Monday, December 31, 2007

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate - Alexander McCall Smith (Isabel Dalhousie Series - Book 2)

This is the second installment in Smith's Isabel Dalhousie series about a meddling philosopher in Scotland. Isabel edits a philosophy journal, moonlights at her beautiful niece's deli, maintains friendships with a budding musician 15 years her junior, and interjects her opinions with reckless abandon wherever she pleases. In this one, Isabel meets a gentleman by the name of Ian, a recent recipient of a heart transplant. Ian has been experiencing strange visions and memories, and considers the possibility that they belong to the young man whose heart he now carries. Isabel investigates the possibility, encountering various moral conundrums along the way. My favorite parts are Isabel's conversations with her housekeeper Grace - who may not be as educated or clever as Isabel, but has a wealth of practicality and advice to pass along nonetheless. This series is much better written than Smith's #1 Ladies Detective Series, but the characters are not quite as charming or clever.

On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan - Ian McEwan is a brilliant writer. He won the Man Booker prize in 1998 for Amsterdam, was long-listed for Saturday in 2005, and was most recently short-listed in 2007 for this one. Yet, despite McEwan's mastery of language, I've yet to read a book of his that I actually enjoyed. On Chesil Beach is a study of the relationship between newlyweds Florence and Edward. Florence, who comes from a upper-class background is an artist who loves her husband, but suffers from incurable frigidity. Edward, on the other hand, comes from a more humble background and is prone to bouts of violence. The narrative switches between the couple's wedding night and flashbacks to the beginnings of their relationship. I found myself irritated by Edward and Florence and how they played their gender roles so stereotypically. The end of this book, however, was a bit unexpected. For a study in fine writing, this book is worthwhile, but I don't think I could legitimately say that I liked it.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007: The Year in Review and My 2008 Resolutions

2007 was a good reading year for me. I finished roughly 150 books. Of course, the number of books I read is a reflection of the fact that for 4 months this year I was either working part-time or between jobs. I also took some wonderful trips that allowed me to read: Japan with Jake, Ashland with Raz, Kauai with my mom, Mexico with Jake's family, and most recently, out to Michigan to see my brother.

I re-discovered the library this year -- trading in my hundreds of dollars in credit card bills at Walden Pond Books and Amazon for the Lakeshore Public Library. The library has been wonderful -- I love being able to check out books that look good, and not feeling guilty if I end up not wanting to read them. Of course, my need to over-consume has led to excessive check-outs and now I fear I will never get to read the books that are sitting on my shelves at home!

I also found new places for book recommendations: I bought a copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die which introduced me to J.M. Coetzee, my favorite new find for the year. I began reading the NY Times book reviews on-line and receiving daily e-mail reviews from (my favorite huge bookstore in Portland). And, I joined, an on-line forum that allows me to keep track of all my books - and see what my bibliophile friends are also reading. I've gotten some great recommendations from friends and family this year, so please keep them coming!

I have missed browsing in bookstores. I try to stay away since it's still hard for me to go in and just look. But, in 2008, I think I may budget myself a little money and time for one of my favorite pasttimes. And, now that I'm back working full-time, I miss just lounging in a cafe with my latte and reading for an hour or so while the world passes me by. In 2008, I think I might let myself skip the gym one day a week and spend that hour just reading. I might even let myself have a scone.

Sometimes I get anxious or stressed thinking about all the books I HAVE to read and knowing that I'll never have enough time. But, in 2008, I am going to try and relax, and just let myself BE with my books and enjoy everything I love about reading.

Thanks to all my friends and family for reading my blog now and again and for encouraging me to keep reading and writing. This has been one of my favorite activities this year, and I look forward to keeping it going in the new year. Happy 2008 and happy reading to all!!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - Anne Fadiman - Every once in awhile I start reading a book and I just want to rush out and tell everyone about it. This is one of those books. This is the story of Lia Lee, a newborn Hmong girl living in Merced, California with her parents and seven siblings. Her parents speak no English, and when Lia begins suffering from epilleptic seizures, they reluctantly take her to the nearby hospital. From there, this book chronicles the vast cultural differences between mainstream Americans and the Hmong, and how language and cultural barriers affected Lia's treatment. Throughout the book, Fadiman meets with the Lee's and an interpreter, and provides historical background of the Hmong people who come from Laos and the Northern Hills of Thailand. This is an amazing portrait of how cultural norms can be misunderstood (or interpreted as crazy or the result of stupidity) when taken out of context, and the difficulty doctors face treating people from various backgrounds.

I am America (and So Can You!) - Stephen Colbert - Three years ago Jon Stewart came out with him mock textbook America (the Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democratic Inaction. While I sometimes find Stewart irritating, the book was pretty funny, and hit on all the highlights of a civics textbook - but with his liberal humor, of course. Now Colbert (who lately I have actually found funnier than Stewart) has come out with his own textbook of sorts. I am America is a collection of Colbert's thoughts and rants on basic American life from Race to Sports to Old People. There are lines that are laugh out loud funny, but mostly it gets a little old - and without the timely political headlines and figures to mock, the jokes are kind of stale, and a little too heavy on the homophobia for my taste. I was glad that I borrowed this one from the library - enjoyable for a few evenings, but not something I'd want to spend actual money on.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

84, Charing Cross Road - Helene Hanff - Many years ago, my Aunty Marji introduced me to this book. I remember just loving it. It is a collection of letters from the late 50s through the 70s between the author, Helene - a writer in New York, and Frank Dole - an antiquarian bookseller. Helene begins in search of rare titles, which Dole doggedly tracks down for her. As their correspondence continues, an interesting friendship develops. Helene sends packages to the bookstore, to be shared by the other workers there. And eventually, she begins to correspond, not only with Frank, but with his co-workers and even his wife. This book is quite short -- I read it in one session on the elliptical machine. It's so strange, because my recollection is that it was so much longer -- I'm not sure if it's because I read more slowly when I was younger, or if it's because I loved it so much that I imagined it lasted forever. Helene can be a bit infuriating, but her letters are funny and charming and contain discussions of the most obscure books. The idea that people could come to life through letters and develop a relationship without ever meeting each other is so wonderful to me. Now with the internet, I guess this is a much more common phenomenon than it used to be, but thinking about these letters traveling by post overseas is almost magical. The book has since been turned into a BBC broadcast, developed for the stage, and become a movie staring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

All He Ever Wanted - Anita Shreve

Set at the end of the 19th century, All He Ever Wanted is the story of Professor Nicholas Van Tassel and his all consuming obsession with Etna Bliss. He meets Etna one night when the hotel he's staying at catches fire. He's immediately taken with her, though she doesn't seem to express anything more than mild politeness in his presence. In response to his marriage proposal, Etna informs Nicholas that she does not love him. Yet, he's willing to go forward with the wedding in the hopes that some day she might come to at least tolerate him. As the years go by, nothing much seems to change, and slowly the truth of Etna's past, what she is hiding from and why she will never love Nicholas, is revealed. In general, I am a big fan of Anita Shreve - her stories are usually about the nature of love with a twist and written simply, but beautifully. My favorites are The Pilot's Wife and The Weight of Water. Nothing different here, yet, I found the character of Nicholas so self-centered and controlling, that it was difficult for me to enjoy the book. Etna herself is quite unlikeable, but at least she is honest. This is an interesting look at marriage, particularly at the turn of the century -- the decisions that women feel forced to make, the compromises men and women are willing to make, and I think ultimately, the importance of love.

