Saturday, November 20, 2010

two-for-one: Mental Floss History of the US & Take Me Home

I confess...I procrastinated a small bit so you get a double review. Both brought to you by the lovely folks at Harper who send me promo copies.

  • The Mental Floss History of the United States: The (Almost) Complete and (Entirely) Entertaining Story of America -- Will Pearson, Mangesh Hattikudur, Erik Sass

This definitely falls into the realm of a book I might pick up and glance at on my own but wouldn't likely have bought if not presented with the opportunity to read it for Harper. I enjoyed it, though I think it may be better as a "pick-up and read a few pages" book than one read straight through.

Mental Floss is a magazine that presents factual information in a humorous tone (how is that for a totally non-humorous description). I knew the name in passing but hadn't read anything in their retinue before. This novel begins with the arrival of man in North America, makes a quick leap to European explorers (w/ a solid explanation for the missing detail due to the lack of written artifacts), then goes through colonialism and American history through Obama and the current recession. In each section, it gives a general chronology, reviews some popularly accepted misconceptions, and covers some biographies and popular topics. The whole is told in a very readable, enjoyable manner. I made a few new discoveries (Washington wasn't a great general) though less was a surprise than it might be to most since my education favored questioning history a bit more than most.

It is an enjoyable ride. I do NOT intend it to be negative when I say it would be a great "bathroom book"'s simply a book that would be easy to pick up, peruse for a few pages, and then put back down till a later date. I'm not a history gal (partly b/c I have no memory for it so it frustrates me) but it held my attention and I give it 4 of 5 stars.

  • Take Me Home -- Brian Leung

This novel falls into the realm of books that I wanted to like more than I did. I very well might have picked it up on my own and I wouldn't have regretted it but I also would be unlikely to return to it or pass it on. I'd give it a solid 3 out of 5 stars.

The novel follows Addie Maine in both her first stay in the Wyoming Territory (1880s) and her return as an older woman (1920s). The focus is on the earlier period, when she joined her brother who had been attracted to the territory by the promise of a homestead. Having found the land rough, he ends up working in a coal mine shortly after Addie arrives. The area is populated by both Caucasians and Chinese, the latter brought in by the rail and mine groups to provide cheap labor. The lack of money leads to strong racial tensions, tensions to which a growing friendship between Addie and a Chinese man run counter. I won't say too much more to avoid venturing into spoiler territory, although it becomes clear early on that Addie is wounded in a local riot (one that has a historical parallel).

I like stories about strong women and Addie is certainly one. I am also interested in the history of racial tension, especially stories that sometimes go untold...I knew of tension with those of European descent and the Chinese (it's easier to have tension w/ groups that appear different on sight) but not of the particular story that provides the historical backdrop for the tale. I just never felt fully pulled in, never fell into the story and the characters (I've said before, characters make a book for me more than plot). I wanted to know a lot more about Addie's lone female friend in the territory but that was pretty much a side story. Leung (who I think is only on his 2nd novel) has talent for identifying an interesting context and tale. His prose flows well and has character. But I just didn't find myself surrendering to the tale enough to give it a higher rating. Good, but not great.

No comments: