Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Midnight Palace - Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Niebla #2)

While this is the second in Zafon's juvenile fiction Niebla series, it has absolutely nothing (that I could discern) to do with the first book in the series.  It focuses on twins, separated at birth, and reunited unknowingly on their sixteenth birthday.  Ben grew up in an orphanage and is just about to set out on his own.  Sheere was raised by her grandmother who hid all information about her birth and her past in an effort to protect her.  With the help of Ben's friends, the two set out to learn more about their mysterious past and the deadly figure that has hunted them all their lives.  Once again, I found this book way too scary for a kid -but again, my scare threshhold is low, and maybe kids like these things.  This book is suspenseful and stretches the suspension of disbelief.  The dark figure that pursues the twins is almost too fantastical, but I did enjoy the mystery of it all - a nice quick read that got me through some tedious time in the hospital before the birth of my own twins.

Happier at Home - Gretchen Rubin

Awhile back I read and quite enjoyed Gretchen Rubin's book - The Happiness Project.  So when I saw that her new one employed many of the same happiness concepts - just focused more on the home, I was eager to read it - and actually places an advanced order on amazon - something this proud libary card holder does for only the rarest of books.  What I appreciate about Rubin's quest for happiness, and her eagerness to share her thoughts - is that she never assumes that what would make one person happy would necessarily work for another - and she intends her book to act as inspiration for all of us to create our own happiness agendas, rather than as a guide for what we should do to achieve happiness.  I also like her regular reminders that we cannot make others happy, and we cannot rely on others make us happy - and that these goals cannot guide our actions.  There was actually quite a bit in this book that I thought would affirmatively not work for me - and I was frustrated on her behalf (though she did not seem frustrated at all) at her husband's often reluctance to participate in her happiness suggestions.  Because I am a firm believer in the adage that "happiness is not a destination, but merely a mode of travel," I liked the reminders this book gave me in general to look for ways in my everyday life to create happiness around me.  While I did read the book straight through - like The Happiness Project, I feel like it's one I'd like to leave lying around to peruse now and again for inspiration.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Office Girl - Joe Meno

One line of the description of this book hooked me, "Nothing takes place during a World War."  Not that there aren't great books that take place during World Wars, but I have read many of them in my time, and I could use a different setting (as long as it's not also post 9/11 PTSD land).  Office Girl, however, was not quite what I was looking for.  It tells the story of "artists" Odile and Jack and reads like a literary version of Zooey Deschanel's quirky too-cool projects.  As the two work menial office jobs during the day, they spend their evenings contemplating the more esoteric - condemning commercial art and making renegade art of their own.  I think I am too old for this book - not that I'm too mature by any means, but just that I find characters in their 20-somethings who are complaining about life and finding themselves to be tedious.  I just want them to get over themselves.  That being said, some of their art was clever and funny.  Overall, however, I found the book a little too hip for my tastes.

Double Dexter - Jeff Lindsay (Dexter #6)

Once again, I've caught up with this series, and reading it always makes me want to start watching the HBO TV series - though I'm not sure I can handle all the gore visually.  This installment finds Dexter back to his old tricks, but this time, it seems he has been observed by someone who doesn't plan just to expose him, but to give him a taste of his own painful medicine.  While Dexter aids in the investigation of a serial killer targeting Miami police detectives, he is simultaneously looking over his shoulder for the killer trying to track him down.  In typical Dexter fashion, I found myself simultaneously rooting for him while also cringing at his internal monologues and the example he sets for his step-children.  A thoroughly entertaining series that I hope will continue.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Turn of Mind - Alice LaPlante

Awhile back, I read a fiction book called Still Alice about a woman with early onset Alzheimer's disease.  I highly recommend the novel, though it is a frightening reality, I found the book immensely intriguing in its portrayal of this degenerative disease.  Then the Stanford Book Club picked this novel - Turn of Mind - a murder mystery also feautring a main character with Alzheimer's.  With recent media attention on the possible connection between Alzheimer's and diabetes, this condition has been much on my mind and with that background, I picked up this thriller.  Written in the first-person, this is the story of former hand surgeon, Dr. Jennifer White, has a caretaker and is watched over by her daughter and delinquent son.  She suffers from Alzheimer's and when he best friend is found murdered - with several fingers severed from her hand - Jennifer becomes a prime suspect.  The book is written in fragmented sections - there are present day interactions such as the repeated interogations by the police in which Jennifer is painfully reminded at each visit that her best friend has been murdered.  And there are fragments of memories from Jennifer's past - descrbing her marriage, her friendship, her practice, and the raising of her children.  Like Still Alice, I found this a very painful and difficult read, while at the same time fascinated by the author's ability to get into the mind of someone with this disease (as realistic as we can ever know that the portrayal is).  In terms of a murder mystery, the plot unfolds nicely with the reader constantly wondering if Jennifer committed the crime, and if she did, whehther she actually remembers doing so.  The end unfolded a bit strangely, and while I want to avoid any spoilers, I'm not sure I was entrely satisfied with it.  But, I loved the writing in this book and the interactions between the characters - a little frustrating at times, but certainly nothing compared to the frustration of having this disease, or caring for a loved one suffering from it.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln - Stephen L. Carter

I became a fan of Stephen Carter's right away with his intelligent and superbly well-written novels The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White.  Then he burned me with Jericho's Fall which I found just an complete disaster on all fronts.  So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached his latest - a novel set in the hypothetical world where Abraham Lincoln survives the assassination attempt at the Ford Theater and goes on to face an impeachment trial for overstepping his Constitutional authority during and after the Civil War and Reconstruction.  The general idea of writing with this type of historical background reminded me of Philip Roth's novel, The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindberg is elected President of the United States.  I'm a bit ambivalent about the idea of playing with history in this way, but I thought I'd give Mr. Carter another shot.  And I'm glad that I did because this book is fantastic - not only well-written and intricate, but filled with intrigue and interesting characters.  The book centers around the law firm representing Mr. Lincoln in his impeachment proceedings, and in particular a black female law clerk, Abigail Canner, and her white male counterpart.  When one of the law firm partners is found murdered, Abigail distrusts the police investigation and finds herself (and her family) wrapped up in solving the mystery.  Throw in racial politics, courtroom drama, and countless society wives full of gossip and this book made for both a page turning thriller and a Gone with the Wind-esque soap opera.  The book is relatively long at approximately 520 pages and I wondered if Mr. Carter could keep it up throughout - and he did.  I also found his portrayal of Lincoln fascinating, and commend Mr. Carter on his keen research eye, as well as his fiction writing creativity.  A definite favorite for the year.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey - E.L. James

