Friday, January 12, 2018

Very Good Lives: J.K. Rowling

This is Rowling's 2008 Harvard Commencement address published in book form - with colorful illustrations of inspiring quotes.  The main themes of her speech are the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination - both topics one would assume she knows a great deal about.  I might have edited this down a bit, but she does have some beautiful language - and humorous points.  I appreciated learning about her time working for Amnesty International, and the impact that had on her view of the world.  I also appreciated her articulation of the obvious message to a group of Harvard graduates - that with great privilege comes great responsibility - not to go out there and become famous or wealthy, but to lead a good life - one that lifts others and recognizes each of our role's in diminishing human suffering.  I read this on the bus during my commute in to work - not sure it warranted it's own separate book, but a worthwhile quick read.

Crazy Rich Asian Series - Kevin Kwan


I've read countless books by and about Asians/Asian-Americans.  My favorites are the ones that talk about multi-generations of families - families that travel between and within countries.  Usually, the books are about pretty traditional families - Amy Tan, Gail Tsukiyama, and Lisa See are among my favorites.  So, imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon this series - about multi-generations of  Asian families - and they travel between and within countries.  But these are not the stories of poor immigrants fleeing their native lands in poverty, and enduring endless tragedy.  These are the wealthy elite who travel by private jet for weekends in Paris to by $100,000 handbags.   This series is so fun and fantastic - I can't wait for the movie version to come out.  It's almost impossible to describe - but this is the perfect indulgent by-the-pool imagining what you would do if you had all the money in the world and no limits.  

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A couple books with a little magic

Exit West by Moshin Hamid:  I've been a fan of Moshin Hamid since I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist a few years back.  And then when Exit West showed up on President Obama's Best of 2017 list, I had to run out and read it.  This book takes place in an unidentified county on the brink of civil war.  An independent Nadia - who is estranged from her family because of her unorthodox decision to live on her own - enters into a relationship with Saeed, a more traditional man who lives with his parents.  As the violence in their town increases, the two agree to escape - though strange doors that have appeared through the city.  The doors take people to new countries - where they are faced with possibilities, but also the fear inherent in leaving behind the familiar.  Nadia and Saeed find themselves navigating new situations and lives - while also working through their relatively young relationship.  As usual, Hamid's writing is beautiful - this is a book I'd recommend trying to read in long sittings to become immersed in the escapist fantasy/fears. 

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani:  I don't tend to read many graphic novels - but my son is very into them, so I have slowly been checking a few out.  I read the Persepolis series awhile back, and this one appealed to me in a similar way.  Pashmina is the story of Priyanika - a fairly typical American child growing up with a single parent.  Her mother is from India, and as Priyanka finds herself more and more interested in visiting India, her mother seems determined to prevent Priyanka from obtaining answers to any of her questions.  One day, Priyanka discovers a pashmina in her mother's closet that seems to transport her to India.  She finds herself increasingly obsessed with wearing the pashmina and finding out the answers to all of her burning questions about her past.  This is a wonderful story about relationships between mothers and daughters, the secrets we keep, and all of our needs to learn about the past in order to figure out who we are. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Just a couple memoirs...

Memoirs are all over the place - from people who have lived full lives to others who just want to write about a specific incident in their possibly still young lives.  I never think that I would have much to write about if I sat down and tried to tell someone about my life - but then I read some of these books and I think, well, perhaps everyone does have a story to tell.  Some more insightful or inspiring or instructive or interesting than others.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanthini:  This book been sitting in my bedside table for quite awhile and I haven't been able to bring myself to read it. It just seemed too sad - since it's been all over the news that it was written by and about a young successful doctor at Stanford who dies of cancer. But, it's been recommended by so many people that I decided to make this my first read of 2018. Kalanithi is a beautiful writer - this book is short and can be read quickly, but I found myself reading slowly (and with my breath held), both because I wanted to savor the prose, but probably also because I knew what was coming. The book recounts his love of literature, and how he came to be a doctor - the grueling hours he put in, and the constant thinking he did about the meaning of life, even amidst so much pain and trauma. Even knowing what was going to happen, I couldn't stop myself from crying at the end. The thought of losing a spouse or a child or a father is so tragic - but there was also an incredibly peace that came from Kalanithi's words. My understanding is that Kalanithi's spouse, Lucy, is now in a relationship with a man who lost his own wife to cancer (her memoir was also published posthumously: The Bright Hour). I find the idea of making and finding that connection quite comforting. Facing the same fate, I don't think I would have made the same decisions as Kalanithi in terms of work and family, but that's obviously impossible to know - and reading this book (as probably with any book about someone dying far too early), I think it's made me rethink some choices, and certainly reevaluate my general outlook on life - and I suppose that's a good thing, especially as a way to start out a new year.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson: Given my line of work as a capital habeas attorney, I am interested in most books having to do with the mess of our criminal justice system, and anyone who is attempting to tackle this huge problem.  Bryan Stevenson is well known in the world in which I work - as a crusader and tireless advocate.  So, I pre-ordered his memoir when it came out, and read it in just over a day.  It's well-written and easy to read - Stevenson tells the story of his upbringing and career, interspersed with the stories of a couple of his clients - clients whose cases best illustrate the problems he is trying to address in his representations - problems with racism at every stage of our system - and the effects that this racism has had, not just on individuals, but on entire communities.  At the end of this - I cried - mostly as a result of Stevenson's beautiful writing, and the way he was able to articulate so many of the feelings that I have had doing this work.  But, I still wished there had been more about his own life in the book - it didn't seem like much of a memoir to me.  There were certainly some tid-bits of his life, and his opinions about the system - maybe something that wouldn't have been as well-received had the book been billed as non-fiction simply about the work.  But, I found myself wanting to know more about how he lives, how he balances, how he gets up in the morning - and then I thought, well maybe someone who has made this huge of an impact doesn't really get to have much of a life.  He has dedicated everything - to the point that the work really is his life.  It is admirable, but is it healthy?  Does that matter?  Are we, as a society, dependent on having people - in all kinds of professions that benefit the greater good - who don't need/want/realize they need or want that kind of balance?  This is an important book that I wish everyone would read - particularly people who don't otherwise think much about our criminal justice system.  I think Stevenson has a kind and brilliant perspective to share - and maybe if each one of us does something, it wouldn't fall on just a few to do everything.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Few Quick Fiction Reads

