Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pure Sea Glass (Richard LaMotte)

In my spare time, I collect sea glass. I walk along the shoreline of bodies of water (lakes and oceans, mostly) and look for shards of glass that are at least a little bit rounded/worn down. I don't care about color or size (that isn't strictly true--I love finding rare colors and big pieces especially, but there are some people out there who refuse to collect average pieces, which is not the point of looking for glass). It's relaxing just to walk and look and occasionally find an exciting piece.

So someone bought me Pure Sea Glass as a present for Christmas and I figured it was probably time for me to read it. The book was great--it was incredibly informational and beautiful pictures of glass. I learned a lot about not only the best places to look and the rarity of certain colors, but also how those colors were made, when they were made, where they were made and what things those colors were used for (a very obvious example includes brown for beer bottles). Richard LaMotte does a splendid job of looking at the glass from every angle.

But sometimes that's a bad thing. There were parts of the book (especially in the latter half, where there are whole chapters about bottles or decorative glass) where he rapid-fire assaults the reader with lots of information, and it's more overwhelming than interesting. This was a book that would have done a great job of utilizing lists and charts to organize the contents.

And sometimes those beautiful pictures didn't seem necessary. For example, there's a section where the author talks about bottles that were manufactured to hold poisons and explains how these differed from regular bottles. How interesting, how cool! And he includes a picture of an entirely intact bottle, which is cool, but I would have appreciated a picture of some sea-tumbled glass that had been positively identified as a poison bottle, since that's the whole point of the book. LaMotte mentions possible methods and indicators that would tell someone, but doesn't do it himself. Disappointing.

Sometimes the book strayed a little too far from sea glass, which was distracting and a little tiresome. He gives a pretty thorough history of bottle manufacturing and the evolution of the bottle-stopper, and that section drags. The last chapter is all about shoreline erosion and sea level rise, which is an important environmental issue but felt out of place (he brings it up to mention how it makes it harder to find glass as if that's the main concern associated with this problem).

Overall, an interesting (and useful!) book with lots of great information that with some sections that can definitely be skimmed or skipped.

My rating: 4/5
Pure Sea Glass on Goodreads
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Monday, August 13, 2012

Starcrossed (Josephine Angelini)

Starcrossed, like Divergent before it, was a book that let me down. I first heard about the book in 2010, and the premise sounded exciting: Helen Hamilton finds out that she is a actually a demigod when the beautiful Delos family moves to her island. She and the new clan at first violently hate each other, but after Helen saves Lucas Delos' life, she falls madly in love with him and finds out that she is fated to play out the role of Helen of Troy who might cause another Trojan War. This concept promises a lot of awesome things: Greek mythology, a complex romance and a motif about fate, choice and destiny (which is one of my favorite devices if done correctly--see One Hundred Years of Solitude for the most perfect example).

The book barely delivered any of these things. What we do get is a book that comes across as a mash-up of a lot of different popular teen books that could have been spectacular had Angelini been more focused. The story drags and sags in places and the characters aren't particularly fun to listen to. Take Helen, for example.

Helen is our protagonist, and at the beginning of the book, her favorite thing to focus on is popularity. She's an incredibly beautiful girl who lives on Nantucket. Despite her beauty, she is not a member of the popular crowd and she spends a lot of time thinking about it. I thought we were moving toward a "strong female heroine" image, so why does Helen care? This was an instance where I feel the book could have been trimmed down and refocused, because the popularity thing never becomes important. Angelini sets it up as though it may become relevant later, but it never does.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)

As I mentioned in my review of The Alchemist, I have been on a Quest to Read Good Literature. It is a never-ending quest, but I try my best. With the new movie adaptation coming in November, I figured that now would be as good a time as any to crack open my copy of Anna Karenina. I had high expectations for the book: it is considered one of the best books of all time and simultaneously manages to be a soapy drama (which is my secret favorite kind of story). What's not to love?

Oh, right. The extra fluff all over the place. Now, I suppose that this is at least partly my fault for choosing to read the unabridged version, which is (obviously) how I read all of my books. And at times, I actually enjoyed the excess material. My relationship with the book is a little complicated.

The plot: Anna Karenina, a woman of high 1870s Russian society, has an affair. Everything after that point is the aftermath of her infidelity. The book does a masterful job of letting us into the lives of everyone involved: Anna, Count Vronsky (the man for whom she leaves her husband), Anna's husband, Kitty (the girl who was in love with Vronsky before he chose to be with Anna) and Levin (the man who proposes to Kitty and gets turned down). Tolstoy is excellent at splicing a situation into the viewpoints of many characters to allow his readers to examine and contemplate the repercussions of every event and decision.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)

The Song of Achilles was the first book I read this summer, and it was absolutely beautiful. It became kind of a disappointment because I knew that everything I would read after this wouldn't be as good. I should have saved it for the end, and finished summer with a bang. Don't misunderstand me. The book was anything but a disappointment.

This is the story of Patroclus, a Greek myth figure you may not know very well. He is Achilles' best friend (and in some versions, including this one, his lover). Achilles, Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks, the mighty warrior of the Trojan War. The Song of Achilles is a retelling (I think "retelling" is an appropriate word choice, but I'm not sure what else to use if it isn't) of The Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus, a disgraced prince who moves to Achilles' kingdom. Our story sends us from this point until the end of the Trojan War, when the novel ends.

Everything in between is a beautiful love story. Miller does an extraordinary job writing: her sentences are gorgeous living beings that enchanted me from the moment I started. Watching the romance between Patroclus and Achilles begin and grow is breathtaking; their tale is insanely gratifying and at times heartbreaking as Patroclus has to face the hardships of a war hero fated to die (I would say "spoilers" but anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Greek mythology knows Achilles dies--though I did learn from reading this that the myth of Achilles' heel was retroactively added to the story hundreds of years after Homer).