It's a good book, but it's not my Typee...

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Snow Whale by John Minichillo: The Whiteness of the Whale

The Whiteness of the Whale! One of the biggest symbols in Moby Dick is represented in this modern retelling in more ways than you can shake a harpoon at. We get white houses, white snow, white ice, and most of all, white people.

Our protagonist is John Jacobs, (white guy) who discovers through a DNA test that he is part Inuit. He leads a less than satisfying life with a pretty sucky job and a wife who doesn't get him or even attempt to do so. It's a bit of a damp, drizzly November in his soul. So in an effort to balance his existence, Jacobs sets off for Alaska to join in a whale hunt with his distant cousins. We get some glimpses of Jessica's shallow life at home while Jacobs is off reclaiming his heritage, but for the most part we follow Jacobs, Q, and Akmaaq as they prepare for the upcoming whale hunt.

Q is a black teenager Jacobs picks up along the way who plans to film a documentary in the frozen North and thereby win a bunch of awards. Akmaaq is the cranky and sometimes mysterious Inupiat who leads the motley crew of hunters. As their names imply, Q is a stand in for Queequeg and towards the end, Pip; Akmaaq is a less crazed and dangerous version of Ahab.

I jumped all over the chance to read this book because I loves me some Melville, but the similarities with Moby Dick are so infrequent and so tenuous that they really don't have much in common.

The writing is insightful and the story is pretty interesting, so whether or not you have read the greatest American novel, you may enjoy Minichillo's take on it.

I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.

Rating out of 5 stars: 3 1/2

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Barbara Ehrenreich: Natural Causes

You should probably not read this book if you are a hypochondriac or get nervous learning unfortunate medical facts. Ehrenreich shares some alarming information in Natural Causes. Information like: at any moment macrophages, a vital part of the intricate and bizarre system within you which is supposed to keep you healthy may instead decide to betray you and actively encourage the growth of cancer.

You may remember Ehrenreich for Nickel and Dimed, a book from several years ago which detailed her reasons why no one can survive on minimum wage.

But back to your body trying to kill you.

The book is full of truly unsettling statistics and pronouncements. We learn that many doctors only give you an annual physical because you would be outraged if they told you such exams are pointless. We learn that some experts believe that current medical technology is so highly sensitive that we are detecting and surgically removing, or treating with dangerous chemicals, growths that are either entirely benign or would have gone away on their own. Fun, right?

Never believe 100% of what someone tells you without checking into it a bit first. And I'm not referring to the medical industry right now, I'm referring to the author. I would have had a lot more faith in her view if she hadn't said right off the bat that despite being a breast cancer survivor, she has now given up mammograms because she would rather not experience the stress of false positives. She is now in her upper 70s and I get it, that's not young. But to say that you are more comfortable with dying from a treatable disease than undergoing uncomfortable and potentially stressful tests every now and then is a bit worrisome. So while a lot of what she has to say is perfectly accurate and definitely food for thought for anyone who wants to keep themselves healthy, don't let her talk you into skipping your checkups without considering what that could mean for you.

In addition to the sometimes questionable view of medicine, the book ends up jumping around to a few different topics. By the end of the book, it's become about the "self" and whether or not humans have a spirit separate from their bodies. One of the things that bothers me the most when reading is to come across someone who has decided they are too smart for religion. Ehrenreich tells us that the Bible never mentions an immortal soul. And sure, she's not the only person to smugly point this out. But if such stubborn literalism is all you can scrape up to say on the matter of Christianity vs. atheism/agnosticism/science/blahblahblah, then you are simply choosing to ignore the entire message of the New Testament. Or are you maybe just not that smart after all? This is like saying Louisa May Alcott didn't care about the rights of women because she never used the word "Feminist" in Little Women. Go ahead, I have a bridge to sell you.

