Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love

Ok, so I almost named this post "Eat, Pray, Love it!" But I restrained myself. But that's how I feel....FINALLY! I feel like it's been a while since I've really loved a book, probably since reading The Kite Runner (so glad you liked it, too, Amanda! I have broken the "Running with Scissors" curse!). But now I'm back on track and am very happy to post that this book is everything it's cracked up to be. When I first started reading it I didn't realize it was a memoir - even mom said "It's fiction?" and I was adament that it was...but I'm an idiot. It's a memoir.
The way Elizabeth Gilbert writes is infectous, I was immediately engrossed with the story from the first chapter. And while I was a bit distracted by all of the excitement of a little redheaded 1.5 year old when I first picked up the book, once Amanda and Katie left, I read the rest of the book in a day.
It's the story of Elizabeth Gilbert (duh) and her struggle to find herself after going through a divorce at 30 years old. She decides to take the next year of her life and devote it to travel - and she chooses Italy, India, and Indonesia (for lots of reasons that you can get from the book, should you choose to read it). She lives in each place for 4 months and finds love - love for good food, her spirituality, and...well, love (hence, the name). It actually reminded me a lot of some discussions that Amanda and I had about religion and spirituality when she was visiting and she asks a lot of the same questions that I've asked myself over the years. But the way she goes about her journey is envious and very cool. She actually has inspired me to start learning Spanish again (she learned Italian, but I'll go back to my high school roots). And I think that really is what sums up the book the best - besides the fact that it's just a wonderfully colorful, well-told story, it's inspirational and I found myself rejuvinated after reading it.
I highly recommend this book to Amanda. I think Dad will probably pass, and Mom is 50/50. But it's a keeper in my personal library - that's for sure!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner
Originally uploaded by i-Topographies
Before I start, Becky, you did a great review on this book a while ago which is why I picked it up in the first place. Comparisons to Running With Scissors notwithstanding (graphic violence, child abuse, taking me out of my element,) this book was worth the emotionally grueling journey. I was stunned that about every 3 pages something heartwrenching happened - not for effect, but because it was what had to happen. This is how people lived and still live in so many parts of the world.
I think the unrelenting brutality and perpetual suffering, both emotionally and physically, was the most difficult part of this book for me. Things seemed to stay bad for so long. Is that an analogy for Afghanistan itself, and perhaps the Middle East as a region? I remember on page 272 I said, "Finally, something hopeful has happened." I was elated. And I think that's how many Afghanis must feel about their situation. But every time they cling to that little bit of hope, somehow it's dashed away.
One of the best things about this book, other than the superb, spare writing, was the way I really began to understand someone else's suffering. As frustrated as I occasionally was with the narrator, I had to ask myself if I would have acted any differently if I was in his shoes? Who would I be if I'd grown up in his world? I have a deeper understanding and a much broader perspective on Afghanis lives. When will things get better, when will they change? I don't know.
This was one of those wonderful fiction books that brought you closer to truth than any biography ever could. Highly recommended!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

Well, I'm happy to report that "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" was the best book I have read in the last two months. Of course, that's kind of false praise because the two books I read (and blogged about) before were big time suck-fests. But this was a pretty good book. Like I said to mom: I'm not not recommending it to people, I'm just not really recommending it, either. It was fairly enjoyable, and a really interesting story to be told - I just wasn't too keen on the writing style after a while. I like description up to a point. But I felt about this the way I feel after reading a Hemmingway novel - I liked it, but after awhile I feel like "Ok, ok, I get it. The grass was wet." Geesh. A little too touchy-feely, a little too descriptive as an overall work. But again, not a bad book or story.
It's about a young married couple, David and Nora, who are expecting their first child. David is a doctor, and the night his wife goes into labor he gets the surprise of his life - his wife gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The girl is born with Down Syndrome, and in order to spare his wife heartache (it's a long story how we get here, I'll spare you), he asks his assistant to take the baby girl to a "home" and tells Nora that the baby died during child birth. Well, the assistant can't bear to leave the baby at the "home" so she decides to take the little girl, Phoebe, and raise her - thinking that David will want her back in a few days, weeks, months, once he realizes the enormity of what he did.
Needless to say, this opens up a whole Pandora's box of problems for everyone involved, and takes us through the next 20 years of their lives. It's a really interesting look at family, what it means to be a parent, secrets, and, ultimately, truth. But I felt like the ending was tied up too neatly with a bow - life doesn't typically work that way, and so I don't typically like it when my books do. Especially not when it takes hundreds of pages to get there with way too much description about unimportant objects within a room.
All in all, I give it a B-.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Night by elie wiesel

night by elie wiesel
Originally uploaded by kewlio
Has anyone else read this? I can't even say that I have because I only made it to the fourth chapter, as the Jews are being led off the train at Dachau. I was trying to read it at school while the children napped and felt the need to sob uncontrollably. The idea of babies being thrown in the air over graves and shot at as target practice was too much for me to handle. Before I actually lost it, I put the book down, that awful lumpy crying feeling in my throat, and silently apologized to the author for not being strong enough to read more. Maybe I will read a chapter a month and will be able to digest it more slowly. Has anyone else attempted this one? It's only 109 pages so I thought I would finish it in an evening. Oh, how wrong I was.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Our Kind by Kate Walbert

