Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Overachievers - Alexandra Robbins

This book gave me a stomachache. Alexandra Robbins follows several students at a prestigious high school in Washington, D.C. - and one recent alum, now a freshmen at Harvard, dubbed "AP Frank" after he took 17 Advanced Placement classes. Each of the students is an overachiever in his or her own way. The ones that break my heart the most are the perfectionists who are compelled to copy their notes over and over until their hands ache, who start and restart projects to get them just right, or who are often paralyzed by their inability to achieve pefection. She follows the athletes and the journalists for the school newspaper, she talks about their volunteer activities and their paying jobs. She looks at all aspects of their lives - including the cheating, the substance abuse, and their anxiety - in their quest for admission to an Ivy League school. Robbins talks about the pressures that these high school students are faced with - and while it's easy to mock kids whose biggest problem seems to be deciding between Yale and Princeton, the truth of the matter is that these kids suffer from low self-esteem, from depression and severe sleep disorders, and from a true belief that nothing they have done will ever be worth it unless they can prove that they're the best. There are startling protrayals of parents who push their kids too far - though I was a bit offended that the parent Robbins chose to focus on in this regard was an over the top stereotypical Korean mother whose youngest son was taken away by CPS. Robbins talks to college counselors and admissions officers in an effort to determine what colleges are really looking for - and how students can be encouraged to find a college that is the best fit for them, rather than just the place that is ranked the highest on an arbitrary list. Much of what Robbins wrote about hit home for me. I remember studying on the bus as I rode home from a late night basketball game, worrying about a B+, or any other number of ridiculous things that focused on grades and standardized test scores rather than developing a love of learning and enjoying my life in the moment. It's sad that I feel like I've spent a lot of the past few years undoing so much of the mentality I cultivated through high school. And, while I don't think I ever worked as hard as any of the kids in this book, Robbins reveals their stories in part to encourage all of us to reexamine what it means to be successsful - and whether we're really willing to pay the price that the effects of striving for success take on our children. While Robbins is certainly not advocating mediocrity, she does believe there is a way for students to get good grades, score well on tests, play sports, enjoy music, help others - and whatever else they choose - without sacrificing their ethics or their health in the process. At the end of the book, Robbins has some concrete examples of things that universities, high schools, parents, and students themselves can do to avoid the negative effects of overachieving. While society itself will probably never get over its obsession with perfect scores and Ivy League admissions, I do think Robbins' solutions will help individuals achieve greater happiness and overall satisfaction.

The Angels's Game - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A couple of years ago, I read Zafon's novel Shadow of the Wind and absolutely fell in love with it. Since then, I've been waiting for his follow-up novel. This one came out last year - but it took SO LONG for the English translation. When I received it in the mail from Powell's, I wanted to stay up all night reading, but I only allowed myself to read one chapter a day so that I could extend my enjoyment. Mostly I stuck to the rule, but sometimes I cheated a little. While The Angel's Game is not as mesmerizing as Shadow of the Wind, I still found it utterly captivating and beautifully written. The book takes place in Barcelona in the 1920s and features a struggling young writer named David Martin. David makes his living publishing popular horror stories under a pseudonym, but longs to write real literature. He is approached by a strange publisher and made the offer of a lifetime to write a book like no other in the history of books. Obsessed by a childhood romance, and falling ill from a mysterious disease, David accepts the offer, and moves into a long abandoned house to complete his project. Like Shadow of the Wind, this novel is filled with gothic imagery, forbidden love, poisonous secrets, and of course lots of books and booksellers. At times, the story is a bit crazy - it's obviously far-fetched and the only way to enjoy it is to suspend disbelief, but even in that mode it was sometimes difficult to believe or understand the explanations for all the weirdness in David's life. But, overall, I loved this book and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Shadow of the Wind.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A.B.C. Murders - Agatha Christie