The Secret Lives of the Sushi Club - Christy Yorke

As book clubs become more and more popular, it's only natural that more books about book clubs should emerge (I really enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club). My mom lent me this one, which she described as a "fast, entertaining" read, which in our book review code means, "basically mindless." The Sushi Club consists of four middle-aged women: a writer (Alice), a former soap-opera star (Irene), a single mom who lost the love of her life in a river rafting accident (Jina), and a female 40-year old virgin (Mary). When Alice uses the secrets revealed in the book club as the basis for the only bestseller of her life, the others feel betrayed and are forced to reexamine their lives. Jina's son convinces them all to go back to the river that claimed his father - to face their demons and find the strength to forgive. This book is chick-lit for middle-aged women, but it was a fast read, and it was decently entertaining. Yorke tries to do a little too much with some of her characters, to make profound political statements where none really exist, but a couple of the side stories are entertaining, and it was a good mindless distraction.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls

It seems like this has been the year of the memoir and everywhere I turned someone was reading a copy of The Glass Castle. And now I see why. This is Jeannette Walls's story of growing up with her parents and three siblings all over the country. Severely impoverished, her father is a brilliant, but depressed alcoholic, and her mother a struggling artist who seems to feel no responsibility whatsoever toward her children. Jeannette and her siblings protect each other from the sexual advances of relatives, incredible hunger, and bullies at school who beat them up for wearing clothing that haven't been washed in months. Through the horrific neglect, Walls manages to paint a somewhat sympathetic portrait of her parents as liberal dreamers who refuse to conform to societal norms. Reading this memoir was like learning about one of my clients - it is a social history filled with mental illness and abuse, masquerading as eccentricity. But, it is also a testament to the importance of the support that siblings can give to one another, and the importance of having that network during a traumatic childhood. While this book is incredibly depressing, I think it presents a realistic view of so many children growing up in this country, and shows a side of poverty and survival that few people who haven't gone through it themselves could ever believe. I hope we won't find out in another year that Walls made half of this stuff up (like the author of A Million Little Pieces). I worry sometimes when these memoirs have such shocking examples of poverty and abuse, yet are presented in "humorous" ways (Augusten Burroughs is a perfect example). Walls, among many others out there, has the power to bring recognition to very important issues in our society -- but not if readers are able to downplay these stories as merely "touching" or "heart-warming."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Name and Address Withheld - Jane Sigaloff

Lizzie is an "agony-aunt" (like a Dear Abby, but in London). She falls head over heels for Matt, who just happens to be maried (though he doesn't tell her this at first). At about the same time, she starts receiving long letters from Rachel, a high-powered self-absorbed ad exec. who seems to be having a little marital trouble. Well, it doesn't take a genius to figure out how this is all going to work itself out. Badly. Almost as badly as the way this story is written and told in general. Lizzie starts out likeable -- a no-nonsense woman with a career and some perspective. But, once she meets this guy she becomes wholly divorced from reality (no pun intended) and behaves like the stereo-typical wallowing pathetic loser of a co-dependent. I keep wanting to like these chick-lit books - they start light and fun and involve girlfriends and lots of chocolate (who wouldn't like that?), but in the end, I just end up depressed -- and truly hoping with everything in me that the women portrayed on the pages are really just figments of some writer's imagination, and not a true reflection of my entire female generation.

Trans-Sister Radio - Chris Bohjalian

I've been a big fan of Chris Bohjalian ever since I read Midwives back in college. I've also enjoyed The Law of Similars and most recently The Buffalo Soldiers. He tends to write stories about choices - and how the choices people make and the principles they choose to live their lives by, affect not only them, but the people around them. Trans-sister Radio is a story about Allison, a straight divorced single-mother who teaches sixth grade. Her daughter Carly is about to leave for college, and her ex-husband, Will, runs the local public radio station and is experiecing a little marital trouble. Allison meets and falls in love with Dana, a male professor in town. The "problem" is that Dana is a woman merely stuck in a man's body, and when she falls in love with Allison, she is only months away from her transsexual operation to become the person on the outside that she has always been on the inside. As Allison struggles with whether she can love Dana once the operation is complete, the town parents pressure her to resign from the job she loves. The story is told in chapters from the perspective of the different characters: Allison, Dana, Carly, and Will. From the afterword, it sounds as if Bohjalian did research for this book and spoke to numerous transsexuals. Obviously, not all of their experiences are the same, but I remain curious about how true to reality in general the book was. As can be imagined, there is significant portrayal of the prejudices encountered by both Allison and Dana, and I found those parts of the book infuriating and very difficult to read (though nothing compared to how difficult it would be in real life to endure). The ending was implausible and a little disappointing given how seemingly realistic the book had been up to that point. But, overall, I thought this was a beautiful book about how we fall in love and how important it is, even through very long journeys, to find our way to our true identities.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Abstinence Teacher - Tom Perrotta - Tom Perrotta's writing is very straight-forward and perfect during a hot bath or in bed after a long day. He tells a good story, often in school settings or about school-aged children and their neurotic morally-challenged parents. Prior to The Abstinence Teacher, I really enjoyed Joe College and Election (made into a movie with Reece Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick) , and to a lesser extent, Little Children (also a movie with Kate Winslet). The Abstinence Teacher is the story of Ruth, a high school sex ed. teacher and Tim, her daughter's soccer coach and a born again Christian. Ruth struggles to provide her students with the information she knows they need, within a curriculum that advocates abstinence as the only solution, while also trying as a single parent to take care of daughters who suddenly pronounce their interest in attending church. Tim, on the other hand, wants to give himself over completely to his church, knowing his tendencies to stray from a righteous path, but he finds the Church's moral absolutes difficult to swallow. In many ways this book was very frustrating -- knowing that there are people controlling certain curriculum in public schools who are simply blind about reality is incredibly scary. At the same time, I just don't want to believe that the religious segment portrayed in this book is really as ignorant, close-minded, and bullying as Perrotta portrays them. But, perhaps it's easy to think that living in a part of the country where that population simply doesn't seem to have a presence, or at least not a presence with any power. I did think Perrotta did a good job portraying the character of Tim and the twists and turns of his faith. Ruth, however, was a bit more one-dimensional - while facing somewhat of a communication crisis with her two children, she doesn't seem to do much to try and connect with them. She wallows in a little too much self-pity and while she has strong beliefs about education, she never seems able to articulate those positions to anyone who matters. I found her inability to stand up for herself and for the students she is in a position to protect very disappointing. Overall, however, Perrotta's novel raises very important issues about the nature of public school education, the separation (or lack thereof) of church and state, and how we pass along "proper" morals to our children.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Rumspringa: To Be or Not To Be Amish - Tom Schachtman

Like many people, I find the Amish quite fascinating. The idea that people would want to live without modern conveniences seems quaint, and I was interested to learn how they could retain young members. "Rumspringa" is the time in an Amish teenagers' life when s/he is permitted to go out and experience the outside world. The hope is that after reveling in temptation for a short while, they will realize the need to return to their communities and devote themselves to the Amish way of life. But, these kids don't just go out and get jobs and spend time with "English" youth. They go all out - they smoke, drink excessively, use hard-core drugs (often becoming addicted to meth and heroin), and engage in pre-marital sex (which leads to the fairly common phenomenon of many Amish first children being born 8 months after the wedding). While this book is, on its face, a study of Amish youth and their frustrations with the rigors of their religion, it is underneath a study of all children - how parents raise and teach children, and hope that when they are out on their own, they will know how to make the right choices and take care of themselves. The Amish parents in the book struggle between being too strict and driving away their children (but teaching them good values), and being too lenient, risking the wrath of their community, but hopefully showing their children mercy and acceptance. In many ways, it seems as if the Amish set their children up for disaster in the outside world - they rarely attend school after the 8th grade and so aren't in a position to obtain sustainable employment. What they can earn is spent readily on "normal" clothing and other means of just fitting in to regular life. Often times, the examples in the book seemed to come back to the Amish communities after they'd hit rock bottom, or were too afraid of the shunning they'd face if they didn't. As would be expected, the Amish life seems particularly difficult for women who are expected to have many many children and to submit to the directives of their husbands. On the other hand, as far as organized religions go, the Amish do have much to commend. Rumspringa is a fascinating glimpse in to growing up Amish, but also in to how we all come to make our own decisions and choose which life we want to lead.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Run - Ann Patchett

