Thursday, December 29, 2011

We the Animals - Justin Torres

Jake found a recommendation for this book in one of his magazines - and since I'm always eager to encourage his reading, I picked it up for him, and then stole it back for myself.  I'm always (perhaps overly?) impressed by anyone who was a Stegner Fellow, so Torres started out ahead in my book from the start.  The book (which seems perhaps autobiographical?) is about three-brothers growing up with their Puerto Rican mother and white father in a chaotic abusive household.  It is a coming-of-age story of the youngest brother - and told in a stream-of-consciouness lyrical narrative, with each chapter its own vignette in the life of the boys' development.  The book is angry and uncomfortable, and while I'm not usually a fan of this type of disjointed piecemeal storytelling, I found this book quite powerful.  At times, it seems the author is trying too hard to create a new style, or to be a bit too literary in his presentation, but ultimately, this book worked for me.  Because I like stories, I did finish the book wanting to know more about each brother and wishing it had followed a more traditional narrative.  This is a book that stayed with me - and is short enough that I could go back and find the parts I wanted to re-read for clarity and emphasis.  Seemed like a bit of an experiment of a novel to me, and I look forward to reading more from this author.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nightwoods - Charles Frazier

Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, while an amazing story, was a little slow-moving for my taste.  So, I've been hesitant since to read any of his other novels.  But this one looked short, so I thought I'd check it out.  Then my friend Courtney told me she found it a bit slow, and I got scared again. But, I'm glad I read it.  The subject matter is difficult and reminiscent of one of my favorite novels (in a visceral - wow - now this is the power of literature - kind of favorite), Bastard Out of Carolina.  The main character, Luce, is on  her own in the mountains (sound familiar?), but has recently been joined by the non-speaking twins of her murdered sister.  As Luce adjusts to life with little ones to care for - in particular little ones who are not in an emotional space to give back in any loving kind of way, the story of her isolation unfolds.  There were chapters or pages I read where my only reaction was, "what the hell is the point of this?  Will this EVER end?" and there were others I read where my reaction was "what the hell is the point of this?  Who cares, this is some amazing storytelling!"  The overall narrative is tension-filled, and I feared a violent climax.  I wouldn't say I found the book "enjoyable" - the subject matter is too raw and brutal.  But this is a GOOD book.  The writing is rich, the storytelling is gripping, and the characters are real.  I'm a new believer in the power of Charles Frazier, and plan to go back and read his second novel, Thirteen Moons.

The City of Ember - Jeanne DuPrau (Ember Series #1)

I'm always on the look out for a good YA novel.  Even better if it's part of a series.  This one was recommended to me by my friend Sara, a middle-school teacher who is always keeping a look-out for what the kids are reading.  The main characters is Lina, a 12-year old girl who is being raised by her aging grandmother.  Right off the bat, a female protagonist appeals to me - and you know any good YA hero can't have any parents in the picture.  Lina lives in a place called Ember - and it's clear from the beginning that something is going wrong.  The electricity keeps going out, and no one seems to know how to fix it.  Supplies seem low, with food running out every day.  Doon, a classmate of Lina's speaks out about the problems - he is quickly labeled as a troublemaker, but intent on  figuring out how to solve the town's electrical issues.  It is then that Lina stumbles upon a very old set of instructions - she can only partially read it (her infant sister Poppy found and ate the instructions first).  No one will believe what's she found, and she herself is labeled a troublemaker.  But together, she and Doon are determined to figure out the message and save their city from ruin.  It's a YA novel, so of course it was a fast read, and it's a bit simplistic in plot and dialogue.  In this sense, I feel like while the characters are 12 year olds, this could be read by someone a couple years younger.  I always like messages that need to be decoded, and of course the ubiquitous plot device of children outsmarting the adults.  There are currently 4 books in this series (and I guess it's also been made into a movie - with Lina played by the girl who played the lead in The Lovely Bones).  It's not as gripping as something like The Hunger Games, but I'm sure I'll finish out the series in the new year.

The Marriage Plot - Jeffrey Eugenides

I really liked Jeffrey Eugenides's first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, so I was definitely eager to check out his third - which has received wonderful reviews.  The novel follows several characters after their graduation from Eugenides's alma mater, Brown University.  It centers around Madeleine, an intelligent, but co-dependent young woman, and her relationship with her bi-polar boyfriend Leonard.  Completing the triangle is her sometimes friend, Mitchell, who is traveling the world to find himself and forget about her.  The book flashes back to college, and forward to their current lives positing the relationships as love stories in comparison and contrast to the great marriage plot novels of the 19th Century.  This book reminded me of all the fiction I've read by Jonathan Franzen - clever and well-written, but with extremely self-absorbed and annoying characters that define the term "first-world problems."  Other than Leonard who seems to come from a troubled background and clearly suffers from a real mental illness, the other characters seem to suffer from general malaise brought about by their privilege and lack of imagination.  Madeleine's belief that she can "save" Leonard is such a tired cliche that I kept expecting Eugenides to come up with some kind of twist on the narrative, but it never came.  As a portrait of living life with someone with mental illness, I thought Eugenides probably portrayed everything quite acurately - the highs and lows, the selfishness, the drama, the fear - and this is something I found valuable to read in terms of the work that I do.  But in terms of literature I want to identify with, with characters I actually care about, The Marriage Plot, like so many endings to Victorian novels, was a sad disappointment.

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

I am always trying to figure out what type of fantasy/science-fiction book I like.  I am not really into space or time-travel per se (though I like the Ender's Game series and The Time Traveller's Wife).  I like fantasy creatures (like elves and dragons), but not necessarily books where they completely take the place of humans.  I like quests, but don't necessarily like battles (not into the Orcs from Lord of the Rings).  I loved this book.  And I realized, I think I just like magic.  I like books where things are magical and where characters perform magic.  And that is the basis of The Night Circus.  Two master magician types place a bet that they can develop a protege to beat the other's protege.  They don't specifically identify the time, place, or rules of the competition, but one day a circus arrives in town. It's been specially created to exhibit the most amazing and fantastcial talents - and it's not a circus of illusion, but of actual magic.  This book gave me the same feeling I had reading Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this Way Comesi - the feeling of something unknown and wonderful coming to town.  And within the circus there is love and competition and wonder and amazement, and it's all just so fun and inviting - like living in a Cirque de Soleil production.  The problem with magic is that it doesn't have to have any boundaries.  So, ultimately, the ending of any book like this is going to veer off into the simply impossible - and it's hard to criticize that becuase all along you've been suspending disbelief and agreeing to a world created out of the impossible.  And so I just absolutely loved this book - all the way up until about the last 20 pages when it went a little too crazy for me - but I didn't really see any way to avoid the ending it had.  It made me want to go out and get my tarot cards read in a dark room, by a  strange woman in a costume, burning incense, and whispering enigmatic secretes.  At Christmastime, when I still listen late at night for Santa's reindoor on my roof, it's nice to just let go and believe.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reversal - Michael Connelly (Mickey Haller Series #3)

As much as I try to read Michael Connelly's books in order, things keep getting in my way.  Like my father-in-law lending me this book before I'd read The Brass Verdict, which is the second book in the series.  But, I figure my memory is so poor, I'll never know if I'm missing something because I'm reading the series out of order, or if I just forgot it from a prior book anyway.  In The Reversal, Connelly's #1 homicide detective, Harry Bosch, teams up with his half-brother criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller.  But this time, Haller has switched sides and become a special prosecutor.  I have no idea if this actually happens in real life, but as a plot-device, it allows Haller to also team up with his ex-wife, who happens to be a District Attorneys.  Basically, a notorious murderer has obtained a reversal of his conviction due to DNA evidence that seemingly exonerates him, and Haller is brought over to the dark side to re-prosecute.  Convinced that the man is guilty, Haller re-investigates the case with his defense-minded eye.  Bosch is his usually curmudgeonly self - ostensibyl part of the trial team, but going rogue on every possible occasion.  I did like having the two characters brought together (which happens initially in The Brass Verdict - but I haven't read that one yet!!).  A fun mystery and good vacation read.