And let's not forget the fact that Ehrenreich thinks there is no reason doctors should be forced to learn how DNA and human cells work. Call me crazy, but that's something I don't really mind my doctor understanding. Otherwise it seems like a slippery slope to him telling me my humors are misaligned and I need a good leech treatment. What next, my mechanic will tell me to get an oil change or else the gnomes that make my engine work will be unhappy?

But at the end of the day, the premise of this book is not wrong. You can eat a vegan diet, exercise 6 days a week, and still drop dead of a heart attack or get cancer or get hit by a bus. And then there are people like George Burns, a man you can't even picture without his famous cigar, who lived to be 100. Guess he had good macrophages.

I received my copy through NetGalley.

Rating out of 5 stars: A surprisingly high 3 1/2

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The official description of this book is meant to be mysterious and intriguing. Instead, it helped me figure out "the big twist" when I was about 2% of the way into the story.


"When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.
You will assume you are reading about a jealous wife and her obsession with her replacement.
You will assume you are reading about a woman about to enter a new marriage with the man she loves.
You will assume the first wife was a disaster and that the husband was well rid of her.
You will assume you know the motives, the history, the anatomy of the relationships.
Assume nothing."

So I spent the majority of the book nodding to myself as the evidence mounted up that I was, in fact, correct. True, there were a few more twists toward the end, but I was absolutely correct when I guessed what the big secret was.

You would think that this would ruin the book for me, but it didn't. I actually really enjoyed reading it, perhaps partly because I wanted to vindicate my surmise, but also because it was just plain good.

Honestly, I don't know how anyone would NOT figure this out after reading the description, so I think the publisher should have gone with something else. But judging from the reviews I've seen, an awful lot of people didn't figure it out and were thoroughly shocked.

I found myself telling everyone I knew about this book. I gave multiple recommendations to women who had read The Girl on the Train and/or Gone Girl and liked them. Because that's the genre this falls into. I call it The Girl Who genre. You know what I'm talking about. And it's a genre I like a lot, so it was a relief that this book was so good, despite its transparent plot.

Rating out of 5 stars: 4

I received an advance copy of this book through NetGalley.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell about It

This book is great if you are interested in the history of Liverpool shipping, castaways, or (like me) pretty much anything to do with man's interaction with the sea. But I would not necessarily suggest it if you are not already into this kind of thing.

Brian Murphy has written an easily readable, detailed book about the sole survivor of a packet ship's collision with an iceberg, but it is not exactly action-packed or thrilling. I'm afraid that is what some folks would look for when picking up this kind of book. Personally, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

My nautical reading is usually centered around whaling or arctic exploration, so this is the first book I've read that focuses heavily on commercial shipping in the 1800s and I learned quite a bit. I also don't remember running into the prominent Nye family before. But now when that name pops up among a list of well-known captains or citizens in New England, I will recognize some old friends. I also found the information about Irish immigrants coming to America by way of Liverpool quite interesting.

I received this book as an advance copy from NetGalley. As soon as I read the description, I knew this was a book I wanted to read.

Publication date: September 4, 2018

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets

 lets us in on the history of neuroscience, the inner workings of our brains, and his own family's interaction with one of the sadder cases of human guinea piggery you will read.

If you are at all interested in any of those subjects, you will likely enjoy this book.  I received an advance copy through NetGalley, so it was not the finished product. That means I can't really speak to what the published book is like, but I hope they fixed a bit of what gave me trouble.  See the spoiler section if you want to hear my complaints.

H.M. was Henry Molaison, a man suffering from severe seizures. In 1953, a surgery performed by the author's grandfather, the brilliant Dr. William Scoville, was intended to alleviate the problem. But it left Henry without the ability to form new long-term memories. This ruined his life, but gave doctors and scientist a remarkable insight into how our minds operate.


If you don't want to find out any of the "secrets" of the book, please scroll down past the random picture of someone holding a brain.

