Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: The Year in Review

I ended up 5 books short of my 150 book goal for 2008. But, instead of spending the last week of the year craming in those last books, I decided to spend it cleaning out some of my closets and trying to get a bit more organized - and reminding myself that my book goals should not stress me out! I am hoping there will be lots of time in 2009 to read. I certainly have a lot of books on my shelves that have been there for years and deserve to be read and passed on to new homes!

2008 was a great reading year for me and I enjoyed sharing my blog with folks and learning about new books from people who dropped in to share now and again. And just in case you're interested, here are my top picks for the year (of course, not necessarily published this year, just culled from the books I managed to get around to in 2008):

1. The Forger's Spell - Edward Dolnick
2. Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follet
3. Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri
4. Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell (thanks to Courtney)
5. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak (thanks to Mema)
6. Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (thanks to Hilary)
7. Finding Iris Chang - Paula Kamen (thanks to Mom)
8. The Likeness - Tana French (thanks to Colleen)
9. I Know This Much Is True - Wally Lamb
10. The Twilight Series (all 4) - Stephenie Myers

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ms. Hempel Chronicles - Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

I finished this book yesterday and I'm starting to believe that I may need to read it again. Not because I enjoyed it, but actually quite the opposite. I found this book difficult to get into and the main character, Ms. Hempel, self-congratulatory and irritating. The problem is that this book keeps appearing on "Best of 2008" lists and otherwise receiving wonderful write-ups. It makes me think I really must have missed something. Similar to The Wonder Spot, this book focuses on the same character, but each chapter is basically a stand-alone short story. In many ways, Ms. Hempel is a very real charaters - she is a new teacher struggling with teaching in an "appropriate" manner, but also in innovative ways that will engage her students. It is difficult, however, not to read her as simply trying to win some sort of popularity contest. She is also recently engaged, though the details of the relationship are sketchy (as is her fiance, it seems), and I didn't feel as if the author went much beyond the surface. While the reader can tell that Hempel is conflicted, and stuck in that age between childhood and adulthood, I just couldn't see her as anything more than a constant complainer. Yet, as I read more and more reviews, I appear to be in the minority, so this may be one I take another stab at down the road. But probably not anytime soon.

Skellig - David Almond

The winner of numerous awards for children's literature, Skellig was one of the novels recommended by Nick Hornby in his travels through YA fiction. Skellig is the story of young Michael, who has moved into a new home following the birth of his very sickly sister. While his parents are preoccupied with his sister's health care, Michael is left to explore on his own. In his garage, he comes across a strange creature - perhaps human, but perhaps more. He shares the secret with Mina, his precocious home-schooled neighbor. Though I tend to read children's literature here and there and do not by any means have a grasp on what comes out in a given year, I was surprised that this book has won so many awards. It seemed all over the place to me. There is no satisfactory explanation of where the garage creature came from, or how he deteriorated to his present state. As Michael drops in and out of school, he is consumed by worry over his little sister - he feels his heartbeat inside his own, yet this connection is never fully explored. Then there is Mina's obsession with William Blake and her superior attitude. While it is clear that Michael has much to learn from the world that cannot come from his structured classroom, Almond's exact point on this issue is unclear. Michael's parents pay sporadic attention to him and tell them they love him, yet don't seem to do much to support him through the difficult transition. In the end, I just felt like the story didn't hold together. I didn't really care that much about Michael, and I found Mina to be an irritating distraction. While there were interesting ideas here and there throughout the book, ultimately, I didn't feel it amounted to very much.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Killing Rain - Barry Eisler

This is the 4th installment of the series featuring John Rain, the half-Asian all-amazin' assassin. Israeli intelligence has dispatched Rain to Manila to take out weapons dealer, Manheim Levi. To my delight, Rain is unable to take on this task single-handedly and is forced to entertain the assistance of loud-mouthed sharp-shooter Dox (who made his appearance in Rain Storm). On the verge of completing the assignment, Rain uncharacteristically gives in to his conscience and he botches the job. Levi and the Israelis are on to Rain, but he is determined to finish what he started, and contacts Delilah - his love interest from Rain Storm, and also a trained intelligence agent. With Eisler's patented twists and turns, the reader (and Rain) don't know who to trust or where anyone's true alliances lie. Killing Rain had a lot less of the surveillance and counter-surveillance techniques that I thought slowed down the plot of the prior Rain books - and Eisler started to write Rain as a human being with flaws, rather than a mindless killer who is always ten steps ahead of the other guy. This may be disappointing to readers who relish the fight scenes and CIA black-ops lingo - but for me, it was a much appreciated turn. The book ends with a shocking (to Rain, but not really to the reader) revelation that sets up the plot for installment #5, The Last Assassin. But, I fear I will have to wait until book 6 for the return of my beloved Dox. I better get reading...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tallgrass - Sandra Dallas

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States government set up a number of internment camps for Japanese-Americans. One of these camps, located in Colorado, housed evacuees from California. Sandra Dallas's fictionalized camp, Tallgrass, sits right on the edge of town where 13 year old Rennie and her family work their sugar beet farm. Reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Rennie's father is an outspoken advocate of civil rights, and stands-up for the Japanese, when the townpeople voice their prejudices. Shortly after the establishment of the camp, a local girl is found raped and murdered. Everyone suspects the "foreigners," though Rennie's family chooses instead to hire a few of the boys from the camp to work their farm. The book follows the escalating tension between the camp and the town, as seen through Rennie's young, confused, and conflicted, yet perceptive, eyes. Dallas does a good job of portraying the ignorance and hypocrisy of the townspeople, particularly when Rennie's own brother is captured by the Germans. In a town filled with alcoholism, domestic violence, secrets, and shame, the outrage the townspeople feel toward the Japanese, is clearly a mirror to our current society and its treatment of Middle Eastern-Americans. While a lot of great fiction has already been written about the injustice of the campes (When the Emperor Was Divine and Snow Falling On Cedars among them), this is a welcome addition to the list told from an interesting perspective.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Promises to Keep - Joe Biden

In general, I'm not a fan of politics or politicians. But, with all the excitement over Obama going to the White House (and I did enjoy his memoir Dreams From My Father), it only seemed fair that I would make equal effort to get to know his vice-presidential running mate. Obviously, I knew Biden was a life-long politician, and I learned during the DNC that he had lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident. And, I did know that foreign policy is his forte. But, I didn't know much else about the senator from Delaware. Promises to Keep portrays Biden as a very folksy guy, growing up middle class, raised by parents who taught him stellar values - most importantly that he is no better or worse than anyone else, and that all people deserve to be treated with respect. These fundamental ideals have (allegedly) gone on to shape Biden's view of politics and the change he hopes to see in the world. I was touched by his descriptions of his family, and the heartbreaking loss of the love of his life. I was also amazed by the incredible sacrifices his siblings, sons, and current wife have made to support his various races for political office. As with most memoirs (particularly those of politicians), Biden pats himself on the back quite a bit - though of course he attempts to do it in a "I have so many things to be modest about" kind of way. I got a little tired of him constantly pointing out how much younger he was than everyone else who had ever held his position, or the other men he had to work with in the Senate. But, I do believe that despite being a part of Washington for so long, that Biden does know and remember what it is like to be a real person in a real family. Even as he relayed his experience as head of the judicial committee during Bork's Supreme Court nomination, his drafting of the Violence Against Women Act, and his views on genocide in Serbia - Biden always seemed to maintain a healthy perspective of his role in it all. Of course, I have some basic differences of opinion with Biden - he is a Catholic, and allows his religious beliefs in my opinion to bleed into his legal arguments more than he should. And, despite his belief that ALL people should be treated equal, he clearly took the same position as Governor Palin at the debates with respect to gay marriage. While this is no small issue - and a huge red flag of hypocrisy - for me, I did finish this book with a better understanding and respect for Biden than I'd previously had. His vast experience, and his apparent willingness to learn from people on both sides of the aisle gives me great confidence for the next four years. The new administration has many many miles to go before they sleep, and I only hope that he and Obama can keep all the promises they've made.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Shakespeare Wrote for Money - Nick Hornby