The LItigators - John Grisham

When I go on vacation, I always like to bring a Grisham book along.  With his formulaic plots, I feel at home no matter where my travels take me.  With The Litigators, however, I really felt like he'd not just recycled general plot structure, but actual plots themselves.  He never tires of having the main character start out at a prestigious law firm where his billable hours are through the roof and he's treated absolutely horribly by some managing partner.  In this one, the main character has had enough of it, and simply decides one day that instead of going to the office, he'll just go drink at a bar instead.  Once he's ruined his chances of making partner, he stumbles drunk in a cab and ends up at the law offices of two ambulance chasers.  He decides to join their ranks, and from that point you know he's about the hit the jackpot.  At this point, Grisham also recycles one of his favorite plots lines - that of the big-time plaintiff's attorney (featured prominently in The King of Torts).  You want the former firm guy to succeed, but you don't want him to succeed in the slimy way of these plaintiffs' attorneys who just collect clients to increase their share of the attorneys' fees but don't actually care about the people they represent.  And so Grisham's main guy has to walk a fine line.  And he does it pretty well.  I did find myself pulling for him and his pro bono representation of an immigrant family whose son is on life support after chewing on a lead-filled toy from Mexico.  At this point in his career, it does seem like Grisham is just phoning it in, piecing together his past characters and plots,  But, I still need the same kind of mindless reading when I'm on vacation, so I think I'll keep getting his latest release. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Before You Know Kindness - Chris Bohjalian

No matter how many Chris Bohjalian books I read, he always seems to have more.  Like his most famous book, Midwives, this one concerns a single tragic incident (here the shooting of a father by his own daughter), and then builds a story around the question of intent (did the daughter shoot her father accidentally or did she knowingly pull the trigger?).  The question is never definitively answered, but the way each character in the book decides to view the situation affects their interactions with everyone else, and crucial decisions they make about each other and their own futures.  Unlike Midwives and some of Bohjalian's other novels (Trans-Sister Radio and Buffalo Soldier, for example), I didn't find this one as compelling.  I found the behavior of the daughter - while perhaps realisitc - incredibly annoying as she attempts to hide crucial information about the night of the shooting.  The father is also a vegan animal rights activist who is portrayed as a borderline psychotic because of his beliefs - which don't actually seem all that crazy.  So much of what threatens to tear the family apart post-shooting seems focused on this group he belongs to.  While I appreciate a story that points out the ills of working too hard at the expense of one's home life - I thought the negative treatment of vegetarianism and veganism in the book completely odd.  Perhaps this is a result of living in a part of the country where non-meat-eaters are basically mainstream, but I just didn't see it as creating as much conflict in life as this man's choices seemed to.  I feel like most of Bohjalian's books could serve as excellent springboards for discussions among high school students about the difference between right and wrong, and all the gray areas in between.  This one is definitely no different, but certainly not as complex or riveting as others he has written.

Blue Nights - Joan Didion

Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, was written about the loss of her long-time husband.  I thoroughly identified with the book (not in terms of losing a spouse, but in the grief that comes with losing someone very close).  It is a book I feel everyone who has lost a loved one should read at some point - perhaps not right after a loss, but after some time has past and you wonder why the pain is still so real.  In that book, the reader also learns that Didion also lost her daughter, Quintana Roo, to a sudden and mysterious illness.  Blue Nights is the story of that loss, and of Didion's journey to motherhood.  As a new mother who has anxiety about all the possible dangers of the world and of losing my own child, I was reluctant to read this.  And as I write about it on my blog after not quite loving it, I think - how can I possibly critique a book about a mother's loss of her child - clearly it is powerful and raw and absolutely haunting.  Didion is a beautiful writer, but her use of repetition throughout the book - while I'm sure symbolic of the fact that she goes over everything in her mind again and again and again - became tedious for me at points.  It read at times more like a stream-of-consiousness poem than a book (and that's fine if that's what it was meant to be, but I think I wanted more of a memoir-like book).  And I felt like there was a lot of name-dropping and near bragging of how much of a jet-setter lifestyle she and her husband lived with her daughter learning to order off room service menus before age of five.  Perhaps in a time of the 99% and Occupy movements, I found it all a bit obnoxious.  There are some great lines, however - it actually caused me to use the "highlight" feature on my Kindle for the first time.  The one I read over and over was, "Once she was born I was never not afraid."  So simple and clear, but wholly encapsulating of how I feel about motherhood - and then the subsequent need to live and allow your child to live despite that fear.  And then, for Didion's greatest fear to be realized- to actually lose her daughter is truly heartbreaking.  For me this book was more about what it made me reflect on in my life than it was about understanding Didion's loss - mostly I think I am in awe of Didion for using her writing to help cope with such substantial loss and being able to share that pain with the world.

State of Wonder - Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett has written some pretty good books - I consider Bel Canto one of my favorites and I keep meaning to go back and re-read it, but I worry it won't be as good the second time around.  But, she is one of those writers that I am excited about, and eager to read her latest as soon as it comes out.  My mother-in-law let me borrow her hard-back copy, but it took me months to get to it.  The premise of this one seemed a little odd to me.  Marina Singh, a research scientist, is sent to the Amazon to track down the elusive Dr. Swenson who is working on a valuable new drug.  Marina reluctantly goes down, hoping the trip will be a quick one (and we all know it won't be)...once found, Marina still has to take on the awesome task of convincing Dr. Swenson to tell her about the progress of the research, and plans for finalizing the drug for market.  As always, Patchett's writing is immediately engaging and while I found some of the dialogue frustrating and Dr. Swenson in general infuriating (as does almost everyone else in the novel), I enjoyed the story which reminded me a great deal of Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible - not in terms of subject matter per se, but just in terms of the way the story was told.  The ending came a bit to quick and required a great deal of suspension of disbelief, but overall a worthwhile read.

The Magician King - Lev Grossman

The sequel to The Magicians read for me quite similarly to the first. I started out increadibly excited. Quentin and his crew are the kings and queens of Fillory - and all seems to be going well - until a strange interaction sends Quentin and Julia on a quest to the outer islands of their kingdom. Along the way we learn more about Julia and how she came to be the great magician that she is, despite having failed the entrance exam to Brakebills. I found the first thre-quarters of the book riveting and the excellent blend of Harry Potter and Narnia. But then I seemed to lose interest, and I couldn't quite bring myself to care that much about how it would all end. Part of it could just have been my mindset at the time I was reading the book, but I didn't feel as if Grossman carried everything through to the end, and I was left a bit disappointed.