After a long long wait in the library queue, I finally borrowed a copy of this most recent literary phenomenon.  I felt like I had to read it under the same theory I read The Da Vinci Code - because everyone else was, and I needed to see if it was worth all the hype.  After reading it, I can honestly say that I just don't really get it.  But at the same time, I did find that there was quite a bit that it made me think about - so maybe James really is doing something more than just peddling smut.  The basic story is recent college grad/virgin/ingenue meets rich and powerful mogul.  They sense an undeniable attraction for each other.  She is looking for a boyfriend.  He is looking for a submissive to partake in his S&M fantasies - and his relationships come complete with signed contract.  He opens up this whole new world for her - which she's not sure she wants to participate in.  And, of course, there is just "something" about her that makes him break all his rules and maybe, just maybe, fall a little bit in love.  Along the way, the dialogue is more horrendous than Twilight and countless questions are raised about the automony of women and the element of choice in inherently debasing activities.  On the one hand, I thought this book was absolute trash.  Plot-wise, nothing really happens and there is no understanding for why these characters find the other attractive.  On the other hand, I thought this would be a fantastic book to read in one of my college feminist studies classes - to better examine the nature of male/female and dominant/submissive relationships.  And to discuss what it is about this relationship that so many readers are drawn to - is it simply that Christian Grey is a wealthy handsome man?  Is it that women really do want to be treated like objects with no thoughts or opinions of their own?  Is it just another case of a woman believing that she can change a bad boy's behavior? Or is it just the intensely graphic sex scenes (which, if they really are empowering women in some way to demand more spice in their own relationships, I say - more power to them).  So, I definitely don't think this was a very well-written book.  And I didn't even find it that entertaining.  I did, however, think it raised a lot of important questions - including whether it's just a good thing to have people reading actual books (or ebooks), no matter what the subject matter.  And, I'm not sure I know the answer to that question.  I may just have to read the rest of this trilogy to figure it out.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl

Awhile back I read and quite enjoyed Gretchen Rubin's book The Happiness Project.  Since then, I have signed up for her newsletter - where she announced her virtual book club.  Each month she sends out three book recommendations - one in children's literature, one quirky pick, and one meant to inspire happiness (or something along those lines).  This book was the recommedation in the third category for August.  Frankl is a Holocaust survivor and he spends the first half of the book recounting his experiences in the death camps.  He then discusses his philosophical theory of logotherapy.  The basic premise being that the primary drive in life is the pursuit and discovery of what we find personally meaningful - and that our survival depends on how we choose to cope with suffering, and find meaning in it.  It is impossible for me to read a book by or about a Holocaust survivor and not feel tremendously lucky for my own life circumstances, or to marvel at how one does manage to find meaning in such misery.  But, Frankl isn't about comparing misery or suffering, which I appreciate.  Instead, his book is an acknowledgement that we all have our own demons and tragedies of varying degrees, and life isn't about avoiding those experiences.  I'm not sure that I fully appreciated the way this book was actually written in terms of the psychiatric jargon - and I don't know that I completely embrace Frankl's philosophy on life, but I did find it interesting and worth reflecting on in terms of a general concept and way of focusing on the positive in life instead of dwelling on the negative.

Ali in Wonderland - Ali Wentworth

My mom mentioned this book to me a couple months back, and mostly I couldn't believe that George Stephanopolous was married to a comedian and I was interested is seeing what it was all about.  This book reminded me a lot of the ones written by Chelsea Handler - very irreverant, not that funny, with a clever line here and there.  Wentworth grew up the daughter of political journalists.  As a result, I found her frame of reference often irritating - meaning that she's big on name dropping for no particular reason, and doesn't quite have the life perspective that I think lends itself to good comedy.  Mostly, I found this book bland and unimpressive.  She tells some sweet (not funny) stories about meeting Stephanopolous, and about their relationship - I found the stories interesting because I like him.  But, as a humor book, I thought this was a miserable failure.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Prisoner of Heaven - Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Cemetery of Lost Books #3)

I cannot say enough good things about the first book in this trilogy, The Shadow of the Wind.  When I read that book years ago, it was a perfect reminder to me of why I absolutely love reading - it transported me to this other place, with rich characters (who also loved books).  It was scary and exciting and beautifully written (yes, I realize I was reading a translation).  And, since then, I have been excited to read anything by CRZ that I can get my hands on.  The second in the series, The Angel's Game was not as amazing - mostly because my expectations were so high, but I appreciated the continuation of the story.  Now it's been years since I read either one - and I can't remember the plot or the characters, only my excitement - and so reading this third one was almost like starting over.  The books don't have to be read in any particular order (and CRZ makes a specific note to this effect at the beginning of this book).  The Prisoner of Heaven is set in 1957 Barcelona and focuses on the friendship of a bookstore owner's son (Daniel Sempere) and his assistant (Fermin Romero de Torres).  When a mysterious stranger visits the shop, the two men are thrust back a decade to the Franco dictatorship, and a prison in which unmentionable horrors are visited upon the inmates.  This book has the same creepiness factor as the two prior ones, and I enjoyed both the 1957 "present day" story, as well as the 1940s flashbacks (which is unusual for me - usually when books do this I wish they'd just stick to one story).  Wonderfully written, dramatic, and intriguing.  I've falled in love with CRZ all over again.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Wild - Cheryl Strayed