This is Hornby's third and last collection of his columns from Believer magazine. The first two, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt and The Polysyllabic Spree have been reviewed in previous posts. I didn't know this third one had beeb published and was positively ecstatic to find it among ornaments and stationery and other treasures in a small shop on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. Hornby's columns are about the books he's bought and the books he's read every month. Clearly, a column after my own heart. The difficulty is that I waiver between wanting to just sit myself on the nearest corner and devour every chapter, and wanting to just read one here and there so that they will seemingly last forever. And now that Hornby has announced his retirement from Believer to focus on his family of all things, I really did want to make this one last. Alas, it was impossible, and like a DVD of Lost episodes, I found myself saying "just one more," until sadly I'd reached the end. As with many Hornby novels, there are many football/soccer references. I could do without these. But, to my delight, in this series of columns, Hornby discovers the excitement of the world of young adult fiction. Given his recent book, Slam, written for young adults (which is on my shelves and I am saving for a very special occasion), Hornby has entered a world of literature that I have loved - ever since I was a young adult. I was happy to get some new recommendations, and to learn about something called the Alex Awards - which are given out every year to the 10 books written for adults that are found appealing to young adults. - or as Hornby calls them "The Non-Boring Book Awards." While encouraging young adults to expand their reading horizons and transition them to "adult" literature, they are no doubt a good place for adults to look for fun books! I took a look at past winners - which include some of my favorites: Into Thin Air, Caucasia, Plainsong, Peace Like a River, The Book of Lost Things, and Water for Elephants. So, needless to say, I definitely plan on mining the list for future reads. Hornby's essays, as always, are filled with humor and literary insight, and are a wonderful celebration of my favorite pastime. I'm sad that I won't have more collections to look forward to, but am sure that I will continue to go back and re-read his columns for more recommendations for a long time to come.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Little Too Much is Enough - Kathleen Tyau

Set in post-WWII Honolulu, each chapter of this book follows the life of Mahi and her extended Hawaiian/Chinese family. The chapters could each be read as stand alone vignettes, and at times even reading them in sequence it is difficult to determine which character is speaking, what stage of life they are speaking about, and how each of the characters is related to one another. But, one thing Tyau definitely does is capture the spirit of Hawaii - what it is like growing up on the islands, surrounded by loving (and often crazy) family, and thinking about food all the time. I enjoyed this book, and my mother, who spent much more time living in Hawaii than I, absolutely loved it. I think for readers who are not too familiar with Hawaiian traditions and slang, this might be a difficult book to access, but for the rest of us, it is a definite treat. It made me miss my grandparents and afternoons filled with all the delicious mango I could eat.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Two or Three Things I Know For Sure - Dorothy Allison

I've referenced Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina before - but it's one I read back in college. It's set in the South and tells the story of a young girl growing up amidst poverty and abuse. To date, it's one of the most powerful books I've ever read, and even now I cringe at the sadness and horror it contains. One of the literary concepts I truly believe in is the idea of survival through storytelling - particularly in the feminist tradition. Allison is a primary example of the raw strength that comes from putting pen to paper. Two or Three Things I Know For Sure is Allison's memoir (written initially as a performance piece) about her life growing up in the South surrounded by her own poverty and abuse - it focuses on the women in her life - her sisters and mother, her aunts and girlfriends - and what they taught her about the importance of self-worth. As the title suggests, through the book, Allison shares the "two or three things she knows for sure," including "No one is as hard as my uncles had to pretend to be," "I'd rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me," and "If we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form." Allison's story-telling ability seems to have been cultivated as a child - as a way for her to escape the reality of her life, as well as a way to make her experiences real. While I wish this book would have been longer with more stories and in-depth detail about her life, I'm sure Allison wrote it more for herself than for others. And even if I'll always wish there were more from her, I am quite grateful for what she has chosen to share.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Letter to My Daughter - Maya Angelou

This is a kind of "Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" collection of thoughts and wisdom from Maya Angelou to the daughter she never had (biologically, that is). It is a hodge-podge of essays, poems and random thought based on Angelou's life experiences. It is at times preachy and judgmental, but alas, beautifully written. And, of course, there is truth in each of Angelou's pieces of advice. Most of her advice is of the "suck it up and endure" variety, and while she recounts clearly difficult times in her life, sometimes the conclusions she reaches seem to simplistic and fail to honor the feelings she had at the time of the event. This is a good book to pick up while browsing in the bookstore, read a few quick chapters, and move on. Or to have lying around the house to read in pieces here and there. While quick, as a straight through read, I found it a bit irritating.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

This short novella has received a lot of good press - which always makes me a bit skeptical. But, I was pleasantly surprised and highly recommend it for a quick read during a quiet evening at home. The Uncommon Reader features Queen Elizabeth - not known for her literary prowess - forced out of politeness to borrow a book from a traveling library. Each week, as the bookmobile visits the Palace, she trades in one book for another, until she finds that she has indeed caught the reading bug. From here, she finds herself wishing she could cancel dinners and teas, if only to find another minute to read. Her natural curiosity knows no bounds, and this translates into an insatiable reading appetite. Those around her try desperately to change her course, arguing that reading isolates and that she should not be perceived as endorsing one form of entertainment over another. When she hopes to engage her subjects by asking what book they are currently reading, most respond in horror, unsure of the response she expects (though some enthusiastically commend Harry Potter). Bennett's novella has the Queen finding herself irritated by chores that take away from her reading time, and by all accounts acting as any bibliophile would - only her role as a monarch puts her into some tough situations. I found this book quite clever - even if a little silly at times. But, definitely a really fun read - and a good reminder of how much time I do spend reading, perhaps to the detriment of other things.

Exit Ghost - Philip Roth

Exit Ghost is Roth's ninth novel featuring writer Nathan Zuckerman. Alas, this is the first one I've read, so I will have to find some time later to go back in time and read the others (including The Human Stain). Here, Zuckerman finds himself an elderly man, living in New England, removed from New York's post-9/11 world and on the brink of the 2004 election. Zuckerman returns to his hometown for surgery, but after a brief encounter with the former girlfriend of his now deceased friend, the short story writer E.I. Lonoff, he decides to swap his home for that of a young couple - both struggling themselves to make it in the literary world. Zuckerman falls for the wife, and becomes entangled with her ex-boyfriend, a young man who hopes to become Lonoff's biographer, and to reveal a shocking secret that Zuckerman simply cannot fathom. In an effort to work through his feelings over the wife, and Lonoff's ex, as well as the decline of his body due to age, Zuckerman takes to writing a play - the dialogue blurring his fantasy with reality. While I think going back and getting some background on Zuckerman from Roth's previous novels, I found this book easy to get in to and interesting as a character sketch about an aging individual who feels that he is slowly losing touch with the world around him - often by choice, but also because things are moving ahead much too quickly. I have yet to find a book by Roth that I've absolutely loved, but they all seem to have something intriguing that sticks with me for days after, and so I will keep plugging through until I've read all 25+.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

I picked this book up at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto because I loved the paper it was printed on...and it appeared, in part, to be about a 12 year old girl (I tend to like books with adolescent female narrators). I was pleased to discover that this one was indeed quite a treat. A bestseller in France, The Elegance of the Hedgehog taks place in a wealthy Parisian apartment complex. Renee, the concierge provides her first person account of the tenants who come and go, assuming that she is uneducated or worthy of actual conversation. To the contrary, Renee is a lover of Russian literature (her cat, Leo, is named after Tolstoy) and Japanese films. An autodidact, she relishes philosophy and culture, all while maintaining her subservience around the tenants who barely acknowledge her existence. Between Renee's musings and observations are 12 year old Paloma's diary entries. Paloma, who lives in the building, is an recognized genius parading as a mediocre student who enjoys Manga and has vowed to end her life on her 13th birthday to avoid the hypocrisy that is life. As Renee and Paloma pursue their separate existences, they are suddenly brought together by Mr. Ozu, a new tenant in the building who is able to see past both their facades into the complicated and interesting people they truly are. The Elegance of a Hedgehog is absolutely beautifully written, and while I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened in terms of plot, I found myself reading just a chapter here and there in order to savor the book. The characters are loveable and intelligent - and while I did not particularly enjoy the ending, all in all, I found this a simply charming story (and like many I've read this year, even better by the fireplace with a cup of tea).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Once Upon a Quinceanera - Julia Alvarez

