Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chronicle of a Death Foretold - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One of my mock trial kids mentioned this book in passing - while trying to make some sort of analogy to our case materials, but then admitting that he had not actually read the book. Turns out, however, he had a pretty good idea what it was about. This is actually a novella - and a great introduction to Marquez's wonderful writing, without having to tackle one of his longer multi-generational masterpieces. This one is short on Marquez's signature magical realism, but high on drama and mystery. From the beginning, we know that Santiago Nasar has been murdered. Slowly, the reasons for the killing unfold, and it appears that everyone in his small town knew it was going to happen ("There had never been a death more foretold."), but no one bothers to warn poor Santiago. Whether the reason for the killing is justified, we never know for sure, but as the narrator finds townsperson after townsperson to retell the story, what is clear is that either Santiago did not have to die, or that perhaps there was no way to escape this fate. I read this book in one sitting, intrigued by the unfolding plot, even though I already knew the ending - a good mark of a wonderful storyteller. This was a nice little treat I had not previously heard of, from an author I have loved for many years.

Le Divorce - Diane Johnson

Given the art on the cover of this book, and that it was made into a movie staring Kate Hudson, I always assumed this book was chick-lit. Then I discovered that the author has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize and I thought I better take a closer look. The reality is that this falls somewhere in the middle of mindless relationship nonsense and worthwhile literature. It is certainly better written than most chick-lit, and the dialogue between the characters is believable. The book features an American, Isabel, who travels to France to be with her pregnant step-sister Roxanne. Roxanne has recently been dumped by her Parisian husband for a a Yugoslavian mistress. In the middle of the divorce is a painting whose ownership comes in to question. There is a great deal of focus on the differences among Americans, Parisians, and the British. The book started out promising - I figured it would be a lot about the marriage and being an ex pat in Paris, but after about 150 pages, I completely lost interest. I found the characters boring despite the potential for complex inter-relationships, and the plot twists became too unbelievable in a way that I did not find satirical or humorous. I am surprised that this book won a National Book Award, and feel like I need to read more reviews on-line to find out the secret meaning I clearly missed.

The Queen's Gambit - Walter Tevis

I have been saddened recently to hear of the closing of some of my favorite independent bookstores. While I cannot turn my back on the library, I have decided that I will make all my future book purchases from my local store - Walden Pond Books - instead of on-line. I visited Walden Pond last weekend to buy a gift for a friend. I found the usually quiet salespeople much more vocal about suggestions - perhaps it was the individual working that day, or maybe a reflection of the slowing economy. Regardless, it worked and I bought this book which the salesperson highly recommended as one of his favorites of all time. It is the story of an 8-year old orphan who stumbles upon the game of chess and finds that she has quite the mind for it. Tevis is also the author of The Hustler and The Color of Money. So, he has experience building suspense around games. As the young girl grows, she enters herself into tournaments and fixes her sights on beating the Russian grandmasters. Along the way, she also has to come to terms with some of her addictions and her lack of guidance. The story is compelling, and even though I don't know anything about chess except how the pieces are allowed to move, I still found myself holding my breath as Tevis walked the reader through each game. I think he glossed over the young girl's difficulties with relaionships given her orphan past, and the interaction between her substance abuse and her superior chess abilities seemed too superficial. Yet, the story did work and I would recommend it as a good "sports" story (an on-line review I read called it the Rocky of the chess world), but not necessarily as a realistic female coming of age tale.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

To Siberia - Per Petterson

This book has such a beautiful cover, I could hardly pass it up. Set in Denmark, it is the story of an older woman looking back on her life, her relationship with her brother, the Nazi occupation, and her chaotic family. This is a story I enjoyed for the language of the writing, but not so much for the actual plot. I kept wanting to skip ahead - which was sometimes done for me, since from chapter to chapter the narrator marches ahead in time without explanation. In an attempt to deal with her uncertain future, the narrator long to go to Siberia, while her brother dreams of life in Morocco. Yet, despite the magnitude of their hopes, ultimately, their lives reflect desolation and helplessness. This is one I would put on my "real literature" shelf, but not one that would make it on to my "to read again" shelf.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dishwasher - Pete Jordan