I borrowed this one from a friend of mine at work who is an avid hiker/camper/outdoorswoman...I, on the other hand, am none of these things, but still have fantasties of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail someday and "finding" myself.  I really enjoyed Bill Bryson's account of his travels along the Appalachian Trail, and thought I'd check this one out - a memoir about a woman following the death of her mother and a divorce - who takes to the trail with no real expectations or preparation.  She hikes by herself - and sounds grossly out of shape - having just exited a rebound relationship fed by a newfound heroin addiction.  Needless to say, Ms. Strayed doesn't sound like the brightest bulb and from the outset I was sure that she was going to abandon her quest after hiking just a couple days (of course then maybe she wouldn't have written a book about it).  I have a love/hate relationship with memoirs - I love to act as a voyeur into other people's lives and experiences, and then I find myself annoyed that these people think I care about their inner musings and opinions.  It's really not fair of me as a reader, but I'm still overly critical.  I think the author struck a good balance in this book - I mean how much can you write about hiking day after day with an overweight pack and blistering feet?  And how much can you write about all you learn about yourself during a journey in which you go days, if not weeks, without talking to another human being?  I did find myself filled with anxiety about the author traveling alone, and with every male encouter, I worried for her safety.  She didn't seem to have the same cares, hitchhiking with reckless abandon.  But, as with the overpacking, the self-travel seemed a bit naive.  All in all, this book made me want to take a few more day hikes - and impressed with those who take on and accomplish more -  but it mostly made me appreciate coming home every night to a warm shower, warm food, and a warm bed.

Nine Dragons - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch #15)

Sometimes I can't believe how much of my life I've spent reading Michael Connelly novels...but I do really enjoy them - just like I enjoy watching episodes of Law & Order over and over and over again.  In this one, Bosch goes international when an Asian convenience store owner is shot and it appears gang related.  Somehow, his daughter - who lives in Hong Kong with his gambling ex-wife Eleanor Wish - is brought into the fold seemingly as ransom, and Bosch jets off in search of her and the convenience store killer.  This book was filled with some missteps and seemingly avoidable tragic consequences (as many of these Bosch novels are), but despite my frustration (as always) with those aspects, it was a fast and thrilling ride.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Buried in the Sky - Peter Zuckerman, Amanda Padoan

Several years ago, I was shocked to find that I enjoyed reading Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air.  I am not a mountain climber or any kind of extreme sports fan, but I was taken by the idea of people pushing their limits to conquer nature, and also the competing notions of hubris.  And of course, I think, it is impossible to read a book about climbing tall peaks without wondering about the lives of the Sherpas and other people on the mountains who are handling all the gear and preparations for these climbers - many who are inexperienced and have no business being on the mountain in the first place.  Zuckerman and Padoan have taken a hard look at the lives of those Sherpas - and written this book about the role several of them played in a tragic expedition on K2.  I found it interesting to learn about the reasons one becomes a Sherpa (meaning a person who assists with expeditions - as opposed to one who is a Sherpa by ethnic designation) - and what it means to the families of those who are away helping foreigners and risking their lives.  Ultimately, Buried in the Sky, focuses on the heroic efforts by one Sherpa to rescue another.  I did find the different perspective of this book quite interesting, and I'm glad someone told this story.  But, because I am not a climbing nut, I feel like if I've read about one ice storm, I've read about them all, and it was difficult not to read this book as merely a re-telling of Into Thin Air (even though I understand it's about a totally different situation).  All in all, a gripping crazy read, and one I think that someone with more of a background or experience in climbing would appreciate, but one that is still worth checking out even if you're simply an armchair adventurer like myself.

Dexter is Delicious - Jeff Lindsay (Dexter #5)

Awhile back I read the first four Dexter books in pretty quick succession.  And then I was done with the series and a bit bummed.  It isn't the best written series, but anything about a do-gooder serial killer is certain to pique my interest.  So, imagine my excitement when I returned to the library last month after a brief hiatus and found that not only had Lindsay published one new Dexter book since the last time I'd paid any attention, but he'd actually published two!!  Needless to say, I borrowed them both straight-away!  The fifth installment finds the recently married Dexter with a newborn daughter - a little girl who has stirred some kind of unfamiliar emotion in Dexter and made him want to be a better person...perhaps even one that gives up his Dark Passenger and his late night murders.  Dexter is then pulled in by his disaster of a sister to assist in investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl.  The case leads him to a strange cult of cannibals, while he continues to fight his own demons while trying to rid the world of others.  As usual, Dexter's sister irritated me to no end - she seems wholly incompetent at her job and hell-bent on bringing everyone else down with her.  But, I am a fan of Dexter, and watching him navigate his new family while still remaining somewhat true to his dasterdly nature was entertaining, as usual.

Simisola - Ruth Rendell (Chief Inspector Wexford #16)

I'm always on the look-out for a new mystery writer/series.  My grandmother-in-law recommended Ruth Rendell, and this book in particular.  I'm clearly not going in order here, as this is the 16th book in a series of about 22 featuring Inspector Wexford.  When Wexford's doctor's daughter goes missing, Wexford is fast on the case.  The "twist" is that his doctor happens to be one of the few black people in the British town of Kingsmarkham.  While looking for the missing woman, the bodies of two other women turn up murdered and Wexford is confronted with his own racism, as well as those of the witnesses he encounters.  I found the writing in this book fine - better than most mysteries that I read - but in terms of plot, it wasn't particularly suspenseful and I found some of the investigation a bit tedious.  I will read the other Rendell novel my grandmother-in-law loaned me (written under the name Barbara Vine) to see if there is any thing more that grabs me, but I probably won't rush out to read more in this series.

Prince of Mist - Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Niebla #1)

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's adult fiction novels are among my favorites, so when I learned his children's series had been translated into English, I had to check it out. Prince of Mist is a ghost-story featuring the three Carver children who have just moved into a new home where the owners son died under mysterious circumstances.  With the help of a local kid, the Carvers set about to uncover the secrets of the spooky hauntings.  This book was definitely suspenseful, and the main character (a young boy by the name of Max) was quite likeable.  I have never read the Goosebump series which I think is supposed to be quite frightening, but I don't know if I would allow someone younger than high school to read this.  I thought it was incredibly creepy - but I do have a low tolerance for the paranormal.  I want to read hte next in the series, as I like the author, but not if it's another ghost story!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bringing Up Bebe - Pamela Druckerman