I hate to say it, but this is the second book I have read in a matter of two weeks that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the second book in a matter of two weeks with which I was thoroughly disappointed. This was a tad bit better than A Feast of Love, but only a tad....and only because it was shorter.
This was something outside of the norm of what I normally read in the sense that it is a series of short stories that are compiled to tell one complete story. I like the idea of this, and won't shy away from this style in the future, but was not engrossed with this book. It's the story of a group of middle-aged women, all of whom are divorced or widowed, leading their lives in the suburbs and trying to "discover" who they are now that their children are grown and their husbands are no longer around. I really, really wanted to like this book and gave it a fair shake until the last page. But it just didn't flow. Much like The Feast of Love, it wasn't cohesive. The characters seemed eccentric for the sake of being eccentric and half of the time I had no idea why a certain story was being told or what on earth was going on. It was somewhat comical, at times, because I found myself reading it for an hour or so and then Mark would ask me how it is and I would say "You know what? I'm not really sure. I have no clue what this book is about or what it is that I just read."
It was an interesting concept and had the potential to be a great book - and clearly I stand alone in my opinion since the people who decide the finalists for the National Book Award thought it was worthy of the title. But I'm starting to get weary of those shady National Book Award people, so I am going to go back to reading what my gut is attracted to and not reading something because of its accolades. I thought it would help me find great literature, but I've just been disappointed as of late, so I'll back off a bit and see where it leads me.
So, sorry to post two negative Nancy reviews in a row, but I gotta' call 'em like I see 'em.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Feast of Love

Ok...I'm going to start this post by posting something from the author's website:
The Feast of Love is just that--a sumptuous work of fiction about the thing that most distracts and delights us. In a re-imagined Midsummer Night's Dream, men and women speak of and desire their ideal mates; parents seek out their lost children; adult children try to come to terms with their own parents and, in some cases, find new ones.
In vignettes both comic and sexy, the owner of a coffee shop recalls the day his first wife seemed to achieve a moment of simple perfection, while she remembers the women's softball game during which she was stricken by the beauty of the shortstop. A young couple spends hours at the coffee shop fueling the idea of their fierce love. A professor of philosophy, stopping by for a cup of coffee, makes a valiant attempt to explain what he knows to be the inexplicable workings of the human heart. Their voices resonate with each other--disparate people joined by the meanderings of love--and come together in a tapestry that depicts the most irresistible arena of life.

Now I'll tell you why this is a load of crap. I picked up this book because it was a finalist for the National Book Award and thought, after reading a lot of reviews and doing some dorky research on it, that it sounded interesting and like a story I might like to read. So I started. Right off the bat I didn't love the writing, though I thought it might be something I just had to get used to (I was wrong). It was choppy and disconnected, and the dialogue between characters was completely unrealistic. People simply do not talk the way these characters did. And that bugged me.

But what really bugged me is that I found myself not caring about any of these characters - they were all very one dimensional, though you got the idea that the author thought he was creating very deep, complex, and complete characters. I did not find this to be the case. They all had a "role" in this book and, other than fulfilling that "role", they weren't really very interesting. I like the idea of books and movies that have several stories going on that all intertwine at some point - unfortunately, I liken this book to the movie Babel - a great idea, in theory, but poorly executed.

This was supposed to tell the story of love in all of its various forms, and what we do (and don't do) for it. But when you get to the last page and read those last words you're left feeling... well, unfulfilled. Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book, or perhaps it was one of those situations where it just wasn't the right time for me to be reading it. But I got the distinct feeling that it was trying to be deep and meaningful for the sake of being deep and meaningful. The way I described it to Mark was like this: If you were reading this book in a literature class, I'm sure the professor, and other students, would be finding all sorts of deep meaning behind the actions of the characters, and the ways in which they interacted with each other. But I think searching for that meaning is giving the book too much credit. I think sometimes people just search for meaning in a book because they can't believe that it's just not a very good book. In my opinion, if the book is truly powerful, and really does evoke these emotions and deep thoughts out of you, it's on a very innate level. You simply feel it, you simply get it. And with this novel, you just don't do either. Or at least I didn't.

