018
Finished: February 6, 2018

From the back cover:

Marie Kondo, author of the #1 New York Times best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, presents a graphic novelization of her famed KonMari Method that's sure to spark joy!

Chiaki is a young woman in Tokyo with a cluttered apartment, messy love life, and lack of direction. Through a series of entertaining and insightful lessons, decluttering guru Marie Kondo helps Chiaki exorcise the spirits of boyfriends past, organize her living space, streamline her wardrobe, and unearth her passions. In the end, will Chiaki finally find what brings her joy?

I'd heard of this cleaning method, not necessarily by name, but by the trademark "if it doesn't bring you joy, throw it out" line. That's more or less how I clean already, so I didn't really learn anything from reading this, but it was such a cute read. The visual medium I'd imagine also helps reinforce some concepts like how to fold clothes to conserve space, and how to hang clothes in a closet; the diagrams were nicely done. The story is very cliche and predictable if you're familiar with manga conventions, but again it was still enjoyable.

This is worth the read just to satisfy your curiosity. It's cute and comedic, so well worth borrowing from the library.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple, yet effective.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Milk and Honey - Rupi Kaur

Title: Milk and Honey
Author: Rupi Kaur
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 207 pages
Genre: Adult; Poetry
Started: January 13, 2018
Finished: January 14, 2018

From the back of the book:

milk and honey is a
collection of poetry about
and femininity
it is split into four chapters
each chapter serves a different purpose
deals with a different pain
heals a different heartache
milk and honey takes readers through
a journey of the most bitter moments in life
and finds sweetness in them
because there is sweetness everywhere
if you are just willing to look

-about the book

Piggybacking off of the more recent The Sun and Her Flowers, I decided to give the author's first book of poetry a try to see if it was as good as the second.

This first collection is shorter than the second and makes the author's age and relative lack of life experience at the time of writing fairly obvious, hence why I prefer The Sun and Her Flowers over Milk and Honey. The poems in this collection aren't as profound and don't make as much use of metaphor and allusion as the second, you read them and think, "yeah, and so..." When compared to the second collection published three years later (and who knows how much time passed between the actual writing of the poems and the time of publication of the first collection), you can see the author's maturity reflected in her more recent work. Don't get me wrong, there are still a few good ones in this volume that do make you pause to think, but they are few and far between compared to the second instalment.

Though enjoyable, I didn't quite like Milk and Honey as much as The Sun and Her Flowers. I would definitely recommend the former as the kind of book to just borrow from the library rather than owning outright like the latter.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple yet effective. The shiny feel of the cover irks me but it certainly does look nice.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Sun and Her Flowers - Rupi Kaur

Title: The Sun and Her Flowers
Author: Rupi Kaur
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 250 pages
Genre: Adult; Poetry
Started: January 12, 2018
Finished: January 12, 2018

From the back cover:

this is the recipe of life
said my mother
as she held me in her arms as i wept
think of those flowers you plant
in the garden each year
they will teach you
that people too
must wilt
in order to bloom

-rupi kaur

This book has been on practically every bestseller list since it was released in October, but poetry can be such a hit or miss with me that I was just going to wait to read it until a copy became available at the library. A friend ended up posting shots from her copy of the book on social media and that's what finally convinced me to head over to the bookstore and just take the plunge, and I am so glad I did.

This is the second collection of poetry by the author, who is Canadian and local to boot. Her style is free verse, and not everyone enjoys that, but I personally liked the collection as a whole. The only aspect I found a little frustrating at times was the fragmented nature of the poetry and lack of punctuation, sometimes it was difficult to tell when one poem ended and another began. Eventually it all flows and makes sense, but it took a couple pages for that to happen.

The author touches on several themes of love, heartbreak, assault, immigration, self-love, sexism, and  female empowerment, among others. The poems are divided into chapters based on the general mood and theme: wilting, falling, rooting, rising, blooming. The poems are fairly simplistic, not all of them hit home, but some are quite profound. I really appreciated the middle chapter dealing primarily with the author's experiences as the daughter of Indian immigrants, there were quite a few poems concerning her relationship with her mother that made me tear up (I can see a lot of second and third generation women really identifying with that section).

