Book Review: The Red Tent

In high school, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant was on a list of optional summer reading–we had to read something from the list but not everything, and I opted to read something else.  I heard good things about the book from friends though, and it’s been floating at the back of my mind as something I ought to read some time ever since.  I’ve been reading through Genesis in the Bible recently and came to the portion about Jacob and his family–and decided it was time to finally get The Red Tent off my mental to-read list.  And after fifteen or so years…I felt mixed about the book!

I love the concept of this book so much that I’m surprised it took me this long to read it.  (Sort of.  More on that later.)  It’s the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister to his twelve sons (most famously, Joseph of the many-colored coat).  It retells the Biblical story of this very complicated family from the women’s perspective, focusing on Dinah and the four wives (ish) of Jacob.  Since the Bible tends to be heavily male, I love that concept–and reading through the Genesis account made me want to explore the women’s side.

But then I didn’t really love what was done with it.  The book starts before Dinah’s birth, telling the story of how Jacob met and married Rachel and Leah and (kind of) married their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, and how all those brothers came along.  And that sounds complicated and interesting, but somehow the book wound up being very, very focused on sex, childbirth and circumcision.  And I can see how all of those would be important, but it was…very heavily weighted on those three topics.

The story improved for me once Dinah was born and it could focus on her rather than a vague omniscient story of her four mothers.  There was a lot that was interesting about the culture of the time, particularly the women’s culture.  I can’t honestly say how accurate any of it was, but at least as a possible perspective it was engaging.  I liked Dinah’s childhood probably best of any section of the book.

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Book Review: The Sherlockian

I recently stumbled into a new audiobook by accident.  I forget what book I was actually searching for in the library’s online catalog, but somehow they offered up The Sherlockian by Graham Moore instead, and it turned out to be a lucky find.

The book tells two related stories: one about Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and one about a modern-day mystery involving Holmes-fans, Doyle’s missing diary, and murder.  In 1901 London, Doyle receives a letter-bomb which sends him on the hunt for a murderer of young women, and into encounters with East End slums, suffragists and the ineptitude of Scotland Yard.  He also fields repeated questions about when he’s going to bring back Sherlock Holmes, after murdering him at the Reichenbach Falls.  In the present, Doyle’s diary from this same period has been missing for a century.  When a leading Holmes scholar claims to have found it, and then turns up dead at a Baker Street Irregulars’ convention, Harold White tries to follow in the footsteps of Holmes to solve the mystery and find both the killer and the diary.

I enjoyed the split narrative aspect of this book, as we got two intriguing though very different mysteries.  They’re related, and Doyle’s story explains a few things relevant to Harold’s story, but they are essentially two different mysteries.  There’s also an interesting contrast as Harold romanticizes (with some self-awareness) Doyle’s time, and Doyle deals with the seamy underside of that same time.  Sherlock Holmes himself isn’t in either story, seeing as he’s a fictional character, but he looms large in both, as Harold’s model and Doyle’s curse.

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Book Review: Learned Optimism

I’ve written before that one of my favorite nonfiction subjects to read is psychology–I’m fascinated by how the mind works (on the level of thoughts, not so much neurons).  I recently read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and it was one of the most intriguing I’ve read to date.

Seligman details extensive studies he undertook and the conclusions drawn from them to define and explain pessimism, optimism and depression.  In brief, he found that learned helplessness (believing that whatever you do doesn’t change the outcome) is a key component of depression, and that explanatory style (how you explain events, especially negative ones) influences whether learned helplessness becomes prolonged and intense.  Optimists and pessimists explain their lives and events very differently, but it’s possible to learn optimism by challenging your explanations of events and consciously changing your thought processes.

This is an old book (about 30 years old) but as far as I can tell, Seligman is/was the foremost expert on the heavily related topics of learned helplessness and optimism/pessimism.  He’s the one that the later books cite, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him referenced in other things I’ve read.  I’d like to read something more recent to see if there’s been any updates in thought, especially regarding the causes of depression.

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Book Review: I’ll Have What She’s Having

I was looking for new audiobooks recently, and wandered into the library’s (digital) humor section.  I happened across I’ll Have What She’s Having by Rebecca Harrington, a nonfiction humor book about the author’s foray into celebrity dieting.  If you’re thinking that diet books aren’t your thing, this is far less advice and much more an exploration of weird and humorous eating experiences.

