Monday, January 28, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically - A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs is not a religious man. But, he writes memoirs and he needs a hook. So, he decides to read the Bible and write down every single rule he can find. Then, he will try to live an entire year by those rules. Jacobs's book is presented like a diary, with chapters divided by month, and entries by day. Within each day, he tries to stick to one theme, idea, or rule. Jacobs consults various holy people to discuss the meaning of certain rules, and how certain fundamentalist or Orthodox groups attempt to abide by them. Overall, I think this is an interesting concept, though at times Jacobs's desire to live the Bible literally leads him to behave in ways that are probably out of sync with the spirit of the book. I particularly enjoyed his inclusion of stories about his wife (who seems quite tolerant) and his young son (who may be permanently scarred by some of the parenting techniques Jacobs adopted). I felt the whole thing got a little old about 2/3 of the way through, but all in all, Jacobs is pretty funny and while I don't think the year turned him into a religious zealot, I do think the idea of living a more purposeful and good life definitely rubbed off on him, and hopefully on all of his readers.

The Graduate - Charles Webb

I read that Charles Webb was coming out with a sequel to his 1963 classic, The Graduate (later turned into the classic movie by the same name). I saw the movie a long time ago, but had never read the book. So, I thought I'd check it out before reading the new one, Home School, which takes place 10 years after The Graduate. The Graduate is the story of Ivy-League graduate Benjamin Braddock, who returns home after graduation, disillusioned with American-society, depressed, and unmotivated to face his future. He has the famous affair with the older Mrs. Robinson, but later falls in love with her daughter Elaine. Braddock's character is insufferable. I have to admit that he is a more-modern day Holden Cauilfield - which suggests to me that the angst I identified with when I read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager would probably seem so infantile and boring now. Which means, I probably should have read The Graduate just as I was graduating from college, disillusioned, and unsure about my own future. It probably would have spoken to me much more clearly back then. Now, it all seems incredibly unrealistic -- particularly all the interactions between Ben and Elaine -- and downright irritating. Of course, I'm still going to read the sequel to see how it all turns out.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Devil and Miss Prym - Paulo Coehlo

Paulo Coelho's books have sold millions and millions of copies worldwide. Coehlo is from Brazil, and his novels are translated from Portuguese. I read an article once about Coelho's incredible fame. The writer portrayed Coehlho as almost a cult leader. Another Brazilian writer commented that something must be getting changed in the translation, because Coehlo's books simply wasn't that impressive in it native language. I thought that was quite funny, and decided to read a Coelho novel to see for myself. The Devil and Miss Prym was published in 2000, but it reads like a morality tale from the 19th century. The basic premise is that a stranger comes to a small town. He speaks to Miss Prym, the local barmaid and tells her his plan. He wishes to offer the villagers enough gold to improve their lot for generations. All they have to do is murder one of their own. How the villagers choose will answer for the stranger whether people are basically good or basically evil. Miss Prym struggles with whether to tell the other villagers of the deal. She knows where some of the gold is buried, and is also tempted to just dig it up and flee. She hopes the villagers will do the right thing, but she has no way of knowing how the mob mentality will play out. The novel is simply written, but suspenseful. Some of the good/evil; devil/angel discussions and metaphors are a bit drawn out, but all in all I enjoyed this book as a very basic story about a very complicated battle.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Tortilla Curtain - T.C. Boyle

