Sunday, July 29, 2007

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen - Ninety-something year old Jacob is alone in a nursing home with nothing more to live for. But, when a traveling circus comes to town, he is transported back to his youth - and his life as a veterinarian under the big top. The chapters flip between Jacob, losing his memory and deserted by his family - and Jacob, falling in love and tending to the menagerie. I got into this book quickly, and loved the stories about the circus workmen vs. the performers vs. the mercurial management. The book has a fun ending, well-worth sticking around for. This is a great summer at the beach read.

Given how big the three books I'm currently reading are, I think this will be my last entry for July. Not a bad month, given that it was my first back at work and I'm still trying to remember how to find time to read when I actually have a job to tend to. Next month, I will have a week in Hawaii for reading, so that should be fun!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Road* - Cormac McCarthy - A unnamed man and his young son move south toward the coast, attempting to evade starvation and possible capture, in a post-apocalyptic world. While the father repeatedly reassures his frightened child that they are the "good guys," every encounter with another human being reveals the desperation and inhumanity necessary for their survival. The little boy is infinitely sweet, pleading with his father to help the others, and haunted by another little boy he sees and is forced to abandon along the way. Recently, I feel like I've read so many books that deal with human nature in trying times - and how horrible situations can make good people do horrible things. This was a very difficult book for me to read - I felt as if the little boy's fear absolutely invaded me. I did not appreciate the writing style of this book as much as All The Pretty Horses. The Road is told in an almost piece-meal simplistic style - not as a full narrative - almost like the thoughts of someone starving and on the brink of death. The images are haunting, and I wonder if the world we lived in came to this, would I really want to keep living? Sometimes I measure the greatness or value of a book or movie by how much it stays with me, or how much I keep thinking about it after I'm done reading or watching. By that yardstick, The Road is a definite classic.

(* - Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Literature)

Monday, July 23, 2007

After Dark - Haruki Murakami Murakami's latest novel follows the lives of two sisters, Mari (quiet and bookish) and Eri (beautiful and troubled) through one night in Tokyo - between the hours of midnight and six, when the Tokyo trains have stopped running. Mari encounters a jazz musician, a Chinese sex-worker, and the managers of a love hotel. All the while, her sister is at home in a strange sleep being watched by a sinister man. As with most of Murakami's novels, this one focuses on the idea of alienation - and how different people experience it in different forms. I enjoyed select chapters of this book and threads of the story, but as a whole, I didn't feel as if it held together - it might have read better as a collection of short stories that happened to have characters in common.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hard Rain - Barry Eisler - This is the second installment of the "John Rain Series" (Book #1 - Rain Fall reviewed last month). John Rain is out of hiding and back in the game. While he tries to plan his disappearance to Brazil, he finds that the lives of those closest to him have been threatened - by people trying to track Rain down. To keep them protected, he "befriends" local yakuza big-men, fights to the death in a UFC-like match, almost falls in love with a hostess, and continues to perfect his stealth murder moves and paranoia-induced counterveillance techniques. This was more of the same from Rain Fall but a fun exciting read. There were some shocking deaths and new revelations of Rain's time in Vietnam. I can't wait to see if Rain makes it to Brazil and what the South Americans have in store for him...

