Friday, December 24, 2010

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

This book follows Claire, a nurse who is taking a second honeymoon with her milquetoast husband after World War Two, when a stone circle in the Scottish Highlands sends her back to the eighteenth century. Once there she must choose between her past and the past, amid dangers, violence, and a new marriage. I enjoyed reading this book. There's a little bit of everything in it. I'm looking forward to continuing the series.

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Although Jennifer Strange isn't a magician herself, she becomes vital to the survival of magic in the Ununited Kingdoms in this book. The story was at times funny and at times exciting. As usual, Fforde's remarkable imagination and sense of humor make this book extremely compelling. I am looking forward to the remaining two books in this trilogy.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cell line, known as HeLa, changed the way we understand cells and disease. The book follows the cells, Henrietta's life, and her family's reaction to the discovery of the ways scientists have used the cells. The science was fairly clear, and I thought the discussion of the ethics and implications of the way we use bodily materials was level headed and helpful. Skloot did a fine job with the human interest angle of the story as well. I enjoyed the biographical elements of the book.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Play of Piety by Margaret Frazer

This mystery brings Joliffe back to his troupe, who are holed up at a medieval hospital while Basset recovers from an attack of arthritis. The novel portrays medieval medical care with great acumen. As these books tend to go, the mystery develops slowly. I was a little disappointed that the crowner does a fair amount of the legwork off screen. Still, an enjoyable book.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

This collection of poetry has some really beautiful and memorable moments. The poems are all short, but they're well worth reading. The collection moves from the joys and excitements of young love to the sadness and despair of love's end. I especially enjoyed "Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche," which as its title implies comes near the end of the collection.

Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt

This book pairs two loosely-linked novellas, one about an entomologist who finds himself trapped by domestic concerns after a shipwreck destroys his collections, and one about a group of Victorian spiritualists attempting to communicate with the dead who are linked to Tennyson and Arthur Henry Hallam. I liked the first part better than the second part, which seemed disjointed to me. This effort is as good as neither Possession nor The Children's Book.

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

This book is fantastic. Homans faces a difficult task in describing the history of an art form which for much of its existence has been passed down from dancer to dancer instead of being recorded in some form of notation. She admits to these challenges from the beginning and meets them with style and grace. Homans theorizes that by tracking ballet's role in European cultural life, we can see larger political and cultural changes, and although she doesn't provide a grand theory explaining everything, she makes a great case for the relevance of ballet. Although she ends the book pessimistically, I think the effort she's put into telling ballet's story (and the apparent popular success) belie the point she makes at the end, namely that ballet's on its way out.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

This book was not as enjoyable as Morton's previous books. The plot felt a bit contrived, and while the initial idea--that a letter could ruin lives for the lack of its delivery--was intriguing, the plot didn't make that idea make sense in contrast. I really enjoyed the digging for the basis of the mudman story, but in the end, the frantic plot advances at the end couldn't make up for a slow start and the contrived nature of the story.

At Home by Bill Bryson

The idea behind this book--tracing the history of privacy and domesticity--through the rooms of a house is fascinating. Many of the anecdotes Bryson tells are intriguing and his style is commendable--authoritative with a touch of humor. However, as the book wore on, I found it difficult to discern the principles upon which it all hung together--in the end it felt like a hodgepodge of facts Bryson had found and stories he wanted to tell.