Damned - Chuck Palahniuk

Fool me once Mr. Palahniuk...but seriously, you've basically fooled me five times with your latest few. You have written some of my favorite books and short stories, and then, well, you just haven't. This book takes place in hell, narrated by a spoiled and annoying 11-year old who presumably died from a marijuana overdose. Along with a few other choice characters, she makes her way through the underworld to confront Satan, and perhaps find out why she has been sent to live out an eternity of banality. While there are some clever lines and ideas (I kind of liked the idea that the English Patient plays on repeat in hell), for the most part, the story itself seemed like an exercise in banality. Definitely could have done without this one.

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life - Karen Armstrong

In my mediocre attempts at self-improvement this year, I have read quite a number of books about veganism and living a compassionate life with respect to animals. Of course, idea of compassion should also be extended to fellow human beings, as well as oneself. So, I thought perhaps this book would give me some goods ways to think about doing that on a more meaningful level. Like any good self-help guide, this book is broken down into twelve steps - some more difficult and time-consuming than others. The author doesn't intend the reader to simply skim through the steps and be done, but rather to take the time to master each step before moving on to the next. The steps include mindfulness, self-love, sympathetic joy, and concern for others. While I didn't always agree with the way that Armstrong suggested going about mastering these steps, or incorporating them into everyday life, I am completely on board with the idea that it's not enough to just want to be a good person, or to try sometimes to be a good person. But, that compassion is a purposeful act, and that it is worth working hard at. Of course, this book is frustrating in that it is a reminder that I have a long way to go to becoming a better person, but I like the idea of it and am trying my best to implement some of the ideas in it daily.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Every Last One - Anna Quindlen

This book was a little too creepy for me to recommend.  Mary Beth is the mother of three teenagers.  Her precocious daughter is a senior in high school - a fabulous writer with her eye set firmly on the future.  Her son Alex is a popular athlete, but his twin brother is reserved and on the verge of a clinical depression diagnosis.  The family appears fairly normal, though when her daughter breaks up with a long-time boyfriend who seems a little too obsessed for his own good, you know things are going to get bad quickly.  The dramatic act doesn't happen until about half-way through the book - and while I anticipated it, it seems too extreme.  And then there were some strange elements thrown in but never fully explored - in particular a past affair by Mary Beth and the mental illness issues surrounding the mother of the former boyfriend.  Perhaps like real life, it just seemed like there was too much going on - and nothing really fit together.  Of course part of the point of the book is the seeming randomness of life, while still maintaining the illusion that everything is preventable and knowable, that in the most tragic of circumstnaces, when no one is at fault, we are still all a bit to blame.  In general, I like Quindlen's writing - she is a good story-teller, and while her subject matter is often difficult, she's still an easy read.  This one may have hit too close to home in terms of the work I do - made me overly critical.  It did make me think -and was a reminder to me to appreciate my son and pay attention to him more closely.  But, ultimatley, it was quite a downer and not exactly what I'm looking for in my books these days.

This Burns My Heart - Samuel Park

This book was written by a friend from my freshmen dorm - I previously read and enjoyed his book Shakespeare's Sonnets, and I was eaget to read his new one set in Korea and based loosely on the life of his mother.  The heroine of the novel, Soo-Ja Choi, is eager to move to Seoul and become a diplomat.  But her family and tradition expect her to get married and have a family.  In the hopes of tricking a man into making her dream come true, Soo-Ja marries the first option that comes along - a weak individual she is sure she can bend to her will.  Instead, Soo-Ja finds herself at the mercy of cruel in-laws, and pining after the man she believes she should have married.  Much of this book was painful to read.  Soo-Jais trapped by decisions she makes as a very naive young woman - decisions made out of obligation and incomplete information, and they are decisions that end up affecting her entire family - financially and emotionally.  But, throughout the story, I kept pulling for Soo-Ja, hoping that she would find a way to happiness - and finally change her fate, rather than simply enduring what she thinks life has thrust upon her.  Of course, the fact that I know the author impacts my view of the novel - I loved it and am so impressed by Sam's writing and his courage in sharing it with the world.  But, I think that my review would be the same even if I didn't know him.  This Burns My Heart is filled with so many of the fears, anxieties, and hopes that I believe all women who long for independence hold in their hearts - and I am impressed that a male author was able to access those feelings so accurately.  A definitely favorite for the year.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Family Fang - Kevin Wilson

As the result of a facebook post requesting book recommendations, my friend Lucy recommended this little gem.  The Fangs are a family of performance artists - the parents setting up scenarios at local malls to see how the public reacts, all in the name of art.  Kind of like an espisode of Punk'd or Candid Camera.  The two Fang children, Buster and Annie are caught in the middle of it all - forced unwillingly by their parents to be characters in these strange and wacky plays.  As adults, Annie and Buster have become artists of their own, but continue to rebel against their parents' way.  When their parents try to pull-off their ultimate masterpiece, Buster and Annie are left to determine the meaning of their art, whether it has any value at all, and the price they have paid to be a part of this very strange family.  Plot-wise, this was very different than anything I've read in a long time.  It reminded me of something Chuck Palahniuk would have come up with - with everything so twisted and confused, it was sometimes difficult (for the reader and the characters) to figure out what was real and which way was up.  The writing is clever and the dialogue witty.  I didn't particularly like any of the characters, but I found it all very worthwhile.  A definite thumbs-up for Wilson's performance.

Dead in the Family - Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse #10)

I'm back on the Sookie Stackhouse series - I think after this one, there are only two left (though I assume she is still writing?) was nice to get back into the lives of literature's most famous telepath. Not much happens plot-wise in this book,but Sookie does learn that there is a dead body on her property, and she goes through her usual death-defying shenanigans to avoid being blamed for the murder and becoming a victim herself.  Typical banal conversations - but some fun interactions between characters, in particular Sookie and her 5-year old cousin, himself a budding telepath.

Let's Take the Long Way Home - Gail Caldwell

Dealing with loss is such a tricky business.  But, I have found in the past that reading books about it from people wiser than I has given me perspective, and helped me better learn how to grieve my loss, while still honoring the wonderful memories I have of the people I wish were still here.  Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is probably the best example of a book I think everyone who has lost a loved one should read (though of course it does not cover all manner of loss).  Gail Caldwell's memoir deals with the loss of a best friend.  It took me awhile to get into this book.  I had trouble identifying with the friendship between Caldwell and fellow writer, Caroline Knapp.  They bond over their relationships with their dogs - and I think this is where couldn't connect- I don't have a pet, and while I recognize the importance of this bond,  I have never experienced it.  But, it is central to the friendship between these two women. Mostly, I found the first two-thirds of this book boring and tedious, and of course given the weighty subject matter, I felt guilty for thinking that - but because I couldn't identify with the relationship, I think I had a difficult time connecting with the obvious loss.  Once Caroline dies (and obviously, you know she's going to from the get-go), it was then that I started to see Caldwell more as a human being with understandable emotions - her pain was real and her ability to express her attempts to cope with the loss became seemingly tangible. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Weird Sisters - Eleanor Brown