So, that's a big thumbs down from me. Maybe you all would have a different take; but I have a feeling you'd all walk away feeling a bit robbed....of time.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Kite Runner

This was a powerful book. I wasn't quite sure how I would feel about it when I read reviews on various websites, but decided to give it a chance. I sometimes shy away from "NY Times Bestsellers" when there's too much hype about it because I feel like it's just not as good as the hype (and usually I find that I'm right). But I was pleasantly surprised.
This is a very moving book that spans life in Afghanistan over 40 years (through present-day Afghanistan which, as you would imagine, is bleak). But it's much more a book about a young boy, Amir, seeking the approval of his father, feeling torn between his friendship with the son of his servant, and what his culture deems acceptable....but most of all it deals with choices and how those choices can haunt you, change you, and if you're lucky, redeem you. I was also struck by the hopeful feeling I came away with after closing the last chapter; even during the bleakest moments and the most horrendous crimes, humanity and compassion surrounded Amir and it contributed to why I didn't want to put this book down. I found myself turning the pages in anticipation of where the story was going... and sometimes cringing at the often graphic depiction of the unrelenting violence that is forced upon the citizens of this war-torn country.
I highly recommend this book, though I have a feeling Amanda and dad might prefer it over mom (since you expressed not-too-much interest in the topic, which is why I think you probably will pass). I already warned Amanda that there is some gruesome violence and some dappling with child abuse (can you simply "dapple" in child abuse? Maybe not the best choice of words) - so you are forewarned (I am forever scarred by your repulsion of Running with Scissors, so want you all to be prepared!).

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Many books have been written about WWII but I think this one is unique and well worth reading. Written by a woman, who herself died at Auschwitz during the war, Suite Francaise is written in two parts (five were intended but she died before completing the entire suite). Book One describes the palpable confusion and fear of ordinary men and women who were forced to flee their homes and city (Paris) in advance of the impending Nazi invasion in 1940. I don't think most of us can really imagine ever being in a situation where we would have to abandon our homes, sometimes our family and most of our worldly possessions to an invading army. Yet, it happend to France during WWII and she was one of the most advanced nations and cultures in the world...

Book Two covers the period of occupation and shows how people were forced to find ways to either accept or simply coexist with their Nazi occupiers if they wanted any semblance of ordinary life. In some cases families were forced to feed and house German officers in their homes. And occasionally people actually started to see the 'other' as a just another fellow human being with the same needs, desires, and foibles-and sometimes not.

Since this story is based on the author's first hand experience (and knowing her ultimate fate) I found this book to be riveting. I didn't want to put it down...

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd, was a book I'd had on the bookshelf for about a year and a half. I'm not sure if I ever picked it up, started it, and put it down, but I am certainly happy that I picked it back up again.
This is the story of a 14 year old girl, Lilly, living in South Carolina in 1964. She comes from a broken home where her mother died tragically when Lilly was only 4 and her father is a troubled soul who takes his misery out on his daughter at every turn. The only friend Lilly seems to have is the housekeeper, Rosaleen, a black woman who has been with Lilly's family for years.
Through a variety of twists and turns, all woven within the race riots and civil rights unrest of that time, Lilly and Rosaleen find themselves miles away from home living with a colorful group of sisters who take them in and shine light on lives that, for both Lilly and Rosaleen, have been anything but sunny.
This book sucked me in almost from the beginning and spoke to all of the different forms in which love can come into our lives. I was left with a really complete feeling after finishing this book; the characters were so well written and Kidd really got the essence of family, the essence of love, and the true meaning of what forgiveness is. I liked that there wasn't a ribbon tied around the book at the end, everything wrapped up all nicely with a perfectly happy ending. If anything, I think Kidd leaves you with the feeling that life is anything but perfect, or always happy, but that's the journey. And sometimes the people we end up letting into our little weird worlds are the ones we never thought would fit there at first glance... and that's beautiful.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born...by Tina Cassidy

Allison III
Originally uploaded by Sara Heinrichs (awfulsara).
"I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different." T.S. Eliot

This was one of the most fascinating books I've read in a long time (Sagan's was also pretty rockin'!) Right off the bat, though: Becky, you probably can't stomach this one. And dad, you probably don't care much about the topic. So, mom...are we alone now? What a great book this was. You've been there, so I'm sure you can stomach the finer details.

Basically, Cassidy finds herself talking about the birth of her new daughter with the other women in her family and realizes how different birth was for different generations. This sends her on a quest to learn about birth in different times and different cultures. The sheer variety of medical procedures ("twilight sleep?"), expectations of the mother (SILENT labor?!), and cultural traditions (coils around the father's testicles which the birthing mother pulls on so he can feel some of her pain (-: !!) were so interesting and unexpected.