T. C. Boyle is one of those writers I've always heard about but never read. The Tortilla Curtain is considered his most popular novel, so I thought I'd start with this one. Boyle's writing style is very straight-forward and easy to follow. The Tortilla Curtain is the story of two couples -- one is white, relatively weathly, and living in a community outside Los Angeles. The other is Mexican, illegally in the country, and trying to find work as day laborers while living out in the brush. The wealthy community, afraid for their safety, agrees to build a security wall around their homes. And so the arguments about illegal immigration and the need for the United States to protect its borders is played out. Both the white and the Mexican characters argue amongst themselves about the best way to survive in the world -- while the story is a bit repetitive, Boyle does an excellent job of portraying the desperation of the immigrants, their struggle for a better life and their constant and real fear of exploitation. On the American side, Boyle shows how scapegoating and illogical fear blinds his characters and leads to unnecessary tragedy. This is the kind of book I wish I'd been assigned to read in college -- some of the brief commentary I've read on the web suggests that Boyle was criticized when the book first came out as being a racist, but my general impression after finishing the novel was that it was very much about acceptance and the need to figure out a solution -- not to the "immigration problem", but to the need for all people to have the opportunity to live a life of basic dignity. This is a book, I think, that could spark some heated, but very necessary, discussions about immigration and the disparity of wealth in our country. Like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this is one I'm going to keep thinking about for awhile.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Death Row - William Bernhardt

In general, I am a fan of all types of legal thrillers. I like Grisham, Turow, Baldacchi, Tanenbaum, and most any others I have read. I am also interested in anything having to do with the death penalty. So, I was excited to read this one. The basic plot is standard for all death row stories -- innocent man is convicted because of police tunnel vision/evidence manipulation. Smart young lawyer, young honest cop or other naive fresh face uncovers the truth and saves the inmate (or in the stronger stories, uncovers the truth and the client is executed nonetheless). Bernhardt set his story up well -- he paints the picture of a horrific crime, and he shows us the trial testimony of the prosecution's star witness. But, after that, it was all downhill. Bernhardt's characters were too stereotypical, the investigation body count way too high, and his random lashing out at fast-food corporations too out in left field. The story was overly-complex in unnecessary ways, and far too straight-forward in others. For fiction involving the death penalty, I would instead recommend Stephen King's The Green Mile and Richard North Patterson's Conviction. For true crime involving the death penalty, nothing beats Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I have also started Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, as well as John Grisham's The Innocent Man. Both are quite promising so far, and bound to tell a much better story and make a much stronger and more honest statement about the death penalty than this one. For those more inclined to watch movies -- I recommend "Dead Man Walking" (with Sean Penn) and "The Life of David Gale"(with Kevin Spacey).

The Nine - Jeffrey Toobin

Given my frustration with the current make-up of the Supreme Court, I put off reading Toobin's book until curiosity got the better of me. About a year ago, I read Becoming Justice Blackmun, a wonderful biography of Justice Blackmun's journey to the Supreme Court and his political and moral transformation once there. I felt that the book about Blackmun gave me a good background on the Court pre-Rehnquist, and that Toobin's book was a worthy continuation of the evolving Court. The Nine is an easy read, filled with interesting anecdotes and secrets of the Court. My favorite parts involve the interactions among and between justices, and learning more about how the Court works in terms of assigning opinions and garnering votes for one's view. Toobin has a liberal bias, and in this respect, the book is far from a neutral account of the Court and the Court's place in American society. The book does, however, cover a wide variety of issues, and provide an in-depth history of how these Nine came to be on the Court. I left with a new-found affinity for David Souter, and a real hope that the next eight years will provide the opportunity to bring the Court back to where I think it ought to be.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bridge of Sighs - Richard Russo - When life gets particularly stressful, I picture myself in my "happy place." It's a small town, and I live in a little cabin in a wooded area on a lake. There's a porch with adirondak chairs. I sit out on the porch on warm but foggy mornings, with a hot cup of tea and a big wool blanket. And I read - big fat books with lots of characters and backstory - sometimes about people who travel the world, but mostly about people who live their lives right at home. Now, in an effort to perfect my happy place, I can picture myself reading Bridge of Sighs. Russo, who won the Pulitzer for his last novel Empire Falls, loves to tell the story of the man living in the small town. This one is about Lou C. Lynch (nicknamed "Lucy"), growing up in a small town with his set-in-his-ways father and his wiser-than-you'd-guess mother. He has a best friend named Bobby, and later falls in love with a girl named Sarah. The book begins with Lucy and Sarah married, retired, and about to take a trip to Italy, where we later learn Bobby has settled as a world-renowned painter. The chapters go back and forth between the present and the past, where we learn about how Lucy and his parents grew up - and the intricate family lives of Bobby, Sarah, and the other kids in the class-divided neighborhood. It is a story about how people never change, and whether it's better to follow your heart or to accept what's best. Russo explores a number of complex issues along the way - the treatment of African-Americans in the town, marital abuse and infidelity, the decaying industrial town, the threat of big business and "progress", homosexuality (which I feel is quite central to the novel, but comes out in ways I haven't quite put together - I will research this more on the internet), and countless metaphors for life and relationships. Many of the reviews I have read of this book have not been entirely favorable. There is a consensus that Russo has a gift for story-telling, but perhaps that there is too much left unconnected in this one. There are certainly implausibilities and little scenarios to nit-pick, but overall, I fell in love with this book and the small town boy who, while naive and almost ignorant, tries his hardest to find the best in everyone and everything around him -- even, or perhaps especially, when it really doesn't exist.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America - Gail Pool