I often wonder if I could write or get all my thoughts down on paper who I would most want to sound like. I think the answer is Ann Patchett. Her previous books, Bel Canto, Truth and Beauty, The Patron Saint of Liars, and to a lesser extent, Taft have all completely captured me. They are straight-forward, but beautiful, with characters that you feel like you've known your whole life. Run is no different. This is the story of African-American brothers Tip and Teddy who were adopted as young children by Boston's Irish-Catholic mayor and his saintly wife, Bernadette. When Bernadette succumbs to cancer early on, the boys are left without their mother -- and a whole lot of sadness and loss. Years later, unable to fulfill his father's wish for him to go into politics, Tip is unexpectedly in an accident. Suddenly, the mayor's biological son is back, and ghosts from the past return to haunt Tip and Teddy. I felt like this book was just the first chapter in a very long story - Patchett could have written an entire novel on each of the characters. As a result, sometimes it feels like there is a bit too much going on, or places where I thought she would go or further explain are simply left unexplored. Race is certainly at the center of this novel and the relationship between this father and his sons - but while it is alluded to frequently, with numerous sterotypes introduced and ignored, in the end, the reader is left with so many questions about the character and motivations of these people. Yet, I did not feel cheated or dissatisfied when I finished the book. Perhaps because, again, it was like meeting people in real life - catching a quick glimpse of who they are, but left to wonder why and how they came to be. This would make a wonderful gift for all the readers on your Christmas list.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Almost Moon - Alice Sebold

In 2003, my brother bought me Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, for Christmas. I remember reading it on the plane home from Seattle. I was into it from the first page, and I couldn't help crying my eyes out on the plane. I finished it in one day. Later, I read her memoir, Lucky. I didn't think it was quite as well done, but it was about a very powerful topic, and it gave me some respect for where Sebold had come from and how much she had overcome. So, I eagerly anticipated getting this one from the long library waiting list. The Almost Moon tackles the difficult subject of family mental illness. Given my work recently, this is an area I am very interested in - how genetics affects behavior and how families attempt to normalize "crazy" behavior. Unfortunately, like mental illness, this book is all over the place. Sebold switches from present time to the main character's childhood to her life with her husband and children - and does so in a way that is haphazard and often confusing. The main character (unlike John Nash in A Beautiful Mind) is completely one-dimensional and thoroughly unlikeable. Her behavior is erratic and nonsensical, but instead of painting a picture of mental illness and its devastating effects, I simply found this book boring and irrelevant. It doesn't seem like Sebold did much research into the area before she wrote this. Rather, it's like she just took pieces of bizarre behavior and threw them together hoping something would resonate. For those who have never read Sebold, please read The Lovely Bones. For those who read The Lovely Bones and loved it as much as I did, DO NOT read this book. It will only serve to taint your image of Sebold's talent.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day - Pearl Cleage

After living life in the Atlanta fast-lane, Ava discovers she is HIV-positive. She packs up her hairdressing salon and heads home to hide-out with her older sister before making her way to San Francisco. Instead of a time-out, she finds herself organizing her sister's church outreach program to assist young mothers, raising an abandoned crack baby, and against her better judgment - falling in love with Eddie - a dreadlocked vegetarian with all the patience in the world. This book is filled with sorrow - from abusive boyfriends to untimely deaths, but instead of sadness and dwelling, it is filled with laughter and hope. Cleage's casual writing style and heavy subject matter reminded me a lot of Terry McMillan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale), but I found Cleage much more reflective. While it might be a little sappy and sentimental, this is an amazing feel-good book. It brought me both tears and a big fat smile. It's not about a woman simply trying to figure out how to live with HIV, but rather a book about women learning how to live simply. Once again, I find myself quite happy with Oprah's book selection.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Junior - Macaulay Culkin

Looking back, I see I've read some pretty bad books this year. Some were just poorly written. Some had characters that I didn't care about. Some books I just didn't like, but I could maybe acknowledge were well-written. This book, however, is simply terrible. It is the first-person narrative of "Junior" - a twenty-year old who has issues with his father and is trying to find his way in the world after experiencing some success as a child actor. In this respect, the book is apparently autobiographical. Otherwise, it is just a hodge-podge of nonsense. There are exceprts from Junior's diary, letters he wrote to people but never sent, poetry, parts of scripts, but none of it comes together in any remotely cohesive way. While I have wasted many hours and days doing nothing, I am still angry that this is 90 minutes of my life that I will never get back.

Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan - Paula Marantz Cohen

I found this one while browsing in the library and it looked fun. Carla is a housewife struggling with her disenchanted doctor husband, preparing for her daughter's bat mitzvah, and trying to keep her hyperactive son from destroying her home. On top of all this, her mother is having delusions that she was once William Shakespeare's girlfriend, and Carla's high-powered criminal defense attorney sister is too busy to help out. So, Carla seeks out the assistance of a local shrink and her daughter's English teacher -- to learn a little more about her family's various issues, and perhaps a bit more about the old Bard himself. This book is like chick-lit for women over 40. It was a very fast read and had some touching and funny moments. The bat mitzvah planning got a little irritating, but it all came together nicely in the end. Good for a mindless afternoon on the couch.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

While wandering around her professorial father's library, a precocious 16-year old stumbles across a strange old book with a peculiar illustration of a dragon inside. When she musters up the courage to ask her father about it, she unleashes a long hiddden story of the quest to locate Count Vlad - better known to the outside world as Dracula. The Historian is told through a series of letters - and histories within histories. The girl's father relates how he became interested in the Dracula legend, and the various scholars he met along the way. Intertwined with the hunt are several interesting love stories that keep the action going. I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up - and I was quickly excited to learn more about the "real life" Dracula. I enjoyed the mixture of history with the occult and found this book to be very well-written - if only about 200 pages too long.

Hotel Honolulu - Paul Theroux

A struggling writer finds himself on the shores of Waikiki, and becomes the manager of the infamous Hotel Honolulu. Perhaps not the most ritzy location on the boardwalk, the hotel is filled with colorful characters who walk in and out of the narrator's life. In this modern day Cantebury Tales, behind each door is a new story - sometimes interwoven with the story of another guest, but sometimes just standing on its own. This is the first book I've read by Paul Theroux - he has written dozens of novels (including The Mosquito Coast) and is well-known for his travel writing. He currently lives in Hawaii - and I thought he did a fine job of capturing some of the local flavor - not to mention the pidgin dialect. The writing was very easy to get into and I found the stories funny and tragic, even if a bit overly shocking/ridiculous at times. This was a fun introduction to Theroux and I look forward to finding out what the rest of his novels are like.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto - Anneli Rufus - This non-fiction book is Rufus's ode to loners - people who choose willingly to live life apart from others. Each chapter is an essay on a different part of our culture and the loners that exist (or are misunderstood to exist) in that realm - including art, literature, crime, and technology. Rufus's collection is in defense of the loner - and often comes across as a little overly superior/defensive in her need to justify her loner existence to the world. As someone who definitely loves being alone - and often prefers it to "shared" experiences - I was drawn to this book. But, my assumption is that Rufus is basically preaching to the choir - and her only readers are other loners! Any non-loner who reads this book will still think loners are weird. And anyone labeled a loner who doesn't really want to be one will not find any solutions in this book about how to become more socially acceptable. The basic message here is if you like being alone, be alone and embrace it - and recognize that a lot of other brilliant and famous individuals are just like you. But, in the end I think most loners don't really care, we just want people to stop bothering us.