This sort of book is right up my alley - it's a story about family with a pretty happy ending - three sisters (who don't actually seem that weird to me), each different in personality:  there's Rosalind, the oldest responsible one; Bianca, the middle sophisticated one; and Cordelia, the youngest vagabond dreamer.  Named after some of Shakespeare's most notable women, they strive to resemble and at times defy their namesakes.  Their father is a Shakespearean scholar in a small town, and all the sisters flock home when their mother is diagnosed with cancer.  They each have troubles of their own, but not quite ready to share them with each other.  The book is narrated in the first person plural - as if written by the sisters as a collective whole.  It annoyed me at first, but as I got used to it, I really settled into the storytelling, and I thought it worked well.  I found the Shakespeare metaphors and lines a bit forced, but overall it did give the people personality, and made the book more than just another one about a dysfunctional family. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Twelve Angry Men - Reginald Rose

This appears to be the first play I have reviewed for my blog...I don't often read plays because I find it difficult to keep all the characters straight, and I find that my interpretation of how to read the lines never makes the play as funny or poignant as the performance on the stage.  That being said, being able to take the time to read and re-read lines and passages sometimes (often in the case of Shakespeare) makes me better understand what the characters are trying to do.  Twelve Angry Men is not a complicated play at all, but the characters are referred to by their Juror numbers, not by their names, so I did have to pay particular attention to keep them straight.  The basic plot of this famous story is that 12 jurors have just sat through the trial of a 16-year old boy accused of stabbing his own father to death.  The boy faces a mandatory death sentence and the jurors are deliberating his fate.  The initial vote is 11-1 in favor of a conviction, and the rest of the play features the lone hold-out positing reasonable doubt in various aspects of the trial - from the boy's alibi to the eyewitnesses to the uniqueness of the weapon.  While frustrating at time - particularly given the lack of seriousness with which some of the jurors take their jobs (one guy just wants to get out to see the baseball game) - it is a fascinating play by play of the problems with our so-called justice system and with evidence and burdens of proof.  I like this play for anyone who thinks criminal cases are cut-and-dry - or that a single person doesn't have the power to persuade many.  I first read this play back in high school when I wrote a paper for my Civics class on the right to a jury trial.  I don't think the possible death sentence ever played into my observations about the play.  Now given the work that I do, the play has taken on more complex meaning for me, and it was definitely an interesting read - very impressive that so many ideas could be crammed into so few pages. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Home Game - Michael Lewis

My husband is a fan of Michael Lewis's books, in particular Moneyball and The Blind Side, so when I saw that Lewis had a book about fatherhood, I figured it would be a good one for Jake to check out.  I think I was right.  As Jake read in bed next to me, he laughed out loud and even read me a couple passages (usually one of my annoying habits that I really appreciate seeing in others).  He finished the book quickly, and mostly took away from it that Ferberizing is out of date, and that having more than one kid might require a little more thought.  I then decided to read it for myself...and I didn't find it quite so amusing.  Michael Lewis might be a brilliant writer and asutte investigative journalist type, but he is a class A doofus when it comes to raising his children.  Of course, that's part of the point of the book - to get a laugh at his own expense and to heap credit on to his wife (former MTV news anchor, Tabitha Soren), but I don't find it endearing when fathers pretend then can't figure out how to dress their children or pack a lunch.  But, despite Lewis's at-times seeming indifference to parenting, he did have some good insight on rolling with the punches (I especially liked the stories about his oldest daughter heaping contempt on his following the arrival of her younger sister), and his efforts to be with his kids even when the experiences weren't exactly fun (like camping overnight in Fairyland - which is just down the street from us).  This book can be read in one sitting - and while it may infuriate the parents who are the ones keeping track of all the doctor's appointments and waking up multiple times in the night for feedings, I think it's a good book for those other parents - the ones who might not always feel like their kids necessarily need them, or like they might have missed the day when they were supposed to have developed a deep-seated bond with their child - it will help them realize that kids always need more people in their lives that just love them and appreciate them for who they are, and that your love for a child will come, maybe when you least expect it, but always when they need it most.

A Stolen Life - Jaycee Degard

Going in, I knew this was going to be horrific - this is Jaycee Dugard's memoir of her life - kidnapped off the street while walking to school at age 11, and kept in a room as a sex-slave for 18 years.  Everything about this book is truly unimaginable.  Dugard tries to write the book as she lived her experiences, and then includes "Reflection" paragraphs where she looks back on everything from present day.  Because she was taken while so young, and put through such traumatic events, the recollections are often piece-meal and incomplete.  For anyone who has read "Room" - a fictionalized account based on similar events, much of this book seems old hat (which is grotesque in and of itself).  I find it amazing that Dugard was able to write this book relatively soon after her escape, and to be so coherent and together.  Despite that, I think I am interested in reading a book from a more neutral perspective (which obviously isn't the point of a memoir).  Perhaps this book, plus a book about the wife of her captor, plus a book that discusses the lives of Jaycee's two children, raised until their teenage years in this limited environment.  Of course, no one would want to put those children through any more than they've already been through, but there was still so much about the story that could not be told because it was solely from Dugard's perspective and knowledge.  And, again, that's obviously not the point - not to get a complete picture of what happened, but to give a voice to the survivor.  But, regardless, this book is haunting.  It's one of those books I would never recommend reading because it is so truly terrible and shows the worst of the worst our world has to offer.  At the same time, it is a story of incredible survival, strength, and courage and a necessary read to confront some of our greatest fears - it's amazing to me that Dugard is where she is today, and I hope writing this book has helped with her healing process.

City of Bones - Michael Connelly (City of Bones #8)

I've read these books a bit out of order, so it's difficult for me to keep track of the underlying "Life of Detective Bosch" narrative - he always seems to be retiring from the force and coming back, and I definitely can't keep track of all his love interests.  So, I'm basically just focused on the murder narrative at this point.  City of Bones opens with a man walking his dog in the woods.  The dog runs off and returns with a bone.  A human bone.  And so opens a cold case that has been on the books for decades.  As usual, Bosch takes on a little too much - sleeps with someone he probably shouldn't, follows a lead without telling his partner, and in general manages to piss off all of his superiors.  In all the books, he seems to take a wrong turn (not necessarily always his fault) that leads to the death of a semi-innocent character.  But, in the end, he always gets his man.  Not sure what Connelly's commentary on it all seems to be - by any means necessary?  Or, a cautionary tale that sometimes things buried in the past were meant to be left there.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Shakespeare's Sonnets - Samuel Park

A college dorm-mate of mine recently came out with a new novel...but before I started in on that one, I went back and discovered his first novel - Shakespeare's Sonnets.  Set at Harvard in 1948, this is a love story between two men - one who denies his sexuality to conform to society, and the other who thumbs his nose at convention and embraces that which could get him expelled.  The two meet in a class on Shakespeare, and together explore the Bard's professions of love in his sonnets.  While many scholars opined that Shakespeare wrote the poems to a mysterious lady, one of the men controversially argues that Shakespeare's muse was actually a young man.  The illicit nature of the romance had me holding my breath as I read the book - on the one hand afraid of what would happen if they were discovered, and on the other hand hoping that they would find happiness in the truth.  I was incredibly surprised by the ending - it wasn't one that I think would have actually happened in real life, but it was the ending that I wanted.  As an English major, I really enjoyed the exploration of the ideas behind Shakespeare's sonnets - and it made me want to do some independent research of my own to find out how much of the ideas in this book were based on fact vs. fiction.  It's been awhile since I've read a book that I would characterize as "literature" - but this one fit the bill.  I started it on a bus ride into work, and had to stop off in a park to keep reading.  It made me late to the office, but I just found the love story so compelling that I needed to keep reading.  I am excited for Sam's latest book, This Burns My Heart, which is set in the vastly different location of post-war South Korea, but is certain to be just as painfully beautiful.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