Before 2007, I never really read book reviews. Ironically, given the fact that I even write this blog, there was always a part of me that didn't quite trust them. I felt like sometimes they gave away too much of the plot - or I wondered how the reviewer was really chosen. Did she really have the proper background to review a book on a given subject? What if he was an aspiring novelist himself and had a grudge against the successful one he was reviewing? Well, this book addresses all those issues and more - while exploring the demise of book reviewing in American journalism. Pool questions the general premise - that there has in fact been a downturn in the quality and quantity of book reviews in American media, looking back and finding that similar allegations have been made since the 18th century (and perhaps earlier). Pool then examines why this is in fact taking place, most notably: poor pay for reviewers, poor organization on the part of publishing houses in getting books to the reviewers, and poor matching of reviewers to books. Pool does not address a recent question I've seen in the media which is, are Americans actually reading less these days - or perhaps with books now available in many on-line and audio formats, perhaps just reading less printed copy. I was particularly interested in Pool's assessment of how book reviewers shape readers' choices and have a hand in shifting the tide of a given novel's popularity. While there will always be certain authors whose books get reviewed no matter what (Richard Russo who I'm currently reading comes to mind), of the over 150,000 books that are published in the United States this year, fewer than 15,000 are reviewed in "mainstream" media (I might be getting the numbers here wrong, but a small percentage at any rate). Books are obviously chosen on criteria other than the actual quality of the book - it would be impossible for an editor to read every single book published and then make a determination of what deserved to be reviewed. Thus, one has to wonder (and Pool does), what books are being discarded merely because of the sheer volume of literature being published - and what books are being reviewed for reasons other than merit (merit in terms of good writing, as well as merit in terms of importance to society - even if worthy of a poor review). With respect to reviews, Pool also touches upon the phenomenon of the "amateur" reviewer - the countless number of people with book blogs, and the people who review products on sites such as Amazon - and what impact this has had on the professional review community. As a professional reviewer, I think it is to Pool's credit, that she is inclusive of the amateur reviewer, not as a replacement by any means of the professionals, but as an adjunct, and a means for increasing readership (of books and of reviews) in general. I also just bought a book that is exclusively focused on book blogs (The Bookaholic's Guide to Book Blogs - which I hope to read soon). Over the past year, I have become an avid reader of book reviews. As noted in a previous post, I read the NY Times on-line reviews daily - which are so wonderful, I have to work hard not to let them influence me too much - sometimes I just read the first couple paragraphs, decide whether to read the book, and then return to the review after I've finished for additional thoughts. I enjoy The New Yorker book reviews -as they often include so much background and history on the books they're reviewing, as opposed to just a general thumbs up/thumbs down, and I read the SF Chronicle reviews on the weekends -though still too many of them include spoilers. I am usually so impressed by how well-read (or seemingly well-read) the authors of these reviews are, how much research has gone into their reviews, and how the opinion of a person I don't even know really does influence whether I'll choose to pick up or pass on a book I see in the store. It's a very powerful tool. But, as Pool points out, it is ripe for abuse, and there are many ways to improve the way reviews are done - ways that would benefit authors and publishing houses, as well as the reviewers and the publications they serve.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Modest Proposal - Jonathan Swift

