Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln - Stephen L. Carter

I became a fan of Stephen Carter's right away with his intelligent and superbly well-written novels The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White.  Then he burned me with Jericho's Fall which I found just an complete disaster on all fronts.  So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached his latest - a novel set in the hypothetical world where Abraham Lincoln survives the assassination attempt at the Ford Theater and goes on to face an impeachment trial for overstepping his Constitutional authority during and after the Civil War and Reconstruction.  The general idea of writing with this type of historical background reminded me of Philip Roth's novel, The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindberg is elected President of the United States.  I'm a bit ambivalent about the idea of playing with history in this way, but I thought I'd give Mr. Carter another shot.  And I'm glad that I did because this book is fantastic - not only well-written and intricate, but filled with intrigue and interesting characters.  The book centers around the law firm representing Mr. Lincoln in his impeachment proceedings, and in particular a black female law clerk, Abigail Canner, and her white male counterpart.  When one of the law firm partners is found murdered, Abigail distrusts the police investigation and finds herself (and her family) wrapped up in solving the mystery.  Throw in racial politics, courtroom drama, and countless society wives full of gossip and this book made for both a page turning thriller and a Gone with the Wind-esque soap opera.  The book is relatively long at approximately 520 pages and I wondered if Mr. Carter could keep it up throughout - and he did.  I also found his portrayal of Lincoln fascinating, and commend Mr. Carter on his keen research eye, as well as his fiction writing creativity.  A definite favorite for the year.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey - E.L. James

After a long long wait in the library queue, I finally borrowed a copy of this most recent literary phenomenon.  I felt like I had to read it under the same theory I read The Da Vinci Code - because everyone else was, and I needed to see if it was worth all the hype.  After reading it, I can honestly say that I just don't really get it.  But at the same time, I did find that there was quite a bit that it made me think about - so maybe James really is doing something more than just peddling smut.  The basic story is recent college grad/virgin/ingenue meets rich and powerful mogul.  They sense an undeniable attraction for each other.  She is looking for a boyfriend.  He is looking for a submissive to partake in his S&M fantasies - and his relationships come complete with signed contract.  He opens up this whole new world for her - which she's not sure she wants to participate in.  And, of course, there is just "something" about her that makes him break all his rules and maybe, just maybe, fall a little bit in love.  Along the way, the dialogue is more horrendous than Twilight and countless questions are raised about the automony of women and the element of choice in inherently debasing activities.  On the one hand, I thought this book was absolute trash.  Plot-wise, nothing really happens and there is no understanding for why these characters find the other attractive.  On the other hand, I thought this would be a fantastic book to read in one of my college feminist studies classes - to better examine the nature of male/female and dominant/submissive relationships.  And to discuss what it is about this relationship that so many readers are drawn to - is it simply that Christian Grey is a wealthy handsome man?  Is it that women really do want to be treated like objects with no thoughts or opinions of their own?  Is it just another case of a woman believing that she can change a bad boy's behavior? Or is it just the intensely graphic sex scenes (which, if they really are empowering women in some way to demand more spice in their own relationships, I say - more power to them).  So, I definitely don't think this was a very well-written book.  And I didn't even find it that entertaining.  I did, however, think it raised a lot of important questions - including whether it's just a good thing to have people reading actual books (or ebooks), no matter what the subject matter.  And, I'm not sure I know the answer to that question.  I may just have to read the rest of this trilogy to figure it out.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl

Awhile back I read and quite enjoyed Gretchen Rubin's book The Happiness Project.  Since then, I have signed up for her newsletter - where she announced her virtual book club.  Each month she sends out three book recommendations - one in children's literature, one quirky pick, and one meant to inspire happiness (or something along those lines).  This book was the recommedation in the third category for August.  Frankl is a Holocaust survivor and he spends the first half of the book recounting his experiences in the death camps.  He then discusses his philosophical theory of logotherapy.  The basic premise being that the primary drive in life is the pursuit and discovery of what we find personally meaningful - and that our survival depends on how we choose to cope with suffering, and find meaning in it.  It is impossible for me to read a book by or about a Holocaust survivor and not feel tremendously lucky for my own life circumstances, or to marvel at how one does manage to find meaning in such misery.  But, Frankl isn't about comparing misery or suffering, which I appreciate.  Instead, his book is an acknowledgement that we all have our own demons and tragedies of varying degrees, and life isn't about avoiding those experiences.  I'm not sure that I fully appreciated the way this book was actually written in terms of the psychiatric jargon - and I don't know that I completely embrace Frankl's philosophy on life, but I did find it interesting and worth reflecting on in terms of a general concept and way of focusing on the positive in life instead of dwelling on the negative.