Dishwashing Pete hails from San Francisco, and presents himself as a guy with no ambition, just trying to get by in the world by working as little as possible. After stumbling into a few dishwashing gigs, he starts his own zine featuring tales of dishwashers around the country, and embarks on his goal to wash dishes for pay in all 50 states - something I found kind of ambitious. Pete tells his readers about the states he washes in, his quests for The Sign (Help Wanted), and his evolution from guy who washes dishes to Dishmaster. As you might imagine, there is only so much you can talk about when it comes to dishes. Pete does meet colorful characters along the way and work in many different types of establishments. There are interesting factoids about past dishwashers and the dishwashing culture. But, I did find that the book dragged on. Despite having a semblance of a plan, Pete did not really have a plan, and he was quite haphazard in reaching his 50 state goal. Of course, this is kind of the point. Pete is not the ambitous guy with the plan. He is the guy with some ideas, that after years of meandering sometimes pan out. Yet, Pete does develop somewhat of a cult following, and he does manage to live for years just washing dishes when the mood strikes. He now lives in Amsterdam and is writing a book about riding his bike around that city. I think Pete might be a very frustrating and unreliable employee, but this book does make one think about their own jobs and the point of life. He seems to have figured out a way that works for him, but nothing I can imagine too many people will be emulating any time soon. Which, I'm sure, is just fine by Pete.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Darkly Dreaming Dexter - Jeff Lindsay (Book 1)

So many people keep telling me that Dexter is a great series to watch. I know the premise - a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. Given what I do for a living, I didn't think I needed to spend my time watching such a show. Though, obviously I am intrigued. Then while at the library the other day, I stumbled upon this book, and discovered that Dexter the TV series is based on it. The alliteration in the title, and throughout the book does not seem to have much relevance to the subject matter - other than that Dexter is methodical in his thinking, and somewhat prone to patterns. He is a blood spatter expert with a foster sister on the force. She is having trouble moving up the chain of command, and calls Dexter in to help her with a rash of prostitute murders. We learn that Dexter has a sixth sense about these things. He was brought into his foster family when he was three, with no real memories of his life before. There are hints of horrific abuse, but nothing concrete. Dexter describes himself as emotionless, and having always harbored this urge to kill. His foster father, also a police officer, recognized this trait in Dexter and honed Dexter's skills, hoping that someday when he finally carried out his need to kill a human being, that he would do so for the greater good. Dexter's character plays into all the stereotypes of a sociopath that I work at trying to dispel - the idea that people are born evil, that they have no choice, and that given the benefit of a loving family and an adequate support system, they cannot possibly make good choices. Of course, Dexter does exhibit symptoms of mental illness - he seems to have hallucinations and he sense a controlling presence in his life. But, ultimately, Lindsay has written him as an attractive Hannibal Lecter who just can't help himself. This part of the character frustrated me. But, as a straight-forward quick mystery with gory details, I did find it entertaining. But, do not look here for complex characters or witty dialogue. Like any form of entertainment that promotes sterotypes of presents certain groups in a less than realistic way, I worry that the general public's view will be warped - and that in this instance, their humanity toward the mentally ill or those who have suffered tortuous upbringings will be lessened. That being said, I can understand the appeal. There are a couple more books in Lindsay's Dexter series, though apparently the television show is not based on these - and has simply taken the underlying premise and gone off independetly from there. Someday, I'm sure I will get around to watching it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Final Solution - Michael Chabon

Inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this is Chabon's crack at the great detective story. A young mute boy, Linus, shows up at an English boarding house with his pet parrot, Bruno. Bruno mysteriously recites numbers in German which the lodgers speculate are the key to some sort of German code. When one of the lodgers is found dead, and the bird missing, the local police inspector enlists the help of a strange aging beekeeper (a nod to Sherlock Holmes who retired to take up beekeeping) to solve the crimes. The old man agrees to find the parrot and return it to his rightful owner, but has no real interest in the deceased. Like Doyle's famous tales, this is an exercise in deductive reasoning - but in the end, the most interesting question still remains unanswered. A fun little mystery with a very clever parrot.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The 19th Wife - David Ebershoff