The Sea* - John Banville

The Sea is a story of love and loss told from the perspective of an aging art historian who just lost his wife to cancer. He travels to the sea-side town where he spent his holiday as a child. As he looks out onto the sea, he remembers a family he met there and the relationships he built with them. I found this book very difficult to get into. It reminded me of Gilead and Philip Roth's Everyman in terms of the writing - just one long monologue from the main character. The thoughts shifted back and forth from the past to the present without any clear distinction - and while the writing was almost poetic, I just found the story really boring. For a fine piece of literature and enjoying language with no real plot or point, this is a good selection. Or maybe if you just need something to put you to sleep.

(* - winner of The Man Booker Prize; listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Interloper - Antoine Wilson

Owen Patterson seems like your everyday boring kind of guy. He writes text for computer manuals. He lives in a house. And he is recently married. Only, he married his wife after knowing her for only a couple months, and her brother C.J. just happens to have been murdered during their honeymoon in Mexico. Oh, and when Owen was a teenager, he had an inappropriate love affair with his older cousin who later died of a drug overdose, which may or may not have been a suicide. And Owen is still in love with her. But, of course, it's this whole murder thing that is tearing his marriage apart. Owen begins to obsesses over the murderer who is spending a 20-year stint in prison. He comes up with an ingenious plan - he'll pose as a lonely woman seeking an incarcerated pen-pal. He'll make the guy fall in love with the faux-admirer, and then he'll skip out on the guy, causing him to lose the assumed love of his life - and THAT will get him back for shooting his brother-in-law in cold blood and destroying his wife and her family. Based on this plausible premise, The Interloper proceeds. Okay, clearly, I think the plot is ridiculous - but this is an interesting novel from the perspective of viewing an unstable man spiral entirely out of control and lose his ability to tell fact from fiction. Throughout the book, there is the suggestion that the man in prison did not actually pull the trigger of the gun that killed Owen's brother-in-law - and based on the suggestions, I thought the story would take a turn it never did (but which I might have found a little more interesting). But, this is an entertaining book (I am always fascinated by the concept of women who do actually pursue men who are behind bars), and thankfully, it's a very quick read. At the very least, I give the author credit for coming up with a pretty unique plot (not an easy thing to do these days).

Caucasia - Danzy Senna

This is a Stanford Book Club pick for next spring, but the description sounded so good that I decided to read it now. Caucasia is the story of Birdie Lee, the daughter of a white mother and a black father. Birdie has an older sister, Cole, who looks like how you would expect a child of her racial mix to look - black. Birdie, on the other hand, looks white. The contrast between the two causes constant confusion, and the never-ending assumption that Birdie must be adopted. The story is told from Birdie's perspective. She is quite young when the book begins and while she seems to understand racial politics to some degree (her mother is in some sort of radical Black Panthers like group) she observes, but is unable to interpret so much of the prejudice and assumptions that go on around here. When her parents decide to split-up, Birdie leaves town with her paranoid mother who creates an entirely new (Jewish) identity for Birdie. As Birdie is forced to "pass" - she longs for her sister and the way she believes things used to be. Senna does a marvelous job capturing the mentality of a child who has been thwarted from formulating her own racial identity. Caucasia is one of the few fiction books I have read about race and passing that manages to do what all writers are taught they are supposed to do - show, not tell. Birdie's story is a painful one - and the ending of this book is a little too clean - but Senna's novel puts words to a phenomenon I think is difficult to explain - the pain of looking like you belong, but knowing that you never actually will.

Letters to a Young Teacher - Jonathan Kozol

I read my first Jonathan Kozol book, Savage Inequalities for a sociology book report my senior year in high school. I'd seen Kozol's books on my mom's bookshelves for years, and once I got through the first, I wondered what had taken my so long to check him out (I also recommend Amazing Grace, Death at an Early Age, and Rachel and Her Children). Kozol, a former teacher himself, has become one of the nation's leading critics of the American educational system. Through his books, he consistently lends his voice to the poor, minorities, single mothers, the working class - everyone who is trying hard to get by, but finding themselves jammed up against so many obstacles. Kozol's latest book is a collection of letters he wrote to "Francesca" - a first year second-grade teacher in Boston. His letters are filled with encouragement and support for the frustrated first-timer, as well as funny and touching stories about Kozol's own early teaching years and the children that have shaped his view of our current system. As much as we all know how horribly unequal our public schools are, Kozol manages to capture the sense of urgency in a solution while maintaining, even after all these years, a great deal of hope for the future. Kozol never fails to bring tears to my eyes - he is an amazing writer and a brilliant advocate for children everwhere. Letters to a Young Teacher is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work Kozol has done in education - and I think all his books should be mandatory reading for every single person living in this country.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Everything is Illuminated* - Jonathan Safran Foer (unfinished)

I think all readers feel badly when they just don't want to finish a book. You wonder how much of a chance you should give it - or perhaps that something is wrong with YOU if you just can't get into it (after all, REALLY smart people said it was amazing!). Recently, I read an author who said, given all the books there are to read, you should read (100 - your age) amount of pages before you decide to give up on a book. If you're 100+ years old, then you're allowed to judge a book by its cover. I think this was from Nancy Pearl, but don't quote me. So, that means I have to read 69 pages of a book before putting it aside. I gave Everything is Illuminated that much of a chance. Friends whose reading selections I trust have said both that this is one of the best books they've ever read and that it's the absolute worst. The writing reminded me a lot of Absurdistan, which I also was not a huge fan of - written from the perspective of someone just learning English. I have a feeling that plot-wise Everything is Illuminated could get quite interesting. I just don't have the patience right now to slog through the writing.

In similar news - a book that I LOVED this year (Shadow of the Wind) is the current Stanford Book Club selection - and people seem to not be able to get into it or think that it's just "fluff." Perhaps I need to come to terms with the fact that I just like mindless drivel. It's kind of depressing. But, I still think Shadow of the Wind is much more complex than folks are giving it credit for!

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Playing for Pizza - John Grisham

I am a shameless fan of John Grisham. I find his legal thrillers comforting, even though they follow the same formula everytime. But, his non-legal books have never quite held the same appeal for me (Bleachers and The Painted House, for example). So, I was a little hesitant to pick this one up - but he's always a fast read, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Playing for Pizza is the story of a third-string NFL quarterback. He's spent his career bouncing from team to team, until he absolutely blows the AFC championship in Cleveland and no team wants to touch him. Humiliated, he ships off to Parma, Italy to play for the little known Football Americano league overseas. There, he encounters a team of Italians who with little financial support from the country, play for the love of the game, and of course - for pizza. As the American is introduced to Italian feasts and the beauty of opera, he is forced to rediscovery the true meaning of football. Sounds cheesy - and it is. This book is horrible. But for the occassional swear word and the multiple sexual references, I think this would be about the speed for an 8-year old boy who enjoys reading books about sports (ala Matt Christopher). The soft spot in my heart for Grisham makes me want to find something about this book that was wonderful, so I can recommend it. The food descriptions did make me crave the amazing dinners we had while in Tuscany - but, for that kind of reading, I think Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love do the job much better.