The book is made up of a series of experiments, with each chapter focused on a different celebrity as Rebecca tries out their diet.  The celebrities range from Old Hollywood (Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Taylor) to modern (Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz).  I’d heard of very nearly all of them, which made it more interesting.  Some celebrities offer specific dieting advice, while for others Rebecca searched interviews and biographies for the preferred foods of celebrities. Continue reading “Book Review: I’ll Have What She’s Having”

Book Review: Quit Like a Millionaire

On a friend’s recommendation, I recently read Quit Like a Millionaire by Kristy Shen and Bryce Leung.  And then by coincidence, my book club picked the same book after I’d already started it, so maybe this one is a trend at the moment.  It was interesting, readable and…probably useful?

Despite the co-authors listed (who are also married), the book is told entirely from Kristy’s point of view.  That seems like the correct term, because even though it is a book of financial advice, it has a very strong personal voice, and large sections are about Kristy’s life and experience (with Bryce, eventually).  The first section is largely about her deeply impoverished childhood, first in China and eventually after emigrating to Canada.  After becoming a tech engineer and marrying Bryce, the book shifts focus into investment advice.  And ultimately, after Kristy and Bryce quit their jobs with a million dollars invested, how they secure that investment and live as retired thirty-somethings.

This is in many ways a very easy financial book to read.  Large sections read almost novel-like, and Kristy’s voice is friendly and engaging.  Perhaps predictably, there’s an inverse relationship between easy reading and usefulness.  The parts about her childhood are very readable and interesting but have limited practical application (some philosophy around placing value on money and possessions).  The parts about investing, while pretty good for chapters about, you know, investing, are tougher to decipher but much more directly relevant to the key question.

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TV Review: Elementary, Season One

I was recently lamenting Hollywood’s apparent need to force all platonic, opposite-gender characters into romantic relationships, and received a recommendation (thanks, Beedrill!) to check out Elementary as a contrast.  Happily, my library had Season One on DVD, and I had an opening in my “mystery show” viewing slot.

Elementary is a Sherlock Holmes-reimagining, set in modern-day New York (though Holmes is still British), following the adventure of recovering-addict and consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and his sober companion/eventual friend Joan Watson (Lucy Liu).  Consulting with the NYPD, it follows the usual mystery show format of a murder-a-week, with a later in the season arc involving archenemy Moriarty.

I was reluctant to watch this show back when it first appeared because the gender flip of Watson was weirding me out.  I think gender flips in general are interesting, but I had assumed Hollywood would do what Hollywood does and wind up with an eventual Holmes/Watson romance which just feels deeply, deeply wrong on some level, no matter who is what gender or orientation.  So it was good to hear that wasn’t the direction the show went, and I can verify that at least in Season One there isn’t even a hint of romantic interest between the show’s principal characters—which I find all to the good, because their friendship is more intriguing.

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TV Review: Star Trek Discovery – Season One

I am very late to this game–a full year, in fact–but I finally watched Star Trek: Discovery.  Lack of access and doubtful reports kept me from exploring the newest installment of the Star Trek franchise for a long time.  I finally realized the library had it on DVD, which seemed like the perfect level of investment.  Watching it was, frankly, a bit rocky…but I’m ultimately glad I did.

As the series opens, it’s frankly hard to tell (or feel) that we’re in the Star Trek franchise.  I use the word “franchise” deliberately, because the universe is discernible, but the things that make Star Trek what it is seemed notably lacking.  We’re following the story of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), Starfleet officer who is involved in the start of a war with the Klingon empire.  She blames herself for the war; I frankly never figured out how it was her fault.  Discovery, the ship, doesn’t show up until Episode Three, where we meet her captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp).  Stamets is the inventor of a new propulsion system that runs on mushrooms.  Sort of.  It may be the key to winning the war with the Klingons.

I’m just going to be upfront here and say that I struggled with a LOT of things in this show.  Most of it was resolved or at least moved past by the end of the season but…yeah, if this didn’t have Star Trek as part of its title, I probably wouldn’t have watched past the third episode (which I still think was the low point).  In the interest of giving a full picture…I’m going to go ahead and include spoilers.  You have been warned!

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