Of course, I also found myself crossing my legs as tight as possible during discussions of labor difficulties and the different implements "doctors" used to save laboring mothers. And sometimes doctors weren't allowed to save the mothers. During certain historical times, Catholics weren't allowed to sacrifice the baby's life for the mothers - the baby hadn't been baptized yet. So mom and baby usually died during difficult Catholic deliveries. Fun!

The history of birth experiences was fascinating. However, I felt there was a larger message to this book - life is precious. Reading about how many mothers have died trying to bring their children into the world broke my heart. Thinking of how many infants died before taking their first breath broke my heart. And with all of this heartbreak, I was reminded of how big love and sacrifice are...lessons I've learned only upon becoming a mother myself. Life is so precious and brief and that's so important to remember. I really thought this was a beautifully written, researched, and thought out book.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

This was Dave's Christmas gift from Amanda and we both read it (thanks Amanda)so I'll be the first one to review it.

This book should serve as a clarion call to all the naysayers who refuse to recognize the urgency of global warming in our world today. The book recounts one of this nation's worst environmental disasters- the dust storms that devastated the High Plains during the 1920-30s. At it's peak, the Dust Bowl covered 100 million acres and the dust darkened skies as far away as Manhattan! The Plains were a barren landscape, covered by tall grass, where the Native Americans had hunted bison for centuries. Thanks to the Homestead Act (1850s?)the U.S. government moved the Indians off the land and encouraged settlers to move west, promising them free land for farming (160 acres). The railroads, politicians, banks and newspaper editors also played a role according to Mr.Egan. He writes, "The flattest, driest, most wind-raked, least arable part of the United States was transformed by government incentive, private showmanship, and human desire from the Great American Desert into Eden with a haircut."

This is truly an amazing tale, told through the voices of people who actually lived through the dust bowl days. It is a story of government incompetence (sound familiar?), greed, ignorance, and denial that things were really as bad as they seemed. I couldn't help but see parallels with what is happening today as we experience climate change and hear the dire warnings about what that portends for life on Earth.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who cares about protecting the environment. The summation on the back cover says it best: "In an era that promises ever-greater natural disasters, The Worst Hard Time is a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of trifling with nature."

Hi - This is Dave adding to Jackie's post. I'm afraid my comments are pessimistic. Each reading of a new book on the subject of global land use seems to suggest a poor outcome. A suggested additional companion piece to "The Worst Hard Time" (WHT)is "COLLAPSE - How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed" by Jared Diamond. The book is a little problematic in tying the whole story together, but the conclusions seem reasonably well supported.

WHT & Collapse seem to deal with an environmental issue more dire than global warming. WHT described an expanding population moving to marginal land and succeeding in good times and damaging the land to the point it could no longer be used (or it disappeared in the case of the Dust Bowl) in bad times.

Collapse saw peoples either move away or starve and disappear under similar circumstances across time in different areas around the world. Globally, we appear to be at the point where many lands can not sustain the existing population with easily predicted climatic variances like weather events and temperature & rain fluctuations. The case gets worse with an increase in population. In the U.S., we still have a lot of land that appears to be ripe for occupation, but is marginal. Think lowlands (New Orleans, coastal regions including NYC, river flood plains), arid lands (the central high plains, high lands above 3-4,000 feet, or lands serving a cleansing purpose like forests and wet lands. Resource practices (high consumption in U.S., Europe, Japan; lesser rates in rest of world) also have a large effect and the trend is bad. Developing countries aspire to the U.S. consumption model. Collapse estimates we can maybe double the world's population with all known resources and at current consumption rates. If the current global population consummed as the U.S. does, we wouldn't have enough resources to live at the current 6 billion person level. It suggests that the developed nations need to use far fewer resources than today because the rest of world will catch up to that rate in a short time. It also suggests the global population should stop growing. A global discussion on consumption and population appears to be the most pressing environmental issue (not global warming) but is unlikely to occur until the predictable conflicts over water, food and habitable land occur multiple times and the root causes become more apparent. Like I said, my conclusions (most of the preceding paragraph) are pessimistic but that should not take away from reading either WHT or Collapse. The better we understand the known situation, the greater chance we have of producing a better outcome.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

It's a Keeper!

Well, folks, this one is a keeper! I think the index is especially nice. Whoever worked on it must not only be handsome, but very smart...he obviously put a lot of time into it!

Ok, I confess. I haven't read the book, but I know Michael Thompson (he was one of Mark's professor's at William Paterson and was at our wedding) and I think he has a good writing style, from what I've read.

Woo hoo! New Conservatism! Rock on!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Demon-Hanted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark

candle without wind
Originally uploaded by topher76.