I have an interest in coming of age rituals and celebrations. I love birthdays, but the ones with particular meaning in different cultures and socio-economic groups hold particular interest - including bar and bat mitzvahs, Sweet Sixteens (thanks to MTV for indulging this fascination), debutante balls, and the quinceanera. Recently, there seems to have been a rash of books and movies about this latin phenomenon. In this non-fiction book by the author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez explores the quinceanera by shadowing a young girl on the brink of her quince in Queens. Alvarez explains how the tradition evolved, and what it represents to families in the United States. Alvarez does not hold back her criticism - questioning why families struggling to stay above the poverty line would go into debt for a party. Yet, she answers her own question by looking at what the attention provides to Latinas, who are among the nation's most susceptible to teen pregnancy and dropping out of high school. Alvarez looks at how the quinceanera brings cultures together, and reminds "Americanized" youth to look back at their heritage with appreciation. She also looks at how the worshipping of material things and the need to outshine the neighbors has cheapened the tradition. Ultimately, this is not just a book about Alvarez's observations of a ritual, but also a memoir of her own life as the daughter of immigrants from the DR who never had her own quinceanera. Alvarez's perspective as a Latina in America, as well as a staunch feminist, brings a unique and powerful perspective to this fairy tale tradition.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - Douglas Adams

This is the second installment of Adams's five-part Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Arthur Dent, last known surviving earthling, is aboard a spaceship about to be attacked by the gruesome Vogons. Thanks to the wonders of time travel, they are saved at the last minute by a distant ancestor of Zaphod Beeblebrox. They travel to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where the entertainment is constantly interrupted by the end of the universe. As different characters try in their own way to figure out how to survive, Arthur and Ford Prefect end up on a planet they determine to be earth at the time of creation. Thousands of humans have been brought to the planet to inhabit it, but their knowledge and skills are that of the cavemen. Arthur tries unsuccessfully to teach them to play scrabble in hopes of speeding-up evolution, but as he learns from Ford, "Rome wasn't burned in a day." Like this plot summary, The Restaruant at the End of the Universe, is filled with nonsense, verbal word games, constant time and space travel - and the never ending for the quest to determine the question to which the answer is 42. As I've noted before, I am not big on the math/science/physics of it all, but I really enjoy Adams's characters, and their constant absurdity. To me, this series has been good for some real laughs - not necessarily realistic plot or dialogue, but definitely a worthwhile escape from it all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bright Shiny Morning - James Frey

After all the controversy over Frey's "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, I just couldn't resist picking up his recent novel to see him take a stab at writing fiction that is actually represented as fiction. Bright Shiny Morning is both a history of Los Angeles, and a portrait of the various people attempting to live out their dreams in the City Angels. There is the American-born and raised daughter of Mexican immigrants, trying to make her parents' sacrifices worth their while. There is the world-famous celebrity couple living together in their mansion for the cameras, but privately living separate homosexual existences courtesy of non-disclosure agreements. There is the 19-year old couple from the midwest who have come west with nothing but hopes for a better future. Along the way, there is the usual sex, drugs, violence and destruction of dreams that one would expect only in Los Angeles. As a concept, I liked this novel - Frey divides up his short chapters on the various characters with factual statements about the creation and growth of Los Angeles - beginning in the 18th century and continuing up to the current day. The idea that all of Los Angeles and everything it has come to represent began as nothing more than a pueblo is an incredible thought. Frey's writing, however, is all over the place. Not only does he jump from character to character, but he avoids punctuation with no rhyme or reason, making dialogue and thoughts often difficult to follow (giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is supposed to represent the haziness and confusion of LA itself?). In many ways, the characters are quite real - all trying in their own ways, but with a huge dose of tragedy. In my hopes of a coincidental Dickensian end, I anticipated that some of the character paths would cross, but they never did. Of course, this does make the novel a bit more realistic - simply a portrayal of all these different types of lives living in parallel existence in such a seemingly small area. But, it doesn't make for an interesting cohesive story. Frey has great character ideas - he just needs to reach a bit more for a plot. I appreciated the creative aspects of this novel, though often found myself thinking that Frey was trying too hard to be different, shocking, or original. Again, kind of like LA in general.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In The Company of Cheerful Ladies - Alexander McCall Smith (#1 Ladies Detective Series - Book 6)

In this latest installment, Ramotswe is haunted by her past when her abusive first husband Note Matekoni arrives back in town with a plan to blackmail the detective. Meanwhile, assistant detective Mma Makutsi (of 97% typing accuracy fame) decides to take dance lessons in the hopes of meeting a fine successful businessman. Instead, she is paired up with a stuttering gentleman with two left feet. Enter Mr. Polopetsi - an ex-con looking for work, who Matekoni agrees to take on as a helper when one of his apprentices, Charlie, deserts his post for a wealthy lady in a Mercedes Benz. While there aren't a lot of customers paying the detective agency to solve mysteries in this one, there are certainly a lot of personal conundrums and emotions to sort out for all the characters. As with all the books in this series, this was a quick read. I enjoyed all the Botswana aphorisms, Ramotswe and Makutsi's constant observations that others are not as polite as they, and just getting to know the characters a little better. As always a wonderful treat. Someday, I hope to read Smith's books with a cup of the infamous bush tea.

The Black Echo - Michael Connelly

Earlier this year, my friend Rob introduced me to Michael Connelly with The Lincoln Lawyer featuring attorney Mickey Haller. At the time, he also told me that Connelly had written a series of detective novels about the character Harry Bosch. Connelly's most recent novel The Brass Verdict brings together Haller and Bosch. I thought that would be a fun read, but before I took it on, I decided I'd go back to the beginning and learn a little more about Mr. Bosch. The Black Echo was published in 1992. Since then Connelly has written 13 books featuring Bosch (not including The Brass Verdict). In this first installment, we meet Bosch, a renegade homicide detective who is called out to an apparent overdose in the sewers off Mulholland Drive. Bosch recognizes the victim as a fellow soldier in Vietnam and suspects there is more to the death than meets the eye. His hunt for the truth pairs him up with an FBI agent and sets him on the trail of bank robbers that will take him back to the underground tunnels of Vietnam and the pain and vengeance he thought he'd left behind. This is perfect pocket-fiction airplane reading. Life many detective thrillers, it is pretty far-reaching, but Bosch is a likeable curmudgeon. I am a fan of long series, and like getting to know a character over a period of time and books. This reminded me of Robert Tannenbaum's series of books feature DA Butch Karp (of which I read about 10 when I was taking Advanced Criminal Law from Mr. Tannenbaum my last year of law school). While I do prefer my Law & Order with a little courtroom legal drama, I am satisfied every once in awhile with just the law. While I probably won't read the next 12 Bosch novels right in a row, I am happy to have found a series that will last me awhile and that I can keep coming back to. Thanks Rob!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love - Jill Conner Browne - I picked this book up at a used book store many years ago because I liked the cover and it seemed like a fun mindless read. If I would have known then how funny it would be, I wouldn't have just let it sit on my shelves for so long! The Sweet Potato Queens are a group of big red haired women in Jackson, Mississippi who come out every St. Patrick's Day to appease their adoring crowds, and to shower the people with their fabulousness. The rest of the year, the Sweet Potato Queens work hard to maintain their image - and now the Queen of the Queens, Jill Conner Browne, has put together this book - a how-to/survival guide/self-help book on ensuring that you too know the secrets of love, life, men, marriage, and being prepared. The humor is at times a bit bawdy, but I laughed out loud, and while reading this pool-side with Jake, I kept irritating him by reading passages to him that were just too good not to share. My favorite chapter was "What to Eat When Tragedy Strike," which includes all the necessary recipes for dealing with any emergency - both salty and sweet. I look forward to trying out many of the recipes, especially the Butterfinger Cookies. This book is so crazy that I am amazed it is based on actual people and hope that Browne has exercised a healthy dose of exaggeration. She has four other books about her group of friends/worshippers, as well as a recent fiction novel and a cookbook. I look forward to reading them all and marveling in the strange beauty of the Sweet Potato Queens.

