Thursday, December 30, 2010

Play Their Hearts Out - George Dohrmann

I love most everything about basketball. I love playing; I love watching; I just love the game. But what this book made me realize is that what I really love are the memories I have of amazingly supportive coaches, fabulous teammates, and everything I learned about being a team player, working hard, and who I wanted to be as a person. Dohrmann's book focuses on the grassroot AAU leagues that feature the allegedly most talented young players in the country. In particular, Dohrmann follows one coach (and opportunist), Joe Keller, as he scouts out talented 10 and 11 years old before focusing on one boy to coach onto greatness. But, instead of truly looking out for the boy's well-being and coaching him to became a better player and teammate, Keller seems to know absolutely nothing about basketball strategy or kids. Instead, he's all about marketing hype, getting Nike and Adidas sponsorships, and using young boys to pay his mortgage. What this book also demonstrates is that raw talent will only take a player so far - without discipline, hard-work, and dedication to the game, even the fastest strongest players will flame out in the face of true competition and adversity. The saddest part of this book was seeing how Keller could lure so many kids (mostly from poor backgrounds) to his team, and how quickly he could destroy their self-confidence and their potential. Dohrmann's book highlights the disservice so many coaches are doing to these children that they view solely as their own mealtickets. It's not a symbiotic relationship in which a coach provides potential NBA exposure to a player in exchange for some financial rewards. Instead, it's the financial rewards in exchange for false praise and ultimately no growth in skills. I liked Dohrmann's in-depth analysis (he's not a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist for nothing) and his focus on the various kids in the story. It reminded me a lot of Warren St. John's Outcasts United in this respect. But ultimately, it was disappointing to think that an experience that should be filled with so many positives - particularly for these ultra-talented kids - could result in so much corruption and betrayal. An amazing book for opening your eyes to the shady underworld of AAU basketball, but not one filled with much hope or inspiration.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book Lust To Go - Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl, a librarian in Seattle, has two prior books in this "series" - Book Lust and More Book Lust. All three are filled with her recommendations of books to read in various categories. Book Lust To Go focuses on travel - with Pearl breaking up the book into sections based on countries, cities, or type of travel (long train rides, for example). Pearl acknowledges in her introduction that she is not much of an actual traveler, but that she enjoys seeing new places through the pages of books in the comfort of her own home. And so she put togehter these lists filled with non-fiction, travel narratives, and fiction - all of which give the reader a real sense of the flavor of a given destination. Given that I predict limited ability to travel in the upcoming year - I was thinking of doing some armchair traveling of my own in 2011 - picking a country or region a month and focusing my reading on that area. Pearl has provided a lot of inspiration and suggestion for this project of mine. My only hesitation is that I want to be sure I'm reading books that are really true to a given place, and by Pearl's own admission, she hasn't herself been to many of these place. Though, it does sound like she sought out recommendations from people who had I take some of her suggestions with a grain of salt. But, as with her prior two books, her lists have given me a wonderful jumping off point, and I look forward to traveling around the world with her help for the next 12 months!

Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer - John Grisham

When I was about 8 years old, one of my favorite characters was Encyclopedia Brown. He was a kid detective who charged a nominal fee to help out those in his neighborhood with various conundrums - small and large. Theodore Boone is a bit more sophisticated, but reminded me of a modern day version of Encyclopedia. Theodore is the 13-year old son of a family law attorney and a real estate attorney. He is a legal junkie, fascinated by the courtroom, and forever dispensing advice to his peers. While I fear he will shortly be prosecuted for practicing law without a license, I found his enthusiasm for the law and his interest in justice both absurd and endearing. I anticipate that Grisham will turn this into a series for young readers - which I think will be great. This one focused on the murder trial of a man accused of killing his own wife. Due to the skillful lawyering of the town's aggressive defense attorney, the defendant appears to be looking at an acquittal. Theodore then discovers a secret witness who could call into question everything the defense has put forward. Theodore has to deal with the ethical dilemma of revealing the confidential source of his information or potentially allowing a guilty man to walk free. Throughout the book, I thought Grisham did a great job of explaning the legal system in a way that would make sense and appeal to young readers - many of whom might be unfamiliar with many of the concepts. In addition to the murder trial, he threw in smaller cases - such as Theo's appearance in animal court to rescue the impounded dog of a girl he has a crush on at school and he difficulties endured by a close friend who had to testify at her own custody proceedings. In one short book, Grisham managed to showcase a wide array of legal issues and scenarios. I wasn't always on board with the direction the story took (I prefer presumed guilty man found to be actually innocent), but for my tastes, Theodore Boone is a wonderful, if not sometimes pretentious, protagonist, and I look forward to his future cases and adventures.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bangkok Haunts - John Burdett (Sonchai Jipplecheep Series #3)

