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.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Finding Iris Chang - Paula Kamen

Iris Chang was the best-selling author of The Rape of Nanking, a journalistic account of the 1937 Japanese invasion of the ancient Chinese city of Nanking. Through first person accounts, Chang tells the story of the 300,000 Chinese who were raped, tortured, and murdered by Japanese soldiers. Chang brought this horrific episode to the forefront, garnering respect from the survivors, and intense scrutiny from the Japanese government. Following on the heels of the controversial success of The Rape of Nanking, Chang began working to uncover the truth behind yet another Japanese war crime - the Bataan Death March - which took place in 1942 and involved the forcible transfer of 75,000 American and Filipino Prisoners of War (brutally murdering between 6,000-11,000 in the process). In 2004, admist in-depth research and interviews, Chang committed suicide. Chang's death appeared to come as a shock to many of her friends - people who had stood back for years and admired her steadfast determination to become one of the best in her field and to continually and consistently speak truth to power. Paula Kamen , the author of Finding Iris Chang was one of these people. Her book explores the nature of Chang's death - what led to her suicide - asking primarily, was it a result of Chang's mental illness (she had struggled with depression and bipolar disorder) or was it a result of the grueling and intense subject matters Chang chose to take on. Ultimately, of course, there is no answer, but Kamen's book explores many different layers of Chang's existence, painting the picture of a not always likeable, often tiresome, and always tremendously driven individual. Kamen discusses the interplay of race and mental illness, discussing the tendency in Asian cultures to hide mental illness, or the general idea that in American society mental illness is often measured using norms from white culture that are wholly inapplicable to minorities. Chang also suffered from infertility, and Kamen explores how Chang's fertility treatments may have exacerbated her mental health symptoms, as well as contributed to her feelings of failure. As I read Finding Iris Chang, I continually found myself wanting to take notes, or wanting to mark passages to talk about on my blog or to discuss with my mother who lent me the book and is reader of all books involving Asian-American writers and Asian history. Even as a fourth generation Japanese-American, I still flinch a bit everytime anyone mentions Nanking or Japanese War Crimes. The inability of the Japanese government to take full responsibility for the human rights violations they have committed is shameful - and a sad reminder of the violations America itself perpetrates, as well as the ones they turn a blind eye to on a daily basis. Chang's fight to get at the truth and to force reparations for the Chinese is incredibly admirable - and it is a true tragedy that it was probably her mental illness (in part) that allowed her the singular focus and the sleepless weeks to complete her work, as well as what drove her to the state of paranoia and despair that led to her untimely death.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Comfort Me With Apples - Ruth Reichl

I love reading and I love eating, so I tend to enjoy these books about wonderful foods. Reichl's memoir begins at her co-op in Berkeley. She's married to Doug, an up-and-coming artist, and is determined to make her own way as a restaurant critic/food writer. Doug's passion takes him all over the country, while Reichl finds herself in the food meccas of Los Angeles and Paris. With their communication strained, Reichl seeks fulfillment through various affairs. The book follows Reichl's rise to the top of the criticism game, as she befriends the likes of Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck. The descriptions of her incredible meals - and the recipes at the end of each chapter - left me wondering how it is that she doesn't weigh 500 pounds. The narrative about her personal life - the men she sleeps with and her desire for children - while they make her in some way more human and real, also reveal that she does not appear to have much ability for self-reflection. And, the man she ends up with in the end is so selfish and infuriating, I was certain she was setting up her anecdotes for a huge break-up and acknowledgment of his enormous faults. But, maybe she is saving this for her next memoir (which is also sitting on my shelf, thanks to my mom). All in all, Reichl's personal life was a bit of a distraction and a disaster, but such is usually the case with people who have interesting and successful professional lives. For people who like reading about decadent meals, it's certainly worth sifting through all the relationship nonsense to get to. And, there is a very heartbreaking section on Reichl's attempt to have children and her experience with adoption that is painful, but courageous.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Crimson Petal and the White - Michael Faber

Slowly but surely, I will get through the 100+ books sitting on my shelves that I have not yet read. This one has been there for years, and at about 900 pages, I consider finishing it to be a big accomplishment. I am now justified in buying three more books to replace it. The Crimson Petal and the White was written in 2002, but takes place in London in 1870, and is written like an old time Victorian novel. It is the story of Sugar, a prostitute since the age of 13, and Wiliam Rackham, the heir to a great perfume business. Rackham, stifled by his home life, seeks out the company of Sugar and finds himself obsessed with becoming her saviour. Faber's writing is heavy on the graphic/bordering on the pornographic at times, but it is still the same type of tale of the fallen woman told by Eliot in The Mill on the Floss and in Dickens's various novels featuring prostitutes (from Oliver Twist to Dombey and Son). Faber fills his novel with characters who are trying to save these women from themselves, while focusing on the hypocrisy of it all, and presenting a scathing critique of a society that confines women to maddening domesticity and patriarchal control. I think Faber probably could have benefited from a bit of editing, but all in all this was a pretty quick read that raised a number of frustrating themes still alive and well in our world today.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch

Yesterday was one of the best days I've had in awhile - I slept in a bit, worked from home, played golf on a beautiful course, and had a fun dinner with my husband and his family. After I got home, I watched some of the Olympics, but despite my usually punctual 10 pm bedtime, I just couldn't seem to fall asleep. Perhaps, I just didn't want the good day to end. So, I picked up this little book, thinking I'd just get it started before falling asleep. Two hours and a few tears later, I finished it. Perhaps it was the great mood I was already in, but this book really accentuated the idea of focusing on the positive. Pausch, the author, was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 3-6 months to live. He had a wife and three children under the age of 6. But, he was determined to deliver his "last lecture" at CM and focused on the topic of achieving your childhood dreams. Throughout the book, Pausch talks about the life experiences that influenced his last lecture - and his desire to focus on life and leaving behind a memory of his love for his children - rather than focusing on all the negative surrounding his illness. Pausch has some great anecdotes/one-liners. He talks about how people always ask him how he got to be so successful, and he'd respond, "Call me any Friday night at 10 pm in my office and I'll tell you all about it." And another one about how experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted. This book is a mix between Mitch Albom and Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It's sentimental and cliched - and Pausch embraces this. He is a consumate optimist (he describes himself as a Tigger instead of an Eyeore and has a strange, but endearing, obsession with Disney World) - but he definitely has some great perspective on how life should be lived. Randy Pausch passed away last month, but obviously not before making a very lasting impact on those around him and anyone who reads this book.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Logan's Storm - Ken Wells

Ken Wells's gritty bayou trilogy began with Meely LeBauve, a book I randomly picked up at a used bookstore a couple years ago. Meely was a 12 year old kid who had lost his mom many years before. Meely's father Logan, unable to cope with his grief, turned to the bottle and retreated deeper into the Louisiana swamp land. Meely was mostly left to take care of himself and doing a pretty good job of it, until he got on the bad side of the town bully, Junior. It didn't help matters that Meely's saviour happened to be a black man named Chilly and that Junior had relatives in the sheriff's department. The story, all told from the perspective of Meely was a fun youthful adventure. I then skipped to the third book in the series, Logan's Storm, which focuses (as you might guess) on Meely's father Logan - now on the run helping Chilly to escape the corrupt cops and avoid Southern prosecution for the crime of saving Meely from injustice. Their adventure take them through the bayou, subsisting on possum and catfish and whatever hospitality they can muster along the way. Here and there Logan remembers a story about Meely and his deceased wife Elizabeth - and I found these stories touching and sometimes humorous. But, otherwise, the escape seemed to drag on and I tired of reading about yet another night sleeping in a hollowed out tree trying to avoid the torential rains. The biggest problem about this book for me is that it is an adventure story perfect for a kid - but all it does is focus on the boring adults. Even though it wasn't Wells's plan, I would have much preferred to read another book about Meely.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Where or When - Anita Shreve

I was in the mood for a good story and a straight-forward narrative. Recently, I've been too tired to read books where I have to work to figure out who is telling the story, what's going on, what time period we're in, etc. When I get in these moods, usually Anita Shreve is the answer. Unfortunately, I don't think this was the right book. The basic story is that 40something year old Charles sees a photograph of his childhood sweetheart, Sian, in the newspaper, after having not talked to her in roughly 25 years. He contacts her and they exchange not-so-innocent letters and try to determine whether they should meet up or stop communicating altogether. They are both married with children, though the extent of each one's happiness is questionable. The chapters are told alternating between Charles's and Sian's perspectives - as well as a third point of view, reliving the summer at camp when the two first met. The story obviously isn't anything new, and I found that both of the characters lacked depth or any meaningful reflection on their situation. I expected a good Shreve twist, or some interesting revelation about infidelity, but it never came. I think she tried to be clever with the narrative, but it didn't work for me, and I mostly found myself disliking both of the main characters and waiting for it all to be over.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bitter is the New Black - Jen Lancaster

On a hot lazy afternoon, there is nothing better than lying on the couch with a cold drink and a chick-lit novel. My friend Raz, thankfully, has kept me well stocked with the latest books from aging sorority girls dressed in Chanel and sipping Cosmos. This one is a memoir - from Jen Lancaster - living high on the hog during the dotcom sucess day. She relishes her VP title and instead of saving for the future she can't fathom with ever come, she spends her afternoons getting manicures and telling off her minions. And then, suddenly the bubble bursts, and Jen finds herself struggling to pay her rent and wondering how she could possibly be so overqualified for so many jobs. Unlike most chick-lit, I found Lancaster's writing pretty good - she's witty and seemingly well-read, though she is so self-absorbed, I couldn't help but wonder how she had any friends, much less a boyfriend (Fletch) for 7-years who actually wants to spend the rest of his life with her. She mostly presents Fletch as an especially patient saintly individual, which given her penchance for spending the utility money on Prada shoes, I can only imagine is a colossal exaggeration intended to hide some major personality flaw on his part. Despite Jen's larger than life (read: irritating) personality, she clearly has a sense of humor about it all, and reading about her employment search and eventual decision to focus on her writing, I found myself rooting for her. I understand that since this book, she has had two more memoirs published. I look forward to reading them on a day when I want to have a couple laughs and give my brain a rest.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Blue Star - Tony Earley

Last year, I read Earley's novel, Jim the Boy, about a 10-year boy growing up in North Carolina in the 1930s. In The Blue Star, Jim is in his senior year of high school, and the country is on the verge of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jim finds himself struggling against what his family assumes he will do with his life - marry the school goodie two shoes and get a job nearby - and what he wants from life. He falls inexplicably in love with a mysterious half-Indian girl and learns that sometimes life does not always give you what you think you deserve. Earley's novel contains adult themes, but is written with the language and straight-forwardness of a young adult novel. This is a nice easy coming-of-age story about choices (or lack thereof), regret, and learning how to stand on your own - even after choosing the wrong path.