The Wonder Spot - Melissa Bank

Years ago, I read and enjoyed Bank's collection of short stories, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing. While I do not remember what any of those stories were about, my lasting impression of Bank is that her writing was easy and that her characters were clever. The Wonder Spot achieves the same lasting result. This is the story of Sophie Applebaum, a mediocre student, hoping for something more but not quite motivated to obtain it. The separate chapters of the novel are themselves like individual short stories - connected only because they feature the same main character. The book spans from Sophie's adolescence enduring Hebrew school until her almost 40s. The stories focus heavily on Sophie's relationships with men - but provide a much broader commentary on personal relationships in general as Sophie observes her perfect younger brother's union with an Orthodox Jew, and her flaky older brother's meaningless flings. Sophie also has difficult friendships with women - yearning as a child to be viewed as popular, and in later life unsure what she should be forced to give up for acceptance. While Sophie is not the brightest or most insightful individual, she is full of saracasm and wit - probably somewhat of a charater flaw in her ability to understand others. The Wonder Spot won't leave you with much to ponder in the end, but it is an enjoyable read with a satisfying end.

Citizen Girl: Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

For my trip to Belize, I decided to bring only mindless chick-lit, so that no intellectual processing would interfere with my pool-side laziness. I am also trying to get through all these books Raz lent me so long ago. I had semi-high hopes for Citizen Girl. It is written by the same duo that gave us The Nanny Diaries - a book that I think all the real mothers I know hate with a vengeance, but I found pretty entertaining. Citizen Girl features a character known simply as "Girl." In many ways, this is distressing, because if she is supposed to represent the Everygirl, then I think we are in serious trouble. Girl has been taught well by her feminist mother and is ready to change the world. She lands the seemingly perfect job (after being fired from her non-profit by a back-stabbing boss) - without a proper interview, and without any real understanding of what she is supposed to be doing. It has something to with launching a campaign to attract young feminists to an amorphous website run entirely by men, which in the ultimate satirical twist, turns into distressing pornography. Girl also has a random love interest - apparently, the reader is supposed to believe that the two have some sort of strong connection, but all their conversations are highly irritating and they do not seem to understand each other on any level - not to mention the fact that the love interest's friends are complete jerks. As Girl plugs along in her job, she finds herself questioning her integrity and her ability to continue to work on a project for which she has no support and no guidance. But, instead of being an insightful novel about the difficulties of the independent working woman to reconcile her ideals with reality, Girl is simply a whiny character who stands for nothing and is merely a mish-mash of ideas she has been fed by others. While a number of the frustrating scenes present Girl in typical real-life corporate work situations, there is nothing about the way she deals with the challenges that says anything positive about feminism or the power of women to succeed in a man's world. This book is poorly written and the characters are barely one-dimensional. A definite sophomore slump for the writers who have been called a One-Hit Wonder.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

All About LuLu - Jonathan Evison

I've been in a bit of a slump with my fiction selections lately. After reading the first 100 pages of this book, I thought I was finally emerging...but then I kept reading. All About Lulu is told from the perspective of Will, an awkward adolescent who has recently lost his mother. His father, a bodybuilder, isn't one for sentimentalism, nor are his younger twin brothers who model their behavior after streotypical neanderthals. Thus, Will is left to his own devices to try and figure out the world on his own. Then he meets Lulu - immediately Will is taken with her, and finds that she is the only one he is able to talk to, and then only one who seems to understand his quirky misfit-ness. Lulu becomes Will's step-sister - but clearly also his soulmate. Then one summer, Lulu goes away to summer camp, and something changes. She comes back withdrawn and cruel - clear in her effort to push Will away. And so Will chases other dreams - he works for a radio and a hamburger joint, he watches his brother's develop their own distinct personalities, and he makes a couple off-the-wall friends. But, all the while, he remains steadfastly loyal to Lulu, who year after year seems to spin more and more out of control. Will's inability to move on becomes a bit tedious at times, and the reader longs for an explanation of Lulu's bizarre behavior - does she suffer from mental illness? Does she actually return Will's feelings? What exactly happened the summer she went away? And, when the secret is revealed - it's too close to the end of the book, and it does not quite explain enough. Plus, it resembled a recent episode of Private Practice I just saw (which clearly came out after this book was written), while also seemed to be trying too hard to be shocking. All About Lulu is kind of chick-lit/Oprah book written by a man and about a male character. I plan to read reviews on by male readers to see how realistic they found the portrayal of Will's character.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop - Lewis Buzbee

While browsing at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto after a delicious breakfast at Hobee's, I came across this little gem. Lewis Buzbee is from the Bay Area and has spent his life surrounded by books. This is a both a memoir about his experiences working in and with bookstores, as well as a history of books and bookstores, and all things literary. Buzbee has a love, not just of the written word, but of that word printed on paper and bound in beautiful hardcover and paperback. He speaks about the development of gadgets such as the Kindle (he does not refer to the kindle by name, but devices like it), and the concept of libraries. But, in the end what he loves most is to possess the actual physical book. He cannot get enough of browsing in stores, of learning about new titels by eavesdropping on other customers, or through the relationships he has cultivated with various owners. He is a product of the independent bookstore, but he does not turn his nose up to large chains. In short, Buzbee pours out in his little book, the giddiness I feel everytime I open the door to a bookstore - the excitement of seeing new displays, and the knowledge that I can wander around and read whatever I want for as long as I want and I'm unlikely ever to be interrupted or asked to leave. He also dispels some of the wonder I have about how booksellers choose which books to put into their stores, and how books get from a publisher to the store floor. Part of the charm of this book for me also comes from the fact that Buzbee spends a great deal of time talking about stores in Palo Alto/Menlo Park that I frequented in high school (Printer's Inc., Kepler's, Stacey's), and the ones he puruses while living in San Francisco (City Lights, the now defunct Cody's and A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, Green Apple) Buzbee does not write about his particular favorite books or provide commentary about what he feels is worth reading and what is not - rather this is an informational and personal exploration of the concept of the book - and a true tribute to bookstores - and the wonder they hold for everyone.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - Alice Munro

When it comes to short story collections, I go in phases. Sometimes I just love them, and other times I find myself anxiously awaiting the ironic twist and unable to just simply enjoy the storytelling. And, for some reason, I find it necessary to read collections all the way through instead of allowing myself to read a story here and there when I decide I'm in the mood for one. It's something that I'm going to work on...but in the meantime...this collection of Munro's showcases female leads - most of whom have come from less than perfect pasts. Some of them find themselves married, others with children. But each one is perfectly real (at least to me) in her ambivalence and exasperation over her situation. I found myself captivated by Munro's writing, she's one of those authors whose passages you read again and again just to marvel at how perfectly they capture an emotion. In many ways her characters are depressing, and even the ones who got their happy ending seem to do so only because they didn't know what they should have been wishing for. Great stories to read with a pint of ice cream after a trying day.

Orpheus Lost - Janette Turner Hospital

Orpheus Lost is one of the picks for this year's Stanford Book Salon. It begins its focus on Southern-girl turned MIT mathematician, Leela. She finds herself in the bowels of the subway drawn in by the haunting sounds of musician Mishka Bartok's violin. Shortly after, the two begin to date and eventually move in together. The novel is thick with references to Orpheus and Eurydice, playing off the myth on various levels. After a suicide bombing, Leela is interrogated by her ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend Cobb, who has become a mercenary and has a personal interest in tying Leela's current lover to the terrorist incident. Mishka, however, has secrets of his own that take him to Lebanon and unleash the usual web of confusion and misunderstandings one would expect in a book with middle-eastern characters in a post-9/11 world. Thus, at about 100 pages in, I found myself unimpressed and unsure I wanted to continue to read a story I had already heard a million times. But, then the author took a turn. She returned to the South for backstory on Leela and Cobb. She explored Mishka's parentage and the effects of loss from the Holocaust on his Hungarian family. The terrorist misunderstandings, while real and frustrating, then become the tragic result of years of secrets. Orpheus Lost is many stories of families woven together to the point of Leela and Mishka's hope for reunification. And, like Orpheus and Eurydice, they both have to travel to hell and back, in the hopes that they can avoid looking back at their past, in order to begin anew.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Soul Thief - Charles Baxter