I downloaded this book to my kindle while I was on vacation in Bali...and read all the way up to the last chapter. Then when I returned home, I also returned to my paper books. The other day, I decided I needed to finish this up, so I could move on to Book 4 in the series...and alas, I discovered the biggest drawback for me and the kindle: I simply could not remember where I'd put the charger and the thing was out of battery life! Eventually, after tearing apart my bedroom and office, I finally remembered that I'd left it in the suitcase I'd taken with me to Asia. Happy to return to Detective Sonchai and the streets of Bangkok - and lesson learned to keep better track of my electronics. In this third installment, Sonchai finds himself even more enmeshed than usual in the superstitions of his Buddhist breatheren. A popular prostitute (and one of Sonchai's own personal obsessions) is found murdered in her apartment - and a snuff film is sent to Sonchai, making him face the fact that not only has he lost someone important to him, but the murder was somehow personal. He finds himself haunted by the spirit of the young woman, as well as haunted by his inability to find her killer. As with all the books in this series, Bangkok Haunts is filled with police corruption, sex, and humor. Sonchai is a complicated man, but despite his many vices, his pure heart always leads to a most satisfying outcome.

The Cookbook Collector - Allegra Goodman

This book has so many of the elements that I love in a good story - it's about family - in particular two very different sisters, Emily and Jess. It's set locally - in the Silicon Valley and in Berkeley. It features books prominently - Jess works in a used bookstore owned by a wealthy eccentric named George. And, it's just about their lives together and interacting with the people around them. Despite this, there were times when I felt like the book was trying to do too much. Emily works for a start-up during the to dot-bust era - and her long-distance boyfriend does the same. There are chapters devoted to the development of their technologies and the questionable sharing of proprietary information within the confines of their relationship. With a Jewish mother who passed away when the girls were quite young, Jess flirts with the idea of returning to temple and has various odds-and-ends encounters with rabbis near and far. Then there is how the girls deal with the absence of their mother, how the interact with their father and his new family, their various relationships with men, life in a post-9/11 world, etc. I often read books and love the characters so much that I wish the author could just write about their day-to-day lives. Well, in some way I got what I asked for in this book (though I can't say I loved any of these characters- though I would have liked to know more about George) - Goodman follows the day-to-day lives of these women - no matter where it takes us, even if completely random, off topic, and seemingly irrelevant. And my reaction was not positive. So, I suppose, be careful what you wish for. This is a good way to pass an afternoon or evening, but nothing I would go out of my way to recommend.

Monday, December 20, 2010

In a Strange Room - Damon Galgut

Because of the unique writing style. I think this is one of those books people will either love or hate. I definitely fall into the "hated it" category. Plot-wise, it's pretty interesting - a young man travels around Africa, Europe, and India meeting various other travelers he shares experiences with in varying types of relationships. The book is divided into three parts - the first two with the narrator switching from first-person to third-person and written in a disjointed hodge-podge of thoughts and ideas. This is definitely one of those books that I wanted to read slowly - to appreciate the writing, but found myself skimming through because I just wanted it to be over or to get to something good. The third section is a bit more concrete, and involves the narrator's trip through India with the suicidal girlfriend of his best friend. While tragic, it was a bit easier to follow and for me to care about. I keep coming back to these Man Booker winners and finalists because I know the writing will always be different and inspiring, but for those of us who generally like good stories that are easy to follow, they don't always make for the easiest reading experience (and once in awhile, that's probably a good thing).

Bicycle Diaries - David Byrne

I admit I am kind of annoyed when a given individual has more than one talent. I don't really have any, so it just seems incredibly unfair. Nevermind that maybe they've worked hard to cultivate their talent or particular, I don't usually like to read books by people who are already famous musicians or artists, yet have something even more interesting that they want to write about. But, I couldn't resist David Byrne's book about life on his bike in various cities around the world. While the underlying premise of the book is Byrne's bike - this isn't really a book about biking. Byrne simply uses his bike to get around - from his art showings to his interesting friends to his inspiration for architectual designs. In other words - as a vehicle for exploration of his millions of talents. For someone who is an avid biker and wants to read a book about biking, this might not quite be the right one. But, for anyone who likes a good travel narrative, Byrne definitely has a unique perspective on life - and lots of crazy and wonderful ideas and stories to share.

