My review of Room by Emma Donoghue

ROOM - Emma DonoghueImagine growing up in a world that’s limited to an 11 x 11 room. All you know is the objects that you have, and your Ma who raised you.

Room is told from five year old Jack’s point of view, which definitely took some getting used to. Throughout the first half of the story we repeatedly get to experience Jack and Ma’s routine Room. Ma, who has been in Room for seven years, religiously makes sure Jack is fed, has his (limited) exercise, learns his math and reading, and watches one hour of TV each day.

Ma is a good mother, given her situation. You can tell she’s emotionally damaged from her ordeal, but she does everything to make sure Jack is as educated and healthy as she can. With the TV in the room, she attempted to protect Jack by created a fantasy world, where everything in Room was real, and everything outside was TV. She also physically protected him, from the man who visited every night.

Old Nick, as Jack calls him, is the man. He brings food, Sunday treat, and stays for the night. When he comes, Ma makes sure Jack is already in Wardrobe. Before sleep each night, Jack counts the number of creaks in his head. Old Nick makes Jack’s Ma upset.

It wasn’t until the second half that I really became enthralled with the book and couldn’t put it down. I felt like I was really in the head of Jack, and at times was frustrated like he was when things didn’t go his way, or seemed completely foreign to him. At the same time, I felt Donoghue did a fantastic job of conveying what was happening to the two of them through things like Ma’s behaviour and Jack’s innocent observations.

My biggest qualm with the book would be the sometimes inconsistent writing style. It seems Donoghue tried too hard to capture the vocabulary of a five year old, mixing ridiculous word combinations with amazing vocabulary. Jack was relatively well-educated by Ma, and had television to teach him proper sentence structure as well, but so often he would essentially come up with jibberish – maybe chalk that up to his living situation, I don’t know, but it made the reading experience very choppy at times.

If you’re looking to pick this one up, be patient and you won’t regret it. While the basic premise is something we’ve all seen in news headlines, it’s a unique take on writing and you have to give it to Donoghue for attempting it. I quite enjoyed Room and the story really stuck with me – so much so, I had to take a few days afterward to get my mind right to write this post and even pick up another book. I give it a 4/5.

Review of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm GladwellThe basic premise of this book my Malcolm Gladwell is that people, or Outliers, are successful for a number of different reasons, on top of the fact that they’re skilled at what they do.

Some of the examples he looks into say:

  • Success can be determined based on when you were born
  • Put in the work (10,000+ hours) and you’ll be a master at your craft
  • Just because you’re smart, doesn’t mean you’ll succeed
  • Timing is everything
  • The behavior of generations past keep us in its grasp

Obviously Gladwell looks at data that helps him prove his points. The case studies he examines are interesting, well told stories, and in all of them I found he made arguments, backed by expert research, that made sense.

If not necessarily true for all cases, it’s a good eye opener that shows those who are successful aren’t just so because of some talent they were born with, but that skill was gained through a lot of hard work or an opportune upbringing/family history. There are of course exceptions to the rule, and Gladwell seems to say successful people are who they are because of these reasons, but doesn’t look at the examples that prove his point wrong.

Nowhere in the book, outside of the small samples he looks at, does it show overall rates of for example, hockey players who were born outside of the first quarter of the year. The theory he looks at is that the earlier in the year you’re born (Jan/Feb/Mar), the more successful you’ll be because you’re months ahead of players born in the later part of the year, development-wise. Curious, I took a look at the roster of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. While some players have moved, it’s still noteworthy to see that of the 24 players on the roster, only 5 were born from January to March. (Others: Detroit = 13; Toronto = 7; Vancouver = 5).

While the hockey analysis may not hold up, I learned some eye-opening information. One was the reason why students have summer vacations is due to research from the 1800s saying that over-study leads to mental illness; it’s based on this that people aren’t willing to put kids through school in the summer. Another interesting tidbit was that the way Asian numbers are formed makes it easier for them to memorize and therefore learn math quicker than western kids. They were some small but interesting tidbits in the stories, but they stuck with me.

As with most of Gladwell’s work, Outliers is easy to read and presents an idea or belief that you may think is simple, and opens it up to examine the psychological or sociological reasoning behind it. There’s something about books that deal with the how we think or act that get to me. Though close, this one isn’t quite on the level of The Tipping Point or Blink but I really enjoyed the book and I can’t wait for his next one – whatever the random topic may be. I give Outliers a 4/5.

The Glass Castle: a memoir you will not want to put down

The Glass CastleIf you ever think you have issues with your own family, or you need inspiration to get out of a bad rut in your life, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is the perfect read.

Even though memoirs are subjective and perhaps embellished to make for better story telling, you still have those incredible experiences at the heart. If you forgive any of those embellishments, Walls and her family certainly went through many incredible experiences, to say the least. As I progressed through the book I found myself reading with my mouth hanging open in shock, or yelling at her parents for their countless screw ups. Though at the same time I always felt each incident made the kids stronger and more resilient.

I feel Walls wrote the book without the emotional connection and felt it was important let the reader decide for themselves how to feel based on her actions as a child. Her parents offered up many opportunities for her to lash out, but she often balanced her father’s drunkenness and mother’s scatterbrained behaviour with tidbits of how well-read or educated they both were. It was extremely well pieced so that while you feel anger at their actions, you don’t necessarily feel sorry for them, especially after moving to New York in their later years.

This was a novel I didn’t expect anything from, and after a slow start it eventually picked up and I couldn’t put it down. Walls’ story kept getting more interesting with each page turned. It was an inspiring read that reminds the reader that you don’t get to pick your family, but even through adversity it’s always important to stick with them, and be proud of where you come from because it made you who you are. I give The Glass Castle a 5/5.