"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike - and yet it is the most precious thing we have." - Albert Einstein

On a recommendation from mom, I picked up this book from the library (they didn't have the exact one she recommended.) The title sounded really interesting and she assured me that I would really like what Carl Sagan had to say. What a breath of fresh air!

Sagan goes about dispelling all kinds of hoaxes, from crop circles to alien abductions to horoscopes. He encourages critical thinking and approaches superstitions from a scientific point of view: open-minded and questioning. He then goes on to explain why critical thinking is so important to a free society. The reader is encouraged to question the status quo. One of my favorite quotes from the book is a bit long, but it reaffirms many of my own beliefs (and doesn't that always make you feel good?) Here it is:

"We are all flawed and creatures of our times. Is it fair to judge us by the unknown standards of the future? Some of the habits of our age will doubtless be considered barbaric by later generations - perhaps for insisting that small children and even infants sleep alone instead of with their parents; or exciting nationalist passions as a means of gaining popular approval and achieving high political office; or allowing bribery and corruption as a way of life; or keeping pets; or eating animals and jailing chimpanzees; or criminalizing the use of euphoriants by adults; or allowing our children to grow up ignorant."

This book is great. It is easy to understand even if you don't have a science background. And now I find myself looking at the world in a slightly different, questioning way. Carl Sagan is now one of my heroes (along with Thomas Jefferson...it's a small list.) Mom, dad, I'm sure you'd both love it. Becky, I think you might really like it to if you're in the mood for non-fiction. Read this book.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Namesake

This has got to be one of the most satisfying books I've read. I first heard about it a few weeks ago on Charlie Rose (they have made it into a movie, which I hear is good but am wary to see since I enjoyed the book so much that I don't want to ruin it!).

It's a beautifully told story and I think Jhumpa Lahiri has to be one of the most eloquent, perfect writers of our generation. The book is exquisitely descriptive without going overboard (not like reading Hemmingway, where after awhile you think "enough already!"). It's all told in 3rd person, but the transitions between voices is seamless - you really become part of this family and can picture everything as it's happening.

The Namesake is the story of a Bengali family, beginning with an arranged marriage that leads the newlyweds to Boston. They eventually have two children, Gogol (the main character) and his younger sisiter, Sonia. It's the journey of the entire family and their struggles as immigrants, but it's more a story about family, love, secrets, and understanding. I cannot express to you all how much I loved this book. I finished it two nights ago and I still think about it as I'm walking to and from work or just doing something random. I really felt like I was living with this family for the last week. Definitely a recommendation for any of you - I promise you won't be disappointed (Amanda, give me another try - it's nothing like Running with Scissors!)

Monday, April 02, 2007

Why I'm a Vegetarian (again...)

pig bliss
Originally uploaded by deborah lattimore.
My most recent conversion to vegetarianism was spurred by mom's awesome recommendation of "The Family That Couldn't Sleep." The book was really eye-opening, discussing different kinds of prion diseases. Some are inherited, some come from unknown origins, and some come from infected animal meat. Fun! I never really knew what Mad Cow Disease was before reading that book, so I also didn't realize why I really needed to care about it. Well now I do. And now I don't eat meat. But then, after my eyes were opened a bit, I decided to tackle...

Jane Goodall's "Harvest for Hope: A Guide for Mindful Eating." Wow! I figured, if I'm going to eat healthier, avoid Mad Cow, stuff like that, I might as well know what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. Because, honestly, I don't think it's always wrong to eat meat. But the system we have now, i.e. factory farming, is so inhumane. However, I didn't realize the implications of so many of my personal food choices. This book tackles GMOs (genetically modified organisms), local food, organic labels, factory farming, egg labeling, the difference between cage free and free range eggs, etc. Basically, it covers all kinds of things I'd never even considered before and made me really think about my food choices...so then I was totally confused. Was it okay to eat anything? (apparently my vegetarian choices at the local grocery store are laden with pesticides and promote soil erosion and the destruction of small family farmers!) So, in a final attempt to find something I could feel good about eating, I checked out...

Peter Singer and Jim Mason's "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter." Peter Singer wrote "Animal Liberation" back in the 70's. Although I've never read it myself, I know it was one of the first "animal rights" books on the market and revealed the truth about factory farming. So, of course, I knew this book would be a bit slanted. However, I felt like he gave a really fair review of three different dietary choices: the traditional American diet (meat and potatoes), the conscientious omnivore diet (organic meat and veggies,) and a vegan diet (no animal products, not necessarily organic.) I like the way he compares the diets and follows some food from each diet back to the farmer who raised or grew it. You get to see how different foods are packaged, and he explores the ethical dimensions of each choice. Basically, he made me feel better about shopping at Wal-Mart for organic food (vegetarian in my case.) I will go to local farmers markets for fresh veggies and fruits when they are in season and eat organic for as much of the rest of the food as I can. And if Nathan needs the occasional free-range, organic chicken, I won't feel like a major hypocrite if I eat some too.