Farm City - Novella Carpenter

Over the past couple years, there has been an obsession in the Bay Area (and perhaps all over the country) with locally grown food, farmer's market, and eating responsbily. Michael Pollen and Barbara Kingsolver have definitely contributed to this movement and encouraged a lot of people to think differently about where their food comes from. As part of this, I feel like not only do I know a lot of people who only buy organic and local, but I also know more people who have taken to growing and raising their own produce and poultry. I attribute some of this also to people wanting to feel more connected to work - and feeling like what they do has tangible consequences - something that doesn't exist for many people these days (as opposed to in the days of farmers). Farm City is the non-fiction account of a woman in Oakland who has taken to heart the desire to be closer to her food - not only does she start her own vegetable garden in the heart of Oakland's toughest neighborhood, but she raises turkeys for Thanksgiving, and a pig that brings her into contact with one of Oakland's most famous chefs - and her future teacher of how to make her own salumi. Carpenter's experimenting is interesting to me - mostly because I live in Oakland, and cannot imagine attempting to create such a rural environment in such an urban setting. She didn't make me want to go out and buy my own chicks to raise, or to commit to growing my dinner - mostly because everything she did seemed so hard! But, she did engender an appreciation in me for the work that farmers and ranchers are engaged in - and it's always good to remember to be a bit more mindful of what we put in our bodies, and what we often sacrifice in the name of convenience.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Dead Hand - Paul Theroux

I enjoy Paul Theroux's non-fiction travel books, and I have a tendency to like everything about India for reasons I cannot explain. Recently, I've been on a mystery kick. So, when I saw this book - a fictional murder mystery set in Calcutta by Theroux, I had to check it out. This is a strange little story about a writer, suffering from writer's block (a dead hand), who receives a letter from a philanthropist asking for his help solving a possible crime. Unable to resist, the writer follows up and finds himself obsessed with the woman who sent him the note - a pretentious and bossy woman, who runs a foundation in Calcutta and is a master in all things tantric. Eager to please her, the writer begins to investigate the strange crime, but can make little headway and finds himself more deeply confused and disoriented the harder he tries. Theroux himself makes an appearance in the book, and a witty yet seemingly irrelevant dialogue between the two writers takes place. Ultimately, there isn't much mystery here in terms of a typical murder detective story - and that's kind of what I was looking for. But, the writing is good - and given the India setting, Theroux was able to show off his travel writing expertise.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Methland - Nick Reding

Given the time of year, I feel like I should be reading books that will get me into the holiday spirit. This is not that book. Methland is a non-fiction account of the growing epidemic of methamphetamine use in the United States, in particular in small town America. Reding focuses primarily on the town of Oelwein, Iowa, population 6,000. Over roughly four years, Reding gets to know several residents of the town, including drug traffickers and addicts, local law enforcement, and politicians. Through these various individuals, Reding tells the story of a destitute town caught up in the horrors of meth, and what their residents have done and continue to fight to do to clean up their community. Reding is a great story-teller and his accounts of the various lives of every day people were particularly compelling - but he is also a journalist, and backed up his anecdotes with statistics and facts that paint a stark picture of reality, and our nation's losing battle - often because of ignorance or simple ignoring of the issues - with this incredible drug.

A Body in the Library - Agatha Christie

I enjoy finding an author I like who has written a ton of books. This way whenever I'm in the mood for something familiar, there will always be a new book to turn to. Agatha Christie has written over 30 novels featuring her beloved sleuth Hercule Poirot - and these are the ones I first started reading. This time, however, I turned to Miss Marple - featured in 12 of Christie's novels and a few short story collections. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster with no apparent criminal or detective background. Yet, using logic and a folksy reading of people's behavior, she is able to outsmart the local police to solve local homicides. Very reminiscient of Angela Landsbury's character in "Murder, She Wrote." In this one - Christie's second novel featuring Marple, a young woman is found strangled in the home of an elderly sophisticated couple. Suspicion immediately turns to the man of the house, suggesting that she is one of his mistresses. Miss Marple is called in by the distraught wife, and along with the police and a young boy connected to a family of potential suspects, the investigation proceeds to a nearby dance club, and a wealthy invalid who had taken the murdered girl under is wing. Though the book is short (less than 200 pages), there are more twists and turns than a Law & Order episode - some of them predictable, and others coming out of left field. A suspenseful mystery, best enjoyed on a rainy night by the fire with a hot cup of tea.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Digging to America - Anne Tyler