One of the quickest lessons I learned as a new parent was that no one knows my child better than I do, and while I listen to advice and ask questions of others about how they raise their children quite often, in the end, I have (to this point) followed my instincts with my son and things seem to be going ok.  In doing this, I have contradicted many of the absolutes I was sure of before I had a child.  I never thought I'd be the kind of parents to share a bed with my child, or carry him around for hours on end, or do many of the things that are associated with attachment parenting.  But, after only a few days of life, it became clear that these methods were what worked the best for my son (and for me). As a result, it took a long time for my son to sleep through the night (he still doesn't always do it), but he is not a picky eater and he is sometimes well behaved and other times defiant.  I am indulgent and I am strict, but hopefully in a way that is predictable and consistent.  That being said, I am always open to how other people do things - so when I heard about this book, I thought I'd check it out.  Bringing Up Bebe is written by an American mother living in Paris.  While her child exhibits many of the "American" ways of waking up often, snacking throughout the day, throwing tantrums, the author marvels at how well behaved the French children seem to be - sleeping through the night after only a couple weeks, eating in 5-star restaurants with the patience of a Buddhist monk, and in general being the angels to the American child's devil.  While American parents are stereotyped throughout this book as overbearing hoverers who martyr themselves for their children, the French are praised for their ability to hang on to their identities as people, while still enjoying their role as parents.  I am hesitant to buy into any system that people claim works for "all" children - but I did think there was much about this book that could be applied to my own parenting style.  I liked the chapter about French women working outside the home - and the value that gave to their relationships with their husbands.  I didn't like that there seemed to be a definite expectation that men did not participate as fully in the lives of their children as the mothers.  I liked the idea of couples focusing on their relationship, but not sure that would (for me) include shipping my three-year old child off to camp for weeks at a time in the summer.  So, as with all advice, I pick and choose the things that I like and think would work for my child.  I do like any "system" that advocates not being a martyr and retaining one's own identity while still being an active parent.  But, again, I think that all children are different and while they probably all need consistency and boundaries, some of the methods advocated in this book seemed too harsh for my tastes.  Druckerman is, at times, too hard on herself - and her children - any parent who thinks this much about the best way to raise her children is probably doing a great job - but in the end if seems like she finds the right American/French balance, and is doing just fine raising her bebes.  And we'll see which of these methods that I haven't chosen for my first-born will in fact find be perfectly suitable for the next ones that come along.

Quiet - Susan Cain

Ever since I scored as an extreme introvert in a work administered Myers-Briggs test, I have been fascinated with the qualities of introverts and extroverts- the different ways that we learn, interact, express ourselves, and of course conduct ourselves vis-a-vis other people (or alone, as the case may be).  Quiet is a thorough examination of the lives of introverts - how and why we behave the way we do, and how best to function in a world that values the qualities of extroverts.  But rather than encourage introverts to overcome their natural instincts, it is a book about embracing the positive in introversion and using it to your advantage in business and relationships.  The book is, of course, written by an introvert, and is definitely biased in favor or extolling the virtues of introversion over extroversion, but despite this, I felt it had many valuable insights and I found myself nodding my head vigorously as I read much of it.  There is a significant amount of the book dedicated to business and product development by introverts - which I wasn't that interested in.  I did like the parts about extroverts raising introvert children (though my husband and I seem to have found our introvert selves in the opposite position of having spawned an extrovert).  This books is comprehensive, and does much to dispel the myth that introverts are simply shy hermits who don't know how to interact with others.  It served to validate my existence, but also give me some comfort that I do have much to offer in a world that seems to value all those boisterous loud-mouths.

The Scarecrow - Michael Connelly (Jack McEvoy #2)

The Scarecrow features the return of journalist, Jack McEvoy.  On the eve of his forced retirement from the paper, McEvoy learns of a 16-year-old drug dealer who has confessed to a murder.  Under the guise of investigating the boy's innocence, McEvoy uncovers one of the biggest stories since his encounter with the Poet years earlier.  He teams up again with FBI agent, Rachel Walling, in a race against the real killer and the government conspiracy to cover it all up.  As with the first McEvoy novel, the fact that he is a journalist, rather than an attorney or actual detective, meant that he was often making ridiculous leaps in logic, or otherwise trying to scoop the story rather than get to the whole truth - which I found consistently annoying throughout the novel. But, of course, those leaps are what allow for all the crazy twists and turns necessary for a good story. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses - Amy Tan

Amy Tan is one of those writers who books I always seem to enjoy when I read them, but I haven't read too many - and luckily for me, she has a lot of them.  In The Hundred Secret Senses, half-Chinese-American Olivia is pestered constantly by her full-Chinese born half-sister, Kwan Li.  Olivia just wants to live a normal existence, but finds this difficult with her sister constantly interferring with advice - particularl advice from the ghosts that she is in contact with on a regular basis.  When Olivia's marriage fall apart, she agrees to travel to China - with Kwan Li and her ex-husband.  The book switches between the present day - and Kwan's storytelling of her previous life in China.  As with many of Tan's books, it is a story of past lives and family history, and establishing identity in the face of tremendous expectation.  While the characters were at times infuriating - Olivia is so stubborn (and downright mean at times) and Kwan is so overbearing - Tan writes them as real people - just like one's own family who you can't help but love and protect despite their never-ending annoyances.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Flux - Peggy Orenstein

I first read this book after I had just graduated from law school.  I was single and fairly certain that I never wanted to have children.  As the book looks at professional women and their choices involving raising families, I felt like it reinforced my belief that it is impossible to have it all, and that having children would only derail what I hoped would be a focused and successful legal career.  Years later, the book was still on my shelves.  But, this time around, I'd been praticing law for almost 12 years, I had a young son, and plans for more children in the future.  I have a husband who supports my career- but who definitely has one of his own.  And so, the majority of the child-care falls to me.  In many ways, I feel like I am the disappointment that Orenstein predicted in women with professional potential who choose to take time to have children.  Re-reading this book while in a completely different place in my life was very interesting.  I found it frustrating and almost hopeless - sad to realize that I'd stepped off the competitive career track that I always saw myself on - or maybe sad to realize that I'm the stereotype of the woman who decided that a high-powered legal career wasn't giving me the satisfaction I thought I deserved. While having a family certainly isn't the be-all-end-all, I enjoy it.  And I enjoy having a job that I love as opposed to one that other people think that I am supposed to have.  I do wonder if it's possible to "have it all" and still get sleep at night.  I feel like I've made the right choices for me that have led to more happiness in my career and personal life than I thought I'd ever have, but still feel like it came at the sacrifice of being a trail blazer or making things any easier for the women who come after me - that feeling still gnaws at me often.  Other women I've spoken to about this book found it comforting - to know that there are other women who struggle with the same doubts as they do.  I found it frustrating - wishing that more people could find a way to have pieces of everything they want, or to be happy in what they have.  Mostly, I wish that we could all find a way to feel comfortable in our decisions, and support others who make ones that are not the same as ours - and for those of us that have choices, to appreciate that reality.  This is a conversation I think will be going on for decades to come, as women wrestle with what we want and what we are willing to give up to achieve it.  This is a great book for sparking debate and serious thought about the life one wants to lead - but getting through it was definitely (for me) no walk in the park.