If you enjoyed Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven or are fascinated by the HBO show "Big Love," then this is the book for you. Ebershoff's novel has two separate focuses - in present day, a polygamous sect of the Latter-Day Saints is alive and well in Utah, and a man with upwards of 25 wives has just been shot and killed, alledgedly by his 19th wife. When the woman's excommunicated son finds out, he returns home to help investigate. While the murder mystery unfolds, Ebershoff goes back in history to the beginning of the Mormon religion, and ultimately to Brigham Young's 19th wife, famous for divorcing her husband and becoming an anti-polygamy activist. The historical part of the story is told through diary entries, journalistic accounts, and fictionalized research papers. Given the recent focus on the Mormon religion in the media, I feel like most people are basically familiar with the history of the religion and polygamy's role in it. For this reason, much of Ebershoff's story seemed old hat. I was more interested in the murder mystery, though the twist in the whodunnit was predictable. This was a book I got into quite quickly and I liked the idea of it - and all the feminist issues that are wrapped up in polygamy, and the idea that it is quite difficult to give up the ideas you are raised with, not matter how crazy they sound to outsiders. This was a good story, but I didn't feel like it presented anything too original in the attempt to be scandalous polygamy genre.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

This book is written as a series of letters about the WWII occupation of the Channel Islands by the Germans. Juliet Ashton is a writer, famous for her humorous columns during the way. As she seeks for a more serious topic to write about after the end of the war, she is contacted by a gentleman from the Channel Islands, Dawsey, a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. They begin a correspondence, and as Juliet asks more questions about the Society, Dawsey puts her in touch with the other members. In addition to their letters, Juliet writes back and forth with her publisher, as well as Mark, a wealthy admirer. The focus, however, is on the Society, which was created on the fly by a woman named Elizabeth when its members were questioned by the Nazis about their meetings. As Juliet digs further, she learns more about occupied life - and discovers that Elizabeth was taken away and remains missing despite the war's end. This charming book reminded me quite a bit of 84, Charing Cross Road - both because of the frequent talk of rationing, but also because of the shared love of books and reading across water. I am a fan of the lost art of letter writing, and am quickly taken in by all books that take this format. There is a lot to this one -from politics to love. It left me feeling quaint and warm, and wanting to join a book club of my own.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell's latest book takes a look at successful individuals and groups, and their paths to success. His hypothesis is that while innate ability and hard-work ceretainly play a major role in success, all successful people have been given some preference and chance that was not based on being the best or the brightest. His areas of examination are quite interesting - he looks at professional hockey players and their dates of birth, he looks at Bill Gates and his access to computers at a very young age, he looks at Asians and their cultural work ethic which had lead to their superiority in math. I've seen several critiques of this book, accusing Gladwell of molding the facts to fit his hypothesis. But, possible criticisms aside, I think Outliers makes a very important and relevant point about success. It is a call to provide opportunity to everywhere - not to discount the people who have achieved success, but to imagine the efficient and productive world we would live in if everyone were given the same chances. I particularly enjoyed the chapters about airline crashes - in which Gladwell argues that the reason for non-mechanical crashes are often due to cultural coomunication styles involving deference (or lack thereof) to heirarchy. His dissection of conversations is fascinating - and is easily transferable from the cockpit to any work situation. I also enjoyed one of his later chapters about KIPP schools - and the idea that public schools work for both low-income and high-income students, but that the difference in achievement lies in what these kids are exposed to during their summer breaks. Like Gladwell's other books (The Tipping Point and Blink), this book is filled with ideas that make for fun and worthwhile discussion.

Friday, January 16, 2009

2009 Tournament of Books

If you're looking for award-worthy fiction in the new year, this is a really fun way to learn about some new books. The Tournament of Books is the NCAA Tournament for readers. It starts out with 16 books - one pitted against another. Different authors determine which book "wins" and proceeds on to the next round. But, there is also a Zombie round in which readers can vote on-line and resurrect books that have already lost. It's arbitrary, but fun. And, even if you don't play along, at the very least, it is a good list to mine for great books.

