Sunday, October 3, 2010

52 Books: September Reading

September was a productive reading month. Here's a few short reviews and one rant.

Dreaming in Mandarin by Deborah Fallows is a quick and delightful read about her three years of living in China and trying to master the language. She nails the challenges of coping with such a foreign language where there are no familiar hooks. The grammar is easy, but the tones and compound words are tough, and the language is even more confusing to master it reflects an entirely different way of experiencing the world.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson is a nicely written, literate and charming romance. I figured out the ending probably before the end of the first chapter, but it was a pleasure to get there because of the characters and the pacing of the plot.

Wilkie Collins is an author I had never heard of until there was a thread on the Well Trained Mind forums about his books. The Moonstone was the first book I read on my new iPad, a free download from the Project Gutenberg site.

I loved it. Loved reading on the iPad, loved the mystery, loved having the story told from the different perspectives of different characters. It is considered the first British mystery. Collins was a friend of Dickens, and it is a shame he isn't as well known as this mystery, especially, still holds up. If you've read the Sherlock Homes Sign of Four story, read this as it is a perfect companion piece.

Now for a short review and a rant about an audio book. I really wanted to like Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French. It is a look behind the scenes over several years at Tampa Bay's Lowry Park Zoo. When the book is straight journalism it is quite good as it explores the ethics of zoos, the logistics of caring for dangerous animals, the blurry line between conservation and entertainment.

But the author and especially the narrator couldn't leave it as straight journalism and had to play the emotion card, anthropomorphizing the animals with whole passages like "What were the animals thinking just then? Were they remembering the warmth of the sun on their back in the open savannah?" There were too many passages like that, all unnecessary interruptions in the narrative, and all insulting. Do journalists not trust readers to have imaginations and empathy? It also made the author seem like he couldn't make up his mind if he wanted to write an objective piece on the zoo or if he wanted to write about his own conflicting opinions about the role of zoos.

The narrator made things even worse by reading the story like a bad tv anchor on the local evening news. He felt he had to use different voices reading quotes. I like a good reader using different voices in fiction where there are fleshed out characters and the voices make sense. but in a piece of journalism it sounded stupid, especially when he used a bad Southern accent. When the book inevitably got to the death of some of the animals, the author's words sufficiently captured the emotion of the event -- how the zoo keepers reacted, how the other animals reacted. But the narrator decided it wasn't enough, so he read the passages with a choked up, deeply emotional voice. It was a jarring and unnecessary cheap ploy. I turned it off with about a half hour left as I just couldn't take the narrator any more. It left me angry with the book for the rest of the day!

1 comment:

  1. I read Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White a couple of summers ago. I thought it was fantastic. I've been meaning to read The Moonstone ever since. So thanks for reminding me!

    I enjoyed your reviews.