Friday, May 29, 2009

Vienna Blood - Frank Tallis (Liebermann Paper Series #2)

This is the second installment of Tallis's murder mystery psychoanalytical series pairing up homicide detective Reinhardt and Freudian psychologist Leibermann. A serial killer has been unleashed in Vienna - massacring innocent victims with unspeakable violence. As Reinhardt seeks out the murderer, a secret Masonic society is carrying on in the Austrian underground. Leibermann works with a patient suffering from a delusion that a wealthy monarch is in love with him and that her every move is calculated to convey messages to him. Leibermann also questions his engagement to Clara, and increasingly finds ways to involve Miss Lydgate and her ever-developing theories of serology in his cases. Like the first book, Reinhardt and Leibermann test out their theories and mull over possiblities while playing classical music and eating pastries in cafes. And of course, Liebermann's break-throughs with his patients will have direct insight into finding the killer. I find Liebermann to be a very likeable character, despite his social awkwardness and while Vienna Blood didn't blow me away, it was a fun entertaining mystery.

Asta in the Wings - Jan Watson

Asta in the Wings is written from the perspective of 7-year old Asta. She lives in a boarded up house with her older brother, Orion, and her mother. As her mother goes out into the world to work everyday, Asta and Orion stay inside, protected from the debilitating germs and disease their mother has warned them exists in the outside world. They sip at soup, remembering their mother's warning that too much food will make them ill. They have fantastic explanations for simple occurrences, and are the product of being hidden and molded by the mind of a mentally ill parent. When their mother fails to return home one day, Asta and Orion are forced out into society. Asta is placed with an aunt she never knew existed, while Orion goes to live in a different foster home. Other than being told that her mother is incapable of taking care of her, Asta is told nothing - in the hopes that she will simply forget the life she used to live. Instead, like any child, she tries to fill in the gaps with the explanations her mother once gave her. I found the writing of this book unsettling - it is from the perspective of a 7-year old who has not been exposed to the world, and while intelligent, simply does not know the meaning of relatively common words and objects. Yet, the book is written with complex language, as if the story is being told by an adult version of Asta looking back on herself. As first-person narration, I did not find this to be a believable account of the story as a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, which is complex on many levels, yet still seems to realistically portray Scout's experiences. Subject-matter-wise, this book is disturbing - it demonstrates the power parents have over their children - to shape and mold their world views - and the incredible responsibility that comes with that. But, it also focuses on the problems in our foster care system. Given Asta and Orion's upbringing, they were overly dependent on each other, more so than the usual sibling pair - yet, they were readily split up and given no information about the other person's whereabouts. The new adults in Asta's life believe not only that she can actually forget her mother, but that it would be a good thing for her to do so. A fundamental misunderstanding of the psychological impact of such actions is truly heartbreaking and frustrating. This book has no resolution, and as far as plot goes, I found it unsatisfying. But, as an exploration of the impact on children of being raised around mental illness and chaos, I found it quite compelling.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Associate - John Grisham

I am always eager to read John Grisham's latest releases - this one focuses on Kyle - about to graduate from Yale law school and spend a couple years helping immigrants with their legal issues. But, people have other plans for Kyle. Blackmailing him with a shady incident from his college past, Kyle is forced to begin work as an associate in one of New York's biggest corporate law firms. The goal is for Kyle to become part of the team defending a huge piece of litigation - and steal documents for his blackmailers. As Kyle tries some espionage of his own, attempting to figure out the true identity of his blackmailers, he finds his life, and the lives of those around him, in serious danger. For the most part, Grisham manages to maintain the suspense in this novel. But, his portrayal of life as a first-year associate was a bit fanciful. Grisham has Kyle coming in regularly for 7:00 am meetings. In the time I worked for NY partners in my West Coast office, I never once had a meeting scheduled before 11:00 am EST. Kyle also has a series of unrealistically frank conversations with his mentor partner, and in one scene meant to emphasize the callous mistreatment of young associates, he is forced to drive a senior associate's Jaguar around Manhattan while the senior associate and the partner attend a court hearing. Perhaps this could happen in real life, but I don't know a single NY attorney who wouldn't take a cab or a town car in the middle of the day. The little details irritated me, yet I was able to suspend my disbelief at the overall story of a first-year attorney blackmailed into downloading super confidential files from a high security office space that is strangely closed from 10 pm until 6:00 am every day. As with all Grisham, you can't expect realism, but you can expect high-paced entertainment - and on that front Grisham continues to deliver.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

