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An eclectic collection of mini reviews

October 11, 2011

Am I the only person who finds a book incredibly inspiring while I’m reading it, but then can’t remember the title or the author three months later?

Since the start of this year I’ve been keeping a reading journal. I began this after forgetting what I’d read too many times. Now I jot down the title and author of each book I read, along with a personal assessment, and sometimes other notes and quotes.

I’ve generally found keeping my reading diary to be a simple but rewarding habit. Every now and then I enjoy flicking back through the book reliving my recent reads, and reminding myself of any lessons I hoped to learn from them. I also love knowing that I can easily look up that title I desperately want to dredge up out of my memory but can’t quite reach.

The library I work for is now asking staff to write up book reviews. Lucky I keep a reading journal! So, since I’m writing them anyway, and because I really enjoyed the recent mini-reviews posted by Amanda of Lovely Little Things (whose mini-review format I’m shamelessly copying), here are my mini-reviews of a selection of books I’ve read this year. I read quite eclectically, so this list includes a mix of old and new, and novels and non-fiction.

Julia’s eclectic collection of Mini-Reviews:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell*. This is a page-turner with mystery, romance, betrayals and adventure. There is even sword-play, sex and Samurai. But this is not trashy airport fiction. Set in Japan, and starting in 1799, this is a well researched, beautifully written, thought provoking tale of a young, naive Dutch accountant seeking his fortune a long way from home. The plot is intricately woven and highly absorbing, shaped not only by the choices and actions of the central characters, but also by unpredictable external forces. Like any decent literary novel, it also explores deeper themes – in this case, about life, love, Empires and idealism. An outstanding novel.

Does my head look big in this? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. I read teen fiction when I want a light, enjoyable read – and this one delivers. The writing is fresh and  funny, and the central character, Amal, is incredibly likeable. If this book had been around when I was a teenager, I could have learnt a lot from Amal. This novel dispels a lot of myths and stereotypes about Muslims in Australia, but the tone is always light and cheeky, never the slightest bit preachy, and often very amusing. As an added bonus, many of the locations will be familiar to Melbourne readers. Great fun.

No Logo by Naomi Klein. Yes, I know, this is an ancient book (first published in 2000), but there are a lot of great books in the world waiting to be read and I was distracted with others… for the past decade. But I finally got around to No Logo, and even eleven years after it was published it remains a compelling account of the dangerous power wielded by massive and largely unaccountable corporations in the contemporary world. If you haven’t read it yet it is not too late. Still relevant and persuasive.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Dr Daniel G. Amen. This can be read as a simple self-help book, and there are useful suggestions offered to combat unhealthy behavioral patterns. What I found most interesting though was Dr Amen’s argument that in contemporary society not enough attention is paid to the biological origins of anti-social behavior. Amen argues that in many cases abnormalities in the brain are the cause of violent, destructive and anti-social behaviours, and therefore it is medical treatment, not punishment or therapy, which will free individuals (and society) from destructive patterns. Very intriguing, (although I’m not totally convinced).

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. After hearing so much hype about Tim Winton I’d been disappointed by some of his other books, so I finally tried Cloudstreet, the Winton novel everyone seems to love. I loved it too. This a gutsy yet poignant multi-generational novel, about two very different families sharing a run-down corner-house-come-cornershop. One of the best Australian novels I’ve yet read.

Australian Classics by Jane Gleeson-White. Want to know which other Australian novels to read? This is the book for you. Excellent summaries of a wide ranging and well chosen selection of Australian works, both fiction and non-fiction. Also provides fascinating biographical and historical information relating to each work.

Impractical Jokes by Charlie Pickering. This is a light-weight memoir which chronicles the long-running practical joke battle which raged between comedian-writer Pickering’s father and an old family friend. Pickering’s writing is more amusing than the practical jokes themselves which are sometimes breathtakingly stupid and downright dangerous. Overall though, the book is pleasantly enjoyable, and Pickering’s affection for his parents is quite touching.

The Happiest Refugee by Ahn Do. This is another memoir by an Aussie comedian, but the power of this memoir is all in the story. The writing is average, and not as amusing as you might expect from a comedian, but Ahn Do’s life story, and the story of his parents, is compelling and inspiring.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I’m glad to have finally read this as I now understand cultural references to Heathcliff and Catherine. But frankly this novel is far too melodramatic for my tastes, (if like me you generally enjoy classics but didn’t enjoy the melodramatics of Wuthering Heights I’d recommend you also steer well clear of R D Blackmore’s Lorna Doone). Overrated.

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith. An amusing read with a satisfying ending. Offers a well-observed portrayal of long-term friendships. I enjoyed the Autograph Man more than Smith’s more famous novel White Teeth.

*I was very pleased when Andrew told me he’d brought home a book by David Mitchell. I thought it would be by the comedian David Mitchell whose TV shows I enjoy and whose articles in the Guardian I sometimes read and greatly enjoy. So I was a bit disappointed when Andrew explained that the book was by the other David Mitchell, the novelist. Despite all the hype about David Mitchell, I’d never heard of him. Now I’m reading Cloud Atlas, to be shortly followed by Mitchell’s four other novels.

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