Monday, December 30, 2013

My Beloved World - Sonia Sotomayor

In general, I am fascinated by the memoirs/biographies of Supreme Court Justices - it's such an incredible accomplishment to be named to the Court and the work ethic of each justice, even the ones I don't agree with politically, is bound to inspire.  Sotomayor's book chronicles her life up to her Supreme Court nomination, so does not include details about the intricacies of the Court, which probably wouldn't be appropriate so early in her tenure.  This is amazing story of a Latina growing up on the wrong side of the tracks with distractions all around her and no expectation of her amazing achievements.  At times, I was a little disappointed in her writing style - it seemed a bit too sensational, and her portrayal of herself as a naive girl from a small town in the shadow of the Ivy League towers was a bit incredible at times.  While I have no doubt that going to college was an incredible culture shock, some of her "humble-brags" were a bit annoying.  That being said, I loved this book for the consistent examples Sotomayor noted of her benefactors and mentors.  She contrasted the sacrifices made by her mother for her education, with the opportunities provided to her cousins.  It made clear that so much goes in to achieving this level of success- it is not simply luck, or affirmative action, or whatever excuse people want to give for discounting her incredibly hard work - or denying the opportunities they themselves are given every day, but may or may not take full advantage of.  Sotomayor is an absolute role model and inspiration - not just for minority girls growing up in New York, but for all of us who strive to be better and who are constantly evaluating what it takes not just to be a great person, but to also be a good one.

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls - David Sedaris

I feel like I should start every review of a Sedaris collection with, "Well, it's not as good as Me Talk Pretty One Day, but..."  So, given that caveat, no surprise, but I enjoyed this.  I had the pleasure of seeing Sedaris do a reading recently, and he read one of his essays from this book, plus one of the pieces he claims are meant for teenagers to memorize when they need to present monologues at school.  That explanation (while made slightly in jest, I think) made some of the pieces in this book a little more understandable, but in general, I didn't enjoy those ones as much as the personal essays he is known for.  What I love about Sedaris is his ability to go from completely inappropriate to completely poignant in a matter of paragraphs.  His recent piece in the New Yorker about his sister's suicide is a perfect example.  While there weren't any essays in this collection that stood out for me, for anyone who adores Sedaris, this is along the same lines of most of his work and certainly good for a laugh or two.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Racketeer - John Grisham

It doesn't matter how much worse and formulaic these Grisham novels get as the years go on, I will still read them as fast as he can write them.  The Racketeer features an inmate at a Federal Prison, Malcolm Bannister, who has information about the killer in the recent homicide of a judge.  As law enforcement's leads grow cold, Bannister's information becomes all the more valuable - and he's willing to trade it for his freedom.  There are some pretty clever, and not all that predictable twists and turns that kept this one an interesting and worthwhile read (especially for fans of Grisham and a good mystery).

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I don't have as much time as I'd like these days to read fat fiction books - but one of my favorite books is Half of a Yellow Sun, so when I heard the author had come out with a new book, I knew it would be worth the time investment.  Americanah is about a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who moves to the United States.  Once here, she finds herself confronted often with the issue of race - in a way she never was at home - not only is she black in America, but she is also African, with all the importance that distinction holds for herself, and often more importantly, for others.  While Ifemelu goes about her everyday life - falling in and out of love, finding and losing employment, spending time with friends, family, and the internet, she observes issues of race in each interaction.  Ultimately, she moves back to Nigeria and is reunited with a childhood love.  At times this book seemed simple in its story-line, but at the same time infinitely complex in its observations about identity and what defines who we are and how we view ourselves.  Definitely worth a read and a re-read.

French Kids Eat Everything - Karen Le Willow

This book has the unfortunate distinction of being published about four months after Bringing Up Bebe - it focuses on many of the same themes and reaches the same conclusions about the differences between spoiled and pampered American children, and their perfect French counterparts.  Of course, I'm joking, but I couldn't help but have that negative reaction while reading this - and feeling a little bored only because I had just read it all in Bringing up Bebe.  I agree in general that many American children these days seem to rule the roost, throwing tantrums that their parents invariably succumb to, and in general behaving badly.  And, because I have three children who are relatively picky eaters, I'll read anything that has suggestions about how to overcome this.  I didn't really learn anything new from this book - but it did reinforce for me the idea of introducing foods to your children over and over - and just because they turn their noses up once, twice, twelve times, doesn't mean you stop.  As someone who didn't really start eating vegetables myself until my late 20s, I believe that our palates change as we grow older, and that we can train them to enjoy new foods.  So, I try it with my children, but I draw the line at being too strict about it, or denying them food that they will eat, if they refuse to eat the ones I've initially served.  While I am not in the business of running a restaurant out of my kitchen, I do think there needs to be some give-and-take with kids when it comes to food.  I also enjoy snacking, I think it's fun, and it gives me enjoyment.  Does it sometimes mean I'm not that hungry for my actual meal?  Yes.  Do I think that's the end of the world?  No.  So, my kids are also snackers, and I think that's just fine.  I don't expect them to be able to sit quietly through a three-hour meal.  I can do that as an adult if I have to, but I don't want to, and they shouldn't be forced to either.  Bottom line, I appreciated many of the ideas of the French that were shared in this book (and Bringing up Bebe), but I don't generally see a need to overhaul my way of life - despite the fact that my children and I are hardly the model of healthy eating.  I want my kids to have a healthy relationship with food - to enjoy it, but not depend on it.  I don't want them to feel ashamed of eating or feel like there are a million rules that surround it.  Cooking and eating and sharing a meal with friends and family are some of my greatest pleasures in life.  I hope that I can impart that to my children - while throwing in a few vegetables here and there for the ride.

