Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

Now that I can again get on and post reviews after an unexpected hiatus (due to log-on problems) I will report on this book that I read much earlier this year. As the title suggests, it is about a beauty school that the author was a significant factor in helping open and run. She is a US citizen, hair stylist by training, with a dismal marriage (lived in Michigan for part of it) who decides to do something bold and different. It is a true story. I was touched by the descriptions of the lives of Afghan women and once again became aware of how different my life as an American woman is from women in many other parts of the world. In learning skills at the beauty school, Afghan women are then able to support their families and themselves, which then opens a whole other door on the consequences of that in a country where women are not valued. Just trying to physically get around Kabul is a challenge, as is trying to do business as a woman who does not speak much of the language in a male-dominated country. I felt dangling at the end and wanted more of a conclusion one way or the other, which did not occur. I gave this book to my hairdresser (who says she never reads any books) who couldn't put it down and is passing it on to her friends.

Marley and Me

I read this book way before any hype about the movie came along. As you all probably know by now, it is a funny, touching book about a newlywed couple who gets a lab puppy who is full of personality, headstrong, loyal, with fears of thunderstorms (not good living in Florida as they do in the beginning). I laughed out loud many times. I cannot imagine having an animal like Marley for my pet, but the bonds with him swing emotions around like he enjoys swinging some pleasurable toy. The author is a professional writer (newspapers) and is an easy read. You learn about his family and their ups and downs (some very deep downs) as they all entwine themselves as a family. This is more like summertime beach reading, but if you want something to make you laugh and touch your heart, this is a good one.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Jackie read this years ago and recommended it. The story involves a German boy of 15 being seduced by an older woman and a quasi reunion years later. There is much more but it would take away from the reading to reveal the remaining plot.

You know I take literary characters to heart and like a story more if I like the main character. In this case both Jackie and I are uncertain of how we feel about either the boy or the woman. They are both flawed. Although the woman's seduction of the boy and also actions she took prior to meeting the boy are worse on the surface than those of the boy, I found myself more sympathetic to the woman. There is a court scene where she asks a judge in her trial what he would have done in her situation. She didn't ask the question as a calculated move; she truly could not see other options that may have been available to her. The boy was cold in his relationships after parting from the woman and perhaps it was due to the affair or is just how he is. Regardless, he had the power to make a number of relationships better and did not.

The book is a sparely written 218 pages that could be finished in one day. If you are thinking of seeing the movie that is just arriving in theaters, read the book first. I can't tell if any of our bloggers will love this, hate this, or be in between. I think I'm in between.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

I've read two of Vowell's previous books: "Assasination Vacation" and "The Partly Cloudy Patriot" and LOVED them, so I was really looking forward to this one. And it didn't disappoint. This one is a little less funny, though, what with all the Native American slaughter and such.

Relying heavily on John Winthrop's journals and famous sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" as a worldview lens, Vowell takes the reader on an eye-opening tale of the founding of the Massachussetts Bay colony. She interweaves Winthrop's story with those of John Cotton, Anne Hutchinson, and John Williams, among others.

What I found most interesting about this history was the contradiction between our Puritan founders' ideals and those of most modern Americans. In fact, evangelical Christians, who seem to stake a claim as the voice of "our nation's Christian founders", probably diverge from the Puritans ideals most of all (although many might agree with the "eye for an eye" justice meted out in Puritan courts!) Vowell dives to the depths of Puritan theology and how that worldview shaped everything in their lives, encompassing both their charity (sharing with one another) and ruthlessness (burning Indian women and children alive.) It's a complex, brutal, and ultimately, enlightening story about some of the founders of this complex, brutal, and enlightening nation. A must read.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb

I'm reviewing this book not because anyone else is likely to read it (it's a statistical discussion) but because I'll be referencing it in phone chats and notes hereafter. The title refers to how everyone can have an understanding of existence and a single observation can completely change that understanding. Every so often , that event also may have large consequences. In this case it was all Europeans being sure swans were only white because those were the only ones they had ever seen. After seeing a single Australian black swan, that theory of many centuries was shown to be wrong.

The book's point is that we view most of our existence in the same way, as if it were a statistical bell curve. If X observations have not indicated our understanding is wrong, then the chances of it being wrong are so remote as to be almost impossible. However, most things in life do not conform to the bell curve and lack of proof of an outlier is not the same as proof of the model we have in our head. Most of life's processes, including economics, history, social sciences and even many scientific areas, do not correspond to a linear formula. The reason an idea or a scientific model becomes dominant is not due to the merits of the idea or model but to luck and social dynamics related to the herd instinct. Other ideas and models can be more accurate or "better" and die off for reasons not related to the idea or model. Even a formula that may work under restricted (and unnatural) constraints will spin out of control in a short time span because of unknown or misunderstood interactions. We see this yearly with government and scientific predictions that fall apart in weeks, months or a few years, yet react strongly to embrace the next prediction with fervor.
So what? Taleb feels we are living in a world of increasing black swans due to the increased complexity of our world. Since his area of expertise is economics (he was a Wall Street options trader, among other things) economics is his main focus. He wrote this book in the last half of 2006, yet one of his points is "...As if we did not have enough problems, banks are now more vulnerable to the Black Swan ...than ever before with "scientists" among their staff taking care of exposures. The giant firm J.P. Morgan put the entire world at risk by introducing in the nineties RiskMetrics, a phony method aiming at managing people's risks, causing the generalized use of (a) fallacy... Likewise, the government-sponsored institution Fanny Mae, when I look at their risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deemed these events "unlikely."'
Wow, did he nail that two years ahead of the event. So what do we do if many of these big events can happen without us being able to predict them and yet those events can substantially change our life?
Don't worry about the stuff you can't control. The fact that any of us lives is a statistical miracle. Enjoy it. Rely on the things you know through practical experience. Be conservative if the downside risk of a chance failure is more than you can live with. Conversely, if you are working in an area where minor variance can occasionally produce huge payouts, expose yourself to those circumstances as much as possible. The richest, or longest living, or healthiest (pick your desired category for existence) person got there by having the luck of being in the right place at the right time with the right gifts (good genes, the right parents, the right culture, etc.) and then the skills to exploit the situation. In the case of investing, Taleb figures we don't really know the odds of most investments working out, so he's ultraconservative with about 85% of his investments (government bonds) and then invests the other 15% in those areas where a single breakout could make him ultra rich e.g. some computer companies in the early '90s, yet if he guesses wrong the chance of all of the 15% of the investments being hugely bad are not very high.
If you do read the book, he's pretty pleased with himself and is not afraid to throw zingers at authority. It's a fun read and if you decide to skip most of the statistical discussion and take his word for it, there are some profound insights worth retaining.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert Remini

I picked this up to fill in some gaps about American politics in the first half of the 19th century. It is an abridgement of a three book set that won the National Book Award in 1984.

From the beginning, Jackson's life was an adventure. He fought in the Revolution at 13 and was orphaned in the same year. He fought duals, had a controversial romantic life, fought Indians and the British, and reshaped American political and governmental life. It is a life that a fiction script writer would risk criticism for inserting so many near-death experiences, national firsts and bigger than life characteristics. He is justifiably controversial for having elevated the presidency to its modern executive status, for moving almost all eastern native American tribes to lands west of the Mississippi, for balancing the budget for the first time since the Revolution, changing national banking practices, etc.