Nathaniel Mason, the main character of Baxter's novel, seems to lack a cohesive identity. He cavorts with pseudo-intellectuals and falls in love with a lesbian, all while contemplating the import of Gertrude Stein. One night at a party, he meets Jerome Coolberg - a man who throws out quotations of dubious origin and philosophies on life that he does not quite seem to endorse. And he slowly begins to co-opt pieces of Mason's past. He suddenly knows personal information about Mason's family, which he retells to others as his own history. But, even as Mason realizes what Coolberg is stealing, he protests little and instead seems to spiral into madness. There is confusion about whether Mason is paranoid, or if Coolberg is in fact adopting his soul. The story itself skips all over the place in terms of time - from Mason's college years to his adult world with a wife and two kids. Through his characters, Baxter explores the idea of identity - how much we create on our own and how much we borrow, or in some situations, completely steal from others. I experienced a general sense of discomfort while reading this book - a frustration with Mason in his passivity and a vehement dislike for Coolberg. Overall, this was one that did not inspire too much enthusiasm while I was reading it, but did raise interesting issues that I have been thinking about for the day or two since I finished.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stiff - Mary Roach

Ashley recommended this one to me awhile ago, and after attending a seminar on interpreting autopsy reports, I figured a book about the life (and death?) of cadavers might be interesting. Roach explores the history of cadavers, researching when and how cadavers were first used to advance medical science. When thinking of cadavers, I always conjure up images of decrepit grave-robbers selling bodies in the crooked cobbled streets of London, and Roach's story doesn't start too far from there. I appreciated her evaluation of how people work with dead bodies - the concept of dehumanization and the acknowledgement that a corpse is not a living breathing human being. And more importantly, that the idea of harvesting organs or otherwise learning from the tragedy of loss of life is something we should find commendable, not disgusting. Roach has chapters on various different uses of corpses from crash test dummies to testers for the guillotine, as well as practice mannequins for plastic surgeons. At every step, Roach reveals with humor and awe the tremendous thanks we owe to the people who have donated their bodies to the advancement of technology and science - and of course to those from the early days of body snatching, who didn't have much choice in the matter, but without whom I shudder to think how we might nowadays approach heart transplants and face lifts.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Travels in the Scriptorium - Paul Auster

Auster's storytelling is always a bit surreal and other-worldly to me - embodied in the cover art of his latest novel. A man wakes up in a room with no recollection of who he is, how he got there, or if he is allowed to leave. There is a manuscript on a desk that the man begins to read, hoping it will shed light on his identity. He is interrupted by a nurse and a doctor hinting at operatives and other random characters - all of whom played roles in Auster's previous books. The man's life begins to unravel slowly (in a Memento type way), as he learns things here and there - but is sidetracked when he is drugged and frustrated with the abrupt end to the manuscript. For those intimately familiar with Auster's previous works (not me, by any stretch), I think this would be a fun cameo-filled Robert Altman-like experience. For those not as familiar, the story at times drags (despite its short length). But is an interesting exploration of the creative process - how stories emerge and are retold, how endings come about, and whose point of view in the end really matters.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

I have been reading a cluster of okay, but not great, books lately. So, I decided to break it up with some children's literature. Even when children's books are bad, they are usually quick reads and there is usually something fun or full of wonder about them. Most importantly, very rarely are children's books depressing. Hugo Cabret is the young son of a horologist (watchmaker/fixer), trying to get by in France after his father passes away in a tragic fire. Hugo inherits his father's love and talent for fixing and tinkering, as well as his obsession with a little automaton that looks like it will write a message for them if only Hugo can figure out its secret. But, attempting to survive on his own gets in the way of Hugo's ability to fix the automaton. He is caught stealing parts and nabbed sneaking croissants and milk. But, along the way, he meets Isabelle, the goddaughter of a mean toymaker. And Etienne, a young man with an eyepatch and a wonderous love of the movies. As Hugo seeks to unlock the secret of the automaton, he stumbles upon even bigger secrets, and of course, magic. Selznick's story is based on the life of a real filmmaker, and is told through words as well as extraordinary pictures. His black and white drawings reminded me of one of my favorite children's writers/illustrators, Chris VanAllsburg (Jumanji, The Polar Express). This book is filled with fun, wonder, mystery, and little automatons that draw pictures. I can't imagine needing anything more.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Art Thief - Noah Charney

I think I've gone a bit overload with the art related books recently. After reading two non-fiction books by Edward Dolnick, I came across this fiction book about three seemingly unrelated art thefts - a Caravaggio from a Baroque church, a Malevich from the Malevich Society, and a recent acquisition from the National Gallery. As the police and art investigators across countries track down the stolen works, they find themselves wading through museums, private galleries, and auction houses in an effort to distinguish the forgeries from the authentic. Like Dolnick, Charney has done his homework - and throughout the story he weaves in information about how art theft is investigated, how most art thefts are accomplished, background on the relevant artists, and of particular interest to me - how auction houses operate. But, after Dolnick, I found much of the information repetitive, and the thrill of the art heist had lost some of its luster. If, however, I had come to this book pre-Dolnick, I think I would have loved it. And it made me think about people who become interested in a subject and exhaust all possible resources reading and learning about it. I don't think I'm one of those people. I think I'm more of a learn a little about a lot -because once I start to hear about a given topic in depth, the boredom sets in. It made me a bit sad because I do still find the topic intriguing and I wanted to love this book. But, perhaps it is one that I can come back to in a decade or so, having forgotten everything I learned from Dolnick, and ready to start all over again.

Case Histories - Kate Atkinson

Strangely, this book is not stocked at, so I am without an image for now...but perhaps that is representative of how I felt about the book overall. It has a great cover and paperback feel and the jacket cover description is enticing - but in the end, I was underwhelmed and disappointed. The book starts out with three differnt crimes - a young beloved child who disappears into the night, a teenage mother stretched to her limits who wacks her husband with an axe, and a young woman gunned down in her father's law office as the result of a seeming act of violence. Private detective Jackson Brodie is contacted by family members related to the three incidents, asking for his help in one way or another. Plot-wise, this started out promising for me, but I found Atkinson simply writing little vignettes about her characters rather than a cohesive narrative and often throwing in salacious material that did not seem necessary to the plot. The lives of the characters are tragic, with each one living in their own level of dispair. By the end, the reality of each crime is revealed - but it is mostly just told to the reader in a way that made me wonder why I had to read the whole book to get there. Clearly, the point of the book is not whodunnit, but rather the impact that violence and loss has on survivors. This book was unable to hold my attention, despite my initial interest in the story. Atkinson has a second novel that follows up on her characters from this one. I know I am a sucker for the sequel - in many many cases where I did not even enjoy the first one - but alas, I will probably check out One Good Turn from the library at some point in the near future. Why? I simply cannot explain it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Breaking Dawn - Stephenie Meyer (Twilight Series #4)

While I was more sad to see the Harry Potter series come to an end, I was plenty hesitant to finish off this one too. Despite my complaints about the Twilight series in general - mostly that the conversations between the star-crossed lovers are treacly and Bella's low self-esteem makes me want to throw the books against the wall as I'm reading them - there is no question that this series is entertaining and I was eager to find out how it would all end. At the beginning of this one, Bella is planning her wedding with Edward - and all the questions are there: will Edward really agree to turn her into a vampire? How will Jacob react? Will Bella regret her new life and all the implications? Will the Volturi make a return visit? This one started off with Bella in her usual irritating mode - Jacob returns and is pathetic as ever, but then I thought it took some very unexpected (to me) turns and finally got some bite. Bella becomes stronger - both physically and mentally in this novel, and she seems finally to have found her non-annoying voice. Jacob - my favorite character in the previous novels - takes on a more central role, and has about a third of the book told from his shape-shifting wolf perspective as he makes a break from his pack to protect the Cullens. There is a lot of focus in this book on the vampires with special powers - such as Edward's ability to mind-read and Alice's flashes about the future. As far-off vampires gather and challenge and impress each other with their various gifts, it was a little bit X-men-ish. That being said, I love the X-Men - and even if it seemed like Meyer was ripping off known superheroes, I still found it entertaining. Some of the themes/scenes in this installment probably merit more than a PG-13 rating (with respect to sex, not violence), but perhaps Meyer assumes her readers have aged along with the series and would be mature enough to handle it all by now. There's not much else to say without spoiling the plot, but while I've read on-line that other fans were disappointed with the ending Meyer chose to write, I found myself pleasantly surprised - and as many folks who check in with this blog know by now, I am definitely one for the happily ever after.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Host - Stephenie Meyer