I often think of Anne Tyler as mindless entertainment - she's an author I turn to when I want a good story, but don't necessarily want to think too hard when I'm reading it. To some extent, Digging to America fit the bill. This is the story of two families- The Dickinson-Donaldsons who are white American through and through, and the Yazdans, Iranian-Americans who while fairly assimilated still hang on to traditions from their old country. The families find themselves intertwined when their adopted daughters from Korea arrive in the United States on the same day. Initially, this is a story about how different families create homes for their new children. But, it is also the story of Maryam, the Iranian born grandmother of one of the girls, and Dave, the grandfather of the other. It is about how they find their places in their grandchildrens' lives, how they navigate getting older, and how they find ways to fit in while still retaining their individuality. In this way, I felt that Digging to America had so much more going on than just a "good story." Part-way through the book, Tyler's shifted from a focus on the little girls to the grandparents - and I wished there was a way to follow both stories throughout. She also changes the first-person narrative, and has a chapter or two from the perspective of one of the girls. At times it felt like she was trying to do too much - in others, I wish she had written an extra 200 pages so she could have accomplished it all in a more thorough fashion. But, as is, this book is a great entertaining story, as well as one that, I believe, would start a rich discussion in book clubs across the country.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Inside Out - Barry Eisler (Ben Treven Series #2)

I didn't think Barry Eisler could top John Rain as the leading former-CIA special ops turned private assassin. But, Ben Treven might just be moving into my top spot. Eisler first introduced Treven in Fault Line, a thriller set in the Silicon Valley. This time around, Treven finds himself in a Manila prison, sprung by his former commander on the condition that he hunt down a rogue operator who has stolen over 90 torture tapes from the CIA and is threatening to release them all unless his outrageous conditions are met. Treven unwillingly teams up with an FBI agent to track down Daniel Larison, a man who faked his own death and may be one of the most lethal men on the planet (next to Rain and Dox, of course!!). There's lots of travel and backstabbing and political intrigue and blood and guts and death in this one. I loved it. And it looks like Eisler may have future plans to unite Rain and Treven in one book (just as exciting as Michael Connelly finally bringing Harry Bosch and Micky Haller together!!) I simply cannot wait.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Supreme Courtship - Christopher Buckley

In life in general, I'm not a huge fan of politics or politicians, so I always think that I won't like Buckley's novels which focus so heavily on those subjects. But, each time I've picked one up, I've found myself chuckling quietly to myself and eager to read more. And of course this makes sense. Buckley's stories poke fun at all the things I find so irritating about the democratic process. In Supreme Courtship, a President with a plummeting approval rating finds himself in the position of appointing a new Supreme Court justice. After his first two overly qualified nominations are jettisoned by his opponents in the Republican party for trivial reasons, he decides to nominate the publicly-popular television judge, Pepper Cartwright.
The novel follows Cartwright's confirmation hearings and her eventual elevation to the highest Court in the land. Bordering on the ridiculous at times, I just found this book incredibly fun and entertaining. I'll be adding more of Buckley's novels to my library queue shortly.

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen

This book was chosen as one of Oprah's Book Club picks. I wasn't sure if that was supposed to be funny - since Franzen created all that controversy when she picked his first novel The Corrections so many years ago. But, while I hated The Corrections and found the characters' self-obsessionn and clueless suburban angst quite trying, I decided to give Franzen's new one a shot because I have recently thoroughly enjoyed his fiction. Other than the fact that Freedom is about 200 pages too long, it definitely had its moments. It's difficult to describe exactly what this book is about - though there is definitely a lot more suburban angst going on. The book basically centers around a middle-aged couple in Minnesota named Patty and Walter Berglund. Patty, a former college basketball star turned stay-at-home mom, is an annoyingly smug know-it-all. Her husband, who seems to genuinely love her for reasons I can't quite discern, is consumed with his college best friend/famous musician. Later in the book Walter also becomes obsessed with preventing overpopulation and his young Southeast Asian assistant. Amidst all this chaos, the Berglunds kids also have problems of their own. There are times when I read books with characters I love so much that I wish the author would just delve into their every day mundane lives and I could just follow them for pages - as if they were in their own television series for year after year. Franzen has kind of done this with his characters - just given us their lives, reaching back to their experiences growing so the reader can better understand their motivations and actions, and then presenting their present day story. Yet, none of his character evoked any sympathy in me and I just found them all to be hopelessly flawed bad people. Certainly, they had their moments - and reasons for their negative actions, but mostly I just hoped they'd all get their just deserts in the end. All that being said about the characters themselves, this is a really well written book and given the length, Franzen does manage to make it all basically relevant and necesary to the overall message and purpose of the book (or what I took away as the overall message!)