This year's list of 16 includes only one book that I've already read (Unaccustomed Earth), but many that I'm in the queue for at the library. I'm not sure when the tournament kicks off, but hopefully I'll have some time to digest a bunch of these so I can be justifiably outraged when my favorites are kicked to the way-side.

The Flying Troutmans - Miriam Toews

This book was one of the submission for the Saroyan Prize - the contest I reviewed books for earlier in the year. I did not review this one, but it ended up being a finalist and I'm glad I remembered to add it to my "to-read" list. The Flying Troutmans is justifiably billed as a literary Little Miss Sunshine (I don't know if that movie was itself actually based on a book) - and features Hattie, home from a recent break-up in Paris, who finds that her unstable sister Min has been committed to a mental hospital. Hattie is left to care for Min's teenage son (obsessed with basketball and carving words with his knife into Hattie's dashboard) and pre-teen daughter (full of questions, a need for love, and a disdain for cleanliness). She decides to take them on a road trip in her van to California to find their long-lost father. The brilliance of this book lies in the interaction of the characters - the dialogue is hilarious, and Hattie's desire to protect the children, despite her inability to do so and their perceptive abilities, is touching and heartbreaking at the same time. This is a book that deals with serious family issues, but in a way that is real - with lots of humor to mask the pain and helplessness of the situation. It made me smile, laugh, and cry all at once. Definitely better than Cats.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Daddy's Girl - Lisa Scottoline

This was on the "Hot Picks" shelf at the library - never heard of it and the title did not intrigue me, but I was in the mood for a good murder mystery and this seemed to fit the bill. Nat, the main character, is a law professor at Penn St. (or some law school in Pennsylvania). She has an overbearing family, and a boyfriend who fits in with them, but is not quite in tune with her. She is passionate about her law and literature class and loves books, but with dwindling interest in her subject right before her tenure year, she is under undue pressure from the dean. Enter Angus, a ponytailed do-gooder who heads up the clinical program doing outreach at the local prison. He invites Nat to come teach a class with him, and of course, a huge riot ensues in which Nat hears the dying words of a correctional officer. Of course, the death is not what it seems, and it leads Nat and Angus into a crazy maze of corruption and greed. The basic plot is in the realm of the fantastic, but putting aside my annoyance at Nat's initial reaction to the prison situation, I did find myself excited and intrigued. I found the flirtatious banter between Nat and Angus a bit strained - I thought, "NOBODY talks like this," but then as it keep going and going, I found myself wondering, "wait, am I the only person who never talks like this?" The twist at the end was a bit predictable, but still satisfying. Scottoline is not a complex legal thriller like Stephen Carter, but she's a little less predictable than Grisham. I was a little surprised to find out that she's actually a lawyer - and a professor - since her depictions of the classroom and of actual practice seemed a little too basic. When Nat began to wax poetic about Gideon v. Wainwright, I was thinking that we first learned about the right to legal representation in 11th grade civics class - it was hardly an awe-inspiring concept by law school. But, no matter. Trivialities aside, this is a good quick mystery for the plane or the beach or a lazy evening. But, I still hate the title and think it had little to do with the novel itself. I have no idea how popular this book is, but it seems Scottoline could probably have been taken more seriously with a title that sounded less like possible pornography. Then again, I did pick it up off the shelf knowing nothing else about it, so go figure.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Middle Place - Kelly Corrigan