For some reason, this is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. Not that it isn't worthwhile reading, but it's a five page essay, not a book. Nevertheless, I figured it was an easy way for me to get one step closer to the 1001 goal! I'm not a huge fan of Jonathan Swift. This disappoints me because he is a satirist, and he comes up with wildly crazy characters and stories - I usually love these qualities in a writer. But, he just doesn't work for me - maybe because he's so old (this was written in 1729), I don't quite get the humor/political statements. "A Modest Proposal" is Swift's solution to Irish poverty, and comment on England's tyrannical rule. I read it in college, and unlike most things I re-read, I think I probably understood it better back then. I think Swift was the Stephen Colbert of his time. Quirky and witty to some, simply lost in translation to others.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England - Brock Clarke

As a teenager, the narrator Sam, accidentally burns down Emily Dickinson's home. He spends 10 years in prison where he meets some shady bond traders, and is then released to become a productive member of society. He goes to college and finds his niche as a packing engineer. He finds a wife and has a couple kids, all the while suppressing the truth of his criminal history. But, he can't seem to escape his past, especially once his father reveals that while in prison, Sam received tons of letters asking him to burn down the family homes of other well known New England writers. As these houses start burning one by one, Sam is the number one suspect, and the only way to prove his innocence is to discover that he's not the only one in his family hiding secrets. I'd heard from a couple other reader friends that they wanted to like this book, but just couldn't get into it. I've been having trouble the past few weeks finding books that make me want to keep reading, but, I found myself quickly finding the rhythym of Clarke's writing and really enjoying the narrator's off-the-wall humor and somewhat defeatist attitude. This is a clever plot, with a few strange twists here and there, but if you don't like the writing style after 20 pages, definitely give up.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Postman Always Rings Twice - James Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice, published in 1934, is hailed as one of the most important crime novels of the 20th century. At just over 100 pages, it was a quick and interesting read. The main character, Frank, is somewhat of a transient when he is hired to work at a automotive shop run by a Greek named Nick and his wife Cora. Quickly, Frank and Cora fall in love and they plot how best to live their lives together without Nick. There are scenes of unnecessary violence between Frank and Cora, which led to the book being banned early on, as well as overt sexuality, which is pretty tame by today's standards. Eventually, Frank and Cora find themselves thrust into the criminal justice system with clever interrogators and double-crossing prosecutors and defense attorneys. While I didn't find this book fascinating, it was a nice glimpse into the beginnings of the crime detective genre.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Michael Tolliver Lives - Armistead Maupin - What a great book to start off 2008! I forget how I first stumbled upon Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series, but I know it was sometime in college. After reading the first book (Tales of the City - published in 1978), I was hooked. The series is set in San Francisco and tells the story of Michael Tolliver, a gay man, and the colorful people who surround his life. It's a literary soap opera with every imaginable twist, turn, and shocking coincidence. After the first book, I quickly moved on to: More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Babycakes, Significant Others and Sure of You. I was sad to reach the end of the line, and moved on to other Maupin novels, The Night Listener and Maybe the Moon, very enjoyable, but no Tales of the City. The first three books were also turned into a television mini-series staring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney. In 2007, 18 years after the publication of Sure of You, Maupin returned to his beloved series with Michael Tolliver Lives. This is a fast read, and it's no literary masterpiece, but it is brilliant storytelling with loveable characters dealing with difficult life issues in always humorous ways. I don't want to give away any of the plot for folks who might want to start the series from the beginning, but I found myself crying at the end of the book -- I'm not sure if it was at the thought of the series finally really being over, or because it was all just so sentimental and real. Either way, I was very satisfied with where Maupin chose to take his characters, and I'm still holding out hope that Michael Tolliver will be back for yet another installment. Hopefully, we won't have to wait another 18 years.