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury This is another re-read from my childhood. In the fall, when a gust of wind sends leaves flying down the street, I always think of this book. It is the story of two best friends, Will and Jim, and Will's aging father Charles. A mysterious carnival comes to town, led by Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man, and the boys are drawn to the carnival's merry-go-round. When they discover its sinister secret, Jim finds himself entranced, and Will horrified. Mr. Dark attempts to lure them into his freak show, as Will struggles to show his father and Jim how to accept themselves as they are, and not the people they think they want to become. Bradbury is a master story-teller - he always manages to make my spine tingle while also making me think. I think this is a wonderful story for 12 and 13 year old boys, but it's also a pretty good one for adults.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

No One Belongs Here More Than You - Miranda July

I feel like the short story form must be making a come-back. After Amy Hempel's collection appeared on the NY Times Best of 2006 list, I have heard a lot of people talking about short story writers, and see many featured in book reviews or in some of my favorite bookstores around town. I can't remember where I first heard about Miranda July, but she is a performance artist whose film "Me and You and Everyone We Know" won a number of awards and accolades at Sundace a few years back. This is her first (I think) collection of short stories, and it was pretty much what I expected. She is kind of a cross between David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace, but with a better feminine perspective. Her stories are short, sometimes shocking, a little weird, but fun and innovative. I often think it must be difficult these days to come up with a unique writing style in which you can still tell a good story. It seems like everything has already been done - I felt that way while reading this collection. It was a little too familiar, like I'd read the stories before, but I think it was worthwhile for a taste of the future of literature.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Laments - George Hagen - Every other year, Stanford gives out a literary prize named after William Saroyan in both fiction and non-fiction. I have volunteered this year to be a reader/reviewer for the prize. Before I begin to judge, I thought I better read the past winners (as well as some of Saroyan's own works). I started with The Laments. This book tells the story of Howard and Julia Lament, originally from Southern Rhodesia. When their newborn son is stolen from the hospital, they reluctantly take another couple's child (Will) to raise as their own. They then proceed to move. From Africa to England to America - because, after all, that's what Lament's do. As Julia's irritating mother nags her from thousands of miles away, she gives birth to twin terrors and stands up for racial and gender equality. There is no real ultimate purpose to The Laments and some of the things that happen to the characters seem quite outrageous and unnecessary, but ultimately, it is the story of a very endearing family - in particular the character of the adopted son Will. This was a good read from beginning to end - when I make my Best of 2006 list at the end of the year, I think this will most likely be on it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Yellow Wallpaper* - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I've mentioned Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own as one of the books that had the most influence on me in college in terms of my feminist identity and the idea that all women need their own space (and their own money) in order to create and define their own worlds. The Yellow Wallpaper, for me, was the perfect illustration of what would happen if you failed to heed Woolf's advice. This very short story, which I re-read while eating my lunch yesterday, is the fictional diary of an unnamed married woman. She has been taken by her doctor husband to a country manor of some sort to rest and alleviate the symptoms of her undefined disease (no doubt seen as hysteria, but more accurately an acute depression). As her husband pats her on the head and tells her nothing is wrong, the author fixates on the decaying yellow wallpaper of her makeshift prison. She is a woman who has absolutely nothing to do - it's unclear whether she has children, but she lives in a world where her only job is to be the perfect wife. It seems like it would be so easy and wonderful, but what she really wants to do is write - but her husband and doctors discourage it in favor of the "rest-cure treatment" (lying around and doing absolutely nothing). The Yellow Wallpaper was written at the end of the 19th century, but in the past 30 years it has been studied as a textbook psychological portrayal of a woman suffering from a mental breakdown. Gilman, in real life, suffered from bouts of depression, but struggled mightily on behalf of women everywhere as an advocate of the equal division of household labor between spouses, and of women working outside the home - for reasons greater than financial necessity. When I think of how hard women (and many men) work today for these same ideals, I find it tremendous that she was fighting the good fight over a century ago. The Yellow Wallpaper is brutally depressing, but it is a tremendous argument in favor of the need to find something that you love to do - no matter how small - and claiming it all for yourself.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Shotgun Rule - Charlie Huston

I don't usually read the endorsement quotes from famous writers that appear on books, but this one caught my eye. It was a blurb from Stephen King about how "unputdownable" this book was. And, I was looking for something in the thriller genre, not necessarily scary, but fast-paced and a little mindless, so I thought this might work. The Shotgun Rule is about four high school friends who pass their days riding their bikes around town, getting high, and figuring out not-so-legal ways to make a few extra dollars. When they break into the house of a rival gang, they stumble upon a meth lab, and steal a bag of crystal meth, hoping to find a way to sell it off. The boys, as you might expect, get more than they bargained for, and suddenly find themselves in a little over their heads. In addition to the drug deal plot, a couple of the kids have mini-sub-plots about their relationships with their parents that I found much more interesting than the main story. I'm not sure if I agree with King that this book was unputdownable, but I did read it in one long session on the elliptical machine. It made the time pass more quickly than it otherwise would have, but I don't think this one would have been worth spending pure reading time on.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a complicated man. He is a prolific writer who contributes regularly to Vanity Fair. Politically, he has come out as quite conservative - against abortion, critical of Clinton, and in favor of the war in Iraq. I picked up this book, not because I could think of a single thing I might have in common with this man, but because the title is quite controversial. God is Not Great is Hitchens's all-out attack on religion - of all kinds. Hitchens brings out every argument that is already familiar to everyone - believers and non-believers alike. He goes straight to the texts of the Old Testament, The New Testament and the Koran to point out the logical fallacies inherent in each. He argues against intelligent design. His best arguments (though by the time I got to them, I wasn't really primed to buy anything he was selling) lay in the subtitle of his book, and argued about why and how religion poisons everything. Hitchens talks about the hypocrisy of many religious leaders (and followers) and the heinous crimes that are perpetrated in the name of religion -from holy wars to child abuse. These are ideas that I can get behind, but to me they speak more to the people corrupting religion than they do to religion itself. Ockam's Razor plays big in this book - as it did in Richard Russo's fiction novel The Straight Man, which I read several months ago. It's the principal that the most simple solution is usually the right one - and for Hitchens, attaching the religious myth of creation to what we know is actually science, is hardly simple at all. A recent NY Times Book Review of Hitchens's missive points out that Hitchens is a good friend of Salman Rushdie - a man whose treatment by the Muslim world for writing The Satanic Verses is enough to make anyone question how people can follow any religion - Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or otherwise - which preaches hatred of any kind. I didn't think this book was particularly well written. There were hundreds of ideas with all kinds of support, but they didn't always seem to follow from one paragraph to the next. I suppose in the end, I just found the book a bit frustrating - Hitchens is clearly a man who is so tired of his religious friends giving him grief for not believing. But, to come out swinging against them seems so unnecessary. I don't see his words converting anyone to atheism, though maybe in preaching to his own choir, he'll make some of his members feel a bit more superior. I get his sentiments - it is painful to see so much evil in this world committed by those who claim to act for a higher power, but somehow this just didn't seem to be the solution I was looking for. Clearly, however, it did get me thinking.

Friday, October 26, 2007

100 Best Novels

I thought this was an interesting list to share:

I've only read 21 from The Board's List and 25 from The Reader's List. I was surprised by some of the choices. But, it's a good list for getting ideas of books to read.

A Death in the Family* - James Agee

My goal this month was to read books by authors that start with the letter "A." I haven't done that well - but this one also satisfied my desire to read more winners of the Pulitzer Prize. A Death in the Family was published after Agee's death - when it was not quite in final form. Sections of the manuscript didn't seem to make sense, and so portions are published in italics - indicating where folks believed Agee would have placed the material in a final draft. Apparently, Agee was also a notorious re-writer, so it's possible half of this would have ended up on the cutting room floor. Whatever the case, it is an interesting well-written book, but quite slow - it reminded me quite a bit of A Summons to Memphis. The basic premise is that a man is called home to visit his dying father. Only, it turns out his father is fine, and on the drive back home to see his family, the man is in a fatal car accident. The remainder of the book focuses on his widow, their two children, and the widow's family who try to help her cope with her loss. There is significant dialogue in the novel, but also something about the descriptions made me think that this would be better presented as a play. After thinking this, I looked Agee up on and leared that he was in fact a screenwriter. He suffered from alcoholism, and died at the age of 45 following two heart attacks.

(* - Winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize - awarded post-humously)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

This was another book I saw on the shelves at the library that just looked good to me - judging books by their covers lately has been working out well. The Thirteenth Tale is the story of Margaret, a bookseller in England. She receives a letter from the reclusive Vida Winter, the world's most popular and prolific living author. Winter tells Margaret that she wants her to write her biography, and that after decades of spinning stories to journalists about her life, she's finally ready to tell the truth. Reluctantly, Margaret pays Winter a visit - and listens as a gothic tale of generations, strange twins, and the unnatural unfolds. This reminded me a lot of The Shadow of the Wind, for the gothic characteristics, and in the way it drew me completely into the story right from the beginning. I've noticed lately that I've been reading a lot of books in which the main characters are writers or voracious readers. Clearly, I can see why I am drawn to such books, but I'm wondering if there are more of them out there lately for some reason. I was also thinking that this was a great book to read right before Halloween, because it was so creepy/spooky. It made me think that I should read Stephen King's The Shining next - another scary book where the main character is a writer. But, I think that would be far too scary for me. This has been one of my favorite books for the year.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Book of Lost Things - John Connelly

I saw this on the new book shelf on the library and it looked kind of's the story of 12-year old David whose mother has just passed away and whose father has remarried and had another child. Feeling left out, David retreats into his world of books - in particular the fairy tales he used to enjoy reading with his mom. Slowly, the line between the real world and David's book world begins to blur and he finds himself drawn into an Other Land - populated by a Woodsman, the sinister Crooked Man, packs of wolves, and an ailing King. As David tries to find his way back home, he is told grizzlier versions of the fairy tales he learned as a child, and encounters, among others, trolls, the seven dwarves, and sleeping beauties. This was a really fun book - definitely for adults, but a journey back to the tales I loved, and was a little scared of, as a kid.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Rule of Four - Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

My brother suggested I read this years ago when everyone (including me) was going through The DaVinci Code phase. But, for some reason, I put it off until now. This is the story of four seniors at Princeton, two of whom are obsessed with a little known Renaissance text that several scholars have spent their lifetimes trying to decode. The main character, Thomas, is obsessed with the book, to the detriment of his relationship with the one possible true love of his life. As Thomas's roommate Paul gets closer and closer to solving the mystery of the book, people around campus begin dying mysterious, yet inter-related, deaths. This book is a page-turner, but no where near as complex as The DaVinci Code. The puzzles within the book are not as interesting, and in the end what I found most compelling were the friendships among the four students, rather than the underlying secret of the text. I think this would be a good book for passing the time on a long airplane flight.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Music of Chance* - Paul Auster - It is difficult for me to read anything by Paul Auster and not feeling a complete sense of impending doom. Even when things appear to be going well, you know some random tragic unfortunate event is just around the corner. That being said, I think he's an incredible writer and I hope someday to have read all of his novels. In The Music of Chance, the main character Nashe inherits a bunch of money from his estranged father. He uses it to travel aimlessly around the country (reminded me of On the Road) when he comes across a young hitchhiker named Pozzi. Pozzi, a self-professed card shark needs some cash to take on a couple of millionaires in the game of a lifetime. Nashe must decide whether to help the kid out and ultimately deal with the fateful consequences that come as a result of his decision. Auster's books are often classified as "absurdist fiction" - the study of human behavior under highly unusual circumstances. This book certainly fits the bill. I also recommend The Book of Illusions and The New York Trilogy. His writing is haunting and these definitely aren't feel-good stories, but if you enjoy adding a little dread to your life (kind of like reading Edgar Allan Poe), definitely check Auster out.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years - Sue Townsend - I first met Adrian Mole when I was in high school and my Aunty Marji introduced me to the young adult novel, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, soon thereafter followed by The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. Adrian lives outside of London and fancies himself somewhat of an intellectual. Unfortunately, life doesn't always go so well for Adrian - his parents' marriage is always on the rocks, he has issues with his teachers (and all sorts of authority), and he never ever seems to get the girl. But, along the way, he kept a humourous and sometimes depressing daily journal of his journey through adolescence. Years later, I've grown up - and so has Adrian. In this one, he's a 31 year old whose wife has just left him to raise his two year old son, he's a chef who doesn't really know how to cook, and he's in-love with a politician who sends Adrian constituent form letters that he reads far too much into. His parents are still on the rocks and he battles constantly with his life as somewhat of a loser. In a cute turn of events, Bridgett Jones makes an off-page cameo (as a real life Britain whose diaries are doing quite well). This isn't the most riveting story - but in diary format, it's a fast read - and really fun to see how a guy I liked as a kid is doing for himself these days. Townsend has a more recent Adrian installment called Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction that I'll try to borrow from library sometime down the road.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cane River - Lalita Tademy

Cane River tells the story of four generations of women living in Louisiana. Beginning with Elisabeth, a black slave, the generations become progressively lighter as each successive woman has children - voluntarily, and often involuntarily - with the French men who own the land they live and work on. This fiction book is based on author Tademy's real-life family, and is the result of years of pain-staking research. Half-way through the novel, slavery is abolished. The women then struggle to obtain land and a better life for the successive generations. There are countless themes throughout the book - family and woman's place in it, miscegenation - laws preventing the marrying of white and black - and thus inheritance by black children, forced sexual relations between masters and slaves, the attempts by lighter blacks to pass in white society - and the consequences of such action, the dispersion of family caused by the selling off of children, the concept of love and the French influence in Louisiana. Luckily, Tademy placed a family tree at the beginning of the book which proved quite useful as I tried to keep all the names straight. This is a touching book filled with amazing stories. It is a worthy Oprah book selection about survival and the strength of women and family in trying and tragic times.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche - Haruki Murakami - In 1995, members of the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in the Tokyo underground subway. As a result, 12 people were killed and hundreds if not thousands were injured - many with long-lasting effects. Murakami, a novelist (my favorites of his include Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles) set out to interview the victims of the attack. He wanted to better understand how something so horrible could happen, what effect such an attack had on the Japanese people, and perhaps, how to prevent such a thing from happening again. Murakami's interviews were transcribed, edited by the interviewees and published in a Japanese magazine. He received some criticism for not placing enough blame on Aum, and instead focusing on Tokyo's inadequate crisis response. As a result, he went on to interview members of Aum to learn more about the organization and their beliefs. This book contains selected interview of vicitims, along with the Aum interviews. A number of the members of Aum who participated in the planning of the gas attacks have since been sentenced to death, others are serving life sentences. The interviews are presented one after another in the book - and they can get a bit repetitious. Murakami inserts short analytical bits in-between, but I would have liked to read more about the situation from a psychologist's perspective rather than Murakami's assumptions and lay-man's conclusions (though he does provide a useful perspective). Despite this, I found this to be an incredibly interesting book - a fascinating glimpse into Tokyo's conformist society and this strange cult (which continues to operate under the name Aleph).

Sunday, October 14, 2007

SoMa - Kemble Scott

While talking about different SF neighborhoods, a woman at work recommended this book - about San Francisco's South of Market (SoMa) district. In the late 90s, SoMa became a haven for dot-com start-ups, and I expected a story about a washed-up computer programmer trying to make his rent in the inflated market following the dot-com bust. Well, that was the basic story here, but really this book revolves around Raphe a maybe-bisexual who investigates the seedy underground of San Francisco's anything-goes sex world. Raphe, along with a couple other main characters, lives out every urban sexual myth going in the city - from Craig's List room-for-rent hook-ups to wealthy women hiring boy toys, and everything in-between. This book is one ridiculously shocking encounter after another. This is the young male reader's equivalent of "Chick Lit," more appropriately designated "Dick Lit" - literarily speaking, there isn't much redeeming here, but there are a couple well played scenarios - and working in SF, there were some definitely familiar stories and situations. Fun for the voyeur in everyone, but not for anyone with a sense of morality or the faint of heart/stomach.