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Lucifer Effect - Philip Zimbardo - Dr. Zimbardo is the Stanford psych professor (recently retired) who designed and carried out the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) for a week in the 70s. This book is a look back at that experiment - and a day by day account of what exactly went on. Zimbardo then analyzes what he believes went wrong in an attempt to understand "how good people turn evil." Zimbardo's basic premise (which I think many people believe, but often forget when judging situations) is that people are not inherently "evil" or "bad seeds", but rather each person has the potential for good or evil and it is situations that define/shape actions. Zimbardo does not argue that people are thus not responsible for their evil acts, but rather looks at how people in authority positions must take responsibility for the situations they create (and Zimbardo repeatedly falls on his sword for his part in creating the SPE, how he got sucked into the "experiment," and his short-comings in potentially harming many of the participants), and ensure safeguards that protect against evil. Zimbardo then applies the lessons of the SPE to the abuses/torture at Abu Ghraib - again arguing that this was not, as the government would like us to believe, the result of seven bad actors acting independently and without orders, but rather the result of a system that does not protect against such things. He then ends, on a happier note, with an analysis of heroes and what defines heroism. This is an incredibly fascinating book - I enjoyed reading about the SPE, after hearing so much about it for years. Zimbardo's research is also directly applicable to a lot of the work I do - understanding the situations that caused my clients to do horrible things, and also understanding the prisoner/guard world they live in now. Zimbardo's book often reads like a textbook, which can make for some tough reading (though I felt he went to great lengths to make it understandable by non-psych folks, and it is not filled with jargon, which I appreciated). Overall, though, I think this is a really important book for everyone to read - just a baseline for understanding human behavior, for helping us all to become more sympathetic, and to hopefully help us all avoid becoming evil in certain situations (even if we all think there's no way we ever would). Dr. Zimbardo was nothing less than a cult phenomenon when I was an undergraduate - as a result I couldn't bring myself to jump on the bandwagon and take a class from him. It is one of my biggest regrets about my time at Stanford - so, I am very pleased to be able to enjoy his research now, so many years later.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Life, Death & Bialys - Dylan Schaffer As a child, Schaffer's father left him and his siblings in the care of his emotionally unstable mother. Over 20 years later, his father is diagnosed with cancer, and asks Schaffer to travel to NY to take a baking class with him. Schaffer agrees, and the result is this often humorous memoir which outlines his attempt to deal with hating the dying father he can't help but love. Schaffer must decide if he can forgive his father, even when his father never actually asks for his forgiveness. This book definitely hit home for me, but what made it even more interesting is that Schaffer is a criminal defense attorney who lives just a couple blocks from me and is a friend of a former classmate/co-worker of mine. I thought his book truly captured the frustration of being abandoned by a parent, and coming to terms with the fact that you can still have a need to love someone who you have tried for so many years to stop caring about. Ultimately, Schaffer realizes that he has to make his choices for himself - that he will have to live with himself once his father has passed on - and I found his way of coping very comforting and real. Schaffer has also published two crime thrillers which I look forward to reading.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Long Way Gone - Ishmael Beah - This is the memoir of a teenage boy growing up in the war-torn country of Sierra Leone. When his village is decimated by rebel soldiers, Beah flees into hiding. Facing starvation and witnessing inexplicable horrors, he is picked up by the government and forced to become a soldier, murdering the rebels who killed his friends and family. This is a fascinating glimpse into the mentality of a child soldier and how both the government and the rebels train and manipulate young men into killing machines. Eventually, Beah makes his way to the United States where he has become a spokesperson against, among other things, child dehumanization. Child soldiers and the conflict in Sierra Leone were recently portrayed in the Leonardo DiCaprio film "Blood Diamond", and is a focus of the work of Human Rights Watch (for whom Beah now works). I have done some fundraising and organization work for HRW in the past, mostly focused on children in Darfur. I think this book is best read in conjunction with the literature and studies put out by HRW - most recently reporting on the first convictions in Sierra Leone for use of child soldiers (

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Crying of Lot 49* - Thomas Pynchon - After thinking of picking up Pynchon's Mason & Dixon for many years, I decided I'd rather introduce myself to his writing with something significantly shorter (160 pages vs. 784 pages). But, perhaps this man's alleged genius is not meant for pithy tales, because I just could not get into this book. The basic premise is interesting to me: the main character, Oedipa, has been made the executor of a will - as she untangles the dead man's assets, she uncovers a centuries old rivalry between competing mail companies (and you thought the US Postal Service was a monopoly!). Conspiracy abounds as Oedipa encounters characters with names such as Dr. Hilarius, Genghis Cohen, and Mike Fallopian. There is Shakespearean play-within-a-play that occurs - and over all, I think there was just too much going on. This is one of those books I would have loved to read in college - and then sit back and allow the professor to tell me what it all meant. But, on my own, I didn't quite have the patience (or the intellect) to work it all out. In a different time and a different place, however, I think I could have loved it.

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

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Portrait of a Lady* - Henry James - After reading Colm Toibin's The Master a couple months back, I was interested in reading Henry James. The Stanford Book Group picked this one as a summer selection. I thought it would take a lot of effort to make it through the 19th century classic, but I was shocked to discover after only about ten pages in that I was hooked. James is the king of description - he can spend pages telling you just how someone sat in a chair, or describing a look on someone's face - presumably this is why it has been said that he does not translate so well to film or stage. The Portrait of a Lady is the story of Isabelle Archer, an American, who is brought to Europe by her aunt in an effort to expose her to more refined culture. Isabel, a woman of modest means, promptly turns down two marriage proposals in assertion of her independence. She suddenly comes into money, and gender, family and financial politics come into play as Isabel determines how to live out the rest of her life. Not a lot happens in the novel - the plot (with spoilers) can be reduced to a single paragraph, but James's telling of the story is truly masterful - James, as portrayed by Toibin, seemed to live a life of less than perfection, but after reading his writing, I understand why he is so widely celebrated. Portrait is the perfect book to read beside the fireplace with a cup of tea - very British and quite a lot of fun.

