Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Shotgun Rule - Charlie Huston

I don't usually read the endorsement quotes from famous writers that appear on books, but this one caught my eye. It was a blurb from Stephen King about how "unputdownable" this book was. And, I was looking for something in the thriller genre, not necessarily scary, but fast-paced and a little mindless, so I thought this might work. The Shotgun Rule is about four high school friends who pass their days riding their bikes around town, getting high, and figuring out not-so-legal ways to make a few extra dollars. When they break into the house of a rival gang, they stumble upon a meth lab, and steal a bag of crystal meth, hoping to find a way to sell it off. The boys, as you might expect, get more than they bargained for, and suddenly find themselves in a little over their heads. In addition to the drug deal plot, a couple of the kids have mini-sub-plots about their relationships with their parents that I found much more interesting than the main story. I'm not sure if I agree with King that this book was unputdownable, but I did read it in one long session on the elliptical machine. It made the time pass more quickly than it otherwise would have, but I don't think this one would have been worth spending pure reading time on.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a complicated man. He is a prolific writer who contributes regularly to Vanity Fair. Politically, he has come out as quite conservative - against abortion, critical of Clinton, and in favor of the war in Iraq. I picked up this book, not because I could think of a single thing I might have in common with this man, but because the title is quite controversial. God is Not Great is Hitchens's all-out attack on religion - of all kinds. Hitchens brings out every argument that is already familiar to everyone - believers and non-believers alike. He goes straight to the texts of the Old Testament, The New Testament and the Koran to point out the logical fallacies inherent in each. He argues against intelligent design. His best arguments (though by the time I got to them, I wasn't really primed to buy anything he was selling) lay in the subtitle of his book, and argued about why and how religion poisons everything. Hitchens talks about the hypocrisy of many religious leaders (and followers) and the heinous crimes that are perpetrated in the name of religion -from holy wars to child abuse. These are ideas that I can get behind, but to me they speak more to the people corrupting religion than they do to religion itself. Ockam's Razor plays big in this book - as it did in Richard Russo's fiction novel The Straight Man, which I read several months ago. It's the principal that the most simple solution is usually the right one - and for Hitchens, attaching the religious myth of creation to what we know is actually science, is hardly simple at all. A recent NY Times Book Review of Hitchens's missive points out that Hitchens is a good friend of Salman Rushdie - a man whose treatment by the Muslim world for writing The Satanic Verses is enough to make anyone question how people can follow any religion - Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or otherwise - which preaches hatred of any kind. I didn't think this book was particularly well written. There were hundreds of ideas with all kinds of support, but they didn't always seem to follow from one paragraph to the next. I suppose in the end, I just found the book a bit frustrating - Hitchens is clearly a man who is so tired of his religious friends giving him grief for not believing. But, to come out swinging against them seems so unnecessary. I don't see his words converting anyone to atheism, though maybe in preaching to his own choir, he'll make some of his members feel a bit more superior. I get his sentiments - it is painful to see so much evil in this world committed by those who claim to act for a higher power, but somehow this just didn't seem to be the solution I was looking for. Clearly, however, it did get me thinking.

Friday, October 26, 2007

100 Best Novels

I thought this was an interesting list to share:

I've only read 21 from The Board's List and 25 from The Reader's List. I was surprised by some of the choices. But, it's a good list for getting ideas of books to read.

A Death in the Family* - James Agee

My goal this month was to read books by authors that start with the letter "A." I haven't done that well - but this one also satisfied my desire to read more winners of the Pulitzer Prize. A Death in the Family was published after Agee's death - when it was not quite in final form. Sections of the manuscript didn't seem to make sense, and so portions are published in italics - indicating where folks believed Agee would have placed the material in a final draft. Apparently, Agee was also a notorious re-writer, so it's possible half of this would have ended up on the cutting room floor. Whatever the case, it is an interesting well-written book, but quite slow - it reminded me quite a bit of A Summons to Memphis. The basic premise is that a man is called home to visit his dying father. Only, it turns out his father is fine, and on the drive back home to see his family, the man is in a fatal car accident. The remainder of the book focuses on his widow, their two children, and the widow's family who try to help her cope with her loss. There is significant dialogue in the novel, but also something about the descriptions made me think that this would be better presented as a play. After thinking this, I looked Agee up on and leared that he was in fact a screenwriter. He suffered from alcoholism, and died at the age of 45 following two heart attacks.

(* - Winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize - awarded post-humously)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

This was another book I saw on the shelves at the library that just looked good to me - judging books by their covers lately has been working out well. The Thirteenth Tale is the story of Margaret, a bookseller in England. She receives a letter from the reclusive Vida Winter, the world's most popular and prolific living author. Winter tells Margaret that she wants her to write her biography, and that after decades of spinning stories to journalists about her life, she's finally ready to tell the truth. Reluctantly, Margaret pays Winter a visit - and listens as a gothic tale of generations, strange twins, and the unnatural unfolds. This reminded me a lot of The Shadow of the Wind, for the gothic characteristics, and in the way it drew me completely into the story right from the beginning. I've noticed lately that I've been reading a lot of books in which the main characters are writers or voracious readers. Clearly, I can see why I am drawn to such books, but I'm wondering if there are more of them out there lately for some reason. I was also thinking that this was a great book to read right before Halloween, because it was so creepy/spooky. It made me think that I should read Stephen King's The Shining next - another scary book where the main character is a writer. But, I think that would be far too scary for me. This has been one of my favorite books for the year.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Book of Lost Things - John Connelly

I saw this on the new book shelf on the library and it looked kind of's the story of 12-year old David whose mother has just passed away and whose father has remarried and had another child. Feeling left out, David retreats into his world of books - in particular the fairy tales he used to enjoy reading with his mom. Slowly, the line between the real world and David's book world begins to blur and he finds himself drawn into an Other Land - populated by a Woodsman, the sinister Crooked Man, packs of wolves, and an ailing King. As David tries to find his way back home, he is told grizzlier versions of the fairy tales he learned as a child, and encounters, among others, trolls, the seven dwarves, and sleeping beauties. This was a really fun book - definitely for adults, but a journey back to the tales I loved, and was a little scared of, as a kid.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Rule of Four - Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

My brother suggested I read this years ago when everyone (including me) was going through The DaVinci Code phase. But, for some reason, I put it off until now. This is the story of four seniors at Princeton, two of whom are obsessed with a little known Renaissance text that several scholars have spent their lifetimes trying to decode. The main character, Thomas, is obsessed with the book, to the detriment of his relationship with the one possible true love of his life. As Thomas's roommate Paul gets closer and closer to solving the mystery of the book, people around campus begin dying mysterious, yet inter-related, deaths. This book is a page-turner, but no where near as complex as The DaVinci Code. The puzzles within the book are not as interesting, and in the end what I found most compelling were the friendships among the four students, rather than the underlying secret of the text. I think this would be a good book for passing the time on a long airplane flight.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Music of Chance* - Paul Auster - It is difficult for me to read anything by Paul Auster and not feeling a complete sense of impending doom. Even when things appear to be going well, you know some random tragic unfortunate event is just around the corner. That being said, I think he's an incredible writer and I hope someday to have read all of his novels. In The Music of Chance, the main character Nashe inherits a bunch of money from his estranged father. He uses it to travel aimlessly around the country (reminded me of On the Road) when he comes across a young hitchhiker named Pozzi. Pozzi, a self-professed card shark needs some cash to take on a couple of millionaires in the game of a lifetime. Nashe must decide whether to help the kid out and ultimately deal with the fateful consequences that come as a result of his decision. Auster's books are often classified as "absurdist fiction" - the study of human behavior under highly unusual circumstances. This book certainly fits the bill. I also recommend The Book of Illusions and The New York Trilogy. His writing is haunting and these definitely aren't feel-good stories, but if you enjoy adding a little dread to your life (kind of like reading Edgar Allan Poe), definitely check Auster out.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years - Sue Townsend - I first met Adrian Mole when I was in high school and my Aunty Marji introduced me to the young adult novel, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, soon thereafter followed by The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. Adrian lives outside of London and fancies himself somewhat of an intellectual. Unfortunately, life doesn't always go so well for Adrian - his parents' marriage is always on the rocks, he has issues with his teachers (and all sorts of authority), and he never ever seems to get the girl. But, along the way, he kept a humourous and sometimes depressing daily journal of his journey through adolescence. Years later, I've grown up - and so has Adrian. In this one, he's a 31 year old whose wife has just left him to raise his two year old son, he's a chef who doesn't really know how to cook, and he's in-love with a politician who sends Adrian constituent form letters that he reads far too much into. His parents are still on the rocks and he battles constantly with his life as somewhat of a loser. In a cute turn of events, Bridgett Jones makes an off-page cameo (as a real life Britain whose diaries are doing quite well). This isn't the most riveting story - but in diary format, it's a fast read - and really fun to see how a guy I liked as a kid is doing for himself these days. Townsend has a more recent Adrian installment called Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction that I'll try to borrow from library sometime down the road.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cane River - Lalita Tademy