With well over 50 books to her credit, Agatha Christie is someone I like to turn to when I'm in the mood for a quick, but good, mystery. In this one, detective Hercule Poirot receives an anonymous letter alluding to a crime that will soon take place. A woman whose name begins with a "A" is murdered in a town that also begins with an "A." The serial killer continues to send Poirot letters as he also continues through the alphabet. Small clues are dropped here and there as Poirot and others interview various suspects. As Poirot closes in on the killer, there is the expected plot twist that keeps everything fun. Poirot, as always, is a little on the obnoxious side, but I do love his clever powers of reasoning and deduction and Christie's play with narrative storytelling. Another satisfactory thriller.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Soloist - Steve Lopez - This is the non-fiction book that the movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx is based on. It takes place in Los Angeles, where Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, seredipitously meets Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician. As Lopez listens to Ayers playing his violin on Skid Row, he knows that the man has a tremendous gift and wonders how he ended up on the streets. It turns out (no surprise) that Ayers, a former Julliard star, is also a paranoid schizophrenic. Lopez becomes obsessed with "helping" Ayers - he wants to get him a room at a local half-way house. He wants to help him receive medication or counseling. He wants to get to the root of how such an illness could destroy a person with so much hope and promise. Lopez portrays Ayers's illness honestly, and conveys the frustrations and sadness of befriending a person living with schizophrenia. At the same time, he also portrays Ayers with dignity, as a person who appreciates the beauty in music (to a point of his own obsession) and his need to be respected. Over time, Lopez slowly realizes that he can't "save" Ayers or make him "better." But, he can be part of a trusted support system and he can help others to understand Ayers's condition. To me, one of the most powerful lines in the book is when Lopez realizes that Ayers is not a schizophrenic who plays music, bur rather a musician who happens to be schizophrenic. I think this is the key to understanding mental illness and treating people with mental illness as human beings.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Nothing to be Frightened Of - Julian Barnes

Despite the creepy photograph of himself on this book, according to Julian Barnes, we have nothing to be frightened of. Whether this means we are free from fright, or whether this means we should actually be afraid of nothingness is a concept that Barnes explores thoroughly in his quest to understand his own and society's collective feelings about death. I tagged this book as a memoir even though Barnes claims it is not a memoir, but only because he does speak a great deal about his family and his life and how everything came to shape his thinking about death. Barnes, an athiest turned agnostic, ponders the existence of God and the impact of the concept of God on our thoughts and behavior. Barnes shares the beliefs of other authors, philosophers, composers and theologians in a way that does not seem to have much rhyme or reason. The book is not divided into chapters on different aspects of death, but rather just short sections each about a different event or thought, almost as if Barnes were keeping a diary on his thoughts of death and each section was a different entry. For this reason I found that as I went on if I came across a section about an aspect of death that I did not find particularly interesting, I could just skip it an move on to his next thought. Often when I read books like this (not necesarily about death, but just about anything), I wonder, "what makes this person think the public would care about their thoughts on this topic? Who is Julian Barnes to tell me anything about why and how we should think about this very personal topic?" But of course Barnes isn't telling anyone how to think about anything, he's just ruminating in the hopes of finding some solutions for himself. And obviously, I borrowed the book, so apparently he is someone whose thoughts I care to read. While the topic of death may seem depressing - or one would assume the point of the book would be to be uplifting about life - I didn't find this book to be either of those things. Just a frank, and sometimes humorous, comment on the human condition.

Making the Impossible Possible - Bill Strickland - I received a recommendation for this book a couple years ago after someone read my review of Three Cups of Tea. For some reason, I found the title and the cover of this book off-putting. It made me assume that it would be a self-help book full of instructions on how to lead a better more productive life. But, eventually I brought myself around to it, and I am so glad that I did. Bill Strickland grew up in a lower-class neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh. His childhood had all the markings of the disadvantaged - an often absent and perhaps alcoholic father, little money, and negative influences around each corner. Strickland did, however, have a strong and determined mother, and her influence on her son is obvious throughout this book. In high school, Strickland meets an art teacher who teaches him how to throw clay pots - an artisitic endeavor that absolutely enchants Strickland. A couple years later, at the age of 19, Strickland becomes the teacher - attempting to bring the magic and hope he found through art to other kids in his neighborhood. His attempts are not immediately successful - and he runs into roadblocks left and right - he lacks funding, and he finds it difficult to convince others to support his endeavor - both financially and by coming to his center. But, as the decades go by, Strickland builds a learning center that services both youth and adults - and not just in ceramics, but in kinds of artistic disciplines and job training. He surrounds himself with beauty to teach the people he works with that they deserve to live such a life. While telling his story, Strickland does adopt a lot of self-help language - about never giving up, believing in your dreams, etc. But, while sometimes repetitive, it is not condescending or annoying. Rather, Strickland often speaks in concrete terms. I appreciated how he shared his through process - how he came up with new ideas and how he went about raising money for his projects. He shared the times he failed, and was open about his own bout with alcohol and apparent depression. He gives ample credit to the corporate leaders who support him and admits where he went wrong with certain ideas. Strickland's project is inspiring. It makes me wish there were centers like his in every city - and I was happy to learn at the end of the book that there is a similar one in San Francisco called BAYCAT ( But, the message of Strickland's book is not to go out and start one of these centers, but rather to find the thing in life that you are passionate about and to pursue it. It's a simple message, but one that we obviously forget as we get older and life seems to get in the way. But, Strickland's words and examples go a long way to showing that this is the only way we can lead a meaningful and productive life, and it's a message I think we could all stand to hear over and over again until we get it right.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The End of Manners - Francesca Marciano

