The Bookshelf: The End of War

The End of War
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Earlier this month, I talked about the books I’ve been working on reading lately. Among those, the book I was most excited about and was most enjoying was The End of War by John Horgan, which I’d only picked up as a last-minute purchase at a Barnes & Noble a couple blocks from my office (all in all, it was a pretty successful trip given how much I also loved the other book I bought that night, In the Garden of Beasts). At the time that I wrote that post, I was only about a quarter of the way through The End of War and I was already loving it; the rest of the book proved to be just as interesting and easy to get through.

I’ve written about war and my opinions on it before, as it’s a subject that’s always interested me. From a young age, it struck me as absolutely insane that our way of settling arguments with other countries was to grab our guns and kill until nearly everyone was dead and someone held up a white flag. At the time, my teacher assured me that the older I got, the more I’d understand the necessity behind wars; but instead, the opposite happened and the older I get, the less I understand why we so staunchly believe in “an eye for an eye.”

So when I was wandering around Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago and saw The End of War, I immediately picked it up, curious as to what the author’s opinion was on war. To my surprise (but also my excitement) Horgan argued that war is no more ingrained in us than is peace and that there is every chance we could overcome it, as a society.  Without divulging too much information, Horgan puts forth several solid arguments for why we can, not only as a country but as a species, overcome our instincts towards war. Throughout the book, Horgan cites the behaviors of primates and of very small, largely unheard of civilizations, as well as that of ancient societies and people within our own society.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the book though was that Horgan did not simply charge on, citing source after source in support of his own opinion. Instead, he cited sources to the contrary, suggestions that war is ingrained and is something we will never overcome; sources he then went on to dismiss based on incomplete or incorrect information.

Coming out of college, I’m not sure I ever saw myself as a person who would enjoy reading what is essentially a graduate thesis. As much as I loved school and even research, I often found research essays incredibly dense and difficult to get through, so throughout the beginning of The End of War, I was concerned I’d find myself unable to understand or become interested in what Horgan was writing. Instead though, I found the book incredibly easy to read and, because of Horgan’s use of personal anecdotes and private interviews, thoroughly interesting.

Regardless of your personal opinions on war and its inevitability (or lack thereof), I think The End of War is an important read, filled with information we should all know in a world shadowed by constant war, particularly if you’re going to take a stance in that debate.

The Bookshelf: The Book Thief

The Book Thief review
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I think I’ve said before that one of my absolute favorite books is The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak.  I spent years working on reading that book, for some reason never able to quite get into it until one day I did, and then I couldn’t put it down.  The Book Thief is one of those books that I judge all other books against (in the way my mother told me I’d judge all other boys against my first boyfriend) because it was not only an incredible story, but was also amazingly written.  It left me near-sobbing on a bench in the middle of town, in the few minutes before my lunch-shift started at the Irish Pub where I was waitressing at the time (and not much makes me cry, in terms of fiction).

If you haven’t heard of The Book Thief, it’s a Holocaust story but at the same time not.  The book takes place in the life of a Jewish girl who has been taken in by a German family during the Holocaust.  A lot like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, this book takes place over a number of years, narrated by Death and always following Liesel from the time she is a little girl terrified of her new home, and through the years following that day.

Throughout the book, Death never keeps a secret – always telling you the points in a story which would otherwise be a twist. Somehow though, you’re always shocked, confused, and heartbroken when what he promised happens. There’s never a point where you don’t almost know exactly what’s going to happen, but somehow, I was still shocked at every turn of the page and I couldn’t put it down.

The Bookshelf: The Unnamed

the unnamed review
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The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, is a book I’ve always struggled to get into.  The premise – a lawyer suffering from an unknown disease which, at any time and in any place, could suddenly force him to begin walking –  is one that really interests me.  Somehow though, when put into words on a page, the idea couldn’t hold my interest.  This month though, I promised myself that I’d finally finish the book; and to a point, I enjoyed it.

As I mentioned, The Unnamed is a book about Tim – a lawyer who is married with a teenage daughter, and who is suffering from a disease which no doctor, psychiatrist, or scientist has ever heard of or is able to explain.  At any time and in any place, for reasons unexplained, he is suddenly forced to his feet and compelled to walk great distances and with no control over his body or the direction he is taking. For years, his wife and daughter wait for the call so that they can go find him and bring him home.  But after a third remission which only leads to his suffering from the disease yet again, Tim keeps walking and walking until he is further away from home than he has ever been.

