Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tree of Smoke - Denis Johnson

As a general matter, I hate war and all things war related. For this reason, I have not watched many movies or read many books that deal with the Vietnam war. But, last month, my office filed a petition on behalf of a Vietnam vet. At trial, this client's attorney did not present anything to the jury about the client's experiences in Vietnam or his post-traumatic stress disorder. Out of interest, I read the petition, which included an over 100 page description of the client's service in Vietnam, his daily work flying a medical helicopter, picking up the dead and wounded, and putting himself in harm's way on every single trip. Simply reading about the situation gave me nightmares, and I can only begin to imagine the long-term psychological damage that war causes - not to mention, of course, the neurological damage caused by chemical agents. Recently, there has also been a lot in the media about the soldiers returning from Iraq and the damage that has been done to them as a result of chemical weapons and the general experience of being trained as a killer and witnessing and committing horrors abroad. It is not difficult for me while reading newspaper articles and watching programs on this issue to believe that these men and women will be my clients in the next 15-20 years. And so, it is with these thoughts and images in my mind that I picked up Denis Johnson's latest novel, Tree of Smoke, set during the Vietnam war. Johnson tells the story of Skip Sands, engaged in Psych Ops against the VietCong, and the Houston brothers, young and enlisted in the military. The book spans nearly a decade and over 600 pages. It took me awhile to get into the rhythm of Johnson's writing, and I found much of the story line scattered and full of seemingly unnecessary characters. But, as a picture of the war, this was a fulfilling addition to my new personal interest in war and its effects on individuals and our society.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants - Jaed Coffin

I know I've admitted in previous posts that the narcissist in me loves to read books about people/characters that remind me of me. I was drawn to this memoir written by Jaed Coffin, a half-Thai/half-white boy growing up in Brunswick, Maine, who decides to return to his mother's village in Thailand to study as a monk, just as I am drawn to most books addressing the issue of mixed-raced-parentage and culture clashes. As I learned when I was in Thailand a couple years ago, many Thai men spend a period of their lives at a Buddhist temple, training as a monk. Some stay for a couple weeks, others stay for years. Coffin spends one summer hoping to become more Thai, and to somehow find answers to the questions about who he is and where he belongs. This book is roughly 200 pages, but I felt it could have been so much more. Part of the problem might be that it appears as if Coffin wrote the book many years after his experience, and it's possible he has not been able to recapture much of the struggle and loneliness that he felt. Monks in Thailand are so revered, it was interesting to get a glimpse into their daily lives - while full of rules, they seem simultaneously unstructured and quite varied from person to person. Coffin, while in this new environment, is never quite able to shed himself of his "other" label. He fights against the Buddhist teachings of his closest monk companion, while at the same time remains unwilling or unwanting to accept his American life. Ultimately, I suppose, it is always a struggle to reconcile, while also enjoying and appreciating, one's various cultures and belief systems. This book raised a lot of questions for me about Thai culture and relationships - questions of course that have many different answers depending on the person. It is a nice snapshot into Thai culture - but as with most memoirs - just one person's experience.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Swimming in a Sea of Death - David Rieff - David Rieff, a non-fiction writer and policy analyst, is the only son of Susan Sontag - a literary theorist that I had a love/hate relationship with in college. Swimming in a Sea of Death is Rieff's memoir about the last year of his mother's life and her 30+ year battle with cancer. Rieff's book, while divided into chapters, is more like a monologue of his various thoughts on life and death, and what it means to be a caretaker for the sick and ultimately, the one who is left behind. Desipte the fact that this book is quite short, I found it incredibly repetitive - like a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who feels compelled to repeat and relive certain feelings or events from the past. The subject matter and language reminded me of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and Rieff quotes Didion on multiple occasions while strugging to put words to his emotions. Rieff focuses much of the book on his mother's attitude toward illness and death - her refusal to believe that she would one day die, and the miraculous recoveries she made from prior illnesses. Rieff also refers frequently to Sontag's powerful essay "Illness as Metaphor" in which Sontag argues that the various metaphors our society has created surrounding illness (most popularly the war metaphor) contribute to the suffering of patients and their reluctance to seek the treatment they need. I think reading this essay, along with Sontag's later essay "AIDS and its Metaphors," in conjunction with Rieff's book helps to understand better Sontag's approach to her illness and Rieff's often feelings of helplessness. This book is incredibly depressing, but it is a valuable viewpoint worth reading for anyone dealing with illness and lost.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nothing Remains the Same - Wendy Lesser