Every once in awhile, I force myself to read a classic that I should have read years ago. I remembered reading East of Eden in high school and loving it, so I thought I'd pick up another Steinbeck gem. From the first page, I was hooked by Steinbeck's writing. It seems so simple, but he captures everything so perfectly. Cannery Row takes place on a small street Monterey, California, and focuses on the people who live out their lives there - most notably, Lee Chong, the Asian grocer, Mack - the leader of a group of bums, Dora - the moral madam of the local whorehouse, and Doc - a man who collects and studies marine life. The books centers around Mack's desire to do something nice for Doc, and deciding ultimately to throw him a party. But, mostly, the book is a series of vignettes about life on Cannery Row, and an exploration of the complexities of individuals despite seemingly simple outward appearances. I found each of the characters so compelling. I wanted Steinbeck to devote an entire book to each one so I could learn more about their lives and their pasts and dreams. I think if I had read this for a class back in college, I probably would have highlighted almost all of it - it is filled with beautiful images and perfect language - and it made me want to take a trip down to Monterey to listen to the gulls and take in the salty sea air. Simply fantastic.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tweak - Nic Sheff

This is another memoir about a drug addict that I read in relation to my work. I thought reading it so soon after Broken might be too much for me to handle, but I actually thought the two books worked really well together. Sheff becomes a drug addict while he is in high school. He is the son of divorced parents in the entertainment industry who he never blames for his addiction, but who it seems lacked significant boundaries while raising him. Like Moyers, Sheff spirals out of control and bounces between recovery and relapse. Unlike Moyers, however, Sheff cannot hold down a job and he is forced to trade sex for drugs. This risky behavior exposes him not only to disease, but also to physical (and obviously emotional) abuse. Both Moyers and Sheff address the need to get to the heart of the reason why one uses drugs in the first place. For Moyers, it is largely due to his feelings of inadequacy and failure in light of his father's successes. For Sheff, it is a never-ending feeling that he is a disgusting and unworthy human-being. Sheff's expression of these feelings was very similar to Elyn Saks's discussion of her feelings in The Center Cannot Hold. So, I was not suprised to find out during the course of the book that Sheff had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Sheff's mental illness played out interestingly in his quest to get clean. He had a devoted AA sponsor who wants the best for him, but eschews all drugs, even the antipsychotics that would help Sheff deal with his disorder. And so Sheff began to hide the drug use, and his relationship with that sponsor fell apart. The ability to use drugs to treat a mental illness, without spiraling back into the use of illegal drugs (or abuse of prescription drugs) is an interesting aspect that I would have liked to read more about. Ultimately, Sheff ends up in rehab, and his understanding of addiction to drugs, as well as his co-dependency in relationships was similar to Moyer. But, it was his work around his trauma - trauma from childhood and from his time as a sex worker (which in and of itself stemmed from his childhood trauma and mental illness) really helped me to see how one can begin to combat the results of addiction. Sheff's father has written a companion book entitled Beautiful Boy, which looks at Sheff's addiction through the eyes of a parent. I plan to read that one sometime soon. In the meantime, while reading these drug memoirs is quite taxing and certainly depressing, I think it is really helping me to better understand the nature of addiction and the difficult search for recovery.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Dante Club - Matthew Pearl

