Monday, December 28, 2009

Fatal Lies - Frank Tallis (Liebermann Papers #3)

The third installment of Tallis's turn of the 20th century Vienna-based thriller series is the best of the bunch thus far. When an unexplained death takes place at an exclusive private boy school, Inspektor Rheinhardt senses that something isn't quite right. The boy, a scholarship student, has odd scars on his body and has developed a seemingly inappropriate relationship with one of his teachers. As usual, Rheinhardt brings in Freudian psychoanalyst, Liebermann, to ferret out the truth behind the witness's half-truths and unconvincing denials. Liebermann, fresh off a broken engagement from Book #2, also spends a great deal of his time figuring out his feelings for his former patient and developing a new relationship with a mysterious violin player. Rheinhardt and Liebermann also share their love for music, working out the solutions to the inexplicable murder as the concertos play. I enjoyed the suspense of this one more than the first two - and while the story took turn after turn after turn, it still managed to remain fun without getting too out of hand. I like Liebermann's psychological musings, even if some of them are beyond obvious is this day and age. A good mystery for a quiet evening.

Outcasts United - Warren St. John

While I do not have a huge interest in the game of soccer, I definitely have an interest in kids, and any story about using sports to teach a lesson or two. Outcasts United is the true story of a wealthy young woman from Jordan, Luma, who has come to America to make a difference - in her own life, and in the life of those around her. She learns about a small town in Georgia where many refugees from Africa and the Middle East have moved. They play unorganized pick-up soccer games on unlighted fields and on blacktop. Inspired by their passion for the game, Luma dedicates her time to coaching them on the field, and tutoring them off. In time, Luma learns their stories. She befriends their often single mothers, and becomes much more than a soccer coach. With her rules oriented harsh coaching style, she turns her motley crew of kids into teams that can challenge even the wealthiest club teams. At times, Luma's approach seemed a bit too harsh - when kids with particularly difficult backgrounds found it hard to follow her rules, missed practice, or talked back - she seemed quick to write them off without explanation. But, the truth is that she worked with dozens and dozens of kids, and knowing that she could not help them all, she weighed her options and helped those that she could. There were multiple moments in the book that brought tears to my eyes - big wins or touching moments between Luma and her players. St. John writes about the various war-torn countries that these children come from - some with parents still in prison or otherwise in danger back home. It made for difficult reading at times, but also so inspiring in terms of the huge difference one person can make in their community. I believe the film rights have been bought, and I definitely look forward to what is certain to be a very inspirational movie.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Uglies - Scott Westerfeld (Uglies Series #1)

My friend Sara works with junior high kids, and she always has great insight into what the kids are reading and enjoying. She first recommended this series to me when I visited her in November. Then, my brother-in-law Mark who is an expert in all things science-fiction also recommended it. With so many trustworthy thumbs up, I could not wait for the book to arrive for me at the library. The Uglies takes place in a futuristic society where everyone is an Ugly until they turn 16. At that point, they undergo radical surgery to make themselves into a "Pretty." Pretties are simply perfect - their eyes sparkle with 20/20 vision, they're in amazing shape, and all they seemingly do all day is drink champagne and contemplate the amazing parties they attend. Tally, like all her ugly classmates, just can't wait to be pretty. But, a couple months before her 16th birthday, Tally meets Shay - they become fast friends, and Shay confesses that she has no intention of becoming a Pretty. Instead, she is running off into the wild to live among a rogue society of individuals who live in the "Smoke" and shun everything being Pretty entails. Tally is beside herself, but ultimately feels forced to find out what this fringe group is all about. The Uglies follows Tally's journey to the Smoke, the development of her relationship with their seeming leader David, and her struggle to figure out what is most important - being true to herself, or being pretty. In terms of Young Adult fiction, I found this book pretty captivating - and I am eager to borrom the next book in the series. It is more seriously written and has slightly less inane dialogue than the Twilight series, but not quite as lit-worthy as The Hunger Games series. Lots of great themes and issues to discuss with young readers, and well worth a couple hours of my time.

Zeitoun - Dave Eggers

I approach all books by Dave Eggers with a little excitement laced with slight trepidation. I know the book will certainly be well written, and I always really want to like anything he writes for some reason. But, I fear at times it will be over-written, too self-indulgent or self-congratulatory. I had no real expectations for Zeitoun because I had no idea what it was about. I didn't even know that it was non-fiction. But, Zeitoun is that story of the Zeitoun family. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian immigrant who works extraodinarily hard to run a successful painting business in New Orleans. He has a wonderful wife, and four beautiful children. As one can imagine, after September 11, living as a Muslim in the South is no easy task. But, Zeitoun and his wife approach their daily lives with humor and love, and are instant likeable characters. When Hurrican Katrina hits, Zeitoun's wife Kathy drives her children safely to stay with family near Baton Rouge. Zeitoun, on the other hand, stays behind. He can't fathom that an evacuation is actually necessary, and besides he has too many properties and projects to keep an eye on. Eggers's book follows Zeitoun in his day-to-day adventure and his heroic efforts to paddle through the streets of New Orleans helping those worse off than himself once the levees break and everything turns to chaos. This is an amazing book - in many ways it is quite simplistic. It tells Zeitoun's story - which turns quite tragic - very matter-of-factly. But, at the same time, it is in depth in terms of subject matter. Obviously, there has been so much reported and written about Hurricane Katrina, our nation's failure to provide for its victims, and all of the misplaced famlies it in its wake. But, this book, focuses so intently on one family - in particular one man - who is so different from the demographic most people probably picutre when thinking about New Orleans. While the ending is frustrating, I'm not sure how else Eggers could have chosen to end the book. This is a truly captivating story - a quick read - but one that will stay with me, I'm sure, for a long time to come.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cleaving - Julie Powell

I really could not stand Julie Powell's first memoir, Julie & Julia. Yet, when I saw her second book on the new releases shelf at the library, I thought, "what the heck, might as well read it." And this is the effect that mass-marketing will have on my impressionable little brain. I did not want to read this book, but I allowed myself to be bullied by the publishing industry. I suppose, at least, I didn't spend my money on a new copy. In Cleaving, Powell has set aside Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and taken a job as a butcher. As she hacks and mangles all sorts of meat, she is also balancing her crumbling marriage with Eric, the perfect husband, and her obsessive love affair with D, a narcissistic jerk who she just can't stop thinking about. Early on, we learn that Eric is actually in fact aware of her extra-marital tryst, and in turn is having one of his own. Yet, for some reason, the two are determined to keep their marriage together - though they don't seem to do a single thing to help ensure that will happen. Instead, Powell (as she did in her first book), goes on and on about what a saint he is, and talks about the inexplicable magic that is their perfect coupling. Then she pounds at a side of beef, and throws in a couple juicy recipes. Anyone who relished Powell's self-centered whining in Julie & Julia, will be in absolute heaven reading Cleaving. It is nothing, if not a tribute to selfishness. But, hopefully, I have learned my lesson. When she comes out with her third inexplicable best seller, even if it's free from the public library, I will force myself to stay very very far away.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Admission - Jean Hanff Korelitz

I have a fascination with college admissions. I'm not sure what it is about it - part of it is the secrecy and difficult of the process. Part of it is reading about how amazing and overly stressed high school kids are these days. But, whatever the case, I've read and enjoyed a number of nonfiction books about admissions (I highly recommend The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg). So while browsing at the library the other day, I came across this fiction book. The cover art drew me in, and then when I discovered that it was about an admission officer at Princeton, I was hooked. Portia Nathan has been an admission officer for 16 years. She's also been in a relationship for that long with a Princeton professor. Her life is about visiting prep schools and finding just the right kids for her prestigious university. As Portia enters the grueling "reading period" - the time when she becomes a hermit and attempts to stay up for hours reading thousands of application folders, she finds her personal life crumbling around her. Admission is a good mix of admission lore and the story of a woman approaching middle age and questioning her past choices and what she wants from her future (kind of like all high school seniors writing countless personal essays). For those who aren't interested in the college application process, Admission is a little heavy on the procedure and tedium of the Ivy League, and probably wouldn't be so interesting. But for those whole share my intrigue, this one is filled with juicy admission tidibts set against the backdrop of a decent enough story.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ford County - John Grisham