If you're not sure if this would be your thing, google the author's name and take a look at some of the examples of her work. If it touches something deep inside yourself, buy this book and just enjoy it. Some of the content can definitely be considered triggering for some individuals though, so keep that in mind. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Very simple, but it goes with the recurring motif of sunflowers. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward and Why That's Awesome - Ty Tashiro

Title: Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward and Why That's Awesome
Author: Ty Tashiro
Publisher: William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 261 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: January 1, 2018
Finished: January 8, 2018

From the inside cover:

How can the same traits that make us feel uneasy in social situations also provide the seeds for extraordinary success?

As humans, we all feel the need to belong. While modern social life can make even the most charismatic of us feel gawky, for roughly one in five of us, navigating its challenges is consistently overwhelming - an ongoing maze without an exit. Often bewildered by the social rules of engagement or how to master the skills and grace necessary for smooth interaction, we feel out of sync with with those around us. Though we may recognize we have awkward dispositions, we rarely understand why that is - which makes it hard for us to know how to adjust our behaviour.

Psychologist and interpersonal relationship expert Ty Tashiro knows what it's like to be awkward. Growing up, he could do complex arithmetic in his head and memorize the earned run averages of every National League starting pitcher. But he struggled to add up social cues during interactions with other kids and was prone to forget routine social expectations. In Awkward, he unpacks decades of research in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and sociology to help us better understand this widely shared trait and its origins. He considers how awkward people view our complex world and explains how we can comfortably engage with it, delivering a welcome, counterintuitive message: the same characteristics that make people socially clumsy can be harnessed to produce remarkable achievements.

Interweaving the latest research with personal tales and real world examples, Awkward offers us reassurance, and provides valuable insights into how we can embrace our personal quirks and unique talents to realize our awesome potential.

This was a Christmas gift from my better half, and when I received it I was actually excited to read it and didn't take offence to his choice of reading material for me (we're all self-professed awkward introverts in our family and we admit it proudly).

Similar to Quiet (a lovely book on introversion I highly recommend), the author outlines the subject matter and explains it (what social awkwardness is), tackles societal shifts regarding the subject, and then concludes with how the particular trait has benefits in the real world and how people with said personality trait actually bring quite a lot to the table.

The book is well-researched and decently written; I'll admit the first two sections didn't really do much for me since I realized based on the author's anecdotes that I'm actually not as awkward as I recently thought. Social experiences, though sometimes anxiety-inducing for me, are not mystifyingly difficult; so I'm pretty sure that I'm more introverted than socially awkward. The third section correlates awkwardness and giftedness in terms of the precise focus and need to master their preferred subject matter (similar to children with autistic characteristics, which as he outlines, all tend to overlap and come from the same genetic base). That though these individuals tend to sacrifice social exposure in lieu of time alone to hone their talents, they do have a lot to offer through their dedication and persistence to their craft. I particularly appreciated the advice to parents of awkward (and gifted) kids to give their child opportunities to find other like-minded kids who "get" them, which, unsurprisingly, makes social interaction easier for them.

A great book to help understand that awkward individuals need acceptance and patience while they navigate situations that don't come easily to them, and that they are worth knowing as friends and colleagues.

Thoughts on the cover:
The emojis don't make for a very professional book cover, but they sure are cute here.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Armada - Ernest Cline

Title: Armada
Author: Ernest Cline
Publisher: Crown Publishers (Random House), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 355 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Science Fiction
Started: January 1, 2018
Finished: January 6, 2018

From the inside cover:

Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and video games he's spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there's nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don't get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he's staring at is straight out of the video game he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada - in which gamers just happen to be protecting Earth from alien invaders.

No, Zack hasn't lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he's seeing is all too real. And his skills - as well as those of millions of gamers around the world - are going to be needed to save Earth from what's about to befall it.

It's Zack's chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can't help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn't something about this scenario seem a little...familiar?

At once gleefully embracing and brilliantly subverting science-fiction conventions as only Ernest Cline could, Armada is a rollicking, surprising thriller, a classic coming-of-age adventure, and an alien invasion tale like nothing you've ever read before - one whose every page is infused with the pop culture savvy that has helped make Ready Player One a phenomenon.

After reading Ready Player One to get myself ready for the movie in March, I thought I may as well dip into the author's second book to see if it was as enjoyable as the first....sadly to say the author did not strike lightning twice.