When I read about FDR last month I came away with mixed emotions due to his character flaws and strengths combined with some governmental successes. He pales in comparison to Jackson, both for his flaws, his strengths, and his governmental outcomes. What was most surprising was the many similarities to issues that were addressed in this last election. Jackson took actions that reminded me of Bush, except Jackson was more courageous and competent. He also took stands that Democrats would applaud, especially since he created the Democratic party. He probably reminds me most of Teddy Roosevelt but is a unique individual. You will not be bored with this story and will come away with an excellent understanding of people like Calhoun, Clay, Webster, J.Q. Adams, and those presidents who followed Jackson into the 1840's. A worthwhile read and one that will leave me thinking about a president's place in the American governmental triumvirate for a long time.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

This book was one I picked up a few times throughout the last year or so and finally decided to give a try after reading some rave reviews. And while it was a good book, I really wanted to like it more than I did.
The story is told as a single monologue to an anonymous person who the main character, Changez, meets and sits down with at a cafe. Changez is a young Pakistani who is educated in the US (Princeton), falls in love, and is working at a great firm making a great living. But, while out of the country on 9/11, he finds that, upon his return to the US, the way in which he is perceived, and hence, the way he perceives the country as a whole, has changed drastically. He is profiled and experiences prejudices he never thought possible and eventually returns home to Pakistan to find that his perceptions of his homeland have changed as well. He seems to have an almost knee-jerk reaction to what he sees as a typically American snobbery, elitism, and entitlement. So, he becomes...yep, you guessed it! A reluctant fundamentalist.
It's a quick read and an interesting book, catching a glimpse inside the struggles with identity and sense of pride for your home that I'm sure many people experienced in the months and years after 9/11. But, again, I just couldn't really come to care about the character too much and really just found myself wanting to like this book more than I did. Could be a case of just reading it at the wrong time, or could just be the fact that it didn't click with me. Overall, I don't think any of you would really be riveted by this book, but I'm glad I read it. Fulfilled my curiosity and was a pleasant way to spend a few days. Not a glowing review, but they can't all be "Stori Telling"!

Monday, November 03, 2008


So I borrowed this book from Natalie, who highly recommended it. She and I typically have pretty similar book taste and exchange books often. However, this was one (much like "Middlesex") that I did not take to quite like she did.

The story is told mostly through the papers, diaries, and phonograph recordings of people involved in this bizarre story. The general story line is that of a Count that plans to move to a more urban setting (London) where there is a richer "diet." There he finds lots of women (who he can sink his teeth into). But he runs into some opposition, though he always seems to be one step ahead of them. It is interesting to observe the technologies and ideologies of the time, as Stoker describes them, but overall I just found it a bit too...ridiculous. Perhaps I should've read it as more of a comedy, though, because upon reflection, I think that may have been the intent, to a point. And by no means was it poorly written, but I tend not to be drawn so much to this time period in general and the overall writing style.
Having said that, of the blogging enthusiasts in the family I would say this is something dad or Amanda would gravitate to more than mom. It's a dense book but could be worth your time, especially since it is a classic. And, quite appropriately timed (more or less) with Halloween!

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Not sure how many of you have seen the movie version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's", but I saw the movie before reading the short story by Truman Capote and they are quite different. But different in a great way! The short story is about Holly Golightly and her relationship with her neighbor (the narrator). Throughout the story they became good friends and you soon realize that the narrator hasn't seen Holly in 15 years and that the beginning of the story is actually the end (and I typically love books like this). Holly is a bit flighty and lost, but seems to catch the attention and adoration of those who encounter her. She is constantly wondering, roaming, searching for a place to belong. However, Truman Capote leaves us not knowing quite what has happened to Holly - did she ever find a sense of home or peace?
When I was searching for a picture of the book cover online I stumbled across a review of the book that seems to sum it up quite well (better than I ever could):
"Holly is the epitome of wild things, for what place does a wild thing belong but in the wild? It puts forth the question but not the answer of where a wild thing belongs when there is no wilderness left. But the cat, a wonderer who found a home, gives us some hope, that a wild thing can find a place to belong, and not be caged. It is a motif that Capote exposes with a charming tale and a truly unforgettable character. "
And that about does it! You can easily read this short story in a few hours and it's defintely worth the read! Enjoy!

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

I thought I'd just give a short plug for Tony Hillerman, since he pasted away a little more than a week ago. This was his last book and I'd recommend the series. In brief, these books feature an older Navajo police lieutenant and a younger police sergeant who solve cases in reservation areas of the southwest tribes in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. The FBI is responsible for handling felonies like murder and armed robbery, but often do not understand the underlying dynamics of those indian cultures. The two Navajo policemen do and often solve the cases by coming at them from another point of view and a different entry point, like a stolen pot or container of pine sap.

Some of the most satisfying reading for me is to be immersed in a culture very different from my own and following an interesting human dilemma using points of view that blend the familiar human condition with the unique issues associated with a different culture. In his best books, Hillerman pulled it off well. If you want to get a feel for his writing, try some early books, although this one stands alone as a decent mystery.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Straight Man by Richard Russo

I have a dilemma. The Salmon Rushdi review referred to it as a hoot. "Straight Man" by Richard Russo, also is a hoot in a somewhat different way, so hoot needs clarification. A hoot is a combination of funny (from ironic to laugh-out-loud) and complex in a good way. Rushdi's book was ironic with a dense and outlandish plot. Russo's book is laugh out loud funny with a compelling plot that is only slightly outlandish.
With that out of the way, let's continue. If you like "Empire Falls" or "Nobody's Fool" then you will like this book. For those who have not read either of the others, Russo gives you a man negotiating life's normal problems with humor and insight in a small town that has seen better days. In the case of "Straight Man" the town is equally down-and-out with the main character, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., being a college english professor with a wise-ass approach to life. The book hit close to home because WHD's dialogue sounds like what often goes through my head. It took a while to finally suppress most of the dialogue (but not the thoughts) because, as my father used to say, nobody likes a wise ass. In "Straight Man" many people do not like WHD for that reason. An equal number do like him because he is a funny, decent guy, but are exasperated by what looks like self-destructive behaviour. Most of the plot involves a week or so as he nears 50 and his wife is out of town. He's a man at war with himself but doesn't quite realize it. Following him to a satisfying conclusion is a fun ride through this interesting life. I'm pretty sure all of you will like this one.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

I know, I've had this discussion with Jackie, Becky and Amanda. Salman Rushdie? The guy who angered an entire religion and had a death sentence on his head for his writing? When you could be cruising with Torri Spelling? That Salman Rushdie? Yes, and he's a hoot.

Envision the story of the birth and beginning of the life of India as told by Forest Gump on crack. Add in the magic story telling of (I can't think of anyone else who can make up this stuff) and you've got what I think "Snow" was supposed to do for Turkey but failed miserably. To help you out, the narrator gives you a running start by giving you two generations before he was born at exactly midnight of the day India became a nation. As it turns out, anyone born around that hour was gifted with some kind of magic power, from changing their own sex at will, to multiplying fishes, to really being able to do magic, to (well, you get the idea). As a conglomerate, they are called midnight's children.

Now, it would probably help if you knew the background of the gazillion deitys that make up the Hindu religion but he gives you enough background to know a guy named Shiva will not be the hero of the story. It would also help to understand whichever language is Rushdie's native tongue (India has about as many languages as it does gods) so you would know when the thing he is eating (or is floating down a river) is a fish or a sweet piece of cake. In the end, it's sort of fun to figure it's either and see which way you like the story best.