I'm not sure if the rest of you are ready to tackle any of these food issues, but if you are, I'd recommend either of these books. And really, though this may seem boring to you, your daily choices DO matter and reflect your ethics. What do you care about? As Albert Einstein said: "Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Are you guys for real?

Um, are you guys for real? I was so excited to start reading this book. I have been on a roll with good books lately ("Running with Scissors" - though some don't agree - , "My Sister's Keeper," "Lovely Bones," and "Memoirs of a Geisha" - which, by the way, I loved.) So when all three of you raved about this book, I picked it up right away and it anxiously awaited me on the bookshelf for the last month and a half. So I started reading. And reading. And I slowly started to wonder what it would be like if I got the plague, and if my life would be better because then at least I'd be too weak and feverish to have to keep reading this God awful book. Maybe 1666 isn't my year. Maybe I'm just not in the right headspace, as dad suggested. Whatever it is, you guys are a whole lotta' crazy - this is like torture! I'm actually forcing myself (Amanda, you can relate) to finish this book so I can finally rid it from my life.
Ok, I'm being dramatic. But seriously, this book has not spoken to me on any level. I'm on the quest for the next great book to give me something to look forward to...but don't give me any suggestions, people - your suggestions lead me to this! (just kidding).
Anyway, I'll let you know when I finish it. Supposedly the ending may be worth this suffering...I sure hope so.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Good German by Joseph Kanon

A good read...it's a love story, a war story and a thrilling murder/adventure story all in one. The setting is post-war (WWII)Berlin, where an American journalist, who had been stationed there before the war, returns hoping to find his former lover and gets caught up in a web of intrigue along the way. Kanon seems to capture the sense of devastation the war inflicted on, not only the buildings and other infrastructure of the city, but also its people. The back cover describes it as "a thriller that asks the most profound ethical questions in its exploration of the nature of justice and what we mean by good and evil in times of peace and of war." Now, I'd like to see the movie version.

This I Believe

This book was a Christmas gift from Amanda and it's one that I'll go back to time and time again. It is a compilation of short essays by well-known people as well as ordinary, everyday people. Some essays are profound, some seem pretentious but most will inspire you to think about what it is that you believe. What is your personal credo?

Some of my favorites were:
1.) There Is No Job More Important Than Parenting by Benjamin Carson. A prominent pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Carson's essay is an inspiring story about how his mother, who was single parent, illiterate, and worked as a domestic, "used her position as a parent to change the lives of many people around the globe."

2.) Natural Links In A Long Chain of Being by Victor Hanson. This man lives and works on a farm that has been in his family for six generations. He writes about the need for "grounding in our modern world..." and how working on the farm helps him find constancy by observing the natural rhythms of the physical world. He's reminded of his ancestors who did many of the same chores and dealt with many of the same human emotions and problems. "I believe there is an old answer for every new problem-that wise whispers of the past are with us to assure us that if we just listen and remember, we are not alone; we have been here before."

3.) There Is More To Life Than My Life by Jamaica Richter. This is a beautiful essay about explaining death to young child. "And it's okay if there is nothing beyond this, because there is this: life, everlasting, in the bloom of every flower." [Amanda, you will love this one].

4.) Always Go To The Funeral by Deirdre Sullivan. This is about "doing the right thing when I really, really don't feel like it." Since I grew up around people who made up excuses to justify not "doing the right thing" this essay really struck a chord with me.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Augusten Burroughs Running with Scissors

Ummm...I'm not really sure what to say about this book. I felt kind of violated the whole time I read it. I mean, these people are REALLY disturbing. Granted, Burroughs is a wonderful writer, witty, engaging. But the subject matter made my skin crawl. And the idea that this was a memoir...how horrible for someone to live through that life. I've been a little too close to crazy, myself. This was an unpleasant reminder of where I have been, and an encouraging reassurance that I was never THAT crazy (never scooped my own poop on a picnic table, thank you very much!) I felt myself reading on despite myself. I really wanted to see how things ended. How did he become a writer? Whatever happened to his mother? Was the doctor ever committed to a loony bin? So, I feel satisfied that I've finished it. Satisfied that he was able to be successful in spite of such a messed up childhood. But, wow. What a way to grow up.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

It's probably been a decade since reading this book but it's worth posting for anyone who has not read it yet. The subtitle is "A novel of love and war" which hits the mark.