Ashley heard about and recommended this memoir to me of a Piedmont mother of two, learning to navigate life in the middle place - that place where you're trying to learn how to be an independent person/parent of your own, but still find yourself running home to your parents when problems arise. Corrigan has a gregarious larger than life father, who has consistently convinced her that she is the most awe-inspiring wonderful person around. As a result, she seems to believe a little too much that the world revolves around her and that people live for her daily accomplishments and advice. There are times throughout the book where she seems to acknowledge this and reflect a bit on the reasons for her selfishness, but often it goes by unseen. Corrigan is diagnosed with breast cancer, and the book focuses mainly on how she handles this crisis - while still protecting her children, and being there to support her aging parents. I found it a little odd that on the day she found out about her diagnosis, she chose to email her 100 closest friends about what she was going through. While it is amazing that she had such a wide support network, it just seemed like such a public announcement of a private situation - admitting that she sent it to friends and family members that she hadn't really spoken to in years. She reproduces her email for the reader - and while touching, it failed to acknowledge that many of the people she was sending the email too had probably already been through a similar experience. To me, this anecdote highlighted Corrigan's focus on the self - and while she consistently wanted her friends to walk in her painful shoes, she rarely seemed able to walk in theirs, or ever acknowledge that others might be going through difficult times of their own. While I found her struggle with cancer to be quite honest (and it, as well as her close relationship with her father, brought tears to my eyes on numerous occasions throughout the book), I was frustrated by her view of the world, which seemed to presume that she was the only one suffering. This book is an interesting example of the difficulty transitioning from being someone's child, to being your own person. But, Corrigan is also a fine example of how profoundly (for better or worse) parents are able to warp their children's views and expectations of what the world owes them.

A Wolf at the Table - Augusten Burroughs

Several years ago, I read Augusten Burroughs's memoir Running with Scissors (later turned into a movie). I found it disturbing that he had so much abuse and tragedy in his life, but he seemed intent on minimizing it and just trying to get a laugh. Reviews of the book hailed it as hilarious, and given that it was supposedly true, I found the whole thing profoundly sad. Since then, I have been reluctant to read his other books, but something moved me the other day and I picked this one up. A Wolf at the Table focuses on Burroughs's relationship (or lack of) with his father. Burroughs lived with his father until he was about 12 years old and his parents divorced. During those years, Burroughs is brutally honest about the lengths he went to to get his father to notice him and to physically touch or hold him, and the pain he felt at small and frequent realizations that his father did not care one bit about him. Burroughs's father's behavior, however, goes beyond neglect, as he seems to manipulate Augusten and go out of his way to destroy things (and pets) that Augusten loves. As we later learn in Running with Scissors, Augusten's mother herself suffers from profound mental illness, and certainly battered wives' syndrome, and is unable to explain anything to Augusten, though she does go to lengths to protect him from his father's violence. Strangely, Augusten does have an older brother, who remains with his father in the times when Augusten and his mother escape. The sibling relationship is touched upon, but it appears that Augusten has little understanding of who his brother is or why it is okay to leave his brother with their father. I would be quite interested in learning what happened to Augusten's brother and how he viewed and coped with their dysfunctional family. A Wolf at the Table was a much more honest memoir in my mind than Running with Scissors. Burroughs reveals what he thinks he remembers, and is pretty good at reporting his actual feelings at the time, and then providing some hindsight. This is a sad book and is not the witty funny Burroughs, as he has come to be portrayed in the literary media. Unlike Running with Scissors, however, this book did make me care about Burroughs as a person, and made me more interested in his later life. Accordingly, I plan to read Dry - his memoir about his struggles with alcohol, and probably reread Running with Scissors with this more informed background.

Musicophilia - Oliver Sacks

Musicophilia is by the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat - and also relays seemingly strange neurological phenomena. This time, however, they all pertain to individuals who as the result of a seizure, or unexplained circumstance, suddenly have strong reactions to music. One man suddenly had the urgency to learn a musical instrument to the point of obsession and the detriment of his personal relationships. For some beautiful music suddenly sounds like a cacophony of clanging. And for others it is simply as if they are listening to a radio in their head that they can never turn off. Sacks talks about different treatments and efforts to eliminate the music, and to figure out the cause. It was amazing to read how many of hte patients, despite acknowledging the debilitating effects musicophilia had had on their lives, were reluctant to part with their new-found symptoms - either because they loved the passion they found in the music, or they believed they would feel lonely once the music left them. Sacks is an engaging writer, and I enjoyed reading most of the case histories. After awhile, however, I felt that things got a little repetitive - he probably could have edited the book a bit more, and refrained from repeating cases that he had written about in previous books - other than to make small points. Overall, however, I just found this phenomenon fascinating - particularly as someone who does not have any musical talent, and doesn't see the world in a particularly musical way. It is truly amazing what the human brain can do.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Midnight Sun (Partial Draft) - Stephenie Meyer

