Book Review: The Book Thief

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

We picked this book for our most recent edition of book club and I was initially excited about it. Everyone I know has been raving about it and reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads have been very favorable. Besides, historical fiction set in World War II? Sweet, let’s do it!

quick. what do you see? a random piece of bold text that doesn’t make sense? does this seem confusing and out of context? me too. imagine seeing something like this over and over again…

I quickly found the narrator annoying, and his constant intrusion into the story was really distracting. The writing style left a lot to be desired as parts of the story seemed to start and stop at random, often with a bold sentence or two that was completely out of context. It felt like right as our train got underway and things would get interesting, the narrator would derail us. Sometimes it was a bold sentence, other times it was a list.

activities. these are things I could have been doing instead of reading this book.

1. Clipping my nails.

2. Reading a better story.

3. Give up reading books for Lent.

average. sorry, allow me to explain.

Maybe the abrupt writing style was there to try and make this story more compelling than it actually was. Between these random fits of starting and stopping, there is a distinctly average story. I never found myself really attached to any of the characters.

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Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of SarajevoThe Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The “Cellist of Sarajevo” is a fictional account following the lives of four people struggling to survive during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War of the early 1990’s. For those who don’t have much time devoted to reading, this book is a quick read.

The story itself is sometimes emotional, sometimes raw, and often depressing as it alternates between the lives of four characters (none of whom know each other) who struggle to survive. It begins when a Serbian mortar shell lands in the middle of a crowded market, killing 22 people and injuring scores more. A man living in an apartment near the market witnesses the explosion and subsequent deaths of many of his friends.

In the aftermath of this particularly gruesome attack, he vows to play Albinono’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello in the market, at the same spot and same time the shell exploded, for 22 days — one day for each person killed. (Why the story makes a big deal of the particular piece the cellist plays, I’m not sure — perhaps because it’s such a sad instrumental?)

Over the course of 22 days, the story shifts between 3 other characters, one who is a female sniper in the resistance (and confronts personal demons over the morality of her killings), an old man who became withdrawn and isolated because of the war (in order to protect himself from becoming too close to anyone else who might die), and a father who must make a dangerous trek every few days to provide food and water for his wife and children.

The personal conflicts each character deals with, because of and in addition to the war make for a somber story. While the story is fictitious, it provides a seemingly accurate and compelling portrayal of what life was like under a sieged city; indiscriminate shelling, snipers picking off innocent people, government corruption, lack of aid, food, water, or information.

Another aspect I thought was particularly interesting was the author’s portrayal of the morbid sense of humor the citizens of Sarajevo adopted during the situation. Jokes such as “Oh, you don’t want coffee? Now I can take a shower [with the small pot of water]” or “Don’t worry, I think the sniper today is just a bad shot!” show how people cope and still try to make the best of an unfortunate situation.

The Cellist of Sarajevo struck a personal chord with me, thanks to having a few friends who lived in or around the Balkans during the actual war. Another friend worked with a humanitarian organization inside Sarajevo during the siege! Their vivid and intense accounts of life meshed well with what this story described.

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Book Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After only two days of reading, I have just finished the second book in the Hunger Games series, “Catching Fire.” The first book was an equally quick read and provided an interesting story set in a post apocalyptic American future. 

The second story continues where the first left off, with Katniss, the main protagonist, coping with the ramifications of her controversial and seemingly rebellious win in the Hunger Games. This win allowed her and her partner, Peeta (a pathetically sad  example of a man and a generally loathsome character), to survive — something unprecedented since there’s only supposed to be one winner (think of it as a gladiator style competition, but with kids).

Sadly, the first half of the book comprises of a woe-is-me story that wastes the reader’s time with almost nothing that advances the story. There’s hints of a rebellion in other districts and the government seems to know everything that Katniss does (even when she illegally hunts in the wilderness outside her district and kisses a childhood friend).

Which is all the more perplexing when she ventures back out into the woods and encounters refugees from another district talking of rebellion. It’s like she completely forgot about what happened in the opening pages of the story with regard to the President’s warning. 

Halfway through the book, the story takes a predictable turn and forces Katniss and Peeta back into the arena. Fantastic! We basically get to re-read book one all over again. There’s some slight differences. People seem to be more angry with the government and the tributes (gladiators) seem to bond prior to the games.

Once in the arena, the story dissolved into a poor tale of survival as Katniss and others grouped up to survive. She struggles with issues of trust, love, and survival — including trying to escape a fog that acts like a nerve agent, mutant killer monkeys, crazy talking birds, random tsunamis, and other assorted lethal traps. The whole time, Peeta worries over protecting Katniss, who can clearly handle him and anything else that comes her way. Like I said, we’re basically re-reading the first book, word for word.

The ending provides an abrupt, untidy, unsatisfying, yet completely predictable conclusion to the Games. A conspiracy among the other tributes to keep Katniss alive has been carried out all along, without Katniss (or the all knowing government) aware of it. The ending simply serves to setup book three. Great.

Sadly, I have no desire to read book three, yet I feel I must. It’s like how I started feeling about Lost — started off interesting, then get sloppy, but I’ve put all this time into it, so I must see how everything concludes.