Finally, I like his style. He tells stories with lots of parenthetical asides, as do I. Although some may find it annoying (present reader's company excepted), it worked for me. Of our faithful readers, Amanda would probably like this best but it really is a heck of a story and worth the 533 pages (did he say 533?) to tell the tale. Enjoy.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs

I loved this book. Yes, I realize that Amanda may run away screaming because it's by Augusten Burroughs, acclaimed author of Running With Scissors, but this is a fabulous collection of short stories that had me laughing out loud. If any of you are David Sedaris fans I think you would get a kick out of this book. And the comparison isn't only with the writing style, though they are quite similar. His sexual preference (yes, he's gay), the slightly disturbing childhood and family drama (though, arguably, Burroughs had it way worse), and the humor with which he deals with it all is just...well, refreshing!
Even though Burroughs has unquestionably had a crazy, disturbing life, he addresses it with such humor that you actually find yourself relating to it...I swear! I think my favorite story is about him living in New York City and encountering a rat in his bathtub. This is a pretty typical New York City story - the whole rodent infestation problem, etc. But the way with which he goes about destroying this creature, and feeling this tug between good and evil, humanity and cruelty - it was absolutely hilarious.
If you're looking for a quick read, and (like most short story collections) a book you can put down and pick up at any time, this is your book. I realize this is coming from the person who read, blogged about, and even reveled in Stori Telling, but I swear...this was good!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

I wanted to read this book because it was a NY Times Best Book of the Year and I've enjoyed several on the list. After all, who could resist a book that Margaret Atwood described as "Not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning but essential reading for our times.?" Well, apparently Jackie could because she put it down after reading 100 pages.

Briefly, this is a story of a Turkish poet in exile who returns to Turkey and goes to a back-water town near the Iranian border to write about Islamic girls who are committing suicide but also because he might be able to hit on a beautiful woman he briefly met in college who is now divorced. Sounds like a page turner.

Well, the poet is a shallow, self-center child of a man at 47. What an idiot. This is the kind of book Becky talks about where the dialogue makes you want to curl up on the couch and overdose on something (booze, pills, "Friends" reruns). After 250 pages of this inane dialogue I thought of quiting the book but decided the story might come together in a brilliant conclusion. After all, John Updike said "...A major work...with suspense at every dimpled vortex (whatever the heck that means)...Pamuk [is Turkey's] most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize." John must have gotten a different edition than the one I read. I now feel like the little boy on Christmas morning who sees a giant pile of horse manure in the yard and starts digging to the bottom because he's sure there's a pony in there somewhere. Take it from me, after 426 pages, there is no pony.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

If there's anyone who might enjoy this, out of those who read this blog (family-wise), it'd be Amanda. Though I'm not sure exactly how you'd feel about it because I got the same feeling reading this as I did reading Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and - dare I say it - Augusten Burroughs Running With Scissors. I dare to say it fits somewhere in the middle, which may be a turnoff to Amanda altogether. But it made me laugh in the same way those books did, and had the same overall tone.
This book almost won the Pulitzer prize when it came out and I've seen it over the years but have put off picking it up until now. It's definitely a book I can see a young 20-early 30-something guy relating to quite well. But being an (early) 30-something gal, there were definitely bits I could relate to as well (like when he tried out for the San Francisco season of The Real World...I never did so, but all of the references made complete sense to me, as they would most people of my generation).
Anyway, it's a literary autobiography about this guy who moves to San Francisco from Chicago after the death of his parents to start a hipster paper, raising his younger brother and dealing with being a young guy trying to support his family. He has to deal with his other siblings who are more or less in the picture when it's convenient, all while trying to figure out who he is.
Sometimes the writing style got on my nerves with it's stream of consciousness feeling, and going back and forth between the past and present took a second to get used to. But for the most part it helped the book flow and move quite well, and there were definitely some laugh out loud moments.
Do I think it's one of the best books I've ever read? No. But typically when I read books that have been up for or have won the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award, etc., I feel as if it's praise for something maybe not quite worthy. Or maybe I just don't get it.
But that's not to say I didn't enjoy the book, I actually really enjoyed it. But it was a book about a guy who dealt with some really heavy family stuff pretty early in life and had to grow up (though whether he actually did grow up for a while there is still up in the air) earlier than most. It's a "coming of age" piece that I think has really resonated with a lot of people for no other reason, perhaps, than because he was able to put on paper what others can only partially conceptualize. It was good. A quick(ish) read and a book I think will find itself worked into literary and pop culture references for years to come. Worthy of the Pulitzer Prize? Probably not. Worthy of your time? Yep.

Stori Telling

Most everyone who reads this review (hell, everyone) will undoubtedly lose most of whatever respect they had for me. But I don't care. That's right, people - I bought AND read Stori Telling by Tori Spelling. Soak it up. Breath it in. You're related to me.
Why did I pick up this book, you ask? A few reasons. One, it's summertime and dammit, I wanted something to read at the beach. Forget the fact that I read this on a sunny, hot Hoboken day laying on my leather couch for 7 hours until I finished it. Forget all of that. Forget the fact that I called several Barnes and Nobles (and, admittedly, a few Border's) to see if anyone had a copy. Sure, maybe it should've made me a bit embarrassed that this book was sold out everywhere (meaning that "the masses" were picking it up, and that usually isn't good). But I was shameless. I called everywhere saying "Do you have Stori Telling by Tori Spelling?" trying to sound as intelligent and worldly as I am while also really hoping they would put it on hold for me.
Second? I was curious. Maybe it stemmed from getting sucked into a marathon of her reality show on the Oxygen network "Tori and Dean." Maybe it is because I grew up watching her on 90210. Maybe it was because I always kinda thought she was an idiot and spoiled and entitled and annoying, and then when I watched that stupid marathon thought "Wait, she's kinda funny." Who cares. I bought it, and that's that.
So. The review? Well, none of you will read it, I'm sure, and that's just fine. I proudly have it displayed right up there with "The Bell Jar" and "Anna Karinina" and "Memoirs of a Geisha." Well, maybe not proudly, but it's there. And I am going to stick by this purchase because it was funny. And light. And a quick read. And it didn't make me curl up into the fetal position and contemplate the best ways to take your life. And I'm a firm believer that not every book has to change my life. Sure, it'd help if I learned something from it, but does it count that I learned that Tori Spelling only had one nose job as opposed to the several it's always reported she has gotten? Yeah, didn't think so.
Sure, it's fluffy and ridiculous and I'm sure you all have your opinions of Tori Spelling and her life so I won't bother trying to explain any of it away. I stand by it. I own it. It's a toss up between what was fluffier this summer, Stori Telling or Valley of the Dolls. But both have lots of pink on the cover, so that counts for something, right? Ok, you may proceed to mock me now.

Monday, August 25, 2008

No Ordinary Time

Okay, I know...another biography. I admit I'm hooked. I actually started reading this book about 10 years ago but it just didn't grab me. So, after all this time I decided to give it another try and I'm glad I did. It was well worth the investment of time and effort (all 635 pages). Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals) is a clear and concise writer and, in this case has written a compelling and informative story, subtitled, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.
As a child growing up in post- WWII America, the nation was still basking in the afterglow of the FDR presidency. It was a time of great national pride and growing prosperity after winning "the war". Although FDR had died in 1945 during his fourth term in office (can you imagine if we had GWB around that long?!!), his legacy was (and is) legion. Eleanor Roosevelt also remained a popular and much admired public figure, often appearing on television (a new media source in the 50s) to make public service announcements. After reading this book I have a much greater understanding of what it must have been like to have lived during "the war" and some of this nations darkest hours. I also gained a deeper appreciation for the contributions and sacrifices made by both Franklin and Eleanor during this critical and historic time. Franklin, an eternal optimist and Eleanor, a poster-child for civil rights and social justice, formed an unlikely, yet powerful partnership.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about America's role in WWII. In summary, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes, "the Roosevelt years had witnessed the most profound social revolution in the country since the Civil War- nothing less than the creation of modern America.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
Apparently, Mom was not that impressed by this book, but I really enjoyed it. I read "Omnivore's Dilema" last year and found it compelling, so I was excited about this one. This book is more concise and doesn't go into as much detail as his first book, but that was okay with me. I enjoyed his down-to-earth eating recommendation: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." That sums it up right there, but he explains each of those statements further and gives some guidance about how to choose the food you eat.
Every time I read one of these books (about food, health, or the environment), I get more and more frustrated with the way I eat and always want to improve myself and my habits. You would think it easy to eat food, not too much, mostly plants...but Pollan explains why so much of Western food culture conspires against people trying to do just that.
I found this book inspiring and hopeful and would recommend it to anyone who is curious about why the Western diet is slowly (or quickly) killing most people who adopt it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime by Mark Haddon

