Friday, April 30, 2010

The Case for Books - Robert Darnton

With inventions such as the Kindle and the iPad, there has been a great deal of discussion about the future of books - meaning whether actual bound books have become obsolete, as well as how we as a society best store, obtain, digest, and process the written word. This book is a collection of essays about the digitization of literature. Some of the essays take the position that by scanning books and making information readily accessible, that we have a net benefit. How could anyone possibly argue against more information? Other essays question how decisions are made about what information is available, whether there is a monopoly on information dissemination, and whether laws (in whatever form) might somehow insert a level of distrust - or create situations in in which the information is simply lost down the road. The essays are varied and cover a wide variety of concerns about the changing nature of information dissemination. Given how quickly technology evolves, some of the concerns have already been rendered moot - or technology has advanced to a point that the potential fears raised by the essays have not only been met, but possibly surpassed. When it comes to books and technology, my interest lies in whether books themselves as objects are becoming obsolete - whether the next generation of readers will still love the thrill of turning an actual page. But, Darnton isn't particularly concerned with this question (despite the title of this book). His focus is more on how the written word in general (with a heavy focus on newspapers) is maintained and accessed - and whether storing information in digital media will allow for accurate retrieval down the road. This seems like it would be a good read for librarians and others who concern themselves with these types of ideas on a daily basis. As for regular readers like us who just want to keep reading, it wasn't quite what I had in mind.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bangkok Tatoo - John Burdett (Bangkok Series #2)

I read the first book in this series, Bangkok 8, a couple years ago after returning from Thailand. I loved reading the streotypical corrupt cop story set in the bustling center of Bangkok, with all the excitement and strangeness that city has to offer. Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is back in this second installment, set against the backdrop of the Soi Cowboy bar/brothel co-owned by his mother and Vikorn, the Chief of Police. When their most popular sex worker is suspected of murdering an American CIA agent, Sonchai is thrust deeper into Bangkok's seedy underbelly, and forced to negotiate with drug dealers and military, all the while pitting his Buddhist sensitivities against those of a sect of Thai Muslims. Sonchai finds himself acting out of character due to love, and hunting down a mysterious Japanese tattoo artist who holds all the secrets. The corruption in Sonchai's police force (including his own) is unapologetically shocking, and his efforts to reconcile his behavior with his religion are almost comical. Yet, he remains a truly likeable protagonist, and I found myself rooting for him - in terms of solving the crime and getting the woman. Burdett tells a good story with the requisite twists and turns, and even once you think the murder is solved, there are still many more surprises ahead. This is great travel/airplane/pass the time reading. I know the 4th in this series was recently released, so I'm looking forward to more Sonchai in my reading future.

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantell

I'm not a huge fan of the Tudor time period and all things involving Henry VIII. This is why I was initally reluctant to read any of Philippa Gregory's books. But, I admit she sucked me in with all the court intrigue, and general soap opera nature of the characters. So, when Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize and I started seeing people reading it on public transit and at the airport, I figured I might as well check this one out too. Turns out, I'm not really a huge fan of the Tudor time period and all things involving Henry VIII. Wolf Hall starts out with Henry's wish to annul his marriage to Katherine, and wed Anne Boleyn in the hopes of producing a male heir. The book focuses primarily on Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry's ambitious men, who tries his hand at the political manuevering necessary to accomplish his master's commands without losing the love and trust of his people. Mantel has been praised from all angles in presenting an old tale in a lyrical fashion, historically accurate, and nothing short of a masterpiece. I have to humbly disagree. I found this book incredibly boring - not just because I'm tired of this story. I didn't come to care about any of the characters - whether it was to feel sorry for them for being ill-favored by the king for no particular reason, or to even detest them and wonder whether they would find themselves on the king's bad side at the next tide shift. I did experience the anxiety I normally do when I read books about horrible dictatorships - that queasy feeling that one's choice is either to become a blithering sycophant, or get beheaded. It doesn't seem like much of a way to live one's life. But, despite this horror, I could not find myself much interested in how this story ended up (well, we all know how it ends up - but I didn't care much for the journey either). Once again, the literary critics have spoken, and I have to conclude that I need a little bit more (or less as the case may be) than the intellectuals do to stay interested.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Gates - John Connolly

Years ago I stumbled upon a book by John Connolly called The Book of Lost Things, which I absolutely loved. So, recently, while I was browsing the library while visiting my mother, I came across this one and I thought "well, perhaps I'm in for another treat." Unfortunately, it seems, lighting did not strike twice with Mr. Connolly. The Gates is a strange little tale about a young boy named Samuel who stumbles upon something sinister at 666 Crowley Avenue. Bored with their suburban lives, the residents at 666, along with a couple of their friends have unwittingly opened the gates of hell and invited the end of the world as we know it. While the book features a small child, and is written in a very accessible to children fashion, much of the language and content seems a bit more adult. Connolly's humor comes through in his cheeky footnotes about physics and logic (though they are at times tedious and a bit too clever), and the conversations he posits between humans and those from the world beyond. This book reminded me a great deal of Christopher Moore's books - but the ones I didn't like quite as much (think Practical Demonkeeping rather than You Suck/A Dirty Job). I feel like this is probably one of those love it or hate it books - and while it's a quick read, would say that if you don't find it cute/funny after the first 20 pages, it probably isn't going to work for you. As for me, it was the mindless filler I needed on the day I read it, but overall enjoyment was definitely lacking.

Eating Animals - Jonathan Safran Foer

While I am not the least healthy eater in the world, the truth is that I love fast-food, desserts of all kinds, and in general food that is quick and easy. That being said, there is a lot I love that I don't eat because it's "bad." I am slowly taking steps to improve my eating habits -not just for the sake of my own future, but to also do my small part for the future of the planet, and in an effort to be a bit more conscientious about where my food is coming from and who I am harming to eat it. It takes me awhile to make changes, and because I am stubborn, I don't respond to healthy conscientious eaters throwing statistics at me or generally berating me for being so thoughtless in my consumption. Instead, I'd rather take my time to read books about different approaches to choosing what food to eat - and to think about why I want to make a change, and how I can do it in a sustainable way. On this journey, I have enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. While both books could get preachy and judgmental at times, I thought they did a good job of acknowledging the difficulties of figuring out how to make the "right" choices, and then adopting them into your life. While I did not experience a complete diet overhaul as a result of reading these books, I'd like to think they helped evolve my thinking a bit. Eating Animals is a bit more in-your-face. Foer is a die-hard vegetarian - though he is honest about the fact that he was not always that way. He goes through his different issues with being a vegetarian, and finally, his current problems with eating any sort of meat. Foer's attempts to convince people to reevalute the way they relate to animals is varied - and for this reason, I think anyone can find something in this book that speaks to them. I found most interesting Foer's discussions with vegetarians and vegans who actually run their own slaughter houses - in an effort to ensure that meat eating is done in the most humane way possible. This is, of course, contrasted with viewpoints from members of PETA who believe that any participation in the killing of animals is inhumane. Foer's philosophy background comes in handy as he makes eloquent and persuasive arguments about our place in the world vis-a-vis animals, and the belief that we can make responsible, healthy, and humane choices, and still derive substantial enjoyment in our traditions and rituals surrounding food.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

On the Rez - Ian Frazier

The fact that it took me about five months to finish this book is a pretty good reflection of my thoughts about it. I orginally picked up this book, by regular New Yorker contributor Frazier, because it focuses on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota - the most impoverished reservation in the United States. I was interested in learning more about the Lakota, Oglala Sioux past, and about how people are living on the reservation today. The book is billed as just this - Frasier's observations and research about the reservation. In addition, Frasier seeks to demonstrate the hero culture of the Lakota - their reverance for heroes, and their desperate need for heroes in a culture that has been systematically destroyed by the United States government. Frasier's history is thorough, and his respect for the Sioux lends itself to a thoughtful and rich narrative about their culture. But, it did not seem as if Frasier had a unifying idea about where he wanted this book to go, or necessarily what story he wanted to tell. He talks about several individuals he has befriended on the reservation - not all painted in the most positive light. And then, about half-way through the book, he dives into the story of a female high-school basketball star in the community, who tragically dies, but not before she brings hope to the reservation. The book seemed disjointed, which is probably why I had a difficult time sticking to it. Frasier succeeds in presenting the brutal reality of hte life on the reservation - of demonstrating the effects of poverty, alcoholism, and uncertainly on the Oglala people. I think the book I wanted to read would have focused more on the Oglala individuals - tralking about their own pasts, what being a part of the nation means to them, and what they want for the future of their people. I think there are a lot of other books out there that will help me piece together the history and the narratives that I'm looking for - Frasier's book isn't the entire picture, but it's certainly started me on my way.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson (Millenium Series #3)

