Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Good German by Joseph Kanon

A good'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 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!