This book was wonderful! I was a little worried when the protagonist found a murdered dog on his neighbor's front lawn on the first page. I've been a little skittish ever since "The Road." But he didn't eat the dog or anything and instead decided to find out who killed the dog and write a murder mystery about it. Oh, and the main character is a young autistic boy with a fascination for numbers and "doing maths." You will fall in love with his way of looking at the world.
I thought Haddon did an amazing job of really helping me think like this little boy. I started looking at my own world differently. When I read the dust jacket I found out he used to work with autistic children it made a lot of sense. He really understood his character on a deep level and let him tell the story in his own words. Really, I don't want to give anything away by going deeper into the plot, but I think all of you would enjoy this one...a lot. One of my favorite books in a long time (along with "The Book of Lost Things.") Very unique, true-to-life, and entertaining. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

This is a great book. In brief, it's the story of Trond Sander, a Norwegian who has moved to the countryside and is caught up in reflections of critical events of his life at fifteen. The narrative keeps jumping between 1948 in a cabin with his father and the turn of the millenium, also in a cabin, but alone and facing the end of his life. It seems a simple enough story, but it becomes increasingly layered without being too dense or confusing. All it's depictions of friendship, family love, and discovery as the world becomes larger ring true. I liked the characters and cared what happened to them. I may read it a second time just because it is such a pleasant read but also because the events of his life at fifteen call out for retrospective. When I finished the final paragraph, the main point of the story (and a philosophy for life) jumped out and caught in my throat. I know this is a book I'll think about a lot over time. I recommend it to everyone.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick

As promised, a FUNNY book. "Helping Me Help Myself" was perfect! I don't know if we were seperated at birth or something, but Lisick seems to be some sort of soul sister. Basically, Lisick, a determined skeptic of self-reflection and gurus, decided it might be a kick to try out different "self-help" theories throughout the year and see if she might get something out of it. Embarassingly, I've read most of the authors/gurus she wrote about: Julia Cameron ("The Artist's Way" - to help her creativity,) Deepak Chopra (to help her find her spirit,) and, of course, Richard Simmons! It was a riot!

Of course, my favorite chapter might have been when she tried to take some advice from a parenting book to get her 4-year old to behave. Reading about her trying to get him dressed in the morning brought tears to my eyes because I could relate on such a deep level. And like any great comic writer, she had me laughing at every awkward, painful experience. Seriously, I was afraid of waking some kids up in the nap room because I was having such a hard time stifling my laughter.

That being said, can I send a shout out for some recommendations of cheerful/funny books I can read? Dad's latest "Stealing Horses" might fit the bill, I'm not sure. But basically, I have had to put down two books recently that were just miserably depressing. Alice Sebold's (of "The Lovely Bones") "The Almost Moon" and Jeannette Walls "The Glass Castle" were both painful in their own way. I got about 3/5 of the way through both of them before stopping. Sebold's was about a woman who murdered her dementia-stricken mother and I just didn't care that much about the main character. Plus, I couldn't relate at all...seriously. Did you hear that mom, couldn't relate at all. Her mom was pretty messed up and was basically never there for her daughter emotionally. And "The Glass Castle" was similar in the sense that it's a memoir about Walls growing up with her emotionally disturbed parents as they dragged she and her siblings across the country. The parents in both books were so horrible, I just didn't feel like reading any more. I understand that some parents are horrible but it's just not entertaining to read about such miserableness. At least, not right now. Not after "The Road." So any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

If I could only resist when someone said I really shouldn't do something, last Sunday and Monday would have been fine. I would have watched a little TV, maybe a movie, and cared for my ill daughter. But no. Becky had to say "You know a book you would really find interesting, but no, you really shouldn't read it. Amanda, you shouldn't. Never mind." Um, no. I can't never mind. And she handed over the name of it: The Road. She had given me a brief rundown: father and son on the road during some sort of nuclear winter...very bleak, depressing, yadda yadda yadda. I thought "Hey, I'm peak oil girl. I'm down with depressing. Gotta' embrace it, if you're gonna' face it, right?" Wrong. I shouldn't have read this book.

And mom, you DEFINITELY shouldn't read this book. You might not even want to read this review.
In short, this book IS about a man and his young son traveling along a bleak road headed towards the ocean. And when I say bleak, I mean everything's dead. Everything. No animals, dead trees, vegetation turned to ash. Oh, and did I mention the cannibals? Because, I suppose technically, some people are alive...and them's good eatin', right? I swear, I read half this book curled up in the fetal position.

With that being said, this was also an amazing story. I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer hopelessness of it all. Nathan was a little confused about why I kept muttering "I'd just kill myself...I really would..." until I explained it to him, at which point he got back to his Facebook poker game. The idea that almost all life has been wiped off the face of the planet and these two people are trying to hold on to the little shred of hope that life might go on, was inspiring. But I'd still kill myself. Like, way before the cannibals showed up.

I can definitely understand why McCarthy won the Pulitzer for this one. It is well written, engaging, and absorbing. You don't struggle with it, in a literary way. You just travel the road with these two people and see the world through their eyes. And you are transformed. Granted, you may be transformed into someone rocking in the fetal position trying to figure out how to most mercifully kill yourself and loved ones without a gun available, but it'll change you! I wouldn't wish this book on anyone looking for a good night's sleep. But, if you're curious, Dad might be able to take it (and take something away from it, too.) Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst

Thought a change of pace was due in the posts. Sort of like Becky's "Valley of the Dolls" without the drugs. The story concerns an Italian refugee living in Paris just before WWII and writing for Reuters. He's also the new editor of an underground Italian newspaper critical of the fascists. The old editor got shot in a staged double murder and the paper's remaining workers deal with the Italian secret police operating in Paris who are trying to take them out and close the paper. There's also a couple of love interests that pop up with complications.
Although the story sounds trite or pedestrian it is saved by the author. He makes the characters believable and the action moves along without too much violence or car chasing. The author who comes closest to him appears to be John LeCarre in his earlier books. Not quite as bleak but relatively realistic. If you like political intrigue, you should like this book. I did.

Friday, July 11, 2008

1421 by Gavin Menzies

Here goes another history like "Guns, Germs and Steel." The premise is that all the Europeans who we've been taught discovered the routes to Africa, the Americas, Australia, Antarctica and the North Pole were not the first to do so. A giant fleet of hundreds of ships sent by the emperor of China in 1421 to map all the unknown worlds accomplished all those feats, sometimes as much as 300 or more years before Europeans followed in their wake. In addition, although the Europeans were brave men who accomplished their voyages at great risk, it was not without prior knowledge. Prince Henry the Navigator had maps made in the 1420's and beyond based on Chinese maps that accurately showed Africa, the Americas, Australia, Antarctica and the far east. Columbus, Magellan, and the other Portuguese and Spanish explorers mention in their ship's logs and diaries that the places they encountered were where they were supposed to be according to those maps. Columbus's reporting errors back to the Spanish of having found China make sense when viewed in context. He had lied to the Spanish royalty that a quicker route to China could be accomplished going west while the Portuguese were going to China around Africa. If the Spanish, who did not know about the maps (but Columbus did) had thought the Portuguese would get there first, the Spanish would not have funded Columbus's journey.

