Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Swan Thieves - Elizabeth Kostova

A few years ago I read Kostova's debut novel, The Historian, told through a series of letters about the Dracula legend. The book started out with promise - suspenseful, mysterious, great characters, exciting action...but it was simply too long and half-way through, I just wanted it to end. I had the exact same reaction to The Swan Thieves. Kostova's follow-up begins with an artist, seemingly gone mad, who pulls a knife on a famous painting at the National Art Gallery. He is sent to a mental institution where psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe attempts to piece together the nature of the artist's disturbance and the meaning behind the attack. Doing so sends Marlowe around the world, speaking to the artist's ex-wife and former lover, and digging up old letters that unlock the answer to the artist's obsession and descent into madness. Nearly every character in the novel is an artist or an aspiring artist, and there is a great deal of focus on paiting, the important of art in one's life, and the attention art requires. The problem is that none of the characters has a very unique view on the subject, and after a couple hundred pages their observations seem trite and repetitive. This book is about 560 pages, and probably could have been whittled down to 300 or so. Nothing much happens, and Marlowe as a the main investigator crosses far too many ethical boundaries for me to trust any of his observations or conclusions. Again, Kostova has come up with a fascinating premise for her novel, and some potentially interesting characters, but the execution left me unsatisfied.

A Darkeness More than Night - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch Series #7)

In the latest Harry Bosch installment, Connelly, brings in characters from a couple of his other stand-alone novels. Terry McCaleb, an ex-cop from Blood Sport, has retired to Catalina to raise his family following a heart transplant. Jack McEvoy, from The Poet and The Scarecrow, also makes an appearance as a meddling journalist. This book initially tracks two separate stories. In the first, McCaleb is brought out of retirement to consult on the macabre murder of a suspect Bosch showed particular interest prior to his death. In the second story, Bosch is testifying as the primary law enforcement officer at the trial of a famous Hollywood director charged with murdering one of his actresses. The two stories come together when McCaleb begins to suspect Bosch in his investigation, and Bosch is left to crack the case and prove his own innocence. Perhaps this is true in most police stories (and sadly, real life), but Connelly's books seem full of officers who jump to conclusions and then wear blinders that prevent them from objectively viewing any evidence that points them in a different direction. I find it wholly infuriating, and it always seems to lead to an extraneous death or some other unfortunate outcome that could have been avoided if the officer had just done their actual job instead of being lazy. But still, I read on...

Espresso Tales - Alexander McCall Smith (44 Scotland Street Series #2)

Given that work has been quite busy lately, I feel like I've gravitated toward a lot of mysteries - which are usually pretty quick mindless reads (at least the ones I read), with characters I know, and entertaining subject matter. But, I decided to pick up the second in Smith's 44 Scotland Street series because I felt like reading about characters I knew, but in a more gossipy, less murderous setting. This was definitely what the doctor ordered. Espresso Tales is more of the same of the petty quirky inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street and their surrounding Edinburgh neighborhood. In particular, I liked that this book focused more on Bertie - the precocious five year old whose mother sends him to yoga, Italian, and saxaphone lessons, but who just wants to wear jeans and play with trains and go fishing like the other boys in school. His quest for independence found some traction in this one, which I really enjoyed. All the other characters are back, and meander about in their own daily encounters. Nothing too exciting or crazy, but all in all getting closer to Maupin's Tales of the City. I'm very much looking forward to continuing with this series (there appear to be three that I have not yet read, and I'm sure he'll write another by the time I get to those).

Faceless Killers - Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander Series #1)

Since the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, a number of sites I buy books from have been pushing various other Scandinavian mystery writers. I picked this one which sounded good - and is part of a series that I can hopefully get into. Kurt Wallander is a Swedish police inspector. Like many literary detectives, he has relationship issues and doesn't play well with others or take very good care of himself. When an elderly couple is found bludgeoned to death in their remote farmhouse, Wallander is on the case. The dying woman's last word is "foreign," giving Wallander little to go on, but a lot for the racially charged anti-immigrant villagers to get riled up about. As Wallander races against the clock to find the murderer, he also falls in love with the prosecutor, and tries to mend his relationship with his estranged daughter. Not as intricate as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but still a good bleak mystery.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Nurtureshock - Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

This is like Freakonomics meets Dr. Spock - or challenging widely-held beliefs about child-rearing with interesting studies and fascinating anecdotes. This is a very quick read that will (hopefully) change the way people think about what children need and how best to engage children to become thinking hard-working members of society. I particularly enjoyed the chapter that focused on whether parents praise ther children too much. I did feel this "title" was a misnomer, because the chapter is about the benefits of encouraging the hard work of children, rather than the fact that they are "so smart." Recent studies show that focusing on the hard work it takes to accomplish tasks leads to children taking more risks, spending more time on a given problem, and in the end performing better, than children who hear reinforcement that they are only good at certain things because of some sort of innate intelligence. While this concept makes a great deal of sense to me, I still think that telling a child that they are hard-working, or that their preserverance led to their success is a form of "praise." So, I wouldn't say that we should praise our children less, just that we should praise our children in different ways. There were a few chapters I would have loved to read more about (I probably could if I'd just flipped to the bibliography!), such as one chapter about whether children are inherently color-blind when it comes to race. Bronson & Merryman answer "no" to this question, and encourage parents to have frank disucssion with young children about race - and that having such discussions leads to more accepting and tolerant individuals. There is no explanation, however, of what such a discussion would look like. There was also a criticism of children's books that present conflict between individuals - even if such conflict is resolved with a lesson at the end of the book - with the research demonstrating that children take in the examples of conflict, but don't always absorb the lesson. The Bearnstein Bears books, sadly, were pointed out as not a great model for sibling conflict. A suggested reading list of books that do teach children good values and lessons, without such negative effects would have been a nice addition. But, of course, this book isn't intended to be an all encompassing guide to parenting, it's intended to be food for thought, to help reshape our assumptions, and encourage all of us to be more thoughtful in our interactions with children.

An Unquiet Mind - Kay Redfield Jamison

The ability to write honestly and insightfully about one's own life takes a great deal of courage. To do this about yourself when you suffer from a stigmatized mental illness is pretty miraculous. Dr. Jamison is a leading expert on manic-depressive disorder (commonly referred to now as bi-polar disorder). She has also battled the illness nearly her entire life. An Unquiet Mind is Jamison's journey through her life - her struggles with doctors and various medications, and her amazing accomplishments through medical school and the field of psychiatry. I often feel, as a woman, that I would not go to a doctor who was not a woman because I want someone who (on some level) understands the symtoms I'm complaining about. When it comes to mental illness, it makes sense that a patient would also want a doctor who could understand the euphoria and the depression (or whatever applicable symptoms) - who wouldn't (one hopes) have judgments about what can be done or what should be fixed. Yet, clearly in our society, people have reservations about seeking help from people who seem to need help themselves. The compassion Jamison brings to the area is tremendous, and her ability to share her story in such a real way, I hope, will change people's minds about this ilness and those struggling daily to survive it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

I'm not a big science person, so when I first heard what this book was about, I had no interest in reading it. Then I kept seeing it everywhere and it kept getting recommended to me on all my book sites, so I figured I'd better pick it up if only for cultural literacy reasons. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman with cervical cancer in the 1950s. Without health insurance, she traveled to Johns Hopkins Medical Center for treatment, where they weren't able to do much to alleve her suffering, but did take samples of her cells for research purposes. Unlike any cells cultured before hers, Henrietta's cells actually grew and reproduced at an amazing rate - rendering themselves "immortal" and becoming the basis for hundreds of thousands of experiments around the globe. Henrietta's cells, referred to as HeLa, have been used to develop the vaccine for polio,medications for cancer and other viruses, advances in in vitro fertilization and cloning, and countless other medical miracles. But for decades, Henrietta's identity remained a mystery, and little to nothing was known about her as a person. Her family also knew nothing about the fact that her cells were being used for all this important work. Rebecca Skloot set about to discover the woman behind this amazing scientific feat - and what she has compiled is an incredible social history of the life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as an explanation of the science behind HeLa, and a balanced discussion of the bioethical issue implicated in the use of individuals' cells without their informed consent. While mired in science, this book is easily accessible. My personal interests lay in the discussion of Henrietta's children and her background - there is extreme poverty, abuse, and mental health in this family - which could have been more richly explored by someone with more of a psychological background. But, for the most part, I found this book simply fascinating - incredible that one person could unknowingly have contributed so much - and taken so long to get the recognition she truly deserves.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill

This book is super creepy. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking that I needed to return it to the library as soon as possible just to get it out of my house! Heart-Shaped Box is written by Stephen King's son - though it received awards and acclaim before anyone figured out Joe Hill's real name. I don't normally read horror, but admit that I picked it up because of the family connection. The main character of this book is famous musician, Judas Coyne, who is fascinated by all things macabre. He dates goth women half his age, and counts among his collection serial killer memorabilia and a snuff film. So, when he receives an email advertising the sale of a suit inhabited by a ghost, he figures he might as well give it a shot. The ghost turns out to be the step-father of one of Judas's ex-girlfriends - one he didn't exactly treat very well, and no matter where he runs or what he tries to do to escape, the ghost is out to make sure he meets his bloody end, along with any of friends and family who try to help him out. As with any good horror, there are those moments where you can't quite figure out what's real, what's supernatural, and what's all the result of Judas's overactive imagination. Whatever the answer, it kept my heart racing, and made me wish I'd invested in a better nightlight.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven - Sherman Alexie

Perhaps it's my need for nice distinct categories, but in general, I like think to think of authors as novelists or poets or short-story writers. Obviously, I know that people like to try their hand at different types of writing, and I have noted on this blog in the past people whose novels I don't enjoy, but whose short-fiction I truly love. Sherman Alexie is one writer I am starting to get to know who seems to have quite the talent in a number of areas. I recently read his juvenile fiction, and I came across a few of his poems in a collection called Face. This book, the basis of the movie Smoke Signals, falls into the short-story category - though many of the characters run through the whole book making multiple appearances at different point in their lives. There are 22-stories in all, focusing on live on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Many of the themes are the same as in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - alcoholism, basketball, tragic car accidents, and trying to find humor amidst heartache. But, for me, the key theme was simply the idea of survival through storyteling - and the power of putting words to experience.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Happiness Project - Gretchen Rubin - I thought I'd had my fill of memoirs about a year-in-the-life of someone trying to cook their way through a Julia Child cookbook, or live their life according to the Bible, or attempt every self-help trend...but I'm really happy that I finally picked this one up. The Happiness Project is Gretchen Rubin's one-year exploration into being more happy. Each month she focuses on a different aspect of her life: writing, her relationship with her family, being a parent, etc. She comes up with a couple goals for the month, and then she just runs with it. In some ways it's kind of funny - to think that being happy requires so much work and planning, but for many of us, I think what it really requires is a reprogramming of our outlook on life and how we approach our everyday lives. There are some suggestions that would probably work for everyone - being more grateful, taking time to listen, etc. But, I liked that Gretchen acknowledged that what makes one person happy will not necessarily make another person happy, and that we all need to make time for the things that we like and decide for ourselves what happiness means to us. It didn't hurt that she acknowledges that once in awhile material things CAN make us happy!! I loved that one of Gretchen's favorite things to do was to make little books - whether they were photo books of her children's projects, or just books of scraps of paper and quotations she found interesting. Maybe it validated one of my favorite projects - cutting out interesting articles and photos from magazines and pasting them into my "Idea Books" - but mostly I think it was the recognition that taking the time for things that give us satisfaction and happiness is always time well spent. There are a million and one ideas in this book - everything one needs to start their own Happiness Project, or at the very least to just start rethinking about how we live our lives, and trying to learn how to enjoy it and the people we live it with a little more.

The Favorites - Mary Yukari Waters

With work ramping up this summer, I've been happy to find time to keep reading while at the gym or during my commute. Sadly, however, I'm having trouble finding time to update the blog! So, I'm going to race few some of my descriptions for the next couple months, but hopefully, I'll still keep finding great books and encouraging people to send me recommendations. The Favorites is the story of 14-year old Sarah, half-Japanese, half-American, who travels with her mother to stay with her grandmother in Kyoto. The family lives next door to Sarah's great-aunt, aunt, and cousins, but Sarah quickly discovers that family relationships in Japan don't always come with the same rules and expectations as those in America. As Sarah learns to maneuver the traditional ways, and better understand the secondary meaning of passing looks and comments, she also comes to better understand her own mother. I really appreciated Sarah's position as a child trying to understand the bigger world around her, and her frustration that the adults always seem to make it more difficult than it needed to be. The book, however, deals (in part) with the theme of inter-family adoption. Clearly, there are delicate situations involved in such an arrangement, but I felt the author did not honor the position of the adopted parent as someone that could actually develop a bond with a child, or love a child as much as a biological parent. Obviously, every family is different, but I had a hard time not feeling that many of the characters had spent decades modeling and conforming their behavior based on false assumptions about the true nature of love and family. And, in the end, it just left me feeling quite depressed.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Angels Flight - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch Series #6)

I feel like the Harry Bosch novels just keep getting better through the series - I'm not sure if Connelly is finding his rhythm with the misanthrope detective, or I'm finding my rhythm as a reader. Either way, I just want to read them one right after another. Angels Flight opens with the shooting death of Los Angeles's civil rights lawyer, Howard Elias. Elias was on the eve of trial on behalf of a man acquitted of rape and murder, against LAPD officers accused of brutality against him. With nearly every person on the force a possible suspect in Elias's murder, Bosch is brought in to investigate the case. The twists, turns, and dead ends in this book are basically the norm for a Connelly novel, but the body count is much higher. Bosch has his usual trouble keeping his mouth shut, and doesn't seem to exhibit the instincts a cop *should* have in terms of who he can really trust. And in the midst of the crazed investigation, Bosch attempts to hold together his failing marriage to former FBI agent, Eleanor Wish (a side sotry I could have done without, but was probably an effort to continue the attempt to humanize Bosch). A worthy addition to the Bosch collection.