I have the following conversation with my mom probably on a weekly basis: one of us asks the other, "so what are you reading?" The response is given. Then one of us says, "There are so many books to read, I need to quit my job and just read." Then we talk about how many books we have to read and how we'll never get through them all. You'd think that reading was a torturous endeavor, as opposed to the exciting relaxing one that we all know it can be. Yet, despite all the books I have yet to read, I do find myself often wanting to go back to books I read when I was younger. Sometimes I do this with disastrous results - discovering that a character I once identified with and admired is now simply irritating and immature (Holden Caulfield, Howard Roark). Other times, I find that a book I struggled to get through and found boring is suddenly transformed into a highly relevant story (anything by Dickens). So, I was interested in reading this book - which is about the very act of re-reading old favorites. While the author chose many books that I was either not familiar with, or ones that I should have read but have never gotten around to (for example, she lists Anna Karenina as one of those books that everyone wants to re-read - and I admit I have never read anything by Tolstoy) - I still found her observations and reactions to re-reading books, sometimes nearly 40 years after her first reading, quite insightful. Lesser has a deep literary background having studied at Harvard, Cambridge, and Berkeley, so sometimes her references are a bit esoteric, but I thought she really captured the idea that as readers, we like books that remind us of ourselves. As a young 20-something in a tumultuous relationship, she identified with free-spirits, while decades later she finds their choices impetuous and ill-conceived. Also, with more years under belt, came more reading, and as a result more points of reference from which to enjoy or criticize a given book or author's perspective. Nothing Remains the Same is a good concept book to me. I wouldn't say that I loved it or found it incredibly fascinating, but I like the idea of reflecting on reading - what books mean to me and why - and how as life changes, so do the things that are important and bring meaning to us.

Monday, April 21, 2008

In Defense of Food - Michael Pollan

The down-side of this book is that it's a lot of the same information/message I felt that I got from Pollan's previous book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. The up-side is that it's about 300 pages shorter. I think I'm a little saturated with books on food politcs (pun intended!), so I probably didn't get as much out of this as I would have had I waited another year or so and then read it as a refresher crash-course about how getting back to the source of real food is the key to healthy and nutritious living. Pollan provides a lot of background about how we got to where we are with food - and our mega-grocery stores with so many pre-packaged and processed items. Ultimately, he recommends shopping around the outside of the store (where the produce and meat hang out) and avoiding anything in the store that your great-grandmother would not recognize as food. It is excellent advice, but as with most things organic and health-oriented, there aren't a lot of suggestions for those of us who are pressed for time - and don't just feel like eating salad or baked chicken. But, I think we can all use more reminders to be more thoughtful about our eating - whether it's about how nutritious the things are that we put in our mouths, or about what the choices we make mean for the environment and for the animals that we consume. That being said, I just really love chicken nuggets. Bad food habits are hard ones to break, but with Pollan's help, I'm just taking it one meal at a time.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

New Moon - Stephenie Meyer

This is the second book in the teenage vampire romance that started with Twilight. In an effort they hope will keep Bella safe, her vampire boyfriend Edward flees Forks, WA for parts unknown. Bella suffers terrible heartache, but finds solace building motorcycles and engaging in other death-defying behavior with her friend Jacob. Jacob is two years younger and has an incredible crush on Bella, who finds that she increasingly enjoys the young boy's company. Then something strange happens and Jacob no longer wants to see Bella. The author spends a good 150 pages describing Jacob's hot/cold behavior and Bella's inability to understand what's going on. The problem is that the reader already knows that Jacob is turning into a werewolf, because she told us it was going to happen at the beginning of Twilight. So, needless to say, I found this part to drag on a little more than necessary. Like the first book, this one is filled with ridiculous conversations, and for a girl who I think the author is trying to portray as independent and strong, Bella is constantly wallowing in self-pity and turning feminism back about 150 years with her need for male attention and support. That being said, I do like the vampire/werewolf battles, and I will read the third book in the series soon to see how this all continues.