I read this book months ago, but have been so delinquent in keeping track of things that I'm just getting to review it now...which means that I have nearly forgotten what it was all about.  But, this collections reads like a demented Aesop's fables (which I loved as a kid).  Each story features anthropomorphised animals taking on the traits of our most annoying humans.  In typical Sedaris fashion, they are cynical and observant, wildly hilarious, and irritating.  I can see reading each story here and there - while waiting in line for lunch or for the bus.  They aren't particularly insightful, but if you like Sedaris, they will probably bring you a little chuckle.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Zen Attitude - Sujata Massey (Rei Shimura Series #2)

I need to start doing these updates in a more timely fashion - I keep forgetting what these books are about!!  But, this is the second in the Rei Shimura this point, Rei has semi-established herself as a high-end antiques dealer in Toyko.  When she is sent to find a tansu (cabinet) for a wealthy client, she finds herself swindled by a fake.  The salesperson mysteriously dies, and Rei is once again simultaneously investigating a murder, and attempting to avoid her own demise.  Her relationship with the Scotsman, hits a rocky patch and I'm hoping that it will be over and done with by the next installment, as I find their interactions annoying and childish.  I continue, however, to enjoy Rei's immersion into Japanese society, and her attempts to navigate it as an outsider who looks and speaks like an insider.  The descriptions and dialogue are sufficiently straight-forward to keep my sleep-deprived attention, but the story complex enough to remain interesting.  I mostly love anything set in Japan, so this is a series I will definitely keep coming back to, even if probably couldn't stomach too many in a row.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Getting In: Bill Paul

My mom shared this book with me many years ago, a couple years after I'd gone through the college admissions process.  Through high school, I always viewed getting in to college as a very important game.  I knew what "winning" meant to me, and I had a pretty good idea of what I needed to do to ensure I got the admissions letters I wanted.  I strategized from the beginning of my freshmen year - I knew what classes I needed to take, what sports I wanted to play, and what other activities I would enjoy, but would also make the biggest impact on my application.  Getting In follows four similarly driven high-school students who dream of going to Princeton.  The author also interviews the Dean of Admissions at Princeton, Fred Hargadon, at length.  I am fascinated by the admissions process, and the grueling hours the admissions officers put in to review and re-review applications.  While I'm sure they sometimes make "mistakes," this book makes clear that they are meticulous in their duties, and that while certain types of people (legacies and athletes in particular) may receive preferential treatment in the process to some extent, it is most certainly a game - and you need to play your cards right to win. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Closers - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch #11)

It's been awhile since I read a Harry Bosch novel...and I'm glad I took the break.  I'm not sure if The Closers is the best one so far (though I did skip a couple given library availability), but I found myself tied to it more strongly than the previous novels in the series.  Part of it is that my attention span isn't what it used to be - and this one was pretty easy to follow.  Connelly didn't get carried away with too many false leads or crazy side stories.  The beginning of this one finds Bosch back on the force after a short retirement.  He's assigned to a cold-case unit with his old partner and they're given a case in which a DNA match has been made potentially solving the murder of a bi-racial high school girl.  Of course, the match can't possibly be the killer - that would be too easy - but finding the match will possibly lead them to the right guy.  But, not without complications and sinister police department involvement.  As usual, Bosch is irreverant and can't quite bring himself to be a complete team player with his partner, but post-retirement, he did seem a bit more Zen, and a lot more likeable. 

The Reading Promise - Alice Ozma

Alice Ozma's school librarian father always read to her.  She can't remember a time when he didn't.  But, things do sometimes get in the way, and so there were, of course, nights when the were too tired to read.  Or Alice was sick.  Or they just got caught up in other things.  But, when Alice is 8 or 9 years old, father and daughter made a promise to each other that they would read together every single night, without fail.  And so The Streak began.  As Alice grew older, her mother left the house.  Her sister went off to college.  Alice entered high school, where it wasn't exactly "cool" to read with your father every evening.  But, still The Streak continued.  I like the concept of this memoir - Alice's recollection of how things were with her father, and the important of reading out loud, even after she was clearly old enough to read to herself.  But there is much in this book that goes without explanation.  Her mother moves out, and there is a hint that mental illness played a role, but there is no real exploration of how that impacted Alice's upbringing.  Her father seems to have some odd intimacy issues, and despite being a clearly devoted father, can't quite seem to hold real conversations with his youngest child.  While this is hinted at - in particular in a chapter in which her father reads Dicey's Song to her, again, there's no explanation of how this truly affected the relationship.  It's as if there is so much distance and discomfort between the two - but that it is erased for those minutes and hours during the day when they're reading together.  I'm not sure if I feel like that is a wonderful thing, or a charade.  Eventually, of course, The Streak has to end, but it is amazing in its endurance - and Alice and her father do have an amazing relationship that made me both laugh and cry.  There were times when the book definitely got off course, and Alice spoke more about her own thoughts and self than about the books themselves.  I get that it's not really about the books, but I still would have liked a little more reflection about why they chose the books they did and what they meant to her at the time.  Despite my reservations about the actual book itself, I did still find it inspiring, and have made a committment to read every day to my son - something that I hope will turn into a tradition of our own and hopefully help him develop a love of books himself.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Widow Clicquot - Tilar Mazzeo

My favorite cocktail is a kir royale.  I can't say I'm sophisticated enough to have a preference in the champagne or sparkling wine that is used to make it - but I know that there is something special about that bottle in the simple orange box.  I also don't much care for stories about how any type of alcohol is made.  It's kind of why I'm not hugely impressed by tours of wineries (unless the buildings are architecturally interesting or the vineyards are particularly beautiful).  My enjoyment comes from the drinking of the drink itself, not really knowing where it's from.  But, for some reason, I thought a book about the widow who cultivated the Veuve Clicquot empire might be interesting.  It wasn't really, except for the general story about a woman growing up in the shadow of the French Revolution becoming a rich and powerful businesswoman.  An accomplishment almost unheard of today (well obviously the French Revolution part), but even more rare centuries ago.  The book is a good balance between the life of the widow, Barbe-Nicole, and the making of the champagne that made her famous.  It's clear the book was meticulously research, but as might be expected, this can make for dry reading.  The author attempts to add suspense to the story by ending each chapter with a foreshadowing cliffhanger - along the lines of "but that wouldn't be the last time Barbe-Nicole found herself on the bring of financial failure."  I kept hearing an overly dramatic voice-over in my head and the whole thing came across a little cheesy.  But, clearly, she was an amazing woman, and even though a bottle of her bubbly will run me quite a bit more than Prosecco, knowing her background and being the feminist that I am, I think this probably will encourage me to continue to support the on-going success of her empire.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Widow's Story - Joyce Carol Oates

