Monday, March 30, 2015

After This
By: Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2006

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Let me just start out by saying that I might be a bit biased in this review.  The bias is rooted in the fact that I absolutely adore Alice McDermott's writing.  When I finished her novel, Someone, I immediately added every other book she has written to my to-be-read list.  I feel the same way after reading After This.  I want to drop all real-world responsibilities and devour the rest of her novels; unfortunately, I have some semblance of a life outside of reading (work, wedding planning, law school decision-making, sleep).  How I wish that I could just abandon it all though and plow through the rest of her books!

After This follows the life of a working-class family in New York during the 1950s and 1960s.  McDermott focuses her attention on the growth of the couple's children and the marriage behind it all.  The ordinariness of the characters makes the novel relatable.

What makes the novel so enthralling is McDermott's writing style.  Her writing is simply beautiful.  She tells a story that Is devoid of the typical plot triangle/development; instead, McDermott unveils what seems like a stream of ordinary lives in her characters' lives.  The plot develops subtly, slowly unfolding around the reader.  McDermott manages to keep even the mundane interesting, however with her description.

I simply cannot get enough of McDermott's writing style and you can rest assured that many reviews are to follow of her other books.

I would recommend this book to basically anyone.  It has quickly become one of my favorites, which I practically jammed down my mum's throat in my attempts to get her to read it as well.  I just love stories that chronicle the ordinary, American family so if you fall into that boat also then this is definitely one for you!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

1421: The Year China Discovered America

1421: The Year China Discovered America
By Gavin Menzies
William Morrow, 2003

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This is a difficult book to start a blog with for several reasons.  First of all it's not the typical literary fiction that most blogs feature.  Instead, this book is a dense history of a seafaring voyage by non-western people  (in other words, a book that most people would probably overlook).

Furthermore, I wasn't particularly fond of this book.  It seems a little unfair to start off with a book that I didn't like; I worry that it might give people the impression that I'm a harsh critic, full of negativity (which I don't believe is true)!

Nonetheless, this is the situation that we find ourselves in so here goes nothing.  There are several reasons that I was not fond of this particular book.  First of all, Menzies relies very heavily on speculation and consistently mistakes correlation for causation.  He consistently says that the Chinese "must have" landed in x place because that's the way y current in the Ocean forces all boats.  In other words A caused B, which inevitably led to C.  While that seems logical enough we don't have any proof that A occurred in the first place, which means it's not sufficient evidence to prove B and certainly not C.  Upon any sort of questioning or examination, Menzies entire theory pretty much falls apart.

The second reason that I didn't like Menzies book also pertains to his evidence and reasoning.  When, during his travels,  Menzies would find evidence that backed up his point, like a sunken ship or archaeological dig site, he would say that he was testing the evidence, but needed to move on and would post the findings on his website (which you can find here) once they proved conclusive.  What I understood from these assertions was that Menzies was too impatient to substantiate his evidence; or worse, his evidence disproved his point so he didn't want to undermine his point by being honest.  As a whole, it completely undermined his theses credibility in my eyes.

On a more positive note, I'd like to focus on what I believe Menzies did well.  He provided a very interesting history of maritime currents.  He explained in great detail the way the oceans move ships around.  Menzies also provided a very interesting history of early cartography of the Americas, maps that aided many generations of future explorers, including Columbus.  Lastly, Menzies tells a great story.  While I don't believe his argument, I found his writing to be engaging and at the very least thought-provoking.

While I wouldn't recommend this book to any historians or skeptics; I would recommend it to those who are fascinated by "what ifs" and speculation.