I borrowed Grisham's collection of short stories the other day from the library after having waiting in the queue for several weeks. The copy I borrowed was the "LARGE PRINT" version. If you've never read a large print book, it looks like something for an eight year old. The print is HUGE. I wondered if i'd requested this version on purpose? Maybe it had less people on the waiting list than the regular version? But, as I started reading, I felt so guilty - like there were all these people with bad eyesight out there (or eight-year olds) who were waiting for the few large print copies - and I had unnecessarily snatched one up. So, I tried to read Ford County as quickly as possible so I could get the book returned and back in circulation. Luckily, in true Grisham style, the stories were easy to get into and went by quickly. I think I could have read them all in one sitting, but I tried to space it out over a couple days. All of the stories take place in the rural town of Clanton, Mississippi. My favorite story was "Fetching Raymond" about two brothers and their aging mother who travel a long distance to visit their youngest brother - on death row awaiting his imminent execution. I felt the story captured the frustration, gulit, and helplessness and reality of interacting with a person in prison - that they have seemingly endless time to live and relive their legal case, while the people who love them are left on the outside trying to live their lives and move on even in often tragically difficult circumstances. "Fish Flies" and "Casino" were classic Grisham - with unlikeable main characters who set out to screw over a system that is even more unlikeable. I enjoyed each of the stories in this collection - they weren't full of twists or shocking endings, like many short stories. Instead, I felt like it was just good storytelling, and an avenue for Grisham to prove that he is more than just his formulaic legal thrillers (even though I am never ashamed to admit that I love those too!).

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Last Coyote - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch Series #4)

Harry Bosch is always getting into trouble with his cowboy ways. In Connelly's fourth Bosch novel, Harry finds himself suspended from the force after attacking his commanding officer. With extra time on his hands, Harry sets out to solve a cold case - that of his working girl mother who was found strangled in an alley 30 years earlier. Upon reading the old file, Harry is immediately convinced that the investigation was botched, and that his mother's killer was allowed to go free due to a big political cover-up. In typical Bosch fashion, he takes off to confront, interview, intimidate, bribe, and coerce all the witnesses he possibly can - without any back-up. With a wayward romance and a number of colorful characters thrown into the mix, this was a gripping thriller with fabulous insight into the mind of the strange and mysterious Harry Bosch.

Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk - Nikolai Grozni

In 2006, I traveled to Luang Prabang, Laos. One of my most beautiful memories there was waking up at the crack of dawn to watch the monks from the town's over 30 wats walking the street in single file collecting their daily alms. As I watched from the doorway of my hotel, a local boy asked me if there were monks in my country. I said that there were, but it certainly was not like in Luang Prabang, and that they did not walk through the streets in the morning for alms. The boy looked at me utterly perplexed and asked, "but then how do they get food to eat?" And, I didn't have a clue how to answer. Since then, the idea of monks has somewhat fascinated me. To some extent, just the idea that a person would give up years of his life to the study of religion, and also the idea in general of asceticism and ascribing value to a choice that does not seem (in my opinion) very productive. So, when I come across these random memoirs about people who have lived some of their life as a monk, I find it hard to reist a glimpse into this strange secret way of living. Turtle Feet is the story of a Bulgarian musical prodigy who gives up everything and moves to Dharmasala, India to become a monk. He is serious and steadfast in his studies, but the color and life of Gronzi's recollection is not in the telling of his spiritual revelations, but in his description of the sights, sounds, and smells or the world around him. Gronzi's life of poverty, amidst rats and his own starvation, is anything but idyllic enlightenment. Given the subtitle of the book, the reader knows it is only time before Gronzi gives up his robes and revels in Western life, but not before he passes a number of tests and proves his mettle among the monks. I found this book at times tedious and reptitive, and I wanted a little more reflection about the life Gronzi was living, rather than just a narrative description of it. A nice reminder for me of those quiet mornings in Luang Prabang, but in terms of literature, not quite what I was hoping for.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Concrete Blonde - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch Series #3)

In the opening chapter of this Harry Bosch installment, Harry finds himself face to face with the man he believes to be the notorious serial killer dubbed the "Dollmaker." With his gun pulled, Harry warns the suspect to keep still. Instead he reaches under a pillow for....his toupee, but not before Harry, assuming he was reaching for a gun, has shot him dead. Years later, the dead man's widow sues Harry for wrongful death. She is represented by the City's most ruthless plaintiff's attorney, Honey Chandler (nicknamed "Money" for the large verdicts she obtains for her clients). Certain that he got the right man, Harry is rattled when he receives a cryptic letter during the trial, leading him to a body killed in the same manner of the Dollmaker. Determined to figure out whether there is a copycat at work, or whether he actually shot the wrong man, Harry finds himself in court by day and working all his leads by night. As in the previous two books in the series, I had my frustrations with Harry. He is a total cowboy, always preferring to figure something out on his own, than follow proper police procedure. He supposedly holds back because he is never sure who he can trust, yet despite this, he always manages to screw up and provide information to the very person he's trying to capture. But, aside from my minor irritations with Harry, this was my favorite of the series so far. I stayed up late unable to put it down and while I knew there had to be twists coming, I was still surprised by the ending. We also find out some important information about Harry's past in this one, setting the story up perfectly for #4, The Last Coyote.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld

I truly enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld's novel Prep, so I'm not sure why it took me so long to read this one, but I was definitely missing out. American Wife is a fictionalized account of the First Lady of the United States. I don't know anything about Laura Bush, so I'm not sure how much she and Alice (the main character) have in common. But, it's quite clear that Alice's husband Charlie is patterned after George Bush in all his Ivy-League, baseball team owning, cocaine snorting, dumb as rocks glory. I'm not a huge fan of politics, so I was happy to discover that 80% of the book takes place before Alice's arrival at the White House. The story begins with Alice as a child - we learn about her first love, and the skeletons in her closet that are sure to emerge at inopportune times in her husband's political career. She is a bright and compassionate elementary school librarian who devotes her summer to making papier mache characters from popular childrens' book such as Ferdinand the Bull and the Giving Tree. She suddenly finds herself caught up in a whirlwind romance with Charlie - engaged after only six weeks - and before meeting his country club family in all their summer home superiority. It doesn't take long for Charlie to emerge as a childish buffoon, and about half-way through the novel I feared that even Sittenfeld's engaging writing couldn't keep me reading about this woman who seemed too stubborn to acknowledge the train wreck she'd put herself in the middle of. I deeply despised the character of Charlie - I found him self-centered and embarrassingly ignorant. But, of course, that's the whole point because ultimately Alice must come to terms with how she allowed herself to come so far with him and question whether she ever had any control over the decisions he made and the policies he shaped. While I did not ultimately side for or against Alice, I thought Sittenfeld played out her character's position masterfully - leaving me feeling that I really could not judge her (or Laura Bush, perhaps), without ending up in a position full of countless contradictions. This novel immediately drew me in and left me with a lot to think about and discuss after I'd finished. A true sign, I believe, of a wonderful and worthwhile book.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Superfreakonomics - Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

After enjoying Freakonomics - or as I like to think of it - How to Sort-of Lie with Statistics, but Definitely Make Them More Interesting, I thought I'd pick up this sequel. I was certainly disappointed. But for the smashing success of their debut, I don't think this one would make much of a splash. But, the truth is that Levitt & Dubner are capitalizing on their popularity, and there were a few interesting tid-bits in this one. I particularly enjoyed their chapter on why the price of prostitution has fallen in the last century, and the epilogue that involved the training of monkeys to use currency. But, other than that, their ideas did not seem as cohesive or well thought out as in the original book - it's as if they just strung together interesting anecdotes and bounced around from story to study and back without much cohesion. I didn't expect the chapters to flow, since each one is clearly its own self-contained essay, but within each chapter, I expected a little more. Perhaps if I'd read this one first, I would have better appreciated the quirky viewpoints and the innovative way of approaching age-old problems. And, in terms of general enjoyment for an afternoon, this definitely satisfied. But, unlike Freakonomics, I didn't find myself wanting to read facts out loud from it to my husband (which I'm sure he appreciated), or do much more with it in terms of follow-up when I was done.