Ali in Wonderland - Ali Wentworth

My mom mentioned this book to me a couple months back, and mostly I couldn't believe that George Stephanopolous was married to a comedian and I was interested is seeing what it was all about.  This book reminded me a lot of the ones written by Chelsea Handler - very irreverant, not that funny, with a clever line here and there.  Wentworth grew up the daughter of political journalists.  As a result, I found her frame of reference often irritating - meaning that she's big on name dropping for no particular reason, and doesn't quite have the life perspective that I think lends itself to good comedy.  Mostly, I found this book bland and unimpressive.  She tells some sweet (not funny) stories about meeting Stephanopolous, and about their relationship - I found the stories interesting because I like him.  But, as a humor book, I thought this was a miserable failure.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Prisoner of Heaven - Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Cemetery of Lost Books #3)

I cannot say enough good things about the first book in this trilogy, The Shadow of the Wind.  When I read that book years ago, it was a perfect reminder to me of why I absolutely love reading - it transported me to this other place, with rich characters (who also loved books).  It was scary and exciting and beautifully written (yes, I realize I was reading a translation).  And, since then, I have been excited to read anything by CRZ that I can get my hands on.  The second in the series, The Angel's Game was not as amazing - mostly because my expectations were so high, but I appreciated the continuation of the story.  Now it's been years since I read either one - and I can't remember the plot or the characters, only my excitement - and so reading this third one was almost like starting over.  The books don't have to be read in any particular order (and CRZ makes a specific note to this effect at the beginning of this book).  The Prisoner of Heaven is set in 1957 Barcelona and focuses on the friendship of a bookstore owner's son (Daniel Sempere) and his assistant (Fermin Romero de Torres).  When a mysterious stranger visits the shop, the two men are thrust back a decade to the Franco dictatorship, and a prison in which unmentionable horrors are visited upon the inmates.  This book has the same creepiness factor as the two prior ones, and I enjoyed both the 1957 "present day" story, as well as the 1940s flashbacks (which is unusual for me - usually when books do this I wish they'd just stick to one story).  Wonderfully written, dramatic, and intriguing.  I've falled in love with CRZ all over again.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Wild - Cheryl Strayed

I borrowed this one from a friend of mine at work who is an avid hiker/camper/outdoorswoman...I, on the other hand, am none of these things, but still have fantasties of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail someday and "finding" myself.  I really enjoyed Bill Bryson's account of his travels along the Appalachian Trail, and thought I'd check this one out - a memoir about a woman following the death of her mother and a divorce - who takes to the trail with no real expectations or preparation.  She hikes by herself - and sounds grossly out of shape - having just exited a rebound relationship fed by a newfound heroin addiction.  Needless to say, Ms. Strayed doesn't sound like the brightest bulb and from the outset I was sure that she was going to abandon her quest after hiking just a couple days (of course then maybe she wouldn't have written a book about it).  I have a love/hate relationship with memoirs - I love to act as a voyeur into other people's lives and experiences, and then I find myself annoyed that these people think I care about their inner musings and opinions.  It's really not fair of me as a reader, but I'm still overly critical.  I think the author struck a good balance in this book - I mean how much can you write about hiking day after day with an overweight pack and blistering feet?  And how much can you write about all you learn about yourself during a journey in which you go days, if not weeks, without talking to another human being?  I did find myself filled with anxiety about the author traveling alone, and with every male encouter, I worried for her safety.  She didn't seem to have the same cares, hitchhiking with reckless abandon.  But, as with the overpacking, the self-travel seemed a bit naive.  All in all, this book made me want to take a few more day hikes - and impressed with those who take on and accomplish more -  but it mostly made me appreciate coming home every night to a warm shower, warm food, and a warm bed.

