Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Having loved Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, I was really excited to get Her Fearful Symmetry for Christmas.  Excited, but not suprised, since I had put it on my Christmas list.  I've had a difficult time this year finding books that grabbed me and kept me reading, but I sank right into this one.

Julia and Valentina are twins, and the daughters of a twin.  Their mother, Edie, has been estranged from her twin, Elspeth, since marrying.  Now twenty, Julia and Valentina are inseparable, and adrift.  They've been to three different colleges, never staying more than a year, and now live in their parents' house, where they float through their set routines.  All of this is disrupted when Elspeth dies and leaves her London flat to the girls, with some conditions: they must live there, together, for a year, and their parents are never to set foot in the flat.

Moving to London, the girls recreate their aimless ways in a new city, with some notable changes.  Their close tie begins to feel more like a bind to one of them, each developes a friendship "outside" of their twin-relationship, and they begin to realize that they aren't exactly alone in the flat.

The book is a good read and a quick one--I read it in the course of a day.  It would be a great book club selection because there is a lot to talk about.  It's definitely worth reading. That said, I didn't love it the way I loved Time Traveller's Wife.  If you read it, or have read it, I'd be interested in hearing what you think.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book review: Basic Illustrated Map and Compass

My brother got me this book for Christmas since we're planning to do an adventure race this fall.  I can read a regular map (though, to be honest, it takes way more thought and concentration than it should), but navigating by compass and topographical map is not in my skill set.

While the book isn't subtitled "Orienteering for Dummies", that's basically what it is.  It's a short book and quick read, with clear explanations.  It's filled with illustrations and interspersed with short quizzes to make sure you're getting the concepts.  Of course, reading about navigating is no substitute for actually doing it, but this was a good introduction for me.  If nothing else, I'll have a better understanding of the race reports I've been reading.  I'm looking forward to actually practicing some of the concepts on our next free weekend, when I'm hoping to drag my husband out to Rockwoods Range, which has a permanent orienteering course.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Children's books: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Early this week we finished Little House in the Big Wood, which was a big hit, even with my boys. After watching the Little House Christmas special (which made me cry a little), it was time to start a new book.

But which one? I couldn't decide between The Indian in the Cupboard and Mrs. Frisby, so I took a suggestion from the article I talked about a few posts ago and put it to a vote. I read the back of each book to the kids (which also gave me a chance to talk about the way that I pick out books for myself) and then the kids voted. Now, in my experience, raised-hand votes don't work. You have kids who'll raise their hands for both options. Instead, I have my kids move to different areas of the room depending on their choice. That way we stick to "one person, one vote" instead of "vote early, vote often". :)

Somewhat surprisingly, Mrs. Frisby beat The Indian by a pretty large margin. We're about three chapters in now, and it's been interesting how we've been able to draw parallels between our current story and the other novels we've read. For example, Mrs. Frisby (a field mouse) was afraid to go through the woods at night just like Pa (in Little House) was. We've been able to make connections to things we've seen in our own lives: the way the crow, who accidentally ties himself to the fence reminds us of a dog on a tether. We've been able to talk about the nature of courage (Mrs. Frisby crossing a dangerous field so that she can get medicine to her sick son or risking her life to free the crow). And we've talked about new vocabulary and concepts, like what the crow means when he tells Mrs. Frisby that he's in her debt.

All of this and more, in only three chapters. Our reading time is WELL worth the "instructional time" we lose to fit it in. And best of all, it's both a real treat for the kids, who love to listen, and a real-world example of why they're learning to read...not so they can say the words on the page, but because books are the closest thing to magic we have in our world.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Book review: The Echo Maker

I wanted to like this book. It's a Pulitzer Prize finalist, for heaven's sake! But I didn't. Maybe that means my taste is along the lines of the box wine of books...I don't know, but I'm a little annoyed that (a) this book has taken up precious shelf space for nearly two years, and (b) I spent as much time as I did reading it.

Richard Powers's language is beautiful and discriptive, but the book very quickly reminded me of listening to a person who won't get to the point. All of the words fogged up the story. When I was younger, I loved reading my dad's Tom Clancy novels, but I would skip over vast passages of technical description. I'm sure some readers cared about the specs of a nuclear sub; I just wanted to find out what happened.

I still want to find out what happened in The Echo Maker, too. Though the book didn't grip me at all, I plodded through because I WAS vaguely interested in the characters and was hoping maybe I'd get some satisfaction in the end. Like Mick Jagger, though, I was out of luck. My reaction throughout the book and at the resolution, if you want to call it that, was a resounding "huh?"

So, in short, I found it tiresome, confusing, and overly descriptive without the description adding to the story for me. It did have some beautiful writing and an intriguing premise, but those weren't enough to lead me to recommend it. Unless, that is, you're having trouble sleeping.