Books - Larry McMurtry

This is a funny little book by Western writer Larry McMurtry. His collection of short essays focuses on his love for books and his lifetime of scouting, saving, and collecting books for his independent bookstore and personal library. McMurtry approaches life from the viewpoint of a reader who grew up in a home without books. He talks about why he reads and his obsession with collecting. He discusses his favorite bookstore and collectors across the country, and the wonder of finding a steal, selling it for more, and then finding out it was resold again at an exponential profit. Unlike other books about books that I've loved, this one isn't filled with recommendations of books you must read of even McMurtry's favorites. It's more an adventure story of how McMurtry got from here to there and the books he's loved, captured and lost along the way. It provided interesting insight into the mind of a collector, and the excitement of one who loves something so much and can't ever seem to get enough of it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Wild Things - Dave Eggers

Eggers's latest quick read is based upon Maurice Sendak's childrens' book, Where the Wild Things Are and the recent movie based upon that book. I have yet to see the movie, so I am not sure how much of this is Eggers or the movie, but it is the same basic story of the out-of-control and misunderstood Max who travels to a strange world with even stranger creatures. In full novel form, however, the reader becomes more aligned with Max and his childish need to rebel in the name of fun. We also get to know each of the creatures, and their individual personalities. Though based on the childrens' book, the language and insight of this version is decidedly for a more mature audience. When I was a kid, my take-home message from the childrens' book was that even when home seems terrible and you've been sent to your room without dinner, in the end, there is no place like home and your mom who loves you no matter what. Some of that feeling is present in this version. It is clear that Max cannot remain with the creatures - not because he misses his family, but because he can't allow himself to turn into a monster. And in this realization, I felt much more of a sadness that Max's home life was unsatisfying and would ultimately put an end to his wild imagination. Perhaps, that's what growing up is all about - but luckily the whimsy that is present in this book is evidence that at least for Eggers, child-like wonder can live on through adulthood. In the end, I am definitely mixed in my review - I'm not sure childrens' classics should be redone in this way. There is something about holding on to the story as we first heard it, read it, and loved it that simply cannot be duplicated or improved upon.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Day After Night - Anita Diamant

This is the latest from the author of The Red Tent and Good Harbor. While countless books have been written about the Holocaust, people being taken to concentration camps or fighting for survival within those camps, Diamant's story takes place in an internment camp for Jewish immigrants. The people in the camp managed to escape Nazi Germany only to find themselves detained behind barbed wire by a British army refusing them entry into Palestine. In 1945, more than 200 of the detainees were rescued by a special operations unit of a Jewish underground militia organization in Palestine. With this true event as a backdrop, Diamant tells the story of four young women in the camp. Each one has a different story of survival - and the price they paid for their own lives. They each live with secrets and nightmares, unsure of who to trust, and forgetful of how to love. They carry guilt and shame with them for atrocities they themselves did not commit. But, they work together to relearn how to live their lives in a new camp and later in a new country. Like any work about this period in history, Day After Night was a difficult read for me. It is filled with so much seemingly avoidable sadness, but at the same time, is a reminder of the strength of the human spirit, and the desire to live on even when faced with the worst the world has to offer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

That Old Cape Magic - Richard Russo

When I think of Richard Russo, I think of a wonderful storyteller who creates loveable, though not always entirely likeable, protagonists. Though his Empire Falls had enough literary weight to merit a Pulitzer, I remember it for its fabulously engaging plot. The same with Bridge of Sighs. So, when my mom told me that his latest, That Old Cape Magic, was a "quick read" that I would finish in "an hour," I knew she was exaggerating, but I also knew it meant that this would not be Russo at his finest (at least where I was concerned). As in many of his other books, including the funny Straight Man, Russo sets his characters up in the world of academia. Main character, Jack Griffin, is headed to the Cape for a wedding in which his daughter is a bridesmaid. He has decided to go on ahead of his wife, who stays behind at campus to work. A little concerned about what this means for his marriage, Jack is determined to improve upon the summers he always spent on the Cape with his bickering and snobby intellectual parents. But, he finds it hard to escape his past, as he takes his father's ashes along to scatter, and his mother insists on calling him at all the wrong moments to make him feel guilty or ashamed of his actions. The book then jumps a year ahead, with Jack returning yet again to the Cape, this time for another wedding, and in quite a different position vis-a-vis his family. Throughout the novel, Jack struggles with his inner demons - the paths he should have taken, but have been long foreclosed, the things he should have said, the people he should have loved. While Jack as an individual character is classic Russo, in terms of his contradictory nature and his apparent inability to find happiness in his own skin, the story itself lacked Russo's usual complexity. The book flap warned that this book is unlike anything Russo has ever written. And it was right. The plot was vague, and the direction aimless. Sadly, it was just missing That Old Russo Magic.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pictures at an Exhibition - Sara Houghteling

For awhile, I was reading quite a number of books about art theft, art fraud, and art stolen during the Holocaust (including Noah Charney's The Art Thief, and Edward Dolnick's books The Forger's Spell and The Rescue Artist). So, I was a little reluctant to pick this one up, even though it is written by the fiance of my friend Daniel (and author of The Piano Tuner). But, I'm glad I did. Pictures at an Exhibition takes place in Paris, and chronicles a young man's quest to recover his father's paintings which were looted by the Nazis during WWII. While the book is fiction, Houghteling's background in art history comes through in her historical detail and meticulous descriptions of the missing art. The writing is beautiful, and I often found myself so lost in passages, almost to the detriment of the overall story. I was impressed with how seamlessly the story turned from the art museums and auction houses, to the main character's world of medicine, while all the while incorporating a love story and the mystery of the lost paintings. Pictures at an Exhibition is suspenseful and filled with family secrets, while at the same time written so beautifully as to be its own work of art.

The Girl with No Shadow - Joanne Harris

I read Joanne Harris's popular novel Chocolat and saw the movie based on it so long ago that I can barely remember what it was about - other than a chocolate shop in France. But, I do recall enjoying it and finding it quite magical. So, while at Denver's famous Tattered Cover bookstore ( with Sara recently, I was excited to discover this sequel. The Girl with No Shadow opens with Vianne and Anouk (of Chocolat fame) in a new city under new identities, Yanne and Annie. Yanne is struggling to keep her new chocolaterie afloat. She is dating her landlord, a successful businessman who wants to marry her, but has no love for Anouk or Yanne's reticent four-year old, Rosette. Anouk, now almost a teenager, is having issues herself, trying to fit into school but knowing that there is a strange power within her yearning to break free. Suddenly, the wind blows Zozie into their lives. A stranger with no apparent history, Zozie ingratiates herself into their lives, bringing prosperity, but at a price. Harris tells her story from the alternating perspective of Yanne, Anouk, and Zozie (a device I am slowly becoming so tired of). We see Zozie's scheming, and the mesmerizing effect it is having on everyone, particularly Anouk. It's clear to the reader from the outset that if Zozie has her way, things will not end well, but throughout the novel it does not become entirely clear why Zozie has chosen Yanne's life to destroy. I enjoyed the magic aspect - reminding me fondly of Alice Hoffman's books - but in the end, my dislike for Zozie was so strong that I could hardly bring myself to read the climax, but I'm glad that I did - and the return of Roux (Yanne's ex-flame) brought hope to an otherwise bleak story. The book takes place during the Christmas holiday season, so this is a perfect time of year to read it. It made me hungry for big cups of hot chocolate, and convinced me to go back and reread Chocolat.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Goldengrove - Francine Prose

Goldengrove opens with the death of 13-year old Nico's older sister. Nearby when the death occurred, Nico carries with her a tremendous amount of guilt, and the feeling that it should have been her - the less talented and loved daughter. While her father seeks refuge in his quiet little bookstore, and her mother turns to a friend dispensing questionable advice, Nico wonders what will keep her family together after such a significant tragedy. In the hopes of finding answers, Nico befriends her sister's boyfriend, Aaron - the only person who seems to understand the tremendous weight of what has happened. As a young woman coming into her own, Nico is confused by her feelings of loss, and her strong attachment to Aaron. There is a sense of danger and impropriety from the first pages of this novel, and Prose carries the tension through to the end. I did not find anything particularly different or enlightening in Prose's telling of family tragedy, but focusing the narrative on Nico's coming of age, was compelling.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Mountains Beyond Mountains - Tracy Kidder

This is Greg Mortensen's Three Cups of Tea set in Haiti. I've never read Tracy Kidder before, but have heard that he is the master of the non-fiction narrative. Here, Kidder tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer - a Harvard educated doctor driven by the need to make the world a better and safe place for everyone. He devotes his life to eradicating TB and bringing world-class medical care to a desperately improverished town in Haiti. Like all people of this undaunted and perservering ilk, Farmer is full of pithy sayings - most of the "never say never" variety. Kidder does a wonderful job chronicling Farmer's life story - how he came to be in Haiti, and how he has earned the respect and admiration of the people he serves. But, I was glad to see that Kidder did not ignore the impact that Farmer's choices have made on his own personal life. Farmer's desire to put the needs of an entire community before his own, often it seems, prevented him recognizing the needs of his own family and friends. At times Kidder's thorough discussion of the medical and political morass encompassing Farmer's work was a bit tedious. But, overall this was a truly inspirational story about the difference one man has made by dedicating his own life to change, and encouraging so many others to do the same.

Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's novels are among my favorites. He has a way of playing with memory and reality that really sticks with me. So, I was quite excited when his collection of short stories came out. While each of the five stories features different characters, they all feature music as an important centerpiece. For each of the main characters, music is a way to find meaning in a world in which they would otherwise be lost or alone. For some this brings comfort, for others a sense of torment. While Ishiguro's writing is as beautiful as ever, I felt that the short story form just did not highlight his talents the way his novels have. With each of his novels, I always had a sense of impending doom and building anticipation. The short stories, on the other hand, carried with them more of a feeling of resignation. There wasn't enough time to come to uderstand the complexities of the characters or to care about their conflicts. I did not have the same feelings of affection and wonder that I usually get from his books. Instead, I was left with a bit of disappointment - and hope that another novel is yet to come.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Juliet, Naked - Nick Hornby

On a recent work trip to Pueblo, Colorado, I failed to pack enough books to get me through the inevitable airport delays. So, I had to hunt down a Barnes & Noble, and pick up a book I've been waiting forever to get from the library. As I've stated many times on this blog, I love Nick Hornby. His books are always entertaining and easy to read - they are like comfort food for the mind. Plus, Jake also likes him, so I know I could pass this one along when I finished. Juliet, Naked starts with the floundering 15 year relationship between Annie and Duncan. Duncan is obsessed with one-time famous American singer Tucker Crowe. So obsessed that he manages a website devoted to interpreting and re-interpreting lyrics to songs written decades earlier. When Crowe releases an acoustic version of his most successful album, Duncan is in seventh heaven - and rushes to his computer to share his discovery with the world. Annie, on the other hand, thinks the acoustic version is basically garbage. Their difference of opinion causes them both to reevaluate their relationship. Can Duncan really love someone who is so clearly unable to recognize genius? Can Annie waste any more of her life with someone so irritatingly enamored with a musical has-been? And so, Annie posts her own review of the album - a review which catches the eye of Tucker Crowe himself, igniting an email correspondence of monumental significance. In typical Hornby style, this book captures the personality of the masculine loser/possible diamond in the rough perfectly, and provides an honest assessment of relationships that is filled with both resignation and a glimmer of hope. Juliet, Naked is not Hornby's best work, but it does have a few laugh out loud funny lines, and brought me the happiness I needed in the middle of my bleak work adventure.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Labor Day - Joyce Maynard

Thirteen year old Henry is a bit of an outsider. He lives with his single mother, Adele, who is afraid of venturing outside of her house. Henry sees his father once a week for dinner at Friendly's - along with a step-mother who doesn't much like him, a step-brother who has the athletic talent Henry can't even dream of, and his baby half-sister. Henry doesn't have much in the friends department, and spends most of his time trying to figure out how to make his mother happy, and thinking about girls he'll never have the courage to speak to. Then, at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, a stranger named Frank approaches Henry in the store and asks for a ride. Over the rest of the Labor Day weekend, Frank teaches Henry how to throw a baseball and how to bake a pie with the perfect crust. Frank also sweeps Adele off her feet and threatens the safe two-person family Henry has come to rely on. Relieved that his mother's happiness is no longer dependent upon him, but feeling isolated from the one person who always loved him best, Henry finds himself confused and unsure of where his loyalties lie. Labor Day is a compelling coming of age story. While I didn't find the writing anything special as I was going along, the final chapter really hit me emotionally and made me see why Maynard is such a popular author. I have another one of her books, The Usual Rules, on my shelf at home and I'm eager to get to it, along with all her others.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Promised World - Lisa Tucker

Lila's entire world revolves around her twin brother Billy. Despite her marriage, and her prestigious university professorship, she worships her brother and struggles mightily for his approval. She defers to his opinions, is blinded to his faults, and relies on him to remind her of a past she simply cannot remember. Then Billy takes his own life, leaving behind his estranged wife and their three children. Suddenly, Lila's world unravels and her connection between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly tenuous. While her husband Patrick tries to understand what is going on, he delves deeper into Lila's past uncovering lies about her parenthood and discovering that her inability to remember is the result of tremendous trauma and manipulation by those closest to her. The book is told from the perspective of the various characters - and through Billy's wife and children, we learn that while imaginative and doting, Billy was also marked by mood swings and indecipherable musings. His desire to raise his children in the safe environment he never had seems noble, until his fears of a family curse and need to cleanse himself of his evilness hint at a much greater mental illness. As the secrets about Lila and Billy's past come crashing down, the book takes on a frenzied pace - Lila's memories come back in confusing snapshots - she remembers partial scenes and snippets of conversation, there is a difficulty in untangling reality from what she was told to believe and by whom. The same confusion has been visited by Billy upon his own children who want to preserve his memory and make him proud, but end up hurting and trusting the wrong people along the way. I felt like Tucker tried to take on too much with this book in terms of themes and conflict, but at the same time took too long getting to the heart of the story that by about half-way through I was exhausted with the characters. While the subject matter certainly interested me, the end left too many questions and frustrations on the table.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Christmas Train - David Baldacci

Even though compared to most places in the country it doesn't really get that cold where I live, I still like to celebrate what I consider to be the wintery season with a nice peppermint mocha. With a handmade scarf wrapped around my neck, the perfect way to round out the picture is with a cheesy happy-ending holiday story. Thankfully, my mom delivered with this ridiculously silly, predictable, and sappy story by David Baldacci. As she said - it's kind of like Nicholas Sparks. You have to be in the right mood, but you know even when there are bumps along the way, it's going to end up picture perfect, and sometimes that's just what we all need. Tom Langdon, a world-traveling reporter, decides to take a train cross-country from New York to Los Angeles to see his on-again/off-again girlfriend for Christmas. He plans to write a story about it, and sets off to interview the various people working for the railways, as well as the passengers who prefer trains to planes and automobiles. When a young engaged couple announces their intention to get married aboard, Tom reminisces about the one who got away, and the reader knows straight off that Tom is going to get his second chance at love one way or another. This was a fast read, and at any other time of year, I would have wished it went faster. It is not particularly well written, suspenseful, or engaging. But, it still warmed my heart. There's just something about trains and Christmas...and peppermint mochas...I just love this time of year.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger

Years ago, my mom and I went on a trip together to Ashland, Oregon where I read Audrey Niffenegger's first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife. I was so engrossed in it that we were almost late to see The Tempest. So, it was only fitting that this week, while on vacation on Kauai with my mom (and husband) that I decided to bring along her second novel. Her Fearful Symmetry takes place mostly in Elspeth's flat in London. She has recently died of cancer, and left her place (minus her important diaries) to her twin nieces from America, Julia and Valentina. The girls move to London, never having done anything apart from each other - despite their obvious differences in temperment and interests. They learn to navigate the city, and try to understand the relationship between their Aunt Elspeth and their own mother, who just happens to be Elspeth's twin. Valentina develops a relationship with Robert, a cemetery tour guide, and Elspeth's old beau, while Julia gravitates to Martin, the shut-in upstairs suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. All the while, Elspeth's spirit remains in the flat, growing stronger by the day, attempting to communicate with the people she's left behind, and determined at any cost to return to the land of the living. While this book took some clever turns, they were for the most part predictable. I came to root for Valentina, Robert, and Martin - but their ability to be easily manipulated by Elspeth and Julia left me saddened and uncomfortable. At times, I felt as if Niffenegger was so intent on developing secrets in the first two-thirds of the novel, and then spilling them all the in the final third, that she failed to take the time she really needed with her characters. It is the same weakness from her first novel - the cleverness of the time travel often overshadowed the actual relationship between the characters. Though, I felt the emotions in the The Time Traveler's Wife much more acutely - crying quite a bit at the end. While Her Fearful Symmetry features the same themes of lost love in a variety of contexts, I just didn't feel as strong a connection with the pairings. This was certainly an enjoyable read - especially lying on the beach under a palm tree, and while being lazy on the lanai, but not as memorable as her first one.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson (Millenium Series #2)

