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I can haz books? Reading log (started Nov 2015)



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    The Violinist's Thumb - Sam Kean

    This book is a complete departure from most of the books on this log. Kean uses storytelling to illustrate the importance and influence of DNA and to shine a light on the lesser known discoveries in this field. This book makes no apologies for being a science book. Although at times it did go a little over my head, Kean has an astonishing ability to make this heavy subject matter accessible. The frequent use of anecdotes combined with Kean's keen sense of humour actually made this book an enjoyable read. He focuses on the most interesting facts and stories from the 150-year history of genetics.

    Did you know that if you eat the liver of a polar bear your skin will peel off from head to toe due to the concentration of Vitamin A in the organ? I certainly didn't! How about the fact that a parasite (Toxo) makes humans enjoy the company of cats? Other interesting anecdotes include why Niccolo Paganini was such an accomplished violinist, the creative names given to fruit fly genes and what happened to a guy that was unfortunate enough to be in the blast radius of two atomic bombs.

    I found this book to be an enjoyable read, although it was a tad heavy at times. I do think you'd want to have an interest in biology or genetics before attempting it though. The anecdotes alone won't be enough to carry you through the science. I've already sent this novel to my sister who is currently studying biology at university so I am looking forward to hearing the opinion of someone more experienced in the subject matter.

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    Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant - Scott Haas

    The subculture of the restaurant industry is fascinating. The majority of the people in this industry work long hours usually under extreme stress, often for poor pay. The top-end food industry has dramatically changed over the last decade or two with the dawn of superstar chefs- egotistical maniacs that terrorise their underlings and creative geniuses that push the boundaries of what defines food. This has led to increased interest from the public about what goes on behind the scenes in these places, and psychologist Scott Haas took the opportunity to capitalise on that with this book portraying Tony Maws at Craigie on Main.

    Although I had previously enjoyed other behind-the-scenes books such as Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, often they were coloured by the inherent bias of the author. This was the first time I had seen an account from an outsider, a psychologist that has no real experience in the industry. It's fascinating to see Scott transition from a curious bystander to an accepted part of the subculture in Craigie. Scott has a real talent for capturing the urgency and stress that from lowly waiter to head chef feels as part of the business. Having worked as a waitress for a few years through college (albeit in lesser establishments), I was able to identify with many of the themes and issues presented which made it even more interesting. Scott, as an outsider, allows readers to gradually immerse themselves in the environment unlike many other offerings in this area where the reader often feels like they're getting a glimpse of a club they can never be part of.

    The successes and problems of Craigie on Main are attributed to the culinary imagination and larger than life personality of chef Tony Maws. Tony is presented as a man with anger and control issues with a soft, caring streak. Haas manages to present him as both dream employer and nightmare to work for. Tony has a lot to teach his employees, but his focus on iteration and innovation causes difficulties. The book is fast-paced and enjoyable, but it's hard to categorise if the focus is more on the psychology or the cooking. As a reader I enjoyed it, and as a foodie I have now put Craigie no Main on my list should I ever visit Boston!

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    Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

    As the last two reviews were non-fiction, it was nice to dive straight back into an amusing, fun fiction. Good Omens, a collaboration between two of the finest fantasy authors in recent years, was a great choice. Before reading this novel, my biggest concern was that having two authors may read slightly jolty, but I needn't have worried. The writing is seamless and I was unable to distinguish who had written what.

    Good Omen is a comedy of errors about the apocalypse. Gloriously inventive, it features angels, devils, witches, a modern iteration of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the antichrist. Plans for the Armageddon hit a snag when a ditzy Satanic nun misplaces the Antichrist. That sentence simultaneously sums up how utterly ridiculous and clever this book is. Even though the novel was released in 1990, it doesn't feel dated. The technology and culture references are pretty up to date and were perhaps ahead of the curve at the time of release.

    This book weaves together satire, cynicism and unconventional humour into a cohesive yet accurate observation of human life. The characters are well rounded and adorn the pages with both charm and dry British humour. At it's core it's a parody of Christianity, particularly the Book of Revelations, and while you don't have to be well-versed in the bible to enjoy this book, you may miss out on some of the subtler digs and jokes. Despite the sheer ridiculousness of the plot and sub-plots, there are some interesting undertones examining heavy themes such as nature versus nurture, morality, war, pollution and organised religion. Not only would I highly recommend this book, I expect to reread it many times in the future.

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    The Island of Dr. Moreau - H.G. Wells

    Another day, another classic. Having previously enjoyed The Time Machine, I was excited to sit down with another story from Wells. The Island of Dr. Moreau is also heavily referenced in Orphan Black, which made it even more appealing. First published in 1896, this is another short book, clocking in at a mere 160 pages making it ideal for the daily commute.