Shanghai Girls - Lisa See

Shanghai Girls is the story of two sisters, Pearl and May, and their journey from war-torn Shanghai to Los Angeles from 1937-1957. When the story opens, Pearl and May are the spoiled daughters of a seemingly wealthy businessman. They waste their money on stylish clothing and spend their time posing for "beautiful girl" calendars. When their father reveals that he has gambled away the entire family fortune, the girls are married off, and begin the daunting trip to America. The book follows the two sisters as they suffer their own losses in their own ways - and tracks their friendships and betrayals as they learn to navigate their new lives. The story is told from the perspective of Pearl, the older wiser sister. And while she is clearly a biased narrator, she initially came across to me as a somewhat omniscient one - until the story develops more fully in the end and it becomes clear that Pearl has misread the significance of earlier relationships - to the detriment of her own happiness, and her relationship with her sister. Like so many books written about Asian immigrants during this time period, Shanghai Girls is filled with unimaginable sorrow and heartache - but at the same time, it is a beautiful story about family and the strength of the human spirit to perservere despite unimaginable tragedy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Manhood for Amateurs - Michael Chabon

This book is a collection of Chabon's thoughts and musings on fatherhood. Given the subject matter, I had no real reason or interest in this book, but I am a fan of (some of) Chabon's fiction, so I figured I might as well read it. I thought it started out quite strong - Chabon tells a little anecdote about how he is at the grocery store with one of his four children, just waiting in the check-out line and not being particularly attentive to his kid. A woman looks over at him and comments something along the lines of, "You are such a wonderful father, I can tell." Chabon's response is to think that he wasn't doing anything to merit such a comment, and that mothers every day do a million times more and are never credited for their parenting skills. I'm definitely on board with this opinion, though I'm not sure I am on board with the direction Chabon then chose to take his book. The underlying acceptable position seems to be that men are clueless morons who love their children, but just aren't that well equipped (for myriad reasons) to be as competent as their female counterparts when it comes to raising them (huge overgeneralization and hetero-normative, I recognize). But Chabon's point in writing his pieces did not seem to be a recognition of this double-standard, or any attempt to equalize the primary care-taking responsibilities in his hectic household. It was just a random collection of his thoughts and experiences of being a son and a father. I did appreciate that the essays weren't completely self-deprecating, and that he didn't make his wife out to be a saint (one essay about his wife's bi-polar disorder or near suicide attempt was particularly heart-breaking), but after such a strong opening, I felt a bit let down from the hodge-podge approach he took with the rest of the book. Given the scatter-shot approach, I thought some of the pieces were funny/clever/entertaining, and others just fell flat. Definitely food for thought on the idea of what it means to be a parent and part of a family, and what it means to want to raise one's childrens differently (or perhaps similarly) to the ways in which they were raised. Insteresting, but nothing earth-shattering.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Piano Teacher - Janice Lee

I'm always interested to find a book that focuses on a period in time that so many people are familiar with, but finds an aspect of it about which very little is generally known. The Piano Teacher does exactly that, as it focuses on the Japanese 8-month occupation of Hong Kong during WWII. During this time, over 7,000 British soldiers and civilians were kept in prisoner of war camps, and subjected to malnourishment, sickness, and execution. As in Nazi Germany, the need to survive caused those outside the camps to compromise and negotiate in ways that call into question the idea of conscious choice. The Piano Teacher takes place in two different time periods. The first focuses on Will, an Englishman who travels to Hong Kong and falls madly in love with Trudy, a Eurasian socialite. When the Japanese take-over, Will is sent to the camps, while Trudy remains on the outside, clueless in many ways to the horrors Will is suffering, but at the same time trying her best to navigate her own politics of survival. The second part of the story (told in almost alternating chapters, so the book has a somewhat chaotic non-chronological feel) takes place ten years later. Claire, a piano teacher, has just moved to Hong Kong with her husband and begins teacher the adolescent daughter of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman. She eventually meets Will, who works for the same family, and begins an affair filled with secrets and betrayal. I particularly liked the way Lee told this story, with pieces unraveling here and there - there was a great deal of suspense and building anticipation. I found both Trudy, and especially Claire, quite annoying and whiny at times, and Will's understandable detachment difficult to stomach. Often so much of the pain and misunderstanding stemmed from a character's pride or simple unwillingness to just communicate in the face of incorrect information - and I find it frustrating when years of pain could be avoided if someone had just spoken a sentence instead of remaining stubborn. But, then I suppose, there would be no story.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles - Katie Roiphe