Nine Dragons - Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch #15)

Sometimes I can't believe how much of my life I've spent reading Michael Connelly novels...but I do really enjoy them - just like I enjoy watching episodes of Law & Order over and over and over again.  In this one, Bosch goes international when an Asian convenience store owner is shot and it appears gang related.  Somehow, his daughter - who lives in Hong Kong with his gambling ex-wife Eleanor Wish - is brought into the fold seemingly as ransom, and Bosch jets off in search of her and the convenience store killer.  This book was filled with some missteps and seemingly avoidable tragic consequences (as many of these Bosch novels are), but despite my frustration (as always) with those aspects, it was a fast and thrilling ride.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Buried in the Sky - Peter Zuckerman, Amanda Padoan

Several years ago, I was shocked to find that I enjoyed reading Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air.  I am not a mountain climber or any kind of extreme sports fan, but I was taken by the idea of people pushing their limits to conquer nature, and also the competing notions of hubris.  And of course, I think, it is impossible to read a book about climbing tall peaks without wondering about the lives of the Sherpas and other people on the mountains who are handling all the gear and preparations for these climbers - many who are inexperienced and have no business being on the mountain in the first place.  Zuckerman and Padoan have taken a hard look at the lives of those Sherpas - and written this book about the role several of them played in a tragic expedition on K2.  I found it interesting to learn about the reasons one becomes a Sherpa (meaning a person who assists with expeditions - as opposed to one who is a Sherpa by ethnic designation) - and what it means to the families of those who are away helping foreigners and risking their lives.  Ultimately, Buried in the Sky, focuses on the heroic efforts by one Sherpa to rescue another.  I did find the different perspective of this book quite interesting, and I'm glad someone told this story.  But, because I am not a climbing nut, I feel like if I've read about one ice storm, I've read about them all, and it was difficult not to read this book as merely a re-telling of Into Thin Air (even though I understand it's about a totally different situation).  All in all, a gripping crazy read, and one I think that someone with more of a background or experience in climbing would appreciate, but one that is still worth checking out even if you're simply an armchair adventurer like myself.

Dexter is Delicious - Jeff Lindsay (Dexter #5)

Awhile back I read the first four Dexter books in pretty quick succession.  And then I was done with the series and a bit bummed.  It isn't the best written series, but anything about a do-gooder serial killer is certain to pique my interest.  So, imagine my excitement when I returned to the library last month after a brief hiatus and found that not only had Lindsay published one new Dexter book since the last time I'd paid any attention, but he'd actually published two!!  Needless to say, I borrowed them both straight-away!  The fifth installment finds the recently married Dexter with a newborn daughter - a little girl who has stirred some kind of unfamiliar emotion in Dexter and made him want to be a better person...perhaps even one that gives up his Dark Passenger and his late night murders.  Dexter is then pulled in by his disaster of a sister to assist in investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl.  The case leads him to a strange cult of cannibals, while he continues to fight his own demons while trying to rid the world of others.  As usual, Dexter's sister irritated me to no end - she seems wholly incompetent at her job and hell-bent on bringing everyone else down with her.  But, I am a fan of Dexter, and watching him navigate his new family while still remaining somewhat true to his dasterdly nature was entertaining, as usual.

Simisola - Ruth Rendell (Chief Inspector Wexford #16)

I'm always on the look-out for a new mystery writer/series.  My grandmother-in-law recommended Ruth Rendell, and this book in particular.  I'm clearly not going in order here, as this is the 16th book in a series of about 22 featuring Inspector Wexford.  When Wexford's doctor's daughter goes missing, Wexford is fast on the case.  The "twist" is that his doctor happens to be one of the few black people in the British town of Kingsmarkham.  While looking for the missing woman, the bodies of two other women turn up murdered and Wexford is confronted with his own racism, as well as those of the witnesses he encounters.  I found the writing in this book fine - better than most mysteries that I read - but in terms of plot, it wasn't particularly suspenseful and I found some of the investigation a bit tedious.  I will read the other Rendell novel my grandmother-in-law loaned me (written under the name Barbara Vine) to see if there is any thing more that grabs me, but I probably won't rush out to read more in this series.

Prince of Mist - Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Niebla #1)

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's adult fiction novels are among my favorites, so when I learned his children's series had been translated into English, I had to check it out. Prince of Mist is a ghost-story featuring the three Carver children who have just moved into a new home where the owners son died under mysterious circumstances.  With the help of a local kid, the Carvers set about to uncover the secrets of the spooky hauntings.  This book was definitely suspenseful, and the main character (a young boy by the name of Max) was quite likeable.  I have never read the Goosebump series which I think is supposed to be quite frightening, but I don't know if I would allow someone younger than high school to read this.  I thought it was incredibly creepy - but I do have a low tolerance for the paranormal.  I want to read hte next in the series, as I like the author, but not if it's another ghost story!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bringing Up Bebe - Pamela Druckerman