Over the past couple years, I have fallen behind on my book reviews.  Luckily, I keep track of what I've read on Goodreads.  At present, I appear to have about 80 books that I have read, but not yet reviewed.  I have also set my reading goal for 2018 at a book a week.  So, it looks like I better get blogging if I want to clear out the backlog!  So with that, here are a few (shorter than usual) reviews of some books I've read in the not-too-distant-past!

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang: I haven't read many graphic novels in my time, but at the beginning of last year, my 6-year-old son started to get really into them.  So while he read ones aimed at kids, I decided to try a few geared more toward adults (or older kids in this case).  I picked up American Born Chinese at the library - it's about a young Chinese-American kid growing up in a community surrounded by white people.  It's also about the Chinese fable of the powerful Monkey King.  The book flips between the stories, and tells the painful, but all too common tale, of those who are different trying to fit-in, questioning their identities, and ultimately (hopefully) discovering what's really important.  I'm still at the point where I'd rather read this story in prose - but I appreciated the exercise of reading in this way - not just with words, but incorporating everything going on in the illustrations.  My goal in 2018 is to read a few more of these graphic novels.  Maybe even a couple of the series that my son enjoys!

Elanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: I'm generally a big fan of YA literature- I loved it when I was a YA myself, and I like getting recommendations from current YAs.  It's great to know that they're out there discovering a love of reading - but I also think that when I read what they like, maybe it gives me a little window into understanding them a bit better.  That being said, the older I get, the harder it is to read these YA books - I feel like "no one talks like that!" or "no one thinks like that!" But, of course, the truth is - we did all talk and think like that at one point in time.  Life is dramatic.  Love is dramatic.  Emotions are all over the place.  And, so with that background - I read Eleanor & Park, a quirky little story about first love between two sixteen-year-olds - and brings back that special feeling of being completely misunderstood, but then finally finding that person who seems to kind of understand. 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green:  I never read Green's incredibly popular book The Fault in Our Stars.  Given the subject matter, I didn't think I could handle it.  But, it was also a reminder that I need to read these books closer in time to when they come out, so that I haven't been "ruined" by movie trailers.  And so, I picked this one up, as soon as I made it through the very long queue at the library.  Turtles All the Way Down is the story of Aza, a 16-year-old girl who has lost her father and suffers from a debilitating anxiety disorder.  When the father of one of her old friends disappears, she re-ignites her friendship with him.  While reading this, I found Aza's discussions about her anxiety exhausting and repetitive.  But, as I was annoyed, I did realize that well, this is how people who suffer from anxiety actually feel - and my irritation was probably how many of her friends felt (as later described in the book), and what further leads people like her into self-doubt and social isolation.  So, while not enjoying the book, I also found myself feeling terrible for being annoyed by Aza's circumstance.  After finishing the novel, I went online to read reviews - I was looking both for reviews by teenagers, to see if they found the friendship/romance plot realistic (or even if unrealistic, if they "liked" the relationship), and I was also looking for reviews by people who suffer from anxiety to determine whether they found Aza to be a relatable realistic portrayal of their circumstance.  I found reviews from many teenagers who suffer from anxiety - and most of them seemed to love the book - and to find comfort in her character.  So, even though I did not enjoy this book, reading those reviews made me appreciate all the more.  So, kudos to Green for apparently accurately depicting the teenage condition once again, and for giving the kids what they want, and certainly need.