    The Island of Dr. Moreau tells the tale of Edward Prendick, an English gentleman who, through a series of unfortunate mishaps, finds himself an unwelcomed guest on a Pacific island. Prendick soon learns that the island is home to Dr. Moreau, a disgraced scientist that spends his time performing horrific vivisections on animals to craft them into human beings. The results of these experiments now inhabit the island that Prendick has become stranded on. These creatures (manimals?) live in fear of Moreau and attempt to behave in accordance with The Law which forbids animalistic behaviour such as walking on 4 legs and eating meat. The creatures vary from harmless servants to dangerous beings that are only one step away from murder.

    Although the concept of genetic engineering may not have been considered in 1893, it's very easy to see why Orphan Black, a show built on the themes of genetic manipulation, cloning and bodily autonomy, has taken this novel as a totem. In the guise of a mad scientist trying his hand at playing God, Wells presents us with some difficult questions around scientific and social responsibility, the concept of freedom and the ethics of scientific advancements. These themes are even more relevant today. Wells also doesn't shy away from the dark side of this science - the torture scenes and their results are described in horrifying detail. He does not present an opinion on the ethics of Moreau's work, rather he presents the evidence for both sides and allows the reader to form their own opinion.

    Similarly to the last Wells' book I reviewed, while I enjoyed it I'd have a hard time recommending it to most readers. This is a book that will appeal only to sci-fi readers, and I'd probably also steer clear of vegetarians/vegans. As it's an old book, the style of prose takes some getting used to but, nevertheless, an entertaining book worthy of its classic status.

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    Superfreakonomics - Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

    So, having thoroughly enjoyed Freakonomics, I was looking forward to reading this book. The cover promises more great stories - "Global cooling, patriotic prostitutes and why suicide bombers should buy life insurance". While the authors do indeed touch on those topics, the book lacks the "wow" factor of its predecessor. Freakonomics delved deep into hard data, from which it drew interesting, unexpected conclusions. These were complemented with compelling anecdotes. This book, however, substitutes anecdotes for hard data, and the somewhat dubious conclusions are far from mind blowing. One example of this is the chapter on the economics of prostitution. While I'm sure there are a number of well paid call girls in Chicago enjoying the high life, that is far from the reality for most prostitutes. However, many of the conclusions and assumptions made by the authors in this section appear to extrapolate out from this one anecdote rather than placing it in any meaningful context.

    It's difficult to isolate the reason that this book didn't appeal to me as much as Freakonomics. It would be reasonable to assume that some of the content in this book was available at the time of writing the former book, but wasn't deemed interesting enough to be included. It is also possible that, having never read much about economics, the previous book served as an engaging introduction but now I want something more meaty. Most likely, it's a fusion of both reasons.

    I don't want to be too negative about the book as I did still enjoy it. It's an easy read with some amusing stories. It's easily digestible with enough details to pique your curiosity and inspire some independent research. It's a little like a summer blockbuster movie, enjoyable at the time (ideally with popcorn) but unlikely to leave a lasting impact.

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    Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

    This book has been on the my reading list for quite some time. "Catch 22" has become such a ubiquitous phrase since this book was published back in 1961, but the majority of people don't really know the origins of the phrase or its context so I was excited to find out more. Any book centred around the concept of "damned if you do and damned if you don't" has to be good, right?

    Despite my anticipation, I'm sorry to say that this is probably the most difficult book I've had to get through since starting this log. Firstly, it's very long and there are an immense number of characters. Secondly, it's all over the place. I get that this is probably by design to emphasise the chaos of war but it makes for a difficult read. I found the absurdness of the dialogue amusing at first, but it started to grate on me as the book wore on. Although there are some very interesting lines and observations littered throughout, it's a difficult slog to retrieve them.

    I'm so disappointed as I really, really wanted to like this book! I came so close to just giving up on it so many times but I struggled on, convinced that at any moment I would start enjoying it. While the paradoxes were amusing, the book itself is just tiresome. I feel really bad saying that too, like I missed something that makes this such a revered piece of literature. The fault is likely with me and not Heller but I couldn't wait to finish the book and could not in good faith recommend it to someone.

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    Dreams from My Father - Barack Obama

    This book has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, having picked it up on a trip to a charity shop on some visit to Ireland. As we watched Donald Trump get elected across the pond, it felt like a particularly apt time to dig into it.

    I am not particularly interested in US politics, outside of how it might affect us in Europe. TV series, movies and books that deal with the topic have never excited or enticed me, even critically acclaimed pieces like "The West Wing" or "House of Cards". Furthermore, autobiographies rarely end up on my shelf. Based on these premises, this book was a pretty unusual choice for me. Obama, however, has shown himself to be an interesting, humourous, charismatic character in recent times so I thought I'd give his book a chance.

    Outside of a few buzzwords, I knew very little about Obama or his background. I remember when he was elected but I was too young to really care then except to note that America had just elected a black president. This book is a really enjoyable frolic through Obama's early years detailing a young man's quest to understand his place in the world. It's unlikely that if he was to write this same book again now, that the story would be told in the same way. It's an incredibly candid account portraying raw emotions and, at times, politically incorrect opinions.

