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.