Last week my aunt lost her husband.  I attended the funeral, and as funerals always do, it made me think about my own life, but more importantly about what the lives of those around me mean.  What would I do if I lost my husband?  How would I feel?  How would I move on?  My uncle had been sick for awhile - but does that really matter?  Does having the chance to say good-bye truly mean that the processing and coping with grief will be any easier than if someone is taken away suddenly and without warning?  Joyce Carol Oates explores all these ideas, and more, in her extremely personal memoir, A Widow's Story, in which her 77-year old husband and partner for over 30 years dies unexpectedly from complications stemming from pneumonia.  Though her husband was relatively old, and though she took him to the hospital, Oates is blindsided by his death.  Though a woman with devoted and supportive friends, incredible intelligence, and an outlet through her writing - Oates finds herself completely undone and lost in her new world and new position as a widow.  Oates recalls the events of her husband's death and the years that follow with honesty - while also looking back with some perspective on what she now believes she was going through.  I was particularly taken, and impressed, with her vivid discussion of her thoughts on suicide, and saddened by her constant feelings that she no longer deserved to be alive, and that with her husband gone, she was nothing but garbarge that needed to be taken out and thrown away.  Of course, given Oates's famous writer status, and the subject of the book, there is much to compare to Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, and Oates references the book without name several times.  But, Oates's book stands on its own as a testament to the love she had for her husband and the incredible impact people can make on our lives.  At the end of the book (it might be the last line), she says something like, the best a widow can say on the one-year anniversary of her husband's death is that she is still living - meaning, of course, that dealing with grief is a tough business.  People want us to "get over it" or to preoocupy ourselves with other tasks, and certainly not to show emotion that would make others uncomfortable.  In the end, while we all need support, we also need to continue to live in our own way and on our own terms. I hope writing this book helped Oates understand her loss, and served as a way to keep her incredible memories of her husband alive.  For herself and others.

Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me - Chelsea Handler & Friends

When I found out that this book wasn't actually written by Chelsea Handler, but by her friends and family, I was a bit disappointed.  I figured it wouldn't be that funny, and would instead be filled with annoying sycophantic anecdotes.  Well, I was right with respect to the anecdotes, but the stories were actually pretty funny (at times).  As with all of Handler-related comedy, it sometimes crosses the line into extremely inappropriate, gross, or quite simply, annoying.  But, this book was a great view into Handler's life - and the incredible generosity she has toward her friends and family, even if it comes with a huge price tag of needing to be constantly on your toes ready for yet another practical joke.  I would think having a friend like this in your life would become tiresome quickly, but it also sounds like she regularly takes her friends on all expense paid trips to Cabo, so I suppose that might be worth putting up with all the shenanigans.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You'll Never Blue Ball in This Town Again - Heather McDonald

Leave it to Loana to lend me a book with such an inappropriate title. And leave it to me in my sleep-deprived state to think it was a good idea to bring such a book on an airplane. I wanted something quick and funny to read. Written by one of Chelsea Handler's TV-show writers, I figured this would be just the thing. And content-wise, it was. I just had to keep hiding the cover from everyone around me, and hope no one asked what I was reading. The basis premise of this book is that the author waited until she was 27 years old to lose her virginity. So, she spends chapter after chapter talking about her various boyfriends and hook-ups and the effects of telling the guy you're dating that you're still a virgin after all these years. I found the author a bit self-absorbed (though I say that about most people who write memoirs). She described herself a few too many times as "cute" and "attractive" and loved going on and on about her time in her sorority. Of course, she poked fun at herself while making such comments, but it's clear that this woman thinks she is pretty darn special. It wasn't until the end of the book that I read a laugh-out-loud funny line, but I still found the book enjoyable - a good way to pass the time in the Denver airport as I waited for my very delayed flight.

The Salaryman's Wife - Sujata Massey (Rei Shimura Series #1)

After finishing the John Rain series, I was eager to find another murder-mystery series featuring a Japanese-American. Rei Shimura, a 27-year-old female English teacher in Tokyo isn't quite the assasin that John Rain is, but she's doing pretty well for herself. A kind of Miss Marple, Shimura has no training in solving crimes, but while on vacation in the Japanese countryside, she stumbles across a dead body in the snow, and finds herself immediately immersed in the mystery. The book itself is fairly straight-forward and simply written, but for the ride to and from work, it held my attention. I enjoyed the descriptions of Tokyo and life in Japan, including the delicious fods and seemingly odd customs. With 10 books already in the series, I'm excited to have found a new heroine to keep up with.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cinderella Ate My Daughter - Peggy Orenstein

After reading Orenstein's riveting views on women in the workplace, I wondered after Waiting for Daisy, how she would go about raising her own daughter. This book sort-of answers the question. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein explores the "princess" phenomenon - the concept that no matter how hard a parent may fight against it, their 3-year old child simply must have the latest Disney princess doll - and all the pink costumes it comes with. Orenstein challenges herself to overcome her own sterotypes about what it must mean to allow her daughter to dress in a tutu and play with Barbies. She looks at the marketing, and she explores nature vs. nuture arguments. In the end, she doesn't come up with many answers, just more questions about whether we, as parents, are doing more harm than good when we try to get girls to play with trucks and boys to bottle-feed their stuffed animals. But, since this is a subject area that I am fascinated with, I found the book quite enjoyable, and found myself repeating anecdotes to my husband and mother. Where our gendered identity comes from - and how we learn to feel comfortable in our own skin - is a question that is answered differently for each one of us. My hope is that by reading books like this one, and discussing them with our friends and partners, that we will raise children who feel unconstrained by streotype, and free to express themselves in the way they find best - and in a world that doesn't judge or ridicule them for doing so.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Miserable Mill - Lemony Snicket (Series of Unfortunate Events #4)

I decided to read these out of order when I couldn't find #3 immediately on the shelf at the library...amazingly, I got the gist of what was going on...the Baudelaire children once again found themselves in a dire situation with their evil Uncle Olaf attempting to steal their family fortune. This time, they are sent to live at what at first purports to be a home for children. But, in actuality it's not a place for children at all, but a mill where they are immediately put to work. Shortly after, Klaus experiences some strange behavioral changes, and the girls suspect he has fallen under Olaf's hypnotic spell. While I do like these little kids, they have already become quite predictable, and I don't think I'll pick up another one any time soon. Again, I'm sure this "negative" (as perceived by a 34 year old reader) is because these books are meant for 8-10 year olds (that's my guess at the appropriate age) and knowing what characters will say and do at that age can be a bit comforting. Especially when wrapped in the package of such sinister strangeness.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Sweet Life in Paris - David Lebovitz