In this follow-up to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, a genius hacker who has been declared incompetent by a Swedish court, finds herself at the center of a multiple homicide investigation. Her appointed guardian is found shot, along with two journalists, and Lisbeth's fingerprint is on the gun. The only link between Lisbeth and the journalist victims is her old pal Mikael Blomkvist. With Lisbeth in hiding working behind the scenes to figure out the mystery, Blomkvist tries to convince the police that they're barking up the wrong tree. The answer lies somewhere in a complex sex ring scandal involving an enigmatic man named Zala, and a bonecrushing giant whose only goal is to make sure Lisbeth doesn't make it to the truth. While I don't think you would necessarily need to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo first to enjoy this great thriller, I think I was immediately taken in by it because of my familiarity with the characters. Lisbeth's background is heartbreaking and her attempts to make it on her own, while consistently throwing away all efforts from help of the people who care about her, is both frustrating and tragic. The mystery itself takes a number of wild turns, while following up on a number of characters Larsson introduced in the first novel. The third and final book in the series, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest was apparently just published in the United States on Halloween - I may have to break my library borrowing policy and snap it up the next time I'm in an actual bookstore.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Living Dead in Dallas - Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse #2)

A perfect book for Halloween...well, not perfect, but definitely in the right ballpark. The vampire saga in Bon Temps, Louisiana continues in installment #2 featuring Sookie Stackhouse, the telepathic waitress dating Bill the Vampire. This time, Sookie finds herself indebted to vampires who have saved her life, and is sent to Dallas to put her mind reading skills to good use by tracking down a missing vampire. Again, the writing in this series is horrendous. I am repeatedly shocked by how quickly the action unnecessarily moves along and by how poor the dialogue is. But, I am addicted to the television series "True Blood" and so while I am awaiting its return to prime time, I will slog my way through the rest of this series.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Some of Tim's Stories - S.E. Hinton

Growing up, The Outsiders was one of my favorite books. Like so many other kids, I just read it over and over. I also watched the movie over and over. Along with To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, I felt like it captured so much of what it felt like to be a kid in a world that you didn't have very much control over. In middle school, I read Hinton's other novels, but never quite felt the same way about them. Then a couple years ago, I came across this collection of short stories by Hinton (published in 2007), and I hoped I would be able to get some of that magic back. It took me awhile to get around to reading them - I've had this problem before - so eager to check something out, but so afraid it won't live up to my hopes. Some of Tim's Stories is a collection of 14 stories about cousins Terry and Mike. When they lose their fathers in a car accident, the cousins become like brothers, but Mike endures a horrible step-father, Terry finds his way to prison. The stories are filled with overwhelming feelings of loss - the loss of a parent certainly, but more strongly, the loss of a future that could have been. They are also filled with a deep sense of guilt - of living while others die and of being free while others are locked up. As often happens when authors write many short stories about the same characters, I wish Hinton had just written a novel about the lives of the two boys. The stories themselves feel incomplete, though the frustration I felt while reading them may have been the intended result of learning about pepole whose lives are themselves frustrated. The second half of the book contains interviews with Hinton about her writing, the success of The Outsiders, her experience in film, and her writing process. The interviews provided an interesting glimpse into Hinton's mind - and how she has made the transition from a teenage success (she was only 16 when she wrote The Outsiders) to an adult author. Some of Tim's Stories did not live up to my expectations. I read through the stories quickly, and after just a day none of them have really stayed with me. But, going back to Hinton was a good reminder to me of how special it is when you do find that book that stays with you forever. Even if I couldn't get the same feeling again from the same author, I'm sure it'll come back to me soon from someone new.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese

From the beginning, I knew this was going to be one of those generational tomes that I love, so I was excited to get into it and really get to know the characters. Set in Ethiopia, Marion and Shiva are twin brothers born to an Indian nun and a British surgeon. Their mother dies in childbirth, and their father, unable to comprehend her death flees to the United States. The boys are adopted by two other doctors in the hospital and raised to develop their own fascination with medicine. The story is told from Marion's perspective, the more passionate protective brother, who falls in love with the girl-next-door amidst the backdrop of a revolution. The story foreshadows Shiva's betrayal of Marion, and Marion's own departure from the family in search of his own identity in the United States. But, while you know it's coming (it's revealed on the book flap), this climactic scene actually doesn't happen until about three-quarters of the way through the novel. Instead, the book is more driven by coming to know Marion and the chaotic world around him, of wondering about his biological father while he develops an unbreakable bond with his adopted dad, and the twins' unspeakable love for each other but their inability to truly communicate. At times, I felt that the pages went on without advancing the story - but I think this was more a testament to the fact that I really wanted to know what was going to happen to Marion and I feared that he would be hurt and not find peace for himself. Mostly, I enjoyed the unfolding of Marion's life. The book is written by a Stanford physician, and the medical aspect of the novel is finely woven through the story line - fascinating without becoming too technical. All in all, this was a wonderful, though at times painful, story of family.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog - Bruce Perry

Bruce Perry is a child psychiatrist who, in this book, explores what happens to a child's brain as a result of trauma and extreme neglect. He weaves stories of his actual heart-breaking patients with information from neuroscience and psychology to explain how a child injured in infancy can possess long-lasting effects far into adulthood. Perry also focuses on the healing process - how best to deal with children immediately after they suffer a horrifying experience, and how to retrain young adults who were mistreated when children. Each of Perry's chapters looks at a different example of trauma or abuse/neglect. For me, the most powerful looked at the long term effects of neglect. I think most people assume that unless kids experience affirmative abuse, that they will be fine. But Perry had examples of children with parents who did love them, but just did not know how to parent. They assumed if their infants were changed and fed that they would be fine - and so they would leave them alone in their cribs for hours. They did not read to them or talk to them much. As a result, physically, their brains were stunted and in some cases even shrank. They also were unable to attach and to experience or express emotions that most people take for granted. The impact of the treatment of these children in their first two years was incredible. Perry also talks about his work with children who were raised in the Branch Davidians (David Koresh). He also talks about the delicate work of determining whether children have actually experienced trauma or whether they have been coerced into making false accusations. Reading books like this always makes me so sad - I think about the fact that as I write this review there are children everywhere who are not receiving the attention and love that they deserve. But, at the same time, it makes me so grateful that such a book has been written in such an accessible format. I feel like this should be required reading for everyone, but particularly for people with children, people who work with children, and law enforcement that come into contact with child witnesses. It really provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the effects of trauma, and hopefully giving us all the tools we need to protect and help heal those who have experienced it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Library at Night - Alberto Manguel

This book was a reminder to me that no matter what random topic you can think of, someone has probably written a book about it. Manguel's book of essays centers around the theme of libraries. Inspired by his own process for picking and choosing the books for his home library, Manguel explores the idea of libraries as, among other things, space, imagination, island, identity, and home. He is more concerned with how one goes about choosing the books that are important and necessary to them, than he is about the content of the books themselves. He looks at what it means to have a collection of books - the power that books hold and the various systems of organization that they engender. Each of Manguel's chapters is self-contained, and the book does not contain a cohesive theme - other than the overarching idea of libraries. I generally relish books about reading, particulalry ones that introduce me to new books. This is not quite that kind of book - it is more a celebration of the tangible book and a meditation on the meaning of libraries as a single unit with a given purpose, as opposed to the individual books themselves. Manguel's chapters are far ranging - from the history of libraries to the history of censorship, psychological analyses of what our collections say about us as individuals and as societies, the secrets that libraries hold while also being full of the answers to unlocking all sorts of mysteries. My public library card is one of my most important possessions, and I enjoy visiting people's homes and looking through their personal collections. Libraries do say so much about us - what we love, what we value, and ultimately, who we are. I found myself amazed over and over at the creativity in this book - it made me look at libraries and books in many varied ways, and appreciate that even though I will never even read all the books in my own home, there is still tremendous value in having them all here together.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Miles from Nowhere - Nami Mun