The Great Railway Bazaar - Paul Theroux

I've been itching for some good travel lately, but unfortunately, circumstances have kept me definitely time for some armchair travel.  I've never traveled by train, but romanticize about it, and Paul Theroux seems to be the master of this type of travel.  The Great Railway Bazaar was written over 30 years ago and chronicles Theroux's escapes on the rail through Asia.  He is very matter of fact in his writing, and it reminded me a great deal of Kerouac's On the Road - just detailing day-to-day life, sight seen, strange people met, and general observations.  But, unlike many travel diaries/memoirs written today, there isn't a lot that felt personal about the writing.  While I'm sure Theroux learned a lot about himself on the trip, he didn't delve into his past or make any psychological evaluations of his experience.  Rather, this is more of a straight-forward travel diary - it made for a less salacious read than I'm used to, but still quite educational and inspiring.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Mercy Room - Giles Rozier

I'm not great with books with unknown or vague narrators - I know, perhaps, that they let the reader's imagination work a little harder, or they stretch one's perceptions and assumptions. But, I think I just need a more concrete story sometimes. I do, however, tend to like books that take place around World War II, as this one does. The basic story is that the narrator is a German teacher living in occupied France during the war. The Nazis recuit this person(whose gender is never identified)to translate documents for them. As the person watches as known acquaintances are marched to their certain death, s/he makes the dangerous decision to hide a Jewish soldier in her home. An illicit love-affair ensues. While the teacher is quite the intellectual, often losing her/himself in the beauty of great literature, s/he is not, as one would expect, very reflective when it comes to the circumstances of her life and those around her. In many ways I found the narrator too dismissive of surrounding horrors - but perhaps this was a survivial mechanism. The gender ambiguity also lends an interesting angle to this novel, which can be read in vastly different ways depending on if the narrator is seen as a woman or a man. I did feel more compelled to see the narrator as a woman given a description of his/her first marriage early in the book, but perhaps this is just a result of sterotypes in my head. Whatever the case, this is an interesting and different little read - not a bad way to pass the afternoon

Chasing Cezanne - Peter Mayle

I tried reading this book years ago and just couldn't get into it - this surprised me because I am a big fan of Peter Mayle's non-fiction writing about his life in France, and in general I like a good art heist story. So, I decided to try again. I had a little more luck this second time around, but still found that the story failed to really hold my attention. The basic story line is that a magazine photographer who takes pictures of the homes and art of the rich and famous, finds himself photographing what he believes to be the theft of a Cezanne. As he reveals his find to the home owner and his connections in the magazine art world, he finds that they are not as eager as he to get to the bottom of the problem. His interest takes him sleuthing throughout France as he uncovers a web of art forgery and deception. The writing in terms of the quirky characters reminded me a lot of Alexander McCall Smith - a fun little mystery - and a nice escape to France. Perfect for reading with my latte and chocolate croissant on a Satuday morning.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Vulture Peak - John Burdett (Sonchai Jitpleecheep #5)

After enjoying the first four in this Thai detective series, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Burdett had published a fifth in the series.  Bangkok murder investigator, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is put in charge of attempting to put an end to the illegal trafficking of human organs.  His investigation takes him all over the world - from Hong Kong to Dubai - as he becomes enmenshed in the world of creepy identical Chinese twins who are mastermining the endeavor.  Along the way, Sonchai's Buddhist principles are tested, and his ex-prostitute wife is back at home driving him insane with worries of infidelity.  One part mystery, one part spiritual guide, Vulture Peak, is yet another clever suspenseful novel filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of Bangkok - I guarantee it'll make you crave a plate of pad thai and a little enlightenment of your own.

The Narrows - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch #10)

This installment of the Harry Bosch series kind of threw me off on my Connelly reading.  It doesn't feature journalist Jack McAvoy, but it focuses on the case he covered in Connelly's novel, The PoetThe Narrows takes place years after LAPD claimed the Poet had been shot and killed.  But FBI Agent Rachel Walling knows that he's still out there.  She receives the call that he has resurfaced.  Coincidentally, a case invesigated by Bosch as a faked suicide brings the two together to finally bring the Poet to justice.  I like the books that reference cases from other books, and bring characters together.  It's like finding old friends in a new situation (the general reason people like to read books in series, I suppose).  The Narrows was more suspenseful than most in this series, and I did find myself glued to it late in the night.  It did include the typical Bosch frustrations of jumping to the wrong conclusions and trusting and mistrusting the wrong people, but in the end all the ends ties up tightly and I was excited to move on to the next mystery.