Poser: my life in twenty-three yoga poses - Claire Dederer

I am admittedly a sucker for these self-improvement memoirs, and I am a fan of yoga, so I picked this one up about a mother who takes on yoga and uses it as a vehicle for reflecting on her life.  In general I liked the idea - trying to slow down a bit and appreciate life - even with all its imperfections and hassles.  But, there were moments in this book that really turned me off - I felt like part of her purpose in tackling this subject was to become more open-minded and less-judgmental, but it seemed like in many of her descriptions of life and the people around her that she looked down on others who didn't seem to have it as together as she did.  She also seemed so intent on keeping up appearances in terms of only serving her children organic products, buying the right kinds of toys, and even practicing a certain kind of yoga - that I really felt that she was shallow and insincere.  I just read a slew of reviews of the book - mostly positive by people who felt they could really identify with the author.  I just couldn't and found the book a bit repetitive and self-indulgent.  Not quite the experience I'm looking for from my yoga.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio - Terry Ryan

As I struggle to keep my household together with only three children, I find myself drawn to books about families with large numbers of children - if only in the hopes of gaining some advice about how to make it all work.  Evelyn Ryan, the heroine of this story, is the mother of ten children.  And while she is married, her husband is an alcoholic who squanders his meager income.  So, Evelyn turns to jingle writing - entering any and every contest she can get her hands on - coming up with clever phrases and rhymes just to earn a few extra dollars to keep her family afloat.  This is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories to me- that one woman could win so many of these contests is pretty amazing, but that this sporadic unpredictable income is the best means she seems to have for keeping her family from the streets is incredibly odd.  This was an incredible story of how people facing difficult odds can dig deep to really come up with creative ways to keep a roof over their head and food in the refrigerator.  Fascinating on many levels - and the contest entries, while I didn't always understand them, were really quite entertaining.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Ashley always seems to have spot-on recommendations for me. I applaud her for this choice because it has the obvious – a bookstore which speaks to my love of books – but it also has a little sci-fi mixed in, which I appreciate, but she always seems to mock.  Perhaps it is the San Francisco setting, and the other world nature of the novel, but even the writing of this one reminded me a great deal of Christopher Moore’s “You Suck” – which I very much enjoyed.  Lost in the web-design world of start-ups, the protagonist here finds himself working the night-shift as a clerk in North Beach.  There are definitely strange things afoot as buyers come to borrow obscure volumes in secret, and appear to be on the brink of figuring out the answer to an elusive problem.  The protagonist then becomes obsessed with figuring out the answer himself, bringing his friends along on a literary adventure that takes him on a journey both exciting and absurd.  This book was just a lot of fun to read.  At times, it got a little too space-time-travel-weird for me (not that there is space time travel, but just that same feeling of interesting yet far-fetched).  A quick read that definitely put a smile on my face. 

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake - Anna Quindlen

Reading the memoirs of writers I like sometimes disappoints me (Anne LaMott, I'm looking at you), and other times it endears me to them even more.  Anna Quindlen's musings about everything from love to motherhood to girlfriends to all the random things in her life, falls in the later category.  The chapters are written like columns in a magazine - all about her life, but not chronological or straightforward.  There were so many beautiful quotes here and there - many of them I could relate to in terms of learning to love myself and being so grateful for the support around me as I get older (and obviously wiser).  Quindlen's observations are poignant and often quite clever.  I thoroughly enjoyed a quiet afternoon with this book - and a reminder that while we can't always get what we want, it makes the most sense to throughly enjoy all that we have.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Baby Catcher - Peggy Vincent