The war in this question is WWI and the central characters move between England and France. Before the war, there is love discovered, love gained and lost. After the war there is more love gained. These gains and losses aren't always with the same people. Sounds pretty trite. However, like others of its class, the result is anything but trite. The characters are believable, complex and interesting. The second part of the book, that mostly takes place in the trenches is very well done. You get a sense of the horror and boredom involved with that existance and the scenes near the end are gripping. A beautifully written story about different types of love and life in a horrendous war. A great story and great literature.

If you like this form of story, try "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier. It's basically the Iliad set in Civil War North Carolina. Although a bit less complex of a story, it's a good read. For stories about WWI at a level with "Birdsong", try "The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse" by Vincente Blasco Ibanez. It's a translation of a 1918 Spanish novel that is similar in scope to "Birdsong." An equally well written and engrossing novel about WWI, without the love story but with a very good twist at the end, is "A Fable" by William Faulkner. It won a 1955 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and is a distinct change from his southern-based stories. I think it's one of his best and equal to "Birdsong" and "The Four Horsement Of The Apocalypse." Enjoy.

Team Of Rivals

Here's my first try at a posting. I was given this book by Mark (good choice!) on my last work day at Ford. I've read other books about Lincoln and thought the view of the times through the lives of his cabinet members would make for a good read. Wow, what an understatement!

Doris Kearns Goodwin weaves the life stories of the major political figures that came to form the Republican Party into a culminating event at the party convention preceding the 1860 presidential election. By the time Lincoln selects his cabinet from all those disperate men in the midst of the disintigrating union, the book is about half done. The remainder of the 754 pages moves through the war and the aftermath of Lincoln's death.

As is the case with all good histories, you get to know enough about the people and the times to make comparisons to today. There are major differences from today in how policy was publically discussed, since political debates were a major source of entertainment and important speeches were printed in partisan papers throughout the country. However, the parocial bickering and nasty personal attacks of the day appear to be more mean spirited and inaccurate than anything Rush Limbaugh or Fox News doles out today.

The author gives a sense that you've discovered the essense of each important figure, at least as it relates to their political actions before and after the election and the war. Most important for me was how Lincoln handled these men and everyone else with whom he came into contact. He had about 1 1/2 years of "in class" education with everything else coming from a continual reading of books on every subject imaginable. For an example, he taught himself geometry by working out difficult proofs while practicing law in Springfield. For almost everyone who came into contact with him, except for those blinded by their own egos, the initial impression was of an affable country bumpkin and ended with the thought that he was perhaps one of the most able, complex and decent men to ever have held that, or any other, office.

Goodwin has a very clear, logical and engaging writing style. If you have the time, it will draw you into the story for large periods of time. Even if you read like I do sometimes, with the TV on and doing a puzzle, you still can make steady progress and enjoy the process a great deal.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Family That Couldn't Sleep by D.T. Max

Okay, here's another one that will make you think twice before biting into that burger! This was a Christmas gift from Mark and I "devoured" it (no pun intended) within a week.

The author traces the story of fatal familial insomnia (FFI) back to a Venetian family in the 1700s. The family suffered from a inherited disease, which strikes in middle age, eats holes in the brain and causes death within a matter of months. The condition is remarkably similar (is it one and the same disease?) to scrapie, which kills sheep and mad cow disease (Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in humans).

These diseases share a common link-they are all "prion" diseases. Prions are proteins, the basic building blocks of life. When healthy, they form ribbon-like structures and fold into specific shapes depending on their specific bodily function. Yet, if only one of them misfolds, it causes all the rest in the ribbon to misfold. At that point they begin to act as infectious agents. Yet, unlike bacteria and viruses, misfolded prions cannot be killed by antibiotics, sterile environments, boiling, radiation, bleach, or formaldehyde. They bond to metal, stay in the soil....

Max traces the history of FFI from Europe to New Guinea to the United States and explains how human greed and ambition have played a role in spreading it across species barriers. For me, the scariest part of the story is that, so far, research has made little progress in understanding this condition and there is still no treatment once "infected".

This is an important book if you want to understand more about prion "diseases". And, the more you know about it, the more you will be tempted to become a vegetarian! This book will spook you.............

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Okay, it's taken me awhile to post something, but this is a book I read over a year ago and I think you will enjoy it. Although it's 600+ pages, it is a gripping story and you will be hard pressed to put it down. I'm thinking about reading it again just to pick up all the clues I missed the first time.

It's a story about Vlad the Impaler and his evil reign of terror upon which the Dracula myth is based. The narrator is a young woman who comes across some mysterious letters hidden in an old book in her father's library. The story takes you on a trek through Eastern Europe, Istanbul, and Budapest. The book jacket summarizes it this way: What does the legend of Vlad the Impaler have to do with the modern world? Is it possible that the Dracula of myth truly existed-and that he has lived on, century after century, pursuing his own unknowable ends?