Zack Lightman's father died when he was a baby in a freak industrial accident, so it's only natural that he would want to learn more about the father he's said to resemble so much. He plays the same types of video games his father played (and is a top scorer worldwide), as well as reads and watches all the science fiction books and movies his father loved. While reading his father's journals, Zack comes across a weird conspiracy theory penned by his father as a teenager: that the government is using science-fiction movies and video games as tools to train civilians to fight in an alien invasion. Zack worries about his deceased father's delusions, until he sees a flying saucer outside the window one day while sitting in class. Zack believes that some severe mental health issues might be hereditary, until the Earth Defence Alliance (EDA) whisks him away to fight in an alien war that's been going on since the 1970s unbeknownst to ordinary citizens.

This novel had a good premise, and similar to Ready Player One it takes a familiar concept (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for Ready Player One, and Ender's Game and The Last Starfighter in Armada) that's known to readers to hook them onto the story. Unlike in Ready Player One though, Armada doesn't really grow beyond that familiar concept to become its own story. As you read, you're getting the Ender's Game vibes and references and waiting for it to acknowledge it and move forward and it eventually does, but by that point you've lost interest in the characters and you're bored out of your mind.

Armada unfortunately isn't as good of a read as Ready Player One (and I still had my issues with that book as well), so best to skip this one.

Thoughts on the cover:
The cover has metallic accents on it that does make for an eye-pleasing image.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Publisher: Crown Publishers (Random House), 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Dystopian Fiction, Science Fiction
Started: November 20, 2017
Finished: November 30, 2017

From the inside cover:

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' 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.

In advance of the movie coming out in March, I felt I should cover the source material since I know we'll definitely be watching the film and I want to be able to compare the two.

First of all, this is nostalgia porn (other people's words, not mine), a geeky boy's wet dream (my words). It reminds me a lot of reading Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a kid, it's such an engrossing morality tale that children can't help but love; and Ready Player One is the grown-up, geeky male version of it.

Wade Watts lives in 2044 in a world we helped destroy. Humanity now spends most of their time in the online world called OASIS. Through the use of virtual reality visors, haptic gloves, and created avatars, kids attend school there, businesses are run, and people can escape the bleakness of their poverty-stricken lives. James Halliday, the now deceased co-creator of the virtual world, left an Easter egg of sorts hidden within the OASIS, promising his fortune and ownership of the company to whomever can decipher the riddles and find the three keys and subsequent gates. Wade and thousands of others are gunters - egg hunters - deciphering Halliday's riddles and immersing themselves in the culture of the 1980s, the key to solving the clues. After working as a gunter for 5 years with no success, Wade finally stumbles upon the first, the Copper Key. What follows is nothing short of an engrossing adventure that certainly entertains.

I have only one real issue with the book itself. The world-building is quite well-done, Wade is a sympathetic character, most of the book moves along in a brisk fashion that rarely lags...but the one persistent feeling I had while reading this book was that it was oh-so blatantly male. At one point Wade lists off Halliday's favourite things, and the list is male dominated. I get that the feminine influence was lacking in the mainstream media of the 80s, but it wasn't completely absent. Even the John Hughes movies are categorized into male and female-oriented, and there's a scene where a fellow gunter makes fun of Wade for enjoying a movie that was targeted towards women. Halliday's friendship with Og falls apart because of a woman, there's only one female character for 90% of the book, and all the creators of the mentioned pop culture are male (I figured Madonna's music would at least get a mention in a book about 80s pop culture, but alas no). All these examples make the story seem sexist, despite the strong character of Art3mis later on. That's not to say the story isn't enjoyable because of this issue, as a female geek who was born in the early 80s I quite liked it, but I got the pervasive sense that this is exclusively male with no room for women or girls, much like how I felt growing up in the 80s and 90s until I discovered aspects of pop culture that could actually pass the Bechdel test. There is another issue about the "diversity" of the novel that I can't bring up because it is spoiler-heavy in regards to the ending.

A great, engrossing story. For my only issue with it, see above.

Thoughts on the cover:
This is the original cover, the new one has an image of Wade scaling the stacks. I like the little 8-bit character reaching for the key, it's a nice little detail.