The premise, as I mentioned, is one which really interests me.  Unfortunately, I had trouble enjoying the way it was written, as Ferris takes nearly half the book before he gets to the primary storyline – Tim leaving his family behind. Besides that, I found trouble feeling like I knew the characters. While Ferris wrote Tim’s anger, depression, and surroundings beautifully, I never felt as though I knew Tim or, for that matter, his wife and daughter. Something in the language Ferris used distanced the reader from his characters, despite lovely details like a petname which Tim and his wife had for one another – banana.

In all, the storyline was meaningful and thought-provoking. There were several times where I stopped just to think about the situation Ferris’s characters were in.  The scene’s Ferris set were beautifully written, and while I couldn’t connect fully with the characters, I could fully imagine the pain and heartbreak Tim was feeling; I was angry on his behalf, at the sheer fact of not knowing more than at anything else.

Overall, I wouldn’t call The Unnamed a must read, but it was an enjoyable book with a thought-provoking story and idea behind it; and once I was enmeshed in the storyline, the book was an easy one to finish.

The Bookshelf: Station Eleven

Station Eleven Book Review
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Last month, I dove into the book Station Eleven after seeing it listed alongside Yes Please! and Eula Biss’s new book in an article about must-read books going into the fall season.  It was one of the few books in the article that was already out, and my love of dystopian novels drove me to download the sample almost as soon as I’d finished reading the list.

I’d never heard of Emily St. John Mandel before, and my first reading of the book’s description would not have lead me to categorize it as a dystopian, which is what Goodreads called it.  Generally, when I think of a dystopian novel, my thoughts run towards The Giver and Divergent – books about a world where the government has essentially taken over, and left society in a state of almost-blissfully-ignorant disaster.  I love them, but they all tend to have a pretty similar story line, and the “moral of the story” never really differs from one book to the next.  So when I read about a book where a hostile version of the Georgia Flu (think Swine Flu, except just as bad as your grandmother and the news wanted you to believe) resulted in the deaths of most of the world, dystopian didn’t cross my mind; and even after I knew that’s what it was, the rest of the story didn’t seem to fit that mold either. Rather than presenting the reader with a horrifying example of a world where the government attempts perfection and fails, Mandel gives her readers a world spun out of control because nobody had a chance to grasp the situation before it had already taken over.

In Station Eleven, Mandel takes us back and forth between three different times: pre-flu, post-flu, and in the first hours and then months of the flu’s descent over the world, and all in a way that never ceases to hold your interest.  Throughout the book, you’re pulled between the usual if not mundane lives of a few characters who can remember their lives before the flu, and between the lives of those same characters and others who crossed their paths, in the 20 years that have passed since the flu first started with a plane full of “patient zeros.”

But my favorite part about Station Eleven was that it wasn’t simply interesting, which is a reason I so often seek out dystopian novels.  More than managing to hold my attention with a quick and horrifying storyline, Mandel writes absolutely beautifully.  I knew the characters I was reading about, felt the fear and the heartbreak that they felt.  I asked myself the same questions that Mandel’s characters were asking themselves, and wondered what my life would be like in this post-apocalyptic-esque world.  By the end of the book, nothing was perfect; nothing had been “fixed” in the way typical of modern novels.  Instead, life went on the way you would expect it to: real, and horrifying, and sad, and just incredibly hopeful.

I once had someone say to me that there are books you read because they are gorgeously written, and there are books you read because you can’t put them down.  Somehow, Station Eleven managed to be both of those – fascinating and absolutely poetic at once, in a way that forced me to finish it within just a few days.  On a weekend-trip to the mountains with my family, I couldn’t stop talking to my Dad and brother about the book; and I’m suggesting it to you all now.

This book is one that makes you question humanity and what makes us real, what makes us keep going.  It makes you ask questions that most books will never approach, and in a way that makes you want to answer them.  It’s a book that left me with a hangover, hard-pressed to find another book as good, and it’ll go on my shelf of favorites alongside The Book Thief and The Leftovers.

So tell me: what have you been reading lately that you just couldn’t put down, or that really made you think?