Prior to picking up this book, I read a number of amazing reviews. The book is described as "brilliant" and "courageous and painful, not to be missed." And, of course it has a wonderful cover suggesting that it is full of literary treasures. So, perhaps my expectations were a bit high, but sadly, they definitely were not met. The main character, Maria, is a young photojournalist who after suffering anxiety attacks has taken herself off her fast-track career path. While Maria's reaction to her work is realistic given the subject matter she covers, right off the bat, I felt Marciano did a poor job capturing this and made Maria seem flighty and unprofessional. Maria is then suddenly paired with an aggressive female journalist, Imogen Glass, for an article about women who commit self-immolation in Afghanistan - primarily in response to being married off to much older men. Maria takes part in a militaristic survival retreat, again consistently making her look whiny and pathetic, and she finally flies off to Kabul, where Marciano makes clear over and over again, the women do not appreciate being photographed and that gaining such personal access to them will prove quite difficult. The book is then a series of dangerous encounters, Imogen consitently ignoring cultural mores and offending people in an attempt to get her story. Maria, on the other hand, remaining aware of the difficulties, but standing passively by watching her co-worker blow the assignment. This book dealt with interesting issues - I'm always up for a commentary on the treatment of women in deeply religious cultures and their attempts to exercise their independence. But, I did not understand the point Marciano was trying to make with respect to journalists in foreign countries - whether getting the story at any price is important to educate the rest of the world, and that people who risk their lives to do so should be commended, or whether such an approach is properly viewed as invasive and disrespectful. There is another journalist character in the book - a woman from France who has spent years in the country getting to know the women and developing a relationship with them - she is the one with photographs and real stories. But, her character is not much developed, and there is a question of how much she will eventually do with the years she has spent on a single issue. While The End of Manners raised interesting questions given the chosen subject matter, I did not feel as if there was much to be impressed by in the execution.

The Queen's Fool - Philippa Gregory

Due to the craziness of life, I have fallen behind in updating the blog - something I knew would happen, but have worked hard against. But, the good news is that I am in the middle of some really great books right now - every night before bed it's hard to pick which one I want to continue with, and I worry that I'll just get so engrossed that I'll end up reading much past my bedtime. But, these are good problems to have. Now, back to the books...after reading The Queen's Fool, I have decided that I am going to take a break from Ms. Gregory for awhile. Not that I didn't enjoy the book - this one was quite good, just that there's only so much of Tudor England I can take in a year. This book features Hannah Green, a young girl from Spain with the gift of sight, the ability to tell the future. Somewhat innocent given her youth, she is unable to keep her mouth shut, and in a time where people are eager to ferret out heresy, her talents put both her and her single father at risk. To compound matters, Hannah's family is Jewish, hiding their faith in a Catholic country, ruled by Queen Mary. Hannah is brought to the court as a holy fool and fortells Mary's ascension to the throne, as well as the heartbreak she will suffer at the hands of her Spanish suitor. Hannah also spends a great deal of time with Mary's half-sister Elizabeth, a practicing Protestant and the daughter of Anne Boleyn. Life at the court is full of treachery, and Hannah tries to live between that world and the world of her father and a potential husband. Again, as with all of Gregory's novels, Hannah is stuck in a world that requires her to become a woman, but where she fights to hang on to her independence. I found the story of religious difference in England to be an interesting focus on this book, though at times I felt the discussions among Hannah's family about their Judaism to be a bit forced and awkward. Bringing an outsider to the court, however, provided a welcome perspective - though Hannah's admiration for both Mary and Elizabeth, despite their purely self-centered and spiteful ways was disappointing. Overall, another enjoyable soap opera in novel form.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Brethren - John Grisham

No vacation is complete without a trashy legal thriller. And no one is better at satisfying this need for me than John Grisham. In The Brethren, Grisham brings together three ex-judges in a federal prison. As they run a mock court to settle the disputes of their fellow inmates, the Brethren are also running a lucrative blackmail scam on the outside, with the help of a deadbeat lawyer. Meanwhile, a Washington insider is committed to electing his chosen boy the next President of the United States. When politics collide with the Brethren, the deals and schemes take twists and turns, and people find themselves running from the very law they thought was supposed to protect them. While not a traditional whoddunit type of mystery, this is still standard Grisham. In the end, there didn't seem to be much justice for the wrong-doers which was a bit unsatisfying, and unlike Hannibal Lecter like villains, the bad guys weren't endearing enough to make me root for their eventual escape and freedom. Nonetheless it was enjoying while it lasted, and it continues to amaze me that no matter how many Grisham books I seem to read, there are always one or two left on the shelves. He's definitely the gift that keeps on giving.