After enjoying the first three books in Meyer's YA vampire series, I thought I would check out her first adult novel. But, I just couldn't get into it. Then my brother-in-law, Mark, who is knowledgeable in all things science-fiction recommended it and noted that he enjoyed reading a book written from the first person perspective (apparently not all that common in the sci-fi genre). So, I decided to give it a second shot. In this futuristic world, the Earth has been taken over by "souls" who somehow capture and then inhabit human hosts. The souls then take over the human mind and body and continue on with life in their new form. Aside from the seemingly violent act of inserting and overtaking another being, the souls are otherwise benevelont and positive creatures. Among their own kind, there is no suspicion or violence. But, they are determined to erradicate the human race - though small pods of natives still remain. One of the remaining outliers, Melanie, is caught. Wanderer is inserted into her, but instead of immediately taking over like usual, Melanie's mind fights back and Wanderer finds herself unable fully to occupy her host without constantly hearing her thoughts and eventually reevaluating the souls' purpose on Earth and her right to exist in her host's body. Meyers' writing is more sophisticated here than in her YA series - which is something I wondered if she was capable of - but the conversations among her characters are still often awkward, and her female characters all border on the annoying/whining/I'm so unworthy - similar to Bella, the main character in the Twilight series. And while from chapter to chapter the action was a bit predictable, I found myself unsure of the ending Meyers would pick - would it be the inevitable tragic destruction of the souls and triumph of the humans or would it be the love-fest everyone lives in harmony ending? I was a bit surprised at the one she chose, but very happy overall. Not winning a Pulitzer anytime soon, but it is an entertaining story and I could see it worthy of conversation in a book group on a number of different levels.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Likeness - Tana French

This is the follow-up to French's debut novel, In the Woods, which I read a couple months ago at Colleen's suggestion. The Likeness focuses on Cassie Maddox, the better half of the homicide duo featured in French's first novel. The underlying premise of this novel is unbelievable. Years ago, Maddox worked undercover as a college student in Dublin named Lexie Madison. She ditches the identity when her assignment ends, but years later, a young woman carrying Lexie Madison's identification is found murdered. Madison is a dead-ringer (no put intended) for Maddox. So, in an effort to find the killer, Dublin homicide covers up the death and sends Maddox back in undercover - to live with Madison's eccentric four best mates - the prime suspects in the murder. And no one seems to suspect a thing. Maddox has trouble with a few details - how much does the "real" Madison smoke? Which vegetables does she like? And who could possibly have been the father of Madison's unborn child? Yet, despite the ridiculous premise, I found myself feverishly wanting to find out what was going to happen. French takes a bit too long to get Maddox into her undercover position, with drawn-out hemming and hawing on Maddox's part. The end is also drawn out, with the four roommates giving elaborate (read: boring) explanations for their strange behaviors. There are some books that I don't much enjoy while I'm reading them, but afterwards I think more about them and I find they served a much more important use than I'd originally believed. French's books are kind of the opposite. With both In the Woods and The Likeness, I really enjoyed myself while I was reading the books - they are suspenseful, and while reading late at night, the creaks in my own house definitely made me jump. But, once I was done with the last page, I found both strangely forgettable. That being said, for those interested in murder mysteries, you'd be hard pressed to find one better written and more enjoyable in the moment.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A New Earth - Eckhart Tolle

This book has some very important messages in it. After all, who wouldn't be for finding your life's purpose and overcoming stress and anger? But, there is just something about new age cult gurus that make my skin crawl, and make it difficult to believe that they care at all about the issues they're exploring. Instead, I am sure they are just focused on how to sucker 3 million people out of more money. Sadly, Oprah has no problem peddling this garbage to the masses. My problem with these types of books is that they don't really say anything that isn't obvious - they just package it in psychobabble talk about egos and nihlism, and make people think that they are actually stumbling upon some amazing new discovery. Ultimately, if this book helps people become happier with themselves, and in turn, better to one another, then I suppose I am supportive. I just wish it didn't have to be packaged in all this strange other worldly talk about suffering and attaining peace. I think it could all just be a bit more straight-forward and accessible, and in the end I think that would make the world of difference Eckhart promises will come only with true spiritual enlightenment.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Up High in the Trees - Kiara Brinkman

I just couldn't shake the feeling that I'd read this book somewhere before...only it was set in England and it was called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Only the kid in Mark Haddon's best-seller was a 15-year old autistic savant, and the one in this book is an 8-year old who has just lost his mother and has a father on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The book is written in the first person, from Sebby's (Sebastian) point of view. So, obviously everything is supposed to be child-like and innocent, but in my continuing belief that children are smarter and more observant than adults given them credit for - I felt as if Brinkman's portrayal of Sebby suggested developmental disabilities - beyond those caused by his emotionally unavailable parents (perhaps he is supposed to have Asperger's - though this is never stated outright, and Sebby is certainly not receiving any help in this regard). Plot-wise, the book follows Sebby in the months following the loss of his mother - clearly the one person in his life that he truly loves and who he believes cares about and understands him. Slowly, through the book, the true nature of his mother's death is revealed (though one can pretty much guess the circumstances after about 10 pages). Sebby's father takes him away to a vacation home for some much needed healing - but then does nothing to assist Sebby is facing reality and dealing with his issues. Sebby's two older siblings seem to care deeply about him - and repeatedly wish that he would stop acting so weird - but are ill-equipped to do anything to address his desperate need for a psychologist - a representative from Child Protective Services does appear at one point, but perhaps in an honest commentary about CPS in this country - asks a bunch of questions and then does nothing. This is most definitely a story about a family and a little boy spiraling into the depths of depression and mental illness, but sadly without any hope at the end. It all just kept getting worse and worse, and I was most shocked to reach the end and find that Sebby had not actually committed suicide. Brinkman raises and half-way explores a number of incredibly important issues - particularly when set in the life of a child - but she does little to present solutions or anything beyond complete despair.

Monday, September 22, 2008

American Nerd - Benjamin Nugent

American Nerd is a non-fiction exploration of the origins of the term and the concept of the nerd in America. Nugent, a self-proclaimed nerd, appears to have at one time attempted to shun his nerdish tendencies, but has now whole-heartedly embraced them. Nugent's chapters focus on different aspects of nerd evolution in American language, portrayal in media, and case studies in debate and Dungeons & Dragons. There is not, however, a seamless thesis about nerd culture and identity (not that there need be one uniform answer to the question of: What is a nerd?), and at times it felt as if the thoughts were a bit haphazard. Nugent also seems unsure of whether he wants to write a serious analytic piece, or whether he just wants to use the subject as a vehicle to examine his own existence and to atone for the wrong he inflicted upon other nerds as an adolescent. Mostly, this was a reminder to me of how cruel people can be to those who are different - or perhaps just not good at/interested in sports. I did appreciate Nugent's popular culture references though and saw much of myself in his descriptions - mostly in ways that I am actually quite proud of.