In addition to already knowing the route based on Chinese maps, all of the explorers mentioned encountering Chinese or Chinese goods in all those places. It appears that as Chinese ships wrecked in these various places, crews were left in place to set up colonies until future fleets could return to relieve them. DNA from tribes in the Americas, including the Sioux, the Navajo, some in the northeast U.S., plus Central and South America show Chinese ancestry. Even peoples who come from far northern Norway have the southeastern Chinese DNA. Tribes in Peru and on the North American west coast spoke and dressed as Chinese when first encountered by Spanish explorers and priests. The evidence of first contact by the Chinese prior to European exploration is massive, with over 1000 articles and books worldwide written over many decades on different aspects of the subject.

So how come we never heard about this in school. It turns out that when the fleet returned to China, rather than receiving a hero's welcome, they found that the old emperor was dying and the new emperors thereafter wanted nothing further to do with foreign trade and travel. That deep ocean travel and trade had been going on for at least 800 years up to that point. They ordered all maps and writings about the global trek to be destroyed. The deep water ships then in existence were to be destroyed or left to rot and the extensive trading system in the Pacific and Indian Oceans to be all but ended. However, sailors and merchants from other countries, including at least one European had sailed with the fleet for large segments of the journey and recorded their experiences. At least one of the Europeans made his way back to the map making center of Europe and is the probable source for the information on the maps used by Prince Henry.

The same strengths and weaknesses of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" are present in this book. The way that the story is pieced together is interesting and well done. However, the use of the personal pronoun "I" appears with too much frequency. A good rule of thumb in business writing is to never use any personal pronouns; once every 50 to 100 pages is about right in any other literary form other than fiction. The author's self reference is defensible because he takes on such a major paradigm shift in how historic oceanic exploration is currently taught that a little self-defensive rhetoric is understandable. However, it increases near the end of the book and makes the argument more strident than necessary. If you don't become too wrapped up in the names of the Chinese emperors and admirals and in geometric discussions of solving for latitude and longitude, the story flows well. It's a good read and the author makes his case. Once again "history as it's taught in school is bunk."

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Valley of the Dolls

I decided to read this book because it's a cult classic and I wanted something light for the summer (unlike you, Amanda!) And, it didn't disappoint. It was exactly what I was looking for - campy, light, mindless, funny. A great beach read, and I feel like it belongs proudly next to the typical classics (1984, Lord of the Rings, For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Kill a Mockingbird) - every classic has it's place. What was even more interesting to me was that Jacqueline Susann (author) apparently modeled the three main characters after Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe. I would be lying if I said I didn't spend the majority of the book trying to figure out who was who - but you know I love that crap.
The story is basically about three women trying to make it in NYC/Hollywood, and their lives all become intertwined by a Broadway play. They become friends and share a propensity to be famous/rich and date/marry the wrong men. Oh yeah - and they do a ton of drugs! These women were kinda' messed up, and it made for a great read! (I know that sounds awful...but it's true.)
It's a soap opera sure to keep you turning the pages - if this is the kind of book you're looking for (which...not sure any of you are. But I stand by it!)

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Jackie reviewed this book a long time ago. Rather than add a comment to her review, I've added this so it won't go unnoticed. Jackie suggested it and I started slowly. It's not a mystery or history or biography, just a story of different people fleeing Paris as the Germans advance in WWII and later the dynamics of the occupation of a small French town after the surrender. The more I read, the more I kept picking it up with greater frequency. The writer did not leave in a spare word or miss the mark on any description, be it a garden in spring or the different feelings of characters. By the end, I didn't want the book to end.
Maybe that reluctance was because the author, a Russian transpanted Jew in France since 1920, did not intend the book to end where it did. She saw what was happening to occupied France and knew her days were numbered. She intended the book to have two more major segments (the book is divided into two now) and you can see her intent in the first appendix. The second appendix is correspondence between the author and others as she attempted to keep going under every more severe circumstances. The letters from her husband attempting to have her set free once she was sent to the camps break your heart. Finally, the preface to the French addition behind the two appendicies give a sketch of her family life from prior to her birth to after her death. That story in itself would make a novel worth reading.
You seldom see books written this well, with people drawn so true-to-life without a lot of fluff. Yet it is not a sparse book. The story is rich and compelling. I said this was not a mystery, history or biography. There is no mystery in the broad flow of these people's lives and the things that happen to them make sense. It's not a history but may be a better glimpse into occupied France than anything else I've encounter. Finally, the description of Ms. Nemirovsky's life and that of her family in the last few pages are as moving as any biography I've encountered. I recommend this book to everyone.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

While I thoroughly enjoyed Geraldine Brook's two earlier novels, Year of Wonders and March, this one just didn't quite measure up to my expectations.
This is a historical novel about an illuminated Hebrew manuscript which was created in 15th c. Spain and recently saved from the ruins of Sarajevo's bombed out libraries in 1996. The protagonist, Hannah Heath is an Australian rare book conservator and the story follows her quest to "unlock the mysteries of the book's eventful past and to uncover the dramatic stories of those who created it and those who risked everything to save it". Brooks alternates the narrative between the past and the present. In alternating chapters, the reader is transported back through time to Seville in 1480. Along the way, we travel through WWII Bosnia (and the Nazis), the rising anti-Semitism of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the Inquisition and Venice in 1609, Tarragona (Spain) in 1492, and finally Seville where the manuscript originated. These chapters were well-written and quite interesting and informative (but so many horrific tales of inhumanity!). For me, however, the chapters dealing with Hannah's personal life were merely an irritating disruption to the rest of the story. I didn't care a whit to listen to Hanna's argumentative and caustic banter, or hear about how her (equally) ambitious mother abandoned her (boo-hoo), or to follow the sad story about her "romance" with a Muslim librarian. Her life seemed so overwrought and, basically, I just didn't like her. I have to admit there were a few moments when Becky's review of Year of Wonders came to mind and how it provoked in her almost a wish to come down with the plague so she could stop reading the book. More than once I wanted to throw Hannah into one of the dark, dank dungeons (Inquisition) just to get her out of the story. Becky, I felt some of your pain! Skip this one.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg

I know, I know. It's summer time. According to mom, I should be kicking back and relaxing. But it's just not my style...I have a need to know. "The Party's Over" covers much of the same ground as Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" albeit in a much less apocalyptic way. Whereas Kunstler comes across as a bit alarmist (for good reason) Heinberg presents the problem of peaking oil supplies in a straightforward, well-documented, scientific and historic way. Of course, the information is still very alarming, but that really isn't Heinberg's fault.

Why, you may ask, are you reading yet another book on the same topic? I suppose the reason is I'm trying to fully understand the problem. And honestly, I'm trying to find a flaw in these people's argument. I can't. Granted, they are making predictions and predictions can change. But the predictions seem very logical and well-researched. In fact, I've begun to look at the world through the lense of cheap oil and it's amazing how much our society depends on it. So many things are making sense to me now: our motivations in Iraq, the necessity of debt in our economy, Wal-Mart...the list goes on and on. And now I hear people complaining about the high price of gas and wondering why this is happening. The media and politicians are saying "supply can no longer meet demand," and "China is taking up supply excesses," but no one is talking point blank to the American people about what that actually means.