The Crazed - Ha Jin

The Crazed tells the story of Jien Wen, a graduate student in China during the Tienanmen Square uprising. When his soon to be father-in-law, and academic mentor, suffers a debilitating stroke, Jien is tasked as one of his caretakers. Jien spends every afternoon attempting to study for his PhD qualifying exams, but instead finds himself distracted by his old professor's ranting and raving about Mao and the weaknesses of being an academic. At first, Jien dismisses everything as the delusional words of a sick man, but eventually, he begins to believe what is being said, and he begins to question his professional and academic choices, as well as his pending marriage. I found The Crazed to be a frustrating read. Jien seemed so easily influenced by the old man's words. But, at the same time, much of what Jien felt able to choose in terms of his future was dictated by those in political power, who he knew, and how much he was able to bribe or give in exchange. The ideas of meritocracy, freedom, and fairness are non-existent, as Jin sets the story along the backdrop of Tienanmen Square, where everyone is under suspicion for simply trying to assert their rights. Jien is in an eternally frustrating position just by being who he is and living in China at this time. Jin does an amazing job of capturing the frustration of feeling trapped - where the rantings of a madman suddenly seem like the only sane advice around.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Wedding - Nicholas Sparks

The Wedding is the sequel to Sparks's popular novel/movie The Notebook. Wilson Lewis has been married for 30 years. A hard-working estate lawyer, he passed the years in his office while his saintly wife raised his three children. While certain that he is in love with his wife, he is absent-minded and practical, as opposed to romantic. Over the years, he has taken his relationship for granted, and when he completely forgets his 29th anniversary, he is sure that his wife is contemplating leaving him. So, he spends the entire next year planning the perfect gift for his 30th anniversary and figuring out ways to make his wife fall back in love with him - with a little help from his aging and quite ill father-in-law. Two weeks before his anniversary, Wilson's oldest daughter Anna announces that she is getting married - and quickly. Wanting her grandfather to be alive for the ceremony, she decides her parents' wedding anniversary would be a perfect date, throwing a wrench into Wilson's plans to win back his wife. But, as the planning takes on a frenzied pace, Wilson pitches in - reminiscing about the past 30 years with his wife, and being to understand that he needs to make drastic changes if he intends to live out the rest of his life with his wife as planned. This is the first Sparks novel that I've read, but it played out as I've heard all his novels do - in a romantic feel good sort of way (some might say cheesy). I kept expecting something bad to happen - and there are some twists and turns, and a few teary moments (sad and happy) - but in the end, I got the happy ending Wilson and I both wanted.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver

Despite the fact that Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books, I always hesitate to read the rest of her novels. I think I am worried that I will be disappointed. And so, Prodigal Summer has sat on my shelf for years. I decided to take it down for my current trip, as it seemed like good airplane/pool-side reading. Prodigal Summer involves three different story lines. The first is about Lusa, a well-educated scientist who has moved to the country for her husband. Shunned by her gossiping sister-in-laws, she struggles to find her place in her new environment. The second is about Deanna, a loner, who escapes society altogether by moving up into the mountains, working for the forest service, and tracking coyotes. Finally, there is Garnett, a bitter old man with no family in a neighborly dispute over pesticides. As expected, the three stories eventually intertwine, and at the heart of each one is a recognition of the power of nature, the importance of each animal (insect and mammal) in our ecosystem, and surpisingly that despite long-standing traditions and stubborn ways, that people really can change. Plot-wise this book was quite predictable, but I enjoyed learning about the different characters. My favorite story line was the one involving Lusa, and I enjoyed watching her turn from the city mouse into the country mouse, and her appreciation of the children in her life and their need for independence (though there is a bit of an uncomfortable relationship with her 17-year old nephew by marriage). Lately, I've been in a need for stories with happy endings - and I liked that this one ended, not with all the loose ends tied up, but with great hope that they would be. Prodigal Summer is a bit heavy at times on the preachy-ness of the importance of all creatures (a foreshadow of Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), but ultimately, it is an enjoyable story - and perfect summer reading.