Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Rain Fall - Barry Eisler

http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780451209153-0 - I borrowed this thriller from the library based on Aunty Marji's recommendation. The books stars John Rain, a half-Japanese/half-American special-forces trained assassin. After he kills a man on the subway, he finds himself connected with the man's daughter and caught-up in the international intelligence community where he doesn't know who to trust and who to murder. The book takes place in Tokyo and there are detailed descriptions of the train stations, as well as the various neighborhoods - this was particularly fun to read about given our recent trip to Tokyo. The focus on martial arts was a little excessive for my taste, but overall I found the story and the character's struggle as a constant outsider interesting. There are five more books in the John Rain series and I plan to read them all!!

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell

http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780316346627-0 - Similar to Freakonomics, The Tipping Point examines cultural phenomenons and epidemics and gets to the heart of what causes some ideas/illnesses/products to take off and others to just die away. He explores the importance of word of mouth - and the nature of the people spreading the word and what causes us to make certain decisions. He looks at one of the exact same questions as Freakonomics - what caused the sudden decline in crime in the 1990s, and answers it in a very different way. I particularly liked the chapter on what makes Sesame Street and Blue's Clues so popular with young children. Gladwell's observances about different types of people and how the way people behave changes depending on circumstance were very interesting to me. This was definitely a fun book and I'm waiting to borrow his more recent book, Blink from the library soon.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Man Without a Country - Kurt Vonnegut

http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9781583227138-3 - A collection of excerpts from essays and speeches by Vonnegut during the last five years of his life. I noticed there is some overlap with God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, but this is still worth checking out. Vonnegut can get a bit repetitive in his rants, but every couple pages there is a line that had me laughing out loud. He talks about American life, politics, religion, his time in Vietnam - I noticed that many of the reviews, while positive, have an undertone of "this is getting old." Perhaps it's a good thing this was his last hurrah before he passed on. His pessimistic humor, however, does make me want to go back and re-read some of the books I read by him in college. I have a feeling I'll get much more enjoyment out of them this time around.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking* - Joan Didion

http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9781400043149-5 - This is Didion's memoir of the year following the sudden death of her husband of 40 years. During the year of coping with her immense loss, Didion's daughter is also suffering from a long-term illness that keeps her in and out of the hospital. I knew going in what this book was about, but I was hit immediately with an overwhelming sense of grief - and by page 50 I was in tears. Didion's writing is straight-forward - almost colloquial in nature that it seems like it would be so easy to replicate. Yet, she is able to convey simply the complexity of her emotions in a way that I don't think many people, even those who have sustained similar losses, could do. This book is filled with tremendous heartache - so I hesitate to recommend it to anyone. It doesn't contain strategies for dealing with death or a panacea for eliminating sadness. It's just a raw tribute to the emptiness that remains when we lose someone we love.

(* - winner 2005 National Book Award for Non-Fiction)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Born on a Blue Day - Daniel Tammet

http://www.powells.com/biblio/18-9781416535072-0: This is the memoir of a high-functioning individual with autism. Daniel Tammet grew up in England, the eldest of eight children, at a time when no one was very familiar with autism. He wasn't diagnosed until he was in his early 20s, and the book tells the story of growing up as an outsider. He also goes into great detail about how he learns - how he visualizes numbers as colors and shapes, which allows him to calculate extraordinary sums (and memorize pi out to more than 22,500 places) and learn new languages in mere weeks. This is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an individual with autism - and an important book in general about how different people learn and how complex our minds can be. With so many barriers, Tammet has managed to create a successful, happy, and productive life - it's enough to give someone with no barriers a complex.

Monday, June 18, 2007

In a Sunburned Country - Bill Bryson

http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780767903868-4 - This is Bryson's account of his travels across Australia - and armchairs travel at its best. Bryson is pretty funny and fills this book with entertaining anecdotes and observations. I've never been to Australia, and in a way I think that made this book less enjoyable than it otherwise could have been. I found most interesting the parts of the book where he attempts to delve into the tricky relationship between white Australians and the Aborigines. It's clear there is severe racism in the country, and that there are problems with Aboriginal poverty and alcoholism. But, he didn't seem to be able to get much out of the locals (except obvious disdain) in terms of what the country is doing, if anything, to remedy the problems. I am interested in learning more about this issue in Australia and whether it parallels many of the issues in our own country with respect to Native Americans. I am also interested in reading his book about walking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods - as that's something I've always thought would be awesome to do, but will probably never get around to.