Books written by former Chez Panisse chefs are ubiquitous. And while part of me finds this annoying, the other part of me keeps reading them. In my recent quest for new recipes, and my sadness that I haven't lately been able to travel much, David Lebovitz's book seemed exactly what I needed. A pastry chef, Lebovitz (like so many others) traveled to France and fell in love with Paris. But, instead of pining away from afar, he actually packed up all his belongings and moved there. The Sweet Life in Paris is an account of his new life - all the tricks he learns about settling in among the natives, and the favorite recipes that keep him sane while doing so. Levovitz's observations are ones I've often read before in other memoirs about the American life in Paris - most notably (for me) the idea that the French are appearance obsessed and particular about dressing up and looking their best always - even to take out the trash in their own apartment building. This, among other reasons, is why I could never live in France. But, I did appreciate Lebovitz's observations about French women and their love of chocolate, as well as how not to offend the French when you only speak English. He is quite funny and doesn't take himself too seriously - though he clearly places a great deal of importance on fine cooking and dining. Each of his chapters includes several recipes that go with the story he's telling - few of which actually consist of French food. I tried out a couple recipes that turned out really well - and were not at all difficult to make for an amateur cook like myself. I loved the tomato-bread salad and chicken tangine with apricots. I also made a very easy recipe for chocolate yogurt snack cakes, which turned out a bit dry, but were quite tasty with some vanilla ice cream and strawberries. I do like Paris, but what I really love is this encouragement to savor friends, food, and life. I will remember this lesson every time I return to one of Lebovitz's recipes.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Happiest Mom - Meagan Francis

I hate martyrs. So, a book attemptin to convince mothers (and all parents) to stop being martyrs is right up my alley. Francis's thesis is that motherhood has swung from something we were all supposed to pretend was the most fulfilling thing in the world (resulting in The Yellow Wallpaper) to something now that everyone complains on blogs about as contributing to their need to imbibe multiple glasses of wine each evening. Francis believes there has to be something in the middle - a place where we love and cherish our children, but where we also have time to go to the movies with our friends, read, and do everything we did in our pre-children lives. She encourages mothers to put their own needs first, and to cut back on overscheduling their children - because often less really is more. I have no idea what Francis's background is - other than the fact that she is a parent - so she doesn't offer any kind of deep psychological analysis or purport to be an expert on anything - but she does have some great ideas. Mostly, this book serves as a good reminder that even though children change our lives, they don't necessarily have to ruin them - and those who choose to see the world that way have no one to blame but themselves.

Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat - Naomi Moriyama

In the past couple months, my husband, mother, and I have vowed to start eating better. To that end, we've tried to cut down on meat - and explored many vegetarian and vegan options. This new world has also awakened in me my desire to cook more often. I've looked high and low for inspiration, and while browsing the cook books at the library, I came across this book. I don't particularly like the title, but it appeared to be about a Japanese woman in America who returned to Japan to learn to cook from her mother - in the hopes of regaining her health. The book is about the Japanese love of food - but their ability to enjoy the best and freshest ingredients, appease their hunger, remain thin, and live long and happy lives. Moriyama was a bit repetitive in her writing - using the same phrases and anecdotes multiple times throughout the book, but I did appreciate her inclusion of various recipes that can be made fairly easily. One night, she inspired me to cook spicy beans and tofu, along with a ground beef and egg recipe. Both were delicious, and gave me something new and relatively healthy to serve my family. While there was nothing earth-shattering in this book, it was a good reminder that to enjoy food doesn't necessarily mean to be a glutton, and that everything in moderation is a good thing to remember.

Bossypants - Tina Fey

I am so behind on updating this blog that I've nearly forgotten what the last few books I've read are about - but perhaps this will be a good test, and we'll see just how memorable the books actually were...I think Tina Fey is quite funny - I enjoyed her on SNL and I regularly watch her on 30 Rock. But, I do find her jokes a bit hit or miss - I'm either rewinding and laughing over and over, or I'm shaking my head because I just don't get it (I suppose fans of her would say that I'm probably not intellectually savvy enough to understand all the nuances of her humor). Whatever the case, I felt about her book the same way I feel about her television - there were chapters here I found hilarious, and others made me think that she needed a better editor. All in all, Bossypants is a book I've recommended to a number of people as good plane reading. But, I will say there is a good deal of politics in this book - and Fey isn't just trying to be funny in it - she is sending a message about the power of women - how they are viewed in the entertainment/comedy world, and how they should be viewed. She has some great things to say about parenthood too. Mostly, this book reinforced the respect I have for her - for being such a fabulous success (not just "for a woman") and for still coming across as real. Funny and thought-provoking - just what you'd expect from a good clean liberal.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Three Cups of Deceit - John Krakauer

As I've gushed previously on this blog, I have been enamored and inspired by Greg Mortenson and his work starting schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His two books made me think about life in a different way - and strive for the idea of volunteer work as a whole way of life rather than something that is just done on the side. While I clearly knew that he wrote the books himself, the nature of his work just seemed so pure. Well, in this book, John Krakauer blows the lid right off the idea of Mortenson as selfless humanitarian. Three Cups of Deceit is a picking apart of Mortenson's book and an exposure of the lies and exaggerations contained within. So many of the stories seem as if they were created out of whole cloth and they undermind completely the work Mortenson claims to have done in the area. Krakauer talks about the ghost schools that have been built but unhoused by teachers and students. He questions where all the large donations have gone. Krakauer normally crafts his in-depth investigations into books that are compelling and almost suspenseful in their telling. This one, on the other hand, picks apart passage after passage of Mortenson's book, seemingly in an attempt to thoroughly embarrass Mortenson. For anyone who was inspired by Mortenson's books to go out and do great works of their own, I wouldn't recommend this book - it's too cynical and negative. But, for anyone thinking of donating their own money to Mortenson's organization, I would definitely suggest reading this so you truly understand where your money is going.

Where You Once Belonged - Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf always managed to tell a great big story in a short succinct way. This one is a take on the old saying - you can't go home again. Jack Burdette was a small town football hero who fled under suspicious circumstances. His return brings back old memories and unearths long simmering animosity. Told by a narrator who stayed behind and married Burdette's ex-wife, this is a story about redemption and revenge. While I didn't find the actual end particularly satisfying, the characters and storytelling are typical Haruf fantastic.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Bad Beginning - Lemony Snickett (Series of Unfortunate Events #1)

Reading this series of 13 books is just my attempt to get to my 75 book goal for the year as quickly as possible...perhaps I need to have a rule about what kind of books actually count toward my goal. After all, I did read Goodnight Moon to my son five times yesterday...But, I do think that childrens' literature counts, if the books are in chapter form. So here I go with Lemony Snickett's tales about the three Baudelaire children who lost their parents in a fire. Finding themselves orphaned, they are shipped off to Count Olaf, an unknown relative, whose only desire is to somehow cheat the children out of their inherited fortune. These books are filled with the dark and negative, and Snickett gives fair warning. Though they don't inspire smiles and laughter (except of the cynical kind), I think I would have loved these books when I was a child. Looking forward to more mishaps in the adventures of these unfortunate children.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother - Amy Chu

This book has received so much press, of course I had to read it. Amy Chua is presented in the media as a somewhat abusive and overly driven mother. While the examples she gives for how she raised her children (not allowing sleepovers for one) seem harsh, there are some fundamental principles in her "Chinese" parenting techniques that I was raised with, and that I definitely agree with. This book, however, was very difficult to read. While Chua seems to have some reflection on what her parenting did to her two daughters, she seems to revel in the meanness of it all. While I applaud the general notion that parents are there to push their children and set boundaries, not to be their best friends, she seems entirely deaf to her childrens' wishes and their need to have friends of their own and to be happy. Chua has definitely sacrificed for her children - spending hours upon hours standing over them while they practice the piano and violin and driving them to all kinds of auditions. But, I fear that all that sacrifice has only served to make them all truly miserable. Chua's oldest daughter was just admitted to Harvard. While many see this as a ringing endorsement that her methods "work," I'm still not sure that achieving this type of "success" is really for every one. People joke about Tiger Moms now, but I do think they have a lot to teach other parents - who these days seem overly indulgent with children who take advantage of them, or are too lazy to ever truly work for anything. At the same time, I think Chua could take a lesson or two from the Western parents she criticizes, and listen to her children instead of always thinking she knows what is best. This book sparked a lot of positive discussion in my home about how I hope to raise my son, and I think there is great value in this book if you look beyond the crazy and get to the heart of the Tiger Mom's philosophy.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Getting to Happy - Terry McMillan