Helping Me Help Myself - Beth Lisick

Knowing that I love memoirs so much, Raz recommended this one to me. This is one woman's quest to become a better person through self-help guides and personal coaching gurus. Married in Berkeley with a 4-year old son, Lisick is a writer who moonlights as a banana and does various other odd jobs to barely pay the minimum on her bills every month. So, for one year she decides that each month she is going to pick one area of her life to focus on imporving - she will read the self-help books, but she will also, when possible, seek out the masters themselves by attending workshops. She flies to Chicago to attend a seminar for the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; focusing on her physical well-being, she takes a week-long cruise with Richard Simmons; she learns new parenting techniques; she draws financial advice fom Suze Ormon; and in my favorite month, she takes a photograph of every room in her house and consults a specialist in organization. Each month Lisick's self-help vocabulary grows, and while she abandons each project when her 30 days are up, she appears to carry small lessons from one month to the next. Lisick has a very good sense of humor, and while she is resistant to change, she is very aware of her personal problems. At times, she can be a bit crass, but this book actually provided me with a little motivation to organize my own closets and to be a little better about trying to make the changes I know I need to make in my own life.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers - Katrina Kittle

A couple months ago, I agreed to review books for an award given out by Stanford called the Saroyan Prize. It is given out every two years to a work of fiction and a work of non-fiction. My deadline to submit my reviews is tomorrow, and The Kindness of Strangers was the last of my four books to read. So, I went out on my back deck to enjoy the nice weekend weather and hope that this was a good one...the writing grabbed me right away. Nothing spectacular, just straight-forward and immediately engaging. The book is told in the third-person, but the chapters rotate from the perspective of a widow of two (Sarah), her oldest high-school aged son (Nate), and the 11-year old son of a friend (Jordan). As Sarah struggles to keep her own two sons in order, a devastating secret is revealed about Jordan's family. While the "secret" is not discussed in the book-flap summary, it comes to light fairly quickly - so I don't feel like I'm spoiling anything by saying that the horrible truth is that Jordan has been sexually abused for years by his parents. His father flees from the police, and his mother, Sarah's best friend, is arrested but denies any knowledge of the abuse. The subject matter is clearly disturbing, but I thought Kittle dealt with the varying perspectives of the abuse in a masterful way. She deals with the betrayal Sarah feels, Nate's anger, and Sarah's youngest son's inability to understand why his friend would "let" such a thing happen. And, of course, there is Jordan himself and his conflicting loyalties to his parents, his struggle to survive, and his painful journey to understanding what a "normal" world and parental love should look and feel like. Kittle addresses the cycle of abuse, the manipulation by predators, the mob mentality of a community whose children have been threatened - and in general, I felt, really managed to incorporate all sides of this very complex and devastating subject. The Kindness of Strangers is not easy reading, but for better or worse, I think it paints a very real picture of abuse - and is hopefully a step in the direction of better understanding and protecting all children.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Appeal - John Grisham

After a dismal detour into non-legal writing with Playing for Pizza, Grisham is back to what he does best. The Appeal is a bit of A Civil Action meets Grisham's prior novel King of Torts. After dumping toxic waste into the drinking water of a small town for years, suddenly its residents find that the their cancer rate is 15 times the national average. The book opens with a large punitive damages verdict against the company. The company immediately appeals, and behind the scenes, the conservative machine begins working to ensure that a right-minded individual finds his way onto the state Supreme Court. Grisham comes out swinging with this book, which I found much better written than most of his others. While the main focus of the book condemns the buying of publically-elected judges, Grisham also manages to denounce big business, defense lawyers, and plaintiff's lawyers who handle class actions. He also questions religious organizations who campaign in the name of values, and anyone who campaigns on hot-button issues but utterly fails to ever walk a step in the shoes of the people whose votes they hope to win. I could see many readers thinking Grisham has finally gone off the deep end with this one - and promoting his own liberal-agenda, but I thought it was finely done and one of his best works to date.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

Jake and I originally bought this book for his grandmother who is a speed-demon reader. She told me it took her about three tries to get into, but then she really loved it. As she handed it over to me, she "gave away" that the narrator of the book is Death, and hoped that she wasn't ruining anything by telling me. As I started to read, I was thinking, "I don't get what's going on here," and then recalled what she told me and it all made sense. Smarter folks than I will figure this all out on their own right away, I'm sure, but I felt knowing ahead of time allowed me to get into this fabulous novel much more quickly, so I pass that spoiler along. This is the story of young Liesel, growing up in Nazi Germany during WWII. In traveling with her single mother to meet her new foster parents, Liesel's younger brother dies of starvation and cold, and after she is dropped off with her new family, Liesel determines that it is because of Hitler that her mother found herself on such desperate times. Liesel, unable to read, then finds herself fascinated by books and language. Her new father teachers her how to read, and Liesel finds a whole new world opened up to her. She befriends a neighborhood boy, assists her stern foster mother with a laundry business, and helps her family hide a very dangerous secret. Admist Liesel's growth is the constant presence of Death, and the need for all those around her to prove their loyalty to the Nazi Party, as well as the fear that they will be mistaken for or otherwise taken as a sympathizer of the Jews. Zusak's language is haunting, and his use of foreshadowing helps maintain the excitement and page-turning quality of this book. I am a sucker for books with young girls as protagonists, and this one did not disappoint.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Art of Salvage - Leona Briers