Dreams from My Father - Barack Obama

http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9781400082773-10 - the first memoir/biography from the Presidential hopeful recounts his struggles coming to terms with his bi-racial identity. As the child of a white mother and a Kenyan father who he only meets once in his life, Obama spends his early life listening to stories of his father's legacy. The first part recounts Obama's childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii - as just one of a handful of black kids. After college, Obama moves to Chicago to help organize the African-American communities. Finally, following his father's death in a car accident, Obama travels to Kenya to meet his family, and discover more of the truth behind where he comes from. This is a beautifully written book - filled with amazing stories - not just about Obama, but about his family and the people he worked with. For people interested in learning about Obama's political beliefs or plans, this is not the right book to read. But, to learn about who Obama is and to understand the lens through which he views the world, this is the one. I also think for anyone who is bi-racial, who has never known a parent, or who attempts in one way or another to fit simultaneously into a variety of communities, this is a fair portrayal of that constant struggle.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian - Kurt Vonnegut

http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780743422000-0 - I was in the mood to read Vonnegut today, so I picked up this book - the only one currently on the shelves at the library. The premise: Vonnegut has hired Dr. Kevorkian to administer almost-lethal injections to him so that he may have repeated near-death experiences. During these injections, Vonnegut visits Heaven's gates where he conducts brief interviews with people who have died (both famous and not). The result is 90 second blurbs on a local radio show where Vonnegut rehashes his absurd conversations. This book can be read in about a 30 minute sitting, and is filled with silly turns of phrases and witty retorts. Totally weird, but definitely enjoyable.

The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan

http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9781594200823-0 - Books about "food ethics" seem to be all over the place these days. I'd heard so many good things about this book that I was eager to find out what it was all about. Pollan's basic concept is to follow a principal food chain (industrial, organic, and hunter/gatherer) from its basic beginnings to a meal on his table, in an effort to determine what, in a world filled with food that we can eat, should we ultimately be eating. I found the first section on the industrial food chain incredibly boring. Pollan discusses the production of corn in the United States, the general structure of grocery stores, and culminates in a meal from McDonald's. Too much of it was a reminder of Fast Food Nation and "Supersize Me." Given that I already understand that our supermarkets are filled with convenience foods that are pumped full of chemicals, I didn't feel the need to read anymore about what dangers they pose to my body. I almost put the book to the side forever. But, then I moved on to the organic section - where Pollan ventures out to small farms and discusses, among other things, the differences between large-scale slaughter-houses (think The Jungle) and smaller free-range farms. With local farmer's markets, I think a lot about organic fruits and vegetables, supporting locally grown foods, eating without pesticides to protect migrant workers, etc. But, I had never given much thought to meat. My assumption was always that if I choose to be a meat-eater, I have to come to terms with the fact that the animals I'm eating have probably lived the horrible lives that PETA advocates throw in carnivores' faces all the time. But, Pollan showed a very different side - places where animals are allowed to live out their "animalness" - until, of course, they are eventually slaughtered. I intend to find out more about these types of places - which because of their small sizes, will of course produce a more expensive product, but perhaps one that is more environmentally and morally sound. In Pollan's final section, he is determined to hunt his own meat and forage his own fruits and vegetables. This section had a very interesting discussion of vegetarianism - and how one justifies (to the extent one feels the need to justify) being a meat eater. Once I got past the first section, I felt like there was a lot here to chew on. This has made me much more curious about "organic" and locally-produced foods - attempting to determine what is not only better for my own health, but what is sustainable, what is economically beneficial to people I'd like benefit economically, what is good for workers and animals and the environment. For those who are equally interested, I recommend checking out my friend Francisco's blog: http://sflocalfoods.blogspot.com/. It will help you get into the Green Revolution, and on the path to all things healthy and good.

(P.S. Pollan is also from the East Bay, so I found his mention of local farms and food celebrities particularly interesting.)

The Cave - Jose Saramago*

http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780156028790-2 - I've been meaning to read a Saramago book since college, but this was my first introduction to the Portuguese author. The Cave tells the story of aging potter Cipriano Algor who lives in a small village with his daughter and son-in-law. As the world changes, Cirpriano finds that his pottery is no longer in demand and that his daughter, now pregnant with her own child, wants to move to the more modern "Center" in town. As Cipriano comes to terms with change, he takes in a stray dog, falls in love with a widow, and comes up with a new clay product to sell to the masses. Not much actually happens in this book in terms of plot (other than a diabolical discovery made in the last 20 or so pages), but Saramago's ability to capture familial relationships, the sense of loss, and the concept of love is well-worth savoring. I particularly enjoyed the passages about the stray dog (named Found) and his relationship with Cirpriano and the world around him. At times the book is hard to follow - much of it is told in conversations between the characters, but Saramago doesn't use quotation marks and new paragraphs and so the words run together, such that it is often difficult to discern which characters are speaking (and perhaps this is the point). At the end, Plato's concept of "The Cave" is referenced, and there are moments of trying to figure out what is real, and what is simply a shadow on the wall. At times I found Cirpriano's character heartbreaking in his effort to find meaning, or to be meaningful, in a world that seems to have left him behind. But, at the same time, he is a reminder that change is not always good, and that "progress" without heart, is not always worth waiting around for.

(* - winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature)

Freakonomics - Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780060731328-7: About five years after everyone else in the country, I decided to read to this book. It is clever, interesting, and pretty funny. The authors use their particular brand of economics to answer life's most baffling questions, such as: how much does parenting really matter? Why do most drug dealers live with their mothers? What actually caused the decline in crime in the 1990s? And most interesting to me: are teachers who give standardized tests to their students tempted to cheat? The data are fascinating, and Levitt and Dubner's conclusions anything but the conventional wisdom. I don't know anything about economics or statistics (in my case perhaps neither nature nor nuture mattered in that respect), so I'd like to hear the opinions of people who read this book and are in those fields. But, for a lay-person whose brain shuts off at the thought of determining whether something is causal, or merely correlative, I loved this book.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Waiting for the Barbarians* - J.M. Coetzee

http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780140061109-4 - Yet another Coetzee novel - I am loving him and plan to keep reading these until I run out. This is the story of a magistrate in an unnamed country - where "barbarians" threaten what seem to be white conquerors of some kind. When the magistrate discovers that prisoners are being tortured by his men, he expresses his sympathy and takes in one of the barbarian women. But, while the magistrate condemns the men who beat the prisoners, he himself keeps this woman seemingly against her will. His allegiances are eventually regarded as treasonous and he is dealt with accordingly. It is impossible to read this book and not think of the U.S. actions in Guantanamo and the Middle East. Again, Coetzee has written a beautiful book about a horribly uncomfortable topic.

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

Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert

http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780143038412-1 - A memoir by a woman in her early 30s who has just gone through a divorce and a subsequent all-encompassing and draining relationship. She decides to take a year for herself - to travel and live in Italy, India, and Indonesia (for a year focusing on herself, it only makes sense to choose countries that start with "I"). Her Italian adventure is filled with delicious food (gelato every day), India is spent in an Ashram, and Indonesia is a spiritual journey where she learns to love again. While by its nature, the memoir is self-indulgent and ego-centric, I felt that the overall message of this book was a good one - when times are rough and depression seems to hang over everything, it's our responsibility to bring ourselves out of the darkness, to focus on life, and to be present and happy. I read this while on vacation in Ashland - so felt like I was in a similar space - focusing on appreciating how great life can be - especially if you have easy access to a lot of ice cream (even if it's not quite gelato).

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Housseini

This is the latest novel by the author of The Kite Runner. Set in Afghanistan, it tells the story of two generations of women - first, Mariam, the poor daughter or an unwed mother, and then Laila, whose older brothers have been sent to war and whose father wants her to go to college and become everything she's ever dreamed of becoming. When the Taliban takes over the country, the two women's paths cross. While this story is much simpler than The Kite Runner in many ways, I found it much more emotional and frustrating - probably because it is told about women living in such an oppressive society that constantly devalues their lives and desires. While there is sadness in every chapter, the ending is a happy one filled with hope.

Monday, June 4, 2007

After the Quake - Haruki Murakami

http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780375713279-2 - A collection of six short stories by the author of Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. These all take place shortly after the 1995 Kobe earthquake and feature characters all in search of something - their fathers, meaning of life, sanity... I read them all in a two hour long sitting, but mostly because I couldn't put it down. I kept telling myself I'd stop after the next one. The stories are all a little creepy/scary, and one is completely outrageous, but they're all beautifully written and the characters strangely intriguing. I love everything I've ever read by Murakami, and I can't wait until his latest After Dark arrives for me at the library!

Postscript: I just learned that the Berkeley Rep Theater is doing a production based on After the Quake this October. I will have to check it out!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

A Dirty Job - Christopher Moore

http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780060590277-1: This is the predecessor tale to You Suck (see below). Second-hand store owner Charlie Asher is madly in love with his beautiful wife, Rachel. But, on the day she gives birth to their daughter Sophie, Rachel dies and suddenly Charlie finds that he himself is a "Death Merchant" charged with collecting soul objects from individuals dying in San Francisco. As Charlie endeavors to understand his new powers and mission, the city seems to be taken over by sewer harpies, and his daughter is suddenly being protected by two over-eager Hellhounds. Charlie must join forces with Minty Fresh, another Death Merchant to save the city, and the people he loves. Obviously, this story is not grounded in reality - but for those who like to venture over into the world of science-fiction every once in awhile, this is a fun read. It is more complex and better written than You Suck and a fun break from the types of books I normally read.