Lost Light - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch #9)

I've been on a kick to finish of all of Michael Connelly's novels...mostly because I really enjoy them and I haven't tired of reading one after another, especially these days when my focus isn't the sharpest.  But, of course, there is always the sad prospect that I will run out of his books!  In #9, Bosch, the king of the cold case, finds himsel haunted by the unsolved murder of a Hollywood production assistant.  Bosch is convinced that the murder is linked to the disappearance of $2M from a movie set, but as usual the powers that be don't want Bosch poking his nose into their business and discovering the truth.  Typical Bosch/Connelly - entertaining and a fun way to pass an evening.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Some Assembly Required - Anne LaMott

This is Anne LaMott's musings on the first year of her grandson's life - and what it's like to watch her teenage son and his girlfriend raise their own child.  I read this book during my own son's first year of life - which I thought would make me relate to so much.  Instead, I found LaMott annoying and self-centered.  Perhaps, grandparents reading this book might relate better.  And perhaps parents watching a very yonug child raise their child might relate even better. But, I thought she lacked real perspective - while I know that all parents and grandparents find their children/grandchildren amazing and wonderful, her descriptions of her seemingly average grandchild were so over the top and distracting.  She seemed overly meddlesome in her son's life - though perhaps some of this stemmed from the fact that she was contributing so much to his ability to live in San Francisco as a teenage parent.  I suppose, I should have just appreciated the book for what it was - a grandmother's dotting descriptions of her grandchild, but I just expected more from such an accomplished writer. 

The Poet - Michael Connelly (Jack McEvoy #1)

In The Poet, Connelly takes a break from focusing on the perspective of homicide detective Harry Bosch, and introduces a new amateur sleuth - a journalist by the name of Jack McEvoy.  After McEvoy's twin brother dies from an alleged suicide, McEvoy's digging leads him to believe that there is a serial killer on the loose, borrowing lines from Edgar Allan Poe for his doctored suicide notes.  Stephen King wrote a bang-up endorsement of this novel for the Introduction - claiming that he couldn't stop reading, and that it was a thriller to top all murder mystery thrillers.  I'm a definite King fan, so the endorsement meant something - and maybe raised my expectations a bit too much.  I found the writing in the first few chapters a bit choppy (a bit pulp fiction-y) - and as McEvoy tries to convince folks at every turn that his brother was murdered and didn't commit suicide, I just found the telling and retelling of the evidence tedious.   But, then Connelly did hit his stride, and I thought the story unfolded well.  Unfortunately, McEvoy did a lot of jumping to (the wrong) conclusions, which I found frustrating, and the mystery was revealed a little too rushed at the end (I think in the final 10-20 pages, though I could be mistaken).  This is not the best murder mystery novel of all time, but it's entertaining, as Connelly's books usually are, and it was nice to start a new character and see where he ends up.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Theory of All Things - Peggy Leon

This is the second book I reviewed for the Saroyan Prize.  It's the story of the tragic Bennett family - sent in varied directions after the suicide of one of their brothers and abandonment by their mother.  As their aging father sucuumbs to Alzheimer's, each child tells their own story, and that of their family, in their own words.  The five remaining siblings range from the brilliant, but socially inept Mark, to the practical sister who stays home to care for their father, to the free-spirited hippie who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant.  While I appreciated the family aspect of this book, there were a bit too many moving pieces for me to really enjoy.  Focusing on three siblings might have made for a better story.  And, at times, it just seemed like too many bad things were happening to all these people.  Leon is experimental in her narrative - telling portions of the story through emails among the siblings.  An interesting portrait of a family, but disjointed at times.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

If You Live in a Small House - Sandra Park

Every two years, Stanford and the William Saroyan Foundation award the Saroyan Prize to a newly-published work of fiction that commemorates the life, work, and intentions of William Saroyan.  To screen the entries, Stanford asks for volunteer readers.  I've volunteered for the last three awards, and this is one of the books I was assigned for this year.  Sandra Park's novel takes place in Hawaii, and tells the story of Korean immigrants growing up on the island.  As the title suggests, it is about multi-generations of family living under the same roof - and the book centers around the idea of space - why do we need it and how do we get it - from our families, from our pasts, and from ourselves.  Taking place on a small island, such as Hawaii, I felt that it all took place within the confines of this small confined space, and at times did give me a feeling of claustrophobia as I read.  I enjoyed the novel - I tend to like books set in Hawaii - and I hadn't read much in the past about Korean-Americans on the islands.  I did find the writing style a bit disjointed - it skipped around from character to charater and presented the story in a vignette style that I found frustrating at times.  But, it was a good read for just getting a sense of a time and a place.

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harback

I seem to enjoy books that take place at small town colleges.  Richard Russo's Straight Man and Jane Smiley's Moo come to mind.  The Art of Fielding follows Henry Skirmshander, a shortstop phenomenon to Wisconsin's Wetish College.  As Henry learns to navigate college life and the pressures of college athletics, his roommate begins an illicit affiar with the univeristy President.  And, the President's daughter, running from a failed marriage, begins her own dalliance with the team's captain.  Amidst a lot of baseball talk, is a coming-of-age story about a boy who lacks confidence, who is then built up to believe he can do no wrong, who then makes an unforeseen error that potentially changes the trajectory of not only his life, but of all those around him.  At times, this book was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but overall it was an enjoyable story with some interesting and real characters.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms - Gail Tsukiyama

My mom has been telling me to read this book for years.  As usual, I should listen to my mother.  I am a big fan of Gail Tsukiyama and have a number of her books unread on my shelves.  I feel like I'm saving them for something, but I know I need to just read them and enjoy!  The Street of a Thousand Blossoms takes place in Japan mostly following the bombings of Hiroshima/Nagasaki during World War II.  The book focuses on orphaned brothers, Hiroshi and Kenji.  While Hiroshi follows his dream of becoming a sumo wrestler, the quieter Kenji gravitates toward the beautiful mask making of the Noh theater.  The story spans decades and follows the brothers through the lives in post-was Japan.  At times, this book was a bit too tragic for my tastes.  It seemed like sadness lurked around every corner - often, I felt, unnecessarily.  But, Tsukiyama tells a wonderful story about a family and brothers who find each other no matter how different their life paths and desires.  Definitely one of the best books I've read this year.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Echo Park - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch #12)

Because I keep reading these things out of order, I can't keep track of whether Bosch is about to retire, working through his retirement, or just coming back...but I already knew that something crazy was about to go down in this book because a later one I read kept referening the debacle that was "Echo Park."  In this one, Bosch is haunted by yet another cold case - this one involved the disappearance of a young woman twelve years prior whose body was never recovered.  When a serial killer about to be executed for his crimes confesses to the woman's murder and promises to lead Bosch to her body, he goes against his judgment and bites.  As with all Connelly's novels (and crime stories in general) - the first suspect is never the right one, and here we also know there is bound to be police corruption involved.  I enjoyed the cat and mouse hunt of this one, and even though I knew the serial killer couldn't be the real killer in the case Bosch cared so much about, I enjoyed the suspense of finding out who actually did it.  I really just never tire of these books!