Cane River tells the story of four generations of women living in Louisiana. Beginning with Elisabeth, a black slave, the generations become progressively lighter as each successive woman has children - voluntarily, and often involuntarily - with the French men who own the land they live and work on. This fiction book is based on author Tademy's real-life family, and is the result of years of pain-staking research. Half-way through the novel, slavery is abolished. The women then struggle to obtain land and a better life for the successive generations. There are countless themes throughout the book - family and woman's place in it, miscegenation - laws preventing the marrying of white and black - and thus inheritance by black children, forced sexual relations between masters and slaves, the attempts by lighter blacks to pass in white society - and the consequences of such action, the dispersion of family caused by the selling off of children, the concept of love and the French influence in Louisiana. Luckily, Tademy placed a family tree at the beginning of the book which proved quite useful as I tried to keep all the names straight. This is a touching book filled with amazing stories. It is a worthy Oprah book selection about survival and the strength of women and family in trying and tragic times.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche - Haruki Murakami - In 1995, members of the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in the Tokyo underground subway. As a result, 12 people were killed and hundreds if not thousands were injured - many with long-lasting effects. Murakami, a novelist (my favorites of his include Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles) set out to interview the victims of the attack. He wanted to better understand how something so horrible could happen, what effect such an attack had on the Japanese people, and perhaps, how to prevent such a thing from happening again. Murakami's interviews were transcribed, edited by the interviewees and published in a Japanese magazine. He received some criticism for not placing enough blame on Aum, and instead focusing on Tokyo's inadequate crisis response. As a result, he went on to interview members of Aum to learn more about the organization and their beliefs. This book contains selected interview of vicitims, along with the Aum interviews. A number of the members of Aum who participated in the planning of the gas attacks have since been sentenced to death, others are serving life sentences. The interviews are presented one after another in the book - and they can get a bit repetitious. Murakami inserts short analytical bits in-between, but I would have liked to read more about the situation from a psychologist's perspective rather than Murakami's assumptions and lay-man's conclusions (though he does provide a useful perspective). Despite this, I found this to be an incredibly interesting book - a fascinating glimpse into Tokyo's conformist society and this strange cult (which continues to operate under the name Aleph).

Sunday, October 14, 2007

SoMa - Kemble Scott

While talking about different SF neighborhoods, a woman at work recommended this book - about San Francisco's South of Market (SoMa) district. In the late 90s, SoMa became a haven for dot-com start-ups, and I expected a story about a washed-up computer programmer trying to make his rent in the inflated market following the dot-com bust. Well, that was the basic story here, but really this book revolves around Raphe a maybe-bisexual who investigates the seedy underground of San Francisco's anything-goes sex world. Raphe, along with a couple other main characters, lives out every urban sexual myth going in the city - from Craig's List room-for-rent hook-ups to wealthy women hiring boy toys, and everything in-between. This book is one ridiculously shocking encounter after another. This is the young male reader's equivalent of "Chick Lit," more appropriately designated "Dick Lit" - literarily speaking, there isn't much redeeming here, but there are a couple well played scenarios - and working in SF, there were some definitely familiar stories and situations. Fun for the voyeur in everyone, but not for anyone with a sense of morality or the faint of heart/stomach.

On the Road* - Jack Kerouac - This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach is where many of the Beat author hung out and read their work in the late 50s and 60s. They have been having celebrations and tributes to Kerouac and the other Beat writers all year, and so I was inspired to re-read this cult classic. I first read On the Road, the story of penniless Sal Paradise's four cross-country trips along with his friend Dean Moriarty, when I was in high school. As I was stressing out about getting into college, I fell in love with these characters who thumbed their noses at society and went out to actually have real life experiences. To me, Sal's life in dingy motels, hitching rides and picking up other low-lifes, represented a type of freedom I thought I would never have, and as a young kid, I romanticized that type of life. This time around, I had a very different reaction. While the idea of new experiences and going out to see the world still appeals to me, I found myself annoyed at how tedious Sal and Dean's existences were. They are so selfish in their relationships with so-called friends and family. I became much more in tune to Dean's physical and mental decline toward the end of the novel - a symbol that a life filled with so little meaning and connection - this "life on the road" was really no true life at all. Kerouac's writing is addictive (and rumor has it he wrote this book during a three-week Benzedrine and caffeine-induced haze of creativity), but if you just want to get an idea for what this book is about, just open it up to a random page, read about 30-40 more pages, and then move on.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy* - Douglas Adams