I'm beginning to realize what that actually means and it ain't good. And the fact that we, as Americans, are dragging our heels on renewable energy development, encouraging each other to buy, buy, buy, and sprawling our cities as quickly as possible, shows that when supply starts shrinking, so will we. I highly recommend this book and further research into this pressing problem. Good luck!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Wow. What an amazing book. Honestly, I haven't read anything this fantastical, clever, and touching since I opened the first Harry Potter book years and years ago. With that in mind, this is definitely NOT Harry Potter.
Set in England during WWII, this is a classic "hero's journey" story of a 12-year old boy who's mother has just died. Steeped in grief, he becomes lost in the stories his mother used to tell him when he was a child - fairytales, folk tales, myths. When his father remarries and has another son, David finds himself falling prey to sudden blackouts and the ability to hear books conversing amongst themselves. Before he realizes what is happening, he finds himself plunged into a strange, dangerous world (a la Pan's Labyrinth.)

This book isn't for the faint-hearted. Although it is essentially about the vital role stories play in our lives, David's journey takes him to the darkest reaches of fairy tales and the secret nightmares we all harbor in the recesses of our minds. It is a transformative coming of age story, and Connolly delivers to the last page. I found myself enraptured by the adventure and smiling as the author gave me a new twist in the story I hadn't been expecting.

I can't say it enough. This one is a definite must-read for Dad. Becky, you might enjoy it (if you can make it past the squeamish stuff.) Mom, probably pass. While reading this, I was also reminded of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" which was also impressive. I finished it last year during the blog drought. But if you enjoy this one (and I know you will), check out "Coraline." You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson

For all the Little Women fans among us, this 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning dual biography will likely be of interest to you. Although Louisa May is the better known member of the Alcott family, her father, Bronson was an eminent philosopher, teacher and friend of fellow transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. As a family man, however, Bronson was, for the most part, a useless provider (of money or affection). As he chased after his lofty philosophical ideals and utopian pursuits (which were usually miserable failures), his wife, Abba and older daughters, Anna and Louisa were left to be the breadwinners of the family, taking jobs as governesses, teachers, writers, or whatever they could find. And more than once, the family had to be rescued from destitution by their Concord neighbors/friends Emerson and Thoreau- who sometimes even provided them with a place to live. This biography depicts the complicated and often troubled relationship between Bronson, ever the idealist and Louisa, always the pragmatist. Although they differed in fundamental ways, the two shared the same birthday, found literary success around the same time and died within two days of each other.

I initially decided to read this biography because I wanted to know more about the American Transcendental movement. Transcendentalism is one of those broad brush terms that gets tossed around in literary circles and one that I never fully understood. As one would expect of a Pulitzer Prize winning book, Matteson has done a superb job of capturing the essence of this 19th c. movement by reflecting it through the lens of the Alcott family story. The narrative pulls you into the life and times of this unique American family and makes you feel as if you have actually known them in life. In Matteson's closing paragraph he writes: "To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them." I believe he has done a masterful job.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Weisman opens this book with the following question: "Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?"

I won't give away the answer, but if you like good nature writing (um, Dad), this is a wonderful book for you. Weisman chronicles what the world might look like if people were suddenly raptured away from it (gone extinct, taken by aliens, you get the picture.) At once startling and inspiring, Weisman reveals the inter-connectedness of ecosystems and explains the detrimental (or helpful) role humans play all over the world. From the plains of the Serengeti to the subways of New York City, you see the world as we know it slowly erode before your eyes. Weisman's writing is often poetic, his chapter titles for example: "Unbuilding Our Home, What Falls Apart, Wings Without Us."

I found myself overwhelmed, at times, by the idea of all humanity erased away. It's a sobering reflection. But at the same time, I was full of awe at the amazing ability of life to find a way. One chapter, about the wildlife that has returned to Chernobyl, was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Although some of our animal friends would fare worse than others (sorry, cows), still others would find new niches and possibly evolve to take advantage of new opportunities (housecats, for one.)

This book WAS "one of the grandest thought experiments of our time" as touted on the cover. Read, and enjoy.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Collection of Essays by George Orwell

I had read about George Orwell as being one of the great political commentators of his age but had read nothing other than "1984" and "Animal Farm." In this collection of essays, he discusses his years at a boarding school, shooting an elephant as a colonial policeman in Burma, his thoughts on Gandhi, Kipling, Dickens and a fellow who produced lewd post cards. He also discusses his time fighting in the Spanish Civil war, his time in Marrakech, England during the war, and why he writes. I've not mentioned a couple other of the articles because they were redundant or referenced so many people we don't know that the point he was making was not made or would not be of interest to any blog reader.Although his point of view is at least 60 years separated from today, there are things that stand out to make this a worthwhile read. He appears to view a topic as best he can without serious bias, even though he was a socialist and critic of many in power or in fashion. His thoughts are so clear and unvarnished in a way I seldom have run across that they are startling in their freshness and power to persuade. The world he described in "1984" is addressed repeatedly in these essays, with an eye to viewing humans as they are and that power corrupts, regardless of the ideology of those who wield it.I am sure he irritated almost everyone at one time with these essays because he views everyone as realistically as he can, warts and all, even though he may also have an affection for the subjects. Indeed, I would have hated to be his enemy because those he professed to admire were still noted for each of their shortcomings. Still, this was a good read and one where I want to go back later and reread, especially his article on Kipling (a good bad poet) and England during the war. As well written a collection of essays as I can remember reading.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. That being said, I think it's a book you really love or really...don't love (no, Amanda, not like "Running with Scissors"). I tend to get somewhat fascinated with writing and stories that weave you in and out of reality - teetering, always, on the possible, but being just ridiculous or obscure enough to remind you that it's not real. If you don't find yourself of the same mind, you probably will want to skip this novel. But if you have read and enjoyed either "One Hundred Years of Solitude" or "Love in the Time of Cholera", you may just enjoy this book (different author but same kind of writing style). Though I know that dad didn't enjoy either of those, I still recommend this book to you (dad).
The book follows the experiences of Toru Okada, a (recently) former lawyer who stays at home while his magazine editor wife supports the two of them. Then his "journey" begins with a search for the family cat and this is when a whole new world of characters and experiences unfolds. As characters enter his life, they pull him into their world - literally. He finds himself within shifting interior landscapes, and through multiple eyes, and has an almost dreamlike search for identity in the midst of chaos as it is presented.
There are quite a few bizarre events that unfold that leaves you somehow accepting each new twist even though some are completely implausible. And what I think dad might find especially interesting is the way the book is able to contrast the Japanese military past with the present state of Japan. All in all, I think a line from the book sums it up the best (took me a while to find this quote, but I knew it was in there!): "There's a kind of gap between what I think is real and what's really real."
And there you go.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey

This was one of Jackie's first books in her MALS course at U of M. It's a British detective story (sort of) written in 1951. The reason it was a course book and also the reason I'm recommending it is it looks at the story of Richard III and comes to the conclusion that "history (as it's taught in schools) is bunk" (Henry Ford).

The story itself is an easy read and fascinating. A detective is laid up in the hospital for weeks with a broken leg (how's that for a difference from today's health practice!). To pass the time friends bring pictures for him to look at and the one of Richard III looks nothing like the ogre painted in the history books, according to the detective's instincts for faces and guilt. With help from his friends, he digs into the story and comes to a much different conclusion than is painted in the Shakespearean play and elsewhere. That those plays and histories were written during the Tudor dynasty has a lot to do with the outcome.