The Boy in the Moon - Ian Brown

I shouldn't allow myself to read memoirs by parents of sick or dying children.  They just make me cry - though I suppose they also make me appreciate the health of my own child, and the time that we have together.  So, maybe that's why I keep coming back to them.  Ian Brown's son, Walker, lives with an extremely rare genetic condition that leaves him mentally and developmentally between the ages of a one to three year old, and in need of constant care.  As Brown journeys in search of answers, and perhaps even a cure, he faces some of the toughest questions a parent can ask.  Brown seeks out parents of child diagnosed with the same disease.  He buries himself in research on the mysterious affliction.  He watches and studies, and ultimately simply loves his son despite the constant challenges his son poses, and the question on many days of if his son will ever be able to understand or recognize the tremendous sacrifice Brown and his wife and daughter have made.  This is a deeply honest book - one that rages against an unfair world, while also finding blessings in the most unlikely places. 

Swamplandia! - Karen Russell

I am so behind on my blog updates...let's see if I can even remember what all these books were about...well, Swamplandia!, what can I say?  With an exclamation point in the title, I was expecting great things - and the plot premise sounds like something I'd really enjoy.  After a family that runs a swampland tourist attraction loses their mother (and star alligator pit wrestling attraction), business dwindles and the three children find themselves scattered to the wind and left to fend for themselves.  Ava, the youngest at 13-years old, is determined not make the family business profitable once again.  The story is at time heartbreaking and at other times whimsical and imaginative.  But, mostly, I found myself slogging through boring passages and fantastical stories that borderd on  the lame rather than the pleasantly quirky.  This book has received incredible reviews, but I think it's definitely a matter of taste (like most books, but my point is I don't think this one has universal appeal).  It's different and clever, but the writing didn't hold my attention.  Not quite worth the price of Swamplandia! admission.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Buddha in the Attic - Julie Otsuka

As I become more and more sleep deprived, I find myself wanting straight-forward plot-driven books even more than usual, and avoiding anything remotely "literary".  But, I was pleasantly surprised to discover Otsuka's latest, a beautiful and lyrical novel which follows the lives of Japanese picture brides, as they arrive in the United States, develop relationships with their husbands, find work, and eventually, in the midst of World War II, find themselves forced into relocations camps.  Otsuka writes in the voice of hundreds of Japanese - and all their varied experiences - the positive and negative, the joyous and the tragic, she is able capture in hardly more than 100 pages, the despair of isolation, and the promise of hope.  Otsuka's writing is so precise, I truly felt like I was holding a treasure as I read carefully through each page.  Of course, as a Japanese-American, the subject matter of this book is close to my heart, and the pain of my ancestors boils my blood.  I found many passages difficult to read, and so many images brought tears to my eyes.  But, like Elie Wiesel's, Night, this is a story about the suffering and survival of one group of people that should be required reading for all.

The Leftovers - Tom Perrotta

I've enjoyed a few of Tom Perrotta's earlier novels - including Joe College, The Abstinence Teacher, and Little Children, so I was excited to check out his latest developed out of last year's hype surrounding The Rapture.  In Perrotta's world, The Rapture has actually taken place.  But instead of vanishing the most righteous, those taken appear to have been at random, causing those left behind to question everything they ever knew and believed.  Out of the confusion, a group emerges called the Guilty Remnant, a cult of survivors who have tasked themselves with ensuring that no one in their community ever forgets.  The novel focuses on Kevin Garvey, the town mayor, whose own wife has left him to join the Guilty Remnant.  His wayward son has run off with a charismatic prophet, and his once focused and promising daughter has started cutting school to hang out with a drug-using n'er-do-well.  Through Kevin's family, Perrotta explores the various reactions to this apocolyptic event and raises questions about the meaning of life and our place in it.  While clearly the story requires a suspension of disbelief, I actually didn't find it all too fanciful.  Perrotta managed to state the premise in a matter-of-fact way that didn't distract from the rest of the story, but still manged to inform the actions of the characters.  An enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

The Brass Verdict - Michael Connelly (Mickey Haller Series #2)

Over the past several years, I've been slowly making my was through Connelly's Harry Bosch series which follows a curmudgeonly LADP Detective in his homicide investigations.  The Lincoln Lawyer introduced Mickey Haller, an LA defense attorney.  In The Brass Verdict, Bosch and Haller's world collide, as Haller takes over a high-profile murder case from a recently deceased member of the bar.  As Bosch investigates the dead lawyer's murder, the two lone wolves join forces to get to the bottom of things.  It was really fun to see Connelly's two heroes come together- and the underlying trial had some fun (and tricky) moments.  I look forward to more Bosch/Haller collaborations.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Seriously...I'm Kidding - Ellen DeGeneres

I'd never watched the Ellen show until I was home on maternity leave...and for those few months, 4:00 became one of my favorite hours - and I fell in love with Ellen, her dancing, and just her general niceness.  She seems like a genuinely good person - with a wonderful sense of humor.  So, I was incredibly disappointed to find that her book did not make me laugh.  Even once.  I could, at time, picture her delivering the written lines, and that seemed to help.  But, what this book to demonstrate to me is that there is a true art to comedic timing - and Ellen has it on her show (in-person) in spades.  And, the topics she talks about come across as folksy and endearing on an afternoon talk-show and just kind of blah in a book.  I needed something more edgy like Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling, or something more offensive like David Sedaris.  Unfortunately, Ellen's safe comedy didn't work for me late at night after a full day.  But, I still love her and now that I've returned to work, I look forward to catching her on a lovely day when I happen to be home at 4:00 in the afternoon.  And, I want to read Portia's book!! 