Friday, September 19, 2008

How Reading Changed My Life - Anna Quindlen

This is a short little book of author Anna Quindlen's experiences growing up a bookworm. She recounts her adventures and travels through literature - how in many ways it set her apart from her peers, but also how it allowed her to grow as a person. She confronts and attempts to dispell negative views of lifetime readers, and explains quite perfectly (but perhaps only for those who share the same malady) the compulsion to read. While I found this book interesting, and I definitely could relate, there wasn't anything particularly coherent or revealing about it - and I mostly spent the whole time I was reading it thinking, "Wow, if you become a best-selling author, you can pretty much write about anything you want memoir-wise and people will probably buy it." Or in my case, think it's worth borrowing from the library.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway

Like many of the books I randomly pick up, this one has a great title and marvelous cover art. But, unlike many of these books I judge by their covers, this one completes the trifecta by being a wonderfully written story. The book starts out with a cellist in war-torn Sarajevo playing while looking out his window at the people standing in line for bread. Without warning, mortar shots hit and 22 people are killed before the cellist's eyes. As a tribute to the people who have died, and perhaps as a symbol of hope, the cellist decides to spend part of the next 22 days playing in front of the ravaged building. The rest of the novel follows three other characters - a female sharp-shooter tasked with protecting the cellist, a middle aged father seeking water for his family, and an older gentleman who runs into an old friend from before the war. Each of them is trying to survive in their own way - dodging sniper fire, while attempting to determine how much self-preservation they can sacrifice in the name of compasion. There is nothing particularly in-depth about the story - and all you get are snippets of these characters lives - but it is still satisfying. As I was reading, I felt like I was looking at a photgraph, and learning about people here and there as they passed through the scene for brief moments. This is a book set against the backdrop of war - with the threat of death all around - and yet, it remains simple and truly beautiful.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle - David Wroblewski

Like so many movie previews these days, the book jacket on this one gave away pretty much the entire story. Jake's aunt Colleen lent this one to me, with somewhat of an unsure/lukewarm endorsement -- though now I am quite curious to hear her thoughts. The book has received an incredible amount of hype, and I would not be surprised to see it on the short list for the Pulitzer. But, alas, this is not because I found the book to be particularly enjoyable. Edgar Sawtelle is a mute boy living on a farm with his mother and father. They breed an imaginary species of dog that has somehow been created by happenstance and intuition through years of mating dogs with characteristics Edgar's grandfather and father just knew would be right. The dogs have an eerie sixth-sense about them, yet it never really becomes clear in the novel why their strange pedigree actually matters. Rather, it all just seemed to be a gimmicky device - perhaps something animal lovers would glom on to (not being a domesticated animal lover myself, I think it was beyond me). The basic plot is that of Hamlet. Edgar's uncle (conveniently named Claude) comes to town - and another inexplicable plot device - he has a long-standing grudge against Edgar's father. They argue and fight, and Edgar's mother explains that it all goes far back and has nothing to do with Edgar, but it never becomes clear where it comes from or why the reader should care. Edgar's father then suffers a somewhat mysterious death perhaps involving poison (don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything the publisher didn't already spoil on the jacket). Edgar becomes convinced his uncle played a role, and when the uncle gains the affections of his mother, Edgar becomes hell-bent on exposing the crime. Akin to Hamlet's little play within a play, Edgar sets up a scenario to prove his uncle's guilt, but alas the plan backfires. Edgar is then forced to run away - and we spend hundreds of pages following Edgar and three of his dogs through the forest, as their clothes become dirtier and they all become hungrier. In the end, Edgar returns home, and the overly dramatic ending, I found unnecessarily tragic. This is a strange book because it has so many laudable characteristics - it is at its core, very well written. Because of this, the plot itself is almost irrelevant and I found myself wanting to read more even though I couldn't put my finger on anything I actually found interesting in the narrative. Edgar is a very likeable character - after all, who wouldn't love a child who didn't make any noise - he is quite clever, with an appropriate mix of naivete and precociousness. I also really loved the character of Henry - an older gentleman Edgar meets during his forest wanderings. But, there were just too many aspects of the story that went unexplained, or were too implausible to wrap my head around. I'm all for suspension of disbelief, but the lack of originality coupled with the over the top outcome was a bit too much.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Rescue Artist - Edward Dolnick

After reading and loving Dolnick's book, The Forger's Spell, last month, I was eager to read his much acclaimed book about art theivery, The Rescue Artist. Even better, the book focuses on the 1994 theft of Edvard Munch's ubiquitous painting, and one of my favorites, The Scream from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. The theft itself seemed relatively amateurish, but nothing compared to the lack of security in the museum. The Scream was housed on the second floor of the museum right next to a window. There were no security cameras in the gallery room, and the painting itself hung on the wall - not enclosed by glass or attached to any type of alarm system. Dolnick's book follows the joint efforts of the Norway police and Scotland Yard to devise a plan to re-purchase the painting from the criminals. Along the way, Dolnick provides an in-depth history of high-profile art theft cases, undercover detective work, and the internal politics of police squads that put the recovery of stolen art belonging to billionaires on the back burner in favor of "real" crimes that need to be solved. The Scream is such a haunting image - it doesn't matter how many times it's reproduced or parodied - I find it mesmerizing everytime I see it in a book or on a postcard. The idea that such a prized piece could be stolen with seemingly little effort is amazing - and that people were able to orchestrate a sting to recover it is no less dramatic. The Rescue Artist is much more dry than The Forger's Spell and is not told with as much suspense. But, it is still meticulously researched and informative about the art world and it was an intriguing study of the lengths people will go to - to make millions and to have a unique treasure all to themselves.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1) - Philip Pullman

With the Harry Potter series done and read, I was in desperate need of a new children's literature series. My friend Theresa first recommended the His Dark Materials trilogy to me years ago, claiming that it was even better than HP (let's not get too crazy here) and then last year, the high school kids I work with all agreed. And then of course, they went and turned the first installment into a movie staring Nicole Kidman (which I never got around to seeing) one day when browsing in Borders, I came across the entire trilogy in one fat volume, and I could resist no longer. The Golden Compass stars Lyra, who like all proper children's protagonists is an orphan. She lives in a world (England, but most certainly in another time) in which all humans have a companion called a "daemon" which takes the form of an animal - in children the daemon can change shape depending on its (or the child's) mood. Once the child reaches a certain age, the daemon takes on a permanent shape. In some ways the daemons appear to have minds of their own, conversing with their human counterparts, and even enlightening them at times. But, there is no question that the daemon is a part of the human (its soul) and the idea of being separated from one's daemon is so unimaginable that the mere suggestion can result in physical pain. Then suddenly, children begin disappearing from Lyra's neighborhood - kidnapped by "Gobblers" and taken North to unknown lands and for unknown purposes. Lyra, with the help of a little golden compass, finds herself compelled to rescue these children from a fate she cannot quite understand but knows she must confront. The Golden Compass appears to be written for an audience slightly older than HP (assuming that HP is supposed to be read by 8-10 year olds). This is probably more appropriate for a 12-14 year old who is intrigued by the solar system and the idea of other worlds in a more science-fiction than fantasy way. The story is told in a straight-forward chronological fashion, and there are many likeable characters along Lyra's journey - including armored bears, witches, and a pirate like band of untouchables. But, Lyra herself is at times a bit too whiney for my tastes, and she comes about her inexplicable powers a bit too easily. She does not seem particularly clever in terms of working out problems - rather the answers just seem to come to her. The book lacked a wise elder (read: Dumbledore) to assist Lyra from afar, though there are many who reveal snippets of her history here and there. It is impossible for me to read this series without making comparisons to HP - some of this is just a basic evaluation of all the components I think are necessary for a good children's book (and which I think Rowling has mastered) and some of it is just that it will be a very long time before I can relinquish the space in my reading heart that I reserve for Harry, Ron, and Herminone. Ultimately, I could not shake the feeling that Pullman was merely disgusing his theology (anti-theology) lesson in a children's story - but like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - I try to ignore such things even when I am being hit over the head with them - and try to enjoy the superficial story. I'm interested in seeing how the next two installments unfold.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Elvis is Titanic - Ian Klaus

In 2005, former Rhodes scholar, Ian Klaus, traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to teach United States History and English. This resulting memoir is a blend of an intense history of the Kurds and the impact the American values of supposed freedom have had on the younger generation Klaus seeks to enlighten. Klaus takes on an ambitious syllabus, hoping to cover everything from the Founding Fathers to popular culture (the students had never heard of the Beatles, but could not get enough of Titanic). He speaks about slavery and civil rights, and the students are quick to find the parallels in their own lives. Klaus touches on, but does not explore as much as I would have liked, the presence and participation of women in his classroom. The majority of the book is taken up with Middle Eastern history lessons (which was interesting and well-written), as well as Klaus's own personal experience learning to live with a bodyguard and adjusting to Kurdish culture. But, what I found most interesting was Klaus's portrayal of his students and their classroom interactions. The debates Klaus attempts to set up revealed so much about how America is viewed by the people it is supposed to be helping, and how the Iraqi Kurds view their place in the world around them. I would have loved to read a more in-depth description of the students and learned more about their life circumstances and the families they came from. This is an impressively written book, and one that gave me a bit of hope for our country's younger generation - to see that there are still those willing to dedicate their lives to making the world a better place is strangely reassuring.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Geography of Bliss - Eric Weiner