One of the quickest lessons I learned as a new parent was that no one knows my child better than I do, and while I listen to advice and ask questions of others about how they raise their children quite often, in the end, I have (to this point) followed my instincts with my son and things seem to be going ok.  In doing this, I have contradicted many of the absolutes I was sure of before I had a child.  I never thought I'd be the kind of parents to share a bed with my child, or carry him around for hours on end, or do many of the things that are associated with attachment parenting.  But, after only a few days of life, it became clear that these methods were what worked the best for my son (and for me). As a result, it took a long time for my son to sleep through the night (he still doesn't always do it), but he is not a picky eater and he is sometimes well behaved and other times defiant.  I am indulgent and I am strict, but hopefully in a way that is predictable and consistent.  That being said, I am always open to how other people do things - so when I heard about this book, I thought I'd check it out.  Bringing Up Bebe is written by an American mother living in Paris.  While her child exhibits many of the "American" ways of waking up often, snacking throughout the day, throwing tantrums, the author marvels at how well behaved the French children seem to be - sleeping through the night after only a couple weeks, eating in 5-star restaurants with the patience of a Buddhist monk, and in general being the angels to the American child's devil.  While American parents are stereotyped throughout this book as overbearing hoverers who martyr themselves for their children, the French are praised for their ability to hang on to their identities as people, while still enjoying their role as parents.  I am hesitant to buy into any system that people claim works for "all" children - but I did think there was much about this book that could be applied to my own parenting style.  I liked the chapter about French women working outside the home - and the value that gave to their relationships with their husbands.  I didn't like that there seemed to be a definite expectation that men did not participate as fully in the lives of their children as the mothers.  I liked the idea of couples focusing on their relationship, but not sure that would (for me) include shipping my three-year old child off to camp for weeks at a time in the summer.  So, as with all advice, I pick and choose the things that I like and think would work for my child.  I do like any "system" that advocates not being a martyr and retaining one's own identity while still being an active parent.  But, again, I think that all children are different and while they probably all need consistency and boundaries, some of the methods advocated in this book seemed too harsh for my tastes.  Druckerman is, at times, too hard on herself - and her children - any parent who thinks this much about the best way to raise her children is probably doing a great job - but in the end if seems like she finds the right American/French balance, and is doing just fine raising her bebes.  And we'll see which of these methods that I haven't chosen for my first-born will in fact find be perfectly suitable for the next ones that come along.

Quiet - Susan Cain

Ever since I scored as an extreme introvert in a work administered Myers-Briggs test, I have been fascinated with the qualities of introverts and extroverts- the different ways that we learn, interact, express ourselves, and of course conduct ourselves vis-a-vis other people (or alone, as the case may be).  Quiet is a thorough examination of the lives of introverts - how and why we behave the way we do, and how best to function in a world that values the qualities of extroverts.  But rather than encourage introverts to overcome their natural instincts, it is a book about embracing the positive in introversion and using it to your advantage in business and relationships.  The book is, of course, written by an introvert, and is definitely biased in favor or extolling the virtues of introversion over extroversion, but despite this, I felt it had many valuable insights and I found myself nodding my head vigorously as I read much of it.  There is a significant amount of the book dedicated to business and product development by introverts - which I wasn't that interested in.  I did like the parts about extroverts raising introvert children (though my husband and I seem to have found our introvert selves in the opposite position of having spawned an extrovert).  This books is comprehensive, and does much to dispel the myth that introverts are simply shy hermits who don't know how to interact with others.  It served to validate my existence, but also give me some comfort that I do have much to offer in a world that seems to value all those boisterous loud-mouths.

The Scarecrow - Michael Connelly (Jack McEvoy #2)

The Scarecrow features the return of journalist, Jack McEvoy.  On the eve of his forced retirement from the paper, McEvoy learns of a 16-year-old drug dealer who has confessed to a murder.  Under the guise of investigating the boy's innocence, McEvoy uncovers one of the biggest stories since his encounter with the Poet years earlier.  He teams up again with FBI agent, Rachel Walling, in a race against the real killer and the government conspiracy to cover it all up.  As with the first McEvoy novel, the fact that he is a journalist, rather than an attorney or actual detective, meant that he was often making ridiculous leaps in logic, or otherwise trying to scoop the story rather than get to the whole truth - which I found consistently annoying throughout the novel. But, of course, those leaps are what allow for all the crazy twists and turns necessary for a good story.