The Overlook - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch #13)

I got out of order on my Harry Bosch novels and managed to skip Nos. 9, 10, and 12 in this series, so some of the backstory was a little muddy for me on this one.  But, plot-wise, this one seemed a bit more straight-forward than the rest - Harry finds himself investigating the murder of a scientist who works with extremely dangerous hazardous materials.  The chemicals involved could potentially threaten national security, which bring the FBI and Bosch's ex-flame, Rachel Walling, into the picture.  Together they must track the killer - with Bosch's usual hatred of authority, the Feds, and any kind of direct order, naturally threatening to hinder the investigation.  A little sexual tension, a little Muslim prejudice thrown in as a diversionary tactic, and Bosch's signature gut feelings made for the usual Connelly entertaining read.  I need to go back and read the ones I skipped!

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending received the 2011 Man Booker Prize.  I know that I am never a fan of the winners of this particular award, but still I keep going back.  Plus, Julian Barnes's novels are short, so there's not much to lose - particularly since I will concede that these winners do tend to be well writter.  The Sense of an Ending is Tony's story about his now dead friend Adrian and his former girlfriend Victoria.  As Tony reaches middle-age and finds his life somewhat unfulfilled, he remembers back to his earlier relationships, reliving moments and questioning motives.  The book is Tony's search for answers, but unsurprisingly, while the end of the book brings a big revelation, it leaves the reader with more questions than ever.  In such a short novel, there are certain to be loose ends left untied, but this one left me completely unsatisfied.  Characters are angry with each other for no particular reason - or there are reasons that don't seem complete.  There are secrets being kept, also for no particular reason.  In the end, I was just annoyed. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Maine - J. Courtney Sullivan

If you give me a book about several generations of women in the same family that is a relatively easy read - one that you could see yourself taking out at the beach or on any relaxing vacation, then chances are that I'm going to like it.  Maine definitely fits the description.  Shockingly, it takes place in Maine, at Alice's summer home.  After the passing of her husband, she is left alone, except for the sporadic company of her three children - none of which she seems to particularly like, and none of which particularly like her.  A series of events bring her daughter Katherine, her granddaughter Maggie, and her daughter-in-law Ann Marie to the house at the same time.  As the family history unfolds so do the various conflicts among the family members - but though they all share a passive-aggressive gene, none of them seem much committed to resolving any of the family drama, acknowledging their own wrong-doing in anything, or making a commitment to living a life free of negativity.  Even Katherine, who takes her AA quite seriously is the biggest offender of starting arguments for no particular reason.  In this way, I found the book annoying and almost unbelievable - clearly there are unplesant people in the world, but are there any truly this unpleasant?  Maggie, the only one not trying to start a fight, and actually attempting to build relationships with her relatives, is a pathetic doormat in her relationship with boyfriend in a way that makes all her interactions with anyone just seem desperate and sad.  Yet, despite not liking a single character in this book, the overall story still worked for me.  At base, it's just another story about a dysfunctional family (kind of reminded me of Weird Sisters, though not as clever), but it was filled with some pretty good gossip and secrets, and definitely an entertaining read at the end of a long day.

The Paris Wife - Paula McIain

When I studied literature in college, my least favorite writers were the American ones from the '20s and '30s, and that definitely included Ernest Hemingway.  I thought the topic of many of the novels from this period were boring, and the writing just never grabbed me - even if I was told over and over that it was sophisticated in its simplicty.  But, I also know that I love a good backstory - and once I've learned something about someone, I suddenly become a little more interested in reading something about them that I previously couldn't stand.  This definitely happened for me with Henry James, after reading Colm Toibin's fictional biography, The MasterThe Paris Wife is the story of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, and their tumultuous relationship in Paris, among the Lost Generation of Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and many others.  It is fundamentally a story of a woman in love with a man in love with his fame and art.  This was a difficult read just in terms of watching a woman give up so much, constantly standing in the background and making sacrifices, and then made to feel as if she was hampering her husband's career or, at times, intentionally sabotaging it.  Given what many people know about Hemingway's life going in to this read, you know the relationship will end in betrayal, and that Hemingway's own life ends tragically.  His treatment of Hadley throughout the novel is a function of what seems to be a tendency toward depression, extreme self-doubt and loathing, alcoholism, and unaddressed mental illness.  In short, he is not painted in the most flattering light.  But, the book brings his relationship with Hadley to life, and introduced the reader to the life and obsessions that became the basis for his famous novels.  As a novel on its own, I thought this was fantastic - and yes, on my last trip to the library, I did check out a copy of The Sun Also Rises.

By Nightfall - Michael Cunningham

I have a hard time getting into Michael Cunningham's writing - while he can tell a good story, he often tells it in a disjunctive lyrical way that I find distracting.  By Nightfall is a definite melding of the inner stream-of-conscience of one character alongside a straightforward narrative about a strange family and their wayward youngest brother.  The story takes place in New York and focuses on the artistic married couple of Peter and Rebecca.  While they are not exactly madly in love with each other after years of marriage, they seem to have figured out their rhythm.  That is, until Rebecca's much younger brother Ethan turns up and drags up family history and unresolved feelings.  The book is short, so when I found myself irritated with how self-absorbed and manipulative each of the characters is, I had the push to keep reading to at least find out how it ended.  Cunningham has a wonderful way with words, and this book was a reminder that I need to read another one of his, Specimen Days, that has been sitting on my shelves for years.  But, despite his popularity, I don't think he'll ever be an author that I love.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? - Mindy Kaling

Unfortunately for Mindy Kaling, her book came out the same year as Tina Fey's Bossypants, and since both of them are women writing for television sit-coms, it's inevitable that the two books will be compared - and perhaps people will only read one, and it'll be Tina Fey's because she is more famous and people love that Sarah Palin impression.  But, if that's the case, it is too bad, because Kaling's book is hilarious and amazing in its own right.  I just can't get over the fact that she is an Indian woman, brought up by parents who hoped she would become a doctor.  She went to Dartmouth and studied like a good Indian girl.  But, all that time, she just loved comedy, and she studied that too, and somehow - in an industry that doesn't just favor males, but favors white males, she managed to become a writer for one of the most popular television shows, The Office.  Or, perhaps she became a writer for a show, and she made it one of the most popular on television.  Whatever the case, she is amazing.  I recommend Bossypants, but I recommend this one too.  If you are only going to read one humor book written by a woman though, I pick Kaling.  She's different and unexpected, and perhaps even without meaning to be, she is quite inspirational.