Miles from Nowhere features a rarely seen main character - a 13-year old Korean immigrant runaway. Because of this, I think I really really wanted to like the book. In the wake of her father's infidelity and her mother's mental illness, Joon escapes from home to the unpredictable streets of 1980s New York City. She travels from a juvenile home to an escort club, through addiction to making a living any way she possibly can. Each chapter of the book is its own snapshot of a scene from Joon's life on the edge of society, hanging on any way she can. Because Joon herself is so lost, and the telling of her story reflects her transient nature, I found it hard to read this book as one single narrative. There is no one story line that holds it together, and because of this I often found my mind wandering while I read it, unsure whether I cared about this young girl. Despite the fact that she obviously needed some attention, love, and guidance, I just couldn't find myself connecting on any level. Everything about her experience is so tragic that even with Mun's at times beautiful prose, I just couldn't find much about the book to hold on to.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Requiem for an Assassin - Barry Eisler (John Rain Series #6)

Seriously, these John Rain books keep getting better and better. I am sad that I have reached the end of the series as it now stands, but hope that Eisler is busy writing installment #7. In this one, Rain's best (and perhaps only?) friend Dox has been kidnapped by Rain's enemy Hilger. In order to get him back, Rain must assassinate three men. But, of course, Rain knows that it won't be that easy. There's no guarantee Hilger won't kill Dox once the assassinations are complete. And, even more tricky, there's no guarantee that hit #3 isn't actually Rain himself. To complicate matters even further, Rain has finally allowed himself to fall in love - with the beautiful Israeli assassin Delilah. Disappearing to rescue Dox will put his relationship in jeopardy, yet disclosing his assignment to her will risk much more than Rain has ever been willing to do in the past. As all sides fly around the world in an effort to undermine, confuse, and out-counter each other, the reader is taken to Jakarta, New York, Bangkok - and the cosmopolitan Palo Alto, CA - where Rain pleased me to no end by having lunch at my favorite Cafe Barrone and killing time in Kepler's Bookstore. Eisler's development of Rain's character and range of emotions in this one made for a much more interesting read than some of the past Rain books. But, of course, my favorite scenes were the ones involving Dox. While shackled on a boat and terrorized by ex-Marines, Dox manages to keep his wits about him with his constant wise-cracking. He is the perfect counter to Rain's seriousness, and I can't wait to see him portrayed on the big screen. There seemed to be less hand-to-hand combat in this one, and less lengthy descriptions of Rain's surveillance techniques - both of which I appreciated. But, the action and drama were still there, plus a little more love and emotion. Enough love and emotion as would be appropriate for a book about assassins, of course.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Trouble - Kate Christensen

This is one of those books that sounded good on the flap cover, and raised a lot of issues that I normally enjoy reading about. The delivery, however, left a lot to be desired. The book focuses on Josie, a psychotherapist in a seemingly loveless marriage, who decided to leave her husband and precocious tween daughter to focus on her mid-life crisis. Her two best friends present her with conflicting views on the situation. Indrani, a single millionaire, offers a judgmental stance, questioning whether Josie has tried hard enough in her marriage. Unable to deal with the question, Josie flees to Mexico City to be with their third friend, Raquel, a famous rock star running away from her own fidelity problems. Once in Mexico, Josie experiences freedom she apparently was never able to enjoy in her structured life back home. While intended (I think) to be Josie's coming-of-age-late-in-life story, it seemed more like a reckless and irresponsible Spring Break, only more pathetic given that the main character should probably know better. Not so say that Josie isn't entitled to some fun, but mostly she came across and selfish and strikingly lacking in self-reflection, despite her profession. I mostly found this book annoying - and Josie's entire life quite uncomfortable - from her passionless husband to her brilliant yet vapid daughter to her shallow supposed life-long friends. The shocking twist at the end failed to bring about the deep reflection I expected, and ultimately, I was left wanting run away myself - far far away from this book.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Jamie Ford

The walls of my mother's home are lined with books from floor to ceiling. I love going to visit and just looking through the shelves. My guess is that about 90% of her books are written by Asian/Asian-American authors, feature Asian/Asian-American characters, or are otherwise about the Asian/Asian-American experience. My mother also happens to live in the Pacific Northwest. So, when I came across this book, set in Seattle about the friendship between a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl in 1946, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. The hotel in the title refers to the Panama Hotel, where a number of Japanese families stored their belongings when they were systematically evacuated and sent to live for years in internment camps during WWII. Henry lives with his parents in Chinatown, unable to communicate with them because they forbid him to speak Cantonese, but they themselves hardly speak English. His father, cognizant of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in his homeland, also forbids Henry from stepping foot into Japantown, much less ever speaking to anyone of Japanese descent. Despite this, Henry meets and falls in love with Keiko. He is devastated when she is forced to move and struggles to maintain contact with her. During this time, Henry also befriends Sheldon, a street musician who teaches him about jazz and provides both Henry and Keiko an escape from the hatred and ugliness around them. The book takes place both in 1946 and in 1986 - with Henry looking back on his time with Keiko and how the war affected his relationship with his parents, his relationship with his own son, and his entire sense of identity. Ford's wrting evoked a number of strong emotions in me. My heart raced as Ford described the chaos of the evacuation, and I swelled with anger as he described the conditions of the camps. This is a beautiful love story, but also a story about the frustrations of the war, and the dangers of acting on deep-seeded prejudices. As soon as I finished this book, I picked up the phone to call my mom. With tears still in my eyes, I excitedly told her about this "amazing book she would love." Not ONLY was it about Asian-Americans during the war, but it was ALSO set in Seattle. Surely, this was the find of the year, and I had discovered it! "Oh, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet?" she replied, "I read that when it first came out (in January). Isn't is great? I was crying at the end!" Oh, the bitterness of having been topped by her Asian reading prowess once again. But, alas, the sweetness of sharing the excitment of such a wonderful novel.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse Series #1)

I am a big fan of the HBO vampire series "True Blood." When I heard that it was all based on Charlaine Harris's "Sookie Stackhouse" series, I knew I had to check out the books. Thankfully, my friend Courtney was several steps ahead of me and kindly allowed me to borrow the first four. Dead Until Dark opens in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Vampires have recently come out of the closet and are openly living among humans. With the Japanese invention of bottled synthetic blood, they can even survive without draining too many of the not yet undead. Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress at the neighborhood bar, has the gift of telepathy - which has rendered her somewhat of an outcast among the locals, but makes her very popular with the vampires. Coincidentally (or not), several of the local women have been found strangled to death in their homes. The link among them seems to be that they all enjoyed the company of vampires, as well as of Sookie's brother, Jason. The writing in this novel is absolutely horrendous. The TV show tracks the book pretty closely, which tells me that Harris has clearly developed some interesting characters and great plot arcs. But, it also tells me that the television writers have worked a lot of magic, because the suspense and shock of certain revelations on TV, simply fall flat in the book. I will continue with this series because I am interested to see the differences from the show, and because once I start a series, I find it hard to let it go. But, unless you are obsessed with vampire novels, or a big fan of "True Blood" that wants more of Sookie, Bill, and Eric until the new season begins, I would stay far far away from this book.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Stitches - David Small