While finishing out her Twilight saga, Stephenie Meyer took a little break to play around with her story from a different perspective. So, she took the first book and rewrote it from Edward's vantage point. While playing around with this, and nowhere near any revisions or completion, someone leaked a draft onto the internet. Meyer decided that instead of asking her fans not to read it, that she would explain the situation and sanction the internet version - with the caveat that it was indeed a work in progress, and with the hope that perhaps someday she would return to finish it. So, I decided to take a look - at 260-odd pages, it is much shorter than the other books in the series - suggesting that Meyer still had much more that she wished to include. At present the version is very much a rewriting of Twilight, scene by scene. Accordingly, many of the conversations seem very familiar. I expected to see more of the Cullen family revealed - a more in-depth exploration of the vampires' hunting rituals, their conversations behind closed doors, a look at all their various hobbies - what they spend their time doing when everyone else is sleeping - and how they have come about their wonderous talents (such as Edward's piano playing) and amassing great wealth. But, instead of delving into what we could never have seen when reading the story from Bella's perspective, Meyer seemed very rooted to the story as she had already presented it. I would hope that if she does choose to go back to Midnight Sun that she will fill in the gaps with more interesting background - and that we could learn much more about Edward - where he came from and what he thinks about when he isn't constantly trying to protect Bella from herself. But, putting aside the fact that has her story remained a secret she would have had all the time in the world to polish it, I thought this was a fun exercise ( a kind of Wicked vis-a-vis The Wizard of Oz) and a nice little way to continue on with the Bella/Edward story now that it has seemingly been put to rest.

Holidays on Ice - David Sedaris

I adore David Sedaris, but after finding his last couple books less than stellar, I feared that perhaps I have overdosed. But, then a couple months ago, Ashley and I went to hear him read at the Opera House in San Francisco, and I fell in love all over again. He read a piece from the New Yorker about undecided voters, an essay from his latest collection When You are Engulfed in Flames, and snippets from works in progress - which I found fascinating as he talked about what he thought did and did not work in the stories. He was funny and charming, and there was nothing I wanted more at the holidays than more David Sedaris! So, while browsing for others at Stacey's Bookstore downtown, I picked up Holidays on Ice, a collection dedicated to Christmas and the holidays. As well as the usual Sedaris autobiographical essays, he also includes a few fictional pieces - a mock-sermon with some high points, and a what if barnyard animals did their own Kris Kringle - but my favorite was a story about two families who keep having to one-up each other in their annual Christmas cards. With respect to the stories from Sedaris's own life/thoughts, my favorite was "Six or Eight Black Men" about beliefs in other countries that differ from our notion of Santa Claus (obviously theirs are ridiculous - ours makes so much more sense!) The stories were a bit hit or miss, but when they hit, I always laugh out loud in spite of myself. As you can imagine, Sedaris's holiday cheer is filled with sarcasm and irony, and accordingly it managed to put me in a very good Christmas spirit.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Toujours Provence - Peter Mayle

I meant to read Peter Mayle's memoirs of his transplanted life in Provence in order - but I misplaced A Year in Provence, and picked this one up from my mom. Mayle focuses generally on being an outsider in France (he is British), and how he and his wife go about becoming accustomed to French life, and the quirky adventures and misunderstandings they have along the way. Mayle has a wonderful sense of humor - and reminds me a great deal of Bill Bryson (though a little more refined). Each chapter stands alone - though once in awhile there are references to earlier events or characters. As he is in France, my favorite chapters focus on food - and there are a few in this book about the French obsession with truffles. I love hearing about Mayle's experiences with 5-course meals in Michelin rated restaurants, and his unassuming finds in little known bistros or makrets. It never makes me stop wishing for that 3-hour dinner, filled with new discoveries of flavors. There were a few chapters in here that failed to hold my attention, but overall since I'm not traveling right now and don't have the time to immerse myself in another culture, reading about someone who has done so with so much enthusiasm is a close second. I need to sort through my books and find A Year in Provence so I can start this journey properly from the beginning.