On the Road* - Jack Kerouac - This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach is where many of the Beat author hung out and read their work in the late 50s and 60s. They have been having celebrations and tributes to Kerouac and the other Beat writers all year, and so I was inspired to re-read this cult classic. I first read On the Road, the story of penniless Sal Paradise's four cross-country trips along with his friend Dean Moriarty, when I was in high school. As I was stressing out about getting into college, I fell in love with these characters who thumbed their noses at society and went out to actually have real life experiences. To me, Sal's life in dingy motels, hitching rides and picking up other low-lifes, represented a type of freedom I thought I would never have, and as a young kid, I romanticized that type of life. This time around, I had a very different reaction. While the idea of new experiences and going out to see the world still appeals to me, I found myself annoyed at how tedious Sal and Dean's existences were. They are so selfish in their relationships with so-called friends and family. I became much more in tune to Dean's physical and mental decline toward the end of the novel - a symbol that a life filled with so little meaning and connection - this "life on the road" was really no true life at all. Kerouac's writing is addictive (and rumor has it he wrote this book during a three-week Benzedrine and caffeine-induced haze of creativity), but if you just want to get an idea for what this book is about, just open it up to a random page, read about 30-40 more pages, and then move on.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy* - Douglas Adams

I first read this book in middle school - I can still remember biking home from the library, so excited to see what this science-fiction thing was all about. I remember enjoying it and finding it pretty funny, but not much else. So, this month, while I'm reading authors that start with the letter "A", I decided to check it out again. It's much shorter than I remember, and it's not just "pretty" funny, it's REALLY funny. I read it while at the gym on the exercise bike and laughed out loud a few too many times - the guy next to me had to switch bikes. But, it made my work-out fly by quite fast. This is the story of Arthur Dent, living in London and minding his own business, until a bulldozer shows up one morning planning to make room for a freeway. His good friend Ford Prefect - actually an alien life-form deserted on Earth 15-years earlier - tells him not to worry. Earth is about to be destroyed in roughly 12 minutes. And so it is, but Dent and Prefect are sent sailing into outer-space and saved by a passing spacecraft. With an electronic copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Dent gets up to speed on all things inter-galactic as he struggles to come to terms with his new existence. More than one of my friends has made fun of my penchant for science-fiction - I'm not into all-out fantasy books or quite at the Isaac Asimov level, but I do love a good space ride, and I'm a huge fan of alternate universes and strange creatures who are quite a bit more advanced than we humans love to believe that we are. This is a fun quick read and if you like to take a vacation from reality now and again, I definitely recommend this journey.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Songbook - Nick Hornby

This is, hands down, Nick Hornby's worst book. That might not really be saying much given that I absolutely adore all of the other novels and essays I've read by him (except for maybe Fever Pitch which was just so-so), but honestly, as much as I really really tried to like this one, I just couldn't. The concept isn't bad - Hornby, who is quite knowledgeable about music, writes a collection of essays about some of his favorite songs. The essays aren't about what he was doing when he heard these songs or the personal memories the songs evoke (necessarily), but rather Hornby tries to capture what is essential or life-altering in general about these specific pieces. I myself don't really know much about music. I know what I like, and I know what I hate. And, I tend to like songs that remind me of moods or good times in my life. I don't particularly care how innovative someone is, or what a given song has done for a genre or an industry. I suppose that means I don't much care about the history of music - and that's more a reflection on me, perhaps, than it is on the quality of this book. After all, I loved Hornby's collections of essays about the books he reads (The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. The Dirt) which is basically the same concept, just with books instead of songs, so perhaps it's just the subject matter. But, Songbook doesn't seem to have as much of Hornby's wit as I've come to expect, and well, I was just sadly disappointed in this one.

Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I am always supicious of books about white Americans who travel to third-world countries and decide they need to save the starving children. So, I wasn't sure I wanted to read this book, about Greg Mortenson, an American (raised in Africa), who fails to summit K2 and instead emerges determined to build schools for Pakistani children, girls in particular. While at times it was difficult for me to trust journalist Relin's account of Mortenson's super-human quest which has developed into the Central Asia Institute and built over 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, I mostly found myself moved by Mortenson's vision. As he struggles through his own poverty in Berkeley, he manages to meet and inspire a network of benefactors and to win over the trust of the people he hopes to help, but from whom he realizes he has so much to learn. This is an eye-opening account of life in the Muslim world, pre and post-9/11, and the amazing amount of strength and determination it takes to improve access to education and to build true friendships across nations.

The Blind Assassin* - Margaret Atwood

Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale is one of the most powerful books I've ever read - and along with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, shaped my college coursework in feminist studies and women's literature. Yet, it took me over 10 years to pick up another Atwood book (kind of like my experience with Alice Walker). I can't explain why sometimes reading a book I love makes me want to run out and read everything that author has ever written (J.M. Coetzee is a fine example) and other times it makes me scared to find out that something else in their repertoire might not be quite as magnificent. So, it was with mild trepidation that I started The Blind Assassin. This book is fundamentally about Iris, whose younger sister Laura has just died in a tragic car accident, which may or may not have been the result of a suicide. The book is told from three different perspectives. One is Iris's first person account of her life growing up with Laura, the death of their mother at a young age, and Iris's attempts to keep her family afloat, even it meant suppressing her own happiness. The second "perspective" is a story within the story - pieces of a science-fiction novel written by Laura, and published post-humously. The third are journalistic accounts of the society life to which Iris belongs, and of course the newspaper articles concerning Laura's death. By the end, everything comes together to reveal the "truth" about Iris and Laura's secretive lives. Atwood's writing is incredible, but dense, and it took me awhile to get into the rhythm of this book. It is one I would recommend reading in hour (or longer) blocks of time, rather than in distracted spurts. While the feminist themes in this book are not as overt as in The Handmaid's Tale, this is most definitely a book about female relationships with each other and with the world in which they live.
(*- Winner of the 2000 Man Booker Prize, listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Monday, October 8, 2007

More Book Lust - Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl is a librarian in Seattle who has read an incredible number of books - in every genre imaginable. Her first collection of books to read, Book Lust, came out in 2003 - and I turn to the well-worn copy on my shelf every couple months for a new suggestion. I borrowed her companion, More Book Lust from the library this weekend - and quickly read through it flagging almost every other page with a book to add to my "to-read" list. Pearl puts her suggestions into categories - some are straight-forward, like "Best for Boys and Girls" or "Fiction for Foodies," some are merely great authors that she doesn't want her readers to miss - like P.G. Wodehouse and Walter Mosley, and others are just fun like "Gallivanting in the Graveyard" (books set in cemetaries) and "Maiden Voyages" (best first books). Pearl includes a brief description for most books, and othertimes simply provides a list in the genre. I picked out about 50 new books! (some reminders of books I've been wanting to read, and others just completely new ones I'd never heard of). I found both of Pearl's books so much fun - for getting new ideas and seeing just how much is really out there even in categories I'd never touch (like "Gone Fishin'," "Parrots," and "Science 101"). If you need a recommendation, I can't imagine anyone picking this one up and leaving empty-handed.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Lambs of London* - Peter Ackroyd