I have had two high-risk pregnancies.  Before, during, and after, I never would have considered a home-birth and thought that anyone who did was crazy and really asking for trouble.  But, reading this book definitely changed my mind.  Sort of.  I delivered my children at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California - the same hospital where the author of this book worked before becoming a licensed midwife. At Alta Bates, women labor (and usually deliver) in individual rooms.  Only when there is an issue, or a need for a c-section, is the woman moved to a more sterile operating room.  I was moved both times - the first because they thought I might need a c-section, and the second because I was delivering twins (which by protocol are always delivered in the OR).  But, each time, before I was moved, I appreciated being able to labor in a room with my friends and family, where I could watch TV or listen to music, have my blankets from home, and generally try to be as comfortable as possible.  So, given that during this process I wanted to have all my creature comforts, why wouldn't it make sense to labor and deliver in my actual home, where I am the most comfortable?  Vincent's memoir chronicles the birth of many many women - most go smoothly and seem much less difficult than I felt my birth was - but perhaps it was the attitude of these women that helped it go more smoothly?  Or perhaps it is self-selective in that the women who can afford to deliver at home (not financially, but logistically) are the ones who have not suffered any difficulties in their pregnancies.  Of course there were times when Vincent did have to take her patients to the hospital when complications arose - and I felt she laid out the interesting and ever-changing dynamics between the doctors and the midwives well.  This book definitely opened my eyes to the beauty of the home delivery - and in working with a midwife (or doula or other such person).  There is so much that is very personal about pregnancy and delivery - the choices that one wants to have, a birth plan, and contingencies - in this area I feel like there is a lot of pressure to be "all natural" and that women are often made to feel "less than" when medical conditions or unforeseen complications necessitate the use of drugs or a c-section.  It is unfortunate because every birth, no matter how it comes about, is an amazing, difficult, and treasured experience.  I think Vincent did a good job in her book of not being judgmental, but of presenting an option for women, and one I would certainly consider if I ever had another kid and my medical conditions allowed for it.

The Spark - Kristine Barnett

When the author's son was about two years old, he stopped talking and developing at a normal rate.  After taking him to a number of doctors, he was diagnosed with autism and his parents were told that he would probably never talk.  He was viewed as mentally retarded and his parents were counseled to manage their expectations. But, his mother knew that there was something else going on.  As Jacob spent hours staring at sunbeams or creating complex designs out of yarn, she knew there was something inside that she just needed to unlock.  A daycare provider by profession, Barnett began opening her home to other children with autism.  Instead of forcing them to abandon the areas they were interested in to focus on practical life skills, Barnett found ways to incorporate their true passions as a way to unlock their hidden genius.  In her son's case, he truly was a genius.  As the years passed, it became clear that during all the time staring silently seemingly into nothing, Jacob was actually working out complicated theorems.  By the age of 12 he began working on an original theory in astrophysics.  While every child (or hardly any) actually possesses this type of genius, it is really Barnett's attitude about how children learn that shines through in this book.  This is a great book for anyone who has a child or who works with children - an excellent reminder that sometimes we need to let go of our ideas of how children are "supposed" to learn or what they are supposed to be learning - and just let them explore. I went to an elementary school that really gave students the freedom to explore the things they loved to learn, and several of my friends from that school are now parents who are homeschooling or unschooling their children and really allow them to pursue their passions.  I am one for a little bit more structure of traditional schooling, but think there is a lot I can be doing at home to help my children really unlock and pursue their inner passions.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Hologram for the King - Dave Eggers

While I haven't been reading many fiction books lately, I wanted to give myself the chance to read the latest from Dave Eggers, as I am generally a fan of his writing.  This one was a simple quick read - but left me feeling a bit melancholy.  The main character in this one finds himself on the verge on financial ruin.  He has already old his daughter that she may not return for her next year of college due to his inability to pay her tuition.  But, he finds himself with one last opportunity to remake himself.  He travels to Saudi Arabia for the chance to meet with the King and present his innovative new idea.  But once he arrives, the King is nowhere to be found.  The man is told that the King should be back tomorrow.  Always tomorrow.  And so he waits.  And as he waits he lives his life and maybe falls in love and dreams about the presentation he may never have the chance to give.  The waiting becomes a bit tedious, and the ending wraps up a bit too quickly, but I appreciated the slow-pace.  The narrator himself was a bit too pathetic for me to ever root for, but I enjoyed following his story and wondering if he'd ever really be able to take advantage of an opportunity should it ever present itself.  In short, this is no Zeitoun, but still respectable Eggers.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In the Name of Honor - Richard North Patterson

My mom has been reading Patterson for years and I've always stayed away because I think of him as more of a write of espionage, which I'm not that in to.  But, for some reason this one was on my shelves and my mom thought I might like it since it involved issues of post-traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers - which I am interested in as it pertains to some of the work that I do.  In this one, a returning soldier shoots and kills another soldier - one who happens to be married to a childhood friend.  The investigation that ensues focuses on the relationship between the shooter and the wife - bringing in to question issues concerning affairs in the military (this book was written in 2010, but brings to mind many of the issues surrounding the relatively recent resignation of General Petraeus), as well as the psychological trauma endured by those who face combat and then return home.  There is also the budding relationship between the shooter's defense attorney and his co-counsel, the shooter's sister.  Ethical issues abound, and the courtroom scenes are pretty juicy and well done.  Patterson is quite a prolific writer, so I"m glad that I've been introduced to him - he's obviously good airplane travel and beach chair reading and I look forward to checking out a few more.