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Book Review: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Roach has basically killed my desire to ever be an astronaut.

However, that’s not to say this book is bad. It’s actually a quick, very enjoyable, and entertaining read. But she tackles many of the less glamorous things astronauts must do or cope with — from having every second of their lives and missions pre-planned, to the difficulties involved in going to the restroom, or even eating the specialized food.

She walks us through the history of the space program while packing in quirky stories and mission transcripts (“Here’s another goddamn turd. What’s the matter with you guys?”), from its inception post World War II and sending monkeys into space to testing the effects of zero gravity environments on humans.

There were a number of times that I laughed out loud while reading this book on the bus or in a train and I noticed passengers sitting next to me would try to steal glances of the book I was reading. I can only imagine what kind of freak the person thought I was when they read something like, “Then along came Joseph Tash and his sea urchin splooge.”

Anyway, the book is a great read for anyone interested in the space program and presents the finer, less glamorous details in an amusing and fun to read manner.

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Review: American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right

American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical RightAmerican Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right by Markos Moulitsas
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As I was reading this book, I found myself struggling with how I ultimately felt about it. In some chapters, it was a stunning and enlightening exposé on the ridiculously absurd policies held by the extreme right of the political spectrum. But in other chapters, it resorted to simple and immature mockery.

One of the arguments of the book is how civil discourse in this country has been compromised by ignorant citizens, complicity mainstream media, and impotent politicians — which is a fair point. But I don’t see how highlighting the most ridiculous and extreme examples of the GOP and then rightly or wrongly comparing them to political groups that sponsor terrorism does anything to help the conversation.

My final issue with the book is that it offers no ideas or suggestions on ways to overcome the ignorant rage stirred up by the Tea Party other than simply saying that in the long run, they are fighting a losing battle against changing demographics. That’s great and all, but how can we effectively and rationally engage with these elements now? Sadly, the only answer this book seems to offer is, “you can’t.”

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Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alright, you may strip away my geek badge. When I started reading this book, I actually didn’t know this is what the movie “Blade Runner” was based on. As I started reading, there were many elements where I thought, “this sounds *really* familiar — too familiar!”

So, I did some further research, and what do you know!

Interestingly enough, I really enjoyed this book. Which surprises me, because I actually don’t enjoy the Blade Runner movie very much (strike two against my geek badge?).

Perhaps it was because the story in the book takes place in San Francisco, and it’s easy to relate, since I live here. The post-apocalyptic, dystopian theme also seems to tie in with various media I’ve been consuming recently (purely coincidental, I’m sure): Hunger Games, Book of Eli, Fallout 3, etc.

Anyway, the story takes place in the not too distant future, after a World War decimates much of planet Earth — forcing large parts of the population to emigrate to Mars. To incentivize people to leave Earth, settlers were given their own personal android servants (which were becoming disturbingly similar to humans).

For one reason or another, these androids would sometimes attempt to escape Mars and return to Earth. This is apparently a bad thing. So, various governments and agencies on Earth hired bounty hunters to specifically and discretely eliminate the unwelcome android immigrants.

The story follows the trails and tribulations of one bounty hunter in San Francisco, who is obsessed with the thought of owning a real animal (which is a status symbol in the not-too-distant future). Based on whether or not he kills an android, he gets a bounty, which he’s been saving up to eventually buy an animal.

It’s an entertaining read that examines the morality of creating and taking away artificial life forms, empathetic responses to various situations, and the philosophical debate of fate vs. free will.

It was a quick read (took about 2.5 days for me to get through), highly entertaining, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of science fiction. One thing: just, watch, out, for, Philip K. Dick’s, use, of, commas.

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Review: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our DecisionsPredictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dan Ariely writes in a pretty simple and straightforward manner about how ridiculous we act when it comes to economic decisions. It’s full of many examples and experiments (you get the feeling that students at MIT are unwittingly subjected to sociology experiments every single day) on how people will act regarding certain conditions (e.g., giving away something free vs. something cheap, paying for labor from friends vs. giving gifts).

In the short time since I’ve read it, I’ve already thought about many of the habits I do every day — should I really be purchasing this coffee and bagel every day? And why do I do that in the first place.

Anyway, it’s a pretty enlightening read into why we humans make certain decisions and how we can try to change things for the better.

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Contrasting an American Life

Last year, I read Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography on Albert Einstein, titled, “Einstein: His Life and Universe.”

Earlier today, I decided to look for more work by Isaacson and found that he wrote another great biography, this time about Benjamin Franklin. The book was titled, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.”


The tagline, “an American life,” struck a chord with me because it sounded so familiar. Where else have I heard that term recently? Ah yes.


Seriously? It’s kind of insulting and sad that these books share the same tagline. Here are a few differences between the subjects of each book.

  • One book is about a great person, who had a profound effect on the founding of our country. The other is about someone trying to inadvertantly destroy it.
  • One book is about an inventor, intellect, and scientist. The other is about someone who despises those descriptions and the people behind them.
  • One book is about is about someone who strived to persevere in all facets of life. The other is about someone who perpetually quits when things get too tough.
  • One book is about a great American. The other is not.