I know it’s the last day of May, but it’s been a hectic month and this book report comes with a fourth BONUS BOOK as an apology. Here are my reviews of all April’s reads, ranging from LOVED-IT-SO-MUCH-I-WANNA-MARRY-IT to meh. May you be a wiser, happier reader for heeding this.
(The following post contains affiliate links, which just means that if you’re sweet enough to use them to make your purchase, you will not pay anything extra, though I may receive a small commission–so thanks! This does not influence my reviews, which are cross-my-heart honest; sometimes maybe too much so.)
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert
In Short: memoir; travel; life-changing
Warnings: will give you the travel bug; lightly peppered with adult references and language
Who Should Read: travel readers; people who feel or have felt lost; divorcées
What I Learned: All hail Queen Elizabeth (Gilbert).
Full disclosure: I technically started this book last year, first borrowing it from the library because I wasn’t sure I would dig it enough to own it. I had heard mixed reviews of the movie and thought the “spiritual” aspect of the book might be a tad laughable, having heard it mocked more than once. I have yet to see the movie, so all I can say is either those people were mistaken in their criticism, or the movie is a sad representation of the book, because it now ranks among my all-time favorites and Gilbert among my favorite authors. I may have started it with the intention of fault-finding, but I quickly realized how much I was going to love this book and accordingly slowed my consumption of it to a “savoring” pace, necessitating the purchase of my own copy. Fortunately, someone wonderful checks my Amazon Wish List. (Thanks, once again!)
There is indeed a spiritual aspect to this book, but I liked the way she treated it. The book is arranged in “beads”: 109, to be exact, corresponding to the beads of a prayer necklace, but this is just a pretty way of saying it is composed of personal essays of various length, which connect to form a narrative. So it reads much like a novel written in first-person (“I,” “me”). It is broken into three sections, one for each country/virtue, as Gilbert explores Italy (pleasure), India (devotion), and Indonesia (balance). Being obsessed with balance myself, I was instantly intrigued by her intention.
Ultimately, it was the mixture of humor and humanity with which Gilbert dealt with these subjects that drew me in. She is a younger sister herself, but she came across to me like a big sister, one who is brave enough to confess her foibles and who gives you leave to laugh with her mistakes, because she’s laughing too, now that she’s past it. There are a few times early in the story, when she’s at her lowest point, that you get the feeling she may be the kind of friend who can be a bit needy; not because she’s self-centered, but just by virtue of being a chronic navel-gazer. Ultimately, you love her too much to feel more than a faint breath of irritation at it, and she soon moves away from this behavior, as she grows more whole. I think Gilbert herself would own up to this, and the habit, as well as the subsequent growth out of it, only makes her more endearing, in true little sister fashion.
I’m not a big fan of deeply personal confessional works, as they can come across grotesque and lurid–a bit Jerry Springer for my taste. I think a writer can be honest about a subject and their experience without giving sensational levels of detail, and Gilbert strikes that balance neatly, dealing evenly and fairly with all concerned in the highly personal matters she relates: not an easy feat, considering it begins with her messy divorce and several messy relationships and goes on to cover her subsequent breakdown. All these happenings sound like perfect ingredients for a giant bowl of crazy, yet her careful telling shows a mind much healed; it’s beautiful, like Kintsugi pottery.
I identified a lot with Gilbert along her journey, which went a long way toward my enjoyment of this book, but I wouldn’t love it half so much if it hadn’t also been so beautifully written. The places and people she describes are vividly drawn, so that I felt and saw it all as she did. Even though it’s a book of her travels, it’s not merely long, pointless paragraphs about landscapes and tourist traps. She describes places via their people and culture (including the food; when she talks about eating in Italy, it’s downright orgasmic), which I found much more engaging.
I can’t recommend this book enough. I know it sounds fanatical to say you feel like a writer is expressing your inmost thoughts and feelings, that they have essentially written you if you had done all these interesting things and gone to all these exotic places; but so much of what she wrote truly resonated with me. And I won’t say I am Elizabeth Gilbert, nor that she is me–far from it; I lack her impressive appetite, for one–but reading this could give you a fair idea of the way I think and process. We’re not the same person, but she definitely felt like a “kindred spirit.” Finishing this book was like scraping the plate after the most delicious meal I could imagine and then having to surrender it to the waiter: I was grateful for the experience, but also sad that it was over.
I look forward to trying Gilbert’s novels in the future, to see if she’s able to maintain her vibrant voice when she switches to fiction, as I have some trouble in that department myself.
The Crystal Shard: The Legend of Drizzt, Book 4 (Forgotten Realms), by R. A. Salvatore
In Short: 80s-style fantasy/adventure; battles galore
Warnings: virtually zero female representation
Who Should Read: readers of classic fantasy; writers who enjoy reading a major author’s first work; people looking for examples of un-feminist writing
What I Learned: A sassy female character is not the same as a strong one. “Dweomer” is apparently a common fantasy term.
The Crystal Shard is the first book in Salvatore’s Icewind Dale Trilogy. Indeed, it’s his first book, period. I was excited to read this book for that reason alone. The story sounded mildly interesting: something about an evil rock that exerts its will over a weak-minded halfwit in its quest for absolute power, after he’s humiliated by some wizards. There were many echoes of The Lord of the Rings in this book, right down to an elf and a dwarf comparing their kill counts in the midst of battle.