Straight Man - Richard Russo

http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780375701900-4: By the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Empire Falls, Straight Man is the story of William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the son of two academics, and the current chair of the English Department at a fictional state university facing severe budget cuts. While the professors in his department fight amongst themselves to overthrow Devereaux as chair, decide who should make tenure and who shouldn't be named as the new chair, Devereaux sits back and laughs at it all. In general I tend to like books in university settings (Jane Smiley's Moo, for example), and this one is written with incredible humor that I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. At times Russo is a bit too clever - and then over does the joke by telling it several times in one chapter. The plot twists and turns in the book are based on the principle of Occam's Razor - the idea that, "All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one" - I like this idea, but again Russo throws it in the reader's face at every possible opportunity and the idea becomes old. But, other than that occasional annoyance (and the irritating character of Devereaux's self-centered and oblivious mother), I found this book hilarious - I'd recommend it to anyone with a relatively cynical outlook on life, who doesn't care to take anything too seriously.

Tar Baby - Toni Morrison

http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780394423296-0: I took three classes in college that assigned this book: The Novel, African-American Litarature, and Feminist Literature. I vaguely recalled certain passages from the book and the characters names, but I was struck in re-reading it this time (as part of the Stanford on-line book club) as to how complex it is in terms of race, class and gender relations. Pretty much any stereotypical interaction between blacks and whites, rich and poor, man and woman, is played out in this novel - there are no real resolutions and some of the relationships are wildly overplayed, but overall this is an incredible piece of literature that I could see spending an entire semester on in college. It is basically the story of the rich white Valerian who retires to the Caribbean where his much younger wife broods over the absence of her college-aged son who is racked by white-guilt. Valerian employs a black butler and cook, as well as a yardman and washer - all of whom are uneducated, but still separated by class more than unified by race. The biracial niece of the butler and cook becomes a model and is educated at the Sorbonne through Valerian's money - and falls helpless in love with a shipwrecked illiterate from the South. The novel works through their complicated relationships - and at times tries to do a little too much. I always find Morrison's descriptive writing poetic - but in this one, I felt she captured the often awkward dialogue among the characters perfectly. For a thought-provoking work on race, class, and gender relations, it would be hard to go wrong with Tar Baby.

All the Pretty Horses* - Cormac McCarthy

http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780679744399-12 - The first book in McCarthy's Border Trilogy, this is the story of 16 year old John Grady Cole who heads to Mexico on horseback with his best friend Lacey Rawlins. Along the way, they encounter Jimmy Belvins who gets them all in unspeakable trouble with the law, and Cole falls in love with the daughter of an aristocrat. While Cole seems unbelievably advanced for his age, I did find the narrative interesting - mostly because of the intereactions with the Blevins character. I am not, in general, interested in stories having to do with animals, and there was a little too much going on with Cole and other men in the story being obsessed with the spiritual connections they had with their horses. I've heard about McCarthy for some time, and this was my first experience reading him - it took a little concentration to get into the writing, but once I was in, I found it difficult to put the book down. I am interested in checking out The Road, which just recently won the Pulitzer.

(* - Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction)

A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest Gaines

http://www.powells.com/biblio/63-9781852427238-0 - A black man (Jefferson) is wrongly sentenced to death in Lousiana in the 1940s for the murder of a white shopekeeper. The man's godmother asks her nephew, Grant - a teacher and the narrator of the novel -to meet with Jefferson - to make him a man before the state takes his life. Grant struggles with the concept - how to save a man's soul when he doesn't believe in an after-life, how to be an educated man in a world that degrades him. His meetings with Jefferson unfold slowly as Grant and Jefferson begin to communicate and attempt to understand the worlds in which the two of them live. I really enjoyed the writing in this book - it made me think of To Kill A Mockingbird, if that book had been written from the perspective of Tom Robinson's family. It is filled with the frustration and anger underlying racial politics in our criminal justice system, and literally brought tears to my eyes in the final pages. Well worth reading.

The Weight of Water - Anita Shreve

http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-9780316789974-1 - A photographer, Jean, researching the century-old murder of two women travels by boat with her husband, daughter, brother-in-law, and brother-in-law's girlfriend. Jean discovers the long-lost diary of the sole survivor of the brutal crime. As she delves into the narrative, she finds herself engrossed in a tale of jealousy and betrayal - while struggling to keep her own marriage and family together. I enjoy Shreve's books (I recommend The Pilot's Wife) - they are always quick reads with interesting female main characters - great for a long plane ride, or relaxing on a summer afternoon.