This book will intrigue you, frighten you and most of all entertain you. It's an amazing and thrilling adventure story!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Water for Elephants

This story about a traveling circus veterinarian in the 20's was captivating! I heard about this book on a book club website and thought it sounded interesting. It hooked me from the first page. The author takes you on a wild ride through the strange and terrifying life of a circus worker traveling from town to town on a train. Workers get thrown off in the middle of the night if the boss can't pay them. Female performers put on a special "men's only" shows while wives and children are buying cotton candy and waiting in line. And the beautiful animals that help draw in the crowds are treated less than kindly by the man in charge of training them.
I found myself thrown into this world, sympathizing with so many of the worker and animals. I'll admit, my heart felt like it would break on a few occasions. But you find out in the first chapter that the man who rains down abuse on so many of the people and creatures around him will get what he deserves in the end. So I had to keep reading to find out how it happened. And it was great! I enjoyed it the whole way. I think I finished this book in 3 days, picking it up in any spare moment I had. It's definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Ok, so I know this is like beating a dead horse, but Amanda, I really do think that you would love "Running With Scissors" by Augesten Burroughs. I've told everyone about this book already, but not only is it a quick read (I finished it in two days, so in the dark, for a half hour a night, you'll be done in a week tops, I bet), it's also really funny. There are some crazy moments - mostly because everyone in the book, more or less, is nuts - but it was something I really enjoyed. It made me want to read his other memoirs, too, though I haven't had a chance to pick those up yet. Definitely something I think you will like, Amanda.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I made it...finally. Let me just say, this one took me a while to read. Please remember, I'm reading about 30 minutes a day in a darkened nursery while my daughter falls asleep. So it took me a few weeks to get through this one. And that's what I felt like I was doing, some of the time...getting through it. Not that it wasn't an interesting story - it was. But I guess it just never gripped me emotionally. I felt more like I was reading an interesting history book or something. So, not bad. But not the best book if you're pressed for time and want something to carry you into another world. You'll go to another world, with this one, but it kind of feels like my grandparents old basement. You know what I mean?

I guess the whole hermaphrodite thing isn't too scandalous to me either. That's one thing I don't have many of...sexual identity hang-ups. So I kind of kept asking, "what's the big deal?" But it was good. Glad I read it. Anyone have some other suggestions that are a quicker read?

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

I'm on! Ok, so as I think all of you already know, I loved "The Lovely Bones," thanks to Amanda. But a book that you may not have read yet is called "My Sister's Keeper" by Jodi Picoult. It's about a 13-year-old girl, Anna, and her struggle for her own identity - most importantly because she was the product of a very carefully genetically engineered project by her parents. Her older sister, Kate, has leukemia, and so her parents decide to have another child, created to be a perfect genetic match to help keep their daughter alive. But now that Anna is becoming a teenager and finding her way, she's realizing that her entire identity is wrapped-up in her sister's illness; everytime Kate is sick, Anna is sick, donating different parts of herself in order to help keep her sister alive. But she has now decided to sue her parents for rights over her own body, and the story is told through several different viewpoints - that of every family member, as well as the attorney who chooses to take Anna's case. It's incredibly well-written, easy to read, and poses a lot of compelling ethical questions woven within the very complicated lives of this family. I highly recommend it......and let me know what you think!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Bonewits's Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca by Philip Emmons Isaac Bonewits

Okay, okay. Let me explain myself a little bit. After reading "Year of Wonders" I became really fascinated with the local healing women who were called witches by the plague ridden community. And I've always been interested in things psychic and/or spooky. So I checked out this book from the library. Yes, the librarian looked at me a little funny, then looked at poor Katie...Living in the South and checking out books about witchcraft don't bode well for the looks you'll get from people. They've probably already called Child Protective Services...but whatever.

This book was REALLY interesting. It's not about how to cast spells or dance in the light of the moon or anything (I got another book for that! (-:) This is a really sane, historical guide to the roots of modern witchcraft. Basically, he makes the argument that there was NOT some ancienct society of witches, there was NOT some goddess worshiping culture that went underground during the spread of Christianity through Europe. There were "cunning folk" who had some knowledge of herbs, midwifery, etc. But they were not persecuted as witches...they usually called out others as being witches.

He makes the argument that the modern Wiccan religion was basically created in the mid 1800s. He doesn't discredit the religion, as he is a member. But he argues that modern "witches" need to accept the fact that this is basically a new religion based on sometimes wishful (and wistful) thinking about some sort of "ancient way" that never really existed.

I'm not sure if any of you would be interested in reading this book, but it really is very good if you're looking for something a bit offbeat. Enjoy!