This is a quick read, interesting history and an engaging story. Good beach reading and a mind expander when it comes to looking at history as it's been fed to us.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Portable Dorothy Parker

This is two books in a row that I have read where I found myself laughing out loud. You're probably all aware of Dorothy Parker in one way or another, as I was (mainly because of her participation in the Algonquin Round Table), but I had never actually read any of her short stories, essays, or poems. Well, this is the perfect book to get your fill! It's about 650 pages, so not sure how "portable" it is (though I did carry it with me on trains and to the park over the last week or so, and it did just fine). It's a collection of her work, spanning the years, and the stories are random, funny, and quite telling of the time in which Dorothy Parker lived and wrote (1920s-1950s). Like the David Sedaris book I blogged about a few days ago, it's great for picking up for a few minutes, reading a 5 page short story, laughing, and moving along your way. However, since I'm way too anal retentive, I read the thing from start to finish, without any jumping around (though I did a bit of skimming over poems, especially, here and there).
I think you would all find her writing humorous and easy to read, and think this is a great book to just have...just have it lying around to pick up once in a you know what I mean? I'm sure I'll read at least parts of it again when I'm getting that Dorothy Parker itch, and found her fascinating so much so that I'm now looking to pick up a biography on her to get more in-depth (following in your footsteps, mom!). So, another recommendation to you all - definitely something I think Amanda would enjoy - maybe even more so than "Running with Scissors!" Haha.

Einstein, His Life and Universe

"I did it!"(as Katie would say). Now I don't need the magic Internet fairy to add pictures for me.
I try to mix up my reading list with biographies now and then and Einstein was my most recent subject. This 550 page tome did not disappoint, although I must admit that I did skim over some (ok, much) of the more detailed explanations of his experiments and scientific papers. Clearly, Issacson understood all the intricacies of relativity and quantum mechanics and did a masterful job of describing it. And, really, I do think it's awesome, but reading too much about it makes my head want to explode. Hence, I'll leave the science to others while I explore the humanities aspect of the individual.
I especially like biographies because so much of what I was taught in school about "famous" people was so one dimensional and boring. However, when I read a good, well-researched and balanced biography like this one, I feel as if I really understand the man behind the genius- human frailties and all.
Unfortunately, Einstein's genius in the scientific realm did not carry over into his personal life. Although married and the father of two sons he basically abandoned the family (he did send money sometimes) for years while he moved around in the pursuit of his science. And, as is so often true of exceptionally talented individuals, the pursuit of their "passion", whether it be in art, music, math, science or whatever, becomes the driving force of their lives to the exclusion of just about everything and everyone else (except their professional peers).
As the book jacket reads, "his success came from questioning conventional wisdom and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals." If we can take just one lesson from Einsteins' life, it would probably be that education must not stifle independence or creativity. "A society's competitive advantage", as Issacson writes, "will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity." Amen.

The Worst Thing I've Done by Ursule Helgi

I was really looking forward to this book because:

1.) I haven't finished a fiction book in just about forever...

2.) I read "Stones from the River" (by the same author) several years ago and really enjoyed it.

And the verdict is...definitely worth my time. The story grabbed me from the first page, which is necessary because I'm chasing a 2-year old around most of the time! I just don't have the time to give a book several chapters to get to know one another. But this one delivered from the start.

It's about 2 men and a woman who grew up as close friends. Life becomes complicated (as it so often does!) and the three of them end up raising Annie's baby sister, Opal, after their parents' tragic deaths. Love, hate, attraction, and revulsion pull the three into a dangerous game that they're unable to escape from. I don't want to give too much away in case you read the book.

Before I wrap up, I do want to mention that Helgi gets a bit carried away with her personal politics (which happen to be similar to my own, but I digress.) I don't really like a lot of overt political talk in fiction. It didn't bother me too much since I happen to agree with the author, but the very fact that I noticed it might make it bothersome to someone who is not as liberal as myself. If you don't end up reading this one, I would still recommend "Stones from the River" which came out several years ago. Enjoy!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Three Cups of Tea

I read this non-fiction book several months ago. I had heard of it many times. It is about a US climber in Pakistan returning to the lowest base camp from a near successful climb of K2. He inadvertantly got separated from his guide, nearly died, and stumbled into a "town"/settlement that changed his life (and saved his life). He vowed to come back and build a school for them and did, and has gone on to build many schools in Pakistan and now also Afganistan. He has done this initially with little help (now has a website and some staffing and was able to get sponsors initially that have spread). He has recognized the value of education, particularly for girls, as they are very influential in their children's (and thus son's) lives and through this comes a greater chance for stable families, stable communities, jobs, and thus a peaceful nation. (This message is somewhat echoed at the end of the movie "Charlie Wilson's War", for those who have seen that. Perhaps if the miniscule amount suggested to be spent on Afghan education had actually been spent, we would not now be in the mess there and in Iraq - and 9/11 would have been averted?). Greg Mortenson (whom the book is about) lives in Bozeman, MT. His name has been casually tossed around for a Nobel Peace Prize. The reading is compelling, and captivating.

Friday, May 23, 2008

John Adams by David McCullough

Jackie recommended this and it's very good. If any of you saw the recent HBO series based on the book, I'd suggest that, although the series was good, the book is better. All I'd heard of Adams in the past was that he wrote extensively to his wife while at the Second Continential Congress and that he also shared a correspondence with Jefferson late in life. The book paints a picture of a complex man who worked hard for his country and his family. I came away with thinking he'd have been a good friend and deserves more praise than he gets. His contribution was major in getting the Declaration of Independence written and approved. He also made multiple contributions during the Revolution and prior to becoming Vice President. Jefferson, on the other hand, was also a complex man who is depicted as a lesser man than Adams when it comes to honesty and a willingness to engage difficult issues. Usually, when the going got tough, Jefferson went to Monticello.

I'm continuely amazed that the U.S. survived the first 80 years of its existance and this book puts an exclamation point to that thought. The book is well written and easy to follow. I found myself actually looking for more anecdotes in a book that is 651 pages. Don't let the length deter you, you'll zip through it. Enjoy.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

As in Larson's earlier book, The Devil in the White City, this one also intertwines the true stories of two unlikely characters. In Thunderstruck, Guglielmo Marconi and Hawley Crippen are the two men whose lives intersect in the early years of the 20th c.

Crippen was a mild-mannered doctor, who committed the second most famous murder in London (after Jack the Ripper). When his flamboyant, demanding and extravagant wife, Belle, mysteriously disappears her friends suspect him but the police can't find any evidence to hold him and he quietly leaves London with his secretary/lover, headed to America.

The other story describes Marconi's plodding and unscientific efforts to create the equipment that used electromagnetic waves to send wireless transmissions across the Atlantic. Larson goes into a bit too much detail here describing the relentless competition among the various "inventors" who were vying to be the first to master wireless technology. The fact that Marconi even succeeded at all is actually quite amazing because he really didn't understand how or why the equipment worked. For me, this was the most fascinating part of the book...

But in the end, the two mens' stories intersect when Marconi's wireless "invention" is the tool used by the London police track down and capture Crippen (after they did some digging in the garden of his former house), as he sailed across the Atlantic on the SS Montrose, ready start a new life in America. Oops, not so fast Mr. Crippen!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

I'm pretty sure you're all familiar with David Sedaris, and venture to guess that at least a few of you have read something by him before. This is the third book by him that I've read (others were "Me Talk Pretty One Day" and "Holidays on Ice") and it was also my favorite. He has a way of taking everyday events that all of us can relate to and making them funny and touching....I guess that's every good comedian's trick, and he masters it in "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim." It's a great book for two reasons: (1) It'll make you laugh because it's about his experiences growing up, and no matter what family you're part of, there are some universal things we can all nod along with and say "yep, that's just about right." and (2) it's a quick read and a book with which you can skip around and not be confused. It's a collection of short stories, so if you want to skip over one, or put the book down for a bit and come back, you can do that and pick right back up where you left off. The perfect quick summer read!!!
So, needless to say, I recommend this to all of you. If you're looking for something uplifting (and who isn't?) and something you can read in a day or two, this is the book for you!!!
And thanks for the reminder to get back up and blogging, Amanda - I've missed this!

