Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen

Title: Pioneer Girl
Author: Bich Minh Nguyen

Genre: Fiction

Rating: 4.25 / 5

Goodreads

 

I saw this book at the university library when I was looking for a different book. I was drawn by the cover–I loved the artwork on it. I didn’t actually check it out because the jacket copy tied it so intimately to Little House on the Prairie, and I read one of those book as a kid, but I was like, how much do I really care about someone’s ties to that book? But the next time I was in the library it still seemed to be calling to me, so I went ahead and checked it out.

I’m really glad I did. I liked this book quite a bit. It’s a story narrated by a second-generation Vietnamese woman whose parents and grandparent fled the war in Vietnam to come to the US. She’s an academic–or trying to be; finishing her dissertation isn’t going so well, and she hasn’t had any job offers. So she moves back in with her mom and grandfather who run a small Vietnamese restaurant. When her brother comes back for a short visit, trying to find some mysterious money that he claims his mom owes them, she when she falls into this Little House storyline, discovering what might be connections of her family with theirs.

The book reads like a memoir and I was kind of having an Inception moment because she’s studying someone else’s memoir-ish writing, and reading their journals, and it made me think about my own journaling. The whole thing is pretty understated. It only has like 3.35 stars on Goodreads, which is kind of a low rating, and I wonder if that’s part of the reason why. It feels very realistic and doesn’t have any huge overarching plots or overtly satisfying character arcs, but because of that it felt very real and true-to-life for me. I did find it pretty engrossing, but in reality I guess it was kind of “slow” or “unexciting.” But I thought it worked really well; the tone, the pacing, the story, the characters, they all worked together well.

I found the book to be a pretty interesting snapshot. It’s also pretty short, at only 296 pages of largish print and largish line spacing. It was easy to read and felt very realistic. I could definitely go for more of this kind of book/story.

Spook by Mary Roach

Title: Spook
Author: Mary Roach

Genre: Nonfiction / pop science

Rating: 3 / 5

Goodreads

The last time I was visiting my mom’s, I saw this on her shelf, and I decided to borrow it and give it a read. I was in a reading lull and it looked promising. I had enjoyed Roach’s first book, Stiff, when I read it several years back.

And we were off to a good start. Part way through the book, I look at its Goodreads page and wondered to myself why the ratings were so low, because I was enjoying it quite a bit. But by the end, I got it. Roach relays a lot of stories about the history of afterlife research, and she can be quite funny. But after a while, I wanted something more than disparate lines of inquiry, and her humor either wasn’t as funny after a while or she got more mean-spirited and sarcastic as time went on.

There’s a chapter on seance-y stuff, a chapter on weighing people and animals as they die, a chapter on EMF, etc. The organization of the book makes sense on one level–these are the various ways people have tried to answer the question about the personality or soul or what have you surviving death–but on another level it didn’t seem cohesive or hold together all that well.

The book was well done for what it was, and it was entertaining as well.  I’m not sorry I read it, but I was reminded why I usually stay away from pop science, as alluring as it can seem at times. It seemed like a superficial treatment of the subject that didn’t hang together all that well. Nonetheless, there is some fascinating stuff in here and some good chuckles as well.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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Title: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Genre: True crime

Rating: 4 / 5

Goodreads

The consummate true crime story. I actually didn’t “choose” to read this one, it was a book club pick, but it had been on my to-read list since high school (while I was reading the book, I cleaned out my Amazon account and saw that I actually put it on my wishlist back in 2003). I think I also may have voted for it in the book club poll.

In Cold Blood is touted as a “nonfiction novel”–probably not the first, but a popularizer of the genre at any rate–a true account of actual murders that took place in Kansas. Capote uses elements of fiction to try to create suspense, withholding certain pieces of information until near the end, and trying to get us inside the heads of different “characters.”

It actually wasn’t as good as I was expecting, I guess due to all the hype. While I was reading it, I was frustrated what what I thought were some “boring” parts–Capote draws out things like the trial without really making it all that personal or interesting, and at times he quotes primary sources for pages. There were moments I felt like a bored Furby. The writing was decent, but after hearing about how Capote pioneered a genre and how this book is considered such a classic, I wasn’t too impressed. Honestly, I didn’t feel much while I was reading it–I didn’t need to know what happened next, and I didn’t really “care” about the story.

But, after I finished it, I found that I couldn’t really stop thinking about it. It’s often the opposite with me–I really want to find out what happens, or I feel pretty invested in some level, and then I finish the book and I don’t think about it very much again. And then I started reading about “the story behind the story,” i.e., Capote’s involvement with the narrative, the townspeople, the killers, and it got way more interesting. I’ve never seen Capote or any of the film adaptations of this book, so reading some of the revelations/rumors concerning it was quite interesting. I especially liked a the chapter of Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood called “The Gay Subtext of In Cold Blood,” which I was able to read thanks to my university library’s database. (Here is a link to a much shorter piece on the same subject.) Not only was it enlightening on the subject raised in the title, but on other issues surrounding the book as well. Other sources wonder if Capote and lead investigator Alvin Dewey had a deal.

I had initially given the book a rating of 3.5 when I finished it, but after letting it sit for a couple of days, I think a 4 more accurately represents how I feel about it now, after reading background information and letting the implications of the book simmer for a bit. The reading experience itself was probably only a 3, and sometimes not even that, but I do think it’s an interesting and worthwhile read.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Title: Prep
Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 4 / 5

Goodreads

I’m not sure exactly what drew me to this one, except that I’d been hearing good things about Curtis Sittenfeld & my university library had a copy of this book.

The story is told in the first person by a girl (now a woman, but we’re not sure how far in the future this reminiscing takes place) from a middle class family in South Bend, IN who, to her surprise as much as her family’s, gets into an elite East Coast boarding school–the kind with a long history and many famous and distinguished alumni–on a scholarship.

The book was, in a way, painful to read, since the narrator Lee is herself having a painful time, mostly due to her own anxiety. I kind of thought I was anxious, but then I read this and I was like, yeah, no, never mind, I guess I’m not really. The thing is, Lee sees herself very much as an outsider, and in certain ways, she is. But it’s more in her mind than anything else; because she feels like she doesn’t fit in, she isolates herself, and yet she is judgmental of people who are friendly with her. She dislikes how students are shallow but she does her best to replicate it herself. She constantly worries about being weird or drawing attention to herself; basically she is just super insecure.

But I think it’s quite accurate in a lot of ways. There was a student in my class who reminds me of Lee so much. She was actually pretty petty/snobbish toward me (apparently she told our mutual friends that once the new school year commenced, she would no longer be hanging out with me because I lowered her social status), but I think it all stemmed from insecurity, and reading this book helped me kind of understand her position. Lee, so anxious about others’ perceptions herself, can’t stand people who are both “plain” and comfortable with themselves, as if the only people in the world who should be allowed any sort of confidence or eccentricity need to approach physical perfection. I think a lot of people, and especially teen girls, feel this way. Soon after finishing this book, I was able to attend a talk recently given by Lisa Wade, who wrote American Hookup (she’s also the person behind the Sociological Images blog), and I was strongly reminded of certain parts of this book. Overall, I think it does what it does very well.