I first read this book in middle school - I can still remember biking home from the library, so excited to see what this science-fiction thing was all about. I remember enjoying it and finding it pretty funny, but not much else. So, this month, while I'm reading authors that start with the letter "A", I decided to check it out again. It's much shorter than I remember, and it's not just "pretty" funny, it's REALLY funny. I read it while at the gym on the exercise bike and laughed out loud a few too many times - the guy next to me had to switch bikes. But, it made my work-out fly by quite fast. This is the story of Arthur Dent, living in London and minding his own business, until a bulldozer shows up one morning planning to make room for a freeway. His good friend Ford Prefect - actually an alien life-form deserted on Earth 15-years earlier - tells him not to worry. Earth is about to be destroyed in roughly 12 minutes. And so it is, but Dent and Prefect are sent sailing into outer-space and saved by a passing spacecraft. With an electronic copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dent gets up to speed on all things inter-galactic as he struggles to come to terms with his new existence. More than one of my friends has made fun of my penchant for science-fiction - I'm not into all-out fantasy books or quite at the Isaac Asimov level, but I do love a good space ride, and I'm a huge fan of alternate universes and strange creatures who are quite a bit more advanced than we humans love to believe that we are. This is a fun quick read and if you like to take a vacation from reality now and again, I definitely recommend this journey.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Songbook - Nick Hornby

This is, hands down, Nick Hornby's worst book. That might not really be saying much given that I absolutely adore all of the other novels and essays I've read by him (except for maybe Fever Pitch which was just so-so), but honestly, as much as I really really tried to like this one, I just couldn't. The concept isn't bad - Hornby, who is quite knowledgeable about music, writes a collection of essays about some of his favorite songs. The essays aren't about what he was doing when he heard these songs or the personal memories the songs evoke (necessarily), but rather Hornby tries to capture what is essential or life-altering in general about these specific pieces. I myself don't really know much about music. I know what I like, and I know what I hate. And, I tend to like songs that remind me of moods or good times in my life. I don't particularly care how innovative someone is, or what a given song has done for a genre or an industry. I suppose that means I don't much care about the history of music - and that's more a reflection on me, perhaps, than it is on the quality of this book. After all, I loved Hornby's collections of essays about the books he reads (The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. The Dirt) which is basically the same concept, just with books instead of songs, so perhaps it's just the subject matter. But, Songbook doesn't seem to have as much of Hornby's wit as I've come to expect, and well, I was just sadly disappointed in this one.

Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I am always supicious of books about white Americans who travel to third-world countries and decide they need to save the starving children. So, I wasn't sure I wanted to read this book, about Greg Mortenson, an American (raised in Africa), who fails to summit K2 and instead emerges determined to build schools for Pakistani children, girls in particular. While at times it was difficult for me to trust journalist Relin's account of Mortenson's super-human quest which has developed into the Central Asia Institute and built over 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, I mostly found myself moved by Mortenson's vision. As he struggles through his own poverty in Berkeley, he manages to meet and inspire a network of benefactors and to win over the trust of the people he hopes to help, but from whom he realizes he has so much to learn. This is an eye-opening account of life in the Muslim world, pre and post-9/11, and the amazing amount of strength and determination it takes to improve access to education and to build true friendships across nations.

The Blind Assassin* - Margaret Atwood

Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale is one of the most powerful books I've ever read - and along with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, shaped my college coursework in feminist studies and women's literature. Yet, it took me over 10 years to pick up another Atwood book (kind of like my experience with Alice Walker). I can't explain why sometimes reading a book I love makes me want to run out and read everything that author has ever written (J.M. Coetzee is a fine example) and other times it makes me scared to find out that something else in their repertoire might not be quite as magnificent. So, it was with mild trepidation that I started The Blind Assassin. This book is fundamentally about Iris, whose younger sister Laura has just died in a tragic car accident, which may or may not have been the result of a suicide. The book is told from three different perspectives. One is Iris's first person account of her life growing up with Laura, the death of their mother at a young age, and Iris's attempts to keep her family afloat, even it meant suppressing her own happiness. The second "perspective" is a story within the story - pieces of a science-fiction novel written by Laura, and published post-humously. The third are journalistic accounts of the society life to which Iris belongs, and of course the newspaper articles concerning Laura's death. By the end, everything comes together to reveal the "truth" about Iris and Laura's secretive lives. Atwood's writing is incredible, but dense, and it took me awhile to get into the rhythm of this book. It is one I would recommend reading in hour (or longer) blocks of time, rather than in distracted spurts. While the feminist themes in this book are not as overt as in The Handmaid's Tale, this is most definitely a book about female relationships with each other and with the world in which they live.
(*- Winner of the 2000 Man Booker Prize, listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Monday, October 8, 2007