In general I am not a fan of graphic novels. Like comic books, I think they are in a genre all their own, separate and apart from novels and literature. This is not to say that they are better or worse, just that I don't understand them enough to enjoy them. I first heard of a graphic novel my first year in college when half my dorm was assigned Maus. I, however, was not. Years later, I read Persepolis and its sequel. While I enjoyed them, I couldn't help thinking they would have been even better as memoirs written in prose rather than in pictures. But, when I received this book as part of my Powell's book club, I thought I'd give this graphic novel thing another try. Stitches is the memoir of David Small, a sickly little boy growing up in a household of turmoil. Following a particularly traumatic surgery, David is left without his voice. And so he tells his story through pictures. While the drawings in this book are haunting, and tell a compelling story of a frightened child in a world with no explanations, I still wished I could have read a fuller more complete book about his life. There were little things here and there that Small touched upon - like the possibility that his father, a radiologist, may have caused David's illness, and the fact that his mother was a lesbian - but which he does not explore in any depth. There are themes galore, but they don't get much attention which left me with a million unanswered questions about Small's life (which is maybe how he himself felt going through it all). I suppose a picture is woth a thousand words, but I needed a different presentation. I've read many reviews of Stitches in which people laud Small for raising the bar and expanding the depths of the graphic novel. All I can safely say is that I just don't get it. This was a great story - and I liked the pictures - but ultimately, I wanted to read a book with more words.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mudbound - Hillary Jordan

Set in 1946, Mudbound is the story of two families - one black and one white. Henry McAllen marries late in life to Laura. Along with their two children, and Henry's racist and abrasive father, Pappy, they move into a farmhouse on the Mississippi Delta. At home working the land, Henry is oblivious to Laura's misery. Jamie, his much younger brother, returns home from the war, reaching for the bottle in an attempt to dull the painful memories of his time overseas. Jamie befriends a fellow soldier named Ronsel, the eldest son of black sharecroppers working on Henry's land. Ronsel's demand for respect from the town's old white men, and his developing friendship with Jamie, fuels the fires of hatred. The chapters in this story are told from the alternating perspectives of the various characters. This storytelling method seems to have become so popular lately, that I find I no longer enjoy it. Instead of being clever, it just lends itself to a disjointed narrative. In general, this book was just too depressing, and the racism so distasteful (but realistic), that I had a hard time getting through it. Jordan's character development was impressive - each character with a flaw (some bigger than others), but each also with a backstory that explained (but did not forgive) the ugliness. In terms of themes, I don't feel this one added much to the dialogue about race relations or reconstruction - though Ronsel's differing experiences in Europe vis-a-vis- Mississippi was interesting. But, for realism and tragedy, this one certainly comes through.

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games Series #2)

Ever since reading The Hunger Games, I've been eagerly awaiting this sequel. I couldn't wait for the library to get its copies in, so I went straight to one of my favorite independent bookstores in Oakland ( and picked it up. Fresh off a win at the Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta find themselves back in District 12. But, instead of enjoying the fruits of their victory, Katniss is warned by the Capitol that if she cannot keep up the facade of her romance with Peeta and quell the rumblings of rebellion throughout the other district that all her loved ones will be killed. Katniss struggles with her hatred for the Capitol, and her desire to go back to the old way of life. Old friends from the first book return - Haymitch still drinking to overcome his trauma, Cinna with more stylistic genius up his sleeve, and of course Gale, Katniss's childhood playmate and first love. I'm thankful that Harry Potter has given adults license to enjoy young adult fiction without embarrassment (at least I think it has) - and while the ideal reader for this series is probably 12-14, I have been quite taken in by it all. The interaction among the characters, not to mention the action, would be perfect for a television series or movie (I just read on Wikipedia that the movie rights to the first book have been purchased by Lionsgate). About half-way through, the story took an unexpected (to me) turn, and I found my heart racing. I couldn't flip the pages fast enough to find out what was going to happen. The only bad part about this book was that it had to end. Luckily, the next installment has an anticipated 2010 release date.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Curse of the Singles Table - Suzanne Schlosberg

Suzanne Schlosberg's memoir is premised on the fact that for 1000+ days in her early 30s she went without having sex. In her 20s, Schlosberg, a freelance writer for a fitness magazine who is herself obsessed with working out, dated regularly. She then found herself in a long-term relationship with a cop who never wanted to get married. Tired of settling for "good enough," Schlosberg breaks free in search of herself, and of the perfect match. As the years tick by, the pressure from Schlosberg's family to get married increases. And when her younger sister gets engaged, things really start heating up. But, it isn't until half-way through the book that the 1,000 days actually begins - and it isn't until a good deal into the streak that Schlosberg even realizes that the streak is happening. For this reason, I felt like focusing the book on the 1,000 days was just an unnecessary attempt to shock the reader. Yes, the 1,000 days are a part of Schlosberg's story - but really her story is about being a single woman in a world that expects so much. Schlosberg excels in her career, she is passionate about sports and open to trying new things, she has an incredible stint with volunteer work, she moves to new cities where she knows no one - all while trying to conform to the expectations of being the kind of girl who settles down as a wife with kids regardless of whether the guy she's with is a true partner. I felt like there was just so much more to Schlosberg's experiences, and because her writing is humorous and insightful, I think this book could have been so much more of a manifesto for the life of a professional single woman, who also wants some of that traditional fairy tale. I thought it debased her experiences to focus so much on her sex life. But, perhaps at the end of the day, that's what sells books. I just wish she had been interested in selling something a little more substantial.

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

Poor Dan Brown. The reviews for his latest novel starring Robert Langdon have not been so favorable. People call his writing formulaic and predictable, and his plot twists too unbelievable to enjoy. Yet in its first week out, The Lost Symbol sold over a million copies in the US, and half a million in the UK. Once it's turned into a summer blockbuster, Mr. Brown will be laughing all the way to the bank. I guess I don't understand the criticism. Surely we've all read The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons. Aren't over the top explosions and never-ending cliches what we know and love from Brown? Of course, he's no literary genius, but I contend that he is a master of the cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter - which is impressive seeing as this book has over 130 chapters. This time around Langdon, professor of symbology at Harvard (yes, we know, this is a made up department and Langdon should perhaps be part of the semiotics department), is summoned to Washington, D.C. under false pretenses. Once there, he finds himself caught up in the legends of the Freemasons, and he must unlock the secret of the Lost Word to save the life of his old friend Peter. Silas the albino self-flagellating villain from The DaVinci Code has been replaced by a hairless Illustrated Man in this installment. While Langdon's female companions in the prior books helped him flee across Europe, this time, his partner in crime is the sister of the victim, and a noetic scientist (a branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the mind, intuition, and collective consciousness). Langdon gets himself in the predictable mess, confiding in those he shouldn't and trusting others who intend to cause harm - how he manages to keep himself alive in this one is far beyond even my ability to suspend disbelief. That being said, I was immediately engaged in the story, and stayed up late into the night because I (in my own cliche) just couldn't put it down. The layers upon layers of symbols for Langdon to interpret become tedious after awhile, but just as The DaVinci Code caused people to take a closer look at the Vatican and to reexamine The Last Supper, I think this one is going to bring a lot more tourists to D.C. and introduce them to the German painter, Albrecht Durer and the beauty of magical squares. Sure Brown's stories are fanciful, and whether there is any truth to his legends, I have no idea. But, to the extent he gets people reading, interested in art and history, and questioning otherwise commonly-held beliefs, Dan Brown gets a thumbs up in my book.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jericho's Fall - Stephen L. Carter

I had the same reaction to all three of Stephen L. Carter's previous three novels: great suspense, a little long, a tad bit pretentious on the 50-cent words, intriguing discussion of race relations. Jericho's Fall is none of these things. I was suprised that Carter came out with a novel so soon after Palace Council, but after reading Jericho's Fall, I think I understand why. Unlike his previous three novels, Jericho's Fall simply isn't that intelligent. The writing is unsophisticated and the suspense utterly lacking. The basic premise is that former head of the CIA, Jericho Ainsley is on his death bed. Isolated up in the Colorado Rockies (where we are told over and over again that there is NO CELL PHONE RECEPTION), he summons Beck DeForde, a woman with whom he once had a career and marriage-ending affair. They have not seen each other in years, and DeForde is irritated having to leave her young daughter to respond to the whims of this selfish and egotistical man (but of course she does it anyway). Then for the next 150 pages or so - nothing happens. Jericho speaks to her in code, or possible derangement. His daughters, still angry at the homewrecker after all these years, are rude to her. And of course, there's just something weird going on with DeForde's cell phone - it rings, and strange messages are played back, it turns on and off - but every time it does so we are reminded that cell phones don't even work in the house! By the time some mystery was injected into the story, beyond Jericho's paranoid delusions, I just wanted it to end. DeForde strikes up a flirtation with a married cop in town - despite the fact that they appear to have no chemistry, and it's clear it's going to end badly. There's also a new librarian in town - the only black woman around we learn (for no reason in particular), who is clearly out of her element. DeForde takes it upon herself to figure out what exactly Jericho has got himself involved in - but she has no investigation skills, no common sense, and no intuition. The foreshadowing is so obvious, if only DeForde could have read the book along with us, she would have known to get out and save herself much sooner. With intelligence operations, foreign governments, and financial scandal involved, perhaps people more jazzed by espionage stories would have found something exciting in this one. But, after Carter's past novels, I've come to expect so much more from him, and I was truly disappointed.