I found this book a really interesting read, particularly in conjunction with Elizabeth Gilbert's recent book, Committed. Uncommon Arrangments is a series of essays about married British writers from 1910-1939. Each of the relationships is a study in the idea of marriage and committment, and questioning the traditional notions of monogamy and domestic/professional spheres. I am sure throughout history there have been couples who have consciously made an effort to redefine the idea of marriage -to make their relationships work despite the fact that they may be outside the normal mainstream. Yet, I was still struck that this somewhat concerted effort was going on so early in the 20th century - during a time when I just would have assumed that even if women were miserable, most were resigned to their role of domestic subservience. By nature of the couples that Roiphe chose to analyze however - these women for the most part had a talent and profession outside the home (as Virginia Woolf who features prominently on the periphery of several of the relationships in the book has said, "A woman needs money and a room of her own.") and were thus not wholly dependent on the men in their lives. Yet, they still chose to be married. Some of the women clearly love their husbands - despite the fact that their husbands are philanderers with children born out of wedlock or immature incompetents (sometimes both). Or, the women are lesbians (with gay husbands, at times), looking to perhaps to shield their preferred partnerships. Each relationship portrayed in this book is interesting in and of itself , though Roiphe approaches everything from the viewpoint of a disinterested researched which can become boring at times - but, more importantly, what I found the overall concept of the book truly fascinating. In some ways, it is people acting under the guise of liberal views of marriage - arguably in a way to justify their weaknesses. But, more to the point, I think there is value is exploring what it means to be happy in a marriage or partnership - why a given person enters into such an arrangement - and the importance of those two people making the rules that work for them, rather than feeling constrained by expectations imposed by society. There will always be questions about what people are actually comfortable with, and what they concede to in order to hold on to someone, or whether both people can be equally happy. But, I appreciate the idea that there is not a Platonic ideal when it comes to marriage and partnerships, but that we are all free to figure out and define what works for us as we grow and change in our given relationships.

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang - Chelsea Handler

I still haven't seen this woman's show on E!, but I'm now determined to read all her books. This most recent one was much funnier than the previous one I read (Are You There Vodka? It's Me Chelsea), and there were a few times when against my will, I actually laughed out loud. Many of the essays in this collection reference Chelsea's relationship with her boyfriend Ted, an older executive type who seems quite serious and constantly at a loss as to how to deal with Chelsea's shenanigans. While definitely obnoxious, I did like her practical jokes - emails and stories she's told other people and how quickly they believe her despite the absurdity of her lies. I feel like in real life Chelsea would be someone I probably couldn't stand (if she is actually as horrible as she portrays herself - but given that she seems to have some self-awareness, unlike most annoying people, I assume she is not really this ridiculous)...but, in writing, she is so over-the-top that despite the whining, you do just kind of have to laugh that people like her actually exist. And that people, including me, spend their time and money just to get a glimpse of it all.

I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith

I admit I checked out this book because it had an endorsement on the cover by J.K. Rowling that said, "This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I've ever met." People may debate Rowling's literary genius, but I figure she has some pretty charismatic characters herself - and I generally adore child narrators - which I assumed this book would have. In fact, the narrator is 17-year old Cassandra Mortmain who tells the story of her impoverished family, as they live in a decaying castle in England in the 1930s. Cassandra's father is a once famous writer, who suffers from insurmountable writer's block after publishing his masterpiece years earlier. He married a young model after Cassandra's mother passed away when she and her older sister, Rose, were just children. An American family, the Cottons, become the Mortmain's new landlords - and the two sisters became entralled with the two Cotton brothers. Like the Jane Austen novels they are obsessed with, the sisters hatch an elaborate plan to make one of the brothers fall in love with Rose - but of course, things are not so easy when it comes to matters of the heart - and there are shifting allegiances and romances all over the place. While Cassandra is clever for her age, she is still a fairly isolated teenager, and at times her naivete becomes tedious. But, while I don't agree with Rowling that Cassandra is the most charismatic narrator I've ever read, she is quite endearing, and this is a great book for those who love novels set in the English countryside, with lots of tea and frustrating romantic drama.