After finishing The Girl Who Played With Fire, I was too impatient to wait for the U.S. release of this last one in the Millenium trilogy. Luckily for me, my friend Raz was taking a trip to London, and she brought this one back. By now, I think the US release is imminent, but I'm still glad I got a head start. This installment finds Lisbeth Salander debilitated in a hospital room after being shot in the head and buried alive. She is suspected of three murders, and while she fights for her life, her journalist friend Mikael Blokvist fights to uncover the truth of her innocence, and those within the Swedish police force and beyond who have dedicated so much time and energy to turning her into a victim. As with the first two books, there is some great cyberhacking in this one, and some civilian justice for the more reprehensible characters. There is still the frustration of Lisbeth's inability at times to help herself, but Larsson did a better job in this final book of portraying the reasons behind her reluctance in a way that helped Lisbeth become a more understandable character, as opposed to just a stubbornly obnoxious one. At times the background story of Lisbeth's father, and the recounting of his physical abuse of Lisbeth's mother, as well as Lisbeth's abuse at the hands of her legal guardian, became a bit tiresome and repetitive. But, overall, I enjoyed the new story lines that Larsson threw in - particularly one involving the cyberstalker of Erika Berger (Blomkvist's former editor-in-chief and long-time lover). This final book of the trilogy did not disappoint - while this is not where Larsson intended to end the series, he still managed to do right by Lisbeth - definitely one of the strongest literary heroines of our time.

The Juvie Three - Gordon Korman

I rely on my friend Sara, a middle school teacher, to give me tips on what the kids at her school are reading. She sent this one my way, thinking it would also interest me given the subject matter. The Juvie Three is the story of three boys in juvenile hall, Arjay, Terrance, and Gecko. They are given a second chance through Healy, who is running a half-way house in New York City. The boys move there - a couple committed to taking advantage of this new opportunity, another who has all but given up on himself. As the struggle to fit in at their new public school, Healy finds himself in the hospital, struggling himself with memory loss. Desperate not to get sent back to juvenile hall, the boys are forced to band together and figure out a way out of the mess. With a little romance thrown in, as well as some dangerous influences, this is a simplified version of the difficulties kids can get into, even when they have the best of intentions. It is a quick read with incident after incident that would probably hold the attention of a young reader. Given the serious subject matter, however, I was a bit disappointed in the flip approach taken, but it does have the very appealing to kids plot-device of reckless youth left on their own in the big city without an adult figure to guide them.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Insecure at Last - Eve Ensler

This book has a terrible title and a terrible cover (in my opinion, obviously). But, I picked it up because of Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologue fame. I completely misread what this was going to be about. I thought it was about living in an increasingly insecure world - and what to do when the fear of terrorists and WMDs and incomprehensible world-ending catastrophes overtake us. I assumed it would be only of these hysterical threats are all around us viewpoints, with the ultimate conclusion that we all need to live our lives, so we need to learn to live with insecurity. Instead, this is a very powerful discussion of horrific abuses and violations of human rights (mostly against women) being committed around the world - often in the name of making our world "more secure." Ensler weaves in her own person story of the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, with stories about the use of rape in mass genocide, public executions of women in Afghanistan, the hundreds of murders of unnamed women in Ciudad Juarez, and descriptive accounts of pure brutality. As with her Vagina Monologues, Ensler speaks absolute truth to power - she gives unnamable atrocities a voice and speaks out against actions others are too ashamed to acknowledge. In doing so, she empowers women and communities around the world to engage in a dialogue and to refuse to hide in isolation. Ensler is in your face and at times some of the stories were too shocking for me to finish in one sitting. But there is no question that she is inspiring - this is the kind of writing that I feel is such a call to arms - a reminder that even though we've come so far, we have so much further to go.