The Hunger Games trilogy: Impossible to put down

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Given its ‘young adult’ tag, The Hunger Games trilogy didn’t really appeal to me, but I’d heard a lot of chatter of late, and the preview for the movie piqued my interest, so I decided to give it a try. Let me just say, Suzanne Collins wrote it well enough that they would appeal to any age group. Over the Christmas break I began reading The Hunger Games, and two days later I’d finished the next two in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay – the books are that addictive.

The story is told from the point of view of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year old from District 12, in the country of Panem. It takes place sometime in the future in a post-apocolyptic world where Panem is a large country spreading across North America. It is ruled from the central city called the Capitol which also oversees 11 other districts which produce various goods to feed the main city.

To give a bit of an outline of what you’ll find in the first book, the Hunger Games is an annual tournament where a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are drawn from a pool in each district and sent to compete in a battle televised for all of Panem, but for the pleasure of those in the Capitol. The games are yearly reminder that the Capitol rules the district and it is meant to quell any thoughts of rebellion that may arise.

The first book’s main focus was the Hunger Games, and as a standalone book it was great. As I moved on to Catching Fire and Mockingjay the overarching story developed into a society on the brink of collapse and eventually a full-on rebellion against the Capitol by the Districts. Expanding the story gave it so much more depth, and made it into one that dealt with the problems in this broken society, and not so much about the games themselves.

When it comes to the characters, Collins’ writing brings the cast to life. Each one, especially Katniss, Peeta and Gale, has a distinct personality and throughout each story you see how those personalities come into play. As with every novel that I love, each of the main District 12 characters have a solid back story so you get a sense of what made them who they are. They’re supported by many other characters from across Panem, and though there are many to keep track of, it rarely gets confusing.

The one thing irked me the most was what that after spending so much time leading to the final showdown in Mockingjay, the conclusion read as if it was point form notes to let everyone know what happened and how the characters fared. It didn’t do the story justice to rush through the end like that and it left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth.

All that being said, I still enjoyed the story overall and would recommend it to everyone who’s a fan of the dystopian theme a la 1984 or Brave New World. I give The Hunger Games a 5/5, Catching Fire 5/5, and Mockingjay 4.5/5.

What did you think of the trilogy?

Before you go, check out the trailer for the movie, which is coming out in March and starring Jennifer Lawrence:

My top 5 books of 2011

Last year I attempted to to read 26 books in 52 weeks, but unfortunately life got in the way and could only manage to get through 16. This year I contemplated doing the same challenge, but figured I’d just read as much as I could and not look for a goal, but I managed to read 16 again this year anyway. Oh, these are my favourite books that I’ve read this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were published this year:

5. Between the Assassinations

Between the AssassinationsAravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations was the second book I reviewed this year and I was really pleased with his second output.

The book features a series of ‘day in the life’ stories from people of (fictional) Kittur, India, shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. With that lens it looks at many issues including: caste, sexual disease, drug problems, political corruption, the influx of villagers seeking a better life in the city, and much more.

As with many of the books that really speak to me, this one has very strong characters whose stories stick with you long after you’ve moved on from their tale.

4. Fall of Giants

Fall of GiantsIt seems like I’ve only read the biggest books by Ken Follett; first there was Pillars of the Earth, then World Without End and now Fall of Giants. Each of these were either a bit less or a bit more than 1000 pages, so they weren’t all that fun to read on public transit, but they were all very well written.

Fall of Giants is a fictional story based on history and takes place during the 13 1/2 years leading up to the First World War and it’s end. Each character introduced in the book cross paths at one point or another, whether it be an American diplomat coming to the aide of two Russian slum-raised teenagers, or Ethel the former housewife of Earl Fitzherbert of her village rising up in the political ranks and making an adversary of him in the process.

3. The Given Day

The Given DayWhen I saw The Given Day by Dennis Lehane I immediately picked it up. I’d read two of his other novels, Mysic River and Gone Baby Gone and really enjoyed his writing style. This one was a bit different though – still set in Boston the others, but this time in the 1930s.

The novel follows the two main storylines. The first is that of Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer; the second follows Luther Lawrence, an African American man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The two become intertwined as we see them separately take on issues of unions and race. Lehane does wonders with mingling the two lives and his writing is full of imagery and the words jump off the page to take you back in time.

2. Steve Jobs: Biography

Steve Jobs I managed to get through Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson rather quickly (for my standards) and just posted my review for it a couple days ago, so have a look:

Review of the Steve Jobs biography

I was thinking it would make a great movie. Do you think any director could do it justice and live up to Jobs’s standards? There was a movie called The Pirates of Silicon Valley in 1999 and it starred Noah Wyle as Jobs. I haven’t seen it but I think this biography would make a bit more of an interesting story since so many of Jobs’s friends and enemies have spoken up about him. I also think Christian Bale would make a great Jobs.

1. The Help

The Help

The Help is set in the 1960s and looks at the issue of race relations in Jackson, Mississippi. The premise is ‘Skeeter’ a white woman is looking to the maids of the city to help her write a story from the point of view of ‘the help’. You just have to do a Google search and you’ll see it’s a book that has gotten as much flack as it has praise.

One interesting news article from September says Stockett stole her identity for the character of Aibileen. Her name is Abilene Cooper and she was the maid to Stockett’s brother for 12 years. Much of the similarities are the same, but the case was thrown out.

I feel at the very least the book is a great starting point for race discussions.

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