Fifty Shades Darker - E.L. James (Fifty Shades #2)

Please just shoot me in the head.  I wasted a couple hours skimming this thing.  I can't waste any more of my life writing a review about it.  No more.  Please.  No more.

Fire in the Ashes - Jonathan Kozol

I first read Jonathan Kozol back when I was in high school in the mid-90s - just over 20 years ago.  He writes about the American education system - focusing on children in the inner-city and really highlighting the differences between the haves and the have-nots.  As a teenager attending a very affluent suburban high school, Kozol really opened my eyes to my own privilege and provided the foundation for my interest in providing equal opportunity and education to all children.  Fire in the Ashes is a re-telling of Kozol's basic points.  He goes back to a housing project in New York and revisits families that he has known for decades in an attempt to figure out what helps children succeed and emerge out of poverty.  Is it enough to provide a good education by sending these children away from their families to private schools?  Is it enough for them to have one adult in their life who really takes an interest in their success?  What are the differences between adolescent boys and girls who grow up in neighborhoods riddled with drugs, crime, and prostitution.  What does it mean to see your peers die at young ages?  To have parents suffering from HIV?  How much can a child survive, and how much should we really expect our nation's children to endure.  This book is shocking - to think that people in this first world country live in these conditions is horrific.  But, at the same time, the book is uplifting - there are tremendous stories of success here - parents and children who are not just surviving, but actually thriving, despite all efforts to keep them down.  Kozol is an incredible individual - and I would love to hear from the people who invited him into their homes - to know that he told their stories correctly and made them feel heard.  For me, again, this was an eye-opener, and a reminder that we still have so much work to do.

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

This book seemed to be all the rage a couple months ago.  I can't count the number of people who recommended it to me - well, I'm sure I could count them, but still, it seemed like a lot.  I was told there were lots of twists and turns and that I'd never guess the ending.  And they were right, about three-quarters of the way through I had no idea how she was going to end this thing.  I didn't guess correctly, and I didn't like the ending, but I can't quite figure out how else she could have done it.  So, minus the ending, this was a great book.  It's about a guy whose wife disappears on their fifth anniversary.  The husband is immediately suspected of orchestrating her murder and ditching the body.  The investigation that follows was reminiscent of the Scott & Lacey Peterson case, but of course with some different details thrown in.  I can't say much more without spoiling things, but suffice it to say that this was a good recommendation - and it came from people of all ages (mostly women) who like to read a wide variety of literature.  So, if you like a little mystery, a little jilted love, a little revenge, this one is for you.

Broken Harbor - Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad #4)

I read this one awhile back, but just preparing to write this post reminded me how great it was and how much I'd like to read a good mystery right now.  I had the pleasure of reading this one in a hospital bed late at night when I couldn't sleep.  A little scary, but nice to be undisturbed so I could get through the good parts!  I am a big fan of Tana French - I have read the other three books in this "series", but the books don't really have anything to do with each other, except that they're all about detectives in this Dublin Murder Squad - certainly not necessary to read the others before this one. When a father and his two children are found murdered in their home, Mick Kennedy is assigned to the case.  What he thinks will be an easy resolution of course turns into never-ending twists and turns (like all good murder mysteries).  I like Kennedy as a character, and we get some good back story about him and his family when his mentally ill sister comes to live with him during the investigation.  Once again French has managed to weave together a well-written compelling story-line, with interesting characters and enough creepiness to keep me reading but still able to fall asleep at the end of the night.  Can't wait for her next one.

The Invisible Bridge - Julie Orringer

Well, it's been quite awhile since I've found time to update this blog...I believe I finished reading this book back in early October, while I was on bedrest in the hospital waiting for the birth of my twins.  My sister-in-law loaned this one to me, and when I first read that it was yet another book about WWII, I was not too excited.  But, I'm glad I dove in because this was definitely one of my favorites of the year.  At the outset of this book, a young Hungarian architecture student arrives in Paris to pursue his dreams.  While he is Jewish, and the war has begun, he is seemingly oblivious to the potential dangers in store.  He finds a forbidden love in his new city, and makes strange and wonderful friendships.  Slowly, the realities of the war begin to set in, as the young man sees freedoms around him slowly taken away, and a hate group at his school grow in increasing numbers and power.  This story is told in an beautiful and very readable fashion.  It reminded me of Richard Russo.  Toward the end, the book became difficult to read, just in terms of the subject matter, but overall this is a powerful narrative with rich characters.