I really wanted to like this book. It takes places in Boston in 1865, and concerns a couple of inexplicably brutal murders. The police force, with its first mulatto officer, set forth to solve the mysteries. Meanwhile, a literary group, comprised of Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others, take it upon themselves to put together the first English translation of Dante's Inferno. The group quickly puts together that the strange deaths have been fashioned after punishments in Dante's hell (very similar to the movie Seven in which people are murdered pursuant to the Seven Deadly Sins). The group is simultaneously facing pressure from Harvard to cease work on their translation, as Italian works represent the absent morals of decadent Europe. As they clash with authority, the Dante Club sets out to solve the murders before they take over Boston. With literary figures and sensational murders, plot-wise, this book was right up my alley. But, development-wise, Pearl took way too long setting his scene, introducing the characters, and explaining the ins and outs of Dante's poem. Pearl is a Harvard graduate, with a law degree, and a background in Dante. At times it felt like he hadn't really thought out the book, but rather just wanted a vehicle to show off his esoteric knowledge. I found it very difficult to stick with this and it took me three tries make it through the first 100 pages. Eventually, another murder occurs and things get a bit more interesting. Pearl is certainly a good writer in terms of eloquent prose, and building of suspense. But, at times, he simply took too long to get to the point and I found myself ultimately not that interested in finding out the resolution. Pearl has written two more books since this one - one focusing on Edgar Allen Poe and another on Dickens. I believe he will suck me in like Chuck Palahniuk, with fabulous plot ideas - which will hopefully pan out in the long run.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ender in Exile - Orson Scott Card

I have never considered myself a fan of the science-fiction - though admittedly, I like time-travel and teleporting. I am just not really big on space, physics, or unknown sentient life forms. But, in law school, Anh convinced me that I had to read this book called Ender's Game. I was skeptical. But, he said the main character was a small child, and I do love books with child narrators. Ender's Game is about a brilliant child from Earth, Ender, who is recuited to the International Battle School to train and fight the Formics - an insectoid alien race. Yes, I know, it sounds super-lame and geeky. Okay, maybe it is. But, it is also awesome. It's kind of like Harry Potter in space - just a bit more advanced. After I flew through Ender's Game, I moved directly on to the many other books by Orson Scott Card featuring Ender, his Battle School comrades, and his politically minded brother and sister. After I exhausted those books, I thought about moving on to Card's other series, but I just didn't have it in me. I don't love science- fiction. I love Ender! So, I was so thrilled to see Ender in Exile at the library last week - published in 2008, it is the direct sequel (in space time) to Ender's Game. It takes place just after the biggest battle of Ender's life (and that of the entire universe), and he is faced with returning to Earth or moving on to other worlds in the solar system. Ender struggles to accept his role in the destruction of the Formics, and to find happiness in a world in which he is so different from everyone around him. I did not find this novel as immediately engaging as prior books in the series, but I did like what Card did with the chacters. His Afterword was also quite interesting, as he discussed turning to his loyal Ender fan base when writing this novel - looking to them to help him resolve discrepencies - or to remind him of whether he had answered certain questions in previous books or not. Whether true or not, it really made Card appear so gracious to his readers - and probably explains his tremendous popularity in the science-fiction world. Knowing nothing about that world myself, I will say that I wholly endorse the Ender series - all you non-science fiction folks out there don't know what you're missing!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Broken - William Cope Moyers

