Review: “Why Are You So Sad?” by Jason Porter

sadRay, your average corporate slave at an Ikea-esque furniture company, is depressed. What’s more, he’s convinced that everyone around him is depressed, whether they admit it or not. On a whim one morning he creates an employee survey to measure the unhappiness of his colleagues, claiming the survey comes “from the top.”

From there the story is interwoven with a narration of the next couple days in Ray’s life, his amusingly cynical observations about the world around him, and his answers to the survey he created.

In writing Why Are You So Sad?, Porter satirizes the social norm of pretending everything is just great. In the United States, the expected response to “How are you?” is “Fine, and you?” Any other response will throw a person for a loop, myself included. When I worked in customer service, every once in a blue moon (actually, less often than that), someone would respond to me, “How are you today?” with “Oh, not very good, but thanks for asking.” Our society, at least American society, is not accustomed to acknowledging unhappiness in everyday life, and Porter addresses this issue in a refreshingly comical way.

What I really loved about the book is that Porter knows what depression is all about. While he adds humor, he does not sugarcoat it. One of my favorite passages of the book discusses the difficulty of getting out of bed in the morning:

Waking up is like reversing a burial; I was a  Cartesian  brain alive in a coffin, aware of my own thoughts and the requirements of the living, but with no will to rise and proceed with my life.

Anyone who has been through a prolonged bout of depression will recognize the feeling of being powerless over your own body in the morning. I’m impressed with Porter’s ability to capture this feeling so accurately.

TL;DR: This novel is just delightful. And it doesn’t take long to read either, so there’s no excuse not to pick it up!

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Review: “The Paris Herald” by James Oliver Goldsborough

19486590An account of the people behind the most famous American newspaper in Europe (now the International New York Times). It follows the lives of various men and women as they maneuver Paris during the 1960s, an unstable period in America as well as in Europe. They fall in and out of love, move out of the country and back, and hurt each other and themselves in the process.

I’m a sucker for books about newspapers….but this one was really, really difficult to get through. There were just too many characters introduced, all poorly drawn. Goldsborough tried to take on too many people, which resulted in half-baked story lines.

Most of the book is about American men and women cheating on their spouses, a subject I find very distasteful. It would be one thing if that was the story line of one of the characters…but it dominated the entire book. The few characters I had empathy for in the beginning of the book I lost all feeling for by the end.

The most frustrating thing about this book, though, is how it builds and builds…to a climax that never happens. A wife is cheating on her husband and hears him coming up the stairs, about to open the door on her and her lover – and the next thing we hear about them, they’re divorced. A man is considering moving to Málaga, away from his wife and children – the next we know of him, he’s been living there for an indeterminate amount of time. Literary blue-balling…it’s something I’ve never experienced before, and I don’t like it.

On the back cover of the book the publisher writes that it’s “the best story of Americans in Paris since Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.” Hardly. That’s not even a very big genre, and I still disagree. Even Sarah’s Key was much better.

If I were Goldsborough, I would have written a good non-fiction account of The Paris Herald during this time period, if he was so interested in it. I might have enjoyed reading that if it were done well. But this historical fiction piece just does not work.

TL;DR: Skip it. That’s all I have to say.

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Review: “A True Novel” by Minae Mizumura

17621103It’s no secret that I love Japanese literature. There’s something about it that takes over my mind as I’m reading and creates an addiction. It began when I read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. That wasn’t so long ago, but it’s become one of my favorite genres. This book I’ve just finished, A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, solidified it even more.

A True Novel is a story within a story within another story. It revolves around one mysterious man with a tragic history. The book begins in New York with the narrator relating how she came to meet this man, Taro Azuma, and how she never quite stopped thinking about him, although their acquaintance was brief. By coincidence or by fate, she is approached by a young man who knows much more than she ever did about Taro, and he relates to her the story that was given to him back in Japan.

For the first time in ages I found a book that keeps me awake at night; when I found myself closing my eyes and drifting off, I’d reach again for the book thinking, “Just a few more pages!” It reminded me of my time in high school, walking the hallways between classes with my head down and a book open because I wanted to spend every free moment reading it. When I picked it up from the library, I didn’t realize that I only had Book I of a two-volume novel. When I saw that Book II wasn’t immediately available from the library, I jumped on Amazon and ordered by own copy of the set. It came two days later – just in time for me to finish the first book.

