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.