I often stop and ask myself if I am happy - or I remind myself that I should be happy. I am, in general, the type of person that tends to dwell on the unhappy - so the premise of this book appealed to me (the secondary title is, after all, One Grump's Search for the Happiest Place in the World). The author, a journalist, does his research and chapter by chapter visits and analyzes the happiest and least happiest countries in the world, in an effort to understand what it is that makes people happy. The result is part travel memoir and part psychological generalizations. What seemed to emerge from the various opinions and thoughts about happiness (from the happy countries of Iceland and Thailand to the unhappy country of Moldova), is that Americans are probably more occupied with this elusive quest than most others. The book started out strong with Weiner's hypotheses about what he would find in these various places. But, as the book dragged on, I found I was no longer interested in his assessment of different cultures and practices. While it is clear that Weiner did do research while in these countries - presenting his conversations with different people, from laymen to professors studying happiness - in many ways it just came across as a distorted version of reality - one grump's opinion of what he wanted to see in each of the places he visited. I still like the idea of this book - I think finding a way to just be happy is a good thing - and thinking about how other people accomplish this is probably a fine first step in that direction. But, ultimately, I did not feel as if Weiner actually wanted to find the answer. Instead, I think he was more preoccupied with debunking the reasons people gave for their happiness and finding ways to validate his negative outlook on life.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself - Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is always good for a chortle or two...after living in England for nearly 20 years with his British wife and four children, he moves back to America to the quaint college town of Hanover, New Hampshire. He is contacted by a friend back across the pond to write a column for English readers about life in America. This book is a collection of Bryson's columns on that topic - accordingly, they are a bit random and haphazard - but on the bright side, each one is quite short and made for a good read while waiting here and there for my husband to check all the important messages he receives on his blackberry. The columns are a bit hit or miss and range in topics from Bryson's love of motels, to America's obssession with junk food, to sending his son off to college, to celebrating Thanksgiving. Bryson's laziness, cynicism, and luddite-ness - while present in many of the other books I've read comes at the reader in full force in this one. At times, it is charming, but I found myself more than usual wishing he would just stop complaining and get over himself. I would not recommend this book as an introduction to Bryson - it is not as well written or humorous or informative as A Walk in the Woods or In a Sunburned County. But for readers who are already familiar with Bryson and like his brand of humor, these are fun little anecdotes that are worth reading here and there - but probably not straight through in one sitting.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing - Haruki Murakami

My friend Eric gave this one to me for my birthday. We are both fans of Murakami's fiction, and we spend a lot of our time talking about our recent work-outs and plans for working out. So, this was a perfect book for me. It's Murakami's non-fiction/memoir account of his training for the 2006 New York Marathon. By this time, Murakami had already run 20+ marathons, as well as completed several middle distance triathlons. He recounts how he became interested in running in the first place, how he finds time to run amidst his busy writing and traveling schedule, his training log, and in general what he thinks about running and its place in his life. Murakami is a determined individual - and he is also clearly very hard on himself. He tries to run most everyday - and in the book tells of his completion of a 64 mile ultramarathon (I became parched just reading about it). He runs through pain and bad weather and sets incredible goals. Although the book is short, it can get a little tedious - particularly, I'm sure, for readers who do not themselves keep running logs or plan their lives around their work-outs. Even though the triathlon training was a bit of an aside, I really appreciated Murakami's description of the open water swim and his efforts to take lessons and become a more fluid and efficient swimmer. It is a testament to Murakami's character that despite his overwhelming success as a writer that he would go to such great lengths to better himself in something the rest of the world couldn't care less if he did. As I am currently struggling to get back into a training regimen I seem to have abandoned over the summer, this was the book I needed to remind me that while it is not an easy road back to fitness, it is an important one and it's all about having personal goals and the strength to stick with them.

The Opposite of Love - Julie Buxbaum*

I picked this book up because I read a good review of it awhile back. I can't remember which publication the review was from - but I was expecting something a bit esoteric, along the lines of The History of Love (perhaps it is just because of the similar title). The prologue kept me fooled - very cryptic, written in the first person about a pregnant woman who seems quite unsure of herself, her past, and her future. But, once it jumped into the regular story, I realized it was basically a more highly evolved form of chick lit. The narrator is 29-year old Emily. She has just broken up with her boyfriend (which everyone tells her is the biggest mistake of her life). She is an attorney at a high-powered Manhattan firm and has been assigned to a toxic torts Erin Brokovich case working for a misogynist partner. Her mother died when she was 14, her father is too important to make a real effort at communication, and her grandfather - the only person she seems to truly love - appears to be on the brink of Alzheimer's. In short, Emily's got issues. At times, the book ventures into the frivolous (and some of the law firm interactions are truly beyond the pale) - she has druken escapades with her girlfriends and seems incapable of having an adult comversation about anything meaninful. But then, Emily will reveal her deeper more insightful self. She develops a charming relationship with an elderly female friend of her grandfather's and her connection with her grandfather is touching and genuine (and it is by no random chance that Emily attends a book club to discuss Bridget Jones's Diary). I wouldn't quite put this in the category of high-brow literature, but for a portrayal of the confusion of being a professional woman in her late 20's, this one isn't that far off the mark.

* 100th book I've read this year!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Forger's Spell - Edward Dolnick

There are many things in the world that I am fascinated by. One of them is stories of fantastic heists and cons. I love these types of movies (the Oceans 11 series, Matchstick Men, The Italian Job, The Game, Catch Me If You Can, The Thomas Crowne Affair...the list goes on and on and I never tire of them). I also love the art world - I don't know a lot about art and I certainly don't have much artistic ability - but I find the idea of genius and beauty and singularity very intriguing. Not to mention the frenzy and million dollar price tags that surround hot artists and their works. So, it should come as no surprise that I LOVED The Forger's Spell. The Forger's Spell is the true story of Hans van Meegeren, a not-so-great painter living in Holland during the Nazi occupation. What van Meegeren lacked in artistic talent, he more than made up for in the art of psychology deception. When his own paintings couldn't sell, he turned to forging those of Johannes Vermeer (the Dutch painter of Girl with the Pearl Earring fame). He swindled over $30 million dollars from investors, much of it from German war criminals. Dolnick's book is a perfect mix - he gives the history of WWII and the Nazi's penchance for plundering great works of art - as well as the history of Holland and its place in the war. He tells the biographies of van Meegeren, noted art critics of the time, and the key buyers. He goes into detail about forgery techniques (telling anecdotes along the way of other forgeries) and presents an amazing story of how van Meegeren could pull off such a fantastic hoax. I found everything about this book so exciting. Unlike many of the suave criminals in heist movies, van Meegeren is not a very likeable character, but when matched against Hitler and snobby art collectors, you can't help but cheer for the guy. Definitely among the best books I've read this year - and without a doubt the best non-fiction book.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Foursome - Troon McAllister

In my recent fascination with golf, I decided to read this book about four golfing buddies offered the vacation of a lifetime at the private golf resort, Swithen Bairn. From the outset, everything is shrouded in mystery - the location of the resort (they are flown there in private jet with no windows), the actual cost of the vacation (they're only told that if it isn't the most memorable of their lives, they pay nothing), and how four supposed friends are going to make it through a week playing rounds together on this twisted Fantasy Island. The four main characters are definitely stereotypes of guys who spend their weekends on the links and their weeks thinking about their next round. They are tremendously wealthy and always looking for a way to win - whether it means fudging on their handicap or using irons made from non-regulation materials. I enjoyed the colorful characters and the general plot of this book - but it is definitely a novel for golf enthusiasts. As the foursome play their rounds, their shots are described one by one, hole by hole. I kept just wanting to know who was going to win without having to hear about who used a driver and who used a 3-wood, whose shot narrowly missed the sand-trap and who left his putt just short of an eagle. There is certainly the buiding of suspense - particularly when the foursome find themselves in over their heads in a round for cold hard cash - but I am not (yet?) a big enough golf aficianado to appreciate all the subtleties of the game, so I found myself getting a little bored. That being said, the ending is really fun - and I think this would be a great read for anyone who loves the game of golf.