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.