Many aspects of this novel are ones that I typically find interesting. Teenage unwed girl gets pregnant and decides to give the baby up for adoption. As the time of the birth nears, however, she finds the decision a difficult one to make. So, she has the baby girl, who is raised by the mother's parents - and the real mother poses as the girl's sister until quite late in the life. The mother exhibits many signs of mental illness and is either incapable or unwilling to show much affection for her daughter. As the daughter grows up, she is obsessed with finding her father, despite learning that her father died before she was born. She too suffers from bouts of depression, and resorts to cutting to relieve her stress. The story is told in four parts, alternating in focus on the mother and the daughter. Despite liking the basic formula of the story, I found the writing distracting. Briers would tell a straight-forward and interesting story for 30-40 pages, and then it would flashback to something that happened years before or something that never happened at all, and I would find myself daydreaming and having to go back and reread everything all over again. Something about the writing just could not maintain my attention. I've read some glowing reviews of this book on the web, but I just think these subject matters have been dealt with in so many better ways by other authors

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Three Weeks with My Brother - Nicholas Sparks & Micah Sparks

I've actually never read any of Nicholas Sparks's fiction - though I have a few of his novels sitting on my shelves, and keep meaning to rent the movie based on his book "The Notebook." But, I came across this one while indulging my latest obsession with travel literature. Leaving his wife and five children back in North Carolina to embark on an adventure with his only brother, this is billed as an account of Sparks' three week trip around the world - visiting locations such as Easter Island, Macchu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and Ankgor Wat. It is also, however, a memoir of Sparks's entire live to date, a look at his interesting family dynamic - the lasting impact of his mother's words, and his incredible bond with his siblings. The travel aspect takes a back seat - especially since the Sparks's choose to take their trip as part of a travel group of over 80 people that focuses on churches and museums, rather than taking in the everyday life and culture of the incredible cities they visit. Often times, Sparks's observations of a given country are glib and bordering on insensitive, albeit admittedly humorous - and as someone who tires of museums and churches very quickly, I could definitely relate. But, ultimately, this is not a book about travel around the world. Sparks's stories about growing up are endearing - and the pain he suffers in losing people he loves and coping with his own developmentally delayed child - brought tears to my eyes. Sparks is also painfully honest about possible mental illness in his family, and his own struggles with excessive stress and guilt. While I enjoyed the travel aspect, it was simply a vehicle for Sparks to tell the real story - one about survival, love, and the importance of family.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun - Peter Godwin

I haven't finished many books lately - mostly because I'm on another string of bad books - and I spent a reading-free 4-days with the mock trial team that I coach - definitely a strange experience for me. I checked this book out based on a recommendation from my friend Hillary who does a lot of healthcare work in Africa. It is the memoir of a white man who grew up in Zimbabwe, but currently lives in Manhattan. His parents, deeply rooted in their African community, refuse to leave even after the father has a heart-attack and it becomes obvious that the country does not have the resources or the desire to provide him with adequate medical care. Godwin returns to Zimbabwe to assist his family and to confront his ever-changing and unstable homeland. I thought Godwin did a good job balancing his telling of the political history of Zimbabwe, along with the more personal telling of his family's story. About a third of the way through the book, Godwin discovers that his father is Jewish. This revelation appears to cause somewhat of an identity crisis for Godwin, though I found his reaction overly-dramatic and inexplicable, particularly from a white person growing up in Africa who has probably confronted issues of identity continually throughout his life. I found Godwin's accounts of his interactions, growing up and in the present, with non-white Africans insightful - and at times painful. But, for some reason, I did not find him to be a particularly likeable narrator, and unfortunately, this interfered with my ability to completely absorb his telling of Zimbabwe's powerful history and shocking decline.