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

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Slow Man* - J.M. Coetzee - Sixty-something year old Paul Rayment survives a bicycle accident, but must have his leg amputated. Unable to adequately care for himself, he is assigned a Croatian day nurse named Marijana with whom he falls in love. Paul professes his love for Marijana and his desire to financially support the education of her children, causing discord in Marijana's marriage. Suddenly Elizabeth Costello (the fictional Australian author who is the subject of Coetzee's ealier novel) arrives on the scene. Costello is often read as Coetzee's alter ego, and I found her presence in the book distracting and seemingly unnecessary. The fundamental story of Slow Man is quite interesting - the psychological effects of a debilatating accident on an independent person, as well as the blurred lines between love and dependence. This is all portrayed wonderfully through Paul's character. But, the irritation caused by Costello's character prevented me from truly enjoying this book (though perhaps she could be read as the super-ego to Paul's id - a true reflection of the irritation that one feels when their moral judgment conflicts with their desires). I would recommend this to someone who appreciates Coetzee's writing style, but not necessarily for the overall experience.

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

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Inheritance of Loss* - Kiran Desai Set in the isolated home of a retired judge in the Himalayas at the time of a Nepali insurgency. The book follows multiple stories - the judge's granddaughter Sai's love of her math tutor, the judge's cook's obsession with his son who has finally made it in America - or so he thinks, the struggle of the son as an immigrant in an unforgiving New York, the region's political upheaval, and the story of how the judge became the irascible lonely man he is. Normally, I love books of this sort - generations of family, children coming-of-age between two cultures, Asian foods and traditions...and this one started out wonderfully - beautiful writing, interesting characters...but for some reason it just didn't hold my interest, and by the end, I just couldn't wait for it to end. I was unsatisfied with the love story, I wanted more from the relationship between the cook and his son -- it just didn't come together for me. I haven't had much luck with books that are awarded the Booker prize, but I'll probably keep trying. If you like these types of stories, I don't think you can do much better than Rohinton Mistry's novels for plot and Anita Desai for language.

(* - Winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize)

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Buffalo Soldier - Chris Bohjalian - By the author of Midwives (which I highly recommend), this is the story of a white couple who have just lost their twin girls in a flood. They take in an 11-year old black boy as a foster child. The chapters in the book are told from the perspective of the wife, the husband, the child, and a woman the husband meets on a camping trip and develops a relationship with. I particularly enjoyed the relationship that developed between the boy and foster mom, as well as the boy and an elderly neighbor who teaches the child about The Buffalo Soldiers - black cavalry men who fought in the Old West. Parts of the book were a little frustrating - the affair the husband has is irritating and a bit outrageous - but all in all this was a good read for the summer.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Everyman* - Philip Roth - This is a short book that starts with the funeral of an unnamed 70-year old. The book then walks back through his life as a sickly child obsessed with illness, through three marriages and three children, and through his career as an ad man turned painter. This book seems complex and insightful perhaps only because it is written by Roth. Otherwise, it's pretty much just a mundane look into a self-absorbed man who failed to realize his selfishness until it was too late. And maybe not even then. I sincerely hope that the main character of this book is not Everyman.

(* - Winner 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction)

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon - This is the absolute best book I've read all year. It starts out as a story about the young son of a bookseller, Daniel, whose mother has passed away. He stumbles upon a long-lost book and becomes obsessed with finding out everything he can about the author, Julian Carax. He talks to numerous people, slowly gathering clues - some factual and others meant to send him into frustrating dead-ends. Zafon's novel incorporates many of the elements of the Gothic Novel - horror, romance, secrets, haunted houses, curses, villains, and femme fatales. As Daniel encounters each new character he listens to the stories within stories and attempts to unravel the truth behind the mysterious Carax. This is the kind of book that keeps me excited about reading!!