Commencement - J. Courtney Sullivan

This book opens in 2006 - four years after four best friends graduated from Smith and are reuniting for a wedding. Celia, April, Sally, and Bree all have very distinct personalities and backgrounds, but when they find themselves first year hallmates, they form fast friendships. The chapters switch among the four women, telling stories of their pasts, their lives at Smith, and their lives after Smith. April is a hard-core feminist activist, putting herself in harm's way to make documentaries about human trafficking, female genital mutilation, and all things misogynistic in our society. Sally, who lost her mother just months before beginning at Smith, struggles to find love - falling for a Smith professor, before settling down to get married at 24. Bree, a Southern belle, discovers her love for another woman, becomes a corporate attorney in San Francisco, and finds herself torn between following her heart and gaining the acceptance of her family. Celia is the most lost of all - trying to hold on to her college friendships, unsure of the lessons she was supposed to learn from an all women's school, and learning to be okay with her independence. While a lot happens in the book - and the end is a little unnecessarily dramatic - I mostly just enjoyed learning about the lives of these different women. Even though they came together somewhat out of the convenience of their dorm assignments, the friendships they developed were real. The passage of time brought them all to different places in their lives - they made different choices, but nothing changed their need to be together. This is really a powerful story about the strength of female friendships. The writing reminded me of Prep, and while the subject matter seems of the chick-lit variety (in the pejorative sense), the issues are much more complex and satisfying.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Madness: A Bipolar Life - Marya Hornbacher

At the age of 24, Marya Hornbacher was diagnosed with Type I bipolar disorder. This realization of why she thinks and behaves the way she does did not come at the outset of her disease. Rather, it came after years and years of cycling through incessant mania and debilitating depression. Hornbacher recalls moments from her childhood, such as her terrible insomnia and inability to stop jabbering flying from topic to topic with no coherent train of thought. She tried to poke fun at herself as all the other children in her class labeled her crazy, but it was clear that while Hornbacher knew she was different, she could never quite figure out what it was that made her so. Hornbacher also had an interesting home life - with parents who were violently fighting one minute, and lovingly playing Scrabble with her the next. It is unclear from Hornbacher's stories what her parents were able to recognize in their daughter as unusual and what they engdendered as a result of their own erratic behavior. As she grows older, Hornbacher's episodes become more severe. She begins starving herself at a young age and develops anorexia/bulimia (the subject of her memoir, Wasted). To alleviate her internal suffering, Hornbacher turns to cutting - one time getting so out of control that she nearly kills herself and is rushed to the hospital. Once there, the doctors seem intent on labeling her as depressed - a common diagnosis for girls with eating disorders. But, the medications only seem to make Hornbacher more crazy. In response, the doctors increase her levels of medication. Hornbacher turns to her own brand of medicine, and within years she becomes a full-blown alcoholic. Her condition prevents any medication which may have worked, from having any noticeable effect. Finally, Hornbacher receives her proper diagnosis, but it is years before the realization of her illness sets in, and before she curtails her destructive and suicidal behavior. Madness is an interesting memoir. Repeatedly I found myself thinking, "Ugh! This woman is SO ANNOYING! She's self-absorbed and self-destructive. She is ruining the lives of those who are trying to help her and never listens to her doctors (even the ones who are intelligent enough to get the diagnosis and the med levels correct." But, then I had to remind myself that these behaviors are the direct result of her mental illness. In this way, I found Hornbacher's memoir amazingly honest. She did not pepper her stories with much self-reflection, and while frightening, it was refreshing to read this type of book from the perspective of someone who isn't deluded into thinking that she now has all the answers, or that she will lead a stress-free wholly positive life now that she has her diagnosis in hand. The issues raised by this book are numerous, but in particular I found interesting Hornbacher's memories of her childhood. People are quick to belive that children are "resilient," that they don't experience trauma like adults do, that they don't remember or internalize, that they simply can't suffer from depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia. Hornbacher's memories suggest otherwise. They suggest, at the very least, that there are indicators that the disease that may manifest at quite an early age. The question being whether treatment on children is safe or effective, and if anything can be done to prevent the progression of the disesase. Hornbacher's experience also emphasizes the relation between eating disorders, cutting, suicidal ideation, alcoholism, and other destructive behviors and mental illness - they feed on each other in ways that often make it difficult to detemine the origins of a given problem. Madness is written as a memoir - it is Hornbacher's story - it is not a clinical examination of bipolar disorder - and it does not answer many questions that I had about the history of bipolar treatment and the state of bipolar disorder in our country today- in terms of the research that is being done, the medication available to people, and how therapy can be used, if at all, to deal with the symptoms. But, what this book does do is open a window into an often misunderstood disease and ignite a dialogue that will hopefully lead to answers and more efficient diagnoses.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Steig Larsson (Millenium Series #1)

This is another of those books I felt compelled to read because I have been seeing it everywhere - along with its sequel, The Girl who Played with Fire. Larsson, an author from Sweden, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2004. He left three unpublished manuscripts, meant to be a part of a 10 book series. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first. After the first 5 pages, I was not sure if I was going to be able to get into this one - but I stuck with it so I would have a chance at understanding the popularity. My friend Liz asked me this morning "when does it get good?" having reached page 5 and finding the writing hard to get into. While I was at a loss for words to explain what the book is about, suffice it to say, it gets good fast. The book circles around a number of different stories - Henrik Vanger, an aged wealthy investor lost his niece over 40 years ago. He is haunted by her disappearance and obsessed with discovering her murderer before he himself expires. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, fresh off a conviction for libel against a wealthy and powerful businessman, is eager to disappear from society himself, and is hired by the eccentric Vanger to investigate the mystery. And finally Lisbeth Salanger, a ward of the court and a world-class hacker with a gothic exterior and the ability to find out the most personal information about the most private people, is hired to do her own investigation of Blomkvist. Set in Sweden, against the backdrop of a darkly misogynistic landscape, Larsson highlights the violence in society against women, sometimes in stark and gratuitous ways. The numerous characters in the novel were often difficult to keep track of - not just for the reader - but for Blomkvist in his investigation as well. But, there is love and intrigue, and a mystery filled with twists and turns. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo held my attention to say the least. My only disappointment is that Larsson did not live long enough to enjoy the success, or to write the remaining 7 installments.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide - Kay Redfield Jamison

After several teen suicides and attempted suicides in my hometown this past year, I started to feel incredibly helpless. Despite the obvious sadness of young lives lost, I felt overwhelming frustration. It is often easy for people to dismiss teen suicide as the result of immaturity or a lack of perspective - heartbreak over unrequited love or a rejection letter from Harvard. What people ignore is the reality - that the majority of suicides, those of teenagers and adults - are the result of chonic and untreated mental illness. Jamison's thorough and exhausting book attempts to get to the bottom of the frightening epidemic around the world - of men and women, from all walks of life. Jamison explores all aspects of suicide - from analyzing the data to detemine which age groups are killing themselves, to their purported reasons for doing so. She looks at the methods that people use and the notes they leave behind. She includes stories of famous people in history, as well as tragic examples from today. Jamison's book is haunting, but I think so important. It is with all this back story that Jamison then turns to the most important question: how do we prevent suicide? While there are obviously no easy answers, Jamison explores suggestions for how to talk about mental illness as a predictor for suicide, how to recognize and assess the warning signs, and how to cope after a devastating loss. This book was a very difficult read for me. I would read a chapter here and there and then put it aside because I simply found it too sad. But, I am glad I read it. I hope that more people will - I hope it will help us to better understand suicide, to dispel the shame our society attaches to it, to encourage people to ask for help when they feel alone, and to help all of us to be better equipped to give the assistance so many people desperately need.