The first thing you’ll hear about A True Novel from Goodreads or Amazon is that it’s a remaking of Wuthering Heights. If you decide to read the book, forget about that. It has nothing to do with this story. A True Novel stands on its own. So while the book is part metafiction, part reimagining, it’s really an engrossing story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

TL;DR: If you read no other fiction this year, read this one. I mean it.

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Review: “American Crucifixion” by Alex Beam

18210814The full title of the book describes it all – American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church is a compelling account of the years, months, days and hours leading up the murder of the founder and leader of the Mormon church, as well as the events that occurred immediately after.

Beam really did his homework while preparing to write this book. He spent time with countless scholars in the LDS church, historians in the church archives and from BYU. The book is rich with details about the inner workings of the church under the leadership of Joseph Smith. Beam shows how Smith’s “revelation” of plural marriage led to deep divisions in the church and was the primary fuel of anti-Mormon fervor in Illinois and beyond.

Those who know little to nothing about the LDS church need not fear; the book briefly explains the “revelations” of Joseph Smith and how he came to found the church and recruit members. For those who already have some knowledge of the church, the book is a valuable and enlightening addition.

I couldn’t find much information about Beam himself, but from what I gather he is not Mormon himself. With that in mind, it’s impressive how he was able to write a balanced piece about a church that has seen so much controversy. Any bias you may hear in this review is purely from my own opinions that I had before reading the book. So extra kudos to Beam for being objective! My only complaint is that the jacket feels like sandpaper and I recoiled the first time I touched it, so hopefully you don’t mind reading your book without the jacket!

TL;DR: A really great read for anyone interested in the history of the LDS church!

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Review: “The Other Story” by Tatiana de Rosnay

keyFrom the author of Sarah’s Key comes a new book with a completely different direction. The Other Story revolves around a young and very successful writer who goes by the name Nicholas Kolt. The novel that made him famous is a fictionalization of his own story of how he discovered that his father, who died when Nicholas was a boy, is not who he thought he was. Now Nicholas still faces the mysteries behind his father’s life and death, while trying to reconcile himself to his fame. While spending a weekend with his girlfriend at a luxurious resort in Italy, he must come to grips with the past and the people he’s let down since his book took off.

I never found this book dull. It’s refreshing and unique, and provides perspective into how a person’s life can change for the worse with success and fame. It’s told in two time frames, alternating between Nicholas’ vacation in Italy (the present) and his search for his father’s past. Unlike other books that move between time frames, however, I did not find the shift jolting or distracting. The book reads smoothly and naturally. What’s more, de Rosnay’s cast of characters is vivid and colorful, personalities and appearances both brought to life.

I think a common criticism of the book will be its predictability. There were no surprises in the book, no twists, no punches (unlike Sarah’s Key. I’m still traumatized). Also, the original French title of the book directly translates to “In Russian Ink,” a much more intriguing and fitting title, in my opinion. Someone dropped the ball on that one.

Verdict:

The Other Story will most likely receive a fraction of the clamor and praise that de Rosnay garnered for Sarah’s Key, although apparently it has done well in France. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read that’s worth picking up from the library.

The Other Story by Tatiana de Rosnay is available today from St. Martin’s Press.

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Review: “Countdown” by Alan Weisman

countdownHow long can the Earth continue to support our current population growth? In Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth, Weisman sets out to answer this question. He does so by visiting more than 20 countries to see what difficulties they face due to overpopulation and what measures, if any, they’re taking to solve the problem.

From Israel to England, China to Iran, we see people and countries that are effectively facing their problems or making the problem worse in the name of national security or religion. Weisman does a fantastic job of presenting facts in a compelling and digestible manner. There were several moments in the book where I lost all hope for humanity – the stubbornness and greed of human beings is astounding. But then the author counters the bleak picture with one of hope, in the form of a country or community that is making real progress in limiting their population and improving the living conditions of their people.  As Gandhi said, “There is enough for everyone’s need – but not for everyone’s greed.”

The task of convincing a population to limit their number of children is daunting, but from reading Weisman’s book I’m able to understand what’s working and what’s not. It seems to me that the best plan of action is to hastily increase the number of young girls receiving a quality education in under-developed countries. Educated girls grow into educated woman who wait to have children and understand the benefits of a smaller family. Nobody loses in this scenario.

Verdict:

I rarely give a book a 5 of 5 stars, but this one is definitely deserving. Please, give it a try.

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