William Cope Moyers is the son of journalist Bill Moyers. He grew up believing that he was constantly in his father's shadow, and hoping for the day when he would be more famous, win more awards, and prove himself more worthy than his untouchable dad. But, instead of allowing the pressure to drive him to success, Moyers's unattainable goals resulted in perceived failure and lack of self-esteem. By college, he was binge drinking and using marijuana and cocaine on a daily basis. The first time he is arrested, it is plastered all over the national news (because of his father's fame), and so begins a life of addiction spiraling out of control. By day, Moyers holds down a job as a relatively successful journalist, married to his childhood sweetheart. But by night, he is scoring drugs in the seediest NY neighborhoods, unable to prevent the destruction and relishing the escape the drugs and alcohol allow. As an addiction story, Moyers's is not that different from many others that I've read. Given the success and wealth of his family, his inability to appreciate his opportunities in life and to waste away talent that only others can dream of, initially made me really angry. Throughout the book I was tired of his "poor me" attitude, particularly when I think of his life in comparison to my clients who struggle with the same addiction yet come from families of extreme poverty and horrendous abuse. Moyers finds himself in and out of treatment centers. He is deeply religious and promises that he will stay clean, yet repeatedly he finds himself back in crack dens, putting his life at risk as the drugs slowly eat away at him. Ultimately, Moyers is able to find a way to get sober and make it stick. He now speaks across the country about the face of addiction and the power of rehabilitiation. I thought one of his most powerful points was that addiction does not discriminate, and neither should recovery. Yet, because of the shame and stigma attached to addiction, there are so few treatment centers in the country, and very few people have insurance that will cover the expense. Moyers has some interesting ideas about recovery - his faith plays a large role, and his dependence on his AA sponsors. He likens addiction to cancer and other diseases and questions why people cannot accept addiction as a disease - and imagines how much we can help people in need if we could open our hearts and minds to better understand the problem. I still find myself getting angry at people who write these addiction/recovery memoirs - drugs cause people to become so selfish. In addition to destroying themselves, they destroy their parents, their children, and their partners. Yet, they wonder why people cannot have more compasion and stick with them on their time tables. In this reaction, I recognize that I have a lot of prejudice and judgments against addicts - and I am not quite sure how to go about gaining the necessary understanding to overcome this. But, this book, while annoying in the repetition of Moyers' cycle of addiction, did provide some useful steps for those dealing with addiction personally, those dealing with addiction in a loved one, and those who are not touched directly but who see the enormous problem that addiction is for our country and recognize that we all need to do something to help make a change.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Constant Princess - Phillipa Gregory

The Constant Princess is the first book (in historical time, not first written) in Gregory's Tudor series. The book is about Katherine of Aragon (Catalina), daugher of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. As a baby, she is promised to the Arthur, heir to the throne of England and brother of Henry VIII. She grows up thinking of herself as the Queen of England, and all that demands from the people around her. Once married, Arthur falls ill and dies shortly thereafter. Katherine must then convince the court that the marriage was never consummated and somehow figure out a way to get married off to Henry. The book switches from Katherine's first-person perspective to an omniscient narrator. Her arrogance is overwhelming, and while at times she demonstrates the strength of her mother, who ruled Spain while fighting in the Crusades, more often she tends toward the whiny and entitled. As with Gregory's other books about the Tudors, there is a focus on the lives of the women at Court - their search for independence, but their inevitable dependence on the men around them. All friendships are suspect, as people are constantly maneuvering to get into the King's good graces. Anne Boleyn makes an appearance at the end of the novel, setting the stage for The Other Boleyn Girl. My favorite (small) part of the book involved Katherine's interaction with a Moorish doctor after suffering a miscarriage. The Moor's medical knowledge far exceeds that of his Christian counterpart, but Katherine's religious convictions and her fear of going against a King's servant lead her astray. Gregory's novels seem well researched, though it is difficult to know how much license she is taking with the characters and their beliefs. Whatever the case, they are fun fast reads that have definitely made me more interested in this period in history. I may have to start watching that TV Series "The Tudors" soon.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Death in Vienna - Frank Tallis

About once a month, I crave a good mystery. I have received numerous suggestions over the years and have a number of go-to authors. I discovered the Max Liebermann series, about a psychoanalytic detective, from a Powells Book review. A Death in Vienna, the first book in the series, takes place in Vienna in 1902. A famous medium has just been found shot dead. She is found in a room locked from the inside with no murder weapon. Detective Oskar Rheinhardt leads the investigation, with a little help from Freudian psychologist, Max Liebermann. The mystery involves two disctinct story lines. The first is the investigation iteself as Rheinhardt and Liebermann interview the members of the victim's psychic circle, holding seances to dispel the theory of a supernatural killer. The second story involves Liebermann's work using psychoanalysis on a female patient diagnosed with hysteria, as he battles his colleagues in the electroshock therapy camp. Along the way, we are also introduced to Liebermann's family, and his uncertain relationship with his new fiance, Clara. Even Freud himself makes an appearance. The mystery is filled with colorful characters, deductive reasoning, and psychological intrigue. Tallis's ability to incoporate psychological investigative techniques, while discussing the political and social arguments for and against such techniques, held together well and made for a fabulously gripping mystery.