The Long Emergency by James Kunstler

The author of this book was interviewed on "The Colbert Report" for his new book "World Made By Hand." I thought he was kind of a kook (but entertaining!) Like everything else, I didn't want to dismiss him out of hand. So I checked into some of his other books at the local library where I came across "The Long Emergency." It sounded pretty apocalyptic but I thought I'd give it a try anyhow...just to see what this guy was about.

Well, the book was fascinating! Basically, Kunstler explains his theory that the world is about to hit peak oil, and what the ramifications of that may be. I'd heard talk about peak oil before but never completely understood what it was. The book uses good references and citations to scientific studies and oil industry insiders. I found many of Kunstler's arguments coherent and well-reasoned. It makes a lot of sense that we're about to (or already have) reached peak oil. It also stands to reason that much of our lifestlye will have to change as oil becomes rarer (and costlier.) I have often thought that our economy will naturally transition to some other, more sustainable, energy source when the price of oil becomes too high. And Kunstler argues that we will definitely try. He lays out all of the alternatives to oil and how they will probably be used after peak oil. He pins his best bets on nuclear energy for running appliances, etc. But the point he made about oil that I had never thought much about before is: oil is portable, ships easily, relatively safe, and abundant. Most other energy will not run our cars (ship our food, make our plastics, fly our planes.) Really, he brought up so many things I'd never thought of before he made me a believer.

That being said, Kunstler IS rather apocalyptic and believes society will be taken by surprise and have a long, uncomfortable period of converging catastrophes to deal with which will decimate large populations and force much of society to be rebuilt. Some of the other catastrophes include climate change and disease pandemics, along with the depletion of oil. A big part of me says "No way, we won't be caught so off guard. Technology and society will adapt in time to prevent huge population losses, at least in the U.S." And hopefully that's true. But his argument that our entire way of life in the U.S. (i.e. suburbia, constant economic growth, etc.) is incongruent with an oil-less world is awfully compelling.

One last thing: as I was dismissing some of the author's more far-reaching predictions for the near future, he began talking about the housing crisis. He explained everything that's currently happening in the housing market and how that will affect the rest of the economy. The creepy thing is, this book was published in 2004, before any of this started happening. The detail and exactness with which he described the housing bubble and his prediction of how quickly the price of a barrel of oil would shoot up in the next few years (i.e. NOW!) was frightening. It makes me give the rest of his predictions even more credibility.

I don't know if the rest of you would find this as fascinating as I did. But I hope at least one of you reads it so I have someone to discuss it with. I'd really like to know what you guys think. Let me know.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The End Of Faith – Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

It’s interesting that Amanda and I are reading books that sound anti-religious (American Fascist, The End Of Faith). The study is not anti religious, it is a drive for greater understanding in the face of existing ignorance. That same quest is behind Mr. Harris taking on the faith part of religion. Faith is belief in things that can not be proven. Through most of history, faith drove almost everything we knew about the world, including medicine, physics, chemistry, genetics, etc. Only when we were able to separate the blind acceptance of what we thought we knew about those fields from what can be proven could we understand that the Earth is not the center of the universe, our bodies were not ruled by the four humors, and there were more than four elements.

Mr. Harris suggests there is at least a chance that a similar breakthrough in understanding is possible if we stop accepting items on faith and start applying the same intellectual rigor to the questions of God and an existence different from the one most apparent to use in our daily lives.

He also points out the dark side to not breaking away from faith. That dark side has been apparent in all the monotheistic religions, starting with Judaism, spanning centuries in Christianity and now being demonstrated with Islam. In each religion’s sacred book there are portions that require you to kill anyone, no matter how beloved, who does not believe exactly everything written in that text. In the case of Christianity, it resulted in centuries of the most terrible torture and murder imaginable in the name of God. There is now a certain live-and-let-live aspect to the vast majority of Christian believers who just don’t believe those passages that call for mass death as well as some or all miracles. That approach appears to be changing with the rise of fundamentalist churches and is troubling to our unity as a religious and secular community and nation.
Mr. Harris points out that the live-and-let-live crowd enable the more radical practitioners by not overtly renouncing those parts of the Bible they do not believe and having the discussion about what that means for their various religions. If a person does not believe in magical events subject to more than two millenium of editing by controlling powers that be, can they still call themselves a Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc.

Mr. Harris makes the point that Islam appears to be at the same point as Christianity prior to the live-and-let-live phase. This makes Islam dangerous as long as the silent majority of believers who say they are tolerant do nothing in the face of Islamic believers who act on pure faith and fundamentalism.

I strongly recommend this book for those who care about religion and its place in the world. It’s an easy read and he makes his case. Even if you think that an organized church is still part of the solution after reading this book, coming to grips with the questions he raises will make your beliefs stronger and more relevant to your spiritual life.

Monday, February 25, 2008

American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America

This book was great! I saw the author interviewed on Jon Stewart months and months ago and thought this was one I'd probably like. Of course, like is a strong word. I didn't "like" reading most of it because it turned my stomach to think I'm living next to these people. But I'm glad I read it and think all of you should too.

The author talks about the Christiam Right in America as a fascist-like movement that is only waiting for the right crisis to shake the foundation of America before they are able to wrestle control from the hands of liberals, atheists, and heretics. Watching the Bush administration these last 7 years has made a believer out of me. I really think Christian fundamentalists believe in the Apocalypse and would like to usher it in under their watch. They also believe in the Rapture (trust me, they DO!) and believe conformity and adherence to Church doctrine (as interpreted by crazy people) is the path to salvation. When the stakes are that high, you're not playing around people! They want this to be a Christian nation above any democracy, tolerance, or open society.

Now, I know what you're saying. "They're just a bunch of crazies. No way would Americans turn their backs on hundreds of years of progress towards democracy, free thinking, and general cussedness..." Oh no? Have you seen the last 7 years? What do you think 9/11 did for the fundamentalist movement? Great things, is what. And with more people in poverty, cut off from their communities, and just generally feeling alienated and lost, more people are being lured into fundamentalist churches. The churches have easy answers. Granted, you have to give up free thought, Sundays, and premarital sex, but for an eternity in heaven, that's peanuts!

These are some of the ideas the author discusses. He also documents speeches given by different church leaders, programming on Christian broadcasting stations, and seminars on how to proseletize and spread the Word. This stuff is scary but definitely worth keeping an eye on. Check out this book if you get a chance.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

So now that Amanda has officially kicked off the new year with her book review, I decided to follow suit. And I'm happy to report that my first review of 2008 is a good one! I really enjoyed this book, which is a collection of essays by author Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman was a columnist for Spin magazine and the essays are all about pop culture and, mainly, the 30-somethings out there who grew up with shows like The Real World, Growing Pains, etc. It is hilarious and poignant and he really is right on the mark with much of what he observes, which is everything from reality television to why Billy Joel is underappreciated (it's hilarious). And it's such a fun read because, as a (new) 30-something, I could relate to nearly every pop reference he made! I think this is a book that Amanda would definitely enjoy, and is such a quick, fun book - you can pick it up, read an essay, skip essays, whatever you want. It's the perfect book to have laying around when you want a good laugh. Definitely one of the better books I've read in a while!