Alright, now that it's just us chickens, I will tell you that I was shocked by what I viewed as a huge oversight in the composition of this book.  Up through the middle of the book, we hear a lot about how the author's grandmother had "issues".  When her children were young, she did odd, inappropriate things and seemed to be deteriorating, becoming more erratic.  But when the author knew her in his youth, she always seemed placid, but a bit detached.  Now, this woman's husband was a brain surgeon, one who specialized in LOBOTOMIZING people who had issues very similar to his wife's.  Often his patients had problems less severe than his wife's.

So I just assumed that gramps performed said surgery on his own wife in order to alleviate her strange behavior and that the author had even mentioned this somewhere along the way.  Imagine my surprise and confusion when we are finally told toward the end of the book that hey, MAYYYYYBE Scoville lobotomized his own wife?!  Well, duh.  This was not a man overly concerned with the ill effects of his procedures, and anyone who has read the book up to that point would have no problem believing he would do such a thing.

This means that I was really shocked on two fronts. 1) Did Dittrich honestly not think that his readers wouldn't see the inevitable coming when he described his grandfather's controlling streak and the vastly changed behavior his grandmother exhibited over the years? 2) Did it honestly surprise Dittrich that this spouse-on-spouse lobotomy was a possibility?

Dittrich admits that despite searching for records of such a procedure, he was not able to find any.  But for a man of Scoville's clout, it would not have been difficult to cut into his wife's skull off the books, even if he used the operating room where he normally worked and had multiple witnesses.

And if you do plan to read the book, I don't think that the spoiler section above will ruin it for you.  In fact, maybe it would save you from the same confusion I felt.

Genre: Non-fiction
Rating out of 5 stars: 4

Friday, May 25, 2018

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

For a rich girl, Maddie's had it pretty rough. Her upbringing was less than ideal and now she's married to a man who seems like a good choice, but quickly turns out to be a jerk at the very least. His main interaction with her is telling her what to wear.

Maddie's husband, Ellis Hyde, was sadly rejected from service in WWII because he's colorblind. This has lead to lots of drinking and disapproval from his wealthy parents. What's the solution for this? Well, in Ellis' opinion, it's finding the Loch Ness Monster! This is a task at which his own imperious father failed and which will bring everlasting glory to the Hyde name.

So Ellis, Maddie, and Ellis' handsome BFF, Hank, pack up and head for Scotland. Once there, the boys promptly dump Maddie in an inn filled with enigmatic Scotsmen and sassy women. While the menfolk spend hours on the frigid Loch with a camera, she desperately attempts to fill her empty days and get to know some of these new acquaintances. For instance, Angus, the innkeeper.  But Angus, it turns out, has a secret!  And so does the Loch! So really, no surprises there. A fairly predictable plot ensues with a few unexpected turns.

At the Water's Edge is a pleasant read with well drawn characters. Other reviews refer to them as shallow, but what's happening here is that some of the characters are shallow people, not shallowly depicted. Maddie starts out as one of the shallowest, but we learn alongside her that there is more to the world than it seems. A happy ending for most includes a brush with a mysterious force.

I obtained my copy for free through NetGalley.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Thursday, May 24, 2018

We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down

We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter

This is the kind of title that gets my attention. The funeral industry is a passion of mine. My grandparents owned and lived in a funeral home until I was about 12 and so visiting them meant hanging out a few dozen yards from a room full of casket samples and a body prep room. When I tell people this, a light of understanding shines in their eye. Ah, so that's why you're like this.

Rachael Hanel's memoir is nothing unusual. We hear about her family tragedy and vivid memories of growing up in a small Minnesota town. We hear about family stories from before she was born. Stories that are sometimes remarkable, but not so different in theme and outcome from stories most of us have. (And yes, her father was a gravedigger. Hanel spent many of her early years in cemeteries as her father went about his work.)

It is the tone of this book that has stayed with me for years. It is truthful and touching without breaking your heart. The story of a family as told by someone who can see the story for what it is: sad and happy and frustrating and hopeful. Hanel understands that our pasts make us who we are and perhaps even more than that; our family's past shapes us in ways we can never fully grasp and never, never escape.

I received a digital copy for review through NetGalley.