    "Dreams from my Father" tells the story not of Obama the politician, but of a young man's struggle with his racial identity and background. It follows him through his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his grass roots community work in Chicago, and, finally, his journey to meet his father’s family in Kenya. In terms of history or focus, the emphasis is almost solely on the black side of his family. Despite being raised by his white grandparents and white mom, they form but a small piece of the story. The other side of his heritage, the unknown side, looms heavily over him from a young age.

    I think it was quite easy for me to enjoy this book because I didn't have any prejudices going into it. For people that have strong feelings towards Obama either way, I expect that this book provides a lot of fuel for that fire. Despite the fact that none of his struggles are really in any way relatable or relevant for me, it's certainly an interesting, informative read. Although it's an autobiography, many areas of his life are skipped over or fleetingly mentioned (for example, his time at Harvard) so I imagine it could be disappointing to someone expecting a detailed history. At times it's a tad indulgent but overall I would recommend this book.

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    The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

    "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum"

    It is hard to review this book without drawing parallels to Louise O'Neill's "Only Ever Yours", particularly when the former was recommended to me after a friend saw my positive review of the latter. I was a little disappointed actually, I had enjoyed "Only Ever Yours" as it was unlike anything I had ever read. However, in light of this book, I would have to revise that opinion. At best you could say that O'Neill was heavily inspired by this novel.

    All that aside, this is an absolutely fascinating book. Our protagonist Offred is a handmaid - her only job is to produce a baby for her household. This household consists of her Commander Fred who "owns" her, his wife and a few servants. We never learn Offred's real name, she is simply referred to by her owner's name - "Of Fred". This name changes with each household she is placed in. Her only value is her viable ovaries, and even that has a time limit.

    This book is jokingly referred to as 1984 for feminists. Similarly to Orwell's classic, we can see certain elements of this society in today's world. Particularly with the rise of radical feminism, the commonplace use of terms such as "rape culture", "feminazi" and "libtards" and the increasingly strength and presence of extremist religious groups, Atwood's cautionary tale isn't too far a stretch from our current society. Now, that is intentionally hyperbolic and I don't expect to be graded on my ability to procreate at any time in the future, but this novel presents some scary ideas about how ones rights can be taken away in the name of "safety". Unlike the science fiction world presented to us in 1984, the alarming thing about "The Handmaid's Tale" is that none of the developments are without precedent.

    This book is challenging, not just because of the subject matter and ideologies it espouses, but due to the way it's written. The non-linear storytelling means that the reader is very much on the back foot the majority of the time, trying to piece together what has happened and how the world currently works from tidbits and flashbacks. That in itself is not a bad thing, too many books (and indeed TV shows and movies) go out of their way to spell everything out to the audience. Although we see this world from Offred's perspective, we can also see that there are similar levels for the men in this society, they haven't gotten away scot-free. It would be very interesting to read a story from the perspective of a lower man in this society, one deemed not worthy of having a wife and doomed to a life of loneliness.

    While I enjoyed this book, at times it's pretty uncomfortable. The scenes that talk about being forced to watch violent porn, the description of the monthly sex appointment with the Commander and wife and the daily act of visiting the Wall are emotionally draining. At times, it's claustrophobic and bleak. The language is tainted with anger and cynicism. All of these together can be a bit trying, but one has to remember that this novel is attempting to push the boundaries of extremism. It's supposed to make you uncomfortable. It's not supposed to be "fun", instead it's intended to be impactful.

    I would highly recommend this book to everyone, even people that I know wouldn't like it as it's a great conversation starter. Especially for people fond of using the terms I mentioned above.

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    The Green Road - Anne Enright

    This novel, which appeared on the Man Booker prize longlist in 2015, was a Christmas gift. It follows the lives of Rosaleen Madigan and her four children over the course of three decades. The prose is rich and lyrical throughout as it examines family ties and relationships. Despite that, I really didn't enjoy this novel and struggled to finish it. I found the time hops jarring and, although I usually like stories told from different perspectives, I found it cumbersome in this book.

    In general I find it much more difficult to enjoy a book when I don't like any of the characters and that, unfortunately, is the case here. This book epitomises the stereotypical begrudging, whinging Irish attitude. From the manipulative, passive aggressive mother to the self-involved children, there isn't a lot to like and I couldn't sympathise with any of them. Each self-loathing character fills a formulaic role. While there some nice vignettes, the majority of the plot plodded along dully. I found the AIDs section to be unnecessarily graphic, almost like it was intended to shock or offend. I have no problem with that usually, but it felt completely out of place in this novel.

    Overall, I couldn't recommend this book. I know that there are plenty of people that loved it, but I found it tedious and depressing.