I’m trying to read as many fantasy books as possible before I take on my own fantasy work for NaNoWriMo. I haven’t read much fantasy, so I want to be as steeped in its history as possible, so that I speak the lingo and don’t look like a noob. As of now, I’m not always sure what to expect when I start reading a fantasy novel, which means I expend a lot of energy orienting myself at the opening. Terms that may be familiar to frequent readers, I still stumble over and wonder at the meanings of. In short, I expect a certain amount of effort up front.
That being said…
I don’t advocate judging a book by its cover, but with a book cover that looks like this one, I confidently brought a few expectations to the table (original cover art provided for reference)…
1. There will be a large cast of characters, likely of different races/types, complete with unpronounceable names. This expectation was thoroughly met. Within the first three chapters, the author shifted perspective to a new character over 10 times, to the point that I had no clue who the story was actually about until around the middle. Perhaps this was deliberate. This certainly gave the author a wide canvas on which to paint his story, but it was at the cost of having a single character for me to care deeply about. When I’m constantly head-jumping, I can never really get attached to any single character.
2. There will be blood. Rough-looking fellas on the cover, all sporting weapons=get ready to rumble. Again, expectation realized. There’s a good deal of battle and descriptions of fighting, which, to me, is usually about as exciting as a kid telling me how his Pikachu totally whooped up on his friend’s Charizard. It’s hard to describe verbally something so visual, and, frankly, my brainwaves start to flatline when I see a bunch of weapon names. I made it through most of the battles in this book okay, but in the middle there were a few too many for my taste, to the point that I started to lose interest.
3. Total sausage fest. There is literally one–ONE–female character with lines–indeed with a name–in the entire book, and she could literally be a lamppost for all the story relies on her. She doesn’t even speak until page 112–that’s 33% of the way into the book–and then it’s only to the beefcake who might be the hero (again, not sure, but he undergoes the most change and is the only human on the cover–both I assume to be good indicators). The only other female characters are a harem of broken-minded women–referenced always as a group and devoid of speaking roles–and the wives/mothers/children who are all kept safely away while the men do their war thing.
Completely bombs the Bechdel test, as well as any other representation lens you can look at it with. This doesn’t make it a bad book; it just means I have issues with it, since it reduces half of its world population to, by my calculations, less than 5% of the story. Kinda makes it hard for me to like it, let alone love it.
And this is a common complaint about fantasy books: too few women, and the ones who are there are usually just decoration to drape across the menfolk while wearing skimpy “armor.” Even Tolkien doesn’t always hold up well under a feminist lens, but he recovered from his estrogen-free The Hobbit to give us some worthy women in The Lord of the Rings. This is Salvatore’s first published work–and it was written in the early 80s–so I am willing to overlook this treatment and read the second–and even third, if I must–installment in the series, but only because I am curious to see if he realizes and adjusts accordingly. Seeing as how the cover of the second book looks like this…
…and the third looks like this…
…I may be hoping too much. But, hey, boobs!
In Short: personal growth
Who Should Read: business people; people looking for illustrations/anecdotes of personal responsibility; readers of self-help
What I Learned: There are a lot of ways to say the same thing over and over.
I only read this one and the bonus book because Husband needed to read them for work. He gets headaches when he tries to read, so,
nerd excellent wife that I am, I read aloud to him. I get to perform, he gets his work done, everybody wins. (Except now I have to talk about the dang things.)
Look, it’s a book about taking responsibility, avoiding victim-thinking, and looking to yourself, instead of others, to be a better person/spouse/employee. To be honest, I don’t feel this concept requires this many pages to explain, but I understand there’s power in repetition and having multiple illustrations. If that helps people, wonderful. It just makes for a boring read, is all.
Together Is Better: A Little Book of Inspiration, by Simon Sinek; illustrated by Ethan M. Aldridge
In Short: inspirational; illustrated; leadership; teamwork
Warnings: Text and illustrations do not actually correlate; book is scented.
Who Should Read: people who like inspirational writings about leadership and team-building; adults who enjoy illustrated books
What I Learned: People can scent books.
Top three things I enjoyed about this book: the jacket texture, the illustrations, and the scent. That’s right: This book smells like a forest–or, as the author puts it, the “smell of optimism.” He had it added because of the power of olfactory memory. So I was constantly sniffing it because I enjoyed the smell, which is, I believe, cedarwood. I didn’t think it was too strong, but it is borderline cologne-y, so sensitive noses beware. The far-sighted among you will do fine, just take off your glasses and extend your arms.
As for the non-olfactory contents: The illustrations are lovely. The text is a tad saccharine, but that’s par for the course for this kind of writing. It just doesn’t happen to jibe with my personality, which can border on the sardonic. My main issue with this book is that I thought there would be a story that went along with the illustrations, just like a children’s book. This is not exactly the case. The story can be inferred from the pictures and the corresponding text, but I confess I was a little disappointed that it didn’t work just like a regular picture book. There are some nice inspirational quotes in it, though I don’t think they’re as magical as the author thought they were. Still, it’s a nice book if you want to inspire a business team to work together instead of vying for power.
Plus, you know, the scent.
(Pictured above: not me. Man, they have stock photos of everything.)
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this and would like to see more in this series, check out my Book Report – March 2018, Book Report – February 2018, and Book Report – January 2018, as well as Fave Reads from 2017.