Friday, December 30, 2011

The Other Books I Read This Year

...That I didn't have time to post individual reviews for. Hold on, folks, this is gonna be a long one.

First up is Sharon Hays' Flat Broke with Children, which I read for a research paper on the 1996 PRWORA legislation, commonly known as "welfare reform" in the US (yes, all of my papers were on similarly cheerful subjects). Overall, I really enjoyed it-- as much as you can enjoy a book about poor single mothers getting screwed over by judgmental, affluent male politicians and their supporters. Hays combines reviews of scholarly literature and her own long-term observations of a cohort of TANF clients in a few cities in her illuminating account of the true motives of the legislation and the effects it has had on AFDC/TANF participants.

Now, whenever I recommend books on poverty in America, I always mention this one along with Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On not Getting By in America. Together, I think they paint a fairly accurate picture of why upward mobility in the US is so difficult.

5 out of 5 stars.

More reviews behind the jump: War is Boring by David Axe, The Card-Turner by Louis Sachar, Shine by Lauren Myracle, Bumped by Megan McCafferty, When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris, and The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson.

Next up is War is Boring, which chronicles David Axe's experiences as a war journalist in graphic novel form. Driven by the rush of almost getting killed, Axe uses a number of tricks and career changes to get sent into increasingly dangerous situations, ultimately becoming unable to live in normal society. I mostly liked reading it as the subject matter was interesting, but I felt like it could have been improved by going a little deeper. It lacked nuance and probably should have been longer.

3 out of 5 stars.

I also listened to The Card-Turner on audiobook, read by its author, Louis Sachar. I was a big fan of his books as a kid, especially the Wayside School series, so even now, I occasionally pick up his newer releases when I pass them in the library. I was surprised to find the book enjoyable despite the fact that pretty much all of the characters, including the main one, were totally unlikable and Sachar pulled a Lovely Bones towards the end (there's only so much mileage you can get out of a story of being forced by your gold-digging parents to play cards with an elderly, blind, pain-in-the-ass relative). I'm not sure if it was the story or the fact that I became increasingly curious about bridge as I read it.

I'd like to take this moment to say that there is no shame in hiring a voice actor to read your work when your own voice in unsuitable for the narration. Sachar's voice does not sound like a teenager's, and that's something that irked me the whole way through.

Overall, okay. 3 out of 5 stars.

Lauren Myracle's Shine is definitely worth reading. I'm always on the lookout for books that portray people from my region positively, as they're pretty few and far between. Shine is a one-girl whodunit that takes place in one of the tiny, isolated towns up in the hills. It's so little that the children have to ride a bus for an hour to get to the nearest small-town high school, and nearly everyone is poor and minimally educated. As is the case in many areas afflicted by rural poverty, meth is a huge problem.*

Cat, the narrator, is a fish out of water. She likes to read and is bent on finishing high school and moving away from Black Creek for good. Her life is turned upside down when her "light in the loafers" (read: gay) childhood friend, Patrick, is attacked, beaten, and left tied to a guardrail near the convenience store where he worked. As she attempts to unravel what happened to Patrick that night, she must confront the homophobia and fear of her fellow townspeople as well as the ignorance of those outside of her community. Myracle does an excellent job sympathetically portraying the realities of rural poverty while not whitewashing its darker aspects.

Impressive. 4 out of 5 stars.

*This is not really the case these days; according to my professors, meth use has declined and prescription drug abuse has shot back up thanks to new restrictions on the purchase of meth ingredients like Sudafed.

Continuing my ongoing fascination with YA dystopian novels is Bumped by Megan McCafferty, which I really wanted to like because the idea behind it had a lot of potential. In the world of Bumped, a virus that renders people infertile has swept across the face of humanity. No one knows when the virus' effects will show after they have contracted it (it usually strikes in the late teens or early twenties). The end result is that teenage girls-- or, rather, their fertility-- have become a hot commodity. They sign contracts with prospective parents who then pick out boys for them to "bump" with, then use the money they earn to pay for college.

This is the world Melody is born into; her entire life revolves around her contract and the boy her contracted family is picking out for her. Her identical twin sister (they were separated at birth), Harmony, is a member of a religious order that considers baby-selling sinful, and arrives on Melody's front door to convince her to see the error of her ways and  bring her to Harmony's community. Identical-twin chaos and hijinx ensue.

Unfortunately, the story and characters frequently fell flat. Most of the characters were underdeveloped. Harmony is particularly two-dimensional; preachy and irritating in a stereotypical way. You can see the plot twists coming from a mile away, and the ending was all too predictable. I think this is mostly because the book wasn't long enough (I can't believe I'm saying this...), and McCafferty was trying to accomplish more than the length of the novel would allow. I also wasn't much of a fan of her notion that that situation was totally new and unique. People exploiting pregnant teenagers and paying top dollar for "perfect" adoptable infants has been going on since the 1940's, and the omission of that reality from the novel left a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

Blah, disappointing, but I'll probably read the sequel. 3 out of 5 stars.

Another audiobook I "read" is When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. I've always had something of a love-hate relationship with him as his humor is pretty hit-or-miss for me, and I dislike the fact that he's a goddamn Yankee (someone who moves to the South and proceeds to do nothing but look down on the natives and complain about how much they hate it here, how backwards we all are, etc. There are more of them in Asheville than you can shake a stick at) who frequently hates on the south in general, and North Carolina specifically. Overall, When You are Engulfed in Flames is par for the course for Sedaris' work. If you like him (or WASP-y recollections on hitchhiking, being overeducated, trying to quit smoking, etc.), you'll enjoy it. If not, skip it

Oh, and don't get the audiobook. Sedaris has one of the most grating voices I've ever heard. 3 out of 5 stars.

Last, but not least, is The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. I may be one of the three people in the free world who hadn't heard of him when this book was published (I still haven't read The Men Who Stare at Goats). It's one of those weird navel-gaze-y works of quasi-autobiographic research in which the author spends a lot of time discussing his life while he's researching as well as the subject of his research. If you like that sort of thing, you should read it; I found Ronson's take on the social construction of mental illness and the end effects that it has on people who find themselves in mental health services systems fascinating.

4 out of 5 stars.

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