More Book Lust - Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl is a librarian in Seattle who has read an incredible number of books - in every genre imaginable. Her first collection of books to read, Book Lust, came out in 2003 - and I turn to the well-worn copy on my shelf every couple months for a new suggestion. I borrowed her companion, More Book Lust from the library this weekend - and quickly read through it flagging almost every other page with a book to add to my "to-read" list. Pearl puts her suggestions into categories - some are straight-forward, like "Best for Boys and Girls" or "Fiction for Foodies," some are merely great authors that she doesn't want her readers to miss - like P.G. Wodehouse and Walter Mosley, and others are just fun like "Gallivanting in the Graveyard" (books set in cemetaries) and "Maiden Voyages" (best first books). Pearl includes a brief description for most books, and othertimes simply provides a list in the genre. I picked out about 50 new books! (some reminders of books I've been wanting to read, and others just completely new ones I'd never heard of). I found both of Pearl's books so much fun - for getting new ideas and seeing just how much is really out there even in categories I'd never touch (like "Gone Fishin'," "Parrots," and "Science 101"). If you need a recommendation, I can't imagine anyone picking this one up and leaving empty-handed.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Lambs of London* - Peter Ackroyd

When I was in elementary school, I bought a book called Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. It was a book for children that included prose versions of Shakespeare's plays. I loved that book (I think my mom might still have it) and it was how I first became familiar with Shakespeare's stories, long before I was old enough to understand and appreciate the actual plays. The Lambs of London is a fictional account of the lives of Charles and Mary Lamb and their preoccupation with all things Shakespeare. The Lambs lived at the turn of the 19th century - roughly 200 years after Shakespeare. They befriend a bookseller named William Ireland who purports to have a benefactor who has turned over to him a number of Shakespeare's personal effects, including legal documents and a long-lost play. Mary, suffocating at home with her overbearing mother and a senile father, falls in love with Ireland and the promise of his marvelous discovery. Charles in turn self-medicates, while he struggles with his own writing and making something of himself at the East India Company. As with all historical fiction, I wondered how much of the story was based in fact, and it was difficult to just lose myself in the story. Ackroyd's writing is not particularly engaging, but I was fascinated by the character of Mary Lamb whose frustrations in dealing with societal norms for women was truly heartbreaking. The Lambs of London is a fun slice of Shakespearean obsession -- and for me a great background into the people who first introduced me to the great playwright.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Gregor the Overlander - Suzanne Collins I love reading books about kids and for kids, - particularly books with kid narrators. Sometimes, these types of books are meant for adults (like The Lovely Bones), othertimes, they're just children's literature and they take me back to the time when I was a kid, trying to read everything I could get my hands on. I've been a little sad since the Harry Potter series ended, and on the look-out for another great children's series (I highly recommend the Ender series by Orson Scott Card and I do keep meaning to get into that Lemony Snicket one. I've also heard that the His Dark Materials series is quite good - the new movie The Golden Compass is based on it). I like finding a character I can love and then sharing multiple adventures with him or her. So, I was very excited when I read the Powell's review of this book (link above). Gregor the Overlander is the story of 11-year old Gregor, stuck in his New York City apartment in the hot summer, taking care of his 2-year old sister Boots and his ailing grandmother, while his now single mom goes to work and his 9-year old sister heads off to camp (mom could only afford to send one, and needed a babysitter for Boots and grandma). While doing laundry, Gregor and Boots are sucked through an air duct and into the Underland, where the roaches are large and the rats are murderous. Gregor must then embark on a quest to save the realm and find his way back home. While the premise of the book is one I usually enjoy (and standard fare for good children's literature - you always need an alternate world and no parents - think Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Indian in the Cupboard) but unfortunately, I think Gregor is targeted to a bit of a younger audience (maybe 1st-3rd graders) than the books that I typically enjoy in this genre. The plot is a bit too straight-forward (though some of the Underland interactions are quite disturbing) and I didn't feel like the story was able to entirely capture my excitement. I did love the character of Boots - whose 2-year old simplicity, love and trust win over the admiration and sometimes worship of all the Underland creatures. My understanding is that there are five books in the "Underland Chronicles", so perhaps they get a little more complex as Collins grows into the characters. I might check another one out on a rainy day - and if I had a kid who was just starting to read chapter books, I would definitely pass this one along. But, from the perspective of an adult looking for enduring children's literature, I don't think this is the one.