When I was in elementary school, I bought a book called Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. It was a book for children that included prose versions of Shakespeare's plays. I loved that book (I think my mom might still have it) and it was how I first became familiar with Shakespeare's stories, long before I was old enough to understand and appreciate the actual plays. The Lambs of London is a fictional account of the lives of Charles and Mary Lamb and their preoccupation with all things Shakespeare. The Lambs lived at the turn of the 19th century - roughly 200 years after Shakespeare. They befriend a bookseller named William Ireland who purports to have a benefactor who has turned over to him a number of Shakespeare's personal effects, including legal documents and a long-lost play. Mary, suffocating at home with her overbearing mother and a senile father, falls in love with Ireland and the promise of his marvelous discovery. Charles in turn self-medicates, while he struggles with his own writing and making something of himself at the East India Company. As with all historical fiction, I wondered how much of the story was based in fact, and it was difficult to just lose myself in the story. Ackroyd's writing is not particularly engaging, but I was fascinated by the character of Mary Lamb whose frustrations in dealing with societal norms for women was truly heartbreaking. The Lambs of London is a fun slice of Shakespearean obsession -- and for me a great background into the people who first introduced me to the great playwright.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Gregor the Overlander - Suzanne Collins I love reading books about kids and for kids, - particularly books with kid narrators. Sometimes, these types of books are meant for adults (like The Lovely Bones), othertimes, they're just children's literature and they take me back to the time when I was a kid, trying to read everything I could get my hands on. I've been a little sad since the Harry Potter series ended, and on the look-out for another great children's series (I highly recommend the Ender series by Orson Scott Card and I do keep meaning to get into that Lemony Snicket one. I've also heard that the His Dark Materials series is quite good - the new movie The Golden Compass is based on it). I like finding a character I can love and then sharing multiple adventures with him or her. So, I was very excited when I read the Powell's review of this book (link above). Gregor the Overlander is the story of 11-year old Gregor, stuck in his New York City apartment in the hot summer, taking care of his 2-year old sister Boots and his ailing grandmother, while his now single mom goes to work and his 9-year old sister heads off to camp (mom could only afford to send one, and needed a babysitter for Boots and grandma). While doing laundry, Gregor and Boots are sucked through an air duct and into the Underland, where the roaches are large and the rats are murderous. Gregor must then embark on a quest to save the realm and find his way back home. While the premise of the book is one I usually enjoy (and standard fare for good children's literature - you always need an alternate world and no parents - think Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Indian in the Cupboard) but unfortunately, I think Gregor is targeted to a bit of a younger audience (maybe 1st-3rd graders) than the books that I typically enjoy in this genre. The plot is a bit too straight-forward (though some of the Underland interactions are quite disturbing) and I didn't feel like the story was able to entirely capture my excitement. I did love the character of Boots - whose 2-year old simplicity, love and trust win over the admiration and sometimes worship of all the Underland creatures. My understanding is that there are five books in the "Underland Chronicles", so perhaps they get a little more complex as Collins grows into the characters. I might check another one out on a rainy day - and if I had a kid who was just starting to read chapter books, I would definitely pass this one along. But, from the perspective of an adult looking for enduring children's literature, I don't think this is the one.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

So Many Books, So Little Time - Sara Nelson

I enjoy reading books about books - to get recommendations from readers, and also just to see what other people think of books that I've also read. Aunty Marji enjoys the same thing - and she sent me this recommendation - by Sara Nelson who is apparently a "well-known publishing correspondent." Nelson vows to read and write about a book a week in 2002. Her books don't seem to have any unifying theme - she just read and tells anecdotal stories about why she chose them, what she thinks of them, and how they may or may not relate to other books she's read. Overall, this book was fine - I wrote down a couple recommendations along the way. But, at the same time, for someone who makes a living writing about books, I didn't find Nelson's analyses of the novels she picked up very interesting or informative - and since I'd never heard of Nelson before, she wasn't able to convey to me why I should really care what she thinks about things. Plus, she regularly trashed books I really loved (including Peace Like a River, one of my favorite books that I've read so far this year). So, while I appreciate that different people like different kinds of books - and that's the beauty of having so many books out there, I tended to find many of her comments about the works annoying or condescending. But, Nelson's husband is Japanese, and she has a half-Japanese son - so I did appreciate her recommendations of Asian-American writers and the Japanese experience in America. I enjoyed this book from the perspective of learning how another person who loves reading goes about choosing the books they read - what they like/hate and why - but if I knew this Sara Nelson in real life, I doubt I'd go to her very often for recommendations.

The Palace Thief - Ethan Canin

The Palace Thief is a collection of four short stories - one of which was made into a pretty good movie I saw back in 2002 called The Emperor's Club, starring Kevin Kline and Emilie Hirsch. Canin's collection was the Stanford Book Salon's choice for the month of September, and something I probably wouldn't have known to pick up on my own. The basic theme running through the stories is that "Character is Destiny." Each of the stories presents a narrator or main character who is stumbling through life, trying to make sense and good choices - but is prevented from doing so because of his character, or the character of others. My appreciation for short stories has grown considerably in the past couple years, and I found three of the four in this collection quite intriguing - "The Accountant" and "Batorsag and Szerelem" for their complicated narrators, and "The Palace Thief" for overall entertainment (I wasn't a huge fan of "City of Broken Hearts" about a divorced man trying to get back on the dating wagon).

Friday, September 28, 2007

Kafka Was The Rage - Antole Broyard

In this memoir, literary critic Broyard tells the story of his life in Greenwich Village in post-WWII 1946. It's a free-thinking time, where eveyone appears obsessed with books, ideas, and art. This reminded me so much of the beat writers in San Francisco, but as Broyard points out, minus the drugs. In some ways it seems like a frustrating pointless life and time, with people moving in and out of each other's lives, discussing philosophy, but finding no answers. In other ways, it gave me this real sense of invigorated creativity - and left me wishing I lived in this free bohemian time. Broyard passed away in 1990. His daughter Bliss Broyard has recently come out with a book about her family and their questionable racial background, called One Drop, which was recently reviewed by the NY Times:(

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Summons to Memphis* - Peter Taylor

In general, I am a big fan of Southern Literature. I'm not quite sure why - since I've never really been to the south, and don't have any connection to it. But, I think the history of the South lends itself to stories about families and secrets and the struggle between doing what's right/for yourself and doing what is expected of you by others - all themes which I find quite interesting. A Summons To Memphis is told from the perspective of Philip, the younger brother of two meddling sisters. The book opens with their plea for his to return home from New York to help prevent their aging widower father from remarrying and giving away their inheritance. As Philip returns home, he
recounts how his family made its way to Memphis from Nashville, and the unlucky relationships that he and both his sisters have endured. Taylor's story and his writing reminded me of Henry James. Not a lot happened in this book in terms of plot, but I found myself absolutely enthralled by the language. Taylor's characters, like those of James, often say and do things while meaning quite the opposite. While it can be frustrating to understand the subtext, it is a fascinating study in manipulation. I have a love/hate relationship with the winners of the Pulitzer, but this is one the committee definitely got right.

(* - Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Blink - Malcolm Gladwell - Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point (reviewed June 2007). His newest book Blink looks at the split-second instinctual decisions we make - how we make them, what intuition is all about, how to use automatic judging to our favor, and how to overcome it when it leads to improper bias. As a whole, I didn't find this book as enjoyable as The Tipping Point, but Gladwell grabbed me from the first page when he told the story of the Getty Museum's purchase of a supposedly ancient Kouros statue. This was one of my favorite cases from Art Law in law school. The Getty spent tons of money trying to determine whether the statue was authentic. They ran all kinds of tests and spent lots of time to confirm that it was not a fake. Yet, numerous art historians took one look at the statue and simple knew that something was wrong, even if they could put it into words or scientifically prove it. Ultimately, the problems began to emerge, and now the statue is listed on the Getty website as "Statue of a Kouros, Greek, about 530 B.C. or modern forgery."
( Gladwell unpacks how these experts could have "just known" - the feeling in the gut they experienced when they took one glance at the statue. Like The Tipping Point, Blink is full of fascinating stories to illustrate Gladwell's points. This is a great book to get you thinking about the snap decisions you make everyday - for good or bad - to teach you to learn to trust your instincts and also help you to overcome internal negative biases. I definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs - Alexander McCall Smith

This is the second in Smith's series about the German professor of Romance Philology, Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. This short quick collection of antics follows Dr. von Igelfeld in his quest for fame and respect - which often, if not always, results in embarrassing and cringe-provoking situations. Dr. von Igelfeld is an unmarried man, and several of the silly stories revolve around him trying to find a partner, or single woman chasing after him. I think he and Amelia Bedelia are soul mates. If you're in the mood for the ridiculous, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs is absolutely perfect.