Getting to Happy is McMillan's perhaps long-awaited sequel to her bestselling novel Waiting to Exhale. I read the first book back in college and really enjoyed the story of four African-American women trying to make it in the world leaning on each other through the hard times. While it was a fast beach-type read, I thought it said a lot about the value and power of female friendships. Getting to Happy, however, is a lot more fluff, and not too much insight. The four women are back, and while it could be my slee-deprivation, I had a hard time keeping track of all the characters. They each have an ex-husband or boyfriend, a child or two, and several random friends. For me, it was sa bit distracting. I did appreciate the idea that each woman went on to have her own separate life, but that the foud remainder true friends. Yet, every time the four of them came together in a scene, the dialogue was irritating, and they didn't ever really seem to actually like each other. McMillan has some strong novels, including my favorite from her, Disappearing Acts, but this one seems to hope to rely on the success of Waiting to Exhale, and left me a long way from happy.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Magicians - Lev Grossman

This is another wonderful book given to me by my friend Eleanor. It's one of those books that sat on my shelf for a few months and when I finally read it, I was just amazed that this gem had been there for so long without my understanding of what a great story it contained. The Magicians is part-Harry Potter and part-Narnia. I've also heard it referred to as part Brett Easton Ellis, which sounds about right. It's the story of a misfit who suddenly finds himself at a secret school learning magic. The kids around him are misfits - often depressed and self-harming individuals. Quentin, the main character is also obsessed with a science-fiction fantasy from his childhood that told the story of a made-up world, that perhaps wasn't as made up as he thought it might be. Subject matter wise, this book seems like it is for the Harry Potter age-group, but the language is strong, the alcohol flows freely, and the kids are a little too disillusioned with the world for me to recommend this to any kid younger than 16. The kids take such liberties with the imbibing that part of me wondered whether the entire book was supposed to just be Quentin's fantasy world concocted in a drunked stupor. I really enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book which takes place at the school of magic - I found the characters ineresting and I was interested in where everything was headed. The final third, however, went a little overboard in the science-fiction realm, and I found it difficult to follow - not because it was particularly confusing, but just because I don't like it when things get too magic and warlocks. Despite being semi-depressed reading about these kids who felt their lives were so boring that they had to get wasted each night, this was a book that made me happy to be reading - and just a reminder of why I keep turning the pages day after day.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Unbearable Lighness of Scones - Alexander McCall Smith (44 Scotland Street #5)

I always compare this series to Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. I read in the prologue to this book that Smith actually consulted with Maupin before he began this series -which originally appeared as a serial in a local publication. So, that explains that - and makes me feel like I'm not so crazy in having sensed the similarities. The Scottish melodrama continues in this one, and with each passing book, I realize that my main interest in this series is 6-year old Bertie and his exasperating relationship with this controlling mother. I've grown a bt tired of self-centered Bruce and the couple older characters...but this may be a function of the fact that I need to space the books out and read them at the pace they were intended to be read.

The Mind's Eye - Oliver Sacks

I am fascinated by neurological disorders - and the idea that because they are often so difficult to diagnose, people often think other things are going on, like failing eyesight or general insanity. Alas, I am not a very scientificly minded person (brain disorder, I guess), so I really appreciate the accessible way that Sacks writes his books - with colorful characters and interesting anecdotes. The Mind's Eye presents individuals who have suffered the loss of one of their senses - from the seemingly straightforward loss of sight to the strange loss of the ability to read (while maintaining the ability to write) and the sense of three dimensional space. Sacks spends a good portion of the book writing about his own struggle with the inability to recognize faces. This I found incredible, and gave a whole new understanding to people who consider themselves "bad with faces" and provides an excuse for that person you've met 10 times but still doesn't seem to recognize you when you run into them on the street. As with his other books, the mind's ability to adapt and compensate for loss is explored. This book also raises the fear in me that one of these incomprehensible afflictions could strike me at any time...but also gives me hope that there are brilliant minds like Dr. Sacks out there studying the brain and hopefully finding solutions to these crazy problems.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much - Allison Hoover Bartlett

The synopsis for this book reminded me of Edward Dolnick's books about art theft. Though this time, with books as the object of desire, I figured it was even more up my alley. This book focuses on John Gilkey, a man obsessed with books - not necessarily for their stories, but for their value. He fancies himself a sort of aristocrat who deserves the life and respect he believes comes with owning rare first editions and other highly sought after collectors items. He makes his way through book shows and used bookstores swindling owners left and right. The author meets with him in prison in an effort to understand why he steals. In addition she meets with the man who hunted Gilkey down, as well as various booksellers to understand the world of bookselling, and to uncover how such a wide-spread deception could occur. While the fundamental premise of this book is fascinating to me - unfortunately, I did not feel completely satisfied with the execution. I thought that the author touched on the psychological problems Gilkey suffered from and made an effort to speak to his family hoping to uncover more. In the end, however, I thought the book posed more questions than answers. This did, however, open my eyes to an entirely new world with respect to book loving. I don't really understand the value in old books - I just like them for their stories - though I do appreciate some good cover art. I'm not a collector of objects, so paying large sums for books that will never actually be touched or read is foreign to me. I thought the author explored this well - why Gilkey would become enamored with such a world, and how the various players in this world interact. I think so much more could have been done with the book, but it is an interesting story about a very strange character.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

City of Thieves - David Benioff

I normally like to write my blog posts within a day or two of finishing a book, so I can be really true to how I felt upon finishing- instead of after having too much time to reflect on it - though sometimes that reflection is a marker of how "good" I thought a book was. Unfortunately, my schedule lately had preventing me from keeping up to date on my hopefully I'll be able to report reletively honestly about what I've been reading. City of Thieves was given to my by my friend Eleanor - and it was a perfect book to read with a newborn in the house - not because of the subject matter, but because of the ease with which the book is written. I thought perhaps this was Young Adult novel (and maybe it is), but it's a bit graphic in its discussion of violence and sex. The book is set during the German siege of Leningrad during WWII. The story is narrated by Lev, a young Jew who is imprisoned for looting a dead German paratrooper. While locked up, he meets Kolya, a charismatic soldier imprisoned for desertion. The two of them are promised their freedom and ration cards if they can somehow locate a dozen eggs to bake a cake for the wedding of a colonel's daughter. The impossible quest takes the two men through Leningrad and the countryside, as the encounter the best and worst of humanity brought out by the war. The story is filled with hilarious moments - as a reader I almost felt guilty laughing given the setting of the book. It reminded me of the movie Life is Beautiful in this way - a mix between gallows humor and trying to make the best of a truly bad situation. A real gem in the midst of tremendous tragedy.